When he'd been a small child, James Kirk had had a beautiful golden bird - a yellow-coloured Golden Pheasant. He spent many hours watching the bird strut around his enclosure (it was a he, for the females of the species were a very ordinary dull brown and dunn colour), primping his plumage in a wild display designed to impress. Jim loved to see the sunlight reflecting off the multitude of colours in the bird's feathers. He would always remember the distinct mating call - a whistling and cheeping which would have wooed the transporter control on a starship, accompanied by an impressive display of its orange-gold and black neck ruff.
Much as he delighted to watch his pet, and fed him the right supplements and seeds, small insects and lizards and so forth; much as he took exceptional care of the animal, and did his best for his comfort, keeping his dwelling clean and sweet-smelling; much as he cooed and petted the brightly coloured feathers, Jim always felt sad for the beautiful bird. For the golden bird was caged, his wingtips clipped, his movements limited, constrained, imprisoned. And being so snared he was unable to leave to seek a mate. Jim had no doubt that the bird was lonely, exiled from his own kind - a lovely creature, but his psyche a black hole of aching isolation.
Jim vividly remembered how the pain of watching the bird had caught in his chest, even as a five year old. One day it had all become too much, and a compassionate and teary child had struggled to get the cage outside before releasing the bird to the wild. It would be too much for him to have remembered the bird sailing away on the breeze - for pheasants aren't able to fly far, especially this one with his clipped wings. But Jim had watched until the bird disappeared into the copse of trees behind the house. It didn't matter that his grandmother had been cranky with him, reprimanding him. And he felt only a little bit guilty when she told him in freeing the bird he had probably condemned the defenceless creature to his death as he'd been raised in captivity. In the young mind of Jim Kirk, at least his golden friend had had a chance to be free and happy, even if only for a short time.
Over the years to come Kirk often reflected on the memory of the golden bird. Shortly after the release, his mother had returned from space, hooked up with some man in a bar, and married him - all within the eight weeks of shore leave her ship had been allotted as it went through a partial refit. From the moment Jim had laid eyes on Frank, he'd felt like a bird caught by the fowler. And as usual his gut instinct had proven only too trustworthy. His mother returned to her ship, leaving Jim with this new stepfather, a man who appeared to hate him. Seeds were planted in Jim's tender soul, which blossomed over time into resentment, self-loathing, and a roiling anger. It was no accident he became the only 'genius-level serial offender' in Iowa: a golden bird with bright blue eyes, trapped in a cage of limitations, the scarring and old wounds scabbed over to become an entrapping mesh.
Oh sure, he pursued his education - his intelligence was unrelenting, and he was driven, almost against his own designs, to pursue academic excellence. It was not for nothing he had two Masters degrees and was about to submit his PhD at the time of the Riverside bar fight which changed his life.
But his intelligence was a double-edged sword. For it too was interwoven in the bars of his cage. He became only too aware of his own limitations; he could see the potential of what could be - that's why he didn't believe in no-win scenarios. It seemed there was no way to smash through to that new level of being and awareness. While he threw himself with a sense of frustration into risky endeavours precisely to test those limitations, he never felt he made much progress. And so like his old friend from childhood, the soul of Jim Kirk danced on the edge of a swirling vortex of darkness, despair, and pain. Once again, golden beauty concealed an aching emptiness which longed for freedom, light, love and connection.
Oh sure, he hid it well, tried to fill the sink hole with plenty of meaningless sex - he never stayed the night, never saw a girl twice. A large part of him despised this abuse of his sexuality, and despised himself for engaging in it this way. An even larger part of himself truly believed he wasn't worthy of anyone's love. Who'd want to love, who'd even be able to love, the darkness and pain which he sank into when things were bad and he thought no one was looking? Sometimes he managed to dull the pain with alcohol and picking a fight - the subsequent hangover, bruises and cuts were worth it.
He hid it well: promiscuity was a cover, a deliberate cover. It went well with his natural extroversion, his projected air of "Jim Kirk has everything under control". Only he didn't.
Bones was the first real friend he ever made. (Why was it that that one week had prompted the biggest changes, the most significant turning points in his life?) The medic's depressive sarcasm and biting but playful banter suited Jim's outlook perfectly. It was lucky the Academy had allowed them to room together. And over the three intense years of their training, Leonard McCoy had become Jim's trusted confidant. While there were some soul-secrets he didn't give to Bones, there was not much about Jim, his past life, or his current struggles that McCoy didn't know.
