Chapter One: The Complexity of Touch
The harsh situation on Primidius had injured many souls on the Enterprise over the past two weeks of relief efforts, but perhaps the one person who had been affected the most was the least capable of showing that hurt. It was one thing to witness the near-fall of an entire civilization, to beam down into a blazing ruin of a once-pristine world. It was another thing altogether to be able to sense the death screams of millions of untrained psi-sensitive minds and the pounding regret and agony of millions more. To directly experience an echo of the fall of another world, to relive the memory of the loss of billions in a split second of mind-numbing horror.
Spock had coordinated and led the landing parties for the Enterprise, had seen and experienced first-hand the devastation, and no one had thought to consider what the effects of the grim work would be on the Vulcan’s sensitive telepathy until Spock, having requested a routine beam-up, promptly collapsed in the transporter room. Jim, forced by Starfleet order to remain on the ship during the operation, had been called down to sickbay from the bridge, and had run the entire way.
M’Benga had moved the Vulcan into one of the isolation rooms, away from the bustle and noise of the overflowing sickbay, and had met Jim outside the sealed door, the captain still breathless.
“He’s conscious, Captain, but in an almost unresponsive state.” M’Benga looked exhausted, they all did, but his eyes were uncharacteristically full of worry.
“What happened? Is he injured?” Jim made an aborted movement towards the door, but M’Benga shifted, blocking his path.
“We didn’t…I didn’t think to consider the inhabitants’ psi-active signature. They barely even consider themselves telepaths, don’t consciously use their abilities, but in a disaster like this, their minds would have been screaming. His mental shields would have helped, at first, but… .” The doctor glanced down. “After Vulcan, this may have been too much.”
Jim stared at the door, every instinct telling him to go inside. He felt something like panic licking at the edges of his mind; panic and sickening realization, remembering Spock’s expression when he had beamed up from the disintegrating surface of Vulcan, the silence and grief and shock in sickbay immediately following. And, since then, he would occasionally find his first officer standing alone on the observation deck, staring out at the stars, holding his hands slightly out at his sides in the Vulcan display of grief. Jim knew better than perhaps anyone Spock’s intimate knowledge of personal loss, the lingering desolation hidden beneath formidable shielding. Ever since Jim’s own death, Spock had gravitated closer to him, and Jim would sometimes perceive the Vulcan’s intense gaze as reassurance that Jim himself had not gone.
M’Benga was direct. “Don’t touch him, Captain. You can try talking to him, but keep your distance. I’m going to try to let him come out of this himself, and there’s some medication we can try, eventually, but don’t stress him further.”
“Okay.” Jim nodded impatiently, and some part of him wondered why he was so damn scared. The doctor turned to key in the sequence, and the captain stepped through immediately, waiting until the door had shut behind him before slowly approaching the biobed in the center of the small room.
Spock was laying on the bed, still in his uniform, rumpled from being worn under the containment suit, dark eyes staring directly up at the ceiling. In the sudden presence of his unresponsive first officer, the panic and fear at the edges of Jim’s thoughts surged, and he balled his hands into fists, remembering M’Benga’s instructions. He opened his mouth, knowing that he should say something, that he was Spock’s closest friend, that if anyone could prompt the Vulcan back to himself, it would be Jim. But the words wouldn’t come, they sounded inane and insufficient in Jim’s mind, and he closed his mouth.
There was something that M’Benga did not know, that no one really did, except for probably Nyota and maybe Bones. That Spock didn’t mind Jim’s touch, the human’s naturally tactile expression, his casual brushes and playful nudges. That, after Khan, the Vulcan would even reciprocate. In the privacy of the captain’s quarters after shift, with a chessboard between them, Spock would occasionally offer the barest touch on Jim’s arm or shoulder. And once, after a particularly grueling mission, he had even placed his hand on the back of Jim’s neck as Jim had sat, head bowed, at his desk, shoulders slumped in fatigue. The captain remembered that touch in particular, remembered the heat from Spock’s skin, and the low buzz of gentle feeling that had finally lulled him into sleep.
