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For Gladness of You

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Thomas Murray says to him, “Please, Jimmy. When you bury me, don’t let the dirt get in my eyes.”

+++

Jim can’t sleep. Throwing back the covers, he swings his legs over the side of his bed and sighs. He rubs his hands through his hair and sits on the edge of the mattress, holding his head in his palms. “Computer, lights, 20%.”

His discarded uniform shirt is on the back of his desk chair next to his wrinkled pants. He pulls them on over his black boxer-briefs and heads out. The corridor is quiet, empty this time of night. He blinks against the brightness of the well-lit ship.

This area, outside of his quarters, the surrounding hallways, the turbolift ten meters away – this is a space he knows well. Inside the turbolift, he pauses as he decides where to go. Not to the bridge, not to the mess hall, not to engineering or the science labs or the exercise deck. Those areas, too, he knows by heart.

Not to sickbay. He stopped by there after his shift ended.

With a sharp breath, he tells the lift to take him to the cargo deck. He exits to find two crewmen bent over computer terminals, reviewing the cargo manifests for the supplies they’d picked up two days ago. They snap to attention at the sight of him. He nods, used to being saluted by people his own age, those who are enlisted. By people older than him, some of the petty officers. For the first three months or so of his captaincy, it had thrown him for a loop, although he’d hidden it behind a friendly, sometimes cocky smile.

“As you were,” he says, and he passes them, not into the cargo bay but beyond. He walks out of their line of sight, around the corner right, straight, around another right corner, left, straight again, right. He crawls into a Jeffries tube and goes up a level, and then walks again. He’s in no hurry. His hand skims the wall of his ship. It is metal, cool against his skin.

He has walked her corridors many nights. He has pulled himself through her guts and crisscrossed his steps and explored every piece of her where the human body can fit. In her cracks and crevices where his body cannot go, his hands have learned the shape of her, the heat and chill running through her.

He knew nothing of this ship besides what he’d seen being built when he took on captaincy of her and his crew, but he has learned. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, Bones,” he’d said a month into their five years in the black.

McCoy had raised his shot glass in Jim’s direction and looked out through the clear glass of his office into the medical bay beyond. “Guess you’ll have to figure it out, then, won’t you.” He'd thrown back his whiskey, grimaced, and said, “It’s not the world we grew up in anymore.”

Jim had laughed, unamused, and knocked his back as well. He'd put his glass down with a clank against McCoy’s desk and squeezed the doctor’s shoulder on the way out.

Tonight he walks until he comes to a dead end, the end of the Enterprise. It is dimly lit here in these unused places. There is no need to waste energy that can be better spent elsewhere. He can go no further so he doesn’t, but he doesn’t turn around and head back, either. It’s nearly silent here, away from the hum of her great engines. He rests his forehead against the ship’s wall and stands. Minute vibrations curl through her into him, and he hears only his breath, steady in and steady out.

When he finally stirs, he does not look behind him but says, “I know you’re there, Spock.”

“I was not endeavoring to conceal myself, Captain.”

Jim sighs and turns to face his first. Spock’s standing fifteen meters away at the last bend of the corridor. His hands are clasped behind his back. His passivity pisses Jim off, irrationally.

“It’s so stupid. Such a waste.” He slams the palm of his hand into the wall where his head had rested. “Dammit!”

Spock doesn’t move. “Ensign Fletchley’s death was not your fault. Petty Officer O’Opai’s injuries are not your fault.”

“Maybe not,” Jim says. “But they’re my responsibility. I sent them down there. We knew that device was dangerous. We knew it might explode. I knew the risks, and I sent them down there anyway.”

Spock walks closer to Jim. He stops in front of him. “As did they, Captain, and yet they would have volunteered for the task despite this.”

Jim meets Spock’s eyes. They are calm, and he wishes that he could reach out and touch Spock’s face so that he might steady himself. “It was on my orders. My orders.”

“It is the responsibility of each member of the crew to discharge the captain’s orders.”

“Or die trying? Is that it, Spock?” Jim steps forward into his space, aggressive, angry.

Spock stands his ground. “If necessary.”

Jim’s hand clenches into a fist. He watches Spock’s eyes drop to it, watching. With effort, he straightens his fingers out. He wants to say, “Would you? Would you, Spock? What would you deem necessary?” He wants to hurl the words across the small, small space between them, useless as they are, cruel as they are, but Spock’s finger, sudden, pressing lightly across his lips, stops him.

This is a deserted place, but although it seems private, it is open. Anyone could wander by. The ship’s internal sensors would betray them to anyone who happened to look.

Jim doesn’t care.

He surges forward against Spock, and after a shock of stillness, Spock moves against him with crushing strength. He pushes Jim back into the wall of the ship with his body. Jim’s hands seek out his bare skin, his mouth Spock’s mouth. “God, yes,” he exhales against it.

+++

Pike says to him, sitting in a dingy bar in Podunk, Iowa, “If you’re half the man your father was, Starfleet could use you.” He says, “It’s something your dad had, that instinct to leap without looking. In my opinion it’s something Starfleet’s lost.”

Jim taps his finger once, twice, on the arm of the captain’s chair. “We’re following them,” he says sharply. “Mr. Chekov, lay in a course based on the emissions trail you reported. Mr. Sulu, Warp Three.” A collective hush settles around the bridge. He watches Sulu and Chekov exchange a short glance, but they both turn in their chairs and get to work.

“Course laid in, sir.”

“On your command, Captain,” Sulu tells him.

Jim’s lip curls up at the edge. “Go.” Then he stands up, claps his hands together once, and lets them fall apart, held out, palms up as he looks around at the bridge crew. It’s a half-shrug, inviting.

Of course it’s Spock who breaks the silence. “As you are aware, Captain, this course will take us to the edge of the neutral zone in forty-three point eight minutes. Even at maximum warp we cannot catch up to them before they are back in Romulan space. Any incursion into the neutral zone is an act of war.”

“What about an incursion into Federation space? That an act of war, Mr. Spock?”

“Technically, Captain, Diro is not a planet in Federation space, as it has not yet been accepted into the Federation but is status-pending. Therefore, the planet and its sovereign space are not off limits to the Romulans.”

Sulu swivels his chair around to look at Spock. “But didn’t they have to come through the neutral zone to get to Diro? Isn’t that an act of war?”

“But did they?” Uhura asks. “I can’t pinpoint the source of the transmission we picked up.”

“And just because the Dironian government found a cache of Romulan weapons doesn’t mean the Romulans were there. Some individual could have been off world and traded for them. Or even one of the splinter groups,” Chekov puts in. He pipes up less timidly now than he used to.

The turbo lift doors swish open. McCoy steps out, takes one look at all of them, and stomps over to Jim, close enough that the others, except Spock with his sharper sense of hearing, won’t be able to make out what he says. “Christ on a crutch, Jim, you’re not planning on starting a war, are you? Today? Does it have to be today?” Jim glares at his friend and McCoy look sheepish for a moment and tosses a “Captain” onto the end of his rant.

“Doctor, it would seem that your time would be better used in sickbay, preparing to receive casualties,” Spock tells him.

Jim looks at them. “I’m not starting a war. They are.”

“There is no proof, Captain.” Spock sounds as unflappable as ever, as though they aren’t twenty minutes away from all-out war.

Sulu says, “Well, yeah, we’d need some back up, sir. The nearest ship is the Excalibur.”

“Did you see those bodies down there? They were gutted. By someone a lot stronger than a human or Dironian. It’s a light-grav planet.” Jim focuses on Spock. “Are you saying that you don’t believe that the Romulans were on Diro? A planet seeking admission to the Federation? And we’re going to let them get away with it? With impunity?” Jim’s voice is raised by the time he gets to “impunity.”

Spock doesn’t blink. “The evidence is not conclusive. There are alternative explanations. Orders will be forthcoming.”

Jim feels like saying, “Fuck that,” but he keeps his mouth shut. “You know we’ll lose them if we wait for Starfleet to direct us,” is all he says.

“Captain, we are approaching the neutral zone in approximately five minutes,” Chekov reports. He looks at Jim. They all do, awaiting his orders.

“Uhura, red alert.”

“Aye, Captain,” she says.

He meets Spock’s eyes and walks over to him. Spock stands up. Jim’s shoulder brushes his. “You want the Enterprise to stand down.” It’s not quite a statement, not quite a question. His voice is quiet.

“It would be logical.” Spock’s voice is low, pitched for his ears only.

“That wasn’t a yes, Mr. Spock,” and Spock doesn’t respond. Jim laughs a little.

“Sulu, keep us on this side of the neutral zone.” He hears McCoy breathe as he passes him, firing out orders. “Spock, scan the hell out of it. If there’s any trace of those bastards, I want to know about it. Chekov, plot possible courses for anything the commander relays to your station. Uhura, send a message to Command with our situation, requesting orders. I’ll file a full report later, just give them the preliminaries.”

+++

Spock doesn’t grin and laugh and shout and weep the same way Jim does. His heart isn’t even in his chest, and for him that old adage about the mind being the biggest sexual organ is really, really fucking true, even if his hands never go anywhere near Jim’s temples.

Sometimes when Jim remembers this, he kisses him. Kissing Spock reminds him that Spock is, actually, an alien. He is hot to the touch; his mouth is hot. His every breath licks a small curl of flame across Jim’s lips, and under such heat, they become tender and swollen. Every touch sears a small pain into Jim’s flesh that burns into his core, and he would crawl into that heat, his tongue would curl into Spock’s mouth, seeking, pushing for more.