He looked over at his friend now as they sat around the vast negotiating table, having just had dinner. Bones was deep in conversation with the petite female perched beside him. He smiled to himself: trust Bones to be flirting, even with a species whose physiology was known to be sexually incompatible with that of humanoids. It didn't take a genius to figure Bones' efforts were having an effect: the feathers of the female's bib - usually a bright green - were turning a vivid red. Jim hoped the female wasn't mated, for McCoy's sake, and for the sake of diplomatic relations. The last thing they needed after several failed and rapidly aborted missions was yet another diplomatic row because a member of the Enterprise's crew had managed to hit on an unavailable being.
So... golden birds. What had made him think again of his childhood friend? That's right, Jim reminded himself. There really was something odd about the look of these avianoids, something which reminded him of his Golden Pheasant. Perhaps it was the plume of their tail-feathers? Or the quality - albeit deeper and more haunting - of their amusement, which was so similar to the mating call of his pet? Whatever it was, it had him thinking of his own bird, of his decision to release it. And inevitably it got him thinking about his own condition, his feeling that he was a golden bird in a cage, some of which was his own making, some of which was of Starfleet's design.
God, but he hated these diplomatic missions. It was like having his wings clipped when all he wanted to do was to spread them and leave on a wave of excitement to explore the stars. But no, he reminded himself. Even if he were able to skip diplomacy, he would still moan and groan and feel trapped. After all, James Kirk couldn't allow himself to be happy.
He told himself he longed to be happy. He longed to think of himself as good enough. His eyes drifted further and he caught sight of the one being who repeatedly told him he was more than good enough, and with whom he occasionally had a taste of happiness. Ok, so not in those words. "Sufficient" or at times "superlatively more than adequate", and even "good" and occasionally "excellent" were the terms used. And Jim knew that when Spock used those words of him, the half-Vulcan was struggling to convey emotions for which he lacked names. For Spock to bare his soul - to attempt to do so - Jim realised took great trust. So while those words did nothing to change his mind about his fundamental inadequacy, for a time he felt better.
Best of all was that Spock had named him "friend". Every time he thought about it, every time his First Officer dropped the sometimes stultifying formality and called him Jim, his soul warmed and a small part of the icy darkness within him melted. It had taken Jim's death in the warp core of his ship for Spock to understand friendship. The pain of that parting had propelled Spock into a rage worthy of his Vulcan ancestors in his pursuit of Khan. Jim thought dying was almost - almost - worth it, to hear Spock call him his friend, something Jim had been angling at for months since first officially taking command of the Enterprise. And to know the fierce loyalty of his friend, that he successfully (with Uhura's help) subdued the genetically engineered superman... Well, it was flattering, and melted a little bit more of Jim's soul. Spock had lost control for Jim's sake. Not that that sort of behaviour could be condoned as a regular occurrence for a Starfleet Commander; in that instance, Jim was prepared to agree, the cause had been more than sufficient. Spock was speaking regularly with the ship's counsellor, and had regular comm conversations with a Vulcan healer in order to deal with his anger issues.
Now, here on Hydraxia V, he was ever so grateful Spock was here, at his side (maybe right now he was on the other side of the room, but Jim meant it metaphorically), using his own formidable skills in furthering the alliance the Federation wanted with this world.Spock turned at that moment to face him and caught his gaze, the limpid brown eyes smiling at him in their characteristic way while his face gave nothing away. A hundred times on a hundred different worlds in a hundred different contexts - that small action always signified the deep connection the two shared, completely in synch with each other.
He had learned that his loyal friend was also fiercely protective of his captain, possessed a deep empathy and warmth of caring, and had a profound respect for all life. In the past thirteen months since they had begun this five year mission, Spock had taken uncounted projectiles on his Captain's behalf, defending his life with his own body. And it wasn't exactly as if Jim hadn't also taken his share of injuries in the attempt to spare Spock harm.
It hadn't always been this way. While the penny had finally dropped for Spock, that Jim Kirk was his friend, wanted to be his friend, the relationship nevertheless needed nurturing in order for it to be what it was now. Spock was still stiff and formal, he still had an adherence to the rules which drove Jim mad, not least because Spock's stickling for the rules tended to happen when he was stressed, his defences were down or weakened, or he was emotionally compromised. It was a coping mechanism. Jim knew this, but that didn't stop it annoying him.