Jim took a breath and then exhaled, loud in the small room. He glanced furtively at the door and then made up his mind, stretching out a hand and gently letting it rest on Spock’s, feeling the smooth skin and the familiar warmth. Wake up. Jim let his fingers tighten, curling around Spock’s, and tried to project safety and affection to his friend. Come on, Spock. I need you to wake up. There was no response, and the panic threatened again, and Jim brought his other hand up, fully clasping his friend’s. He closed his eyes and pictured the sanctuary of their relationship, and the deep-seated feelings of brotherhood and understanding that always flowed so easily between them. Jim let his mind wander, concentrating solely on the sensation of Spock’s hand in his, hoping to provide an anchor, a way for his friend to find his way back from the psychic trauma. I need you.
A sudden surge of powerful emotion, so intense as to be indecipherable, welling up from somewhere, cascaded through Jim’s mind like a livewire, and the ragged gasp from the Vulcan on the bed made the human jump and pull his hands away. Spock’s eyes blinked rapidly, finally focusing as his head turned slightly, and, as his gaze met the captain’s, there was an expression on the Vulcan’s unguarded face and in his eyes that made the breath catch in Jim’s throat. Something open, and astonished, and searching, and the strength and unexpectedness of it made the captain step back, confused and almost wary. With his movement, Spock’s expression dissolved back into impassivity and, if the dark eyes still held that depth of inexplicable emotion, Jim could no longer see it, as the Vulcan turned his head away.
An awkward silence, odd between them, stretched, and Jim cleared his throat. “Are you okay?”
Spock’s voice was slightly rough, but firm. “My shields are now functioning properly, Captain. Thank you.”
The door slid open to admit M’Benga, shooting Jim a look as he passed the captain and moved to his patient’s side. Jim opened his mouth to ask something else when the comm whistled, and Nyota’s voice paged him to the bridge.
“He’ll be fine, Captain. I’ll keep you informed.” M’Benga’s tone was clipped and dismissive and Spock had not turned his head. Reluctantly, Jim left.
Three weeks later Jim found him again standing on the forward observation deck, hands out at his sides, staring at the stars. Spock did not turn at the sound of the door sliding open and shut to admit the captain, he did not move as Jim murmured a command to engage the security lock, and he did not betray any indication that he was aware of Jim’s presence, even as the human came to stand next to him. Ever since Primidius, Spock had kept his distance, and Jim had found himself missing his friend. Missing his touch.
Jim watched his first officer’s profile, softly lit by the whirling colors of warpspace, at the angles of Vulcan gentled by more human lines, at upswept brows and precisely cut hair, at Vulcan ears and human eyes. Jim clasped his hands behind his back, his thoughts lingering on the uniqueness of his friend. “You’re not alone, you know.”
There was no movement, and Jim silently looked out into space, wondering if his presence might be imposition enough. It was without warning that Spock’s reply came, his voice low, barely audible, “I am not alone, in the human sense. But in the Vulcan sense, I am quite alone. I cannot feel what remains of my people, with the distance between us, and my mind existed in silence behind essential shielding. The screams of Primidius were…difficult. They were a sudden and overwhelming noise and press of emotion. However, I find, illogically, that now that the silence has returned, it is almost more difficult to bear.”
Jim’s hands tightened behind him. “Why?”
There was a slight hesitation, and Spock’s arms moved to cross over his chest. “For a Vulcan, it is quite shameful to admit to such weakness as a desire for touch, of a mind or otherwise. After my planet fell, I was forced to shield against the effects of the loss of the psionic background of my people. The events on Primidius forced that mental awareness back to the forefront, and I experienced again what was lost. I find myself now…yearning for connection.”
“For a human, touch is necessary, not something shameful.”
“I am not human.”
“I know.” Jim licked his lips, bowing his head slightly. “So you keep reminding me.”
“I apologize.” Spock’s reply was too quick.
“Don’t.” Jim’s retort was just as rapid, and he looked intently at his friend. “If you need me, I’m here.”
