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The World Well Lost

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Jim had learned to keep to himself.

Back in Iowa, at home with Frank, here on Tarsus IV—anywhere his summer-storm temper could smash into another person, he was better off alone.

Most of the students at the colony school were farmers’ kids, on-planet with parents who spent long days in the grain fields or working around the silos. Few of them had ever lived with the clean technological convenience of the Federation’s cities and larger colonies, but had rather bounced from agricultural colony to industrial town as their parents’ work had demanded.

But there were also delinquents like Jim, shipped in from around the quadrant to this distant chunk of weeds. The hope was that they would be broken into submission by the colony’s punitive distance from luxuries and sympathetic friends. Jim could have told the adults involved that the reason most of these kids were here was precisely because they were poor and deprived and had no one to turn to. But what did a smart-mouthed little asshole like him know?

Whatever had brought them to Tarsus IV, Jim and his fellow students were mean, hard, and unhappy. There were plenty of schoolyard fights and plenty of successive detentions spent tilling soil or laying fertilizer—on Tarsus even the detentions were beneficial to the colony’s production. But Jim tried to stay out of trouble: the sooner he could get off this rock the sooner he could try to get out of Iowa. After that, on his own, maybe he could build some kind of life.

And so he kept to himself.

But the older boys were going to eat that new Vulcan kid alive, and Jim just couldn’t let that happen.

Jim pressed the heel of his hand into the cut on his cheek, but it was still bleeding steadily. His head was tilted back to stem the flow of blood from his nose, but that wasn’t doing much either. He wished the principal, Mr. Carter, would just come in and punish him already so he could clean up, or at least bleed freely out in the fields.

“Your hand is not an ideal tool for the restriction of blood flow,” the Vulcan said quietly from the chair next to his, and Jim looked at him sideways.

“Uh, well, it’s kinda all I got.”

The kid was staring at him with the huge, deep wells he had for eyes, skin still flushed green from the skirmish. He only had one little scrape, on his nose, and Jim was proud of himself for breaking up the fight before it got worse. He could take a pummeling: this soft little ambassador's son clearly could not.

The Vulcan looked into his lap as if considering, then reached down to grab the hem of his long black robes and rip off a piece of cloth. He straightened up and held it shyly out to Jim.

“This is not sanitary and you will need to pursue antibiotic treatment, but perhaps it can stop the bleeding for now.”

Jim couldn’t help but grin, head still tipped back. At the way those alien eyes widened, Jim could only assume the huge split in his lip had left his teeth bloody, so he quickly closed his mouth and took the cloth.

“Thanks,” he said, and pressed it hard against his cheek. “What’s your name, by the way?”

“I am Spock.”

“Nice to meet you, Spock. I’m Jim.”

“Jim.” He said the word softly, like he was trying it out. Jim didn’t really know why, but it sent a shiver down his spine. They sat in silence for a few more minutes until Spock’s quiet voice lifted again through the dust-flecked shadows of the principal’s office.

“I do not understand your actions. Please explain why you interrupted the altercation between myself and those three individuals.”

Jim lowered his head, nosebleed mostly gone now, and shrugged. “Everybody’s rough here. No offense, but I can kinda tell you haven’t been in a lot of fights.”

Spock shook his head slightly. “You would, as your people say, be surprised.”

Jim snorted. Whatever “fights” Vulcan kids got into, they probably didn’t involve incessant punches to the face.

“They were going after you ‘cause you’re a Vulcan. It’s not right.”

Spock’s eyes drifted back to him. “And is it your responsibility to defend all Vulcans from xenophobic aliens?”

Jim shrugged, cringing slightly under Spock's relentless stare. “Like I said, I know how to deal with these kids. You don’t.”

Spock finally looked away, tilting his head slightly in acquiescence. “That much is true. I appreciate your… kindness, although it was unnecessary to place yourself in danger for me.”

“I mean it,” Jim said. Spock just wasn’t quite getting it. “Tarsus IV isn’t a nice place and the people who live here aren’t nice either. You need to be careful.”

You seem nice,” Spock said, so quietly Jim could barely hear him. His breath caught in his throat, but before he could tell Spock that no, he was most definitely not nice, the door finally opened and the principal strode in.

“Mr. Kirk,” he said, sitting behind his desk and looking at them in turn. “Mr. Spock.”

“Mr. Carter,” Spock said uncertainty, as if he thought they were all just saying each other’s names in a human custom he didn’t quite understand. Jim stifled a laugh.

Mr. Carter gave Spock a weird look but went on without comment. “Detention for both of you, starting as soon as you leave my office. Only because this is your first time. Get involved in a fight again and it’ll be a week’s worth.”

“Wait, Mr. Carter—” Jim started, at the same time as Spock said, “It is imperative that you understand—”

They stopped and stared at each other, surprised. Mr. Carter took the opportunity to hum disapprovingly into the silence.

“Two days for you now, Kirk. Spock, you might not know the rules yet, but students don’t question punishments here. Don’t make the same mistake twice.”

“You do not understand, sir,” Spock pressed, and Jim couldn’t help but feel a little tug of admiration. Maybe this shy, wimpy Vulcan was secretly kind of a badass. “I merely wished to provide you with more context for the situation, which is relevant because Mr. Kirk involved himself in the fight only to prevent a xenophobic attack upon my person. Thus, he does not deserve punishment.”

“Spock,” Jim said in surprise, “It’s fine, don’t worry about it. But, Mr. Carter, Spock wasn’t fighting at all—Jerry and Max and Elias went at him unprovoked. He’s the one that doesn’t deserve detention.”

Mr. Carter stared between the two of them. He seemed momentarily at a loss for words.

“Two detentions for you, Mr. Kirk, and one for you, Mr. Spock,” he repeated finally. “Be grateful it’s not more. You can go now.”

Spock actually opened his mouth to talk back again, but Jim grabbed his sleeve and pulled him up with a muttered, “Thank you, Mr. Carter,” before dragging Spock out of the office.

“But this is not fair treatment,” Spock insisted as Jim led them toward the back of the school and the attached grain fields. Jim rolled his eyes.

“Look, this is exactly what I’m talking about. You need to learn how things work around here. Nobody else is an ambassador’s kid—we’re all rednecks or criminals or both. Things aren’t fair. Just keep your head down. That’s the best you can do, ok?”

They pushed out through the back doors into the harsh Tarsus sunlight, where a little group of kids was standing around waiting for their detention assignment. The boys from the fight were among them, and stared at Jim and Spock meaningfully.

But before they could start things up again, Mr. Carter came out to tell them they’d be clearing weeds for two hours, and they all moved off into the rows of grain. “No talking!” he called after them, and they got to work.

Jim glanced at Spock and found him a few rows over, looking around in confusion. But he was obviously studying what the other boys were doing and started copying them. He met Jim’s gaze once and Jim gave him a little smile, which Spock returned with a blank but possibly friendly Vulcan expression.

After an hour or so Jim started to hear faint whispers and tittering, and when he looked up again he saw Spock trip on the hem of his robes as he tugged on a weed, falling forward onto his knees. Jim glanced back at Mr. Carter, who was thankfully paying no attention, and crossed the rows to Spock, helping him up by the elbow.

“Not really used to manual labor?” he asked quietly, but Spock, clearly frustrated, shook him off.

“On the contrary, Vulcans are three times stronger than humans and I completed an extreme ritual of desert survival when I was only six standard years of age. I am more than capable of pulling weeds.”

He softened at little at Jim’s amused, skeptical look.

“However,” he amended, “I am not yet accustomed to the gravity on this planet.”

Jim positioned himself behind Spock, blocking him from the principal’s view. “Just hang out in front of me. I’ll do it for you, but make sure Carter doesn’t see you.”

“Why are you helping me?” Spock asked. There was a hint of suspicion in his voice and Jim wanted to reassure him, but he didn’t really know the answer to that question himself. He shrugged.

“Cause I’m an upstanding young man,” he said sarcastically and then, more seriously, “Don’t worry about it. Just stay right in front of me.”

For another hour he worked quickly, pulling double the weeds while Spock stood quietly in front of him, moving along the row to the rhythm of Jim’s work.

—-

It turned out Spock was in a bunch of Jim’s classes. Though Jim tried not to get involved, the other kids refused to leave Spock alone and for some crazy, unfathomable reason, Jim just couldn’t let things be.

After Jim rescued Spock from a few more scuffles and helped them narrowly avoid more joint detentions, they started sitting next to each other in class and eating meals together in the cafeteria, and Jim was forced to grudgingly accept that he had made a friend.