Nevertheless, they had both showed patience with each other's foibles, and that was paying dividends. All those games of chess, the movie nights spent with McCoy, the quiet conversations in the mess or in their quarters as they shared a meal, and of course the day to day running of the ship and missions with problems requiring jointly arrived at solutions - all these had become the glue in their friendship. In the privacy of their quarters, Jim was able to let his guard down a little, and Spock had become the second person to whom he had entrusted a part of himself, although not yet as much as Bones. And Jim in turn was of great assistance to the Vulcan in helping him to sort through, name and cope with his emotions. Over time they'd both come to know the other well enough to know instinctively through all those subtle subconscious cues what they were thinking and feeling, how they would react to something. Their synchronous movement was a product of this careful, patient and ultimately satisfying commitment to understand one another.
Spock's attention focused again on his companion, a fellow scientist with impressive green plumage and silver pinions. Jim smiled fondly again to himself. And then his brow furrowed as his thoughts clouded. For there had been a development which was causing him consternation.
Spock was a beautiful individual - and that wasn't a subjective comment on Jim's part. According to the standards of beauty on several worlds, Spock was a prime specimen. His eyes were the right distance apart, his nose had just the right angle. His lips fit perfectly in the frame of his face, his jaw was not too square and not overly triangular. His delightfully pointed ears were placed in just the right proportion to his nose, eyes and mouth. Those brows! The silky black hair, precisely cut and styled. His spare but strong and gently muscled torso, pert buttocks, the way he walked, the way his clothes hung on him. And those soft brown eyes, so like his mother's! Physically, Spock was one hot individual by anyone's standard. And the fan-girl club on the Enterprise (which had a fair proportion of males, intersex and species whose sex was indefinable) was only too aware of it. Jim frequently noticed the longing looks various members of his crew bestowed on the Commander. Noticed, and found himself an eency weency bit jealous.
And therein lay the rub. Jealousy? Are you serious? James T Kirk, king of the one night stand, seducer extraordinaire... or rather, he told himself, abject failure at relationships, terminally fearful of commitment, unable to trust, unable to be vulnerable enough to love... As if he was worth noticing. And if he was worth noticing (which would be flattering in the extreme and his heart beat wildly at the thought), there was the whole confusing thing of his sexuality. He'd known for a while he was on the bisexual spectrum; he'd only bedded women. Jim knew he wouldn't have a problem responding to Spock should his attention fall on Jim. But it was the whole question of who he would be if he did so? And what was sexuality when expressed with love and emotional commitment? Who would he be?
That was a question which scared him shitless. Not least because he didn't know whether he could trust anyone with the depths of himself. If he were to trust Spock with the depths of himself - and he knew Spock was trustworthy - what would that be like? Then again, he didn't even know whether Spock had any... intimate... interest in him, or whether he'd be open to Jim trusting him in that way. Hell, Jim didn't know much about how Vulcans did intimacy, at least, not much more than was in the Federation databanks. And that was precious little. Besides which, Jim figured at some point Spock would have to leave the ship in order to do his bit and produce one for the family, one for king and country, and one for good measure. A relationship with Jim, fraught with difficulty as it inevitably would be, because Jim felt himself to be an intense and complicated person, was simply not logical if Spock's intention was to return and make beautiful Vulcan babies with some Vulcan chick.
No. No, no, no. Jim was not relationship material, never would be. Nobody would want him if they truly knew who he was inside, least of all Spock. It was simply easier to steer clear of any possibility of loving sexual expression, than to risk it all, only to lose what one had gained. The cage, while a prison, was after all a safe place, safer than stepping outside and into a new reality. He would remain the golden bird and sing for his supper; Starfleet would be happy, everyone would be happy. Except the golden bird.
He was stirred from his reverie, his attention reclaimed by the Ambassador. He turned to answer the question of the Hydraxians' leader.
Spock observed his Captain with some concern. He'd briefly caught his eye and communicated as they so often did, a warm reassurance of camaraderie. Jim's troubled look and obvious distraction had been the subject of his consideration, even as he conversed with the Hydraxian scientist beside him. His companion was a fascinating individual, and they had had a stimulating discussion about several hypothetical scientific possibilities in the field of biological determinism. Spock's heart wasn't in it: it was with the golden human on the other side of the room.
This was not the first time Spock had noticed Kirk's distraction, an aura of sadness surrounding the man, though it was the first time he could recall it happening in such a public setting. So preoccupied with his Captain's state was he, that Spock only murmured in response to his companion rising and taking his leave. Nor did he notice when another presence, another Hydraxian, took his companion's place and touched his arm with a feather-light touch. Spock stirred because he noticed the gentle ebbing and flowing of thoughts against his own.
