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He’s seven, which is old enough to understand the stories Sam keeps telling him about Dad, and young enough to be angry about it.

“And then he just opens up the throttle the whole way, and oh my god Jimmy it’s just like flying, and Mom’s screaming at him like he’s a maniac and Dad laughs like it’s the funniest thing in the world, and we’re just careening down that empty road and I swear the car feels just like a spaceship! It was the coolest thing ever—”

“So what?”

Sam stutters to a stop, blinking at Jim. The smile on his twelve-year-old face loses some of its light. “What…do you mean? Dad was—”

“Dad’s dead and he’s not coming back,” Jim says, picking at the half-rotted wood of the porch steps. He’s gonna get a splinter and Mom will do that eye-roll thing he hates. “He left us. I don’t care about him.”

Brief silence. His brother’s expression goes brittle. “Jimmy, he’s. He’s our dad, you—”

“No, he’s yours,” Jim answers. “And I don’t want him. All he does is make you and Mommy cry all the time anyway. Stop making him like a hero when he’s just a big, stupid jerk.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Sam clench his hands into fists. His lower lip trembles as he gets to his feet. “Well, fuck you too, then,” he snaps, and Jim wants to tell him that’s a bad word but Sam’s already turning and stomping into the house.

His brother doesn’t speak to him for the entire next week, and even when he starts again, it’s not the same. There are no more stories, no more excited smiles and cheerful ruffles of his hair. Sam treats him like a stranger.

Two years later, Jim wakes up to find his brother gone, vanished up the open road without a trace. He doesn’t feel surprise, or anger. Instead, it’s resignation that sits heavy in his gut.

Sam’s not the first person Jim lost to the stars, and he won’t be the last.

 

Uncle Frank watches him when Mom’s off-planet. He’s got this mousy little face with thick-framed glasses on his nose, and his voice is squeaky and always filled with breath, like he’s running the last leg of a marathon. He likes to lecture Jim, wagging a pale, skinny finger back and forth as he talks about morals and responsibility like they’re supposed to mean something to a boy who knows nothing but anger and hurt.

Jim hates him. He hates Frank’s voice and his stupid lectures, and he hates how, no matter what he does or how much havoc he wreaks, Frank never lays a hand on him. Frank is fond of sayings like “You don’t turn your back on family” and “There is no sin too great” and it drives Jim up the fucking wall. He’s not looking for stern sermons or disappointed looks.

He wants pain. It’s messed up and he knows it but he can’t help it, can’t block out the whispers that he’s bad, broken and a failure to everyone and he just wants there to be a cut or a bruise, a physical mark on his skin to reflect the turmoil inside, the monster he feels too small to contain. He wants a brand, evidence of his damaged goods, a scarlet letter emblazoned on his skin so everyone will know to stay away, to keep their pity and their love for someone more deserving, someone more than the ghost of a dead man’s name.

In the end, he steals the car. The wind whips at his hair and his face like a freed spirit, and Frank’s voice—angry, pissed, finally—screams at him over the speaker, and Jim turns the wheel and guns for the quarry and, for a split second, thinks of writing himself on the stone in a fiery blaze, one final, burning monument to the Kirk name.

He doesn’t know what makes him leap from the car at the last moment, but it’s definitely not regret.

The fallout is glorious. His ears ring and his ribs hurt; he tastes blood and laughs.

 

The colony burns around them, flames like funeral pyres. Jim breathes in the smoke, searing in his lungs. Tommy’s tiny hand tightens in his own.

Kevin stands next to him, arms around Sophia and Lex, twins, the youngest. It would’ve been Ruthie, too, but she died six hours before rescue came, her last breath rattling in desiccated lungs as her little fingers clutched at Jim’s shirt. Jim wishes he could’ve buried her.

He wishes a lot of things.

All of them watch the shuttle as it prepares for takeoff. Jim’s the only one who won’t be boarding; Mom’s taking him back to Earth on her own ship.

“I can’t believe it’s finally over,” Kevin whispers at last. His voice is a bare rasp, partly from smoke, mostly from starvation.

“I want Mommy and Daddy,” Sophia whines.

Jim pats her shoulder, so bony and slim. “Soon,” he says. He’s hungry. It doesn’t register.

Finally, finally, the ramp lowers. A Starfleet officer beckons to them from the bowels of the ship. Lex and Sophia go first, followed by Tommy, but Kevin hesitates for a moment before reaching into his pocket and offering a crumpled sheet of paper.

Jim takes it and blinks at the loopy scrawl. “What’s this?”

“They’re phone numbers,” Kevin answers. “Soph and Lex couldn’t really remember but I got some of it, and this one’s my dad’s, and that one is Tommy’s grandma’s. ‘Cause you helped us and we’re friends, so maybe you can call. Okay, Jimmy?”

Jim looks at him. Smiling feels a little weird, but he thinks he manages it because Kevin smiles too. “Okay. Thanks, Kev.”

Kevin sticks out a grimy hand. “You promise, right? You promise to call?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jim says, and shakes it. Kevin beams and runs to the shuttle.

Jim leans back and shades his eyes against the bright lights as the shuttle makes its slow, steady rise. He watches at the landing gear retracts, as its main engines fire up, as it shrinks into a tiny dot in the sky.

He thinks of promises. He thinks of his mother’s promise, so long ago, that Tarsus would be different. He thinks of Kodos’s promise to save the colony. He thinks of his own promise to Ruthie, and to Paul before her, and Brian and Maddie before that, that he’d protect them, that he’d save them all.

Then, very slowly, he lifts his hand and opens his palm. The burning wind tears the paper from his grip and sends it fluttering off into the distance, to burn, to die, to rot like the crops did and, soon after that, the people.

Jim kneels down in the dirt, surrounded by fire and slow-rotting death, and waits to leave this nightmare world, just one more notch in a long line of letdowns.

 

He’s fifteen, and Mom hasn’t gone on deployment in over a year. Her smile is bright and her eyes warm as she tells him No, I don’t think I will, I want to be here for you, we’re all we have left, after all.