One day after class, some of the other boys chased them off campus and into the colony center, where Jim managed to lose them by pulling Spock into an alley between the hardware store and the tiny grocery.

When they were sure the boys were gone, they crept out onto the bleak strip of storefronts that made up the center, keeping to the shadows just to be sure, but there was no sign of any other school kids.

They finally stopped to rest on a bench, and after a few minutes of silence, Jim noticed Spock was shivering.

“Hey, are you ok?” he asked, turning to find Spock green in the face, holding his arms. “Are you cold?”

“Yes,” Spock said, not looking at him as if he was embarrassed. “I am accustomed to a desert environment and while it may be summer here, I still find it uncomfortably cool.”

“Why didn’t you pack a coat?”

“I did. It was stolen by Tobias Resley on my second day at school.”

“Ugh, what a shithead. Here.” Jim unzipped his bag and pulled out the letterman jacket he brought along for chilly mornings. He draped it over Spock’s shoulders and Spock looked at him in surprise, but put his arms through the sleeves and tucked the jacket around him nonetheless.

“I’m not exactly a letterman jacket kind of guy,” Jim said with a shrug, “But this was my brother’s and it’s warm and stuff so…”

He trailed off. The silence went a little long before Spock said, “I understood very little of that statement, but thank you for lending this to me.”

Jim laughed, pulled up from the sad thoughts he had started to sink into.

“Let’s take a walk,” he suggested. “You’ll be warmer if we get moving.”

They left the square and went out into the scrubby farmland beyond, past the houses until they were out in the brush. They walked without talking—Jim had noticed that he and Spock slipped into silence often, but it was surprisingly comfortable, not an awkward, uncertain silence. Maybe it was because Spock was Vulcan, choosing his words carefully and not chattering just to fill the quiet.

Eventually, Spock said, “You mentioned your brother. Is he your only sibling?”

“Yeah,” Jim said. “Sam. He left home a few years ago.”

“He is much older than you?”

“Well, not much. I’m 14, he’s 18.”

“But is it not customary in your culture for children to remain at home through their teenage years, and often longer?”

“Yeah.”

Jim looked up at the wide, bright sky, not sure how much more he wanted to say. It seemed Spock understood, though, because after a moment he said quietly, “I also have a brother who has had… difficulty within our family.”

“Yeah?” Jim asked, suddenly unbearably curious to find out about Spock’s life on Vulcan. Spock nodded.

“He is called Sybok. Although he is the only full Vulcan of my father’s children, he has never been as committed to our culture as my father wishes.” He looked sidelong at Jim, probably anticipating the question Jim wanted to ask but wasn’t sure was appropriate. “My mother is human.”

“Oh,” said Jim. “Cool. So… what about your other siblings?”

“I have one other: an older sister, Michael. She is a human whom my parents adopted early in her childhood.”

“Wow. That’s quite a family.”

“Indeed.”

“How old are you exactly?”

“16 standard years of age.”

“Really?” Jim glanced at him. He was no taller than Jim; he wouldn’t have guessed Spock was two whole years older than him. “You look younger.”

“So I have been told.”

They fell into silence again, walking. Spock looked so funny with Jim’s jacket over his Vulcan robes that he couldn’t help smiling over at him, just a little too long. If Spock noticed, he gave no indication.

Jim would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that Spock was really cute. Even with—or maybe because of—the bowl cut.

“So why’re you here? It’s ok if you don’t want to say,” he amended quickly.

Spock didn’t say anything for a moment, considering. And then, “May I suggest a trade of information? I admit that I am interested to know your answer to the same question.”

“Sure,” Jim smiled. “My story’s not complicated, though—my stepdad’s an asshole and I’m an asshole and we don’t get along. I was getting in trouble at school and stuff. Mostly fighting. I went to juvie when I was 11, and I’ve just kinda been… screwing up since then.” Jim scuffed the ground with his toe as they walked, realizing this was all a little more personal than he’d intended. “My stepdad convinced my mom to send me here to straighten me out. And here I am.”

He glanced at Spock and found him staring, eyebrows furrowed. Jim looked away again. Damn, he should have thought this through. A nice Vulcan wasn’t going to want to be friends with a loser like him.

He hadn’t even wanted a friend, so why the hell did his stomach hurt at the prospect of not hanging out with Spock?

“If I understand you correctly,” Spock said slowly, “You are indicating that you were incarcerated at 11?”

Anxiety spread out to the tips of Jim’s fingers. “Uh, basically. Yeah.”

“With a few extreme examples I doubt you are guilty of, I can see no logical reason to imprison a child. May I ask what offense caused this?”

He was prying—on a human it probably would have been rude. But Spock seemed genuinely curious, maybe even… concerned?

“I drove a car off a cliff. My stepdad thought it was his but it wasn’t—it was my dad’s. Oh, uh, my dad died when I was a baby. The day I was born, actually. And my brother had just run away from home and my stepdad was… not being nice about it. So I drove the car off a cliff.”

Spock stopped walking. Jim turned to him reluctantly.

“A cliff? Can you clarify?”

“Uh, well there’s this quarry in the town where I grew up and it has this sheer dropoff into a canyon. Probably, I dunno, a kilometer above the ground?”

There was short, shocked silence and then Spock said simply, “You should have died.”

Jim felt like Spock had slapped him. Spock was so, well, gentle. He was expecting maybe an awkward social distance forming between them after this conversation, not Spock saying he wished Jim was dead.

Jim turned on his heel to head back to town—fuck it, he didn’t need this bullshit—but Spock’s hand shot out and grabbed him by the elbow.

“Please, my words conveyed a meaning other than what I intended.”

Jim looked back at him and his face was surprisingly expressive, distress in his eyes as if he had messed up and was upset about it.

“You must remember that Standard is not my native language. What I meant to express is confusion about how you survived such an encounter, and regret that you have not only experienced such trauma but also that you nearly lost your life. I am relieved that you did not.”

Jim slowly turned his body back toward to him. Spock hadn’t let go of his elbow.

“Oh. Um, thanks.”

“I am not well-versed in human emotional needs, but I doubt incarceration was the proper response—therapeutic counselling would perhaps have been more effective?”

“Yeah,” Jim snorted. “That wasn’t going to happen. My family’s not exactly the talk-about-your-feelings type.”

“Nor is mine,” Spock admitted quietly, finally letting go of Jim’s elbow and starting to walk again.

“Isn’t that kind of the norm?” Jim asked, falling into step with him.

“Yes,” Spock said, “But my siblings and I have all struggled to… find our way toward pure Vulcan logic. It is a source of disappointment to my father.”

“But didn't he expect that when he adopted a human kid and then had a baby with a human?”

Spock’s lips quirked in what might have been a tiny rueful smile. “One would think so. We have been raised in the Vulcan way, however, and are expected to follow it.”

“Doesn’t seem fair,” Jim said with a shrug.

“Perhaps not. In any event, I am on this colony for reasons not dissimilar to your own. When I was 13, I attacked a schoolmate for insulting my mother. In the interim three years there have been enough incidents for my father to label my behavior ‘inappropriate and lacking in logic.’ 4 months, 11 days ago, I engaged in physical fighting again, breaking the nose of an older boy who asked if I would follow my father’s quest to engage in intercourse with alien females.”

Jim gaped and then, after a moment, laughed out loud. “Dude, that’s awesome.”

Spock looked sidelong at him. “Clearly not, as it has created turmoil in my family and resulted in my forced relocation to this colony.”

Jim clapped him on the shoulder, grinning. “I guess, but otherwise we wouldn’t have met, and I’m glad we did.”

Spock’s eyes softened in a way that, inexplicably, filled Jim with warmth. “As am I.”

—-

On warm Friday nights, Jim and Spock started sneaking out to the edge of the scrubby woods surrounding the colony. They had found a spot under a rock overhang where they felt thoroughly hidden. Some seeds must have escaped the fields and landed here, for there were long stalks of wild grain growing right up to the rockface, and Jim and Spock had flattened just enough of them to make a small hollow where they could sit knee-to-knee.

It was… intimate. Jim was hyper aware of that fact, but had no idea how Spock perceived it. He certainly wasn’t going to ask.

One night, Jim stole a bottle of whiskey one of the older boys had stolen from a teacher, and eagerly snuck it out to the secret spot. Spock politely accepted a few sips, but explained that it had little effect on him. He nonetheless encouraged Jim to enjoy himself in moderation, and promised that he would help him back to their dorm if necessary.