"You are Spock."
"And you are a powerful telepath."
The Hydraxian nodded solemnly. "I am Marua, priestess of Kharti, blessed be." She made what was obviously a ritual gesture. "It is being priestess of Kharti which gives me grace to seek the minds of others, to have true discernment of hearts, and wisdom in the guidance of souls."
Vulcan had long ago put aside the gods and goddesses of their ancestors. Surak's teachings and the following thereof was not considered religious observance. Nevertheless, Spock had discerned in the religions and philosophical systems of most worlds common basic tenets that varied little: the search for peace and unity with that which was Other, the belief in respect for life, and compassion for others. Even logical Vulcans in their search for c'thia were encompassed by this crass generalisation. While he didn't fully comprehend the religious devotion of a priestess, he was able to identify desire to connect honestly with others, discernment and wisdom. He still didn't know quite how to respond to the being's statement.
"I have been observing you. You have been watching that one."
"Yes. Your Captain." They watched the named man together in silence. "Your words and you voice betray you, Commander."
Spock raised an eyebrow.
"Not 'the' Captain. You specifically name him your own, yours, belonging to you."
"He is my Captain, my commanding officer. That I name him as my Captain is therefore unsurprising."
"Perhaps. Although I hear something else. He is yours. Or you wish him to be."
Spock did not answer. There was no need: the priestess saw clearly. She probably saw the longing in his eyes, or knew it through their mental contact. In any case, dissembling would be illogical.
Oh yes, he was drawn to the human as a moth to a flame. Kirk had been deeper with Spock than any other being. Kirk offered him unconditional acceptance, had been patient, had given of himself unstintingly. Spock didn't want to think of life without Jim in it, and in order for this to be so, Spock wanted him - not just sexually. Spock believed it the logical decision for them to bond.
"You desire him. You love him."
Again Spock didn't answer. It was enough.
"You yearn to protect him, to show him how precious his life is, to give him warmth in his depths."
"Yes, Marua," he said with a soft sigh, his teeth steeled against the emotionalism of the admittance.
"Does he not return your affections?"
"I have known through contact with his mind that he does."
"But he fears. Yes, he fears. And you do not know how to communicate or soothe his fear."
Spock now looked at the being's bright orange eyes, and knew she saw clearly.
"Yes, I have been gifted with sight. Come. Let me show you."
He didn't know how it was possible, but he and Marua were immediately on the edge of a cliff. Before them was a vast vista: a wide and deep bay swept around to a promontory on the left, and beyond that lay the open ocean. It had been two hours after sunset back in the dining hall, but now the pale light of pre-dawn painted the sky in pastel pinks and blues and yellows and purples.
"What do you see on the horizon?"
Spock searched the sky, even his Vulcan eyes dazzled by the brightness beginning to peek over the lip of the world.
"What do you see on the horizon?" More insistently the question came.
The sun was rising, its first rays catching Spock and striking him breathless. Warmth filled him, and a heady mix of joy, a sense of freedom, as though he were the first being ever to witness the event. There was anticipation, and even excitement.
He wondered at these emotions; having felt them, been pierced by them, by this great beauty, his Vulcan instinctual training kicked in and he began the process of categorising and letting go where he could, or marking the emotion for further reflection where it was too much at that moment. He was stopped by the intrusion of Marua's thoughts.
"Do not strive to quench these feelings, Spock. For they are the key. Hold them for a moment, experience them. You have not and will not lose control by allowing yourself to experience hope, joy, freedom, anticipation. It is necessary, for the sake of your Captain."
There were a flock of golden birds in the trees around them, obviously the ancestors of this avian species in much the same way as the great desert cats were the ancestors of the Vulcans, or apes the ancestors of humans.
"Why do the golden birds call?"
"Across the sea - look! They are calling."
From the middle of the sun (Spock could just make out if he squinted his eyes) there arose movement, at first just a distant flicker. His keen ears heard the song, delicate, flute-like, haunting and sweet, before he saw the singers: an immense flock of dunn-coloured birds, flying straight from the sun's centre.
Scientifically speaking, of course the birds couldn't literally come from the heart of the sun. The sun of this world was a star, as were all other suns in the galaxy, suspended millions of kilometres from this world which orbited it. This knowledge diminished neither the beauty and poignancy of the sight, nor the obvious mythical significance of the action.
The dunn-coloured birds alighted on the trees all around them. It looked as though each of the dunn-coloured birds were placing something in the mouths of their golden companions.