Jim doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t want her there, and she can’t want her there either—space was always her home, her love, and it angers him that she’s giving that up, that she thinks he’s worth sacrificing her dream for.

So when he turns sixteen, he makes her sorry. He drives into Riverside and agrees to the first walk-in appointment they’ll give him, and he comes home with blue eyes and a fight in his blood.

An hour later, he’s out on the porch with all his belongings stuffed into a suitcase, the echoes of his mother’s screaming rage still ringing in his ears. Regret is a stranger.

He never wanted to be part of this family anyway.

 

The country doctor, McCoy, throws up on him in the shuttle. Jim’s not sure how they become friends after that, but it happens despite his best intentions.

A year and a half later, Bones finally tells him what went down in the divorce. It’s a pretty sad story, actually, and Jim means to sympathize, he really does.

Instead, when he opens his mouth, what comes out is, “Maybe Jo’s better off with her mom. God knows she’d have a hell of a time on a starship.”

Bones throws his beer bottle at Jim’s head and marches out of the room. It’s the first time in his life Jim feels that coldness in his chest, a tightening in his lungs that he identifies, with some surprise, as guilt.

Two days later and his friend has yet to return. Jim’s not sure where Bones is staying—he left all his stuff in the dorm—and he tries to talk himself down, tells himself it’s for the best, Bones was gonna leave eventually anyway, they all do, he’s just cutting his losses.

It doesn’t work. Jim paces from one end of the room to the other and says the same mantra over and over again, and it doesn’t work. He has never felt so lost. It was always supposed to be him, James Kirk, alone against the universe, armed with his anger and his hatred like godsent weapons. When did being alone become so unwelcome, so…so…lonesome?

By the time Bones comes back the next day, Jim can’t remember the last time he slept. His nails are bitten down to the quick and he’s been seeing nonexistent shadows on the wall for so long that, at first, when the doctor walks into the room and sits down on the floor across from him, he’s not sure he isn’t hallucinating.

Bones doesn’t look so great either: bruises under his eyes and dark stubble on his chin, but when he looks at Jim and speaks, his voice is steady. “So here’s what we’re gonna do,” he says, and Jim tries—and fails—to suppress a flinch at the words, cutting into him like knifeblades after days of silence and whispers of hate. “I’m gonna stay pissed at you for a long, long time. Possibly forever. And I’m gonna make sure you know it, every second of every damned day.”

He takes a breath, shaky, and looks away. “But I’m also gonna forgive you, because that’s what friends do, and because I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean it anyway. And in return, you’re gonna agree to use that ginormous fucking brain of yours every once in a while before you open your stupid mouth. Deal?”

You shouldn’t. It’s the first thing that pops into Jim’s mind: You shouldn’t forgive me. You shouldn’t know me. I’ll burn you. I’ll ruin you, like I have everyone who’s ever tried to get close to me.

Instead, what comes out is a tiny, broken “Okay.”

Bones nods, lets out a breath, and gets up from the floor. “Okay. I need a shower. We got any soap left?”

Jim turns to follow him, opens his mouth to reply, but instead two completely foreign words spill out: “I’m sorry.”

Bones stops mid-stride and turns, looking as surprised as Jim feels. He’s never apologized before. It’s a new feeling, leaves him vulnerable and open.

But it doesn’t feel bad.

Then, very slowly, Bones smiles. It’s a small, barely-there twitch of his lip, but it’s there nonetheless, and Jim feels something warm and completely alien erupt in his stomach at the sight.

“You deaf now? I said I forgive you,” Bones says, and heads into the bathroom. Jim watches him until the door slides closed. Then he takes a deep breath, gets unsteadily to his feet, and heads to the replicator for some coffee.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s okay if Bones sticks around.

 

Gaila says she loves him. Jim says that’s weird, which is apparently the wrong thing to say because she gets annoyed, and he can’t explain to her that it is weird, because he doesn’t know what love is, doesn’t know what it feels like, wouldn’t recognize it if it kicked him in the balls in the middle of the street.

He does wonder though, even as Uhura shoos him from the room, whether the connection he feels with her could be love. He feels warm when he’s around her; she makes him smile and laugh and, sometimes, feel like there’s room in this world for him.

A week later, Gaila is dead, along with over three thousand other Starfleet cadets and six billion Vulcans. He wishes he could have asked her. Simultaneously, he’s afraid of what her answer would be.

 

Six months into his captaincy, and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. Everyone likes him. Sulu invites him out for fencing practice, Chekov makes him borscht when he comes down with the flu, Scotty insists he be named second author on a collaborative paper on warp theory that nets them both commendations and a nomination for the Cochrane Prize in Theoretical Astrophysics.

He needles Uhura for weeks, hoping for some blow-up or snide remark or something, but instead she corners him in a turbolift after shift and hugs him. “You don’t have to pretend,” she whispers in his ear. “Remember, I’m good at reading between the lines.”

It shakes him up so badly he becomes entirely civil to her after that.

In the end, it’s desperation that makes him turn to Spock. After all, it’s no secret Spock despises him; first Jim cheated on his simulation, then he sat back on his ass and did nothing as his planet was destroyed, then he insulted his recently dead mother and nearly made the Vulcan kill him on the bridge. Spock is always the one correcting him, objecting to mission parameters, quoting regulations at him even though they both know Jim has them memorized. Spock knows exactly what Jim is: a failure, a disappointment, nothing but dregs.

Jim’s the one who invites Spock for chess. He checkmates the Vulcan in under an hour and makes sure to smirk, leaning back and crossing his arms, waiting for the anger, the accusations of cheating.

Instead, Spock tilts his head, studies the board for a moment, then looks up at Jim. “Fascinating,” he says, and there is no anger in his voice, only a mild curiosity. “Shall we play again?”

Jim is so surprised he agrees without thinking about it.