After a few good swigs Jim’s limbs went heavy and fuzzy. “You shouldn’t encourage me, you know. I’m only 14,” he said with a crooked smile. Spock shrugged, just slightly. It was still a lot for a Vulcan.

“I am not your keeper. You have been told what to do enough in your life; you should be allowed some of your own decisions.”

Jim smiled wider. “You’re a weird Vulcan, you know that?”

Spock’s lips did that thing they did when he was trying not to smile. “Yes, I assure you I am aware of that fact.”

After a few more sips, Jim’s brain felt slow and sweet, a pleasant buzzing in his ears. “Hey,” he said, and the awareness that he shouldn’t ask this question was very faint, “don’t punch me, but do you want to fuck alien women? Is that, like, a genetic thing?”

Spock’s eyes started to shutter, and Jim cursed himself. But then Spock sighed in a resigned sort of way and looked down. “I do not believe there is a genetic component of any kind,” he said very quietly. “But either way, I am not… I do not…”

He trailed off. Jim had never seen him quite so lost for words.

“I am not attracted to females of any species,” Spock whispered, very deliberately not looking at Jim. A tipsy thrill of relief went through Jim, all the way to his toes, and it took him a moment to realize that Spock was flushed bright green and that there had been a hollow note of shame in his voice. Jim’s hand shot out before he could think it through and grabbed Spock’s arm. Spock looked up at him in surprise.

“Hey!” Jim said. “You don’t feel bad for being gay, do you?”

“Gay,” Spock mouthed doubtfully, as if he’d never said it before. Jim realized he probably hadn’t—it was such a human word. Jim tried a reassuring smile but it didn’t feel right, so he just stared hard into Spock’s eyes and nodded into the silence.

“I am already different enough,” Spock said finally. “On Vulcan, homosexuality is not… taboo, per say, but neither is it common nor universally accepted.”

“Well fuck ‘em, then,” Jim said, starting to slur. Spock raised an eyebrow in mild surprise, but he was pretty used to Jim’s irreverence by now. “There’s nothing wrong with liking guys. You’re perfect.”

Both of Spock’s eyebrows jumped high at that, and Jim looked away, embarrassed.

“And you?” Spock said after a moment. “To what sex are you attracted?”

“All of them,” Jim said firmly, looking back and meeting Spock in the eye.

He didn’t tell him that he too was ashamed of his attractions, had been ever since the time Frank found him jerking off to a queer holovid and dragged him outside into the front yard to beat him harder than he ever had. He was screaming “faggot” so loud that the neighbors heard from the next farm over and came to see what was wrong, but Frank had shouted at them to mind their own business and they did. People were scared of Frank and gave him a wide berth.

Jim had learned to keep to himself.

But now Spock was staring at him with no judgement, some deep, electric emotion in his eyes.

“Fascinating,” he said in a low voice, and Jim giggled drunkenly. What a weird thing to say.

Spock’s lips quirked and they were silent, watching each other, until the quiet stretched too long and became awkward.

Jim changed the subject.

—-

As summer wilted into fall, the mood on Tarsus IV started to shift. No one at school knew why, but they did know that the adults were tense. The teachers were talking to each other in hushed whispers, and there were more farmers in the town square than usual, grim-faced and jittery. There were rumors from some of the farmers’ kids about a problem with the crops, but there was no more information than that.

Whatever was happening, Jim suspected it was making life very unpleasant in the farmhouses. The same kids spreading rumors about the crops started coming to school with tell-tale signs: bruises peeking out from their collars, long sleeves even on hot days, a black eye here and there. Parents were under some kind of pressure, and Jim knew all too well about adults who took out their anxiety on whatever child was nearby and convenient.

Unfortunately, the meaner the parents got, the meaner their kids got in turn. Jim and Spock started having to work even harder to dodge bullies and detentions, and the other kids were so relentless that they could barely escape to their secret spot without being followed. A few times they had to just give in and accept a beating, knowing it would be even worse if they fought back.

To Jim’s dismay, the taunting began to focus on their obvious closeness and what exactly they were to each other. The bullies could think of no insult to Jim’s sexuality he hadn’t already leveled at himself, so the vicious teasing didn’t really faze him. But he knew Spock was hypersensitive to it, and the punched-out look in Spock’s eyes when he was called a faggot made Jim dangerously angry.

It came to a head on a particularly cold afternoon, when Jim and Spock were walking out of school and Jim noticed Spock shivering. He stopped and pulled the letterman jacket out of his bag, draping it over Spock’s shoulders.

“Just keep this, ok?” he admonished—Spock had been insisting on returning the jacket whenever he borrowed it, despite Jim telling him he didn’t have to. “You’re only going to get colder from now on.”

“And you?” Spock asked, putting his arms through the sleeves, “Will you not also be colder as the weather turns?”

“You need it more,” Jim said firmly, and zipped the jacket up to punctuate his point.

“Awwwww, is your boyfriend lending you his jacket, pointy-ears?”

Jim and Spock tensed at the familiar voice of one of the worst bullies, who they now saw striding over to them across the school yard, two of his cronies behind him.

“Leave it, Jerry,” Jim said as Jerry reached them, letting his hands drop to his sides.

But of course Jerry ignored him, getting up in their space and plucking at the jacket’s collar.

“A letterman jacket? You must really like that human dick in your ass, huh Spock?’

Spock’s eyebrows shot up and he jerked away from Jerry. Jim didn’t know a lot about Vulcans and sex, but he knew it was very private, and that Spock probably felt legitimately threatened by the crude profanity.

Leave it,” he repeated, but Jerry and his friends just laughed, and without warning one of them grabbed Jim and wrenched his arms behind his back. Jerry did the same to Spock and they were shoved together, chest-to-chest, the jacket’s zipper digging into Jim’s sternum.

“Why don’t you kiss, cocksuckers?”

“Get off me!” Jim wrestled frantically against the iron grip on his arms. Poor Spock was bright green, unable to meet Jim’s eyes. They were pushed closer together, hips glancing, and Jim was shocked to feel the unmistakable line of Spock’s erection. Knowing that Spock would be mortified gave Jim the strength to break away, rushing Jerry and pushing him hard to make him let go of Spock.

Spock predictably shrunk in on himself, eyes horrified and full of shame.

“Fucking fag!” Jerry shouted, and answered Jim’s push with a punch directly to his eye. When Spock shot out to shield him, Jerry turned and swung a punch at him too, but Spock blocked it with a growl that shocked everyone, Jim included, into stillness. Jim recovered quick, though, and took off at a run, grabbing Spock’s sleeve as he went by.

It didn’t take long for the boys to regain their bearings and start chasing them, but the headstart was enough for Jim and Spock to reach the woods and lose the bullies by zigzagging through different trails. Finally, nearly sure they were safe, they slowed down and made their way to the cliff face in silence.

Spock started fussing over Jim’s eye as soon as they sat down, wetting the sleeve of his robe with his water bottle and dabbing at the cut on Jim’s eyebrow.

“I’m sorry that happened,” Jim said quietly.

“It is not your fault.”

“I know I’m just… expressing sympathy. I think maybe we should go to the teachers tomorrow about Jerry and everybody. They can’t keep going at you like this.”

“Nor at you. Do you believe the teachers will be of any assistance?”

“I don’t know. Probably not, but it’s worth a try.”

Spock nodded in acquiescence. They lapsed into silence again but then Jim sighed loudly. He knew it would make Spock uncomfortable but he had to try to comfort him, to reassure him. “Look. Don’t be embarrassed about… you know. The hard-on thing.”

Spock stopped dabbing and flushed a bright, spring-leaf green.

“It’s normal,” Jim went on. “Happens all the time and it doesn’t mean anything. Just don’t worry about it, ok?”

Spock dropped his hand and looked away. He didn’t say anything, just pulled the letterman jacket tight. Jim cast around for something to lighten the mood.

“And I mean, hey—who could blame you? I’m a super hot piece of ass and, as Jerry so eloquently expressed, you are super duper gay.”

Spock finally looked up and Jim was pleased to see his eyebrow raised, his lip quirked. “And you, Jim, are not only excessively homosexual, but also extraordinarily arrogant.”

Jim grinned, hoping he looked way more cocky than he felt. “I’m excessively homosexual, heterosexual, and all the other sexuals. Thus I’m way cooler than you.”