+++

Early on, Spock had requested a private interview with him. Jim granted it.

“Captain, permission to speak freely.”

Jim waved his hand about. “Sure.”

“You should not allow the crew, Dr. McCoy included, to speak to you so familiarly, particularly when you are in a command situation on the bridge.”

Jim made a small humming sound. “Spock, you know I’m making this all up as I go, right?”

Spock’s silence sounded pretty damning to Jim, so he continued. “With that in mind, I figure that someone else might have a good idea, too. You, for example. You’re not exactly shy about voicing your opinion. On the bridge. In a command situation.” He shot Spock a pointed look. “The ultimate responsibility for what happens is mine, of course.”

“You do not believe that it will undermine your authority?”

“Yeah, well, I’m not exactly the authoritarian type. I prefer to think of it as making good use of the best resource I have on this ship, which – mostly – is you guys.”

Spock cocked his head. “You are considered to be quite young by human standards.”

Jim squinted at him. “Should I be insulted here? I’m feeling a little insulted. I hear you’re even younger, by Vulcan standards.” He laughed and clapped Spock on the shoulder as he headed toward the door. “God knows what they were thinking.”

+++

The way Jim sees it, their only saving grace is that Nero attacked the Klingons at the same time as the Federation, and so there’s not too much chance of a Klingon-Romulan alliance. Because if there were, they’d all be dead.

After assigning him command of the Enterprise, Starfleet told him she was due for a refit. “Thought I told you not to bang my ship up,” Pike says wryly. They’re in his office. He looks tired.

“Naw,” Jim says. “You said that to Spock. Me? Free rein.”

“An interesting interpretation of orders, Captain Kirk.”

Jim starts. “Oh, hey, Spock. What’s up?” Despite his casual greeting, he watches Spock a bit warily. He did just leapfrog a whole bunch of levels of command over his head. After he stole his ship. By insulting his dead mom. Jim winces.

Spock arches an eyebrow. “Any number of things are ‘up.’ The ceiling, for example.”

Pike laughs. It’s a rusty sound.

“So how long will repairs take?”

“Not just repairs, Jim. A refit.”

Spock cocks his head. “The Enterprise is a new ship,” he says, just as Jim scowls and insists, “I didn’t mess her up that badly!”

Pike pins him with a look. “You ejected her core.”

“Right, well.” Jim looks at Spock, who surprises him by taking pity on him. “It was necessary,” he tells Pike.

“Starfleet’s not saying it wasn’t. Look, would you two just sit down? You’re making my neck hurt. In light of recent events, they’ve decided it would be a good idea to give her a bit of a boost that wasn’t in the original design.”

Jim may not know Spock very well, but somehow he knows enough to know that’s a frown on his face, even if it doesn’t look like it. “The Enterprise is an exploratory vessel, Admiral,” Spock says slowly. “You are speaking of adding more weapons of war to it.”

“Don’t you trust me?” Jim lays his hand over his heart and puts on a wounded expression.

“Knock it off, Kirk,” Pike snaps. And then he cracks a smile to say, “Apparently someone does.” He leans forward. “You’re going out there, Jim. Yeah, you trained for it. Yeah, you got through a crisis. But it’s not the same world it was out there. We are not the same Federation we were. And you and that ship – and if you’re half as smart as you think you are, you’ll be begging the commander here to come, too – are going to be at the forefront of it all.”

Jim looks out the window. The Academy’s lawn is green and perfect; beyond it, the Bay glints sharp and white under the late morning sun.

Next to him, Spock says quietly, “The remaining Vulcans will be focused on building a new home. We will not be making many contributions to the Federation. The reverse is more likely for the near future.”

“And the Romulans and Klingons and the Orions and everyone else, they know it.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Jim says tightly. “This isn’t news.” He’s going to lead that ship out there with all her crew, and they’re going to explore, they’re going to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, and he’s going to have to keep one eye in front and make sure the other is fixed behind them.

“The refit will take about four months. She’s getting top priority.”

“Looks good to have the flagship off the ground, right?”

Pike nods. “Pretty much. You’ll be getting further instructions.” He turns to Spock. “Commander, did you need something?”

“There was a matter I wished to speak to you about.” He glances at Jim.

“Right, I got stuff to do.” Jim pushes himself up from his chair. “Sir, Commander.”

He shouldn’t linger in the hallway. He knows that, but. But what does Spock want? He’d seen him twitch – really, why does anyone think that Vulcans are expressionless – when Pike had told him that he should ask Spock to be his first officer. The truth is that he already has. It was the first thing he did after he got his promotion.

So he’s doing a bad, bad thing out here, and he’s learned the hard way already about Vulcan hearing, so Spock is probably aware he’s doing it, but he has to know.

“I plan to tender my resignation from Starfleet, sir,” Jim hears him say. “I believe that I can make a larger contribution by assisting in the establishment of the new colony.”

Jim swallows. He and Spock may have gotten off on the wrong foot – sanctimonious bastard that he is – but Jim’s pretty sure that he’ll do better with Spock than without him out there in the black. Jim’s got a lot of faults and he’ll admit to most of them, but lying to himself isn’t usually one. And he knows that he’s good at making snap decisions, gut decisions, decisions based on instinct and cockiness and a lot of luck and a dash of pure faith. But beyond that? He doesn’t know fuck about running a starship.

Shit. He’s aware of the silence in Pike’s office. Then Pike says, “So why are you telling me this?”

“You have been my mentor, sir.” Spock’s voice is soft.

Jim wishes he could see their faces. He’s pretty sure he can hear a smile in Pike’s voice when he responds, “Ah. You’re telling me so that I can talk you out of it.”

“You can try, sir,” and now Pike definitely is chuckling under his breath. “Hey, Jim, you catch that?”

Double shit. He pops his head around the doorway. “I was just tying my shoe, sir.”

Spock looks at his feet pointedly. Jim follows his gaze. There are no laces in sight, and he grins. “What can I say, Spock? You might want to think about keeping me in line.” He exhales.

+++

When Jim stumbles back to his quarters after leaving Spock standing as composed as though they’d merely had a professional discussion at the end of the Enterprise, at the farthest reaches of the ship, he goes to the second drawer in his dresser. Opening it, he sticks his hand inside, into the jumble of stones so cool and steady in there.

He needs a shower – he can smell himself and the pungency of sex on him – but first, this. His fingers feel the smooth planes of the black stone that he does not seek but always finds. With a wry huff, he picks it up and turns it in his hand. It is polished and black from his touch, from the timeless constant buffing of water. The light catches the only roughness on it, flecks of flinted gold. This stone is not rounded or jagged, but something in between. Its sleek lines taper into one another, into unexpected edges and teasing glints of fire.

After a long moment, he puts it back in the heap. “Computer, lights 100%.” Now that he can see clearly, he sorts through the rocks. He picks some up, discards them, selects another. “Gotcha,” he says finally. He’s holding a small brown pebble, ordinary and solid and sturdy in his hand. He starts to push the drawer shut, but then – “God dammit.” He shakes his head. “Computer, locate Dr. McCoy.”

“Dr. McCoy is in sickbay.”

“Put me through to him.” He goes over to his screen. “Bones. How’s Petty Officer O’Opai doing?”

McCoy’s eyes flicker down to the right, and Jim knows what’s coming. He’s seen that tell too many times. His hand clenches into a fist around the brown pebble out of sight of the screen, on his thigh.

“We lost her, Jim. She never regained consciousness. Small blessings,” he says bitterly, and straightens. “You’ll have my report in the morning, Captain.”

Jim nods and signs off, and when he stands he goes back to the drawer of stones he left open. He searches through it until he finds what he’s looking for. A rough grey stone, shot through with black and pink, joins the small brown pebble in his hand.

+++

While Jim waits for his ship to be refitted, he works out in the gyms at the Academy. There aren’t many people there. It’s summer break and the cadets, including most of his crew-to-be, have gone home to visit their families. There’s a lot of that going around, what with so much loss. It’s the sudden shock of mortality, Jim figures.

One day he finds Spock in the gym. “Didn’t know you were still here,” he says. “No place better to be?” He means to tease, but his foot ends up in his mouth and Spock simply looks at him and says, “No.”

Jim doesn’t let himself look away, but he does shrug as though it’s no big deal. “Yeah, me neither.” His mom had sent him a message about how proud she was of him. He knows she is. “I’ll visit Earth,” she said. “Sure, Mom. Sure,” he told her.

“Want to spar?”

Amazingly, Spock agrees. After an hour, he’s still not sweating. This somehow vaguely pisses Jim off even though he remembers this about Vulcans from Xenobiology classes, that they don’t sweat. Somehow reading it in his text isn’t quite the same as feeling that dry, hot skin pinned, for a second, under him while he’s dripping with exertion, leaving traces of himself on Spock’s body where it glances against his own.

+++

Admiral Komack relays their latest set of orders. Jim watches the transmission on the bridge. It’s time-delayed, so he can’t even sass back at him on principle, just close enough to the line that he knows he’s near it.

“Kid,” McCoy once said. “You know I love you, but for god’s sake, why do you have to be so damn provoking?”