They continue their chess games, at first once weekly, then twice, then almost every day. About the fifth time in, Spock starts a conversation about their next mission, and by the end of the evening Jim’s throat is sore from talking and a smile tugs at the corners of his lips.

He tells himself it’s just a matter of time. Even as he begins to notice warmth in his chest every time Spock looks at him, or a tingle in his fingertips every time they happen to brush hands on the bridge or over the chessboard, he tells himself it’s just a ruse, that Spock is just keeping his unflattering thoughts to himself because Jim is his superior officer.

Except then Spock starts inviting him out for things. It begins with a suggestion that they move their chess games from the rec room to his quarters. Then it evolves into invitations to spar at the gym, or to debate Zimbardi’s theory of transphotonic amalgamation over dinner and steaming cups of tea. All of a sudden Jim finds himself spending the majority of his off-duty time with Spock, and the scary thing is, he actually enjoys it.

It takes him a whole month to scrape together enough courage to ask Spock, tentative and shy, across the chessboard, “Why do you insist on spending time with me? I’m sure you could, y’know, be meditating, or hanging out with other people, or running one of your experiments, or…something.”

Spock actually blinks, as if surprised Jim would bother asking such a question. His gaze turns searching, contemplative, and Jim looks away immediately. “Never mind, I—”

“It is logical for friends to socialize regularly,” Spock says, “in order to maintain and strengthen the mutual relationship.”

This time it’s Jim’s turn to blink. Friends? Did Spock just call them friends?

He’s sure he looks like an idiot, sitting there gaping at Spock like a recently landed fish. Spock watches him back for a moment before something warm and soft infuses his eyes, and Jim feels something deep inside himself loosen in response, though he’ll be damned if he can identify it.

Spock nods at the board. “Your move, Jim.”

Jim clears his throat and quickly returns to planning his strategy. He can’t help the small smile, though, as he mentally adds Spock’s name to the list he keeps in his head, the list of people who matter, who care, who just might be in it for the long run.

It’s not a long list. But Jim finds, with no small amount of surprise, that it’s not a short one either.

 

Spock doesn’t talk about his mother often. Not that Jim blames him; memories of the fallout from the last “discussion” they had about Spock’s mom still give him goosebumps, and not necessarily from fear.

But on the anniversary of Vulcan’s destruction, Spock arrives at Jim’s door unannounced, and he looks so sad, so stretched-thin, standing there pale in the light from the hallway that Jim doesn’t think twice about letting him in. He sits Spock down on the couch and tells the computer to up the temperature a few degrees. Then he coaxes a cup of tea from the replicator, wraps Spock’s long, slender fingers around it, and says, “Tell me.”

And Spock does. He tells Jim about the strongest woman he’s ever known, a woman who defied tradition and the judgments of others to pursue the dream and the family she always wanted, that she felt was her right. He talks of a wife who loved her husband with the fierceness of a supernova, a mother who saw her son not as a freak but as a gift. He speaks of a spirited teacher, a clever diplomat, a woman who left whispers of herself everywhere she went, and always had more to give.

When he finishes, his hands are trembling. Jim swallows. “I wish I could’ve met her. She…sounds amazing.”

Spock looks down at his reflection in the dark surface of the tea. “She was.”

He’s not sure what to say after that. Silence falls in the room, and it’s not uncomfortable but it’s not totally calm either. After another moment, Jim lets out a breath and edges a little closer to Spock on the couch. They don’t touch, but he sees some of the tension drain out of Spock’s shoulders all the same.

It’s enough.

Later that night, after pacing back and forth in his quarters for almost an hour, Jim finally tells himself to stop being a fucking coward and sends the transmission request before he loses his nerve. The screen flickers with static for a moment before clearing into a darkened single occupancy room, and the woman who stumbles into view, still yawning and scrubbing the sleep from her eyes, stiffens and stares as soon as she sees him. “Oh…oh, god. Jim?

He smiles through the sudden constriction in his throat. “Hi, Mom.”

 

It’s the first real argument he and Spock have had in months, and it’s not that fact that pisses Jim off, it’s the fucking triviality of the whole thing.

“I calculate an eighty-nine percent likelihood that the aliens who took the survey team hostage will shoot you on sight,” Spock snaps, anger evident in the tautness of his spine and the tightening around his eyes. “Given this estimate, it is only logical that I—”

Stay on the fucking ship,” Jim finishes for him, and for once he’s glad his ready room is entirely soundproof because he does not need his bridge crew to hear the tremor in his voice, the terror that takes hold of his heart when he even thinks of sending Spock down to what is almost certain death. “They demanded a senior officer so they’re getting a senior officer—”

“Which cannot be you! In circumstances of negotiation in a hostage situation, Starfleet protocol clearly dictates the captain cannot—”

Fuck protocol! And why the hell do you care anyway? The only reason I even got this fucking position is because I was in the right place at the right time; you were the one Pike promoted, you’re the one who’s supposed to be in that chair, who the fuck cares if I—”

The blow comes out of nowhere. Jim stumbles sideways as white light explodes in his vision, and he’s so stunned he can’t move, doesn’t even register what’s happening until hands are pulling at his shoulders, drawing him in until—

Until Spock kisses him.

The universe grinds to a halt. Jim stands there, frozen, thinking What the hell and Spock just hit me and Buhhh?

But then Spock makes a soft, desperate noise at the back of his throat and kisses Jim harder, and something inside Jim just snaps and then he’s kissing back, fisting the front of Spock’s shirt to haul the Vulcan closer. And then for the next few moments it’s nothing but heat and desire and the slick slide of tongues, until Jim finally has to pull back to breathe, panting for air as he stares at Spock who, although flushed a healthy green with lips swollen and pupils blown, nevertheless still looks angry. “Wh…Wha…”

Spock grabs him, pulls him back in so that their foreheads are pressed together, breaths mingling in shared air, and each word he speaks sends a current of warmth over Jim’s skin, a promise in each syllable. “I care,” he whispers, and the depth of the emotion behind the words is enough to make Jim shiver. “I do not know what happened in your life to make you so convinced of your lack of worth, but you are worth everything to me, Jim. Please…if you were to die, it would end me. So…just…please.”