"The golden birds call to draw their mates, the dunn ones. The dunn-coloured ones search all night for the berries which will in time free their golden mates to fly with them. The golden ones, you see, lack the ability to fly long distances or at high altitudes. Yet they must, in order to return to the place of mating high in the inland mountains. The dunn-coloured ones bring hope to them, the berries having properties which will give their golden mates what they need to make the journey.
"Your Captain, he is like one of these golden ones." Marua shuddered. The universal translator had logically transposed the word for "bird" and the word for "(other) being/human". The inhabitants of most worlds thought of themselves in relation to their world in the same way humans or Vulcans did: "sentient beings who inhabit the world". She was saying - and it was apparent from her action - that it was abhorrent to think of a bird-being trapped in a cage. Freedom was evidently crucial to this people's sense of self.
"Having seen, having known, and now having the key, perhaps you may be the one to give him his freedom. Remember what you have seen: what do you see on the horizon?"
Spock found himself abruptly back in the dining hall, still sitting in his place at the negotiating table. There was no sign of Marua.
The negotiations came to an end and the away team beamed back to the ship. It was late, and while Spock admitted he was weary, his first priority was meditation: he needed to sift the experience he had had on the planet. The Hydraxian priestess said he had the key, the golden berry, to set the golden bird free. But he still had no idea what that key might be.
Marua had been right: he loved Jim, loved him with all the fierce protectiveness his Vulcan ancestors had had for their mates. How was he to communicate this without terrifying or breaking Jim further?
It had not been an easy journey for Spock, either. He thought back to the Academy, to the few times his path had crossed Kirk's. He remembered with distaste how much he had despised the human; while he was clearly intelligent, 'everyone knew' he was favoured because he was George Kirk's son. Well, at least Nyota knew that 'everyone knew' and Spock had no reason not to listen to or take the side of the woman he was dating.
He thought back to the bridge incident in the midst of the battle with Nero. He'd never forget the feeling of crushing the human's windpipe with his thumbs, that moment of feral triumph - and the subsequent shame at his loss of control, and his desire to kill and maim. Nor would he ever forget the look in the blue eyes as he choked the life out of them: forgiveness, regret, resignation, and a sense that this was meet and right and a fitting end for a useless waste of space.
He would never forget the fact that Jim had lost his ship because he had chosen to rescue Spock from certain death in the Nabiru volcano. Nor the betrayal in his features when Admiral Pike revealed the variance between Spock's exact and detailed report, and Jim's own. At that moment he'd seen more than just personal betrayal by a colleague; something had broken within the man - and Spock suspected now, though he was oblivious at the time, that this was just one more rejection, one more reinforcement of Jim's fundamental sense of his own unloveability in a long string of the same.
It had taken Pike's death to break through the arrogant walls of his Vulcan persona, to finally cause him to open his eyes and see things for how they really were. And the subsequent search for Khan, and the events which unfolded from it, to help him see the rich gift that was Kirk's offer of friendship. Looking back he wondered how he'd managed to reject and resist it for as long as he did.
He would never be able to forget - for it was burned on the inside of his retinas - that it had taken Jim's death for him to finally accept his gift of friendship. To find in one moment one's t'hy'la, their minds joining briefly in the touch of hands on glass, and in the next to watch the life leech out of his beautiful eyes... Spock's heart froze and squeezed again as it did every time he thought about it.
Nyota had been most understanding when he broke off their relationship while the ship had been in drydock in the year after Khan's massacre. In that year he had striven to befriend Jim. He made a point of being there through most of his recuperation; obviously there had been endless meetings with Command and debriefings before the rebuilding could begin. But apart from that, Spock spent most nights close by the human.
The serum derived from Khan's blood had taken two days to kick in. It was another two weeks before Jim began to fight towards consciousness, two weeks of touch and go. Another two weeks in the critical care unit, and four in a private room before McCoy convinced the doctors to release Jim.
While Khan's serum had been able to rejuvenate his cells, it wasn't an overnight cure by any means. The radiation of the warp core had leeched Jim's body, and he was as weak and emaciated as a cancer patient in the latter stages of the disease. Spock moved into the spare room in Jim's apartment for a couple of months until the therapy meant he was strong enough and sufficiently stable to be able to get around on his own.
