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Leave No Soul Behind

Chapter Text

Stardate 2259 - Year One Post Vulcan-that-was 

On the large, slightly ovoid world of Vega, the morning sun inches over the horizon.  It makes a feeble attempt to burn through the many layers of cloud, but it is too early for its rays to strike the heaving oceans and transform them from steely grey to dappled blue and green.  The sea is high and the weather windy.  White spray leaps from the top of each crest to sting and hiss across the uneven peaks, like sand across a desert and just as painful.

The Vegans have a legend among their kind.  It speaks of beings that live in the ocean.  Unlike the human mermaid mythos, these water angels sing no siren song to call souls into the dark embrace of death.  Far from it.  They are said to flock towards the drowning, providing buoyancy, succour and support.  The Vegans swear that in the water, no one dies alone.

Of course, whilst Commander Spock appreciates the contextual significance of myth, he does not believe in fairy tales.

He treads water, his breath comes harsh in his ears, filled with the echoes of his own skull created by the insulating membrane worn like a wetsuit against his skin.  Above him, the medevac shuttle gains eighty clicks in altitude, hovering above him at a distance of approximately one hundred and two point seven klicks.  It lessens the spray around him to be out of their downdraft and increases visibility to the point where he can see Starfleet officers clinging desperately to the wreckage of their escape pod.

His face is a perfect mask of concentration, but water is not his element.  He is bred for the desert, was born in the desert, became the desert.  Spock is all air and heat and dust.  He has never seen so much water in one place before.  His disciplined mind automatically acknowledges that the press of it around his body is distinctly unsettling, its pull on his limbs almost frightening.  The emotions slide into place like pieces in a puzzle.  They are labelled.  Recognised.  Controlled.  They do not intrude.

He strikes out strongly in the swell, his lean body cutting through the waves just like it did in the training pool.  He raises his face now and takes a breath, but only when even his efficient Vulcan lungs demand it.  Every pause lessens his forward momentum by a measurable degree.  The victims wear only standard issue uniforms.  They are not designed to capture body heat during prolonged periods of immersion.  Based on their projected time of splashdown, he had calculated a forty eight point six percent chance that humans would have already have succumbed to hypothermia by the time EPAS had arrived.

He slaps his hand closed over the ignition point on a flare.  It ignites brightly against the stormy water, hurts his sensitive eyes.  Ahead through the chaotic noise and towering waves he catches a glimpse of a human arm raised in acknowledgement.  This sight elicits another emotional response from him.  Satisfaction, his brain proclaims abstractly.  They are still alive.

Spock slows as he approaches the jagged durasteel edge of their makeshift life raft.  The swell pushes him up, holds him several feet higher than his goal so that he looks down upon them with a bird's eye view.  One of the huddled bodies raises a hand in welcome, five fingers spread in a desperate yet triumphant expression of humanity.  Spock raises his own in return, hardly noticing when his fingers part down the middle, approximating a greeting of similar meaning.  Health and long life, he thinks, then realises he'd been in the water too long and his thought processes are suffering.

"EPAS!" he shouts over the gale as he hauls himself up onto the shifting wreckage.  "What is your number?"

The human who is conscious reaches out and grips his forearm in a mutually-steadying clasp.  "Only three."

Spock reaches out to tag both the speaker and his unconscious companions for beaming.  The transponders blink steadily, signalling their functionality.  It is possible the unconscious crewmembers are actually dead, but such assessment does not fall within his jurisdiction.  Certainly, this one looks very much alive, despite the crimson blood cascading down his young face.

"Did we win?" the human bellows, coughing up seawater as they are broadsided by yet another wave.

"Irrelevant," Spock snaps, working with his phaser to cut the unconscious men free of the jury-rigged lashing.  The binding is a rushed job, but it is surprisingly secure.  Spock finds himself impressed by the human's apparent presence of mind.  He has certainly met enough of his mother's people to realise that such functionality under extreme stress is uncommon.

"Bullshit!" the man shouts.  "Those are my friends up there, fighting and dying!"

Spock raises his head, eyes narrow against the biting spray.  The human, a lowly ensign by the stripes on his cuffs, is facing him with determination, blue eyes flashing with passion even in the low morning light.  It is clear that Spock has overlooked the issue of emotional distress.  His experience with non-Vulcan culture is still limited.  If he was prone to apologies, he might have offered one, instead he merely positions the unconscious two for transportation.

"Hey, EPAS, I asked you a question!" the ensign presses, his grip surprisingly strong on Spock's upper arm.

Spock shoots him a measured glance and decides this man is capable of processing the truth.  Besides, he has neither the stomach or the time for prevarication.   "Federation forces are in full retreat from theLaurentian System," he admits.  "Only EPAS remains."

The human's face contorts in a disturbing mixture of shock and anger.  Spock looks away, focuses on the tasks at hand.  He knows that the main transporter unit will be used for the survivors, taking them directly to the orbiting starship.  He will be beamed to the cramped auxiliary unit in the shuttle.  He crouches.  He has no desire to underestimate his height.

"This is Point Two," Spock articulates clearly, depressing the patch on this collar that holds his sensitive micro-communicator.

The accompanying earpiece crackles and comes to life inside his membrane hood.

One, this is niner niner six, over.

"I have three to beam up, repeat, three to beam up ... energise!"

The stinging spray and heaving ocean disappear in a tingling blur of whirling light and then Spock is back on the shuttle.  The crash of a wave hangs suspended around him for a split second as the field disintegrates, then hits the pad with a wet slap.  Strong hands grip his numb arms, hauling him off his haunches and over to the tinymedbay .  Spock attempts to assist in the removal of his membrane suit but his shaking hands are more of a hindrance than anything else.  He is all at once too heavy.  It is as if his body, long parched from his childhood, has soaked up as much of Vega as it could during its brief exposure.  He is weighed down, crushed by the cold and the wet.  He staggers.

"Quit making my job harder, damn you!" an irascible voice exclaims.  "Blasted suicidal, green-blooded hobgoblin!  Didn't you hear Pike?"  

Spock glances up at the crazy-eyed face that has been thrust demandingly into his field of view.  "M-m-manual extrac-tions are con-con-conducted at the discretion of the s-s-senior officer on the sc-scene, Doctor m-m-McCoy," he manages between chattering teeth.  In truth, he had not realised how dangerously low his body temperature had fallen.

"You moron!" McCoy grouses, giving him a cursory towelling and then stuffing him into a thermal bag.  "You pull something like that again and you can bet your pointy ears that Pike is going to m-m-manually extract something of yours!"

Spock says nothing, simply allows his eyes close.  He is overwhelmed by the combined pleasure and pain in his limbs as his circulation begins to reassert itself.  His ability to control and suppress is inhibited by his physical state.  Not even the sting of McCoy's hypo can rouse him to full awareness.  He feels the pull of gravity as the medevac shuttle's inertial dampeners fail to compensate for their pilot's enthusiastic exit from the scene.  He half-hears McCoy curse under his breath, followed by the heavy tread of boots.

"What are you trying to do, Uhura?" the doctor demands, his voice getting further and further away, "give me a heart attack?  Did you pass your pilot's license or just bat your pretty eyelashes and hope to heaven you'd never actually have to fly one of these things?"  

A shudder rocks the shuttle and Spock's head lolls from side to side with it.  Uhura's tart reply is lost in the static that fills his ears.  He licks his chapped lips and tastes salt, tart like the smell of human blood.  Momentary nausea assails him, but he is already slipping into a healing trance, the wreckage of the starship Enterprise sinking into Vega's wild seas, into the waiting arms of water angels.

In the moment before unconsciousness, Spock's lips twitch in a fleeting smile, but there is no one there to see it.

Chapter Text

James T. Kirk feels like a fish out of water.  Fair enough, it isn't exactly new, but it never loses its edge.  Twelve months prior, he'd made a decision based on gut instinct, grief and a healthy dose of Argellian schnapps.  He isn't about to back out now, even if the slightly run down feel of EPAS headquarters on Luna makes him wince.  It's so far from the gleaming white interior of the Federation's finest, he might as well have signed up on a freighter or a barge.  He wouldn't have had to bust his ass for twenty three weeks to get here, only to find that the sign says Emergen_y Personnel Am__lance Service, because several lights are out.  He knows these guys are badly funded, but for goodness sake!

He approaches the desk and makes a polite noise in the back of his throat.  The receptionist looks up with a paint-by-numbers smile and he holds out his thumb to be scanned.  She rolls it across the pad deftly and glances at her HUD.

"Lieutenant Kirk, please take a seat.  Admiral Pike with be with you shortly."

Jim does as he's told, wrinkling his nose as his dress uniform creases and shifts in uncomfortable ways.  At least that's one thing he can look forward to being rid of.  The EPAS wardrobe consists of simple black slacks, crew neck and overshirt.  The only drawback is the photosensitive siding on the field uniforms, but he can learn to live with glowing in the dark like some kind of nasty freshman disco if it means never having to deal with a collar like this one again.

"Kirk," comes Pike's crisp voice.

Jim shoots to his feet, surprised to see the Admiral has wobbled out on his calipers to usher him inside.  He'd been wondering how, or indeed if, he should tackle the issue of Pike's injuries or gloss over them.  Apparently the man has no intention of hiding it, because he raps one of his canes against the slim metal supports with a jarring clang.

"Darned unphotogenic, aren't they?" he asks, making painful progress around his desk and flopping into a high-backed chair.

"Oh, I wouldn't say that, Admiral," Jim slips effortlessly into his natural charm.  "I bet the chicks go crazy for them."

Pike rolls his eyes and gestures at the other chair.  "Shut your big mouth, Kirk, before my wife hears you."

"That's your wife?" he demands, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at the wall that separates them from Pike's attractive secretary.  "Man, you gotta lend me those sometime."

"I said put a lid on it," Pike snaps, but his eyes are dancing.

"Aye, sir."

Pike shuffles flimsies for a moment, tapping them on the desk until their corners lined up perfectly.  Kirk takes the opportunity to deliberately not fidget while he waits.  Yeah, he sucks at this not fidgeting thing.

"So what they hell are you doing here?  The last I heard from Winona was that you'd been reassigned to the Potemkin after that fracas with the Enterprise," Pike opens, apropos of nothing, letting the plastic sheets fall to his desk with a crisp whisper.

"Uh ..."  Jim fumbles, realizing it isn't the most intelligent thing he can say, but finding himself completely broadsided.  He's known Pike half his life, although that's not quite how it sounds.  It's more that Pike has been in and out of his life just about as much as his mother.   

"Come on Jim, I'm waiting."

"I'm here to be assigned to an EPAS team?"

Pike waves an irritated hand at him.  "Oh, I know all that, son.  But you're a Kirk, you're George's son!" he exclaims.  "You were there at the fall of Vulcan, you crippled the Narada's main weapon, for chrissakes.  Why the hell are you sitting in that chair instead of one of your own on the bridge of a starship, somewhere?  God knows the Admirality busted my balls hard enough when they heard I'd let you into basic."

Ah.  That. 

"It's kind of hard to explain," he begins, some of the bravado leaching away.

"Try me."

"Alright," Kirk forces out past his pained smile.  "Sure, I've been involved in my share of success against Nero and his men ..."

"Vulcan, Leridia, Circus, Vega ..." Pike counts them off on his fingers, "and don't think for a second that I haven't read the mission reports.  You might not have been in the center seat, but those were your tactics, Jim."

"Leridia you might count as a win," Kirk allows, "but we got decimated at Circus and Vega, not to mention the fact that Vulcan disappeared in a black hole, sir."

Pike frowns heavily but apparently decides not to argue.  "The Fleet are doing good work out there."

"...Right."

"Okay then, lay it on me." Pike waves his hand in the universal gesture for 'permission to speak freely is granted.'

"Can't you see that Starfleet are screwing themselves over?  They're floundering about like a pack of morons rather than kicking Nero's ass.  You've got one crazy Romulan acting like a schoolyard bully, beating around the universe with a big stick and what do Fleet do?  They just look for a bigger stick when what they should be doing is turning the tables on him.  They're throwing good ideas after bad and it's the enlisted folk who are bleeding and dying over it.  I'm sick of being stuck between a rock and a stupid place," Kirk finishes up red in the face, then takes a deep breath and adds, "sir."

A sad smile flickers across the Admiral's face and he leans back in his chair. Looking at him across the desk like that, there is no discernible trace of his injuries, nothing to say that he isn't capable of getting up, grabbing Jim by the shirt and giving him a good old shake.  Jim thinks it was quite an accomplishment that the Admiral manages to make him feel like it's happened without moving a muscle.  But then, this is Christopher Pike, after all.   Kirk has grown up on stories of his exploits.  He remembers the days before his accident, can't forget the way he used to turn up on the doorstep and take the spare room, always sporting new bruises and a tired, satisfied smile. 

There's a reason some 'Fleet crewmen call a near death experience 'getting Piked.'  The man had more saves to his name than seemed rational or plausible.

"Sounds to me like you're exactly the kind of young officer Fleet could afford to have a few more of."  Pike hedges, frowning darkly.

"Sir," Kirk tries again, feeling like he's on the cusp of figuring out for himself why he's there. "I don't know what to tell you."

The two men stare at each other intently for a moment, then Pike sighs and purses his lips.  "Well, I don't know what to do with you," he counters.  "Fleet are breathing down my neck, wondering what the heck a fine young officer like you is doing abandoning the command path in a time of war.  You're damned lucky they didn't veto your request for transfer and conscript you."

Jim swallows, wondering if that's even legal.

"It's not that I'm not pleased to have you on board, son, because I am.  Your Academy record, field citations and scores from basic all speak for themselves.  All I need to know is whether you're going to be a liability out there."

"Sir?" Jim is genuinely confused.

Pike leans forward so that his calipers creak and rests his elbows on the desk.  "When the phaser banks are hot and the torpedoes are flying, are you going to be able to focus on the job at hand?  Are you going to be able to let go of the center chair, Lieutenant, or are people going to die because you can't get your head in the game? This game?"

Kirk's eyes narrow and he grips the arms of the chair hard enough that his knuckles turn white.  "I'm done with command," he says tightly.  "I'm done with it."

The tableau holds across the polished expanse of Pike's expensive desk.  It holds just long enough for Jim to feel like a bit of an idiot, then Pike leans back, nodding to himself, his grey eyes serious.  "That's good enough for me.  Report to shuttle bay seven in one hour for your first assignment.  You're going deep space, Romulan neutral zone.  Think you can handle that?"

"Yes sir," Kirk responds smartly, pushing to his feet and standing at attention.

Pike waves at him in mock irritation.  "Go on, get out of here."

Jim's salute is a bit casual as he makes for the door.  Pike's confidence in his ability to adapt now forms the basis for his own feelings on the matter.  Up until now, he hadn't been sure whether or not he could stand being on the edge of the fight against Nero and not having any say, even that of a lowly Lieutenant.  He feels the first hint of certainty coalesce around the seed of Pike's trust.  God knows why, but Chris has always assumed the best of him.  That has the strange capacity to make him better ... better than he ever thinks he can be.

-:-


When he's gone, Pike waves a hand across the intercom. 

"Admiral?" the perky voice of his wife answers immediately.

"Send him in, Jessica."

The inner door swishes open and a tall, black clad figure stalks through.   The overhead lights glint blue on his neat, dark hair as he comes to a stop with both hands tucked into the small of his back.

"Admiral Pike, sir."

"Spock," he acknowledges, trying to dismiss the slight hitch in the Vulcan's gait as a figment of his imagination.  "How are you?"

"I am fully functional, sir, thank you for asking."

"I heard about that thing on Odesyus ... it's hard to lose part of the team, especially like that."

Spock inclines his head.  "It was most unfortunate.  Lieutenant Commander Morrison was a competent and highly respected member of our team.  Her sacrifice will be remembered with honour."

"I heard you were injured that day, too."

"Your information is accurate."

Pike glances at the flimsies on his desk.  "A fractured tibia, collapsed lung, severe decompression and a scalp laceration?"

"I believe you will find that the scalp laceration was acquired on the previous mission, sir."

The admiral shakes his head wearily.  "Of course it was." 

Spock waits patiently while his commanding officer collects his thoughts.  He is, by nature and training, a patient person, so the task is by no means a taxing one.  In addition, he has developed an admiration that borders on a very un-Vulcan affection for his ex-Point Two, and finds that simply standing in Pike's presence is an acceptable use of his time.

"Spock, you're a Vulcan.  There are significantly fewer of you than there used to be.  I trust you'll remember that and try, at least try, to come home every night relatively intact?"

Spock blinks once, the only sign of surprise he'll allow himself.  "I am well aware of the plight of my people, sir.  However, I must remind you that there are approximately one hundred and seventeen Vulcans still serving in active duty within Starfleet ..."

"Approximately, huh?"

"I have not yet had the opportunity to apprise myself of the latest casualty lists, Admiral." 

Pike winces, but Spock continues unaffected. 

"I was merely attempting to illustrate the fact that not only am I far from an exception to the rule, I am, in fact, a prime example of it."

"How do you figure?"

"Were you aware that of the three hundred and seventy two Vulcans enlisted in Starfleet at the time of Nero's attack on our homeworld, one hundred ninety eight were killed and only fifty seven resigned their commissions.  Discounting those deceased, that is a service retention rate of approximately sixty seven point two four percent." 

Spock's face is calm, his stance relaxed. 

"My decision to remain in active service can hardly be viewed as differing from the cultural norm, sir, and there are many Vulcans serving in positions of more immediate danger than I."

Pike still doesn't like it, but he's forced to accede to the truth of it.  The problem is; Spock isn't just another Vulcan to him.  The man had been his Point One throughout the entire continuum-bending debacle with Nero.  Although he couldn't claim him as a friend, there's no denying a bond between them.  Everything Pike has seen of Spock convinces him that if this particular Vulcan were to die, even if it were honorably rescuing someone or other, the Federation would suffer a distinctly unique loss.  Of course, if Pike confronts him with that feeling, Spock will undoubtedly raise an eyebrow and offer up some dry Vulcan tidbit to the effect that favoritism is illogical and unethical. 

Maybe he'd be right.

Still ...

"I know Sally was important to you.  I know that Odesyus was a hell-hole and I'm sorry we had to send you there, but don't think I haven't read Captain Taylor's report.  Don't think I don't know what you did."

There's a sudden tension in the room that only occurs when Spock thinks he's being reprimanded for being emotional.  Under the muted downlights, his cheeks take on the faintest greenish hue.  It's more of a response than Pike has ever got while serving with him, and to be honest, he isn't sure if it worries him or pleases him.  His own humanity is vociferous in its opinion that Spock would be so much better off if only he expressed now and again ... but the seven years of knowing him say otherwise.  Now, standing there so familiarly, Spock lets nothing but his circulation give him away.  His expression indicates no emotion of any kind, and anyway, Pike doesn't know if he'd find shame or pride beneath the facade and he's reluctant to find out.

"I take it you heard most of that, with Kirk?"

Spock shifts minutely from foot to foot, but Pike doesn't miss it.  In his small way, he's grateful for the change of subject.  Whatever happened on Odesyus, it must be even worse than it sounded.

"I am uncomfortable with eavesdropping," Spock admits after a lengthy silence.

"I know, and I'm sorry, but I needed Kirk to be honest with me and you to hear what he said.  Frankly, he was never going to do that with you in the room."

A lone eyebrow quirks.  "Sir?"

"You heard him, Commander, he was there at Vulcan."

"I fail to see the relevance of that fact," Spock observes after only a moment's hesitation.

"You don't think he's going to wonder if you hate him for it?"

Spock considers this for several long moments, his elegant brows furrowed slightly in concentration.  Pike tries to quell a strong upsurge of nostalgia.  Spock was the best Point One he'd ever had - possessed of a singular bravery and capable of rational thought at times when most other Points had either collapsed under the physical strain or emotional trauma.  To say Pike missed working with him was to say he missed being able to walk unaided.

Eventually Spock makes a small motion that, for him, may have been frustration.  "I cannot conceive of any reason why I should harbor animosity towards James Kirk, even if I was capable of such an emotion."

Pike needs more confirmation of the assurances he had already given to the Council about Kirk's deployment.  Kirk's will tempered by Spock's experience seems like a match made in heaven, but they will be doomed to failure if they get off on the wrong foot.  Jim isn't the sort to hold his tongue and Pike knows damn well that Spock's still touchy about Vulcan, even if he won't admit it.  EPAS recruits are few and far between, with most youngsters grasping for the glory and the action they associate with a military deployment.  Those who do sign up are often 'Fleet washouts, ex-medical or these days, refugees with nowhere else to go.  Such people are vital; they keep pilot seats warm and the sickbays staffed.  They navigate the old Stafleet cast-offs and they keep them in the sky long after the Admirality would have decommissioned them.  They're useful people and Pike is glad to have them.

But a recruit like Jim ... they're the special kind.  They're the ones who know where they want to be.  They're the ones who become Points. 

"He was there that day and he didn't save your planet," Pike insists.  He has to know if Jim needs to be assigned to a different Divisional Commander, as much as his gut is telling him Spock is the one.

Spock's mouth makes a little shrug.  "So were a great many other people, you and I included.  It would be illogical to blame any individual person for the destruction of my homeworld."

"Except maybe Nero," Pike says, watching him very closely.

With no outward sign of emotion, Spock inclines his head fractionally in acknowledgment.  "Except maybe Nero."

Pike watches him a moment longer, then extends his hand.  Spock reaches out and taps it lightly, his fingertips to the back of the other man's hand.  It is a sign of their long association that he accedes to even that slight contact.  It is a sign of respect that Pike cherishes.

"Well, congratulations then, Commander," Pike smiles, letting his hand fall.  "You just scored yourself our top recruit."

Spock's face is a polite mask, but his dark eyes hold a twinkle of mischief.  "I shall endeavor to prove myself worthy of the honor."

Chapter Text

Jim uses the hour he has up his sleeve to ditch his Starfleet formals and change into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. He's off duty and he'll be damned if he's going to spend the eight hour warp trip to the neutral zone being strangled and itching all over. Truth be told, his own clothes feel almost unfamiliar after so much time in standard command issue; he'd enlisted before Nero, not in the massive influx that followed the destruction of Vulcan and the carnage erupted when Starfleet lashed out in revenge. It was how he'd come to be on the Enterprise that fateful day, a fresh new face on the flagship's maiden voyage. He'd been so fucking excited that the desolation that followed the planet's distress call absolutely gutted him. He firmly believes that he only managed to execute that space jump because he was too numb to realise how suicidal the whole plan had been.

In the present moment, he shakes his head to clear it of bad memories and shoulders his duffel. The shuttle bay he needs is coming up on his left.

He presents both himself and his orders, both of which are scanned, before he's free to choose a seat and await the shuttle that will take him and the rest of the crowd to the USS Stalwart. It's an older model constitution class starship, now retrofitted with multiple medevac shuttle bays, escape pods and cutting edge medical facilities. It's essentially a hospital, a base of operations and a home away from home for some two hundred and eighty odd Points, Ops, Pilots and Medics. Soon, it'll be two hundred and eighty one. Jim wonders once again what the hell he's doing here.

He takes a seat next to a tall, lean humanoid in EPAS blacks who has his face concealed behind a rather old-fashioned broadsheet newspaper. Not many people read the news like that anymore. It's an eccentricity reserved for those early-colonised planets that can't let go of their roots. Luna is one of the few places where such things are still available, along with coffee in paper cups and those little chestnuts roasted over an actual hot plate and served in a paper bag. If he's honest with himself, he kind of likes them, too. They've got a brittle kind of impermanence to them; an honesty and fragility that is hard to find in this mixed up, plassteel, transparent aluminium society.

Jim falls into his seat, trying to ease the lingering tension left by his conversation with Pike. The old man knows exactly what buttons to push, that's for sure. Not that it's surprising, understanding what he does of Jim's history. Perhaps only his mother and Sam would understand better, but then, Chris has always seen right through his bullshit. No, if Chris thought this whole EPAS thing was going to be another one of Jim's all-round fuck ups, he would have said something, if not to save Jim's neck, then to avoid wasting the time and resources of an already overtaxed public service. The fact he made it through that interview means more than acing basic. It means Chris thinks there's a chance he really belongs here.

There's a first time for everything.

The guy next to him turns the page with a crisp flick of his fingers.

"Anything interesting?" Jim asks out of the blue, not really caring but feeling the need for some contact with another living being.

Newspaper lowers the nearer edge of his reading material. His angular face sports beautifully upswept brows, one quirked in enquiry. "Are you addressing me?"

"Uh, yeah," Jim confirms, widening his smile to cover his shock upon discovering Newspaper is a Vulcan. You just didn't see many Vulcans around these days. The reminder clenches his gut uncomfortably. "Are you done with the sports section?"

There is a split second where Kirk could have sworn the guy looked surprised, but then he's shuffling through the pages and deftly pulling out the requested portion. Jim takes it with a nod of thanks, careful not to brush fingers now that he knows who he's talking to.

"Thanks."

"You are welcome," is the carefully articulated reply.

Desperate to redirect his own attention, Jim frowns at the football ladder and tutts a drug scandal. He hisses through his teeth at a pro ball player who'd not only cheated on his wife, but done it with a Denebian. What the hell was that about? After he makes several other unconscious sounds, he becomes aware of the fact that Newspaper has lowered his own copy and is busy looking at him.

Kirk darts his eyes around the room and back to the Vulcan, as though it's possible he might be staring at someone else. "Help you?"

"Are you experiencing difficulty with the newspaper?"

The question is politely worded and the guy appears genuine, so Kirk stifles his first response which had been to ask him what the fuck he meant by that and pushes himself up with his feet until he's sitting properly.

"A problem?"

"I, myself, have no problem," Newspaper assures him. "But I thank you for your concern."

"No," Jim says, shaking his head, a slight smile pulling at his lips. "I mean, what makes you think I have a problem?"

"Ah," says Newspaper, lowering his copy to his lap. "I could not help but overhear your verbal indicators of dissatisfaction, and wondered if perhaps that section of the newspaper was in some way displeasing."

Jim looks from the Vulcan to the sports section and back to the Vulcan again. "I'm just pissed the Martians shat all over the Bears last night, is all."

Newspaper's eyes widen almost imperceptibly and Jim has the hysterical thought that the guy is trying very hard not to jump to any conclusions. In the end, the Vulcan turns back to his own newspaper with a slightly cautious, "I see."

Jim manages to hold onto his laugher for about three seconds before it breaks free. The noise draws several curious glances from around the room, not the least of which belongs to Newspaper, who's looking about as concerned as a Vulcan can possibly look.

"Oh," he sighs, running a hand through his hair. "Sorry, but I swear for a second there I could hear what you were thinking."

The Vulcan tenses and Jim curses inwardly.

"I mean ... oh shit ... not literally!" he babbles in an undertone. "It's a figure of speech, like before with the Martians and the Bears, and I should probably clear that one up too, because, you know, we can't have folks thinking our sportspeople actually sh ..."

Newspaper cuts him off with a tight wave of his hand and a look that makes the hair on the back of Jim's neck stand on end. "I had not made any assumptions regarding either human customs or your telepathic ability. I apologise if my species' natural aptitude causes you concern."

"Me? I'm not concerned. Fact is, you could take my brain apart in five seconds if you wanted to and there wouldn't be a damn thing I could do about it. I got psi-rated, you know, all Starfleet personnel have to, and I'm about as telepathic as a brick. The thing is, you're a Vulcan, so I trust that you won't ... you know ... fuck with my synapses."

Newspaper just stares at him with absolutely no change of expression.

The people sitting closest are seriously watching them now, Kirk realises. One young man wears a grin on his face that suggests Jim is really making an ass of himself. He gives the room a cocky smile and hopes to hell none of them are serving in his Division, or at the very least, that they are serving in ops or engineering or fucking catering, or something.

The deck under his feet vibrates subtly and the docking lights turn from amber to green. Their little coterie of onlookers begins to scramble for bags and other personal belongings as the computer announces their shuttle ready for boarding.

"Look," Kirk offers, leaning a little towards Newspaper in an attempt to make their conversation more private. "I'm sorry for being a jerk about your telepathy. I have this habit of putting my foot in my mouth."

The Vulcan glances from Kirk's feet to his face with a studious frown. Jim can't restrain a chuckle and shifts in his seat to face the other man. He raiseds one hand and fumbles for a moment before he manages to make a ta'al.

"I'm James Kirk," he says, hoping his Vulcan accent isn't too horrific. "Live long and prosper."

"Spock cha'Sarek," the vulcan replies in standard, his hand gesture both graceful and effortless. "Peace and long life."

Kirk feels his smile freeze into a rictus of something akin to panic. Suddenly he's on Vega and there's biting cold, stinging water, face too numb to feel. Walters and Emaco are tied to the wreckage, but it's not until he hears that voice, sees that hand shoot out of the ocean, that he knows they stand a chance ...

Spock. The dude said his name was Spock. Jim's brain jumps tracks again, shattering him back into the present. There really couldn't be that many Vulcans enlisted in EPAS and he had yet to meet two Vulcans with the same name. Still, there's something inside his whirling, psi-null human brain that forces him to ask the obvious question.

"You wouldn't happen to be a Division Commander by any chance?"

Spock folds his newspaper neatly into thirds and tucks it under his arm. "Indeed I would, Mister Kirk." He takes a moment to look at the human sitting next to him. "I also believe that you are enlisted in my division."

"Well fuck me, what are the odds?" Jim wonders aloud.

Spock freezes halfway out of his seat, then continues the motion as though nothing has happened. Kirk fels his cheeks flush and leaps to intercept the Commander as he takes one step towards the shuttle.

"Jesus, I wasn't propositioning you ... uh, sir," he insists urgently.

His DivCO comes to an abrupt halt in order to avoid bumping into his star recruit.

"Admiral Pike spoke highly of your intellect and character, but he failed to mention your frequent use of profanity and unintelligible colloquialisms," he frowned. "Also, in answer to your question, the odds of you and I carrying out a conversation at this time were approximately eighty six point two in favour, since I had intended to approach you at the first opportunity."

Possessed by a moment's crazed curiosity, Kirk asks one more question. "And the odds of making a fool of myself?"

"Based on our short acquaintance, I would have to say those odds were more favourable still," Spock delivers crushingly. He then neatly sidesteps Kirk and takes his place in the queue for the shuttle.

Jim presses the heels of his hands into his eye sockets hard enough that he sees stars.

"Shit. Shit, shit, shit."


-:-


Kirk has been too wrapped up in his own troubles to take much notice of the other new crew members being shipped aboard the Stalwart. He'd queued behind Commander Spock, which had been an awkward experience consisting of staring at the taller man's shoulder blades as they shuffled forward. Seriously, the man had no business having such perfect posture.

He snaps out of his funk hours later when disembarking begins.

He doesn't have to wait for baggage as his single duffel carries everything he feels he needs in life. There are a couple of changes of casual clothes, a selection of dog-eared, honest-to-god paperback books , a holo or two and a couple of luxuries he doesn't expect to encounter in deep space, like a chocolate bar and a bag of non-replicated apples. The lot is efficiently scanned by security for biohazards and contraband before he's allowed to follow the other travellers into the main corridors of the ship.

He stops short in the doorway, one of the first to get this far. Those behind him just shoulder their way past, one or two shooting him a puzzled look as he simply stands and stared at the busy main thoroughfare. Men and women in EPAS blacks stride confidently along the worn anti-slip surfaces, their flexible boots making less sound than their exclamations and tinkles of laughter. People slap each other on the back, punch each other in the shoulder or walk purposefully past in small groups or singular units, looking focused and important and on the ball. He spots the tabs on their collars and begins to be able to tell them apart. Points joke with Medics and Pilots greet Ops staff like old friends.

Kirk feels a burgeoning warmth inside his chest. There's none of the bitter defeatism he'd endured the last six months in Starfleet, not here on this ship.

"Lieutenant Kirk, James T?" asks a feminine voice by his elbow.

Kirk blinks in surprise and glances down at a slight brunette. "That's me."

"Hannity, Lieutenant, Ops," she clarifies. "If you'd like to follow me?"

"Sure."

He lets her lead the way.

"General orientation begins at eleven hundred hours, but all of the teams have designated one member to help you settle in." She pauses and lookes up at him with quite a lot of pride in her eyes. "I'm your intro, sir. You'll be joining us at medevac shuttle echo delta niner niner six; Nix to her friends."

A strange little thrill runs through him at her words; a frisson of something that he can't quite describe. It feels a bit like fate or destiny, but it could just as easily be the bagel he had for breakfast so he thrusts it firmly out of his mind.

"It's quite an honour, getting Nix, sir," Hannity continues. "If you don't mind me saying, your aptitude scores must have been pretty impressive. Either that or you're the first to find a way to bribe our CO."

Kirk offers her a flirtatious grin and jogs in order to fall into step with her. "Let's just say I know how to make best use of my assets."

"Yeah, right." Hannity rolls her eyes but he can tell she thinks he's funny. "You get our Point Twos to so much as shake your hand and then I might begin to believe you're not just some hot shot scorecard, fresh out of the Academy."

Kirk is gripped by an unpleasant feeling. "So who's my Two, Han? Do you mind if I call you Han?"

She presses the button for the turbolift, then holds the doors open and indicates he should step in first. "My friends call me Annie, so you can call me Mister or Lieutenant," she pauses and looks at him meaningfully.

"Sure thing." He smothers the impulse to call her Han just to see what she'll do about it.

Hannity turns a sunny smile his way, the smattering of freckles across her nose highlighted by the downlighting. "Were the top team in Prime Division, so that means our alpha Point Two is also our DivCO."

"Hang on ... that means Spock is Nix's Point Two?" And yes, Kirk wishes he'd sounded a little less freaked out just then.

"Commander Spock was quite enthusiastic about having you join our crew, Lieutenant." Hannity sounds disapproving.

"He was?"

"Enthusiastic for him, at any rate," she shrugs. "He only reminded us once that your human emotions constitute a liability of significant proportions."

"Oh ... wait, what?" Jim frowns, taking the last few seconds of the turbolift ride to examine Hannity more closely. She's most definitely human, not just humanoid. Then again, she is also stuck in Ops rather than in the medevac with Spock. "You mean to tell me the rest of his crew is Vulcan too?"

"No," she contradicts him lightly, stepping smartly forward as the turbolift disgorges them. "Both the alpha and the beta crews are entirely human except for Commander Spock and Lieutanant Commander T'Loren."

"So, what gives?"

She comes to an abrupt halt in the hallway and turns to face him. "I think we've just served with him so long everyone's forgotten the difference. The Commander has a way of rubbing off on those around him without, you know, becoming corrupted in return." She shakes her head slightly, as though embarrassed by what she's revealed. "It'll take a bit of acclimation to begin with, but we've got the best save-to-loss ratio in the fleet, which makes the adjustment worth it."

Kirk blinks at her, not quite sure he wants to become a Vulcan just yet, thanks.

"Here's your swipe card. It'll only let you access your quarters, general areas and the replicators until your codes get processed." Hannity points at the nearest door, then turns on her heel. "Don't forget orientation at eleven hundred, sir. The Commander hates it when people are late."

Jim stares numbly at the piece of plastic in his hand and wonders where the hell that sense of belonging has gone.

Chapter Text

Approximately one hour later, Jim takes his seat next to one of the other twenty or so new recruits. The young man's blacks look just as pressed and offensively new as his own.

"Jim Kirk," he says with a wide smile that doesn't reach his eyes.

The recruit turns to face him and Jim is struck by the youth and innocence in his face. "Chekov," the boy says proudly, "Pavel Andreivich."

Jim's smile morphs into one of true amusement as the kid's thick Russian accent washes over him. "Chekov, eh? What are you, Ops?" he guesses, craning his neck to peer at the boy's tabs.

"Not exactly, sir" Chekov shakes his curly head. "I'm a pilot primarily, but I am doubling."

"Doubling?"

"Yes, sir," he nods, and there's that grin again. "Our Diwision Commander has asked me to cross-specialise in Ops," he confesses rather proudly, "in nawigation."

Kirk snorts through his nose but recovers quickly. "Navigation, eh?"

"Yes, sir. I graduated top of my class in astrogation, astrophysics and varp propulsion."

"Well, good for you, kid," Jim slaps him on the shoulder, then winces as the kid's skinny frame rocks with the force of it.

Chekov frankly beams under the mild praise and Jim is going to ask him exactly how long it's been since he'd started shaving when the three-toned whistle to attention sings over the comm. Everyone around him sits a little straighter as Commander Spock makes his way to the podium with long, measured strides. Jim tries not to buy into it. He's used to being disappointed by his commanding officers. One year in Starfleet has taught him the virtue of not putting people on a pedestal, especially if they hold your life in their hands. Still, there is something about the fast and all-pervading hush that falls over the new recruits and the numerous representatives from Prime Divisions medevac crews that impresses him despite his self-preserving cynicism. As Spock takes the podium he eyes the crowd, gauging their attentiveness. You could have heard a pin drop.

"Your punctuality is noted," the deep, level voice begins without preamble. "The purpose of this briefing is to provide a brief overview of Prime Division's core structure and standing orders. I anticipate the duration of this phase to be approximately one point five hours, at the conclusion of which, there will be a short recess. Food and beverages will be available from the replicators at this time." He pauses and glances down at his PADD.

Kirk has the feeling the momentary gesture is an act, that Spock has the entire content of his presentation memorised and could have performed it by rote. He has no idea where this certainty comes from.

"At approximately thirteen hundred hours, we will reconvene for a brief summary of our current mission, anticipated crew rotation and specific divisional considerations. Please take the opportunity during lunch to confirm your crew allocation, alpha or beta signifier and provisional roster. The data will be available from all information points within this room." Spock's eyes roam over the crowd. "Questions and comments are welcome, however, I would ask you to withhold enquiries of an individual nature until the conclusion of the day, at which point your Section Chiefs, the other Divisional Commanders and myself will be available for consultation. Does anyone require clarification?"

A single hand is raised and Spock zeroes in on it immediately.

"Ensign?" he acknowledges.

"Commander, is there any truth to the rumour that EPAS is about to be restructured?" the youngster calls out clearly. "If we become part of Starfleet, how will that affect our current operational treaties with both the Klingons and the Romulans?"

A murmur goes up around the room and Jim finally sits straight in his seat. He wants to catch a glimpse of the brave soul who's raising an issue like that in a public forum, and on his first day, too.

Spock lifts a hand and immediate hush descends again. "Your question is intriguing, however such discussions fall outside the purview of this briefing. No doubt most of you are aware of the circulating rumours, despite my ongoing efforts to discourage them. Until definitive information is available on the subject, it would be illogical to speculate on the potential repercussions of an administrative restructure. I would advise you to outline your concerns and submit them to your superior officer through established channels."

The ensign's face falls and he seems dissatisfied, but appears to weigh the pros and cons of further debate with their DivCo in front of a total audience of approximately eighty persons, and decides against it. Jim hasn't heard the rumours and resolves to fill himself in at the earliest opportunity, despite the Commander's opinion of scuttlebutt. In his experience, rumours have a nasty habit of coming true, especially when you don't want them to. He can think of nothing worse than an EPAS governed by the Admirality. Shit, they're half the reason he left Starfleet.

"If there are no further questions?" Spock looks around the room, clearly unshaken by the first, rather controversial one.

Nobody so much as breathes.

"Very well. As you are undoubtably all aware, the Emergency Personnel Ambulance Service, or EPAS, was founded at the turn of the century by a cohort of retired Starfleet captains. Initially a simple charitable organisation and not-for-profit 'humanitarian' group," he pauses and Kirk might have detected a slight expression of irritation at the terminology, then again he might have been imagining it, "EPAS became an official branch of the Federation of Sentient Planets' Auxillliary Corps on stardate twenty one sixty one. Since then, it has operated as a a semi-independent branch of Starfleet, governed by civilian interests rather than those of the military."

Spock does not look at the Ensign. Rather pointedly, Kirk thinks. Is this history lesson always part of the intended orientation briefing? It's possible. Certainly, the Commander remembers to look down at his PADD as though checking his notes, but the gesture doesn't exactly exude authenticity.

"I have chosen to belabour a fact with which you are doubtless already familiar for the express purpose of reinforcing our chain of command. Within the USS Stalwart, standard Starfleet hierarchy applies, with crew members reporting upwards within their unit, thence to their Section Chiefs, Divisional Commanders and finally to the ship's Captain. However, unlike Starfleet, Captain Taylor reports directly to the Minister for Health on the Federation Council, not to the Admirality. This structure ensures us independence of action and a degree of self-determination the like of which is unprecedented within primarily military organisations such as Starfleet itself. Some would argue that this is the basis upon which EPAS has been able to forge lasting treaties with antagonistic forces, whilst Starfleet has not. Such treaties permit us to operate within the neutral zones, combat areas and front line deployments with minimal risk of being identified as viable military targets. Such freedom of movement is essential to the accomplishment of our standing orders."

Kirk feels a slow smile taking hold of his face as Spock turns to less general matters and hones in on the specifics of their deployment in the Romulan Neutral Zone. The Commander might have discouraged unofficial rumour mongering, but he'd quite clearly expressed his opinion of their potential militarisation. Glancing around the room, Jim sees several other poorly concealed smiles and some openly admiring expressions. Yeah, he thinks, Spock might speak like a Vulcan, but he understands the human psyche well enough. There are few humans and no Vulcans he'd ever met who could have managed something that subtle and still been direct. Jim has a feeling he can learn a lot from his new CO.

-:-

Jim has double-checked his assignment and signifier, unwilling to risk humiliating himself if Hannity has given him incorrect information. It's there on the cortex - Kirk, J.T. Point (1st grade), Medevac Shuttle ED996, designation Beta. During the remainder of the briefing, he's felt his initial trepidation at serving under Spock's command slowly dissolve into one of guarded curiosity. Although by no means an expressive speaker, Spock has managed to hold the crowd's interest with almost superhuman ease. The only time Jim felt his attention wandering had been when Spock yielded the floor to his contemporaries, taking a seat in the front row, his back ramrod straight and hands clasped neatly in his lap.

Now that the general briefing is over, they've been ordered to report to separate training rooms on a crew by crew basis. The Nix crews are designated aft rec room four. Jim makes his way through the ship carefully, not wanting to be the first new recruit to arrive, but remembering Hannity's warning that Spock disapproves of tardiness. In the end, he nearly is late, simply because the ship is unfamiliar. He pauses to let the doors swish open and is greatly relieved to find only eight of Nix's ten crew present.

Hannity is standing next to the Commander, a glass of water cradled in one hand. She spares him a wink as the last two crew sneak in the door a full two minutes prior to the scheduled commencement time. He mimes wiping the sweat from his brow, which makes her smile at him but earns him a curious look from Spock. Jim escapes the Commander's raised eyebrow by pretending he doesn't see it.

"If everyone is assembled then I suggest we commence." Spock places his untouched glass of water onto a nearby table, the movement so precise that the liquid hardly ripples. "Our transit time to the Eridani Sector is approximately thirteen days, nine hours. During this time, we are presented with the unique opportunity of having both alpha and beta crews available for training simultaneously. Once deployed, beta shift will acclimate themselves to working during ship's night and alpha will maintain their current hours of duty." He pauses, dark eyes flicking between Kirk and Chekov, both newcomers, as if to say, I trust this arrangement is satisfactory?

Neither says anything and Spock moves on. "Simultaneous training offers us a unique opportunity to form interpersonal understandings and technical skills that will enable us to function more cohesively as a field unit. Any and all conclusions you may reach about each other over this period should not be underestimated. Whilst rare, there are instances where crew members have to serve double shifts within their complementary unit. The circumstance of cross-rotational shift work is less disruptive if a pre-existing reciprocally functional relationship exists."

Kirk wonders why he can't just say, it helps to get to know one another.

"To further this endeavour," Spock continues, oblivious to Jim's inner critique, "I now invite each of you to step forward and introduce yourselves." His eyes settle on the only other Vulcan in the room. "T'Loren?"

With a slight inclination of her head, the diminutive woman stands and surveys their loose semi-circle with equanimity. "Live long and prosper," she begins, raising one delicate hand and letting it fall again. "I am called T'Loren. I was born on Vulcan-that-was in the province of Raal which abutted the Voroth Sea. Before enlisting in EPAS I considered further study in diplomacy and xenolinguistics. I hold the rank of Lieutenant Commander and have served as Point Two on beta shift for nine months, two weeks, six days and four point nine hours."

Spock steps forward, pre-empting T'Loren's movement to regain her seat. "Lieutenant Commander, you may recall that humans customarily exchange details of a more personal nature when participating in such introductions," he encourages, his tone skirting the edge of apologetic.

T'Loren blinks, her dark eyes fixed on Spock's. "I have an interest in nineteenth century Terran poetry," she adds in a monotone. "I do not care for caffeinated beverages. I find the ambient temperature of the ship to be approximately eight point six degrees below comfortable." She raises an eyebrow. "Is this satisfactory?"

There is no challenge in her tone, only a question.

Spock nods. "Affirmative."

T'Loren sits.

A short man, whipcord lean and with a slightly manic look about him goes next. He clears his throat somewhat self-consciously. "I'm Leonard McCoy and I'm human," he stops to roll his eyes, "obviously ... I'm from just outside Mississippi to be precise." He shifts from foot to foot and Jim starts to pity him a little.

"I'm a doctor," he adds gruffly, "majored in surgery, xeonbiology and psychology. I served ten years in Starfleet after I graduated, before ending up here with you fine people. I have a daughter, Joanna, back home." He smiles, a quick lopsided tug of the lips. "She's just started Junior High and is planning to become a doctor, just like her daddy."

Once again, Spock is forced to intercede as McCoy moves to sit down again. "Some personal information, doctor?"

McCoy scowls mightily. "My likes and dislikes, you mean? Why Spock, after all this time, you want to be friends?"

Jim catches his breath, his eyes glued to the Commander's face. McCoy's tone is amused, but not exactly subordinate.

"Such exchange is customary, is it not?"

McCoy stares Spock down, that selfsame smirk on his lips. "My favourite colour is blue. I'll drink anything from moonshine to Andorian ale, but I prefer Saurian brandy. I think transporters are a damn fool way to get around, but mostly," his bushy eyebrows take on a life of their own, "mostly, I'm curious to hear what scintillating personal titbits you're gonna share with us." He shrugs. "Three years serving on Nix with you and I don't even know how you take your coffee."

The room is tight with tension and silence.

"I do not drink coffee," Spock says after a beat, as though it were common knowledge.

"Oh, no you don't!" the doctor chuckles, when Spock turns to Chekov. "You're not getting out of this that easily! Come on, it's your turn, let's hear what you like to have for breakfast, or how much shellack it takes to maintain that indestructible hairdo of yours!"

Everyone freezes, drinks halfway to their lips, eyes darting to one another as if to confirm that, yes, McCoy really has just sassed their DivCO. Several of the more established crew purse their lips in either disappointment or irritation, Jim can't tell. Based on that he deduces that this show of disrespect is nothing new. Along with everyone else, Jim watches Spock. The next move is his.

"Come on, Spock!" McCoy coaxes, his voice laced with amusement and a little condescension. "You started this love-in, show us what you've got!"

Rather than put his doctor on report, publicly berate him or react in any of the other ways Jim has anticipated, Spock simply stands, hands clasped behind his back, calm and collected.

"I was born on Vulcan-that-was in a small city on the outskirts of Shi'Kahr. My father is the Vulcan ambassador to Earth and my mother was a human woman," he pauses, "a teacher. She perished during Nero's attack on our homeworld."

Several crew murmur in sympathy and Spock's eyes flick to the left and right, then settle back on McCoy.

"I attended the Shi'Kahr Academy and studied science, specialising in xenobiology, physics, medicine, mathematics and xenoecology. Upon graduation, I was offered a place at the Vulcan Science Academy, which I turned down in favour of joining EPAS. I served under Admiral Pike as his Point One on the USS Stalwart until such time as his injuries precluded ongoing command. I then accepted the vacant posting as Divisional Commander at his recommendation."

His eyes narrow on McCoy, their darkness suddenly hard, and yet ... is that humour in the mix? Jim leans forward in his chair unconsciously.

"For recreation, I play the Vulcan lyre and practice meditation," Spock adds, his tone conversational. "When it is available, I prefer to eat gespar for breakfast," his eyes drill into McCoy, "and I utilise no adhesive compounds for the purposes of styling my hair."

The tension catches and holds for a moment, then, to Jim's surprise, McCoy bursts out laughing. "All right, all right, you green-blooded bastard," he chuckles. "Full points to you for calling my bluff. Perhaps you can play us a song on that lyre of yours when we're done here."

Spock's eyebrows twitch. "Unlikely." He turns and gestures to Chekov.

The young Russian is frozen in his chair, thoroughly intimidated by the showdown he's just witnessed, however friendly it may have been. His eyes are wide under his mop of curls and Jim has the feeling the kid probably couldn't even remember his own name right now, let alone deliver an abridged biography of Chekov, Pavel Andreievich.

With an upswell of protectiveness he didn't know he had in him, Jim stands up.

"My name's James T. Kirk. I was born in space, but raised in Iowa and I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there, not that it's a bad place, it's just a little too ... little for me." He stops, waiting for and receiving a nod from Spock that allows Chekov time to regroup.

"My father was in Starfleet. He was captain of the Kelvin for about twelve minutes before Nero put an end to that. My mother served too, so you could say this life is kind of in my blood." He licks his lips and steers himself onto safer territory. "I gave regular service a shot. I was there at the Battle of Vulcan and I did my part," his eyes flick between Spock and T'Loren in silent apology. "It wasn't enough."

Jim is suddenly at a loss for words. His throat is dry. What could he possibly say to follow a memory like that? His hands clench at his sides and he bites down firmly on the inside of his cheek. Is he supposed to tell them that was the day he'd lost the faith? Realised that the reason his father died was nothing more than a fucked up twist of fate destined to be repeated ad infinitum throughout the universe? That one raving despot has decided that life is cheap and revenge is everything, which gives the universe a license to go utterly batshit insane? Look at the Klingons now, or the chaos amongst the unfederated planets. He shakes his head slightly, trying to clear it. It's not news; it's not even his news. The Romulan conflict shouldn't feel so personal, Jim knows that, he really does.

"Your pass-times, Lieutenant?" Spock prompts him quietly.

Jim looks up. Those alien eyes, so recently fathomless and cold, are trained on him now, and Jim sees something entirely different in their depths. Compassion? Understanding, maybe? He looks around the room, but nobody else, not even T'Loren appears to have noticed that spark of emotionality so quickly shuttered. Spock's words, that look, it's permission of sorts; a subtle acknowledgement and reassurance. Speak of whatever you will, it can not trivialise our loss.

"Back home we had a farm and used to breed quarter horses." Jim musters a smile. "I played football in high school but mostly I just tinker with cars and motorbikes when I've got some downtime, not that there's much of that these days."

His wryness is not lost on the rest of the crew and they smile or snort as one, lightening the mood further.

Spock inclines his head, hiding his expression but acknowledging something at the same time. Those eyes might be fixed on the floor, but Jim has the overwhelming certainty that his keen, pointed ears are noting every word. It should make him feel like he's on trial; like this is yet another aptitude assessment, but it doesn't.

"That's all there is, really," he apologises, unable to look away from Spock. "Just your average son of a bitch trying to make a difference, I suppose."

If there is something more in that, something else between the lines, the Commander seems to be giving every impression of not having noticed.

-:-

Late that night, Jim lies awake in his bunk with flimsies and PADDs scattered across the covers. He rolls onto his side, pulling a face when the hard corner of some part of his reading jabs him in the flank. He settles with one arm folded under his head, disdaining the pillow. The room is quiet except for his deep sigh.

His mind wanders back through the briefings and strategy 'freshers. He plays back the Beta crew meeting and tries not to think of T'Loren's measuring stare. Shit, he knows there's a reason he and Pavel are there. They don't just create new positions in EPAS, there's got to be a vacancy, and that only happens when someone's promoted or someone dies.

Lt. Commander Sally Morrison.

Jim rolls the name across his tongue, whispering it into the still half-light of his cabin.

She's the reason he's now part of Nix's crew. God only knew who Pavel was replacing. Morrison had died some time ago; nearly four months by Jim's rough estimate, but hadn't been replaced until now. He wonders if Alpha and Beta took turns doing double shifts, or if they pulled extra crew from the floating pool. Somehow, Jim can't picture them letting just anyone fill her shoes. He'd put money on the fact that the Vulcans pulled the doubles; they needed less sleep after all.

Uncomfortable again, he rolls onto his back, an arm flung over his head, sheltering himself in the angle of one elbow. He needs a good night's sleep and curses the irony of the blissful one he'd had the night before, when it didn't matter so much. He'd completed basic with flying colours. He knew his shit, remembered his protocols and understood his role as a Point One. That didn't mean that the training schedule Spock and T'Loren had issued them was going to be easy.

Without having to look, he scrabbles around with his fingertips and holds the flimsy up to scan it once again. Three days of solid EVA training starting tomorrow, Wednesday. That would take them right through to Friday when they were scheduled to arrive at the very edge of the Romulan Neutral Zone. He guesses that makes sense. You don't want to be caught with your pants down and your personnel scattered against the stars when a call comes in to evac somewhere or other. All the systems training could be done in shifts once they arrived at their destination; all that stuff was ship internal.

Three days of EVA training.

Three days.

Angry with himself, Jim scrubs at his eyes and resolutely sweeps the paperwork onto the floor.

He needs to sleep.

"Computer, lights to zero. Open communications channel, program selection Iowa State News Cast, retrospective stardate twenty four hours, volume ten percent."

- Acknowledged -

There is a moment's pause as the signal is triangulated this far out from Earth. Then the familiar drawl of a midwest accent filters into the room. Jim stares up into the darkness and waits.

... A politically shaken Federation Council promised Sunday a sharper focus on jobs and the economy for Iowa, but key advisers were less sure-footed on health care reform. They took a wait-and-see approach as the dust settles from the punishing losses suffered at the hands of Nero and his splinter group of terrorist Romulan extremists. Latest poll numbers show a significant drop in confidence for the President, primarily because of the slow economic recovery and double-digit unemployment ...

Chapter Text

Jim doesn't expect EPAS field training to be easy. After all, he's graduated respectably from Star Fleet Academy, so he feels like he knows how to take his licks with the rest of them. He just hadn't bargained on having a Vulcan as his Point Two.

It's Friday, about oh four hundred hours, and Lieutenant Commander T'Loren turns to him for probably the twentieth time and calmly states, "inadequate, Lieutenant Kirk."

Jim's fingers flex on the webbing of his harness as he does his level best not to tear it from his body and beat her senseless with it. He can see Chapel eying him with some concern from her little fold-away seat in the shuttle's tiny medbay. He likes Chapel. Not only is she a gorgeous strawberry blonde with legs that go all the way, he's got to know her a little over the last two days and she's a genuinely nice person. They're few and far between in his opinion. He doesn't want to freak her out, so he takes a deep breath and tries to ignore the way his eyes are burning-out tired in his head.

It's the final day of field exercises and his body is far from accustomed to Beta shift. He's trying to sleep during ship's 'day' but his circadian rhythms have other ideas. He's tried to combat insomnia with the night-time gloom he's programmed into his quarters during the day, but it simply leaves him with the feeling that he's living his life in a darkened limbo. He'd joked to Pavel at breakfast that he was on the edge of killing himself because of the never-ending darkness and had then had to spend the entire break trying to convince the kid he was joking.

Across the double forcefields separating them, T'Loren is still staring at him, awaiting some acknowledgement of her criticism.

"Please clarify, sir," he grates out, knowing that pointless verbosity is lost on Vulcans, this one in particular.

"Your response time in zero-g remains outside the minimum safe operational parameters." T'Loren inclines her expressionless face. "Were this an actual mission, there is a twenty six percent chance your delay would have resulted in a less that optimum save-to-loss ratio."

"Twenty six percent?" he echoes. "Isn't that a twelve percent improvement on yesterday?"

T'Loren blinks at him from across the body of the shuttle, her impossibly lean form strapped into a Point harness just as he is. "Indeed. Perhaps you feel the need for recognition?"

This leaves Jim with the uncomfortable sensation that he has, in fact, been fishing for compliments. He frowns and shakes his head in denial, blinks to clear the sweat from his eyes and motions to Chekov that he is ready to recommence the simulation. "One more time, Lieutenant Commander?"

"Are you not excessively fatigued?" she inquires.

Jim rolls his shoulders as if that might alleviate some of the crushing tiredness that's been eating him. "I can take it."

"Very well."

Chekov flips the switch and of course, there's no immediate sign that the whole thing is about to go to shit.

The exercise involves grappling with unconscious bodies from the shuttle's runner harnesses whilst in an EVA suit. T'Loren's job as their Point Two is to co-ordinate the rescue mission and priortize targets. Chekov has the dubious honor of attempting to maneuver Nix into a perfect pick-up trajectory. All Jim has to do is catch the dummy victims as they float past in zero-g, and then Chapel can pretend to triage them. It sounds simple, but in reality, it's far from it.

The Stalwart has stopped off en-route for medical supplies and many of the other shuttle's crews have also taken the opportunity for some extra zero-g practice. In the cold expanse of space, Kirk can see the glint of several other Beta crews attempting various other training exercises. One of them involves an asteroid field, and yeah, he's not looking forward to rotating into that one.

The dummy victims look revoltingly real, right down to the one or two that have busted faceplates. On those ones, the blank, waxy expressions of the mannequins are all too accurate. Every one of them is man-sized and man-heavy and spiraling through space in crazy patterns from a central mock explosion site.

The grid around their operation is littered with short-lived debris, the kind that will degrade in UV light once their location edges out from behind the obscuring planet. Right now, they tinkle against Nix's hull and patter against Jim's EPAS-thin EVA suit. Some pieces are finer than grains of sand. Others hit him like baseballs if he isn't quick enough to dodge out of the way. Although he knows every piece is baby-bottom smooth, deliberately manufactured that way for safety's sake, it doesn't lessen the tightening in his gut every time a significant piece hits him.

If this were real, he'd be decompressed by now. Outside of a simulation, even something the size of an ice cube has the potential to pass through his suit, through his body, and out the other side if it has enough mass and velocity. When another chunk glances off his shoulder, he grits his teeth and tries not to think about how T'Loren is probably counting them and subtracting them from his overall efficiency rating.

The first dummy he catches easily, leaning confidently into his harness and using the grappling sling to slow its passage and haul it on board. Chapel has activated her mag boots and expertly manipulates the 'patient' inside the forcefield. They have atmosphere in the shuttle, but it doesn't make sense to use artificial gravity - Chapel would need a team of three just to get anyone from the door to the biobed in normal-g.

The second dummy gives Jim a little more trouble. It's spinning in a strange, elliptical arc, articulated limbs akimbo. He doesn't have a clear shot with the sling. The faceplate on this one's intact and he has a gut feeling Chapel will find it's marked with a green dot on its sternum. Alive, unless Jim fumbles the save.

As expected, the sling doesn't go on correctly, looping instead around the dummy's neck and shoulder.

"Going hands-on," he warns T'Loren, who snaps a quick acknowledgment, her eyes on the bioscanner and her helmet HUD as well as the physical space around them.

Jim quickly but thoroughly runs through the checklist, then disengages from the runner and pushes off into space. He times it well, and collides gently with the dummy at a distance of about point zero one clicks, his lifeline playing out behind him, problem free. Using his thighs to anchor himself, he adjusts the grappling sling and activates the automatic recall. It's only when T'Loren's urgent command to 'hold' cracks across the comm that he realizes he hasn't checked his return trajectory.

Off the bow, approaching at what seems like impossible speed, a third dummy, this one clearly mangled and 'lifeless,' is hurtling towards him. Quick thinking saves him the worst of the impact as he uses his maneuvering jets and lets the dummy in the sling absorb the blow from its fellow. Still, it's enough to knock the breath out of him and make him see stars. The comm goes crazy then. Bursts of static and distorted shouts fill his ears. Some of them are Chapel, others distinctly T'Loren, all of it interspersed with Russian curses. His lifeline hits the end of its tether and the harness cuts deep into his armpits and groin. Bile rises in his throat as he springs back on the recoil. He can't quite stifle the gasp of discomfort as it knocks the breath out of him. Comm chatter intensifies and he wants to tell them all that he's okay, that they can calm down, but then the backs of his legs hit the shuttle runner and he's punching through the cabin's forcefield, bringing the vacuum of space in his wake.

Not designed to hold up under such an influx of mass, the forcefield stutters and shorts, sending blue sparks into the oxygen-rich air and igniting the mix. Kirk ricochets off the bulkhead that separates the pilot from the cabin and then blows out the other side in a fireball, taking the dummy with him. He has a fleeting glimpse of Chapel clinging desperately to a hand-hold, the automatically deployed oxygen masks flapping in the gust of lost atmosphere as she reaches for one with desperate fingers. The whites of her eyes are scarlet with burst capillaries. He has a second to think at least the fire's out ...

Then there's nothing.

-:-

"... damn fool training exercise."

Clunk.

"There's enough danger in space without manufacturing more of it, if you ask me."

Hiss. Sting.

"Asking for trouble with their asinine simulations."

Whir.

"And doesn't anyone else think that seven hours in a harness is a little excessive? And yes, I'm talking to you, son, because I know you're awake."

Jim pulls a deeper breath into his lungs and forces his heavy eyelids open, then immediately wishes he hadn't. "What the ..."

Backlit by the sterile white of the Stalwart's main sickbay, the irascible face of Nix's Alpha crew doctor glares down at him with bushy eyebrows drawn together and lips pursed in disapproval.

"Don't ask me, kid," McCoy drawls. "You're lucky to be alive after the stunt you pulled."

"Wasn't a stunt," Jim feels compelled to say. "Was an accident."

"Accident my ass!" the doctor grouses, subjecting Jim to another hypo in the neck and handing him a vomit bag. "There, that should clear your head. I've had enough puking in my sickbay to last me a lifetime."

Jim musters an offended expression. "Wasn't going to."

McCoy rolls his eyes. "I've been around long enough to know that face when I see it, but whatever keeps your mammoth ego intact."

"Hey," Jim croaks, even as the nausea and disorientation begin to clear.

"That's hey sir or hey doctor, you ungrateful whelp," he grumbles, using the bed controls to lift Jim into a more upright position. "Not that you care, but I've fixed both your broken legs, two fractured ribs, a punctured lung and a subdural haematoma." He raises a single eyebrow and somehow frowns with the other. "And all I get for thanks is your smart mouth!"

Jim glances down at his legs and raises a hand to his head. He feels the tingle of fresh tissue and bone regeneration to back up McCoy's claims and flushes. "How bad was it?"

"Bad."

Jim's eyes suddenly widen in panic. "Chapel? The others were suited, but she ..."

"Mild case of decompression, but that's nothing to write home about," the doctor interrupts gruffly. "Happens every other day of the week in this line of work."

Jim breathes a sigh of relief and wriggles gingerly in an attempt to sit up straighter. "So ..." he eyes the doctor warily, "am I fired or what?"

McCoy looks heavenward as though praying for strength. "Of all the stupid ... no you're not fired!" he barks, "and it truly boggles the mind that you, of all people, with your impressive brain and even more impressive test scores, would think so! Christ almighty!" He slaps his hand against his brow and hides behind it as though the stupidity of the world at large has finally got too much for him.

"Hang on," Jim frowns, feeling a little put upon. "I caused the accident. There are bound to be consequences."

McCoy emerges from behind his hand. "Caused it, did you?" he asks, "well of course you did! Silly me! Here was I thinking it might have had something to do with your green-blooded, stuck-up, perfectionist paragon of commanding officer pushing you too hard!"

"Lieutenant Commander T'Loren ..."

"Kept the whole of Beta suited up and in the field far longer than any other rotation," the doctor interrupts, yet again. "I also have it on good authority that she was particularly hard on you, Kirk."

Jim grits his teeth. The trend of this conversation has drifted onto dangerous ground and he's not quite sure what to make of it. It's not in his nature to bemoan the high standards of the service. He's more the laugh-and-flip-it-off-as-you-excel type of guy. It's true, he takes a perverse joy in beating every test Starfleet ever put in front of him. It might have something to do with the fact that nobody in his life every thought he'd measure up. It's just the way he's built, the way he's programmed. T'Loren is as tough as they come, but that only makes him more determined.

"Aw hell," McCoy sighs, staring at him with one hand on his hip. "Go on, get out of my sick bay, I know that look, too."

"I haven't got a look," Kirk scowls.

"Sure you don't." He wipes a hand down his suddenly tired face. "They get younger every year."

Jim levers himself carefully upright and lets his legs dangle over the edge. They throb rather excruciatingly but he swallows down his curse and slides his bare feet onto the cold floor, letting them take his weight a bit at a time. "What's that ... supposed ... to mean?" he gasps, unable to hide his pain.

"You," says McCoy, indicating his begowned, bedraggled and wobbly patient with sweeping gesture of his hypo, "are too smart to know when you're being stupid."

"Gee, thanks," Jim grins, somewhat spoiling the effect by having to reach out and steady himself as he almost topples over.

McCoy shoves a bottle of pills at him and manages to hypo him in the neck again as he does so.

"Ow!"

"Don't be such a baby!" the doctor snaps. "Now, it's light duties for seventy-two hours and I do mean light. Your shuttle's still under repair, so that rules out any more EVA time, but I expect you to show some common sense and stay out of the gym, rec room and anywhere else you can undo all my hard work, is that clear?"

"Crystal." Jim rubs at the last hypo location gingerly.

"Oh, and our illustrious Divisional Commander wants to see you, too," McCoy adds, almost as an afterthought. Then his eyes flick up and down and the bastard has the gall to smile. "If I were you, I'd change first."

The last shot has Jim feeling almost his usual self, so he musters up his best flirtatious smile and manages to approximate his usual swagger as he crosses the room to the uniform dispenser, gracing McCoy with an unabashed and uncensored view of his bare ass. "I don't know, doctor," he pulls a pair of blacks into his arms. "Wouldn't be the first time using all my natural talent got me out of a tight spot."

The doctor's sharp bark of laughter brings several nurses to an abrupt halt around the sickbay. "Now, that I can believe!"

Jim undoes the gown and pulls a shirt over his head. "Think it works on Vulcans?"

McCoy gives him a strange look, then raises his hand in imaginary toast. "Reckon you'd be the one to find out."

Now fully dressed, Jim carefully exits the sickbay with a smile on his face. McCoy can bluster all he wants, Jim thinks he knows what it's intended to achieve. His head is actually pretty clear of the guilt that had hit him along with his return to consciousness. Chekov is fun and Chapel is a sweetheart, but he has a feeling that it's Leonard McCoy who'll end up being a friend on this deployment. Jim's grin spills wider and he hides it from passing crew by ducking his head. Should be pretty interesting, chipping away at that crusty exterior.


-:-


Spock only has to devote a small portion of his concentration to the routine ship's reports. A human might count that as an advantage, but in this particular instance, it leaves far too much of him free to consider other matters. He has already assimilated several voice articles on subjects ranging from xenobiology to warp physics. He has taken a mental inventory of outstanding field promotions. Finally, he has considered and rejected several methods for dealing with the recent incident involving ED996's Beta crew.

It is this last issue to which his thoughts keep returning.

James Kirk has been a member of his division for less than a week, and already there are reports to file. He had approved Kirk's posting to his own crew rotation for both logical and illogical reasons. With Lieutenant Morrison vacating the Two position in Beta crew, there was an opening that needed to be filled. This was only logical. To fill the gap remaining after promotions with a Lieutenant possessing no EPAS experience, only basic training and a string of juvenile misdemeanors to his name, this was a personal favor to Christopher Pike - a man who had saved Spock's life more than once, so perhaps yielding to that request held an inherent logic not at first apparent.

Certainly, Kirk would not have been his first choice for the position of One on Beta crew. There were many promising contenders amongst the Stalwart's floating pool, most of whom had credible experience and a demonstrable track record of following orders and keeping themselves and their charges from harm, whenever possible.

Kirk's posting to the Enterprise had lasted less than forty-eight hours and had culminated with him in the brig for insubordination and then subsequently stranded on Vega when the ship went down. There was even the potential that had he not requested a transfer to EPAS, he would have found himself desk-bound or dishonorably discharged. Considering the fact that Starfleet was currently engaged in a war with the Romulans, their willingness to lose Kirk spoke volumes for their opinion of him. And yet, Pike made no secret of his partisanship.

Alone in his quarters, Spock indulges himself in a frown.

Most perplexing.

The door chime sounds.

"Enter."

The plassteel swishes aside to reveal Kirk standing awkwardly in the corridor. "You wanted to see me, sir?"

Spock stands smoothly and gestures him inside.

Kirk takes three quick strides to the desk and stands to attention, his eyes fixed over Spock's left shoulder. The door closes behind him, but neither notice. Kirk seems too preoccupied and Spock is busy with conjecture. He has expected defiance and insubordination. He has expected Kirk to rush into an explanation of why the incident during training could not be attributed to his actions. In short, he has taken Kirk's record to heart as well as committed it to memory and was anticipating a display of what his Terran superiors had called 'that typical Kirk attitude.'

Instead he gets a visibly bruised and remarkably pale Lieutenant standing to perfect attention.

"I wish to discuss the incident aboard ED996," Spock opens broadly.

"It was my fault, sir."

Spock feels one of his eyebrows jerk up involuntarily and turns his head aside to mask his instinctive surprise. "A most interesting perspective."

Kirk doesn't say anything, but he shifts from foot to foot.

"Please," says Spock, gesturing at the chair opposite his, "sit."

Kirk does so without a word. His posture is perfect, his hands clasped in his lap. Silently, Spock approves of this display of control.

For the first time since entering the room, Kirk meets his eyes. "Will there be a disciplinary hearing, Commander?"

Both Spock's eyebrows rise and he's powerless to prevent it or hide it. "I see no need for such measures. Is there additional information you wish to add to your incident statement?"

"Additional?" Kirk shakes his head. "No, sir. I just thought ..."

Spock gestures for him to continue.

"... I thought that considering the damage to the shuttle and the injuries to the crew, well ..." he clears his throat, "should I be packing my bags, sir?"

Spock settles a little more deeply into his chair. Fascinating. He spends approximately thirty seconds attempting to unravel the Lieutenant's logic and is unsurprised when he fails. He has long been aware of the human propensity for allowing guilt to cloud reason, but seldom has he seen a more illustrative example.

"Lieutenant Kirk, I have no plans to dismiss you from this service," he feels compelled to say.

"You don't?" he echoes, all courtesy of rank forgotten in his evident relief.

"Not at this time," he clarifies.

One small chuckle escapes Kirk and he swipes at his chin, the smile still tugging at one corner of his mouth. "This is my one get out of jail free card. I get it."

Get out of jail ...?

Ah.

Spock leans forwards, elbows on the desk, wondering why his efforts to make himself transparent are falling so short. By all accounts, James Kirk is an unusually intelligent human. It stands to reason that communicating his intent should be relatively effortless. Once again, he feels a flash of frustration with his non-native language. Standard is possessed of such imprecise terminology. Were this conversation to have been conducted in Vulcan, there would be no room for misinterpretation.

He tries again.

"Lieutenant Kirk, I am not dismissing you from this service, nor am I issuing you with a demerit, a demotion, a reassignment or instigating any other action that should be construed as punishment or allocation of blame." He raises an eyebrow deliberately this time. "Am I making myself clear?"

Kirk nods. "Sir."

"I have, however, scheduled a debrief for oh-seven-hundred hours tomorrow. I have requested that both Alpha and Beta crews attend for the purpose of discussing the incident and addressing any learning needs that arise. Should the discussion reveal any systemic shortcomings in the current orientation and training program, they will be presented ship-wide at the next in-service and disseminated throughout EPAS for the benefit of those in supervisory positions. I trust you will be sufficiently recovered to attend?"

"Of course," says Kirk, "Doctor McCoy's released me from sickbay."

Spock allows himself a hint of irony. "So I see."

Kirk hangs his head and nods in acknowledgment. Spock stands and makes his way around the desk. When Kirk notices, he pushes hurriedly to his feet. Spock stops short, realizing that Kirk has been hiding both his amusement and ... something else. The young man's strikingly blue eyes are swimming even though his face remains calm, outwardly the picture of polite attention.

Spock finds the dichotomy quite powerful.

Without quite knowing why, he reaches out and lightly rests a hand on Kirk's shoulder. Immediately, he's assailed by a maelstrom of emotion, overpowering relief/determination/respect/and ... Spock snatches his hand away, turning the self-preserving movement into a salute to cover his discomfiture.

"Dismissed, Lieutenant."

Kirk snaps back a perfect imitation of the gesture. "Thank you, sir."

He makes it to the door before the alarms sound the call for general stations. He turns, a question in his eyes. He's not on the active duty roster. Spock does a quick mental calculation of available staff and jerks his head in the direction of the hangar bay.

"With me, Lieutenant."

"Sir."

They set of at a perfectly paced run, keeping to the right of the illuminated white strip in the centre of the corridor. Ops techs and navigation officers pass them on the other side, all running. Half way to the shaft, the dull yellow glow of the amber alert switches to the bloody tinge of red. Spock pauses an intercom and depresses the button.

"Spock here, status report," he commands.

Distress signal received from Constitution Class Federation starship post Romulan attack. Crew complement four hundred plus. Escape pods non-functional. Warp drive non-functional. Environmental control failing. Approximate time to rendevouz, nine point two minutes, sir.

"Acknowledged."

Sir, Captain Taylor wishes to emphasise that it is of the utmost importance that the Excelsior's Captain or her second in command is retrieved alive. Orders straight from Starfleet Command.

"Understood."

Spock releases the switch and they run for the lift, making it just as the doors swish closed. Kirk packs in beside him. The lift is operating at full capacity and Spock is pressed against two other crew, but all he feels is a distant echo of that last emotion from Kirk; that gut-wrenching, brain-freezing fear.

The levels fly past in flickers of white light. The lift is filled with tension and adrenaline, not just bodies. Spock keeps his eyes dead ahead. He must be the still point, the fulcrum around which others move. Standing bare inches from the closed lift doors, he can feel everyone's eyes boring into the back of his head. They will all take their example from him.

He must make a quick decision about Kirk.

By all rights, he should be left behind. He is only cleared for light duty and, quite accidentally, Spock has discovered he is also severely emotionally compromised. He constitutes a potential danger to the mission. It is illogical to consider his deployment at this time.

Spock thinks of Christopher Pike. He thinks of Vulcan-that-was. Of the space jump that saved the High Council and the Katric Arc and the man standing behind him who made it.

He glances at Kirk in the second before the lift doors open.

He will make another illogical decision on behalf of this stranger.

Chapter Text

Once the lift doors open, Kirk takes off after Spock as fast as his legs can carry him.  He catches up well before the shuttle bay and their boots pound the grills in counterpoint.  It's the middle of the Alpha shift and every non-deployable crewmember flattens themselves against the bulkheads in response to Spock's terse "make way!"

With Nix out of commission and several crews consisting of a poor skill-mix, Jim is immediately struck by the unfamiliar chaos.  A couple of other shuttles are sidelined for repairs, but the Stalwart still has more vehicles than she does persons to crew them.  Those shuttles with a full and experienced crew complement are already halfway through their preflight checklists and the sound of engines powering up to standby fills the air.  However, at least two dozen broken crews mill near the entrance, clearly unsure where best to apply their skills.

Spock assesses the situation in a heartbeat, then leaps lightly up the side of a gantry and onto the wing of a nearby shuttle.  "Attention on deck!"

Everyone freezes and turns smartly.

"Complete Alpha crews, continue as per protocol," Spock orders, "those remaining, form up by primary speciality."

The full shuttle crews have already turned back to their work, some now polarizing forcefields and cross-checking doors as they taxi towards the stern.  The rest of the crew manage to group themselves faster than Kirk would have imagined. 

Spock casts an analytical eye over the motley group, his face impassive.  "Those crews with three members present, step forward."

There is a flurry of movement.

"Please select your missing specialty, taking into account seniority and experience."

A doctor, a pilot and a point are all chosen and those newly completed crews scatter towards their vessels without needing a command from Spock.
 
"If no other member of your crew is present, step forward," Spock says next.  The majority step forward and he frowns slightly.  The expression is gone in an instant as a new plan immediately takes the place of the former. 

"Lieutenants Ho, Devlin and Mackie."

Three others step forward just as McCoy and Uhura coalesce around Spock.

"Devlin, you have command of ED4767, Mackie, you have ED9411," he glances at the remaining specialties.  "Choose your crew."

Spock turns to the remaining officer.  "Lieutenant Ho, you have command of any spare shuttle you can find.  Uhura, McCoy," he snaps, "you are with her."  He turns an impossibly composed gaze to Kirk and says, "accompany me."

Momentarily too shocked to move, Jim has to jog to after Spock, who selects a medic and a pilot from those still awaiting orders and commands the others to 'locate and commence useful employment.'   The Vulcan's long stride eats up the distance and he's already leaped aboard a sparklingly new shuttle before Jim catches up.

"Jim Kirk," he says, offering a quick handshake to the medic and a nod to their pilot.

"Riley," says the doctor, and Jim's not sure if that's the guy's first name or last name.   

"Lioli Ahern," the young female pilot calls without turning around.  "You're a rookie, right?"

"Got it in one," Jim grimaces, throwing his body into the Point One harness and slamming the buckles into place.  Opposite him, Spock is doing the same, except his movements are calm and precise, with none of the adrenaline shake of Jim's.

Doctor Riley leans around from his fold-out bench and claps Jim on the shoulder.  "Just take it easy and talk to us, okay?  Talking it out forces you to think it through before you do it.  That way, worst you'll come back with is laryngitis and I've got a lozenge for that."

"Okay," Jim laughs.  "Thanks."

"No problem."

"All go for launch?" Ahern calls from the cockpit.

Spock glances around the main cabin and receives an immediate thumbs up from Jim and Riley.  "All go, green for launch," he says, his voice clipped and emotionless.

"Sir, yes sir," Ahern confirms, then she guns it.

Jim's head hits the headrest with a g-level he wasn't expecting as the combined engine thrust and slingshot from the forcefield spits their brand new shuttle out into space and right into the dissipating ripples of their warp trail.  Immediately, the vessel shudders and lurches about ten degrees minus-z.  Ahern compensates with a muttered curse and something starts to vibrate in the engine bay.

"Shuttle's a bit green, Commander," Riley observes.

Spock glances around the interior.  "This is a standard issue medevac shuttle," he says flatly.  "It does not differ in colour from any other."

There is a moment's silence and then Jim snorts.

Riley's head snaps round in horror and he can see Ahern's knuckles whiten on the controls.  Yes, Jim thinks, I did just laugh at our Divisional Commander, but it was funny.

Jim summons the courage to meet Spock's questioning gaze but can't interpret it.  "Figure of speech," he explains.

"Ah," says Spock, and his head snaps forwards again, leaving Jim to blink at his profile in consternation.   

He doesn't have long to study it, though, because Ahern's fingers are dashing across the communications controls and their EVA suits' earbuds are suddenly crackling to life.

... mayday, mayday, this is the USS Excelsior, mayday mayday, we are going down, repeat we are going down.  Massive hull breach on decks ten, twelve, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, thirty through thirty seven.  Imminent loss of pressure, repeat we are about to lose pressurization.  All personnel in escape pods be advised pods are non-functional.  Red Alert, repeat Red Alert.  Mayday, mayday, this is the USS Excelsior, mayday ...

Jim leans into the press of his harness, craning his neck around the bulkhead to get a look through the pilot's window.  The sleek shape of the Excelsior is tumbling out of control.  Sharp, white puffs of venting atmosphere spring up along her crippled hull, sometimes igniting in a quick flash of flame.  Whole decks are flickering as system after system fails, slipping in and out of darkness, in and out of night.  It looks like a science project gone wrong, like a diorama he once made for his third grade science teacher that he threw together from scrap components foraged from his stepfather's garage.

"Holy shit," Jim breaths, half forgetting that his comm is on.  "What the hell could do that to a Constellation class starship?"

"Unknown."

Spock's succinct answer cuts through Jim's horror and snaps him back into the present moment.
 
"Aye, sir."

Spock turns and makes eye contact with him, even as he addresses the pilot.  "Mister Ahern, fleet-wide broadcast, please."

"You're linked in, sir."

"Calling all EPAS shuttles, this is Divisional Commander Spock," he says carefully, his gaze steady on Jim and devoid of any expression.  "Standard approach vectors inadvisable.  Take individual trajectories and dock with port side bays.  Maximum dispersal.  Do not attempt to take on more than your regulation complement of survivors.  Additional personnel may be evacuated directly to the Stalwart via transporter."

A cascade of acknowledgements follows in a myriad of voices, each betraying different levels of stress, but all in control.  Perhaps there is something in Spock's own manner that demands it, perhaps they are just really well trained.  Jim's never felt like so much of a fraud in his life.  Spock's eyes are dark and unreadable behind his visor, but the tilt of his head suggests a question.  Jim shakes his head, in denial of, or in response to his own inadequacies.  Not even he can tell.

This is no time to back out, turn tail and run away.  There's nowhere for him to go out here, not with his commanding officer a shuttle's width away, suited up and ready to go, so he makes himself a promise.  This one mission.  Just this one, then he'll resign.  There's go to be something he can do, someway he can make a difference, but if it's not Starfleet and it's not EPAS, he's fresh out of ideas.  But seriously, fuck this.  This is insane.  This is Vulcan all over again.   

The Excelsior is spinning so fast that the starfield is a blur of light, nauseating and disorientating like a bad Academy food.  Ahern has mag-sealed them against a port docking bay but the mechanism is jammed tight.  Spock clips in to the safety wire and strides across the shuttle as though he's taking a pleasant stroll through the rec room.  The hull is moving under them and the stars above them, and Jim can't help but feel like vomiting.  He swallows convulsively and stares resolutely at the stubbornly closed hatch.

Then Spock is beside him, leaning around him, one arm braced above Jim's head and the other on the hand-hold near the atmo forcefield.  This close, Jim can see the concentration on his face, the urgency that was hidden at a greater distance.  His eyes are narrowed, sweeping brows drawn in together.  Suddenly he turns his head, pinning Jim in place with that unexpected intensity.

"I believe access may be gained via the external maintenance hatch.  Do you concur, Lieutenant?"

Jim involuntarily follows the direction of Spock's pointing finger.  Spock is right, and for a moment he forgets about the crazy carnival ride he seems to be on and nods, "yeah, that makes sense."  But then the logistics come crashing down around him. 

It's going to mean a space jump.

Spock is already clipped in and ready, so Jim makes good to join him.  The two of them slip easily through the forcefield and take their places on the runner.  The flex in their boot soles allows more traction, but he still isn't used to the feeling that there's nothing between him and space apart from polymer fabric, heating mesh and a visor.  His partially mended bones are throbbing in the cold of vacuum, his new, pink skin hypersensitive against the rub of the EPAS-thin EVA suit.  Perhaps, despite all his brash assurances to Bones, he should have gone to the rec room after all.

Eyes on the HUD, Spock green-lights them, then there's nothing but the twang of flexed quads, the silent terror of black trajectory and the teeth-rattling collision with the maintenance hatch.  They grab at each other, as well as the hand-holds, stabilising one another against the pull of their own momentum. 

Adrenaline, Jim thinks.  I pushed off too hard.

Spock doesn't mention it, just sets to work on the code pad, his fingers nimble even when hampered by gloves.  It takes him no time at all to enter the complex cipher, broadcast along with all other command codes by a thankful Excelsior crew within seconds of the Stalwart's arrival on the scene.  The hatch belches a plume of atmo, then springs open, revealing a cramped airlock that thankfully still seems to be powered. 

At a gesture from Spock, Jim clambers in first, feet together, arrowed downwards, propelling himself with his arms.  Spock follows immediately, pulling the hatch closed firmly behind them.

The airlock cycles and the lights show green.

Spock puts his shoulder to it and they tumble out of the confined space into the leaden reality of full gravity.

"Environmental control is inconsistent," Spock observes, although he kept his feet perfectly despite the sudden impact of standard-g.  "Do not remove your helmet."

"You don't have to tell me twice," Jim says with fervour. 

"That will save considerable time."

He opens his mouth to explain, but Spock is already running down the corridor, tricorder in hand.  "Life signs ahead," he calls by way of explanation.

Jim whips out his own tricorder and snaps it into the wrist holder so he can read it and still have both hands free. 

The first crewman they come to is barely alive.  Frothy red blood spurts from her mouth to run down her chin and stain her gold command shirt.  There's a fist-sized hole where her liver should be and it's a fucking miracle she's still conscious.  Spock hunkers down with a limber bounce, running the tricorder over her despite appearances.

"Oh, be serious," she coughs out.  "Try C-deck ... the Captain ..."

"I assure you, we will save your Captain."  Spock states as though it were a certainty.

"Vulcans ... never lie."  The woman does her best to approximate a grin, but it comes off gruesome and macabre, her teeth crimson stained.  Even so, Jim can see that the benefit of Spock's words, far better than empty platitudes and reassurances regarding her own condition.  She knows she's dying, but Spock has given her tangible consolation.  Jim thinks that's pretty amazing.   

Then they're off again, her final wracking coughs growing faint behind them as they charge ahead towards the nearest access shaft.  Basic configuration on all Constellation class ships is the same.  Jim is momentarily grateful that he's taken the time to familiarise himself with the Stalwart's layout, which is vaguely different from that of the Enterprise.  It's serving him well at the moment.

They skid to a halt at the access tube, knowing the turbolifts are less than reliable in the ship's present state.  Disdaining the rungs, Spock swings himself out into space by the ladder's sides, framing it with his feet and plummeting down into the flickering blackness of between-decks with only his gloves and boots for brakes. 

"Sonofabitch," Jim swears under his breath, knowing he doesn't have the strength to replicate the manoeuvre.  Instead, he clips in to the top rung and flips around, rope locked off behind his buttocks. 

"Kirk to Ahern, over."

Ahern here, go ahead.

"The Commander's just thrown himself down a fucking Jeffries, I'm about to follow," he pulls a face, "just at a slightly lower velocity."

Yeah, he'll do that Kirk, don't let it get to you.  Just go find him.  Remember, he's our Two, we need you to back him up.

"Kind of hard when he pulls shit like this."

Just catch up Kirk.  I'll keep this line open, keep talking to us.

Jim curses again and pushes off, letting some slack out through his suit's harness, absailing after his Two and hoping Spock isn't that far ahead.  Each impact of his feet against the sides of the tube sends flashes of agony through the remnant fractures in his legs.  Sweat springs up on his face and between his shoulders.  His suit struggles to compensate.  He tries not to think of parachutes above disintegrating desert planets.

C-deck arrives faster than he's anticipated and he falls on his ass in an undignified heap.  Spock is nowhere to be seen.  Jim hauls himself out of the tube and drops more carefully into the main corridor.  The lights are nonfunctional here and his headlamp activates automatically, which reveals Spock kneeling by a group of survivors, methodically pressing transponders against the transportable, sorting the whole from the broken, the living from the dead.

"Riley, I've got a visual on Spock," he comms in.

Acknowledged, Kirk

"Doctor Riley," Spock says, activating his own comm with a press of his lapel.  "Six to beam up.  Stabilise then beam onwards, confirm?"

Riley here, Commander.  His voice sounds tinny on the wide channel.  Six on their way.  Acknowledged.

Spock steps back for a second as all but one of the huddled living disappears in a swirl of light.  Then he's back on his knees in a flash, hands calmly probing the extent of the last man's injuries.  Jim kneels next to him in time to see Spock exchange the man's hands for his own.  In the split second where the wound is open, it sprays blood all over Spock's visor like a high pressure hose.  The man cries out in fear, but Spock is talking to him calmly, the words becoming audible as Jim's forces himself to focus.

"... condition is serious but stable," he's saying.  "There is no cause for panic.  The artery has been successfully clamped.  Further blood loss will be minimal.  I am now administering a mild sedative as it is necessary to lower your heart rate."

Jim surprises himself by having the hypo loaded and in Spock's hand before he's had a chance to realise what he was doing.  Those drills pay off after all.  Spock presses it against their patient's neck with a muted hiss and hands it back.  It's only now that Jim sees the pool of sticky human blood Spock is kneeling in and the open case of micro-lock clamps by his side.  The guy is damn lucky to be alive at all, but if Spock's telling the truth, then yeah, there's a good chance he's going to make it out of here now.

"Do you know the location of the Captain?" Spock asks as he calmly wipes the man's blood from his visor with one sleeve.

"He was helping the Chief Engineer with a blown coupling," the man says weakly.  "It's a narrow junction, about two or three intersections away."

Spock slaps a pressure bandage to the man's chest and a transponder to his arm, but before his hand reaches his lapel to order a beam-out, the man grabs at his suit, stopping him.

"EPAS, wait," he gasps, "the junction is tricky to find.  You'll need help."

Spock deliberates for a split second, then nods.  "Very well."

It's a good thing that Jim has all their gear repacked, because Spock gathers the patient into a shoulder hold and sets off at a dead run in the direction indicated.  Overwhelmed by the pace, Jim bolts after them, trying to ignore the way his boots slip and slide a little on the deck until most of the blood is off them.

About thirty seconds later the injured crewman calls a halt, and yeah, Jim is pretty sure they would have missed the junction on their first pass and been forced to turn back to retrace their steps.  The walls are shredded by shrapnel, flashing and sparking in the darkness.  The chaotic scene is illuminated in fits and starts, hard on the eyes, unforgiving on the imagination.  Still, it's Jim who spots the scrap of command gold in the far corner.

"There!" he calls, forgetting in his urgency that there's no need to shout over the comm.  Then, before he's had a chance to think about the risks, he ducks below a sparking conduit and pushes into the rubble. 

Kirk, what are you doing?  Let Spock take lead on this one, over.

"I can see him!"

"Lieutenant!" Spock calls into the flickering rubble.

"I can see him, sir!"

"Lieutenant, this area of the ship is structurally unsound.  Clip in!"

Kirk, listen to Spock.  Secure yourself first.

Jim obeys wordlessly, never taking his eyes from the slight rise and fall of that gold shirt as he takes a grapple from his harness and loops it around a nearby spar.  It's as if the Excelsior's Captain might disappear if he stops looking at him for even a second, culminating in a figment of his adrenaline-fired imagination. 

"Spock to Ahern," comes the deep baritone over the comm.

Ahern here.

"One to beam up, category two, confirm."

I'm sorry, Commander, Ahern responds, her voice tight and stretched high.  There's too much interference from the warp core.  Transporter is a no-go, do you copy?  We have no transporter capability, sir.

" ... Acknowledged.  Spock out."

Behind him, Jim can now hear the slower progress of Spock, hampered by the awkward weight of their guide, but then he reaches the body and his mind goes blank with shock.

His first coherent thought is that he's completely lost it, because it's Sulu.  The Sulu he jumped off an alien platform to save.  For a moment he's overcome by the memory of relief, the sensation of his chute's tethers straining under the load of their combined weight but holding, blessedly holding, slowing their descent so that the transporter techs have a chance to beam them out.   

Then Sulu blinks and opens his eyes and Jim has work to do.  He tears the medkit free of his belt and makes a quick pass with the tricorder all in one movement. 

"Jim Kirk?"

"Hey, Hikaru," he says conversationally.  "How's things?"

"Oh, you know," Sulu sighs, then grimaces as Jim traces his hands over one thigh and finds the point where it's pierced through by metal.  He clenches his teeth, "same old, same old."

"I hear you," he nods, working quickly to staunch the bleeding with packs and foam and his goddamn hands.  He palms the small laser cutter and sets to work on the piece of plassteel that's pinning that leg to the deck.  At the point where the beam intersects the metal, Sulu's blood vaporises into a sickly pink steam.

The captain shifts slightly on the deck, attempting to help improve Jim's access.  "I heard you'd joined EPAS.  Never expected to need your help, though."

"Yeah," Jim nods but keeps his eyes glued to the path of the cutter.  "I guess nobody ever does."

"What made you switch?"

Jim thinks of that space-jump, of a fleet torn to shreds, of poor orders from on high, of lifeless floating bodies and planets imploding in an abortive scream.

"The dental, mostly."

Sulu laughs, tossing his dark head back against the deck.  His hand finds Jim's knee and he squeezes, hard.  "What now, Jim?"

"Now, okay, so this is going to hurt," he warns, knowing it's inadequate but not having anything else to offer.

"I figured," Sulu replies through clenched teeth.  "Just do it, already."

"On three."

"Stop being such a fucking tease," Sulu laughs unsteadily.

So Jim slips both arms under his skewered leg and hauls sharply upwards, towards the section he's cut away, like pulling meat off a shishkabob.  Sulu screams, of course, who the fuck wouldn't, but despite the fresh run of liquid heat over Jim's gloved hands the man is no longer pinned to the deck of his own ship.

"I got you," Jim murmurs, pressing and packing and wielding hypos as fast as he can.  "I got you, man."

"Yeah," Hikaru nods weakly, his face pale and clammy in the random flashes of light, "just like last time."   

Spock arrives just in time to see the Captain and the Lieutenant clasp hands so that Jim can haul Sulu into a sitting position. 

"Zero spinal," Jim offers without prompting, "category two, stabilised, safe for transport, sir."

"Acknowledged, Lieutenant," Spock nods, then turns to Hikaru.  "Captain Sulu, it is not possible to achieve transporter lock on our current position due to imminent warp core breach.  Where is the closest ..."

He gets no further.

The whole hull behind them suddenly explodes out into space.

Spock flings out a gloved hand and Jim grabs it, their fingers close around each others' wrists.  Spock's legs fly out from underneath him and Sulu lifts from the deck and crashes into their chests.  That leaves Jim barely enough time to register that Spock has used his clip-in line to secure both their patients to himself, as well as to the infrastructure.  Still, if Jim lets go, Spock will play out to the end of his line, just far enough to slap against the razor-sharp edges of what's left of the outer hull.  Spock's other arm is wrapped around their guide, pressing a breathing mask against the man's face.

The sound is gone in an instant, along with the air and the heat.  Sulu's mouth opens in a silent scream and Jim can see the small capillaries begin to explode in his eyes.  Before he can think about it, Jim pops the seal on his helmet and opens the visor in Sulu's face.  The Captain takes a deep, painful breath of frozen air, hardly enough, but his cheeks flush pink and the tears don't freeze in his eyes.

Of course this means that Jim is now totally fucked, too.

His suit is spewing out a thin, rapidly diminishing breathable vapour, barely enough to keep either of them oxygenated even as it does nothing against the decompression.  The thin polymer fabric is pressed tightly against him like a wet swimsuit, heating coils working overtime.  It's not enough.  It's nowhere near enough.  It's like every molecule in his body has just developed an overpoweringly urgent desire to be elsewhere.

His suit gives one last cough of air at them both and then Jim's lungs are on fire.  His chest is about to burst and black spots close in before his eyes.  Spock's hand is like a vice around his wrist.  He opens his own fingers and tugs.  Spock refuses to let go.  Jim wants to yell at him but that last breath in his lungs is precious and there's no air to carry the sound to his comm mic anyway.

He yanks harder, desperate now, knowing he has only split seconds.

Then it's like Spock suddenly gets it, because not only does he release Jim, but his hand flashes with his own laser cutter and sets them all free.  With the last vestiges of strength in his body, Jim pushes off from the nearest object as hard as he can, Sulu still clutched firmly to his chest.  Spock co-operates, using his well-oxygenated Vulcan strength to propel them even faster out into the depths of space, away from the Excelsior and the interference of her unstable warp core.

They fly through the rent in the hull and spiral out into the black.

Sulu has lost consciousness, but he weighs nothing here and Jim's frozen arm couldn't let go even if he wanted to.

Jim fights the burn as long as he can, then his body's own instinct force him to expel his last lungful of air.  He convulses once.  Twice.  It's impossible to draw the nothingness into himself, but his body tries anyway.  How long has it been?  Seconds?  Feels like hours.

Then there's a flash and a blur and his skin is burning like fire.

For a second he thinks the warp core has blown, but then gravity settles in around him and his bleeding eyes have a moment to register the inside of a medevac shuttle before Spock obscures his view.

The Vulcan snaps his visor up and uses his teeth to tear off his gloves, not bothering to undo the fastenings.  Thin lines of green blood blossom on his wrists, close enough for Jim to see as those hot hands tilt his head, support his jaw, burning into his frozen flesh.  Spock's face blocks out the light and Jim has a moment of confusion, but then an expelled breath of second-hand air is forced into his lungs.   

Spock pulls back, presses hot fingers against his carotid.

Jim wants to tell him that one breath is not enough, that his body has forgotten how to do this, but he must know that because he leans in to give another breath, then a third.

It's then that Jim gasps, pulls in one for himself, ignores the pain because this first breath of his own is richer in all the things that he needs.  Spock calls out something that contains the words 'Riley' and 'immediately' and 'order.'  He can't catch the rest through the ringing in his ears.  Then there's an oxygen mask against his face and when he takes another breath he's almost giddy.  Spock is playing a scanner over his chest, which is followed by another device that makes his lungs tingle inside him, and you really shouldn't be able to feel your lungs like that; it's beyond weird.

Jim can feel tears running down his face.  He raises a shaky hand, but it's still gloved and covered in other men's frozen blood so he lets it fall again.  Spock notices and uses his free hand to complete the task, pressing the thumb gently into the hollow of each eye and wiping outwards.  When he pulls back and rests that hand on his knee, it's now red with blood as well as green with it.

Jim tries to thank him, but all he can manage is a grunt.

"One moment," Spock says calmly, reaching for something.  Then he injects a vial of liquid into the oxygen line feeding Jim's mask and his throat burns hotter for a second, choking him, then goes blessedly numb. 

Spock lifts one of Jim's hands and unclasps the glove, baring it and settling it on the mask.  Jim's fingers refuse to obey and his hand hits the transporter pad with a numb thud.  Spock takes that same hand and firmly, patiently, he shapes the fingers in place.  This time they stay there.  Spock pushes to his feet and disappears.

No, Jim thinks, don't go.