He’s not sure what Spock is asking, but Jim finds all of a sudden that he doesn’t care. He’ll give Spock anything. It’s stupid and dangerous and it’s going to get him hurt, but right in this moment, none of it matters. All that matters is that Spock is here, and he’s staying, and Jim is just so fucking tired of pushing everyone away.

He swallows, touches Spock’s cheek, and says, “Okay.”

The Vulcan looks up at him, surprise warring with affection in his brown eyes. “Yes?” he says, and the word is so infused with hope it makes Jim’s heart expand in his chest, so that his next words are firmer, easier.

“Yeah,” he says, and tries on a smile. “Just…be careful down there. All right?”

Spock nods, and Jim somehow knows the softening of his expression and the slight upward curl of his lip, almost but not quite a smile, are not just for being granted the mission.

A moment later, with another quick, almost shy brush of lips, Spock is gone, on his way to meet the security team at the transporter room. Jim leans back against his desk and takes a deep breath. He looks up at the ceiling and thinks, What have I gotten myself into?

 

They’re on New Vulcan delivering fresh supplies, and as with all the other times they’ve been here, Jim’s not sure how to feel. He’s never quite known what to do about Ambassador Spock, this man who claims to have been his greatest friend in another life, who looks at him with such fondness and affection in his eyes that it physically hurts, sometimes.

It makes him raw, to know that he is so esteemed, so clearly loved by another. It makes him want to simultaneously laugh and hide away somewhere no one can find him. He feels like an imposter. He feels like he could conquer the universe.

If the ambassador notices Jim’s inner turmoil, he doesn’t comment on it. They take long walks through the colony, and Ambassador Spock talks the entire time, pointing out all the ways in which the culture is rebuilding, observing in his low, gravelly voice the foundations of a new archive here, the freshly-constructed archways of a new research station there. Jim smiles and nods at all the right points, and tries not to wonder what this older Spock, rough edges smoothed over by time and experience, sees when he looks at Jim.

It is only when they are back in the ambassador’s home, after Jim has fumbled his teacup the third time, that the aged Vulcan finally tilts his head and says, “It would please me greatly to know what is on your mind, old friend.”

That, Jim wants to answer. You call me ‘friend’ but you don’t even know me. Why?

Instead, he clears his throat and says, “Am I like him at all?”

The ambassador hums and takes a moment to think before finally answering, “No.”

Oh. Jim’s not sure what he was expecting, if he was expecting anything at all, but the disappointment that settles in his gut like a stone definitely isn’t new. Of course. Why did he even bother—

“But that is not a bad thing.”

The surprise must show on his face because Ambassador Spock smiles—and Jim is still getting used to that, the openness with which this older version of his First Officer expresses his emotions, the fact that it is Jim who can coax that out of him by, apparently, his mere existence—and continues, “You are not the Jim Kirk I knew, but that does not detract from your worth as a human being, as an individual. You have made your own choices, and shaped yourself into the man you have become.”

Jim looks away. “And yet we both became captain of the Enterprise, with you—or a Spock, at any rate—as our First Officers, and the majority of the same crew and everything.”

That gets him another small, enigmatic smile. “Some destinies are constant across any universe,” the ambassador says, before his expression grows slightly more serious. “And Jim. Though I place great value on the friendship I had with my captain, I also deeply cherish the bond that we share.” Jim thinks he means those words to be soothing, but he ends up leaving the ambassador’s home more confused than ever.

That night he fucks Spock with extra fervor, savoring the Vulcan’s grunts and soft gasps punched out of him with every thrust, reveling in the tight heat swallowing his cock over and over, in the slick length of Spock’s dripping penis in his hand. But then, just as he feels himself getting there, feels his balls tighten up and his thrusts begin to go erratic, Spock lets out a strangled moan and reaches for him, presses his fingers to Jim’s meld points and before Jim can say no or draw back Spock’s there in his head and—

Love you so much please bond with me stay forever please Jim love you love you love you—

He flings himself back with a cry, landing on his ass at the foot of the bed. He’s still hard, erection red and blood-swollen and jutting up toward his stomach but all he can think of is that Spock was in his fucking head, he saw everything, everything Jim’s been hiding for so long and he can’t think, he can’t breathe, he wasn’t supposed to let them see

Spock twists on the bed, reaching for him and gasping, “Jim,” and he’s breathless, confused, and Jim can’t be—he just—he can’t.

“I—I gotta go,” he whispers, and pauses only long enough to grab his clothes before bolting for his quarters, ignoring the desperate way Spock calls his name.

 

He avoids Spock like the plague for the next three days, speaking to him only when they’re both on the bridge, and then making sure to keep their discussions strictly professional. And if every hurt look Spock sends him makes something terrible ache in Jim’s chest, he ignores it.

He doesn’t want to talk to Spock, doesn’t want to see the pity in his eyes or, God forbid, the disgust. He needs to push Spock away before it’s too late, because he can’t let Spock be chained to a failure, can’t let the person he cares about most allow himself to be bonded to someone broken, someone who will ruin him.

Two weeks after that, Jim slowly drifts into consciousness under a pile of debris, the wreckage of the shuttle they’d crashed into the surface of Viceri IX. He can’t see anything, buried in rubble and metal remains, and when he coughs, there is an ominous wetness at the back of his throat. “Spock?”

“I am here, Jim.” Spock’s response is immediate, slightly muted through the wall of metal. He doesn’t sound injured, but then again, with a Vulcan, it’s best not to assume.

“Y’hurt?”

A brief pause. “I appear to have fractured my left wrist and possibly my collarbone,” Spock replies, “but my remaining injuries are minor. And you, Jim?”