The Vulcan looked down, and Jim turned fully to face him, reaching out and gripping his shoulders deliberately. Dark eyes rose, and Jim saw something deeply reflected there before Spock blinked, and it was gone. But the corners of Spock’s mouth lifted, just slightly, and the human smiled back, hoping his friend could feel his certainty through their simple contact.
The air on Klijster’s World was crisp and light, scented with the refreshing fragrance of snow and the native evergreen flora, chilled and practically sparkling. Jim raised his arms over his head, eyes closed behind his sunglasses, and shouted exuberantly into the clear air, his voice echoing among the surrounding peaks.
Jim opened his eyes and turned, a playful smile on his face, regarding his thoroughly bundled first officer. “Emotions are better out than in, right?”
The captain could barely see the dark eyebrow rise underneath the hat pushed down almost to the tops of the Vulcan’s own sunglasses. “Quite the contrary.”
Jim made an exasperated noise, moving past his friend and over to the short trail back to their cabin. The captain heard Spock turn to follow him, and allowed himself a small sigh. Six weeks had passed since they had departed Primidius, allowing the hospital ships and diplomats to take over. And, despite Jim’s assurances that night on the observation deck, Spock had remained slightly distant, apart. They still met for almost nightly games of chess and discussions of ship’s business, sometimes talking well into gamma shift, but Spock had retreated somewhat, his expression invariably impassive, his voice a careful monotone. However, Jim would sometimes turn to catch dark eyes on him, intently, or hear Spock hesitate before speaking, as if he might have been about to say something different. It was almost as if the Vulcan was waiting, or searching for something that he was not prepared to ask for openly. And Spock had not touched him, not once, since waking in sickbay with Jim’s hands on his.
Jim listened to the crunch of snow beneath their boots, remembering a late dinner in the deserted mess two weeks back and Nyota shaking her head when he had told her he was going to ask Spock along on this shore leave.
“He won’t go, Jim. Besides the fact that it’s cold there, and he wants to supervise the new install, he won’t allow himself to… .” She had abruptly broken off, focusing completely on her bowl of fruit.
“What? Let go?” Since Spock and Nyota had become more friends than lovers, the captain had started to truly enjoy the banter he and the communications officer had always shared over their favorite topic of conversation.
She had snorted. “Something like that.” She had pressed her lips together and leaned back in her seat, staring at the captain like she wanted to say more. Or hit him with something.
Jim had taken a deep breath. “Nyota, he’s hurting. I can tell he’s hurting, and I can feel him shutting down. After Primidius, and everything else, I want to be able to talk to him, spend some time with him, away from the ship. I think it might help.”
“Look, Jim.” Her voice had been suddenly serious. “If you can’t figure this one out on your own, I’m probably the last person who should be helping you. But, as things stand now, I can’t see him agreeing to go with you.”
He had tried to push for more, but she had refused to discuss it further and he had pushed the cryptic conversation from his mind, caught up in actually convincing Spock to accompany him. Jim had been persistent in arguing against every one of Spock’s logical refusals, to no avail, and had finally, with less than three days to go, decided to try a different strategy, remembering his friend’s admission about needing touch, about seeking a connection. They had lingered over a chessboard in Jim’s quarters, and the captain had opened a bottle of wine that he had been gifted during his recovery from the Khan affair. Spock had indulged him in this, knowing that most anything from that period of time was not something Jim wished to experience alone.
They had drunk the entire bottle, together, and their conversation had drifted to human relationships. Jim had talked of their friendship, emphasizing its importance to him, and had asked Spock to join him on shore leave once more, reaching out and touching the top of the Vulcan’s hand gently where it lay on the tabletop. He remembered how Spock’s eyes had widened as their skin touched, remembered how the dark gaze had grown even more intense. And then, carefully, almost tentatively, the Vulcan had turned his hand over, allowing their palms to touch. Jim had felt a stirring in his mind, then, almost as if his thoughts were brushed as softly as his hand. And then the corners of Spock’s mouth had lifted slightly, and he had answered, “Yes, Jim. I would be honored to accompany you.”