But then he's back, sinking into a graceful crouch on the transporter pad.  He reaches out, parting Jim's eyelids with finger and thumb, then lets two drops of some warm liquid fall into the eye before releasing it.  He repeats the process with the other eye, once again thumbing away the mess as Jim tears up and sneezes as the drops hit his sinuses and trickle down into the back of his throat. 

He coughs and tries to push upright.

"Inadvisable at this time," Spock tells him.

When Jim persists in trying to get vertical, Spock tuts slightly under his breath and lifts him effortlessly into suited arms.

Well shit, Jim thinks, head lolling against Spock's chest, this is fucking awkward.

Spock settles him sideways into a bench seat opposite the medical station.  He clips the harness into Jim's EVA suit, securing him, then jams a large vacuum-pack of something behind his shoulder, propping him upright.  As a final touch, Spock breaks open a shiny silver thermal blanket and efficiently covers him with it.

He pauses for a second to survey his handiwork and consult the scanner again, nods once and turns away.

Jim suddenly realises it's all over and he's going to live.  It's only as Spock sanitises his hands and shoulders and steps in beside Doctor Riley that he remembers both Excelsior crewmen are going to be even worse off.

Jim sits quietly on his bench and breathes.  He watches Riley and Spock work.  They're unfamiliar with each other and it shows, but Spock is a keen observer and is soon anticipating Riley's needs as he transfers his attention from Sulu to the other crewman in quick succession.  The basic monitors above the two biobeds quickly abandon the red zone and start to flicker from amber to green, but with increasingly more green showing across the board. 

They're going to live, too.

"Approaching shuttle bay doors," Ahern calls from the cockpit.  "Prepare for docking."

Riley straps into the small fold-out seat between the biobeds.  Its three point harness is cleverly designed to ensure he can still reach the majority of the controls above each patient.
 
"Holy shit, Kirk," the doctor exclaims with wide eyes.  "Holy fucking shit, no one's going to believe that happened."

Jim manages a twitch of his eyebrows and keeps breathing deeply through his mouth, his nose still being too numb for such activities.

Spock acknowledges Ahern and crosses the cabin to Jim's bench.  He straps in to the other free seat, then reaches out to press the back of his hand against Jim's brow.  His skin still feels alien-hot, but Spock makes a slight approving sound and withdraws.  Jim gives his feet an experimental wiggle and realises that yeah, he's a lot better than he was a few minutes ago.

They bounce lightly on the deck and an engineering tech is running beside them as they coast to a halt, leaping aboard the port runner without even waiting for them to come to a full stop.  The forcefield pops and the sound of organised chaos floods the shuttle.  People are shouting to be heard, boots are drumming on the deck, hyposprays hiss and metal clanks against metal as command of the situation is transferred to the Stalwart's highly trained medical crew.

"Got yourself a dodgy aft stabiliser," the tech comments, jumping aboard and making a beeline for the engine bay without so much as a glance at the Doctor, patients or Points.

"Don't I know it," Ahern calls after him.  "She's sluggish on the rotationals, too."

"Spock!" comes an angry voice.  

"Doctor McCoy," the Commander acknowledges, snapping free of his harness and rising to his not inconsiderable height.

Bones shoulders his way past the two junior doctors who preceded him, his face an ugly mix of anger and relief.  He marches right up to Spock and shoves a hand-held scanner in his face.  "What in the blue blazes were you doing in hard vacuum, you moron?"

"It was necessary to effect our extraction," Spock explains, with considerable patience for a Commander who's just been abused by a subordinate.  "Lieutenant Kirk formulated a plan which ..."

"Oh this is your fault, is it?" McCoy rounds on him with narrowed eyes.  "I thought I told you to rest!  Listen you young jackass, some of us have been in this game long enough to realise that EPAS isn't about daring escapes from the clutches of death, it's about doing things by the book and keeping each other safe!  I'm not quite sure who thought it was a good idea to let any of you Nix people go racing off into the thick of things while I collected dust in my bunk, but there are going to be words!  Last thing we need is some goddamn hero in this ..." he trails off as the scanner in his hand bleeps and whirs after being pointed at Jim like a weapon.  "What the devil happened to you?"

Jim finds himself momentarily speechless at McCoy's scathing tone.

Spock insinuates himself neatly into the pause in conversation.  "The Lieutenant has experienced severe decompression.  I have treated his primary symptoms and he appears to be stable."

"Stable my ass!" Bones growls, leaning in closer with the scanner.  Whatever he sees, it softens his manner somewhat.  "What'd you do?  Pop your visor 'cause environmental control seemed stable and forget to shut it again?"

Jim considers telling the full story, but he has a feeling that's going to make McCoy mad again and he's just not up to that kind of scary right now.  "Um," he nods instead, "something like that."

"Hmm," McCoy grumbles.  "Well, you'll need a little tissue regen and Spock's rush job on your alveoli is going to sting like a bitch for a few days, but you're one lucky sonofabitch, you know that?"  He straightens and then unexpectedly cuffs Kirk behind one ear.  "Keep your goddamn helmet on!  That's what it's for!"

"Yes, doctor," he agrees meekly, but he's watching Spock out of the corner of his eye.  The Commander is helping Riley and the medics load Sulu and the other crewman onto stretchers, but those dark eyes slide his way every now and then.  For a split second, they lock and hold with his own.  Jim imagines he can see approval there.  A pleasant warmth spreads through him at the thought, thawing him a little further.  It's the first time in a long time he's cared what an authority figure thinks of him.  It's all too easy to recall the disappointment he felt the instant he realised what kind of man captained the Enterprise

The smile slips from his face, erased by the memory of a battle that was lost for no good reason.  Idolizing your superiors is dangerous.  Still, seeing Spock in action had been all kinds of awesome, that was indisputable, and it was possible to respect a person's abilities without putting them on a pedestal. 

Spock turns away and jumps lightly down through the open hatch.  He has duties as the Divisional Commander that come into effect the second his own shuttle's demands are satisfied, so it's Bones that grabs Jim by the elbow and hauls him into a sitting position.

"Now, hold your horses," the doctor warns.  "You're all screwy inside just now."

Jim's heart is pounding, trying to adapt as all the blood rushes to his frozen legs.  "That a technical term, Bones?"   

"Don't backsass me," he growls, but doesn't protest the new nickname.  Instead, he reaches out one reassuring hand and holds Jim's hair off his face so he can focus on breathing.

Eventually, his heart settles down and his lips stop tingling.  With a nod from McCoy, he levers himself carefully to his feet.  The doctor watches him intently, eyes narrowed, but he stays upright. 

"Good to go?"

McCoy rolls his eyes.  "Only place you're going is straight to sickbay.  Now get."

Jim offers a shaky salute and uses the hand-holds for support as he steps out of the door and into the hangar, catching his reflection in the shiny hull plating and grimacing.  It's not pretty.  He gets about ten steps away from the shuttle before he knows he's in trouble.  His feet might be back on solid deck, but the world still feels like it's moving, shuddering, jerking around him.  The drill platform flashes before his eyes.  Geysers of flame.  Free-falling.  The ground reaching up to claim him.  A planet, an entire planet of peaceful people destroyed, obliterated, vanished ...

He staggers, falls to his knees, barely gets there in time and empties his stomach all over the polished deck.  Everyone springs back, exclaims softly, part surprise, part disgust, and it only adds to Jim's misery.  He's hot and cold at the same time.  There's a ringing in his ears and his suit is suddenly too tight, choking him.  Sweat breaks out on his face, between his shoulder blades, and he's absolutely certain he's going to pass out.  He's tugging at the collar, fingers scrabbling at the seam in panicked desperation.   

Then, out of the blue, there's a firm hand on his shoulder.  McCoy,he thinks, please don't bitch me out just now, but he's wrong.

Spock drops to one knee.  "Doctor Riley?"

Riley suddenly moves into Jim's field of vision.  He can see the man's blush, his embarrassment that the DivCO had to remind him of his duties.  But then there are intrusive hands on Jim's face, probing fingers at his throat and he bats them away, ashamed and suddenly angry.

"No," he rasps through the acid taste in his mouth, "don't need a doctor."

"Refusing medical aid is illogical.  You are unwell."

Jim risks a glance at Spock.  His usually orderly hair is plastered to his head and sticking up at angles, disarrayed by the hasty removal of his own helmet.  The hood of his suit is pushed back, revealing the points of his ears.  He looks more alien than ever, but somehow, he knows that only Spock can understand him.  The Commander reaches around and deftly undoes Jim's collar one-handed.

"Please," Jim whispers, for Spock's ears only.  "I just need a moment."

The Commander regards him carefully.  A bead of condensation makes its lazy way from his hairline to his jaw, a testament to rapid changes in temperature they've both been subjected to.  This close, Jim can see that his eyes aren't actually black, but brown instead.  They're steady and measuring. 

Jim swallows. 

Spock nods slowly, eyes flicking to Riley, who doesn't need to hear the order.

The crowd melts away, leaving the two of them kneeling on the deck.  Spock sits back on his heels, the gentle but unrelenting pressure of his hand forcing Jim to do the same.  It's easier to sit like this, to close his eyes and cope with the spinning.  He hears the clank and splash of someone dealing with the mess he's made on the deck, and finds himself both grateful and embarrassed all over again.

Spock's silence is uncanny.  Any human would be asking questions by now.  What happened?  What's going on with you?  Why'd you lose it like that?  But not Spock.  For the first time since the beginning of this deployment, Jim is powerfully grateful to be in the presence of a Vulcan.   

"Thanks."

Spock doesn't say anything, but he raises one hand, palm down, in an abortive and very human gesture that say's clearly don't mention it.  He cuts himself off halfway though, placing the hand firmly back on his thigh.  The fingers flex as though holding on.   

"Your gratitude is unnecessary," he says quietly.

"Well, you've got it anyway," Jim tells him, taking a deep breath.  "You didn't have to push off like that.  Your suit was still sealed, you had a mask for that crewman and you know that Ahern or Ops would have modulated the transporter frequency in another few seconds.  You could have just let me go."

Spock glances at him, then back at the place where his hands sit on the stained fabric of his EVA suit.  There is no trace of blood on them now.  He washed it off in order to assist Riley, but there are shallow striations around each wrist, scabbed over in a deep forest green.

"You saved my life."  Jim shrugs at him, because really, it's like Spock doesn't even get it.

"As you saved the life of Captain Sulu."

Then again, perhaps that's all that needs to be said.  There's a certain balance in it, after all.  They share a quiet moment, both watching the Stalwart crew move about the hangar with practiced efficiency despite the innate chaos of the setting.  Eventually, Spock shifts beside him.

"Come," he says.  "I have additional duties to discharge.  I will ensure your arrival at sickbay on my way to the bridge."

"No," says Jim, shaking his head.  "You don't have to do that."

Spock gives him a stern look, one that's suddenly all Commander.  It makes Jim wonder where the hell all the 'sirs' and 'lieutenants' went.

"Okay," he says quickly, "thank you, sir."

Spock nods and rises nimbly to his feet.  Jim makes a bit of a hash of it, but at least he gets vertical under his own power.  The Commander precedes him out of the hangar.  He's stopped every few turns to receive a report, sign a PADD or answer a question.  He's unfailingly polite, always helpful and really quite patient when faced with the human propensity to babble in times of stress.  It's not until he drops Jim off at sick bay and promptly banishes all the other hangers-on that Jim begins to suspect it may have simply been a ploy to give Jim a chance to keep up.

Bones tells him he's put a hairline fracture back through one of the recent breaks, and also that he's an idiot.  Then he wants to know why the hell Jim is smiling.

Chapter Text

Jim thinks it's a little strange that it's Lieutenant Ho who's the one who visits him in sickbay.

It's not that he doesn't like Ashe, far from it. He's had the chance to rub shoulders with her in briefings, because she's on the Alpha crew as Spock's Point One. Ashe's smart and cute and sort of terrifyingly intelligent; the kind of girl he's always attracted to but never makes a move on.

She turns up the first day, looking all out of place in her off-duty clothes and slumps into a chair by his bedside.

"So," she says, "exactly how many lives do you think you saved yesterday?"

And Kirk is left gaping like a fish out of water or a carnival attraction. "What?"

"I mean to say, I know you scored a few saves, but from what I hear you nearly killed the DivCO. You can't do that, you know. People won't stand for it." She frowns at him, a small furrow puckering her smooth, round face. "Waving Spock's mortality in our face, that's not okay."

Jim levers himself up onto one elbow and processes this. "Excuse me?"

"Spock came to the debrief today looking like he hasn't slept yet and there were cuts on his hands. We all know he was in hard vacuum."

He eyes her warily, like he would a crazy person. "And this is my problem, how?"

"You were there with him," Ashe says firmly. "You were supposed to have his back. You were his Point One." She punctuates each sentence with a prod from her index finger. "You don't want to face this Division if Spock buys it on your watch. You sure as hell don't want to face me."

"Are you threatening me? Really?"

"Oh no," she shakes her head and smiles at him, her black bob spinning. "Far from it. I like you. You've got balls. I don't want to see you hoisted by them because you mistakenly thought that some stranger's life was more important than the DivCO's. Hence this little conversation."

"Okay, wait," Jim says, because this whole thing is entirely too messed up for his anaesthetic-addled brain. "You are threatening me. This is unbelievable. I know EPAS policy is always to value the life of field personnel above potential saves. That just makes sense. The more of us out there, the more of them are going to get saved. But what you're talking about," he frowns in confusion, "that's different."

"Yes," Ashe nods, her dark eyes calm and accepting. "It's totally different."

"It's double standards."

"You're damn right it is."

Jim just stares at her, too surprised by her capitulation to know how he feels about Spock being that important - the center of this little world he's signed on to.

"Look," says Ashe, "you're new here, so you don't get it yet, that's cool, none of us do at first." She reaches out and pats his hand. "But until you do, take my word on it. Spock's more important that a save, he's more important than me, and he sure as hell is more important than your sorry ass."

"Listen, I'm not so sure ..."

Ashe silences him with a dismissive wave. "Don't even try to tell me you're quitting. We all try it after the first time we eat vacuum, get cooked or stranded. If that fireball during exercises didn't scare you off then you're not about to walk away after your first two saves. Not you. I know your type."

"Oh yeah?" Jim grates out, off-balance and finding solace in the familiarity of anger. "What type is that?"

Ashe bares her teeth in a feral grin. "My type."

She stands and hauls on her black undershirt, arching her back so that the light above his biobed strikes her olive skin. "See that?" she asks, twisting so the thick, pale slab of scar tissue glistens sickly. "Got that the day Sally Morrison died. You never met her, but she used to run Point for Spock when he had the Beta team. Three shuttles went down on Odesyus ... you remember Odesyus, right?" she glances at him, waiting for his nod before continuing. "Well, let me just say that it was more of a shit storm than you'd ever read in the newscasts, and leave it at that."

She lets her shirt fall and resumes her seat, knowing she's got Kirk's full attention.

"The records will say it was the Narada that shot us down, but it was friendly fire. Shit, you'd have to be stupid to believe it was that son of a bitch, Nero," she shakes her head. "Those splinter bombs would have ripped right through us. Federation phasers just knocked out our engines and planetary gravity did the rest."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Just shut up and learn something," she snaps. "Sally was the first out of the hatch. That was her job. She was the senior Point One. None of us knew there was a Romulan outpost on that moon. How could we?" Some of Ashe's despair leaks into her voice and her eyes grow sad. "They didn't even bother with hand weapons, just lobbed a few energy grenades at us and shut up shop."

"Damn, Ashe ..." Kirk's voice is suddenly small despite the sickbay's echoes.

"I know right?" she nods. "You ever seen one of those things close up? It's pretty much like being at the centre of your own personal nova. My entire crew bought it straight up. Three out of the four in the other shuttle had fatal burns, and the other was blind and concussed. The blast wave knocked me flat against a superheated hull and you've seen how that worked out for me, but Sally ..." Ashe clears her throat, "Sally was in a bad way."

Silence reigns for a few moments. Jim pushes himself fully upright, wondering how horrifically Sally Morrison died to warrant an admission like that from this hard bitten veteran. He's too involved in the story to care that somewhere amongst it all, Ashe is trying to tell him that Spock is sacred, or something.

"What happened?"

"Spock happened."

Jim knows he should be fighting the urge to roll his eyes but Ashe's fill with tears and he's moved despite his natural cynicism.

"Kirk, you've never seen anything like it," she whispers, staring into the middle distance. "She was screaming. Her hair was gone, eyes hanging out, EVA suit on fire, skin melting through like dripping fat, the smell was ..." she pauses to swallow convulsively. "Spock ran right up and tackled her into the lake. My back hurt like a bitch, but I made it over to them, first aid kit and all, for all the good it would have done her. She was crying, holding onto him, asking him, begging for it. She was a mess, a real mess."

Ashe turns her head away and Kirk finds that any desire to disparage this memory has well and truly evaporated. When she turns back to look at him, her face is simultaneously horrified and joyous. It takes something inside him and twists it, viciously. He can't get any air.

"After he did her, he looked right at me, dead calm with the phaser still in his hand and said, 'you have command, Ensign Ho,' then he pulled Sally's body out of the lake and went after those bastards."

"After the Romulans?"

"Yep."

"How many were there?"

"Four that we saw."

"How is it that he's still alive?" Jim demands, doing the math in his head and boggling at the odds.

Ashe tilts her head at him, suddenly calm despite the tears running down her face. "You ever heard of Ashv'cezh?"

"No," he admits. "Should I have?"

"He's the Vulcan god of death, part of the triptych worshipped in the years before Surak. Literally it means 'a revenge worse than death.' Spock has a statue in his quarters. It's fucking terrifying, but believe me when I say that it doesn't come close to the Commander that day."

There's a beat where Jim extrapolates, then, "now you're shitting me."

"Four hours," Ashe nods. "And it turned out there were five of them."

"One Vulcan against five Romulans? Five armed Romulans? EPAS only gives basic combat training and I've seen first hand how useless the phasers they give you can be. That's just ..."

Ashe stands and tucks herself in, using one sleeve to wipe roughly at her face. "If you're ever in his quarters, ask him to show you his Romulan disruptor collection. There are five of them all jammed up with sand."

"Sand?"

She shrugs. "We used them to excavate a shelter in the lee of the shuttle. Lived there four days until things settled down enough that the Federation allowed more EPAS in for search and rescue. He got up the next morning and buried Sally on the high ground overlooking the lake. Her parents were so grateful they left her there, where Spock had put her. Where he'd protected her, even though she was gone."

Ashe turns and flicks the curtain aside, preparing to leave Kirk to his cubicle.

"Wait!" he calls, halting her. "The other crew member, did they make it?"

She blinks at him, almost Vulcan-calm. "It doesn't matter. What does matter is the fact that you better damn well have Spock's back, because that's the fucking least he'd do for you."

The curtain swishes closed behind her.

Jim stares at it for a long time, feeling awed and pissed off and sceptical all at once, because fuck, looking up to people has never really worked out for him in the past. He's never been a believer in some people being more important than others. A life is a life, simple as that, but the sight of Spock in action today, the memory of being resuscitated as he was on the brink, it all coalesces around Ashe's testimony and a shiver runs up his spine.

No he won't.

He just won't go there again.

Chapter Text

It's two full days before McCoy releases him from sickbay this time. Jim can't really blame him considering what happened the last time he got told to take it easy. His only consolation is that Sulu is in the bed next to him and regains consciousness at the end of his first day of confinement.

Jim risks getting out of bed to hold the young Captain's hand as his eyes flicker open. There's a flash of recognition and a grateful squeeze of his fingers for his trouble.

"Jim ..."

"Jesus Christ, you look awful."

Sulu starts to laugh, which makes him cough, which sets off all kinds of alarms and brings Chapel running because it's Beta shift and McCoy is thankfully absent. She fusses with various machines and takes several readings, but does them without commenting on the fact that her patients are holding hands. If she gives them a sideways look, it certainly doesn't bother Jim. There's a time and a place and if he were hitting on Sulu it damn well wouldn't be in a sickbay. Well ... at least not until both of them were properly conscious. He just knows what it's like to wake up alone after you thought you were dead. Company makes all the difference.

"Don't keep him awake long," Chapel scolds, her pert face scrunched into a frown. "And for goodness sake, get some rest yourself. You were hardly better off than he was, for all that you walked off that shuttle."

Jim makes his promises and looks suitably chastised, at least until her back is turned, then he rubs his knuckles enthusiastically on Sulu's scalp hard enough to make him yelp.

"What was that?" Chapel snaps.

"Nothing!" Jim calls back, too busy grinning at his friend to turn around.

"Big tough guy, eh?" Sulu croaks. "Taking advantage of a wounded man."

"You're not hurt, you're just lazy," Jim tells him fondly.

"You sound like my mother."

"Dude, that was low."

They grin at each other and Jim pulls up a chair.

"So what the hell? You're a captain now?" he launches, tactlessly.

"I know," Sulu nods. "Surprised me, too, but Jim, things are pretty tight in the Fleet. Don't know what it was like when you left, but it's definitely worse now. I think I only got the Excelsior because there was literally nobody left standing in front of me. I'm not sure how to feel about that, especially now that I've lost her. Maybe I just wasn't ready." He wipes a hand over his suddenly pale face. "My God, Jim, I've lost her."

Kirk grips his hand tighter and looks away as Sulu swipes at his eyes with the sleeve of his medical gown. When he clears his throat, Jim judges it safe to look up. Sulu meets his gaze stolidly, suddenly very much a Captain.

"How many, Jim?"

He doesn't need to ask for clarification. "Ninety seven."

The muscles in Sulu's jaw bunch and then relax. "Ninety seven," he echoes flatly. "Out of over four hundred."

"It's not your fault."

"Who's fault is it, then?" Sulu demands, the crack of bitter resentment in his voice. "She was my ship, Jim. They were my crew."

"They were impossible odds."

"What would you know about it?" Sulu snaps, eyes narrowed.

"I'm not an idiot. You take the sector we found you in, plot it against your warp trajectory, listen to a newscast and it's pretty clear where you've been."

"I told Starfleet intelligence it was obvious," he sighs. "They didn't listen."

"Don't worry, I won't say anything. Not that they'd listen to me if I did." It's Jim's turn to be bitter.

"Hey," Sulu says, suddenly soft, freeing his hand to grip Jim's shoulder. "Vega wasn't your fault. You were just a Lieutenant Jim, and you tried, you really tried."

"For all the good it did the Enterprise."

They sit together awhile, absorbed in the memory of that horrific mission. Jim shivers, recalling the chill of the ocean and the metallic taste of seawater and his own blood in his mouth. Suddenly, he remembers that Sulu is someone he can confide in.

"Hey, you'll never guess," he begins eagerly, eyes alight. "You remember the EPAS Point who rescued me, Walters and Emaco on that mission?"

Sulu frowns in thought and Jim makes hurrying motions with his hands, anxious to get to the punchline.

"I remember you telling me about the rescue, but not much about the Point," he says finally.

"The same guy is now my Divisional Commander."

"No way!"

"Weird, huh?"

"Weird doesn't even begin to cover it," Sulu agrees, eyes saucer wide. "Have you spoken about it?"

"About Vega?" Jim shakes his head. "Nah, I don't think he remembers. Surely he would have said something if he had."

"Jim, wasn't he a Vulcan?" Sulu asks patronisingly. "They have photographic memories. Besides, what's he going to say? Oh hey, remember that time I dragged your half-drowned sorry ass out of a sea? Yeah, those were good times."

"Fuck you," Jim grins, but the thought lingers in the back of his mind, refusing to budge. What if Spock does remember? Does it matter? It had crept up on Jim like a sense of deja vu, unacknowledged at the fringes of his consciousness until Sulu's face had put everything in context. It seemed the universe was conspiring to make him take notice of Spock.

"Have you heard where they're planning to send you? Do you think you'll have to take a demotion? There just aren't that many ships out here anymore."

"Jim," Sulu says slowly. "I lost my ship. They're going to court martial me. I'll be lucky to keep my commission."

"But that's insane! They send you to babysit something right under Nero's nose and ... Hikaru, it wasn't your fault!"

"When has that ever mattered?" Sulu sighs, sounding very tired for his young age. "When has that ever counted for anything?"

Jim thinks to himself that it would matter in EPAS, that Spock knows the difference between an honest mistake and an act of negligence and Pike would back him up, but he doesn't say anything, just holds Sulu's hand again as the younger man drifts back into the deep slumber of the healing.

-:-

Jim's released later that afternoon and he thanks his lucky stars it's Chapel who does it. He can just imagine the angry monologue and flurry of painful hypos he'd receive if it had been Alpha watch and McCoy was around. In fact, he's so keen to get out of there before change of shift that he almost collides with Commander Spock in the doorway.

"Oh, sorry!" Jim exclaims, clutching at the jamb to slow himself.

Spock gives him the once over, hands neatly confined behind his back, but Jim swears there's a twinkle of amusement in his eyes.

"Am I to understand that you are gratified to be returning to duty?"

"You have no idea," Jim replies with feeling, grinning. "I've spent the last half hour watching the clock, hoping like hell that Chapel can get her paperwork done before McCoy shows up. Now, don't get me wrong," he holds up a hand as though Spock would interrupt him, as though Spock is prone to that kind of thing, "I really, really like him, just not with a hypo in his hand."

Spock's lips may have twitched or Jim may have imagined it.

"The doctor is known to be rather enthusiastic in his administration."

"You don't say."

"Indeed, I just have," Spock corrects him.

He's on the verge of explaining the misunderstanding when Spock steps past him, eyes downcast and lips pressed primly together, but Jim is certain, dead set certain, he's being laughed at.

He waits until Spock is well out of earshot, stepping behind the curtain that surrounds Sulu, before he allows himself a rueful grin. He thinks back to their first awkward conversation, to Spock's blank-faced incomprehension of every single one of his colloquialisms, and he shakes his head.

"You bastard," he whispers to the empty corridor. "I'm onto you now."

-:-

Spock frowns as he leaves James Kirk behind at the doorway. It is unlike him to banter, especially with an unknown entity. He is beginning to have suspicions that Admiral Pike had ulterior motives in making sure he took a special interest in this particular new recruit. It would not be unlike Pike to throw the two of them together deliberately if he felt that their working relationship may develop into something of a friendship. Of course, Pike is well aware that Vulcans are not prone to developing such close bonds; that they exist rarely outside of family situations. In fact, the closest Spock has come to to realising such an arrangement is the connection he shares with Pike himself, and even that ... that was something upon which he placed careful limitations.

Spock controls his emotions, but they are not a stranger to him. He knows that there is too much admiration mixed with his other feelings for Pike. Their friendship will always be unequal, unbalanced. As the first person who ever saw Spock's potential to be more than simply adequate, Pike will forever be someone he idolises, however abstractly. It is an illogical emotion to ascribe to a human being who is, by nature, inherently flawed. However, if there is one thing Spock feels certain of, it is his own limitations. Nothing could shake his trust, his respect, his confidence in Christopher Pike, but equally, nothing could transform those emotions into a true reciprocal friendship. It is not something he regrets. It is more than he expected to find when he defied his father and joined EPAS. What is, is.

He dismisses such emotive concerns with a well-trained mental shrug and turns his attention to Captain Sulu. In the muted lighting of ship's early morning, the man looks far younger than he did on the Excelsior or the medevac shuttle. It was evident during the rescue attempt that Lieutenant Kirk and Captain Sulu are acquainted, but Spock had thought them superior and serving officers. Now, he is forced to reevaluate that assumption. It is far more likely that they were peers serving under the same command, which by inference means that Sulu served aboard the Enterprise, potentially at the battle of Vulcan-that-was. No wonder his eidetic memory has failed him.

Spock swallows.

It is a shallow emotional tell, but he is forced to suppress the immediate flash of shame that follows it. After all this time, after so many nights spent in meditation, this is still all it takes to unsettle him; a stranger lying in sickbay. Did Sulu set foot upon the planet's surface? Did he feel the last gust of wind, the last tremble of the soil before oblivion?

McCoy chooses this moment to barge through the curtain, tricorder in hand, and Spock flinches. He actually flinches.

Of course, those keen eyes don't miss it.

"Everything all right, Spock?"

He just raises an eyebrow, not yet trusting his voice at that moment.

"Captain Sulu makes an excellent patient; you could take a leaf out of his book next time you get yourself all banged up. Meditation is no substitute for a good healing sleep," McCoy waves the tricorder at him. "You remember that."

Spock ignores the dig and turns back to look at the obliviously sleeping patient. "At what point do you anticipate that he will be able to participate in a debriefing?"

"How are the wrists? Are you using that salve I gave you?"

"They are healing adequately," Spock informs him, apparently unperterbed that McCoy has chosen to answer his question with another question.

McCoy makes 'come on, then' motions with his hands and Spock supresses a very un-Vulcan sigh before pulling up his sleeves and displaying his hands for the doctor's inspection. McCoy doesn't reach out to touch, knows better.

"You're not wearing those extra insulating pair of gloves, are you? Spock, you were bred in the desert, your skin can't take prolonged exposure to the cold of space. That's why it has no elasticity when you do something stupid like this. Why you couldn't take two seconds to undo those gloves rather than half tearing your hands off is beyond me."

"Lieutenant Kirk required immediate resuscitation."

"Yeah, and how does that work," McCoy straightens, "for a man who doesn't like to touch people?"

Spock clasps his hands behind his back again and dons a slightly supercilious expression. It is petty, but even Spock has limits. "I would not be effective in my role as a Point if I were not able to overcome my natural discomfort in order to function satisfactorily in an emergency situation."

"No," McCoy drawls, "I guess not."

Spock nods at the biobed. "Captain Sulu?"

The doctor shakes his head as though defeated. "He'll be good to go about eleven hundred hours, but he's going to be groggy, Spock," he warns. "Go easy on him, okay?"

Spock draws himself up to his full height. "What possible motivation could I have for mistreating Captain Sulu?"

"Just tone down the Spanish Inquisition on this one, okay? The man's lost enough as it is."

"Doctor, I object to your comparison."

"How novel."

Spock nods politely and exits the sickbay.

Bones looks after him with a strange expression on his face. "Green-blooded hobgoblin," he sighs.

-:-

The comm alert sounds in Jim's quarters and he jolts awake, heart pounding like it only does when he's been solidly, properly asleep. He groans. He hadn't even needed to take one of the sleeping pills Chapel had discharged him with. Natural sleep is hard to come by. This had better be good.

"Kirk here," he says, then has to clear his throat and try again. "This is Kirk."

"Lieutenant," comes Spock's crisp voice. "Are you able to join us in the Captain's ready room?"

Jim blinks in response to the unusual request, then the request part sinks in and he jolts upright. "I'm on my way."

The line goes dead without even a thank you, but he wasn't really expecting one. He shakes his head whilst simultaneously pulling on a shirt. Is he already starting to think like a Vulcan? To hell with that. It's only been a week.

He splashes his face with water, runs damp hands through his unruly hair and jogs down the corridor with his boots undone, only to fasten them in the turbolift while several Ops crew try to pretend they aren't looking. He grins at them and they're no longer able to hide their amusement, even if they do press their lips together tightly. These are the Alpha crew and they don't know him from a bar of soap; they're not the people he hears on the other end of the comms when he's out there on Point. Still, he was out with Alpha for the Excelsior, so it could happen that one of these days someone in this lift might save his life with their timely information.

He rises from his crouch with strange and opposing feelings of vulnerability and gratitude, not quite sure what to make of it all. It's a crazy, fucked up life he's chosen to lead, that's for damn sure. He wonders what his mom would make of it if he'd bothered to tell her.

The doors swish open and he's regurgitated out onto the bridge. It's only the second time he's been here, the first being the ship-wide tour they'd received their first day during orientation. He remembers which is the door to the ready room and saves himself the embarrassing task of asking for directions. The door swishes aside and he's faced with Spock, Hikaru, Hannity from Ops and the only person in the room wearing a Starfleet uniform that he must assume is Captain Taylor.

"Reporting as ordered," Jim says, wondering what the hell is going on.

"Lieutenant Kirk," the Captain says, rising to his feet and tugging on his gold shirt, which had risen up over his paunch as he stood. "Please, have a seat. Your reputation preceeds you."

Jim sits in the only space left, between Spock and Sulu, trying not to look nervous. This has the feel of a disciplinary event.

"The Captain is referring to your efforts aboard the Excelsior," Spock informs him helpfully.

Jim feels himself relax, vowing to remember that so far he hasn't fucked up here yet. Well, that he knows about, anyway.

"Indeed I am," Taylor smiles warmly. "I hear that Captain Sulu here owes you his life."

"What else is new?" Sulu chuckles, turning a fond look on Jim.

If it were just the two of them, Jim would have punched him in the arm or told him to shut up, but he could do neither in the Captain's ready room so he just squirms a little. "I was doing my job, sir."

"Like hell," Taylor enthuses. "I've read Spock's mission report, not many people go to such lengths to save a life. Just try to remember that yours is valuable to us, too, son."

"Aye, sir," Jim acknowledges, rather interested to read Spock's mission report himself, now.

Spock leans forward, redirecting Taylor's attention. "If we might discuss the matter at hand, Captain?"

"Of course, of course," Taylor sits again and makes an open palmed gesture in Spock's direction. "I think you have a pretty good handle on the situation. Why don't you explain to young Lieutenant Kirk why he's here when he'd rather be tucked up in bed?"

Jim draws breath to protest but Spock beats him to it.

"Given that Captain Sulu has already informed us that you have deduced the approximate location of the Excelsior's last confrontation, it should come as no surprise to you to hear that the star system lost to Nero was Antares."

Truth be told, Jim is a little surprised, because Antares isn't a small fish. They are a Federation colony on the border of Romulan space, and as such, their defenses are significant, but Spock is staring at him intently, so he just nods.

"What Captain Sulu has also relayed to us involves the mission you both undertook during the Federation's engagement with Nero at the planet Vulcan."

Jim sits a little straighter in his seat. It's awkward beyond belief to be sitting there, staring at Spock's upswept brows and pointed ears whilst bringing that battle to mind. It's as though the universe is rubbing his nose in his mistakes.

"Yes?" he forces, although it sounds a little strained to his own ears.

"Specifically the report both of you filed regarding the supposition that Nero possesses the technology to obliterate objects without the use of particle beam technology."

Jim swallows heavily. "I remember."

How could he forget? Escape pods blinking out, one by one, disappearing into nothing without even a shimmer of transporter technology. He'd watched, aghast, as the lucky survivors of the initial encounter with Nero were snuffed out, whisps of ashes and smoke, nothing but a memory, like afterimages burned onto the back of his eyes, so incredibly impermanent.

When he comes out of it, Sulu's hand is on his knee and Spock is looking at him with eyes that seem more brown than black.

"Sorry," he whispers.

"I saw the same thing." It's Sulu who speaks, even though Jim is still staring at Spock, mesmerised.

"I know you did," Jim replies.

"Jim, I saw it at Antares."

He manages to break away from the intensity of Spock's gaze and has to blink several times to ground himself. "Lifepods disappearing? You saw it there, too?"

"Not just lifepods," Sulu clarifies. "Ships. Whole ships just disappearing."

"Impossible," Jim breathes.

"Many said the same about your initial report," Spock reminds him.

"I know, but ..." he wipes a hand over his face, hating the aching fatigue clogging his brain. "Think of the energy involved. I mean, we're talking an astronomical power source. Like a sun or a nova. Warp drives as we know them couldn't provide enough energy in a stable format, you'd get too much flux due to polarisation. Could something capable of output like that even be made portable?"

"Unknown," Spock replies, with a hint of respect and surprise.

"So you wish to confirm your initial statement regarding the disappearing lifepods at the battle of Vulcan?" Taylor presses, entering into the discussion for the first time.

"I do," Jim nods, then frowns. "Of course I do."

"No offense intended," Taylor says mildly. "It's just that I've been in battles myself and sometimes things can get a little out of hand, you can see things that afterward seem ..."

"I know what I saw," Jim interrupts coldly, then remembers himself. "It happened just like it says in my report, sir."

"Very good, very good," Taylor fusses, sitting back in his recliner and folding his hands over his stomach. "I had to ask, you understand."

Jim nods, a small, thoughtless motion of his head that doesn't stop until Sulu's fingers tighten around his leg and he realises he's doing it.

-:-

"Lieutenant Kirk."

Spock's commanding baritone cuts through the bustle in the busy corridor, eliminating any hope Jim had of ducking into the waiting turbolift and pretending he hasn't heard. He's tired, sore and hungry. All he wants to do is down a bowl of cereal and crawl back into bed. Preferably cereal drowned in honey. Also some pancakes. And maybe bacon. Yeah, bacon.

Instead, he ducks to the side, out of everyone's way and waits for Spock to catch up with him. "Sir?"

Spock indicates the direction Jim was traveling with a nod of his head. "I do not wish to keep you from your rest. We can talk as we walk, if you have no objection."

"I look that tired, do I?"

Spock glances at him. "Yes, you do."

They bypass several lifts and Jim realises that although Spock doesn't want to sidetrack him too much, he must have a reasonably in depth conversation planned because they're taking the long way.

"I wish to remind you that the matters disclosed during the briefing are classified."

"Of course," Jim nods, knowing that Spock is just fulfilling his obligation under policy to ensure that he complies with orders, that this is the precursor, not the meat of the conversation. "I've got nobody to gossip with, anyway."

Eyes straight ahead, Spock asks, "you feel as though you have no friends aboard this ship?"

"That's not what I said."

"Nobody in whom you can confide?"

"I'm not much of a confider."

They glance at each other, and there's a measure of greater understanding.

"No," says Spock.

Jim looks at him with a wry shake of his head. "You're a real bleeding heart aren't you?"

Spock's face does that thing where he's not smiling again. "What an unfortunate mental image. Humans are most illogical."

"Doesn't that make you half illogical?" Jim asks with a glint in his eye, remembering Spock's introduction and his human mother, the teacher, lost on Vulcan like so many others.

"I find that remark ... insulting," Spock says after some consideration.

Jim laughs, glances at Spock's blandly questioning face and laughs again. He has to quell the urge to sling an arm around the Commander's shoulders. It's so strong that he clasps his hands in the small of his back, mimicking Spock's customary stance, wondering what's got into him. They're a long way from that, even if Vulcans allowed such contact.

Despite having taken the long way, Spock's natural efficiency means that they've nearly reached Jim's quarters, so whatever he's got to say, it's going to have to come soon. Jim battles for equilibrium.

"Lieutenant?"

"Yes?" he responds, trying to seem like he hasn't been waiting for it.

"I wish to express my ... recognition of your efforts at the battle of Vulcan-that-was."

Spock might suck at it, but that's still one hell of a thank you coming from a Vulcan and a superior officer, and all kinds of surprising. Jim wishes he knew how to feel about it. A planet is gone, lost forever, so how do you even begin to feel good about anything that happened that day? Then again, Spock's tension as they wait outside Jim's quarters suggests that the guy's gone out on a limb here and Jim doesn't want to leave him hanging.

"Nothing we did was enough. I'm so sorry." Jim can't help but reach out and quickly grasp the Commander's arm, pointedly avoiding skin, deliberately fleeting, but a touch just the same.

Spock's eyes travel down to the faint imprint of human fingers in the nap of his uniform.

"I can't help it," Jim shrugs. "It's the human way to say sorry."

"I understand."

"If I were Vulcan," he asks recklessly, "what could I say?"

"Tushah nash-veh k'dular," Spock whispers. "I grieve with thee."

"C'thia," Jim answers, his accent more than passable, noticing that Spock has used the form that addresses an equal. C'thia, this is the way things are.

Spock presses his eyes shut for a little longer than a blink can justify, then turns on his heel and walks calmly away.

Jim looses the breath he didn't know he'd been holding and wipes a hand down his face. Decisively, he punches the comm button outside his door and glances at the chrono.

"Lieutenant Kirk to Doctor McCoy."

"McCoy here," comes the quick reply. "Need something, son?"

"Yeah, I do."

-:-

"You know," McCoy drawls, holding his glass up to the light, "as your doctor, I should caution you against drinking in the morning."

"You're not my doctor," Jim counters, setting his empty tumbler down. "Chapel is, and this is the middle of my night time."

"Well, in that case," he smiles, reaching across to refill both their glasses for the third or fourth time. "You know, against my better judgment, I find I like you."

Jim's eyes water as he takes an overly large swallow. "I'm touched," he gasps, blinking back the tears. "What the hell is this?"

"Don't ask."

"Okay."

"It's on the books as medicinal, but in actual fact, one of the boys in engineering makes it. Good old fashioned moonshine," McCoy grins, seeming very pleased about it. "Our illustrious Commander knows about it, of course, and it's a wonder to me that he hasn't shut it down."

"Spock knows about it?" Jim should find this more amazing, he really should, but the reason he's here is eating him up inside.

"Probably has some damn logical explanation as to why us mere humans benefit from killing off a few brain cells now and again, I don't ..."

"Bones, I think I've got a problem."

McCoy lowers his drink to the table and his eyes track it, giving Kirk the privacy of not looking at him. He doesn't even bitch about the nickname Jim refuses to explain. "Feel like talking about it?"

"On or off the record?"

"Well, now," McCoy sighs. "That depends entirely on whether or not it's going to affect your work."

"I think it could."

"I see," he nods, finally raising his eyes and seeking Jim's. "I see."

-:-

Spock is careful to ensure that he accomplishes his duties both efficiently and to the highest possible standard for the rest of his shift. He takes dinner in the mess hall because that is his habit. He even spends forty five minutes exercising in the gym because McCoy has made a note in his file that says he has lost muscle mass since his last physical. This fact is unsurprising considering how much time he spends suited up in zero-g. His Vulcan physiology is adapted to a higher gravity than is maintained on the ship, and the two factors together mean he must be mindful of avoiding atrophy.

So it is that approximately six hours after his conversation with Kirk, when he is off active duty but still on call until the Beta crew rotation takes over, Spock seats himself on the edge of his bed and presses his shaking hands between his knees.

He is quite compromised.

"Computer," he calls, his voice uncharacteristically tight. "Commence recording subspace message."

Recording

Spock draws a deep breath and exhales carefully before speaking.

"Mother ..."

His throat closes up despite his preparation and he is forced to pause the recording until he can reassert some semblance of control.

"I had thought my first message to you to be an anomaly; an aberrant and illogical coping mechanism. It seems I was mistaken ... perhaps about a great many things. There is a human, a recent addition to our crew, who was there. He was there when I was not."

Spock raises pained eyes to the recording unit and his hands form fists upon his thighs.

"His record shows that he conducted himself bravely and demonstrated considerable skill. He is responsible for evacuating the Elders from the Katric Arc, for preserving what little we have of our history. It is a great achievement but I sense no pride in him, only grief and regret. It leaves me no choice but to infer that what he saw upon the planet's surface was distressing to him, and I find myself unable to stop wondering ... Mother, did he see you in the Arc?"

Spock forces the next words through clenched teeth. "Were you in pain?"

He hangs his head, controlling his breathing, trying to ignore his rebellious human eyes. In the end, he is forced to wipe them.

Delivery error. No such subspace beacon 40eridani. Abort, retry or fail?

"Fail," he whispers.

Abort, retry or fail?

"Computer, delete message."

Message deleted from queue.

 

Chapter Text

McCoy gives Jim one week's leeway to broach things with T'Loren before he's going to have to do it officially. As much as he hates to admit it, the whole thing is going to look a heck of a lot better if it comes from him rather than the doctor. Sulu said the same, but now he's gone, disappeared in a shuttle headed back to Earth.

That had been one awkward conversation. Sulu had tried to get him to commit to messaging or even comming from time to time and had looked utterly crestfallen when brushed off. It wasn't that Jim doesn't like the idea of keeping in touch, it's just the idea that one day, pretty soon, the messages might stop. Now, that's a whole different thing.

He trusts Sulu implicity though, and he's beginning to trust McCoy, but he's got one last thing to check on before he talks to T'Loren.

Pike's face materializes on the comm screen but remains a little fuzzy around the edges. "Jim!" he smiles. "Is this business or pleasure?"

"Sort of neither," he hedges. "I need some advice."

"Professional or personal?" Pike is immediately attentive. He knows as well as Jim does that these long distance comm lines are energy expensive and unreliable at best.

"Both."

Pike makes an exasperated face. "Give me something to work with here, Jim."

"The ship's doctor thinks I need counseling."

"So, what else is new? Who among us doesn't?" Pike shrugs.

"I approached him, though. I think ... I think if I don't do something about it, there's a chance it could affect my performance."

"What could?"

"Vulcan."

"Ah," says Pike, leaning back in his chair so that his face no longer fills the screen. "That shit storm."

Jim waits patiently while the Admiral digests his confession. For once in his life, waiting is the easy option. It's the getting up and explaining himself to his Point Two that he doesn't want to do. He can't help thinking that it'd be a heck of a lot easier if only he could have told McCoy and have that be the end of it, or even if Spock was his direct superior. He has no rapport with T'Loren, hasn't even worked with her outside of mission prep since his initial field training. There's been a long-awaited lull in direct confrontation along the Neutral Zone, leaving the Stalwart and many other EPAS divisions at loose ends.

"What is it?" the Admiral asks. "Flashbacks? Bad dreams?"

"A little from column A, a little from column B," he jokes, trying to ease the tension.

"Tell me," Pike says, "Vulcan wasn't the reason you left Starfleet, was it?"

"No," Jim shakes his head. "Hell, no. The orders might have had something to do with it, but the experience itself? No, that wasn't it."

"Nobody would blame you."

"I didn't transfer out because of that."

"Good," Pike snaps, his eyes suddenly cold. "Because I'd hate to think you'd lied to me, Jim."

"Wouldn't dream of it."

"Uh huh."

The two men stare at each other from across space, each deep in thought. Pike steeples his fingers and purses his lips. Jim just watches, feeling strangely detached from the proceedings.

"Why are you telling me this, Jim? What is it you want?"

Kirk wants to say it's because he thought Pike might care, but that's a little too revealing. It hearkens back to the rare sound of his mother laughing at one of Christopher's jokes, or the warm feel of a strong hand on his shoulder when Pike occupied the spare room at the farm. He'd thought it might matter to Pike, whether or not he was okay. Apparently not. He needs to stop doing this to himself.

"I want to know if they're going to take me off active duty," Jim offers, and it's only a half-truth, because it is one reason why he called.

"Not likely," Pike shrugs. "Not unless the doctor deems you psychologically unfit, and you passed your entrance evals so unless something has changed drastically over the last few weeks, I can't see why you'd flunk them now."

Jim nods, it's what he figured, but it's nice to have it confirmed by someone in a position to know. Plus, Pike might not be a father to him but he's always excelled at keeping his mouth shut when Jim is in trouble and needs advice.

"All right then, thanks for that," he offers, leaning over to end the transmission. He's got what he needed from this conversation, if not what he wanted.

"Call me if you need to, Jim."

He forces a smile. "Yeah, sure," and thumbs the switch, then stares at the blank screen for a long time.

-:-

In Jim's defense, it's just bad luck that hostilities ignite again the following day. A civilian research outpost orbiting a planetoid well within Federation space is obliterated by Nero's fleet. Only the telltale gravitational anomaly left by the use of Nero's secret weapon indicates where fifty people lost their lives. It causes universal outrage and civil unrest among the member worlds, which was no doubt exactly what Nero is seeking. An administration that is hamstrung by political backlash is slower on its feet, all its reactions delayed, essentially muzzled.

Nero might be a psychopath, but he's a clever tactician and he takes full advantage, driving his point home by decimating a couple of agricultural worlds with conventional weapons, creating a drain on resources in the form of medical, social and economic aid. EPAS are stretched incredibly thin.

In amongst it all, even McCoy has to acknowledge that it's hard to find time to talk to T'Loren about anything that isn't absolutely critical. At least he's started the sessions with Bones, even if he doesn't really know how to do this therapy thing. He's trying to make a go of it, despite the negativity that haunts him. He's sat across from many people who've tried to unpick the knots in his brain, and all he's come away with is a healthy disrespect for psychotherapy. Besides, although the work is hard and the sights are disturbing, Jim's beginning to think he's becoming accustomed to it, that he might not have such a problem. Then again, there has been little to no EVA work, with most of their saves being straight forward planet-side evacuations, and perhaps he's only sleeping well because he's physically exhausted, but he is sleeping, at least most of the time.

He hangs out with Alpha crew at change of shift, taking his dinner alongside their breakfast. Ashe is proving to be particularly good company. Chekov kind of idolizes her, too, which is unbelievably entertaining. Occasionally Nix temporarily loses one of her crew to fatigue or minor injury and they're forced to pull someone from the floating pool to cover, or get someone to do a double shift. The Vulcans' natural hardiness means it's always one of the others who's replaced.

Today Jim's has one day off for a minor burn and Ashe covers for him, pulling a double after her usual stint as Spock's Point One. Jim watches her run through pre-flight, joking with a smiling Chapel and ruffling young Chekov's unruly hair. It's the first time he's felt envious of working a shift under T'Loren, but that's his crew, his place in the world. With a start, he realizes he's not going to be able to rest while Beta is out on deployment.

"Aye, she's a fine shuttle."

A voice next to Jim's shoulder startles him. He looks around to find a short man in engineer's overalls and Lieutenant's tabs staring lovingly at Nix. The man's ginger blond hair is sticking up in all directions and his accent is thick, the comic result of which banishes a little of Jim's unease.

The engineer notices his scrutiny and holds out a hand. "Montgomery Scott," he says with a firm, brief shake.

"Jim Kirk."

"You're a Point, then?"

"How did you know?"

"You've got that look about you," Scott says wisely, "like that ship is your girlfriend and somebody else is buying her a drink. And then there's the small matter of your uniform."

"Oh," Jim cranes his neck to look at his shoulders. "Yeah, right," he nods, feeling like an idiot.

"Amazing powers of deduction," Scott grins, "it's why they keep me around. Well," he muses, drawing out the word. "That and my little side projects."

"Wait a minute," Jim's eyes narrow as various rumors click into place. "I know you. You're the guy with the still."

"Keep it down, will you?" Scott shushes him, eyes darting around the hangar bay. "Trying to get me cited?"

"Montgomery, it's common knowledge," Jim apologizes.

"For God's sake call me Scotty," the engineer blusters, studying Jim rather doubtfully through pale blue eyes. "People know about it, you say? Which people?"

"Doctor McCoy, for one."

"Bah," Scotty dismisses him with a wave of one grease-stained hand. "He won't tell, it would jeopardize his supply."

"According to him, Commander Spock knows as well."

Scotty turns as white as a sheet, all his freckles standing out comically as he clutches for Jim's sleeve with an iron grip made of panic. "Tell me it isn't so!"

Jim bursts out laughing, drawing the attention of T'Loren and Ashe, who are still standing outside Nix's doors, discussing their mission brief. Scotty prods him in the chest, color flooding back into his face.

"Here, you can't tease a man about things like that."

"I'm not," Jim chuckles. "Bones will swear that Spock knows."

"No."

"Really!"

"Sure," Scotty drawls sarcastically, but his eyes are haunted as he manages to make himself let go of Jim's uniform.

They both turn to watch as Nix powers up and begins the taxi to the shuttle bay doors. Ashe leans into her Point harness and gives Jim a big thumbs up. He returns with a cheeky salute which makes her grin.

"Hey," Scotty says, talking to Jim but unable to tear his eyes from Nix's sleek lines and crisp running lights. "Got anything planned for your downtime?"

Feeling like a weight has lifted from his shoulders, Jim shakes his head. "What did you have in mind?"

Nix slingshots out, which seems to finally release them both. Scotty turns to look at him with a calculating expression. "How are you with statistics?"

-:-

Jim has been dreading some freakishly geeky engineering drinking game involving complex equations, so he's pleasantly surprised to find that Scotty had been talking about cards. Any rare personal item buys you into the game, so Jim pledges one of his last fresh apples. So the pot is an eclectic mix of foodstuffs and mild contraband; enough to make it interesting but nothing that would earn anyone more than a slap on the wrist if discovered.

Jim is paired with Scotty, who'd offered him a vile Andorian herbal cigar at the beginning of play. It tasted foul and Jim isn't a smoker, but it makes him feel the part so much that he puts up with it.

"What's high?"

"Nothing," Scotty reminds him, looking worried. "You're thinking of a different game."

"Oh," Jim blinks owlishly. "What game is this?"

"Sweet Jesus," Scotty moans.

"No, no," Jim grins around the table. "I think I remember. I'll see your bet and raise you."

Scotty knocks back a shot of his own hooch, eyes watering prolifically. "Sure you want to do that?"

"Pretty sure," Jim says, sounding anything but.

Everyone else sees his raise, so he lays his cards out on the makeshift table and plasters on his best innocent face. "That's good right?"

There are muttered curses from the other players as they fold in unison and Jim reaches out to collect his considerable winnings. Beside him, Scotty bends to pick up the cigar which had fallen from his lips when his jaw dropped.

"Good lad," he whispers, eyes wide. "Best bluff I've seen in ages."

"Bluff?" Jim asks, shuffling the deck like a pro. "What bluff? I've never played this before in my life."

Scotty grins happily and pushes another drink his way.

-:-

Confidential transcript: therapeutic psychological intervention sessions: Kirk, James Tiberius, Lieutentant, EPAS.
Therapist: McCoy, Leonard, MD, Senior Clinician, USS Stalwart.
Transcript abridged, please refer to central cortex for further information.

2261.1.14

"Jim, I want to talk about your relationship with your commanding officer."

"Spock?"

"No, T'Loren."

"Ah."

"What made you think I was talking about Spock?"

"Technically he's my commanding officer, T'Loren is just my shift supervisor."

"And technically Captain Taylor is my boss, but I report to the Surgeon General on Luna. She's your Point Two, Jim. Usually that's the first person you'd think of."

"Okay, so what do you infer from that? Going to show me some inkblots and talk about my shitty childhood?"

"Jesus, Jim. Try to work with me here."

2261.1.30

"I heard this last mission was a bit of a debacle."

"Bones, that doesn't even begin to cover it."

"What the hell kind of nickname is that? 'Bones'? Where did that spring from?"

"You just remind me of a dog I used to know."

"Excuse me?"

"A dog I used to know."

"I heard you the first time."

"There was this nasty looking beagle that used to mooch around the drugstore in Riverside. Nobody knew who he belonged to. Bit me once, but kind of looked sorry afterwards, you know?"

"Oh, that's just great."

"Whatever you say."

"You sound tired."

"I am tired. I've got a right to be. Have you seen the EVA hours we've clocked?"

"Nix Beta more than most."

"T'Loren pushes us hard, but she knows we can take it."

"Does she?"

"Yeah."

"You sure about that?"

"Look, all I want from life right now is a hot shower and a flat surface. Mind if we skip to the end?"

"Okay, fine. The universe lost another planet to Nero today, how does that make you feel?"

"How is it supposed to make me feel?"

"Jim, there are no right or wrong answers."

"Yeah, just those that will get me fired and those that will get me committed."

"You need to stop think of these sessions like a psych eval, they're not."

"Oh, so you can promise me that the things I say here will have absolutely no bearing on my active status or future advancement?"
.
.
.

"Thought not."

-:-

McCoy carefully unwraps the dressing from his arm, and Jim is struck again by the observation that every part of the doctor seems to be slightly weathered except for his hands, which are paler than the rest of him and baby smooth; surgeon's hands.

"You had that conversation with T'Loren, yet?"

Jim winces. "No."

"Jim!"

"It hasn't exactly been easy to find the right moment," he flails slightly, making McCoy draw back with an irritated expression. Jim apologizes and returns his arm to within the doctor's reach.

"This is going to be a difficult conversation for you, there isn't going to be a moment that feels right," McCoy looks up. "It's going to be hard no matter when you do it, but I really can't keep this secret much longer. You've been good about coming to see me for sessions and your psych profile looks a lot less stressed, which has me reassured, but I'm essentially being insubordinate, despite the doctor's oath of confidentiality. T'Loren's your direct superior and she has the right to know that this is going on."

"I know," Jim sighs defeatedly. "I know. I'll find the time."

"Do it today," he counsels. "Just get it out of the way. Get it off your back." The doctor applies an aerosol spray to the new, pink skin on his forearm and makes a satisfied cluck. "You're done here."

-:-

Jim thumbs the comm outside T'Loren's cabin. The computer has told him she is available for consultation at this time; early morning for both of them, right after breakfast. He wasn't able to eat much, thinking about what he has to say. It's one thing to tease out the edges of his experience at Vulcan with McCoy, whose humour and compassion mitigate the fallout of those memories, and quite another to confess to his unemotional Two that he's got some issues tucked away in his illogical human brain.

The door swishes open, cutting of his train of thought.

"Lieutenant Kirk," she says; an observation devoid of all surprise.

"Have you got a moment?"

She tilts her head, translating and inferring, then steps aside. "Of course."

Jim enters her quarters for the first time and is taken aback by the austerity. He's expected some personal touches, at least. Apart from the muted sandy colour palate which anyone can customise, there's not a single sign here of T'Loren's individuality. For some reason, it's distinctly unsettling.

"You wished to speak to me?" she prompts, making him jump.

"Uh, yeah," Jim casts his eyes around the room for something comforting and comes up blank. "Mind if we sit down?"

T'Loren inlines her head and Jim joins her on the other side of the desk. He clasps his hands in his lap and decides the best way to do this is simply to state facts. It's the logical thing to do.

"I was at the Battle of Vulcan," he tells her, kind of proud of his lack of inflection.

"Having read your file, I am aware of that fact," she acknowledges blankly.

"The thing is ..." and he falters. McCoy's words surface in his mind. This is never going to be easy; just get on with it. "I'm seeing one of the ship's doctors for post traumatic counseling."

Her face is unreadable, with not even the slightest flicker of emotion visible. "Then you have done the correct thing by following protocol and informing me."

"Obviously, if there's any sign that this issue might impact on my ability to work, you'll be informed by the medical staff."

Jim sits awkwardly watching her watching him. It's probably only a handful of seconds that tick past in silence, but it feels like an eternity.

"Was there something else you wish to discuss?" she asks, blinking once.

"No," he says. "That's it."

She stands and inclines her head in polite dismissal. "Since you are returned to active duty, I shall expect to see you at the mission briefing, oh eight hundred hours."

"Sir."

Jim can't get out of there fast enough.

-:-

2261.2.07

"Jim we need to talk about Vulcan."

"That can wait, have you heard anything from theatre? Is Uhura going to be okay?"

"She's out of surgery and doing just fine, Jim."

"Thank fuck for that."

"This is a dangerous job. It's a dangerous universe. I've seen you when other people get hurt and you're not like this. Is it because Uhura's a woman? Is there something between you two?"

"No ... fuck ... no, you moron. It's because she's a Pilot."

"I don't get it."

"She didn't sign up to get shot to shit by trigger-happy Klingons. I mean, fuck! We were there to help them and they goddamn open fire on us? What kind of fucked up shit is that?"

"EPAS operates in a war zone, Jim. Uhura knows that. You know that."

"Yeah, but I signed on to stand in the firing line; she didn't. She just wants to fly shuttles and she's damn good at it. Nowhere in her contract does it state that arrogant warmongering aliens have a right to try to blow her out of the sky when she's coming to save them."

"But it's okay if they happen to kill a Point or two."

"Well, no. It's not okay. Of course it's not okay, but you kind of expect it, you know? Becoming a Point, it makes you consider the possibility."

"And how often do you consider the possibility you might not come back?"

"Every fucking time we go to amber alert."

2261.2.19

"Today, we're really going to talk about Vulcan."

"Sure. Fine. Whatever."

"Jim, I mean it."

"Okay, what do you want me to say? That it was horrible? That it was the single most appalling thing I've ever seen? Cos believe me, since I started this job, I've got quite a lot to compare it to and nothing comes close. What exactly do you want to hear, Bones?"

"The truth."

"Fuck knows what the truth is. How can there be any truth? How can there be anything left after what was taken away, and in the name of what? Does anybody really know what that psychopath is talking about? Romulus being destroyed? He's insane. The planet's right there in front of him, he can visit any time he likes, he can send me a fucking postcard. Vulcan's gone because of a madman."

"It makes you angry."

"No shit. It doesn't make you angry?"

"We're not here to talk about me."

"Sorry, I forgot that I'm the crazy person here."

"Jim ... you came to me for help, remember? So let me help you."
.
.
.
"What do you want to know?"

"What happened? What can you remember?"

"... It was hot. Dry like a sauna. The air, it was thin, like being on the top of a mountain."

2261.2.28

"We made real progress last time."

"You just like it when I cry."

"Jim ..."

"It makes you feel all manly and protective."

"Can we talk more about the Katric Arc?"

"Sure. I've got my waterproof mascara on today."

"You do that a lot, don't you? Use humour as a defence?"

"Nobody appreciates my cutting wit these days."

"Why's that?"

"Vulcans. You'll never meet a tougher audience."

"What's that like for you? Working closely with two Vulcans after you couldn't save their planet?"

"Ah, I know this one. You're trying to make me angry about singlehandedly losing the Battle of Vulcan, or you're trying to make me guilty for singlehandedly losing the Battle of Vulcan. Either way, you get to say 'it's not your fault,' which is totally obvious and supposedly makes me feel better."

"Stop being such a smartass and answer the question."

"I fucking love it."

"Jim ..."

"No seriously, I love Vulcans. They're awesome. Single most fantastic species in the universe."

"Jim ..."

"Pity there aren't more of them."

"Now don't do that."

"Do what?"

"Smile like that. I know you're not happy."

"Do you? I'm not sure I can tell."

2261.3.02

"How much longer am I going to have to keep doing this, Bones? I've told you everything I remember."

"Fair enough. How about we talk about something else?"

"Okay. I heard Ops are edging out Engineering as favourites in the inter-departmental grav ball championships."

"Let's talk about your mother."

"Oh fuck no."

2261.3.03

"I already told you yesterday, I am not discussing my mother."

"Why not?"

"It's fucking obvious why not! What kind of degree have you got, anyway? Did you qualify in psychology or did you just like the sound of some extra letters after your name?"

"You're nasty when you're backed into a corner, you know that?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Sure."

"Fuck, fine. What do you want to know?"

"Do you still talk to her?"

"Winona?"

"Your mother, yes."

"Most years I remember her birthday."

"And?"

"She sent me a comm last year before she went deep space again, but it got rerouted so many times that I only got it a week ago."

"How does that make you feel?"

"How is it supposed to make me feel?"

"I don't know, Jim."

"No, that's right, you don't, because you probably have a mother you can actually carry a conversation with."

"You don't feel like you know your mother?"

"Well enough. Better than I'd like to. Less than is healthy."

"That's pretty contradictory."

"Welcome to my psyche, Doctor McCoy."

"Did you talk to her about Vulcan?"

"What is it with the Vulcan again? Aren't we done with that?"

"That's kind of up to you."

"Oh, I'm so done with that."

"Your sleeping patterns disagree."

"Beta shift has never suited me."

"Might have something to do with those nightmares, don't you think?"

"Bones, I dream but I don't have nightmares."

-:-

One 'night,' Jim stumbles back to his quarters bruised and battered from several rough landings. Chekov had maintained a constant sub-audible stream of Russian invective all the way back to the shuttle bay and not even T'Loren had reprimanded him. It was only thanks to the young man's innate ability to fly the most unwilling of objects that they were still in once piece. Jim owes him a drink. Or ten. He knows from bitter experience that the kid can hold it.

"Lights to twenty five percent," he snaps, bending over to tug on the fastenings of his boots. The new vantage point reveals a sight that sends a flash of adrenaline through his frazzled system. There's someone in his room. In his bed. "What the fuck?"

"Nice line, Kirk."

"Ashe?" his voice breaks high with surprise.

"You've been worked up about something lately, I can tell." She sits up, holding the sheet to her naked chest, preserving the illusion of modesty where there isn't any. "And me ... well, let's just say that keeping the Commander alive has been harder than usual these last few missions."

"Oh yeah?" Jim's tone is conversational and he finishes with his boots, throwing them into the closet without looking. It's true, Spock has been stalking about the place wearing a particularly intent kind of blank expression. The mission briefings he runs are even more succinct, his words carefully chosen to convey no emotion as he informs them of the latest Starfleet defeat, or their plummeting save-to-loss ratios. If Jim didn't know better, he'd swear the Vulcan is taking it personally. Everyone's been run ragged lately, but Spock has taken to leaping out of Nix like it hurts him to be aboard, leaving Ashe to give a handover, a haunted look in her eyes. Jim knows she's loyal, knows she'd never say anything, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out she's worried.

Ashe shifts slightly, dark hair slipping out from behind one ear. "I just thought we could both benefit from blowing off a little steam."

"Is that what they're calling it these days?" he asks, tone playful, as he pulls his shirt over his head.

"You've got a smart mouth."

"Rest of me's pretty clever, too," he promises.

She laughs, and he's close enough now to see the expression on her face in the low light. She's too pretty, too clever and way, way too damaged to be good for him. The thought gives him pause and she senses it, reaching out to grab him by the belt and haul him closer, her fingers grazing the bare skin of his stomach.

"Listen up, Kirk. We're two peas in a pod, you and I. I don't want to be your lover. Hell, I don't even want to be your friend. This is just sex without the bullshit, you read me?"

Relaxing, he nods and allows her to pull him down across her body, because that sounds like exactly what he needs.

-:-


2261.4.10

"It's been a while, Jim. Anyone would think you've been avoiding me."

"Avoiding you? I saw you yesterday."

"Patching up a scalp wound doesn't count."

"Seems like it ought to."

"T'Loren approached me about your mental wellbeing."

"What about it?"

"She's concerned about it."

"She said that?"

"Well, no. Not in as many words."

"She said I'm emotionally compromised, didn't she?"

"Jim ..."

"Motherfucker."

"Now, listen ..."

"There were kids down there, Bones. Little spindly kids melted to their play equipment like crispy chicken wings. Fuck, Spock is right, I think I'm going vegetarian. Can you whip up a meal plan for me?"

"I'm not giving you a vegetarian meal plan."

"Well don't blame me when I come to you with scurvy or some shit because you wouldn't help me. It's oranges I need to eat, right? And beans, heaps of beans or something."

"No vitamin C in beans, Jim."

"I'm fucking serious, Bones. I can't get the smell out of my mouth."

"You're mixing metaphors there."

"Believe me, I'm not."

"So you think T'Loren is overreacting."

"As per fucking usual."

"You don't like her, do you?"

"Honestly, no. But so long as she's a competent CO, I truly couldn't give a shit."

"You've never really got along with anyone who's above you in the chain of command, have you?"

"Hey, you technically outrank me and we get along fine."

"In an operational sense, Jim. Christ Almighty, it's like pulling teeth with you."

"Admiral Pike and I do all right."

"But you've known him since you were a child."

"As much as I've known anyone."

"Jim, somebody had to raise you. If it wasn't your mom and it wasn't Pike, then who have you got down as your next of kin?"

"Don't have one."

"Excuse me?"

"I don't have one, Bones. Shit, you've operated on me enough times, you think you'd know that by now. Who were you going to ask if you had to pull the plug on me? T'Loren?"

"Would you like that?"

"No, but she might."

"Jim ..."

"Joking, Bones, I'm joking."

2261.5.13

"I'm going to wind up these sessions, Jim. I'm just not sure you're getting much out of them anymore."

"Okay, you're the doctor."

"You make that sound like a bad thing."

"Never."

"You'd have to be one of the most frustrating, ungrateful, unappreciative ..."

"What is this? Insult the patient day? What about my delicate mental state?"

"Just promise me you'll come talk to me if things get bad again."

"Yeah, okay."

"Jim, I mean it."

"I know, I know."

"You're doing better now, you've said so yourself. I'm proud of what you've accomplished, even if I'm not quite sure how it happened."

"Jesus, Bones, you're not going to hug me are you?"

"Sonofa ... get out of my sickbay."

"Sure thing. Hey, I'm off to rec room two. It's the grav ball prelims tonight, want to join me?"

"Sorry, I can't. I'm too busy writing a report on how you're irretrievably fucked up but somehow still highly functional and reliable."

"Sounds like a blast."

"You ought to know."

 

Chapter Text

It's six months into his contract with EPAS and Jim's long since forgotten what it feels like to be the new kid. From the vantage point of his newly acquired experience, it's amazing how often people come and go. There are casualties, sure enough, but it's actually the resignations and transfers that hit their numbers hardest. Seeing an influx of at least ten new people a month quickly inures him to the process of orientating new staff. They get even more when they're near the center of Federation held space, because Pike takes advantage of the secure shipping routes to warp people over in higher numbers.

Over time, Jim discovers within himself a new tolerance for T'Loren's obsessive need to do better than everyone and McCoy's cynical friendship. When he mentions to Ashe that he's feeling like a particularly Southern sort of Vulcan, she just laughs, chews on her Andorian cigar and gives him a look that says he'd better leave his door unlocked tonight. They're not an item, they're not even particularly interested in each other, but Jim finds a simple release in her body that acts as a dam for some of the loneliness and some of the desperation. It still feels like he can't make a difference fast enough and it eats at him during his rest breaks, the Iowa State News burbling in the background as his mind chases itself into sleep. Ashe bumps up against his bruises unapologetically and doesn't really care what he's feeling, but she's warm and enthusiastic and very much alive. He's pretty sure she's sleeping with Scotty, too, but that kind of thing has never bothered him.

Jim isn't exactly happy, but he's nurturing a sense of belonging in the hope that it will blossom into something more and he'll finally know that this is what he's supposed to do with his life. McCoy just laughs at him. The doctor still keeps tabs on him, but is apparently satisfied that he isn't going to jeopardize an evacuation or end it all with a long walk out a short airlock. Jim doesn't feel nearly balanced enough to be out of therapy, but neither does he see the virtue of saying as much to Bones, who's pretty much told him you never really get over seeing a planet obliterated. Supposedly there's logic in that.

He spends his one free day per six in the rec rooms with Ashe, Scotty, Hannity and Chekov playing cards and chess, or in the gym working out. He occasionally catches sight of Spock there if their rosters line up, but they don't talk much. Perhaps a simple acknowledgment or a question pertaining to a current operation or deployment notification. He sees the way Spock and Ashe communicate so easily and wishes he had that kind of rapport with T'Loren. It's not that they haven't managed to make it work, because they have, but he can't shake the feeling she doesn't really trust him, and it's mutual. He's not a coward, but he'd prefer having the sense that his CO might miss him slightly if he died. Or, you know, notice.

Pike occasionally asks him what crew he's working and seems slightly disappointed every time he says Beta. It's clearly not the answer he's hoping for. Still, for him to end up on Alpha crew, either Spock or Ashe would have to go, and time has shown him it would be a certain kind of sacrilege to break up such a competent Point team. Jim forces himself to serve as T'Loren's One, putting his faith in the knowledge that the whole operation is overseen by Spock, in whom he's come to place a great amount of confidence. The Commander is a natural leader; sharp, competent and unwilling to ask of someone else what he is not willing to do himself. Jim knows he could do a lot worse, especially during their inter-combat deployments. Spock always pulls doubles for those, very much aware of how quickly an EPAS rescue group can transform into a tasty military target. Like so many other ex-Starfleet personnel, it's hard for Jim to remember where he belongs sometimes, when the phasers fire off around their shuttles. The sound of Spock's calm baritone over the comm calls him back to the job at hand; makes him evaluate potential saves instead of tactics and strategic retreats.

No matter what he told Pike, it really is hard to let go of the center seat.

Not all EPAS work happens on the front line. Sometimes it's salvage, both personnel and equipment. Other times it's more behind the scenes, like the current relocation project on Robicon IV. The only M-class planet in the Robicon solar system is approximately double Earth-mass and is home to eighteen billion beings; twice that of the long-stable Earth population of nine billion. The Robii are a warp-capable society with a propensity towards flamboyant posturing and an apparent pathological dislike of being helped. That's not what Spock's briefings say, but it's the conclusion Jim's come to after three weeks of failed negotiations.

Day after day Spock stands up in front of everyone and tells them there's going to be at least another seventy two hours of sitting on their hands because the Robii are tussling with the Diplomatic Corps over the wording of some subsection or addendum to the relocation contract. It's all got to do with loss of face and political positioning and Jim's well and truly over it. He's held his tongue up til now, but the constant chauffeuring of pompous diplomats from place to place is doing more than rubbing him the wrong way. As much as he welcomed the break from the front lines, it's getting harder and harder to ignore the abysmal save-to-loss ratios of EPAS as a whole without Prime Division on active deployment in Nero-controlled space.

He raises his hand when Spock finishes his briefing.

The DivCO acknowledges him with a nod.

"It might be just me," Jim allows, although is tone suggests it's doubtful, "but why don't we just show them a big blank picture of where Vulcan used to be? I mean, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that Robicon is directly in the path that Nero is forging towards the central worlds. What the hell do they think is going to happen when he gets here?"

Six months ago, Jim might have drawn the line at mentioning Vulcan so offhandedly, hell, two months ago he might have had second thoughts, but being around T'Loren so much has blunted his emotional response. He's come to terms with what happened. Right now, at this instant, it is simply another fact to weigh in that Vulcan brain of Spock's, another incentive for recalcitrant recipients of Federation aid.

Spock raises a cool eyebrow. "Whilst I recognise the pertinence of such an example, the destruction of Vulcan is common knowledge. Do you anticipate there would be much to gain by reinforcing this potential outcome for the Robii?"

"There's heaps to gain," Jim nods. "We need to remind them that this isn't some trade agreement we're negotiating here."

"The Robii are no doubt aware of that fact."

Jim slouches in his chair, knees akimbo. "Are they? Cos you could've fooled me."

Spock merely narrows his eyes and demands, "elaborate."

Suddenly it's just the two of them debating a point of logic, and Jim gets a little thrill up his spine. He shrugs, suddenly realizing this isn't an idea best discussed in a public forum. "Forget about it," he says dismissively. "I was just thinking out loud."

Spock gives him a look that could be blank or could be suspicion. Jim gets hints of emotion sometimes, or at least he thinks he does. Bones just scoffs, says it's transference and that he should stop trying to make Spock more human.

Still, the Commander holds eye contact a little longer than usual before turning his attention to the room in general. "If there are no further comments or questions, please report to your assigned duties. Ops, Medical and Point personnel please note there will be a special in service run by Lieutenant Uhura on the correct formal manner of address for Robii diplomatic escorts. The current level of cultural sensitivity practiced has resulted in a number of objections being logged."

The room clears. Jim stands too, but acting on a hunch, he lags behind. There are PADDs he can shuffle and a clasp on his boot he can adjust, so that when he looks up again it's just him and Spock, who is still standing behind the lectern.

Jim straightens and holds his hands out in appeal. "We need to give these people some sense of urgency. I mean, are they even aware that Nero-controlled space now extends past Omicron Cetii? Have they heard about what that bastard did on the Icarus Station or Deep Space Two?" Jim sighs in frustration and disbelief. "Someone needs to tell the Robii that EPAS has better things to do than dedicate this much time to some backwater agricultural world with little strategic value, bad food and worse manners."

Calmly and with no comment on Jim's assessment of Robicon, Spock asks, "how do you propose we accomplish such a thing?"

"We need to scare some sense into them," he replies immediately. "We need to tell them that negotiations are over and we're leaving them to fend for themselves."

Spock's eyebrows level off in the slightest hint of surprise. "The Federation Council would never sanction this course of action."

"I know that. You know that. Hell, anyone with any sense knows that, but do the Robii?"

Spock's face goes blank and unreadable. "You propose a deception."

"I do."

The seconds tick past painfully as Spock considers this bold admission. Jim's eyes never waver and they're wide and blue and completely at ease. Perhaps it's that very comfort with the notion that sways the Commander, Jim can't be sure, but Spock nods once, short and sharp like it never even happened.

"What you propose is dishonourable," the Commander says, because it needs saying.

"Which is exactly why the Robii won't see it coming," Jim replies unapologetically.

"I anticipate difficulty convincing the Diplomatic Corps that this in any way resembles diplomacy." There's the barest hint of wryness in Spock's voice and it makes Jim smile.

"So don't."

Those eyebrows shoot up in a way that clearly says, I beg your pardon?

"Don't try to convince them."

"You have an alternative?"

"Sure do. Convince the Robii directly."

"Directly?"

"Yes. Cut to the chase."

Spock huffs lightly through his nose, so Jim knows he's got under that famous thick skin. "What I'm suggesting, Commander, is more of a friendly warning than an official notification."

"And you do not wish this 'friendly warning' to be issued through appropriate diplomatic channels?"

"That would just be counterproductive."

"I fail to comprehend your reasoning," Spock admits with the acceptance of someone who's grown used to substandard working conditions.

"Look," says Jim, resuming his seat and resting his elbows on his knees. It leaves his hands free to gesticulate. "It's been nearly a month now, so I think we've all had a pretty good look at the way things work on Robicon. We know that while they need to be seen to be acting above board, corruption and espionage is rife amongst all socio-political classes. Sitting down at a negotiating table and telling them to get their shit together or we're leaving will just back them into a corner where agreeing to our terms will cause them to lose face. They'll never agree to that." He makes a chopping motion with one palm, wiping the other clean as though clearing the surface of a table, scrapping that idea. "If, however, we made it look like we were preparing to leave without actually saying as much ... well, that might just get their attention."

Spock opens his mouth to speak, then shuts it again rather abruptly.

Jim watches and waits.

"Come with me." Spock tucks the papers under his arm and sweeps out of the briefing room.

-:-

Jim knows that while it might not seem like it, getting Spock onside for his underhanded idea is far more difficult that pitching it to Captain Taylor.

He and Spock take the same turbolift to the bridge, standing shoulder to shoulder facing the doors as they close. The levels flick past smoothly, even if it takes longer on this old ship than it would on most other vessels committed to active duty. It's little things like that which remind Jim that the Stalwart is a hard-bitten matriarch of the fleet, and that EPAS is at the bottom of the Council's funding agenda.

The thought gives him a sudden rush of fondness for the old girl, the mission and the life he's chosen to lead. He reaches out and pats the wall affectionately. Spock pretends not to notice, but the tiny crease between his brows gives him away.

"Just being an illogical human," Jim confesses cheerfully.

"Yes."

Jim laughs and folds his arms. They spend the last few seconds of the ride staring straight ahead in comfortable silence, then the doors swish open to reveal Taylor in the captain's chair and the bustling activity of an active deep-space comms station around him.

"DivCO on the bridge," someone calls crisply, and those not engaged in sensitive tasks snap to attention.

Spock acknowledges them with a tilt of his head, releasing them back to their duties with the smoothness of practice. He crosses to the center dais, and if Jim slows slightly to take in the sight of the viewscreen, the Commander may, just possibly, alter his stride to accommodate.

"Captain, a moment of your time, sir?"

"Can it wait, Spock? We're monitoring some signal activity on the border of the Romulan Neutral Zone," Taylor frowns, his bushy grey eyebrows drawing together.

"Of course, sir."

Spock folds his hands in the small of his back and stands tall, waiting. Jim does his best to mimic such patience, but his eyes are continually drawn to the nearest displays, and his ears tease him with snippets of comm chatter. From the projected trajectories on the navigation board and the twang to the Romulan dialect spilling over the channels, it sounds like Nero's fleet is a lot closer than popular belief dictates. The knowledge lends an uncomfortable urgency to the situation and he can feel himself begin to fidget.

Spock sends him a quelling look.

What's more uncomfortable is the fact that it seems that for all his request to delay Spock, the Captain is not actually directly involved in anything currently taking place on the bridge. He's merely frowning at the displays or interrupting his crew to ask for updates before they're ready. The inefficiency of his approach makes Kirk's skin crawl. T'Loren would not approve, and from the increasing tension in Spock's frame, nor does he.

Eventually, even Spock reaches his limit and clears his throat softly.

"Yes?" asks Taylor, as though he has no idea why Spock might still be standing there.

"I have come to discuss a potential avenue for resolving the Robicon IV situation, sir."

"You have an idea?"

"For the sake of accuracy, it is Lieutenant Kirk's idea. However, I have been persuaded of its likely efficacy."

"Really?" Taylor muses, drawing out the word until it sounds torn between surprise and scepticism. "So what is it?"

Spock blinks, and it's only a blink, but it's telling. "Perhaps we should retire to your ready room, sir?"

The Captain stands, tugs his shirt down over his paunch and leads the way with a slightly loose gait typical of those who spend the majority of their life on spaceships. Oh hell no, Jim thinks to himself. I'd never let myself go like that.

In the end, Spock actually has to spend more time explaining the plan than he does asking for permission to implement it.

"So, the plan is," Taylor tries for the third time, "I tell the command crew what we're up to, and they pretend we're actually leaving?"

Spock does an admirable job of smothering the pained expression on his face and Jim feels sorry for him. What must it be like to be so intelligent and have someone like Taylor as your commanding officer? Sure, given Spock's aptitude scores he probably feels like he's surrounded by idiots all the time, and overly emotional idiots, too. But there has to be a difference between working with people who're slower than you and taking orders from people like Taylor, who has a good reputation amongst those concerned with safety and operations, but little to no credit in strategic or diplomatic circles. Taylor isn't a stupid man, not by any stretch of the imagination; his talents are just extremely specific. Ask him to navigate a relatively unarmed aid fleet through the fringes of a battlefield and he's second to none. Outline a simple subterfuge and here he is, grappling with the idea like a bear with a puzzle box.

For the first time, Jim realizes he's actually been quite lucky in his past commanding officers. Sure, none of them had listened to him, people had died and battles had been lost ... but they'd all had good reasons for the decisions they'd made, even if they'd turned out to be the wrong ones. He momentarily pictures Taylor on the bridge of the Enterprise and can't repress a shudder. Yeah, his experiences in Starfleet could have been worse. What a revelation.

"It's like this, sir," Jim interrupts before Spock can launch into his fourth explanation. "A secret is hard to keep, that's just a fact. So, in order to make this work, we need to keep it between you, me and Spock. Everyone else will think we're giving up and going home."

"And you don't want to tell the Diplomatic Corps?" Taylor asks, as though that couldn't possibly be correct.

"Exactly," Jim points a finger at their Captain and flicks it up as though a weapon has been fired. "Because that would ruin everything."

"It would?"

Jim and Spock exchange a fleeting glance.

"It would, sir," Spock confirms.

Taylor chews his bottom lip and heaves a heavy sigh through his nose. Eventually, after a long pause, his bushy eyebrows descend and he turns a suspicious and frustrated gaze on Spock.

"Just how sure are you that this will work, Commander?"

"Based on the information available, I calculate a seventy two point six percent likelihood of success," he answers without hesitation.

Jim wonders when he worked that out. Probably in the two seconds since Taylor asked the question.

"And if we continue with our current approach to the situation?"

"The chances of coming to a successful diplomatic conclusion to these negotiations before Nero's fleet arrives is less than twenty nine percent."

Taylor nods. "That seals it, then. Kirk, you have my permission to go ahead with your plan. Spock, get him whatever he needs to make this work and I want a clear chain of command documented in the ship's logs. Kirk reports to you and you report to me, all right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Kirk, I'm giving you leave to interfere with whatever operations you need to, just don't leave us hanging in the wind if Nero turns up unexpectedly. That will not go down well back home." Taylor takes a moment to look ill at ease, then points a finger at Spock and waves it sternly. "I'm counting on you to make sure this escapade doesn't get out of hand. He's new at this," Taylor transfers the accusatory finger to Kirk. "Don't let him screw it up."

"Of course not, sir," Spock accepts readily, as though it is commonplace for a junior Lieutenant and a Divisional Commander to circumvent diplomatic channels and assume full control over active operations in hostile territory with little to no involvement from their Captain.

"And don't let me look like an ass," Taylor snaps as a parting shot, making his way to the door. "Make sure I know what's happening on my own goddamn ship."

"Yes, sir," both Jim and Spock chorus as the door swishes closed.

Alone in the Captain's ready room, they share another glance. Spock's face is utterly unreadable. Jim makes no secret of his astonishment.

"I really didn't expect him to put me in charge of this."

"No," Spock agrees, "neither did I."


-:-


Before Kirk has a chance to even consider wielding his newly ordained authority, the Stalwart is called away from the dead-in-the-water evacuation of Robicon IV to attend a particularly nasty engagement between Federation forces and a rogue Klingon warlord. As if it's not enough that Nero is pounding them along one Neutral Zone, the Klingons have decided to take advantage of StarFleet's preoccupation with all things Romulan and engage the hopelessly over-committed Federation fleet from another angle.

First shift in, Alpha team disembark Nix with a weary efficiency that speaks volumes for what Beta team can expect to find out there. Kirk's been monitoring their frequencies since he woke up, so he's anticipating the biggest blow before it comes. Still, when McCoy dashes past with Ashe on a stretcher it clenches his gut uncomfortably. That's followed by the shock he feels when Spock appears. The Commander's composed face is white with fatigue, he's pulled a double to fly Alpha so close on the heels of shuttling the Diplomatic Corps around, and it shows. When he draws near enough, Kirk can see that his eyes are narrowed and his mouth tight.

Chekov, standing by Jim's elbow, squirms with discomfort. They'd been sitting together in the mess, monitoring Alpha's frequencies when Ashe got hurt and Spock called it in; his tightly controlled request for 'immediate beam-out, crew emergency, grade three' unable to be processed due to Klingon hostilities. McCoy was forced to simply stabilize her on Nix and go for a hardlock transfer to sickbay rather than beam. If Jim had been less worried about Ashe, he might have been more impressed by Bones' colourful invective.

"Alpha shift reports one major injury but no vital system failures," Spock begins without any of the emotional preamble that might have come from a human. He pointedly ignores the fact that Jim keeps glancing over his shoulder to check on Ashe.

"Well, that's something," Jim offers, taking the handover so that T'Loren can focus on the mission stats and latest evac co-ordinates for their outbound flight. He'll brief her on anything important before they're slingshotted out. Not all crews operate this way, but T'Loren is always more focussed on the facts and figures rather than the impressions of those who've just returned from the fray. Jim hasn't failed to notice that Spock never leaves it to Ashe to take handover, even if he's up to his neck in DivCO responsibilities.

Spock inclines his head in a weary nod, the gesture far less precise than usual. "Indeed. However, you will find that the port side grapple is only operating at sixty one point nine percent efficiency. In addition, both the port runner and line locks on that side have been damaged beyond repair. It will be necessary to maneuver in such a way that Point deployment occurs only from the starboard side." Spock's eyes drift to where Chekov, Hannity and Uhura are now having a confab. "No doubt this information is already being relayed to your astrogation crew."

Kirk peers around the Commander to take in the damage. The hull plating is buckled and the runner bent to uselessness. Scorch marks meander down the side, culminating in an external hull breach that the maintenance crews are hurriedly trying to patch. He lifts his eyes back to Spock's face and for the first time notices the bruises beginning to form down his left cheekbone, dark green and vibrant yellow. The eye on that side is rapidly swelling and Jim can see the scattered pressure bruises where Spock's visor took the worst of the impact.

"You were on that runner when it was hit?"

"... Affirmative."

Jim reaches out and carefully steadies Spock by his uninjured right shoulder, only now detecting the slight sway. "Bones!"

The doctor hears the urgency in his tone and looks up. His eyes narrow when he notices Kirk's hand on the Commander. Spock doesn't tolerate physical contact from anyone. The doctor crosses the deck in record time, tricorder in hand.

"Of all the stupid, knuckle-headed, irresponsible ..." he begins scathingly, bathing Spock in the scintillating lights of his medical scanner. "I know you're Vulcan and rather more durable than us lowly mortals, but I can't treat you if you don't disclose the full extent of your injuries!"

"There were more pressing concerns, doctor."

Deliberately, nobody looks at the place where medics are still crowded around Ashe's stretcher. She's not even stable enough to move to sickbay, yet.

"Lord save us from your sense of priorities!" McCoy mocks, signalling with his head for another stretcher crew. "A dislocated shoulder is a pressing concern in my book, especially when, as you very well know, a medevac shuttle can be called upon to deploy its Points at any given moment! Ashe was already out of the picture, Spock, I needed to know about this when it happened."

"As you can plainly see, Doctor, my shoulder is not dislocated."

If it's possible, McCoy's scowl deepens even further. "Oh and what a great idea that was, putting it back in yourself! This amount of soft tissue damage is going to take at least forty eight hours to regenerate, even if I was willing to push it, which I'm not! Sometimes there's no telling how your hybrid physiology reacts to deep treatments. You can count yourself out of any missions scheduled for the next seventy two hours, doctor's orders."

The stretcher bearers arrive and Spock shoots them a look that has Jim stepping back involuntarily, even though it isn't directed at him.

"I do not require your services."

"The hell you don't!" McCoy spits. "Or are you planning on walking all the way to sick bay with dangerously low body temperature and internal bleeding? You told me you weren't on that runner when we got hit and I believed you. I believed you!" McCoy crows with laughter. "You're a piece of work, you know that? Now get on the goddamn stretcher!"

"I will not."

McCoy steps up to Spock until they're toe to toe and drops his voice to a steely whisper, which is somehow more terrifying than his usual bluster. "Get your skinny green ass on that stretcher, or so help me God, I'm going to write you up for disobeying a direct medical order, you got that?"

Spock holds his ground but Jim feels him tense through the fingers that still rest on his shoulder. It seems impossible that Spock would argue so logical a course of action, and yet here he stands, having a staring contest with McCoy. The tension builds and builds, and so does their audience, as more and more of the other crews, maintenance personnel and medical staff leave off what they're doing to watch the showdown. Even T'Loren pauses with one hand half-raised to indicate something to the maintenance crews, interrupted mid-sentence by the power play. Kirk has the feeling that this is about to turn spectacularly ugly and that for some reason, it's fallen to him to return sanity to the universe.

With conscious effort, he loosens his grip on Spock, changing it into something a little less panicked. He steps closer, intruding on the little contest of wills by sticking a shoulder between them. He faces Spock, who's eyes never waver from McCoy's apoplectic face. Jim finds he has a new appreciation for the doctor's bravery. No way in hell he ever wants to see that Vulcan death stare turned on him.

"Commander," he tries evenly, carefully. "Standard procedure dictates that all crew who are in danger of exacerbating existing injuries by ambulating to sick bay should be transported on a stretcher."

There is the barest hint of something like rationality in Spock's eyes. Jim decides to try again. Hell, if he does get taken to pieces, at least there's a full medical complement standing by to put him back together again.

"Spock," he shifts, searching for the right angle, hoping he's not pushing the bounds of courtesy far enough to earn him a demonstration of Vulcan strength. He drops his voice for privacy. "There are a whole lot of people standing around who respect you. They look at you and they see their DivCO, they see the service, hell, they see the kind of Point they want to be." Jim licks his lips and edges a little more into Spock's line of sight, forcing those dark eyes to fix on him. "You've got nothing to prove here. Take the damn stretcher, let Bones do his job."

Spock waits one perfectly measured breath. In and out. Then he pushes past them and, his disapproval barely contained, settles himself on the stretcher. The two bearers glance at McCoy with terrified eyes. He shoos them towards sick bay with a wave of his hand.

Jim breathes a sigh of relief and rolls his shoulders like he would after a workout. When Spock is out of earshot, he turns to Bones and cracks a huge grin. "Fuck me."

"Yeah, well," Bones scowls at his tricorder and tucks it away. "That was quite some speech. Never figured you for a diplomat."

Jim claps him on the shoulder, making him sway with the force of it. "I have hidden depths," he says, gracing the doctor with a shit-eating grin.

McCoy begins to chuckle despite his lingering fury. "I can see that," he drawls "Tell you what. Saving my sorry old hide from a Vulcan ass-kicking deserves a thank you. Drop by my quarters when you get off duty and you can meet a good friend of mine called Saurian brandy."

Already walking towards Nix, Jim turns on his heel and makes guns out of his hands, "you're on," then spins and keeps walking without losing momentum. Behind him, McCoy can see T'Loren standing at perfect attention, every line of her body radiating disapproval even though none of it reaches her perfectly composed face.


-:-


Bones watches the young Point spring lightly up the intact starboard runner and disappear with Beta shift into the medevac shuttle. He thinks about the gap Sally Morrison has left on their team. He thinks about how T'Loren keeps pushing and pushing Jim, trying to find the place where he falls short of her impossible expectations. He thinks about the apparent disregard Spock has for his own life when Ashe's not there to moderate him and the terrible price she nearly paid today for trying to keep him alive. It hasn't escaped him that Jim couldn't resist one last glance in Ashe's direction before he boarded.

McCoy decides to talk to Admiral Pike about switching up a few things.

Chapter Text

Ten hours later Jim yanks his visor off so hard that the membranous EVA pulls at his scalp when he peels it away. He grips it in his fist, pulling so it tears at the collar, not caring how he's going to explain that to Requisitions. He slams into the male showers and throws the lot at the lockers as hard as he can. The plassteel doesn't so much as dent and neither does the tough transparent aluminum visor, but the noise makes him feel better.

Chekov mutters something in Russian and Jim whips round to scowl at him, not having realized he's been followed.

The kid raises his hands in the air, collar of his Pilot's uniform flapping open to reveal an arrow of sweat soaking the t-shirt beneath. "I am saying nothing."

"Good, 'cos I don't want to hear it."

Jim strips methodically, throwing his field blacks into the cycler with a viciousness that clothes don't deserve. He's seething with anger, teeth clenched so tight his jaw hurts.

"Okay," Chekov apologizes. "I am saying just one thing ..."

"Don't," Jim warns. "Seriously, don't."

"I cannot watch you do this to yourself," the kid protests, shrugging awkwardly out of his own shirt. "Every time it is like this," he continues, voice muffled inside his shirt before it pops free and he shakes his curly head. "It is killing me on the inside."

"Stop there," Jim steps into a sonic shower. "I really, really don't want to hear how mommy and daddy fighting is breaking your prepubescent heart."

"What would you have me do?" Chekov exclaims, voice pitched high with frustration, echoing around the room as he slips into the cubicle next to Jim's. "You must stop thinking only of yourself. It is Christine and myself who must listen to you and the Lieutenant Commander bicker like married couple ower the comms."

Jim sticks his head around the corner to gape at the young Pilot. "You did not just say that."

"Yes, I did," Chekov nods decisively, hands on his naked hips, looking very defiant. "You and T'Loren fight like old women in my willage."

"I'm going to have to kick your ass for that."

"Granted, most people are not liking the Lieutenant Commander, this is a fact," the boy continues, oblivious to Jim's outrage. "However, Uhura has been saying that not even Admiral Pike fought with her quite so much as you do."

Kirk's eyes widen in surprise. "Pike and T'Loren didn't get along?"

"Uhura says no, and according to doctor McCoy, Uhura is knowing everything."

Jim pouts, not bothering to argue the truth of that statement. "What else did Uhura say about Pike and Lieutenant Commander Tightass?"

"Oh no," Chekov shakes his head and smiles. "I am not giving you ammunition. I should not have said anything, only I am tired of all the banging and crashing during decontamination." He presses a hand against his skinny white chest. "It is hard on my nerves, you know."

"On your ..." Jim's face performs a series of extreme expressions before settling on fond exasperation.

"Listen," Chekov says wisely, blue eyes wide in his boyish face. "No good will come of continuing to confront T'Loren during a mission. Instead, you should address your concerns with her before our next assignment. If you lodge a request for a formal dispute resolution, she will have no choice but to take you seriously. She cannot keep asking you to do these dangerous things," the boy's blue eyes are earnest. "Today was too close."

Jim rests his face against the cold wall of the cubicle and considers that. "You know, Chekov, if you didn't look like a twelve year old girl I might stop forgetting how smart you are."

"Thank you, sir," he nods sharply, grinning.

Jim rolls his eyes and steps back under the sonics. This time, the gentle massage is soothing.


-:-


"Bones," Jim calls, catching himself on the door to McCoy's office in sickbay. "I need to ask you a really important question."

"For the last time, no, Jim. I will not go to the interdepartmental dance with you."

Kirk waves a dismissive hand between them and steps into the room. "Forget about that, like, all together."

McCoy's expressive eyebrows shoot up. "It's all you've been bugging me about for the last week and a half, and now you want me to just forget about it?"

"Important question," Jim reiterates, snapping the fingers on both hands. "Focus, Bones."

"Get your limbs out of my face and tell me what the hell you want, already."

"Will you mediate a formal dispute resolution for me?"

He sighs heavily. "Who's filed against you this time?"

"What ..." Jim's earnest face morphs into an offended pout. "Why does everyone always assume it's me?"

"Because it usually is, that's why!" McCoy pushes back from his desk and stands, leaning over it to get up into Kirk's personal space. "So if it's you who's filed the complaint, that means it's going to be against one of two people, me or T'Loren, and since even you're not dumb enough to try getting me to mediate a dispute lodged against myself, I can only assume you're about to commit career suicide."

"Bones, I would never file a complaint against you."

McCoy points at his terminal with one accusing finger. "Two last week!" he howls, "all over this ridiculous dance!"

"You really hurt my feelings when you said no the first six times ..."

"Spock pulled me aside in the corridor yesterday," McCoy whispers in pained voice. "I think he was trying to offer me relationship advice. He thinks we're a goddamn couple!."

"Oh hell," says Jim, fighting down the laughter.

"Wipe that smile off your face!" He points that selfsame finger at Jim. "It was awkward, I don't mind saying."

"Do you think if I ask Hannity really nicely she could get me some stills from the security cameras? I want to see that conversation."

"You do that and I'll cut you off," McCoy threatens, voice low and dangerous. "I mean it, Jim. You can forget about your sinus shots, your allergy shots and your damn hangover cures. We'll see how smug you are with your head all filled up with fluid and your fingers swollen to twice their usual size. Don't think I've forgotten you're allergic to polycarbonitrates! Twenty four hours without a hypo from me and you'll explode out of your EVA suit like an overripe ..."

"Bones, Bones, Bones," Jim soothes. "I would never. Besides, Hannity doesn't like me that much."

"Of all the ..."

"So will you do it?"

"No!" he snaps. "Absolutely not!"

"But Bones ..."

"Stop whining! How old are you, anyway?" McCoy admonishes, walking around the desk with the air of a man on a mission. "I'm not going to mediate your damn dispute. What's more, I'd advise you not to make the complaint in the first place and to withdraw it if you've already been stupid enough to place it."