Jim rolls his eyes. “Love you back, Bones. Komack’s an ass, that’s why. He hasn’t been out here in twenty years. And yet he wants us to play by the same by-the-book rules that applied when he was. Maybe twenty years ago those things worked, made him a good commander, but they don’t anymore. Look what happened last week.”

He’s getting warmed up now. “He sent us off to Calva with old intel. And he pushed us to get down there so fast we couldn’t gather enough new intel before we sent a team. Just because it’s a border world and the Federation is itching to plant our flag on every unallied planet we can, as quickly as possible, so we can beat out the Romulans and Klingons.”

“No one was hurt on Calva.”

“It doesn’t matter. It was careless.” Jim cocks his head. “We could have at least picked a better beam-down site, had we known.” None of them had needed to end up where they had. Ensign Singh’s cry of horror echoes in his head; he sees again that quick flash across Spock’s face before it smoothed out, the brief moment when he’d shut his eyes after he’d looked down. “It was sloppy,” he says, quietly. “But hey, we planted our flag and pissed on that fire hydrant, so that’s fine, right?”

Bones doesn’t flinch in the face of Jim’s sudden bitterness. He never does, which is part of why Jim loves him even when he’s constantly giving him guff. “Admiral Komack relays the orders. He’s only part of the group that makes the decisions.”

“Yeah,” Jim says. “Yeah. And I don’t disagree with most of them. The ones I do, it’s not my place to, so I follow them anyway. I may not agree, but I get why we’re doing it.”

“I don’t think anyone on this ship questions that, Jim. Sometimes I just worry about your creative interpretations.”

On the bridge, Jim watches the time-delayed transmission of their latest orders from the Admiral. “Captain, you are directed to proceed immediately to the planet Diro. Something’s making them nervous. Find out what it is and report for further orders.” Onscreen, Komack leans forward. “Captain, their application for admission to the Federation is pending. It’ll be approved, of course, but they don’t know that yet. They had better not withdraw it, Kirk, understand?” Komack leans back and folds his hands across his belly. “Command out.”

The transmission ends. Without glancing back, Jim says, “Mr. Spock, my ready room.” He feels Spock’s presence at his shoulder, just behind him, but doesn’t look at him until they’re alone, and then he whirls to face him. “Was that a threat? That was a threat. What the hell?”

“It is not logical to delay conveying knowledge of the Federation’s approval of the Dironian application when there are concerns that Diro might withdraw that application.”

Jim points a finger at his first officer. “That’s Spock for ‘what the hell,’ right?”

Spock raises his eyebrow. Jim wants to smile because it never fails to delight him when Spock does that, but he’s too pissed at Komack. “What kind of game are they playing?”

“I do not think it is a game,” says Spock. “Because of Diro’s location and resources, the Federation has more to gain from the plant’s membership than the planet itself does. I believe that Command would like to ensure sure that the Dironian government does not realize this and attempt to renegotiate the terms of their planet’s entry.”

Later, after they’ve chased the emissions trail to the edge of the neutral zone and the brink of war and are on their way back to Diro, McCoy points out at lunch in the mess that the Admirals are not likely to be pleased over this one. “Sure,” Jim says, forking his potatoes, “but look at the bright side. The Dironians think they need our protection now and are chomping at the bit to get in. In fact,” he says slowly, as the idea comes to him, “I bet we could do a bit of renegotiating with them ourselves.”

“You speak of obtaining better terms of entry to the Federation in favor of the Federation.” Spock methodically eats his greens.

McCoy frowns. “That’s pretty mercenary. They’re scared, stuck choosing between us and the Romulans, whoever’s the lesser of two evils. We shouldn’t take advantage.”

“On the contrary.” Spock takes a sip of that bitter juice he always drinks at lunch. “It is logical to use all information to our advantage. It is our duty.”

“No, it’s mercenary,” McCoy snaps.

Jim shakes his head affectionately. “Always the southern gentleman.”

McCoy looks at him. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think you’re a bad influence on the Vulcan.”

Jim says, “Nah, he’s been that way for a while.” Around them, the hum of crew at mess is a low thrum against Jim’s skin.

+++

“Humans are most illogical,” Spock tells him with something that smacks of smugness. Jim’s pretty sure that no one else onboard, except Uhura, would recognize it for what it is. But he knows better.

“How did you come to believe that Vulcans don’t engage in sexual relations for pleasure?”

Jim blinks. They’re in the rec room over a game of chess. The rec room with other people in it. Jim’s about to lose this game, he can feel it.

“Wha - Spock,” he hisses. He gestures with his hands, expecting Spock to follow his meaning.

Spock picks up a pawn and moves it. “They’re paying no attention, Captain. You display signs of attraction to me. Your pupils dilate, your nostrils flare and you inhale point one five times more frequently when we are interacting, and your pulse beats more rapidly. You sometimes grow erect in my presence. During our sparring matches, during a game of chess over this very board.”

Jim stares at him. He’s aware that his expression of shock probably isn’t his best. But – “Well, fuck, Spock,” he finally sputters. “That happens to me all the time.” He can feel his face flame red. It’s not talking about sex that embarrasses him. It’s Spock’s clinical manner.

“I am aware,” Spock returns calmly. “As do a statistically significant portion of Terran males, you find competition arousing. However, I have calculated that my interaction with you increases the probability that you will become erect by twenty-two point five percent.”

“Oh my god,” Jim says. Spock’s calculated Jim’s hard-ons. That is … hot. That is so fucking hot.

Spock looks up at Jim from the board and tilts his head. “Do not be alarmed, Captain,” he says, apparently misinterpreting Jim’s expression. “I do not mean to suggest that you are attracted to me exclusively. However, I do not see why that should make intercourse between us any less enjoyable. The fact remains that you are attracted to me and I to you.”

There’s a long silence. It’s probably only a minute, but it feels like forever. “It is your move, Captain,” Spock says finally.

A part of Jim’s brain, a small distant part, thinks that anyone who says that Vulcans don’t understand double meaning and innuendo is a fool. Most of his brain is busy trying to make sense of what’s happening here. Okay, actually, most of his brain is currently offline due to a sudden rush of blood to certain other parts of his body.

“You’re attracted to me,” he says, and stares at Spock, hard.

“Affirmative.”

“And you want to have sex.”

“That is my proposal.”

Jim narrows his eyes. “Like right now?” he tests.

“I am available for the next two point five hours, Captain. Then I must meditate to ensure optimal performance during tomorrow’s shift.”

“Holy shit,” Jim says.

“Your meaning is unclear, sir.”

“Holy shit,” Jim says again.

+++

On Lima III, a turquoise glint in the brown earth catches Jim’s eye. There’s a colorful rock half-buried, just waiting for someone’s attention. He bends down and smiles and slips it into his pocket.

+++

Spock says, “This is not wise, Captain. Do not trust him, for he is dangerous beyond appearances.”

+++

“Toss her in the brig,” Jim orders. “Commander Charvanek, perhaps you would like Mr. Spock to be your escort?”

The Romulan commander glares at him. Spock says, “After you, Madam.”

A week ago, a dispatch had come through from Command instructing Jim to take the Enterprise into the Neutral Zone. “This after being reamed out for the Dironian incident?” Jim said to Pike skeptically. “Didn’t you guys tell me only four months ago to stay the hell away from Romulans and the Neutral Zone?”

On Pike’s desk, which Jim could see at the edge of the screen, were two dice. Pike picked them up and let them roll from his hand. “Watch your mouth, Jim. And yes, but circumstances change. We have fresh intelligence that Romulan ships are currently in the neutral zone testing out a secret cloaking device.” He looked at Jim, then Spock, standing behind Jim’s shoulder. “We want it, gentlemen.”

When the transmission winked out, Jim turned to Spock. “You good with this?”

“Please specify further, Captain.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Committing an act of war. Walking into a trap, invisible ships waiting for us. Romulans.”

Spock didn’t blink. “We have our orders.” But later, on board the Romulan ship, looking out from inside the Romulan brig though the forcefield, Jim hears Commander Charvanek’s unintelligible murmur to Spock and Spock’s reply: “It would illogical to hold the actions of one particularly troubled Romulan against the whole race.”

She laughs, a throaty sound. “You’re wasted on those humans, Commander Spock. You should be in command, not that imbecile Kirk.”

Jim had said to Spock, “Do whatever you have to do, Mr. Spock, to get that cloaking device,” and Spock had replied, “I intend to, Captain.” And then they had been escorted under guard to the bridge of the Romulan vessel, where the commander demanded an explanation of Jim, and Spock said, his face cold, “Commander, the captain of the Enterprise lies. Our presence here is not the accident he claims it to be.”

Beyond the forcefield holding Jim back, the Romulan commander raises her hand to Spock’s jawline and trails her fingertips over his skin. “Our people have a common ancestry. We could do great things together, you and I. My mind calls to yours.”

Jim waits for Spock to pull away. Spock doesn't. Instead, he raises his own hand to cover hers, their fingers entwining. They creep higher on his face, and his other hand rises to the commander’s smooth temple.

Spock doesn't pull away and Jim doesn't let himself think about Spock twisting away from his fingers as they ghosted over his meldpoints, the bones of his face, but instead, after a suspended moment, yells wildly and gets back with the plan of feigned madness, resumes shouting invective against Romulans, against their mothers, against Spock before finally throwing himself perhaps too energetically at the forcefield as though in an insane bid for freedom. Stunned, he can do nothing but allow Spock to administer the Vulcan death grip and slip into senselessness.