Jim lifts his head just enough to take a quick assessment of his body. Nothing hurts just yet, but he knows that won’t hold for long. His left arm is pinned beneath a beam, but it doesn’t look to be at an odd angle, and he can wiggle all his fingers and toes, which counts for something, right?

And then a sharp twinge of agony shoots up from his stomach, and Jim looks down to see a metal support rod, fully an inch thick, sticking out of his abdomen. He coughs again, and tastes fresh blood. Oh.

“Jim?”

Spock sounds worried now. Jim slowly lowers his head and looks up at the tiny slivers of sunlight leaking through the pile of debris. He doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Surely the universe would never be this kind to him?

“Jim, I will attempt to unearth you—”

“No, Spock.” Another wet cough. “There’s, uh, there’s too much debris. Better to just…go for help. The nearest settlement’s what, three miles away?” The world is starting to get fuzzy around the edges.

“3.18 miles, Jim. But if you are injured—”

“I’m not, Spock.” And he only feels a little bad about the lie. Spock will understand, later, when he finds out. “A little banged up, but I’ll survive. You need to go.”

Another brief pause, clearly unhappy. “I will not leave you, Jim—”

“S’okay, Spock.” His voice sounds muted in his own ears, and he’s getting tired now, each breath taking more and more effort. “Jus’…go. I’ll be ‘ere…when you…get back.”

The silence that follows is ripe with indecision. Jim takes another slow, painful breath. “Spock…s’gonna…be okay.”

He can almost see it the instant Spock makes his decision, the instant he buys the lie. “Very well, Jim. Please hold on. I will return as quickly as I can.” Then he’s gone, stumbling footsteps retreating into the distance, and Jim finally allows his eyes to slip closed.

Spock will forgive him. He’ll understand. It’s for the best. Jim dies, Spock lives. The Enterprise gets the captain she needs. Spock finally comes to his senses and bonds with someone who can love him like he deserves.

No take-backs, no regrets. You win, Jim thinks, as the darkness closes in. Checkmate. I’m done.

The nothingness, the absence of pain, is the best thing he’s ever felt.

 

It drifts.

Blackness surrounds it, an endless void, grasping with greedy fingers at the feeble light. It welcomes the solace, the promise of finality, of end. It is so tired…

But then, a spark. A flash of light, of tremulous gravity. The light touches it and it keens, curls in on itself as identity is forced on it, until it becomes a him, until he is—

Jim.

No, please…

Jim, you are dying. Please, you must come with me.

No…

Dr. McCoy is trying to save you, but he cannot if you do not try. Jim, please.

Let me go, Spock. I want to go. Please, it’s for the best.

A long pause. The foreign light pulses, emotions erupting in the void like starbursts.

No, Spock answers, and the words are thunder. It is not.

Light erupts like an exploding supernova, envelops Jim in a searing grip and drags him back toward awareness and he screams and struggles, no No NO—

And things stop for a while after that.

 

When Jim comes awake, it is to the soft beeping and quiet hum of sickbay. Bones’s is the first face to appear in his field of vision, familiar scowl already in place. “Oh, look. It lives.”

Jim blinks, taking a quick inventory of himself. There’s some tenderness in his abdomen, but otherwise he’s in no pain. “Uh…”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Bones growls next, the barely-contained anger in his voice running counterpoint to the gentleness with which he checks Jim’s vitals. “For saving your dumbass life.”

And that’s when everything comes rushing back. Jim lets his head fall back on the pillow and groans. “Fuck.”

He might have said more, except that’s also when he feels the soft pulse in his head, warm and soothing and definitely not there before. “Fuck.What the fuck?

Bones looks up at his outburst and fixes him with a steady, assessing look. Then he sends off a quick message on his padd and straightens. “Sometime later, we are going to have a long and detailed discussion about the shit you pulled down on that planet, because so help me, Jim, if you try something like that again—”

His voice quavers and he looks away, swallowing. “Just…fuck. Whatever. Spock needs to talk to you first.” And without another word, he spins on his heel and walks away.

Jim is left staring after him, feeling more confused than ever. What is going on? What’s this thing inside his head? He closes his eyes and pokes at it with a mental finger; it responds with another warm pulse and holy shit it’s like a warm drip of honey inside his head, all fondness and heat and love and there’s…wait. He furrows his brow, concentrates more on the golden thing, tracing it back slowly and there’s…there’s…something on the other end?

“Jim.”

The new voice startles him back into reality, and when Jim blinks and looks up, it’s to see Spock standing next to the bed, shoulders straight with his hands clasped behind his back. There’s a light cast visible on his wrist and a fading bruise on his cheek, but otherwise he looks unharmed, and Jim lets out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding.

“Spock. Um. Hi.”

Spock tilts his head, and Jim tries his best not to wince. This…this is why he did it, this is why he told Spock to leave him in that shuttle: so that Spock wouldn’t have to look at him like this again, some strange mix of anger, confusion, and disappointment. Jesus Christ, he can’t even kill himself properly. The one chance he had to finally do something right, and he fucked it up, as usual.

“Jim.” Spock takes a step forward, then stops. Jim has to blink, because his First Officer looks…tentative? “There is something I must tell you.”

Oh. Jim looks away. “It’s okay, Spock. You don’t have to.” I know you’re disappointed. I know you don’t want me anymore.

The thing in his head vibrates and releases a burst of emotion: worry, concern, hurt, and Jim feels confused for a moment before abruptly realizing the feelings aren’t his own. Frowning, he presses a hand to his temple. “God, what…?”

If anything, Spock looks even more uncomfortable. “That is…the subject of the discussion I wish to have with you.”

Jim stares at him. Spock looks steadfastly at a spot just over Jim’s shoulder as he continues, “When I returned to the shuttle, you were already…mostly gone. Dr. McCoy began operating on you as soon as we beamed back to the Enterprise, but at that point, it was…you were fading. I had no choice.” His gaze darts to Jim briefly before lowering to the floor. “I had to save you.”