Spock shook his head, clearly losing his battle with himself to avoid a smile. Having achieved his purpose, Jim leaned back against the rock wall and gently prodded his swollen eye.

“Do not touch it,” Spock chided. “You may cause infection.”

Jim sighed petulantly but dropped his hand. Evening was settling around them, early stars beginning to wink on the horizon.

“The sky is nice from this planet,” Jim muttered, sick of talking about bullies and boys and the shame he was trying to excise from Spock but couldn’t get rid of himself.

Spock followed his gaze and nodded. “My mother and I enjoy stargazing from our porch on Vulcan. She taught me to identify Earth from an early age. I suppose she misses it.”

Jim shrugged. “It’s overrated.” He felt Spock look at him but kept staring up into the bruise-dark sky. “I wouldn’t mind if I never went back there.”

“Where would you go instead?”

“Up there. Into space.”

“I was unaware that you desired such a career. Will you pursue Starfleet Academy?”

No,” Jim snorted. “Starfleet can kiss my ass. Both my parents were Starfleet. My mom still is. My dad died on a ‘Fleet ship, and my mom’s been escaping to Starfleet so she doesn’t have to see me ever since. I’m nothing to her but a reminder of my dad.”

After a moment of processing Jim’s sudden confession, Spock murmured, “I am sorry.”

“No big deal,” Jim lied with a shrug, and luckily Spock took the hint, looking back up at the sky.

“I too desire space travel,” he said, and Jim smiled in surprise despite himself.

“Yeah?”

“Yes. It is an endless source of discovery and revelation. I am curious what I might find there.”

A warm feeling spread through Jim’s chest. Random boners were no big deal, but this crush he had developed on Spock, the one that kept sinking deeper and deeper into him, was kind of a problem.

“I aspire to attend the Vulcan Science Academy, but I am hopeful that a career in the sciences may offer opportunities for space travel.”

Against his better judgement, Jim leaned a little closer, letting their shoulders rest lightly together. Spock didn’t move away.

“Well, when I’m an awesome space explorer for hire and I have my own ship, maybe you can be my science officer.”

Spock turned to look at him, tiny smile faint in the gathering darkness.

“I believe I would like that.”

—-

They left the dorm early the next morning, hoping to talk to the teachers before the day got started. The school hallways were eerily quiet, their footsteps loud on the tile. But there was sound coming from the teachers’ staff room so they made their way there, standing in the open doorway.

The teachers were gathered around a hovering holo screen that was playing the colony news. A nervous-looking government official was saying “—encouraged not to worry. The issue is being controlled, and the contaminant is not widespread. Farmers are directed to report to the agricultural supply depot for government-issued fungicides—”

Suddenly one of the teachers, Mr. Dubois, noticed Jim and Spock. With a wordless exclamation he slammed a button on his PADD to collapse the holo. The other teachers all whipped around, anger and fear on their faces. Jim had no idea what was going on, but he didn’t like it.

“What are you doing here?” Mr. Dubois snapped. “Stop eavesdropping!”

“W– we weren’t eavesdropping,” Jim said. “Sorry. We just need to talk to someone. About some stuff the other kids are doing.”

“Fine—what?” Mr. Dubois said shortly. Jim had a feeling this wasn’t going to be well-received.

Spock took over. “We have both been physically attacked by Jerry Dale and Tobias Resley and others. These encounters are unprovoked and have resulted in injuries.”

“Have you had to go to the infirmary?”

“Well–” Spock faltered, “No. But you can clearly see that Jim’s ocular cavity is bruised—”

Their History of Starfleet teacher, Mrs. Pollack, cut him off. “I saw you all in the courtyard yesterday. I heard what Jerry was saying. If you don’t want them to pick on you, I suggest you stop flaunting yourselves.”

Jim and Spock stood frozen in stunned silence before Jim found his voice again. “Flaunting ourselves?”

“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with… the way you are,” Mrs. Pollack said. “But kids your age can be cruel. I’m suggesting you be more subtle.”

“We’ve never done anything like that!” Jim protested, a flush spreading over his chest and up his face. “I don’t know what you think’s going on but we’re not like, making out in the hallways—we– we’re not even dating!”

Another teacher, one Jim didn’t know, raised his hand. “We don’t need the details. Just keep private matters private and you shouldn’t run into trouble.”

Jim stared in shock at the little group of adults. They stared back. This was useless.

“Come on, Spock,” he muttered, turning on his heel and stalking away down the corridor. Spock jogged to catch up to him.

“Ignore them,” Jim spat. “Fucking homophobic fucks. I’m sorry you had to hear that.”

“You were also subjected to their bigotry,” Spock pointed out, but Jim shook his head roughly.

“I don’t fucking care. Fuck them. Any other problems we have, we’re not fucking going to them. We’ll take care of ourselves.”

Spock grabbed Jim’s arm, forcing him to a stop. His eyes bored hard into Jim’s, black and insistent.

“Yes,” he agreed. “We will take care of ourselves. We will take care of each other.”

That took Jim by surprise, and he drew a sharp breath, then took a moment to collect himself. “Yeah. Alright.”

They headed off down the hallway again at a slower pace, but the prospect of going to first period loomed more unpleasant with every step Jim took.

“Hey,” he said, leaning close to Spock’s ear since students were staring to file in, “What do you say we skip class today?”

Spock hesitated like he wanted to say no—Jim had a feeling he’d never skipped a class in his entire life. But then he nodded, no trace of reluctance, and Jim grinned.

They hurried out a side door and took a back route into the woods, where they spent the rest of the day tracing animal trails, talking about starship designs and deep-space physics. The last of the summer bugs hummed in the chilly air, and everything was still; peaceful.

—-

Things went to hell like this:

The crops rotted. The rumors passed from the farmer’s kids had proved true. It was what the adults had been whispering about. Governor Kodos reassured the colony that their reserve technology could handle the crisis, but it was general knowledge that there were only a handful of outdated, unreliable replicators on Tarsus.

When food ration chips were distributed one bright October morning, panic began to creep in. Anxious gossip spread through the school like wind in the festering grain, and by the end of the day, Spock had had a weeks’ worth of ration chips stolen. Jim had never seen such naked emotion in his eyes; even Spock was affected by the fearful atmosphere, and having no access to food was clearly something he couldn’t rationalize with logic and meditation.

“It’s ok,” Jim assured him as they hurried to their secret spot after school. “I’ll share with you.”

“We both require the full allotment of nutrients in each rationed serving. They are insufficient as it is.”

He was walking too fast; Jim couldn’t keep up with his powerful Vulcan strides. He grabbed him by the arm and Spock turned to him with those big, wide eyes, mouth set in a too-straight line.

“We’ll work it out somehow, ok? I’m not going to let you starve. I’ll take care of it.”

Spock opened his mouth like he wanted to ask how Jim intended to “take care of it,” but then he closed it again slowly. Jim had the distinct impression that he was surrendering to the illogical comfort of Jim’s baseless promise.

They took off again for the cliff face. The grain here wasn’t rotted but neither was it edible; it was wild and uncultivated, mostly stalk and leaves, only a few stunted kernels. Spock sat down heavily, staring at the dirt, and Jim followed more slowly.

“Here,” he said, taking out the protein pack and piece of fruit leather he’d been given at dismissal. He broke the bar in half, tore the strip evenly, and handed Spock his share. Spock seemed too freaked out to protest anymore, and started eating carefully, methodically.

“It is scientifically proven that if one eats mindfully, one feels fuller.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that too,” Jim said softly. “Hey, Spock? Are you ok?”

He knew he wasn’t, but he wanted to give him the chance to lie if he wanted.

But Spock didn’t lie, admitting, “No. Jim, I am… frightened. It is illogical to consider future outcomes of a current situation, but I find I cannot stop intrusive thoughts of what will happen on this colony if we do not have sufficient provisions. The colony does not have adequate communications systems to request aid.”

“Yeah, I thought of that, too, but I’m sure it’ll be fine. Governor Kodos probably put out a call to Starfleet at the first sign of trouble. It should get here in time.”

Obviously, it didn’t get there in time. In fact, Kodos never even made a call. He saw an opportunity and he took it, took his chance to thin the herd, trim the fat. But they didn’t know that until later.

—-

“Spock, come on,” Jim hissed, pushing through the people crowding the town square. Spock was several paces behind him, jumping every time someone bumped into him, his hands raised as if he was just barely resisting the urge to cover his ears. His eyes were wild, overwhelmed. Jim suspected he was oversensitive to the stimulation of voices and bodies and smells, but they didn’t have time for that right now.