+++

On their first real mission, they are sent to Caelu. Their third day there, it being Eluh by local time, the day of rest, business breaks off and their hosts take them to the Vault of the Heavens.

“Our greatest natural wonder,” they tell the away team. “It is day here, but deep below it is night. You will each need a light to find your path.”

They walk down under the surface of the earth for what seems an eternity. The air of the passageways is cool and moist; something drips and echoes somewhere. The sound of flowing water grows louder.

Finally, “Oh,” Nyota says at the front of the group. “Captain, look.” Their Caelum leader smiles his peculiar smile and removes the hood from his lidded torch, and the great cavern flares gold and glittering amid the endless black rock. The floor and ceiling of the cave, the walls, even the water falling off the edge of the underground waterfall – all are black and gold, a starry night sky in the deep.

Jim looks up and up. Above his head there seems to be an endless display of brilliance, a host of fireflies, a million sparks from an impatient fire, a thousand hopes set free. He makes a small sound as he exhales.

He puts his hand on the cavern’s wall. The black stone is smooth like polished glass and continuous beneath his fingers, all sleek lines and unexpected edges. In the light of his torch, golden flecks leap out, as though tossed onto the stone by the light he shines on it. He strokes the rock, reminded of something, someone.

Spock comes over to his side, tricorder out. “Most curious,” he says. “This rock has properties I’ve never seen before.” He reaches out his hand to it.

Tehir, the Caelum guide, twitches his ears. “That is because it exists nowhere save here in the Vault of the Heavens. Our ancient legends tell the story of how each night the sun rests his weary head here, and with each passing year, the black stone turns ever so slightly more golden from the exuberance of the sun. Someday, long from now when this cave is as wholly golden as the midday sun, our world will end, for there will then be no place for the sun to rest his head.” He smiles. “Who can say if the wisdom of the ancestors will speak truly?”

Spock listens respectfully. When Tehir has turned away, he looks back at his tricorder. “There is an unusual concentration of a mineral that my scanner cannot yet identify. I would like to study this further.”

Jim laughs.

“But come!” Tehir calls to them. “It is a long hike back and we must be out of here before the sun arrives!”

Jim waits until his back is turned and Spock has gone ahead of him before he bends down and pockets the fragment of black stone that he felt beside his foot. It flutters faintly against his palm before settling back into solid rock.

+++

The evening of the day they rescue Cupcake and Lieutenant Nestor and Mr. Homapour and Ensigns Columa and Pi’ith from the Satnurniens, the crew celebrates.

There’s a lift in the steps of the crew Jim passes in the hallways. They wipe small smiles, small secrets, from their faces as they salute him. “Captain,” they say, with a sparkle in their eyes. Conversations hidden behind hands, whispered into each other’s ears, stop short when he comes near.

By late afternoon, the ship has an energy to it that seems to pulse with her engines. There is a crackle of expectation snapping through her air. In the captain’s chair, Jim sits and taps his fingers. Behind him, Nyota murmurs into the comm system. He knows Nyota is too diligent to actually use her time or position as communications officer to arrange off-duty affairs, but it seems that even she is not immune to the hum of excitement. He cranes his neck to look at her – the same secret smile that he’s seen on a dozen crew members plays around the edges of her mouth. It suits her, this edge of vitality flushing out her graceful beauty.

He twists further around and watches Spock at his science station. His fingers are flying over the console in front of him. If he is aware of the anticipation growing around him, he doesn’t betray it. Nor does he show any awareness of Jim’s scrutiny, not for a long moment. But when he does finally look at Jim, there is no hesitation in his face, no stuttering of his eyes. There never is. He always meets Jim head-on, and he holds Jim’s gaze until Jim calms and becomes still, until his fingers no longer tap an impatient rhythm against the arm of his chair.

“I’m going to sickbay to see how Ensign Pi’ith is doing.” The other members of the rescued away team have already been released. Nothing a few hours being patched up by McCoy’s staff and a week of vitamin hypos won’t cure. Jim rubs his forehead. At least this time, the captives had been regularly fed.

On his way, he detours by engineering. He doesn’t go in, but stands back and watches the unusual activity buzzing around it. People who have no business being in engineering are filtering in and out. Not for the first time, Jim feels older than he is under the weight of command. He’s not stupid; he’s been at the center of the party all his life, and most of the time he was the one planning it. He always knows when one’s about to go down and resents, usually only a little, sometimes fiercely, that it must take place under his nose, that he must turn a blind eye because he’s the captain.

Walking away, he passes Chekov. The blush on the ensign's face says it all. “Sir,” he exclaims. “I – Mr. Scott – that is—”

Jim holds up his finger, cutting off his navigator’s fumbling words. Chekov’s eyes are wide. “On your way, Mr. Chekov.” It wouldn’t do for him to betray the not-so-hidden location of Scotty’s still.

Chekov's smile is grateful.

As Jim walks, seeing no one about, he trails the tips of his fingers over the side of his ship. Her low, familiar vibration helps ease something held tight in him since the away team failed to check in on schedule four days ago. The ship pulses under his hand, and he laughs slightly. “I know,” he tells her. “This party’s going to be epic.”

When he reaches sickbay, he heads for Bones’ office. “Another one’s in the works,” he tells his friend, plopping himself down.

“I suppose you’ll be showing up late again.”

Jim shrugs. “Only way I can put in an appearance. They need to be plastered before they’ll relax around the captain.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Jim, you know that’s not true.”

Jim looks askance at him. “No, not for the ones who see me all the time, like Uhura and Sulu. But the rest? I don’t want to spoil their fun.”

McCoy rolls his eyes. “Your crew adores you. Though half the time I can’t figure out why.”

“Aww, Bones.” Jim puts his feet up on the desk and lets McCoy squawk.

“You know the ship is getting a reputation. Work hard, play hard.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard,” Jim says. A month ago, after the mission to Calva, Pike had called. “Put him through to my ready room,” he’d told Uhura. “Commander?” Spock came to his feet smoothly and walked with him.

Before he activated the videolink, he asked Spock if he knew what this was about. “Negative, Captain.”

“Admiral.” Pike was sitting at his desk. He twirled a stylus between his fingers. It immediately set Jim on edge. When Pike was casual, it was usually deliberate.

“Captain. Commander.” He nodded to Spock, standing just behind Jim’s shoulder.

“I’ll get right to the point. We’re starting to hear things about the Enterprise. Apparently she’s gaining a reputation as a party ship. Know anything about this?”

Jiim narrowed his eyes. “My people work their asses off. We have the highest mission success rate and the lowest mission mortality rate. What they do off-duty, as long as they don’t hurt anyone or jeopardize this ship or morale, is up to them. What’s this really about?”

Pike stared at him. “You knew we’d be checking up on you, Kirk. You’re the youngest captain on the youngest ship out there. Hell, I think Dr. McCoy is your oldest officer on board, and we all know he’s hardly the model of decorum.” The corner of his mouth quirked up, and not for the first time, Jim wondered just how well Pike knew McCoy.

Spock stepped forward. “Admiral, while we appreciate Command’s concern” – his pause before the word ‘concern’ was almost imperceptible – “it is unnecessary. There is nothing untoward occurring on this ship.”

Pike stopped twirling that damn stylus. “Well, if the Vulcan says so, then the admirals will have to accept it.”

The tension stretched between them before Pike broke into a grin and Jim laughed. “How you doing out there, kiddos?”

“Our progress is acceptable,” Spock told him.

“It’s going,” Jim said. “It’s going.”

Pike nodded and considered them. Even across the long space separating them, Jim felt it. “All right,” he said finally, and, “Take care of yourselves. Pike out.”

Sitting in McCoy’s office, Jim shakes his head as Bones says acerbically, “I’m stuck in the middle of space with a bunch of goddamn children. I hate to think of Joanna growing up half as fast as everyone on this ship has had to.”

“Believe me, Bones, I’ve heard it.” They’re a bunch of kids, forced to grow up too soon out on this fucking awesome warship.

The conversation he had with Pike, the conversation he’s having with Bones – it’s all true. Because they’re all so young – and reckless and stupid and alive – they occasionally do reckless and stupid and alive things, things that punctuate the seriousness of what they’re doing out here in the black. And even if Jim’s not the one leading them on, he’s right there with the rest of them.

Right there letting his crew throw parties, crazy parties with booze and music loud enough to shake the ship and the sound of kissing, of gasps, of want not hidden enough in the corners and shadows of the rec room.

Ignoring the under-the-table bets placed on everything from how long it would take Tamre and Leq’vre to hook up to who would win the next intra-ship sporting games. Sliding Sulu his credit chip to make a wager himself.

Taking an extra hour on an away mission to strip down to his pants with the rest of the away team and throw himself off the edge of the roaring waterfall. Staying awake all night dancing at a local harvest festival, being exhausted the next morning on the bridge. Helping the medical personnel vaccinate the entire city of T’erthia, even though he couldn’t get hypo’d with the vaccine due to his allergies.

“I’m already exposed,” he’d finally snapped at both McCoy and Spock. “We were down here a day before we figured out what was going on. So if there’s damage to be done, it’s already done. And I can’t go back to the ship before we know if I’ve got it. So let me be of some use.”