Surprised, but elated, Jim had given his friend a blinding grin, gripping the Vulcan’s hand briefly before releasing it and leaning back, and the small smile on Spock’s lips had remained until they had parted that evening.
Now, Jim smiled to himself as he pushed open the cabin door and walked in, Spock following. They worked to divest themselves of their winter outerwear, placing boots and coats next to the travel bags they had brought in upon arrival and Jim finally stood up straight, eyeing his friend. Spock’s cheeks, nose, and ear tips were pale green, and his hair was disarrayed from the hat. He was wearing a thick, black sweater over jeans and gray socks, and his expressive eyes held a slight hint of disbelief, as if he couldn’t quite understand how he found himself in this situation. Jim’s grin widened, and he reached forward to slap his friend on the shoulder. “C’mon, I’ll make you some hot tea.”
The captain made his way to the small kitchen, and found an old-fashioned pot, filling it with water and setting it on the heating unit. When he turned around, Spock was standing stiffly just inside the doorway from the living area, his hands clasped behind his back. If he didn’t know better, Jim would say that the Vulcan appeared nervous. Spock had remained overly quiet throughout their journey on the civilian transport from the starbase to the resort, and then on the long air taxi ride up to the cabin.
“Hey.” Jim tilted his head. “You okay? Not regretting coming, are you?”
“Negative.” Spock’s reply was almost too quick, and he seemed to gather himself. “I am simply…uncertain as to the requirements of this type of interaction.”
Jim laughed, turning to rummage through the cupboards for mugs and pulling a box of teabags out of the grocery satchel. “It’s just me, Spock. We interact all the time. What’s different about this?”
Spock’s eyebrow lifted. “It is more significant, presently, is it not?”
Jim frowned slightly, pouring hot water over the two teabags. “Um, I guess. I’ve never asked anyone to come on shore leave with me before, just the two of us. I mean, Bones doesn’t count; he usually spends most of his leave passed out or hanging out in the bar.” He chuckled shortly. “He gives me shit for running around, but there’ve been leaves when I could barely get into my room because he’s had a fucking sock on the door twenty-four-seven.” He raised his head, and saw the line formed between slanted brows. “Sorry, just, you know, yeah, it’s significant.” He smiled, pushing a mug across the counter towards the Vulcan. “I’m glad you’re here, Spock.”
Spock took two steps forward, unclasping his hands to reach for the mug, the warmth in his eyes answer enough.
Much later, Jim sprawled on the couch in front of the fire, his hair damp from a shower, wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt and cradling a mostly-empty glass of brandy in his hand. He had started drinking as he watched Spock prepare the meal, and had continued, enjoying the freedom of knowing that a red alert was impossible, and that his responsibilities were light-years away. He reached over to the low table in front of the couch and refilled his glass, settling back and swirling the liquid in front of him, admiring the golden-brown hues. He felt warmed, both inside and out. Spock had finally relaxed somewhat over dinner and conversation, and had even initiated touch again, brushing his hand against Jim’s back as he helped clear the table, and pressing two fingers to the inside of Jim’s wrist in a deliberate gesture after the captain had praised the food for the seventh time, before heading off to the shower.
Jim sipped the liquor, leaning his head back, feeling deeply contented and hopeful that, whatever darkness lingered, this time together would be beneficial to the Vulcan, and for himself, as well. He couldn’t deny a strong sense of satisfaction that Spock had agreed to accompany him, knowing that the Vulcan trusted him, and valued his company. Jim was aware of his own deeply hidden longing to be needed, to be indispensable to someone, and Spock’s willingness to shed his Vulcan inscrutability and distance, with him, fulfilled that craving, without the dangers that usually befell human relationships. Jim did not have to make excuses for his duty or justify his own faults, and, most importantly, he did not have to explain his inability to admit to love to a person who also, he believed, could not, or would not, do the same.
When he heard the soft sounds of footsteps from the bedrooms, Jim barely turned his head, simply raising a hand and gesturing towards the table. “Help yourself, Mr. Spock. Captain’s orders.”