And, with the heavy click of finality, Jim finally realizes what’s happened, what this strange, new, wonderful, terrible thing in his head is. He stiffens because now he can feel it, that presence on the other end of its shivering, golden length, the brush of another mind at once foreign and all too familiar.

“You…” He swallows, feels his hand clench into a trembling fist. “You bonded us?”

Spock looks up at him. His eyes shine, bright with the last tattered remnants of his control. “I couldn’t lose you, Jim.”

A confused mix of fear, sadness, and hope stutters down the golden thing—the bond, and Jim jerks back with a gasp. The fear rises in him, a building tide of panic that steals his breath so that it is all he can manage to stutter out, “No.

Spock steps forward. “It was not my wish to bond without your consent,” he tries. “It is…you know I would never hurt you, Jim. But neither could I let you die. Please, try to understand…”

But Jim barely hears him over the clash of a million panicked thoughts in his head: Spock knows. He knows everything. You can’t hide. He knows, he sees, you’re nothing, you’ve trapped him, he knows he knows he KNOWS—

It’s a blind movement, motivated by nothing but desperation and pure, unadulterated terror—he grasps for the bond in his mind, finds its glowing, thrumming connection, and slams a door shut on it as hard as he can. In front of him Spock gasps, doubles over with a hand pressed to his temple as pain skitters across his face. “Jim—”

“Get out.”

He can’t think right now, can’t breathe, can’t even fucking move—the monitors on the biobed are going nuts, and Spock stumbles forward, reaches for him— “Jim, please—”

“Get out, Spock!”

Spock staggers from the room. Jim barely even registers his exit, too consumed by the terror that rises in his chest, clogging his throat, stealing his breath—

“Jim!” Bones rushes to his side, pressing frantic hands to his forehead, his shoulders. “Jim, you’re panicking, you need to calm down!”

But he can’t. The fear is too much, it consumes him, devours him—he gasps for breath that isn’t there, too high, too small. Black spots start to form on the edges of his vision. “I c-can’t—”

“Yes you can, Jim, come on now—”

Bones—”

And then, thankfully, there’s pressure on his neck and the hiss of a hypospray, and Jim goes away for a while.

 

When he wakes up an indeterminate amount of time later, he’s in his quarters. A message from Bones on his padd informs him he’s confined to light duty for the next forty-eight hours. Outside the small porthole, the stars streak by in long white pins, Viceri IX nothing but a distant memory in the black.

The bond is still there. He can’t see it anymore, can’t sense anything from it, but he feels it through the thick partition in his mind, can discern a soft, glowing warmth whenever he brushes against the door. Can Spock feel it too? Does Spock…

He shakes his head, banishing the thought before it can form fully. It doesn’t matter now. They can head to New Vulcan the next time they’re in the area and get the bond broken, or maybe it’ll dissolve on its own. Either way, Spock gets his freedom, and Jim gets dominion over the pain and hate festering in his heart like a cancer. Everybody wins.

Over the next few days, he tries to keep his interactions with Spock to a minimum, confining them to the bridge and official business as he had been doing before. Spock, for his part, doesn’t push, but as days extend into weeks, something starts to change. Jim starts having to ask him twice, then three times, for updates from his bridge station. Errors and typos start turning up in his reports, at first just one or two, then more. When he sits in the mess he’s always alone, staring down into a cup of tea at the corner table, food untouched on his plate. His skin slowly loses what color it has left, until he almost matches the white shade of the Enterprise’s walls, and his eyes follow Jim from one end of the room to the other, swirling with emotions Jim can’t name.

Two months after Viceri IX, it’s twenty minutes after the start of shift and Spock hasn’t shown up. Sulu and Chekov exchange looks across their consoles, while Uhura bites her lip with worry. Jim is on the verge of paging Spock on his padd when the comm on the captain’s chair beeps.

“Jim.”

“Bones? Where’s—”

“We need you in sickbay. Now.

And somehow the tremor in his friend’s voice, the barely-concealed panic that Bones never shows, tells Jim everything he needs to know.

He’s never run so fast in his life.

When he finally rushes through the sliding doors, sickbay is chaos. Nurses run from one corner of the room to the other, shouting stats, orders, requests for medications, while Bones, M’Benga, and two orderlies struggle to hold Spock down as he thrashes on the biobed. Jim shoves his way through the sea of bodies, and when he gets closer it’s all he can manage just to breathe because Spock is—

He’s seizing. There’s no other word for it, the way the convulsions shake his entire frame, eyes glazed over with white froth at the corners of his lips. M’Benga swears and shoves at one of the nurses. “I need seventy-five cc’s of cubium nitrate! Now!”

“He’s gonna die if we don’t stop those convulsions!” Bones shouts, working to strap one of Spock’s flailing legs to the bed. “We’ve got to—Jim!”

Jim rushes forward. Everything feels far away, unreal. “What’s going on? What’s wrong with Spock?”

“We don’t know,” Bones answers, pressing a hypo to Spock’s neck. “He commed us this morning, said he wasn’t feeling well—when we made it over to him, he was already like this. M’Benga thinks it has something to do with the bond.”

“What do you mean?” The bond couldn’t do this! It’s a golden thing, a beautiful thing, it wouldn’t hurt Spock in any way…

“There could be something wrong with it,” M’Benga answers. “Have you—thank you, Nurse Po—have you examined it at all, Captain? Or noticed any ill effects in yourself?”

No, he hasn’t…but then again, he’s the one who blocked the bond. Something heavy and cold sinks in Jim’s gut like a stone. No. It can’t be…it’s not possible…

“Jim? What’s—agh!” Bones takes one of Spock’s knees to the abdomen and doubles over, coughing. “Get me the fucking neopolymer restraints!”

As the rest of the medical staff rush to obey, the two doctors continuing to bark orders all the while, Jim searches his mind for the door, the one he’d shut on the bond so long ago. It can’t be, can it?

He brushes the partition but feels nothing: none of that previous glow, no warmth. Steeling himself, he flings the door open—and immediately stumbles back, reeling.