Leaving McCoy’s office, Jim stays clear of the mess hall and the rec room. He ends up signing paperwork in his quarters. On his desk lie five stones. He rests one finger of his left hand on each and scans through the reports queued on his PADD. His middle finger taps the dull, ungainly grey rock beneath it. It is a common garden stone, such as one might find ground into gravel, in every way unremarkable. It's nothing at all like the polished black stone flecked with gold that sits on the corner of the desk. Yet both are worn by his fingers; both have been touched too many times, with worry or with relief.

Jim thinks he’s really got to stop sending Cupcake on so many away teams – the man seems to be charmed to get himself out of scrapes, but there’s a reason why security has the highest injury rate. It’s just that he wants the best out there, especially when he himself isn’t on the away team, when he sends Spock.

Finally he thinks it’s been long enough. It’s late in the night now. He stretches and takes off his gold tunic, leaving just the black long-sleeved undershirt. When he exits his quarters, the corridor is silent. There’s not a soul in sight. He grins.

There’s a curious sinuous quality to the silence surrounding him. He chooses not to hop in a turbolift as he heads, at last, to the rec room. He prefers to feel the ship come to life around him the closer he gets to the rest of his crew, to let the pulse of the party rock up through his feet, to hear the noise of music and laughter get louder and louder. Someone has dimmed the lights in the hallway outside the rec room, and inside it is even darker, creating hidden corners.

When he slides in, he lets the crowd wash over him. The party’s in full swing. They pull him in, paying no attention to who he is, pressing their hands against him, pushing their bodies next to him in the crush. A drink is slipped into his hand by another hand, unseen. The entire place smells like exertion and joy blended together, stirred with alcohol and a hint of perfume. Nyota laughs up at him, and he realizes it's her perfume he's catching. A second later, she is gone, swallowed by the crowd. Jim angles his body through his crew, slowly, pausing here and there to dance with one or another, to slap someone’s shoulder, drop a light kiss on Christine’s forehead in thanks for her work today with the rescued away team, to plant one smack on Sulu’s lips when he mockingly holds up his hands in question after watching Jim with Christine. A cheer rises up through the press and waves its way through and back again.

He ends up on the periphery with McCoy. He can hear the heady sounds of pleasure and need slicing through the air from the dark corners. McCoy’s tired and pleased and more than a little tipsy, so Jim silently toasts him and scans the room. He leans back against the table that has been pushed up against the wall; he lets it hold his weight. For the moment, he is content to take in these people whose lives are his responsibility and to bask in their vitality. They are alive. Today, he got back five of his people and lost none.

Even so, his eyes keep wandering the room. He can't help himself in this, or doesn’t care to. Not here, not tonight. He's looking for the quick brilliance of gold sparkling amid the deep of the room, as the stars flash in the black beyond the great bays of the Enterprise. Here a catch of light sprays on an ensign’s necklace as she dances, there Scotty’s amber spirits glow with their fierce fire in the darkness as they’re passed around. But Jim keeps looking, watching, until – he stills.

Spock is graceful on his feet as he weaves his way to Jim’s side. How long he has been in the room, Jim doesn't know. He evades the hands that would touch him in their careless abandon, as he has every time before. The light glints in his hair and in the dim room, his eyes are black flecked with gold.

Jim doesn’t wait for Spock to reach him. Pushing off from his chosen table, he heads for him, tripping slightly as he fails to notice a set of legs entwined in his path. A flicker of amusement passes over Spock’s face before it is impassive once more, and Jim narrows his eyes. Spock arches his eyebrow in challenge.

Jim’s heart beats faster. It elevates his breathing and his pulse – or maybe it’s that want is clogging his throat, rising up from his belly and stealing his breath. He’s pretty sure that Spock would be happy to tell him that his pupils are dilated. Six months after Spock first fucked Jim, five months and three weeks after Jim first fucked Spock, Spock had calculated that his interaction with Jim now increased the probability that Jim would become erect by thirty-four point one percent. Jim had slipped his hand under Spock’s shirt and said, “Care to make that number higher, Mr. Spock?”

By the time Jim reaches Spock, he’s prickling under his arms with the sudden heat of the room, of anticipation and his need to feel Spock’s hands on his body. It only takes a few seconds before Jim stands in front of him – fifteen, twenty – because Spock’s coming towards him as well, but it feels like a cliché: it feels like forever.

Jim stretches out into the charged space between them and lifts Spock’s hand slightly, trailing his fingers over the palm, down Spock’s own fingers. Spock’s eyes widen and darken. Something shifts on his face; Jim wets his dry lips with the tip of his tongue. Spock’s hand curls into itself, a tight fist that makes the tight pulse of need in Jim spiral into something hot and urgent and crazy.

The energy of the party pulses around them. Using the noise as a cover, Jim leans into Spock. His shoulder, his chest, brush Spock’s, and it’s all Jim can do not to let his weight fall against him, to press his face into the dry skin of Spock's neck and suck. He doesn’t do this, not here; he can’t. But he can whisper, “Come on,” into his ear and tug the lobe gently with his teeth, with his lips. He can trace his tongue around the soft flesh there. He can inhale, seeking the elusive, faint scent of this man.

Spock stiffens. He holds himself very still, tensed, like a powerful animal about to spring. Jim feels a thrill run through him. There’s a half-feral glint in those dark eyes, and Jim stares back boldly, daring him.

Slightly, imperceptibly, Spock shakes his head at Jim.

It’s not a ‘no.’

Jim stumbles his way through his crew, groaning when someone’s ass gets shoved into his crotch. He’s half hard already, which is ridiculous given that Spock hasn’t even touched him yet, but he can feel the promise in those eyes weighing on his back.

He leads them out of the party – the sound of it barely fades out in the corridor – and into the small lounge right next door. The room’s empty, but the beat of the party thumps through the wall. It’s almost as if they didn’t leave. The door hisses shut behind them.

Jim barely has time to inhale and turn before Spock’s behind him. Spock shoves him back around and pins his hands to a table. His hands are on top of Jim’s, his body splayed against his. Jim can feel the length of Spock's body, solid and tight, pressing into his back, his ass, the backs of his thighs. His arms shadow Jim’s, inflexible and unyielding.

He tries to thrust back against Spock, but Spock refuses to give way. Some nights, Spock’s hands sing a song to Jim’s body. This is not one of those nights.

Spock yanks Jim’s pants down, taking his underwear with them. The metal edge of the table is a cold shock across Jim’s skin compared to the heat of Spock. A shocking touch of flesh against the crack of his ass makes him clench his muscles and strangle a moan in the back of his throat.

He can still feel the rasp of fabric on his thighs. Spock hasn’t pulled his own pants down, only pulled himself free so that he can slide himself between Jim’s cheeks. Just picturing what they must look like makes Jim shudder. The slick lube quickly warms up on their skin. A blunt pressure pushes into him, and he eases back against the slow, delicious burn.

Jim lets his head fall between his shoulders as Spock fucks him. It’s rough and messy and fast, and when Jim can’t help himself, can’t keep it back any longer, forms Spock’s name breathlessly on his lips, Spock makes an unintelligible sound and shoves up Jim’s shirt and bites down on the round of his shoulder.

Jim bucks helplessly.

“Jim.” Spock’s voice is low in his ear, gritty. “Did you lock the door?”

“Wha- door?” He can’t focus, not with Spock pulled almost all the way out of him, just the tip of his cock teasing his entrance. “No. Move, dammit.”

“Nor did I,” Spock tells him in that same gravelly voice that shoots straight to Jim’s cock.

And yet neither of them makes a move to take care of it, neither raises his voice to the computer.

“Anyone could come in,” Jim moans.

“Yes,” Spock says, and he pushes hard, back into him, all the way. His balls smack against Jim, and Jim moans again, hating the sound, loving the sound, unable to do anything else.

He’s as hard as he’s ever been in his life, and he needs to come, he needs Spock’s hand on him, and the thought of someone stumbling in on them, another couple perhaps, seeking some privacy and finding him being fucked senseless by his fully clothed first officer, almost pushes him over the edge.

Almost.

He’s going to have bruises on his thighs in the morning from being slammed into the table over and over. He’s going to have a round mark on his shoulder, Spock’s mark.

“Reckless, Captain.” Spock would almost sound amused if it weren’t for the catch in his voice, the way it stutters as he wraps his hand around Jim’s cock. His body betrays his need, and Jim shuts his eyes and abandons himself to it.

+++

Five days before this, Jim readies an away team to beam down to Satnur. While the planet isn’t part of the Federation, it’s been visited many times before and this is merely a polite response to a request from government scientists, who’d stated that they had findings of interest to display. Starfleet authorized the mission since it wasn’t too far out of the Enterprise’s way. Good relations are especially important these days.

After consulting Spock, Jim decides Lieutenant Nestor, a level-headed young officer from the science department, will lead the team. “I’m sending two security personnel with you. I’ll review which other science personnel to include.”

She offers up Ensigns Columa and Pi’ith and Perez. “Ensign Columa volunteered, Captain,” she says quietly, “and he’d be a good addition.”

Jim grunts and doesn’t look up at her from his perusal of the personnel reports regarding these three. “I don’t take volunteers, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir,” she says.

A minute later, he puts down his PADD. “All right then, I’m going to order Ensigns Columa and Pi’ith to join you. Security will meet you in the transporter room. Be ready to leave at 09:00 ship’s time. Dismissed.”

She salutes and leaves. Jim comms Cupcake. “You’re to beam down to Satnur at 09:00. Suggestions?”