He doubled back and grabbed Spock’s wrist through his sleeve, careful not to add skin-to-skin contact to Spock’s overstimulation. It seemed very likely that the throng was heading toward a riot, the colony’s panic spinning tighter and higher as Kodos retreated from the public eye, no word on how they would be saved from this disaster. There were hints of the colonists being sorted into mysterious categories, and no one knew what that meant but everyone was terrified by it.

Jim dragged Spock behind him and they disappeared between some buildings, totally unnoticed by the pulsing crowd. He kept dragging him until they were safely in their hiding spot.

Spock pulled instantly away from him, pressing his fingers to his face and taking deep, shaking breaths.

“I’m sorry,” Jim panted, hands on his knees and a stitch in his side, “I know that was a lot for you but we had to get out. That crowd was getting ugly.”

Spock shook his head frantically, one of the least controlled movements Jim had ever seen him make. “It is I who should… should apologize. I am… naturally s– sensitive to sensory… stimulation and, furthermore, my telepathic shields are c– currently weak. I endangered us with my lack of telepathic control, I am s– sorry. I was inundated by the emotions of that crowd. Jim—” he looked up suddenly, desperation in the sharp angles of his face. “Everyone was so terrified, so– so primally afraid, I cannot– I have not–”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Jim held up his hands, stopping Spock’s rambling panic. “Listen, it’ll be…” But he couldn’t say it would be ok. He had no idea if anything would ever be ok again. He took a deep breath. “Can I touch you?”

Spock stared at him for a moment. “Yes. Please. Though not against my skin.”

Jim nodded, taking hold of Spock’s biceps and squeezing gently. “I can’t even imagine how awful that must have been. It was scary enough without feeling everyone else’s feelings. It’s not your fault that your shields are weak. Let’s both just sit down and catch our breath, ok?”

Spock was leaning heavily into Jim’s hold and went willingly when he steered him onto the ground.

“Would meditation help?”

“Yes,” Spock said, his voice fragile. “But I do not want to leave you with the sole responsibility of watching for danger.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Jim assured him. “I’ve got it. Just take care of yourself.”

“Thank you,” Spock whispered. He arranged himself in the meditation pose Jim had seen him take before, and Jim listened while his breath evened out, slowed. He tried to match his own to Spock’s until they were breathing in tandem, a whispering, wordless rhythm. Jim scanned the treeline, breathing.

—-

They snuck carefully back to the colony center the next day, hoping things would have cooled down and there might be news of an evacuation.

What they found instead were horrifying remnants of last night’s riot: smoking piles of trash, broken windows, a burnt-out building, and, worst of all, several bodies strewn throughout the square.

“Oh my god,” Jim whispered. Spock reached out and grabbed his wrist, not even bothering to avoid his skin.

“We must go,” he said urgently. “There is clearly no safety to be found here.”

Jim nodded slowly, unable to tear his gaze away from the eyes of one of the corpses, open and staring into the cold, foggy morning. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”

They hurried away from the settlement at a jog. When a stitch started burning in his side, Jim squeezed his eyes shut against the pain, but the image of the blood-soaked square filled his mind and he quickly opened his eyes again.

He found Spock watching him and got the distinct impression that he wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t sleep tonight, whose mind had been permanently polluted by what he had just seen.

They didn’t speak as they fled through the pestilent fields.

—-

They made a few subsequent trips back to the colony, trying to gather information and food. There was little to be had of either—Kodos had still not appeared in public, not even after another riot killed eight more people. No one knew what was happening and daily rations were now at one protein pack a day.

With no adults to protect them and make sure their rations weren’t stolen, young children on the colony by themselves were especially vulnerable. There weren’t many of them, and their number was shrinking suspiciously. A rumor started circulating that they were being picked off by Kodos’s guards, probably because they were the greatest burdens on the collapsing, underfed population.

Finally, sneaking back to the colony became too dangerous, and Jim and Spock were forced to stay hidden out by the cliff face. They had stolen a cache of protein packs and set up their own rationing system: three pieces of the tasteless bars per day for each of them.

Spock and Jim had both managed to hang on to their backpacks and each had a water bottle, which they filled daily from the stream that ran through the colony and out into the woods. Jim could only pray that the water stayed clean, that some further disaster—maybe a silo being destroyed and dumping runoff into the stream—didn’t contaminate it.

And so they waited, hidden in the wild grain that had now also rotted, dry and cracking in the bitter wind. They didn’t really know what they were waiting for, although there were really only two possible outcomes now. Either they would be rescued, or they would die.

So they waited.

—-

Jim had noticed that sunsets on Tarsus were deep crimson sometimes, a mocking blood red. It gave the twilight an eerie, ruddy glow.

On watch, a week after their escape into the forest, Jim alternated between staring up at the sky and peering through the surrounding trees for intruders. He kept his ears pricked, but all he could hear was the movement of leaves in the dull breeze.

Beside him, Spock stirred and sat up, tightening Sam’s letterman jacket around himself. He hadn’t taken it off for a while now, the air colder every day. He had tried to give it back, but Jim had refused. Spock needed it more.

“Can’t sleep?” Jim murmured. Spock shook his head.

“I am too hungry. And too cold.”

“C’mere,” Jim said, holding out his arm.

Spock hesitated, but only briefly. He practically scurried to tuck up against Jim’s side, head on his shoulder. Jim held him tight, rubbing his arm briskly to warm him up. Spock was all angles and awkward bones, holding himself tense, so Jim slowed his hand against Spock’s arm, soothing rather than warming.

“Relax,” he said. “You’re not gonna crush me.”

Spock’s muscles loosened. “I am not accustomed to… this type of physical contact.”

Jim rested his head on top of Spock’s. “Well. Nothing about any of this is exactly customary.”

“That is true.”

They didn’t speak for a long time, maybe an hour or more. Jim slowly ran his palm up and down Spock’s arm, and the increasing heaviness of Spock’s body against his made Jim hope he had fallen asleep. But eventually, Spock’s quiet voice disturbed the silence.

“I am experiencing persistent pain in what feels like my entire muscular-skeletal structure, but I do not believe that to be a realistic possibility. Are you experiencing a similar sensation?”

Jim sighed. “We’re starving, Spock. Starving hurts.”

“I have not extensively studied the effects of malnutrition, but this nonetheless seems extreme.”

“This isn’t malnutrition. It’s starvation. It’s different.”

“Oh.” Suddenly Spock’s voice was barely above a whisper. “Yes, of course.”

Jim squeezed him slightly. It was a pale reassurance, but it was all he had.

After another long silence, Spock said, “Your physical touch relieves the pain somewhat. May I touch you in a similar manner to provide comfort as well as receive it?”

Jim was apparently not too far gone for his stomach to flip pleasantly. How strange, that a crush could survive such a destructive nightmare.

“Um, yeah. Sure. Thanks.”

Spock lifted his hand to Jim’s sternum, rubbing methodically up his chest and back down the hollow of his empty stomach. Spock was right: there was relief in the firm pressure of Spock’s fingers against his aching skin, his howling belly. For a few minutes he just enjoyed it, but then, to his surprise, he started crying for the first time since this whole mess started. He had been trying to be strong for Spock, but there was catharsis in Spock’s touch, something too big for him to contain.

Spock raised his head as Jim’s breath went short, his chest heaving sharp little sobs.

“I apologize, did I—”

Jim shook his head. “You didn’t do anything, sorry. Shit, I’m sorry. It just. That felt nice, I’m– Fuck, sorry.”

“Why are you apologizing?”

“I mean, you’re already at your limit, it can’t help to deal with emotional expression and stuff.”

Unexpectedly, Spock reached up to touch Jim’s cheek, his thumb tracing a line of Jim’s tears. “Your emotions do not disturb me. It is likely unhealthy for you to repress your emotional reactions in this crisis. What is happening to us is... beyond logic.”

Jim swallowed, caught in the black magnets of Spock’s eyes. But he couldn't contain himself now, and when he started to cry again, Spock sat up and drew Jim’s head gently down into his lap, stroking his hair with one hand and with the other rubbing firmly against the aching muscles of Jim’s back.

“Sleep now,” he murmured, “I will keep watch.”

Jim curled up tight, letting himself cry, sinking into the comfort of Spock’s touch. The darkness of sleep closed slowly around him until he was lost in the unsettled landscape of his dreams.