Nothing but darkness, sickness, rot. The bond hangs between them, a feeble, putrid thing, and Jim lurches back from the venom, the wrongness of it. Christ, what happened? Why didn’t Spock say something?

More shouts on the edges of his awareness, the staff scrambling to stabilize Spock as he’s hit by another full-body seizure, and the mind at the other end of the bond shudders, vibrations running up their connection and into Jim. The cold hits him like a wave, leaves him gasping for breath in the wake of Spock’s pain and suffering, loneliness and guilt, and underneath all that the steadfast love, the need to respect Jim’s wishes above all else, the desire stronger than anything to give his mate whatever he wants. Even if it means letting the bond die. Even if it means dying along with it.

Jim comes back to himself on the floor next to the biobed, nurses and orderlies stepping around and over him as if he is little more than a piece of furniture. He doesn’t care. Spock is still writhing on the bed, still sick, still dying, and Jim can save him.

Jim will save him. It means doing the one thing that’s always terrified him the most, more than cutthroat Klingons or a crazy planet-destroying Romulan hell-bent on revenge. It means exposing the ugliest parts of himself to the scrutiny of others, giving them the power to hurt him, to destroy him. It means giving up all that he is, all that he has come to define himself with.

But it’s Spock. So it’s easy.

Somehow, pushing his way back through the throng of bodies takes no effort at all, until he’s able to cradle Spock’s head in his hands, bringing their foreheads together and closing his eyes. Spock, he calls, a whisper between them.

Silence on the other end of the bond, before a weak, tiny voice croaks back, Jim?

Yes.

You…you are here.

Yes.

But…the bond…

I’ll fix it, Spock. Don’t worry.

No. Even enfeebled, Spock’s mind still manages to project worry and concern, enough to make Jim ache. You don’t want this, Jim. I understand. Please, do not do this for me.

No, you’re right. And Jim reaches out for Spock, wrapping himself around his mate like a blanket, feeling Spock shudder and grasp at him instinctively. I’m doing this for us.

He dives into the bond. Pours everything into it, all that he is, all the love and want and devotion and everything he’s tried to bury his entire life. He gathers it all up and pushes it into their connection, nurturing it, healing it. Within his embrace, he feels more than hears Spock gasp.

The bond erupts. Golden light envelops them both, a cocoon of heat and affection, the promise of forever. Spock jerks and cries out as Jim infuses him, fills all the small, cracked parts of himself and sews him back together in glowing light. Jim, I…

Spock, it’s okay. I want this. He takes a deep breath. I want you.

It takes Spock a moment to respond, and when he does, it’s in that same shy, hopeful tone he used with Jim in his ready room so long ago, when they’d just started this wonderful, terrifying thing between them. Yes?

Jim squashes his fear before it can take form. He’s made his choice. He’s not hiding anymore. Yes.

He feels it when Spock finally lets go. The love and elation that sweeps through the bond is overwhelming, strengthening and transforming their connection so that it is no longer a single thread but more like a net, weaving them together so that they are more one being than two. Jim can’t breathe, but that’s okay. Spock breathes for him. Spock is everywhere.

And, for once, Jim lets him in.

He’s not sure how long they stay like that, entwined together in the protection of the freshly-healed bond. But when Jim finally does come back to awareness, it’s to see that Spock has settled on the bed: he’s still unconscious, but when Bones looks across the bed at him and nods, the doctor’s eyes are soft with relief.

Jim breathes in and takes a step back, watching Spock: the steady rise and fall of his chest, the monitor over the bed beeping steadily with his heartbeat. He then proceeds to vomit all over the nearest nurse, but all things considered, it’s worth it.

 

The first thing to brush his awareness is the warmth. It is a comfortable heat, higher than the usual operating temperature of the Enterprise but just shy of Vulcan’s searing afternoon sun. Spock shifts on the bed and slowly opens his eyes.

He’s in sickbay. The heat lamps overhead are bright but not overly so, and the steady beeping of the monitors creates a soothing, soporific rhythm. At the corner of the room, two nurses consult over a padd. All in all, nothing seems out of the ordinary.

Spock blinks, searching his mind for the events that landed him here—and it takes no time for him to remember. He brushes the bond in his mind, feels it pulse in response to his touch. Jim?

It takes a moment, but then something ripples down their connection: a soft wave of warmth and presence. Jim says nothing, but it’s all Spock needs.

The knot inside himself loosens and dissolves. He cradles the bond and basks in its warm comfort. It had terrified him before, growing colder and more poisonous no matter how much of himself he poured into it, dying because it received no nurturance from the other side. Now, with the window to Jim’s mind open and free, the bond is stronger than ever, and Spock finally feels complete.

“Well, now.” He snaps back to himself just in time to see Dr. McCoy approach the bed, padd in one hand. “Guess you decided to stay with us after all.”

“That does appear to be the case, Doctor.”

McCoy’s eyes soften as the ghost of a smile plays on his lips. “I’m glad you’re back, Spock.”

Spock swallows. “Thank you. How long was I unconscious?”

“Just about a day,” McCoy answers, making a note on his padd before setting it aside and leaning in to peer at the monitors more closely. “The seizures definitely weren’t helping, and then whatever Jim did inside your head really did a number on you.”

“I see.” Spock looks down at his hands. “Where is the captain?”

McCoy quirks an eyebrow. “You can’t find out yourself? I thought that bond thing was supposed to connect you two. Least it can do is act as a decent GPS.”

Spock decides not to correct him on how, technically, GPS devices are impossible on the Enterprise, as she is in the midst of deep space and lacks a satellite. Instead, he searches the bond, following one of its many pathways into Jim’s mind, seeking, seeking…

Jim is on Observation Deck 4.

He turns back to McCoy. “Am I fit for duty, doctor?”

McCoy snorts. “Not by a long shot,” he answers, and continues before Spock can open his mouth, “But you are cleared to leave sickbay. So go find our resident idiot and be all lovey-dovey with him for a while, and don’t ever, ever tell me anything about it.”