"No," Jim shakes his head, suddenly serious. "I can't take it anymore. I've got to stand up and say something or someone's going to get hurt, and it's one thing if it's me, but an entirely different matter if it's someone else. Bones, what if it's Chekov or Chris?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you, you idiot, I know how to keep you safe and keep you aboard Nix."

"You can't fix this, Bones," Jim shakes his head defeatedly. "I'm not even sure I can, but I have to try."

McCoy takes a few steps away, folding his arms across his chest. "I don't blame you for missing it," he says suddenly conversational. "Lord knows I wasn't sure myself until you and Chekov came along to prove me right."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"T'Loren's not hard on you because you're Jim Kirk." McCoy is watching him intently. "She's not hard on you because you're new, or inexperienced or human or any combination of the above," he continues, confidence oozing from every pore. "If that were the case, she'd be just as hard on Chekov. Jim, she's hard on you because you were at Vulcan."

The simplicity of it strikes Jim dumb.

McCoy nods and grips him by the shoulder. "You see it now, don't you?"

"But that's ..."

"Illogical?" McCoy smiles sadly. "You don't think she knows that?"

The implications chase themselves around Jim's brain, churning out complication after complication and leading to the inevitable and explosively unpleasant conclusion that unless he stops working with T'Loren or she gets help, shit is going to go down.

"Son of a bitch." Jim sinks, slow motion, into the chair McCoy has placed behind him for that express purpose.

"There you go."

"You're right, I didn't see it."

"You didn't want to," McCoy counters. "Fancy that drink I owe you?"

Jim nods mutely, accepts the glass and obediently takes a sip. The fiery liquid sinks into his stomach, finally shattering the feeling of paralysis. "My God, Bones, what do I do?"

"You tread very carefully, that's what."

"I could get her fired," he realizes aloud. "Discharged from active service for discrimination and worse."

"Endangering the lives of fellow crew members and subordinates as a result of poor judgment, willful neglect or emotional compromise." McCoy waggles his eyebrows. "Stolen directly from Starfleet standing orders and incorporated into the EPAS operational charter."

"Emotional compromise," Jim echoes, a wan smile flickering at the corners of his mouth. "You couldn't find a better reason for it."

"For all that you're justified, Jim, don't file that complaint."

"Oh, I won't," he says, realizing as he says it that it's true. He never could, not now, not knowing what he knows. "Still, I can't ... we can't ..."

"I've got a plan," McCoy confides, topping up Jim's glass quite generously. "You can't stay working for her, but she's an asset to EPAS, an experienced Point and a proven leader. Just because nothing you do will ever be good enough shouldn't mean the universe has to do without her single-bloody-mindedness in a crisis. It's all kinds of wrong, but rest assured I'll be approaching her through proper channels. Whether she talks to me or some voodoo mind healer on New Vulcan, I don't care, but this has to be addressed. Just don't become a victim of prejudice before I sort this out, you hear me? Pull sick days if you have to, I'll back you up, but I don't want to hear about her throwing you to the wolves again." McCoy pulls a complicatedly outraged face. "My God man, there were still phasers firing in that sector when she sent you in!"

Jim nods, sips his drink and then asks the question he can't quite bring himself to smother. "Why are you doing this? For her, I mean?"

The doctor raises his glass to his lips and tilts it, letting the amber liquid brush his lips but never taking his eyes from Kirk's face. "You do my job, you see what I see, and you begin to realize that we're surrounded by the walking wounded. We're none of us quite whole, Jim. Some of us just hide it better than others." He sets the glass down on the desk and stares at it. "I'm a doctor," he shrugs, seeming confident that says it all. "It's who I am."


-:-


Spock has, once again, discharged himself against medical orders and is working from the terminal in his quarters. McCoy has the tendency to keep him as an inpatient far longer than is really necessary, muttering about his 'weird hybrid physiology' and various other uncomplimentary considerations. Spock has spent quite enough of his life being an oddity. He is unwilling to endure the moments that illustrate his innate difference simply to appease the doctor, no matter how often he threatens to report him. The only difference is that, this time, McCoy has reported him. To Admiral Christopher Pike.

Spock does not anticipate that this will be an easy conversation.

"Admiral."

"Spock, what in blue blazes is wrong with you?"

Pike is glaring at him from behind a desk, and even given that, Spock feels a slight satisfaction that his prediction was accurate. Although he may never truly comprehend human emotion, to possess an ability to foresee it is certainly advantageous.

"I have no doubt that doctor McCoy has forwarded a full inventory of my recent injuries to your terminal."

"Don't get smart with me."

"I assure you, I intend no disrespect."

Pike narrows his eyes, but seems to remain uncertain of Spock's motivations. They worked together many years, but both are reminded again of the distance that still lies between them, geography aside.

"You have several crews in your Division with unacceptable injury rates, Commander, and your personal statistics don't bear mentioning," Pike says, obviously deciding that accusing Spock of sarcasm is a pointless exercise.

"I am aware of the fact. My latest status report details the steps I have taken to remedy the situation."

"I know, I've read it." If anything, Pike looks more frustrated than angry now. "Shore leave, crew rotations, cross-specialization for stress relief; Spock, they're all great ideas."

He waits for the equivocator he knows to expect when Pike uses that tone.

"But what's really worrying me is the psych evals."

"As you are well aware, due to the nature of the EPAS command structure, Captain Taylor is privy to the contents of the Chief Medical Officer's psychological evaluations, and I am not."

"Which is why we're having this conversation," Pike nods at him. "It's a stupid rule, keeping the Divisional Commanders out of the loop like that; a hangover from the Starfleet structure we inherited. It makes no sense. I'm going to use this situation as further leverage to have that directive overturned at the next Council meeting."

"That is logical." Spock pauses, then allows a hint of his irritation with the present modus operandi to show. "And most gratifying."

"In the meantime, I'm using my prerogative as an Admiral to make you aware of the fact that some of your crew are skirting dangerously close to the edge of unpleasantness."

"Unpleasantness has variable definitions," Spock says cautiously.

"Humans do tend to be variable," Pike reminds him, his tone exasperated. "I'll forward the most urgent handful to your terminal. McCoy's aware of my intent to do so, and strangely, given your tumultuous working relationship, he suggested the idea." Pike shakes his head and a wry smile finds its way onto his lips. "Whatever you originally did to piss him off, I'll never know, but he likes you, Spock. Underneath all that bluster, he does like you."

Unsure how best to respond to that assertion, Spock waits calmly for Pike to continue. The fact that the Admiral also seems to be waiting for him to speak leaves a tense pause in the conversation.

Back when Spock was Pike's One, it was moments like these when the older man would reach out physically with a tap or a brush on his shoulder, arm or the back of his hand; a cautious, platonic, fleeting human gesture of reassurance. To his surprise, Spock instantly recalls Lieutenant Kirk, a hand on his shoulder in the shuttle bay, human cool through the fabric. It is a distinctly unsettling involuntary association.

"I wanted to talk to you about one person in particular," Pike says, no doubt realizing that Spock will not speak unless it is to end the transmission.

"Indeed?"

"James Kirk," Pike says, as though it should be all he needs to say.

Spock hides the twinge of shock born of coincidence and extrapolates quickly. "Kirk is amongst the subset who are experiencing psychological difficulty?"

Pike gives him a lopsided smile. "Come on, Spock, you of all people should know what frustrated genius feels like."

After a moment's pause, feeling strangely taken aback, Spock allows himself a small frown. "I am not certain I understand."

"He's sitting there in Nix Beta, working his ass off, already pulling cross-specialization, helping out in the computer labs, volunteering to run intake orientation and sporting one of the highest save-to-loss ratios in the whole damn organization, let alone his Division. Then consider his inordinately high injury rate and the fact that T'Loren has to be aware, but still volunteers her crew for lead on every deployment." Pike waves his hands at the screen in frustration. "Doesn't that tell you something?"

"T'Loren is a competent senior Point Two," Spock reasons aloud. "It is logical for her to co-ordinate Beta deployments. She does not do so exclusively. Lieutenants Devlin and Mackie also share the responsibility."

"Spock, I'm not accusing you of partisanship." Pike watches him carefully to make sure he's believed before continuing. "Let me put this another way ..." he steeples his fingers and presses them to his lips before dropping them to the table and taking a deep breath. "If Lieutenant Kirk were under your direct command and you were aware of all the issues we've just discussed, including the fact he's utterly over committed himself, would you be volunteering Nix Alpha for lead Point? Or would you perhaps co-ordinate from a more strategic tactical position, letting someone else fly lead to give you the opportunity to better evaluate Kirk's state of mind?"

Spock feels the first clench of uncertainty in his gut. "You ask a question to which you already know the answer."

"Yes," Pike nods. "So why is T'Loren doing differently?"

"I do not know." The confession sets Spock's heart racing uncomfortably. "I shall investigate the matter immediately."

"You don't have time for an investigation," Pike counters. "I've got Kirk's resignation in my hand." The Admiral shifts in his seat, lightyears away and frowns like a father with a son who's done something predictably stupid but strangely endearing. "Spock, I gave you Kirk for safekeeping, and now you've gone and broken him."

Awkwardly, Spock considers his responses and finds none of them satisfactory. "What would you suggest?"

"You're his Commander, so go command him."

"In what fashion should ..."

"Transfer him to Alpha." Pike's tone leaves no room for Spock to interpret that as a suggestion. "Ashe's out of the picture for a lengthy period, you already need to rotate crew. I'll leave the finer points to you, but don't leave Kirk hanging in the breeze."

"The Lieutenant has not always responded positively to my command in the past. On what facts do you base your assumption that he will benefit from this transfer?"

"Intuition," Pike says without hesitation. "Spock, there's a big difference between issuing general orders and being somebody's Point Two. After all the time we worked together, I thought you had a better understanding of what it takes to forge that kind of connection. We're human, Spock, and you're half human, much as you like to ignore that fact. There has to be something in you that speaks to the humanity in us. That's why I had no doubt in approving you as my replacement, and that's why I sent you Jim Kirk when I had half of the Federation damning me for accepting him into EPAS and the majority of EPAS clamoring to get their hands on him. Kirk needs more than a set of orders and someone competent to issue them, far more than that to reach his true potential, and the more I think about what the two of you could achieve together, the more I believe it's absolutely essential that you make this work."

"You are asking me to take a special interest in Lieutenant Kirk?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes."

"You are asking me to befriend him." Spock says the word cautiously.

"Would it kill you, Spock? Really?"

Spock may or may not purse his lips slightly.

Pike sighs. "I'm not saying take your shore leave together, sing songs around a campfire and develop a secret handshake. I'm saying that this is a deficit in your command style that ought to be rectified if you're going to continue to evolve in your role as Divisional Commander. This also needs to happen if we're going to manage to keep Jim Kirk employed with EPAS and, more importantly, alive and well."

Of course, Pike knows exactly what to say in order to make Spock consider the whole issue his personal shortcoming. Although he is perfectly aware that he has been manipulated, and expertly too, Spock cannot find it within himself to resent it. To his knowledge, the Admiral has never maneuvered him into doing anything that has resulted in an adverse outcome for any party involved. Whatever his base motivation, and Spock is certain that Pike has not fully revealed it, he can proceed sure in the knowledge that benevolence is at the heart of it. This much Spock can rely upon.

"How do you propose I implement your suggestion?"

Pike frowns and rubs at his temple with one hand. "I wish I knew what it would take, but I've known that boy half his life and I still don't understand what makes him tick."

Spock waits patiently, familiar with the long pauses in Pike's exposition.

"He's an open book and an utter mystery, I don't need to tell you - acts like he couldn't care less about anything but will throw himself off a drill platform to save a man he's only just met that day," Pike shrugs, a picture of resigned confusion. "Speaking of Sulu, his glowing report crossed my desk about the same time McCoy's psych evals did. That young Captain has nothing but good things to say about both of you, but especially Jim. Kirk's got something special, Spock, something any Admiral would pay good money for; people like him, plain and simple." Pike shakes his head, dissatisfied. "No, it's more than that. It's as though they instinctively trust him on sight, even though it's plain to see he's lying through his teeth half the time. I don't know all the details of his childhood, but I can conceive a little of what's created him. You can't grow up like he did, see the things he saw, lose the people he lost, and not be changed by it. That's why I think he needs you." The Admiral leans forward and stabs his finger into the desk. "Much as you hate to admit it, you two have a lot in common."

Spock quirks a solitary eyebrow. "I cannot conceive of anything pertinent."

Pike looks suddenly far less tolerant. "Commander, Kirk's not bullshitting, he will resign. I don't have time to dance around your Vulcan sensibilities."

Spock's face settles into utterly impassive lines, all traces of expression abruptly eliminated. "You consider Lieutenant Kirk's ongoing employment to be my responsibility."

"It's your new top priority," Pike corrects him. "We can't afford to lose a Point of his caliber, and personally, I know this kid; he can't afford to leave. I gave him to you, Spock, because I thought you'd be able to cut through the persona and get the best out of him. I'm not quite sure what's going wrong, but if McCoy's last report is any indication it has a lot to do with T'Loren. Now, I'm not trying to manage your Division for you, but when a commanding officer of her experience contributes to a situation that continually results in a member of her crew being injured, well, I'm rather surprised you haven't looked into it yourself."

Spock swallows involuntarily as he mentally compares all known statistics regarding Kirk's deployments to those of other newly promoted Points. "It seemed logical to assume that Lieutenant Kirk's injury rate was related to his comparatively high save-to-loss ratio and his propensity for committing to a situation with less than an ideal degree of forethought and planning."

Pike smothers a smile. "I've no doubt that's a part of it. God knows it seems that boy has a death wish sometimes, but I get the feeling McCoy is leaving selective holes in the transcripts of their counseling sessions."

Spock cannot hide all of his surprise. "Kirk is receiving individual psychological counseling?"

Pike's expression mirrors his own. "T'Loren didn't tell you?"

Spock ponders this for a moment and his face settles back into expressionlessness, although with a harder edge. "No, she did not."

Pike's lips thin and he nods his head, grey-blue eyes piercing even across parsecs. "Well, that's interesting, don't you think?"

Spock gives him a look that speaks volumes and yet says nothing whatsoever. "If that will be all, Admiral?"

"Yes, Commander, I think that will be all."

Spock ends the transmission and leans back slightly in his chair. He takes a few moments to identify the emotions rising within him; anger, betrayal, concern, and pushes them aside. He does not need to consult the computer to verify the time, he already knows it, and exactly where T'Loren will be. With a firm grip on his human side, Spock chooses not to prolong the inevitable.


-:-


Jim is warm and lethargic from the showers, his ears ringing with Chekov's amusing accent and wide-eyed innocence. Chapel had been whisked away to sickbay the second they docked, deep in the throes of maintaining an airway for some Klingon bastard or another. He missed her presence in the mess hall, even if Uhura took pity on him and didn't flounce off when he dumped his tray next to hers and offered a lopsided smile. He hit on her one time, one damn time, and she's never forgiven him for it.

Now, alone in his cramped quarters, he's sitting propped up by pillows with an apple in one hand and a book in another. There's a comm from Sulu waiting in the queue, but he's saving it for his day off or whenever his resignation comes through, whichever comes first. He hasn't told anyone he's already submitted it, not Sulu, not even Bones. It's the third time since joining EPAS that he's almost done it, had his finger poised over the send key, but this time the only thing he really regrets is not being able to see if his gambit on Robicon IV is going to be successful or not. He was kind of looking forward to seeing if he could make Spock tell a bald-faced lie. He smiles at the thought.

When the door chime sounds he pauses mid-chew, one cheek puffed out with apple, surprised. There's an unspoken rule among Points that when you hide out in your quarters, other people don't track you down unless they have reason to believe you want them to. He frowns, trying to remember if he's forgotten that Bones is coming, or Scotty with a deck of cards. It's definitely not Chekov; that kid looked dead on his feet, and come to think of it, Bones has started ignoring him because he hasn't forced himself to visit Ashe in recovery.

The chime sounds again.

"Enter."

"Holy shit, Jim!" Hannity explodes into the room, looking breathless, her perfectly coiffed hair in disarray. "Quick, get up, get dressed, put that book down!"

"Why?" But he's already moving, desperately swallowing, taking aim at the trash with his apple core, a perfect shot even though he's in the process of pulling a regulation shirt over his head. "I didn't hear the alert, what's the situation?"

"T'Loren's on her way over here like hell on a freight train," Hannity says, eyes wide and freckles standing out painfully against the paleness of her face. "Do you want me to call security? Shit Jim, what do you want me to do?"

"Whoah, whoah," Jim holds out a hand, other arm and his head in the shirt. "What the hell? Security? For a Vulcan?"

Hannity leans closer, grips him by the shoulders, her nails digging into the skin. "She and Spock had some kind of argument, I don't know the details, but she held it together until Spock left and then she trashed the gym cubicle." Hannity licks her lips nervously. "Trashed it, Jim, like ripped the equipment out of the wall, trashed it."

"Fuck."

"I don't know what Spock said to her, but she's not happy and she's looking for you."

"Okay," Jim pulls on the hem of his undershirt and stamps his feet into his boots. "Look, you better get out of here."

"What about you?"

Jim doesn't have any time to think so he says the first thing that comes to mind. "Find Spock, bring him here."

"But what if ..."

"Get!"

"Okay," she nods, "oh hell."

Jim watches her tear off down the corridor, boots drumming on the grating, short black skirt flying.

This thing between him and T'Loren has been brewing forever, and it's worse now that Jim knows what drives her to put him in the firing line. It was hard enough to work with her before McCoy had shed light on that little gem, but since ... well, it was the reason he'd filed his resignation. There's only so long a guy can wait to die before he has to take matters into his own hands. Bones means well, but it's too little too late. Jim doesn't know what else to do with his life, but he sure as hell isn't ready for it to be over just yet.

He's bending to get his boots fastened when T'Loren gains access to his quarters, abusing her override code. He doesn't even get a chance to straighten before she leaps at him, a vision of feral fury, her fists like iron clubs, raining down on him from above.

"Kirk!" she roars, hammering him with blow after blow.

Jim can't dodge fast enough so he puts the desk between them, gasping to get the breath back into his body. T'Loren looks like a Romulan, unrecognizable in the grip of emotion. Her raven hair is awry, dark eyes shadowed under vicious brows. Jim feints to the left, certain she's too far gone to realize it's a ploy, only to have her grab him by the throat and haul him bodily over the terminal, sending it crashing to the ground. Quickly, in desperation, he lands a few punches of his own, but it's like hitting a brick wall. He can feel one knuckle grate unpleasantly but can't stop to wonder if it's fractured.

"Lieutenant Commander!" he manages to gasp, trying to use words to jolt her back into some sense of control or logic, but she's beyond language, beyond words, a twisting, swirling maelstrom of aggression that chews him up and spits him out against the wall of his cabin. He manages to glance up, to see the angled palm that's going to crash down on his windpipe and end him, but it never falls.

She's jerked abruptly away. A shadow falls over him, blocking the overhead lighting. Jim blinks desperately, trying to clear the blood from his eyes with his sleeve. He hears a body hit the opposite wall with a bone-crunching thud.

A tall, lean figure resolves in Jim's blurred vision. Spock now stands between him and T'Loren, having adopted a wide stance, loose-limbed, hands open at his sides.

"Lieutenant Commander T'Loren, you will explain yourself."

"Viltah!" she spits at him, flushed green with her anger, already scrambling back to her feet. "Dom! Nash-veh au nis-tor zarahk-tor!"

Jim knows enough Vulcan to understand that she's just called Spock a pretty bad word and indicated her intention to really mess both of them up. Needing to look less vulnerable, he forces himself to his feet, leaning heavily against the wall. It's a mere pretense of having Spock's back, but it makes him feel a little better. Can't let a dude take a beating for you while cowering on the floor. Not cool.

Spock doesn't so much as glance in his direction, all his quiet outrage focused on T'Loren. Because there's no doubt in Jim's mind that he's outraged; it's written in every line of his body.

"Dungau gla-tor etek," Spock says coldly. We shall see.

T'Loren flashes perfect white teeth in a snarl. "Tkona," she demands.

"I will not," Spock says firmly. "Control yourself, T'Loren."

"You stand before me, blood of Vulcan in your veins, to shield an outsider who stood by and watched our planet be destroyed! You would honor him before me?" All at once, T'Loren is gasping, buckling under the weight of her own intense emotion. "Traitor," she sobs, folding in on herself a little more. "You are without logic."

"And you are emotionally compromised," Spock observes coldly. "The fault is mine for failing to detecting this instability after our discussion."

"There is no justice," T'Loren whispers, eyes frantically casting around the room until they find Jim's own. "No justice, no peace, no logic left to any of us," she tells him brokenly. "Why are you alive and they dead?"

The intense expression of grief on her face is gutting. Jim can't help the sting in his eyes, the tightness in his chest. He wants to forgive her, wants to say he understands, but is too bruised, too battered and filled with adrenaline for his finer feelings to dominate. It's been too many days both admiring her and fearing her to make that transition.

"Commander Spock to Security." Spock never takes his eyes from T'Loren's body, leaning on the wall he threw her against.

We're nearly there, sir.

"Acknowledged."

They wait a handful of tense seconds, then the five person team arrives, phasers drawn and set to stun. Each takes a moment to absorb the chaotic scene before their masks of professionalism slip firmly into place.

"Take Lieutenant Commander T'Loren to the brig," Spock directs them. "Ensure she has medical assistance rendered, but do not allow anyone inside her cell without a full security escort."

"Understood, sir."

They grab her by the upper arms, physical handling the ultimate indignity for a Vulcan, but Spock waves and they step back again. He approaches her, seeming utterly relaxed, switched from defender to curious scientist. "Do you truly believe this man's life is forfeit?"

She glares at him with dark eyes. "Would you not trade him for your mother? A mere human for another mere human, or either of them for any Vulcan?"

Jim watches Spock's hands flick to fists at his sides then deliberately, painstakingly relax into openness again.

"Your grief has made you blind. My mother believed there is balance in all things," Spock says, unable to disguise the catch in his voice. "I would not presume a greater understanding of the universe than her own."

"My bondmate," T'Loren whispers, "the other half of my soul, how can I be alive and him dead? Without him, I am nothing. A ghost."

"Dakh pthak. Nam-tor ri ret na'fan-kitok fa tu dakh pthak," he says softly, trying to get T'Loren to meet his eyes.

Jim recognizes one of Surak's most famous sayings: Cast out fear. There is no room for anything else until you cast out fear.

"I am not afraid," T'Loren insists, lifting her chin.

Spock closes the distance between them in two quick strides and takes her wrist between his fingers and thumb, making her flinch at the emotional transference. "I feel your fear like sand on the wind; taste it like dust in my mouth. Do not presume to lie to me when so much offense has already been given." With that, he releases her and Security form up, marching her out into the corridor where a steady crowd is building.

Outside the door, Jim recognizes Hannity's tearful face buried in Uhura's shoulder, while Chekov has obviously come running straight from sleep, his pyjamas slung low on his hips, childlike eyes wide with shock. It's Chapel who's galvanized to action first, stepping neatly around Spock who's still standing in the middle of the room, struggling to compose himself.

"Are you all right, Jim?" she asks, pulling her shoulder kit around to the front of her body and rummaging inside with her free hand while the other takes preliminary readings with the hand-held scanner. She's still wearing her EVA skins, but has obviously been through basic decon, her hair wet from the cure-all.

"Yeah," he manages, the familiar taste of blood in his mouth; it always makes him feel like he's fifteen years old again with nowhere to go and plenty to do when he gets there. He spits it on the floor. "Just banged up some, I'll be fine."

Spock turns at the sound of Jim's voice. "Doctor Chapel, you will provide me with a full and inclusive list of all injuries sustained by Lieutenant Kirk as a result of this altercation."

"Altercation?" Uhura pipes up, clutching a tearful Hannity to her side, looking fierce. "Looks more like a stay of execution, if you ask me."

"Has the vorld gone crazy?" Chekov wonders, fingers spread. "The enemy is out dere, not in here. At least, that is what they keep telling us."

A general rumble of shocked agreement springs up along the crowded corridor. Facing into the room, Spock swallows heavily and schools his expression before he turns. Only Jim can see how much it costs him to do it. Two breaths later, he's as impassive as ever, any trace of anger or grief wiped away.

"Please disperse," he instructs the gathered crew, almost gently. "There will be a critical incident debriefing available in sickbay at oh nine hundred for those who wish to attend. I do not need to remind you that anything you witnessed may be pertinent to a disciplinary hearing and may not be discussed outside of appropriate channels." Spock straightens imperceptibly. "Do I make myself clear?"

There are scattered nods and unhappy expressions amongst the crew, but they do start to melt away, leaving Spock, Chapel and Jim alone once again. Spock crosses to the door and his eyebrows lift in surprise when he accesses T'Loren's override in the registry.

"That's all I can do for you here," Chapel says, stepping back out of Jim's personal space. "I'm pretty sure it's just contusions and abrasions, but you should stop by sickbay for some bone scans just to be sure. Your hands are a mess. Vulcans are a lot stronger than humans."

He nods, voice hoarse. "I'll do that."

"Jim ..."

"I said I'll drop by."

"Okay, well," Chapel presses her lips together and gives Spock a salute. "Goodnight Commander. Good thing you got here when you did."

"Yeah, about that," Jim says, taking a step after Christine with an apologetic look on his face. "Can you tell Hannity thanks? And I'm sorry?"

"What have you got to be sorry about, Jim?" She sighs then, defeated. "Okay, sure, I'll tell her."

"Thanks."

She gives him an over the shoulder wave and trudges out, weariness etched in every line of her body. It reminds Jim that he's been awake for far too many hours. The rush of adrenaline has just about dissipated and he crosses to the bed on shaky legs.

Spock watches, hidden in the shadows of the doorway. "You are not planning to report to sickbay?"

"I'll get there eventually." He glances up, the swelling around his eye already deflating after whatever Chapel had hypod him with, but the finger-shaped bruises on his throat are only just beginning to blossom. "Hey, maybe you should go yourself."

Momentary confusion flickers across Spock's face, but then he raises fingers to his lips and presses. They come away green. Another expression dawns in his eyes and he drops his hand, the bloodstained fingers balled into a fist. It's strange, because Jim is almost certain T'Loren didn't land so much as a single punch on him. He only gets it when Spock stalks out without another word.

He's not one to judge. It probably would have taken more than biting his own lip to keep from knocking T'Loren's head off for comments about his mother, had roles been reversed.


-:-

"So," says Pike. "I hear things didn't go as planned."

"I have been forced to incarcerate Lieutenant Commander T'Loren," Spock admits. "Lieutenant Kirk required minor medical attention only."

"Is this a storm in a teacup, Spock? Has it been blown out of proportion?"

As hopeful as Pike sounds, Spock must shake his head. "No, Admiral."

"Where to from here?" Pike muses, tapping his fingers on his desktop, staring into the distance.

Spock clears his throat with uncharacteristic hesitancy. "If I may ..."

"Please."

"T'Loren is suffering from the aftereffects of a severed bond, something she has successfully concealed from this administration."

"She lost her husband? On Vulcan?"

"It is difficult to explain," Spock says uneasily. "Much is lost in translation, but there is no closer familial relation between Vulcans, no greater intimacy, and by virtue of that fact, no greater loss."

"You're telling me to go easy on her."

Spock tilts his head, a paragon of polite confusion. "I am merely citing extenuating circumstances, not attempting to excuse her behavior."

"Okay, I'll bite. What should I do?"

"Perhaps medical leave on New Vulcan would be appropriate," Spock suggests. "Several of the mind-healers survived the destruction of Vulcan-that-was. They would be best equipped to assist in T'Loren's rehabilitation."

Pike presses his lips together tightly, but his eyes are warm. "You can find it in your heart to suggest that," he points to Spock's face, "after she went after you too?"

Spock's tongue darts out to touch the throbbing in his bottom lip and there's some sort of confession in that which makes Pike sign off without further discussion, but with frank confusion in his eyes.

Spock stands, face blank, and walks into the bathroom. The lights brighten automatically with his presence, banishing the shadows in the corners of the room and throwing his angular reflection into high relief. Standing before the mirror, Spock strips and places his uniform in the cycler. The mirror shows him the vivid line of bruises down one side of his body, the little blue marks left by McCoy's pen delineating the extent of the damage. He stares into his own eyes and does not recognize himself.

Spock has already attended to basic hygiene this morning, but there is very little logic guiding him now.

He steps into the cubicle. His index finger hovers over the controls, then settles on the rarely used option of a real water shower. Set to scalding temperatures, it hits him in the face, gushing into his eyes, forcing inside his mouth to wash away the taste of coppery blood. It almost chokes him, so he bows his head and lets it cascade down his back, follow the lines of his ears down the planes of his chest to fall away into the drain recess. The room quickly fills with steam and the automatic fans kick in, but to Spock, the atmosphere feels as thick and heavy as his shame.

Skin numbed by the drumming water, hands pressed against the wall, he forces himself to acknowledge that there had once been a time when he would have sacrificed anything, anyone, in order to save his mother. His mind races and his stomach churns. T'Loren's accusations ring in his ears; small truths designed to cause pain. He does not want to disown his human mother, even though his half-caste status has defined him his whole life ... but neither can he resist pressing his teeth and tongue against the proof of his own emotionalism. Fresh green blood mixes with the water, but it would take a Vulcan's eyesight to distinguish it.

Chapter Text

Jim wakes up with a hell of a headache and one look in the mirror has him convinced he really should have gone to sickbay rather than just crashed out on his bunk. He's prodding gingerly at the mess he used to call a face when the door chime sounds.

"Computer, identify guest," he asks, playing things a little cautious, considering his last twenty four hours.

Divisional Commanding Officer, Spock.

"Shit," he says, then, "enter." He was kind of hoping to be wearing something other than his blood-stained shirt from the night before.

Spock steps into his quarters, then pauses, unreadable eyes taking in Jim's appearance. "I have chosen an inappropriate time for this discussion."

"No, it's okay."

"If you could please inform me of a more suitable ..."

"Just give me a minute, I'll be right with you," Jim insists, because really, you don't leave the guy who saved you from an ass kicking waiting.

He slips into the bathroom and strips, setting the sonics on high and ignoring the way they pelt his bruises. With a quick swipe at his hair he's dressed again and back in the main room, perhaps barefoot and in need of a shave, but definitely cleaner.

"There was no need for ..."

"Hey, thanks for last night," Jim interrupts. "Maybe I should have called Security straight off, but I was kind of hoping it wasn't as bad as Hannity seemed to think."

Spock raises an eyebrow. "Lieutenant Hannity alerted you to T'Loren's intent and you failed to call Security?"

"I really had no idea about her intent." He runs a hand through his hair and pads awkwardly over to the replicator. "Do you want a drink or something?"

"I ... no," Spock seems confused. "Thank you."

"Coffee," Jim says to the wall. "Black, hot." He turns to Spock while the replicator thinks about that. It's an older unit and not as quick as it could be. "Have you come to take my statement?"

"No." He is still frowning. "I have come to discuss the terms of your ongoing employment."

"Oh," Jim raises the cup to his lips and takes a too large swallow to cover his discomfort. He hadn't planned to be having this discussion so soon, and preferably not with Spock at all.

The Commander tucks his hands into the small of his back and walks over to the far corner of the room. He appears to be studying the one photo Jim has of his brother Sam. "This is your family?"

"Part of it," Jim agrees, feeling unbalanced by the sudden redirect. It is unlike Vulcans to be circular.

"You have additional family?"

"Uh, yeah," Jim sort of hides behind the coffee cup as he admits it. Spock has to know this stuff already, has to have seen his personnel file. "There's my mother, Winona."

"You speak to them often?"

"I ... look," Jim sets the mug down and it's his turn to frown, "not that I mind, but what's with the twenty questions? Aren't we going to talk about my resignation?"

"If that is what you wish to discuss, then by all means," Spock says easily.

"I'm, well, I'm quitting."

"So I was informed."

Jim opens his mouth but nothing comes out. This is really not what he expected.

Spock turns to face him again, same calm non-expression on his face, same carefully attentive pose. "May I enquire as to your reasons?"

"I ..." as Jim draws breath he realizes pretty much everything on his list is defunct now that T'Loren is unlikely to command a medevac shuttle again. From the look on Spock's face, he's counting on that. Jim sinks down onto the edge of his bed, coffee forgotten on the table and buries his head in his hands. "I've got no grounds for early resignation now," he sighs. "You guys can screw me to the wall if I try to leave."

Spock stands quietly. "I have no wish to keep you in the service against your will. If you would still prefer to leave, I will personally approve your early discharge." His dark eyes lock with Jim's surprised ones. "No demerits appended."

"Why?" It's all Jim can manage, all he can think.

"I would find it beneficial if you remained," Spock says, conversationally ignoring him to study his photo montage of Iowa, "with me, as my Point One."

Jim just watches him, not daring to move, feeling his heart thunder against his ribs and not knowing whether it's anger or excitement. Three months ago he would have leapt at the chance, thinking it would solve all his problems, but now ... now he's weary and it's bone deep. He's got a collection of scars that remind him constantly of the cost of what they do out here. The very gap he's being offered is there because Ashe's been struck down, and God knows if she'll ever be quite right again.

He's on the verge of turning it down, but then he looks at Spock, really looks at him. The hard overhead lighting isn't kind to him, delineating the the worry lines a man with so little expression shouldn't even have, and hollowing out his cheeks so that his exhaustion is self evident. It does nothing to hide the green scab on his lower lip. To have lost so much, and still do this job. Jim can't back down from that, he's already decided, he knows he has.

"You've got a deal, Commander."

Spock doesn't smile, but something tightly coiled seems to ease inside him, something only Jim can see.


-:-


Jim has the choice of trying to sleep during his erstwhile 'day' or staying awake for twenty four hours to get on Alpha time. It's no surprise to anyone which option he chooses. About eighteen hours in, Scotty informs him there will be no more card games in case Jim gets strangled, so he decides some exercise might keep him awake.

He selects a cubicle and a running machine on autopilot, not sparing a glance for who else might be around at this strange hour. It's only once he's a good two clicks into his own program that he glances to the left and sees Spock several spaces over. The Vulcan is running in full uniform, including a visor, and the amber light on the outside of his cubicle indicates conditions inside are not ship normal. Jim would put money on it being rather hot in there, and probably higher-g, too.

Spock is running on Vulcan.

Jim watches for a while, unconsciously matching the pace and feeling his heart scramble to keep up. Spock's long legs eat up the constantly revolving track, his rhythm faultless, like clockwork. It looks effortless, but Jim can see his chest heaving and wonders if he's even thinned the atmosphere to match. Perfectionist that he is, it's likely.

Never one to pass up on a challenge, even one that hasn't been issued, Jim continues running long after his own program has finished. He runs past the point where his vision blurs and he starts to cramp, beyond where the computer issues him with mandatory hypo of electrolytes and further than he's ever run before. By the time Spock steps off the track, Jim feels like he's going to die. Slowly. In small, painful increments.

Jim's legs feel like jelly and he has his t-shirt tucked into the waistband of his shorts, stripped off long ago. He's drenched in sweat, but his double day is nearly over and after that workout, who wouldn't sleep like a baby?

Spock notices him well before the door to the showers, pausing with a question written in his eyebrows. "You do not customarily take exercise at this hour."

"No," Jim pants. "Usually I'm asleep at this hour."

"A valid point."

They cross to the lockers and Jim lifts one leaden leg onto the bench and stoops to undo his shoes. "You always run that far?"

"Provided I have adequate time at my disposal, yes."

Jim tugs off his other shoe and tosses his shirt and shorts into the cycler. He turns just in time to catch a glimpse of Spock's naked form as he slips into one of the showers. Green-flushed skin over lean, flat planes of muscle. Jim studies the t-shirt in his hands.


-:-


He wakes the next morning to his first day on Alpha shift, his first day as Divisional Point One. It hadn't really sunk in the night before, but Spock has promoted him as well as stopped him from quitting. The warm languor that comes from deep sleep is banished by the tight knot in his stomach. He's not ready for this.

He shaves carefully, screwing his face up in the mirror to get every last little bit. The slide of the razor against his skin is comforting. It's an old fashioned way to do it; yet another example of his attachment to the anachronistic. Truthfully, part of the appeal is that it gives him a little longer to come to grips with the day. The rest of it is the pride he takes in skill acquired over time. He very rarely nicks himself. Of course, it's easier when your face isn't full of unfamiliar contours. He presses his tongue against the inside of his swollen lip and watches as a drop of blood bursts through and trails down his chin. His face in the mirror is pale and although he weighs the same as when he signed on, it's differently distributed, making him look older and younger at the same time.

Jim wipes his face clean and dabs at his lip with the coagulant salve Chapel sent him via internal mail, smears a bit on the cut over his eyebrow for good measure. He draws the line at swallowing the anti-contusional to combat the bruising. That shit just fades in time anyway. He's programmed the replicator to have a hot cup of bitter coffee waiting for him at precisely oh six fifty. He picks it up along with his PADD and the door swishes obediently out of his way as he joins the flow of traffic towards the briefing rooms.

A hand grabs his elbow, jostling the hot mug against his battered lips and he swears. Hannity's pert face is smiling up at him from where she's attached herself to him like a limpet.

"Hey," she says, then gives him a one armed hug. "Dead man walking."

"Spock rescued me," he says, trying to make a joke out of actual fact.

"I saw," she reminds him. "He was fierce."

She links her arm in his so he transfers the coffee to his other hand. He remembers her tear-streaked face from the corridor and gives her arm a little squeeze against his ribs. Having her in Ops, talking in his ear for six months, had done a lot to break the ice between them. That and the fact that Spock seemed to approve of him. Spock's opinion counts for a lot around here. Jim kind of thinks of Annie as the little sister he never had. Not that he'd say that to her face. He's seen her sparring with Uhura in the gym; she held her own and Uhura's no delicate flower.

"I hear you got promoted." It's no surprise she knows. Ops know everything.

"I'm going to miss your sign off," he tells her, glancing down again just in time to catch her bitter smile.

"Welcome home, fly boy," she says, one last time.

They sit together in the briefing. He slouches so that his knee rests against hers and she pulls a face at him. Uhura gives him a surreptitious thumbs up, which is reassuring, because it seems McCoy isn't talking to him. His one effort at good morning is met with eyebrows of doom and a swift hypo of the anti-contusional he didn't swallow. McCoy can read his freaking mind, or something.

Jim feels the hush fall over the room before Spock even draws level with the podium. A new record. News of the rumble in Jim's quarters is all over the ship, you just can't keep that kind of thing quiet. It's highly likely that everyone knows more than he does about what's going to happen to T'Loren, whether they've been diverted to Luna for a hearing or whether they're back en route to Robicon IV again. The back alley information channels on this ship are unbelievable.

Spock faces them all with his customary equanimity. "Good morning and good evening," he says, then continues, clearly not expecting a response. "As you are no doubt all aware, Lieutenant Commander T'Loren has been relieved of duty for an indeterminate amount of time. No visitors are permitted, as per T'Loren's request. I ask that you respect her wishes and refrain from attempting to send comm messages or attempting to visit in person. This is a delicate matter." His eyes roam the room sternly. "And one I take most seriously."

Jim doesn't look, but he knows a significant number of people are gauging his reaction. He keeps his eyes on Spock, the picture of relaxed attentiveness, certain he'd do a Vulcan proud.

"In the interests of addressing more general matters, the Stalwart is back on course for Robicon IV." It's a testament to the respect everyone has for Spock that nobody groans. "You will no doubt be pleased to hear that our stay will be short in duration."

There are a few mutters of surprise at that. Jim allows himself a pout of consideration. He and Spock haven't spoken about this since before they were called away from the diplomatic debacle. To his credit, Spock doesn't even glance in his direction.

"Negotiations with the Robii have been terminated."

A susuruss of shock whirls around the briefing room. Nobody's expected the Federation Council to walk away from a peaceful population located directly in the path that Nero seems to be forging towards Earth and the other central worlds.

"If I can have your full attention," Spock says, less of a demand and more of a reminder. The room falls silent again. "This turn of events is by no means an ideal outcome, and I would ask every one of you to ensure that no hint of this reaches the Robii population." Spock does an admirable job of looking uncomfortable about lying, which is probably because he is uncomfortable about lying, just not in the way people are thinking. "It is not our place to dictate Federation policy, merely to assist where we can. Our primary duty is to those we can save, and it appears that the current political stalemate is insurmountable. I ask you to respect the Council's decision."

Beside him, Hannity looks thunderstruck. "But, how can we ..."

"Shh," Jim whispers, as Spock starts talking again.

"I am aware that this places many of you under significant ethical and moral compromise. Any person who feels unable to complete their scheduled duties due to conscientious objection should forward their temporary suspension of duty to myself or Captain Taylor."

"Then the Captain's aware of this?" comes an unknown male voice.

Spock's head turns slightly, giving the man a blank stare. "Very much so, Lieutenant Commander."

"And he sees no problem with leaving billions of people to die?"

"It is not the Captain's decision."

"But, sir ..."

"You have your orders," Spock says coldly. Then and only then, his eyes flick to Jim. "We all have our orders."

There is a general shifting in seats. Spock glances down at the podium, holds the pose for a few seconds. Jim thinks it's a nice touch.

"In light of the recent alterations to the chain of command, I would advise all of you to access the Core database to ensure that your rosters are unaffected. I have endeavoured to notify any personnel immediately affected, but it is your responsibility to cross-check your ongoing allocations for further changes. Lieutenant Kirk has been promoted to Divisional Point One and Lieutenant Hannity will take his place as Point Two in ED996's Beta team."

Beside him, Hannity flinches. Not old news, then, that bit.

Spock picks her out of the crowd easily. "I regret I was unable to inform you privately, Lieutenant. Congratulations."

Hannity nods vehemently, clearly bereft of speech at this point.

"If there are no other questions?"

"I have one," Jim calls out, raising his hand although Spock could hardly mistake him for anyone else, with that Vulcan hearing of his.

"Lieutenant Kirk?"

"If we're pulling out of Robicon, why are we going back there at all?"

Spock's eyes duck away and then back again. Jim wonders if he's just seen a Vulcan concoct a lie. "The Starfleet Diplomatic Corps have requested one final audience with the Robicon Administration. Admiral Pike has approved."

Jim nods, because it kind of makes sense that the diplomats would want one final crack at it before running away in defeat. Spock's obviously thought this through. Then again, he might be telling the truth. They are, after all, lying to the Diplomatic Corps as well.


-:-


"I am uncomfortable with misleading the crew," Spock says without preamble, falling into stride with him in the corridor.

"The greater good, and all," Jim reminds him flippantly, then notices the real signs of strain on Spock's face and stops him with a hand on his arm. "Hey, they're going to forgive you, if they ever find out. Do you think they'd rather you played it by the book and the Robii just disappeared in a puff one day?"

Spock watches him carefully, a little of the confusion in his eyes subsiding. "No, of course not."

"Then quit beating yourself up about it," he advises. "We're doing what we have to do, end of story."

Spock straightens and pulls his arm away, seeming to realize how emotionally laden their exchange has been. "It is advisable to discuss our strategy."

"Absolutely, I ..."

Amber Alert. Amber alert. All personnel report to relevant duty stations. Repeat, Amber Alert.

Jim and Spock share a look then set off briskly in the direction of the change rooms.


-:-


Jim leaves the shoulder and neck clasps of his EVA suit undone. The damn thing has never given up trying to strangle him for all it's purported flexibility. When he's got the hood and the visor on, it's fine, but when they're all just loitering around the shuttles waiting for Spock to stand them down or step them up, it's damned annoying. Turns out it manages to strangle him anyway, but only because McCoy hooks a finger into it and drags him around the back of the shuttle with a look like thunder on his face.

"Resignation?" he whispers intensely. "Are you serious?"

"Um, I was?"

"I thought we had a plan," McCoy frowns. "I though we were on the same page."

"Bones, we weren't even reading the same book."

"I had your back, you idiot. If you'd only given me a few more days I could have had everything worked out. I had a plan, God dammit!"

"I had to do something," Jim counters, hands out in a pleading gesture.

"Oh yeah, and look how well that turned out," McCoy presses his index finger into the nasty bruise surrounding Jim's eye.

"Holy shit, ow!"

"Serves you right."

"That's my freaking eye!"

McCoy pats his face with an open palm, earning him another muttered curse. "Don't be such a baby, and visit Ashe, for crying out loud. She's hurt, she's not got leprosy."

"I don't know what to say to her," he confesses. "I just know I'm going to say something stupid and insensitive."

"She should be used to that by now."

"Oh, nice."

"Go on, get," McCoy turns him by the shoulders and gives him a shove. "I've got to cross check the drugs with Christine before we fly."

When Jim stumbles back into view, courtesy of the doctor's added momentum, Uhura has finished her pre-flight and is sitting with her legs dangling off the starboard runner, drinking a cup of dark red tea one of the maintenance techs fetched for her.

"She's got a thing for me," she explains.

"Oh that's sweet. What do I need to do to get a secret admirer?"

She takes a sip of her tea and gives him her best older sister routine. "You could start by being less of a horse's ass," she tells him. "That might help."

Jim leans against Nix's pitted hull. "What have I ever done?" he complains. "Seriously, I haven't slept with your best friend, I haven't slept with you, I don't touch you inappropriately ..."

"Jim, you touch everyone inappropriately," she objects.

"Is that it?" he exclaims as if in revelation. "You're feeling left out and you want me to grab your ass?"

"Lieutenant Kirk?"

Jim freezes at the sound of Spock's voice from over his shoulder. Uhura giggles in a particularly immature way, Jim feels.

"Sir?"

"I am canceling the Amber Alert. We will, however require one shuttle to investigate this distress call. We are currently warping to the co-ordinates supplied by the science vessel Tat'sar, where Nix Alpha will deploy alone to take an inventory of potential external warp drive damage."

His embarrassment abruptly overridden by curiosity, Jim pushes off from the hull. "Tat'sar. Is that a Romulan name?"

"It's Vulcan," Uhura contributes. "You can tell by the vowel sounds."

Jim gives her a look. "Not all of us were communications majors, Lieutenant."

"Some of us were sober enough to remember Core Federation Languages 101, Lieutenant," she snipes back.

Spock's eyes shift back and forth between them, and that alone is enough to shut them up. "Power up," he commands. "ETA five minutes."

"Aye sir," they chorus, and McCoy snaps off a salute that can only be described as facetious, if anyone cared to analyze it.


-:-


"Wow," Jim enthuses, leaning into his harness to take in the sleek lines of the Vulcan ship. "That is one hot ship."

"According to the Vulcan High Council database, the Tat'sar was one of the last ships commissioned by the Vulcan Science Academy before its destruction," Spock comments, sounding a little distracted as his eyes drink in the sight of something created on a world that no longer exists. "It has warp ten capability, superior maneuverability and over fifty dedicated science labs with access to computing power never before seen on a starship."

"I should have expected the only thing that'd give you a hard on would be an inanimate object," McCoy drawls from his bench seat.

Jim hides his smile behind a fake itch on the end of his nose.

"Lieutenant Uhura, please take an aft approach vector to facilitate external examination of the warp nacelles," Spock instructs, ignoring the doctor entirely.

"Aye, sir."

They vector about just as the suit comms stutter to life and Jim is introduced to his new Ops tech via earbuds.

Good morning class, the perky voice chirps. It's a fine day out in space today, the dust cloud located in your y minus ten z negative twenty degrees shouldn't occlude the fine view of this sexy piece of Vulcan engineering. You can expect the usual gravitation effect from idling warp drives to be magnified by the planetary well in ship's plane minus twenty four degrees, but this far out from that moon it shouldn't give you any grief. Solar radiation at one hundred and thirty three thousand lux, so I hope you brought your sunscreen and all visors should be polarized. Current estimated time to rendezvous on your current trajectory is two point six three minutes.

When Spock just sends the requisite click of acknowledgment over his comm, Jim takes matters into his own hands and depresses his own collar tab. "Thanks for that Nix Ops, I'll be sure to snap you a picture, it's beautiful out here, over."

Oh hey, Boy Wonder. I heard you were starting today. Don't you dare scratch the paintwork on that lovely Suurok class lady, she's one of a kind.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Jim smiles, finding relief in the easy banter and obvious competence of the new voice in his ear. It had been hard enough knowing it wouldn't be Hannity telling him when to haul ass out of a tight spot, but knowing that Ops had undergone a shakeup when she was promoted meant that many crews had entirely new Ops people. There was always an adjustment period where Points and Pilots learned to trust their Ops and vice-versa.

"Commander," Uhura interrupts, turning in her seat to look at them, confusion plain to see. "We're being ordered to stand down and return to the Stalwart."

Spock frowns. "Ops, please confirm."

It's not an internal message, the perky voice sounds preoccupied now. Uhura, what's the point of origin?

They're saved a reply when the shuttle's tiny viewscreen comes to life and a solemn Vulcan face appears. "You will break off your approach and return to your vessel."

One of Spock's eyebrows quirks. "Have you not requested aid from the Emergency Personnel Ambulance Service?"

"We have," the stern Vulcan replies. "However, we have not authorized any extra vehicular examination of our ship."

"It is standard procedure. You were informed of this in our initial acceptance receipt."

"Your current activity is not sanctioned."

Spock blinks once. "Very well."

The screen goes dead and there's an uncomfortable silence.

Uhura twists in her seat again. "Orders, sir?"

"Return to the ship," Spock says tightly. "Best speed."

Chapter Text

The main transporter room of an EPAS Constellation class starship is usually a retrofitted storage hanger. The simple, economical six to ten person unit that suffices for most Starfleet ships simply won't do on a ship that has to deal with large scale influxes of people over short spaces of time. Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, EPAS are here to rescue you, please form an orderly line for the transporter... No, Jim's pretty sure that wouldn't work.

Usually, being in the main transporter room doesn't bother him. He'd started pulling some cross specialization time on Beta with Christine Chapel, because what Point can't use advanced medical training, really? So, he spent quite a bit of his crossover time in this vaulted room, lending his hands and doubling in triage while Nix Alpha flew lead point. It had been helpful, in a way, to be so busy during his downtime.

Today is different, because there's no dire emergency, no bustle, no medics and doctors flitting about between stretchers and the walking wounded. Instead, he's meeting Spock here after their abortive EVA mission to assist the Tat-sar, freshly changed out of his field blacks and just as confused as he was half an hour ago.

Alpha Ops techs had received a tight band communication from the Vulcan science vessel after Nix had been sent packing. Apparently, they had been conducting a long-range scanning mission of residual gravitational disturbance in the regions of space recently frequented by Nero's fleet. Still on orders from EPAS headquarters on Luna, the Stalwart had been instructed to evacuate the entire crew complement of twenty two scientists and research aides to Nu'ri Ah'rak, New Vulcan. It was more of a diplomatic mission than a true evacuation, but the Minister for Health had quickly bowed to Council pressure and acceded to the request from the Vulcan Ambassador to Earth. Given what the Vulcan people had endured, playing taxi seemed a small favor indeed.

Still, as Jim takes his place at Spock's left shoulder, his presence required as Point One to the Divisional Commanding Officer, he has his own doubts. If the crew of that vessel wanted help so much, why didn't they want anyone looking at their warp drive?

He tries to tell himself that standing there, just the two of them and a solitary engineer, is what feels wrong. He's never seen the transporter room so empty before. The rows and rows of pads seem ominously dark and incredibly numerous. Jim knows there are only one hundred and twenty pads, but the unnatural quiet and Spock's characteristic stillness conspire to make him feel like they are waiting for an army to materialize, rather than a couple of dozen peaceful Vulcan scientists.

"Lieutenant," Spock says by way of greeting, seemingly undisturbed.

Jim glances sideways, mirroring Spock's handclasp in the small of his back. Spock might sound normal but his hands are gripping one another so tightly that the knuckles blanch slightly green. His utter stillness speaks of iron control. Jim can't help but turn slightly, enough to catch Spock's attention. "You all right with this?"

Spock's eyebrow rises slowly. "To what are you referring?"

"You seem a little ..." Jim searches for the right word, then gives up and goes for the direct approach, "freaked out?"

The other eyebrow joins the first. "I assure you, I am no such thing."

"Okay, sure," Jim turns obediently front and center again. "Just saying."

After a beat, Spock shifts slightly beside him. "Are you planning to finish that sentence?"

Jim gives him a confused look. "I did."

Spock blinks once, a very deliberate gesture. "You are a most frustrating human."

Jim is saved from responding to that by the gradually building hum of the transporter. Both men turn back to watch as twenty-two tall, robed figures begin to coalesce from within the swirling silver sparks. If possible, Spock stands even straighter beside him.

The light clears and the most central Vulcan steps forward. He's the same one from the shuttle transmission, appearing middle aged by human standards, which Jim estimates would make him at least one hundred years old for a Vulcan. He raises his right hand in the ta'al which both EPAS men return with ease.

"Mene sakkhet ur-seveh," the senior scientist intones in traditional greeting.

"Sochya eh dif," Spock replies, sounding entirely different speaking his native tongue.

Jim remains quiet, but allows his hand to fall with the others. His Vulcan is rusty, but it seems unlikely that anyone will start speaking Standard, given nobody has so much as looked his way thus far.

"Senekot wimish, du Spohkh cha'Sarek wimish, ha," the strange Vulcan says.

"Ha, Spohkh wimish. Na'shaya, Senekot ang'jmizn."

Jim's followed this so far; basic introductions. Spock designated Senekot the Starfleet equivalent of a Captain, so when the distinguished looking Vulcan glances his way for the first time, Jim figures he better snap off a salute.

Spock inclines his head, catching Senekot's attention. "This is Lieutenant James Kirk, my Point One."

"Lieutenant," Senekot acknowledges, his Standard heavily accented, then turns back to Spock. "We thank you for your assistance."

"No thanks are necessary," Spock replies.

"No," Senekot acknowledges. "However, you have spent much time amongst humans. I do not wish to offend."

"I am Vulcan," Spock says simply, not missing a beat.

Senekot's eyes travel up and down Spock's lean form and Jim finds himself doing the same. Spock is thinner than any of the other Vulcans, his skin paler from the lack of ultraviolet exposure. His hair, ruthlessly cropped as a countermeasure to unexpected radiation exposure some weeks ago, is only just beginning to grow out, far shorter than the glossy, orderly caps that adorn the other Vulcans in the room. He stands before their robed personages in plain, unpresuming EPAS blacks, only the triple glint of his Commander's tabs to set him apart from Jim or the engineering tech manning the transporter.

Senekot says nothing, merely turns away to beckon to the other members of his crew. Jim feels his face flood with heat. Spock has just failed an inspection of some kind, he's certain of it. While Senekot enters into a brief exchange with two other science officers, Jim can feel Spock's eyes on him, no doubt cataloguing his very human reaction. Jim forces himself to breath deeply, and pretty much has the flush under control by the time Senekot turns back to them.

"You have made arrangements for our ship to be towed."

"I have," Spock confirms. "If you are ready, I can show you to your quarters."

"That is acceptable."

"I regret that we have not been able to secure private lodgings for all of your crew. The USS Stalwart is designed to house large numbers of guests for short periods, not small numbers for long periods."

"No explanation is necessary. We are Vulcan," Senekot gives him a hard stare. "We require little in the way of luxuries."

Jim doesn't miss the way the muscles in Spock's jaw clench before he speaks. "You will inform me if you find anything lacking."

"Of course."

"This way." Spock sweeps out of the room, back ramrod straight, his long stride eating up the floor like he's got an emergency to get to.

This leaves Jim to follow up the rear. He does so with a strange heaviness in his chest, not having managed to banish the hot blood from his face. He's missing something here, and it irks him not to know what it is.

For practicality's sake, the emergency accommodation is located on the same level as the main transporter. It wouldn't make sense to beam a hundred aboard and then clog up the turbolifts distributing them to other decks. This means that pretty soon, Spock is giving a demonstration on how the individual door locks can be programmed and the crew of the Tat'sar are peeling off in fours and fives to acclimate themselves to their temporary quarters.

Senekot pauses in the door to the dormitory he will be sharing with two of his most senior crew. "Spock, your father has asked me to convey a greeting on his behalf."

"It is most considerate of you to do so," Spock says, without a trace of surprise or pleasure.

"I am merely discharging my duty to a respected member of the Vulcan Council."

Even Spock falters at that, because it's hard to interpret that in a good way. "Given the necessity of our presence at the fourth planet of the Robicon system, I estimate our the earliest potential arrival at Nu'ri Ah'rak to be in three standard days time."

"I understand." Senekot nods and disappears into his quarters.

Spock stands motionless, hands by his sides.

"Why do I get the feeling he doesn't like you?" Jim says through his teeth.

"I doubt Senekot will devote any energy towards forming a personal opinion of me," Spock informs him flatly. "Given the length of time we shall spend aboard the same ship, it would constitute a waste of energy." The Commander's eyes remain glued to the closed door in front of him.

Feeling more and more offended on Spock's behalf, Jim plants his hands on his hips. "That makes me feel so much better."

Spock glances at him, the strange blankness in his eyes marred by flickers of something more familiar. "You are being sarcastic."

"Full points to you," Jim forces a grimace. "How did you guess?"

"Vulcans do not guess."

"You do," Jim counters, knowing it's true.

"Perhaps," Spock allows, some of the tension bleeding out of his shoulders. "However, as Senekot seems to think it necessary to remind me; I am not entirely Vulcan."

Everything clicks into place in Jim's head and the forced smile fades from his face. "Is that what all that was about?"

"I presume so." Spock commences walking slowly back in the direction they'd come. "Unless my own preconceptions are informing my judgement."

"Yeah, 'cos you're prone to jumping the gun," Jim scoffs.

Spock glances at him, then away again, and that's something of a confession. Jim feels his forehead pucker with surprise. He's not quite sure how to feel about the fact Spock has all but confessed to moments of emotional compromise. Spock seems unsettled also, choosing to confine his hands behind his back again, a sure fire indicator that he's doing his best to be as Vulcan as possible.

They walk in silence for a time while Jim ponders Senekot's strange dislike of Spock, and the vagaries of a universe that would throw the Tat'sar's standoffish crew into the hands of the only Vulcan DivCO in EPAS.

"You know," Jim says, tossing it out there like he's thinking aloud. "Prejudice seems a bit illogical for a Vulcan."

Spock pauses at the junction that will take him to the senior staff meeting. Jim has an appointment with McCoy in the opposite direction. Their eyes meet and hold. Jim reaches out, rests his hand on the wall just beside Spock's shoulder, not touching, but just brushing up against the Commander's personal space.

Those upswept brows do not so much as flicker when Spock replies, "Vulcans are not immune to illogical behavior."

"Just remember, they're only here for three days," Jim offers up conspiratorially.

"I am unlikely to forget."

Jim laughs through his nose and lets his hand fall. They both turn away in unison, each step increasing the distance between them. Not really knowing why, Jim pauses and turns. Spock is clearly delineated in the overhead lights. Each step creases his uniform, pulling the black fabric tight against a knee here, a hip there, a shoulder as his arm swings. His observations from the transporter room come flooding back.

"Commander!"

Spock stops abruptly and turns. Even from that distance, Jim can see the question written in his eyebrows, reaching nowhere near his painfully short hair. He realises that Spock is waiting for an explanation.

"Can I see you later today?"

"Eighteen hundred hours," Spock confirms. "My quarters."

"We should finalize our plans for Robicon."

Spock turns and resumes his steady progress, his lack of disagreement the only acknowledgment Jim's going to get. The gentle curve of the ship's hull takes him gradually out of sight.


-:-


Jim buckles down and uses his lunch break to visit Ashe in the physiotherapy and rehabilitation suite. She's refused to disembark at the closest Starbase, preferring instead to remain aboard until they're closer to Gant's World, renowned in this part of the galaxy for its regenerative hot springs and skilled neural pathway stimulation technicians. Truthfully, Jim feels like a bit of an asshole for not visiting her earlier, but if it's hard for him, seeing her like this, he can only imagine what it's like from her perspective. Besides, he's been kind of busy having his face beaten in by a traumatized Vulcan.

"Hey there," she says when she sees him.

"Hey yourself," he counters, pulling up an uncomfortable plastic chair and leaning his elbows on her bed. "How are you doing?"

"Oh, you know," she plucks at the covers self-consciously. "Well, you don't know 'cos you're not the one pissing into a bag right now."

"No," Jim swallows uncomfortably. "I'm not. Jesus, Ashe ..."

"Don't," she snaps, shaking her head. "Really, I'm not going to cope if you do the sympathy thing, so don't even."

He nods. "Okay."

She lets her head fall back to hit the pillows. Even with the dark circles under her eyes and the strip McCoy had to shave for the neurosurgery, Jim still thinks she's beautiful. He wants to tell her that, but he's not sure if it'll make things better or worse, so he shifts in his seat and offers up a goofy smile.

"I hear you're the new me," she jokes wanly, full lips twisted in mockery.

"Yeah, tell me, is the regulation skirt length really this short?"

Ashe lets loose one bark of harsh laughter and then her eyes are swimming in tears. "Shit," she sighs, "it's not like I couldn't have seen this coming."

"Nobody ever sees it coming," he pauses to catch her eye and make sure she understands. "You don't. Not when it's you or someone close to you. I mean, in this job we see death and destruction on a daily basis, but it doesn't really touch us. Maybe it's something we do, psychologically, to remain functional, I don't know, but it insulates us from the reality of the situation, from the risks we take. Truth is," he licks his lips, "I think you do this job long enough you're going to get messed up, one way or another."

Ashe reaches out with one wavering hand and manages to press it against the side of his face, her smile more genuine despite fresh tears. "Not only a pretty face."

He covers her hand with his own. "Well, not only."

They sit like that for a while, undisturbed by either McCoy or the Alpha nurses. There's a lot Jim wants to say, a lot he wishes he'd done differently, but Ashe's never wanted that kind of thing from him, never wanted any permanence. Offering something now would only be insulting or patronizing, something she won't tolerate, and he doesn't want to push her away.

"Anything I can do for you?" he asks, because it's probably the only thing he can get away with.

She nods, jerky and uncoordinated. One corner of her mouth is lopsided. "Take care of Spock for me," she whispers. "Don't let him blame himself for what happened."


-:-


"Ashe says hi," Jim says as he shrugs out of his jacket. Spock's quarters are several degrees hotter than anywhere else in the ship.

The Commander stops, one hand poised above the replicator. "You have spoken to Lieutenant Ho?"

"Yeah, this afternoon. I thought I'd stop in and see how she was getting on."

Spock turns slowly back to the wall unit and punches in his selection. "I have yet to do so."

"You should," Jim counsels. "I think she'd really like that."

Spock looks at him again, and there's something in his face that suggests he thinks that's very unlikely, but he says nothing, merely hands Jim a mug of steaming black coffee. Pleasantly surprised, Jim reaches out to take it and their fingers brush.

"So this meeting with the Arch High Deacon of Trade," Jim begins, rolling his eyes a little at the title as they sit on opposite sides of the desk. "Have you decided how you're going to drop the hint?"

Spock arches an eyebrow. "The hint?"

"Well, you can't just come out and say we're leaving."

"No?"

Jim grasps the edge of his chair between his thighs and shuffles it closer. "No. Look, why don't you practice on me?"

Spock gives him a faintly dubious look but sets down his teacup. After a moment to collect his thoughts, he says, "I am unable to guarantee our ongoing presence in your solar system, Your Excellency."

"Oh yeah, really intimidating," Jim grins, then seeing Spock's face settle into harder lines, hurries to explain. "You've got to put a little more into it, hook him with a kernel of truth."

"Subterfuge is not a skill cultivated amongst Vulcans."

"Good thing you've got me, then," Jim quips. "Now, try again."

For a moment, Jim has the feeling Spock is going to tell him to get out and take his coffee with him, but the Commander has obviously committed himself wholeheartedly to their unorthodox plan.

"Your Excellency, I regret that this may be our last meeting. I have found our conversations most stimulating. I would be gratified to discover that Star Fleet Command are incorrect and Nero chooses another route to the central worlds that does not entail the destruction of Robicon IV."

Jim grins. "Still a little direct, but you're getting there."

"Perhaps it would be best if you demonstrated the correct technique."

Jim feels the grin spread wider on his face because, yeah, Spock sounds just the tiniest bit pissy. "Don't sweat it, you're just a crap liar," he shrugs. "Some people would say that's a good thing."

"You are most insulting this evening."

"Come on, you can't be good at everything," Jim cajoles good-naturedly, reaching over the desk to slap Spock hard on the shoulder. "Try again."

"No."

Jim throws his head back and laughs, feeling the tight knot of tension in his stomach begin to dissolve. It was hard to see Spock so humiliated that morning and harder still to be with Ashe when she was so broken, no longer that well of indefatigable strength and sass. Spock is watching him with a straight face, but there's warmth in his eyes, the tiniest difference in the angle of his shoulders; he needs this, too.

"Maybe we should start with something a little more up your alley," Jim chuckles, reaching out to pluck at Spock's sleeve. "Come on, let's go for a walk. I don't know about you, but I'm starving."

"You have not eaten?"

"Have you?" Jim counters, trying not to let too much hang on Spock's reply in case it gives the game away.

Spock hesitates for the barest of seconds but then pushes to his feet. "I have not."

"Great," says Jim. "We can grab something from the mess and take it to the Observation Lounge for more bullshitting lessons."

They exit Spock's quarters shoulder to shoulder.

"Your choice of adjectives leaves much to be desired," Spock tells him as the door swishes closed.


-:-


"Okay, okay, hang on," Jim shoves another mouthful of pasta into his mouth. "Let me finish this before you try another one or you're going to kill me, for real."

They're sitting on a low couch near the expansive curve of the Observation Lounge's main window. Scattered groups of other Alpha crews, Ops and internal services staff are present, but most people are eating in the mess or their quarters at this time of day, which gives the illusion of privacy. After several further attempts at subtlety, they'd discovered that Spock's talent for lying lay elsewhere. The new plan was for Jim to lay the groundwork and for Spock to top it off with a bald statement.

Spock allows Jim to swallow before he says, utterly deadpan, "my father was an Andorian spice trader," and Jim manages to choke on air anyway.

The Commander's eyes narrow in concern, but Jim holds up a reassuring hand and just reaches for his glass of water. "Oh man," he sighs after washing his throat clear. "You're hilarious."

"The aim of this exercise is not to provoke hilarity," Spock reminds him, sounding faintly concerned.

"Don't worry, it won't be funny when we're doing it for real."

With a faintly offended air, Spock straightens his relaxed posture to its customary state. "I shall have to assume you are correct."

"Go again," Jim prompts, trying to get him to loosen back up.

"I believe it is your turn."

Jim tilts his head in consideration. "Fair's fair, I guess. Um, let me think," he scratches his free hand through his short blond hair, the plate of pasta balanced precariously on his knee. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Spock is slightly obsessed with that plate and its history of several near-misses with gravity. "Okay, here's one," Jim clears his throat. "I was once a bartender at a place where the tables were waited by monkeys."

Spock studies his face carefully for any traces of subterfuge. "You are a most consummate liar," he acknowledges.

"Actually, that one was true."

Both of Spock's eyebrows shoot up.

"There's this place near the Academy in San Francisco, do you know it?" Jim dismisses that possibility almost immediately. "No, of course you don't. Anyway, every month they feature a different animal in their wait staff. Of course, the animals have handlers, but the novelty is still there." Jim pouts in recollection, "actually, the monkeys were pretty good. It was the Denebian Slime Devils I have second thoughts about."

Their eyes meet and hold.

"You are lying about the Denebian Slime Devils."

Jim gives him a thoroughly mischievous look. "Believe me, I wish I was."

"The health regulations alone ..."

"Denebian Slime Devils," Jim reiterates firmly, "serving your fries. I shit you not."

Spock's face flickers through a complicated series of micro expressions as he struggles with both the content and the colloquialism.

"Don't try to analyze it," Jim advises, patting him on the knee. "Just eat your pasta, safe in the knowledge that humans are ridiculous."

He leans back against the couch, crossing his legs and rescuing his plate for the fourth time. After a few moments, Spock also allows himself to settle against the cushions, twirling his fork with newly found expertise. They watch the stars streak past at warp speed. Jim sips his water, a feeling of contentment gradually taking hold.

"Lieutenant?"

"We're off duty, call me Jim."

"I have two years, nine months, three weeks, six days and seventeen point four hours of shore leave accrued."

"Hey," Jim crows approvingly, "that was excellent! You're really getting the hang of this!"

"That was not a lie."

"Oh."

"Should we have the opportunity to take shore leave in each other's company, Admiral Pike implied we may wish to develop a confidential means of greeting one another, but I fail to see how this would be an appropriate use of our time."

"Right." Jim looks sideways at him. "Are you planning on taking shore leave?"

"Recent events have necessitated the development of a rotational system for leave across all crew groups aboard the Stalwart. I have been persuaded that it is logical for me to participate." Spock stares calmly out into space, devoid of emotion. "There is no compulsion for us to maintain contact during that time."

"What would you do, where would you go?"

Spock's left shoulder gives a minute twitch. "I have not given the matter much thought."

"The colony, maybe? To see your father?" Jim thinks it makes sense. If Spock's telling the truth, he hasn't spent any time with his only remaining family since his planet was destroyed.

"I am unsure of my welcome."

"Oh."

He's so not qualified to be having this conversation, but Spock is actually telling him things and Jim takes a moment to absorb that before his heart rate kicks up a notch. Deliberately, he slouches down a little more in case any of his enthusiasm shows. Somehow, and he's not exactly sure how, this lesson in lying has turned into a sharing of truth, and he's suddenly realized how much he wants to unravel the puzzle of his commanding officer.

He glances at Spock and tightens his fingers around his half empty glass of water. "My father died on the USS Kelvin the day I was born." It's not relevant to their conversation, but it is something he never talks about, so instinctively, it feels like it fits.

Spock is clutching the edges of his plate. "I have a brother, Sybok. We do not speak of him."

"We call my brother Sam, even though his name is George. He married some girl and had a kid, so that makes me an uncle." Spock turns to look at him so he shrugs self-consciously. "Shit, I don't even know how to be a brother, how can I be an uncle?"

"I am the last person you ought to ask."

"Sybok doesn't have any kids?"

"It is possible," Spock concedes. "I have no way of knowing if he is even alive."

"Because of Vulcan?"

"That, and more."

"What did he do, that you guys disowned him?"

Spock gives the tiniest shake of his head. "It was he who disowned us over a ... philosophical disagreement."

Jim huffs out a breath of disbelief. "Must have been one hell of a philosophy."

"Surak's teachings of logic."

"Okay, so I can see how that would cause problems." A little dumbfounded, Jim turns that over and over in his mind, trying to come at it from an angle that makes sense. "Did he have more trouble being Vulcan than you did?"

For a split second, Spock's mouth twitches into a crooked smile. It's gone again so fast that Jim feels dizzy.

"Perhaps," Spock says, and his voice is warm with possibilities. "Although it had not occurred to me to think so."

"It can't be easy." Jim is thinking aloud, almost to himself, toying with the idea of conforming to a life where emotion is perceived as a failing or a weakness. He turns to offer Spock a wide eyed shrug. "I don't know how you do it."

"Do you correspond with your brother?" Spock asks, changing the subject.

"Nah," Jim waves a dismissive hand, "not really. I mean, birthdays and that, but even then it's kind of half-hearted. There's a lot of stuff ..." Throat suddenly constricted, Jim is forced to pause and take a sip of his water. "There's a lot of stuff," he finishes lamely, as though that was all.

"Stuff," Spock echoes, watching him carefully. "I cannot conceive of Vulcan language being so imprecise."

He laughs nervously, tipping back his head to drain his glass. "There has to be a Vulcan equivalent."

"I assure you, there is not."

"Pity, that's a Vulcan word I'd love to know."

"You are quite fluent in Vulcan," Spock tells him, "for a human with little linguistic training."

"Th'i-oxalra," Jim grins.

"You have the accent of a diplomat. You speak pure Standard Vulcan with none of the regional inflections common to humans taught by other humans." Spock tilts his head. "You received instruction from a Vulcan."

"I did," Jim nods, enjoying this little guessing game. "What about you? Get all your Standard from your mother?"

"No," Spock answers almost distractedly. "Like all other children of diplomats, I was required to take advanced language instruction in several common Federation languages. Jim, who taught you Vulcan?"

"A Vulcan who was t'kaul'ama," he reveals. "Never did figure out what he did to get himself kicked out of the club, cos he had to be one of the most Vulcan Vulcans I've ever met." Jim warms to the story and the memory. He doesn't usually like discussing this particular stage in his life, but focusing on the language he learned at the time means he can avoid thinking about the rest of it. "Then again, I was just a kid, but it always sort of seemed like I knew what he was feeling."

Jim had almost added, 'like with you,' but stopped himself just in time.

"A Vulcan with insufficient emotional control can be dangerous," Spock frowns. "I trust you were not left unsupervised with this teacher?"

"Well," Jim squirms a little and rubs the back of his neck. "It wasn't exactly an official language course or anything."

"Explain."

"I was working as an apprentice mechanic at the Iowa Ship Yards. I was, oh I don't know," Jim's eyes flick to the ceiling as he searches his memory, "maybe thirteen or fourteen?"

"The legal age of first employment for humans is fifteen."

"Yeah, I lied on my forms," Jim dismisses that concern instantly. "Anyway, I was pretty good at electronics as it happened, so I got promoted under the central systems tech for the main computer banks?" Jim says it like a question and Spock nods his understanding of starship construction. "Right, so I found myself working on the universal translator subprocessor which meant that every time a consultant native speaker came through, I got to meet them." Jim grins at the memory. "I liked Sarek immediately."

It shouldn't be possible that a lack of movement can draw someone's attention, but when Spock freezes that's exactly what happens.

"What?" Jim asks. "What is it?"

"Describe this Vulcan."

"Um," Jim falters under Spock's intense scrutiny. "Old? Like, really, really old, even for a Vulcan? Kind of a fraction shorter than me, but I reckon he would have been taller in his prime. Grey hair, dark eyes, wrinkled as hell, oh I don't know!" He throws up his hands. "An old dude! That was over half my lifetime ago, I can't remember exactly."

Spock relaxes slightly, even if his eyes are still rather intense.

"What the hell was that?" Jim exclaims.

"Sarek is an uncommon name amongst Vulcans," he explains. "It is also the name of my father."

"Really?" Jim realizes he knew this already, from the conversation between Spock and Senekot in the transporter room. It just hadn't stuck because of everything else that was going on. "Wow, what are the odds?"

"Approximately seventy two thousand, six hundred and ninety four to one."

"Right," Jim breathes, letting go of the tension. "They're pretty long odds, no wonder you were freaked out."

"That is the second time today you have accused me of being 'freaked out.'"

"You totally were, don't even try to deny it."

Spock gives him a look.

"Anyway, Sarek taught me more than the routine hellos, goodbyes and thankyous we get in school," he shrugs. "It was fun. A lot of what he taught me was technical jargon, so any time you want to talk about wiring and circuit boards I'm your guy, but at least once a week he'd throw in a verse from Surak, some pre-Reform poetry or make me sit through some damn history lesson or another."

"I find it difficult to believe you enjoyed such instruction."

"I actually did," Jim shrugs. "It was kind of cool to have the old guy take an interest in me, and I had a lot of time on my hands."

No teenager with Jim's background should have had quite that much time to spare, but Spock pointedly doesn't question the circumstances. Instead, he settles back against the couch, picks up his fork again and says, "za gad vesht kup gla-tor nash veh Chekov ot-lan igen-tukh-vohraun."

"Mmm," Jim nods, "ha taurauk!"

He's happy to let the conversation slide to Chekov's utterly awesome aerodynamic breaking, especially since Spock wants to talk about it in Vulcan.

 

 

Chapter Text

"I offer my humble craft for your transportation convenience," Jim says, adding the traditional Robii hand gesture that symbolizes luck and good fortune.

The Arch High Deacon of Trade makes the signal for benevolent charity. "I accept."

It's a rainy day on Robicon IV, which is simply perfect; picture perfect. Jim couldn't have asked for more. The road is muddy, the mood dreary and the Diplomatic Corps suitably demoralized. It's a great day for lying.

Nix and several other crews have drawn atmospheric duty, leaving them planet-bound for the next twelve hours. It's the most boring of the endlessly boring assignments available within the Stalwart's current deployment; the alternatives being security detail or research and development. The fact that the Divisional Commander drew atmosphere on their final day in the sector has raised a few eyebrows, but it is simple enough to pass it off as a parting courtesy to the Robii. Normally, Nix gets out of a lot of atmo duty, simply because it makes sense for Spock to spend as much time in R&D as possible, rather than ferrying dignitaries from place to place. Also, everyone is still in shock over what seems like an abrupt withdrawal from the system. Robicon IV will be only the third planet abandoned by the Federation due to unsuccessful evacuation treaty negotiations. There were a fair few drunken diplomats in the mess over the last twelve hours, consoling each other and crying into their synthahol.

Planetside, Jim offers his arm to the Deacon, who grips it lightly as he ascends Nix's starboard runner. Uhura gives him an eyeroll from the cockpit and Jim has to quickly smother his smile before the Deacon's intern sees it. Awash with the tingling anticipation of being able to put their plan into action, he can't resist offering Spock his arm, too, just for laughs.

The Commander pauses, one foot on the runner, his eyebrow speaking volumes.

Jim steps aside, not the least bit chastised.

Seated opposite each other on the shuttle's benches, Jim and Spock face the Deacon and his rather nervous looking aide. This is the only opportunity they'll have for conversation with someone who has a seat on Robicon IV's council. It is their one chance to plant the seed of doubt that might save a planet full of people.

"Are you okay?" Jim directs his question to the boy clutching the edge of his seat. "Uhura's a really good pilot, you know."

The boy makes a bold and dismissive gesture. "Your Federation would not have assigned her to His Excellency otherwise."

"True," Jim shrugs, "but it's nice to know, all the same, right?"

The boy flicks wide eyes his way. "I suppose."

Such casual conversation is tolerated on Robicon IV amongst lower socio-economic classes, but Spock and the Deacon sit in silence, studying each other. Staring isn't considered rude here, which means Spock is thoroughly in his element. Jim can't think of a single person who can outstare a Vulcan, but he's enjoying watching the Deacon try.

"What are you going to do for transport, once we're gone?" he asks the intern.

"We will return to conventional means," the boy replies, with a chin bob that signifies tolerance of adversity. "The drivers will have to be recalled from the celebrations."

"Celebrations?"

"Yes, of course," the boy looks offended. "Today is the fifty first commemoration of the signing of the Balwinter Treaty."

"What is that," Jim asks, "exactly?"

"The law that prohibits the making of twine with less than four strands and more than seven."

"Right," says Jim, almost like he cares. "Big party, then."

"The festivities are three days in duration."

With just the right amount of regret, Jim sighs. "Sounds like we would have enjoyed it."

The intern gives a brief sign indicating impatience. "Certain Federation dignitaries have been invited, you and your Divisional Commander included."

"Uh yeah," Jim flicks his fingertips, conveying regret, embarrassment and a desire to cease conversing.

The intern gives him an odd look, but is culturally inhibited from questioning an alien who quite clearly outranks him. They spend the rest of the flight in total silence, but Jim doesn't miss the way the Deacon's eyes inappropriately drift away from Spock's face and onto his own, fine lines of tension drawn between those brows. Beside him, he feels Spock draw a particularly large breath and release it very slowly. Yeah, Jim feels the tension, too.

They land without incident, of course, and Jim springs down to assist the Deacon to disembark. The bejeweled hand rests a little more firmly on his arm this time, drawing his attention to the man's face.

"You should inform your Divisional Commander that failure to attend the Balwinter commemoration will result in great offense to the Robii people."

Jim ducks his head in frank subordination. "Your Excellency, no offense can be taken for refusal of an invitation at a time when those invited are too distant to attend with ease."

"Too distant?" The Deacon comes to an abrupt halt and turns to pin Spock with his most outraged stare, the offense significant enough for him to speak directly to highest ranking officer present, image be damned. "The Federation are replacing Prime Division's presence with a lesser Division?"

"No, Your Excellency," Spock says, with all the confidence of a man telling the truth.

"Then explain your inability to attend!"

Spock makes the complex gesture required by the situation with ease. "You place me in an awkward situation."

"My Commander does not wish to prevaricate," Jim explains helpfully, eyes downcast in apology for the untimely comment. "Loyalty to one's superiors takes precedence over all, does it not, Your Excellency?"

The Deacon's eyes narrow. He may be a bigot and a social climber, but he is also an experienced diplomat and the implications are clear. "Can I anticipate any Federation attendance at the Treaty celebrations?"

"It is ... unlikely," Spock replies.

Jim winces inwardly at the hesitation, but perhaps it simply sounds like regret to these people. He silently wills Spock to seal the deal. Ops are in his ear, asking how much longer they're going to be on the return trip. The previously perky voice sounds pissy.

The Robicon Arch High Deacon of Trade draws himself up to his full, rather unimpressive height and glares. "Can I anticipate any Federation presence on our planet in the coming days?"

Spock's eyes almost seek Jim's, but he remains in control of himself and clasps his hands before him in a Robii apology. "No," he says, with all the weight of his natural seriousness to back him up.

The Deacon turns away, snaps something to his intern that the Universal Translator refuses to interpret, and marches off towards the Grand Hall where the Federation Diplomatic Corps and other dignitaries are assembled.

Jim waits until they're a decent distance away before leaning closer to Spock and asking, "do you think they took the bait?"

"After the Arch High Deacon spoke to his intern, the young man suffered a sudden and highly noticeable alteration to his circulation," Spock confides. He turns to Jim, lips flexed in something that was very close to being an expression of satisfaction. "I believe the human expression is 'hook, line and sinker.'"

"You lied your ass off!" Jim slaps him on the shoulder.

-:-

Jim tries to hide his smile from McCoy as he leaps down from the shuttle. He's filled with the adrenaline rush of hope. Only he, Spock and Taylor know the truth of the situation, and it fills him with nervous energy. It's too early in the day, but he longs to go a few rounds with security in the gym. He needs to do something, and it needs to totally distract him, because it's times like these he feels like doing something really self destructive just to take the edge off. He rolls his neck and tries to shake it out.

"You don't feel bad about leaving these guys to get walloped by Nero?" the doctor demands, looking like thunder.

Jim shrugs and mutes his smile further. "What can you do? We offered, they refused."

"Offer harder!"

"Bones, there are seventy two other populated worlds lying between Robicon and the Central Planets, just how long do you want us to spend on this one?"

"As long as it takes!" McCoy is in fine fettle now. "Jesus, Jim, I thought I knew you!"

That hurts a little, and yeah, if he hadn't known what was really going on, he probably would have been more cut up about the whole thing, but even so, working EPAS has made him frighteningly pragmatic. He comes face to face every day with the save he can't make, the odds he can't beat. If this hadn't been a ploy, Robicon would just be the same thing on a larger scale. It doesn't sit well with him and he sure as hell doesn't like it, but it's the reality he lives with.

Shaken from his own thoughts, Jim looks up, sees the intensity on his friend's face and realizes that McCoy never gives up, never even glances at the odds. It's what makes him such a brilliant doctor.

"Never change," he says sternly, gripping the older man by the shoulder, and probably harder than he means to. "Don't you dare change."

"Lieutenant."

Spock's voice makes Jim drop his hand and turn. "Sir?"

"Walk with me."

With a shrug in McCoy's direction he hopes looks innocent enough, Jim falls into step with Spock.

"The next stage of your plan has been implemented," Spock says in an undertone. "I have personally populated our astrogation database with false entries to indicate our intent to leave the Robicon system in under twenty four hours. Ops and Navigation staff of the current shift are already plotting them." His dark eyes flick to Jim's then away again. "Captain Taylor is aware of the falsification, although I am unsure whether that mitigates the regulation punishment for making false entries in the logs."

"Relax," Jim soothes, catching the very edge of Spock's sleeve between two knuckles and giving it a tug. "This is going to work. You'll see."

They round the corner into sickbay for their routine post-deployment scans and are forced to come to an abrupt halt. The huge space is filled to the brim with milling EPAS personnel, all in uniform, all looking very unimpressed. Doctor Chapel stands at the fore, her arms folded firmly over her blacks, blonde hair pulled back into a tight bun.

"Report," Spock demands.

Chris gestures around the room with one hand. "Conscientious objectors," she explains, "every single one of us. It's going to be hard to keep playing taxi with nobody to fly the shuttles," she indicates Chekov and a few other pilots, then extends her hand to encompass the room. "No medics to man the shuttles, techs to maintain the shuttles, engineers to fuel the shuttles ... need I go on?"

Beside him, Spock makes a noise that is almost a sigh.

Jim turns to face the door, shoulder to shoulder but positioned so that nobody can read his lips. "Which of us gets to tell the Captain we've caused a mutiny?"

-:-

"I'm pulling the plug on this harebrained scheme of yours, Kirk!" Taylor takes another portly turn around the ready room and swipes at his thinning hair. "What am I supposed to tell the brass back home? That my staff have essentially staged a walk-out over orders that don't even exist? They're going to love that, Pike might laugh but the Admirality ..."

"Captain, this will all blow over," Jim soothes, trying his best to sound confident as well as subordinate. "We expected a degree of unrest given how strongly the crew feel about humanitarian missions. They wouldn't be EPAS if leaving people behind didn't rub them the wrong way."

"Well, now it's rubbing my reports the wrong damn way!" Taylor snaps, biting off his words as though they offend him. "Dammit, Spock, I told you to keep an eye on him!"

"With all due respect, sir," Jim says quickly, "so far, everything's gone exactly to plan, and I ..."

"Exactly to plan?" Taylor looks almost apoplectic. "Exactly to plan?"

"Sir ..."

"You mean to tell me you anticipated that sixty four percent of my crew would mutiny if you implemented this underhanded deception, and you didn't think it was worth mentioning?"

"We did not anticipate sixty four percent, Captain," Spock corrects calmly, "more in the order of forty percent, and the crew have not mutinied, they have merely taken advantage of their legal right to protest an order they deem unethical."

"That's still nearly half my damn crew, Commander! I know we're a civilian operation, but there's something to be said for operating under a military hierarchy and having a direct order followed without question!"

"I concede your point. However, since none of the crew expressing objection have the option to leave the Stalwart, I deem the potential ramifications of conscientious objection to be minimal, if any."

"You do, do you?"

Spock regards the cherry-faced Captain with perfect equanimity. "Yes, sir, I do. Should we have need of the sixty four percent, they are readily accessible."

Taylor doesn't look like he really knows where to go with that, so he rounds on Jim instead. "How much longer are you going to need with this damn sideshow you're running? I've got a comm from the Minister for Health asking me why his nephew is convinced EPAS are abandoning the Robii to the Romulans." He's breathing heavily through his nose as he plants both hands on his hips. "Did you know the Minister's nephew serves in Engineering?"

Jim shifts from one foot to the other. "No sir, I didn't."

"No, well, neither did I until this morning!"

Jim decides it's time he just shut his mouth and let Spock do the talking. Unfortunately, that just results in Taylor looking back and forth between the two of them in growing agitation, as Spock apparently has nothing to add. Finally, when it looks like he's either going to kill them or simply explode, he grits his teeth together and says, "I don't care what you do, or how you do it, but you've got twelve hours, gentlemen. Get. This. Done."

Kirk and Spock snap smart salutes and make good their escape. The Bridge crew studiously ignore them on their way to the turbolift, which only serves to reinforce Jim's belief that the walls on these older Constitution class ships just aren't as soundproof as Starfleet would have them believe. Safely ensconced behind the lift door, Spock seems to sag the tiniest bit.

"I thought he was going to make us write lines," Jim whispers, keeping his eyes straight ahead. "Or maybe send us to bed without any dinner."

"This is not a time for levity."

Jim turns to look at him, curiosity genuinely piqued. "When is your preferred time for levity?"

"We have twelve hours to accomplish what we initially hoped to achieve in twenty-four."

"No problem," Jim says easily. "We just have to call in the cavalry, is all."

To his credit, Spock tolerates the colloquialism with nothing more than a blink. "Explain."

"Well, I don't know about you, but that Twine Party sounds kind of awesome."

Spock gives him a look quite reminiscent of those he often turns on McCoy. Jim inwardly quails, but manages a jaunty wink. "Never trust to diplomats what you can trust to a bunch of hot women."

When he fears Spock might actually be able to drill holes through his living flesh with the lasers in his eyes, Jim feels forced to explain. "We're going to have to tell Uhura, Chapel, Hannity and that new chick on Ops."

"Gaila," Spock supplies instinctively. "She is an Orion."

Jim rubs his hands together gleefully. "This just gets better and better."


-:-


Jim presses his hand against his injured cheek and rolls his jaw experimentally. "Wait, did you just slap me like a bitch?"

Uhura points a perfectly manicured finger in his face. "You're damn lucky that's all I did!"

Spock's eyes dart from one human to the other but he doesn't move a muscle.

"I could kill you!" Uhura hisses, teeth gritted. "You had us all believing we were going to be responsible for leaving billions of people to die!"

"A little help here?" Jim begs, one eye tearing up.

Spock just raises an eyebrow. The implication is pretty clear.

"Don't think that just because you told me now, it excuses for one second ..."

"Uhura!" Jim fends her off with his free hand. "Wait a minute, just listen. If you thought of a way to save these people ... admittedly an immoral, underhanded, deceptive and devious way, but one that would work, wouldn't you use it?"

She plants her hands on her hips and taps her booted foot on the deck, looking anywhere but at Jim or Spock. Her delicate features show frustration, anger and a sort of grudging respect.

Jim pretends he's not holding his breath.

"Okay, fine!" she sighs. "You know I would."

"Good, then we're on the same team."

"No, Jim, we're not," she snaps. "Teams consist of individuals who work together, who tell each other things. I don't think you're familiar with the concept."

"A single leak can compromise the entire plan."

She tilts her head to the side in a manner highly reminiscent of Spock, if only he allowed himself to look so disappointed in people. "The day I jeopardize a save on any scale, I'll turn in my tabs. This is more than a job to me, Jim; I'm here because I believe in what we're doing. Don't ever forget that again."

He lets his hand fall from his cheek, staring out at her from above the redness, poking around at the inside of his mouth with his tongue. "Can you vouch for the others?"

Uhura straightens and directs her answer to Spock and him alone. "Yes, sir. I can."

Spock's communicator chirps, breaking the tableau. He answers it with a flick of his wrist. "Spock here."

Commander, the captain of the Tat'sar is demanding that we break orbit and make best speed to New Vulcan. I know it's not your purview, but Captain Taylor told me to get you to handle it, sir.

His face blanks completely, the hints of expression that had been visible only now apparent by their absence. "Acknowledged. Spock, out."

Jim takes a step closer to him. "Do you want a hand with that?"

"You have business to attend to," he declines. "Ensure that this elaboration on our original plan does not result in any emergency, major diplomatic incident or reportable offense while I am unavailable to rectify it."

Jim gapes as Spock sweeps out of the room.

Uhura looks puzzled. "Did he just make a joke?"


-:-


Senekot is waiting for him outside his quarters. Spock is unsurprised by the choice of venue; whatever motivation the Vulcan captain has for making his demand, it is unlikely to be one he wishes to discuss in the company of his own subordinates.

Spock unlocks the door and gestures for the captain to precede him.

"I have the backing of the High Council, Spock. You would do well to advise your captain to accede to our request," Senekot opens without preamble.

Ignoring the flutter of irritation at the lack of courtesy, Spock strolls to the replicator and punches in two glasses of water that he then sets on the desk, one near each chair.

"Take rest, heal your thirst," he offers traditionally.

Despite his obvious contempt for Spock's role and person, Senekot cannot refuse the custom, so he lowers himself stiffly into the chair and takes a sip from the tall glass. "I see you have not entirely forgotten the ways of your father's people."

"Vulcan is never far from my thoughts," Spock answers diplomatically, choosing not to dwell on Senekot's oblique reference to his human blood.

"Vulcan is no more." Senekot regards him piercingly over his glass before setting it down in the pool of its own condensation. "There are rumours among the people that you turned down a place at the Vulcan Science Academy in order to serve within this Federation ambulance service. No Vulcan has ever done so."

Spock lowers his own glass, barely touched. "Then as I am only half Vulcan, the record is still unblemished."

"I see no logical advantage to such a decision."

"Perhaps because you do not possess all the pertinent facts."

Senekot's face is utterly blank. "Perhaps, and yet, I know more than you may think."

"Indeed?" Spock quirks an eyebrow.

Silence sits between them, but it is not the comfortable variety or even the polite variety. Spock has not known its like since his last moments on Vulcan-that-was, facing down his parents and his peers to make a decision that would earn their disapproval and irrevocably shape the rest of his life. Strangely, that thought fills him with peace. No future choice could even begin to haunt him so profoundly. The realization is liberating.

It is Senekot who looks away first. "It is imperative that the Tat'sar and her crew be returned to Nu'ri Ah'rak immediately."

"Why?"

"I am not at liberty to disclose that information."

"Without it, I am unable to recommend to my captain that he agree to the change in our schedule."

"Since you are already abandoning the people of Robicon IV to die at the hands of Romulans, what difference can a few hours make?" Senekot asks, completely devoid of emotion after their quick exchange.

For the first time, Spock feels truly discomfited. Lying to humans and the Robii is one thing; lying to a Vulcan is both culturally and practically far more difficult. He wishes Jim were here to give him an opening, to locate the fault line in Senekot's perfect exterior. Then he recalls their strange and untimely confessions in the Observation Lounge and realises that Jim has, in fact, given him the very weapon he needs. Spock must speak the truth in order to deceive.

Calmly, blankly, he folds his hands upon the desk and tells Senekot, "you would not understand." It is not a lie, but neither is it an answer.

With an almost imperceptible tightening of his jaw, the captain of the Tat'sar pushes to his feet, water forgotten on the table. "The High Council will be most disappointed, Spock."

Spock rises to match him. "I am accustomed to their disappointment."

"Of that, I have no doubt."

Senekot declines to make the ta'al and merely nods his head in the barest show of acknowledgement before making his exit.

Spock stares after him thoughtfully, wondering if the Council are indeed involved, or whether Senekot is merely invoking their name in the assurance that someone as outcast as he would not dare contact them to verify it. It is a very un-Vulcan tactic, but there has been little about Vulcan behavior since the destruction of their homeworld that can be called strictly characteristic. Desperate people do desperate things; a logical premise that Spock has seen proven time and time again during EPAS deployments. Urgency is the wellspring of irrationality, and if there is one thing he is certain of, it is that Senekot urgently wishes the Tat'sar returned to the new colony.

Curiosity is not an emotion, therefore Spock feels at liberty to indulge his own.

His goal is certainly comprehensible enough; he wishes to ascertain what is motivating Captain Senekot's demands and his secrecy. In the hours since the Tat'sar has been taken in tow, not a single surface scan or personnel exchange has been permitted. The Vulcan crew keep to their assigned quarters aboard the Stalwart and the only person to travel back and forwards between the two ships is Senekot himself, and even then, only by transporter.

Spock knows Vulcans can and do withhold certain levels of information from the Federation as a whole, but cannot fathom why an isolated science vessel should be of such considerable interest to the Council of Elders. It is possible that Senekot is invoking political support improperly, but Spock does not think it likely, given what he has seen. This leaves him with several nagging variables that demand closer inspection. He cannot allow the Stalwart's crew or her mission to be put in jeopardy unnecessarily.

Ostensibly, the Tat'sar has been assigned to assist Starfleet Sciences in determining the exact nature of the gravitational weapon used by the criminal Nero. However, there have been no reported instances of Nero utilizing the weapon in the quadrant where the Tat'sar was rescued; Spock has checked.

He presses the comm button. "Engineer Scott, report."

Scotty here, sir.

"Please report to starboard Ops."

On my way. Scotty out.

Spock stands, adjusts his cuffs and joins the flow of traffic in the corridor.

He acknowledges each and every salute with a nod of his head, thanks those who stand aside or offer up their places in the turbolift so that he might not be forced to endure physical contact. He knows their names, their ranks, their specialities. In a few rare instances he mentions something of personal note in passing and is gratified to observe the positive effect this has on morale. Their faces are largely familiar, their response to him a predictable blend of respect and what seems to be genuine appreciation. It is important to him because it illustrates how far he has come from the deeply disapproving Vulcan recruit he had been under Pike. He doubts that his associations have made him more human, although he acknowledges that it may seem so to other Vulcans. He justifies the nuances of body language, the slight tonal inflections in his voice, by the impact they have had on Prime Division over time.

Empathy is a fundamental expression of sentience. So said Surak himself.

"Is this all part of whatever crazy sensor simulations Lieutenant Kirk is running, sir?" Scotty asks the minute Spock walks into Ops. "I'm all for realism, but having the entire thing re-routed seems a bit too much, doesn't it?"

"I have every confidence in Lieutenant Kirk's ability to run a simulation," Spock replies, having decided it is largely true and unlikely to incriminate anybody. "I require your assistance with a calibration exercise."

"Aye, sir," Scotty sighs, taking a seat that is politely vacated by an experienced Ops veteran who is all too happy to take an extra coffee break.

Spock turns to the remainder of the five person skeleton crew and says, "lock down your stations and report to sickbay for a random physical."

Nobody grumbles, but they exit with less enthusiasm than the first tech.

"If you don't mind me asking, sir, just exactly what is going on?" Scotty leans towards him across the sensor board. "Not that I'm complaining, mind. It's just that half the ship is on strike, Kirk has me beaming three unaccompanied female crew down to some bleeding party about string and now I'm sitting here all alone with you staring at that heartbreaking beauty of a Vulcan ship wondering whether I'm going to regret asking this question right about ... now."

Spock considers the little he knows about Montgomery Scott, most of it gleaned from the good opinion of McCoy and Kirk. "We are about to have a sensor malfunction during a standard calibration exercise."

Scotty's eyes flick to the Tat'sar and back to Spock before going saucer round. "Aye, sir!"