Even after Jim was well enough to be on his own, Spock willingly spent his evenings seeing Jim ate properly (he'd been unable to keep much down for the first month of being home), playing endless games of chess with him, and just talking. At least once a week the entire bridge crew crashed Jim's place for pizza and poker. They were warm times, and while he would never truly comprehend human bonding rituals, Spock nevertheless recognised the importance of developing their relationships together, if only for the sake of being able to work together as a cohesive unit. While grounded, most had taken short term assignments or were working on research projects (or in Mr Scott's case, supervising the refit of his warp nacelles), so there was plenty to talk about.
It was the most natural thing in the world for Spock to continue his chess matches with the Captain once they'd returned to space. To their regular conversation was added the day to day running of a starship; it had become very much a joint and mutual enterprise. Sometimes McCoy joined them - Spock came to enjoy baiting the Doctor's wit, and it wasn't long before he owned him as a friend, even if he'd never admit that to McCoy.
As a result of this friendship and their shared mission experience, both Jim and Spock had seen depths of the other few others saw. Spock allowed Jim more intimacy than was customary for Vulcans, except between bonded pairs. Spock maintained his telepathic shields around all other humans, but let them down with Jim. He not only tolerated but welcomed Jim's touch - and Jim was a tactile person who touched many people and often. It was not necessary for t'hy'lara to be in a physical relationship. Nevertheless, Spock often wondered whether Jim genuinely couldn't see that there was more for him in their encounters than mere friendship, deep though that was.
For Jim's touch had a great effect on the Vulcan. Once his eyes had been opened, he couldn't help but perceive his friend's physical beauty and be attracted to the whole of his person. Spock wanted to be with Jim in any way possible. If it were possible for the two to meld into one being, for their souls to be interwoven beyond even the profundity of a bond, he desired it. Could Jim truly not see this?
Perhaps he did see it. No, Spock was sure Jim saw it, and was fearful of what it might demand of him. They had melded often enough in the line of duty for Spock to have caught glimpses - though he was careful never to pry - of the darkness and pain within his friend. Spock had seen the golden bird trapped in his cage. What would it take to free the beautiful bird?
He pondered this question over the next two weeks, finding himself looking at Jim in the middle of a bridge shift while staring into the beyond. No answer seemed forthcoming, but the Hydraxian priestess had been adamant that he had the key to freeing the golden bird. And he would search until he found the answer.
Kirk noticed Spock's distraction. It was hard not to: that staring at him, or rather through him into the beyond was uncharacteristic for Spock. Daydreaming was not something he would usually associate with the ever efficient Vulcan. Yet daydreaming he did, his brow slightly furrowed as if he were working out complex equations and saw the figures dancing in the air.
They were on a series of milk runs deep in friendly Federation space, and the science department was at its most relaxed in a couple of months with little other than their regular research to complete. So whatever was chewing at his Science Officer's mind was not scientific. And as usual the ship was in perfect running order, so it couldn't be anything to do with his First Officer's responsibilities.
He decided to call Spock on it, and try to get his friend to open up. They'd continued their chess matches and regular activities, but Spock hadn't been forward in sharing whatever was on his mind.
Tonight they were eating in Jim's quarters. It was the night they usually spent with Bones watching cheesy movies, but the Doctor had extra reports to complete owing to an outbreak of Golden Staff. So it was just the two of them slurping pasta with eggplant-romero sauce, followed by large chunks of chocolate cake (part of Jim's cunning plan to encourage the Vulcan to talk - chocolate had similar effects on Vulcans as alcohol on humans).
Jim scraped his plate, licked his spoon, and smacking his lips, pushed both aside. Spock was a little slower to finish, savouring this rare treat. Jim smiled: it was so nice to see his friend relaxing and enjoying the cake.
Jim took up their plates, dumping them in the recycler, and replicated Spock's favourite spiced tea. He sniffed the aroma of cinnamon appreciatively as he set it down in front of Spock.
They both sat, sipping their tea silently.
"Jim." The Vulcan looked at him over the rim of his mug.
"I've noticed you've been a bit distracted lately."
The eyebrow went up. "Distracted? Vulcans do not get distracted." Humour sparkled in the dark eyes.
Jim snorted. "Pull the other one, Spock. I've caught you staring at me, but staring as though you're looking right through me into outer space." He paused, Spock silently regarding the mug in his hands. "Ever since we came back from Hydraxia you've been like this. Did something happen while we were on the planet?"
Spock felt the concern in his Captain spike. "Not in so many words," he hastened to reassure him, knowing he was dissembling.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Spock looked at his friend, weighing up how to proceed. He had not planned to have this conversation at this time in this way.
"Jim," he began, "I greatly value your friendship."