—-

After two weeks, the food was almost gone. They were down to one bite each per day, and only two protein packs were left.

Jim and Spock lay listless, taking weary turns at sleeping and keeping watch. They had given up any pretense of physical distance and almost never stopped touching, rubbing each other’s aching bodies, holding hands as one slept and the other struggled to keep awake, sitting curled against each other when their nightmares were so terrible that even their near-death exhaustion couldn’t put them back to sleep.

They were both awake at some deep, dark hour of the night when Jim slurred against Spock’s neck. “I have a thing for you. Like a crush. Do you know what that is?”

“No,” Spock said, “But I assume you are attempting to reveal romantic feelings for me.”

“Yeah.”

“I am already aware of them. You project telepathically through our skin-to-skin contact.”

“Oh.”

They lapsed back into silence for what felt like a very long time, any strength for conversation expended. Eventually Spock managed to say, “You are aware that I possess reciprocal romantic feelings for you, correct?”

“No.”

“You cannot feel it through my skin?”

“I’m not a telepath. Remember?”

“Oh. Yes.” Spock sounded confused, as if he really couldn't remember whether Jim was a telepath or not. “Well, I am indeed attracted to you. I am utterly compelled by you. I wish… I wish we could have explored the possibility of what could have been between us.”

Jim pressed closer. “Me too.”

Much later, Jim lolled his head back, managing to hold it up on his neck long enough to meet Spock’s exhausted, clouded-over eyes.

“Can I kiss you?”

“Yes.”

Somewhere in the fog of his awareness Jim knew this was bizarre and wrong, that confessions like these shouldn’t be monotone, devoid of expression, punctuated with hours-long pauses. That first kisses shouldn’t be agreed upon in nearly indifferent half-consciousness. He knew that somewhere he felt aching, passionate things for Spock, but with those emotions came the need for energy, and he didn’t have any left.

Spock let his head fall toward Jim’s and for a while they just rested their foreheads together. Eventually they summoned a bit of strength and struggled to find each other’s mouths, bring them together.

The lethargic gray nothingness of Jim’s mind exploded, a technicolor bomb of emotions and sensations. He was totally frozen in their kiss, an ecstatic, blindingly bright presence in his mind, braiding and weaving into the glittering net of his nervous system.

Spock’s hand shot up and stumbling fingers pressed painfully into three points on Jim’s face, and the mind-storm calmed somewhat, the colors deepening, disparate emotions coalescing into one simple feeling, something Jim couldn’t quite name, not yet.

Spock broke away from him gasping, and Jim reeled as the explosion dimmed quite suddenly, although he still wasn’t alone in his head. He reached instinctively for Spock and Spock grabbed him, clumsily pulling him over to straddle his lap.

Jim,” he breathed. To Jim’s surprise, Spock was crying, tears on his dirty face and making his dull, wasted eyes shine. He hadn’t even known that Vulcans could cry.

“What happened?” Jim sobbed, realizing belatedly that he was crying too.

“I am sorry, so– so sorry, I did not intend– it was not my doing, I had no control—”

“Over what?” Jim said, trying to make sense of Spock’s jumbled apology.

Spock opened and closed his mouth, struggling to find words amid the confusion of whatever had just happened, not to mention their still-starving disorientation.

“We… This is… This is a Vulcan bond. It appears to have… formed spontaneously when we… kissed.”

Jim squinted, head pounding. “I don’t know what that means. Spock—”

He was shaking now, chest heaving. It was like there were too many thoughts and emotions in his head, stuff that felt foreign, not his own. Spock reached out and grabbed his face.

“I can feel your fear and confusion,” he whispered, as if to himself. He took a deep breath, summoning his strength. “It is the Vulcan equivalent of a marriage. We form telepathic connections so that we can experience our spouse’s thoughts and feelings, their mental experience.”

Jim swayed dangerously to the side and Spock caught him, taking the opportunity to manhandle him onto the ground, arranging them both on their sides with their chests pressed together and legs tangled.

“Are you saying we’re like… brain married?” Jim said, trying to piece it together.

“Yes, exactly. We are telsu, bonded. Adun t’nash-veh.”

Huh?” Jim was crying again, totally overwhelmed. Spock stroked his head.

“My husband. It means ‘my husband.’”

Jim curled against Spock, pressing his face into his chest. “That’s insane.”

The sound Spock made was very nearly a laugh. “Yes. It is. But you are exhausted and approaching unconsciousness. You should sleep now.”

He seemed almost... pleased that he could read Jim’s mind. Jim felt a sudden sensation of being cradled in both body and mind, a soothing relief that was the most safe he had felt since the night of the riot. He needed to think, to sort this all out, try to make sense of it, but for now the tug of sleep was too powerful. He dipped down into his newly crowded mind. It was such a warm place now, the most secret of hiding places.

Sleep said Spock’s voice in his head, and Jim did.

—-

The bizarre spontaneous bond had seemed to give Spock a temporary surge of energy, but it was gone by the time Jim woke up. Spock was leaning heavily against the cliff face, skin grey and eyes sunken. Jim dragged himself up. He could feel Spock’s exhaustion inside his own body.

“You’ve gotta sleep,” he rasped. Spock shook his head weakly.

“I must… explain. You know nothing of Vulcan bonds. You did not consent and I must provide you with more information so that you can make an informed decision. Bonds can be broken.”

Jim barely understood a word of what Spock was saying, but some inexplicable part of himself panicked at the idea of losing this link to Spock. He didn’t even understand it but he somehow knew that he couldn’t endure losing it.

Spock clearly felt his panic and raised a limp hand to his face before he dropped it, no strength to keep it up. “But they do not have to be,” he reassured. “Still, you require more knowledge of bonding and what has formed between us.”

Jim shook his head. “Spock, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to die. You know that, right?”

It was the first time either of them had said it aloud, but Jim apparently couldn’t hide his thoughts from Spock anymore, so he saw no need for anything but stark honesty.

Spock stared at him sadly for a moment before nodding. “Yes.”

“You’re right, I don’t understand this thing between us, but I’m glad it happened. I’m glad I get to be inside you like this before it ends.”

“As am I,” Spock whispered. “This is the greatest form of Vulcan intimacy. I am gratified I was able to experience it. Especially with you.”

Jim tried to smile but all he managed was a twitch of his mouth. “You gotta sleep now, ok?”

Spock nodded, apparently too exhausted to argue. He slipped down and put his head in Jim’s lap. They had slept and kept watch in this position many times, but it was different now with this bond thing. There was an electric contentment in their touch, a feedback loop between them.

Spock sighed, settling deep into Jim’s hold. Jim drifted in the odd new sensations that were mercifully keeping his thoughts away from their present situation. He drifted. It wasn’t safe, but he had forgotten that. He drifted.

—-

Most of the animals in the colony were dead—even the birds and the bugs. Anything that ate the grain had been poisoned, a miniature zoological extinction playing out simultaneously with the human extermination.

So Jim was surprised one night to hear a rustling near the edge of their hiding spot, distinctly animalistic. He was on watch and squinted hard into the darkness, keeping still.

Sure enough, after a few minutes a little rodent—Jim didn’t know the species—came scuffling along the perimeter of the dead grain. Even though he knew he was starving, Jim was still surprised by the speed with which he grabbed a rock from the ground near him and threw it at the animal, killing it instantly.

After a moment of shock, Jim scrambled up and grabbed the warm carcass, clutching it to his chest as if another animal might steal it, despite the fact that they were all dead. He brought it back to where Spock was curled shivering on the ground in restless sleep and sat slowly down next to him, fixated by the lolling tongue of the dead animal in his hands.

Jim was a back-country hick and he knew how to skin an animal, although it was hard without any good tools. He had a dull fork from the cafeteria in the bottom of his backpack and he retrieved it, clumsily removing as much of the fur and skin and he could. When he was satisfied that he had a handful of mostly edible meat, he woke Spock.

Spock sat up, rubbing his eyes. His movements had gotten distressingly slow in the past few days, and Jim knew his body was beginning the process of shutting down. When Spock saw the bleeding carcass he squinted and then looked up Jim, a ripple of disturbed confusion running down the bond.

”What is that?”

”I don’t know. Pretty sure it was some kind of rodent.”

Spock was still looking warily between Jim and the bloody mass of flesh. “What… did you do to it?”

”I killed it and then I skinned it. So we can eat it, Spock.”

Spock’s horror flashed in Jim’s head. “Vulcans do not consume flesh! It is barbaric.”