In perfect unison, their fingers fly over the touch screens, manufacturing a standard calibration sweep and incorporating an innocent looking spike in the low and ultra high frequency range that would look random on cursory inspection and last only long enough to confirm Spock's suspicion. It would not provide comprehensive data; merely an answer to two simple questions.

"Ready when you are, Mister Scott."

"Energizing."

Spock can not prevent himself from tensing slightly as the subroutine goes into effect and they get surges across the board. Several lights flash and a warning tone sounds before a capacitor blows and the system goes into safe mode. Scotty waves a hand to banish the sour electrical smoke wafting up from his keyboard.

"Got what you wanted, Commander Spock?"

Spock eyes the readings carefully before transferring them to a data chip and wiping the computer memory. With the chip clutched tightly in one hand, he pushes to his feet. "Indeed, Mister Scott. Indeed."

-:-

"Spock!" Kirk is practically beaming with excitement. "I've been looking for you! I just got a comm from Gaila. It seems the cover story I gave them is working, and ..."

He is cut short abruptly as Spock grips him by the arm and displays the data chip between finger and thumb. "There are approximately twenty three people of diverse racial origins aboard the Tat'sar," he reveals urgently. "Some of them are in need of medical attention."

Jim plucks the data chip from Spock's fingers, eyes wide. "What are you saying?"

"I do not know." Spock forces himself to release his grip on Kirk, chagrined to realize it had been an instinctive act born of turbulent emotion. It is illogical to use physical contact as a way to convey the importance of information.

"What's on the chip?" Jim asks, staring at it, his good humor utterly vanished.

"Proof of their presence and also of the unique gravitational signature of Nero's weapon."

Jim's eyes lift slowly to meet Spock's. "Was the ship present at an engagement? Is there any logical way they could have been exposed to the signature?"

"The Tat'sar has been in active service for one year and eleven months. At no time has it come into contact with Nero directly." Spock calms himself with effort. "I am forced to hypothesize an alternative source of exposure."

Jim pales slightly but makes a determined fist around the chip. "Come on, we shouldn't talk about this in the corridor."

 

Chapter Text

Jim isn't sure what prompts him to choose his quarters as an appropriate venue for this discussion. He just knows they're talking conspiracy and worse and he's not going to be able to handle it if they do it in a sterile briefing room, because holy fuck, Vulcans in league with Nero? How does that even begin to make sense?

"You are agitated," Spock observes, standing just inside the door with his hands behind his back.

"No shit!" Jim exclaims. "What the hell do we do?"

Spock crosses to the small desk and perches carefully on the edge, facing into the room. "I expect we will have no choice but to require the Tat'sar to surrender any and all persons heretofore concealed aboard."

"Do you think they will?"

"Not willingly," Spock concedes. "However, provided we approach this situation logically and prepare a suitable incentive, I predict Captain Senekot will have no choice."

"Logically, right," Jim nods, pacing around his quarters. "Except there's nothing logical about this, starting with how you got those sensor readings in the first place."

Spock's expression is utterly blank. "There was a malfunction."

"Uh huh," Jim is shaking his head. "I'm not buying it and neither will Senekot."

"I do not require his belief, merely a degree of plausible deniability."

Jim tilts his head, a slight smirk breaking through. "Okay, let's just say for a minute that you can get those people beamed over; we don't know a thing about them. Who they are, where they're from, whether they're there willingly, how beat up they are ..."

From the hint of expression on Spock's face, he doesn't want to go there any more than Jim does.

"What I'm trying to say is," he continues, "we're flying blind. This could be the biggest political shit storm since Vulcan and we don't have the first idea how to avoid it."

The two Points lock eyes, one sitting calmly against the desk, the other with arms crossed defiantly.

"There is an old Earth adage that states necessity is the mother of invention."

Jim straightens sharply with surprise. "You want to wing it?"

Spock raises an eyebrow.

"You seriously want to wing it?"

"I have a plan." Spock's eyebrows draw level. "Of sorts."

Jim feels a frisson of frustration and admiration run through him. He can barely wrap his head around the facts and Spock is already putting together a strategy. Son of a bitch, he's sharp.

"Care to let me in on it?"

Spock hesitates for a split second, long enough to remind Jim that being taken into Spock's confidence is a rare occurrence. "I shall approach the Vulcan High Council directly," he reveals.

"I got the impression Captain Senekot is pretty tight with them. Do you think they'll even hear you out?"

"It would be illogical to refuse my communication," Spock says simply. "There can be no benefit in a lack of information."

"Even if they don't want to hear it?"

Spock gives him a look that could be mildly patronising. "Vulcans do not differentiate facts in such a manner."

"Okay," Jim wipes that idea with a wave of his hand. "What if they already know about it? What then?"

Spock takes a deep breath, his expression particularly shuttered. "Then we have stumbled upon a diplomatic and ethical infringement of considerable proportions."

Jim nods. "Epic, even. Are you prepared for what that might mean?"

"No," Spock says surprisingly. "I am not. Neither, I would think, are you."

"Touche, but my dad's not on the Council," Jim watches him carefully. "Yours is."

"My father is many things," Spock says tightly. "But I do not believe he would knowingly condone the poor treatment of innocents. If the situation is what it seems to be, there must be another explanation."

Jim tries not to feel bitter. "I admire your confidence, but in my experience, parents are made to disappoint you."

"Strange," says Spock, drawing himself up to his full height. "I have consistently found the reverse to be true."

Jim watches him leave with a strange feeling of emptiness. He doesn't have the time or the equilibrium to examine the implication's of Spock's parting remark, but the weight of it, the dead certainty that it's important won't leave him as he turns to other things. Even dealing with the urgent comm queue on his terminal can't distract him fully.

In fact, it's not until he selects the red-flagged security report from Federation Intelligence that his mind truly goes blank.


-:-


"My son," Sarek says, with perhaps the barest hint of surprise.

Spock inclines his head in greeting. "Father," he acknowledges. "I regret the inconvenience and disruption of your schedule. However, my captain requires an urgent conference with the High Council."

"For what purpose?" Sarek demands, his tone perfectly Vulcan, betraying nothing of what he might be feeling inside.

"To discuss the Vulcan science vessel we currently have in tow, the Tat'sar, specifically her cargo and mission."

This gives Sarek visible pause. He leans back slightly and steeples his fingers before him on the table. To anybody else, it may simply have been a gesture of consideration, but Spock knows this man, was taught the same technique at his hands. It is the foundation of the initial forms for controlling emotion, and very revealing. Whatever is going on aboard the Tat'sar, it seems Sarek is at least peripherally aware of its less than savory nature.

Beneath the desk, out of sight, Spock presses his own fingers together, trying desperately to ignore the symmetry and the sound of Jim's voice in his head. He knows, beyond the realm of rational thought, that whatever their differences, his father is a good person.

Sarek nods once. "We will speak with your captain."


-:-


Jim paces inside his quarters, feeling like his head might just explode. He wishes like crazy that he was aboard a Starfleet vessel, with a clear fucking chain of command, rather than Spock simply being Taylor's go-to man and everyone else taking their lead from Spock. Seriously, they need to work something out for situations like this, because he's commed the Bridge only to be told that both the Captain and the DivCO are currently conversing with the Vulcan High Council and are not to be disturbed for just any reason.

He gets angry, of course, and demands to know what would be sufficient reason to disturb them. Perhaps if Nero drops out of warp right on top of them? Hull breach? Klingon attack?

The XO promptly disconnects him.

Two seconds later, a new comm drops into his mailbox with the header 'Attn: Lt. Kirk, James. T - Notification of Impending Disciplinary Action.'

"Oh, fuck you very much!" Jim punches the terminal closed with his fist and snatches his communicator from the desk as he jogs out the door.

He wants to talk to someone about this, needs someone to bounce ideas off, but of course there's nobody with sufficient security clearance. He rakes a hand through his hair, absently realizing it needs to be cut again when it falls straight back into his eyes. This is bullshit and he knows it, and he could probably call Pike, but what does that look like for Spock, going over his head like that? Plus, Taylor would probably write him up, considering this was really in his purview, and not directly an EPAS matter. If Spock wasn't tied up, it would fall to him to deal with this, so with things as they stand, it's all eyes on Jim.

He pauses on his way to the bridge, one hand tapping out an agitated staccato rhythm on the turbolift door. No. The bridge isn't the answer. He just needs to prioritize and act quickly. Maybe, if he's lucky, Spock and Taylor will be available again by the time anything else needs doing. With the XO being an asshole about things upstairs, Jim knows he'll be fighting a losing battle to move the Stalwart anywhere, so he decides to work with what he's got.

He palms the turbolift control and raises his communicator to his lips. "Lieutenants Chekov and Hannity?"

Sir?

Their simultaneous and prompt replies soothe him somehow. "Meet me in the main shuttle bay, asap, and suit up." Jim requests the same destination from the turbolift and tries not to fidget as the levels flash by.


-:-


Uhura hates to admit it, but she's actually enjoying herself. A party about string sounded weird at best and downright dull at worst, but she has to hand it to the Robii; they know how to put on a show. Officials occupy podiums around the town square, sheltered from possible interference from the elements by multi-hued tarpaulins of various whimsical shapes and sizes. Dusky vermillion silk flutters among plucked scarlet blossoms and the smell of the local spiced wine is heavy on the air after recent rain.

She's turned her Universal Translator off in order to let the sounds of the local dialect wash over her, syntax so different from those she is more familiar with. It has none of the verb complexity of Orion, but some of the almost obsessive specificity of Vulcan. Looking around the bright and noisy space, she feels again the preemptive sense of loss. The thought of Nero extinguishing all this light and laughter fills her with dread. They cannot allow this to happen.

They arrived maybe an hour ago, each with an agenda, and had gone their separate ways almost immediately. Uhura's mark was the Undersecretary of Defense; a young, pre-emptively balding man with a calmness about him that belied his years. He was currently engaged in discussion with the Treasurer, so Uhura had double-clicked her comm to signal the others. Not that she's not enjoying herself, but Jim gave them a timeline and it makes sense to stick to it.

Her train of thought is almost as ruined as her dress when Gaila appears out of nowhere and accidentally jostles her elbow, spilling rich red liquid down her thigh.

"Oh, shit!" the redhead exclaims, instantly contrite. "It's like I'm drunk, my heels keep sinking into the mud."

Uhura extends one toned leg to display her own more practical boots.

"Yeah, sure," Gaila nods. "But tell me when I'm next going to have the chance to wear these babies?" Her own feet are encased in gorgeous swirling patterns of crystal and lace. "Sorry, though. I'll buy you a new dress the next time we get shore leave."

"Forget it," Uhura waves the offer aside. "Laundry can probably get it out. Have you done what we came to do?"

Gaila takes another sip of her drink and gives a dismissive wave of her hand. "Only in, like, the first five minutes after we got here. The rest has just been the icing on the cake."

Chapel is making her way across the square to their designated rendevouz point. She looks rather stunning in a pale blue shift with all her hair piled carelessly atop her head. When she draws level, Uhura makes a questioning face and Chris gives them a subtle thumbs up.

"Good, looks like we're all where we need to be," Uhura tells them when Chris is within earshot. "All we've got to do now is tip our hand a little, make them believe we're really leaving, then we can say goodnight and Jim will send Nix to come and get us."

"I can't believe we're not allowed to beam," Gaila pouts. "Can you imagine what the downdraft from a shuttle is going to do to a dress?"

Chapel's eyes flick from Gaila back to Uhura. "Okay, so for accuracy's sake, the last known co-ordinates of Nero's armada are?"

"Approximately two point six nine parsecs x, three point one parsecs y, plane of z minus eighteen degrees," Gaila answers promptly.

Uhura and Chapel turn to her with disbelieving eyes.

"What?" Gaila asks, looking offended. "I have this little subprogram I built into an app; it gives me constant real-time updates." She warms to the topic and pulls out her communicator to show them. "Look, all you do is click this little icon and ..."

"Is that a cartoon of Nero's face?" Chris screws up her nose, peering over Uhura's shoulder for a better view.

"Yup, with a party hat."

Chris looks like she doesn't know whether to be amused or horrified. "You Ops people are weird, you know that?"

"Whatever," Gaila shrugs. "Anyway, you can also do this neat little thing where it projects a predicted course based on the trend of previous known data points," she clicks enthusiastically, tilting the screen so everyone can see the bold red line that plots itself right through the planet they're standing on and directly to Earth. "Creepy, huh?"

Uhura's own comm unit chips loudly from her purse, making them all jump.

She pulls a face as she scans the message, then her frown grows steadily by the second. Finally, she holds it up so the others can read it.

Change of plan. Get to the rendevouz. Don't care how, just do it. Shuttle ETA ten minutes: 33N42/68W58 - Kirk.

She thumbs the backlight off and purses her lips. "Doesn't he know that's almost a klick away?"

"In heels?" Gaila adds in a pained voice.

"If we run, we can do that in about two or three minutes over uneven terrain," Christine speculates. "Add another minute or two for Gaila's shoes and if we leave in five, we should make the shuttle with time to spare."

"Okay," Uhura agrees, returning the comm unit to her purse. "Let's wrap this up."


-:-


Jim gives a tug on the seal of his EVA suit, tightening the collar. "How long 'til full power up?"

Chekov turns in his seat. "Thirty seconds, sir."

Hannity comes jogging over, still slower putting on her suit than any other Point. It's the kind of thing that takes practice, and she just hasn't had the chance. Her visor is tucked under her arm, gloves shoved in a pocket and Jim is hoping to hell that neither of them are going to need any protective equipment at all.

"What's all this about?"

He makes an apologetic face. "Sorry, need to know."

"Don't I need to know?" she presses, frowning up at him through her freckles.

She's looking so much younger in the dark polymer suit than Jim knows her to be and it makes his gut ache. It's the reason he's going along for what should be a routine atmo mission; a simple taxi run. She's done Basic, of course, like the rest of them, but followed it up with five years on Ops. Until Ashe's accident, Hannity hadn't done more than the minimum requirement of EVA hours per year, having cross-specialized in Engineering, not Point deployment.

"We're picking up the rest of Nix's girls from a diplomatic function," he says, yielding slightly.

"In full EVA gear?" her tone is sarcastic. "What gives, fly boy?"

"Just," he waves at the shuttle, "get in and strap in, Lieutenant."

Hannity's lips form a thin line but she knows an order from the Divisional Point One when she hears it. "Aye, sir."

It's then that the lift doors chime and McCoy appears pushing Ashe in a wheelchair, Scotty, Ahern and Riley in tow. The doctor makes a beeline for Jim, and the expression on his face is nothing next to the one on Ashe's.

"You tell me to clear out the sickbay and prep for potential incoming, but you don't say why?" McCoy growls as soon as he gets close enough.

Ashe uses her good arm to push herself forward in the chair. "I tried to comm Spock, but all I get is messaging," her lopsided expression is hard, more like the woman he remembers. "I used to be you," she reminds him, "we have the same clearance. If you're going down there, someone up here needs to know what's going on."

"Echo Delta Niner Niner Six, ready to go sir," Chekov calls from the cockpit.

Jim slaps his gloves against his leg repeatedly, weighing his options. After a few seconds, he points at Riley, Ahern and Scotty, then jerks his thumb over his shoulder. "You three, long range scanners, go."

They jog over to the boards, re-routing what they need from other areas.

"Mind telling us what we're scanning for, Lieutenant?" Scotty calls without looking up from his board. "It might help."

Jim locks eyes with Ashe and McCoy. "Any unusual transmissions or energy signatures from Robicon IV," he tells Scotty. "I want every sensor bank barring standard precautions trained on that planet, understood?"

"Aye, sir. Understood."

"Jim," McCoy takes a step forward, pushing Ashe almost close enough to bump into his legs. "What is it?"

"No," Ashe's head lolls against the chair back in what might have been a negative. "Not here, right Jim?"

"Right."

She points awkwardly in the direction of the locker rooms. "That'll do, Leonard."

Her words might be slurred and her motor control shot to hell, but Ashe is still one of the sharpest. It does Jim good to realize it.


-:-


Uhura does her best not to feel guilty as she sees the penny drop for the Undersecretary of Defense. His pale blue eyes slide away, coming to rest on the place where his hands grip his napkin unusually tightly.

"I regret ..." he says, then takes a long swallow from his glass. "I regret that you will be unable to remain for the conclusion of festivities." He manages the press of his fingertips which makes it a genuine sentiment, even if his hands are shaking. "I confess, I had not considered this outcome."

It is unusually direct for a Robi, especially one in power, and Uhura likes him even more for it. She makes a complicated pass of one palm over the other. It says more on this planet than words ever could.

The Undersecretary's eyes, suspiciously damp, are fixed on her hands. "Thank you."

Uhura reaches out, etiquette be damned, and rests her fingers lightly on his sleeve. "There is still time."

He nods, jaw firming.

Of course, that's when they're both proven wrong.


-:-


"You can't be serious?" McCoy boggles.

"Deadly," Jim tells him.

"Well, this needs to go straight to Taylor!" the doctor whispers, thunderstruck. "What are we doing standing around here, talking about it?"

"Jim would have tried that," Ashe counters, her one obedient eyebrow lowering into a frown.

"Stuck in a confidential confab with the Vulcan High Council," Jim confirms. "His excuse for an XO wouldn't even pass him a message."

"Of all the ..."

"You're doing the right thing," Ashe interrupts, forcing her eyes to fix on Jim's face. "What you're doing, it's what I'd do."

"Thanks." Jim swallows around the lump in his throat, because, holy shit he needs to hear that. "Look, I should be back in under fifteen."

"Go," she waves clumsily in the direction of the door. "Take care of business, I'll comm you if we pick up anything."

McCoy's surprise morphs into concern. "You're on medical leave, Lieutenant."

Ashe can't quite make her head turn far enough to look at the doctor, but she tries. "There's nothing wrong with my faculties or my clearance."

"Ashe ..."

"I'm needed here," she insists. "You can't deny that."

Jim watches McCoy chew his lip for a few seconds before nodding agreement. It gives him the freedom he needs to turn on his heel and sprint to the shuttle, waving off Hannity's concerned face as he springs up the runner. Before he's even fully strapped in, he slaps the door control and leans over his newly appointed Point One to call, "take us out, Chekov."

"Aye, sir!"

It's only then that Jim realizes that shit, this is his first mission as a Point Two and he's doing it without any kind of blessing.


-:-


Uhura stiffens instinctively. She doesn't need to see the terrified expression on the Undersecretary's face to realise what is going on. She's done too much self-defense training, been in too many sticky situations to fail to recognize the pressure of a weapon in the small of her back. It sits there, cold and deadly, right over her left kidney. She thinks of her cross-specialization training, recalls that the kidney is a really bad place to get shot. What was the percentage total circulation to the renal system? Twenty five percent, she thinks. Twenty five percent of her blood sitting right there, right in the line of fire. It wouldn't take her long to bleed out.

"Get up," a Robi voice says menacingly. "Slowly."

She does as she's told, watches the Undersecretary do the same, only now realizing that he's dealing with a similar situation. The people to either side of them rise, too. They're dressed as dignitaries from the outer regions, but their fingernails are stained, their nails rough and poorly polished. Uhura curses her preoccupation with the Undersecretary's discomfort, knowing that she's made a grievous error in failing to notice that disparity. No Robi of any importance would go a day without a manicure. Hands are so important on this planet.

"What do you want?" she asks softly, mentally begging for someone on the nearby tables to break with social protocol and glance their way.

The weapon digs more firmly into her back, and she realises that in her haste she's forgotten to add the gesture that implies respect. She may as well have said, 'what the fuck do you want, anyway?' Damn.

There is warm breath on the back of her neck. "To live, Federation. Simply to live."

Uhura slowly and carefully makes the one-handed version of an apology. "Then we have that in common."

"All of us," nods the Undersecretary sincerely.

"I will not relate to you," Uhura's guard says menacingly. "I will not bond with you, sympathize with you or care what happens to you. Do not waste your time attempting a fruitless course of action."

A firm grip lands on her shoulder, tight enough to make her flinch.

"Be sensible and let the human go," the Undersecretary advises, sounding admirably calm under the circumstances. "Why bring the wrath of the Federation down upon yourselves? There are better enemies to make."

"You have done a sufficient job of annoying the Federation already. Why should I care what they think of us, when our government clearly does not?"

"Please ..."

"Silence!" the Robi hisses, using his grip on Uhura to spin her around so that she gets her first good look at the man holding the Undersecretary. "Do as you are told."

They make it to the edge of the square before the concussion wave knocks them off their feet.


-:-


"What in God's name was that?" Scotty winces, tearing out his earpiece and cramming a palm against his head in pain.

Ahern doesn't bother answering, just pulls up Nix's telemetry on her HUD. It shows them thirty seconds from rendevouz, but their signature is corrupted by the surge of electromagnetic and thermal radiation.

"I'm getting doctor McCoy," Riley says hurriedly, rising from his chair.

"Lieutenant Kirk," Scotty manages, one hand still nursing his sore ear. "I take it you heard that, sir?"

Heard it, Scotty? We can fucking see it from where we are! What the hell?

"Your guess is as good as mine," the engineer sighs, releasing the hold on his ear to let his fingers fly across the diagnostics. "Still, I really think you ought to land that box of bolts before ..."

The board alights with warnings again, this second incident twice the size of the first. Lights flash and urgent tones sound. Scotty and Ahern exchange shocked glances.

"Nuclear?" she wonders in disbelief.

"What did you say?" McCoy asks, appearing in the hangar with Ashe pushed ahead of him.

Ahern looks to Scotty for confirmation, then swivels her chair to face the doctor and the ex-Divisional Point One. "Thermonuclear devices have just been detonated on the surface of Robicon IV."

A moment of shocked silence holds, then Ashe lurches forward in her chair, one uncooperative hand reaching for the mic button. "This is Stalwart to shuttle Echo Delta Niner Niner Six, over?"

Static greets them.

"Nix, this is Ashe, do you copy?"

Again, static.

She turns to Ahern, grunting with the effort to make her body do her bidding. "Have you got them?"

Lioli flicks through filter after filter, Scotty doing everything he can to feed her more power and dampen the interference. After a few seconds, she shakes her head in apology. "No, sir. Too much EMR, I can't get a clear lock."

"But you've got something?"

She shrugs, unwilling to commit. "It could be a ghost, it could be them."

Ashe slumps sideways in her chair, rolling her head to look up at McCoy. "You know that point we spoke about? The one where Spock has to know about this no matter what? We just reached that point."

"Thank Christ for that," McCoy mutters, circling the wheelchair so fast that Ashe lurches from side to side.

"Scotty?" she calls over her shoulder. "Keep a comm line open. Jim's a good Point. He'll be in touch as soon as he can."

The engineer pulls his hand away from his head one last time, rubbing the dribble of blood between index finger and thumb. "Aye, sir."

"And get some Ops down here!"


-:-


Spock stands in the requisite subordinate position to Captain Taylor's right, but close enough that the comm unit picks up his presence. They have been debating with the Vulcan High Council for twenty eight point two nine minutes. It is becoming tedious.

The Stalwart's position is clear. Captain Taylor has endeavored to make known to the Council that he will not accept anything other than full disclosure. However, a this rate, Spock is rapidly coming to the conclusion that forcing Senekot to accept medical aid alone from EPAS is the best possible outcome. What they need, as Jim would say, is a foot in the door. However, Taylor's methods do not lend themselves to subtlety and he is doggedly pursuing the line of their original demands despite Spock's rare hints and careful suggestions.

From the slight tension on Sarek's face, his father can see what he is trying to accomplish. Whether or not he approves is another matter. Spock has been so focused on achieving their end that he has not had the opportunity to properly gauge his father's reaction to the situation. It is enough to note that several of the High Council appear discomfited by the fact that an external body is aware of non-Vulcans being aboard one of their most prized science vessels. The issue of the weapon signature has not been raised. Taylor is aware, but Spock had argued strongly against disclosing their knowledge at this juncture. In his opinion, there could be no better way to ensure the Council's lack of cooperation.

"Ambassador Sarek," Taylor sighs. "I can't understand why you didn't ask us for medical aid in the first instance. You didn't seem to have any difficulty requesting that we tow you, why is this any different?"

"The confidential nature of the Tat'sar's mission is such that ..."

Sarek is interrupted by Leonard McCoy, who bursts into the room pushing a wheelchair with an extremely agitated Starfleet Commander on his heels.

"I'm sorry, sir," the XO leaps in immediately. "The doctor wouldn't take no for an answer. Short of calling security, there was no way I could ..."

"Oh, put a sock in it, sweetheart!" McCoy growls, continuing on his beeline for Taylor and Spock. Pushing Ashe to the fore, he turns, crosses his arms over his chest and glares at the XO. He is unarmed and not a superior officer, but the XO backs down immediately, palms to the floor in an apologetic gesture.

"Captain, Commander," Ashe slurs, embarrassment with her condition making her eyes burn. "There is an urgent situation that requires your immediate attention."

Taylor cranes his neck to see around the intruders, gesticulating wordlessly at the series of raised eyebrows plastered over his vid screen. "Lieutenant Ho, I trust you can see that ..."

"Excuse me Captain," Spock interrupts neatly, his eyes glued to Ashe's teary determination, "but I believe it is necessary to postpone our current discussion." He turns to the vid screen and inclines his head in apology. "Operational necessity takes precedence over diplomatic matters."

There is something alight in his father's eyes as he nods in return. "Of course. It is only logical. We await the continuation of this debate at your convenience." Several of the other Council members turn to look at him as he cuts the connection. Spock cannot help the tiny spark of pride at his father's presumption.

McCoy clears his throat pointedly.

Spock raises an eyebrow at Ashe.

She wastes no time breaking the news to him gently, knowing that such tactics are lost on him. "At least two thermonuclear devices have been detonated on the surface of Robicon IV," she reports.

"Casualties?" Spock asks quickly.

"Unknown Robii casualties," Ashe replies, "one EPAS shuttle currently off comms, three crew known to be deployed at the site of the detonation, three others aboard the missing shuttle unaccounted for."

"Their names?" Spock asks, his stomach sinking before she even answers.

"Uhura, Chapel, Gaila, Chekov, Hannity and Kirk."

Taylor swivels to stare at Spock, accusation clearly written in his heavy scowl. "Commander?"

Spock's mind is racing. There are many possibilities, but none of them make sense. He would never have condoned a covert diplomatic mission to the surface if there was even the slightest indication of the potential for an attack on ...

"Sir," Ashe interrupts his train of thought. "Jim said to check your comms." She shrugs. "He said it would make sense."

Spock stalks around the desk, not waiting for the Captain's permission before he accesses his own account on that terminal. The red-flagged Starfleet Security alert catches his eye immediately. He opens it, absorbs its contents in a few seconds. It then takes another second for him to control his immediate response, which is anger.

"Why was I not made aware of this immediately?" he asks.

McCoy turns, eyebrows raised, but Spock's eyes are drilling into the XO, not him.

"Why was the Captain also unaware?" Spock presses.

"I ..." the XO looks to the Captain for support. "You insisted you weren't to be disturbed, sir!"

Taylor scowls at everyone then fixates on Spock. "What is going on, Commander?"

Spock turns the terminal screen with a flick of his wrist, his dark eyes hooded by an impressive frown. "Starfleet Security briefing, high priority," he recites from memory. "Please be aware that there have been indications of possible terrorist activity by members of a Robii splinter cell known as 'Robicon for all Robii.' All military and civilian units should avoid places of significant political or military importance until such time as this warning is revoked."

Taylor's anger melts away and he lifts a hand to his lips. "And we have how many people down there?"

"Six," Spock reiterates.

"And you authorized this?"

Spock's voice catches in his throat, because technically, he only authorized the deployment of three of those six. However, his mind performs a quick mental extrapolation based on the limited information he has, and concludes that Jim has taken a shuttle and a skeleton crew to the surface to personally retrieve their endangered personnel. If not for the Robii's insistence that all beaming be blocked by planetary shields for the duration of the Balwinter Treaty celebrations, it would not have been necessary. It is what he would have done in Jim's situation.

"Yes, sir," he says firmly. "The authorisation was mine."

"Well, then I suggest you sort this mess out, because the responsibility will also be yours."

Spock refuses to let his emotions get the better of him, and merely salutes before sweeping out of the room, not bothering to wait for McCoy or Ashe. He presumes they know exactly where he is heading.


-:-


Jim comes around first. His ears are ringing and his mouth is full of dirt. He wiggles his toes and splutters a bit, trying to get a sense for how fucked up he is before he tries anything bigger than that. There are a few things that hurt, but overall, once again he's proven to be one lucky son of a bitch. Experimentally, he drags a gloved hand across the soil and uses it to roll himself onto his side. That hurts, he won't lie, but it affords him a view of the smoking wreck of their shuttle.

To do Chekov credit, the kid has done a great job of putting them down somewhere relatively flat and at a decently shallow angle considering how high they were when the blast knocked out their engines and instrumentation. There weren't many pilots who could have set them down in one piece. He has a vague memory of jumping a few seconds before impact, with the rationale that if the shuttle exploded and Hannity died, there might be one person left to look for the others. Alternatively, if he misjudged the drop and broke his neck, the shuttle might hold together leaving Hannity to extract Uhura, Gaila and Chapel. Poor odds either way, but it made sense to split them.

In his peripheral vision, Jim senses movement and cranes his neck for a better look. Near the nose of the shuttle, a figure is staggering towards him, leaning heavily on the hull. The skinny silhouette is instantly recognisable.

"Chekov!" Jim croaks, then coughs and tries again. "Chekov!"

"I am coming, sir!"

Jim grits his teeth and uses the arm he's lying on to get vertical, because damn if he was going to be the one lying down if that kid is up and walking about. Pain shoots through his wrist and he gasps involuntarily. Information flashes before his eyes and he performs a quick series of manipulations he learned in cross-specialization, inferring from the result that it's not broken, just badly sprained.

Chekov's knees hit the dirt in front of him. "Why are you not in de shuttle?" the kid asks, eyes wide.

"Thought I'd get rid of your extra ballast," Jim quips, taking hold of the edge of his visor and throwing it into the bushes. It feels better, to breathe without it whistling through the shattered plassteel. Still, damn thing probably saved his life. He should show a little more respect. "You hurt?" he asks, instead.

Chekov shakes his helmeted head. "No, sir. Bumps and bruises only, sir."

Jim gives him a wide grin. "You're one hell of a pilot, you know that?" but doesn't give him a chance to reply, just uses him as purchase in order to drag himself to his feet. He wavers there for a few seconds, feeling all his blood rush to strange places, then puts one foot in front of the other and doggedly starts making his way over to the shuttle.

"Oh my," Chekov whispers, hurrying to join him. "Lieutenant Hannity!"

Jim is way ahead of him, already crawling up the buckled runner and flicking on his torch to light the smoky interior. She's easy to find, still strapped in her seat, like he should have been. "Here," he says, handing Chekov the torch without even looking and breaking out his portable medical scanner. It bleeps brokenly so he slams it against the bulkhead and it whirs to life obediently. It says Annie is unconscious, bruised, battered, but otherwise unharmed.

He takes the torch back from Chekov and jams it between his teeth. "Come on," he mumbles, almost incomprehensible around the torch. "Give me a hand." Chekov understands the intent if not the words, and together, they manage to unclip her and ease her out of the oily smoke and into the clear.

Jim returns to the shuttle, leaving the kid gently shaking her by the shoulder and calling her name anxiously. Stims, he thinks, fumbling around in the half-dark, eyes starting to water from the smoke. Fuck, he doesn't stock the shuttle, just his kit, where are the ... ah. He clambers back out of the wreck that used to be Nix, finding that the more he moves, the less things hurt. Yeah, that will last all of an hour before the stiffness sets in, so he best make use of that time. Two hypos later and Hannity is staring up at them, looking confused and in pain.

"We crashed?"

"Landed unexpectedly," Chekov corrects her with a grin. "I am pleased to see you are okay, Lieutenant."

"Okay is going a bit far," Hannity winces.

Jim offers his hand and she takes it, managing to make it to her feet with a bit of help.

"Got it?" he asks her, their gloved hands still clasped.

"Yeah, think so," she nods her visored head. "So, what's the plan?"

Jim's had a few minutes to think this over, so he's able to answer fairly confidently. "That blast had EM, right Chekov?"

"Right," the boy nods emphatically. "It disabled all primary and secondary systems immediately."

"Okay, but it was also thermal, you saw the cloud." He pauses to let both of them nod. "You know what that means?" Both looking a little scared now, they nod again. "Okay, so break out the antis and make with the hypo," he instructs. "Then I want you two to stay here so we have a fall-back position."

"But, sir!" Chekov protests, pausing in his assembly of the right radiation meds.

"Jim," Hannity says, not as loudly but just as urgently. She takes a step into his personal space. "You're in no condition to go looking for the others by yourself."

He shrugs and offers his arm to Chekov for his shot. "This is where the Stalwart are going to start looking for us. This is as secure a location as we're going to find. If I go ahead and run into trouble, I sure as shit want somewhere to fall back to. I want people I can rely on to hold out, you understand me?"

"What about if I go with you and Chekov stays here?" she asks in an undertone.

"Annie," he whispers back, "he's go no Starfleet, he's only had Basic for hand-to-hand and small arms, how long do you think he'd last if we both go and whoever lit up the Capitol comes looking for the big shiny thing that fell out of the sky?"

She looks torn but unconvinced.

"You've got to think of the bigger picture," he says persuasively, waving his arm impatiently in Chekov's direction and hurrying to finish his pitch before the kid gets close enough to overhear. "Have you ever seen anyone fly like him?"

Hannity shakes her head, no.

"It won't just be sad if he dies here alone, it won't just be unfair," he catches her gaze and raises his eyebrows, "it will be a waste of an amazing resource and I will not be responsible for that. Ow!"

Chekov twirls the hypo in one hand. "Sorry, sir."

"You don't look the least bit sorry," Jim bitches, trying to ignore the tears welling in Hannity's eyes, trying to distract Chekov from the same by drawing him aside with an arm over his shoulders.

"Now, Pavel," he says conversationally. "You've been pulling cross shifts in Ops since the beginning, right?"

"Right!"

"How long do you think it will take you to build us a transmitter?"

"A transmitter?" he echoes, halting and staring at Jim as if he's crazy. "With no power?"

"You're a smart kid, you'll figure it out." Jim waves an arm at the smoking wreck of their shuttle. "You've got more tech here than you could ever need. How hard can it be?"

"Wery, wery hard," the kid scowls.

"Chekov, we need to be able to talk to the Stalwart, we need to be able to tell them where we are, but most importantly, we need to tell them we're alive. You saw that blast, what it did to our instruments, you think they're going to be able to scan for life signs through all the crap that just got kicked up?"

Chekov shakes his head. "No, sir. They will not."

"Okay, so we need something big and loud and obnoxious to draw their attention."

"It is a pity Doctor McCoy is not here, sir," he smiles suddenly, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. "It would save me a lot of hard work."

Jim shakes his head, but the grin is echoed on his own face. "Get to work, smart ass. I want that transmitter working by the time I get back with the others, you hear me?"

"Yes, sir!" Chekov snaps off a cheeky salute.

Hannity tilts her head and frowns at him, perplexed by the sudden change in atmosphere.

Jim shrugs. "So we crashed, we're being irradiated and the others are missing. No point being down in the mouth about it."

"Aye, sir!" Chekov seconds, already on his knees, waving aside the smoke in the shuttle as he begins stripping components out of the walls.

Hannity takes a moment to keep looking bemused, but palms her own phaser and jerks her head in the direction of the Capitol. "Go," she says. "I've got this."


-:-


Uhura doesn't so much get to her feet as she is dragged to her feet by the fist in her hair. She thrashes around, landing a couple of solid punches before that pressure returns to her back and she stills, heart hammering against her ribs.

The square, so festive a moment ago, is filled with smoke and debris, the torn remnants of the pavilions fluttering down from the sky like silken ash, multi-hued and disgustingly festive amongst the carnage. Bodies lie strewn in unnatural poses, some of them still moving. Beside her, the Undersecretary stands with his hands on his head, bleeding from the ears and nose, but otherwise unharmed. Their captors had moved them just in time. The wall of the Council building had shielded them from most of the blast. Others hadn't been so lucky.

Uhura's heart gives a lurch in her chest. Chris! Gaila!

But then, suddenly, there they are, walking ahead of two other Robii with guns, their hands on their head, Gaila making awkward progress with one shoe off. Uhura takes a deep steadying breath. They're in this together. They're going to miss their rendevouz. That alone, never mind the explosions, will alert Jim to the fact that something is wrong. They're going to make it out of here.

She can tell the exact moment when the other two women recognize her. They're a lot closer by that point and she wonders just how messed up she looks that it took them so long.

"You guys okay?" she asks.

"Silence!" her Robi shouts.

The others nod anyway, wide-eyed but impressively calm. "Just hang in there," she assures them, ignoring the way the gun twists in her back.

The Robii converse quickly, tersely over their heads. She has no idea where her UT has gone, or her purse, which has her communicator. Still, she didn't major in linguistics for nothing, and even without it, she is able to gather that their terrorist plans have gone somewhat awry. Apparently there was supposed to be a simultaneous assault on the Capitol spaceport, but someone got cold feet or got discovered, and now they have no escape plan.

Shit. A desperate criminal is a dangerous criminal. Uhura tries to make eyes at the other two, tries to indicate they might have to take their chances in an attempt to disarm their captors. She has no intention of being shot out of hand just because these idiots have no idea what to do now. To hell with that.


-:-


Jim has the smoking ruins of the Capitol Square in sight. He's stripped off as much of his EVA suit as he can, trying to lessen the weight he's carrying. All he's kept on him is his phaser, communicator and his med kit. He's made good time, but seriously though, the thin, flexible soles of his boots aren't made for running on cobbled streets.

He sees them before they see him, which is what saves him. From the look of the weapons they've got pressed against their six hostages, his tiny standard issue phaser isn't going to be much of an asset. He throws himself down behind a tumbled masonry wall and thumbs through the settings, choosing maximum stun. It will give him less rounds before he's out of charge, but he stands more chance of doing something other than just pissing them off.

He's out of breath and that stiffness has well and truly set in, but the rush of adrenaline he gets when he peeps over the low wall and finds Uhura staring straight at him is enough to give him a second wind. Good, she knows someone's here for them. He could wish the rescue party consisted of more than just him in his current state and with a shitty EPAS phaser, but hey.

Another body hits the ground next to him and he jumps in shock, whipping his phaser up. Dark eyes meet his own and Spock gently raises a hand to push the barrel out of his face.

"Lieutenant," he says by way of greeting.

"Where the fuck did you come from?" Kirk wants to know.

"I presume that is a rhetorical question," Spock replies, angling his head to take in the situation over the wall.

Jim thinks about that for a second. "Not entirely, no."

Lioli Ahern, newly appointed Point Two of Nix Beta, joins them with a slight scuffle. "Hey, Jim."

"Hey there," he replies absently, still fixated on Spock. "So, how did you find me?"

"Lieutenants Hannity and Chekov informed us of your intended destination when we homed in on their emergency beacon," Spock indicates two other huddled forms a few metres away.

"Wow, they built that thing quickly." Jim is impressed.

"I shall be commending them upon our return to the Stalwart," Spock informs him. "However, if we might concentrate on the task at hand?"

"Oh. Sure."

Jim rolls onto his knees, sneaking another look around the corner just as Spock does the same from over the top. They duck back under cover and exchange glances.

"Circle round?" Jim asks.

"Three pronged attack," Spock seconds.

"I'll go left."

"I shall trend to the right."

They both turn to Ahern. "You may take the center," Spock tells her.

"Oh, good."

Jim doesn't give any of them time to think, because really, what they're doing is rather insane. This kind of rescue work is not their everyday kind of rescue work. This is more Starfleet's thing; perhaps even special ops. They're not trained for this, any of them, but it's not going to stop them.

Jim drops the guy holding Gaila first. He's down but not out so he dives on top of him, fighting for possession of the Robi weapon; the one that has the potential to actually do any damage. Gaila ducks a bolt from the guy covering Uhura, but he doesn't get a second one off, because all that hand to hand training Uhura's been doing comes into play and she takes him easily, laying him out in the rubble with a combination that Jim seriously has to learn from her later.

Ahern doesn't move quite quickly enough, and fields a bolt from a Robi weapon in her left thigh, she collapses to her knees, but manages to stun her adversary. It's glancing, though, and doesn't take him out of the fight.

Jim grabs his Robi's hand with both of his and slams it into the ground repeatedly until his gun goes flying. Then the guy hits him in the mouth, and fuck, his teeth just went through his lip, he's pretty sure. They wrestle for a few seconds until Jim gets him in a strangle hold, his body wrapped around the other guy, his arm slowly choking the breath out of him.

For the first time, this allows him to get a look at what Spock is up to. It's fucking insane.

Spock has already dropped his initial mark, Jim didn't even see that bit, it happened so quickly, so now he's moved on to Ahern's. Both of them have lost their weapons, so it's hand to hand, and even as the Robi body in his arms goes slack in defeat and mild asphyxiation, Jim feels suddenly inadequate.

Spock blocks every blow with apparent ease, his forearms perfectly placed, a calm sort of concentration on his face. He whirls, lands a kick in the Robi's solar plexus, his arms raised for balance as he lands, hardly pauses then follows it up with an overhead fist to the face and a backhander with his other arm. The Robi sways on his feet for a second, then collapses to the ground. Spock isn't even breathing hard.

Jim glances down at the body in his own arms and figures he better release it. Uhura is running over to Ahern, but McCoy beats her to it. Shit, Jim didn't even see McCoy, where had he been hiding? Gaila moves to support Chapel, who must have been injured in the scuffle, and that leaves Jim staring at Spock from his sprawl on the ground.

"Do you require assistance?" the Commander asks calmly.

"No?"

A gloved hand appears in his face. Jim grabs it, allows Spock to effortlessly haul him to his feet and then release him.

"What the hell was that?"

Spock raises an eyebrow.

Jim points at the guy Spock beat into unconsciousness in a matter of seconds. "I've never seen you do that before."

The Commander follows the direction of Jim's finger and then lifts the eyebrow higher. "Previously, there has not been an occasion that called for it."

Jim is left standing alone as Spock turns away, raising his communicator to his lips, trying to raise the Stalwart. He watches as the rest of the personnel come out of hiding, crossing the square at a run, hoping to lend a hand. Every one of them is bold, brave and magnificent despite their fear, but Jim can't really take it in. Something has happened, has shifted until the pieces of his life fit a little differently. It leaves him strangely disorientated. Something definitive is going on. He raises a dirty hand to his face and scrubs at his eyes like he can erase what he's seen and how it makes him feel.

It's then that Spock turns to him, a hint of distress showing through.

"What? What is it?" Jim crosses to him immediately, instinctively taking hold of his arm as though he has something to offer, as though he is allowed.

"It appears that there was a partially successful assault on the Capitol spaceport," the Commander says flatly. "The Robii government believed the insurgents had managed to procure transport offworld and therefore scanned the space surrounding their planet in order to identify the supposed escape vessel."

"So?" Jim isn't following, but he can see Spock is concerned.

"So, they have successfully scanned the Tat'sar and identified both the twenty three injured aboard and the unique gravitation signature of Nero's weapon." Spock finally meets his eyes. "The selfsame signature we provided in order that they might have forewarning of Nero's advance."

Jim's grip tightens on Spock's bicep. "This is going to complicate things."

"Undoubtedly."

After a moment, Spock glances pointedly at Jim's hand.

He removes it, using it to awkwardly rub the back of his neck instead.

 

 

Chapter Text

Jim and Spock are walking briskly towards the epicenter of the blast that has decimated the Robicon Capitol Square. The place is already swarming with EPAS medical crew and Points. The dead are being laid out along what remains of the east wall of their council chambers, rather tastelessly but practically, covered by a few of the brightly hued tarpaulins that weren't required earlier in the evening.

Presents under the tree, thinks Jim, and feels intensely nauseated.

Gaila has stolen a headset and a mobile terminal from some poor hapless bastard and is coordinating the inbound and outbound flights like the pro she is. Jim spares a grin for her as they pass. She's still only got one shoe on.

Spock finally thumbs his comm, shutting off the deluge of information filtering through from Ops. "The Robicon armed forces are requesting an immediate explanation of the Tat'sar's presence, her cargo and her unusual energy signature," he says striding out so that Jim has to stretch to keep up. "Captain Taylor is coordinating a response with the Vulcan High Council."

"Alone?"

Spock spares him a glance that may be slightly pained. "I have requested a video conference be patched through at our current location, however, due to the ongoing interference, it may not be possible."

"Working on it!" Gaila shouts without looking up from her display.

"In the meantime, it is logical that we collect evidence that this act of terrorism is Robii in origin, rather than attributable to the orbiting Tat'sar as some members of the Robii population have postulated."

"Are you serious?" Jim raises a hand to his aching head. "Ask anyone who was here, they'll lay the blame squarely where it belongs."

Spock steps over a pile of rubble, arms shifting to assist his balance. "The parameters of sociology dictate that acts of terrorism almost never occur in the absence of provocation."

Jim uses his hands to scale the uneven mound and they come away dusty and white with particulates. "You're excusing them?" he spits a little blood from the split in his lip as he straightens.

Spock's mouth frowns. "I am not. Merely pointing out that there are always at least two sides to every story."

"Good, because 'Robicon for all Robii' is something of a contradiction when you start killing the people you're supposed to be championing." Spock slows, but Jim doesn't notice, angry as he is. "I mean, what a bunch of fucking cowards," he continues on, oblivious, feeling the remnants of explosive heat through the thin soles of his boots. "They obviously have no idea what the Federation stands for if they think that killing innocent people is going to hasten negotiations."

"You feel no responsibility for the current situation?" Spock asks.

Jim stops in his tracks and turns. "Are you serious?"

Spock resumes walking, drawing level with Jim as he speaks. "The two of us deliberately perpetuated the falsehood that the Federation is withdrawing from evacuation negotiations with Robicon IV. You do not recognise the correlation between our actions and the heightened state of political tension that prompted such action from within the Robii extremist population?"

Jim wants to say no, wants to dismiss it out of hand, but the thought sends a chill down his spine. "I didn't ... oh thanks for that," he scowls. "I really needed to feel worse about what happened here today. Not only was Nix destroyed, Chekov and Hannity injured, Uhura, Chapel and Gaila almost killed, but now it's all my fault."

"That was not what I intended to imply. I merely wished to impress upon you the interconnectedness of events. No one thing happens in isolation from another; however, it is not always possible to predict the many ways in which a single action may affect the continuum. It is logical to regret the loss of life and to analyze the precursors that led to this attack. It is not logical to assume full responsibility for the heinous actions of others."

It's one of the longest speeches Spock has ever directed at him, but that doesn't stop Jim from turning away, teeth gritted. "I feel so much better now." In fact, he feels like crap, but he pulls out his tricorder and starts taking readings. He's so focused on how angry he is, how guilty, that it takes a few seconds for the readings to register.

When they do, he turns to find Spock already looking at his own device.

They both raise their heads to take in the scene. There are maybe fifty EPAS crew working on stabilizing the wounded for transport. They are a sea of reflective piped suits. Reflective piped radiation suits.

Before either of them can say anything, McCoy appears waving his suited arms like a madman. "Son of an bitch, what the hell is wrong with you two?"

"Doctor ..."

"Spock, I don't care if you're Vulcan or not, you can't withstand this many rads without damage. And Jim!" McCoy raises his hands in supplication to whatever higher power might bear witness to this stupidity. "Just felt like a little stroll around ground zero did you?"

"Bones ..."

"Both of you, beam out now, straight to decontam." When neither of them move, he plants his hands on his hips and glowers. "Now!"


-:-


"How long do we have to be in here?" Jim calls through the transparent aluminium.

"Two to seven hours," McCoy calls back, not even looking up from his display. "Difficult to say without knowing how badly you were exposed."

"How long?"

"Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor not a fortune teller!" he snaps. "Now change out of that suit and step into the booth, already! Spock, you too."

Jim sighs heavily but turns to face the disposal chute and starts flicking the pressure seals on his EVA suit. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Spock doing the same thing in the next cubicle. Obediently naked, Jim steps into the airtight booth used for gaseous decontamination. It always makes him feel slightly claustrophobic, but with an audience, he firmly tamps down his anxiety and shuts the airtight door. At least they don't have to endure a total body crew cut.

"Now, remember, kids," McCoy's voice comes tinny over the inbuilt speaker, "keep your eyes open and take deep, regular breaths. The nano molecules have to permeate your circulatory system in order for this to be effective. That's going to take time."

"Yeah, yeah," Jim mutters. "Get it over with, we need to talk to the Vulcan High Council."

The mic cuts McCoy's long suffering sigh halfway through, then plumes of shimmering air hiss from the cubicles vents. The gas is colourless, but distorts everything, and has an odour strongly reminiscent of hydrocarbons. It smells explosive and immediately irritates Jim's eyes, causing them to tear up. Pretty soon his nose starts running, too.

"Bones?"

"Just ignore it," the doctor advises. "Keep blinking. You can have a real water shower after this."

"What the hell is this stuff?" Jim complains, scrubbing at his eyes with the heels of his hands.

"Polydeltanarcobendrite fifty percent to twenty five of oxygen and nitrogen apiece."

Jim rolls the unfamiliar term around in his mouth.

"You did ask," the doctor mocks with a twang of southern satisfaction. "It'll probably make you a bit light headed in a moment."

"Yeah, I'm feeling that." Jim throws out a hand to steady himself as black spots dance before his eyes. "Bones, I'm pretty sure I'm going to pass out. Just thought you should know."

"Hang in there, kid. You've got forty seconds to go."

"That's thirty nine too many," he protests, sliding down the wall as his legs decide to give up on this whole standing thing.

"Talk to me, Jim."

"What do you want me to say?" he gasps, ears ringing and vision tunnelling.

"How should I know?"

"How's Spock doing?"

"Better than you," McCoy counters. "You and your goddamn allergies, Jim. How you made it past childhood is a mystery to me, honestly."

"Wait, I'm allergic to this stuff and you knew?" He manages to muster a little righteous indignation.

"You're not strictly allergic."

"I'm not strictly your friend anymore, either."

"Okay," McCoy says, unable to keep the amusement out of his voice. "You're both done with the gas, here comes the water-based solution."

"Wait! What the fuck?" Jim hollers as ice cold liquid rains down upon him from all angles. The gas is sucked out of the vents, replaced by normal air, but he's scrabbling around on the floor of the booth, trying to find a place where the freezing water won't reach. "You said a proper shower, not water torture! Why does it have to be arctic?"

"You think this is cold? What about Spock?" McCoy taunts. "He's from a desert planet and he's not crying like a baby."

"I am not crying."

"Tell that to the camera."

Jim's teeth are chattering but he forces himself to smirk. "Are you checking me out?"

McCoy just laughs and cuts the connection again. Shivering, Jim manages to push himself to his feet just as the deluge ceases. He's tingling all over, dizzy and half-blinded by the gas. Somehow, he manages to open the door and tumble out into the next cubicle, the clean side. The ship's normal temperature is almost tropical by comparison and he dries and dresses quickly, blond hair water-dark and dripping onto the collar of the loose scrubs McCoy has slipped through the hermetically sealed chute.

Looking up, he sees Spock turn at the same time, his image crisp and undistorted by the perfectly manufactured transparent aluminium. The dark grey scrubs hang off his lanky frame worse than Jim's and his hair is sticking up every which way from the rough towelling it's obviously been given. For the first time, Jim buys the fact that there's only a year or two separating them. Spock looks a bit lost without his uniform.

"At least the worst is over," he tells Spock, who can obviously hear him judging by the quirked eyebrow.

McCoy appears along their shared frontage, a tray bearing two tumblers in his hands. With a bit of juggling, he manages to get one through the seal into each cubicle. "Drink up," he orders gruffly.

Jim picks his up and winces at the bland looking slurry. "What is it?"

"Shut up and drink it!" McCoy shoots a slightly abashed look in Spock's direction. "Sir," he adds for good measure.

Without further ado, Spock downs his, and never one to be left out of a drinking game, Jim follows suit. Almost instantly, he knows it was a bad idea. They turn to look at each other and Spock's eyes widen.

"Behind you," McCoy tells them helpfully.

Both of them sprint for the appropriate receptacle and obediently empty their stomachs. Cold, shaking and utterly wretched, Jim rinses his mouth and turns to look daggers at McCoy. Spock is still leaning on his own basin, head hanging, knuckles green from how tightly he's gripping the sides.

"I hate you," Jim whispers with feeling.

"You'd rather die a horrible death from radiation poisoning?"

"Maybe."

"Angels of mercy, give me strength!" McCoy rolls his eyes, then turns to his right. "You okay, Spock?"

"Suboptimal," Spock replies after a moment's pause, and his voice has never sounded quite so strained.

McCoy is quick to cross to his work station, lips pursed, to review the Commander's vitals. "Hmm," he says after a moment. "Bradycardia, tachypnoea and a little hypothermia." The frown deepens. "This procedure is standard protocol for your level of exposure. It's been tested on Vulcans and humans, I'm not sure why it's affecting you like this."

"As you are well aware," Spock manages hoarsely, "I am neither Vulcan nor human, but both."

"You think this is a side-effect of your hybrid physiology?"

"No other logical explanation is forthcoming," he whispers, swaying slightly before the basin.

McCoy shoots Jim a worried glance and takes a seat behind his terminal, fingers flying across the surface. A little concerned himself, now, Jim pushes off from the wall and crosses to stand at Spock's side of his own cubicle. The Vulcan is busy washing his face. Jim watches the shake in his hands with growing unease.

"Respiratory imbalance?" McCoy asks himself. "No, that doesn't fit. Circulatory compromise? Perhaps a vasodilatory effect of the PDNC? But that doesn't explain the ... wait!" The doctor rises to half-standing behind the terminal and attacks it with renewed fervour. "It's metabolic, all right. How bizarre."

"I am feeling strangely disorientated, doctor."

"Hang in there, Spock, I'm going to need you to hypo yourself." McCoy is rapidly selecting several compatible substances from the medical inventory and adding them to a capsule. He slaps it into place with a flick of his wrist and actually jogs to the chute. The jogging makes Jim nervous.

"I've programmed it for point oh five mics," McCoy explains as Spock makes unsteady progress towards the hypo. "We can dose you again every half hour as needed to a maximum of point two mics."

"Understood."

Spock reaches out with trembling hands and grasps the hypo. Jim finds himself with both fists pressed against the divider, itching to help. Spock looks like shit. All traces of green summoned by the intense cold have been banished. He's white as a sheet and perspiring lightly. The Commander presses the hypo to his neck with a hiss and then slips it into the pocket of his scrubs. His breathing eases a little but nothing else changes.

"Bones?" Jim queries anxiously, keeping his eyes on Spock who's leaning against the chute.

"Give it time."

Jim works his way along the wall until he's level with Spock, who raises his head just enough that the struggle to suppress his emotional response to the situation is clear as day. His own discomfort momentarily forgotten, Jim catches that pained gaze and holds it.

"You okay?"

"I have experienced more satisfactory states of being."

Jim fidgets. "Anything I can do?"

The Commander glances at McCoy. "A level of privacy would be welcome," he admits, lowering himself gingerly to the cot.

"Vitals stabilizing," McCoy summarizes. "I don't see why I can't leave you two alone. I'll be in my office next door. Buzz if you need anything, but the alarms will sound if the hobgoblin needs me."

With a press of a button, the doctor opaques the observation glass.

Conscious of Spock's desire to be unobserved, Jim puts his weight against his own cot in an attempt to shift it to the other side of his cubicle. The rooms are mirror images of each other, the beds placed close for companionship. Behind him, he hears a rustle of material and turns in time to see Spock curl in on himself. The Commander rolls on his side, facing away, his knees tucked to his chest.

"Do you want ..." Jim starts, thoroughly unsure.

"Conversation would be a useful distraction," Spock says tightly. "I must remain alert until such time as we are able to resolve the Tat'sar situation."

"All right, then." Jim aborts his furniture shuffling, suddenly feeling his own aching gut again, his own itchy eyes. "What do you want to talk about?"

"I have no preference."

It's remarkably unspecific for a Vulcan, and clearly indicates Spock's level of distress.

"Okay, um, did you hear about the experiment Scotty has going in Engineering?"

"I am unaware of any current experiments in Engineering." Spock reaches and pulls the blanket over himself, huddling into it. Jim notices he's tucked it tight under his chin.

"Scotty has this theory that we can add at least another point six to our warp capacity if we modify the nacelle buffers using an organic matrix rather than the synthetic standard issue." Jim shakes his head. "Seriously, he's wasted in maintenance."

"You believe there is merit in his hypothesis?"

Jim can hear Spock's teeth chattering but doesn't comment on it. "The preliminary figures look good," he allows. "The trick will be getting Captain Taylor to approve a small scale modification in order to test it." He shrugs in the near darkness. "I mean, I know we're not a science vessel, but you can't tell me another point six to our warp wouldn't be really useful from time to time."

"No," Spock coughs. "I can not."

Concern overwhelming the policy of minding his own business, Jim asks, "do you need McCoy?"

"Forward me Mr. Scott's proposal," Spock says, redirecting. "If it proves logical, I will endeavour to have a small scale test implemented during our upcoming shore leave."

"Okay, I'll do that." Jim smiles to himself. "Scotty's not going to believe I said anything. He's kind of terrified of you."

"I am unaware of ever having given Mr. Scott reason to fear me."

"It's not fear, exactly," Jim muses, letting his head fall back against the partition that divides them. "More like hero worship."

Spock's blanket shrouded form shifts slightly. "You are mocking me."

Jim whips around to stare at the back of Spock's head. "No, I'm really not. Scotty respects you."

There are a few moments of uncomfortable silence where he figures Spock isn't going to reply, but then, that quiet baritone voice filters through the transparent aluminium. "And you, Jim?"

Kirk feels something lodge in his throat. For a moment, he thinks he's going to be sick again, but it passes. "Yeah, and me."

Spock lies unnaturally still, somehow managing to suppress his tremors. "I was ..."

"Oblivious," Jim supplies for him. "Don't sweat it, we're just overly emotional humans, remember? I know you're not aware of it, probably don't even like it, but it does us a lot of good to have someone to look up to, something to aspire to."

"This is a surprisingly complex revelation," Spock admits, sounding the slightest bit unsure, "and a significant responsibility."

"It doesn't change anything," Jim argues. "You're still the same you, still doing the same job." He leans into the divider a little more, trying to catch a glimpse of Spock's profile, trying to judge the impact of what he's saying. "Is it really so bad to find out what you mean to people around here?"

"Captain Taylor is the most appropriate person upon whom the crew should direct their admiration."

"Pfft!" Jim dismisses that with a wave of his hand that Spock can't see. "Taylor commands the ship, but you command the people. That's all anyone cares about. It's Taylor's ship, but we're your crew."

"I fail to see ..."

"For God's sake, Spock, I'm not playing games," Jim finds he's just the tiniest bit angry. "I'm just being honest. If I thought you were the kind of CO who needed their ego pandered to, I'd have skipped out of here a long time ago. I thought you knew that."

"I apologize if I have given offense."

"Oh, just forget it," Jim sighs, settling himself on his own cot, barefoot and still cold. "We're probably talking at cultural counterpoints."

Spock says nothing, so Jim lets his eyes slip closed, finding that the mission and the decontamination have really taken it out of him. Swirling flames and jerky, flashing images play themselves out on the inside of his eyelids, but despite it all, he finds himself drifting towards sleep.

The sound of a hypo startles him back to wakefulness. Spock's hand falls to his side again.

"Starting to wear off?"

"It would seem so."

"Must be hard," Jim muses, "being so different." Realizing this could be a touchy subject, he scrambles to clarify. "What I'm saying is, I don't know how you do it. You just stepped into that booth, swallowed that awful shit and never hesitated. Thanks to my allergies, I've got more problems choosing a soda than you seem to have putting your life in McCoy's hands."

"For all his comments to the contrary, I do not believe the doctor wishes me harm," Spock says, sounding a little more together after his second dose.

"Still, that takes trust."

"I have not given the matter much thought. However, I believe you are correct." Spock sounds a little surprised and Jim wishes he had an expression to go on. "I do, indeed, trust doctor McCoy."

"Well, that's good," he says, wishing away the sudden stab of jealousy.

"I also trust you, Jim."

And now he feels like a total bastard, because that's what he'd been hoping to hear. "Really?"

"I would not have assumed your survival today, otherwise. Deploying another shuttle on the basis of any other outcome would have been unjustifiable."

"It wasn't a matter of duty?"

"Duty requires that I balance the odds of success against those of failure. Without being able to surmise your team's survival, I would not have been able to justify the risk. The primary duty of any EPAS Point is to ensure a reasonable margin of safety in all field operations. My trust in you and your abilities provided an acceptable risk to benefit analysis."

"That sounds ... technical." Jim's not sure whether he's pleased or confused.

"It is really quite simple," Spock says, sounding more and more like his usual self as McCoy's drugs do their job. "Similarly, preceding our altercation with the Robii insurgents, I predicted that you would be able to disarm at least one Robi without assistance. I have occasionally observed you sparring with Security personnel in the gymnasium."

"What if I lost out? Someone could have died."

Spock turns his head then, dark eyes fathomless. "Is that not the essence of trust?"

Jim swallows. "I suppose so."

Another shiver runs through Spock's body and he settles his head back on the pillow. "Computer," he calls a little more strongly. "Request channel to Captain Taylor."

Request denied. The Captain is unavailable at this time.

"Request channel to the XO."

Processing.

There is a brief pause followed by the click of connection.

Harris here, Commander. What can I do for you?

"I require the latest diplomatic updates routed to the terminal in decontamination booth alpha three." Spock's eyes may be pressed closed in discomfort, but his voice is almost a perfect approximation of his usual tone. "Please inform Captain Taylor that I am available to assist with negotiations should it be required."

I'll do that sir, but I thought you and Nix's crew were scheduled for at least another few hours in decontam.

"There is no reason why I cannot assist from my current location."

If you say so, sir.

Jim grins to himself. Apparently the XO has learned his lesson when it comes to keeping senior EPAS personnel out of the loop. The terminal in Spock's cubicle chimes promptly; another indication that Harris doesn't want to find himself on the receiving end of Vulcan disapproval again.

With a wince he can't quite hide, Spock pushes to his feet but doesn't abandon the blanket. With it huddled around his shoulders, he seats himself and taps the screen to bring it to life. From where Jim is sitting on his cot, it affords him a view of the back of Spock's head; a view which is endearingly disordered in his opinion.

"You're going to take a conference call in a decontam booth?"

Spock turns. "Is there an alternative I have overlooked?"

"Well no, but ..."

I can patch you through now, sir.

"Proceed," Spock acknowledges, letting the blanket slip from his shoulders and out of sight.

Jim gets up stiffly and crosses to his own terminal. His brain feels like cotton wool, but he figures he may as well make himself useful. They're in the midst of a delicate political situation and nobody is at their best right now. They need to pull together. He starts to collate all the data that's been uploaded from tricorders and ship's sensors into one neat little package.

Taylor appears within an internal communication. He looks tense. "Commander, I'm glad you've joined us. It seems things are a little more complex than we first anticipated."

Spock quirks an eyebrow. "Indeed?"

"The Vulcan High Council is refusing to allow a delegation of Robii diplomats to externally inspect the Tat'sar in order to establish that the ship is in no way linked to the Romulan threat or the recent acts of terrorism. Captain Senekot is also continuing to deny the need for medical care aboard his ship."

Jim tuts under his breath, because really, if the Vulcan's are still quibbling about letting EPAS so much as take a look at the hull, what makes Taylor think they're going to welcome the Robii with open arms?

"Perhaps a mutually satisfactory compromise can be reached," Spock offers, visibly suppressing his tremors. "Might I speak with the High Council?"

Taylor waves a hand expansively. "Be my guest."

The screen blanks to the EPAS logo while the communications are rerouted. Jim knows he has only seconds to say what he wants to say, perhaps not even that long. He knocks on the divider to get Spock's attention.

"We have to get aboard the Tat'sar," he says urgently, "and ideally one Robi to shut them up."

Spock is pale, his hair wild, but his eyes are sharp. "Captain Senekot will never agree to such terms."

"Then we have to find a reason that the Vulcan High Council will."

The terminal bleeps its five second warning and Spock raises an eyebrow. "Can you be more specific?"

Jim raises a finger as he turns back to his terminal. "Leave it with me," he promises, accessing the Federation Legal Database.

Spock's face flickers into a momentary frown before he has to turn to face the six senior Vulcans that appear on his screen. "Honoured members of the Council," he acknowledges.

Sarek leans forward slightly, involuntarily. "You are injured?"

"A precautionary measure only," Spock corrects him, the inclination of his head taking in his current state of disarray and unusual attire.

"Commander," one of the other Vulcans redirects. The intuitive screen zooms in on her silver-haired features. "Can EPAS confirm the thermonuclear nature of the explosions detonated on the fourth planet of the Robicon system?"

"We can," Spock says firmly. "Preliminary readings are being made available for your records. The more comprehensive report will follow once sufficient resources can be reallocated from our humanitarian efforts at the scene of the attack."

"Commander, can you explain why the Robicon Council saw fit to scan a Vulcan science vessel, when that vessel has diplomatic immunity and has expressly stated that no scans are to take place?"

"Robicon IV is not a member of the Federation," Spock counters, "and is thus not bound by the rules of our diplomacy."

Silence among the Council is tacit acknowledgement.

"Spock, that does not explain how the Stalwart obtained its own readings," Sarek presses.

"There was an instrumentation malfunction that resulted in minimal data feedback being recorded from certain sensor wavelengths only," Spock regurgitates the same story he had fed them earlier that day. "Regardless, the fact remains that we are aware of the need for medical aid aboard the Tat'sar, and you have yet to offer a viable explanation as to why you have not taken advantage of EPAS facilities and expertise."

"It is a Vulcan matter," the same elderly council member says quickly, earning herself a curious glance from Sarek.

Spock's eyes shift to one corner of his screen as Jim pumps his fist in triumph and pipes him a highlighted section of the Federation Treaty.

"And yet, the people in question are not all Vulcan," Spock says reasonably, his eyes flicking side to side as he scans the document. "This results in a forfeiture of diplomatic immunity."

"You are referring to clause epsilon delta five nine point six three," Sarek clarifies, being well versed in all current diplomatic treaties. "It does not require Vulcan to relinquish the Tat'sar's cargo to Federation agents."

"No, it does not," Spock agrees, pausing to glare at Jim who is wildly gesticulating at himself, the sickbay and in the general direction of the Vulcan ship. "However, the treaty clearly stipulates that representatives of the Federation have a duty of care to all citizens, a duty which overrides basic diplomatic immunity. Unless you can cite a higher regulation preventing EPAS intervention on board the Tat'sar, we are duty bound to assure ourselves of her passengers' well-being."

"Unacceptable," the elderly Vulcan states firmly.

"With all due respect, Madam Councillor, I do not understand your objection."

"It is not your place to understand, simply to obey."

Spock straightens slightly, throwing off whatever pain might be lingering from his reaction to decontam. "I am a Federation officer, Madam. I will obey every legal order passed down through the chain of command. At such time as I am expressly forbidden to follow the dictates of the Federation treaty, I will be sure to abide by your request and leave the Tat'sar and her living cargo in peace. Until such time, it is my duty to inform you that a two-person inspection team will prepare to board."

The Council exchange meaningful glances. Of them all, Sarek is the only one whose expression hints at confusion. "Spock, can this not wait?"

Spock allows himself no expression. "Even if I could in conscience delay the delivery of medical aid to those aboard the Tat'sar, I doubt the Robicon Council will accept anything other than immediate confirmation of the ship's peaceful intent."

"It is plain to see the Tat'sar is a Vulcan ship," a new Council member breaks in.

"To those who have never before compared the two, Vulcan and Romulan technology is similar in many ways," Spock reminds them. "With the additionally incriminating presence of the energy signature, the burden of proof clearly lies with Vulcan."

"We acknowledge no energy signature," the female councilor says sternly, at her Vulcan best.

"Yet it has been detected by both EPAS and Robii sensors." There is a tinge of sarcasm in Spock's tone now, and Jim wonders if he is tiring of all the political posturing. "I anticipate you will find it problematic to appease the Robicon Council with anything other than this show of faith."

Sarek leans forward, hands on the council table. "What do you suggest?"

"Allow one Robi representative to accompany the EPAS assessment team."

"No," the Council says immediately, in unison.

Jim screws his nose up in frustration. That was a pretty adamant refusal, and from the slight hint of expression on Spock's face, he realizes. The best they can hope for now is that an external view of the ship will satisfy the Robi officials.

"Unless you wish to create a major diplomatic incident, I suggest you submit to an alternative method of reassuring the Robi," Spock advises. "I doubt their trust in EPAS is sufficient that our word alone will suffice."

The Vulcan Council glare at each other silently, then at Spock, then at each other again. The tension is self-evident, even if their faces are largely blank. Spock waits expectantly, outwardly calm, even though Jim can see he is struggling a little more for each breath. His ribs retract with each inhalation, the accessory muscles working hard. If this call doesn't end soon, they're going to see just how sick Spock really is, or else he's going to have to use the hypo. Either option is an admission of weakness Spock can't afford if he wants to maintain the upper hand in this negotiation. Jim finds himself taking even, measured breaths as though that might somehow assist Spock to do the same.

"An external visual assessment at an orbit of five hundred klicks may provide the reassurance they seek," Spock suggests, the slightest hint of a wheeze in his voice.

Sarek's eyes narrow but he nods. "We shall discuss the possibility. In the meantime, submit your candidates for the EPAS inspection team for our review." He glances pointedly off-screen, to where Jim is sitting, out of view and unacknowledged. "Timely and forthright resolution of this issue will be facilitated by careful selection on your behalf."

Jim is not quite sure whether he's just been handed the seal of approval or been banned, or even if Ambassador Sarek could possibly infer who it is that exists just out of his line of sight.

Spock inclines his head. "Understood."

Sarek nods in return. "Until we speak again."

"Live long and prosper," Spock says correctly.

"Peace and long life."

The connection blips out of existence and Spock slumps slightly even as Captain Taylor appears on the screen. "Spock, the Federation will never accept a two-man team as our total input into the situation!"

"I am aware," Spock manages, the light sheen of sweat on his face catching the light.

Jim glances at the chrono. Spock is ten minutes overdue for his hypo.

"We're due to make a report to the Minister for Health within the hour, how do you expect me to explain that we're sending two unarmed officers into a potentially hostile situation?"

"We have no reason to believe ... that the Tat'sar in any way constitutes a threat to EPAS ... Robicon IV or the Federation as a whole." Spock is forced to break his sentence to breathe, and damn if Taylor doesn't even notice.

"Still, Spock! Two people? Is that the best you could do?"

Jim clenches his hands into fists. His swollen lip stings anew as he presses it tight in an effort to bite back his angry retort. The team is more than Taylor has managed in the entire time since the initial discovery.

"Should anything untoward be detected by the team," Spock swallows and takes a quick breath, "it will be grounds for further Federation intervention."

Beneath the terminal, Spock's legs have begun to tremble and Jim finds himself whispering under his breath, urging Taylor to shut up and cut the connection, to accept the logic of what Spock has orchestrated.

Thankfully, Taylor seems to absorb that in a positive light. "I can probably sell that to the Minister. Good work, Commander. When are you out of decontam? It goes without saying that I want you on the away team."

"Doctor McCoy estimates only hours," Spock says tightly.

"Keep me informed, Taylor out."

The screen is barely blank before Jim is out of his seat, paging McCoy, slamming his fist into the buzzer just as Spock fumbles the hypo with shaking hands. The instrument drops to the floor with a metallic tinkle.

"Dammit, Bones! Get in here!"

He appears almost immediately, too quickly to have been summoned by Jim, doubtless alerted to Spock's distress through the sensors in the room. He's pulling on the first layer of his radiation suit when Jim knocks on the aluminium to get his attention.

"Just let me through!" he gestures at the partition between their rooms. "I'm already exposed, so minimal additional risk."

McCoy hesitates, one leg already in the suit.

"Bones!"

"All right, all right!" the doctor capitulates, his worried frown fixed on Spock, who is clearly experiencing some serious vertigo as he bends to retrieve the fallen hypo. "Just remember, point oh five mics, no more!"

"Got it," Jim calls, already moving to the place where the partition is drawing apart, folding back into the walls with a barely audible hiss. He's through before the gap is really wide enough, and down on his knees in front of Spock. He gets the hypo in his hands and pressed against Spock's neck, but forces himself to pause, to check the dose, just to be sure. Point oh five mics. He thumbs the control and a muted hiss precedes Spock's almost imperceptible flinch.

Jim slaps the hypo down on the terminal and pushes Spock gently back into his seat. "Easy, Commander."

He looks terrible, eyes pressed tightly closed, lips parted as he works for every breath. His eyelids are tinged blue in the harsh sickbay lights, his hair sticking to his brow. Jim has him by both arms, and blessedly, the shaking is already easing. A few more breaths and Spock's face relaxes a degree or two.

"Better?" he asks softly, the worry plain in his voice.

"Yes."

It's only a whisper, but Jim can feel sudden tension under his hands and abruptly lets go. He backs across their newly combined cubicle until he can sit on his own cot, watching Spock in profile. Vulcan privacy is so important, so fundamental. It might be strange to think that someone as outgoing as Jim understands that need, but he does. There are parts of his own life, parts of himself that he likes kept apart; things that are his and his alone.

"You're not going to be able to go on that team," Jim tells him, even if it does sound like a question.

"No," Spock agrees, forcing his eyes open and turning slightly to face Jim's side of the room. "That seems unlikely."

"Unlikely?" McCoy growls. "I expressly forbid it!"

"The doctor expressly forbids it," Spock echoes, his words less clipped than usual as his eyes slip closed again.

Jim fights down a smile, because it seems Spock is a bit screwy when on a patented McCoy concoction.

Bones offers a smirk in return. "His metabolic system is unique," the doctor sounds defensive but still amused. "I haven't found anything I can use that doesn't have some side effects. Get more than point one of soraphine in him and," he gestures at Spock battling to keep his eyes open. "Better than the alternative though, you'll agree."

"I believe I shall ..." Spock makes an abortive gesture at his cot.

"Hell yes, don't let him sleep in the chair," McCoy offers as he turns and stalks back to his office. "Chiro never got that last lot of kinks out of him."

Jim gives a thumbs up to McCoy's retreating back and goes to help. Turns out that all he really needs is to be pointed in the right direction, after that there's nothing left for Jim to do except straighten the blanket over him and place the hypo on his pillow, within easy reach.

"This is unacceptable," Spock murmurs, seemingly half asleep already. "I shall endeavour to speed the process by using a light trance. You may need to strike me in order to wake me."

Jim frowns. "Strike, like hit?"

"Is there another definition?"

"Well ... no."

"Then why did you ask?"

Jim curses his split lip as another smile threatens to engulf him. "Because I'm an illogical human."

"Very true," Spock acknowledges as he rolls stiffly onto his back.

"How long do you need for this trance?"

"Efficacy is directly proportional to duration," he whispers. "However, do not permit me to remain unconscious should the Tat'sar deployment be approved, or if there is an urgent communication."

"Okay."

Spock's breathing becomes deeper and more regular, his hands relax at his sides, fingertips resting lightly on the blanket. It gets to the point where all his baselines, heart rate, respiration, metabolics, sink so far that McCoy sticks his head out of his office to see what's going on. When he notices Spock flat out on the cot and Jim sitting on the edge of his own, just watching, the doctor shakes his head and mutters something about crazy Vulcan voodoo before disappearing again.

Alone in the new silence, Jim can't deny his own fatigue. Lying down on his own cot, curled up on his side, he promises himself a few minutes and lets his eyes slip closed.


-:-


"Spock?"

Jim tries shaking him a little harder. It seems impossible that anyone could sleep through someone shouting at them and almost rolling them out of bed, but the Commander is managing. With an uncertain glance at McCoy who mimes a decent backhand, Jim slaps Spock lightly across the face. When it garners no response, he does it again, this time hard enough to leave his palm tingling.

Spock's eyes snap open. "Lieutenant Kirk."

"Commander," Jim replies, feeling unaccountably awkward. "You did say to ..."

"Yes," he interrupts, sitting upright so quickly that Jim is forced to spring back. "Quite so."

"The Vulcan High Council have approved both the EPAS inspection and an orbital observation by the Robicon government," Jim informs him. "I would have woken you for the call, but it was just a transmission, not a comm."

"Very well," Spock nods, then directs a steady gaze in McCoy's direction. "My uniform, doctor?"

"Not going to happen," he drawls. "You're not beaming anywhere for at least another twelve hours. You've got enough soraphine in your system to flatten a donkey. I'm clearing you for light duties only."

"You do understand the difficulty inherent in this proscription?"

"I do," McCoy nods, "but I won't put political expediency ahead of my crew. You of all people should understand that."

They lock eyes for a few moments, but Spock nods his acceptance sooner rather than later. "In that case," he turns to Jim, "Lieutenant Kirk will take my place on the away team."

Jim actually finds it relatively easy to subsume his response to Spock's confidence. It sits beneath the surging tumult of curiosity, suspicion and urgency he feels about the Tat'sar in general. Beaming across is a great privilege and an even bigger responsibility, but riding high on a bare hour's sleep, Jim feels up for anything.

McCoy scans him twice with the tricorder, seeming almost disappointed when his rad levels are negligible.

-:-

 

It takes Senekot a full minute to find something appropriate to say when he arrives in the transporter room. The repressed anger in him is plain to see and Jim finds himself wondering if Vulcans consider barely concealed rage an example of adequate control. For all that Spock is only half Vulcan, he would never walk around radiating this kind of violence. When Jim takes his place on the pad in front of the Vulcan captain, he can feel the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Every instinct he has is warning him to keep Senekot in his line of sight.

Spock stands with Chapel at the transporter controls while Scotty gets a lock. It's Jim and Christine beaming across. Chapel might not be the most senior in rank, but with Bones tied up overseeing the Robicon bombing, Christine would be anyone's natural choice as his replacement. She's got years of field experience backed by a calm and compassionate nature. Jim knows he's the highest ranking Point on the ship next to Spock, but his instincts tell him it's actually knowledge of Vulcan language that's earned him the assignment. Spock chose a private moment in the turbolift to imply he should listen, and listen very carefully.

Jim manages to catch the Commander's eye moments before Scotty calls ready. He gives a slight nod. Whatever is going on over there, Jim intends to find out what it is.

"Energize," he tells Scotty, and silver sparks fill his vision.

He comes back to himself aboard the Tat'sar and already hates wearing his EVA suit. Standard procedure, but the air is about twenty degrees warmer than on the Stalwart, thin and instantly drying to the eyes. When he steps off the pad, it's clear the gravity is higher, too.

Senekot pauses beside them, staring straight ahead as though he can't bring himself to look upon them. "Follow me."

"Happy to," Jim smiles widely, inwardly wondering what's pushing him to provoke a man with twice his strength. Christine jabs him in the ribs with her elbow as they fall into step, meaning that she's wondering the same thing. He resolves to tone it down a little. As much as Senekot aggravates him, they have work to do here.

"I will show you to one of our larger laboratories," Senekot informs them. "I have arranged for all our guests to congregate there, as assessing them in their individual quarters is inefficient."

Jim is saved from replying when one of Senekot's underlings approaches and respectfully makes a report. It's poor form to wear a UT amongst allies, but Jim doesn't need it. All is prepared, the younger Vulcan says. Jim turns the phrase over in his mind, wondering if and how it applies to the ship's living cargo.

Senekot marches along smart white corridors that would make the Stalwart's earthy hued walls look dirty by comparison. Jim follows alongside Christine, with the two Vulcan scientists bringing up the rear. It smacks of containing them, shepherding them, and he has to fight down an almost overwhelming urge to break sideways into a random corridor, just to see what they do.

"We have arrived," Senekot informs them, coming to an abrupt halt facing a room of milling people.

Jim and Chris nod their thanks and step into the laboratory. All eyes are suddenly trained on them. Some sit under orderly fringes, deep and dark and as Vulcan as the Tat'sar's crew. Others are blue, grey, green and brown; mostly human, with one Orion Jim can see and something that looks like a Klingon but couldn't possibly be.

"If I could have your attention?" Jim calls, putting as much reassurance into his voice as he can, because these people look tense. "I'm Jim Kirk and this is Chris Chapel, we're from EPAS. For those of you who aren't from around here, that's the Emergency Personnel Ambulance Service. We operate as an adjunct to the United Federation of Sentient Planets, and we're here to offer you all some medical assistance, if you need it."

Several people in the room exchange glances. It's not that which makes Jim pause, it's the strange urgency, the almost disbelieving energy in their faces when they turn back to look at him.

"You are James Tiberius Kirk?" one of them calls, pushing to his feet.

To Jim's surprise, the speaker is a Vulcan. He's lean but not as tall as most, and not dressed as Jim is accustomed to seeing Vulcan's dress when out of uniform. Instead, this young man stands at the fore of the group in grey and blue clothes of a distinctly human flavour. Necessity tends to override cultural considerations however, and casting around the room, Jim notices that many of them are dressed in a mishmash of what might have been to hand as a group. Still, the young Vulcan naturally draws Jim's attention.

"Yeah, I'm Jim Kirk," he confirms, a little weirded out, "and you are?"

"My full name would be unpronounceable," is the dignified reply, though it is followed by, "you may call me Eli."

"Okay then, Eli," Jim says with a friendly smile, "you know of anyone here who could use a medic?" He points his thumb at Chapel, who obediently turns to demonstrate the extensive medkit slung over her shoulder.

Eli inclines his head, giving Jim a surge of deja vu. "Indeed, I do. You have our thanks."

"Right then," Jim nods. "All the minor stuff comes to me, anything more serious than cuts and abrasions to Chapel."

The room slowly divides into two groups, Jim's far larger. The gentle milling gives him a chance to do a rough head count, and as he instinctively knew; they're at least six people short. He crosses to where Chris is setting up her kit, ostensibly to steal a few supplies.

"How's your math?" he asks in an undertone.

"Hmm," she nods, passing him her spare dermal regenerator. "We're a little light on."

Jim purses his lips. "Okay, let's treat these people first, but it's time for your best bedside manner," he glances at the collar of her field blacks. "Couldn't hurt to show a little cleavage, you know. It's hot like a furnace in here, anyway."

She gives him a withering look, but it's belied by the laughter in her eyes. "Most of them are Vulcan, Jim. I doubt they'd be influenced by anything that gets you off."

With a parting punch to her shoulder, Jim gathers up his supplies and makes his way back over to his bench. "Okay!" he grins at the head of the line. "What have you got for me?"

"Um, I've got some burns, sir," a young human steps up, shrugging out of his shirt to reveal some pretty nasty blisters along his spine.

Jim passes the medical tricorder over the mess and raises his eyebrows when it tells him that several burns treatments have already been performed. The dermal signature is slightly off though, like it was done by someone with a theoretical knowledge of what should happen, but none of the expertise to heal something this delicate. He files that information away for future use.

"These look like phaser burns," Jim notes aloud, disinfecting his hands under UV and gently touching the pink edges of healing skin.

"Aye, sir," his patient nods, suddenly looking a little anxious.

"You're enlisted?" Jim asks, keeping his eyes focused on the wound, hoping it seems his interest in the boy's origins is merely bedside chatter.

"Starfleet, sir. I'm an Ensign in Communications."

"You don't have to 'sir' me, you know. I might be a Lieutenant, but the chain of command is a little hazy. What's your ship?"

"Enterprise, sir."

Jim's hands falter on the dermal regenerator, forcing him to carefully recalibrate it to the young Ensign's own stage of healing. "She's a good ship," he manages finally, rather impressed with the lack of emotion in his voice.

"Aye, sir," the boy grins over his shoulder before Jim sets to work. "The very best, sir."

Jim nods and glances over to see if Chapel has heard. There hasn't been a ship called Enterprise since she crashed into the stormy seas of Vega. He ought to know.


-:-


"Commander?"

Spock turns to see Ashe Ho being wheeled into the room by doctor McCoy. He swivels his chair but does not stand as he would normally do. Remaining seated places him eye to eye with the Lieutenant; a small concession, but one that is well received judging by the slight flush that rises on her cheeks. He does not envy such blatant emotional indicators.

"Lieutenant Ho?"

"I ordered some more scans of the Tat'sar and I think you should see the results." She holds out a data chip between two fingers, gripping it so that he does not have to touch her skin to retrieve it.

Spock allows his voice to grow stern. "We are under strict orders not to scan the Vulcan vessel."

"Good thing we didn't, then," Ashe pulls half her face into a grin, the rest just twitches. "Those are from the Robii scout ship currently observing the Tat'sar from orbit."

He plucks the chip from her hand but keeps it between them. "An interesting arrangement."

"It turns out Uhura made quite an impression on the Undersecretary of Defense when she saved his life."

Spock relaxes slightly, amusement playing about the edges of his consciousness. "Lieutenant Uhura does possess that capacity."

"I think you and Jim are wrong about the gravitational signature," his former Point One continues, using her good arm to propel the chair a few inches closer. "The anomaly is present throughout the entire ship, not just the warp drive or weapons systems."

Spock slips the chip into a reader and skims the data. "Preliminary analysis suggests you are correct," he tells her, the waveforms bathing his face in different colored lights.


-:-


Commander Spock to Lieutenant Kirk.

Jim thumbs his collar tab. "Kirk here. What can I do for you, sir?"

Status report.

Jim casts his eyes around the room. "Fifteen casualties attended to, nothing requiring transfer to sick bay." He pauses, knowing he allowed a little disappointment and irritation to seep into his voice, because dammit, without something concrete he's got no grounds for recommending Starfleet involvement. "We have another two undergoing deep knitting on minor fractures."

The remaining passengers require no medical assistance?

Jim lowers his voice and speaks directly into the mic. "The remaining passengers are nowhere to be seen."

There is a pause over the comm as Spock digests this.

Confirming the total count sighted at seventeen persons?

"Seventeen confirmed." Jim lowers his hand and grimaces. "Permission to scan the ship?"

Denied, comes Spock's swift reply. Await orders.

"Spock, one or two of those we've treated are assigned to the Enterprise," Jim says urgently. "As in, currently assigned, and uh, there's a Klingon here."

Another long pause sails over the comm.

Confirm ship designation NCC1701 and presence of race hostile to the Federation.

"Ship confirmed, but the Klingon says he's on our side," Jim shrugs at Christine, who looks just as flummoxed as he feels. "Apparently he serves aboard the Enterprise, too."


-:-


"That doesn't make sense," Ashe frowns, then unsteadily turns to glare up at McCoy, too. "None of that makes sense!"

"I've never heard of a Klingon defector," the doctor muses. "With so much hostility in Klingon space recently that's the kind of thing the Federation would be shouting from the rooftops, if it were true."

"More to the point," Spock says distantly, eyes fixed on the energy projections displayed on the terminal, "the USS Enterprise was destroyed almost two years ago. According to Starfleet records, all previously serving crew have been reassigned or discharged from active service."

"How can they be assigned to a ship that doesn't exist?" McCoy exclaims, making crazy eyes.

Spock glances from the energy readings to the viewport encompassing the Tat'sar and back again. "It is imperative that we find grounds for further investigation."

"Well, don't tell me, man! Tell Jim!" McCoy blusters, pointing at the comm switch.


-:-


Lieutenant Kirk?

Spock's deep voice fills the earbud in his right ear. Jim crams a finger in after it, because for some reason the signal isn't coming through as loudly as it usually does.

"Kirk here."

There are several anomalies associated with your visit to the Tat'sar.

"You don't say," he half-laughs into his collar mic, because really, what a talent for understatement. "All regulations in order?" He finds himself choosing his words carefully, partly due to the milling crowd of people, but mostly because of the two Vulcan scientists Senekot has left to 'provide for their needs.' Jim feels like he's under lock and key, which is a very unnerving sensation at the hands of Vulcans, Earth's oldest alien allies.

Doctor McCoy suggests medical clause gamma delta zero point nine, Spock pauses. Mental trauma requiring experienced counselling.

Jim turns swiftly away, hiding his lips from view behind Christine and getting as far from the two Vulcan guards at the door as possible. "I'll see your mental trauma and raise you stark raving crazy," he murmurs in an undertone, trusting EPAS technology to transmit loud and clear. "Delusional, even."

Are any Vulcans affected? Expediency in this matter would be facilitated within the Vulcan High Council if the Federation intercession was on behalf of a Vulcan citizen.

"Actually, most of the Vulcan's haven't said a word, and what they have said seems deliberately vague. I'm not getting any personal history from them worth writing home about." Jim sneaks a glance at Eli. "Although one of them is a bit handsy."

Vulcans do not customarily exchange the same degree of information on first meeting as do humans. Nor are they remotely 'handsy.'

"Spock," Jim sighs into his mic, "I learned more about you at that first stupid briefing than I have with an hour in this room. Something's keeping them quiet, especially him, but I can't prove anything ..."

The lightest of touches on his shoulder cuts him off halfway through. He turns to find the subject of his conversation just withdrawing his hand. Jim stares at him, a heavy frown of confusion on his face. Vulcan's really don't touch.

Eli regards him calmly. "The people will not talk to you."

Jim thumbs his tab again. "Await my further," he says, then lets his hand fall. "Oh yeah, why is that?"

"Fear," Eli replies easily, "fear and logic."

"The two don't normally go together in my experience."

The edges of a smile play around Eli's mouth. "Unless I am gravely mistaken, your experience with Vulcans is somewhat limited, Lieutenant Kirk."

Jim's eyes rake over the other man's face, searching among the slightly brownish black hair, the pointed ears, the upswept brows to confirm the growing suspicion that he is a wolf in sheep's clothing; a Romulan in Vulcan guise.

"I would advise you to seek the missing six Elders," Eli tells him, his young face growing serious again. "It is, perhaps, an unpolitic course of action but it will provide answers, or at least the beginnings of answers."

"The Elders?" Jim repeats, not because he thinks Eli is going to elaborate, but because it gives him a moment to think before their very unusual conversation is over.

"Captain Senekot will know to whom you are referring." Eli straightens slightly and shocks Jim by holding out a hand. "It has been most pleasant to make your acquaintance, Lieutenant."

Hesitantly, beginning to wonder if perhaps there is some kind of hallucinogen at work - something that has now had long enough to affect him, also - Jim grips the proffered hand and shakes it firmly before releasing it. "Yeah, fantastic."

Eli turns and calmly rejoins the mixed group of Vulcans and humans by the far wall. Jim stares after him for a few seconds, his mind in turmoil.

"Spock?" he says finally, thumbing his comm. "I think I have an opening."

Do nothing without consultation.

"I've got to run with this," Jim shakes his head, approaching one of their Vulcan 'helpers.'

We are an emergency medical service, Spock reminds him firmly. No more.

"Trust me on this."

Lieutenant Kirk, beam back to discuss your proposed course of action.

"I can't do that, sir."


-:-


Two hours later, Jim sits, aching in every muscle before a vidscreen in McCoy's office. Admiral Christopher Pike is glaring at him from it's pristine surface. It doesn't help that Jim knows he fucked up, knows it to his marrow, but still feels like he did the right thing. It makes it very hard to look appropriately contrite.

"Kirk, do you have any idea, any at all, the kind of bureaucratic shitstorm you've just created?" Pike demands. "Of all the stupid, knuckle-headed things you could have chosen to do since you got here, you had to pick this one."

"If it helps, I'm sorry, sir."

"It doesn't help at all because I can see you're lying!" Pike bellows, red in the face and straining against the confines of his chair. "God damn it, Jim! Do you even know how many clauses of the Federation Treaty you've violated?"

"I think maybe seven."

"At least!"

"Admiral, sir," Jim tries calmly, licking his lips as he gathers his thoughts. "There are people aboard that ship who needed our help. There are still people aboard it who might be unwilling prisoners. What did you want me to do?"

Pike slams his palm down on his desk hard enough to make his stylus jump. "Follow protocol! You can't just wing it all the time, Jim. You can't just leap in blindly with both feet and trust that everything will work out, because it usually doesn't. You're the Divisional Point One now, try to act like it! There's this little thing called diplomacy we usually like to try within the Federation; a small consideration we call sovereign rights!"

"The sovereign right to hold people against their will?" Jim counters hotly. "To deny them proper medical aid? To scare them so badly they won't even talk about what they're doing on that ship in the first place? To mess with their memories so they're not even making sense?"

"Not your place!" Pike shouts, enunciating each word separately so they sound like a sentence in their own right.

The two men stare at each other across lightyears, both keyed up, both visibly struggling to remain professional. Finally, Pike bites his lip and presses his eyes closed, head turned to the side as he collects himself.

"You're going to give me a full report. You're going to include as detailed an account as you can of everything that was said and everything that you saw aboard the Tat'sar. You're going write it up, then file it in triplicate and you're going to do it within the next sixty minutes because I've got the entire Federation Council breathing down my neck over this one." Pike opens his eyes and pins Jim with a fierce expression. "Do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir," he manages, teeth gritted.

"Right," Pike sighs heavily. "Now, between you and me, who are they holding and what's the situation?"

Jim scoots forward until he's sitting on the edge of his chair. "Right, it went like this ..."


-:-


Jim's request to see the additional passengers aboard the ship certainly gets a reaction, just not the one he is anticipating. The Vulcan he addresses actually looks frightened for a moment. It is almost imperceptible, but Jim hasn't made a hobby out of interpreting the slightest raise of Spock's eyebrow for nothing. Also, fear is a pretty difficult emotion to mask.

Senekot chooses that very moment to reappear, tall and calm and utterly Vulcan in his disdain for Jim's insistent request to see these so-called 'Elders' he was informed were aboard. The Vulcan captain's eyes flick to where Eli has his back turned; an instinctive and very telling response.

"No," he is told, as though that could possibly be the end of it.

"Why not?" Jim tries to be reasonable, even though some instinct is telling him that this is it; this is the crux of the mystery of the Tat'sar. "You've let us see the others, why not all of them?"

Senekot turns cold, fathomless eyes upon him. "They are dead."

"Dead how?" Jim feels Christine join him and is thankful for her presence by his shoulder.

"That is a Vulcan matter."

"It's an EPAS matter according to Federation Treaty."

"I think you will find that the Treaty only refers to living passengers aboard a vessel registered to a Federation world."

Senekot might not be smirking, but he doesn't have to. The contempt rolls off him in waves. If Jim didn't have the ESPER rating of a cabbage, he'd have sworn the feeling was leaching right into the vengeful parts of his own cerebral cortex. Senekot was actually enjoying this.

"Then I guess you won't mind showing us the bodies," he reasons, forcing a cold smile. "For our report, you understand. I'm sure you can appreciate the need for thoroughness."

Senekot's eyes narrow slightly, but that is the only betrayal of his anger. "You may access their citizenship records on our database," he deflects, gesturing to the terminal set into the laboratory wall. "I will have one of the technicians grant you permission."

The Vulcans move to comply and Jim takes the opportunity to lock eyes with Chris. He can see a world of caution in them and knows he should take her unspoken advice. His earbuds bleep, reminding him for the fifth time that he's ignoring another incoming call from his DivCO. Spock is going to be pissed.

The Vulcan tech steps back and inclines his head in invitation. Jim flexes his fingers and moves to the screen. Before him is the face of a young, auburn haired human woman. Algebrides, Mary Kate, the name reads. He moves his finger across the pressure sensitive screen, flicking to the next face; a Vulcan male. The next, another Vulcan, this time female. On the third he freezes.

It can't be.

"No," he whispers, shock warring with an unexpected feeling of loss. "No way."

Before anyone can stop him, his fingers fly across the terminal, breaking through the quickly erected firewalls and plunging into the true data that lies behind the flimsy facsimile of death certificates. Jim's always had a good relationship with computers. He can smell a rat a mile away, and these notices of death frankly reek of deception.

He finds what he needs just as Senekot barks out an order to the computer and the screen goes blank. If Jim thought the captain looked dangerous before, it's nothing compared to how he looks now. Jim doesn't give him any time to formulate a response to the illegal tampering, just launches himself into a dead run, the ship schematic bright in his mind's eye. He figures he has about two or three seconds before they collect themselves and head after him, and he knows from experience that there's no way in hell he can outrun a Vulcan. Especially not on a Vulcan ship, in this gravity. The atmosphere, he can do something about, so he snaps his visor closed and enjoys the heady rush of oxygen that wells up in his face.

Feet are drumming behind him and the point between his shoulder blades starts to crawl. Vulcan's don't carry weapons, right? But he doesn't have time to think it through, because he finds himself at a door that shouldn't be on this ship. A door that's been purpose-built to withstand some pretty impressive force.

Acting on pure instinct, Jim hauls on the counter lever; and it springs open as he all but throws himself inside. He's thoroughly unprepared for the flash and burn of the high wavelength containment field. It fries his nerve endings, sends him twitching to the floor with a thud, but not before he sees what he came for.

Around the room, six people step forward tentatively, some sporting bandages, others dressed in strangely styled Starfleet uniforms. At the centre of it all stands someone familiar, a vision from his childhood, a man who's face he just saw on a forged death certificate.

The Vulcan raises one silver eyebrow. "James T. Kirk?"

"You're not dead!" he gurgles, fighting the rigors that signify the tail end of his containment field experience. "I've come to save you!"

"So I see," the man he knew as Sarek says with some irony.

Before Jim can do more than frown, he's engulfed in silver sparks and promptly disappears. He's almost thankful to be off that ship; off and with proof that Senekot is full of shit. Then he sees Bones' apoplectic face and groans.

"Of all the damn fool things to do!" McCoy is cursing, jabbing him with hypo after hypo and then gripping his hair to make Jim look him in the eye. "You're a menace, you know that?"

"You've got to send me back!" Jim cries, eyes fixing on Spock's face and not even registering the white hot rage there. "Send me back!"

"Shut your mouth!" McCoy yells. "Haven't you noticed you've been electrocuted?"