Jim’s had this conversation with Cupcake enough times to know that he’s aware of the drill. He offers three names; he knows not to suggest merely one as Jim will always insist on having a choice presented to him.

Given the state of their relationship before Jim assumed command, this had caused additional friction once Jim was captain. Jim knew that Cupcake took it as a reflection of Jim’s lack of confidence in his professional skills and ability.

Jim never explains to him that that’s not the case.

But one day after working out in the gym, Jim walks into the locker rooms to grab a fresh towel. He finds Cupcake sitting on a bench, rummaging through his bag. He straightens on seeing the captain and salutes. “Sir.”

“Giotto.” Jim wipes the back of his neck. “Good work today. Were you pleased with Mr. Yan’s performance?” Yan’s new to the ship.

“He’s got promise, sir. Needs to learn not to put himself forward so much. Told him it won’t get him far on this ship. The captain’s got to have choice about who to order where. Captain’s responsibility.”

Jim looks sharply at Cupcake, who shrugs. “Not his fault, sir. I understand Captain Pennrith tries to take only volunteers on away missions, where he can. I explained to Yan that that’s not your way. Same as I tell all the new ones.” Security has the highest incoming rate of new crew. Jim doesn’t let himself blink away from why this is necessary.

“If that’s all, sir?”

Jim nods absently, stuck on his surprise. He hadn’t realized how much Cupcake had seen. The locker room is silent after he leaves. Jim looks down at the bench where his security chief had been sitting before. There’s a small green pebble. He picks it up.

+++

Four days before the party, when the away team fails to check in on schedule, Jim goes to his quarters and puts a dull, ungainly grey rock on the desk in his room. Next to it, he places four others chosen from the drawer, some small, some the size of his fist, one a crystal.

They stay there until the party has whimpered to an end and Jim has placed his fingers against his mouth and nose, trying futilely to sniff the smell of Spock on them. A cold, uncomfortable drip of wetness down the back of his leg, sliding from his ass, makes him shut the rock drawer and head to the bathroom.

+++

It turns out that Spock plays the piano. His touch is light, yet his fingers could break adamantine.

+++

After Jim steals the Romulan cloaking device, he hands it off to Scotty for installation and heads up to the bridge to figure out how to pull Spock back on board. It seems like forever – keep stalling, Spock – before Chekov finally tells Jim that he thinks he’s isolated the Vulcan life sign from those of the Romulans. Jim says, “Get him back here before they execute him.”

“Captain, I cannot separate Mr. Spock’s signal from that of a nearby Romulan. He was alone but another life sign has joined him. They must be standing immediately beside him.”

Jim snorts. “Not 'they,' Ensign. She. Bring ‘em both to directly to the bridge.”

As the shimmer fades from their embracing bodies, Jim says, “Ah, Commander Charvanek. So good of you to join us. We’ll be leaving now. Chekov, get us out of here. Mr. Scott, activate our new cloak.” Jim smiles genially at the Commander.

“Toss her in the brig,” he orders. “Commander, perhaps you would prefer Mr. Spock to be your escort?”

She glares at them both. “After you, Madam,” Spock says.

A few minutes later, once they’ve lost the Romulan vessels trying fruitlessly to find them and are back in Federation space, Jim turns the deck over to Sulu, telling him he’ll be back in a jiffy. Sulu grins. “Take your time, sir. Your chair’s more comfy than mine anyway.”

Jim heads to the brig but doesn’t enter the room. Instead he stays beyond the door where, although he cannot see the occupants, he can still hear them. “I should have expected only betrayal from a Vulcan who knows not the passion of our ancestors.”

Jim can picture Spock raising his eyebrow at her, but he doesn’t expect his next words. “Indeed,” Spock says. “You underestimate yourself considerably if you believe I was not tempted.”

Jim’s throat burns.

“But my loyalty is to my people and the Federation,” Spock continues.

She laughs mirthlessly, a knowing edge to the sound. “And I won’t underestimate the deceit of a Vulcan again. Or at least not a half-Vulcan. Oh, yes, Spock,” she says, “the Empire knows of you, you and your young captain. But you are not as calm as you seem. I catch the bitter ozone of anger in you. I can taste its burn on my fingertips even now where I touched you. You’re not the perfect little Vulcan you wish to be. It’s not every man who can take Subcommander Tal down.”

“Subcommander Tal,” Spock replies in a hard voice, “expressed his sympathy with the war criminal Nero. I did not approve.” The sound of his boots on the floor tells Jim that he’s moving toward the doorway.

“You may have me imprisoned here, Spock, but the wolves are at your door. With Vulcan in ruins, the Federation is weak. We will destroy you.”

Spock doesn’t stop. “I do not fear destruction,” he says as he walks away from her.

She calls out through the force field holding her back, “And what is it you fear?”

He does not answer her. Instead, he says, “Captain,” when he sees Jim leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. “You were able to secure the cloaking device.”

Later, in the heat of Spock’s quarters, Spock methodically strips him bare and bends him over his desk and buries his face in Jim’s ass. His tongue darts over Jim’s hole until Jim is quivering; it pushes inside him again and again, each time with an acrid flicker of ozone that jolts through Jim. When Jim is dripping with his saliva and can barely hold himself up over the desk, Spock slides one finger, slick with lube, into him and then, without warning, thrusts the entire length of his cock deep inside him and fucks him hard and raw. Jim is stretched and filled and rutting against the table and that part’s not even good because the table’s a fucking table and his mind whites out, and soundlessly, Spock comes inside him, pulsing over and over in his body.

Jim is left raw and used, and while Spock’s in the bathroom getting a cloth to clean them up, a chill courses through Jim’s body, even in the red heat of Spock’s quarters.

+++

Jim is left raw and used in the red heat of Spock’s quarters. Sometimes Spock fucks him like this, with an edge to him that Jim would not have thought possible before he knew him. Sometimes when he does, he remembers that Spock is three times stronger than he is and could hold him down. He remembers, almost insensibly as though in a fever, that he’s the captain and should be in charge, should be a man and leader of every soul on this ship.

Sometimes he even thinks this until he’s the one fucking Spock raw, shoving his cock down Spock’s throat while Spock hollows his cheeks around him eagerly, forcing Spock to say his name over and over again until at last it catches in his mouth and breaks against the back of his throat.

Jim’s ass is sore some days when he walks around his ship, but he gives as good as he gets and right now, Spock’s coming back out of the bathroom and wiping a warm wet cloth over his skin and then tossing it in the ‘fresher. He’s taking off his own shirt, which had managed to stay on, and lying down beside Jim, no, surging up against him, the full length of his body pressed against Jim’s, and bliss, this is bliss.

+++

Jim first invites Spock to join him in the rec room for a game of chess after dinner about four months into the mission. He’s not really sure how to treat Spock after he’s officially made captain, so mostly he plays it light.

On the one hand, they did save the world together. Also, they managed to spar together twice a week in the gym at the Academy while waiting for the Enterprise without breaking any bones; Spock didn’t kill him for eavesdropping on his private conversation with Pike; Spock asked to join his crew after turning him down; and since becoming his first, Spock has actually been very helpful, steering Jim toward better decisions and mostly doing it without making him look like the idiot he feels like. Jim’s no fool – he knows he’s better at making snap, gut decisions in an emergency than managing the small, boring details. He’s getting better at it with experience, but it’s not one of those things that comes naturally to him.

On the other hand, Jim hasn’t yet forgotten that he stole Spock’s command by insulting the man’s freshly dead mother. That’s got to be a pretty big black mark against him.

“Resentment is illogical,” Spock tells him.

“My ass,” Jim says.

So, thinking of Spock’s counterpart and the supposedly epic friendship he shared with his captain, Jim invites Spock to play a game of chess and enjoys thoroughly the faint non-expression of surprise and annoyance when he manages to beat Spock on their fourth match.

Still, though, it takes Jim a while to figure out where they’re going with this. He doesn’t bother asking the older Spock. He kind of gets the feeling this is something he’s got to figure out on his own, and anyway, older Spock freaks him out, this stranger looking at him like he knows him, like he knows every last particle of his being, like he has tasted the very blood that pumps through his heart.

While Jim is waiting for the Enterprise to finish getting souped up, Spock’s counterpart says things like, “This universe is not so different from my own.”

“Huh?” Jim had said. “My dad’s dead. Your mom is dead, right now. How is that not different?”

Spock regarded him. “I have seen versions of reality inhabited by the same people where far more is changed.” He smiled faintly at Jim. “Patience, young grasshopper.”

“Huh?” Jim said for a second time.

“Ah.” Spock steepled his hands, the smile disappearing. “You are unfamiliar with this reference. It was, in fact, you who taught it to me. Did you not watch old Terran movies as a child?”

“No.” Jim frowned. “Frank hated them.” He shot a look at his companion. “That would be another difference.”

“Events only matter in so far as they shape us, Jim. It is people that matter. I admit, though, that you and your compatriots have lost your innocence far sooner than I and mine did.” The old man glanced away. He seemed to be looking at something Jim could not see. Perhaps it did not exist in this world.

“In my time, we encountered a reality that was wholly twisted from everything we knew, even though you were still captain and I was still your first officer. The ISS Enterprise was a dark place, for they had no innocence.”

“Then I guess we’ve got more in common with them.” For some reason, Jim took a kind of vicious pleasure in this assertion.