Jim reached out and cupped Spock’s cheek, forgetting that he was covered in blood. His hand left a gruesome smear on Spock’s skin but Spock didn’t move away.

“We don’t have a choice. We’ve got a couple days left at most. Your body needs this, Spock. It needs the protein and the fat to keep going. And I need you to keep going, ok? Please.”

“Can we not at least cook it?”

“With what?” Jim said gently. The decline of Spock’s razor-sharp intellect was especially disturbing. “Even if we could make a fire, the smoke would be too much of a risk.”

Spock nodded vaguely and Jim could feel his acceptance, but it was still shrouded in disgust and revulsion. He shifted up against the cliff wall and held out his arm. “Come here. I’ll feed it to you.”

Spock did as he was told despite his internal hesitation. He let Jim maneuver him until he was draped across Jim’s lap, cradled against him like a child. His bloody cheek against Jim’s shoulder was frighteningly cold.

“You are also going to eat, correct?”

“Yeah, we’ll split it.” He tore off a very small bite of the meat and put it in his mouth. He hadn’t expected it to taste like much of anything; sure, raw meat was disgusting, but his level of starvation would probably cancel that out. But instead of a tasteless source of nourishment, the meat was like manna on his tongue. He whimpered, pulling Spock closer to him and thoughtlessly ripping another bite off the animal with his teeth. Spock stared up at him, his emotions muted now to exhausted curiosity.

Jim tore a third piece off and held it up to Spock’s mouth. He could see Spock’s stomach heave and his lips closed tightly, distress flaring again in the bond.

“It’s ok,” Jim whispered. “It’s actually really good. Go ahead.”

Spock slowly opened his mouth and let Jim push inside, making sure the meat was too far in for Spock to easily spit it out before removing his fingers. He used his thumb to hold Spock's’ mouth closed, rubbing it against the dry, cracked skin.

Spock's eyelids fluttered. Jim could feel him experience a similar rush of euphoria which washed into Jim’s brain like a wave. With a little whine he sat up, grabbing for the meat and trying to bring the whole thing to his mouth.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Jim said, holding it out of his reach, “You gotta go slow. You can’t get sick—we need this to stay in your belly. Lie back.”

Obediently, if reluctantly, Spock settled back against Jim. He opened his mouth wide and eager when Jim brought the next bite to it, leaving more smears of blood on his face. Jim fed them in slow, alternating bites, forcing both himself and Spock not to rush. The pleasure of it was almost obscene, but when the meager helping was gone the pleasure crashed into dread.

Tears started rolling down Spock’s face—he wasn’t guilty, Jim could feel, just desperate for more. Jim’s own howling hunger surged up to meet Spock’s and they folded in on each other, exhausted. The tremendous effort he had just exerted started catching up with Jim, and he slipped into sleep so quickly he didn’t even remember lying down.

No more animals came. The protein packs were gone. Jim had bought them a few days, but now they were out of time. All they had was the water in the stream and the buzzing connection between their brains. And as magical as the bond felt, it wasn’t enough to keep them alive.

—-

Jim was awoken by a drop of water on his face. He was curled in Spock’s lap, head lead-heavy, and certainly couldn’t be bothered to move for something as insignificant as dripping water. But it kept happening, the irritation just enough to keep Jim from going back to sleep. When some got in his mouth, bringing with it an odd, metallic taste, Jim finally opened his eyes in frustration.

He looked up and saw, hanging over the edge of the little cliff not so far above them, a human arm. Blood was dripping down and off the lifeless hand, straight into his face.

Jim jumped up and away from the wall in revulsion. “Spock!” he whispered, but Spock was already waking, probably stirred by the sudden spike of fear that had reverberated through Jim’s brain into his own.

Spock looked weak and disoriented but followed the shaking finger Jim lifted, looking up and taking in the corpse with a quickening of breath. Jim felt his internal struggle to focus, to find reason through his clouded senses.

“Back against the rock!” Spock hissed when he had regained awareness, dragging himself to his feet and beckoning Jim back. He hesitated, staring up at the blood running red down the cliff face.

“Come!” Spock insisted, grabbing Jim’s arm and pulling him firmly but gently to him. They shuffled to the side slightly, away from the trail of blood.

Spock’s voice was suddenly in Jim’s head, not a soft whisper of “sleep,” but loud, loud words burrowing into him. Someone has found their way to our location and, given the fact that they are dead, have likely been followed. We are safest here where we cannot be seen from above, but we must move. This site is no longer safe.

Jim restrained a whimper at the uncomfortable sensation of Spock’s telepathic voice, echoing around his skull like a bullhorn, but managed to nod.

For a few minutes they huddled in silence against the rough rock, trying to form a plan on the current between their minds, but they were still so clumsy with the bond that they weren’t getting far.

They were interrupted by a low moan that didn't come from either of them, and Jim’s eyes, which had been screwed tight trying to fight the bond into submission, snapped open. He instinctively threw his arm out across Spock’s chest, as if he could protect him with one fragile, emaciated limb.

After a few more moments of breathless silence, they heard the moan again, faint and weak. It was coming from above them.

He’s alive! Jim tried to say through the bond. In their shared telepathic landscape his words sounded choppy and staticky, but they got through. Spock nodded and Jim went on pushing his thoughts in. One of us has to go talk to him. He might know what’s going on, have information.

It is not safe. Spock’s voice was clear but too loud, shaking Jim’s bones like the bass was turned up too high.

“What choice do we have?” Jim hissed, accidently saying it out loud. He switched back to the bond with difficulty. If he knows anything that could help us, it might be our only chance!

Spock stared at him for a moment but finally nodded. Jim nodded back, summoning his courage. I’ll go, you stay.

Jim, I would prefer if you stayed—

No! I’m going. Jim tried to come up with a logical reason why he should go instead of Spock, but they both knew he just didn’t want to put Spock in danger. So he leaned over and kissed Spock on the mouth before turning away.

“Wait,” Spock said out loud, and shimmied out of the letterman jacket. “You need to keep warm for strength,” he said, putting it around Jim’s shoulders and zipping him into it. There wasn’t much actual logic to the offering, and Jim suspected it was nothing more than Spock desperately trying to satisfy his urge to protect Jim by any means necessary. Jim mustered a small smile and nodded, squeezing Spock’s hand before he slipped away into the grain.

He hurried along the cliff face until he came to a slope leading up, scaling it as fast as he could, which was not very fast. But he was aware that the person could die any second, so he forced his hungry-clumsy body forward.

When he finally crested the cliff he fell to his knees and couldn’t get back up again, so he kept going at a crawl until he reached the body.

It was a man, lying on his back and staring glassy-eyed at the trees overhead. The source of the blood was a gunshot low on on his arm, and Jim could see another in his chest that had just missed his heart. It was certainly enough to kill him, but not quickly. Jim could see his chest moving weakly up and down.

Jim staggered to his feet and approached carefully, hands up. The man clearly didn’t have the strength to jump in surprise, but his eyes widened and his breathing picked up.

“Hey,” Jim said, but the man started rasping desperately before he could go on.

“Get out of here! They’re going to find you, you’re going to die, you have to run!”

Jim looked over his shoulder and all around, but they seemed to be alone.

“Who?”

“Kodos’s guards! No one was supposed to escape the massacre, I– I made it out, but they’re coming for me—”

“What massacre?” Jim asked sharply, cold panic running through him.

The man’s eyelashes fluttered, voice slurring. Jim realized he was about to watch a man die right in front of him. “4,000 people… they killed... 4,000 people... We weren’t… pure enough.... good enough… you have to run.”

Jim could only watch in horror as the man’s breathing slowed, voice trailing off. He was so caught up in watching a life slip away and in trying to piece together the scrambled warnings that he was totally unprepared for being snatched suddenly from behind, wrenched hard into the air and over someone’s shoulder.

He kicked and screamed instinctively, but his captor held tight, chuckling. Ringing shocks of alarm were pinging around Jim’s brain, Spock probably having heard the commotion and surmised what was happening. Too distracted and afraid to focus on his underdeveloped telepathic ability, Jim could only project raw screams of CAPTURED RUN DANGER RUN RUN RUN through the throbbing bond.

Jim tried to look around, take stock of where he was, but all he could see was a blur of trees. Then quite suddenly his captor swung him hard into the trunk of one of those trees, head colliding with a gruesome thunk and a rush of Spock’s distress before he blacked out completely.