Jim struggles to his knees and then to his feet, shaking off McCoy's hands because they seem to be torn between helping him and hindering him. Half way up, he catches himself against a familiarly pressed sleeve. "Spock!" he gasps. "They've got him, they've got ..."

The Commander jerks his arm out of reach. His dark eyes are ice cold and his lips pressed tightly in disapproval. "Silence!" he whispers, and it's somehow worse than a shout could ever be. The chaos in the transporter room abruptly ceases. Chris and Bones and Ashe all pause in a loose semi-circle, their eyes wide.

Jim swallows the new-found lump in his throat.

"You disobeyed a direct order," Spock continues in an undertone. "Risked your life, damaged diplomatic relations with New Vulcan and placed Captain Taylor in a highly complex situation."

"But ..."

"You should have waited," Spock says, his perfect facade slipping. "You should have trusted me."

"I thought ..."

"No," Spock shakes his head. "You did not think if you presumed I would allow the Tat'sar to hold sentient beings against their will. If you have a character flaw, Jim, it is this; you place no value on the word of others." Spock turns away, eyes on the floor, his angular face hinting at a disappointment that is overwhelming. "We spoke of trust, and yet here we stand. I am Vulcan. My word is my bond. I would not have allowed it."

Jim clenches his twitching hands at his sides. He feels about two inches tall. "I'm sorry."

"Regret is illogical," Spock locks eyes with him. "Forethought is preferable."

"What do we do now?" Jim asks softly, very aware of everyone looking on.

"Now, you will report to sickbay under doctor McCoy, where you will remain until such time as he declares you fit for duty. I must place a call to EPAS headquarters and inform the Captain of the full extent of your disobedience."

One blistering glance from Spock silences every objection on the tip of Jim's tongue. The look is directed solely at him, not visible to anyone else, and it speaks to a depth of anger that he's never seen Spock unleash. Today is not the day he wants that to change.

He manages a shaky salute and leans gratefully into McCoy's arm as Spock stalks from the transporter room, Ashe swept up in his wake.


-:-


Jim slouches back in his chair, trying to hide a degree of what he's still feeling after that confrontation.

Pike looks torn between exasperation and true anger. "You have a singular talent for pissing off your superior officers, but I still can't believe you managed to ruffle Spock like that." He sighs heavily. "You know this 'Sarek' how?"

"He was employed by Starfleet to encode the new UTs aboard the Constellation Class ships built at Riverside," Jim explains. "He's a good guy. I don't believe that bull Senekot is spinning about those people being dangerous," Jim glowers. "They're a science ship and they told me the last six were dead for crying out loud!"

Pike makes a few last minute corrections to the notes he took. "Sit tight, keep your mouth shut and do whatever Spock tells you to do. I need all that in writing and I need it yesterday." The Admiral gives him one last sour look. "Oh, and please don't go accusing the Vulcans of lying, understood?"

 

 

Chapter Text

Jim is alone in his quarters when the door chime sounds. McCoy released him from sickbay and put him on short term medical leave. Apparently, the only thing stopping Captain Taylor from ordering his summary dismissal is Spock, which makes Jim feel like even more of an asshole. He keeps replaying that dressing down in his mind, listening for and finding nuances of emotion in the memory of Spock's tightly controlled voice. He's got his head in his hands, feeling vindicated and guilty at the same time.

"Enter."

The two calmly measured steps into the room can only be one person.

"Lieutenant."

Jim raises his head and pushes to his feet, ignoring the slight pang in his muscles. "Commander, sir."

The door swishes closed behind him and Spock neatly clasps his hands in the small of his back. It seems he's browbeaten McCoy into giving him back his uniform, because he's standing in it with his hair all neatly dried and combed. He tilts his head and raises that eyebrow. "Are you well?"

Jim feels all the fight go out of him in a rush, because damn, that was not what he'd been expecting. "I let you down," he says by way of an answer. "I'd like to be able to say I disobeyed you because you were wrong to ask me to wait, because it was a field decision that had to be made quickly, but that would be a lie." He raises his head to find Spock watching him intently. "Truthfully? I'm just an impatient motherfucker who's not good at waiting for other people to make the right decision."

Spock presses his lips together and wanders further into the room, eyes on the floor now; his thinking face. "That is inaccurate," he says, pausing to study Jim as he speaks. "Since you have been promoted to Divisional Point One, Nix Alpha, you have never displayed overt difficulty in following my orders, until today."

Jim doesn't have an answer for that, because it's true. What the Tat'sar holds is different.

Spock takes a single step closer to him, eyes still sharp with that same intensity. "Explain."

"It's not right," Jim flounders, which is something that rarely happens. Around most people he's king of the glib answer, the throwaway line. Spock is the only person he knows who can reduce him to blurting out the first thing that crosses his mind. "It's not right to keep people like that. Knowing that they were hurt, I couldn't just stand back and ..." he trails off, fighting for the logic in his own argument. "You don't turn your back on something wrong, even if you make trouble for yourself. You've got to stick up for people who can't champion themselves."

"I concur, and yet I fail to see why it rendered you incapable of following my orders." Spock speaks quickly, with perfect diction, and takes another step towards him. "Had I given you reason to believe I would not take appropriate action to ensure the safety of those aboard the Tat'sar?"

Jim's heart starts hammering in his chest. It's got something to do with the mere three feet that's separating him from Spock, and something to do with the memory of those people, those poor people still being held on that ship. "No, you hadn't," he confesses, hating the tightness in his voice.

"I asked the same question of Admiral Pike," Spock admits. "We spoke at length about your actions and what disciplinary measures may be appropriate. I asked him to explain why you would act so inadvisedly, so rashly and without forethought."

"Oh yeah?" Jim feels the palms of his hands begin to perspire. "What did he say?"

Spock's eyes narrow slightly, in concentration, not malice. "He advised me to ask you."

Jim forces a shrug, throws on his best approximation of a smile. "Yeah, well, sorry to disappoint. I've got nothing to say."

He sees Spock's jaw tighten, braces himself for the words that will spell the end of his career, the dirge to his latest attempt at figuring out what to do with himself. Instead, Spock relaxes all the way from his face right down to the hands that had been clenched at his sides. Jim watches those dark eyes travel down his body, no doubt cataloging many indications of emotion; the little things that are giving him away.

"Yes," says Spock softly, his eyes now back on Jim's face. "I believe you are sorry."

With that, he turns on his heel and makes for the door.

"Wait!" Jim calls, feeling thoroughly derailed. "What now?"

Spock pauses, turning to look over his shoulder. "You remain on medical leave until further notice."

Jim waits for the door to close before leaning back into bed and awkwardly lowering himself. The hand he wipes across his brow shakes, so he rubs it absently across the fabric of his blacks, sliding up from his knee to his thigh and then back down again soothingly, like comforting a child.


-:-


Spock walks the corridors of the Stalwart with a look of concentration that keeps everyone away. He is unaware of the nervous glances thrown after him, or the quiet questions exchanged in his wake. The very same 'Elder' that Lieutenant Kirk had recognized, the one known as Sarek, had calmly commed the Stalwart requesting a face-to-face meeting to resolve the 'regrettable misunderstanding' of the Tat'sar's mission and cargo. Captain Taylor had accepted, quite logically. Spock has informed Admiral Pike of the development and is on his way to the main briefing room. The Federation Council are loudly and vociferously requesting a member of the Diplomatic Corps attend. No doubt, by the time the meeting is convened, they will have achieved their goal and Spock will be forced to endure strict diplomatic protocol. He will navigate it with the ease of familiarity.

He steps into the turbolift and requests the correct deck, hardly noticing how the space around him clears by habit; he is left insulated by a half metre of distance. He does not need to check the chrono to know it has been two point six days since he last slept or meditated properly. If he were prone to illogical thoughts, he might have wished for more favorable personal circumstances. As it is, he briefly considers administering the final dose within McCoy's hypo; his chest is tight, his muscles still prone to cramps and tremors, and his mind anything but clear. However, a quick approximation of the effects of further soraphine on his system leads him to believe it is inadvisable. He will wait until the situation is resolved, then utilize another trance to facilitate healing without the need for pharmacological intervention.

The lift doors hiss open and he strides into the corridor as though he never stopped moving. He spoke with Lieutenant Kirk longer than intended and it has pushed the envelope of his projected arrival time. He forces tired muscles to work harder, propelling him towards his destination. Spock is never late; he makes it to the briefing room with perhaps sixty seconds to spare. Within it, he finds one reason to be surprised and one thing that he expects. There is, indeed, a representative from the Diplomatic Corps present; however Captain Senekot is conspicuous by his absence. In fact, there are only two non-Stalwart people present: one is a human and the other is the Vulcan Elder.

The Vulcan turns, alerted to his arrival by the sound of the door if not the mental presence of a fellow telepath. He gives the impression of someone a lot older than Spock judges him to be; tall but weighed down, grey-haired but bright-eyed. He makes the ta'al and recites the traditional greeting with an air that, well, Spock would almost have to say it was an air of amusement.

He raises his own hand. Truly, for a man who shares the same name as his father, the resemblance is uncanny. "Live long and prosper," he returns, careful to keep his own voice totally devoid of emotion, then turns to the rest of the assembled. "Captain Taylor, Envoy Dhillon," he nods to each in turn, then pauses; at the limits of his knowledge.

"My apologies," the old Vulcan steps into the breach. "You may call me Sarek, but allow me to introduce Lieutenant Commander Hannah Bates."

Bates obviously knows Vulcans well, because she simply rises from her seat and nods. "Commander Spock."

"Well," Captain Taylor huffs, "now that we're all introduced, perhaps we could get down to business?"

"Indeed," Spock says, stiffly taking a seat opposite Sarek. "Perhaps be can begin by identifying your role in these proceedings," he suggests, raising an eyebrow at the older Vulcan. "Our Divisional Point One claims prior acquaintance and seems to feel you were an unwilling guest aboard the Tat'sar. This seems unlikely given your presence at this meeting, therefore I request clarification."

Dhillon exhales in hasty apology, leaning forward to intercede. "I'm sure what the Commander means is that ..."

"I believe the Commander and I understand each other perfectly," Sarek interrupts with the barest hint of amusement. "So, let me answer his question," his hooded eyes rise to take in the whole of the room, "for all our benefit. I have served aboard the science vessel Tat'sar for the last eighteen months, two weeks and six point four days. My capacity aboard the ship is scientific advisor, although, as you no doubt infer from my presence and Captain Senekot's absence, the chain of command aboard our ship is somewhat," he quirks an eyebrow, "open to interpretation."

"If you are a willing participant in the Tat'sar's undisclosed mission, please explain the containment field that temporarily incapacitated my Point One." Spock catches himself on the verge of sounding angry. He hasn't meant to direct proceedings, and certainly not with so much emotional motivation. Fatigue is clouding his control.

Sarek turns to him with a mild expression. "Lieutenant Kirk discovered our six most senior technicians at work within the prime laboratory. The containment field does indeed serve the purpose of preventing escape from that room, only not in the way Kirk believes."

"Commander," Taylor intervenes, a slow frown growing on his face. "Whilst Kirk's injuries are regrettable, I'm not entirely sure they are our primary concern."

"On the contrary, Captain," Sarek says smoothly. "I believe this information to be central to diffusing tensions between the Vulcan High Council and the Federation." His keen eyes sweep the room. "If you will allow me to continue?"

Taylor gestures with an open palm and Dhillon pushes her recorder a little closer.

"The containment field that so regrettably incapacitated the impulsive Lieutenant Kirk is designed to contain tachyon particles." Sarek glances at Captain Taylor, who in turn looks to Spock for an explanation.

"Tachyon radiation is associated with temporal anomalies," Spock states, turning his gaze back to Sarek. "They form the basis for the energy signature used to identify Nero's secret weapon."

"And here we come upon the crux of the matter," Sarek nods, pressing his fingertips together before him, "because I have little doubt that the Federation will not simply accept my word that the energy signature emanating from the Tat'sar is inherently different in nature."

"No," Taylor shakes his head. "We won't."

"Logical," Sarek states, "and yet highly inconvenient."

"For whom?" Dhillon interjects before either Spock or the Captain can get a word in. "It strikes me, Mister Sarek, that nothing you've said can be interpreted as remotely reassuring from our point of view. The Federation Council has asked me to procure an ironclad guarantee that the Tat'sar is operating with the full knowledge and approval of the Vulcan High Council, and with absolutely no affiliation to the criminal, Nero." She frowns at him intently. "Can you offer such assurances?"

"If you seek the finality of proof, then no, I cannot." Sarek is calm as he casts his eyes around the table. "However, the logic of Vulcans conspiring with Romulans seems inherently flawed given our races' recent history, would you not agree?"

Envoy Dhillon is suddenly loathe to meet Vulcan eyes around the table.

Spock feels the pressure of grief rise inside him, tingling at the edges of broken bonds and ruthlessly controlled loss. "I admit, I can think of no motivation powerful enough to induce such an association, however that does not preclude its existence."

"No," Sarek says, "it does not." He spreads his hands on the table top, his face almost friendly for a Vulcan. "And so, you see our predicament."

"I see that you have yet to offer an adequate explanation for either your presence aboard the Tat'sar or that of nearly two dozen apparent refugees of conflict," Spock counters quickly.

"The Elders have empowered me to permit specific wavelength scans of the Tat'sar in order to prove our disassociation from Nero. I also have with me a certified writ from the Vulcan High Council that we are not a military operation, nor a threat to the Federation. Additionally, any person aboard who does not wish to remain a passenger is welcome to disembark."

"Denying the Federation a full investigation of events will not help your cause," Spock warns.

"Commander," Sarek says, pinning him with eyes suddenly fierce. "No person at this table could hope to comprehend my cause."

Abrupt silence engulfs the table as the two Vulcans try to out stare each other. Spock feels suddenly as though he is a youth again, standing before the Council and throwing their accolades back in their faces, defying everything he always thought he'd be based purely on an instinct he should have been trained to ignore. Anger and trust form a heady mix, flooding his synapses and making him ask the question he'd longed to answer since the moment Jim had rematerialized.

"Who are you?"

Sarek stands slowly, hands slipping into wide sleeves, to regard the Diplomatic Envoy and the Captain of the Stalwart as though they are the only people in the room. "I offer an assurance that cannot be disputed," he grates out. "I offer a meeting of minds."

The bottom of Spock's world drops away, because there is only one logical candidate for such a procedure, and he does not welcome the intimacy.

"Well?" Sarek demands. It could be impatience or simply efficiency that lends a bite to his words. "Will it suffice?"

Taylor and Dhillon exchange uncertain glances.

"Divisional Commander Spock is a decorated field officer of command rank," Dhillon says tentatively. "I believe the Council will accept his testimony if it is backed by the hard diagnostic data you offer."

"I concur," Taylor nods. "A logical conclusion between reasonable people."

Sarek turns to Spock with hard eyes and tilts his head. "If you have no objection?"

Pushing to his feet, he does his best to remain impassive. "None."

The fact that Taylor has not considered his willingness makes him distinctly uncomfortable. Amongst Vulcans, a meld is not something undertaken lightly or for mere convenience. The very fact that Sarek is offering it means that he is unwilling or unable to prove his point in an alternative manner. The situation makes Spock suspicious, which is never a stable basis for a meld.

"Very well."

With a sinking feeling, Spock realizes they will be afforded no modicum of privacy. The time-honored technique is to be presented in the manner of a side-show, a novelty to be witnessed by his Captain and the Envoy in order that they can report Spock's every reaction. His conduct will become testimony, will reflect on the veracity of Sarek's statement and his own Vulcan control. Even rested and composed, the reality of the situation would have been troubling.

Spock stands stiffly, eyes studiously on the table as he rounds its corner and comes to a stop within touching distance of Sarek. He has not melded with anyone since he left Vulcan, since he joined EPAS. It has been many years, and the familiar lore has grown dusty with disuse and guilt. His last meld had been with another man of the same name, and it had left neither of them at peace. The one before that ...

Spock lifts his eyes, takes another half-step closer as dry fingers settle competently on his face.

"My mind to your mind," Sarek intones. "My thoughts to your thoughts."

Try as he might, Spock cannot repress the surge of fear as a mind older and infinitely more powerful than his own finds a foothold upon his consciousness and grows.


-:-


Jim has always prided himself on knowing when to lose it and when to keep a firm lid on his temper. He hasn't felt so out of control for a very long time. If he had the presence of mind to analyze the situation he'd have recognized the futility of the confrontation he's seeking, but everything is clouded by anger and betrayal, because dammit, up until fifteen minutes ago he'd actually been sorry for failing to trust Spock.

Robicon IV have backed down, the Tat'sar is no longer listed as a threat and the Captain has declared shore leave on Gant's World their next destination after the Vulcans are towed home, so it's no surprise the hangar bay is deserted. Still, it makes it easy for Jim to spot the familiar set of Spock's shoulders as he slips into the salvaged wreck of their shuttle.

"Hey!" he calls, jaw aching from grinding his teeth. "Commander!"

Nobody emerges and Jim feels his blood begin to boil. He breaks into a jog, hands clenched into fists and lips pressed tight. He disdains the buckled runner, leaping into the semi-gutted interior in a single adrenaline-fuelled bound. Spock is standing with his back turned, one hand gripping the railing.

"I've got a few questions," he manages, breathing heavily through his nose. "Like why you convinced Taylor and the Council that those Vulcan bastards should be able to hold people against their will."

"Nobody aboard the Tat'sar is a prisoner," Spock says without turning. "All are free to do and go as they please."

"And you know that, how?" Jim presses. "Because Sarek reached inside your brain and made it so?"

Spock half turns, throwing his grim face into profile. "It is impossible to lie in a meld."

"So maybe Sarek believes it," Jim grits out, "I don't know, he seemed like a good guy back in Iowa, but you're seriously just going to take his word for it?"

"He is not who you believe him to be. I have no choice."

If Jim were a little less pissed, he might have noticed the hint of imbalance in that normally level voice, instead he just takes another step closer, nails digging into his palms. "The fuck you don't," he hisses. "You were the one chance we had to get back aboard that vessel, to get to the bottom of this mess, to free those poor people and find out once and for all what your goddamn, secretive, oh-so-superior Vulcan High Council is doing with a ship that reeks of mass destruction!"

"The Tat'sar is a rescue ship, not dissimilar to our own," Spock mutters, pausing to swallow. "The tachyon radiation is simply a byproduct of their primary mission. I saw it, I saw it all."

"Well, I haven't seen shit!" Jim shouts, grabbing Spock by a shoulder and spinning him around. "And neither has the rest of the Federation. I don't care what the Captain says, unless I can see for my own eyes that those people are okay, then I'm not going to believe it."

Spock shrugs out of his grip absently, eyes still strangely unfocused. "You know nothing of trust."

"Oh," Jim laughs nastily, "that's rich coming from you, the only person aboard this ship who has the faintest idea what's going on! So give me something, make me believe we're not just abandoning them, turning our back because it's less complicated."

"I am not obliged to reassure you. My testimony is classified until such time as the Federation Council deems it otherwise."

"Fuck my security clearance," Jim grips him by the front of his uniform, "and fuck your sense of obligation. I want to trust you, I just don't know how."

Spock's eyes flick from Jim's face to his fisted hands and back again. He straightens slightly. "If you were not already on medical leave, I should place you on it for being emotionally compromised."

Jim exhales on a laugh and hangs his head, still pulsing with the need to break something or know something, but he relaxes his hands, smoothing them across the bunched chest of Spock's uniform to straighten the material. "You're right; I'm compromised."

"Resume a proper distance," Spock demands, but the catch in his voice finally gets Jim's attention.

Jim looks at him, really looks at him for the first time since hunting him down, and registers the tattered edges of his usually immaculate control. "What happened in the meld that compromised you, too?"

Spock says nothing, his dark eyes steady, hands loose at his sides.

Jim is suddenly dry and gutted from all the anger and adrenaline. "Promise me we're doing the right thing. I want to hear you say it."

"The people aboard the Tat'sar owe their life to the Vulcan you know as Sarek and to Captain Senekot. Although their circumstances are less than ideal, they are not being coerced, abused or in any way maltreated."

"Damn you," Jim whispers intensely, "you better not be lying to me."

"Surely you would know."

Jim's split lip stretches into an uncomfortable smile as he concedes the point, remembering the observation deck and the way they'd bonded over truths and untruths. Only hours ago, he'd looked up from impossible odds to find that Spock was behind him, was reliable, and they'd walked away from that together, like it was meant to be. Suddenly, more than anything, he wants that feeling back. He needs a counterbalance to the memories and the secrecy, to make sense of the last twenty four hours, so he reaches out, grabs a handful of Spock's uniform and kisses him, hard.

Jim isn't really sure what prompts it, but he's always been self-destructive when he's angry. The moment holds for a split second, then Spock snaps an open palm into his chest, propelling him away to strike Nix's inner wall. He's suddenly breathless for all the wrong reasons. Spock's eyes are almost black as he closes the distance between them with two long strides, pinning him in place by the throat and squeezing just tightly enough to make Jim see stars.

As conflicted as he is, Jim is unsurprised to realize that it feels good, that the utter powerlessness is what he needs; some kind of surrender. He does trust Spock, trusts him with his life. The vulnerability is different to how he remembers; the pain doesn't feel like a betrayal. He knew it. With his breath coming in strained gasps, the blood drumming in his ears and his mind on the edge of unconsciousness, all he can think is yes, this!

Spock's grip falters as he senses it through his fingertips. Jim sucks in a deep breath around the slackening, his lips and cheeks tingling so hard it's like the slap of vacuum, like death and danger, like they always are together. As always, he feels most whole when he's slightly broken. "Come on," he rasps, and it's less of a plea and more of a challenge.

Spock stares at him with the same concentration he applies to every seemingly inexplicable occurrence, his brows acute, full lips set in a firm line. Finally his head falls and his focus shifts so that he's looking away and to the right. His hand follows suit, but not in the way Jim expects. With firm pressure, Spock's palm slides down, across his chest and away almost reluctantly. Using the wall to steady himself, he jumps from the shuttle and Jim is left with the rhythmic sound of his boots growing further away.

He lifts a hand to finger the redness that will soon turn to bruises, his eyes fixed on the opposite wall, panting from shock and asphyxiation and a deep seated physical need. His head falls back, too heavy to support any longer, until it hits the inner hull with a dull thud.

"Fuck," he whispers into the twisted interior.


-:-


The older Spock turns in the deserted transporter room, recognizing the cadence of his own feet, striking the deck in a rhythm that spells out his emotions more clearly than any cipher. His younger self regards him from the door, leaner and more exhausted than he can ever remember being at a similar age. The things he saw in that mind go a long way to explaining why this reality is so different from the others he has seen.

His Jim would have said something about wishing and fish.

"You have questions?"

His younger self nods. "I have many."

"You now know it is dangerous for me to answer them."

"James T. Kirk?"

"Ah."


-:-


Jim's never really been one for paperwork, so it's no wonder that Pike sends him a message on the third day to idly enquire why all his mission reports, statistics and projections are meticulously up to date. Jim mails him back with a few short lines about how Spock is rubbing off on him and tries not to let it conjure too many images. Seventy two hours since they warped out of the Nu'ri Ah'rak system and left the Tat'sar behind. He's managed to keep completely out of sight with no missions to run and Spock being closeted in vid-conferences with the Federation Council. It's been easier than Jim expected.

When he can't find any more legitimate work to do, he turns to the queue of personal messages in his inbox, meager though it is. He automatically skips over the one from his mother; it's a group comm designed to let any number of people know where she's currently posted. He'll read it later. Inevitably, his eyes come to rest on the latest missive from Sulu. It's highlighted red now, instead of the orange it'd been last week, indicating that his response is well overdue.

He's been in his quarters for so long that he does something he's never done before, and taps the screen for a direct connection, not even bothering to check where Sulu is posted or what time it might be. Fate smiles upon him and Sulu's surprised face floods his terminal.

"Jim? Is everything okay?"

"What does it say about me that I can't comm you without it being some kind of emergency?"

"That you suck at long distance relationships?"

"I told you before, I don't want your body."

"Say it with conviction and I might even believe you," Sulu grins. "Seriously, though, what's up?"

Jim rubs a hand in the back of his neck and slumps in his chair. "Oh, I don't know. So much of my life is classified now, it kind of kills the small talk."

"You mean Robicon."

"It makes sense that you heard."

"Pretty hard to keep that kind of thing quiet. Shit Jim, you couldn't have messaged to say you were alive?"

"I'm sorry," he mutters, breaking off eye contact to stare at the ceiling. "I didn't think."

"Believe it or not, that doesn't come as a surprise to me."

Jim rolls his eyes. "I'm beginning to be sorry I called."

"Asshole."

"My impulses seem to be getting me in trouble lately," he sighs.

"Not from what Pike tells me."

Jim frowns and sits up a little. "You two are always talking about each other. What did he do, bring you flowers while you were on medical leave?"

"He might have used the EPAS report to keep me from getting demoted," Sulu admits. "I owe him a lot."

"Mmn," Jim grouses noncommittally.

"So," Sulu says after a time. "You going to tell me why you called?"

Jim toys with the notion of just coming out and saying it. He allows himself to experience a shadow of the relief that would follow an admission that he'd disobeyed, sworn at and kissed his superior officer all within a matter of hours. He takes a good hard look at Sulu's face on the vidscreen and finds a tight smile. "No reason."

-:-

Ashe feels it when they drop out of warp. She holds the vibrations of this gallant old ship deep in her bones. She imagines that ten years could pass and the Stalwart's corridors would still feel like home. Clambering awkwardly onto her brand new crutches, she can see the peaceful curve of Gant's World through the viewport.

Her kit is packed, her belongings stowed for transport home. She's not going to need much in the way of personal effects where she's going. Besides, they'd only serve to remind her of everything she's leaving behind.

"Ashe?" McCoy clears his throat before continuing. He seems uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot. "Would you like me to walk you out?"

Her eyes fill with tears, but she knows she can't have that, not yet. "Meet me there instead?"

"Okay," he nods, understanding.

-:-

Jim takes a long, hot shower after he cuts the connection to Sulu. They're docked at Gant's orbital station, so the scrubbers can take the abuse. He needs the heat and the pounding of the water against his skin to combat the tension. He closes his eyes, tries to block out the memory of the shuttle going down, of impossibilities aboard the Tat'sar and the unexpected rightness of the second before Spock pushed him away.

It doesn't hurt quite enough when he punches the wall.


-:-


If she's completely honest with herself, Ashe can admit that she's wallowing a little. The important thing is not to look like she's wallowing, so she laughs aside all the offers of assistance, ignores the juddering uncoordination of crutches and the part of herself that wants to stay hidden away in rehab where nobody can see her. The rest of her remembers Sally Morrison and the countless others before her who weren't afforded the luxury of self pity, and that's enough to keep her moving.

She's been doing this long enough to realize that out here, the crew's solicitousness is motivated by fear. She's been there herself, staring at the walking wounded thinking 'thank fuck it isn't me.' She doesn't hate them for it, doesn't allow herself to fall into that trap. She's never been a victim, something she learned from Spock. She's absorbed that mental and physical fortitude but knows it comes at a price, has seen him pay it when the mask slips from time to time. It's let her cling to a sense of self.

It's surprising when the computer tells her she'll find the Commander in the aft hanger bay, checking off manifests and departures like some first year cadet. It throws her balance, making her stumble and catch herself on a pile of loosely stacked medical supplies. They go clattering to the deck, making him look up, and all she can think is that suddenly she doesn't want to do this now; she isn't ready.

Spock watches calmly, one eyebrow raised. "Lieutenant Commander."

"Sir."

"Doctor McCoy has released you from rehabilitation."

"As you see."

She scores an acquiescent nod for that piece of logic. "He failed to mention that fact during our morning briefing."

"He released me three days ago," she confesses. "Officially, I'm now on leave."

Spock knows her well enough after all this time to hear the unspoken clause. "Unofficially?"

"I'm not sure."

"I see."

They stare at each other a while, Spock having risen from his chair, one hand still clutching a manifest and Ashe in the middle of a scattered mess of hand sanitizer and disposable wipes. There are too many questions, inconsistencies so numerous that the strangeness of their circumstances is like a taste in the air. Both are where they shouldn't be, where they wouldn't be, but for what's brought them here.

"Jim's a good guy," she says, apropos of nothing, but it seems to fit the moment.

"Your permanent absence would be a significant loss to EPAS," Spock says carefully.

"And yet you'll manage."

"Of course," he agrees flatly, at his most controlled.

"I just don't think I can do this anymore."

For the first time during the conversation, Spock looks slightly discomfited. "If possible, I would request you take some time to reconsider this course of action. It is logical for the trauma and upheaval of recent events to have a negative impact on your emotional equilibrium."

"With all due respect, you wouldn't have the first clue about my emotional equilibrium."

He blinks. "This is, in all likelihood, quite true. However, my point still stands."

"I can't watch you nearly die again," Ashe says, her throat tight, "and I shouldn't have to."

His lips part, but he says nothing.

"Find someone else to do it," she spits, "someone who can care a little less than I do, or a little more." Ashe swallows painfully, knuckles white on the grips of her crutches. "This is the way it has to be, even though I love this job. It's all I ever wanted to do, everything I wanted to be. Nothing else will ever touch this, what I had here, what I'm leaving. I feel like shit for doing it, but I have to save a little of myself." She leans forward, lifts one hand to fist in the shirt over her heart, feels the bite of supports in her arms. "Do you understand what I'm saying? One more time and there might not be anything left."

Spock watches her for a long time, his angular face unreadable. As always, his blacks are as neatly pressed at the end of the day as they were at the dawn of it and Ashe knows she's going to ache for that sight and a million others like it for the rest of her life. More than anything he might have said, that makes her snap a salute, mutter something about appropriate paperwork and hobble for the exit without looking back.

She needs a drink and she needs to get off this ship.


-:-


Alone in the hangar bay, Spock sinks slowly back into his chair. When he places the manifest on the desk, it is perfectly aligned with the edge of the compiler and the data port, but that doesn't change the fact his hands are shaking.


-:-


Jim shrugs into his leather jacket the second they rematerialise. It's musty with months of disuse, the soft leather peaked at the shoulders from sitting on the hanger. No matter how he twists, it doesn't seem to fit right. He grabs hold of McCoy's shirt and starts walking.

"Didn't you have protocols to review with Spock?" the doctor demands, frowning impressively as he's towed through the crowded spaceport. "Explain to me again why you decided to take shore leave after all?"

"Spur of the moment decision."

"Did you even pack a bag? Dammit Jim, where are we going?"

"Don't care, doesn't matter," he returns businesslike, scanning the possible exits with narrowed eyes. "I'm not planning on needing a change of clothes."

"For the love of ... I'm supposed to meet someone!"

"Here, this way."

 

Chapter Text

Jim should have guessed there'd be few people better equipped to pretend something never happened than a Vulcan. When he makes it back onto the ship, tired and sore and in desperate need of a shower, he naturally runs into Spock in the turbolift. Their eyes meet, then part, and Jim takes his place with an awkward clearing of his throat.

"Deck five."

"I trust your shore leave was beneficial?"

Jim has to look at him then, to make sure he isn't joking, because he knows he looks like hell and smells like booze. "Uh, yeah. It was a dream."

Spock faces forward again and clasps his hands. Jim feels justified in staring a little. What he sees should reassure him, but the small amount of time he's spent sober in the last two days has given him perspective and Spock's impeccable neatness actually sets his teeth on edge: his posture is perfect, his hair a freak of nature, his face clear of the dark shadows under his eyes and tinged slightly with a healthy Vulcan green. He looks disgustingly rested and composed.

Still, if this is the line Spock wants to toe, he has to admit that things will be simpler this way. Like it or not, they're both officers, both bound to a chain of command, each required to serve to the best of their ability, and if the regs don't expressly forbid fraternization, they certainly don't encourage it. Ignoring the situation is not precisely logical, but it's certainly convenient.

The doors swish open and Jim steps quickly forward.

"Lieutenant."

"Commander."

Jim clings to the relief that Spock hasn't cited him or fired him, allowing himself to relax in the knowledge right up until he catches sight of the EPAS official report on Robicon IV sitting on his desk. It seems that Spock has completed it in his absence, submitted it to EPAS, and yes, had it returned with all the newly classified pieces of information conveniently blanked out. He lets his jacket fall to the floor in order to hold the PADD with both hands, scrolling with his thumbs as he speed reads through all the initial negotiations and finally reaches the portions that involve the Tat'sar. The majority of their findings have been censored to the point where they only make sense to Jim because he was there, for fuck's sake. Anyone else reading it would be doing well to piece together the fact that the ship was Vulcan, let alone who was on it and what their mission might be.

When he reaches the section covering Spock's testimony of the mindmeld, he actually double taps the screen to re-load it, in case the data is corrupted. When the text remains obscured, he's not quite sure whether to be angry or amused. Only the section heading and the threat assessment are declassified: "Vulcan Agent, Alias: Sarek ... Threat Assessment: Amber," he mutters to the silence in his quarters.

"Amber," he repeats, letting his hands fall, tapping the PADD against his thigh as he absorbs that information.

At the top of the priority filter on his comm account is a request for all intel he may possess on one Sarek of Vulcan, the one that isn't Spock's dad. He's to present his report in person to Pike during their brief shore leave on Earth. Jim is not surprised.


-:-


"What happened on Gant's World?" Sulu probes with a slight smile from the screen. "You've been different. You meet a girl?"

Jim hides his face behind his glass and takes a long swallow of Scotty's hooch. "Several, in fact."

"Why am I not surprised?"

"Because I've learned to live down to your expectations."

Sulu laughs at that, but it has a bitter edge to it. "Shit, Jim, you know you shouldn't be proud of that, right?"

"So everyone tells me."

"Come on, what's her name?"

He shakes his head, rolling his tongue against his teeth to purge the fiery aftertaste of the liquor. "There's no girl, Hikaru."

"Fine, don't tell me." Sulu puts on his best frown, but there's a hint of real worry behind it. "Are they going to give you some real shore leave soon? Something closer to home? Two days in over a year, it's not enough."

He shrugs and toys with the glass on the desktop, watching the prisms it makes in the overhead light. "I don't know. Operational necessity and all that. If you guys keep fighting all the time, I can't have a vacation. Feeling guilty yet?"

"Talk to Nero."

"Just give me the chance," Jim sighs. "I bet we'd become fast friends. We could trade stories about our destructive tendencies while we braid each other's hair."

"You're seriously deranged."

"I know."

"Just don't leave it so long between comms, okay?" Sulu shifts uneasily in his seat, lightyears away. "I'm getting a new ship soon, so I might just see you out there."

Jim glances up from playing with his tumbler. "I pray you don't. What ship are they giving you?"

"No idea," Sulu shrugs.

He's lying, but Jim lets it pass.

-:-

"Scotty?"

"Aye, Lieutenant?" the engineer looks up from the impressive tangle of wires in his hands. "What can I do for you?"

"It's more what I can do for you," Jim counters, feeling the smile on his face as though it's new and dangerous. "You know that organic warp matrix you've been rambling about?"

"How can I forget it?" Scotty looks wounded. "Having you check my calculations cost me two bottles of fine single malt!"

"You've got approval."

His pale blue eyes go saucer-round. "You're not serious?"

Jim hands over the PADD with Spock's authorization plain to see.

"Oh!" Scotty exclaims, clutching it with both hands, the wiring abruptly forgotten. "Oh!"

"Calm down, it's only a trial."

"I can have it up and running in four hours, sir!"

"Take your time," Jim advises, turning to leave. "Just make sure it works!" The smile slips from his face in the corridor; before Robicon, Spock had started to give news like that in person rather than having an ensign leave it on Jim's desk.


-:-


His mind should be focused on the Klingons and Romulans swarming over Deep Space Two, but Jim knows there's trouble the second Hannity leaps out of Nix. She's got her visor up and one hand pressed over her face as she runs for the changing rooms. Lioli makes an abortive grab at her EVA suit, but Hannity twists away, blood trickling out from behind her fingers.

"Spock?" He asks for permission even though he's already moving.

"Five minutes."

He crosses the deck at a dead run, ignoring the yellow safety lines, hoping that Spock is too busy getting handover from Lioli to notice. He bounces off several other female crew as he ducks into the women's changing rooms, muttering apologies to their startled shouts. Several stalls are occupied, but only one is marked by a trail of crimson splashes.

"Annie!" he shouts, pounding on the door.

"Go away!"

"Come on, don't do this," he pleads, fists resting against the partition. "I've only got a minute."

"Go away, Jim!"

"You don't want that," he says more softly, letting his head rest beside his hands. "You know you don't."

The door opens so abruptly that Jim almost falls in. Hannity hits him in the chest, a bloody ball of incoherent apology that he does his best to stabilize. They careen into one of the walls, tripping over the shower recess before he manages to brace his feet and get a handle on the situation.

"Whoa," he hushes her, pushing her visor further back, stripping off the membrane underneath to get a better look at her face.

She stares up at him through the tears and the blood, sniffing and coughing and clutching at his blacks. "I didn't clip in properly. How many times do they tell you in Basic, always check your line? How many times, and I still forgot."

Jim winces and lightly grips the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. "You want it back in or you want Chapel to do it?"

"You do it," she coughs.

With the ease of long practice, Jim braces her with a hand to the back of her head and gives a sharp twist. To Hannity's credit, she doesn't even squeak, just lifts an arm to wipe her lips clean and spits into the shower.

It's then that Uhura comes muscling in, hands on her hips and a look on her face that is all about Jim being an idiot, but it fades as soon as she takes in the scene. "I'll do pre-flight with Lioli," she offers, hand raised to stall him, already backing away. "Take as long as you can."

"Yeah," Jim nods, "thanks Uhura."

The change rooms are full of women, all belonging to different EPAS specialities, but given the degree of privacy they're offered, Jim and Hannity might as well be alone. The surrounding voices are pitched normally and steam rises from the showers either side of them, but not a single eye is turned their way. It's at that moment, sitting on the floor with their booted ankles touching, that the Stalwart starts to feel like home again.

-:-

Christopher Pike takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, arms crossed and glaring through the screen. "Why not?"

"Because I haven't been there in years," Jim insists. "It's too quiet, it's boring, there's nothing there for me anymore and oh, have I mentioned it's boring?"

"You can't hide from that town forever," Pike lectures, using what Jim likes to think of as his fatherly tone.

"I'm not hiding, I'm spurning." Jim offers his most outrageous grin. "With the whole universe at my disposal, why the hell would I take shore leave in Riverside?"

"Because your mother is going to be there, Jessica and I are going to be there, hell, even Sam is talking about jumping a freighter and heading home for a week." Pike punctuates this minor miracle with a finger planted in his desk. "When was the last time you saw Sam? Do you even know he's engaged now? What's it going to look like if everyone's there except for you?"

Jim raises both eyebrows innocently. "That none of you listened to a word I said?"

"Jim!"

"Listen, Admiral," Jim sighs, he's just about out of patience with this conversation and it shows. "I've got ninety four refugees aboard from Deep Space Two and I'd really like to know when they're going. With things as they stand, we'll have to start doubling up quarters if Nero pulls another Leridia on us, and you know he will. Things are just too tasty and chaotic along the boarder of Klingon space for him to resist bisecting the fleet with a bit of a skirmish."

"That's what the Admirality figures, too." Pike has a dangerous glint in his eye but seems to let the homecoming drop. "They predict something major within the next five days, the trouble is deciding where he's going to commit his main fleet. It could be the Robicon System, it could be Khitomer."

"Ql'tomer," Jim corrects his pronunciation without thinking.

"Klingon," Pike grimaces. "Always makes you sound like you're choking on something."

"You really believe Nero is stupid enough to engage an enemy on two fronts when he's this close to Earth?" Jim lays his PADD on the desk and leans forward, elbows perched on his knees. "We all know that's where he's headed, as much as the President tries to assure us it's not."

"Give Wescott a chance," Pike growls. "This is his first term. It's hard to win trust in this climate."

"Climate?" Jim laughs. "It's less of a climate and more of a natural disaster, wouldn't you say?"

"The President is doing his best to avoid panic."

"Yeah, and great help that's going to be when Nero shows up and leaves a nice, quiet singularity where you're planning my birthday party."

The two men stare at each other, each angry for different reasons.

"Jim, just come home for a week."

"Can you guarantee it's going to be there if I do?"

"Dammit, I'm serious!"

"So am I," and he suddenly is, all traces of light-heartedness banished. "Sir, I need to get these refugees off the Stalwart and back into Federation space. It's not safe for them here, and it's not safe for us having them on board. You know the only thing stopping Nero from blowing EPAS out of the sky is the fact that we keep our complement down. We've got nothing he wants, not tech, not weapons, not casualties or hostages. Now, tell me where you want to set up a rendezvous. What kind of transports have we got in the quadrant?"

The muscles in Pike's jaw bunch and relax, but he smooths his hands over his desk and nods. "I've got a retrofitted cargo ship about two parsecs from your current position. It shouldn't be too much of a detour on your way to Khitomer." He doesn't even try to replicate the correct consonants.

Jim pulls up a star chart on his terminal and makes note of the coordinates Pike sends through. The astrogation program automatically picks up on the cargo ship's designation, haloing it with a pale blue cross-hair and circle. "Okay, but there's some scattered Romulan activity in our most direct flight path."

Pike leans forward. "I haven't heard about that."

"No reason why you should; it's not Nero," Jim shrugs, "just some opportunistic clan or another playing pirate, making a little trouble. I'll speak to Spock, see what he says."

"What's the delay, if you plot around?"

Jim sucks his teeth as he does a few quick calculations. "Factoring in the forty eight hour stop-over on Earth, I don't know, maybe eighteen hours? I'll need Ops to take a look."

"We really need you on the Klingon border before then."

"Know something I don't?" Jim lifts his eyes from his screen.

"Rumblings and rumors," Pike assures him, but something about the guardedness in his eyes puts Jim's teeth on edge.

"We could go straight through the middle of them if we were fast enough," he says quietly. "Do you know about our resident mad scientist and his warp engine experiment?"

"Spock sent me a brief," Pike says. "I haven't read it."

"Small-scale testing shows a predicted increase in warp speed to nearly Vulcan levels if we implement it across one hundred percent of both nacelles."

"What does Captain Taylor think of all this?"

Jim tries to make his smile less patronizing. "He's cautiously optimistic."

"I'll lean on him when you dock at Luna."

"Thank you, sir."

"Oh, and Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"You're getting your next shore leave on Earth whether you like it or not, so man up and call your mother."

Jim stabs his finger on the comm switch so hard that the terminal buzzes a warning even as it cuts the connection.

-:-

Jim dumps his kit on the bench next to Spock's then sighs heavily. The deployment at Deep Space Two had left him with a lot of cleaning up to do. With Ql'tomer looming on the horizon, everything warrants an overhaul. A Point's kit is their own responsibility, just as much as every Pilot oversees all maintenance or tech work undertaken on their medevac shuttle. At the end of the day, the buck stops with whoever needs to rely on the technology in question.

After about six months, most Points are well over the drudgery of the task. The concept of anyone else maintaining Jim's kit elicits a response as near to paranoia as makes no difference. 'My bad' is not a phrase you want to hear over the comms.

Spock pauses in his own work to look up. "I anticipate I will require use of the polymer extruder for a further fifteen minutes. Will that inconvenience you?"

"No," Jim shakes his head and starts sorting through the mess. "I've got plenty more to do."

Spock turns back to the small transponder in his hands, the one that is supposedly next to indestructible. It's currently in three pieces.

"Nice one," Jim drawls. "What happened?"

"Disruptor fire coupled with an impact of approximately nine hundred and eighty newtons caused the shatterproof casing to...shatter."

"How'd you get hit with something weighing one hundred kilograms? I don't remember seeing that." Jim is slightly awestruck. "And why aren't you, you know, crushed?"

"I was not struck by any external force," Spock explains, placing the inner components of the device carefully on the bordered workspace before him. "Vulcan physiology has a higher density than that of humans. It was my own mass that caused the damage to the transponder."

A slow grin spreads across Jim's face. "You fell on your transponder?"

"I did not fall," Spock shoots him a vaguely irritated look. "I believe I mentioned that armed Romulans were involved."

Jim smiles to himself, because the pissiness is Spock's way of relaxing the strict politeness between them. "Uh-huh."

"Pass the hydraulic aspirator."

Jim smiles wider, but obediently hands it over. Spock gives an exhalation that for anyone else would have been unimportant but for him constitutes a sigh. Jim turns back to his kit, amusement lingering at the corners of his mouth. Truth be told, he loves kit hours. There's something almost meditative about taking everything apart, testing it, cleaning it and putting it back together again. It's a small piece of consistency in an otherwise chaotic lifestyle; a soothing routine amongst the unpredictability. Plus, it means he gets to hang out with Spock when they're not risking their lives, which will be good for smoothing things over.

The situation makes Jim feel a little guilty because of how much he likes being part of Nix Alpha; he's only there because Ashe got hurt. He could easily get demoted or more likely transferred when she comes back. Even with that, today he couldn't tamp down the spring in his step on the way to the lab, or the warmth in his gut when he saw Spock there, sleeves rolled to the elbow, smeared with lubricant and grime. Given his completely inappropriate behavior and the subsequent strangling, there should be more awkwardness between them, but it seems to be easing through simple proximity. They just get each other, and Jim hasn't had that before. Maybe Spock actually understands why he did it, why the very insanity of that kiss made sense at the time.

Turning back to his work, he grimaces, pressing repeatedly and ineffectually at the release points on his EVA suit's life support module. When the cover remains stubbornly closed after his fifth attempt, Jim curses and mutters something about there being times he'd rather just throw the whole thing into a damn cycler and get a new one. The thin, pointed tools designed for opening the CPU are sliding all over the place, utterly failing to grip where he needs them to.

Spock's fingers appear out of nowhere, lifting the module out of his hands and laying it in the gap between their work spaces. "Here," he says, head bent, eyes focused intently. "Allow me to demonstrate."

Jim tucks his hands under his arms and watches as Spock uses the index and ring fingers of both hands to depress the safety releases whilst simultaneously lifting the then exposed chip with his neatly trimmed thumbnails. He lets the whole thing fall back into place once he's demonstrated the technique and slides it back across the bench.

"I believe you will find that more expedient than attempting to utilize tools."

Jim attempts to mimic the maneuver. After a couple of failed attempts, one of which results in the module skittering so far across the desk that Spock has to retrieve it, he succeeds with his bare hands.

"Neat," he nods, turning the chip over in his palm, "they should teach it in Basic."

Spock's eyebrows lift marginally. "I shall mention it to Admiral Pike in my next report."

"Tell him about that thing you showed me on DS2, as well," he nods at his kit, reminding Spock of their recent close shave. "The one about the visor quick-release."

"Surely it is not necessary for that to be curriculum?" Spock frowns. "It is a thoroughly logical to approach to that particular scenario."

"I could have asphyxiated," Jim reminds him. "You had to point it out to me."

"You are a particularly illogical being."

Jim's mouth falls open, but then he catches the barest hint of an expression on Spock's face. It's not a smile, but the corners of his eyes have crinkled slightly with warmth. Seeing it feels a lot like relief. "Bastard," he says without feeling. "Seriously, tell Pike though."

"If you truly believe it is necessary, then I shall do so."

"Tell him he's a horse's ass, from me, while you're at it."

There is a pregnant pause and from the corner of his eye, he can see Spock's hands have frozen in place.

"I trust I do not need to inform you that I shall do no such thing."

"I'll do it myself," Jim grumps. His amusement at the idea of Spock actually saying that to Pike's face is warring with the genuine irritation he feels recalling the conversation about Riverside. "Except I'll make it less polite," he glances to his right, "by using more adjectives."

Spock's hands start moving again, smoothing the hot polymer over the weak patches in the seams of his suit. "What is the source of your displeasure?"

"He meddled," Jim mutters, blowing on his life support CPU to clean it and ignores the way Spock winces. "Because he's a meddling meddler."

"That is particularly opaque, even for you."

"Mmm," Jim agrees, not entirely sure he wants to explain the conversation to anybody.

A few minutes pass while they continue to work, shoulder to shoulder. The chrono above the bench ticks the seconds away carelessly. Spock places his suit in the booth to cure and turns to his heavily scratched and dented visor.

"I do not wish to belabor an issue you find discomfiting," he says, never taking his eyes from the density scanner he's using to assess the aluminium's integrity. "However, should you wish to discuss the cause of your dissatisfaction with the Admiral, I assure you that I will not have any difficulty maintaining confidentiality on your behalf."

Jim looks up.

Spock continues speaking conversationally. "Admiral Pike and I served together for many years. I was his Point One. I do not wish you to believe that this history, the understanding between he and I has any bearing on our own working relationship." Spock pauses, turns to face Jim more fully. "You are my Point One, a circumstance I do not take lightly. If you choose to unburden yourself of this concern, it will be held in confidence."

Jim has to look down at his workspace again, his face burning, his throat tight. He can remember when Pike first came to visit them in Iowa with tales of a rookie Vulcan recruit who was going to be just brilliant, one in a million, one of a kind. Pike doesn't enthuse like that about just anyone, and with the few casual anecdotes that followed, Jim had assumed a deep bond of friendship between the two men. It had never even occurred to him that he could have that, too, or that Spock might place him above such history. He's grateful and it scares him.

"Well, thanks," he manages finally, in a voice not quite his own. "I appreciate it."

"Your thanks are not necessary." Spock turns back to his scanner, which bleeps and flashes red.

Jim peers over his shoulder at the reading. "I think you need a new one of those."

"The scanner is perfectly functional," Spock deadpans.

"You think you're so funny."

-:-


"How the fuck did we get in the middle of this?" Jim wonders aloud, keeping his miniature phaser levelled and backing slowly in Spock's direction until their shoulders bump, each facing off one end of the abandoned freighter's corridor.

"I do not know."

Spock's voice is a mix of irritation and irony. It draws a laugh out of him even now, at this highly inappropriate moment. Several Romulan soldiers inch closer, their disruptors aimed point blank at the EPAS officers' heads. The weapons are everything the EPAS phasers are not: large, weighty and suitably deadly. The most he and Spock can manage is a heavy stun.

"Thoughts, Commander?" Jim mutters, his eyes flicking along each of the five Romulans slowly inching down his end of the corridor. At the back of his mind, he's quietly grateful the evac is complete. Having civilians caught up in the middle of a firefight creates too many variables.

"Direct confrontation would seem inadvisable."

"Yeah, I'd got that far on my own."

Spock's back shifts lightly against his own as the Vulcan turns from side to side, taking a quick inventory of their surrounds. "Lieutenant Kirk, are you familiar with the pre-warp era human strategist by the name of Sun Tzu?"

"What? No. Why?"

"This deficit in your education is most inconvenient."

Jim whips around to stare at Spock, keeping one arm outstretched, the phaser still pointed at the lead Romulan. "You seriously want to talk about my major? Now?"

"Much has changed since the time of Sun Tzu; however, many of his observations remain pertinent to this day."

"I had no idea you were such an avid historian." It comes out snarky as hell.

"He is quoted as saying, 'what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy,'" Spock continues calmly.

"Sign me up." Jim grimaces as the Romulans draw even closer.

"I confess to having read a copy that belongs to you. It was the day you told me to go to hell and left me behind at the ice-creamery."

Jim takes a moment to process that, partially due to the unusual emphasis and inflection in Spock's voice, but mostly because it makes no sense at all. Then suddenly it does.

After some frantic thinking Jim offers, "you can go right on pretending I know what you're talking about," and hopes like hell that none of the Romulans speak Standard well enough to recognise the stresses he's putting in unexpected places.

"I am not certain you are capable of lowering yourself to appreciate the gravity of the situation."

That last one would have been funny under other circumstances, because this code they're using is making Spock sound incredibly bitchy. Jim's eyes dart towards the panel to the right; environmental controls. Then he notices the transparent aluminium windows to his left. Spock can only mean one thing. The Romulans are close enough now that hand to hand combat is imminent.

They trade a glance.

On some unspoken cue, they break for each side of the corridor. Jim gets off two shots into the roof, sending a cascade of sparks showering down and plunging them into flickering chaos. His next two shots are for the window. It groans and splinters under the resonant frequency of close-range heavy stun. Behind him, he can hear the incredible clatter of Spock's fingers on the keys as he disengages artificial gravity faster than humanly possible. Jim gets off one more shot into the window, but then his phaser, never meant for this kind of action, is fully discharged and useless.

The Romulans are returning fire, but it's going wide because the recoil from their disruptors is sending them floating off the deck and spinning them like marionettes with their strings cut.

Spock puts his boots against the wall and propels himself across the corridor. He tucks his knees to his chest, minimizing his profile amongst the hail of fire that comes his way. Jim's magnetic boots anchor him to the hull, give him the leverage needed to bring his otherwise useless phaser down butt-first against the weakened aluminium. It cracks further, groaning ominously, and then there's the hiss of escaping atmosphere.

In the end, all it takes is Spock's momentum to shatter it, and they're all sucked out into space in a rush and tumble, magnetic boots be damned.

Still, Kirk has to admit that wrapped in the life-preserving bubble of their EVA suits, he and Spock have a distinct advantage over the Romulans who don't even get off a scream before they're snap-frozen.

"Hey," he says casually as Spock jets neatly over and clips them together.

"Greetings."

Jim cracks the cover on his emergency beacon and watches it start to blink happily. "Fancy meeting you here."

Through the polarized visor, Spock's eyebrow shoots up.

Jim's laughter is tinny through the comm.

-:-

"Kirk!"

Jim turns his head, trying not to get jostled in the post-briefing crowd. He knows the voice, but McCoy is not yet visible. His arms are stacked with PADDs; it's going to be a long day of collating the quarterly statistics for Prime Division's Occupational Health and Safety Report to Luna. Given what went down at Deep Space Two and the near-constant skirmishing across the Romulan Neutral Zone, he's anticipating quite a few people will need long rotations out of field positions. He's notified Pike, and with any luck, there will be a reply on his terminal when he makes it back to his quarters. He feels like he's owed it, given how Pike keeps going on about his mother.

The crew file past him with a few salutes and a couple of greetings which he returns distractedly. He has a feeling he knows what's coming, but that doesn't mean he's looking forward to it. Bones has been hounding him for a heart to heart ever since Gant's World. Finally, the doctor's side-part and his mildly irritated scowl come into view.

"What did you do, bolt for the door like a first year Cadet the minute Spock said 'class dismissed'?" McCoy grabs him by the elbow, nearly unseating his load. "We need to talk and I need coffee."

"Okay, but I'm a busy man," he nods at the PADDs.

McCoy frowns at them and shakes his head. "You're a genius, make time."

"I've got a comm queue the length of the ship."

"That's a lousy excuse."

Jim bows to the inevitable and allows himself to be led into McCoy's office. The spare chair takes his workload while McCoy replicates them two mugs, Jim's with milk and sugar.

"Right," Jim sighs when he's seated, one ankle crossed over the other knee. "Lay it on me."

As always, his blase approach rankles McCoy, who waggles a finger in the space between them. "You were out of control on shore leave. I was worried about you."

"One bar crawl doesn't mean ..."

"One bar crawl that lasts two days can mean a lot of things," McCoy objects. "I've been wanting to drag you in here all week and find out what the hell that was all about, but between the Romulans and the Klingons there hasn't been a chance."

"You've got nothing to worry about."

"Has that line ever worked on anybody?" he demands. "Ever?"

"Bones, I had a bad day," Jim spreads his free hand for emphasis, "that's all."

"Bad day my ass," he scoffs. "You don't hijack a man's first shore leave in twelve months and pretend like nothing happened. A bad day for you is when the replicator spontaneously forgets how to make bacon; it isn't giving yourself alcohol poisoning and propositioning the entire population of an orbital space station."

"I'm pretty sure I explained while we were there," Jim frowns, "at the second place we were at, or the third."

McCoy sets his mug on the desk with a thunk. "If you mean the part where you claimed you were raised by wolves on a corn plantation while your mother secretly ran the Federation, but you'd ruined it all by not being able to travel through time and by falling in love with Spock, then yeah," he glares furiously. "You explained it just fine!"

Jim blushes then and hopes to hell McCoy assumes it's for the right reason. He thought he'd dreamed the bit about time travel.

"And I worry about you for a week," the doctor continues, "then you waltz in here without a care in the world." He throws up his hands. "I don't even know what to think."

"I'm just," he pulls a wordless face at his coffee, "working through a few things, I guess."

McCoy raises his eyebrows. "You've never worked through anything in your life."

"Oh, that's flattering."

"You're sublimating, aren't you?"

"Let it go, Bones."

"Is it Ashe?" he presses. "Did she tell you she was going to resign?"

Jim stills, the coffee mug perched precariously on his knee. When he looks up, his eyes are hard and steady. "Ashe's not coming back?"

McCoy runs a hand down his face. "Oh, hell."

"I've got somewhere to be," he mutters, setting the mug down so hard it slops over the sides. "Thanks for the chat."

"Yeah," the doctor sighs weakly. "Any time."

Jim hardly even hears, just keeps walking, knowing he needs motion, needs movement. Inevitably, he finds himself on the observation deck. It's small and out-dated compared to the new floor-to-ceiling areas being fitted to newer Constellation class ships. Still, the stars flash past with the same familiar light trails and it's enough.

With a guilty flash, he realises that they didn't even say goodbye, he and Ashe, not properly. Of course, why would he make a point of it, given he'd believed she'd come back? How stupid he'd been, how naive. It seemed obvious now, so blatantly ridiculous to imagine Ashe serving out another ten or twenty years in EPAS in Ops or behind a desk on Luna. Ashe was a Point. Not even nerve damage could change that.

"Lieutenant?"

Spock's voice actually makes him jump, but he turns, outwardly composed. "Commander?"

"Are the Occupational Health and Safety Reports are troubling you? We are due to arrive on schedule at Earth and are required to file them prior to our arrival."

"Troubling me? No," he shakes his head. "No, they're not."

Spock nods to himself, taking a few more steps, bringing himself alongside to stare out at the stars. "Do you require assistance? I am engaged in nothing that can not be postponed."

"I was just thinking about Ashe," Jim says, reminding himself that being direct is never a bad thing when dealing with Vulcans.

"Gant's World can provide the best chance for her full recovery," Spock reminds him without missing a beat, as though they've always been talking about Ashe, like the conversation is plucked right out of Jim's unconscious mind.

"I know she's not coming back," he reveals, figuring that if Bones knows, Spock would have to, because Ashe isn't an asshole like that.

Right then is when Spock stiffens. It's not so much a flinch as an absence of a flinch, of all movement not necessary to life. Air still passes between his lips, his ribcage still expands and deflates, but only because it would be illogical to do otherwise, Jim is certain. It's as clear as day that Spock has been deeply affected by Ashe's decision, perhaps even more deeply than Jim himself, and hell, he and Ashe used to fuck, so that was saying something.

"The loss of her expertise will reduce our overall efficiency," Spock says finally, his lips the only animated thing about him.

Control, Jim thinks. That's some incredible control, right there. "I'm going to miss her, too," he says, instead.

Spock's head turns, but he ends up looking at the carpet near Jim's feet instead. "I had assumed you would remain in contact."

"Right," he nods, because why wouldn't Spock know they'd been an item, he knew just about everything else that went on within the Stalwart's hull. "We're not like that," he explains, attempting to clarify a brand of relationship that must be fairly foreign to a Vulcan. "She doesn't want that from me."

"And you, Jim?" Spock asks intently. "What are your...feelings on the matter?"

"I wish I'd known she was leaving," he admits instantly, "but only because I feel like a dick for not saying goodbye properly. That's an asshole move, regardless of the circumstances, and I'm going to have to think of a way to make it up to her." He chews his bottom lip and looks back out at the passing space. "Mostly I feel like I have to trust that she's doing the right thing, that she's thought this through."

"I have reason to believe that it was not an impulsive choice."

"Did she tell you why?" he feels compelled to ask. "Can you explain it to me?"

Spock glares at the star trails as though they are to blame. "Not adequately."

"The worst part is that I'm relieved," Jim admits, searching Spock's face for the emotions he expects to find hidden there; pity, dismissal, perhaps even a little disgust. "I was just waiting for the moment when I said or did the wrong thing and made her feel like a cripple."

"Lieutenant Ho is crippled," Spock says, as though Jim is suffering from delusions.

"Yeah, but it's different when you see it." He swallows, throat suddenly dry. "You can be a thing, but it doesn't have any power over you until you realise that's who you'll always be when other people look at you."

The silence is suddenly charged, and Jim wishes like hell he'd remembered to keep talking about Ashe rather than letting his fucking human empathy run riot down the paths of memory lane. The slight, fleeting pressure of Spock's hand on his shoulder is enough to halt that train of self-recrimination instantaneously.

"Defining oneself through others is both unwise and self-destructive," Spock tells him quietly. "I believe Lieutenant Ho's decision to resign her commission reflects a thorough comprehension of this principle. You would benefit from her example." He pauses, dark eyes measuring. "As would I."

Without any further explanation, Spock inclines his head, turns, and walks unhurriedly out of the Observation Deck. Jim is still staring after him when a nervous ensign from Medical arrives with her arms full of the PADDs he'd abandoned in McCoy's office.

 

 

Chapter Text

"Unless you want some time to yourself, ask Jim to lend you a hand on this one," Pike says, with the slight tightness to his expression that makes Spock realize the request is important.

"I do not see the virtue of shore leave if said leave is not spent in recreation," Spock objects. He knows how stressed Jim has been since the Robicon debacle and can not fathom why Pike would want him embroiled in the lengthy Council debates that will arise in the aftermath of their report. This communication was meant to be a simple task briefing, and Spock is not prepared for Pike to intervene in the manner Jim so often accuses him of doing.

"You're not planning to spend two days cultivating a tan on a California beach, why should Jim be any different?"

"Because he is human," Spock answers quickly, "because humans benefit from occupying themselves with trivialities and unproductive behaviors as a means of maintaining their emotional equilibrium."

"Yes, thanks for that," Pike nods, looking exasperated. "I've been a human for a while now, I'm familiar with the concept of a vacation."

"You are unusually facetious today," Spock feels obliged to comment.

Pike actually grins at him. "And you're unusually opinionated. Jim's been good for you, which makes me feel even worse about the situation I've put him in. Now do as I say and ask him."

"And what will his role be in proceedings, should I ask and he accept?" Spock steeples his fingers on the desk in an attempt to leash his frustration. "I cannot request that he relinquish his brief shore leave only to provide no logical alternative for his time."

"He's Divisional Point One," Pike shrugs, "and he's smart. I'm sure you'll find something. Pike out."

Spock allows himself a brief grimace. He does not understand the Admiral's request, but will naturally oblige him in this, as with so much else. Pike has not yet been wrong about James Kirk; if he believes the Lieutenant will benefit from spending this short break preparing for and attending tedious Council meetings, then Spock does not feel sufficiently qualified in the lore of human behavior to question it. That does not mean he finds the situation logical. In the slightest.

If he is completely honest with himself, a state he aspires to at all times, he can admit that a degree of his reluctance is attributable to the as yet unresolved tension between them. Since Gant's World, they have proven their ability to remain a professionally functional team; however, Spock would need to be both psi null and particularly obtuse to be unaware of the relentless swell of empathy between them. He has never experienced it with another, this instinctive camaraderie. The closest parallel he could draw would be the all encompassing acceptance he always sensed from his mother, except that Jim never makes him feels safe in the way that she did; he never feels the same certainty.

He stands, tugs on his uniform to straighten it, and contemplates the surface of his desk for a handful of seconds. His internal timekeeping tells him that the official handover between Alpha and Beta teams has occurred. He is officially off duty for eight hours, but his body does not require sleep tonight and his mind restlessly seeks something to occupy it. Rebelliously, Spock shuns the PADD containing Engineer Scott's latest results from the organic warp matrix experiment and crosses to his small wardrobe. His hand hesitates over the EVA suit he normally wears when running; a logical training approach designed to simulate deployment conditions. Instead, he selects the little-worn EPAS casual tee and tracksuit. Prime Division is circuitously en route to Ql'tomer, a temperate Klingon border world with many sub-arctic zones. It is logical to acclimatize.

He will not allow his subconscious to dictate his daily routine. Exercise is a more logical use of his body's energy and will provide him with an opportunity to enter a light state of meditation as a precursor to the deeper one that will substitute for sleep. His mother had referred to this habit as 'wool-gathering,' a human expression that he finds nonsensical to this day. However, he cannot deny that unlike other Vulcans, his mind benefits from this informal practice. He often finds solutions to stubborn practical problems or answers to complicated social questions in the borderland between his conscious and unconscious mind.

The gym is practically deserted at the dinner/breakfast hour that marks shift changeover. Spock disdains his usual environmental booth, finding the ship's uncomfortably low ambient temperature sufficient challenge without his usual thermal under-layer. He sets a steady speed on the treadmill and begins to run, feet striking the shock-absorbing surface in steady rhythm, his stride-length practiced and familiar.

After nine point four minutes, he feels his internal temperature rise to comfortable levels and allows his mind to relax into a less disciplined state. Instantly, he is overwhelmed by emotional stimuli; the chill on his skin, the growing burn in his muscles, the tension that sits between his shoulder blades like a fist. The cool air drags at his throat uncomfortably, leaving behind a coppery tang of stressed capillaries. With conscious effort, he relaxes his throat, draws more air into his body, assesses the workload required by his current pace and orders himself to adjust to the demand. Within forty seconds, the taste disappears and the discomfort of temperature barely registers. Spock rolls his neck, releasing a dull collection of cracks, and increases his speed by point five of a click per hour.

His mind sinks deeper into practiced internal layers, coming to rest at the third circle, somewhere between true meditation and simple relaxation. This internal landscape has been witness to several momentous decisions in his life; the choices seemingly plucked from the ether with a human romanticism he would never admit to in any other conscious state. Alone on the slopes of Mount Seleya, the towering guardian of Shi'Khar on Vulcan-that-was, he had drifted in and out of this mental place for hours at a time, seeking the internal fulcrum that allows all Vulcans control of emotion. His solution, though effective, was thoroughly alien to his teachers. Spock has never truly suppressed emotion in his life, he merely channels it into less destructive pathways.

As though the recollection is a trigger, his chest tightens and his eyes burn with confusion and loss.

Ashe.

Spock rests in the place where the emotions of her leaving have been waiting for him. He opens them up, like a box in storage, a mysterious package without an inventory, with no clues to signify the depth or breadth of intensity he might find within. The sadness is one thing he expects, rendering it simple to acknowledge and dismiss. Ashe has been a competent and innovative Point One, and moreover, they have become reasonably close. Of the people who surround him, Spock can count only a few he could even consider as friends. Ashe had been one. It is logical feel sadness. Spock cradles the feeling, allows himself to fully experience it, then releases it to disappear like smoke on the wind.

The next emotion that arises is unexpected in many ways. It is difficult to define, being so interlaced with other, lesser feelings, but when he stumbles upon the correct interpretation it is such a revelation that he is snapped out of his meditative state and back to the conscious world with a ferocity that makes him reach out and grab the guard rail until he finds his feet again.

Guilt. Deep, overwhelming guilt and a sense of responsibility.

Ashe had been injured protecting him. There had been no operational imperative that demanded her actions, no threat to EPAS, the evacuees, or the Stalwart. Put simply, the only possible gain had been avoiding injury to Spock himself. Despite his higher body mass, stronger bone matrix, faster reaction time and heightened healing ability, Ashe had interceded on his behalf. The time-frame had been insufficient to allow proper human deliberation; her actions had been instinct, likely motivated by emotion.

He recalls their conversation in the shuttle bay, her vehemence and her blazing human feeling; detectable without physical contact, battering at his mental shields like closed fists, demanding acknowledgment. Her confession ... could he truly say, without doubt, that he had not suspected her feelings?

"Computer," he manages, breathlessly. "Cease program."

The treadmill and he slow together, his hands firmly braced on the rails, breathing labored, skin tingling with cold even as his muscles burn with exertion. The machine comes to a stop, but he does not move, cannot possibly move at that moment.

"Hey, Spock."

Jim's voice startles him. He looks up, grapples with his control, with his mental barriers, but not before he senses the quickly suppressed concern from his Point One. "Lieutenant Kirk?"

"If you're done here, I thought we might ..."

Jim gestures vaguely in the direction of the rec room with one hand. Spock glances in the direction indicated, as though doing so might yield an explanation. It does not. "Clarify," he requests.

"You, me," Jim explains succinctly, "chess."

"Chess?"

"Someone said you play."

Spock opens his mouth and closes it again. How to explain that the thought of being surrounded by his mostly human crew, by their thoughts and their demonstrative natures, leaves him unsettled. He pictures attempting to focus in that environment and is rewarded with a sensation of instant distaste. His own emotions need leashing. He needs the time to center himself.

"I must decline."

Jim tilts his head, eyes suddenly calculating. "There are also those reports from Scotty; he told me he filed them his morning. We could go over them together and then," he shrugs at the folded board under his arm, "if there's time after that."

Without knowing why, Spock nods. "Very well."


-:-


Something's bothering Spock, Jim can tell. First, there was that whole running without an EVA suit, which Spock never does, and now he's nodding over Scotty's report as though he's interested, but not offering any of the pointed observations Jim has come to expect. Spock's hair is damp and slightly wavy from his shower, but his blacks are immaculately pressed. Something about the dichotomy has deeper meaning, but Jim can't put his finger on it.

They both agree that Mr. Scott's theories have been proven sound.

"With minute adjustments," Spock is saying, "it would be relatively simple to implement this innovation across the EPAS fleet."

"Being faster is going to get us out of a lot of tight spots," Jim agrees, "but won't it draw Nero's attention? Right now, he doesn't care about us, is happy to abide by the Romulan ideal and Federation Treaty of non-interference with search and rescue, but won't that change if we go zipping around at warp nine?"

Spock clutches the PADD in both hands and stares at it intently, as though it holds the answers to Jim's questions. He nods a little then sets it down, turning calm brown eyes in Jim's direction and waiting. For what, Jim isn't sure.

"What do we do about that side of things?" he presses, leaning forward over the desk a little. "The way I see it, the speed is a trade off. We might be able to facilitate a better save-to-loss ratio, but we could put our immunity in jeopardy. What do you think?"

Spock's expression never changes. He sets the PADD down silently and folds his hands. "I must ask you to leave."

"What?"

Spock stands, forcing Jim to do the same. "I am fatigued," he continues blandly. "I require time to meditate."

"Okay," Jim says, being herded towards the door and not quite sure what to do about it. "Can we talk about this before we dock? I promised Scotty I'd float the idea with Pike, but I don't want to do that without your input."

"I am available for consultation between oh nine hundred and eleven hundred hours tomorrow," Spock reminds him.

"Right," Jim agrees, rudderless and confused. "Oh nine hundred then," he presses. "After briefing."

Spock inclines his head. "Good night, Lieutenant."

"'Night," Jim returns, but the door to Spock's quarters has already swished closed.

He turns in the direction of his own, only to realize what he's left behind. "Damn," he mutters, half-turning back, "the chess set."

Something about the memory of Spock's preoccupation brings him up short. He stands in the corridor, ignoring the strange looks from other personnel as they walk purposefully past. Whatever is weighing on Spock's mind, it's more important than the set. Resigned to a night of reading in his own quarters, Jim turns away, deep in thought.


-:-


Returning to the spaceport on Luna is kind of surreal. Jim steps steps through customs with his civilian bag over his shoulder and his casual blacks creased from enduring the morning briefing, then the shuttle ride. This time, he garners surreptitious looks from bystanders, his uniform drawing their attention in a way his command gold never had. One young red shirt detaches himself from a group, stepping into Jim's path with an excited smile and an extended hand.

"I don't expect you to remember me, sir," the boy opens dismissively, grabbing Jim's hand in both of his own and holding it tightly instead of shaking it. "I'm Danny Petersen, from the Calypso."

"Right," Jim nods, returning the pressure of the young man's grip.

"I was the guy in the jammed escape pod," he forges on, searching for the flash of memory on Jim's face. "You went EVA, came at me from the outside?"

And there it is, the recognition Petersen is after, because that's not the kind of save you ever forget. "Holy shit," he grins, changing the handshake into a fist bump. "Of course I remember you, that was intense!"

"Doesn't even begin to cover it," Danny enthuses, slapping Jim on the shoulder and grinning ear to ear. "Can I ... can I introduce you to my friends?"

A little bewildered, Jim nods, allowing himself to be led by the shoulder to the group of Starfleet personnel who have all turned to watch when their buddy bolted over to greet an apparent stranger with all the eagerness of a long lost brother.

"This," Danny grins, presenting Jim with a flourish any game show host would envy, "is Lieutenant James T. Kirk."

"No way!" exclaims a young woman in science blues, and then promptly throws a hand over her mouth.

"Seriously?" says another.

"You're the guy who piked Danny?" the final member of the group demands.

Jim shrugs. It's weird knowing that these guys have heard about that day, that it has obviously made quite an impression on them. "Whatever he's told you ..."

"Stop right there," says the man in question, silencing Jim with an imperious finger. "You saved my life. It's my story, and it's awesome, you were awesome. I never got to thank you properly, we got shipped home so fast. So, look, we're on shore leave for the next six hours, if you're around, let me buy you a drink?"

Jim swallows down the lump in his throat and takes in the circle of hopeful faces. "I wish I could, but I've got debrief in fifteen minutes." A sea of groans and sighs engulfs him, but he has no choice and they know it.

"After," Danny insists. "Here's my comm number."

Jim casts his eye over the code that's appeared on his own screen. "Okay, maybe. No promises."


-:-


"You're late," Pike tells him without preamble.

"I got accosted in the gate lounge."

"The word you're looking for is 'thanked,' Jim."

"Whatever."

"Take a seat."

Jim throws his bag to the floor and slumps into the ergonomic chair with a pronounced disdain for the posture it's intended to encourage. "How long is this going to take? I've got a grateful public offering to buy me drinks."

"You won't take them up on it," Pike murmurs, already scrolling through the report Jim's tossed on his desk. "I know you."

Jim doesn't confirm or deny, just rubs idly at the afternoon shadow on his jaw. "Did you really need me here in person? I wrote down everything I could think of."

"I just have a few questions," Pike responds, eyes still glued to the report.

"How can you have questions? You haven't even read that yet."

"Trust me, Jim," he says as he looks up for the first time. "You won't have answered these."


-:-


Spock swipes into his hotel room and crosses to the bedroom. The rest of the suite is minimalist and open-plan, light and airy in a way that reminds him of the brief period of time he spent teaching at Starfleet Academy. It had been a short but rewarding hiatus between completing his EPAS Basic Training and commencing as Point One to Christopher Pike. With six months at his disposal, he had traveled throughout the region known as North America, visited a few of Pacific Oceania's active volcanoes and then based himself in San Francisco for the remaining summer months. He'd taught astrophysics, xenobiology and advanced linguistics to a select group of particularly dedicated Academy post graduates.

He had been...gratified by the experience.

To be once again in San Francisco city, home to the Academy of Sciences, Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, Golden Gate Bridge, and Exploratorium feels strangely like a homecoming. It is not a sensation he anticipated, having irrevocably lost the only place he ever thought to call his home.

Spock lifts his case onto the crisp comforter and flicks it open. Atop the two uniforms and limited selection of casual clothes he has packed rests a folded chess board and pieces.

Decisively, he lifts them out.


-:-

Jim flips his communicator open and then closes it again for about the twentieth time. Bones is the only person he might call, but he knows for a fact the doctor got an immediate connecting flight to Georgia in order to spend some time with his young daughter before his ex-wife changed her mind. As much as he wants to, calling McCoy just isn't an option. His bag is weighing heavy on his shoulder and he looks like a schmuck or a pervert, hanging around the SanFran spaceport like this.

Two years ago, he would have thought nothing of his current situation; might have simply rented a room in some next to no good hotel and spent his pay on cheap liquor and cheaper company, but somewhere along the way he's changed enough that the mere thought of that leaves him empty inside. He doesn't want scratchy sheets, a hangover and a name he can't quite remember in the morning. Plus, if he stays here, people like Danny Petersen will be witness to his debauchery and he can't handle that idea. He's been put on a pedestal and he fucking hates it.

What to do with yourself when you get mature and responsible overnight?

He misses Uhura, Chekov and Hannity already, which he expected. What he doesn't really anticipate is missing Spock. They don't really hang out, don't converse much outside of ship's business, and have been awkward around each other since Robicon. Then again, when he does the math, he spends more time in Spock's company than he realized. He supposes it's natural then, in a way.

"Lieutenant Kirk?"

Jim jumps and swears, pocketing his communicator in a hurry, as though it might give him away. From the look on Spock's face, though, the damage might already have been done.

"Spock, what are you still doing here?"

"You are mistaken; sufficient time has elapsed for me to have found accommodation and then returned." He tilts his head. "A more appropriate question might be, what are you still doing here?"

"Um," Jim shrugs with his mouth. "Just finished up my meeting with Pike, so trying to figure out where I'm headed, I guess."

"You have no set plans for shore leave?"

"I had a few vague ideas, but it's only two days and I ..." he clams up and just watches Spock digest that non-sentence.

"I see."

Jim winces and shifts his bag from one shoulder to the other. The thing is fucking heavy; packed full of books he's collected via mail order that need to be put in storage dirtside. "Why'd you come back?"

"I have a request to make," Spock says, eyes flicking from the overstuffed bag to Jim's tatty old traveling jeans and then up to his face. "There is much work to be done in preparation for the coming EPAS report on border tensions. As someone with first hand knowledge of the current situation, your input and testimony would be a valuable addition to our presentation." Spock watches him carefully for a reaction. "A purely voluntary undertaking, of course, and only if it does not disrupt your plans."

For the first time since he boarded the shuttle for Earth, Jim feels a genuine sense of relaxation wash over him. "Spock," he says, giving the bag a little hike up on his shoulder. "That's the best offer I've had all day."

"You are certain?"

Jim gestures with an open palm. "Lead on."

Welcome to San Francisco City. We're happy to meet you. Maps are located near the exits. Please refrain from parking vehicles in areas delineated by proximity notifications, the hidden speakers request as they exit the terminal, shoulder to shoulder. These areas are reserved for diplomatic passengers and their immediate staff by arrangement only. All checked baggage will be automatically forwarded to your logged final destination. Please keep your hand luggage with you at all times. Na'shaya San Francisco'Khar. Amseti tre. Besan be'talal ruken ...

If Spock is affected by the announcer switching to Vulcan he makes no sign. It is the official second language of Earth, has been since First Contact, and there are few travellers in Earth space who do not comprehend the simplified phrases used in such circumstances. It is a clear and present reminder of how influential Spock's people have been, and a poignant demonstration of how they might remain so, despite the decimation of their population.

Jim is so caught up in his observations that he almost runs straight into the small press cordon that's been waiting for Spock.

"Commander!" a young Andorian says hurriedly, stepping into their path and thrusting a recorder into Spock's face. "What can you tell us about the Vulcan ship known as the Tat'sar? What was its mission in the Robicon system? Is it in any way linked to the recent Klingon activity?"

"Sir!" a woman calls, cutting them off from another angle. "Is there any truth to the rumor that the Klingons have struck a deal with the criminal Nero and that Vulcans brokered the terms?"

"Spock!" come the many voices. "Commander, over here!"

Jim unconsciously grips the shoulder strap of his pack more tightly. This is his first visit to Earth since his transfer to EPAS and certainly the first time since Vulcan that he's been on the periphery of any interest from the press. Spock has come to an abrupt halt, his face calm and impassive, but something about the set of his shoulders gives Jim the feeling that as accustomed as he is to some questioning, the scale of the crowd is unprecedented.

"I am neither permitted or inclined to speak of matters outside my area of expertise," he tells the sea of recording devices. "I am an EPAS employee, and in no way affiliated with military or diplomatic matters."

"Is the Vulcan High Council aware of the true nature of the Tat'sar's mission? Can we expect the Council to reveal the purpose behind the terrorist activity on Robicon IV? Has your father said anything?"

Jim actually does a double take, because the reporter can't seriously mean to imply that Vulcans would nuke a town for political gain.

Spock's brows draw together in a way that Jim knows usually spells trouble. "I fail to comprehend your meaning."

The reporter falters at that, his hand lowering the recorder slightly as he struggles to rephrase his question in a away that Spock may answer it, but with almost all the sensationalism intact.

Jim doesn't give him the chance to pose it again. "Sorry, we have to go," he smiles at them, putting his body in front of Spock. "I'm sure the EPAS press secretary is empowered to issue responses to any further questions," he adds for good measure, using the slightest pressure of his shoulder against Spock's to get him moving.

"Spock! Wait! Commander, a sound byte for the five o'clock broadcast!"

"As the Lieutenant says," Spock returns with chill politeness.

The small crowd parts as they step through, although the many recorders stay poised mid-air, like a bristling forest of hope and frustration. Jim kind of feels sorry for them. He knows what it's like to work a job that makes you unpopular. Good days in EPAS make you a hero, but the bad days, they're something else.

Finally, the press seem convinced that neither of them will comment and stop following them with a few half-hearted curses. Jim casts a glance at Spock, taking note of the carefully measured stride and studied impassivity. "So," he says awkwardly. "Apparently your lot are in cahoots with Nero and the Klingons."

Spock gives him a very pointed look. "The concept is thoroughly illogical."

"Couldn't have hurt to deny the nukes, though."

"Dignifying such irrationality with a response of any kind would only imply it was worthy of consideration." Spock stares stolidly ahead. "It is not."

"That's Vulcan logic."

"Yes."

"It doesn't work on humans," Jim smiles, shrugging the pack higher on his shoulder.

"Then it is fortunate that approximately seventy eight point six percent of the Federation is comprised of non-Humans," Spock says with a touch of what could only be called satisfaction.

Jim laughs under his breath and shakes his head, and just like that, the tension of their own private media circus is dispelled.

-:-


"So what? You want me to make a statement before the Council or something?"

They are climbing a flight of stairs to the first floor of the hotel. There is nothing amiss with the elevator, but Jim had grown frustrated while waiting for it, so Spock acquiesced and they use the fire escape instead. He has learned that when Jim is agitated, there is usually a very good reason, therefore his current state of unease is particularly intriguing, since Spock can think of no reason that doesn't directly involve the Lieutenant's meeting with Admiral Pike.

Certainly, Prime Division has been deployed on a number of highly demanding missions since then, but Jim has shown no undue stress either during or after each event. Spock may not comprehend Jim's responses to emotional stimuli, but he is now competent at identifying a number of them. In addition, the Admiral had alluded to a way he had contributed to Jim's unsettled state of mind. That, together with Jim's recent accusation of 'meddling' on Pike's behalf, leads Spock to believe that his Point One's restlessness has definable cause. It is a puzzle his mind refuses to relinquish, even though it is illogical to dedicate so much time to it.

"Spock? You want me to make a statement?"

Jim has paused on the landing, one hand on the door. His face is questioning and a little surprised by the need for repetition. Spock gives himself a mental shake. "Direct testimony is unlikely to be required, however I would find your input valuable during the writing of our official report on the situation. I have scheduled a meeting with Admiral Pike on Thursday for the purpose of reviewing the document prior to submission the same day."

"Thursday," Jim muses, putting his shoulder to the door. "That's the day we ship out."

"The first day to write it, the second to make any alterations we deem necessary."

"Sounds reasonable."

Jim is studying the swipe card in his hand, then searching the numbers on the doors with a distracted air. Finally, he finds the one he is looking for and drops his bag at his feet in order to program his own access code into the swipe. As Spock scans into his own room, Jim seems surprised.

"We're diagonally opposite?"

Spock raises an eyebrow. "It seemed logical, given the circumstances."

"Yeah," Jim nods, stooping to retrieve his bag and looking strangely uncomfortable. "Makes perfect sense."

As Jim disappears into his suite, Spock is left with one foot in and one foot outside of his own, a puzzled frown barely hinted at between his brows.


-:-

Jim wakes early, forces himself to drink a glass of water even though he's not thirsty and then changes into his running gear. It's barely sunrise, but he's always coped better with time differences if he beats his body into accepting the diurnal rhythms that surround it. The knots in his laces are too tight, but he can't be bothered adjusting them.

He chooses a path that will lead him to Starfleet Academy and then picks up an old route he used to run when he was a cadet. It weaves through the public botanical gardens, past the dome that houses the indoor swimming pool and back around the privatized pharmaceutical labs before rejoining the main road and taking him back to the hotel. When he arrives back at the hotel, breathless and sweating, there is a message waiting for him.

Lieutenant, join me at your convenience - Spock.

The Commander has neither buzzed for access to his rooms or set the message with an alarm, apparently unaware that Jim is already awake. The consideration shown makes Jim feel a little better about accepting Spock's offer. He'd spent part of the night tossing and turning, wondering whether it had been pity that prompted the request for his assistance. Then again, in the cold light of day, Spock just isn't the pity type.

Jim showers and changes into a tidy pair of jeans and a henley before buzzing at Spock's door. It opens almost immediately to reveal Spock dressed in slacks and a high-necked shirt of neutral tones. It's so utterly different from anything Jim's ever seen him wear before, for a moment Jim just stares.

Spock gives him the eyebrow.

"Sorry," Jim forces himself to blink and step past the Commander. "I brought these," he adds, waving the PADDs containing the telemetry, mission reports and Ops findings from their encounters with the Klingons. "Gaila was good enough to secure-comm them to me when I asked, but not before she gave me an earful for interrupting her...uh...gathering."

Jim had been about to say orgy, but decided it wasn't really a word he was comfortable using around Spock. That eyebrow merely inches higher, and Jim wonders if maybe he thought the word 'orgy' just a little too loudly. Telepathy and all that.

"Do you want to get started?" he asks quickly.

Spock nods. "You may have use of the desk. I find the floor more conducive to concentration."

Jim gives him a dubious look but doesn't argue.

In this effort, as with all things, they work brilliantly together. Jim is a little awestruck by the fact they have a workable outline within thirty minutes and a bare bones account of EPAS' concerns inside of two hours later. In fact, he's so absorbed by the quick exchange of ideas that it isn't until Spock gives him a very pointed look that he realizes his stomach is growling loud enough to be detected across the room.

"It is nearly midday," Spock observes. "Perhaps we should break for lunch."

"Sure," Jim says, smoothing over the fact he has neglected to eat breakfast. "We ordering in?"

Spock glances out the full length window by straightening his spine to see over the arm of the sofa. Whatever he gauges from that sliver of skyline seems to galvanize him, because he gracefully unfolds from what appears to be an incredibly uncomfortable yoga pose and places his own PADD on the coffee table.

"There is a venue within ten minutes walk from here that serves a Vulcan dish that is impossible to acquire in deep space."

Jim offers a lopsided smile. "Craving your favorite food?"

Spock does not dignify that with an answer, merely stalks into the bedroom and returns, bundled up to the ears in a long coat of Vulcan design. It's really not that cold out, but in order to make Spock stick out a little less, Jim ducks into his own room to grab his leather jacket before they set off.


-:-


"This is really disgusting," Jim says with a cough. "Sorry, but no."

Spock sips his own soup, his eyes narrowed over the rim of the bowl. "I have heard it likened to sweet potato," he says. "Do you disagree?"

"Sweet potato," Jim nods, "with the texture of oysters and just a hint of dishwater."

"If I did not know better, I would assume you to be completely lacking in cultural sensitivity."

Jim watches Spock break the hard biscuits into smaller pieces with a knife and fork. "I don't hate you, I just hate your damn soup."

"So I gathered."

Jim picks up the menu again and purses his lips. "What are the chances of getting a burger around here?"

"Slim to none," Spock replies with uncharacteristic vagueness. Perhaps the taste of home has loosened him up a little.

"Well, what's like a burger, then?"

Spock peers over the edge of the menu and raises an eyebrow. "They may be able to serve the vash g'ralth on a bun."

"Stop mocking me."


-:-

"That was by far the weirdest thing I've ever eaten."

Jim pats his stomach almost warily as they exit out onto the street. It's actually begun to rain while they were inside, so he's grateful for the jacket which he zips up to his throat. Spock spares one curious look for the thick cloud cover before setting off towards the hotel, hands jammed deep into his coat pockets. Jim jogs a few steps to catch up.

"Can't imagine you'd like the rain a whole lot."

"On the contrary," Spock says conversationally, blinking to clear some of the drops from his eyelashes. "Precipitation was a rare occurrence on Vulcan, and thus cause for some celebration."

Jim tries to picture a bunch of rowdy Vulcans dancing in the rain and fails. "What kind of celebration?"

"It varied from region to region. Some tribes conducted ritual bathing, others used the excess water to ferment a beverage known as k'vass, which was then consumed along with uncommonly generous servings of food."

"And your tribe, what did you do?"

"The House of Surak deemed all such celebration illogical. Precipitation is merely a meteorological event, not something worthy of marking with excessive eating and intoxication."

"Wow, you guys really know how to party...wait, did you say intoxication?" Jim perks up at this. "Vulcans get drunk?"

Spock looks decidedly cagey. "It is metabolically possible."

"You ever been drunk?"

Spock shoots him a quick frown. "No."

"Tipsy?"

"This line of questioning serves no purpose."

"I knew it."

When Spock looks over this time, there is a hint of alarm mixed with familiar frustration. "I would advise you not to make assumptions based on insufficient data."

"Okay, sure."

"If you continue to anthropomorphize every alien culture you encounter you will find yourself in danger of embracing solipsism."

"Your pleonasm doesn't scare me," Jim counters immediately.

Spock turns his face into the rain, but not fast enough to hide the amused twitch of his lips. "Evidently."

Jim is too busy enjoying the irrational surge of pride that comes from actually making Spock smile to notice the rapid approach of someone from his left. It's not until she steps in front of him, making him trip over his own feet that his preoccupied brain grinds to a halt.

"Don't blame Christopher," the woman says hurriedly, arms spread wide to stop Jim from leaving, the rain running off her hooded coat. "I practically forced it out of him and he already hates himself for it."

Jim clenches his teeth together against the impulse to indulge in one of the numerous curses flooding his brain. She's watching him so carefully, so hopefully, but fuck's sake, he'd actually been enjoying himself. Spock had actually smiled.

"Jim, please," she says, barely loud enough to be heard over the rain.

"I am going to kill him," he grits out, staring fiercely at the ground while he tries to figure out whether he has it in him to avoid telling someone to get fucked in Spock's presence.

It's then that he feels a hotter-than-human hand settle firmly on his shoulder, and knows that as much as he wants to, he can't run from this.

"Divisional Commander Spock," he says wearily, "this is Captain Winona Kirk, my mother."

Slowly, Spock raises a hand. "Live long and prosper."

"Unlikely, by the look on Jim's face, but thanks," Winona replies, but copies the gesture flawlessly before she turns to her son. "You got somewhere we can go? There are things that need saying."

"Yeah, sure, follow me," Jim says tightly, and is absurdly grateful when Spock shows no signs of disappearing.

 

 

Chapter Text

Spock is intending to retire to his own suite in order to finish their presentation for the Federation Council. It seems logical that Winona Kirk holds precedent over Jim's immediate commitments to EPAS, especially considering that Spock initially planned to prepare the whole report unassisted. However, when he moves to bid them farewell in the lobby, there is a moment of such undisguised panic in Jim's eyes that he falters. The elder Kirk, no doubt imbuing the moment with human nuance, insists that Spock stay. He, in turn, can find no logical reason to decline the invitation.

He finds himself in Jim's hotel room, standing against one of the walls and dripping on to the furnishings. Wordlessly, Jim offers him a towel in exchange for his coat. The gesture is replete with thanks, the look on Jim's face one of tight gratitude. Spock dismisses any thoughts he had of subtly retiring to the other room and begins to dry himself.

Winona Kirk wrings her ponytail out over the small kitchen sink and shakes her hands, the only concession she makes to the effects of the weather. Her son does not offer her a towel.

"Mom," Jim complains, Jim who is never particularly neat, when he sees the muddy footprints she's made on the tiling and the trail of water across the bench. "I can't believe Chris told you I was here."

"I can't believe you didn't tell me yourself!"

"Maybe this is why."

"I don't understand why you won't let me throw you a birthday party," she counters, bony hands on her hips, the sharpness in her eyes and the jut of her chin heightening the resemblance between mother and son. "You could just drop in for the weekend, stay one night and then leave. Why do you make things so complicated?"

"Oh, I don't know, Mom," Jim sighs, his head buried in terry toweling. "Maybe because I don't like birthdays and I don't like Riverside?"

"It's just a weekend."

"It's a bad idea."

Silence descends and Spock believes it is an uncomfortable one. The scene is incredibly domestic, openly emotional in a way his home life on Vulcan never was. He is unsure of protocol, but is instinctively aware that Winona must resent his presence, at least on some level. Still, his loyalty lies with Jim, who clearly does not want to be alone with his mother.

"As far as you're concerned, all my ideas are bad ones," she frowns. "So give me a good one. I want to celebrate your thirtieth birthday. Way to shoot me down for trying to do the right thing."

Jim emerges from behind the towel, his scowl in full force. "The Kirk family doesn't care about the right thing, we don't care about what we should do, only what we actually do, and celebrating my birthday just isn't part of that."

"Jim," she soothes, more quietly, with an outstretched hand to his arm, "honey, we can't make it a funeral every year."

"Yes," he says tightly, "we can. I'm used to it and it's the way I like it."

"No it isn't."

"The fuck would you know?" he demands, shrugging off her hand and punching an angry combination into the replicator.

Spock feels a surge of shock and embarrassment. To speak to a parent in such a manner is unheard of among his people. He cannot fathom Jim's motivation.

Two steaming cups materialize in the replicator. Jim grips one by the handle, the other by the rim and crosses the room to Spock. "Ginger," he explains. "They don't do Vulcan teas here."

Spock takes the cup by the handle and inclines his head, not trusting his voice. Jim remains standing in front of him, back turned on his mother, silent and dismissive as he takes his first sip. Over the rim, his blue eyes are blazing, unforgiving.

Winona shifts from foot to foot in the kitchen, wiping a palm across her brow to push away straggling, water-dark hair. "I don't know what to do with you, Jim. I'm trying, really I am, but you've got to meet me halfway."

Jim remains where he is, eyes locked with Spock's, sipping his black coffee. "I don't have to do shit," he says coldly.

Spock is transfixed by the sheer depth of emotion.

"Yeah, well," across the room, Winona sighs tiredly. "I won't apologize for giving birth to you. What do you want from me?"

This makes Jim turn, makes him cross back towards his mother, eyebrows raised in disbelief. "I don't want anything from you, Mom. I haven't for a very long time. I can't make that any clearer."

Her jaw sets in a firm line, giving Spock a greater understanding of Jim's stubbornness in the face of insurmountable obstacles. "I'm not giving up on you," she insists. "I'm your mother. Say whatever you need to say, nothing will change that. You can't make me stop loving you. We're family."

Jim scrapes his teeth over his top lip and turns away from Spock. With slow deliberation, he returns to his mother, like a fish on the end of the line, fighting every step of the way. He sets his mug down on the bench, eyes fixed on the handle as he toys with it.

"I know this is hard for you," she offers, taking a small step closer, fingertips resting on the bench beside his own. "We've never been good at this; Sam is the only one who ever knows what to say," she shrugs, boldly covering his hand with her own. "Somewhere along the way, you and I just stopped speaking the same language."

"Mom, we never even used the same alphabet," he says quietly, but his hand flips, his fingers close around hers, holding on.

Spock looks away, discomfited by the intimacy. He hears the shift of feet, the squeak of her raincoat against the bench top and knows they are embracing. The ginger tea steams comfortingly, the spicy scent wafting upwards across his face as he studiously contemplates the view from Jim's window.

"Call me," Winona says, her voice muffled. "We'll talk about it."

"We won't," Jim disagrees.

"Whatever."

With a small sniff and a quick step, Winona Kirk releases her son and crosses to the door. "Goodbye, Commander. Take care of my boy."

Spock turns to respond, but the door has already closed.

Jim stands where she left him, one hip leaning against the bench, his upturned hand lying limply like an insect in its death throes. Spock suppresses a shiver at the unwanted imagery.


-:-


Six hours later, the rain is still coming down and the report lies completed next to the chess board between them. Spock had returned to his own room to change into dry clothes with Jim trailing after him, disdaining concern about his own comfort. Over the course of their work, the dampness of his collar and jeans has faded, evaporated by the warmth of the environmental controls.

They have chosen to order in rather than interrupt their work to go in search of food again, although Spock secretly suspects Jim's preference had more to do with the irrational fear of encountering some other spectre of his past than mere dedication to his work. Still, he cannot deny that Jim's help is invaluable, the insights he offers both relevant and illuminating.

It is close to midnight and Jim is currently stirring a pan over the kitchen's small hotplate.

"Would it not be simpler to replicate the entire beverage rather than each separate ingredient?"

Jim shakes his head, moving the spoon through the hot milk. "Not the same."

Spock dismisses the illogic with increasing ease and turns back to the chess board. Their first game had ended quickly and decisively over a dinner of bean hot-pot with Spock victorious and barely challenged. Jim had immediately reset the board, a gleam in his eye bottom lip caught between his teeth, friendly threats and promises pouring out of him as is his habit when amiably thwarted.

Their second game hangs suspended, evenly matched, poised to go either way. Spock finds the development fascinating.

"Here," Jim says from where he has appeared by Spock's elbow. "No sugar, no cocoa, like you asked."

Spock accepts the mug with a lingering sense of suspicion, but the first sip confirms it contains merely milk and spices. He has no intention of becoming metabolically compromised in Jim's presence, well aware that he has a tendency to relax his control without requiring further assistance.

"Do you want to go out on the balcony?" Jim asks, gesturing with his own chocolate-rich beverage.

Spock lifts his head to take in the two chairs perched in the darkness overlooking the lights of San Francisco. It is cold and stormy, the wind unpleasantly chill and the overhanging roof offers imperfect shelter.

"If it pleases you."


-:-


Jim rolls his shoulders against the cold and crosses his legs. Sitting out here is a stupid idea. He doesn't know why Spock agreed to it. Perhaps he's still off balance from bearing witness to a Kirk family encounter. God knows most sane people find his family hard to cope with. Jim's suspicions are confirmed when Spock turns to him with an observation, huddling deeper into his overcoat.