Spock raised his eyebrow. “Negative, Jim. That world had no innocence contained in it. You’ve only lost yours. But all things that are lost may be regained.”

Jim thought of the things he’d seen, the things he’d done at a time when he should have been an innocent, and shook his head but didn’t say anything.

After months of chess in the rec room after dinner, Jim invites Spock to join him in his quarters to play. This, naturally, has nothing to do with the intriguing conversation he’d had with Spock over said game of chess in which Spock had informed him that Vulcans did, in fact, engage in sexual relations for pleasure and that, moreover, he reciprocated Jim’s attraction to him. Despite Spock having had two point five hours available that evening, Jim hadn’t been able to make a move to leave his chair. He’d just sat there, blinking, vague thoughts of fraternization regs flitting through his head.

When Spock does join him in his quarters for a game of chess, they actually end up playing chess. It’s all kinds of uncomfortable. Jim watches Spock, wondering. He looks at all the things he can see – the peak of his ear, the line of his nose, the corner of his eye, his bottom lip. His hands, delicate and sure and sleek on the chess pieces as he picks them up. Pianist’s hands, Winona would say. He looks for all the things he can’t see, and imagines – the sharpness of his bone under his shoulder, the warmth of his clavicle, the parabola of his hipbone, the crease at his groin where, god, Jim would press his open mouth and inhale and breath back out all the want he has for this man sitting there across from him so calmly. Jim would touch every patch of skin that he could, because for months he has not been able to stop wondering where Spock carries the smell of him.

Jim’s not used to this, to months of wanting and not having. He’s always before either gotten what he wanted right away or lost interest. But this – this almost stymies him. He can hardly just jump him over the chess set. If he weren’t James Kirk, he might think he was nervous.

“Simply because you are offered a present does not mean that you must accept it,” Spock had said to him.

“Mama never gave me no presents,” Jim muttered to himself, thinking of something Sam had said to him as a boy. “Not since you came around and made her sad.”

So Jim watches Spock, perhaps even marveling. And Spock watches Jim patiently but with unmistakable desire. He watches Jim watching him, and Jim watches Spock watching him watch Spock, and all the while the heat builds between them.

It builds while they stop at Starbase III to stock up on raw materials. It builds when they spend a week on Meridian V signing an arms deal that’s been in the works for months. It builds as they map out the stars in Ducks’ System. It builds in the ship’s corridors and the confined turbolift and the hot arboretum where the scent of the kal’ta with its deep violet leaves smells metallic and spicy and quiet the way Jim imagines Spock’s body must smell, and in the gym when they spar, the slide of skin on skin almost more than Jim can bear.

It builds until they beam down to Calva about fifteen months into the five year mission. For their beam-down site, they choose the edge of the mining settlement, far enough away not to trip over anyone, close enough that there should be some activity nearby. When they hail the planet, they receive only the automated recording welcoming visitors to the jeweled city of Mendaza. That is not where they want to go. Starfleet records place the mines some two hundred miles north of the city.

This is another one of the “let’s check up on old acquaintances and see what they can offer us before anyone else gets to them” missions. In this case, their orders are to first take a look at the mines – the source of Calva’s wealth – and then make nice with the powers that be.

“Commander,” he says. “You’re with me. Have Ensign Singh and Nurse Pe’lei join us. Mr. Yan and Ensign Huddick from Security will meet us in the transporter room.”

Spock manages to look inquiring without shifting his expression.

“I want someone with medical experience with us.” Jim guesses that this is what Spock wants to know.

“That much is apparent, Captain. What is less clear is your reason.” Spock studies him, and after a brief moment looks satisfied. “You wish to ascertain whether the miners are well-treated.”

“Got it in one,” Jim says, a bit grimly.

“I do not recall that being part of our mission goals.”

“No,” Jim agrees. His shoulder brushes past Spock’s on his way out of the turbolift. Their eyes meet for an impossible second, and fall away.

“I will contact Nurse Pe’lei,” says Spock.

The golden tingle of the transporter beam shimmers through Jim’s body. His team materializes around him. Spock is already starting to scan with his tricorder when someone takes the first step, and a loud crunch sounds. Startled, Jim shifts his weight and moves his foot backwards, and something breaks underneath it.

Ensign Singh cries out, a sharp wail, and something – a quick flash – passes over Spock’s face before he shuts his eyes just long enough so that it is not a blink.

Jim looks down. His heart rate is spiking and sweat is prickling in his armpits, an instantaneous reaction to Spock’s unguarded dismay.

He looks down and sees that he is standing in a bone yard, on a plain of skulls. His foot has crushed through the gaping nose and eye sockets, and he cannot move without shattering more disjointed skeletons. None of them can, for they are in the middle of an enormous open mass grave.

The sound of Yan’s retching is the only noise.

Jim’s fist clenches by his side; he pulls out his communicator to get them the hell out of there.

“Captain.” Spock’s quiet word halts him. He’s scanning the area. There is a faint tightness around his eyes that Jim has rarely seen. “There is great variety in the remains here. I’ve already picked up twenty-one different species.”

Nurse Pe’lei swallows and adds, “These people were not treated well before they died. The bones are marked. I can see places where they were broken and healed improperly. Or not at all.”

Jim bites back rage. He sees the plain of skulls around him, thousands of them. They are yellow and stripped clean of flesh, by time or animals, Jim doesn’t know. Beyond this evil plain rise the mountains, dark and pocked with the scars of mining. But superimposed on top of these bones, he sees the image of bodies, some broken and bloody, some perfect and untouched except for the death wound.

He blinks and Thomas Murray says to him, “Please, Jimmy. When you bury me, don’t let the dirt get in my eyes,” and he remembers what it is to ache, how his back burned with muscle fatigue and his stomach twisted on itself with hunger as he scrabbled in the barren rocky dirt to dig a grave so that Tommy, at least, would not be one more in a pit of bodies and a plain of skulls.

“Captain,” Spock says again. Jim looks at him. Spock looks back, and there is desolation in Spock’s eyes and there is desolation surrounding them, and Yan wipes his mouth and Ensign Singh bites her lip to still the tremble of her chin. Spock holds up a thin collar made of some plastic material.

“I cannot break it,” he says.

Jim looks down again. The collar is off-white, almost translucent against the yellowing bones, but there is another and another and another. They are everywhere and unlike the bones, they have not fallen apart.

“Slave world,” spits Jim. He looks back at the mountains. They are dark and looming and quiet. “Where’s all the activity? These are no active mines.” He flips open his comm. “Transporter room, get us the hell out of here.”

Later, when Jim has thrown off his decay-dusty clothes and showered and put on a clean uniform; when he has hailed every frequency Uhura can find on that damn planet and finally reached some minor official and scared the shit out of him despite not twitching a muscle, not a one, during the entire interview; when he has not filed a report with Starfleet because he doesn’t trust himself to; when he has spent the rest of the day on the bridge not looking over his shoulder at Spock at his station, at the stiffness of his back, because he cannot bear the brightness of those human eyes in that calm Vulcan face, cannot chance seeing the flint of anger contained in those eyes for fear that it will set him off, too.

Later still, late in the night in the depths of the Enterprise, still and quiet and alone and never private in the open deeps of the ship, Spock will say to him – he will confess to him, quietly, watching the floor – “I feel anger.”

Jim will want to laugh, not an amused laugh but an ironic one, and say, “No shit, Spock. I just spent the last hour fucking my brains out with you. I think I got that bit” – but he won’t. He’ll have at least enough sense not to do that. Instead, he’ll be silent, and Spock will reward him with another confidence:

“When we were on Calva today, standing on the plain of bones, I thought that at least these wretched people had their bones.” He will finally look up at Jim. His eyes will be fierce and Jim will want to kiss him, to kiss the high green tint on his lips and flush on his cheeks and edge of his eyes, to kiss the edge of that fierceness and let its fire lick his own mouth.

“My people had even their bones stolen from them in the destruction of Vulcan. There is now no Katric Ark to hold my people, and no katras to be held therein. There is only emptiness.”

Jim will begin to stretch out his hand across the small space the separates them, but Spock will look at his hand and turn away. “Kaiidth,” he will exhale and straighten his tunic and walk toward the center of the ship, his back very straight, while Jim will slump against the table and clutch the black and gold stone in his pocket. The edge will cut into his thumb.

But when Spock says, “Kaiidth,” and walks away from him, it will be the second time he has said it tonight. The first time is just before he drops to his knees in front of Jim and presses his mouth against the covered heavy line between his thighs. The world slows for a space of time, a heartbeat, when he turns his face into Jim’s groin and pauses there in a suspended moment broken only when Jim can’t contain himself further, can’t help but let his body sway forward into Spock. Spock’s hands come up around him, molding his ass.

At the end of his shift, Jim had stalked off the bridge, too pissed and exhausted to do more than turn the deck over to Lieutenant Sawkins. He had no desire for food. Instead, in his quarters, he opened the small gunmetal-grey box sitting next to his dresser and peered in at the jumble of stones it contained. With a sigh, he picked up a flat, tan, oval-shaped rock and held it until it reflected back into his hand the warmth of his palm.

Placing the tan rock back into the box, he let the lid fall shut. Then he lay on his bed and looked at today’s five stones, including the small green pebble given to him by Cupcake.

When he wakes up, it’s late. He pockets the gold-flecked black stone and slips into the corridor.