Jim grinned. "Yeah, apart from Bones, your my best friend too."
"You have been persistent in making me your friend, and in nurturing our relationship, in spite of churlish actions on my part in the beginning."
"Don't worry about that stuff, Spock. Water under the bridge, seriously."
"Nevertheless, I wish for you to know my regret for those actions and my attitude. It caused you pain."
"Come on, Spock. We don't have to go there anymore. Let's just focus on what we have now." Jim felt unaccountably nervous.
"Jim, I revisit this not to bring discomfort, but to contextualise. When you were... dying... Our hands, on the glass..."
"Yeah, I remember. I was so scared, and you looked so sad. Thanks for not leaving me to die alone, Spock. And for being there when I woke up."
"Our hands touched."
"Did you not feel it?"
Spock looked at him, then steepled his fingers, a sure sign he was slipping into lecture mode. "Among Vulcans there is a term to describe the friendship we share. It signifies a unique bond which has been enshrined in legend and myth, which comes down from the time of the beginning, before the reforms of Surak. My people were warriors, driven by primal feelings and impulses. Among the warriors developed a culture in which one could be t'hy'la to another: friends, brothers, companions, shield-fellows... lovers. It is said that such a bond bound the lives of warrior mates to one another with greater strength than marriage bonds; it is said that such a bond survives even the death of one or the other - or both.
"When our hands touched, albeit through the glass of the decontamination chamber, I felt the spark as our minds involuntarily sought each other out. I believe you, Jim, are t'hy'la to me."
The bird in the cage twittered and flapped its wings in longing and panic. Jim stood and retreated to a corner of the room, crossing his arms on his chest. "What's that supposed to mean, Spock?"
Spock rose, went over to where Jim was standing, and gently turned him with a hand on his shoulder.
"I am trying to tell you, Jim, that you are my world. Surely you know this, deep down, for we would not be where we are now if it were not so. I... love you, and desire you. All of you - even the darkness you try to hide."
Jim chewed his lip.
"And I see, my Jim," Spock brought one hand up to touch Jim's cheek, "that you are like a golden bird trapped in a cage. And I believe together we might find the key so that you may escape."
Jim leaned into the touch, his eyes gone wide, his lips quivering, tears forming and beginning to course down his cheeks.
Spock went to embrace him - but Jim pulled away, dropping his arms into a helpless defensive gesture.
"How the hell do you know about that? Have you been probing my mind?"
"No, Jim. You know I would never seek your thoughts without your permission. I speak only of what I have observed, of what I have seen.
"On Hydraxia I was shown something which I have been contemplating ever since. Jim, do you love me?"
He was silent, wrapping his arms around himself as if to try to hold his soul together, or reinforce the bars of his cage.
"You know that I love you; you're my best friend."
"Jim..." Spock drew closer, not touching him, just being there. "Do you love me?" he quietly whispered.
The bird's heart fluttered. He nodded vigorously, as though if he didn't he'd lose his resolve. "Yes."
"Then what is it that holds you back? What is this cage?"
Hope rose within Jim - a hope he immediately dashed. Once Spock knew the full truth, he'd run away, he was sure of it. Jim Kirk ultimately wasn't good enough to be loved, was too broken to be a useful partner outside of his command persona. He began to shake.
Gentle hands cupped his shoulders. "Come, sit down, Jim. We do not have to talk any further if this distresses you. I will be by your side as far as it is in my power to do so, regardless of what happens between us. What I could not bear would be existence without you in it. I am, and always shall be, your friend. Whether or not we take our friendship further, you will always be my t'hy'la."
They sat down on the edge of Jim's bunk. Finally - finally - Jim accepted the safety and protection of Spock's arms as he rocked back and forth. After many minutes he stilled, moving so that Spock loosened his embrace and Jim reached for a tissue. They sat side by side for a little while, then Jim took one of the Spock's hands in his own shaking hands, and guided it to his face.
"Are you sure?"
"My mind to your mind. Our thoughts... one and together."
The place they were in was shrouded in darkness, shot through with the colours of pain. A small way away to the left a tornado raged: a swirling vortex. Spock could see where the shields Jim usually kept around this place fitted. They were down for now. Voices shrieked like harpies, or groaned with the sound of the bones of the earth rubbing against each other. Memories of pain swirled, tendrils of darkness floating and twisting, entangling others in a vast web.
Spock made to move towards the tornado, but Jim pulled him back. "You can't go in there, Spock. It's very hard to come out once you've been sucked in."