"You seem to share a unique varietal of human relationship with your mother."

"Yeah," Jim sniffs. "We're pretty fucked up."

In lieu of reply and backlit by the light from within the hotel room, Spock's little huff of air is unusually visible. It gives more away than his careful neutrality ever will. There is a hint of disapproval for his language, an inherent disagreement with his assessment, as well as the restraint that keeps him from protesting. The breath floats away into the darkness, falling out of the beams of light and into Jim's memory.

"In her defense," he continues, "she's got her reasons for keeping away from me, and for wanting to see me, too."

Visible is a short, sharp exhalation of contempt through Spock's nose. "Avoidance is an illogical response to a familial issue."

"Works just fine for us."

Spock tilts his head and raises an eyebrow. "I admit, I have witnessed a similar approach within my own family on rare occasions, although never over such a prolonged period of time."

"I think everyone does it," Jim muses, slouching deeper into his chair. "You're supposed to respect your parents and they're supposed to understand you. Isn't that how it goes?"

"I think one could argue that is an overly naive and simplistic view."

"So sue me."

"I desire neither your money nor your material possessions," Spock says, probably just to be annoying.

"It can't work out all the time," Jim continues. "Fate has to screw things up here and there; put kids into families that don't know what to do with them and give parents children that drive them insane. Roll of the dice," he nods, taking a tentative sip from his mug. "Luck of the draw."

"You consider your relationship with your mother irreparable?"

"No, not really," Jim frowns and sips again. "Just the best it can hope to be."

Spock has already finished his hot drink, but still cradles the mug between his hands, thumb hooked through the hole. It seems like a very human gesture. The Commander follows that gaze down to his hands, then back up to Jim's face. "What would you change, if you were able?" he asks.

"That's a very illogical question for a Vulcan." Jim's standard response is still defensive, but there's no bite in it, no real venom.

Perhaps sensing that, Spock shrugs with only his bottom lip. "Nevertheless."

"Um," Jim exhales heavily, drawing out the sound. A thick white cloud of warm air coalesces in front of his face and he wonders if Spock can tell as much from his breath as he can divine from Spock's. There are so many responses to that question. Strangely, he feels like answering honestly, but it still leaves too much to say.

"If the question is overly personal in nature, I withdraw it."

"I guess," Jim drawls, completely ignoring the escape route, "one day I'd like her to look at me and really see who I am." He turns to Spock, knowing that what he's said doesn't make sense, but still wanting understanding. "Like we're both really here, in this moment, in the present."

Spock is watching him seriously, a small frown perched between his brows. "This means a lot to you," he says, but in a way that could be either a question or a statement. Whoever says Spock doesn't appreciate the subtleties of Standard needs to listen more carefully.

"No," Jim shakes his head. "I don't let it mean anything at all."


-:-


Spock arises the next morning with all the ease of someone who can program their body to slide into wakefulness at a suitable point in their sleep cycle. He wonders briefly how humans cope with being pulled forcibly out of deep REM sleep, simply because they set an alarm for a specific time. It is oh five hundred hours, San Francisco time, sixteen hundred on the ship, and Spock dresses quickly, having declined to heat his room overnight as it constitutes a waste of energy resources. He requests a cup of ginger tea from the replicator and steps out onto the balcony to await sunrise.

In the chill, dark moments before dawn, he notices two empty mugs from the night before. They sit together on the low table, encrusted with frost and an almost undetectable ring of spice and milk where the contents have clung to the inside of the porcelain. It is unlike him to be untidy, but their presence does not bother him. He raises the tea to his lips, basking in the warmth of rising vapours, and sips as the first fingers of light touch the sleeping city. Deliberately, he loosens his emotional control, allowing a softening feeling to overtake him. As if the sunlight were a signal, new noises spring up from the maze of streets below. Spock hears a voice, a slamming door, the electronic ignition of a vehicle and the distant toll of a bell; all so human, all so transient.

The sun lifts higher, creeping across the balustrade where he rests his hands, slipping over to warm his knuckles, his wrists, his arms. Bare seconds later, the light reaches around the corner and finds his face. Spock lets his eyelids close, dark olive shadows concealing the city below.

He is tired.

If it was a mere physical fatigue, finding a solution would be elementary, but it is not that simple. He sleeps more than most Vulcans, meditates daily, consumes the required caloric intake for his energy expenditure and indulges in physical activity to maintain well-being. Still, in his relaxed emotional state, with mental shields lowered and the mild, human sun on his face, Spock acknowledges the irrational desire to melt into the ground, to rest there indefinitely while the planet turns and the seasons pass. He feels old, worn out, empty. It is not rational, but that does not make it less true.

From contact with his other self, he fears the feeling will never desert him. His other mind, so ancient in comparison, is honed and sharpened to a thing of immense power. Yet, beneath it all, lies a bone-weary exhaustion that made Spock recoil. To his other self's thinking, the sacrifice, the ongoing effort is worth the price of such solitude. If that is his future, he fears lacking the strength to shoulder the burden. He does not want that life, that realization and that loss. He wants, perhaps, the tiniest portion of happiness; a glimpse of what his father had shared with his mother, not the blazing intensity of love and separation.

His other self has worked hard to hide those memories, but something so profound naturally rebels against concealment. James Kirk had slipped into view, different and older, flamboyant and irrepressible; not that man he knows, but recognizable. Spock does not believe in destiny, not within the definition of this universe and declines to believe its existence in any other. He is not the man who goes by their father's name. They are not the same. That is a truth that both Spocks can acknowledge.

Alone with the wakening city, he slowly and meticulously rebuilds the layers of control around himself, hardly certain who they are intended to protect.


-:-


Jim thumbs the buzzer to Spock's room and then jams his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He feels like an ass about the day before. Sure, they'd got a lot of work done, but he'd all but begged Spock to sit through a lovely little dysfunctional scene with his mother and then taken up the entirety of his evening with a debate on border politics, two games of bad chess and a batch of pseudo cocoa. He'd planned an apology for this morning but hadn't counted on EPAS to ruin it.

Spock answers the door with tea in one hand, his face tinged green with cold. Behind him, the screen to the balcony stands open.

"Pike commed me first thing," Jim explains. "He wants us on the next shuttle to Luna. Apparently he's been summoned to Ql'tomer and won't be around for the Council meeting tomorrow. We've got to speak on his behalf."

Spock's eyebrows descend slowly. "This is unexpected."

"Tell me about it."

Spock negotiates the colloquialism with only the slightest pause. "Could the Admiral not attend the meeting and then acquire transport to the Klingon Neutral Zone aboard the Stalwart?"

"No," Jim shakes his head. "Apparently, the Minister for Health wants him on Nuh'ri Ah'rak before Ql'tomer. Some other ship is going to get him there, then we'll take him the final leg into hostile territory."

"The Vulcan colony requires EPAS?" Spock's other eyebrow joins the first.

"Not exactly. Pike said he'd explain in his office."

Spock sets the mug down on a small table, steps into the corridor and closes the door behind him. "Then let us depart."

Having anticipated Spock's instant reaction, Jim makes directly for the elevator bank. "Thought you might say that."


-:-


"Spock, Jim," Pike waves them over from where he's sitting in an armchair, sorting through reports and manifests. "Before you say anything, let me apologize."

"Sir, if this is about my mother ..."

"No," Pike frowns, "although I do feel a bit guilty about that, she's just your mother. Man up, Jim. I'm talking about the Council meeting tomorrow."

"Okay."

"You wish us to speak in your stead?" Spock asks for confirmation.

"Yes," Pike switches his gaze from one to the other. "You, specifically, Spock. Jim, I want you there, but I want you to keep your big mouth shut, understood?"

"Aye, sir. Don't embarrass you in front of your friends. Got it."

Pike glares at him, but it's affectionate. "President Wescott needs our support, but more than that, he needs the weight of evidence on his side. The Council have been briefed on the military side of things by Starfleet, but you know the Admiralty; they're either minimizing the perceived threat or maximizing it, depending on how the situation can be turned to their own advantage."

"Which mode are they in?" Jim gestures Spock to the couch ahead of him, taking up his own place on the other cushion.

"Ostrich mode."

"Shit."

Spock glances between the two humans, clearly at a loss. Both Pike and Jim launch into an explanation at the same time, then halt, stare at each other and share a smile. The Admiral gestures for Jim to continue, a strange warmth in his eyes.

"Figure of speech," Jim summarizes. "To put your head in the sand like an ostrich; to ignore the obvious despite potential disadvantage."

"I see."

Jim turns back to Pike. "Surely the casualty and material damages reports alone will show what we're really up against?"

"Statistics are malleable," the Admiral reminds him. "Starfleet's premise is unsound, but the bottom line still looks optimistic."

Jim huffs through his nose. "I always said statistics isn't really a science. Sideshow, more like. What kind of math has imaginary numbers?"

"Jim."

"I'm right, though, yeah?"

"The point is, the EPAS report might be the only first-hand account of things the Federation Council are going to hear. It needs to be watertight. It needs to make an impact. It needs to shine forth like a goddamn beacon of truth, you understand?"

Jim shares a glance with Spock, because fuck. "Um, maybe we should take another look at it?"

"Damn straight," Pike nods, handing them a flimsy print out of their first draft. "I've highlighted a few sections and made some suggestions."

Spock accepts the pages, his eyes scanning the document and then lifting to the Admiral's face, the blankness in them studied and perfect. "EPAS do not customarily comment on Fleet deployment, tactics or threat assessments."

"No, but maybe we should," Pike counters. "It's our asses on the line out there, just as much as Starfleet crew, and losses are high across the board. Maybe it's about time we started telling the brass when they're getting it wrong. Most of the Council aren't military men, they're politicians. Spock, make an appeal to their sense of right and wrong." Pike leans forward, elbows resting on his calipers. "You've got to get inside their heads and make them realize that the voting public are going to figure out what's happening eventually. The problem is I don't think that's going to occur before Nero comes knocking on our front door."

"Or before the Klingons start turning on the border worlds," Jim interjects.

"Right," Pike agrees with a sharp nod. "Why do you think I'm going to New Vulcan?"

Spock straightens, lowers the flimsies to his lap. "Nu'ri Ah'rak is located less than two sectors from the Klingon Netural Zone."

"Which is why we need the Council to send the Diplomatic Corps to Khitomer," Pike replies. "And why I need the Vulcan High Council to come clean about what they're doing with the Tat'sar and convince the Federation Council to move forward with negotiations with the Klingon Empire. This new threat is real. It's going to hit us where it hurts."

Jim slouches into the couch, knees splayed wide. "This is one hell of a presentation you're asking for, especially since I don't even know what the Tat'sar's mission is, or how Vulcan is involved."

Pike's eyes are piercing. "I'm fully aware of that."

Spock reaches out with one hand, rests fingertips on the transparent table top. He doesn't touch Pike, but it is still a question, an entreaty. Jim feels awkward witnessing it, is forced to swallow a sharp surge of jealousy when Pike's face softens a little and he nods.

"Very well, Spock. I trust your judgement."

Stiffly, formally, Spock stands. "In that case, it is imperative that we begin redrafting the presentation immediately."

"Agreed." Pike levers himself to his feet, using the arm of the chair to steady himself. "My flight leaves in six hours. No matter where I am when you finish your final draft, it comes to me. I don't care if you're forced to develop a way of transmitting documents trans-warp, I want to see it, clear?"

"Indeed."

"As crystal," Jim seconds.

"Okay, get out of my office. You've got work to do," he grumbles, making shooing movements. "Oh, and Jim?"

"Yes, Admiral?"

Pike has the grace to look a little bit guilty, finally. "I didn't realize she'd hunt you down, sorry about that."

"Hell, I thought she was in the Eridani Sector," Jim holds his hands out, eyes wide, impressed against his will.

"She was," Pike grins. "You've got one hell of a mother there, Jim."

"Don't remind me."


-:-


"Okay," says Jim, bouncing on his toes in the line as they endure Earth/Luna customs for the fourth time in twenty four hours, "your touchy-feely moment with Pike means you can tell me all about the Tat'sar, right?"

Spock gives him a look that can only be described as long-suffering by his standards. It lasts at least point five of a second longer than his usual looks and involves a slight tightening of his mouth. "His permission was not explicit."

"But how am I supposed to help you with the presentation if I don't have all the information? Plus, aren't you going to blow the whole thing wide open when you tell the Council tomorrow?" Jim really hopes it doesn't sound like he's pleading.

"You may recall that members of the Federation Council have UltraViolet security clearance status," Spock says, as though to a particularly dense child. "You, however, do not."

"Neither do you."

Spock rolls his thumb across the customs pad and says nothing.

"Wait, do you?" Jim jabs his thumb into the screen and then jogs a few steps to catch up.

"Being the son of the Vulcan Ambassador to Earth results in some unusual privileges."

"You totally do!"

"It is a great responsibility," Spock says repressively as they emerge from the SanFran spaceport and into the wintry sun.

"Won't tell a soul about shifty Vulcan politics," Jim grins, then holds out his closest hand, smallest finger crooked. "Promise."

Spock stops in his tracks to frown down at Jim's hand. "What, precisely ..."

"Never mind," he grins, clapping Spock on the shoulder instead. "I'm hungry. Tell me all about it over breakfast."

Bristling slightly, Spock regains his centre of gravity after Jim's enthusiastic gesture. "Acceptable. Although, if you wish me to divulge classified information, we shall have to choose our venue with care."

"Bagel place on the corner of the park. If we walk and talk it will make it pretty hard for anyone to eavesdrop."

"Logical," says Spock.

He allows Jim to take the lead, falling half a step behind. It makes for easier going through the peak hour throng, but still makes Jim slightly uncomfortable. He's been feeling off balance since he disembarked the Stalwart two days ago. Being home again, even if it's just the right planet rather than in the right town, has set his teeth on edge. He deliberately left a lot behind when he first ventured into space, being back in San Francisco is only reminding him of his wild Academy days and all the self-destructive egotism of the person he used to be. He irrationally fears that Spock will discover the depths of his historic idiocy by simple association with the city. It's ridiculous, but he feels like Spock has come visiting his old family home in Iowa, complete with all the girlie posters and team pennants plastered across his bedroom wall.

He pauses at an intersection, momentarily disorientated before his natural sense of direction asserts itself. "This way," he says, one hand rising to rub the back of his neck self-consciously.

The bagel place is just as popular as ever, so they have to line up. It gives Jim a chance to focus on something new, and he scans the menu with a dedication that bakery goods don't really deserve. He buys two blueberry with sour cream and hands one to Spock as they head into the park. The Commander holds it, but does not eat it.

"So, you going to let me in on the big secret? Who exactly is Sarek, and what was he doing in charge of Vulcan's finest?" he manages to ask around a mouthful.

"You have accused me of believing what I saw in the mind meld too easily," Spock begins, staring straight ahead, his bagel still wrapped in its napkin. "Perhaps now it will become clear why belief was my only option."

"I know Sarek can be pretty convincing. Hell," Jim grins, "he was always goading me about signing up for Starfleet, and I wasn't really the type for following anyone's advice."

"It is confusing to refer to him by the name of my father," Spock interrupts, "and yet I do not know what else to call him."

"If he's got another name, use it."

"Spock," says Spock.

They pause where two paths diverge for Jim to swallow his mouthful and lick his fingertips. "Bullshit."

"We are essentially the same person," Spock continues seriously, "previously living in two separate, divergent timelines."

Jim continues to chew, glances down at the remains of his bagel and pitches it into a trash can. "An alternate universe? Holy shit," he says, and rather calmly, too, thank you very much. "Since he's the older one, I take it you're not the impostor?"

"He has no intent to pose in my place, even should the circumstance of our disparate ages be explicable, or indeed, relevant to your deduction."

"So, there's seriously two of you?" Jim persists, staring hard at the Commander's face and clawing at the edges of his sanity with desperate mental fingers.

"Do you require a moment to compose yourself?"

Jim shakes his head, ignoring Spock's preemptive step towards a park bench. "No, I think we're on the same page. Two Spocks, different universes, divergent timelines, I hear you."

Spock's eyes narrow and Jim wonders if he interprets the words as ridicule. "You are quick to accept the veracity of my statement."

Jim spreads his cream cheese covered fingers. "Am I supposed to believe you're joking?"

Both eyebrows lift. "Agreed; I would not."

"Okay," Jim wrestles with the napkin and the leftover cheese, "so what were you doing in charge of the Tat'sar, what the hell was with those people on board and ..." he pauses, grips Spock by the arm. "Holy shit, you taught me Vulcan!"

"My counterpart taught you our language," Spock corrects him. "I did not."

Jim's surprised face morphs into a wide grin. "No wonder you liked my accent."

"I expressed no partiality."

"And oh my god, you knew me as a pimply kid!" Jim buries his face in his hands, napkin pressed to his temple in a renewed fit of acopia. "This is so fucking embarrassing."

"Jim," Spock all-but sighs. "I feel it is imperative that we establish some way for you to mentally distinguish between myself and my counterpart."

"Totally," he nods vehemently, "absolutely, it's far too weird otherwise. I'm not calling him your 'counterpart,' though; it sounds ridiculous."

"Let us refer to him as Prime, since he is older than I, and the mathematical reference seems appropriate."

"Taking de Polignac's Conjecture, does that make you guys twin primes?" Jim can't resist, knowing that Spock will get the reference instantly, and know what he means to imply; that Spock is no less important, mathematically or otherwise.

Spock gives him the look that Jim privately refers to as the 'well done human, you have exceeded expectations' look. "If we can focus on the preparation of our report?" he says instead.

Jim nods, kind of glad when Spock continues his narrative, because he has the sneaking suspicion he just flirted. Using mathematics. And that it worked. With a mental shake, he falls back into step and listens to Spock's succinct explanation.

"Prime arrived in this timeline too late to prevent the destruction of the USS Kelvin. However, due to the friendship he shared with your counterpart in the alternate universe, he took it upon himself to work towards your wellbeing, where possible."

"Wait, we were friends in the other timeline?"

Spock nods. "For many years, until your death."

"Oh," Jim sobers instantly. "Well, that sucks."

"Vulcans live longer than humans," Spock reminds him. "It is to be expected."

"I'm allowed a moment to regret my own death, okay?"

Spock chooses to ignore him. "Given Prime's experiences in other alternate timelines, he had already come to the conclusion that the destruction of Vulcan was unavoidable."

"Timelines, plural?" Jim frowns. "Just how many alternate universes has this guy gate-crashed, anyway?"

"Four that I detected."

Jim whistles.

"Prime postulates that Nero's deployment of his energy weapon at the exact moment Red Matter caused the Romulan star to implode may have resulted in multiple versions of the Narada being sent to multiple alternative universes, ours being one of them, whereas Prime himself remained only a single individual, due to the infinitesimal time delay between the moments they breached the singularity."

"What the hell is Red Matter?" Jim screws his eyes shut and makes an exasperated gesture with one hand. "You suck at telling stories, seriously. Start from the beginning."

"The nature of 'the beginning' is open to interpretation," Spock objects.

"Okay, well, at least explain as you go, or draw diagrams, or something."

Spock looks at him askance. "Red Matter is a future technology developed by the Vulcan Science Academy for the purpose of creating a singularity. Its use was purely experimental at the time that Prime was called upon to utilize it to protect the planet Romulus from the impeding supernova of its primary star." Spock folds his hands in the small of his back, the bagel sticking out, carefully held to avoid contact with his clothing. "Prime incorrectly calculated the time required to succeed in this endeavour and the entire Romulan System was obliterated by the resulting supernova. Mentally imbalanced by grief and rage, Nero turned on Prime and in the ensuing battle, and both crafts were unable to escape the singularity."

Jim catches Spock's arm again, needing to convey the importance of understanding the whole mess correctly. "So you're saying that this is Nero's secret weapon? The thing he's using to destroy entire worlds, entire solar systems, it's Red Matter?"

"Affirmative."

"And Vulcans created it?"

"In an alternate timeline, yes."

Jim catches Spock's guarded expression and puffs his cheeks out in a huge sigh. "This will not sound good in our presentation."

"I am aware."

"And the Tat'sar?" Jim forges on stoically, figuring it's better to get it all out in one go and then recover.

"Her mission is to retrieve displaced survivors using future technology to track and interpret the fault lines created by the breach between the many alternate universes created by the massive singularity. Although Captain Senekot is responsible for the ship's defenses, the duties are minimal, and Prime is the commander of the vessel outside direct conflict."

"The refugees on board, they were from different universes?" Jim can't hide his interest. "That's so cool."

"I doubt they share your enthusiasm, stranded as they are."

"Of course," Jim sobers instantly. "What a mess."

They have reached the opposite edge of the park. Spock pulls the bagel out from behind his back and regards it with scientific interest. Jim watches Spock watching the bagel and comes to the conclusion they are in way over their heads. Getting the Federation Council to whip Starfleet into gear, change their deployment tactics, recognize the very real threat of a Romulan/Klingon alliance and get over the fact that Vulcans sort of, kind of, maybe created the problem in the first place ... it's going to take one hell of a presentation. He wants to ask Spock how Pike expects them to accomplish all that, instead, he points at the bagel in Spock's hands.

"You going to eat that or take notes on it?"

"Neither," says Spock as he begins walking in the direction of their hotel.


-:-


It's late that night, or early the following morning, depending on how you choose to look at it. Jim rubs at tired eyes with the back of his hand, pushing his reading glasses to an odd angle across his face. "Is that it?"

"I believe we have accomplished all that is possible," Spock accedes, voice slightly hoarse from the debating they've done.

"Thank god," Jim throws the glasses haphazardly across the table top, trusting to plassteel frames and scratch-proof lenses. "Because I feel like my brain is leaking out my ears."

"A very distasteful metaphor."

"Deal," Jim advises, leaning back against the couch and straightening his legs on the carpet. He's on the verge of cursing Spock's predilection for working on the floor, but knows he's tired and probably bitchy, so takes a long swallow of water instead. As if that last mouthful finally flushes through the previous liter, he gets to his feet with a cracking and popping of joints.

"I need to use the head."

On his way back, Jim disdains the hand-dryer, shaking off the excess water and wiping his hands down his jeans instead. He pauses at the entrance to the main room, finding Spock still sitting on the floor, the bridge of his nose held between thumb and forefinger.

"Headache?"

"Fatigue," Spock corrects him. "I am unaccustomed to the intensity of today's mental exertions."

"You should sleep."

"Affirmative."

"I should go."

"Jim?"

"Yes?" he pauses awkwardly, bent over to retrieve his jacket from the floor.

"I have come to the conclusion that Admiral Pike's trust in my abilities may have been misplaced," Spock admits from his cross-legged pose on the floor. "You are a more persuasive individual than I; it is only logical that you be the one to address the Council later today."

Jim straightens slowly, crosses back to the couch, flops down next to Spock so his knees are level with the Commander's chin. "No," he says firmly. "I'd only get angry, which hurts our cause. You'll convince them with cold logic. Irrefutable fact. Pike got it right; you're the guy." Then he grins. "You think I'm persuasive?"

Spock tilts his head, meets his eyes. "Very."

Jim's mouth goes dry. It's probably an innocent observation of fact, a simple, meaningless word, but he's so damn tired and wrong-footed that it sounds like a whole lot more. Spock is watching him impassively, waiting for whatever comes next. Jim can't help noticing the way the lamplight illuminates the strong lines of his face, the blue-blackness of his hair. In his head, he leans forward and tests a theory, reclaims a memory, but in reality he just grips Spock's shoulder and squeezes.

"Get some sleep."

Spock nods. "You also."

Jim drags his hand away, his eyes away, snatches up his jacket and his PADD and gets the hell out. He closes the door firmly behind himself, leans against it, tense and yet relieved. "Keep walking," he whispers aloud.

A few seconds tick by and he swallows thickly, pushing off into the hall, putting a couple more steps between them, like it makes a difference. His mind is babbling incoherently, posing theories about touch telepathy and clothing, Vulcan shields and emotional transference. He remembers the unexpected firmness of Spock's lips under his own and the fierce grip of hot hands around his throat. He fumbles the code to his room and has to re-enter it. His fingertips leave little dabs of perspiration on the screen. The place is dark and cold and utterly devoid of Vulcans.

Angrily, he stalks past the replicator, choosing to ignore the twenty different alcoholic beverages it's programmed to produce. A hangover is no cure for his ills. He strips, barks a heating order at the computer and jams his head through a faded henley before tumbling into bed in that and his boxers. The sheets are cold and stiff against his skin, sucking the warmth out of him. He stares resolutely at the wall, knowing it's unwise to close his eyes.

Minutes later, the worst of the chill is out of the air and his body has warmed the bed enough that his muscles relax a little. He wishes his mind could follow suit. He laughs through his nose, rolling onto his back in the darkness and shaking his head at his own stupidity. A Vulcan and his superior officer? Crazy, but he wants Spock. It's pretty damn clear. Perhaps the only thing that saved him from getting transferred before was the fact that he hadn't come to that realization when they kissed. It would have read to Spock like simple insanity; an impulsive, irrational human gesture. Now that Jim knows better, yeah, different story.

He massages his eyeballs until he sees stars, wondering which would be worse; telling Spock outright and getting shot down, or being randomly hauled into an office one day to address the 'inappropriate feelings' Spock has detected during the next time they accidentally touch.

"Fuck my life," Jim groans. "Seriously, of all the fucking people on the ship, it has to be him."

But of course, it does have to be Spock, that's precisely the point.

 

Chapter Text

Jim has had enough sleepless nights to know that nothing will totally dispel the thick feeling in his head or the heaviness in his eyes. Discounting the potential for being amped up on stims at the Council meeting, which he does not think is a good idea, he's left with only coffee to shore up the deficit between hours spent awake and asleep. He's really wishing he hadn't got up early that first day.

The only good thing about feeling so crap is simply being unable to muster the energy to think about his Spock dilemma. In fact, when he ambles across the corridor, PADD tucked under his arm and his third cup of strong coffee in hand, he only manages a grunt in lieu of a greeting. He's strangely self-satisfied by that. You don't grunt at someone you're crushing on, it's a rule or something. Maybe he was just tired and a little stressed the night before. He genuinely entertains that concept until he realizes Spock has only his undershirt on, and...fuck.

Jim scowls, shoves the PADD into Spock's chest and pushes past him. "I need more coffee."

"Your cup is full."

Jim downs the rest of the scalding brew like a shot and wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. "Wrong."

Spock crosses back to the kitchen bench, laying the PADD down with a plastic click while he shrugs into his overshirt. Jim turns back to see the last short, sharp tugs he employs to settle the garment, DivCO tabs glinting in the overhead lights.

"You ready for this?"

Spock looks up. "There is little alternative."

"Oh yeah, feel the confidence."

"Jim, it is highly unlikely the Council will reach a conclusion on this matter today, but should they, I have calculated only a forty-two percent likelihood of our major suggestions being actioned, and a mere seventeen percent chance that all our concerns will be adequately addressed. In light of this, a certain amount of realism is appropriate."

He claps a hand to Spock's shoulder, steers him towards the door. "For god's sake don't give them those statistics."

"To do so would be counterproductive."

"No shit."

"And thus, illogical."


-:-


Jim tries not to fidget during Starfleet's presentation, but they've got their facts wrong and it makes his skin crawl. The young Captain who's giving the address looks sincere enough, forcing Jim to entertain the possibility that he really just doesn't understand what's really going on. They're not winning, they're not even holding their own. On a good day, they don't get their asses handed to them and on a bad one there's nobody left for EPAS to save.

"Statistics," he sighs under his breath.

Spock's eyes dart to the left, a clear invitation for him to shut the hell up.

The assembled Federation Council consists of President Wescott, a distinguished-looking middle aged man with a tan and silvered hair. Jim likes him better in person than in the vids, the various Ministers and planetary representatives, military figures including Admiral Komack and a smattering of civilian interests, including EPAS. Pike's wife, Jessica, sits in his chair, in a nominal capacity only. As a speaker on today's, Spock is not entitled to substitute himself for the Admiral due to a perceived conflict of interest which Jim doesn't quite understand.

Even without Komack in the line-up, they would have been a difficult bunch to sway. The young Minister for Health, Sarah Lawson, is only sitting in on the Security Council's meeting due to the fact that EPAS has lobbied so hard to have her there, Pike amongst the most vocal and adamant that civilian security interests such as EPAS and the United Federation Center for Refugees and Displaced Peoples have to have a voice in military decisions. She is the lone sheep amongst the wolves, but if her confident posture and keen expression are anything to go by, Jim guesses she'll hold her own.

Lawson stands when the Starfleet Captain has finished his address. A new hush falls. "Mr. President, Ministers, Delegates and guest speakers," she begins firmly. "I call upon the Emergency Personnel Ambulance Service's Prime Division representative, Commander Spock, to speak on behalf of Admiral Pike."

"That's quite a mouthful," Jim mutters.

Spock pushes to his feet, ignoring him completely. "Thank you, Minister," he inclines his head to the room, forgoing lengthy introductions with an inherent graciousness that few could get away with. Jim forces himself to relax into his seat. The report is the best it can possibly be and Spock is a good speaker. This is their best shot.

"I regret to inform the Council that EPAS findings on border tensions differ greatly from those of Starfleet Intelligence," Spock says calmly, with no heat or judgement in his words. A simple statement of fact is all it is, but Komack still frowns mightily.

"EPAS has a unique perspective on recent conflicts, fleet deployment, resource management and military losses. We are present at nearly every major confrontation or arrive at the scene soon afterward, often staying in the region far longer than Starfleet personnel as part of the aid effort or refugee support programs. In order to most effectively deploy our two main Divisions, Prime and Beta, EPAS have long adhered to a custom of collecting and analyzing as much conflict data as possible. A full breakdown of our multi-faceted analysis is available in both quantitative and qualitative perspectives from your terminals now." He pauses to confirm with tech support that this has been facilitated.

Although Minister Lawson has doubtless already seen the report thanks to Pike, she makes a show of skimming the abstract and conclusion sections along with everyone else. If Jim wasn't used to interpreting Vulcan expressions, he might have missed the slightest nod she allows herself. Yeah, their findings are no surprise to her.

"The threat posed by the criminal Nero has long been recognized by this Council, and indeed the Federation as a whole," he pauses significantly.

The young representative from Vulcan appears unaffected by the reference to Vulcan-that-was. Spock's father is doubtless tied up in what Pike is dealing with on Nu'ri Ah'rak, and has sent an alternative representative from his office as Ambassador. Jim spares a moment to regret Sarek's absence. From the little he's seen and heard, Spock's father would have been a valuable asset today. Vulcans had already lost more than anyone else, and stood to lose even more if the EPAS analysis of the situation was correct.

"What has not been adequately quantified by Starfleet Intelligence is the very real and present danger posed by the Klingon Empire," Spock cuts to the heart of the matter, not batting an eyelid over the emotive terminology Jim had insisted upon. "Late last month, while the Federation was occupied with the unfortunate events that took place on Robicon IV, Nero and his fleet of Romulan Extremists launched a major and ultimately successful strike against the heart of Klingon space." Spock pauses again here, and Jim knows it is because he disagrees with the hyperbole that is to follow. "Essentially, the Klingon Empire is no more."

A furious muttering erupts along the Council table, as one by one, each of the representatives turns to their aides, their terminals or their earpieces to verify Spock's claim. Jim is counting on the fact that just as EPAS can't indisputably prove it has happened, neither can anyone disprove it. There is a long-standing acknowledgement amongst Intelligence communities that acquiring accurate data on Klingons is next to impossible. Violent and paranoid, they have tighter territorial control than any other species and are renowned for being trigger-happy. In recent times, with the Romulan threat dominating the scene, little to no inroads have been made into bettering information sources. Still, everyone has heard the rumours and seen the rapid increase in decentralized Klingon activity along the Neutral Zone.

"Can you support this claim?" Minister Lawson asks, clearly timing her question to cut off an impending tirade from Komack.

It is a question Jim has been dreading.

"While we can support it, Minister, it is not possible to prove it unequivocally," Spock admits.

"It is unwise to formulate opinion upon incomplete data," Sarek's replacement pronounces sternly. "Your logic is flawed."

"Elder," Spock chooses the Vulcan form of address as a sign of respect, but does not bow his head. "In these uncertain times, all of us are called upon to utilize what limited data we possess in order to draw the most likely conclusions. In doing so, we act to preserve the lives of our people and those others under our protection. Should we choose to wait for indisputable proof of the Klingon situation, it is likely that any action we then take would be insufficient to halt the destabilization of the Neutral Zone and the subsequent collapse of our combined military forces."

The two Vulcans stare at each other for a few moments and there is a sense of collectively-held breath. Then slowly, with great consideration, the Ambassador's aide inclines his head. "I acknowledge the necessity you have described, as well as the apparent veracity of the data you have collated. It is Vulcan's assumption that the Klingon Empire has been dissolved through direct military confrontation with Romulan forces."

"What?" Komack snaps, leaning forward to stare down the table. "You're not authorized to make decisions like that!"

"Indeed, I am."

Jim hides a small fist-pump and mentally urges Spock to continue before the livid Admiral steals the limelight.

"The Federation stands to lose much if the Klingon threat goes unaddressed," Spock interjects neatly. "You can see from our projection that many colonized worlds lie along the simulated front of engagement. If Nero were to take advantage of the Federation mandate to protect civilian lives, it would be logical for him to lead his fleet through this periphery, bypassing the need for direct confrontation with Starfleet forces until he is able to engage us from the flank, or the rear." Spock pinpoints this on the holographic map. "Predicted casualties from such a battle rival those of the first days of this ongoing confrontation."

"It doesn't escape me that New Vulcan lies within your projected threat area," Komack drawls, his eyes narrowed. "Or that your report clearly indicates that Vulcans themselves are responsible for the creation of Nero's secret weapon, this ..." he glances down at his terminal and spits out the term with distaste, "Red Matter."

Spock turns his head. "Admiral, it is unlikely to have escaped any of us."

"And Pike let you speak, with bias like that?" Komack chuckles and glances at the other Council members. "This is a clear conflict of interest."

The Vulcan representative straightens almost imperceptibly, but Jim doesn't miss it.

"Admiral Komack," Spock says coldly, drawing all eyes back to him. "Nu'ri Ah'rak does indeed like within the threat area, as does the Andorian, Robii and Elatsian homeworlds, not to mention interspecies colonies too numerous to mention. Would you suggest that any of their representatives should be disqualified for bias? Or indeed, that with Nero advancing further into Federation space every day, that any one of us, regardless of our racial affiliation, can be said to be uncompromised?"

Nobody seems willing to meet anybody else's eye across the Council table, except for Komack, who glares angrily at Spock. "This is a Security Council, not a diplomatic caucus, and while I'd never thought to see the day a Vulcan would stand before me confessing to emotional compromise, that's precisely what you've done. You are dismissed, Commander, on grounds of unsuitability."

The Minister for Health looks affronted and Spock shifts subtly, the change in stance a clear indicator to Jim that he is unsure how to proceed.

"I respectfully submit that whilst I am Vulcan and Red Matter was ..."

"Commander," Komack says coldly. "Your concerns have been heard. If EPAS is serious about all this, then let them send someone who is qualified to speak without manipulating the facts to suit their own ends."

"Perhaps I have not adequately expressed the ramifications of an armed and disenfranchised Klingon presence," Spock persists, knuckles blanching in the small of his back. "If Federation forces find themselves occupied on two fronts, the result ..."

The Admiral all but stands in his seat. "You overstep the mark, Spock. Don't presume to lecture this Council on matters of war when you have never served in one."

"Is it necessary to have fought in a war in order to have participated?" Spock's tone is flat, biting. "As a member of EPAS Prime Division, I have been present either during or immediately after nearly every major confrontation with the Romulan criminal Nero. Am I to believe that this experience counts for nothing simply because my mission is to preserve life rather than to take it?"

"By that measure, we might as well all sit here and listen to a catering yeoman's theories on how best to deploy our fleet." Komack's voice is scathing. "Or perhaps I should ask one of the maintenance engineers to reveal the nature of Nero's superior warp capability?"

Spock tilts his head and quirks one eyebrow in the way Jim knows spells trouble for the person on the receiving end. "You may find yourself significantly enlightened should you choose to do so."

"I don't care for your tone, Commander!" Komack turns a dangerous shade of red.

The look on Spock's face suggests there is a lot he doesn't care for right now, but with visible effort, he nods once in acceptance. "With the Council's permission?"

"I think we're done here," Komack says quickly.

The Admiral doesn't even bother with consent from around the table, which is a measure of Starfleet's current political influence that makes Jim furious. Minister Lawson catches his eye and makes a small suppressing motion with one hand. Jim nods, acknowledging but not really processing it or its implications. Komack's stubborn refusal to entertain the new threat is mind-blowing. Jim has the feeling that once he's regained use of his body he's going to have a few choice things to say. As it turns out, Spock beats him to it.

With a glare that is definitely short of respectful, he raises his hand in the ta'al and says tightly, "live long and prosper."

Before Jim has a chance to process the apoplectic look on Komack's face or the stunned expression on Lawson's, Spock's long fingers are digging into his elbow, propelling him out of the Council chambers with the urgency of someone with a lot to say and the intelligence to realize there are better places to say it. Jim allows himself to be led, having little alternative.


-:-


Back in the hotel, Spock pauses in his pacing and raises two steepled index fingers to his lips. "This development heralds a significant increase in risk for all field personnel."

Jim rouses himself from his stupor long enough to bury his head in his hands. "We are so fucked."

Dark eyes flick his way, but Spock does not correct him, just starts pacing again. That in itself is strange enough, as Jim can't remember ever seeing him unsettled enough to give into such a demonstrative method of coping with stress. Spock has been busy wearing holes in the carpet, punctuated only by silent but pregnant pauses, whilst Jim is on the sofa, feet on the coffee table, slouched low so his head is level with the cushions.

He raises his head, sandy hair sticking up at right angles. "What are we going to do?"

Spock glances at him as he stalks past. "I do not know."

"We can't just let them ignore the threat."

"They seem intent upon doing so."

"Yeah well, it's not them who are going to be out there in the middle of this mess, it's us," Jim says, offended. "They get to sit here in their offices and shake their heads about how it might have been a good idea to, oh, I don't know, actually read our report, but you'll be scraping me off a bulkhead somewhere for Bones to package up and post to my mom."

That brings Spock to an abrupt halt. "I will not allow that to happen."

"You're going to make the Council vote to send a peace envoy into the Klingon Neutral Zone?"

Spock spreads his hands. "I am unable to devise a method by which that could be accomplished."

"That's because we don't have one," Jim sighs. "There just isn't one. It's a no win scenario."

The words fall on the suddenly silent air like a death sentence. The two stare at one another, taking stock of the shape of things to come. It's dangerous out there already, in the places they do their job, the fragile and ever-shifting lines separating the safe from the suicidal. Adding a horde of angry, displaced Klingons to the mix isn't going to help, and that's the personal angle, let alone the wider consequences.

"If only Pike were on the Council," Jim bemoans aloud.

"He is not," Spock all but snaps. "Nor is he available for consultation. It is up to us."

"Well, apparently we're not good enough."

Spock looks at him with worried eyes, large and brown under an impressive frown.

Jim lets his head fall back, eyes up to the ceiling, feeling the wrongness of that coalesce in his chest; a pulsing kernel of anger and rebellion. He doesn't believe in the no-win, hasn't let himself believe in it, but in order to come out on top he needs to change the parameters of the situation and he has no power to do so. A Federation ambassador at Ql'tomer is the switch in the tracks that could redirect this runaway fuck-up, but he can't make it happen, knows nobody who can.

Suddenly, punctuated by a frisson of apprehension, several things fall into place in his mind. With something akin to fear, Jim raises his head again and catches Spock's eye. The Commander senses his mood easily enough, has seen that look of revelation before. An eyebrow asks the question.

Jim licks his lips. "Your father's an Ambassador, right?"

Spock simply nods.

"What would it take for Vulcan to send an Ambassador like your father without Federation approval?" Jim asks, and watches carefully.

Spock stares at him. "Such action is unprecedented."

"Desperate times call for desperate measures. Besides, you guys were out there kicking ass and taking names long before we'd even made it to the moon. I'd call that a pretty big precedent."

Spock acknowledges this with a flicker of his brows and a tilt of his head. "The High Council has chosen to respect the diplomatic boundaries set in place by the Federation Treaty and no longer act independently in such matters. The motivation required to alter that decision would be significant indeed."

"But it could be done?" Jim presses, leaning forward on the couch, hands gripping his knees.

"In theory," Spock capitulates, then his eyes narrow. "You have a plan."

"No," Jim shakes his head, frustrated but inexplicably hopeful. "Not a plan, just hope and the bare bones of an idea." He stands, suddenly gripped by Spock's restlessness. "I can't even articulate it," he sighs angrily, "but it's there. All I need is something to bring it into focus."

"Perhaps, with time ..."

"Time is the one thing we don't have."

Spock is suddenly the still one, the calm one, when he counsels, "it is illogical to expect a solution to present itself fully formed and requiring no deliberation."

Jim reaches out, grins, claps him on the shoulder. "That's what all my best ideas are like. I'm going for a run." He snatches up his jacket and strides to the door, buzzing with energy. "Perhaps that will do the trick."

"We have less than two hours before the end of Shore Leave," Spock reminds him.

Jim just shrugs and says, "some fucking holiday, right?" and leaves Spock standing in the middle of the room.


-:-


Jim runs. He runs and runs until his throat burns and his chest aches, conscious of time running out in more ways than one. Komack's voice wars with Spock's in his head, and all the while he can't shake the notion that he's missing a crucial piece to their puzzle. He knows how to shift the Council's paradigm, understands what motivates them if not the self-serving agenda behind it, but lacks a fulcrum to throw his weight upon. Still angry, he takes the hotel stairs two at a time, breath coming hard and echoing in the enclosed space. He showers briskly, the water cooler than he normally favours, still feeling hot from exertion and furious thinking.

He dresses and packs in silence, the rasp of zippers and shift of his uniform the only soundtrack to his ongoing search for answers. The books he'd hoped to store sit in a pile on the bed. He replicates a box, addresses it to his mother's place in Iowa and leaves it with reception on his way out. She might not unpack them for him, but she won't throw them out, either. Besides, it's even money on which one of them goes home first. As far as he knows, it's been five years since she's been to Riverside.

Spock is waiting for him in the lobby. As he walks up, Jim considers saying something about it not being necessary, but truthfully, he appreciates it, so he shuts the hell up.

"Back to work?" He smiles at the irony and shoulders his single bag.

Spock says nothing, has probably sent his bag ahead, and simply falls into step on the way out of the rotating doors.

The shuttle to Luna is packed, and they're forced to stand. Jim spends the trip staring at the back of Spock's head. It reminds him uncomfortably of their second meeting, not in a Vegan ocean, but in the selfsame spaceport they've just left. How it could be only just shy of two years ago, Jim has no idea. Who he was then, who he imagined he might become, is so far from the reality he's living that it's almost incomprehensible. Unconsciously, his mind skips tracks, finally abandoning the frustration of politics and battle lines. What could have been a terminally boring ride becomes an introspective exercise instead. Yeah, sure, everything is going to shit and they're all probably going to end up subjugated or dead, but it might be possible that he's finally, finally found his niche.

He really loves his job, which is weird since it's gruelling and dangerous and hardly ever appreciated outside of an immediate sense. He's not making headlines or changing the world, but he is making a tangible difference; one he can see. He loves the people he works with. They're insane and brilliant and some of the bravest people he's ever met. They've influenced him more during his time aboard the Stalwart than nearly anyone else has in the years before. He has a home, even if it's constantly moving, and friends to share it with. He has a life that's worth something. He has people to look up to and a healthy share of respect himself. What's more, he feels like he's earned it. Nothing in EPAS is taken on face value, nothing is ever assumed. Whatever he is among them is what he's carved out for himself, absent the legacy of family or reputation. Surrounded by rigid discipline, endless hard work and little material reward, he honestly feels comfortable just being Jim Kirk.

He disembarks dazedly at Luna, haunted by the feeling that he's just had an epiphany, but the nature of it remains hazy and insubstantial. Spock looks at him strangely, which is to say that Spock spends more than half a second doing it.

"Are you well?"

Jim frowns. "I just spent twenty minutes studying your hairline and now I think my life makes sense."

"Incredible," Spock replies, probably in the literal sense.

"Come on," Jim encourages, lightly touching him on the elbow. "Let's go home."

 

Chapter Text

It's inevitable, of course, that they run headlong into a battle on their way to Nu'ri Ah'rak. Looking back on it, Jim supposes he should have seen it coming. The weeks of tidying up little skirmishes along the ever-moving borders of this conflict has left both sides spoiling for a decisive confrontation. What he doesn't expect is to be up on the bridge with Spock, talking to the Captain, when it happens.

They drop out of warp at a waypoint, ready for their next course correction, when suddenly the air is full of wailing sirens. The deck leaps beneath their feet as the Stalwart plows through debris. He's thrown to his knees, sees Spock ricochet off the navigation console, steadying himself, white-fingered, by its edge.

"Red Alert!" Taylor yells, hands tight on the arms of his chair. "Ops, report!"

Gaila swivels in her chair, finger jammed in her ear, getting every last nuance out of the receiver. "Full-scale battle underway, Captain," she reports. "Three Constitution class ships remaining, two others destroyed. Scattered support vessels taking heavy damage. Four Vulcan vessels, two other unidentified crafts assisting. The Narada is situated at the epicenter, approximately two hundred seventy point four clicks x, ten z, minus fourteen y, sir." She looks up, eyes wide. "The Lincoln is going down sir, shields at eight percent."

Jim has to hand it to Taylor; he does this part of the job really damn well.

"Spock, Kirk!" he snaps, "get your birds in the air!"

"Aye, sir," Spock salutes, already moving.

"The rest of you," Taylor continues, "I want a clear map of this mess. Navigation, plot us above the wreckage for a bird's eye view. Ops, I need a prioritized survivor overlay immediately; scan for EPIRBs. Communications, deploy an emergency buoy. Helm, take us up, full impulse."

The lift doors close and Spock pushes his finger into the emergency override, disengaging the safeties and plummeting them so fast that the inertial dampeners can't compensate and Jim's stomach rises uncomfortably. Against the tense silence that surrounds them, Jim knows the rest of the ship is scrambling for their stations. Points are rolling out of bed, jamming their feet into boots and sprinting down corridors without even doing them up. Techs are powering up engines, running checks. Engineering is cycling what little shielding they have, bringing them to full defensive capability. Medics are building kits, trying to decide what added extras they want; are there going to be burns? Decompressions? Close range disruptor wounds? In what proportions and how severe?

The lift hits the hangar deck with less than its usual grace. He and Spock are out the doors and running towards the changing rooms before the voice has finished announcing their level.

Jim palms his locker, strips his outer uniform and stamps his boots into the legs of the EVA suit. The ankle seals he slaps closed with an open palm whilst simultaneously shrugging into the shoulders. Two zips, hood over his head, wrist seals, visor under his arm and he's good. They both turn at the same time, falling into step, eyes on the glow of Nix's reconditioned engines. Jim has a hard time suppressing the swell in his chest when he sees Bones and Uhura already waiting for them.

They hit the deck running, boots sharp on the plassteel. Around them, other senior crews are also set to deploy. Spock toggles his comm.

"All crews, this is Commander Spock," he says, voice even despite the jogging. "The precise military situation is unknown. Advise extreme caution. Remain peripheral to the zones of active combat. For all else: standard operating procedure applies. Deploy when ready. Spock out."

A rush of confirming comm clicks follows, with everyone obeying protocol and keeping verbal chatter to a minimum. Then Jim is jumping into the shuttle in Spock's wake, barely clipping in before Uhura polarizes the atmo shield and rolls them out.

"Good to go?" she calls over her shoulder.

"Good," McCoy barks.

"Good here," Jim adds.

"Take us out Lieutenant," says Spock.

The familiar slingshot snaps him back into his seat, the deck rushing past the open doors, morphing to blackness and stars as they shoot out of the bay doors and tumble into space. Immediately, the shields spark and stutter blue. Uhura swears and rolls them into a steep climb, twisting and turning between chunks of what used to be a Federation starship. Jim shuts his eyes and swallows his stomach.

Behind him, McCoy groans. "Jesus, woman."

ED996, this is Ops, got your ears on?

Spock is talking to the whole Division, so Jim thumbs his comm. "We're listening, Gaila, go ahead."

I've got multiple EPIRBs. I'm going to drop you into hammer lane. Watch your back door and stay clear of the disco lights.

"Copy that," he acknowledges, then leans forward to Uhura. "New vector coming through. You can punch it hard even though it's hot, but we need eyes on our six."

"I've got ED202 and ED441 in convoy," Uhura counters. "New co-ordinates locked in. ETA one point six minutes."

Jim turns back to the main room. "One point six, folks."

Spock nods.

"Do we know the situation?" McCoy demands.

Jim flips out his tricorder, syncs it with the Ops feed and frowns. "Free-floaters by two, six in a pod and nominal readings from aft engineering decks. Ship's Vulcan."

An explosion rocks the shuttle. Jim is thrown forward against his harness, tastes bile in his throat as the straps cut into his diaphragm. There's a stream of invective from the cockpit as Uhura rights them, then a clang as something breaches the shields and impacts on the hull. They roll again, dampeners faulting out under the strain, everything going weightless and blurry as they do a full three-sixty before resuming course.

"Fuck, this is messy," Jim gasps between breaths as gravity returns.

"Way too old for this shit," McCoy adds, one hand pressed to his chest.

"Thirty seconds," Uhura calls, never taking her eyes from the instruments.

Jim and Spock release their harnesses and get ready to go EVA. The people in the pod are safest right now and those trapped in the wreck the most difficult to extricate. Procedure dictates they pick up the floaters first; they're at greatest immediate risk.

The two Points are standing ready, feet on the runner, hands on the grips and their lines locked in. McCoy pulls his mask down, ready for any unexpected loss of pressure like the one Jim experienced during training.

"Paki-sutra. Sokasitau zaprah," Uhura broadcasts. "Stranded crew, prepare for rescue. Place your arms across your chest. Do not attempt to assist. Nes'qlil abru'e'ksedj. Nirsh bae'cok gol-nev."

Jim leans slowly out through the forcefield, feeling the pressure like water against his suit as it yields to his slow progress. He braces himself, quads flexed, consciously slowing his breathing because he still hates EVA saves. The vectors on his HUD go green and he feels the rightness of them. With a grunt of effort, he launches himself into space, line playing out behind him. His mark is spinning slightly but obeys Uhura's orders and doesn't make it a difficult save by flailing around. Jim catches the figure neatly against his chest, absorbing the momentum and the spin with a very brief burst of compressed air from his belt. The pale Vulcan face is impressively composed.

"Tonk'pe," Jim grins, 'hi.' He shrugs the sling into place, securing them together.

Turning his head and searching across space, there's Spock, also played out behind Nix like a fish on a hook, the other save in place. They trail behind the shuttle on the end of their lines. It's dangerous and exposed. Neither waste any time reeling themselves in, eyes on the space around them, adjusting their plane when shrapnel comes too close for comfort.

Jim's save staggers a little on the lip of the deck, adjusting to gravity after weightlessness. Jim steadies him, slipping through afterwards, line still locked in. The Vulcan reaches for his helmet but Jim knocks on it, drawing his attention.

"Leave it on," he shouts, shaking his head. "Procedure."

Both points disengage the slings and McCoy ushers their first saves onto the small transporter pad. The tall Vulcans crouch much as Spock has to, silent and apparently unaffected. However, just as Uhura energizes the beam, Jim's save looks up, catching his eye, and nods, once.

Jim salutes, one finger to his hairline and smiles. "You're welcome."

They disappear in a flare of sparks, clearing the pad so Spock and Jim can both step on. They drop low, sitting on their heels, vulnerable without a harness or a locked-in line.

McCoy glares at them from his seat, leaning against the shoulder straps. "Those life signs are questionable at best," he warns. "They're either dead or in pretty bad shape, so don't screw around. Tag them and beam them to me, or beam me in after you. Don't play doctors and nurses."

"I've got a lock," Uhura calls. "It's going to be tight."

"Acknowledged," Spock replies.

"Energizing."

The world goes silver then re-forms around them.

"Ow!" Jim mutters as he stands and collects an overhanging conduit on the way.

"Engineering is this way," Spock says, already walking with tricorder switched on.

"Good, ‘cause I..."

A disruptor bolt shatters the darkness, heating the air enough that Jim can feel it through his suit. Spock lunges, his form outlined in light. The bolt goes wide, impacting a fuel-mix console with a shower of sparks. Starfleet training kicking in, Jim rolls, gets his feet under him and throws himself forward, firing three shots in quick succession, not even sure when he drew his phaser.

The second shot finds the target, the third just makes sure he stays unconscious. Jim comes up panting, arm still extended, eyes on the crumpled, tattooed body. "Spock, you good?"

"I am functional."

Jim glances back, because that's not a yes. Spock is standing stiffly, leaning against the bulkhead. Across his shoulder, a green stain is spreading slowly.

Jim turns, holsters his phaser. "I thought he missed."

"He did," Spock agrees, then uses his head to indicate the cross-corridor. "His companion did not."

"What?" Jim peers into the darkness, only now seeing their second assailant, face-down on the deck. "Where did he come from?" He thumbs his comm whilst walking. "Gaila, Uhura, we've got some pointy-eared company."

"You were otherwise occupied," Spock reminds him, then, "it is not EPAS protocol to actively engage the enemy."

"He was shooting at us!" he objects, close enough now, to run the tricorder over Spock's shoulder and frown. "What was I supposed to do, negotiate a peace treaty?"

"Under the circumstances, I think not," Spock manages between gritted teeth as Jim rummages in his field kit and presses a wadded-up bandage to the wound. "There is no serious damage."

"A clean shot," Jim agrees. "This should do it." He slaps a seal over the impromptu packing and makes sure it will hold in vacuum. "There, done."

Spock has his composure back and simply nods, pushing off from the wall, compartmentalizing the pain in a way Jim never could. "This way."

"Kirk to McCoy," Jim says into his lapel mic. "We've taken fire. Spock's been hit, grade one only, he's stable. Continuing with the mission."

Goddamn it! Bones growls. Copy that, McCoy out.

Duty discharged, Jim jogs to catch up, running his own tricorder in a complementary grid, giving them a wider play. Damned if he's going to be surprised again. He distractedly acknowledges Gaila's apology for not picking up the Romulans; there'll be enough time to analyze that in debrief, if they all make it back in one piece.

"I've got a live one," he announces, picking up the pace.

Jim's tricorder leads them to a buckled door set in a bulkhead. Environmental controls are down, their HUDs reporting plummeting temperatures. Whoever's on the other side of that door won't be able to withstand those conditions for much longer. Spock drops to his knees, scans the reinforced hinges.

"Two charges," he says confidently, pulling one from his pack and holding a hand out for one of Jim's. He places them carefully, primes the microwave pulse detonators and then knocks sharply on the door to gain attention from the inside. "Yuzh-tor!" he calls loudly. "Thorshau-tukh thorshaya!"

The Vulcan inside adequately warned, both Spock and Jim take cover around the corner, taking the precaution of securing a line to the frame in case their small explosion weakens the already damaged infrastructure to the point where the hull is breached.

"Veh! Dahkuh! Rekuh!" Spock shouts the countdown and presses the switch.

Two sharp pops are followed by compressed air deflecting off the bulkheads. It finds them even around the corner; a concussive wave of surprising proportions considering the size of the charge. EPAS units are designed to be lightweight but extremely effective; hence the early adoption of the very stable but highly explosive Neussite 293.

Unhooking, they move back into the main corridor, assessing the effectiveness of the detonation. The top hinge is completely obliterated, but the bottom one is merely shattered.

"After you," Jim offers with a grandiose wave of his hands. Spock has more mass, more strength and probably a better idea of the physics behind where to apply them. Jim palms his phaser, setting himself up at an angle near the jamb that will allow him to cover most of the room's interior as well as the corridor behind them. Vulcan and Romulan life signs are easy to confuse, especially in the injured, when vital signs are aberrant. Whoever is on the other side of the door could be either friend or foe.

Spock takes a three step run up and crashes into the door. The remaining hinge yields immediately and the door crashes to the floor with a thunderous clang. Jim whips into the room, phaser at arm's length and braced in both hands, but all that greets him is a Vulcan technician lying in a pool of his own blood. It's so cold in the room that the edges of the mess he lies in are already beginning to freeze.

Spock unshoulders his pack, dropping it to the floor and completing a preliminary physical scan with patented efficiency. Jim doesn't need the red flashing lights to know that this save will be touch and go.

"Gaila, this is Kirk, over," he comms, frowning.

Go ahead, Jim.

"I need an updated lifesigns scan of the wreck we're on. It needs to be fast and it needs to be accurate," he glances down at Spock who is working hard to stabilize their young Vulcan. "We've got a bleeder and we need medical back-up, over."

Copy that, give me fifteen seconds.

Jim kneels on the opposite side of their patient, the comm on hands-free. "What have we got?"

"Major ascending vessel damage," Spock says tightly, "here, here and here. Apply pressure while I administer vasoconstrictors."

Jim takes two sterile pads and presses them hard into the hole in the tech's abdomen.

Nix Alpha Points, please be advised nil other lifesigns aboard your current location, a different Ops voice replies.

Jim can't spare a moment to wonder what happened to Gaila. "Copy that, Ops. Thank you."

Spock glances over. "Are you able to ..."

He doesn't get to finish that sentence because their patient chooses that moment to regain consciousness. His body goes tight as bowstring, dislodging Jim's hands and sending a bright fountain of green blood into the air.

Spock says something under his breath and leans on the young Vulcan's shoulder with his free hand, also pressing down on the boy's thigh with his knee. The tech gasps, coughs, lets out a strangled groan, and it sounds so much worse coming out of a Vulcan than it does a human.

"Thonaya!" he whimpers, pain, torment!

"For god's sake, give him something," Jim grits out, struggling to hold him down and not needing any translation.

"I can give nothing that will not counteract the vasoconstrictors," Spock replies, adding his hand to the pressure of Jim's, pressing his fingers deeper into the steadily gushing wound. "He must practice vedrah prah."

"Like this?" Jim asks, shocked. Mind discipline is all very well, but he doesn't imagine anyone can meditate while they're bleeding out.

"We require the services of Doctor McCoy."

"No shit," Jim agrees. "We're clear; this guy's the only one alive on this boat and there are supposedly no more Romulan surprises either. That's straight from Ops."

Spock lifts his blood soaked hand to his comm, forcing Jim to lean down harder in compensation.

"ED996, this is Spock, over."

Uhura here. Go ahead.

"Beam Doctor McCoy directly to our current location. Full EVA required. Instruct him to bring analgesics that will not adversely interact with netinaline."

Spock, presuming you're working on a Vulcan, I've got nothing in the field kit that fits that description, McCoy interjects.

"Doctor ..." Spock begins sternly.

I'm coming, I'm coming, is the harried reply as their patient's whimpers carry over the comm channel. Keep doing what you can.

The line clicks closed and the two Points exchange glances. Two minutes, perhaps, to suit up. Another minute for the transporter, and that's presuming Nix is still close enough to use the transporter immediately. It's a war zone out there and Uhura may well have had to relocate. A stationary target is tempting regardless of its non-combative status. Their young technician might not have that long.

Then, on the closed comm, Uhura asks the question that sinks everything.

Spock, Kirk, what about the survivors in the pod?

They lock eyes.

"Shit," says Jim.

Spock is forced to manually compress a major artery as the tech arches again, putting more pressure on perforated vessels. His fingers slip and slide along blood-wet visceral tissue even while his face remains impassive. "Threat assessment?" he demands over the comm.

Amber, Uhura replies. They've got maybe six minutes before they drift into the Lincoln's automated defensive grid. She can't afford to pull her punches with the Narada so close to breaking through. It'll be friendly fire.

From the tightening of Spock's jaw, he can't live with that, and frankly, neither can Jim.

"Reassign the save, Lieutenant," Spock instructs.

After a moment's silence, Uhura sounds apologetic. There's nobody else, sir.

If Spock were human, Jim has the feeling he'd hang his head right now. Instead, he exhales once and nods. "Lieutenant Uhura, beam Doctor McCoy to our location, then take the life pod in tow and return to the Stalwart, all possible haste."

Aye, sir, she replies, no trace of hesitation.

Jim swallows. It's not a good situation to be in; three essentially unarmed Federation personnel and one critically wounded Vulcan left deliberately stranded aboard a Vulcan battleship just littered with precious tech that Nero could turn to his advantage. He roughly calculates the best possible round-trip duration for Nix and even factoring in Uhura's sensational piloting skills, it's a hell of a long time. Too damn long for comfort.

The low buzz of a transporter breaks his train of thought as McCoy materializes a few feet to the left.

"Welcome to the party, Bones."

The doctor's eyes widen. "Holy mother of ... has he got any blood left in him? What the hell have you hacks been doing?"

For all his brusqueness, McCoy nods with approval when he notices the empty vials of netinaline on the deck and Spock's desperate grip inside the wound. Jim shuffles aside on his knees, keeping the pressure on but giving the doctor space to work. First thing McCoy does is pull a thrombosis kit from his overloaded pack to slow the peripheral bleeding so they can begin to assess the more life-threatening damage.

"Packs," he demands gruffly, swatting Jim's hands aside and replacing them with his own.

Gloves slippery with blood, Jim fumbles at the tabs twice before getting the plastic wrapping to part.

"Damn it, I said packs!"

"Keep your shirt on."

The tech calls out, spine lifting off the deck despite the hasty reapplication of Jim's weight to his shoulder.

McCoy curses profoundly. "I can't work like this. I'm going to have to give him two cc's of sonambutril."

"To do so could kill him," Spock objects.

McCoy looks up, suit already green with blood. "You don't think I know that? I'm out of options."

Jim watches Spock's expression harden. He knows that look but has never seen it on Spock before. It's the expression of a man who's backed into a corner; someone who's only remaining option is one he'd never otherwise consider.

"Sonambutril will not be necessary, doctor," he says flatly, then extends one gloved hand towards Jim, wrist turned so that the seal is easy to disengage.

Jim stares at it, unsure what to do, but Spock just presses it closer, demanding, fingers splayed. Obediently, Jim pops the seal and holds onto the fingertips while Spock jerks his hand free. Instantly, his warmth-loving Vulcan skin blanches white and green in the subzero temperatures. McCoy tuts under his breath, but clearly already knows what Spock is planning, has probably seen him do it before, because it's only Jim who seems surprised when Spock presses his hand against the tech's face. Fingers feather out, pressing harder, finding the meld points. He doesn't have time for ritual or preparation and both of them tense and hiss as Spock links them.
All at once, the patient goes limp, his eyes wide and fixed on the ceiling. Spock sits crouched over him, one knee still on his shoulder, free hand clamped down on the major bleeder so hard that it takes all of McCoy's strength to get him to release it so he can get to work.

McCoy snaps his fingers, sending a splatter of blood across the deck. "Pay attention! Hand me that cauterizer; there's a hell of a mess in here. Also, draw me up a double dose of pulmozine, I don't like the look of his oxygen saturation. He's lost a lot of blood but I can't give him anything except plasma expanders. Supplies of Vulcan blood are so low these days."

Jim does as he's told, slapping the instruments to the palm of McCoy's hand so he doesn't have to look around in order to grasp them, doesn't have to break his concentration again. They work steadily, quickly and effectively to stabilize the patient, McCoy dosing him with broad spectrum antibiotics and antivirals as he closes each visceral layer. Even under these circumstances, his work is exceptionally neat, years of field experience and research showing in every movement, every touch. Inside his visor, Jim can see a bead of perspiration slide down from his hairline; McCoy doesn't even blink when it slips into his eye.

"There," he pronounces, sitting back on his heels and shaking out a thermal blanket over the tech. "How long until pick up?"

Jim straightens his shoulders and cracks his neck. "Uhura, ETA, over?"

Three minutes, comes the prompt reply. I've got your frequencies locked.

McCoy nods, the strain showing in the freshly pressed lines around his eyes, then he nods at Spock and mimes a backhand. "I won't deny you the pleasure."

Jim feels his eyes widen. "Why do we have to hit him again?"

The doctor gives him a longsuffering look. "In case you haven't noticed, that's no ordinary mind meld. He's in deep, probably too deep." With a sigh, he slaps a stimulant into a hypo and hands it to Jim. "I really hate it when he does this."

Ignoring the pins and needles, Jim straightens and circles the gory operating area to hunker down next to Spock. "How often does this happen?"

McCoy stands, sanitizing his gloves and throwing aside the towel carelessly. "Not often. I don't think he's a huge fan of the consequences of this particular party trick."

"Consequences?" Jim has his hands on the neck seal of Spock's suit, ready to slip the hypo inside, but he pauses.

McCoy smirks. "You'll be fine, kid."

"Where are you going?" Jim tries to sound normal.

"Some fresh air," McCoy jokes, stepping over the ruined door. "Ashe used to handle this; he really hates it when I watch."

Jim hears the doctor put a few meters between them, ducking out of sight but not so far that it will take a separate transporter lock to beam them all out. Nervous now, he turns back to Spock. His brown eyes are fixed and staring, unblinking below his frown of deep concentration. With a shrug, Jim presses the hypo into the vulnerable skin of his neck and then closes the suit, pushes back the visor and slaps him once, hard, across the face.

Spock's hand comes free of the tech's face as he explodes into movement, arms flailing, hands grasping in sheer, unadulterated panic. Beside them, the tech goes limp against the deck, falling into a natural unconsciousness.

"Safek-kusut-nosh!" Spock cries, gripping Jim's arm whilst simultaneously trying to stand and consequently failing abysmally in the attempt, slipping back to the deck, boots wet with blood. "P'pil'la'ai!" he gasps, "K'oh-nar-veh, ki-gla tor nash-veh vash!"

Spock is blabbering about pain, broken things and shame, real fear plastered across his face. It's scary as shit and Jim reacts before he can think about it, giving him a little shake by the shoulders. "Spock, snap out of it."

"So much!" he moans, squeezing his eyes closed, switching easily to Standard. "I cannot feel the place where death ends and I begin, I must have kya'shin tren'es!"

He lapses back into Vulcan to explain something so inherent to his people's study of control that it has no proper translation. Jim can only hear the desperation in it, the total loss of self. He shifts his grip, takes Spock's face firmly, frames it in his gloves. "Listen to me, come on," he encourages. "Get it together."

Spock manages a nod, eyes tightly closed. When he opens them again, something like recognition dances across them.

"Better," Jim tells him. "Much better. Holy shit, you scared the fuck out of me. No wonder Bones disappeared. I'm going to kick his ass."

"The doctor," Spock manages. "Stoll."

Jim inclines his head at the unconscious technician. "Is that Stoll?"

Spock nods.

"He's stable, McCoy's just outside and we're about a minute away from getting beamed off this floating refrigerator," he explains, then reaches for Spock's discarded glove. "Here, your hand's going olive."

Spock stares at the glove for a moment as if unsure of its purpose, but then, to Jim's relief, reaches for it and slips it back on. There are few moments of silence broken only by the injured tech's labored breathing.

"My patient still alive in there?" McCoy bellows from the corridor.

"Dancing a jig," Jim calls back.

Their transponders chime just as Uhura comes over the comms. Nix crew, prepare for beam out, over.

Spock finally lifts his eyes from his hands, thumbing his collar comm. "Copy that, Lieutenant. Three crew, plus one category three patient." His voice is full of gravel and none too steady.

Destination on your cat three?

"Straight to sickbay, Uhura," Bones chips in, stomping back into the room wearing his usual frown. "Transmitting field notes now. He has to be prepped for surgery straight away, no sitting in a holding bay, understand?"

Copy that. Stand by for transporter.

The tech disappears in a swirl of light, leaving the three crew standing around an impressive pool of green blood. McCoy kicks the toe of his boot idly at a point that has totally crystallized in the cold, crunching it against the deck. Jim's legs are screaming; he wants to stand up, but something about the way Spock is kneeling makes him think the Commander might not be able to join him.

"Hey," he draws Spock's attention in an undertone. "You okay?"

Imperfectly composed, he nods. "Adequate."

Just before the transporter takes them, Jim flashes back to the intensity of Spock's withdrawal from the meld. He blinks out of existence with ki-gla tor nash-veh vash ringing in his ears. I have seen terror ...

-:-

The waypoint beacon blinks steadily, scorched but functional. Around it, pieces of starships and the bodies of many different races spin lazily against the stars. Some of them are beginning to clump together, the mass of larger items attracting others into their orbit, like filings to a magnet. Retrieving the dead will fall to some other unfortunate crew.

The Stalwart maintains a slow but steady course for Nu'ri Ah'rak loaded down with survivors, her warp engines significantly damaged during the fighting. Best speed is warp two, leaving them approximately twelve point seven hours late for their rendezvous with Admiral Pike. Of more concern to Spock is the hit taken by the bridge, with all its resultant damage. Several crewmembers were injured and vital equipment damaged beyond repair. Captain Taylor hopes to source replacements at the Vulcan colony, but the components they need are old and outdated like the ship. Spock is less optimistic.

"Spock? I said what do you want me to do about the Communications re-route? Leave it hardwired into Ops for the moment?"

He lifts his head at the sound of Jim's voice, disturbed to realize he has only the vaguest sense of the conversational trend. "Would you repeat that?"

"Okay," Kirk sighs, putting down his PADD decisively. "The ship's not on fire anymore, and you've signed absolutely everything including the kitchen roster. This can wait until you've slept or meditated or plugged yourself into a wall socket. We're going to sickbay."

Spock watches his Point One stalk around the desk to stand, hands on hips, waiting. Although the Lieutenant seems to draw the line at manhandling him, Spock is not certain the threat is entirely absent. Jim appears most determined.

"Very well," he says, and stands smartly, ignoring the burning in his shoulder and the whole body ache.

When they reach the corridor and Kirk is still following him, Spock pauses, frowning. "I do not require your assistance."

Jim’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes. "You got it," he shrugs, backing away a few steps before turning.

Spock's frown deepens as Jim walks away. He is too tired, too drained to process the intricacies of human behaviour, yet their exchange remains troubling. Although his feet carry him towards sickbay, his attention remains fixed in that moment, captive to a sense of vague loss and confusion.

McCoy treats his shoulder wound without once reprimanding him for the delay in getting it seen to. The doctor's eyes are intent on his work, his hands steady and professional. Spock says nothing, perched on the edge of a biobed, shirtless with legs dangling.

"Do you want something?" McCoy asks at the end.

Spock does not pretend to misunderstand. "No," he says, then, "thank you."

The doctor sighs heavily and leans on the heels of his hands, pressed into the mattress next to Spock's thighs. "I don't care who you are or where you're from, nothing about the way you deal with this is healthy."

"Your concern is gratifying." Spock reaches for a new undershirt and carefully pulls it over his head, hyperaware of the fresh, greenish skin along his collar bone. "Be assured I intend spend the next four hours in sleep and meditation."

McCoy looks up, Spock's own fatigue reflected in his kindly eyes. "Is it enough?"

Spock slides off the biobed and pauses. "It is not."

The doctor does not try to stop him as he leaves.

He gets as far as the door to his quarters when the ship lurches, throwing him violently to the deck. The lighting flickers then shuts down. Dim emergency overheads snap on, whilst beneath his hands, the strip lighting embedded in the floor starts cycling in the direction of the nearest exit.

Commander Spock, report.

He pushes to his knees, thumbs the comm. "Spock here."

Sir, Captain Taylor wants you down in Engineering, asap.

"Understood."

He gets to his feet, strides over to the nearest jeffries tube and begins his descent. Turbolifts will be disabled to conserve power. The only areas with full functionality will be ship-wide life support and the operating theatres in sickbay.

Every rung pulls at his new skin while the chill of only a single layer of clothing begins to settle in. A small, tired part of Spock's mind yearns for a warm, dark place where he can rest. A mere handful of minutes is all he would require. He pushes the thought away as the Engineering deck rises under his feet. He knows the ship's schematics by heart, which serves him well in the gloom of minimal lighting. Acrid smoke is rising into the tube as he approaches his destination. Automatically, he identifies silicate compounds, carbon and plastics; irritating but non toxic in such low concentrations.

Ducking through the small porthole, he straightens and surveys the scene. Engineers scurry from place to place with fire extinguishers in hand, shooting small bursts at any lingering flames.

"Report!" he calls.

Several heads whip round but only one figure approaches; Lieutenant Scott.

"Commander Spock, sir," he sighs. "We're in a right royal pickle down here, as you can see."

"Pickle?"

"That Romulan splinter bomb caused superficial damage to the port nacelle, and I don't wish to speak ill of the dead sir, but it would have been wise of our late Chief Engineer had sent someone outside to take a look before we left the scene of the crime, so to speak." The technician is walking as he's talking, leading Spock deeper into the biting smoke and sparking wires. "I'm only the officer of the watch, but I'm telling you right now, we're not going anywhere fast."

Spock studies the readouts and assesses the extent of damage to the nacelle's hardware. "We have no warp capability at all?"

"Well," Mr. Scott pouts. "I could give you warp one if our lives depended on it, but it would be bumpy and I'd have to do some pretty illegal things to the intermix chamber."

He chooses to ignore that confession and focus on the imperative. "Your recommendations, Mr. Scott."

"Power down completely," he says immediately. "She's a mess, Commander, and we need a chance to repair the worst of the damage. Press on now and you risk another engine failure. We might not be around to shake our heads over the next one," he pats the transparent aluminium casing lovingly, "isn't that right, my darling?"

Spock feels his hands ball into fists at his sides. Thankfully the semi-darkness hides it from the rest of the crew. They have over eighty rescued personnel on board, some in critical condition. Their shielding is minimal, their maneuverability almost non-existent and his approximate calculations place them in the center of contested space at the Vulcan border of the Klingon Neutral Zone. Nero might not value an old Constitution class starship, but to a Klingon pirate the reward would be psychological as well as strategic. Beaten, humbled and outraged, the opportunity to strike back at someone, at anyone would be difficult for a Klingon to resist.

Commander Harris, Taylor's XO, chooses that moment to appear on the scene.

"Commander Spock," Harris coughs, hand to his mouth and nose.

Spock wastes no time on greetings. "Lieutenant Scott informs me that the engines were more severely damaged than previously thought. He requires a total power down to effect proper repairs."

Harris looks as concerned as Spock feels. "How long will that take, Mr. Scott?"

Scott looks pained. "Ten, maybe twelve hours."

"Twelve hours!" Harris exclaims. "Do you have any idea where we are, Lieutenant?"

"Aye, sir," he nods grimly. "I've a fair idea."

"Then you know how important it is that we get underway again as soon as possible."

"Aye, sir, I do."

"Then you're going to have to do better than twelve hours, or even ten," Harris presses, "do you understand?"

Scott snatches up a PADD and waves it at Harris. "I cannot change the laws of physics! It takes a certain amount of time to power down a warp core and the same amount of time to power it back up. Disregarding the time it will take to actually fix the thing, you're still looking at four hours, minimum."

"Work on her while she's hot, Lieutenant," Harris says, at least having the grace to look white-faced at what he's demanding. "I can give you four hours, no more."

Scott's jaw bunches but he nods. "So long as you realize it won't just be us lads in overalls who get vaporized, it'll be the whole ship and everyone aboard."

"It's a risk we have to take," Harris counters, nodding to Spock and then retreating back up the jeffries tube.

Scott gapes, hands open in supplication. "Can you believe that? Four hours to cycle the warp drive and we've got to fix her while she's still ticking over! This is some new brand of insanity!"

Internally, Spock agrees with Mr. Scott's assessment. "What alternative do you suggest?"

Scott crosses immediately to an astrogation terminal, bringing a fist down atop its screen to bring it to life. "There's a small M-class planet orbiting a gas giant that's technically in Vulcan space. It's less than an hour from here under full impulse. We need to drop into orbit, use the planet to shield our energy signature and fix this properly before we blow ourselves to hell, never mind the Klingons and the Romulans!"

Spock studies the star charts, glances down at the preliminary damage assessment Mr. Scott shoves into his diaphragm and reaches a conclusion. He lifts his eyes to find the technician staring at him, anxiously awaiting a verdict. "I shall discuss your suggestion with the Captain."

"Thank you, sir." Scott throws his hands up and turns back to the smoky chaos. "Come on lads and lasses! Who's handling the air cyclers? We can't fix what we can't see!"

Spock syncs the proposed flight path to the PADD in his hands and tucks it into the small of his back in order to free himself for the climb to the bridge.

-:-

Quite literally thrown from his bunk by the sudden fall out of warp and finding himself in the pitch dark for a full fifteen seconds before emergency lighting kicks in, Jim spends the time feeling sorry for himself. The day had really only gone from bad to worse. His own terminal is shut down due to emergency power status, so he sets out for the Observation Deck to use the communal ones, but makes it only as far as the mess before McCoy bounces off him. The doctor is heading the other direction at speed, bed hair sticking up in all directions.

"I ..."

"With me," Bones interrupts, grabbing hold of Jim's collar without breaking his stride.

"Where are we going?"

"Sickbay," McCoy gives him a shot of crazy eyes. "Where the hell do you think? The place is stacked three high with the walking wounded and I guarantee you the emergency power protocols won't be working properly. You're a passable geek and reasonable first aider. Right now, as we speak, there are probably nurses doing mouth to mouth." He intensifies the glare for emphasis. "I need you to jury rig us out of the dark ages or get in there with them."

"I'll mouth to mouth a nurse for you, all you have to do is ask nicely."

"For the love of ..."

He makes the universal gesture for surrender just as Spock appears out of nowhere, dropping into the corridor from a jeffries tube.

The Commander frowns at the palms of Jim's hands. "Lieutenant Kirk, I require your assistance."

"No way!" McCoy scowls. "I saw him first."

"You may have your pick of what staff Lieutenant Scott can spare," Spock counters.

"Those hacks!"

"I consider the matter settled, doctor," Spock says coldly, and gesturing at Jim, sets off towards the bridge.

"Green blooded son of a bitch!" McCoy spits under his breath. "Looks like whatever he's got planned is more important than saving lives. I'll see you once we've hauled ass out of whatever this is, Jim."

"You're on," he agrees, slapping the doctor on the back as they part ways.

Jim stretches his tired legs to draw level with Spock, instantly noticing that barring a new undershirt, the Commander has yet to change. Didn't even make it back to his quarters, then.

"We have sustained significant damage to the port nacelle," Spock reveals without prompting. "Our current orders are to effect full-scale repair of the damaged components whilst simultaneously cycling the power to the core in order to reset the system."

"Wait," Jim frowns. "Hot work on a damaged antimatter pod?"

"Correct."

"That's suicide!"

"The statistical chance of survival is not favorable," Spock agrees. "Lieutenant Scott has proposed an alternate course of action that has an acceptable safety margin but will require a further twelve hours delay."

"And Taylor won't go for it," Jim finishes for him.

"Captain Taylor has not yet been briefed. Commander Harris gave the order."

Jim wrinkles his nose. "That guy is really starting to get on my nerves."

Naturally, Spock won't criticize the chain of command, but he doesn't reprimand Jim for doing so, either. They make it to the ladder that will take them to the bridge.

"And we're going to, what?" Jim asks, following Spock into the tube, "argue with the XO on the bridge in front of the entire Beta crew?"

"I hope to avoid that scenario if at all possible." Spock angles his head down the tube so Jim can hear. "When we arrive, I shall approach Captain Taylor directly. I require your assistance with gathering evidence to support Mr. Scott's plan."

"Hey, you want someone to prove that popping the hatch on a hot nacelle is a bad idea, just ask my nephew," Jim grunts, hitting the rungs hard to keep up with Spock. "He's eight."

"Then I assume you will experience no difficulty cross-referencing previous documented attempts and their suboptimal outcomes."

"I could do it in my sleep," Jim says confidently. "With a crayon. On a napkin."

Spock swings out of the tube and onto the deck. "Your self confidence is remarkable."

Breathless from the climb, Jim winks. "It's one of my most appealing traits."

"Indeed." Spock grips his forearm strongly, pulling him out of the tube.

Jim's grin widens. "You should get to know my others."

"I believe I am growing familiar with them."

They pause before the double doors to the bridge, and it's not quite a shared smile, because Spock wouldn't go for that, but it's something. Then Spock palms the door control and they're on.

 

 

Chapter Text

Jim supposes it's fortuitous that Taylor agrees to countermand Harris' dangerous orders before the ship gets ambushed. The man has a one-track mind and getting his consent to divert to a Vulcan moon under a more lengthy repair schedule would have been much more difficult while they were taking fire.

"One Klingon warbird, Captain!" the Communications officer announces just as the ship shudders from the third successive impact.

"Well, give me shields, dammit!" Taylor demands.

"Shields at maximum available power," a technician calls. "Approximately sixty-two percent and falling."

"What's the matter with them?"

Spock steps forwards. "We are operating on emergency power, sir," he reminds him gently. "The damage to the port nacelle has necessitated limited shutdown of the warp core, thus affecting our peak shielding capacity."

Taylor blinks, his eyes wide under the pressure, but he knows regulations as well as the next man. "Send a wide-band distress call and throw every bit of auxiliary power we've got to the shields."

"Aye, sir," come the instant replies.

"Helm, bring us about. I want the saucer section shielding our damaged engines, understand?" At the end of all obvious courses of action, Taylor turns to Harris.

The XO merely stares back and then raises his hands in an abortive surrender. "We have no photon torpedoes, no EMP weapons and only two phaser banks and even they're calibrated for cutting through wreckage, not punching through Klingon shields." He lists their pathetic resources with a mix of defeat and panic. "We won't last five minutes."

The main viewer flickers to life, revealing the scarred and ridged visage of a hardened Klingon Captain. "Greetings, Federation scum," he snarls in barely comprehensible Standard. "Surrender your pitiful ship immediately, or we will blow you out of the stars!"

The communication terminates as abruptly as it began, leaving Taylor staring at Harris and the Commander staring right back. Jim bites his tongue, forces himself to remember that Harris isn't battle trained and that strategy was never Taylor's forte. They've been managing what is essentially a logistics ship for more than ten years with their only battle exposure being second hand, and usually when things aren't going particularly well for the home team.

Two breaths later, the inevitable happens and the Captain turns around. "Spock?" he says, hopefully.

Jim feels the DivCO stiffen beside him. Of all of them, Spock has the least militarized background, never having enrolled in Starfleet at all. To ask him for strategic advice under such circumstances is not only a tall order, it clearly reveals the depth of Taylor's ineptitude.

"The Klingons have a reputation for showing no mercy to their prisoners of war," Spock begins, sounding a little strained. "Together with the EPAS Neutral Zone treaty, this precludes both our surrender and active engagement in battle with treaty signatories."

"Well, what are our options, then?" Taylor demands, the warbird dark and menacing on the viewer behind him. "If we can't shoot back or hand over the ship and live, what does the damn treaty tell us to do?"

Spock shrugs slightly with his head and one shoulder. "This particular scenario is not mentioned."

"What do you mean, 'not mentioned'?"

"The Diplomatic Corps simply assumed that given the overall nature of the immunity outlined in the treaty, this scenario would never eventuate."

Harris steps forward threateningly. "You are joking."

Spock turns his head. "I assure you, I am not."

The Captain steps in front of his XO, flings a hand towards the viewer, encompassing all his frustration with one pointed finger. "We need to fix this!" he shouts, "treaty or no treaty!"

"I agree," Spock replies calmly, although his hands blanch where they grip each other in the small of his back. "What do you propose?"

"What do I ...?" Taylor goes ashen, glancing between the screen and Spock's implacable face.

"Sir," Spock says firmly. "What are your orders?"

Jim takes a deep breath and releases it, recognizing the words for the escape route they imply.

Taylor sees it too, goes weak at the knees with it and uses the arm of his chair to steady himself. "Use whatever resources you require, Commander," he says roughly, "and report back to me when you have a workable solution."

Spock snaps a salute. "Aye, sir," he says, crossing to the nearest comm station and depressing the button. "Doctor McCoy, please locate Lieutenant Chekov, Engineer Scott, Lieutenant Uhura and Lieutenant Gaila, then meet me in briefing room two, immediately."

Lieutenant Gaila is injured, McCoy replies quickly.

Spock frowns. "Understood. Proceed to the briefing room."

Acknowledged, McCoy out.

"Commander?" Taylor asks, his voice tinged with hope.

Spock straightens, somehow keeps his face totally blank. "I shall keep you apprised, sir."

"Very good," the Captain nods, his voice breaking just a little.


-:-


"So, what is this?" Jim asks quickly as the doors to the bridge close behind them, "a brain-storming session?”

"Of sorts," Spock agrees, long legs propelling him down the corridor towards the briefing rooms.

"You got a plan?"

Spock gives him a sideways look. "Of sorts."

Jim huffs out a laugh despite the circumstances. "You know, when we survive this, I'm going to petition the universe to give you your own ship. This is bullshit."

"The Captain is merely making best use of his resources." Spock pauses, head tilted in consideration. "And precisely how does one petition the universe?"

"He's the crossword clue for four down; adjective, eleven letters, starts with incom ends with petent," Jim snaps. "I'm sick of it and you should be, too."

"An emotional response to this situation is not helpful."

Jim flails his arms as they hurry along. "At least tell me that somewhere, deep down in side, you've got one, or I'm seriously going to wig out."

That earns him an eyebrow of his own, one tinged with friendly tolerance and a hint of amusement. Inside, Jim is momentarily gleeful. Sometimes, in spite of long standing protective habit, you actually need to let something in. Bit by bit, moment by moment, he thinks that both of them are learning how.

All at once, he grinds to a halt, grabs Spock by the arm. "Son of a bitch!"

They're less than two meters from the briefing room and early enough that the personnel Spock requested turn the corner at the same time, so now they're all facing off in the corridor.

"Spock," Jim says, overwhelmed with urgency. "The only way we're going to get out of this alive is if we let the ship get boarded."

"What is he talking about?" Scotty explodes.

"Are you insane?" McCoy adds.

Precious seconds are ticking away, but Spock just watches him, focused and intent. "Explain."

With a surge of relief, Jim twists so he's speaking to the whole group. "The Klingons want our unconditional surrender, perhaps with a few fistfights for kicks, but really, they're only here for the end result. Nero's broken them, which means if the Federation wanted to, we could sail right into Klingon space to really end them, and they know it." He pauses for breath before he passes out. "They hate it. They're desperate and they're pissed. Right now, the Stalwart is a way for them to score a ship and feel good about themselves; a way to regain some honour in their own eyes. Take that possibility away from them and what do you think they're going to do?"

"Blow us to smithereens," Chekov supplies helpfully.

"Right, so instead, we give them what they want."

Spock's eyebrow shoots up. "You wish us to surrender?"

"No." Jim feels a slow smile spread across his face. "Make them think we're going down fighting."

"And that involves letting an angry horde of blood-thirsty aliens onto the ship, how, exactly?" Bones demands, hands on hips.

Jim turns to Uhura, who's simply been following along, a slight frown perched between her manicured eyebrows. "Girl with the golden tongue," he says. "How's your Klingon?"

"Better than your Romulan," she smirks.

"We are not equipped to counter a full-scale ship-to-ship invasion," Spock interjects.

Jim grips his arm more tightly for emphasis. "That's why you've already got a way to keep them from beaming across in large numbers, am I right?"

Spock blinks, then frowns mightily. Jim can almost see the calculations scroll behind his eyes. Unconsciously, his fingers return Jim's pressure, holding his forearm as though for anchorage or solidarity. "It may be possible," he announces at last, head turning to seek out Scotty. "I will require your assistance to program a randomized microscopic oscillation pattern into our shield generators."

"Sounds like a barrel of laughs," the Scotsman sighs.

"Uhura, McCoy, Chekov," Spock continues, "assist Lieutenant Kirk in coordinating our defenses. I shall inform the Captain of our plan."

"Will he go for it?" Jim asks in an undertone.

Spock tilts his head, and there's a hint of sarcasm there. "I am positive that when presented with the alternative, he will recognize the virtue of your proposal."

"Now who's persuasive?" Jim smiles, giving Spock's arm a final squeeze before releasing it.


-:-


McCoy shifts his knees on the hard decking, peering over their hastily assembled barricade. "I just want the record to reflect that I think this is a bad idea of epic proportions."

"Pretty sure we've logged that, Bones," Jim whispers, edging over to look around the other side.

"Only for the hundredth time," Chekov seconds, pressing his shoulder into the doorway that covers the other side of the corridor.

Uhura jams a finger in her ear; she's the only one of them with active comms. It's an attempt to stop the Klingons from catching wind of their little trap. "The gap should appear any second," she calls. "Scotty says they're definitely looking for it."

The deck shakes under them as the Stalwart takes yet another hit she can't afford.

"How much longer?" Bones whispers tensely, just as the distinctive sound of a transporter fills the air.

A party of six Klingons materialize facing the wrong direction. It's a fluke Jim takes full advantage of, standing upright, risking exposure to drop three of them in quick succession before they even know what's going on. The other three fall to their knees, turning to fire faster than Jim would have thought possible. He ducks the first shots, but feels the burn of a glancing impact even as he drops back below the packing crates.

"Shit," says McCoy, already moving to assess the damage.

"Never mind about me," Jim hisses. "Shoot the damn Klingons! Jesus!"

With an exasperated flail, the doctor lunges into the corridor and under the cover of Chekov's fire, drops two out of the three in the space of time it would take most people to aim. Uhura stalks up behind the final warrior and presses the barrel of her phaser to his temple. Slowly, growling in displeasure, the Klingon lets his weapon clatter to the deck and raises his hands.

Chekov stands gaping in the intersection.

"Little known fact about the doctor," Jim chuckles, clutching his ribs. "Highest firearms rating in Starfleet's non-combative class."

"Flatterer," McCoy grumbles, but he's smirking as he pushes Jim's hand aside to check the wound.

Uhura moves to cuff their one conscious prisoner.

"PujwI' HIvlu'chugh quvbe'lu'!" the Klingon spits.

"What was that?" Jim gasps as McCoy sprays something on his burned skin.

"Didn't sound wery nice," Chekov offers.

"He's essentially accusing us of being dishonorable if we shoot him," Uhura translates.

"Pity he didn't think about dishonor when his commander opened fire on an unarmed Federation rescue vessel," Jim returns coldly, pushing McCoy's hands aside and getting to his feet. "Uhura, matokeo va utafutaji kwa."

She gives him her best what-the-fuck expression. "Swahili? Seriously?"

Jim shrugs. "What can I say? I was going to use it to ask you out before I realized how scary you are."

She shakes her head at him, but turns back to their captive to keep him talking, as ordered. "Hoch 'ebmey tIjon," she says, capture all opportunities.

"BatlhHa' vanglu'taHvIS quv chavbe'lu'," the Klingon snarls. "One does not achieve honor by acting dishonorably."

"You speak Standard?" Jim asks, surprised.

Their captive rolls his eyes. "Are all humans as stupid as you?"

"What's your name?" Jim asks, fighting down a very embarrassing blush.

"Toq Tel'peh of the House of Karn," he replies proudly, full of venom.

Jim turns. "Got enough, Uhura?"

She nods, pressing her fingers into her earpiece again and running something through the Universal Translator. "Karn is a small clan from the northern hemisphere. It's an unusual accent, but that might work to our advantage."

"Okay, good." Jim draws level with Chekov and draws his own phaser, directing it at the Klingon's chest. "Sorry, buddy."

Toq actually smiles before the stun beam washes over him, probably expecting death rather than unconsciousness.

"Seriously," Jim sighs. "These people."

Uhura reaches down, yanks the Klingon's communicator free of his bandolier and raises it; the UT held between it and her lips. "Toq Tel'peh 'ja. Yay; jagh-pu jey-qu'!" she barks, then tosses it aside. "There you go, we're officially defeated."

"Excellent," Jim grins.


-:-


Spock is seated next to Mr. Scott in engineering, both their hands flying across the boards in an attempt to randomize the shield oscillations in a manner that appears like natural degradation but still controls the entry points for the small batches of Klingons beaming across.

One by one, inter-ship reports begin to filter in. Each enemy contingent is disarmed and contained by Points or Security, with Ops or Pilots trailing along to learn the name and study the dialect of as many invaders as they can. In a surprisingly short space of time, the Klingon frequencies are full of Federation voices, cunningly disguised by voice modulators and distortion, issuing reports of overall success and some glorious deaths in battle...every one of them in convincing Klingon.

"Are you confident of your ability to maintain shield integrity without my assistance?" he asks, finding a pause in the algorithm that allows him to look up from the console.

"Aye sir, I can take it from here," Scotty replies, face lit from beneath, devilish and manic.

Spock stands, the sense of success banishing some of the fatigue from his mind and body. If they are to negotiate a Klingon surrender, the Captain will most likely have need of him on the bridge.


-:-


Jim leads his tired company towards the hastily rigged holding cell. It's a simple cargo bay with a powerful forcefield cobbled together in lieu of a door and hard vacuum out the other exit. He'd deemed it more secure than individual quarters. Jim had never known a ventilation duct that didn't favor escapees. Here, the captured Klingons have a choice between an armed guard that can see them at all times and the nothingness of space. They have no hope of escape and it shows in their tense aggression. Klingons do best when they have a choice between fighting and dying. They make poor prisoners.

Uhura gives him a mock salute. "Bet you're feeling pretty full of yourself right now."

"Vaj toDuj Daj ngeHbej DI vI'," he grins.

"Wow," she deadpans. "Your Klingon is really bad. Your auntie eats what for breakfast, now?"

"Shut up."

"I heard Taylor's negotiating safe passage." She inclines her head towards the motley group in the cargo bay.

"By that you mean Spock is negotiating," Jim counters.

"Why don't you two get a room, already?"

Jim's stomach drops away, but he knows he hasn't been obvious so he just grins. "Who says we haven't?"

"Yeah, right," Uhura smirks. "Good luck keeping that one a secret."

"Dammit, I can be subtle," he objects, hands on hips.

"As a fucking freight train," she agrees. "How much longer before we beam these guys back where they belong? All the repressed rage is making me crave ice cream."

"What is that?" Jim frowns. "A chick thing?"

"Maybe," she shrugs. "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it."

"I'm not knocking it, I just don't get it."

"What, your celebrations only include being drunk, fighting or fucking?"

He thinks about that for a moment. "Pretty much, yeah."

"You're all class, Kirk."

"Mmm," he grins. "I know."

"Cookies and cream," Uhura sighs dreamily. "Or pistachio. That gets you where it counts."

"Right on the ass?"

She narrows her eyes. "You saying I'm fat?"

"Uh, no," he swallows. "Because I value my continued existence."

She taps her foot.

"And also, you're totally not fat?"

"Better."

"Where's Harris?" Jim feels the desperate need to change the subject. "Wasn't he supposed to be here by now?"

On cue, the XO clambers out of a jeffries tube with Spock on his heels. Harris looks flustered, his face red and his hair awry. By contrast, and despite the things Jim knows he's endured, Spock appears totally relaxed. For a moment, he envisages a Stalwart with Spock in the Captain's chair and has to smother a sigh at the sheer awesomeness.

"Lieutenant Kirk," Harris says tightly. "Congratulations, your plan worked perfectly."

"Thank you, sir," Jim bows his head, knowing he can't hide the buzz that comes from realizing Spock gave him the credit. It was only fair and logical, but it could have waited for the official report.

"The Captain has successfully negotiated safe passage across the Neutral Zone in exchange for the prisoners," Harris continues. "We're to beam them back en masse as soon as possible."

"There's one small flaw there," Jim apologizes. "What with the warp core being half-powered, we can't beam much of anything without dropping our shields entirely."

Harris looks momentarily flummoxed, so Spock steps forward. "If I may, Commander?"

"Spock."

"The Stalwart houses more than fifty Echo Delta class shuttles more than capable of transporting up to twelve uninjured persons at a time."

"Use the shuttles to return the prisoners?"

"With the Klingons properly restrained, I see no reason why the risk to EPAS personnel cannot be minimized."

Harris nods. "Very well, inform your crews."

"Aye, sir," Spock says, standing aside to let Harris exit.

"Now we're playing taxi service?" Jim asks, eyes on Spock. "Do you think Klingons are good tippers?"

Uhura laughs outright, but it's the twitch of the Commander's lips that earns Jim's smile in return.


-:-


ED996, adjust your trajectory by z minus five degrees and enter the holding pattern, over.

"Copy that, Ops," Uhura presses her mic. "Z minus five and holding."

Jim leans forward against his harness, just the lap belt done up to allow greater manoeuvrability. He's keeping his weapon trained on the ten Klingons cuffed and bound in the shuttle's belly. "Who's that on comms? Is Gaila still off duty?”

"Last I heard she was in sickbay."

"Anything serious?"

"She was on the bridge when we took a splinter bomb hit back at the waypoint," Uhura explains. "Electrical burns, just minor stuff."

Jim breathes a sigh of relief. "What kind of candy do you think she likes?" he jokes. "Perhaps I can reprogram the replicators to ..."

Out of the corner of his eye, Jim sees the closest Klingon lunge violently to the left. He turns, brings his phaser to bear and fires. The huge warrior staggers, but keeps coming. "Son of a fucking...they're loose! Heads up, everyone!"

Spock has already unclipped, is already moving. Jim doesn't have time to wonder how the bastards got free because the first Klingon is on him, one meaty hand around his throat, the other pulled back, ready to beat him to a pulp. Belted in with nowhere to go, Jim fires again, cursing the blinking charge light on his phaser even as the Klingon's grip falters and he crumples to the deck.

"Fuck these fucking useless phasers!"

Two other Klingons are on their feet, barking out battle cries, making weapons out of whatever they can rip from the walls.

"What the hell is going on back there?" Uhura shouts.