—-

Jim woke up, nauseated and head pounding, on a cold floor. When he was able to open his eyes and look up, he found himself in a colorless office, lying on his side near a long folding table. Several candles on tall standing votives were scattered around the room for light, necessitated by the heavy drapes covering every window, as if someone was trying to keep the outside world totally separate from this odd little room.

A few men were seated around the table, eating what looked like warm beef stew, steam rising into the dull air. Jim’s stomach clenched; the smell of the food made him sick with hunger. One chair was turned in his direction, its occupant leaning casually over him. As his vision stabilized he took the man in: dark ginger hair, a beard and pointed mustache, a sad expression on his face.

“Hello,” the man said. His voice was soft in a way that somehow managed to be deeply unsettling. “James, isn’t it?”

Jim’s head pounded and swam, each thought frayed at the end and hard to connect to the next. “Y- yeah.”

The man nodded. “It’s very nice to meet you, James. You were lost in the woods but my guards managed to rescue you. I’m so relieved that you’re safe.”

Jim blinked, trying to imagine who this man might be, why he believed Jim had been lost and not that he had run away.

“How are you feeling?” The man asked quietly.

“M’head hurts.”

“Yes, I imagine it does. You fell and took quite a blow.”

No, that wasn’t right. A guard had smashed his head into a tree. He opened his mouth to explain this to the man, but then something snagged in Jim’s sluggish awareness.

His guards? The man had said the guards were his. And then suddenly, realization. The men sitting around the table were guards. The guards who had seized him in the forest, the very guards he and Spock had been so desperately evading.

“You're... you're Governor Kodos.”

The man smiled slightly. “I am, James. You’re safe now. You’re with me.”

Fear clenched Jim’s empty stomach and he was suddenly forced to lurch up on his elbows and retch, but his belly was so empty that nothing came up. He gagged, tears coming to his eyes, clutching his throat with one hand.

“Oh, dear,” Kodos said. “It’s painful to see you ill, James. You must be so hungry. How unfortunate that you were... lost outside the colony.” Jim realized that Kodos knew perfectly well Jim had not been lost at all. “And I understand that you weren’t alone—I believe you were with a Vulcan boy named Spock? Why don’t you tell us where he is so that we can rescue him as well?”

Spock’s name on the governor’s tongue was one of the most terrifying things Jim had ever heard. He retched again, sobbing as the spasms seized and released his body in a punishing rhythm.

“Oh, James, how unpleasant. Would you like some stew?”

Jim desperately wanted to say yes, was truthfully willing to eat whatever horrifying scrap was put in front of him, but even with his brain starved and battered, his instincts were clear.

“I don’t want anything from you,” he rasped.

Kodos’s face creased in gentle confusion. “Why, dear boy? I only want to help you and your friend—I believe you and he were rather… close, if you understand my meaning? I want to make sure he’s safe as well. It’s my job to take care of my colonists, and you must know that I take that responsibility very seriously.”

Jim managed a disgusted laugh. “Take care of us? I know what you did. I know about the massacre.”

All at once, the oily paternalism fell away from Kodos’s face and was replaced with a cold, steely expressionlessness that chilled Jim to his core. But his voice stayed horribly, discordantly gentle.

“That is very unfortunate.”

Kodos stood slowly and lowered himself to floor beside Jim, leaning far too close toward him.

“My dear child, your life is utterly meaningless. You are a starving mongrel like all the others. On your own, you're of no value to me. Disobedient, you are an active liability. Do you know that only a handful of people can claim that they’ve seen my face? But you have. You understand, of course, that if you don't cooperate I can’t let you live.”

Jim’s breathing shallowed and sharpened, his mind too young and broken to process how it felt to be crumpled at the feet of a murderer.

“However,” Kodos said, tilting his head slightly. “I’m a generous man. I’m willing to give you one more chance to... make the cut, if you will. That Vulcan you got your perverted little hands on is the Terran Ambassador’s son, as I’m sure you know. He’ll make quite a bargaining chip when the Federation finally realizes what’s happening here. He's worth more than you, James, and I need him. Much more than you ever will. Tell me where Spock is and we can put all of this behind us. You’ll forget what you know, and you and I can have a fresh start.”

“I’m not telling you anything,” Jim whispered, shaking now with whimpering sobs.

Kodos stared him down with his dark, hollow eyes. “It hurts to be less valuable than him, doesn’t it? He’s a half-breed, a genetic deformity and still, you’re nothing compared to him.”

Jim stayed silent, shaking against the cold floor.

“Where is he, James?”

When Jim didn’t answer, Kodos nodded. “Very well.” He turned to the guards. “Seize him.”

Before Jim could even think to struggle, two huge men were on either side of him, dragging him up by his arms and holding him limp between them. He pulled against their hold but they would have been too strong for him to fight even at his normal weight, let alone this far into starvation.

Kodos was sitting back down at the table, expression almost bored. “Bring the telepath. Once she’s gotten the location of the Vulcan, dispose of the boy.”

Jim’s body went rigid as another guard left the room. Was Kodos going to have a telepath dig around in his mind to find where Spock was hiding? But with a tentative surge of relief, Jim realized that he didn’t even know the answer: Spock had said he was going to move to a safer location.

But then it hit him. The bond. The bond was a direct link back to Spock. If a telepath could access it, they could easily get around Jim’s nearly nonexistent telepathic control and force the details out of Spock himself. Panic started sizzling under his skin, buzzing in his bones.

The guard returned with a tiny Aenar woman. Her face was sunken and scared, and Jim wondered distantly if she had been captured or if she had agreed to help Kodos in exchange for food, or for her life.

The guards pushed him back to the floor and let go, but loomed on either side of him, obviously close enough to grab him if he tried to run. The Aenar woman was shoved down across from him and she shivered as she tried to settle on the protruding bones of her legs.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, and raised a trembling hand to Jim’s face.

Jim was shaking so hard now that his teeth were clattering. He had to do something, had to think, he had no time—

Bonds can be broken.

The memory of Spock telling him this, as well as the horrified fear it had caused him, came rushing in. There was no other choice.

Across the distance between them, Jim pushed roughly into Spock’s mind. He felt Spock’s surprise and discomfort, and then a growing pulse of horrified fear.

Jim tore through the cherished landscape of Spock’s brain. He found every filament that was vibrating with JIM and tangled them all into a grotesque neural bouquet that he shoved into the very heart of their bond, that place in Spock’s head where he felt most at home.

NO Spock’s voice screamed in his mind. NO JIM NO ADUN NO NO NO

But Jim imaged a wall going up around that place in Spock’s mind; he built bricks from his own devotion and mortar from his own blood and he hid himself too deep for Spock to find. He felt something shatter in his own brain, snapping and breaking and it was painful, so much unbearable, unspeakable pain.

Jim gasped for breath, curling in on himself, and the Aenar, who had been just dipping into his mind when the bond broke, started screaming. She screamed and screamed and screamed and Kodos charged her, grabbing her by the arms and yanking her up.

“What is it? Where is he? Stop it!”

But it seemed she couldn’t stop, and as the pain became too much for Jim to take and he started to slip out of consciousness, all he could hear was the raw, ringing song of her screams. His brain wailed in time, a dreadful harmony, but suddenly one last scrap of survival instinct bullied its way to the front of his mind.

The guards were distracted. Everyone was distracted, focused on the hysterical Aenar and Kodos’s shouting.

Although it felt like his entire body was on fire from the telepathic pain, Jim dragged himself up and ran blindly for the door. He heard someone shout behind him and the sound of several people scrambling, and he searched his howling brain for any useful idea. His wobbling vision focused on one of the candle votives and he grabbed it, swinging around to fling it at the guards who were now only feet from him.

They dodged, and Jim took the opportunity of their confusion to grab two more votives and throw them as well. One of them got tangled in the heavy drape covering the nearest window, and it went up in flames much more quickly than Jim would have expected. As the pain in his brain spiraled higher and higher, he seized the burning cloth and ripped it down, throwing it into the path of the guards and blocking their exit. He turned away without a second look, fleeing blindly down a few hallways until one of the doors he desperately shoved finally led outside.

The smell of smoke and the sound of screams followed him as he ran. He had no idea where he was, blind to anything around him and increasingly unaware of anything but the excoriated agony in his brain. All he knew what that he had to get as far away as he could.

He didn’t know how much distance he managed to cover; eventually the pain was simply too much and he fell, sure he was being dragged down into hell. The screams in his ears were quite possibly his own, and they were the last thing he heard before the black took him under completely.