"I do not fear it, Jim." Jim refused to let go, Spock feeling a surge of anxiety from him as they took the first step into the gyrating nightmare.
He clawed his way, being buffeted one way and another by the ferocious wind, until he came to the eye in the dead centre. In the centre of the eye was a golden bird. The voices here were deafening. Spock didn't understand all of the emotions which raged uncontrolled in this place: he did identify fear, a feeling of lack and deprivation, anger turned inward, not-enoughness, rejection, abject soul-deep sorrow, and a terrible icy isolating aloneness.
The bird was lying on the ground, panting. It was obvious it had tried many times to escape, and been cast back. Spock gently lifted the bird in his hands. He gathered all the love and sense of protection he felt for Jim, along with all his Vulcan discipline of mind, and then said:
The wind died down. One by one the voices, now whispers, made themselves known. One by one, Spock walked Jim through the simple meditative discipline of categorising each emotion and its attendant thoughts, acknowledging them, then letting them go. After each time Jim did this, Spock bent to write on the ground with his finger, leaving behind silver and blue letters which shimmered between their Vulcan and Standard forms. Finally the formerly raging wind became a gentle breeze, and the clouds dispersed. At the end of the process, there were written in that space: good enough, loveable, desired.
It was still night in this landscape, but the tender light of dawn was beginning to stain the sky.
"This is what I was shown on Hydraxia, ashaya."
Jim watched as the light grew. "What does that mean? It sounds... nice."
As in his showing on Hydraxia, the sun began to rise.
"What do you see on the horizon, Jim?
The golden bird flew up out of Spock's hand to greet the dawn with song. Jim felt his entire being shift.
An answering song sounded, and as he looked he saw a dunn-coloured bird with a bright shining berry in its mouth flying as though from the heart of the sun - hope, anticipation bordering on excitement, life and light. He watched as the dunn bird met the golden bird in the air, both fluttering as the dunn-coloured bird placed the berry in the other's beak, their breasts touching - and then there was a fast swirl of movement, the sun rose fully, and the birds disappeared in a ribbon of light and mutual, joyous song.
Spock gently withdrew from Jim's mind, ending the meld.
Jim looked at him with wonder. The joy in his eyes was enough to make the corners of Spock's mouth curl upwards - the closest he came to smiling.
"Wow, Spock! I mean... wow."
"Jim, that storm may return from time to time. Each time you must remember what is written there. Do not allow yourself to believe those lies anymore; believe what is written in that place - for it is the truth."
Jim threw his arms around Spock, clung tightly for a moment, then pulled back.
"Not very dignified for a starship captain, eh?" He chuckled, a little embarrassed.
Spock deliberately raised his eyebrow. "Captain, I believe dignity is not one of the requirements for being the captain of a starship, and nor is it anywhere contained in the regulations."
Now Jim laughed hard. The tension passed.
"I'll be right back - just going to wash my face."
Spock readjusted his position on the bed, so that his back was up against the headboard.
Jim returned, and climbed up to sit next to Spock. He shyly took Spock's hand in his own. "I've never done this before, Spock. I mean, I've slept with plenty of women. But not... and I've never done more than a one night stand, so I don't know the first thing about really loving someone..."
"It does not matter to me, Jim. What matters to me is your freedom, your joy, your flourishing. We can take this as fast or as slow as is needed. And... you will have to be patient with me, too, as this is new in my experience. You know my own struggles, my humanity and my Vulcan identity always at war. I am not perfect and I do not have all the answers. Nevertheless, I will give you what I am able to give, and trust that you will help me."
"In that case - " Jim yawned and snuggled down to lie against Spock, his head on his shoulder, one arm cast over his chest. "I do love you," he whispered.
Spock began to trace patterns on Jim's back, a soothing motion he remembered his mother doing or him as a small child. He listened as the human's breathing fell into the easy rhythm of sleep.
At last, even if only for a time, the golden bird was free from his cage. And if it took forever, Spock resolved, he would watch and wait, protecting and providing warmth and comfort as he tried his stiff wings. There would be falls and failures. But Spock would try to keep the hope and joy alive, even in Jim's darkest moments. A bond would help enormously, the deepest joy that could be experienced in the mutual sharing of minds. And Jim's own flawed humanity would provide balance for Spock.
For the moment, he was content to hold his golden one gently as he discovered himself anew; for in the process, Spock himself would be changed. They would take this journey, as all journeys so far, together. T'hy'la, my golden one, Spock thought - and he too slipped into contented rest.