“I am sure you are aware, Doctor, that the captain’s IQ is well over—”

“Oh, getting sassy, are we?” McCoy plunges a hypospray into his neck, and Spock’s previous suspicions are confirmed: the doctor has mastered a technique that allows the single most painless medical instrument currently in use today to be administered in a way that feels like being stung by a poisonous insect.

“Your vindictiveness, Doctor, is beyond my—”

“Outta my sickbay, Spock.”

Spock goes. The Enterprise is quiet, nothing but the soft hum of the engines and the occasional passing crewmember who snaps off a salute. Spock barely acknowledges it as he makes his way to the observation deck. He has more important priorities right now.

The deck is empty when he gets there. Spock freezes for a moment just inside the door, wondering where he went wrong. Did he read the bond correctly?

Then there’s a minute movement out of the corner of his peripheral vision, and he turns and just barely makes out the top of a blond head peeking out from behind one of the armchairs. A thin thread of grey smoke curls up over it.

Spock blinks and crosses the room. What he sees makes him pause for a moment: Jim sits with his back against the side of the chair, eyes fixed on the stars streaking by as two fingers of one hand hold an electronic cigarette, smoke rising from its glowing blue tip. Two spent tobacco casings lie discarded in a tiny ashtray on the floor next to him.

Spock doesn’t move at first, unsure of his welcome. Jim lifts the cigarette to his lips, inhales, and blows out a smoke-filled breath before turning to give him a small smile and patting the floor next to him. “Well? You gonna sit or what?”

Spock does. He selects a position that places him exactly six centimeters away from Jim, close enough to make his intentions known, yet far enough to, hopefully, give Jim enough space to remain comfortable.

Jim doesn’t scoot closer, but neither does he move away. Spock counts the small victory. They sit in silence for another moment before Spock feels inclined to break it. He’s never been uncomfortable with quiet, but for some reason he always wants to hear Jim’s voice. “I did not know that you smoked.”

Jim hums and taps some ash off the end of the cigarette. “I don’t. Not regularly, anyway. Emergency stash. Don’t tell Bones, okay?”

“As you wish.” Spock waits another moment before taking a breath. “Jim. I wish to thank you.”

“For what?”

“Saving my life.”

That punches a humorless laugh out of the other man. “Really. When I was the one who nearly killed you in the first place.”

Spock frowns. “You did no such thing.”

“Maybe not directly,” Jim concurs, “but you gotta admit, none of this would’ve happened if I’d just pulled my head a little further out of my ass.”

“That is anatomically impossible.”

Jim snorts. “Yeah, okay.” He puffs on the cigarette and sighs. “At least you’ll be happy to know Uhura kicked my ass all the way to the Laurentian system. And Bones didn’t pull any punches either. I didn’t even know his face could turn that color until I told him about blocking the bond.”

Spock regards him. There is a minute, barely-there tremble in his fingers as he lifts the cigarette to his mouth for another inhale.

He’s journeying along the bond before he is even fully aware of it, following its golden strands into Jim’s mind, searching for the source of his discomfort. Beside him Jim stiffens and drops the cigarette, and Spock realizes suddenly the magnitude of what he has done. I apologize, he stutters, beginning to retreat, I didn’t mean—

No. A new feeling rushes over the fear from Jim’s side of the bond: determination, promise. I said I would do this, so I’m doing it. You’ll just…have to be patient with me, Spock.

I would not be here if I did not already have that down to a science, Jim.

That startles a real laugh out of Jim, warmth and amusement crackling down the bond, and Spock responds with a pulse of his own affection, making sure to leave pockets of light everywhere he goes as he carefully explores the depths of Jim’s mind. He can tell, several times when he brushes up against something particularly dark and ugly, that Jim barely restrains the urge to push him out. For that, he makes sure to render his mental touch especially gentle.

He sees everything. He sees an angry little boy absolutely convinced no one will ever love him, who fights back the only way he knows how: with fists and sharp words. He sees a teenager abandoned by everyone, who guards his loneliness like a treasure because they can never hurt you, Jimmy, if you don’t let them in. He sees a man hardened by rage and solitude, with ragged, torn-out edges, who wants to reach out but doesn’t know how, and heaps failure on himself instead of forgiveness. He sees Jim, the man he loves, who has never loved himself but, with Spock, is willing to learn.

When he finally pulls back into himself a few moments later, Jim’s cigarette casing has burned out and he’s half-curled into himself, the picture of self-doubt. “So?” he says, and the way his hand trembles as he drops the empty casing into the ashtray betrays the forced lightness of his voice. “What’s the verdict?”

Spock kisses him. Jim goes rigid at first, surprise dancing down the bond, but almost immediately it dissolves into hunger and heat and he melts into the kiss, the both of them reacquainting themselves with each other’s familiar taste.

Spock pulls back after a few moments, but he does not let Jim go, continuing to hold him close as he sends everything he has across the bond, everything he has ever felt for his mate in a wave of tenderness and devotion. Jim lets out a shaky breath but doesn’t stop it, takes Spock into himself with no resistance, and Spock finally, finally feels the last remnants of his doubt fade away. When he opens his eyes and looks up, Jim’s smile is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. The bond buzzes with contentment, and he cannot help but smile himself. “I take it, then, my answer is clear?”

Jim reaches down and grasps his hand, stroking their fingers together. “Yeah,” he whispers, and Spock feels nothing but happiness across their connection. “Crystal.”

An after-image flashes across the bond, a brief, flickering thought: some sort of archaic wooden bridge gone up in flames. Spock blinks. What is that?

Huh? Oh. Jim banishes the image with ease, replacing it with warmth that makes the bond glow bright and beautiful. Just…something I won’t be doing anymore.

Spock doesn’t push. Whatever it is, it is part of Jim’s old story, the book of his past they have just slammed shut.

They will write their own from now on.