There was the slightest hesitation, and then Jim heard the clink of glass and the gurgle of liquid being poured before Spock sat next to him on the couch.
“I believe I recall you insisting that military protocol be dispensed with, Jim.”
It took a moment for the words to pierce Jim’s pleasant buzz, and then he laughed out loud, turning to take in his first officer, dressed in black pants and a long-sleeved white tunic, holding the glass of brandy carefully in cupped hands, his head tilted.
“Well, most of it, anyway.” Jim shook his head, still chuckling, feeling the warm sensation of the liquor extend across his body and having the random thought that it had been a long time since he had sex.
Spock had turned his head to look into the fire, and Jim found himself staring at his friend’s profile, at the dark hair, meticulously combed and shining, at the exotic point of his ear and the long curve of his throat, at the arched brow and the smoothly shaven skin of his jawline. Shaking himself internally, Jim forced his gaze back to his glass.
Next to him, Spock drained his liquor in one smooth gulp, raising both eyebrows as he swallowed and placed the glass on the table. “Fascinating.”
“What?” Jim glanced back over, watching with overt amusement as Spock shifted on the cushions, leaning back and poorly approximating Jim’s slouch.
“My metabolism allows for rapid processing of alcohol, however, I find I still transiently experience the desired effects.”
“You’re drunk?” Jim couldn’t keep the curiosity out of his voice.
“No. But I am compromised. I am warm, which is agreeable. I am also finding it more difficult to regulate my telepathy.”
Jim chuckled and leaned over to refill Spock’s glass, watching as the Vulcan picked it up and studied it before taking another generous swallow. “Can you feel what I’m thinking right now?”
An almost eager expression slipped across Spock’s eyes before he answered, “No. To lower my shields in that way without your knowledge would be a breach of trust.”
Jim grunted, taking another sip of his drink.
Dark eyes searched Jim’s face. “However, I would be honored to have your thoughts, Jim.”
Jim swallowed, grimacing as he felt the burn of the brandy down his throat. “Why?”
The line in between Spock’s brows returned. “Forgive me. As I stated earlier, I am uncertain of the requirements for this… .”
“This type of interaction. Yeah, I remember.” Jim furrowed his brow. “Spock, what type of interaction are you talking about?”
The Vulcan’s expressive eyes reflected confusion. “You do not wish for our relationship to deepen?”
“Uh… .” Jim blinked in surprise and made a slight face as he tried to recall his exact wording when he had asked Spock to join him for leave.
“In your quarters you touched my hand, and in doing so offered your thoughts to me. At that time I could sense your desire to… .”
“To… .” Realization suddenly dawned and Jim sat upright, his face coloring. “Oh, shit.” He remembered that touch in his quarters, innocent enough between human friends, but to a Vulcan, apparently meaning something completely different.
Spock actually flinched. “I sensed that you wished our interactions to change. That you feel strong affection for me.” He paused. “That you wished for a sexual component.”
Well aware that his musings of a few moments past were indeed exactly of that nature, Jim bit his lip, feeling a wave of panic as he recalled Spock’s own discrete touches earlier that night, freely offered after so many weeks of reticence. He stammered out a reply, “Um, yeah, I probably had a little too much to drink that night… .” His voice trailed off and he mentally kicked himself for his libidinous subconscious.
Spock’s demeanor and posture had shifted completely into Vulcan impassivity. “I ask forgiveness for any offense. I did not understand.”
“It’s okay. I mean, it’s just sex.” Jim’s awkward chuckle faded as he looked into dark eyes utterly devoid of expression.
“Vulcans do not engage in casual intercourse. I misunderstood your invitation here as an overture to pursuing a bonding between us, which I was amenable to.”
“A bonding?” Jim’s mouth fell open. “Like a permanent bond?”
Spock merely looked at him and Jim shook his head helplessly. “You can’t be serious! We’re friends. We’re, we’re… .”
“We are t’hy’la.”