"Code black!" Jim calls back, slamming his palm down on the emergency button and feeling the hard rush of air as the cockpit screen snaps closed. At least Uhura is protected, which is good, because he can't spare another moment to worry about anything except the rapidly escalating brawl. He strikes a Klingon upside the head with his useless weapon then drops it, hits his harness release and springs to his feet just in time to avoid a head-on charge. Instead of being crushed, he manages to help the Klingon on his way, throwing him into the wall and knocking him out cold.

He has a handful of seconds to realise that most of the captives are still cuffed. It's the chain securing them to the floor that's been worked free. After that, he doesn't have time to think about anything much, as there are double-fisted blows raining down from everywhere. He curses and ducks, blocks and weaves. The shuttle is crowded with the sound of impacts and flying equipment. Everyone is tripping over each other in an attempt to either engage or defend themselves. Spock takes two punishing blows to the face before he can slip out of the corner he's trapped in. Jim accepts a kidney punch in order to sweep the legs out from underneath a different Klingon.

He's breathing hard, spitting out blood, adrenaline pounding through his veins because he knows they can't last much longer.

"Jim!" Spock shouts a warning.

He looks up, barely has time to wince in preparation when he sees a Klingon about to brain him with a fire extinguisher. He's saved at the last minute by Spock, who throws himself in the way, forearms crossed to take the blow. Even with his Vulcan strength, it crumples him, sending him to the deck, onto his knees. Jim doesn't want to think about what it would have done to a human skull.

He stands, punches the Klingon in the face and ignores the sharp burst of pain that tells him his knuckles lost that particular fight. Still, their attacker staggers back into his fellows, buying them a split second for Jim to have a brilliant idea. Desperate, he grabs Spock around the waist, shoves his other hand into the medical store and pulls. Several things come crashing out across the deck where Spock had been kneeling, smacking into Klingons who lift their arms to shield their faces, which also auspiciously blinds them to the item Jim is actually reaching for.

Spock stares at Jim's hand, blinking green blood out of his eyes, leaning heavily on the arm around his waist for support. Jim grins back, probably bloody-toothed and anything but reassuring.

"Clear, goddammit!" He says in his best imitation of Bones, and slides the cardiac stimulator across the floor.

The high-pitched whine builds to a peak. Jim and Spock grab the line-locks and lift their feet from the metal deck. With a pop and a flash, the equipment discharges and all the Klingons convulse and topple over, twitching and growling.

Spock lets go first, his arms clearly injured, landing on his feet only to have them give out beneath him. Jim follows suit, hardly even trying to stand. With great effort, he reaches out and enters the all-clear code for the cockpit release. The screen slips up with a whoosh and Uhura cranes her neck to look at them.

"Hi honey," Jim waves, the words distorted by his fat lip.

Her eyes widen as she takes in the general state of destruction. "Jim Kirk, what the hell did you do?"

Beyond exhausted, he lets his head fall back onto Spock's chest, relieved to feel the rhythmic rise and fall of his breathing where they're sprawled in a corner. "Why is it always my fault?"

From somewhere behind him, Spock raises a hand and pats him once, firmly, on the shoulder.


-:-


Some thirty minutes later, and less ten unconscious Klingon hostages, Jim puts his shoulder to Spock's underarm and helps him half-fall down the runner into the Stalwart's hangar bay. With a twist, he props the Commander against Nix's hull, then controls his slide to the ground.

"Medic!" he yells, turning his head to avoid shouting at Spock.

Chapel comes jogging over from one of the other shuttles. Two more Klingon contingents had broken free, but none so thoroughly as those aboard Nix. Such was the price of their passage through the Neutral Zone. She hunkers down next to them, scanner at the ready, flashing and bleeping as she passes it to and fro.

"Mild concussion," she mutters. "Fractured ulna, contusions and abrasions, totally unacceptable electrolyte levels." She sits up on her heels and gestures to a stretcher crew. "I'm sending him to sickbay to knit the break and rehydrate."

It bothers Jim that Spock doesn't even object when they load him on. Instead, he casts around until he finds Jim's face and says, "see to the repair of our warp drive, Lieutenant."

Jim just nods, not quite sure what he's feeling.

Chapel stands with him as the stretcher moves away, both of them staring after Spock thoughtfully.

"There's very little more frightening than seeing him get hurt," Christine says softly. "I'm not quite sure why."

"I did my best," Jim snaps. "He insists on being a hero. Just keeps pushing himself, throwing himself in the way."

"Protect you, did he?" she smiles knowingly.

He nods. "You'd be scrubbing my grey matter off the wall if he hadn't."

"You know, Jim, he'd do it for all of us, but I kind of think he likes doing it for you."

He turns his head, stares at her very blue eyes and shiny blonde hair. "What are you, taking over from Bones now? Trying to be my therapist?"

"No. Just making an observation."

"Huh," he says, because he can't formulate anything more coherent. "I'd better make sure we're on course for that Vulcan moon, what's it called?"

"Aspera," she supplies distantly, turning to run the scanner over him, too. "Get some sleep when you've done that. I won't waste my time telling you to get those bruises looked at, but the sleep is an order."


-:-


Six hours later, Jim sneaks into sickbay. The triage nurse lets him in without question, probably assuming he's there for contusion cream or some such bullshit. He's not. He came as soon as he woke and discovered Spock is still an inpatient. The computer tells him where to look, which is a good thing, because even after two years, the sheer size of the medical facilities aboard an EPAS ship still leaves him disoriented.

Spock is in a small, private cubicle near McCoy's office, two proper walls and two curtains to shield him from the business of the ward. His status is listed as 'stable: recuperative,' which is strange, because Spock always discharges himself to rest in his own quarters, never in sickbay.

"He's not gone because I've kept him sedated."

McCoy's voice makes Jim startle.

The doctor graces him with a withering stare. "I'd do the same for you if I thought you'd let me."

"I'm pretty sure Spock didn't consent to being held hostage in a drugged stupor."

"He has a concussion," McCoy shrugs, "and he needed the rest. Doctor's privilege."

"No wonder he hates coming here."

"Have you slept? At all?"

"Five and a half hours," Jim assures him. "I'll get more once we're sure the engines aren’t going to explode, but I get twitchy thinking of Harris all alone up there on the bridge, making actual decisions without any help."

"Watch it, kid. You're flirting with insubordination, there."

Jim scoffs. "I like flirting. Plus you and I both know the chain of command is hazy at best."

"All the same."

"Is Captain Taylor still down here?"

"No," the doctor shakes his head. "Relieved himself of duty after I cleared him. He's gone to sleep it off in his quarters."

"Was he badly injured?" Jim asks, feeling a little guilty for his less than charitable thoughts about their command team.

"Just shaken, really."

Jim's goodwill evaporates immediately, leaving a sour taste in his mouth.

McCoy gestures towards Spock with his chin. "You can sit with him if you like, but no talking."

"What are you, the pity police?"

He pulls an unimpressed face. "You're not fooling anyone."

"Seriously ..."

"Go, sit, pine," Bones gives him a shove, "or whatever it is you're calling it."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Jim objects, mouth suddenly dry.

McCoy just waves over his shoulder, already turning away to look at charts. Jim figures that since checking on Spock was his sole motivation for venturing into sickbay, and given that Bones is already making the most inconvenient assumptions, he might as well go through with it.

Stealing through the curtains, he finds Spock stretched out on a biobed, his face gently illuminated by the monitors. Whatever Jim is expecting a sleeping Vulcan to look like, it isn't the loose-limbed sprawl that greets him. He takes a couple of steps closer, studying the utter relaxation on those usually severe features. Even under the bruising, the smoothed lines and slightly parted lips make him look a lot younger, a lot less intimidating. A small voice in the back of his head tells him this is what McCoy wanted him to see, the meddling bastard.

Jim pulls the lone chair closer and sits. Spock's face is slightly turned towards him, his dark hair falling back to expose the full sweep of his alien eyebrows. The lids of his eyes are hollowed with fatigue, plunged into shadow by the contours of his face. Resting on the pillow beside his jaw, one hand lies palm facing upwards, the long fingers loosely curled.

Jim fights the sudden clench in his stomach, the almost overpowering urge to reach out and make contact. He tells himself Spock wouldn't want it, wouldn't welcome it, but his memory unhelpfully recalls every instance where Spock has seemed to tolerate his touch and even touch him in return, though Vulcans never do that. Instead of the hand, Jim reaches for his shoulder, holding it firmly through the thin hospital scrubs, feeling the inhuman warmth seep immediately through the fabric and into his own skin. It feels like less of an invasion than a hand, like something Spock might even let him get away with if he were awake. If Jim's thumb rubs back and forth in a little caress, well then, nobody needs to know.


-:-


Spock wakes to the never-ending bustle of sickbay. He blinks at the ceiling, noting the lingering effects of sedatives in his bloodstream. He frowns.

McCoy.

Carefully, he pushes upright, feeling the dull ache of recently healed bone in his left forearm. He lifts it, turns it under the soft light of the monitor, the dark hair stark against pale skin. He finds no trace of external injury there, and his face, when he catches a glimpse of his reflection, is only subtly tinged with green and brown. A quick mental check tells him he has been unconscious for twelve point one hours.

Waiting on the counter to his right is a glass of water. He drinks it down unhurriedly, giving his body time to acclimatize to the vertical position before easing his feet onto the ground. They hold his weight and he swallows, tasting salt on the back of his tongue. They have replaced his stores of sodium, magnesium and potassium. To warrant such treatment, his levels must have been dangerously low. He resolves to pay closer attention in future.

Stiffly, he dresses in the blacks he finds folded in the first drawer. Someone has laid his lapel pins neatly to one side. He affixes them without his reflection, judging equilateral distances by his fingertips alone. Looking directly at the mirror for the first time, he pauses. A solemn face stares back, perfectly blank, perfectly Vulcan apart from the paleness of his skin and disorder of his hair. His past, he cannot change, but he smooths his palms over his scalp, flattening every wayward strand until they sit familiar and tamed around his face. He watches himself for a few more seconds, scenes from the last twenty four hours replaying themselves in his head. Upon the heels of every unpleasant revelation, every near death experience, there comes the memory of a certain smile, inappropriate laughter and the press and hold of someone else's hands.

He drops his gaze and stares at his fingers where they rest on the counter top. His skin is shiny and slightly green where the abrasions gained from fighting Klingons have been worked away in his sleep. He flexes them, draws his fingertips up to his palm as if enough preemptive discipline might stop him from reaching out as he knows he has been, inappropriately and dangerously, for Jim Kirk.

 

 

Chapter Text

Pike leans back from his desk and does something Spock certainly does not expect. He laughs. Extensively.

"Oh my lord, Spock, that boy has balls!" the Admiral wheezes, wiping his eyes. "What a plan, good god!"

"It was most innovative."

"Innovative my ass, it was an inspired piece of genius. I damn well knew Taylor hadn't come up with that on his own." Pike sobers and taps a stylus on the desk in front of him. "He was rather round-about with telling me who was responsible. He's normally not quite so cagey about confessing to your exploits since he knows you have no desire to captain a starship. Kirk, however ..."

Spock schools his features firmly. "I was unaware Lieutenant Kirk was seeking promotion."

"Relax, Spock," he smiles. "I'm talking about his previous role in Starfleet. He was second Lieutenant aboard the Enterprise, only one rung down from being the XO, and at his age?" Pike shrugs, "it looked to me like the boy was in a hurry for the center seat."

"He would acquit himself admirably, of that I have no doubt."

Pike falls silent, studies him across the comm line. "He do something Spock? Say something?"

Spock limits his expression to one questioning eyebrow. "I am uncertain of your meaning."

"Oh, I don't think you are." Pike presses the stylus to his lips. "Tell you what, rather than force you to break your journey again in order to pick me up, I'll get our mutual friends to ferry me out to Aspera instead."

"That will not be necessary," Spock counters, feeling strangely exposed.

"Oh, come on now." Pike smiles but his eyes are piercing. "You used to enjoy my company."

Spock swallows, steeples his fingers beneath the desk. "I assure you, I mean no disrespect. I merely wish to convey the order of my captain that you are not avoidably inconvenienced."

"It's no trouble," Pike waves dismissively. "In fact, I know of a Vulcan ship that's headed your way. Leaves tomorrow morning, local. That still shaves four hours off the end journey time to Khitomer."

It is impossible to argue the Admiral's facts, nor is Spock entirely certain why he feels the need to do so. "As you wish."

"While you're cooling your heels out there, I don't suppose you could do something for me?"

"Sir?"

"I've been doing a little talking to the Vulcan High Council," Pike's smile widens to something more genuine.

"Indeed," Spock replies, fighting off a surge of nostalgia. Pike's 'little talks' are code for some serious bargaining.

"They've agreed to let EPAS establish a small refugee aid camp within Vulcan space," he reveals, the light in his eyes a good indication of what a victory that really is. "I want you to scout Aspera for suitable locations. There'll be minimal air support and security for this venture, what with the Fleet stretched as thin as it is, so whatever you find, it will need to have a good level of geographical protection from both long-range scanners and ground assault."

"You believe Nero to be sufficiently personally invested in this conflict to begin actively seeking out refugees?"

"I believe he wants us to hurt," Pike says grimly. "I think it's only going to get worse before the end."

They share a moment's silence over the comms, both recalling the devastation of yesterday's waypoint battle and the mere eighty survivors subsisting on replicator fare aboard the Stalwart.

"Perhaps the Klingons pose a more significant threat to displaced peoples than the Romulan Extremists," Spock suggests.

"You may be right, what with the fact that pretty much every Klingon warlord just became an extremist for their own personal cause." Pike runs a hand through his greying hair, perspiration standing out on his skin in the hot air of Nu'ri Ah'rak. "Find a nice hidey hole for us, Spock, and then take the intervening time as shore leave. It's been too long."

Knowing better than to argue, he nods. "Understood."

"Pike out."

Spock consciously relaxes. He takes a moment to reflect upon the conversation, identifying exact moments where his emotions threatened to get the better of him. It comes as little surprise that everything can be tied to his guilt over Jim. His morning meditation had divulged several unsettling truths; integrating them had been challenging to say the least. It is a vicious brand of irony that Jim may be the one person in his life he trusts implicitly, yet that selfsame fact has the potential to do significant harm to both of them.

He has questioned Jim's motives time and time again, only to find them without fault. He has never given Spock any indication of ulterior motive or expectation of special treatment. His offer of friendship is honest, to the point, and apparently quite genuine. However, Jim is only half the equation, and his innocence has forced Spock to re-examine himself. He is ashamed of what he has discovered. There are many rational reasons why a degree of professional distance is advisable, all of them quite logical and justifiable. It is only the reasons he dare not speak aloud that give him pause.

Whenever he thinks of drawing apart from Jim, the inner essence of his being rebels with frightening intensity. The very fact he wants it so much makes it dangerous. Vulcans should not yearn for external completion, seeking instead to be whole and independent of other beings. Friends are possible, sometimes even beneficial, but not friends like this. Not those that seem so valuable as to eclipse judgement and influence thought. Whether the failing is his own or simple misfortune, he cannot be certain. All that remains is to eliminate the cause.

His preference is irrelevant. What Spock actually wants is inconceivable, because he will always be seeking something, holding tightly, grasping firmly, forever needing more.

-:-

Jim looks up as the lift doors open and Spock steps into Engineering. He and Scotty have been working on re-routing power around the irreparably damaged components without losing any of the extra speed generated by their innovative organic warp matrix. It's demanding work and Jim's been grateful for the distraction.

"Mr. Scott," Spock says, bypassing Jim all together. "Please ensure that the senior staff are aware there will be a briefing at oh seven hundred hours tomorrow in the main lecture theatre."

"Does that mean we've got a little more time for these repairs, Commander?" Scotty asks hopefully. "Because it would sure make a difference to me and my crew."

Spock glances around the sea of tired faces in Engineering. "Of course, Lieutenant. Our scheduled departure has been delayed approximately thirty six hours to facilitate a rendezvous with the ship transporting Admiral Pike to our location. You may allocate whatever time you wish for the completion of repairs, provided that a minimum of twenty Echo Delta shuttles receive tech staffing beginning at oh eight hundred hours tomorrow."

"Thank you, sir," Scotty beams, "but why the shuttles?"

Spock frowns slightly, giving Jim the sense that he's in a hurry and isn't welcoming further questions.

"Details will be available at the briefing," he says, confirming that theory.

"You say jump and we jump, Commander," Scotty sighs good-naturedly.

Spock's brows flicker at the expression, but he just turns to Jim. "Please inform both Alpha and Beta crews that they may stand down from active duty for the next fourteen hours unless their work is essential to repairs."

Jim makes a note in his PADD and forwards it to the department heads, then sets a ship-wide memo about the early morning briefing. "Mind telling me what's going on?"

Spock inclines his head stiffly. "Follow me."

Scotty has restored power to the main turbolifts, and Jim was grateful for that right up until he finds himself standing in one with Spock, everything uncharacteristically tense. He forces himself to take a few deep breaths and attempts to ignore the way his pulse is hammering in his ears. It's the same feeling he gets before a deployment; as though lives depend on his course of action.

Spock exits the turbolift ahead of him, eyes straight ahead and Jim's concern ratchets up a notch. The Commander still looks like shit warmed up, his face littered with artfully repaired bruises and lingering patches of sealed abrasions. His hands, where they're exposed, are exactly the same. Jim clenches his teeth against the thought that Spock might have been more seriously injured than previously thought, that Bones has been keeping it quiet, that the whole thing in sickbay had been about giving him a chance to...

"Jim," Spock says suddenly, coming to a halt outside his own quarters. "To facilitate the proper administration of Prime Division, we can no longer be friends."

Momentarily floored, he squeezes his eyes shut so hard he sees stars. "Excuse me? You needed to call a morning briefing for that?"

Spock is looking over his shoulder, carefully avoiding his eyes. "Whilst a degree of amity is preferable between Points, especially those in positions of Divisional authority, I can no longer justify the potential for emotional compromise if we maintain our current relationship."

"Wait," Jim exhales in frustration. "We have a relationship?"

Spock does look at him then, as though daring him to deny it. "Yes."

Swallowing a nauseating wave of exultation and panic, Jim takes half a step forward. "What happened?"

"Nothing happened," Spock says coldly.

"You can't say we have a relationship and not owe me an answer." Panic is slowly being replaced by a creeping sense of outrage, because this is what always happens, how it always ends, everything just variation on a theme.

"I have attempted to explain my motivation."

Jim studies his face for any sign of emotion and finds nothing. Whatever this is, it's too big for Spock to express, too involved for him to be anything other than perfectly Vulcan about it. He feels a crushing sense of loss, having grown used to Spock being a little less guarded around him, knowing that on top of everything else, he will miss that connection wholeheartedly.

"Damn you," he says quietly. "Why are you doing this?"

"It is necessary."

"The hell it is," Jim counters, feeling the anger form around him, familiar as armor. "I've been so damn careful not to step over the line. What's your problem? Is it because I'm human? You worked with Ashe for years, so I don't buy that, and you can't pretend she wasn't emotionally invested in you, because we both know that's bullshit."

"The nature of my professional relationship with Lieutenant Ho was..."

"A total fucking mystery to you, right up until the end," Jim cuts in, wondering how he went from wanting to protect Spock to throwing painful revelations in his face. "Whether or not you reciprocated, she considered you a hell of a lot more than just her Point Two."

Spock's eyes narrow and his jaw bunches beneath cleanly shaven skin. "Do you seek to provoke me?"

"All I'm after is the truth," Jim spits, "not that you'd know what that is."

"Do not make the mistake of assuming I shall continue to overlook your discourtesy."

"Don't make the mistake of thinking I give a shit."

Spock turns abruptly, enters his code and steps into his quarters, Jim hot on his heels.

"Oh, like hell are you running away from this."

Spock stands with his back turned, fists clenched at his sides, tension visible in every line of his body. "Leave now, Lieutenant."

"No," Jim shakes his head.

Spock makes a cutting motion through the air with one open palm. "You will leave, now, or I will put you on report."

"So, do it."

There is deadly silence and utter stillness. He turns, cold and dangerous, then there is the eyebrow.

"Lieutenant Kirk," Spock says, his voice clipped and precise. "You will leave my quarters immediately. You will consider yourself suspended from active duty. Any further inappropriate behaviour will result in your being confined to the brig. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

What Jim does next is only what his nature dictates; he steps up and presses himself against the edges of Spock's personal space. Alarm bells are going off in his head, but all he can think is how angry he is, how beyond it he feels. Spock's eyes flash, his nostrils flare with a quickly indrawn breath, and to Jim it feels like a small victory. To push like this, past the careful lines Spock draws around himself, it opens an ache in Jim's gut that's almost painful in its intensity.

"What? Got so good at lying you've forgotten what the truth feels like?" he asks mockingly, whisper-soft at such close range. "Do you even know who you are anymore?"

"I am Vulcan," Spock hisses.

"Say it again and maybe it'll mean what you want it to mean."

"It holds only one meaning."

Jim hangs his head and laughs through his nose. It makes him vulnerable, it's designed to do so as a deliberate taunt, and the sudden clench of Spock's hands in Jim's field of vision means that's understood. He's offered a body language 'fuck you 'at the most basic level. A shiver runs through Spock's slender frame, uncontrolled, uncontrollable.

"This is dangerous," Spock says tightly, in realization. "Leave."

"I won't."

Spock's self-control falters and a contemptuous look flickers across his face. "Of course you will."

Jim swings before Spock has time to react, the well-placed blow collecting cheekbone so hard it turns his head.

"Shit!" Jim gasps, equal parts shocked and furious. "You're the one who's doing the leaving! You'll throw yourself into a war zone, into crazy, dangerous, impossible situations but then you run from me; I don't get it. I'm too emotional, is that what you're thinking? That I'm not Vulcan enough? I guess this is just proving you right."

Slowly, Spock turns his head front and center again; his eyes are blacker than space.

Jim's throat closes over, choking him. Chest tight, he struggles to draw in enough air to speak, the injustice robbing him of all his good intentions. All he wants to do now is make Spock hurt. It's an ugly feeling, reflected in the bare-toothed smile on his face and the adrenaline that sets his hands shaking. He's been here before a thousand times over, the images come crashing down from the inside, pushing relentlessly outwards, made of blood and bone and teeth and boiling anger because it's the only thing between him and heartbreak.

"Coward," Jim taunts, still grinning, still hating himself. "For all your lofty ideals and precious logic, you're just as fucked up as the rest of us, you just don't know how to admit it." He plants a finger in the air between them, "You let me close and that scares the ever-loving shit out of you, doesn't it? If you're so intent on being the perfect Vulcan, how do you reconcile the fear in your eyes? Where's the fucking logic in that?"

With a roar, Spock backhands him across the face, sending him sprawling over the table with a clatter of chairs and the screech of skin against plastic as Jim scrabbles for purchase. Before he has a chance to recover, Spock is already on him, fingers twisted in the cloth of his uniform, the material gives with an audible rip. Jim struggles, lashes out, connects several times before Spock captures his wrists in one hand, wrenching them up behind his back with the strength of several humans. It hurts and it's so damn familiar.

"Feel better?" Jim gasps, torn between laughter and tears, but just glad one of them has snapped.

Spock drags Jim by his shirtfront towards the door. "Leave!"

Jim swirls his arms and breaks the hold with a downward stroke that tips them both off balance, his hip and shoulder into Spock's torso. It's the momentum and the surprise that make Spock stagger, because it sure as hell can't be the mass. They tumble backwards until they slam into the sleeping partition. Their legs tangle but both refuse to give ground, so they rebound into the shelving hard enough that it takes Jim's breath away, head bouncing off a corner so that for a moment he sees stars.

Stunned, he finds his hands suddenly free of Spock's tight grip. His wrists are blossoming purple and red, chafed and burning. Both of them are collapsed up against the corner of the room, Spock's body pressing Jim into the unforgiving surface. This close, Jim can see more than fear Spock's eyes.

"I fucking knew it," he curses before grabbing Spock's hair and arching up to claim an open-mouthed kiss.

Spock freezes, hands splayed mid-air, grasping at nothing.

Jim pulls back to look him in the eye. "Don't you leave me hanging," he growls, fingers tight against Spock's scalp.

Spock carefully takes one of Jim's hands by its swollen wrist and there is a moment where this could end with Jim dumped in the corridor. Instead, he just holds it loosely while his other hand finds Jim's chest and lingers. Those eyebrows are almost horizontal in distress and he's breathing through his mouth, something he doesn't even do even when he's running.

Instinctively, Jim chooses that instant to yield a little, allowing some of the rage and frustration to slip away.

He finds momentary clarity in knowing that his life doesn't always have to be about walking away even when he's holding out for someone. It causes a powerful flash of compassion, one that makes him exhale in shaky relief, because he wasn't even sure he was capable of feeling something that wholesome anymore. Memories clamor through his mind; Spock sleeping in sickbay, Spock almost-smiling, Spock saving his life, Spock across a chess board ... just Spock.

No doubt his thoughts are sensed through fingertips; all the yearning beneath Jim's skin. Slowly, Spock's head bows until it presses against Jim's neck, his shoulder. It exposes one perfectly pointed ear within easy reach, and Jim wouldn't be Jim if he didn't turn his head and kiss it. A hot gust of breath against his neck is his reward and the warmth of it pools low in his stomach. He guides Spock's hand from his heart to the base of his throat, holding it there with his own, thinking back to a moment when he'd unwittingly predicted the shape of things to come.

Spock lifts his head, lips parted, and stares. With his strength, he could end a human life so easily. The knowledge shows in his eyes as a quickly-masked flash of fear. Beneath his fingers, Jim's pulse races. Spock swallows, perhaps unable to look away, perhaps aware he's betrayed himself already.

With conviction, Jim steps forward, pushing his throat against Spock's palm to kiss him again. Both of them exhale, parting lips to release the sound. The hand at Jim's throat flexes, the thumb sliding up to the point of his jaw, tilting it so that Spock has better access. From there, it's a bare few centimeters to a mind meld and Jim realizes he wants it so much he's shaking.

"Do it," he says firmly against Spock's mouth. "I want you to know. Please do it."

The sound Spock stifles makes Jim wonder if he's underestimated the significance of this gesture to Vulcans, but there's no time for second thoughts because hot fingers are pressing against his cheekbone, his temple and his jaw.

"My mind to your mind," Spock whispers, low and hoarse in a last ditch battle for control. "My thoughts to your thoughts."

Jim has a moment of screaming disorientation. It's so different from what he expects; swirling chaos against a dark maelstrom of need and denial and iron will. The only thing that seems right is the way Spock feels; a warm, dry sensation, spicy on the back of Jim's tongue in a way he'll never be able to adequately describe. He latches on to it and pours out all his want and confusion. It makes Spock arch against him, mutter his name, press his lips against Jim's throat with a thrill of teeth. Jim lets his head fall back and concentrates on breathing, eyes partially blinded and open to the ceiling. It's what's going on inside his head that really matters.

Spock uses his free hand to frame Jim's face, the palm flat, not to dominate the meld, just to hold him in place so he can stare with ill-concealed amazement. Jim finds a smile from somewhere and offers it up like a sacrifice. He feels Spock surrender then, feels it inside his head. It's visceral and undeniable.

"Oh hell yes," he says, pushing off from the wall to claim it.

Everything spirals out of control from there. Spock doesn't need a hand on Jim's face to maintain the meld, they're touching so closely in so many other places. There's the clatter of objects knocked from a desk, tinkling as they hit the ground. Muffled curses arise when the act of stripping a shirt separates them for several breathless seconds. Occasional flashes of pain punctuate the flow when fastenings are ignored or clothing catches at them in haste, but it only serves to heighten the desperation, the frantic pace of their coming together.

It's hot and dry in Spock's quarters. The back of Jim's knees hit the edge of the bed. Spock gives him a shove, then follows, pressing him down in a shock of hot skin, hands possessive and confident. Not to be outdone, Jim arches in just the right way and takes them both in hand. Again, Spock's head falls to his shoulder, and Jim grins in triumph. Spock's body is strong and beautiful, full of long lines and well-healed scars. Jim wants to learn it all, starting with the delicate skin exposed at his hairline, just behind his ear. He brings his lips down upon it, darts his tongue out to taste it and thinks of the many times he's wanted this without knowing, ached to give in to a desire he hardly even let himself believe in.

Spock raises his head, wonderfully dishevelled. "Truly?" he whispers. It's the first thing he's said in a long time and the emotion in his voice is unexpected.

"Longer, even," Jim grins, then uses his grip to remind Spock what else he's wanted to do, and loves the glimpse of pleasure on Spock's face. Loves it.

Jim rocks them together, revels in the feel of them, holds them tightly in his hand, better than he imagined. Spock is far from passive, his strength not so tightly leashed anymore, his grip on the bruising side of comfortable, not that Jim cares. He grins through it, wraps a leg around narrow hips and bites down on Spock's bottom lip. Tomorrow, he's going to press into any bruises with his own fingers and remember. Spock shudders as the thought bleeds across.

It's been quick and hard and unforgiving, but Jim knows he's ready when Spock pushes back demandingly on one of his knees. He's been ready forever. Spock rolls behind him, finds his way with those clever fingers. Wet heat sits against him and Jim braces his hands against the wall for purchase. Spock presses into him slowly, just careful enough to make it good, but rough enough that Jim is sure he's not the only one out of control. It hurts like hell, but Jim feels little less empty inside, like his broken edges are sliding against those of Spock's and almost, if not quite, corresponding. He should have known the sex would be like this; simultaneously safe and the most dangerous thing he's ever done.

He feels their connection more fully now, realizes through the meld that Spock is still holding back, still being careful. Jim moves harder, snatches a messy kiss over his shoulder and purposefully concentrates on how good Spock feels inside him, how his hand feels around him. It's a cheap trick to play on a telepath, but Spock ought to know by now that when it comes to getting what he wants, Jim has unhealthy boundaries.

Spock's hands grip more tightly, he buries his face in the nape of Jim's neck and although Jim can already feel the edges of their release, he manages to ignore the fire in his muscles and push back at it with his body. It flares brighter, taking them both harder. Spock is still a few seconds behind him, clinging to the remnants of his predefined shape of the world. That just makes the clench of his hands on Jim's body all the more poignant when it happens. Although he can't watch it, Jim knows Spock is beautiful when he comes, can feel it in the way his body moves.

Breathless, they stay pressed together, Spock's knee buried in the back of Jim's own, the weight of him pressing Jim down into the mattress and into the wall. Neither move because they both know the heat and the crush of it make Jim feel safe and Spock feel something.

Jim reaches down to his chest where one long hand rests limply and brings it to his lips. "I want to stay," he says as the meld slips away, his bruised lips moving against smooth whorls on pale fingertips. Behind him, he can feel Spock's turn his head and press his face against a shoulder blade. All alone inside his head, Jim's left to guess what that might mean.

-:-

He anticipates that Spock will want to clean up, but what he doesn't expect is the way he lets them tangle together in a different kind of mess when they're dry. Spock is inhumanly warm against him, but he's got the lean lines and soft, blanched skin of a dyed-in-the-wool spacefarer. Possessively, Jim pushes him back into the bed and maps those textures with his hands. One drifts down to a hip, gripping, while the other reaches Spock's face. Fingertips press against swollen lips, a precursor to the kisses that follow.

Spock is pliant but not passive. His hands are strong, shaping and holding with a surety Jim hasn't expected. It isn't that he's unfamiliar with men, but the last time he'd been little more than a boy. The sex had been boyish. This touch is firm and confident; a man's touch. It's like everything Spock is as a person gets traced out on Jim's skin; all the surety, all the fear, all the self control destroyed. It's bewildering.

"Do you think," Jim asks, moving his teeth against Spock's skin and worrying the marks he's already made there, "we could have made this any harder on each other?"

Spock has to wait until Jim frees his mouth to reply. "Perhaps."

"We are going to be okay after this," he says, moving onto his elbows to stare down at Spock who is all loose-limbed and relaxed for once.

"Jim," he says, dark eyes strangely gentle, "we have never been okay."

He realizes that given everything, it really shouldn't come as such a surprise.

-:-

The computer wakes them for the morning briefing and they rouse from within a warm hollow, pressed up against each other, smelling faintly of sex and a lot like whatever Laundry uses to clean the sheets. Jim is reminded that Spock doesn't always sleep at night by the slightly confused look he's given. That, together with the unexpected press of so much naked skin makes him lean in for a kiss while Spock is still disoriented and off his game.

Their lips move languorously, replete with the burn of morning stubble and chapped skin. Jim takes a moment to appreciate the feeling of Spock's tongue seeking his own, chasing into foreign territory, crossing lips with confidence. The memory of last night ignites within him, forcing a heartfelt moan into the pause between this kiss and the next.

"We will be late," Spock tells him seriously, even though his hands don't let go.

"No way, we've got ..." Jim glances at the clock and then back at Spock incredulously. "Who sets their default alarm for fifteen minutes?"

"I rarely have cause to rely upon it to wake me."

"What even?" Jim exclaims, leaping from under the covers and throwing himself into the small bathroom.

"I shall, of course, excuse any tardiness on your behalf."

"Get in here!" Jim shouts over the sound of running water. "You smell like me and everything we did!"

Already aware of that fact, Spock swings his legs over the side of the bed, and in the privacy of the moment, allows himself a small smile.

If anyone at the morning briefing makes note that Spock arrives exactly on time rather than early, or that his hair is uncharacteristically wet from a real water shower, nothing is said. Jim schools his features and pretends to study the flimsy in his hands. They're going looking for a place to build a safe haven. It's perfect for the way he's feeling today. All he can think about is how his cuffs and his collar press divinely against all the right places.

 

 

Chapter Text

Spock stands with his feet braced on the uneven ground and stares upwards towards the irregular cave mouth some two hundred and fifty two point six meters above. At the jagged edge stands a single black-suited figure, silhouetted against the midday sun. As he watches, Jim locks off his line, holding it taut, and inches backwards until only his toes grip the land's surface. When he pushes off into space, Spock is powerless to stop the small lurch in his stomach, even if none of it shows on his face. Jim falls through the air, his balance perfect, the pendulum effect bringing him lightly into contact with the sinkhole wall as he abseils expertly, springing away again and playing out more line.

Spock drops his eyes, begins to coil his own rope, gloved hands sluicing off the worst of the soiling as he does so. The cave environment is chill and damp, the darkness barely penetrable even to his superior vision. It would not have been his first choice as a venue for the proposed aid camp, but he cannot fault Jim's logic. Admiral Pike requested a location that provided exceptional natural defenses.

Jim's boots hit the floor with a squelch. Disconnecting, he weaves his line into a complex figure eight between his elbow and shoulder. Smiling brightly, his teeth very white in the single light buoy they have deployed, he takes in their surroundings with enthusiasm.

"We'll take it!" he pronounces, smile growing impossibly wider.

Alone with Jim, Spock allows himself the smallest of answering smiles. "We have yet to complete our safety and logistics survey."

Jim's hand claps him on the shoulder soundly, gripping his suit and pulling him around to stare into the newly illuminated depths. He flings out a hand expansively. "Kitchen through there, a dining room, then deck out back with a hot tub," his blue eyes are laughing in his earnest face. "Can't you see it?"

"It is highly unlikely that the Health Ministry will fund a hot tub," Spock replies, solely for the anticipated reaction from Jim.

On cue, he laughs. "We'll call it a hydrotherapy rehabilitation pool or something. Now, let's get this done. McCoy's planning a barbecue."

They deploy the other two buoys and are graced with their first real impression of the cave's size. Jim whistles and Spock internally acknowledges the sentiment. This space is ample for their needs. It rises gently to a domed ceiling replete with bats who scatter noisily as the buoys float closer. Jim makes a face as guano rains down, splattering across their visors and suits. Unfortunately this means that Jim is now staring at the ground.

"Those are the biggest fucking cockroaches I've seen in my entire life," he pronounces, half awed, half disgusted, and looks up. "Ever."

"They are disproportionately large compared to this planet's other invertebrate species," Spock allows. "Although given the limited nature of the initial exploratory survey, it is possible we have been mislead."

"Planet of the giant insects. What do they eat?" Jim continues, glancing around the cave for some source of food and failing to find one.

"Jim," Spock prompts, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah?"

Spock just lifts his eyebrow higher.

His face is blank for a moment, but Spock can see the moment realization dawns, then repulsion replaces confusion. Still, buried beneath the very understandable human response, Spock detects a hint of perverse, childlike fascination with the concept.

"Someone's got to eat it, I guess," is all Jim says, not quite hiding his scandalized smile. "Unless we want to be hip deep in guano."

"We should endeavor not to disturb this delicate ecosystem when planning the installation."

"I'm guessing we're going to have a hard time campaigning for the rights of shit-eating bugs, but it's worth a try," Jim acknowledges, taking a few slippery steps further into the cave. "Although," he continues thoughtfully as his stride firms and his boot-strikes become audible, "the place kind of opens up back here, come have a look."

Spock obliges.

The reason for the environmental shift is instantly obvious. The ground is sluiced clear by shallow, fast-moving water over an area of approximately six hundred square meters. Spock drops to one knee, the current eddying around him and lapping at the folds of his suit. The small, limited capacity tricorder is still able to confirm his hypothesis.

"The water is mildly acidic," he announces, straightening and handing the instrument to Jim. "The limestone has been dissolved by both erosive and chemical action over thousands of years."

Jim looks up from the screen, his eyes taking on a distant bent that Spock has learned to associate with his more creative moments.

"Let's build it here, on struts. The water can still run under it and the bats can be our guard dogs." He smiles again, this time wryly. "I almost hope Nero does try something, just so he can meet our friends."

Spock turns, following the direction of Jim's pointing finger, but it remains unclear whether he is referring to the bats or the cockroaches.

"The emotional benefit seems to be significantly outweighed by the potential risks," he feels obliged to say.

"You totally agree with me," Jim says, eyes dancing. "Admit it."

"It would be advisable to return to camp," he redirects, knowing that Jim is capable of taking that for an admission. "I anticipate the climb will take approximately forty two minutes to complete, by which point there will be little daylight remaining for our overland journey."

"Got to be home before dark," Jim translates, then rubs his palms together gleefully. "God, I love climbing!"

Spock trails behind, reeling in the buoys as Jim negotiates the unstable guano hill on his way to the base of the sink hole.

Spock anticipates they will debate the logic of who will be lead climber. Spock will win and Jim will pretend to be annoyed. They will make the climb quickly and safely with a by-now familiar degree of healthy competition and then return to camp in the ATC, with Jim behind the wheel. There, Spock predicts that Jim will demand his attendance at Doctor McCoy's impromptu barbecue. Spock will not object too vociferously. Tonight is, after all, considered the only shore leave they can expect until after Ql'tomer.

Standing shoulder to shoulder at the base of the sinkhole, hearing Jim's opening argument about being the more experienced climber, Spock keeps his eyes fixed on the sky and allows himself a moment to appreciate the way Jim's inherent unpredictability has become comforting and familiar.

-:-

Jim has to hand it to McCoy; the man does a mean barbecue.

Aspera is a little jewel of a world, so humid and full of life that he's forced to love it despite its changeable weather and impressively mountainous terrain. He hasn't seen the horizon since they arrived because it's constantly blocked by trees or summits, and now it looks like he's going to spend the rest of their stay working down a great big hole in the ground. A hole filled with guano. A hole filled with guano, gigantic cockroaches and Spock.

It could be worse.

He puts down his plate on the grass, careful not to upset anyone else's things. They're crowded around the decent-sized blaze Chekov is tending, all sitting on packing crates, thermal blankets and fallen logs. There are several other groups around similar fires, it being impossible to warm everyone around a single one, but all are a pleasant mix of crew from all areas. McCoy mans his grill and spit with the dedication of a master at work, scowling at everyone who approaches unless they have a plate in their hands and are asking for seconds. Jim has already had an extra helping of whatever the hell animal McCoy is roasting, and even Spock has retrieved an additional baked tuber from the glowing coals. Night is falling and without the pressing need for Alpha and Beta shifts, both crews are still present and largely awake.

They've managed to replicate a little of the vaguely alcoholic cider served among the Diplomatic Corps, thanks to Scotty's ingenuity and Spock's blind eye. It's a little sweet, but it fizzes nicely on the tongue and is chilled enough to take the heat out of McCoy's secret sauce.

The silence that has reigned while everyone fed themselves slowly dissolves into pockets of conversation. Around the fire, knees are angled and seats shifted to form natural enclaves and small groups. To his left, Chapel is holding court, a gaggle of adoring engineering and internal services people smiling up at her while she recounts some humorous tale or another. To his right, Spock sits quietly, plate on his knees, cider untouched on the ground beside his feet. It hadn't taken much convincing before he'd agreed to attend, and whilst Jim would like to attribute that to either his debating skills or the attraction of his presence, it is far more likely that Spock had already made up his mind to go, and simply indulged him in the anticipated verbal sparring as a friendly gesture. Sometimes, Jim fears Spock understands him too well.

Several crewmembers come up over the course of the evening, to sit and chat with both of them. Some of it is political currying, because having your face known to the DivCO and DivPoint One is generally a good thing, but even more of it is genuine camaraderie. Here, again, is that deep-seated respect they have for Spock, the look in their eye and slight nervousness that speaks of something bordering on more than the professional. All of them like him, perhaps some of them even love him, not that Jim could even imagine Spock comprehending that reality, not after the incredible distance he'd seen during the meld.

Jim shifts slightly, jostling the cutlery on his own abandoned plate, drawing Spock's attention.

The face that turns his way is pale in the evening light, dark hair melting away into the shadows.

"This is good for the crew," Jim observes to break the silence that has settled between them.

"I believe you are correct. An ongoing heightened state of alertness has detrimental effects on the wellbeing of many races, especially humans. An opportunity for relaxation, however brief, is advantageous."

Jim turns back to contemplate the fire. "Especially since we're not going to get another chance like this for quite a while."

Spock continues to stare at him. "Our Ql'tomer brief is hardly that comprehensive. It is unlike you to be pessimistic."

Jim gives him a serve of his own eyebrow trick. Spock replies in kind, which only makes Jim laugh and shake his head, fighting down the totally inappropriate urge to lean in and put an arm around him. Whatever changed last night, it is still uncertain and new. Unspoken rules lie between them; tangible in the careful distance they maintain in public. He catches Uhura's knowing look from across the circle and dampens his smile. Their secret is not so secret; probably hasn't been for a while. Still, few people outside of Nix's crew will know either of them well enough to be sure of anything. With what's at stake though, he's kind of grateful that Spock is Vulcan and not given to public displays of affection. Jim really doesn't want to screw this up. Not the thing with Spock, not his job, not any of it. His life is dangerously perfect right now; the realization brings a sudden plummeting feeling to the pit of his stomach.

The last of the repair crews stagger out of the treeline to a round of spontaneous applause. The Stalwart is mobile again.

"They've fixed our magnificent ship," he observes.

Beside him, Spock looks upwards towards the glint of the Stalwart's low orbit. "I shall have to commend Lieutenant Scott," he says quietly, with no need to check the time. "Repairs have concluded two point six hours before schedule."

"Surprisingly, shore leave is a great motivator.”

Spock's face is familiarly blank, but his eyes express the depth of warmth his voice does not. "I am rarely surprised."

Despite his earlier resolve, Jim feels his face warm and turns his head away from the heat of the blaze to hide it. Subtle, Kirk, real subtle.

From around the fire, the call goes out for music and singing, capitalising on the atmosphere of celebration. Uhura declines to go first. Charitable of her, in Jim's opinion, considering that the quality of her voice would doubtless discourage others. There's some cat-calling and good spirited heckling, but finally, Scotty straightens his spine and, a little red-faced, launches into a rollicking tune about a man with a dog who likes whiskey and soda. The chorus is predictable, and many people join in by the second refrain.

It's loud and rambunctious and very, very human.

Jim looks over at Spock, notes the perfection in his posture, and bumps his shoulder gently. "I'm going to walk off dinner. Join me?"

"That would be acceptable."

They stand and Jim catches Bones glaring at him. He mouths 'what?' with his most innocent expression in place. The doctor frowns mightily before turning back to the spit, his hoarse voice joining the rest of the crew bemoaning the fate of Scotty's dog.

Jim casts his gaze into the night, still blinded by the intensity of light they're leaving behind. "There's a cliff about a click away."

"I recall."

They walk for some time in silence, the sound of enthusiastic applause following them into the forest. Somebody takes up a guitar after that, barely loud enough to be heard as the foliage begins to screen them. The sun is setting but the first moon has already risen. They have more than enough light to negotiate the well-worn animal track.

Jim frowns at the path. "We're not going to get eaten by something, are we?"

"Had you been paying attention in the briefing this morning, you would know that Aspera is home to only one large carnivorous predator, and that it is not prevalent on this continent."

"That's not a no, Spock."

"There is always your phaser."

"I'm not carrying ..." Jim stops dead and turns. "You brought your phaser to the barbecue?"

"Jim, we are currently engaged in covert aid work along the border of Klingon space, in an area where Nero is frequently sighted, with minimal protection from Starfleet and a warp drive that is only recently repaired," Spock lists calmly. "I am unlikely to abandon my weapon at any stage of our deployment."

"Okay," says Jim, sticking a finger in the air between them, "point taken, but you're sharing a tent with the rest of us, so if you sleep with that thing and wind up shooting me in the ass or something, you'll have Bones to answer to."

"It would be dangerous and illogical to sleep with a weapon capable of causing serious injury."

"Glad to hear it."

"I always ensure it is on the lowest stun setting before retiring."

Jim throws his head back, chuckling into the night sky. "Totally reassuring, really."

"I am gratified that my security measures amuse you."

"Huh," is all he replies, setting off again. Spock follows as the path only allows for single file.

The temperature starts to drop rapidly now that the sun has set, and Jim is glad of his thermal blacks. Neither he, nor Spock, have retained their outer EVA suit, covered as they were in bat guano and silt. They hung them side by side outside the row of tents assembled in the lee of the limestone overhang sheltering their temporary camp. Keeping things as low tech as possible makes sense; hostile long-range scanners are unlikely to pick up small hand-held devices the way they would environmentally controlled habitation domes. Still, Jim wouldn't have said no to a decontamination cycle for his suit, or at the very least, a convenient laundry chute. Besides, all of it seems a little moot, what with a few thousand megatons of Constitution Class spaceship hanging above them in orbit. Pretty hard to hide that.

The shadowed and uneven path demands the majority of his attention, but it's a physical concern, leaving his mind free to wander. Instinctively, he knows Spock doesn't mind the silence, probably actually appreciates it, so he puts one foot after the other and keeps pushing the branches out of his face. It takes about fifteen minutes to reach their destination. Even in the dark, Jim can feel it coming. The air quality changes, becomes colder and emptier, drawing them in.

He parts the final branches carefully, finding the edge with his eyes and steadying himself with one hand on a tree trunk. When he finally looks out across the valley, he's glad he has something to hold onto.

"Wow."

Spock pushes through to stand beside him. "Indeed."

The ledge they're standing on plummets the better part of five hundred meters to a dark tree-clad plateau. Somewhere to their left, the underground river from the cave must finally find an outlet, because the thunder of a waterfall can be heard over the rustle of the forest. Slim silver ribbons weave their way through the forest in the valley, twinkling between branches, forming a beautifully organic network of tributaries that disappear into vanishing points all of their own. A fine mist from the falls catches the light of the twin moons, like rising steam or low-lying clouds.

Spock pulls a tricorder from god knows where and begins taking readings; ever curious.

Jim slings an arm around the tree the way he longs to do around Spock's waist, but doesn't. The Commander is so intense in his observations that he might as well be alone. That's not to say that he is unaware of Jim, because there's not doubt he can recite the distance between them to the last decimal place, or the degree to which his mere presence is affecting the tricorder's readings. Spock's focus is not accusatory, not exclusive like that. Instead, it's an almost childlike wonder at the spectacle before them, the forces that created it and the exact conditions of the moment. That amazing, totally alien brain is so often inundated with unpleasant detail, with necessity and dire constraints, that it's a pleasure to observe it in its natural habitat; in Spock's natural habitat, without the pressures of the job.

"Didn't you ever consider Starfleet Sciences?" Jim wants to know. "Or the Vulcan Science Academy?"

He pauses, hands stilling on the controls. "I considered every option available to me."

Spock's severe profile never changes, but something about his voice warns Jim not to press any further. Questions linger on the tip of his tongue, replete with temptation. He won't ask them, though. It would cross the line Spock has drawn around his past; the one nobody has gotten him to cross. Intellectually, Jim knows something must have happened because not even Spock is that private, but when you're harboring your own dark secrets, delving into someone else's seems a little hypocritical. So, instead of talking, Jim takes a step closer, then another.

Spock looks up, serious and thoroughly alien in the moonlight. The tricorder falls to his side. More than anything, Jim wants to kiss him, but there is so much that could go wrong with that. Also, one desperate fuck does not a relationship make. He's wary of moving too fast, which should be ridiculous, but in this case, just isn't.

Instead, he reaches out and traces the line of Spock's closest eyebrow, the gesture firm and sure, but so much less than it could be. Still, every gesture means more to a touch telepath. With that in mind, it is hardly surprising when Spock leans into his fingertip. The acceptance is heady and really, Jim can't be expected to show restraint in the face of it. They shift together slowly, lips drawing close, barely brushing in the warmth of shared breath. It's almost a kiss, and the nearness of it should make Jim frustrated, but instead it's simply thrilling.

A sudden surge of laughter breaks through the trees, closer to the cliff than the campfire. Someone else is sharing their enthusiasm for a moonlit walk. They have maybe ten seconds before they are no longer alone. Eight of them tick past before they force themselves apart, hands sliding reluctantly away. A couple of ensigns stumble out into the clearing, definitely a little worse for wear thanks to the cider. Despite the poor timing, Jim smirks at how lightweight they are.

"Sorry, Commander," one of them laughs, his arm around the girl, who smiles up at him and Spock and life in general. "We can go if you..."

"No," Jim speaks because Spock shouldn't have to. "We've taken enough readings. You kids enjoy yourselves."

He feels the bite of responsibility and rank as they abandon the ledge. It stings that they have to be so careful while others flaunt their connections without fear of reprisal. Regulations suck harder the further up the chain of command you climb. In the darkness, he seeks out Spock's eyes and finds them downcast. They say that eyes are the window to the soul, and in Spock's case Jim believes it. Small things can be inferred from the tension in his shoulders or the length of his stride, but to Jim, it's his eyes that have always provided the full translation.

He doesn't want to reach for it, fights the urge the entire walk back, but crumbles beneath uncertainty right where the forest ends.

"Wait," he says tightly, resting fingertips on his shoulder.

Spock pauses, then finally lifts his head. Nothing is said, but his fingers come to rest on the nape of Jim's neck, the thumb shifting back and forth once, the grip strong. Something tight and doubtful loosens inside him and he's able to watch Spock slip away into the light without needing to follow.

-:-

More than anything, Spock wants to stay in close proximity to the warmth of Jim's presence. He wants to feel the murmur of emotion beneath his skin, to experience it as he does not allow himself to experience his own. He understands obsession, and the fear of it was not banished by a brief morning meditation. Waking in a space warmed by another body had been quite unsettling; more so for the vulnerability of being unconscious than anything else. Spock cannot remember the last person besides medical staff who has observed him in sleep. Trusting Jim with that had been instinctive in the heat of the moment. The doubts had assailed him only when observing the world from a lectern, the Aspera briefing falling fully memorized from his lips. Jim had sat amongst the crew, a painfully familiar face in a sea of familiar faces, and Spock knew he would have been able to pick him out with his eyes closed.

That morning, the few seconds that followed wakefulness had been the most intense. There is so much he could have given away; more than he is willing to share, despite their physical intimacy. In those fretful moments he experienced what it was to fear something irrationally, and also, to long wholeheartedly for it to continue. The contradiction still sits uneasily in his bones, deeper than his conscious mind can process.

Jim is unpredictable and he is volatile. He is human, with all the internal conflicts and lack of self-awareness that implies. Emotionally speaking, he is akin to nothing Spock has ever experienced. The meld they shared had been deeper than intended, partly due to his own carefully suppressed longing, but also in response to Jim's unexpected psychic tenacity. Intellectually, Spock is aware that adversity breeds fortitude, both physical and mental, but he did not expect to find it honed so finely. Jim's mind is bright and turbulent, as beautiful and filled with destruction as a battlefield.

"Commander," Uhura smiles, falling abruptly into step with him as he skirts the remnants of the campfire.

"Lieutenant," Spock acknowledges, feeling almost disoriented.

"Don't tell me you left Jim in the forest."

After a momentary pause, Spock lifts an eyebrow. "I believe he returned to camp unscathed."

"Because if you leave him in there, you just know he's going to come back at dawn with an army of naked pigmy warriors who want to join the fight against Nero and maybe braid his hair as a side project."

Spock turns and examines his pilot. "That is a remarkably fanciful assumption."

She smiles at him, kind of sad but also carefree. "It's kind of fanciful cider."

"You are intoxicated," he observes, entirely without judgement.

"Yeah," her smile widens. "You should try it. Let your hair down."

Spock tilts his head, feelings of amusement and slight tenderness tugging at the boundaries of his frayed control. "I am content to let you do so on my behalf."

She laughs through her nose and looks at the ground. "Living vicariously will only get you so far," she says, suddenly serious and wise. "Nar-tor pulaya s'au k'ka'es - k'el'rular tun-bosh."

"Accept their reaching in the same way; with careful hands." He inclines his head. "Nemaiyo."

"You're welcome."

Logically, Spock knows Uhura has not been told of what took place with Jim, that she speaks to a general sense of connection rather than something specific. Still, it seems suspiciously poignant.

He remains unmoving and takes a moment to absorb the activity around the camp. With a nod, Uhura leaves him, disappearing amongst the light buoys. At least six dozen crew are still sitting around the dying fires, their voices low and warm with laughter. Numerous tents are softly lighted from within, good-natured catcalls and shouts drifting gently on the night air. When he closes his eyes and opens his senses, an unexpected wave of optimism washes over him. It is tinged with anxiety and loss but those feelings are not dominant. He blinks, casting around for a final glimpse of Uhura's retreating back. With her insight, in another life, he supposes they might have been more to each other, perhaps even friends.

-:-

Jim forces himself to wait a few minutes before re-entering the camp. He uses the time to circle around, to find some other place to exit the trees. It won't convince anyone who's really looking, but who would be? Who would expect a Vulcan of something so illogical?

Of course, there was one person who could be relied upon.

McCoy corners him with a pointed finger as soon as he emerges into the light, his voice low and intense. "You’re a total ass!" He whispers threateningly, “hear me?"

"I hear you," he answers, slightly taken aback by the force of the doctor's admonition, but not wanting to give anything away.

"Jesus Jim, Spock? Really?" McCoy wipes an ash-covered hand down his face. "I don't know what you’re thinking!"

Jim's throat tightens unexpectedly just as his stomach drops away. Pointless to try to hide it now. "Not a whole lot of thinking going on, Bones," he confesses. "Still, it's been, like, twelve hours or something. It can't be that obvious; how the fuck did you know?"

"It's been a hell of a lot longer than twelve hours and I'm familiar with the way your mind works, remember?" McCoy continues in an undertone. "Also, I'm not a blind man."

"Judging by your ex-wife, I'm not so sure."

McCoy tries to look angry but spoils it with a smile. "You're impossible."

"Just statistically unlikely," Jim grins.

"Goddamn Vulcan commanding officers," the doctor grouses, leaning back into his own personal space again.

"You love it."

"Damn well don't," McCoy objects, hands on his hips. "Do you like chasing the impossible?"

"Maybe I do. Maybe I love it."

"You could at least look a little concerned," he sighs, exasperated.

"There are a lot of things in my life that I haven't had because they're difficult or awkward or supposedly irresponsible," Jim finds himself suddenly serious, frighteningly so. "To tell the truth, I'm sick to death of what I should and shouldn't do. Life's too fucking short."

McCoy takes a deep breath and lets it go slowly, watching him all the while from beneath impressive brows. "You must have some kind of balls, kid."

Jim laughs under his breath. "Thanks, I think. You going to report us?"

"Report you?" If possible, McCoy looks even angrier. "Are you out of your mind?"

"Aren't you in charge of that?"

"Don't remind me," he growls. "If it weren't for the fact insanity is practically a prerequisite for this job, I'd have already had you committed. I'm not going to report you, you ingrate."

"I just..."

"Jim," McCoy snaps, taking him by the shoulders again to studying him intently, fingers digging into his skin. "This is thin ice. Very, very thin ice."

"We're capable of being professional." He's slightly angry himself.

"I'm not talking about rules and regulations, man." McCoy gives him a little shake for emphasis. "I'm talking about what happens the next time Spock has to order you into a tight situation, or if he lets himself get clobbered to save your sorry ass again. How's it going to make you feel? Plus, that's totally disregarding the cultural strictures he's breaking simply by entertaining the notion of being with you." He catches Jim's look and nods firmly. "Haven't thought about that, have you? What it means for him to acknowledge what he feels? Jesus, that he feels at all?"

Feeling suddenly out of his depth, Jim swallows. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because you need to really think about this, kid, like a fucking adult and a Divisional Point One." McCoy looks sad as he gently releases him, apologetically smoothing the shirt over his shoulders. "This isn't some college workplace romance."

"Don't you think I know that?" Jim frowns, beginning to feel offended. "The whole thing frightens the shit out of me, Bones, especially the part where I couldn't walk away even if I wanted to." He rakes a hand through his hair. "Twelve fucking hours and already I need this more than I've let myself need anything since ... and already I ..." he falters, swallows. "Damn it."

Feeling a little dizzy putting it into words, Jim leans gratefully into McCoy's steadying hands.

"Ah, hell," the doctor sighs, pulling him into a hug that is full of resignation and affection. One hand finds the back of Jim's neck and grips it. "I had to be sure, you know? For both your sakes."

"Don't make me talk about this again," he demands, muffled by McCoy's shoulder.

"I won't, but you'd better mention it to him."

"I'm pretty sure he knows."

-:-

The next day dawns bright and hot, growing into something that's unseasonably warm for Aspera's temperate climate. Jim and Spock are formalizing their initial survey of the cave, taking depth readings and correlating those positions with the powerful scanners aboard the Stalwart. It's essential that they accomplish as much as they can, but it's proving difficult given that Spock has insisted that the work is done purely on a voluntary basis. He'd actually gone so far as to encourage the crew to take full advantage of the offered shore leave, even though he was declining more than the evenings off himself. To their credit, a goodly proportion have been honest about their needs and filed for leave. Those that remain are either new recruits and less frayed around the edges, or simply those for whom empty days and too much time to think isn't very beneficial.

Spock speaks to him seriously, his tone familiar and professional. Jim takes notes on his PADD, nodding as he extrapolates each train of thought to its logical conclusion and formulates an appropriate allocation of resources. They part and drift back together over the course of the day, one of them seeking the other out as needed, asking questions and giving reports, coordinating as easily and naturally as breathing.

Sweltering at the lip of the sink hole, Jim pauses for a drink of water from the catering table and uses the edge of his shirt to wipe the worst of the sweat out of his eyes. Pike is due to arrive in under twenty four hours, and believe it or not, Prime Division has actually accomplished a lot with its volunteer workforce. Whether he approves or not, Jim knows the Admiral won't fault them for their dedication to the cause.

Out of nowhere, Spock appears at his elbow, selecting a cup of his own and raising it to his lips.
Jim shields his eyes against the late afternoon sun, squinting into the brightness. "We're going to have to revise the environmental control recommendations if this is the sort of weather they're going to get."

"According to record, today's peak temperature is a statistical anomaly," Spock replies, placing the empty cup in the appropriate receptacle. "We will be fortunate if the units supplied are able to accommodate such outliers."

Jim nods in agreement. "Funding is tight, but this is bad enough when you're uninjured. Imagine what it would be like with a healing burn."

Spock's eyebrows twitch. "The concept is admittedly unpleasant. However, I believe you have overlooked the natural insulation offered by our chosen location. By nature, subterranean environments experience less variation in ambient temperature." He turns to look at Jim. "It is why so many of the older Clan homes on Vulcan were built into the natural rock formations."

"Was yours?" he asks, then clarifies, "dug in, I mean."

"Yes." Spock's eyes are unwavering. "Our home possessed a rich cultural heritage, dating back to the days of Surak."

"I've seen holos of the type of buildings you're talking about," Jim says consideringly, "but I bet the reality was a lot more beautiful."

"It was functional," Spock counters smoothly, "and logical. However, I admit to a certain pleasing aesthetic within the most ancient foundations of the house. Immediately post-Reformation, Vulcan engineers were still prone to forms of embellishment that are now regarded as unnecessary."

"Bit too emotional?" Jim asks with a smile.

"I infer that it is the lack of efficiency that has led to the practice falling out of favor. Vulcans are not opposed to art or creativity, Jim. Some of us even devote our lives to the arts in their purest form."

"You know,I just missed seeing a Vulcan musical exhibition in San Francisco during my final year at Starfleet Academy," Jim nods, then grins. "I had to pass on the offer of a free ticket in order to stand trial for academic misdemeanor."

"I admit to a total lack of surprise."

Jim laughs, drawing the attention of the nearest bystanders. "Thanks a lot."

"Perhaps you will once again have such an opportunity," Spock says smoothly, pulling out the plans for their final pass of the day, "when Vulcans are less preoccupied with survival and able to devote their lives to that which defines them."

"What about you?" Jim asks quickly, stalling him with a step forwards. "When you're free to do anything, when this is all over, what will you do?"

Spock studies him, a touch of fond surprise in his eyes. "I confess, I do not know."

Jim nods, because he figured as much. As prepared as Spock is for everything, this war has dragged on so long that it's practically impossible for anyone to see beyond it, to believe it might actually end. Planning for something that might never happen, that you might never live to experience, doesn't sound very logical. No wonder Spock can't answer that question. Jim wonders if any of them really can, even as he knows it's essential that they do.

"And you?" Spock asks, an uncanny punctuation to his own thoughts.

Knocking back the last of his water, Jim exhales in satisfaction. "When I figure it out, you'll be the first to know."

 

Chapter Text

"Hey," Jim says softly, leaning around the corner of the lab door. "Am I disturbing you?"

Spock looks up from the displays stiffly, as though he’s been crouched over them too long. "No, of course not."

He can't help the warmth that floods his face at Spock's words, as though his enjoyment of Jim's presence is unconditional. Maybe that fits. Maybe that's what he's always wanted; no fairytale ending, no impossible perfection, just the knowledge that he's welcome amongst the chaotic jumble of someone's life. As much as Spock is capable of anything disorganized.

"I haven't seen you since Beta shift beamed back aboard," he says, stepping further into the room and coming to rest against the workstation, hands shoved deep in his pockets. "You been working this whole time?"

Spock nods, frowning slightly. "I cannot help but consider the possibility that we have overlooked a crucial detail," he admits. "The Council's decision to support Admiral Pike's request for the establishment of this aid camp is monumental. When one takes into account the degree of Vulcan support for the location ..."

"That's an awful lot of people depending on us, I know," Jim finishes for him. He reaches out, grazes Spock's wrist with his fingertips. "I don't want to let Pike down either."

"It is not merely the Admiral's reputation that concerns me." Spock catches Jim's thumb between his two fingers, staring at their hands as he speaks. "The facility will house several hundred beings. That is a great many people who will entrust their lives to the recommendations we make regarding location, security, defenses and amenities." He looks up, allowing a little of his tension to show. "It is a great responsibility."

Jim studies him, sees none of the doubt he might find in any other DivCO, sees only resolve and competence and a desire to discharge his duty with a perfection that nobody could possibly attain. What Jim had first taken for arrogance and self-assurance is actually the confidence of someone who has made mistakes and now has the experience to know that they will always be costly. Spock carries the memory of Sally Morrison on Odesyus, of Ashe Ho's paralysis, of every minor miscalculation or lapse in observation he has ever made. It isn't hubris or guilt, merely the innate composition of his being. Spock could no more disregard those memories than he could snap his fingers and end the war.

Unable to articulate how that makes him feel, Jim settles his hand more firmly over the warm skin beneath it. "Shift ends in ten minutes. Are you available for dinner?"

"Lieutenants Uhura and Scott have requested my presence in the mess hall to discuss a theory they share regarding a shielded and encrypted internal communications system for the aid camp," he says, with perhaps a hint of apology or regret. "However, you are welcome to join us. I value your input."

"Are you leaving now?"

Spock looks around the deserted lab, the study lamps automatically dim at the waning end of the shift. "I have almost concluded my final review," he says, turning back to the screen. Then he pauses. "If you will wait?"

"Sure," Jim smiles slightly. "I can do that."

He pushes free of the desk and chooses a chair that allows him a view of Spock's profile. He leans back into the conformable surface, feeling the small servos adjust to his posture and cradle him. A hundred small aches manifest themselves now that he has the time to consider the state of his body; the work they have been doing the last twenty four hours is more consistently physical than he's used to. He's earned a few more scrapes and bruises in addition to the ones Spock created, god was it still under two days ago? Jim lets his head rest against the back of the chair and pushes off with his toe, feeling the slight, soothing rock. If Spock is half as tired as he is, he must be dead on his feet.

Even seated over a display the Commander's posture is perfect, his spine straight and shoulder blades drawn in together, face intent with concentration. His whole body is a study in angles and planes, from the points of his ears to the jut of bone in his wrist, the line of his collar bone pressed tightly against the uniform fabric. It's the contradictions that attract Jim, he's certain of it; the appearance of severity in the presence of compassion, of fragility in the face of uncompromising force. Spock is utterly unlike anyone he's ever met, different to anyone he's wanted. War concentrates feeling, makes it seem more powerful and overwhelming, relationships being no exception, he understands that. Still, he can't pass this off as the intensity of their situation. It's so much more.

Spock sits back slightly and gives several routine commands to the computer, saving his analysis and commentary. He stands and pushes the chair in neatly. He turns Jim's way.

"Lead on," Jim answers.

The ship's corridors are far from deserted even with the Stalwart in stand down. It's shift change and the passages are filled with Points and Pilots making their way aft for system checks, while Ops and Techs head their separate directions, PADDs in hands, heads bowed as they catch up on the latest departmental news. An Internal Services Yeoman offers him a hands-free salute with his head as he passes, loaded to the chin with laundry. Jim returns it with a smile.

They step into the turbolift with three other crew and turn to face the doors. Jim doesn't miss the way Spock stands closer to him than he does to anyone else and wonders if it's the Vulcan equivalent of holding hands. That makes him laugh through his nose, which of course, he can't explain to Spock's enquiring eyebrow.

Uhura and Scotty have already claimed a table near the terrarium and appear to be engrossed in printed schematics and a precariously balanced pile of PADDs. The table is in a favored location, but the press of bodies around the patch of plant life has lessened the last couple of days, with most people taking the opportunity to experience it in the flesh, rather than from behind transparent aluminium. Still, the light cast from within the greenery is of a different quality than the overheads, easier on the eyes.

Neither lieutenant looks up until Jim's chair scrapes across the floor, then Uhura flicks a salute in their direction and Scotty mumbles a 'sir' before pushing a PADD across the table and staring at them expectantly.

"We can do it," Scott says firmly. "We have the power, it's just a matter of reconfiguring the firmware to accept and decode rather than simply reroute."

Jim leans in over Spock's shoulder, staring at the mess of code and annotations. He's a smart guy, his aptitude scores would have said as much even if his additional training in EPAS hadn't, but this is just ... he pauses though, frowning as several things click into place.

"This subroutine seems a little unwieldy," he points to it and Spock obligingly tilts the PADD towards the rest of the table. "Why not do away with it all together and just rewrite it from the base code up? That way you're not asking this processor to do something it's not designed to do and you still get recursive behaviour, just with one less component." He looks up to a table of frowns. "If you save the bean counters money, they're more likely to approve the modifications, right?"

"How would you redistribute the workload?" Scotty asks eagerly, leaning forward.

Jim pulls a stylus out of his pocket as Spock hands him the PADD. "See here, here and here? Where you've rerouted the preliminary encryption matrix? Yeah, you need to just let it flow right into the central CPU. It can handle the load, it's the same kind we use in the Echo Delta shuttle navcomps; give it enough juice and it will crunch just about anything in real time. By doing that, you can eliminate that subprocessor and free up the ampage you're going to need for the direct data flow while still maintaining your signal integrity. Probably do it all in a smaller hand-held unit, too."

Spock blinks, Scotty makes a noise that could indicate either intense pain or intense pleasure and Uhura pins him with a horrified kind of stare.

"Marry me?" she asks hoarsely.

"Um, no," Jim laughs. "You're scary as shit."

"It might just work," Scotty manages through the hand that's pressed to his mouth. "It would also reduce frequency impedance for the input parameters."

Uhura nods. "We can drop the band even lower, make it almost subsonic."

"Handy," Jim notes, "if you're trying to fly beneath the radar."

Uhura scrubs at her face with the palms of her hands. "I can't believe that didn't occur to me."

"If it makes you feel better, there's no way in hell I could have programmed that multi-lingual encryption engine," Jim offers honestly. "Everything would come out sounding like a strangled Klingon in a high-helium atmosphere."

Scotty snorts, then turns anxious eyes on Spock in apology.

The Commander has finished entering in Jim's alterations to the design. He places the PADD on the surface of the table and slides it across to his lieutenants. "I am most impressed with your work," he tells them, then flicks his eyes to Jim's and away again. "All of you."

"I can have this ready by the time the Admiral arrives," Scotty promises eagerly, slapping the PADD against his free hand. "You just watch me!"

"If I can pull two people from Ops, I can have the twenty most common Federation languages programmed into the interface by lunch time tomorrow," Uhura chips in. "And maybe high and low Robii, too, since I've just finished updating our own UT."

"Consider your request approved, Lieutenant," Spock nods. "I welcome any progress you may make before our departure for Ql'tomer."

"We'll get right on it," Scotty promises, pushing to his feet and all but dragging Uhura out of the mess hall in his enthusiasm.

She pauses only long enough to gather their materials and grin at Jim. "You dark horse."

He waves her away. "If you'd hot-wired enough car radios in your misguided youth and you'd have thought of it, too."

"I do not want to know!" she laughs, letting herself get towed away.

When they're alone at the table, Spock turns to Jim with a slight smile on his lips, almost undetectable. "I, however, would prefer an explanation."

"I'm sure you've read my file," he counters, angling himself to better hide his face. "Juvenile repeat offender and all that."

Spock inclines his head, conceding the point. "Perhaps I overlooked it amidst your numerous other convictions."

"Convictions?" Jim does his best to look righteously offended. "I'll have you know it was only one conviction, and even that only earned me three months."

"Yes, when you were fourteen."

Jim feels the ground drop away a little bit. "Those records are sealed."

Spock's eyes narrow. "They are," he agrees. "Most comprehensively."

Forcing himself to relax, Jim surreptitiously wipes the palms of his hands down his thighs, removing the perspiration. "Good to know."

Beneath the table, Jim feels Spock's knee press into his own, the warmth seeping through two uniforms. It steadies him, that quiet acceptance that Jim might not be ready to reveal everything about himself, all the sordid detail of his past. He presses back firmly, returning the contact and hoping Spock knows it for the thanks it actually is.

"So," he says after a moment, "how long since lunch for you? I'm starving."

Spock actually looks slightly shifty. "Twelve point six hours."

Jim sighs. "That's not lunch, that's breakfast."

"Vulcans do not require ..."

"... the same amount of food, sleep, or oxygen as humans. I know, I remember," Jim finishes for him. "I'm having the lasagna, what about you?"

-:-

In Jim’s quarters, Spock just watches him with quiet curiosity: what will the human do now? It's kind of amusing and very him, leaching any awkwardness out of the situation almost immediately. Jim steps forward, slides a thumb into Spock's collar and kisses him with a smile on his lips. They move together easily, everything now less aggressive. Still, Jim's been wanting this constantly since the first time; it would be a mistake to say things aren't heated. Spock doesn't shiver when Jim pulls at his shirt, but the fine hair on his arms is standing to attention in a desperate attempt to warm him, Jim is close enough to see.

"Cold?"

"Irrelevant," Spock replies, taking his face in both hands and kissing him again.

His quarters are the same ambient temperature as the rest of the ship, so that explains the thicker thermal undershirt. There are several things he could do to make Spock warmer, but only one widens the smile on his face.

"I've got an idea," he encourages, walking backwards with a finger through Spock's belt loop.
Spock follows him into the bathroom, one eyebrow quirked.

Jim shucks his own shirt and toes off his boots, tossing the clothing into the chute and kicking the boots out of the way. "You're going to like this," he promises, dialling the shower up to the maximum safest temperature. "It's logical," he grins. "We'll get clean at the same time."

"Are you mocking me?" Spock enquires, but he reaches for the hem of his thermal and pulls it over his head.

Jim shrugs and pouts. "Just because I know you appreciate efficiency shouldn't mean I can't use that for my own evil ends."

"I question the logic of two people attempting to occupy a space intended for one and efficiently achieve cleanliness."

Naked, Jim allows Spock to back him into the shower, only hissing a little as the scorching water hits his back. "Sorry, what was that? The shower is really loud."

Spock's lips twist in that way he has of almost smiling. When he steps in, Jim has to admit the cubicle is a little crowded; their faces so close that it's a struggle to focus. Space is at a premium aboard any starship, and he doubts the designers had dual occupancy in mind for this single shower. Still, Spock is being hit by the edge of the spray, the dampness beading his skin with moisture in a very distracting way.

"Does your plan extend this far?" Spock asks, demonstrating that the slightest movement will bring them into contact with the confines of the cubicle.

"Hell yes." He twists Spock under the water and drops to his knees at the same time. "In fact, this is totally the highlight."

Spock's hands fly out to brace against the cubicle walls.

-:-

"Pike arrives in six hours," Jim says, shifting his head against the pillow.

Spock lifts himself on one elbow, the greenness of warmth showing along his chest even in the low light. "You are concerned?"

"No," he shakes his head. "Just ..." he pauses to collect his thoughts. "Ql'tomer. It's a big deal. We're flying into a dangerous situation with very little intel. Just because a handful of Klingon warlords see the benefit to some kind of treaty with the Federation doesn't mean shit to the rest of them. They'll happily attack us as soon as look at us, and we're not exactly combat-ready."

"The Federation could not send a vessel of war," Spock argues, extending his arm beneath the pillow so they are face to face. "Such action could easily be misinterpreted as intimidation."

Jim gestures around his quarters at the worn bulkheads, fitful environmental controls and general age of the ship. "And this sends the right message?"

"The Diplomatic Corps are allocated fewer resources every year. They no longer possess a vessel capable of making the journey within the allotted time."

Jim watches Spock watching him, catalogues the brown in his eyes, the generous lips, the slightly irregular curl of his right ear; all things that he'd only really noticed the last few days. "I can cope with us being in the line of fire if we're there to do our jobs," he says. "What I don't like is being thrown in over our heads."

"There is no logic in the Klingons luring us to Ql'tomer merely to destroy us," Spock says softly, reaching out to trace Jim's rounded brow in reciprocation of his gesture on Aspera. "When considering this, the logic of sending the Stalwart becomes clear. We are of little military value and have few technological assets worth seizing. The Klingons are not in the habit of seeking hostages or prisoners of war. Complications are inevitable, but direct confrontation is statistically unlikely."

Jim leans in, rolls against him, takes his mouth in a firm kiss. He needs to feel his body push back, those hands, hot and firm with life. Everything they do is dangerous, every damn thing. This feels so transient. Still, Spock is a lot stronger than him. It triggers something small and scared inside his mind. His heart races, memories cascading through the pauses between contact, between this grip and the next. A heavy body pins him to the bed, hands grip his own, teeth mark his jaw and he feels a jolt of anxiety.

Spock stops dead, stares down at him like he's never seen him before. "There is something wrong."

"No," he denies it adamantly.

"I would not harm you."

"I know that," he snaps, glaring. "I know."

Spock loosens his grip, a small frown gathering between his upswept brows. "I do not understand."

Jim fights down a different kind of fear, the kind that doesn't nauseate him, but is still crisp with potential loss.

The tension eases out of Spock's body slowly, so that it relaxes against him by degrees. His eyes are still filled with questions, definitely acute and far too observant. "What do you want?" he asks.

"You," Jim replies without hesitation. "Right now, just you."

The entire night, Spock is careful not to push too hard or weigh too much, perhaps fighting to seem as human as he can.

-:-


Dressed and pressed on the main hangar deck, Jim tries to smother the mix of curiosity and frustration that floods him when the Tat'sar's distinctive hull warps into view. Spock had implied that Vulcans would be conveying the Admiral to the rendezvous, but from his slight stiffening, the choice of vessel is news to him, too.

"Looking forward to catching up with your buddy, Senekot?" Jim asks under his breath.

Spock shoots him a look that is thoroughly unruffled. "I might ask you the same thing."

"Touche."

They exchange no further conversation as Captain Taylor arrives, finishing up a brief conversation with his XO, Harris, who shoots them an anxious look before departing in a hurry. Jim's not sure what there is to be stressed about; the ship's been fixed in record time, the refugees are benefiting from the slow pace of life on board at the moment, and Aspera has proven to be a suitable base for an aid camp. Things are looking up.

True to form, the Tat'sar sends a shuttle to deliver the Admiral, rather than allow intership beaming. Despite the explanation that had finally come his way, Jim's still not clear on whether that's a personal quirk of the ship's bitchy Vulcan captain, or something a little more grounded in physics. The ship is, after all, a highly experimental trans-temporal rescue vessel that's littered with tachyon residue and warp particulates. Actually, looking at it that way, it's reasonable to cut them a little slack in the matter-stream department.

The shuttle's Vulcan pilot executes a precision landing on the Stalwart's scratched but polished deck and powers down. With a hiss and a pop of atmosphere differential, the ramp extends neatly over the starboard wing, giving Jim yet another chance to appreciate the elegance of Vulcan engineering. No support struts or cross-bracing here, just a simple series of self-extruding interlocking panels. It probably weighs half as much as anything designed by Starfleet, too.

"Captain," Pike nods, negotiating the ramp and making his slow way across the deck. "Spock, Jim."

All three of them salute, but the Admiral just nods, his hands occupied with his walking sticks. In Jim's estimation, he's getting better and better at negotiating the world on those calipers.

"You're as brown as a nut," Pike observes, taking in Jim's face with a slight smile. "Spend your shore leave lying on a beach?"

"Actually, down a hole full of bat shit, sir."

Pike's eyebrows shoot up and he glances between his Divisional representatives. "Strange kind of vacation."

"You could say that."

Taylor steps forward deferentially. Regardless of the lack of clarity in their chain of command, the Captain clearly considers himself Pike's subordinate, and well, Jim kind of understands that. Chris has a certain aura of authority which is difficult to ignore.

"I've allocated a briefing room for your private use, Admiral," he says. "I'm sure the Commander and the Lieutenant can bring you up to speed on our preliminary works."

"Works?" Pike repeats, then turns to frown at them. "I thought I told you two to take it easy."

"Hey," Jim fakes outrage. "A moment ago you were admiring my tan."

Stymied, Pike turns to Spock, demanding answers with his eyes.

"I attended a barbecue," the Commander offers in his defense, "undertook a recreational walk and played several games of chess."

"Really?" Pike's voice is laced with sarcasm but his eyes are keen. "Hold the press."

Jim smothers a laugh. "Briefing room two, when you're ready, Admiral."

"Don't think I'm letting you off that lightly," Pike waves a finger at them before taking the lead, "and I don't need directions. I used to live here, remember?"


-:-


"Well now," Pike leans over the display, throwing his face into the bluish light. "This is exactly what we need."

"Our preliminary survey suggests that the project completion date may be reduced by up to eight weeks by utilizing the cave's natural ceiling rather than constructing an alternative," Spock says, reading from a PADD.

"That's just as long as you don't mind getting friendly with the bats," Jim grins.

Pike waves that concern away. "We can string a huge awning if we need to. Besides, according to the thermal imaging, the bats are concentrated in the cave's mouth, rather than deeper inside." He lifts his head. "How have you solved the problem of ascending and descending into the facility?"

"Initially, supplies can be beamed directly into the construction zone," Spock pulls up the proposal with a flick of his finger across the glassy surface. "This will also allow for large modules to be installed without disassembly and associated consumption of time and resources."

Pike's eyes go wide. "You want to beam tons of materiel directly in there?"

"Mr. Scott assures me it is possible," Spock replies with all his natural confidence.

"I think I need to meet this Mr. Scott," the Admiral says wryly. "He sounds like something else."

"Organic warp matrix," Jim reminds him.

"Oh, he's that guy?" Pike nods and turns his attention back to the display. "Seriously, schedule in a meeting. I'll need his calculations to console Starfleet when I tell them what the plan is."

"Can do, sir."

"Once a power supply has been established below ground," Spock continues where he left off, "it will be a simple matter to install a rank of turbolifts, the surface entrance to which will be easily concealed amongst the natural limestone outcroppings."

Pike looks up, a crooked smile on his face. "I can see you two have really thought this through; good job."

Spock tilts his head. "Expert opinion was sought from Engineering, Medical, Tactical, Ops and Internal Services," he clarifies. "It would have been impossible for two people to formulate comprehensive plans without assistance. At least ..." he pauses to consider, "not without forgoing sleep."

Pike laughs and shrugs with his chin. "Okay, I see you still can't take a compliment, what about ..."

Admiral Pike to the Captain's Ready Room. Repeat, Admiral Pike to the Captain's Ready Room. You have a Priority One communication from Starfleet Command. Please acknowledge.

Pike nods to Jim, who slips over to the comm unit and depresses the button. "The Admiral is on his way."

Understood.

Spock catches Jim's eye as Pike gathers up his walking sticks and makes for the door. Priority One is rarely good news.

"Gather your department heads," Pike tells Spock. "No matter what this is about, I need to talk to them anyway."

"Aye, sir."


-:-


Pike comes to give them the news in person. All Jim knows is that the engines are prepped and everyone from Ops has been recalled to active duty. Gaila had shrugged apologetically and exited when the general stations call came over the comms. That leaves Nix Alpha, some of Nix Beta and several other key crews assembled in the briefing room when Pike slips through the door, straightening over his walking sticks.

"We've got a serious issue and some bad news," the Admiral begins without preamble. "Now, you’re all accustomed to dealing with classified information, so I know this won't go any further. I'm also going to ask you to keep it out of your personal logs for at least twenty four hours, just so they have time to break the story back home before anything goes on record."

There is a flurry of tense nods and murmurs from around the room. Already standing to attention, Spock somehow manages to extract a few more millimetres of height out of his frame.

Pike takes a deep breath and his eyes find Spock unerringly. "Robicon IV has been destroyed by Nero."

A gasp and groan punctuate the collective indrawn breath.

Beside Jim, Spock doesn't so much as twitch. "Survivors?" he asks.

"Approximately a third of the cross-sectional population had been evacuated to the refugee holding facility on Deneva," Pike supplies the facts from memory. "Another million or so were en route at the time of the attack and suffered heavy losses at the hands of Nero's fleet. The rest perished with the planet."

Horrified silence fills the room as the EPAS people absorb the devastating figures. Not long ago they stood on that world, breathed its air, spoke with its people, and as irritatingly stubborn as they'd been, not a single crewmember wished them anything less than survival.

"He hasn't done that in a while," Jim says, pausing to clear his throat, anything to shatter the moment. "Take out a whole planet, I mean. I thought perhaps his strategy had changed."

Pike purses his lips. "Starfleet Intelligence are analysing the most recent reports in the hope that there might be a clue, something they'd overlooked about the Robicon system that meant it benefits Nero to have the planet eliminated rather than decimated. At this stage, we're unsure as to his motivations."

"Have we been called to assist with rescue efforts in the system?" Spock asks, his voice perfectly level.

"No, I'm sorry, I almost wish that were the case," Pike says. "The Security Council have also informed me that Nero's course has altered, bringing him into close proximity with the colonial worlds on the border of the Netural Zone. The Stalwart is to proceed directly to Sector gamma epsilon to provide full support to the Federation fleet as it attempts to deflect the Romulan incursion into less densely populated space."

Jim grimaces at the way Starfleet aren't even talking about making a stand anymore, just making themselves annoying enough that it's not worth Nero's while to stay on course. And they still managed to convince the Security Council the Federation was holding its own? He laughs bitterly under his breath.

"Meanwhile, our Vulcan escort, the Tat'sar, has agreed to will continue our mission to Khitomer." Pike's stern gaze wanders the briefing room, as though daring any other obstacle to arise in his path. "I will accompany Sarek, the Vulcan foreign ambassador, to meet with the Klingon representatives and attempt to carve out a little stability. The treaty talks will go ahead."

Spock makes no mention of his father's presence aboard the Tat'sar when he speaks to the crew. "Department Heads, I expect a readiness report within the hour. Ops, use this opportunity to synchronize known hostile data points with the Starfleet Secure Server prior to warp. Section Chiefs, rally Engineering and Technical staff to ensure optimal shuttle deployment numbers upon our arrival."

Everyone snaps salutes.

"Dismissed."

Jim lingers, putting his back to Pike so he can show in his face what he can’t say in words. “Where do you want me?" he asks instead of the many other things he wants to say, like what do you need?

Spock's eyes are flat and expressionless. "Coordinate our withdrawal from the surface of Aspera, then report to me for further duties."

"Aye, Commander." He salutes and makes for the door.

Pike gives him a small nod as he passes, but Jim doesn't miss the fact that neither the Admiral nor Spock have moved to follow. The door slides shut, isolating him in the busy corridor.


-:-


Spock does not need to hear the order; the Admiral's eyes say he is to remain behind. It should make him uncomfortable to know this man so well, knowing that it exposes him to similar familiarity and analysis. Strangely, it does not, at least not as much as it used to. Perhaps the slow dissolution of his boundaries with Jim has softened the feeling of betrayal when his Vulcan control is less than it should be. Pike can read him like an open book and Jim is not as subtle as he believes himself to be. Spock needs no clarification of topic.

"Should I congratulate you?" Pike asks, his tone light but his eyes sharp.

"I will allow nothing to compromise the performance of my duties," he replies.

"Not a yes, definitely not a no," the Admiral sighs. "I was still holding out hope I was wrong about you two." He circles the room to deposit himself into a chair with considerable difficulty. "You know, when I assigned Kirk to your command, this wasn't the kind of close working relationship I had in mind."

Firmly, Spock does not allow himself to betray his feelings. "It came as something of a surprise to me, also."

Pike laughs then, throaty and full. "Jim can be like that."

Spock allows the silence to stretch, mentally counting the minutes until he can suggest the Admiral disembark in the interests of a timely departure from Aspera.

"Have you thought this through?" Pike asks, then shakes his head. "Look who I'm talking to; of course you have."

"You disapprove?" Spock is genuinely curious, despite his best intentions. No resolution in the world could stop him from yearning for Pike's approval, his good opinion. It should not hold such weight with him, yet it does, and not because Pike holds the power to enforce the archaic fraternization regulations.

Pike waves a dismissive hand. "As a man? No, I think sparks will fly but that both of you will probably enjoy the fireworks. As your commanding officer, I do have some reservations."

Spock quirks an eyebrow. "Do you intend to implement an intervention?"

Pike gives him a scathing look. "We both know that telling Jim Kirk not to do something is an exercise in futility. Besides, you deserve a little happiness, Spock, and I'm glad to think you might have found some."

"I ..." Spock swallows his denial, ignoring the cost to his dignity in favour of the truth. "Thank you."

"I will be watching to see how this works," Pike warns, albeit a little apologetically. "There is a lot on the line right now, both for EPAS and the Federation as a whole. I can't risk having you emotionally compromised. What I can't figure out is whether your emotional state would be more questionable with Jim or without him."

"I am Vulcan," Spock says flatly. "No Vulcan in the history of either service has ever been relieved of duty for emotional compromise."

Pike leans forward, a certain tightness around his eyes. "Even Vulcans have emotions, Spock. You're also half human; it might do you some good to acknowledge that from time to time."

"I assure you, I am unlikely to forget."

After a moment, Pike leans back in his chair, the interrogation far from over, although there is a distinct lessening of intensity. "Who else knows?"

"With certainty?" Spock tilts his head in consideration, "no one. However, I believe Doctor McCoy and Lieutenant Uhura may have their suspicions."

"How do you think the crew will react?" Pike wants to know. "It's a mistake to think you can keep this a secret forever, not on a starship, not living in each other’s pockets like we do."

"I have not given the matter much thought."

"Perhaps you should," Pike says pointedly. "Mention it to Jim, too."

"When the opportunity presents itself, I shall do so."

Pike chuckles under his breath then, shaking his head. When he looks up, there is genuine amusement in his eyes. "Damn, I didn't see this one coming, not at all. Of all the people, out of everyone, Jim Kirk?"

Spock stares at his boots, stares at the door, stares at his hands clasped loosely in front of him. When he finally meets the Admiral's flabbergasted gaze, he very pointedly shrugs.

The room is warm with Pike's laughter and Spock catalogues a pleasant buzz of rebelliousness before pushing it aside.

 

 

Chapter Text

"Goddammit!" Jim's curse is heartfelt as Nix takes another pounding from the USS Defiant. He thumbs his comm and flicks to Starfleet frequencies by rote. "Defiant, watch who you're shooting at!"

The Communications department aboard the troubled vessel is harried but apologetic. Jim exchanges a glance with McCoy, who's taken a moment to look up from Spock's life sign readings.

"Who needs Romulans with friends like this!" the doctor growls, turning back to his displays.

"Shields at sixty four percent," Uhura supplies, her voice tense but professional as she makes a minor adjustment to their position.

Outside, against the glittering backdrop of a huge firefight, the reflective strips of Spock's EVA suit are barely visible in the glare. He's standing at right angles to the Defiant's hull, locked into a buckled support strut as he works to restore power to their aft port escape pod bay. EPAS do not strictly provide this kind of repair work, but Jim agrees with Spock's assessment: restoring escape pod functionality to a ship of the Defiant's size would result in far fewer EVA saves for EPAS Points. Around them, the rest of Alpha Prime Division are hovering at the edges of the conflict, zipping forward to collect an escape pod in a tractor beam or wrap a sling around a spinning, panicked body here and there. Jim and Uhura are monitoring the space around the nearest floundering vessel, ready to beam Spock directly back into the shuttle if the firefight moves any closer.

A blip on his HUD catches Jim's attention.

"Jim, x plus twenty, z minus two," Uhura says. "Coming in fast."

"Yeah, I'm on it."

Jim checks his line and seals as he edges out onto the runner, feeling the forcefield yield like warning hands holding him back. The potential save is flailing madly, clutching at his throat, free arm waving.

"Nix Point One going EVA," he says on the open channel, then switches to the internal frequency. "Copy that, Uhura?"

"I've got eyes on you," she confirms. "Trajectory is clear and cold."

"Understood."

Jim pushes off into space, tired quads burning in protest at what will be his fifteenth EVA save for the shift. He tries not to think of his job in terms of personal records, but he knows the most he's ever done before is twelve. He tries to blank his mind to the sound of his own breath inside the visor, pushing down the familiar lurch in his gut that haunts him regardless of experience. He will always hate the feeling nothingness around him, the expansive, chilling sensation that it's only sheer will and luck holding his molecules in place. He will always see the drill platform rising up to meet him.

The save has seen him now and is waving madly, adding additional yaw to his already complex course by accidentally activating his suit's propulsion system.

Jim hurriedly adjusts his own trajectory to compensate and taps into the guy's comm. "I've got you," he says firmly. "Try to calm down, keep your arms crossed over your chest, shut your eyes if it helps."

A strangled cough echoes in his ears. "Can't ... breathe!"

"Shit," Jim mutters with the comm down, but there's no time for any more talk because he collides awkwardly with his target. The combined momentum is off by several degrees, sending them into a complex spin which is compounded by the guy wrapping himself around Jim like a drowning man, preventing him from making any corrections.

Jim tries to free an arm, but in space there's no leverage, nothing to give him an advantage over a guy who's bigger and stronger than he is and has no obvious intention of letting him do his job. Jim can do nothing but watch the man gasp silently inside his helmet, face turning a dangerous shade of purple. Unable to reach his suit, his line or his comm, Jim has no choice but to bail out before the guy suffocates.

"Active emergency beacon," he snaps inside the visor. "Authorization Kirk, James T. Oscar Mike Golf, one one one."

Beacon Activated.

The whole thing would be a lot simpler if he could comm the shuttle, but short of waiting for his save to pass out, that's not an option. He does his best to prepare for the yank of the emergency transport beam, but it still rattles him to blink and feel the sudden press of gravity aboard the shuttle. McCoy is already passing a tricorder over him, mouth set in tense concentration. Jim pushes his hands aside, pops his visor and tries to get to his knees.

"Not me, him!" he shouts. "Get his helmet off!"

Together, they twist and pull, but the mechanism is jammed. Beneath the pristine surface, the officer's face is lax and pale.

"Respiratory arrest," McCoy announces.

Jim casts around wildly for something, anything. Patting himself down, his hand closes around his phaser. Pulling it and setting it for high stun, he clears McCoy out of the way with a desperate sweep of his arm.

"Jim, wait! You could give him brain damage!"

He fires once into the faceplate and brings the butt down viciously with no result. Cursing, he increases the resonance and frequency, discharges it twice in quick succession and this time feels the surface give with the impact of the phaser casing. Meanwhile, McCoy is cutting away at the throat of the suit with his laser scalpel, trying to let a little air circulate that way. It won't be enough, not nearly, but it's something. Jim brings the phaser down again, then again, putting his whole weight behind it. Finally, the faceplate shatters with a satisfying crunch.

"Here, let me clear it!" McCoy demands, thrusting a rib retractor into the fist-sized hole and efficiently peeling the damaged plate away.

Breathless from exertion and adrenaline, Jim leans over the transporter pad for the resuscitation kit. McCoy's hand snakes out, not even having to finish his sentence before Jim has the right hypo is in his palm. They work on the guy for twenty minutes, taking turns on the cardiac stimulator, bag-and-masking him until Bones can intubate and let the medical computer take over his oxygenation and respiration. Jim's knees are numb with pain from being pressed to the deck, his eyes burning from forgetting to blink. Eventually, though, even McCoy is forced to lean back, to pronounce the obvious.

"He's dead, Jim."

Jim swallows, shifts onto his ass to let the blood flow painfully back into his legs. "Do you think the phaser...?"

"No," McCoy shakes his head. "You were right to use it. There was no faster way to get air into him, it just took too long, is all."

He nods, but a wave of guilt rushes over him anyway and he knows he needs Bones to say the words. "Cause of death?"

His friend looks up, hard eyes saying he knows exactly what Jim is doing and why. "Irreparable brain damage as a result of acute hypoxia."

"Right," Jim makes himself nod, but the only part of that sentence he retains is the part he might be responsible for.

"Listen, Jim ..."

"Where's he from, anyway?" he interrupts, not in the mood for friendly reassurance. He leans forward to study the ship's badge sewn into the faulty EVA suit. "The Lexington. Huh."

"Clear the pad," Uhura calls over her shoulder. "Point Two incoming."

Jim and McCoy grab the body by its shoulders and heels, shuffling out of the way just as silver sparks appear with a familiar whine, fading to reveal Spock crouched down on his heels, elbows braced on his knees and head bowed.

For a split second when he looks up, Jim is illogically certain his face will be ashen, his lips green and his body empty of breath.


-:-


"Shields took a pounding, but Tech Support estimate restoration to at least eighty percent," Jim continues, PADD in hand as he scrolls through the standard Point One handover briefing.

"Physical damage?" Hannity wants to know, peering over his shoulder at the shuttle.

Jim leans out of her way obligingly. "Nothing major, just a little carbon scoring to the engine bay. Oh, and hey," he remembers suddenly, "watch the starboard grapple, the clip is sticking again."

She nods and claps him on the shoulder, so much harder than just a few months ago. "Get some sleep, flyboy. You look like hell."

"Flattery will get you everywhere," he smirks, smacking her on the ass good-naturedly.

"Watch it."

"I am," he assures her, widening his grin when she laughs and leaps up the runner.

A few paces away, Spock is conferring with Lioli, the Beta Divisional Point Two. He can see Harris waiting for a word when handover is complete. Jim's lip curls derisively. The XO's place is on the bridge. If they needed to talk to Spock that urgently, the command team could have paged him; otherwise it could wait until Alpha Team had a chance to shower and maybe eat something. They'd been deployed for sixteen hours and those damn protein shakes just don't cut it after the first few.

Thinking about food makes his stomach growl, so he waves off a few salutes and heads for the change rooms. He does manage to catch Spock's eye as he passes.

With feet like lead and a tired, empty feeling in his stomach, Jim strips efficiently and hangs his suit for maintenance. He'll get to that once he's eaten and maybe caught a few hours sleep. Standing under the spray, he catalogues the new bruises in his collection; the ones he can see, anyway. Twisting to catch a glimpse of his lower back, he recalls being thrown against the bench seat during maneuvering and Uhura's terse apology as she evaded Romulan cluster bombs like the pro she is. The marks his eyes keep returning to are the finger-shaped ones on his upper arms, fainter than the others, but somehow more painful. He tips his head back under the spray and closes his eyes against the memory of bulging eyes, a mouth gaping like a fish out of water.

"Damn," he mutters to the cubicle wall, and shuts off the water with unnecessary force.

He's obviously taken longer in the shower than he realised, because the flow of people in and out consists of only the dregs of Alpha shift. As Jim pulls his shirt over his head, Spock enters and crosses to his locker, deftly undoing the clasps on his gloves and collar as he moves. Jim turns to watch him peel away the EVA suit, noting the numerous repairs criss-crossing each reflective stripe, the way the material has dulled and aged over time. Cushioned by the relative privacy of the hour, he unapologetically observes Spock stripping off his dark thermals, static gripping at his sweat-damp hair. Muscles shift beneath his pale skin, darkened here and there to shades of yellow and green.

"McCoy check you over?"

Spock turns, the towel in his hand doing little to shield his body, not that he would feel something as illogical as false modesty. "I have sustained no significant injury."

"Standard debriefing at oh seven hundred?"

"Yes."