Jim pushed his shock and confusion away as he tried to regain control of the situation, brushing past the unfamiliar word, his voice firm. “We’re friends. Spock, I asked you here because I was worried about you, after what happened on Primidius. You pulled away, from me, from Nyota, from everyone. You didn’t…you told me that you wanted a connection that you didn’t have and couldn’t ask for and I wanted to help.” He inwardly cursed the half-empty decanter of brandy.
Spock’s gaze dropped to his hands, resting on his knees, before raising his eyes to meet Jim’s again. “Your touch was out of pity?”
“Out of caring!” Jim burst out. “I care about you. You’re the closest…well, you’re my brother, my friend.” He saw Spock swallow and rushed forward. “Of course I feel strong affection for you. Very strong. You’re the most important…I feel… .” He blushed furiously, feeling trapped, his voice coming out sharper than he intended. “I’m not going to fuck that up by fucking you.”
“I understand.” Spock smoothly rose to his feet. “I believe I shall take my leave.”
“Wait!” Jim stood, too, his glass forgotten on the table. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…I don’t want this to...I don’t want to lose you over something like this.” His voice had a frantic note to it. “I can’t lose you.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Spock lowered his eyes again, his voice quiet. “You will not lose me, Jim. This was a cultural misunderstanding, nothing more.”
He turned to go, and Jim raised his hands. “Spock, wait! What is t’hy’la?”
The Vulcan stopped, his posture drawing up to be even stiffer than before. Jim could see the tension across his shoulder blades. “It is not presently important. Good night.”
Jim watched him leave, watched the long lines of his body disappear into his bedroom, and heard the door shut definitively. “Fuck.” Jim stood by himself, his mind racing over every word of their conversation, over what Nyota had said, weeks before, over Spock’s unexpected acceptance of Jim’s invitation and the Vulcan’s fleeting smile. Jim had touched Spock’s hand, and it had meant something. And Spock had touched Jim’s thoughts, however briefly, and seen something. It didn’t make sense: if Spock had seen only alcohol-inspired lust and affection, however deep, between friends, he would never have assumed that Jim meant to pursue a committed relationship. And that unfamiliar word obviously had some significance.
Jim couldn’t shake the impression that he had somehow allowed this to happen, even though a romantic involvement was perhaps the absolute last place Jim would consciously want to take them. He had not, before this, even considered it, having too long of a personal history of one-night stands and casual flings, liaisons pursued for selfish reasons and the ever-present awareness of moving on. The captain turned to stare into the fire, some instinctive part of him rebelling against the very idea. To have what was between them, which was already the most important relationship of his life, be soiled by the frivolities of physical sex, of jealousy and unbalanced needs, of unfulfilled wishes and the looming threat of indifference.
No, he amended to himself, shoulders slumping, understanding that it wasn’t just that. It was his long-buried, seldom-faced fundamental certainty that love, in that way, only led to a bitter ending and the sick vacuum of loss. He saw his mother’s eyes, always touched by pain. He remembered the screams of Tarsus, as families were torn apart, the tears of his friends after Nero’s slaughter, seeing Gaila’s face, now forever lost. Seeing Bones’ pained expression when his ex-wife was mentioned, and, perhaps most of all, recalling the utter grief and loneliness that hovered beneath the thoughts of another Vulcan, displaced from his own universe, witness to the destruction of his planet, yet still, beyond that, carrying a lingering emotional wound that Jim knew had come from the loss of someone beloved.
He bowed his head, suddenly feeling shame and self-loathing and anger all mixed together, knowing that his stunned reaction had probably hurt his friend. Spock had admitted that he himself was amenable to a bonding between them; perhaps he had been all along, and even Nyota had seen it. Jim remembered the satisfied look on her face before they had all parted ways back on the ship and cringed. Of course she had seen it. And damn her for not warning him.
He allowed himself to fall back onto the couch again, and turned his head to watch the fire, slowly dying down into glowing coals. He had a headache already, the internal warmth and contentment from earlier vanishing with his friend’s presence. He lay there for uncounted minutes, his thoughts spinning in circles, and finally, his eyes drifted shut and he slept.