"Will I see you before then?" Jim tries to sound casual, but probably fails. His date keeping tells him that tonight will be one of the nights that Spock sleeps for a few hours, as he hasn't done so in nearly three days. Meditation serves him for only so long before his human side demands real rest, no matter how the Commander might prefer otherwise. Jim is not expecting an easy night despite his physical exhaustion, but he thinks he might just manage unconsciousness if he's not alone.

"Captain Taylor has requested an immediate meeting with me to discuss potential alterations in fleet deployment," Spock informs him, a trace of apology in his voice. "It seems Starfleet Command is considering a change of tactics tomorrow."

"Wow," he says sarcastically, "pity, because all this pussy-footing around is working so well for them. How many ships did they lose today? Three? The Defiant, the Lexington and the Singapore?"

Spock glances around the change rooms, gauging the absence of others. "Jim," he warns, allowing his voice to soften with familiarity.

"No," he shakes his head. "There are about a million things wrong with the way this is being handled, not the least of which is the fact that we're not even trying to stop Nero anymore. We're just out here directing traffic and that's hard for me to swallow."

"We are not directly involved in this conflict," Spock reminds him firmly. "Fleet deployment only concerns us insofar as it affects our own operations, which are not military in nature," he emphasizes, eyes steady and measuring. "EPAS is a civilian entity, a fact that you seem to be overlooking."

"I'm not overlooking anything," Jim spits, angry now, even though it's not really with Spock. "How can I overlook today's save-to-loss ratio? It's abysmal, as low as it's been in months, and do you know why? It’s not because of the bare two days leave we had on Aspera throwing us off our game, it’s because Nero has long since figured out where to hit us hard and how to do the most damage. EPAS is naive if it thinks that one of these days that psychopath isn't going to look our way and think 'easy pickings.'" He runs a hand through his hair, his chest tight with the certainty he gets from time to time. "Pike is kidding himself, you're kidding yourself."

Spock shouldn't be able to look so stern when he's stark naked, but somehow he manages it effortlessly. "If you have concerns to his effect then outline them in writing and I will ensure that the Admiral is made aware of them."

Jim sinks onto the bench in his shorts and his shirt, staring down at the uniform pants in his hands. "I'm just worried that we're still not looking at the bigger picture here, that nobody is." He raises very blue eyes to Spock's serious face. "Pretty soon it's going to be too late to do anything about it."

Spock's hand rests momentarily on his bowed head in a fleeting and uncharacteristic public display of affection. "Sleep," he suggests. "It is illogical to frustrate yourself. Tomorrow, if you are still concerned, we can discuss this at length and formulate a plan."

Jim looks up. "Can you see it, too? I still feel like I'm missing something, like there's a piece that doesn't fit. Do you know what it is?"

"I do not." His dark eyes are solemn. "However, I do not spend inordinate amounts of time reading military briefings, monitoring Fleet deployments and drawing upon public media coverage of the war for entertainment."

Jim laughs a little through his nose. "Yeah, my hobbies are awesome, you can admit it."

"I do not pretend to fully comprehend the military mind, and whatever Nero may once have been, it is obvious that he has evolved into a combatant of singular ferocity." Spock pauses, frowns as he considers his words. "I have confidence in my abilities as Divisional Commander; it is a role I have grown into over time and one that I am suited to. I come from a family of scientists and diplomats. This shapes my interpretation of events as surely as your own upbringing informs your opinions." He tilts his head. "What kind of people raised you, Jim? Were they not captains, admirals and those in positions of authority?"

"Asshole losers and drunks," he interjects under his breath, knowing that this much is a matter of public record.

"We function efficiently as Points because we both see the world with the eyes of an analyst," Spock continues calmly, "but where I see patterns, you see lines of force."

Jim has the feeling that he might just have been paid a massive compliment, even if it doesn't sound like one. "Even if I agree with you, what do I do with that?"

Spock is silent for so long that Jim begins to think he doesn't have an answer, or won't speak it out of respect for volatile human emotion.

"I believe my mother would have said, 'learn to trust your instincts,'" Spock says, surprising him. "Over time, I have found her advice most insightful."

"My instincts," Jim repeats, with the tone of a man who's pretty sure the joke's on him. "My instincts tell me nobody is going to listen to the Divisional Point One of EPAS Prime Division bitch and moan about how Nero is a second away from redefining what we mean by the word revenge."

"I will listen."


-:-


Later that night, Jim squeezes his eyes closed and tries to avoid looking at the chrono yet again. Its bluish glow will only reveal a time that is depressingly close to his oh six hundred wake-up call. His pillow is lumpy from his attempts to make it conform to the shape of his aching head, the blankets twisted and knotted around his limbs in a way that makes him want to punch the bulkhead just to see how much it hurts.

He can't turn his mind off.

He rolls onto his back and stares angrily at the ceiling. "Damn you, Spock."

Resolutely, Jim throws the covers back and calls to the computer for lights, seventy percent, as he crosses to the terminal and throws himself down behind his desk. A few flicks of his fingers and he has an empty spreadsheet open before him. He downloads the most complete history of the conflict with Nero that he has clearance for. The computer crunches through the hefty download in the time it takes him to pull a sweater on and demand a hot, black coffee from the shitty replicator.

When the data empties itself into the predefined parameters of his waiting spreadsheet, Jim is ready. Flexing his fingers, he begins an attempt to articulate the formless concern that underpins his insomnia, to give it form in the elegance of the numbers and choices that scroll across his screen.

Untouched, his coffee slowly grows cold and he curses when he notices it’s left a damp ring on the cover of one of his novels.


-:-


When the chrono reads oh five hundred, Jim is startled awake by hot hands on his cheek and shoulder.

"What?" he asks, picking himself up from his slump over the desk.

Spock is down on one knee beside him, looking almost as tired as Jim feels. "Have you worked all night?" he asks.

"Uh," Jim glances around for the time. "Most of it, I guess." He scrubs at his face with the palms of his hands. "I think I'm getting somewhere."

Spock reaches around him to save the data and shut down the terminal. "I believe I instructed you to sleep," he chastises.

"You also told me to listen to my instincts." Jim waves a hand at the screen. "My instincts said fuck around with numbers and collapse with your face mashed into a keyboard. Did Taylor really keep you this late?"

Spock's hands are firm as he pulls Jim out of the chair and herds him towards the bed, but the touches linger with affection, warm and soothing against his skin. Jim can hardly keep his eyes open, crumpling against the mattress and sighing at the rightness of it when Spock spoons behind him and pulls the covers over them both.

"Are you wearing your boots?" he asks sleepily.

"I am not."

"Okay."

Spock adjusts his position so that his face rests in the nape of Jim's neck. It's not clear, but there may be a kiss as he settles. Jim is abstractly pleased by the possibility. He reaches around and finds Spock's hand, tangling their fingers together and resting them on his hip. Spock sighs deeply.

"Computer," Jim calls. "Alteration to morning alarm. New time, oh six hundred thirty hours."

Acknowledged.

"That will not give you sufficient time for breakfast," Spock warns him.

"Don't care."

Okay, so that there, that's Spock definitely landing a kiss just behind his ear. "Irresponsible," he whispers, just loud enough to be heard.

Jim falls deeply, dreamlessly asleep.


-:-


When the alarm sounds, Jim decides he wants to die a little.

No amount of cursing could adequately describe how crushing it is to contemplate the start of a new day, and judging by the way Spock doesn't spring irritatingly out of bed, Jim takes it to mean he's just as gutted.

When he finally forces his eyes open, it honestly hurts, but then Spock's eyelashes tickle the back of his neck. The sensation is followed by a brief rub of long fingers against his own and a tightening of the arm that holds him before it releases. Some of Jim's angst dissipates.

"Come," Spock says, then has to clear his voice of the sleep in it. "The briefing ..."

Red Alert. Red Alert. All active hands, report to stations. Divisional Commander to the Situation Room. Red Alert.

Spock leaps out of bed, feet in his boots before Jim's even touch the floor.

The door swishes open and Bones rushes in, friendship if not his medic's pass granting him access to Jim’s quarters at any time of shift.

"Jim! Apparently Admiral Pike is ... oh."

McCoy stops mid-sentence, tripping over his own feet a little, unexpectedly eye to eye with Spock. It's a bit like a Mexican stand-off, with both men staring at each other, unsure of what comes next. It would be funny if it wasn't so awkward.

"Admiral Pike is what?" Jim wants to know, hopping a little as he pulls on his pants.

Spock steps aside so that McCoy and Kirk can see each other.

"He ... uh ... he's on the comms," the doctor falters again, then rallies. "Nero double crossed us. The Narada slipped away in the firefight and has re-materialized on the edge of Vulcan space."

Spock's head snaps up. "What is his exact location?"

"I don't know!" McCoy says with exasperation. "That's all I heard on the open channel."

Without another word, Spock exits Jim's quarters at a dead run, his controlled demands of 'make way' fading quickly.

Jim emerges from pulling his outer shirt over his head to find Bones torn between shock and amusement. "All a bit domestic, isn't it?"

"Come on," he redirects, steering the doctor out of the room by his shoulder. "I want to hear what Pike has to say."


-:-


Technically it's only Beta shift and Spock who need to report, but as the Divisional Point One and a senior Medic, nobody is about to question Jim and McCoy's presence as they slip into the back of the Situation Room. Predictably, the rest of Nix Alpha follows, along with a few other senior Points and Techs who are Section Chiefs and entitled to be there.

"I'm sorry," Pike is saying, his face tight with regret. "I know this is probably very personal for all of you, but I don't have the time to break it to you gently. The Narada and two other large vessels have unexpectedly withdrawn from the main firefight and emerged from warp at the following co-ordinates."

Digits scroll across the bottom of the screen, but Jim doesn't have to go on his toes to read them, because Spock's voice translates it all, cold and implacable.

"Aspera."

Pike nods. "We don't think the new facility is his goal."

"The convoy of Robii refugees," Spock infers. "They are the target?"

"Again," the Admiral looks strained. "We're not so sure. The Tat'sar is equipped with some rather unique sensors," he pauses to glance off-screen at someone, "the nature of which I am not authorized to disclose. However, we have detected a spatial anomaly in the vicinity of the planet Aspera. One with an energy signature that closely matches that of Nero's weapon." Pike pauses to wet his lips. "The time has come where we can no longer afford to keep some secrets."

Spock steps forward as though offering to shoulder some of the blame.

"The scientists aboard the Tat'sar believe a temporal rift has opened up in the space surrounding the planet Aspera. If he follows his previous patterns, Nero will attempt to salvage any personnel and technology that may pass through. We already have reports from a Vulcan survey vessel of bodies and shrapnel appearing in space as though out of nowhere throughout the entire planetary system."

"Origins?" Spock asks curtly.

"Unknown."

"Survivors?"

"The Vulcan High Council have dispatched their fastest ships to the system, but EPAS are uniquely qualified to assist. I am seeking approval from the Federation and Starfleet to withdraw part of Prime Division and send them to assist retrieval of those appearing through the rift, and attempt to stop Nero from attacking the inbound Robii refugee fleet."

"Have you been able to contact the Robii to apprise them of the situation?" Spock wants to know.

"Unfortunately there's so much interference from the temporal anomaly that we haven't been able to make contact." Pike looks distinctly annoyed. "We're working on it. Their best chance for survival is the incoming Vulcan fleet and any EPAS ships we can send in support."

"We're not fitted out for a firefight." Jim steps forward and the crowd parts to let him through. "Just how many ships have the Vulcans been able to send? What's their in-system ETA and defensive capability?"

Pike shifts his gaze. "If you leave within the half-hour, the Stalwart will probably be first on scene, with the Tat'sar about two hours behind and the Vulcans immediately after. You’ll only need to hold until we get there."

"Ql'tomer?" Jim asks.

Pike smiles, a bitter twist of his lips. "I think the Klingons are more concerned by Nero cutting a swath through the Neutral Zone than forging a lasting peace with the Federation just now."

Spock signals for the Admiral's attention. "Predicted outcome if the Federation refuses to allow EPAS intervention?"

"Given that we now know the same spatial anomaly occurred shortly before Nero destroyed Robicon IV, we can expect that Aspera will be destroyed in a similar manner, along with any and all Robii refugee ships that arrive in time to witness the fireworks."

"The statistical likelihood of an unarmed EPAS Constitution class vessel successfully withstanding the Narada and associated support vessels for a duration of two hours is less than zero point zero nine percent," Spock points out in an undertone.

"If we do nothing, we lose our aid camp, the planet, all intelligence from the temporal anomaly and many more members of a newly endangered species." Pike's eyes are apologetic but determined as he adds, "you of all people should understand the importance of acting to preserve as many Robii as possible, Commander."

"Yes," says Spock, tightly controlled. "Indeed."

"I need to talk to the Council and then Captain Taylor." Pike deftly and swiftly redirects the conversation. "This is just a courtesy call so you can implement whatever emergency protocols you see fit in order to get the Stalwart and her crew to an appropriate level of readiness."

"Understood."

"I know this is a lot to ask of you," Pike's eyes rise and skim over Jim to take in the whole Situation Room, "all of you. So I want you to know that I'm going to give your Divisional Commander and your Captain the final choice. This mission falls well outside our purview, but we may just be these people's best hope for survival, and if that isn't what EPAS is all about, then I don't know what is. You’ve all earned the right to have your say."

Spock looks unsettled but nods sharply. "Admiral."

"Commander," he returns. "Pike out."

The connection goes dark and the room erupts into flustered conversation. Jim turns and steps into Spock's personal space a little, not wishing to be overheard. "Seems like this whole mess has spiralled out of control sooner than I was thinking."

Spock nods but does not make eye contact. "It appears you may be correct." His voice is less precise than usual, his diction somewhat muted.

Jim studies him intently, noting the fists at his sides and the tension in the muscles beneath his sleep-rumpled uniform. "This reminder of what Nero's capable of, the thing he did to Robicon IV, to ... to Vulcan," he swallows, feeling the reality settle on his own consciousness, "it affects you."

Spock turns his head slightly, face carefully blank. "It does."

Chekov and Scotty are close by and arguing about their ability to use multiple transporters to beam people directly off small ships without transponders. It's loud and complicated and has the circle closest to Spock completely absorbed, which is great, because it allows Jim to cross to the replicator and return with a glass of water, room temperature.

Spock looks down at his offering hand, seemingly perplexed, then takes it from him, carefully avoiding all contact.

Jim tries not to be offended by the omission of touch. He knows Spock is compromised and probably struggling enough without Jim's human emotions to complicate things. He blocks off part of the room with his body, giving Spock the illusion of a conversation to hide behind. He wants to say something clever about time and healing wounds, but figures he's already said more than Spock may want to reveal with that glass of water.

Instead, he sighs deeply. "So, are we taking this on, or what?"

"That is a decision for Captain Taylor." Spock still doesn't sound like himself, but the question has caused him to focus a little, to draw back from wherever it is that he goes when Nero sees fit to destroy a world so comprehensively.

"Yeah, but we both know he's going to ask you, so what are you going to say?"

Spock looks directly at him, then, and Jim can see the effort it takes to marshal himself in the moment. He blinks a few times, fingers shifting around the glass in his hand, then his brows draw down into a familiar line of concentration. "There are many variables to weigh. Making a recommendation without sufficient information would be unwise, and the Admiral is right; the crew are entitled to express their opinion.”

Jim is aware that everyone is slowly focusing on the DivCO by the fact that Spock's eyes flick over his shoulder and then back to his face. Sudden silence settles on the room. They're all waiting for something.

Jim feels a clench in his gut when he realizes they're all waiting for him. He's the Divisional Point One; it falls to him to speak to Spock about the crew’s position. It makes him kind of warm to realize they trust him to do that.

He turns, taking in the room's slightly questioning stares, their folded arms, their casual postures. An amazing team of people, and every one of them saying more with body language than they do with words. Everything about them proclaims their confidence in their DivCO. They’ve followed Spock into some of the worst situations imaginable, and will continue to do so as long as he needs them to. Their decision is made and not a word has been spoken. Goddamn Vulcan commanding officers.

Jim grins at them and turns back to Spock. "Well," he shrugs, "seems your kickass crew are ready to play Starfleet."

Spock hands his glass of water back to Jim and nods, once to him, and then to the room as a whole. He’s very serious and thoroughly implacable once again.

"Continue with standard deployments but instigate every emergency protocol that does not interfere with our usual operations. I shall keep you informed," he tells them seriously, then strides purposefully from the Situation Room.

People mill, consult and then get about their business. They form small groups, request breakfasts from the replicator that they can hold in one hand. They sit at tables and continue to debate transporter theory and shield maximization because they might have to put such innovative ideas to the test sooner rather than later.

Jim continues to hold Spock's water, stares down at the glass in his hands. It bears the clear impressions of Spock's fingertips. Perversely, he tries to fit his own to the marks, but the shape of them is too different.

Bones surprises him with a nudge to the ribs. "Don't think I didn't see what you did there."

Jim raises his eyebrows, blue eyes wide, his heart thundering until he realizes McCoy is referring to the glass itself, rather than his mockery of an attempt to touch Spock, which would have been a little too embarrassing.

"Robicon IV hit him kind of hard," he explains as casually as he can given that McCoy walked in on them sharing a bed bare minutes ago.

"Still," McCoy shrugs with his mouth and turns to watch the rest of the crew. "Real subtle Jim, real subtle," he finishes, leaving with a little laugh through his nose and a firm squeeze on Jim's shoulder.

And then he's wondering if McCoy saw the other thing he did, after all.


-:-


When they're summoned to the bridge less than twenty minutes later, Admiral Pike looks both serious and tired on the main viewer, each and every one of the fine lines around his eyes standing out in ten foot relief. Jim can already tell from the weight of responsibility there that Pike got the Council to agree to his request. Judging from the way Spock is standing, he can see it, too.

"I can't tell you what to do, George," Pike sighs. "You're the one out there in the thick of things, it's your ship, your command at risk. What I can tell you is that if we don't take this mission, nobody will. There just isn't another ship that can make it there in time, nobody else they will spare."

Taylor presses his lips together and glances up from his chair to capture Spock's eyes. "Commander?"

Spock regards him steadily. "We are not equipped for battle, we have little to no combat training and much remains unknown about Nero's motivations and goals," he summarizes. "Be that as it may, Prime Division stand ready to serve as you see fit, Captain."

George Taylor pushes to his feet. "Thank you, Spock."

Pike is waiting for an answer. All he gets from Taylor is a hesitant nod, but it's enough.

 

 

Chapter Text

Their entry plane to the planet Aspera is parallel to the ecliptic, the Laplacian at the very worst. Spock had argued that this would give the Stalwart and her two EPAS Prime Division sister ships, the Carpathia and the Atlas, best possible cover from the systems other planetary bodies and numerous asteroid fields. What Nero can't get a line of sight on, he can't shoot. As much as Spock doubts his own military mind, Jim believes wholeheartedly in his worth as a tactician. Spock in the center seat of a Starfleet vessel would be a force to be reckoned with.

Many of the necessary calculations are based on hastily collected data from their previous visit. The displaced Vulcan people, as meticulous as they are, had quite rationally spent little of their space-going resources on charting little used areas of their newly acquired Nu'ri Ah'rak protectorate, focusing instead on establishing trade routes and fortifying their new home world. That means that the Stalwart's navcomps keep throwing out computational errors relating to the haphazard and incomplete spatial data collected during EPAS' brief survey mission on Aspera. While the ship is clearly outdated from the navcomp right through to the last rivet in her hull, not even the Fleet's flagship could have extrapolated between the sparsity of available data points. When Taylor and Harris flounder in the face of this reality, Gaila pipes up from her station in Ops and respectfully suggests they call Ensign Chekov to the bridge and have him do the calculations by hand.

This is met with blank stares, but such things have never really intimidated Gaila, so she simply flexes her burn-scarred fingers in impatience and repeats herself, with an addendum to check with the DivCO if they doubt the whiz-kid's ability to deliver their in-system trajectory accurately.

Spock is paged and shortly thereafter, Chekov arrives on the bridge, data PADD in hand and adorable accent intact. Gaila smilingly makes space for him at an Ops console and blows a kiss a their XO, who looks away hastily.

"Can you do it, baby?"she asks with confidence.

"It is wery difficult," Chekov admits. "Like playing join-the-dots, but only in the dark."

She presses a kiss to his cheek and grins at the blush it earns her. "I'd fly your course blind-folded, kiddo."

Chekov bows his head and enters into the minefield of warp navigation like a fish to water.

Gaila considers her job here done.


-:-


They make it to the Aspera System approximately fifteen minutes earlier than the other two ships, mostly thanks to Scotty's ingenious organic warp matrix. The Points, Pilots and Medics have been suited and ready for about an hour. Nero has been known to employ advanced technology to rip unsuspecting and unprepared ships out of warp without warning. Jim has the unsettling feeling that Scotty is almost wishing they'll be yanked back into sub-light speeds, simply so he can analyze the mechanics of the way it's done. From the slight frown on Spock's face, it appears he also finds the Engineer's enthusiasm a little misplaced.

They arrive unmolested in a blip of light, slowing to impulse in the shadow of Aspera's larger moon. Even strapped in and resting on the hangar deck, Nix's sensors go wild.

"There is so much stuff out there I'm having trouble differentiating life sign readings," Uhura says hurriedly. "I've got maybe one ... no, make that nearly two hundred," she growls in annoyance. "I've got between one and two hundred organic masses within our maximum deployment sphere," she amends, but the tone of her voice tells everyone she's pissed about the lack of accuracy.

"Highest concentration?" Spock wants to know.

"The surface of the planet," Uhura replies, fingers skating over the sensor grids, little lines of light blossoming in their wake. "I can't break through the Narada's jamming to ascertain if the foreign matter is alive or dead."

"But they're sentient readings?" Jim butts in.

"Look, I think so," she twists against her harness, angular face intent and angry, "they're definitely biological, but nothing's certain."

Spock clearly respects Uhura's instincts, because he gives the all clear for deployment and Nix is one of the first shuttles propelled into the black.

Spock leans forward on the narrow bench seat to fit his surface boots. They're not standard EPAS Point wear, they're the lightweight, thick-treaded, all-terrain versions. He crosses one ankle lithely over each knee to lace them and doesn't once stop talking into his comm. Jim finishes tightening his own even as Uhura words them up on their ETA, the craft spiralling deceptively casually towards the ionosphere of the planet below.

Many clicks away in their y-plane, but still closer than comfortable, small Romulan attack craft are blinking in the sunlight.

"Stalwart, Stalwart," Uhura comms instantly. "Request immediate cover fire, copy."

Reading you Nix Alpha, we've got your back.

Uhura nods at the confidence in Gaila's voice. She's a crack shot. On cue, the Romulan crafts disintegrate above them, escape pods and shrapnel hammering their shields and hurtling haphazardly towards Aspera's surface, blinking out sight in the ecliptic.

Still monitoring all channels as his immediate duties to the Division, Spock twists in his harness to address his crew just as the outer hull-plating begins to hiss and pop with friction.

"Shuttles are deployed in classic grid formation for surface retrieval. ED996 has been allocated the summit of one of the higher peaks. The descent of the Romulan energy weapon within the planet's atmosphere has resulted in an unpredictable and severe weather system. There is the potential for subzero conditions, winds in excess of one hundred kilometers an hour and falling trees. According to confirmation from Ops sensor sweeps, we can expect approximately one hundred and seventy survivors scattered throughout the northern and eastern arms of this mountain range." Spock pauses for emphasis. "We know from Nero's previous attempts to gain technology and hostages that he will doubtless have soldiers on the planet's surface."

McCoy's bushy eyebrows descend and through the narrow gap that leads to the cockpit, Jim can see Uhura's fingers blanch on the controls. Academically, they all know that this isn't just a simple search and rescue operation, they know that Nero wants any and all materiel that slips between worlds with almost manic intensity. That means enemy troops, and this time there are no Fleet personnel standing in the way.

"Standard EPAS protocols apply," Spock reminds them, his voice particularly firm. "We will not ignore any request for assistance."

"Sure," McCoy nods, still frowning, "but tell me we're prioritizing? If Nero wants his goons back, he can damn well beam them out himself!"

Spock's face is utterly emotionless. "Surface conditions are not conducive to differentiating between species via tricorder readings. We have no political affiliation. We will simply do our duty to the best of our ability."

"Dammit, Spock, who's side are you on? I know what the rule book says, but out here with Nero doing his best to kill us, it's pretty clear where our loyalties lie!"

"Indeed," says the Commander calmly. "It lies with those stranded on the planet's surface enduring inhospitable conditions."

"Inhospitable my ass!" McCoy hisses, characteristically goaded by Spock's attitude. "We're just supposed to save those bastards too? Don't you remember how this got started?"

"It 'got started' with the destruction of the USS Kelvin approximately twenty six years ago, Doctor."

"I'm not talking about the whole goddamn war!" The doctor flings an arm in a wide arc. "Sorry Jim," he interjects, pausing for a pained look in his direction in honor of his father, "but I'm talking about the here and now, about our quiet little aid camp that's going to get blown all to hell because of Nero's obsession with alternate realities!"

There's a pause while Uhura wrestles with the flaps as they hit the perimeter of the weather. The gap in the conversation leaves all three of them in the back waiting for someone else to speak, to acknowledge that the top secret nature of Nero’s presence in their lives isn’t quite so secret. Predictably, it's Jim who breaks the quiet.

"You're not counting the potential gain to Starfleet Intelligence if some of Nero's troops get mixed up in our saves. Not all Romulans are the enemy. What about the poor bastards who fall through space? For all we know, where they come from, Romulus has been part of the Federation since before you were born. I hear what you're saying, Bones, but I know you," he coaxes, "you don't seriously want our Points to just leave people to die."

"Don't I?" McCoy is in fine fettle, his face flushed with anger and the desperation they've all been feeling since hearing the news of Robicon IV's destruction. "Seems to me that with Nero knocking on our front door, it's time for us to get a little choosy about who we're patching up and sending back out there into the fight."

"Despite our current mission, we are not a military organization, Doctor, and you are not in command of this fleet," Spock reminds him, clear reprimand in his tone.

"Well, that much is obvious," Bones snarls, "or we wouldn't be wasting our resources on saving them instead of saving human lives!"

In the deadly silence that follows that remark, Jim has a sick feeling. He desperately wants to disengage from the conversation, but he can't seem to tear his eyes away from Spock's face. McCoy's too busy looking thoroughly embarrassed to notice, but there's a tightness around their DivCO's mouth and a sudden stiffness to his posture that speaks of considerable control.

"Spock, I ..." McCoy chokes.

"Silence."

"You know that's not what I meant."

Spock's voice is ice cold. "Not another word, Doctor."

Bones blanches and scooches back in his seat a little. Jim's heart is pounding in his throat, because there's no way Bones actually said that. Has it got so bad that even the most compassionate of men, the most dedicated to their cause, could draw a line between humanity and the rest of the universe? Had life aboard the Stalwart degenerated so finely into us and them?

McCoy decides to be obedient and Spock just sits there being jostled in his harness, staring straight ahead as though his dark eyes can bore holes in the bulkhead. This leaves Jim to battle ugly thoughts amongst the pits and troughs of turbulence. He's not sure how, but he's going to find a way to patch things up between those two. He's still looking for an opening when Uhura vectors in their final approach and the air currents turn from buffeting to downright violent.

"Commander, I don't think I can set us down," she says tightly. "Not without risking some serious wind shear."

"Then hold your position, Lieutenant," Spock acknowledges. "We will use rappels."

"Copy."

"Spock," Jim says softly, forestalling him as his hand reaches for the door control, moments away from the blinding rain and howling wind. The Commander tilts his head in inquiry, his eyes blank, his expression more closed than ever.

"I don't think Bones meant that like it sounded." He eyes Spock earnestly, hoping for some glimmer of understanding, some suggestion that he knows McCoy is better than that, better than all this shit they're living. They're about to leap blindly out of an aircraft that's being pursued by the Federation's most violent enemy. Post-mission reconciliation just may not be an option.

"The drop is approximately thirty meters and the prevailing wind is from the south," Spock informs him as though he hasn't spoken. "Ensure you allow sufficient outward swing to clear the port runner."

Feeling no better, Jim nods. "Understood."

Spock palms the door control and the hinges groan as the wind grips the metal arc like a wing and tries to tip them over into a spiral. Uhura swears mightily and Nix rocks back to the level.

"Make it quick, you guys!"

Spock clips in and launches himself into an outward arc in one fluid movement, disappearing into the maelstrom like a leaf on the wind. Jim grips the handhold and settles the goggles over his eyes. Two seconds later, Spock's voice crackles to life in his hood, giving the all clear. Jim tests his line, squares his shoulders, and falls into darkness and rain.


-:-


"This is bullshit!" Jim exclaims some time later, using the back of one hand to wipe some of the water from his goggles. "We can't see two feet in front of our faces, let alone track survivors in this."

"Faint life signs approximately two hundred meters to the north," Spock replies, his face silhouetted in the rain sparkles created by his hood lamp. "I believe we will be required to scale a considerable ..."

Commander Spock, this is echo delta five nine three, over.

Spock pauses and thumbs his comm. "This is Spock."

Sir, Lieutenant Sanders here, we're encountering significant issues evacuating some of the survivors, over.

"Clarify."

It's the temperature, sir. We're up here on the western spine and it's the tricorders say it's about two seventy one Kelvin. It's bad enough for us, sir, but there are some Vulcan civilians here that just aren't coping and some of Nero's soldiers we've captured. We can't beam them out thanks to the jamming and their body temperature was already dangerously low when we found them. The construction crew ... well, let's just say they haven't exactly pooled their resources.

Spock lets his hand fall from his hood. Jim watches as his lips part slightly, his hotter-than-human breath billowing in the pool of light he creates. It's no secret that Romulans are a Vulcanoid race; Spock will understand better than anybody just how compromising the extreme cold and wind-chill is becoming on desert-bred physiology.

After a few seconds, Spock thumbs his comm again decisively. "Sanders, stand by." He takes two steps towards Jim, his face set in concentration, his expressionlessness shattered by the effort to think in the driving storm. Even here, sheltered by a ledge in the lee of the mountain, each of them is buffeted and grabbed as if by cold hands.

"What are you thinking?" Jim asks, recognising the beginnings of a plan in his eyes.

"Have the proposed orbital weather platforms been deployed?"

"Deployed, yes," Jim confirms, "but not activated, and they're only designed to stabilize upper atmospheric conditions directly over the aid camp. They're no match for the disturbances being created by the drill platform."

"Can you interface with them?" Spock wants to know, ignoring the objections.

Jim's hands go to the PADD in his thigh pocket. "Well, yeah, theoretically it's possible." He pulls it out into the rain, the firm, spongy texture of the protective covering easy to hold even with slippery gloves. "There are going to be issues with security, though. They make these things pretty hard to hack, especially on a cold boot routine. What are we trying to do?"

"Approximate duration of this storm center," Spock snaps. "Predicted wind direction in fifteen minute intervals." He's shouting over the storm, already readying his harness for the gruelling climb ahead of them.

Jim hunkers down, putting his back to the worst of it and runs the preliminary shell he'll use to initiate the satellites. "Don't ask for much, do you?"

"If ED593's saves have been exposed to these temperatures for a prolonged period of time without appropriate attire or shelter, then it is possible that we have very little time to extract useful information before they become irrevocably compromised."

Jim looks up, squinting against Spock's lamp. "You mean it will kill them."

"As I am unsure of their current status, it is unwise to speculate."

Spock drives the first spike into the cliff face, anchoring their line. Jim's fingers are flying over the screen, but he spares a worried glance for the slight stiffness in the Commander's movements. He has thermals and an EVA suit to shield him, but Jim's human and it's fucking cold. The longer they stand around here waiting for an uplink to the weather platforms, the more Spock's ability to climb safely will be affected.

A spectacular gust of wind drives the rain in an arc, hammering up under Jim's crouch to blast water into his face. His goggles protect his eyes, but he's left coughing and spluttering by the sheer force of it. Luckily, the PADD flashes green with the news they have full access to climatic controls. Chekov would be proud.

"We're in business!" he crows, glancing up and smiling through numb lips.

The climbing rope whips like an angry snake around its sole anchor point and Spock is nowhere to be seen.


-:-


Above Aspera's surface, the Stalwart slingshots around the secondary moon to avoid incoming fire from a Romulan aggressor. Taylor hangs grimly to the arms of the captain's chair, his eyes determined even though his lips tremble as the old ship barely makes the turn in time. Sparkling prisms of green brush the aft shields and sail into the black to detonate harmlessly against the system's inner asteroid field.

Gaila gently looses the breath she's been holding and forces herself back into the flow of her own work. Along with sixteen other Ops techs strewn around the semi-circle that makes up Bridge Tactical, she's not only keeping an eye out for her own personal crew, ED996, but also monitoring incoming ordinance and the position of every other vessel that crosses her designated flight area. When a ship blips out of her zone, she automatically forwards it to the right Ops tech with a flick of her finger across the touch screen.

"Nix, your Ops here. Guard your six, incoming by two, your advantage in atmo."

Copy that. Going low. Uhura's voice is tense but steady as she flips the rescue shuttle into a steep dive and re-enters Aspera's exosphere based on Gaila's advice.

The Romulan fighters follow as low as the F-range before breaking off to address easier pickings. Gaila relaxes for a split second before Jim Kirk's frequency demands her attention.

Ops, this is Kirk. Gaila, Spock just fucking disappeared. I need his twenty, over.

Her stomach drops but she hurries to comply, sweeping their assigned search area and then doing it again when it comes up blank the first time. Frustrated and panicked, she widens the scan, cursing under her breath as the electrical storms and distortion from Nero's jamming makes the task practically impossible.

Gaila, his twenty!

She takes a split second to force herself to breathe before replying. "I can't find him, Jim. What the hell happened?"

There's silence on the other end of the line, then a burst of wind and rain as Jim activates the comm, says nothing and then deactivates it again.

"Nix Point One, sitrep, over," she demands, knowing they're losing precious seconds to assess the situation.

I'm transmitting my exact co-ordinates now, Jim says tensely. I only looked away a split second and he was gone. It must have been a transporter; if he'd been blown off the cliff we'd still be able to read his signal. He must be out of range or somewhere shielded.

"You're saying Nero beamed him out?" Gaila jams a finger into her earpiece as though she couldn't possibly have heard correctly. "Jim, it's a nightmare out there, locking onto a specific person without knowing their transponder frequency is impossible, especially with Nero playing hide-and-seek with us."

Future tech, Jim spits, and she can tell even across the shitty line that he's furious. Also, the Commander has a pretty distinctive biosign reading, wouldn't you agree?

Gaila devotes half her attention to Jim's theory and the other half to ensuring Navigation have the most up to date telemetry on the Narada which is moving to engage the Stalwart again when they emerge from their lunar orbit. "Okay, so let's say Nero's got Spock," she allows, "you're now the DivCO, what do we do?"

We get him the hell back.

"Seconded, but how?"

Make a list of anything that was in the area with sufficient shielding to interfere with an EPAS transponder at the time Spock disappeared, then deliver it to my PADD.

"Working on it."


-:-


Jim feels the rope bite deeper into his right arm as he inches over the edge of the cliff. The wind buffets him, grabbing at him with murderous hands, but he resolutely leans out into the darkness, fighting down his fear of heights to play the scanner one more time over the deadly drop below. It bleeps at him in the negative. No life signs. Definitely no non-native biological signs. Wherever Spock is, he's not smashed dead on the rocks below. The thought should be cheerier than it is, but he's very much aware that the alternative might be even less pleasant. Nero isn't famous for his hospitality, plus he has a special dislike reserved for Vulcans, one in particular.

His PADD vibrates in its holster, alerting him that Gaila has once again compiled data in record time.

Using the rope to guide him to safety, Jim scans the alarmingly long list with rising panic until one entry leaps out at him. He thumbs the comm and selects the Stalwart command channel first.

"This is Div Point One for Captain Taylor, priority one, over."

Acknowledged, Lieutenant Kirk. Patching you through.

A brief pause and then Taylor's voice. Kirk, what do you want?

"Sir, they've taken Spock. Prime Division is encountering localized aggression from Nero's ground troops but we're holding our own for now. Request permission to retrieve Commander Spock and disable the drill platform, over.”

If you can deliver on that, son, you go right ahead, Taylor replies instantly. With that platform out of action, we might be able to raise the incoming Robii fleet and advise them of the situation before they get stuck in the middle of this.

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Kirk, out."

Jim has never been more grateful in his life for a quick decision from Taylor. He flips to Nix's channel immediately. "Kirk to Uhura, one to beam out."

Where's Spock? Is her instant demand.

"Don't worry," he grins fiercely. "He’s way ahead of us."


-:-


Spock turns his stagger into a shoulder roll as he unexpectedly rematerializes. His instincts serve him well, allowing him to duck two stun bolts before the third clips him in the arm, numbing half his body and sending him toppling to the deck. Sweeping aside the knot of primal fear at being incapacitated, he uses brute strength to flip onto his back one-armed. Whatever is coming next, he wants to stare it in the face.

A tattooed Romulan looms over him with a kind of fascinated sneer. "Ta-krenn! Hnafirh'au-d?"

Another soldier steps forward, stun pistol still warm in his hand from gunning Spock down. "Rha," he grins. "Hnafirh'rau te yyaio."

Spock glances around the small transporter bay and realizes where he is. He feels the absence of the chilling wind as a pseudo warmth on his face even as the knowledge that he will most likely not survive this encounter envelops him. Rainwater drips down from his hood, forming rivulets across his goggles.

Yes, the second Romulan, the superior, had said. Let me have a look at the dead one.


-:-


"What's the situation?" Jim demands, feeling like urgency has forced him to speak before his molecules are even properly reassembled.

"Ridiculous!" McCoy growls. "I just had a Klingon in my medbay, bleating at me in perfect Standard about whether or not we'd saved her human husband! Just what the hell kind of universe are these people coming from?"

"Sounds like a better one than ours," Jim grits out, catching himself on the bulkhead to lean into the cockpit. "Uhura, coordinate what cover we can from the Stalwart's phaser banks and take us in hard."

"Destination?" she asks steadily, already comming through Jim's request.

Jim stares out the viewport at the tiny twinkle on the planetary horizon. "There," he says, pointing. "The orbital weather satellite control platform. That's where they've taken Spock."

"How do you know?"

"Trust me," he grins, licking his lips, "he's there."

"Jim Kirk, I am not taking this shuttle and everyone aboard on some wild goose chase backed by a hunch, so damn well tell me how ..."

"Moments before he was taken we were working on hacking the satellites. Spock had a plan, I don't know what it was, but they must have intercepted my transmission. I didn't have time to encrypt it. Nero's not an idiot, he has extensive files on key Federation personnel, that much we know from what little intelligence we have on his operation. He knows who Spock is, what he's capable of, better than anyone. If I were Nero, I wouldn't want a brilliant Vulcan launching a counter offensive on my little sneak attack, would you?" He stops to breathe, hands clenched at his sides. Some of it's a cover but Uhura doesn't have sufficient clearance for the truth and the basis of his assumption is unaffected.

"Tenuous at best," she challenges. "We haven't got the resources to waste with shadows and guesswork. If Nero took Spock, why wouldn't he be on the Narada? It's more secure, it's more defensible, and if he's such a valuable prisoner, wouldn't Nero want to question him personally?"

Jim grits his teeth in frustration, feeling the ache in his jaw. "If you were an alien lunatic genius, would you want Spock at the beating heart of your operation or somewhere more peripheral where he could do less damage?"

"He's one Vulcan, against who knows how many Romulan foot soldiers. How dangerous can he be?" Uhura barely finishes the question before her expression shifts to one of reluctant admission. "Okay, so Nero doesn't trust him, doesn't trust his own soldiers to contain him. We know Spock, we know what he's capable of, what makes you think Nero understands the lengths he'd go to in order to end this war?"

Jim's eyes are hard and very blue as he turns Uhura around by the shoulder to face her controls again. Fuck the Security Council and fuck Uhura's clearance; the time of plausible denial is long gone.

"Nero knows Spock, too."

"What?" she exclaims, but she's already plotting a course and laying it in. "Since when?"

"Since a universe ago."

"Jim, what the hell?"

"Shut up and fly!" he shouts, but instantly contrite, he grips her shoulder in apology. "We don't know how much time we have."

"He better be there," she mutters, somewhat mollified.

"He is," Jim whispers. "I know it."

Moments pass where the only sounds in the shuttle are the constant prattle of DivCO updates in Jim's comm and McCoy's tense muttering. Then Jim has an epiphany.

"I know what Spock was planning!" he crows. "God damn it, he's brilliant!"

"Plan? What plan?" Bones growls impatiently.

"Uhura," Jim says excitedly, ignoring the doctor in his haste to set things in motion. "Get Chekov to the Stalwart's auxiliary transporter room along with an armed Security escort, as many as Taylor will spare."

"The brawn I understand," she nods. "But Pavel?"

"I need his wery impressive brain," Jim grins, waggling his eyebrows.


-:-


The temperature differential creates a billow of steam and the docking hatch hits the wall with a clang. Jim is first through the porthole, as befits a Point, with Security and Uhura close behind. McCoy hangs in the rear, weighed down by his medkit and disadvantaged in the hypothetical firefight Jim is really hoping to avoid.

"Secure us a path to the bridge," he commands, gesturing at their armed guard. "Scan for Spock's biosigns as you go and forward your findings to me. Defend yourselves but don't start anything. The longer they don't know we're here, the greater our chance of success."

The Security troops salute crisply and quickly advance into the main corridor, their phasers held low but the safeties off.

"Hello, Lieutenant," Chekov salutes him with one finger as he materializes inside the docking bay. "You mind telling me what we're doing?"

Jim claps him on the shoulder and steps out into the installation proper. "We're going to get Spock back and then we're going to see which way the wind is blowing."

"You are not as funny as you think you are," Chekov informs him, but pulls his phaser and follows seamlessly, Uhura and Bones bringing up the rear.

The weather control platform is dimly lit, still running on minimal power. As yet, Jim still can't be one hundred percent sure he's guessed correctly, but something tells him he has and that Spock is here somewhere, his signal dampened by the heavy duty electromagnetic shielding designed to protect the satellite's delicate innards. It's more than a hunch but less than a certainty and he really would have hoped for something more concrete. He's the one leading them all into Nero's figurative clutches, regardless of the loyalty they all feel for their DivCO. He imagines what Spock will say when they find him, the disapproval in response to Jim's reallocation of essential resources to save one life instead of the many on the planet below. How to explain that it was no choice at all? That abandoning Spock to Nero was an impossibility, both for him and Nix's crew?

Resolutely, Jim pushes his doubts aside, all of them. Spock is here, somewhere, and it's up to them to find him before Nero extracts his pound of flesh.


-:-


"Divisional Commander Spock."

The deep gravel of that voice is laced with humor and hatred, both. It gives Spock the strength he needs to lift his head, one side of his face still numb from the stun blast. The visage that greets him on the viewer is hauntingly familiar. Prime's memories flood his visual cortex, overlaying many perspectives and incarnations of that face.

"Nero," he names him, the words somewhat distorted by his left-sided weakness.

The Romulan commander turns an accusatory stare on his underlings. "What have you done to him? I told you to acquire him in pristine condition!"

Spock's senior captor makes a subservient gesture. "He was difficult to subdue, my lord."

"Yes," Nero hisses. "He would be."

"What do you want with me?" Spock manages, trying to lessen the degree he is leaning on the junior Romulan, his mind roiling with the fear, adrenaline and violence of the other's touch.

"With you?" Nero sounds surprised. "Why, nothing, my treacherous friend." He bares his teeth in a vicious parody of a smile. "My revenge is already exacted upon your tainted soul. The loss of your planet is sufficient recompense for your own sins, if not for the sins of the greater Federation whole."

Spock feels a wave of grief wash over him, normal control impaired by the circumstances and the stun blast. The only thing that saves him, that reforms him, is the tiny kernel of insight gifted to him by his counterpart.

"You yearn to lay the blame for the destruction of Vulcan at my feet, but wishing will not make it so," he says calmly. "You are guilty of a greater crime than my counterpart, for the deaths you cause are fuelled by rage and intent, each and every one of them a blight of revenge upon your katra that you will never erase." He pauses for breath. "Not if you search your whole life, and certainly not by punishing me."

Nero laughs dismissively, his whole face filled with derision except for his eyes which burn with white-hot anger. "How poetic, and if I may say so, how uncharacteristically dramatic, Spock. You surprise me." He claps condescendingly as one might at a live performance. "How human you are in this universe, how governed by your feelings and your prejudice."

Spock remains silent and watchful. Nero has yet to reveal his purpose. Whatever it may be, he doubts it is merely their conversation. Mad he may be, and unpredictable, but Spock has never believed him careless or casual. There is a purpose to his abduction, one greater than the balm to Nero's vanity. Additionally, every second they talk is a moment longer for Spock to evaluate the possibility of escape, and another chance for EPAS to hold fast and protect Aspera and the incoming Robii fleet.

"I am not ashamed of my humanity," he returns, pleased when it elicits an emotional response from the Romulan, even if it is not the one he expects.

Nero throws his head back and laughs, deep and rich in a way that speaks more of hatred than humour. "You lie well for a Vulcan."

"Was that a compliment?"

"It is an unusual skill to have cultivated," Nero continues, the smile still playing along his tattooed lips. "I wonder what motivated you? Certainly the Spock I knew only told me one lie." His face contorts in remembered grief and he brings a fist down on something hard out of the camera's line of sight. "It was the day he promised to save Romulus and instead let us die in flames!"

"He fully intended to save your planet."

"How could you possibly know that?" Nero demands wildly, then pauses, eyes narrowing. "He is here? In this world?"

Spock cannot suppress the sudden clench of his jaw. Defending Prime was a miscalculation and one that may cost him and his counterpart most dearly. Silence is his only defense.

Nero leans forward, his scarred face filling up the small viewscreen. "Tell me where he is and I will spare your life."

The senior Romulan pulls his weapon and presses it hard into Spock's temple.

"I do not know my counterpart's current location," he says, because it is true, and also, he may be Vulcan but instinct demands he eke out every last possible second of his life.

"Lies!" Nero roars and the weapon is ground more firmly into Spock's skull. "Tell me the truth and your death will be painless!"

Seconds tick away and Spock can see no way out. The satellite's shielding will conceal his location, in his weakened state he is no match for Romulan strength, lies serve him poorly but he cannot give an honest answer for fear of jeopardising the incoming Vulcan fleet and Tat'sar support. As hopeless as it is, there is only one avenue open to him.

So it is that Spock straightens as much as he is able. "I would not help you with the last breath in my body," he proclaims, then lashes out viciously with the side of his palm and breaks the senior guard's neck with a satisfying crack. The weapon discharges and his head fills with excruciating heat. The last sound to reach his ears is Nero's manic laughter.


-:-


Spurred into action by the sound of weapons fire, Jim bursts into the communications room to find Spock flat on his back, arms and legs splayed, the floor splashed with copious amounts of green blood. One wall of the room contains a smoking ruin where a viewscreen once stood.

"Spock!" The sound is torn from his throat, raw and terrified.

Jim's headlong sprint continues across the deck. He has his phaser in hand, eyes flicking left and right, up and down, but centring always on the three bodies. The other two are Romulan, that much is evident from the extensive tattooing. One is missing most of his face and the other lies on the deck with his neck at an impossible angle. Bones and Chekov filter into the room behind him, but it hardly registers because Jim has just spotted the shallow rise and fall of Spock's chest.

His knees hit the deck hard enough to bruise, but it gets him to Spock's side a fraction faster, so it's worth it. The steady thrum of a Vulcan heartbeat is easily perceptible through the thin EVA suit. Jim's other hand is patting him down, searching for the source of all the blood. It's sticky and cloying, gluing his fingers together like honey and it smells terrifying and fecund, like water from an old kettle.

"I am not wounded" Spock says, blinking his way back to consciousness, attempting to push upright. "Jim, the blood is not mine."

"Some of it damn well is!" He glances over his shoulder, face set, eyes burning. "Bones!"

Spock raises a hand to his face and is surprised to see his glove come away warm and green. He has a flash of recollection, of the split second whine of a weapon about to discharge at extremely close range. He remembers the burn and the flash, blinding light ...

"Easy," Jim advises, clutching at him as he lunges up.

"Dammit Jim, hold him still!" Bones growls, adjusting his tricorder with angry flicks of his fingers.

Jim doesn't have much to do; Spock's body is tense, wire taut but obedient. Chekov is ostensibly covering the door with Uhura, but he keeps turning his head, glancing towards the injured Commander with wide, fearful eyes. To him, it must be as though the impossible has happened. The paleness of his cheeks and the utter disbelief make it clear that his world has been flung from its axis. Jim understands; Spock looks like a reanimated corpse he's covered in that much gore, which has happened before, but normally it's not green. Spock cannot be fatally wounded, it is an unwritten law amongst Prime Division.

"Point blank energy burn," McCoy notes under his breath, the adds almost to himself, "a fraction to the right and we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"Will he be okay?"

McCoy pulls a face as he sets to work with a dermal knitter. "There are documented synaptic disturbances associated with near-misses like these, but in reality," he leans back on his haunches and the light dies from his instruments, "most of it will be shock."

"Doctor, Lieutenant, may I remind you that I am present and conscious?" Spock snaps, tightly controlled.

"Why you ungrateful, arrogant ..." McCoy mutters, pushing to his feet and holstering his equipment with more force than necessary. "Come on, kid," he growls at Chekov, "best learn when you're not wanted." He turns to Jim, his expression still torn between concern and irritation. "Coming or what?"

Stiffly, Spock pulls out of Kirk's hold, moving himself up onto one elbow. "I take it you have ascertained the purpose of gaining control of the weather platform and associated satellites?"
Jim nods, but all he says is, "we need to get you out of here, back to the ship."

Spock frowns but the effect is somewhat ruined by the paleness of his face and the blood still oozing slightly from McCoy's ten second patch up. "Lieutenant Kirk, you must complete the mission. I will stay here and guard the approach."

Jim stares down into those dark eyes, and feels the shaky burn as the adrenaline starts to leave him. Spock's gaze is insistent, almost pleading. It seems this is about more than the people on the station. It could be that this is about boundaries, about drawing a line between what lies unacknowledged between them and the people they have to lead; their mutual disguise. He knows what Spock wants him to do, but for the first time in a long time, Jim is planning to fail a test.

He thumbs his comm and holds Spock's eyes as he speaks into it. "All points this is Lieutenant Kirk. Citing regulation one-oh-one, I'm retaining Divisional Command, over."

A wave of acknowledgement pours over the frequency, and to the Division's credit, not one of them wastes time or breaks protocol to ask if Spock is okay. Regulation one-oh-one means the Commander is either injured, still absent or dead. Momentarily Spock looks really pissed. Before he can say anything, Jim grabs him by the elbow and puts all of his strength into hauling that dense Vulcan body to its feet.

"If you're well enough to contradict me, you're well enough to come with us," he says, taking one long arm and looping it over his shoulders when Spock sways. "We still might need you when it comes to programming the weather, which is a lot more important than the fucking approach and the Romulans that might take advantage of it."

For a moment, it looks like Spock is going to protest both the shift in command, the plan and the thought of using Kirk as a crutch, but whatever he sees in Jim's face, it's enough. He nods, once, then they both raise their heads to the other two.

"Lead on, McDuff," Jim grins.

McCoy rolls his eyes. "Hell of a time to get literary."

Within a few minutes, it's evident that the security crew has forged far ahead of them, even in the small amount of time it took to find Spock and sort out their priorities. It's a damn good thing, too, because Jim is inundated by the constant comm chatter of being a Divisional Commander. Now that the official change of command is out, nothing is getting filtered through Ops anymore and it's doing his head in. Every few steps there's a question that needs answering, a goal that needs re-evaluating. There are status reports, casualty reports, fleet orientation reports. Frankly, Jim is expecting that any minute someone will give him an update about the availability of public toilets. All he wants to do is take a goddamn moment to revel in the feel of Spock's warmth against his side, his weight across his shoulders, but it's a relief he's denied.

The Nix team pause in the shelter of a doorway while Chekov does a quick reconnaissance. Jim takes the opportunity to glance at Spock, his face twisted in assessment. "How are you doing? Some nerve damage? Walking doesn't seem easy."

When he turns, Spock's face is paler than before, his pupils over-dilated even in the bright light. "I admit that it requires significant concentration."

"Hey, you look like shit," Jim observes casually.

"Your observation is inane and insulting."

Jim deliberates for a second, because Spock really does look bad, but he knows even Chekov might need a hand with what they're about to attempt. Oh, he could code it himself if he had all the time in the world, but there are still people on Aspera's surface and the memory of the conditions down there is fresh in his memory. People dying down there, the Robii refugees are en route and the Vulcan support fleet is still at least twenty minutes away. They need help now.

"Okay, I'll haul your ass as far as the bridge, but then we're all getting out of here."

Spock raises one quizzical eyebrow, perfectly disdainful even if it is crusted in blood. "What would be the point in remaining once our mission is complete?"

"Don't sass me," Jim grunts, staggering around another corner under half Spock's weight.

McCoy's head appears around the bend, followed by an exasperated gesture indicating they should hurry up. "Stop gossiping and keep moving! This platform is crawling with Romulans."

Jim takes one step and Spock buckles beside him, pulling him to his knees.

"Ah, Bones? A little help?"

McCoy swears and puts his shoulder to Spock's other armpit. With significant effort and some assistance from the Commander, all three regain their feet.

"Everloving Christ!" the doctor pants. "Spock, your Vulcan hide weighs a ton!"

"Shut up and keep walking," Jim gasps, "we're nearly there."

"This is a bad idea. He's in no fit state to be doing much of anything, let alone hacking orbital platforms."

Spock glares.

"Yeah, well did you want to leave him in the corridor clutching a phaser for the Romulans to find?" Jim groans as they make the bridge and dump Spock into the science seat.

Immediately, Kirk palms his phaser and takes cover behind the consoles with Uhura, both of them guarding the door. Jim presses his finger against the earpiece, jamming it further into his skull to differentiate the different channels. "There are still isolated pockets of resistance," he informs the remaining two Security personnel positioned in the corridor. "Stay sharp, everyone," he releases the comm and turns to speak over his shoulder. "Bones, see what you can do to help Spock with the computers."

"Sure thing," Bones drawls sarcastically, rolling his eyes, but he makes his way over to the science station and proceeds to look studiously over Spock's shoulder.

Then there's nothing but the blinding rattle of Spock and Chekov's fingers across the controls. It sounds like rain falling on a tin roof. There are only occasional pauses where his body catches up to his brain and he has to take a moment to think and re-evaluate. McCoy's eyes seek out Jim's across the room and it's a tacit acknowledgement of the doctor's real agenda. Keep an eye on him, Jim tries to say with nothing more than a firm set to his lips and a slight furrow between his brows.

Bones turns his back on the others and surreptitiously opens his tricorder. Waving it at Spock earns him an impatient exhalation from the patient, but those dark eyes never waver from the screen. The readings are addled, but not life threatening. He's going to have a hell of a headache and a few of his motor neurons are fried, but it doesn't seem to be affecting his fingers or his recall. McCoy snaps the tricorder shut and falls back into watching the lines of code slot into place neatly, flashing green and then melting aside to present the next roadblock. He knows Jim will interpret that correctly in place of a spoken diagnosis.

There's the sound of phaser fire nearby. Jim flinches and grips his weapon more tightly. "DivCO to Security, over?"

Silence rolls over the comms.

"DivCO to Security away team, do you copy?"

Nothing but more silence and then the distant tramp of more than two sets of boots returning from the point position.

"Guys?" Jim calls, not turning to look at them. "How much longer?"

"Approximately one point two minutes remaining," Spock says calmly.

"Okay," Jim acknowledges as the sounds draw close enough that the flashes of covering fire become visible in the dim emergency lighting.

Suddenly the door beside Chekov takes a hit and he tumbles from his console to return fire, jamming his shoulder against the wall, taking cover like a pro.

"Three, maybe four Romulans, sir," the boy informs them, benefited by the new angle. "It is difficult to tell in the dark. I have finished programming the altitude and wectors, Commander Spock, but the atiwation protocol is unfinished, sir."

Two more shots ricochet into the room, setting a chair on fire and showering sparks into the air.
Uhura hastily jams her stolen Romulan disruptor into her waistband. "I can do that," she assures the room. "Basic delayed activation; I can do that."

"A little bit of hurry up, please!" Jim demands, employing a running crouch to bring him level with Chekov on the opposite side of the door. The move gives them flanking capability whilst still providing cover. The two nod to each other and then direct all their concentration into the corridor. It might have been a gesture of solidarity or simply an acknowledgment of the precarious circumstances, but both relax into themselves in the wake of it. There is something undeniably reassuring about knowing that you're not in the shit all by yourself.

"Weather control, engaged," Spock announces. "Engines powering up. Intertial dampeners deactivated."

Jim stands and whirls to face him and the doctor, arm outstretched, phaser pointed right at them.

McCoy boggles. Spock's expression doesn't change in the slightest.

"Well, get out of the damn way, will you?" Jim waves the phaser in a shooing motion.

McCoy and Uhura loop their hands under Spock's arms and haul him aside on the wheeled chair just as Jim lets loose a bolt that cripples the science console. Bones is swearing again and Spock looks vaguely horrified.

"Can't let those bastards undo all your hard work," Jim rationalizes as he grabs Chekov by the collar and strides across the room to Uhura.

When they're all grouped together, he makes the call, and they disappear in a swirl of golden light just as three very angry looking Romulans burst in on them. They rematerialize in the port auxiliary transporter room aboard the Stalwart, with a very shocked and amazed looking Montgomery Scott at the controls.

"Did you see that?" the engineer exclaims. "They were right behind you! Weren't you looking?" He threads his fingers through his thinning ginger hair and lets his jaw fall open in astonishment. "One second later and you'd be toast! What were you waiting for, a written invitation?" His expression darkens to one of anger. "You can't rely on me to be here, you know! What if it were one of the new laddies and he took his sweet time locking on? Where would you be then?"

"Scattered into atoms," Spock replies logically.

Scotty looks to Jim and angles a thumb at the Commander. "Is he trying to be funny?"

"Romulan shot him in the head," Jim shrugs. "Page sickbay and get them to collect him. Meanwhile, I need you to beam us back onto our shuttle."

"What?" Scotty exclaims, aghast. "You barely made it out of there alive! Add to that, thanks to your handiwork, the platform is accelerating at an exponential rate; beaming you back aboard isn't going to be easy!"

Jim opens his mouth to reply just as medical ensign jogs into the room. "You!" Jim says, index finger aimed right at him. "Got any Point training?"

"Uh," the kid stammers, "just Basic, sir."

"Good enough. You're taking Spock's position, I'm your new Point Two. Suit up, you've got sixty seconds."

The kid asks no further questions, just pulls one of the emergency EVA suits from the wall and jams his feet in the legs. Jim likes him already.

Spock steps into his line of sight. "You cannot seriously entertain the notion of returning to the planet's surface. You know what will happen if the weather satellites perform their function."

"Yeah, I do," he says flatly. "Which doesn't change the fact that there are people down there, innocent people and Romulan soldiers with valuable intelligence. Besides," he adds as the whole ship rocks, "you can't exactly tell me that it's safe here on the Stalwart."

"I would not claim something that is so blatantly untrue," Spock agrees. "Regardless of your objections, I am participating in this mission."

"Absolutely not," Jim makes a cutting motion with his hand. "You're injured. You stay here."
Spock turns on his heel, peels off his glove and rolls up his sleeve. "Doctor McCoy, please administer a stimulant and a neurotransmitter stabilizer. You will agree that their effects will counteract the transitory damage caused by the Romulan disruptor."

McCoy looks rebellious, but to Jim's horror, he reaches into his medkit for the requested drugs.

"Bones!"

"He's right, Jim. If I can get him functional again, command cedes back to him. Like it or not, they're the regs."

Kirk turns away, puts his back to them as he hears the hiss of the hypospray and struggles to control his anger. He knows where it comes from, understands that it's got everything to do with the sight of Spock lying on that deck, of not being able to express the true degree of his relief or his gratitude. If life was fair, he'd be allowed one goddamn second to hold him and be thankful, but instead he has this; the hard reality of their work and the oncoming danger that Spock refuses to spare himself.

The Ensign from Medical presents himself, pulling Jim out of his angry reverie. They could do with an extra pair of hands and the kid has obediently suited up. "Name?" he asks, voice a little hoarse with emotion.

"Watson, sir."

Jim raises his eyebrows and swallows a wave of almost hysterical laughter. "Doctor Watson? Are you fucking with me?"

"Uh, no sir?"

Jim massages his temples as they take their places on the pads. "Jesus, my life is insane," he mutters, then sees Watson looking sideways at him and adds, "you're supernumerary, so depending on what we find down there you might be Medical or you might run Point with either of us," he gestures between Spock and himself. "Got it?"

"Understood, sir."

"Put your visor on, Doctor Watson, and pressurize," he advises, dangerously off his game.

"You know," the kid says tentatively as Spock takes his place and gives the command to energise. "Most people just call me Kenny."

 

 

Chapter Text

Nix Alpha crew, Chekov, and Watson materialize neatly in the airlock that links their medevac shuttle to the weather control platform. Jim offers up a silent prayer of thanks for Scotty's remarkable skill and resolutely pushes that disturbing beagle rumor to the back of his mind. Nobody else besides Chekov could have plotted those coordinates so he's not about to start asking any awkward dog-related questions.

"Separate from the platform immediately," Spock orders, the dried green blood cracking like clay against his pale skin as he speaks. "Lieutenant Uhura, plot a course for the most proximal safe landing to the Narada's drill zone."

She leaps through the airlock and throws herself into the pilot's seat, powering up, strapping in and querying the navigation database in a series of swift, well-practiced movements. Spock follows next, looking out of place aboard the deployed shuttle without his dented and scraped visor which had been lost somewhere either on Aspera or the platform. Jim has a momentary lurch of superstition. The marks on that visor had been as recognizable to him as Spock's face, each and every one of them testament to the Commander's skill, luck and judgement. The spares they keep aboard Nix will suffice, but it will take time for one of them to mark up the same way, and even then, the configuration will be different. It's illogical to miss a piece of equipment, but he does, in the same way he'd feel the absence of a loyal guard dog or a reliable vehicle.

"Incoming!" Uhura warns urgently, jolting Jim out of his reverie.

They barely have time to brace themselves as a small Romulan attack vessel streaks past, strafing Nix's outer hull with bursts of phaser fire. The force of the impact throws every standing person to the deck. Instantly, the platform's automatic course correction algorithm kicks in, pitching everything in the opposite direction and the airlock seal gives an ominous groan of metal fatigue.

Jim flings an arm out, his fingers just catching the handrail. Spock grabs McCoy around the waist and hauls him out of the connecting space. Doctor Watson's panicked shout glances off the airlock walls. Jim meets Spock's eyes, separated by less than a meter of buckled plassteel.

Time stops for a heartbeat. The airlock screams.

"Visors down!" Jim shouts. "Hold on to something!"

Nix rips away into the black like a cork shot from a bottle. Jim's body lifts from the deck, atmosphere rushing past him along with anything that isn't bolted down. His teeth are gritted against the sudden bite of the handrail in his palm. Just a few more seconds! he tells himself, knowing that even weather platforms have depressurization suppression systems. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see a pair of booted feet flapping in the hurricane but can't turn his head enough to see if they're Watson's or Chekov's. Most of his view is taken up by spinning stars and flashes of battle as the platform's engines are outmatched by the force of venting pressure. The cloud-covered blue of Aspera swirls sickeningly past.

Finally, when he thinks he can't hold on even a second longer, the clang of an emergency bulkhead resounds through the last of the thinning air and he's weightless at last. He uses his abused right arm to bring his boots to the deck and magnetize them. His line is already in his other hand, looped around the handrail before he allows himself to assess the situation. If that bulkhead blows the rest of the atmosphere behind it will try to take him with it.

Watson's terrified eyes meet his as he struggles for his own footing. Jim feels a momentary flash of pride that EPAS is turning out medics so well versed in Point behaviour, but then his stomach drops away.

"Where's Chekov?"


-:-


ED996's forcefields are fluctuating along with their primary power coil. The resulting situation is one of chaos where the atmosphere aboard the shuttle endeavours to restore itself and emergency sirens become audible, to silence and a powerful depressurization as containment fails again. Spock has one arm around Doctor McCoy and the other one twisted in his clipped-in line for stability. Nobody aboard has visors on and it is only a matter of time before the humans lose consciousness; the snatched intermittent breaths of thready air insufficient to sustain them.

"Aspera!" he shouts in the oxygenated portion of the cycle, sacrificing his chance to breathe in the hope that Uhura will hear him and understand.

The forcefield collapses again. He and McCoy are slammed into the bulkhead and partially sucked out into space. To his credit, the doctor flings out a leg, hooking it around the bench seat in an attempt to halt their progress. It gives Spock the split second he needs to adjust his grip and pull them back inside, although not fast enough to avoid the bite as the forcefield re-engages across his shoulders. The current is insufficient to harm him, but the sensation is painful.

The split second of unobscured starfield does indicate a change of course; Uhura is taking them down into atmosphere as requested.

He doesn't have time to consider the fate of Jim, Chekov or Watson. In fact, he has barely enough time to bring a heel down on the emergency cockpit divider and insulate Uhura from what is to come. The air trapped inside the forward section should be sufficient to her needs for at least four minutes if she remains calm.

The warm glow of friction begins to light up the jagged rent in their hull where the port airlock used to be. Spock works frantically to secure himself and McCoy to the bench seat, criss-crossing his safety line along their bodies and bringing the crash webbing down over that for good measure. He leaves himself just enough reach to grip the equipment store and furnish them with face masks. The doctor wastes no time yanking down on his to start the flow of oxygen, his lips pinking almost instantly with the first breath.

The heat around them builds quickly with only the intermittent forcefield to protect them. Spock hunches against it, buries McCoy's vulnerable face in his own chest and tries to will away the burn against his ears as Uhura counts down the seconds until impact.


-:-


"Watson, where ... is ... Chekov?" Jim tries again, calm but firm, striding across the ravaged deck to grip the young medic by the shoulders.

"It all happened so fast," the kid stammers. "I'm not sure, but I think ..."

Jim follows Watson's pointing finger out into space and towards Aspera below. Quick steps take him to the verge of space, his tricorder already in hand, calling up Chekov's transponder signal from the database and demanding a lock from Ops. Precious seconds tick by and Jim grips the instrument harder in his gloved fist. "Come on, come on!" he hisses, eyes glued to the screen.

Chirp.

"Yes!" Jim pumps his fist in victory, making Watson flinch. He thumbs his comm. "Ops, Kirk here, can you boost the signal on this transponder comm channel?"

Jim! Gaila exclaims. It's really good to hear your voice, gorgeous. Signal boosted, patching you through now.

There's a click and some static, then a reedy and distorted Russian voice fills Jim's ear.

Dis is Chekov. Request immediate extraction, over.

"Pavel, I have your twenty, Nix will come and pick you up, over," Jim assures him.

I don't think that is wery likely, sir, Chekov counters with a wryness in his voice that speaks volumes for his bravery. They just passed me on their way to the surface. They were under power but systems were failing, over.

Jim feels a clench in his gut. "Gaila, can you confirm?"

Confirmed, Jim. Nix are set to make an emergency landing in the next ninety seconds.

"Is everyone aboard accounted for?" he demands.

Emergency protocols engaged so Uhura has no visual, but she thinks so. There's a split second pause where Jim can almost hear Gaila's concentration. Jim, we've got nobody in the area, the Stalwart is under a lot of pressure and can't deploy Beta crews. Chekov's in an atmospheric suit, do you read me?

Jim meets Watson's eyes as they widen. No chute. Chekov has no chute.

Jim, do you read? Over.

He thumbs the comm. "How long?"

Seven, maybe eight minutes.

He punches the bulkhead, but without atmosphere to carry sound it's just pain without the satisfaction. "Shit!" he lifts his hands to his head, fingers curled into the visor the same way he'd usually fist them into his hair. "Okay, okay, there's a way to do this," his eyes pin Watson and he points intently. "Basic includes piloting, you're all things to all people today, Kenny. Unclip and stay close," he orders, then tilts his head. "How's your Romulan? I only ask ‘cause mine's crap."


-:-


There is a rhythmic sound.

Unbidden, his mind attempts to categorize it.

It offers up many different suggestions, narrowing the field of choice, eliminating impossibilities of context and finally settling on the only logical conclusion. Breathing, Spock thinks. That is the sound of my breathing.

He forces his eyes open and fights a wave of panic when only darkness greets him. Pitch black and primally terrifying, the nothingness that plays along his optic nerve appears endless. He blinks several times, perhaps seeking evidence that he has, in fact, actually opened his eyes and not merely imagined the act. The physical sensation of his eyelids parting and meeting reassures him.

Something struggles against his chest and the movement cues a barrage of memory that breaks the rhythm of his breath.

"Spock?" a gruff voice questions.

"Doctor."

"Get the hell off me, you weigh a ton."

Not bothering to respond to that piece of blatant untruth, Spock disengages the crash webbing by touch alone and retracts the safety line he used to bind them beneath that. McCoy gingerly untangles himself, the sounds of him stumbling around inside the shuttle now Spock's only clue to his whereabouts. Out of nowhere, bright light blossoms and he's forced to throw up a hand to shield his sensitive eyes.

McCoy holds the medical tricorder aloft, directing the beam upwards instead of at Spock. The Commander lowers his hand and blinks to clear the after images.

"Atmosphere checks out," the Doctor coughs, removing his mask and thus, the distortion from his voice. "Aspera normal."

Spock follows suit, placing it on the bench beside him.

"Are you okay?" McCoy wants to know, shuffling closer across the tilted deck. "You blacked out there for a minute when we hit."

Spock pushes to his feet and uses the bulkhead to steady himself. "I am unharmed."

The doctor ignores him, playing the tricorder over his body as he crosses to the cockpit screen. The mechanism is jammed, so he is forced to use a twisted part of the frame for leverage, throwing his whole body weight on it until it buckles and he can grip it with his hands. Going to his knees, he glances at McCoy. "Stand clear."

With that as the only warning, Spock puts his concealed Vulcan strength to good use and tears the screen from its fitting.

McCoy swallows a little nervously but inches forwards and plays his tricorder light over Spock's shoulder. Uhura lies slumped in her harness, the controls unlit and unresponsive under her hands.

"Now it's your turn to get out of my way," McCoy mutters, pushing past to angle the tricorder at her and place a hand on her carotid, because he's never been the kind of doctor who flirts with technology when his hands or his brain will do. "Unconscious but breathing," he informs the Commander without turning away. The tricorder bleeps and whirs as he detaches the neural scanner to search for possible CNS trauma. His face falls as the readings scroll across the screen. "It's no good," he announces. "She's got a significant subdural haematoma. Must have been a head strike on impact." He does turn then, perhaps to make sure Spock perceives how serious he is. "We shouldn't move her."

"Understood."

"I can do a few things to stabilize her, but we need to get her to a proper medical facility as soon as possible."

Spock turns away, using handholds to make his way to the port door which is angled up at the sky. "Stalwart, Stalwart, this is Spock, do you read?"

A burst of high-pitched static makes him yank the earbud out and press the heel of his hand in its place. A burn of bright orange light in his peripheral vision catches his attention. Lit up magnificently against the stormy sky, Nero's drill platform is busily eating away towards the heart of the planet Aspera. Communication is impossible.


-:-


Jim glances around the corner he's pressed up against, winces profoundly and pulls back into hiding.

"How many?" Watson is whispering even though very little sound carries outside their visors.
Remaining suited up is part of the plan, even if it had made crawling through all that systems conduit to the pressurized area of the platform more difficult, especially against the clock. They've got six minutes before Chekov gets up close and personal with the surface of Aspera.

"Four." It's more than they'd been hoping for and Jim watches the kid's face set in apprehension. "If you want to be the one who ..."

"No," Watson cuts him off sharply, swallowing his nervousness. "I can do this. Let's stick to the plan. It's a good plan."

"It's a ridiculous plan," Jim disagrees, "but it'll work."

Watson gives him a sharp look. "Well, that was inspirational."

Jim laughs, low and tight, but chucks the other guy on the shoulder. "You're all right, you know that?"

Watson snorts but gets down on the deck like they planned. It was an incredibly vulnerable way to face down people who wanted to kill you, but Jim had argued that gave Kenny the highest chance of survival. There's not much that's threatening about a five foot seven guy in an EVA suit crawling across the floor spouting rambling nonsense in your native language.

Jim surreptitiously crosses his fingers as Kenny worms his way into the Romulans' line of sight and then deliberately makes a noise to draw their attention. All four of Nero's soldiers leap to their feet, hands on weapons, but when Kenny scrabbles at the smooth deck and hauls himself another foot into the room using just his hands, they visibly relax. Two of them step forward cautiously and circle round, putting their backs to where Jim stands concealed, and seriously, these guys are dumb, because not one of them reports Kenny's appearance to whatever superior officer they have.

The only problem is, that leaves two soldiers between Jim and the airlock. Between them, he can see the green lit interior of their light attack vessel and frowns. He was afraid of this.
They question Kenny in Romulan and he replies in kind. Jim catches something rude about the Federation, something involving someone's aunt and a particularly nasty case of boils. Vulcan and Romulan might be similar languages but Vulcans just don't cuss people out so Jim is kind of lost. Still, all four Romulans look away from Kenny and share a grin, which is exactly the moment the two EPAS crew need.

Kenny flips onto his back and uses his legs to trip the two soldiers standing over him. Jim bursts out of cover and stuns them on his way past. One of the remaining Romulans is reaching for his disruptor, the other for a communicator. Jim gives one an elbow in the face as he sails between them, the other unable to shoot for fear of hitting his comrade. His hand makes the airlock release just as he empties all the remaining charge in his phaser into the atmospheric safeties. The Romulan ship detaches much more neatly than Nix, with a modest puff and a hiss, although decompression follows just as quickly. Needlessly, Jim holds his breath but this time lets the venting atmosphere suck him out after the ship.

He feels like a poorly aimed spitball, the forcefield-protected Romulan airlock slightly off-centre to his trajectory. There is only a split second to adjust with his suit controls, so he still collects the hull on the way in, hitting the far wall with jarring force. There's no time to collect himself, because like a seasoned pro, Watson has clipped in as they planned and is dangling and jerking at the end of his safety line as atmosphere and asphyxiating Romulans vent into space around him.

Their stolen vessel is not under power so it drifts lazily away from the platform, spinning slightly just to complicate things. Jim springs to his feet, ignores the sharp pain of what is probably a broken rib, gets all of three step's run up, clips his own line to the first thing he sees and launches himself back into space.

Watson's arms are outstretched, reaching for every last inch of distance he can get. If Jim were Spock, he'd already know if the stolen ship had moved too far away, if he was destined to hit the end of his own line like a fish on a hook, too far away to reach Kenny and bring him aboard. If that happens, they're kind of fucked and Chekov, too.

The last few meters tick away painfully, but then their chests slam together, Kenny's arms latching on as Jim reaches around with his laser to slice through the specialized cable just as he feels the tug on his own line that signals maximal play. They're yanked back towards their prize, laughing over the comms and slapping each other on the back. Still, time is running out, so they can't spare more than a second to celebrate being alive. Jim's line sucks them back towards the Romulan ship, the battle for Aspera suddenly more evenly weighted as several Vulcan ships blink into the system.

"Finally!" Jim sighs, knowing that some of the pressure will be taken off the Stalwart and they might, just might, be able to score a little cover fire as Watson rapidly deciphers the controls and their fleet little Romulan prize streaks towards the atmosphere, all the velocity and maneuvrability of future tech at their disposal. It's the first time Jim allows himself to hope they'll actually get to Chekov in time.


-:-


"Well, I say we stick together," McCoy insists stubbornly.

"Thankfully, this is not a democracy." Spock continues gathering supplies from the shattered contents of Nix's storage cupboards.

"You can't expect me to just leave her behind!"

"I expect you to follow orders."

"You green-blooded son of a bitch," McCoy hisses, stepping into Spock's way, hands balled to fists at his sides. "All the compassion in the world for complete strangers but none for your own crew. You want to leave Uhura here to take her chances? What about Chekov and Watson? Goddammit, Spock, what about Jim?"

Spock clenches his jaw, knowing that the doctor will notice his struggle for control and finding himself displeased by the lapse. "Their best chance for survival is bringing this confrontation to a swift and decisive conclusion, which can not be accomplished by sitting in this shuttle awaiting rescue."

"So, you're going out there to do what, precisely?"

Spock takes a moment to ensure his voice remains calm, level, unperturbed. "I will attempt to locate the nearest ..."

He doesn't get to finish that sentence because the shuttle interior is lit up by disruptor fire. Spock drops to a crouch and returns fire while McCoy wedges himself into the cockpit doorway and scrabbles for the emergency phaser under the console. Two more shots score Nix's interior from a new direction.

"Cover the starboard door," Spock orders. "Do not permit them to flank us."

McCoy tears the phaser from its holster and slides down the tilted deck, loosing one low-energy shot into the night just to show they're covered from his side. "What the hell do we do now?"

Spock blinks into the rain and the night, the muted glow of Aspera's twin moons yielding just enough light in addition to the drill to make his plan feasible. "Now," he says flatly, "you cover me."

"God damn it!" McCoy growls, flipping onto his stomach to shoot wide as Spock drops neatly out of the port door and sprints for the darkness and the trees.


-:-

"Gaila, for fuck's sake!" Jim shouts angrily. "Make sure the Vulcans have us flagged as friendly, too, will you?"

Copy that, she replies. I'm doing what I can.

Watson's hands are clenched around the yoke and his face is very white. "That was close."

"Try not to think about it too much," Jim advises. "We'll be into atmosphere before you know it."

"Yeah, about that," Kenny flicks him an anxious look. "This thing isn't going to handle very well in atmo."

"Just get me as close as you can."

"This is nuts," Watson argues, flipping them neatly around an incoming piece of wreckage. "Like, really, really nuts; just for the record."

Jim wishes he had something profound to say, something that would help Kenny make sense of it all, but all he can do is shrug. It's a crazy life and he has no excuses or explanations. Fact is, Chekov saved his ass more times than he could count on his Beta crew rotation and he'll be damned if he sees that brilliant mind and twisted sense of humor splattered over the planet they hoped would be a refuge from all this shit.

He keeps that thought firmly in his mind as he lines up for the jump. It doesn't shield him from the fear of reliving that day on Vulcan, from the flashbacks generated by the presence of the drill, or the gut-wrenching certitude that the planet below should be red not blue. What it does offer is a small kernel of peace, a centredness he lacked last time around. He didn't regret jumping for Sulu, but he'd had very little to live for at the time. Now, conversely, with so much to lose, Jim knows he couldn't live with himself if he didn't make the jump.

"Five seconds," Watson calls, and Jim can see Chekov's dark-suited figure against the clouds below.

"Four."

Jim braces himself.

"Three."

He swallows down the nausea.

"Two."

He pats the chute deployment cord on his EVA suit.

"One."

He thinks of Spock as he's thrown out into the sky.


-:-


Spock moves as quickly and silently as his EVA suit will allow. It speaks to a deep seated part of him, this careful stalking of his enemies, requiring some control to temper his responses. Still, there is no hatred in him, no anger. The situation presents as a practical exercise; at least two Romulan aggressors, last known location x and y, threat level unknown, intent unknown. Objective: disarm and subdue for questioning.

His memory alights on Odesyus, but that was a different time, one where he was most certainly out of control, not like this. He actually smiles into the night, dismissing that part of his emotional control because it is not a priority, managing his fear and his anger is far more important. He will concern himself later with the pleasure such situations afford, will question his ethics and his morality, will perhaps discuss it with Jim and seek his opinion.

There is no part of Spock that entertains the notion that Jim may be dead. He simply will not allow it. Even Vulcans can only deal with a finite number of harsh realities at one time and Spock has his fill here on the storm-ravaged surface of Aspera. Besides, grieving for a potential loss is illogical.

Cleverly, McCoy draws Romulan fire by poking his head into view. The blasts hiss and spit against Nix's hull, serving only to help Spock pinpoint their origin, the doctor's reflexes being well up to the task.

Spock circles carefully behind the first Romulan's position, using the crazed motions of storm-tossed foliage to disguise his approach. It is essential that he retain the element of surprise. Doing so requires that no weapons be discharged. A nerve pinch will serve his purpose, if only he can get close enough to effect that solution. One foot after the other, toe first then heel, ankles carefully turned out and legs braced for maximum balance, Spock reaches out his hand. Lightning flashes and the Romulan looks up.

Prepared for any eventuality, Spock strikes with his fingertips to the other's larynx, effectively silencing him. It leaves him open to the kick that knocks the wind out of him, but that is only to be expected. He calculates he has less than three seconds to subdue his opponent before some noise is made that alerts the other Romulan. Breathless, facing down the barrel of a disruptor for the second time in less than an hour and thoroughly without alternative, Spock does the counterintuitive thing and steps forward into the line of fire to use the element of surprise. The gambit allows him to stun his opponent at close range. Noise is a secondary concern now; he does not wish to take another life.

Of course, the sound of phaser discharge brings the other Romulan almost immediately. Spock drops to a crouch, one hand in the mud, coiled and deadly calm.


-:-


McCoy tenses at the whine of a phaser, shifts his shoulder against the corner of the floor and the door for another glance outside. This time, it draws no fire and he figures that means Spock has his hands full. Leonard debates with himself for a few seconds, Uhura's lack of protection warring with his inherent dislike of sitting there in the dark doing nothing while it's at least two against one for Spock. Finally, the distinctive thud of flesh against flesh and a shout of pain decides him.

McCoy slides down the hull and runs, hunched over and flooded with adrenaline towards the sound of fighting.


-:-


Klicks above the planet's surface, Jim watches as his trajectory slides from Asperan day into night. Chekov's suit is a dark shadow against an even darker backdrop, only the garish reflective striping doing anything to distinguish him. Jim grits his teeth and coaxes another burst of speed out of his suit's jets. He's low on fuel but the window left open to make this save is frighteningly narrow. His HUD flashes errors at him, redlining across the board. He planks his body, reducing drag, ducking his head down and trusting to the display in his visor for course correction. It works.

Within a minute, Chekov is almost within reach, his arms and legs splayed in an attempt to slow his freefall. Jim waits until the last possible second before looking up. They're so close to the ground he thinks he can count the individual leaves on the trees, wet and glinting with moonlight.

He slams into Chekov knocking them both into a tumble and pulls his chute instantaneously. They jerk upwards and the kid shifts in Jim's grip, scrabbling to keep a hold through two slick EVA suits. Jim wraps his legs around Chekov's waist, reaching up to haul on the attitude lines in a futile attempt to direct their landing. Wind grips the chute and swings them in a crazy, sickening arc. The orange burn of the drill platform is dangerously close. Lightning flashes, sparking in the whites of Chekov's eyes and momentarily blinds both of them. Jim hauls again, trying to break the spiral, but it's no good. At this point, they've probably lost enough speed to touch down in one piece. All they can do is hope the darkness offers up something softer than the cliffs in Jim's memory.


-:-


McCoy scowls into the rain and the wind, wishing he'd thought to slip on a pair of Point goggles before embarking on this suicide mission. His face is numb from cold, but if he could move his lips, he'd be cursing up a storm of his own. Damn fool Vulcan has to be a hero and now look what happens; Leonard in the dark, blind at a distance of more than a foot, clutching a pathetic EPAS phaser and up against who knows how many Romulans. What a joke.

He keeps up the inner monologue of vitriol because he's almost too angry to be terrified. What kind of operation are they running here, anyway? He didn't sign up for this. He has a kid and career and aspires to have a life, too, one of these days. To hell with ending it all at the business end of a Romulan distruptor on this rotten mud ball. He's a doctor, goddammit, not a...

A hand grips his shoulder and he leaps into the air. "Doctor."

"Son of a bitch, Spock!" McCoy howls, slapping his hand away. "You frightened the life out of me!"

"My apologies. However, there is a Romulan who requires medical attention and another who will soon be waking from the effects of a stun blast."

"I could have shot you!" he continues, furious and yet almost giddy with relief. "You should have warned me."

Spock tilts his head, calm as you like and replies, "I assumed you heard me approach."

"You assumed wrong!"

"Clearly."

McCoy wipes the rain out of his eyes with his fingertips and gestures at the ground with his phaser. "Lead the way and count yourself lucky I don't shoot you in the ass for taking years off my life."

Spock doesn't dignify that with a response, just turns and sets off into the night, forcing McCoy to move quickly over the slippery ground or lose him in the darkness. In fact, he's so busy concentrating on his footing that the sight of the first Romulan takes him by surprise. A shiver runs up his spine that has nothing to do with the cold. Spock stands watch, using his body as a shield against the weather while McCoy takes out his tricorder with clumsy hands.

"Well, he's alive," he says finally, because given his appearance that outcome was questionable. "But his core temperature is dangerously low. We need to get him warmed up or he's not going to make it."

Spock nods, firmly brushes the doctor aside and slings the battered Romulan over his shoulder as though the weight were nothing. "This way."

McCoy pushes off his stiff and muddy knees to trot obediently after him, infinitely glad that Spock is on their side.

The other Romulan is still out cold from the stun blast, face down and bubbling into the mud. McCoy fixes that with a hefty shove, revealing the green bruising to their hostage's larynx. A quick scan shows no lasting damage. He's in much better shape than the one draped over Spock's shoulder like some kind of victory sash.

"Doctor?"

"He'll be out for another few minutes from the stun alone, but I can give him something to keep him under for a while longer. I sure as hell can't carry him and you've got your hands full there."
Spock says nothing for a few moments and McCoy can just picture the 'thinking frown' on his face, blind as he is the near total darkness.

"That will not be necessary."


-:-


The first time Chekov tries to put weight on his right ankle he howls in agony, smothering the sound with his own hands, very aware of the Romulan presence. Jim offers a shoulder, some balance, and the kid takes it, gasping as though oxygen might take the pain away.

"I think it is broken," he sobs.

Jim looks around desperately at the uneven terrain. "Yeah, I think you're right."

"Well," the kid shudders one last time, "it could be worse; it could be your ankle broken and you are much too heavy for me to carry."

Jim tongues his bottom lip and laughs, shaking his head. "Shut up already, I've got a plan."

"If your last plan was jumping out of a perfectly good ship, I am not sure we will survive your next one."

Still laughing softly, they stagger into the lee of one of the larger boulders, blessedly cutting out the full force of the storm. Jim props Chekov against the cold stone and squints up at the sky, then down at his chrono. "Shit," he says vehemently.

"What?"

"We've got about ten minutes before that code you and Spock wrote rains down seven kinds of hell right where we're standing."

"Oh my god."

"My thoughts exactly. Come on," Jim ducks under Chekov's arm again, but pauses as a blip appears on his HUD. The crosshair falters and his stomach clenches, but then it's there again, even stronger.

"Do you see that?" Chekov asks softly, obviously receiving the same signal from within his suit.

"I sure do."

"What are the chances?" he grins, face still white from the pain.

Jim takes as much weight on himself as possible and takes the most direct route to Nix's homing beacon. "Spock can probably tell you to six decimal places when we get there."

"Oh, I look forward to it."

They continue on in much the same vein, trading jokes and anecdotes whilst slipping and sliding down the rocky incline. Jim knows they should be keeping a lower profile, but really, if they stumble into a group of Romulans there isn't a lot they can do about it with one nearly depleted phaser and a broken ankle between them. He has no choice but to trust that their luck holds and they make it to the shuttle undiscovered. At least the horrific weather will be doing as much to hinder their enemies. Thinking on that leads to mentally urging the storm on, willing it to rain harder, get colder, buffet them and spin them around. Nix's beacon is a bright blue glow on the horizon of his HUD, drawing gradually closer with each painful step. It's Jim's lodestone, his safe harbor. Chekov rattles on breathlessly about mother Russia and how he was playing barefoot in colder conditions than these. Jim responds, but all he can think of is Spock and Bones and Uhura, the brightness of the shuttle interior and two blessed seconds to close his eyes. God, to feel warm again! To give in to the shaking he can feel hiding at the base of his spine, wrapped in adrenaline and flashbacks of falling.

Chekov puts too much weight on his bad ankle and they're pulled to their knees. Gasping for breath, Jim is instantly hauling him upright, pressing another half dose of analgesia into his neck, working to keep him out of agony but also conscious.

"Thank you," Chekov manages between chattering teeth.

"No problem."

Jim knows it's cold, but it's not that cold within their insulated EVA suits. Chekov must be going in to shock. Resolutely, he tries to shoulder even more of the kid's slight weight and sets off again, feet slipping and sliding in the mud, barely finding enough purchase on the rocks and grass to propel them along. Chekov is no longer talking but his breath comes in harsh, shivering gasps over Jim's comm; they've left the channel between them open.

Time seems to lose all meaning. Jim's mind shuts down, piece by piece, function by function, until all he knows is the fall of each foot, the burn in his thighs, the biting cold eating away at his face because he's out of suit air and has to ditch his visor in order to breathe.

They fetch up against Nix's hull with a thud.

It takes Jim a moment to process the fact that he doesn't have to keep walking, that this isn't an obstacle to backtrack around, but their final destination instead. It has none of the warmth and light of his daydream, and is absent all of his friends. Chekov collapses to the ground with a squelch and Jim doesn't have the heart or the energy to lift him again. Instead, he clambers awkwardly into the listing shuttle, crash-landed on a thirty-something degree angle.

"Hello?" he calls, too loudly for the enclosed space.

Clumsy with cold, he sticks his head into the cockpit and finds it empty. Defeated and exhausted, he lets his cheek rest against the icy bulkhead and just breathes for a moment, relishing the absence of gale force winds in his face. It's marginally warmer here and he really should get Chekov inside and out of the rain. He should search for the right hypos to stabilize him, perhaps even a tricorder to diagnose that ankle and a knitter to mend the worst of it. He will, too, just as soon as his brain figures out how to talk to his legs.

"Jim?"

"Yeah Pavel, hang tight."

"No, someone is coming."

His overworked adrenals manage another jolt to his abused system. "Don't move! It's dark and they might not see you. I've got this."

Jim slips and slides his way with muddy boots to the port door, using the hull for cover as he searches for the movement that attracted Chekov's attention. He palms his phaser as a tall figure emerges into the flattened area created by the shuttle crash. Below his vantage, Chekov can't help but tense, knowing their chances of fighting off even a single Romulan with what's at their disposal. Jim waits, biding his time, hoping against all reason that the figure will deviate from its course, will pass them by into the night. No such luck.

He fingers the trigger on his phaser, sets it for highest stun; the only one that might work on a Romulan. It means only one shot so he's got to make it count, needs to see the points of his ears before the trigger gets pulled.

Only, when the points of those ears do resolve, so does the face and it's wonderfully familiar.
"Spock!"

The figure tilts its head. "Jim?"

"And Chekov, too," he confirms, clambering out of the shuttle, hands shaking with relief and the come-down. "What about the others?"

"Point six kilometers away, in a cave."

They stand for a second, just staring at each other. Jim feels a wave of raw feeling welling up inside him because Spock is alive! He's alive and so is everyone else. The strength of it threatens to overwhelm him, so he swallows it down and uses Nix's hull to steady himself. "Well, we better get moving because the weather is about to take a turn for the worse."


"I know."

Spock holds his eyes a moment longer before bending and lifting Chekov into his arms. It's impossible to tell in the dark, but Jim imagines his own tumultuous feelings were mirrored there.


-:-


McCoy stands over their two Romulan captives with a phaser in one hand and a medical tricorder in the other. The one who got on the wrong side of a fight with Spock had to be placed into a medically induced coma, being far too hypothermic to wake safely. The one who was stunned had woken up not two minutes ago and started snarling and cursing and thrashing around like a fish out of water. Leonard is ashamed to admit he slipped up in his panic and dosed him double, but he's still nursing the bruise he earned delivering that hypo so Spock can take it like a Vulcan and accept it's going to be a while before either Romulan is conscious.

Against his medical opinion, Spock had insisted on removing Uhura from the shuttle, so she lies carefully immobilized and covered with shock blankets in the warmest part of the cave. That leaves McCoy the only conscious person around, but he's still clutching the phaser like a lifeline, almost afraid to blink in case the little he knows about Romulan physiology proves false and one of them wakes to end him with their three-times human strength.

He's just talking himself down from the worst of his panic when a blinding flash illuminates the interior of the cave, hot white and laced with orange like the sun just took up residence at the entrance. It's followed by a tremendous boom that has him tearing his hands away from his eyes to cover his ears instead. It fades like a clap of thunder, rolling away into the distance, heard, no doubt, on the other side of the goddamn planet.

Boots shuffle behind him and McCoy's already racing heart skips a beat when he realizes he's dropped the phaser and put his back to the entrance in an instinctive attempt to hide from what can only be the wrath of gods.

Luckily, it's only Spock returning from the shuttle, laden with not only all the supplies he could carry, but also Chekov and trailing Jim in his wake.

"What the hell was that?" he demands, stooping to retrieve his fallen tricorder and making a beeline for Chekov.

"Weather satellites did the trick," Jim rasps, his voice ruined from shouting over the wind. "Shut down the drill platform."

"How?" McCoy demands, but doesn't take his eyes from Chekov as Spock lays him out carefully on a piece of sandy floor.

Jim waves a hand airily, Leonard can't see it, but he knows. "With weathery weather stuff," he coughs. "You know."

Spock catches the doctor's eye. "We utilized the weather satellites' electrical capacity to exponentially increase the static charge held within the storm system and then overloaded the drill's electromagnetic containment field causing a feedback loop that has a seventy two point five percent chance of having completely destroyed the drill itself rather than simply shutting it down."

"Lighting," Jim explained. "We zapped it with lightning."

McCoy looks over just in time to see Jim make gun hands before sliding down the wall in a heap of exhaustion. He turns to Spock. "Chekov will be fine, and those other two will be out for at least an hour," he says, and it's tacit permission of the kind that a superior officer shouldn't need, but Spock is funny about the points where emotion overlaps his sense of duty. And yes, he might shift a little to observe as Spock finally focuses on Jim, but some of his interest is medical. As for the rest, it's not a crime to care, whatever Vulcans have to say on the matter.

So it is that McCoy is the only one paying attention when Spock kneels and carefully gathers Jim to his chest, head bowed, eyes wide open and staring at nothing even as Jim's close in relief and his hands grip the Commander's EVA suit tightly. They don't move for a long time. McCoy makes himself look away.

 

 

Chapter Text

Jim takes it as a measure of how concerned Spock is that he has to stir first, to gently disentangle them even if he can't bring himself to break all contact. He keeps his hands on Spock's arms like a point of reference. "With the drill taken out, we should be able to use transporters," he says forcing the words past his abused throat and reluctance to shatter the moment.

Spock nods, rests his head briefly against Jim's, the action shielded from McCoy by his shoulders. "A reasonable assumption. The sooner it is safe to wake either of our hostages, the sooner we may begin to understand Nero's rationale for attempting to destroy Aspera."

Over Spock's shoulder, Jim can see Bones turn away, giving them some privacy as he works on Chekov. Knowing that they're unwatched gives him the courage to press a quick, hard kiss to Spock's lips. The skin is cold and the contact is too fleeting for a response, but his hands hands return Jim's pressure and it's enough. "I thought he's always after future tech."

"According to the information provided by Prime, Nero has never before broken off a previous military engagement to attend a spatial anomaly. It could be mere coincidence, but may imply some unique importance to the temporal rift surrounding this planet."

"Is he trying to get home?" Jim wonders.

"Unlikely, given that Romulus is destroyed in his universe; I fail to comprehend the appeal of returning. Such a goal would not be rational."

"You may have noticed that those of us with less immaculate control of their emotions can be irrational at times," he smiles, finally feeling the first glimpse of heat from Spock's body begin to seep into his EVA suit via proximity.

Spock's lips twitch in response but there is too much lingering anxiety in his eyes for it to break through further. "Indeed, although some more than others."

"Hey," he admonishes softly, surprised at the tenderness in his own voice.

With one last press of a glove against Jim's cheek, Spock straightens and turns to McCoy. "Your recommendation on the use of transporters, doctor?"

Bones twists on his knees, still working on Chekov. "Uhura and the whiz kid here are good to go, as is the Romulan you stunned and I drugged. The other one, however, I wouldn't like to mix up his molecules anymore than you've already done with your fists. Hardlock transfer would be the safer option, but if it's beaming or nothing, then..." he shrugs, "lesser of two evils, I suppose."

Spock nods and thumbs his comm. "Stalwart, this is Spock, please respond."
Jim opens his own comm to the widest band, listening to the public channel for a hint of response from above.

Spock! Your signal is distorted, transmit your co-ordinates, Gaila says almost immediately, her transmission filled with static and ultrasonic whines.

The Commander glances around the cave, pulls his tricorder and scans the rock. "Potassium rich," he informs them. "Similar in composition to those that shield the proposed Aid Camp. Achieving a clear signal in here is unlikely." Pocketing the tricorder and palming his phaser, Spock strides to the cave mouth and disappears into the easing storm.

"Goddammit," Jim curses under his breath. "Why can't he wait for back-up?"

"Jim, you're in no condition ..." McCoy starts.

"None of us are," he shoots back, hauling himself upright on leaden legs. "What choice do we have?" He doesn't wait for a reply, just switches his phaser to a mid-range stun so he's got more than one shot and edges out into the gradually dissipating storm to provide the cover Spock is apparently willing to do without.

The destruction of the drill platform has destabilized the storm system to a point where there is even a patch of star-spattered sky on view, although the wind has gone crazy, buffeting from alternating directions as high and low pressure pockets vie for equilibrium. If only Nero hadn't redesigned the drill to be independent of the Narada after Vulcan, Jim calculates the charge might even have damaged the impressive ship herself. Instead, the dust is still rising from where the spiked cable and gravity buoy have crashed to earth, obscuring the twin moons and darkening the sky to the west even further, blacker than true night.

Spock has clambered up to crouch between two boulders at the apex of the cave mouth, sensible eno