He’s been walking, aimlessly, touching the inner edges of his ship, for about twenty minutes before he becomes aware that he’s being followed. He turns back.

Spock stands some forty feet behind him. He halts when Jim does and stands there silently, hands clasped behind his back in the posture Jim knows so well. Jim waits – but Spock doesn’t move, doesn’t say a word.

“Spock?” Jim calls out. And then, “Commander?” This time his tone is just a bit sharper, but still Spock doesn’t respond, just silently watches Jim, and finally Jim breathes out and gets it. His body tightens in anticipation. Finally, today of all days, after months of staring at each other over the damn chessboard. The flint of anger in Spock’s eyes at the plain of skulls on Calva ignites the heat that has been so long building between them.

It built while they stopped at starbases and space-flung planets; it built as they mapped out the stars; it built in the ship’s corridors and the confined turbolift; it built in the musky gym with an unbearable slide of skin on skin and in hot arboretum with the metallic, spicy scent of things alive and wanting.

It built until they beam down to Calva, and then it explodes in messy urgency in an unused science lab buried deep in the ship.

Jim turns his back to Spock and continues walking. He can feel more than hear the measured pace behind him. It makes the back of his neck tingle and the hairs rise on his arms. With each step, his heartbeat picks up speed. He tries to think of all the things he’s imagined that he’ll do to Spock when he finally touches him and finds that he can’t remember a single damn thing. All he can think about is the stalk, the soft pad, of Spock’s light tread behind him. He finds that his breath quickens.

He stops in front of the door to an empty science lab. The door is locked because the space isn’t in use. He could open it, but he doesn’t. He just stops there and counts the steps until he knows Spock must be standing directly behind him. He can feel a ghost-touch on his back and neck even though Spock’s hands are still at his sides.

Every muscle in his body is tensed. His nipples rasp against his shirt, sending a flicker of excitement through him. He mutters, “Spock,” and can't take it any longer and faces him. He’s hardly all the way around before Spock surges into him, his hands everywhere. They brush past Jim's face and over his lips. Jim catches a finger between them, making Spock’s mouth part. Faint green color rises on his face; Jim’s never seen anything he wanted so badly. His hands tangle in Spock’s hair as he pulls their mouths together. They only break apart for Spock to rub his thumb over Jim’s lips again, for Jim to again pull Spock’s fingers into his mouth and suck.

With wild eyes, Spock suddenly pushes himself away. Panting, Jim stares at him. Spock’s lips are shining and full and bruised, and Jim knows he’s got to look like even more of the same, only his desire is writ large across his face where Spock’s is to be found in the small tells.

A flash of something – it almost looks like dismay – crosses Spock’s face as he stares at Jim. He leans forward, his breath catching inward, but just as his lips brush Jim’s he whispers “kaiidth” and while Jim’s skin shivers with the almost-touch that he so yearns for, Spock drops to his knees in front of Jim and presses his mouth against the covered heavy line between his thighs. The world slows for a space of time, a heartbeat, when he turns his face into Jim’s groin and pauses there in a suspended moment broken only when Jim can’t contain himself further, can’t help but let his body sway forward into Spock. Spock’s hands come up around him, molding his ass.

Somehow, at some point, one of them issues the command code to unlock the door and they fall through it, twisted and tangled in their various articles of half-discarded clothing. Looking good or suave has nothing to do with this need pulsing between them. Jim lays Spock out on a lab table after Spock has mouthed and licked and sucked the tender skin between his thighs, his ballsac heavy with want, the length of his cock. Jim lays him out and moves over him, feeling the restrained power of his Vulcan muscles, reveling in it. He wants to stop and go slow and nose every inch of this body, to discover where he carries the smell of him, but he cannot because he doesn't have the strength in him to wait.

When he lowers himself onto Spock’s cock, he bites his lower lip and tries – fails – to catch his groan. Spock spreads his legs and braces himself as Jim fucks himself on him.

“Let me hear you,” Spock says, as close to gasping as Jim’s ever heard him. His dark eyes, blown wide with this thing wild between them, echo his words silently. One of his hands clenches on Jim’s leg, where it will leave bruises come morning. The other presses hot on top of Jim’s hand pushing against Spock’s chest.

Later, when they have worn themselves down, still and quiet and alone and never private in the open deeps of the ship, Spock says to him, “I feel anger.” Jim begins to stretch out his hand across the small space that separates them, but Spock looks at it and turns away. “Kaiidth,” he exhales. He straightens his tunic and walks out of the empty lab, toward the center of the ship, his back very straight.

Jim slumps against the table that so recently held both their weights and clutches the black and gold stone in his pocket. The edge cuts into his thumb. He doesn’t know what he imagined when he heard Spock say, what seems like so long ago but was in fact only four months past, “The fact remains that you are attracted to me and I to you,” over a game of chess in the rec room. He doesn’t know what he imagined when he first invited Spock to his quarters to continue their games and maybe to do something more. When he stared at him over the board, at his face and hands and the hidden places of his body, and wondered.

But it was not this.

+++

In his Xenobiology classes, Jim learned that Vulcans don’t sweat.

Yet Spock does. Sometimes, the smallest, most imperceptible amount. It is a faint suggestion of moisture, invisible, unglinting, known only to Jim’s fingertips and nose and mouth when Spock is aroused beyond all knowledge of it and Jim is blind with the pleasure-pain of need and want that never fully abates.

+++

Jim knows that he can’t do everything. He knows that other people can often do what needs to be done better than he can – he’s not an engineer, he’s not a geologist, he’s not a horticulturist. A captain’s task is not to do every job himself, but to put the best person in charge of what needs to be done even if that means sending his crew members into danger.

+++

Sometime later – two years and nine months after the start of the mission, Spock would tell him if he asked – Jim will sit with Bones in his quarters with a blunt glass of whiskey in his hand. This is after he’s spent three weeks captive, sweltering in too much humidity and heat and his own ripe sweat in his six-by-six barred cell. He’d dug through the dirt floor foot after foot, only to hit the metal cage that the dirt walls of his squalid cell were built around. In the process, his bare feet had become lacerated; parasitic larvae from the earth had wormed their way into his skin. His captors had laughed when he learned the futility of his tunneling.

“Did you think we were so foolish as to leave you with such an obvious way out, Captain?” they jeer. “You think your people, your precious Starfleet and Federation, are the only advanced ones? Your arrogance leads you to peril.”

After a week, they drag him out of the earth-wet heat of his cell and into the scorching suns. He blinks against the brightness and squints, determined not to shield his eyes before these people. They leave him on display, hung between rough ropes in the common square for a day and a night, and then throw him back in the cell with a soft pouch of water. It will have to last all day, he knows.

“The Federation is no better than the Klingon or the Romulan Star Empires,” spit the Etrusians. “You’re one more greedy empire in a list of empires. And your ship, your Starfleet, for its all its fancy title and explorations, is just another military branch meant to enforce the dictates of your empire.”

Under the noon Etrusian suns, Jim feels his skin blister and crack. Concentrated salt from his meager sweat burns his flesh. Some of the passersby laugh at him or scoop up handfuls of sharp dirt to pelt him, but most ignore him. He’s not even there to them.

“But look at you now, Captain Kirk. Hung by your arms, unable even to lift your head. Are you so weak and frail that you cannot withstand even our life-giving suns? And this is the great captain of the great flagship of the great empire? H’raktyu shulik’m.” Riqli, the head of the Etrusian guard, laughs.

By the time Spock comes, the parasitic worms have hooked their way deep into Jim’s flesh and spread their eggs in his body. He is wracked with fever-chills, and his feet have swollen with great wounds from the worms.

Spock looks at him for an impossible moment that Jim is barely aware of, and reaches out his hand. He pulls Jim up and helps him walk out of that inferno of a cell. Later, as Jim drifts in his fevers in sickbay, swimming in and out of consciousness, comes the sound of McCoy yelling at Spock for letting him walk even a hundred yards to a safe beam-up site in his condition.

Sitting in McCoy’s quarters after the fever has abated and McCoy has killed every last worm, larva, and egg in his body, and finally, reluctantly, cleared him for limited duty, Jim puts his feet up and sips his whiskey.

Bones scowls at him. “Feet down, kiddo,” he says without much feeling.

“Do you think they were right?” Jim asks him. “About the Federation being an empire?”

Bones sighs. “Get better first. Then worry about it.”

Jim shakes his head. “I have to worry.”

“Jesus, Jim, but you don’t have to care so much. About it all.”

Jim stares into the pale amber of his glass and smiles with little pleasure. “No. I have to care more.”

+++

Spock plays the piano with such a light touch, yet his fingers could break adamantine.

“Where did you learn to play a human instrument?” Jim asks. He’s been serving with Spock for over two years, fucking him for nearly one and a half, and suddenly he finds out that his – what, lover? boyfriend? – his first officer plays the piano.

They’re in the ship’s music room, which Jim had been only vaguely aware of before their Vulcan guests came on board six days ago. He hadn’t known his ship had a piano on it but there it was, both in plain view at the head of the music room and in the ship’s records of miscellaneous inventory. Further research revealed that it became standard procedure some twenty years ago for all Constellation class starships. A survey of Starfleet personnel, overwhelmingly Terran or of Terran-origin planets, found that the piano was the instrument most commonly played and left behind due to size. The music room itself apparently exists, Jim discovers, as some form of stress relief, Starfleet having conducted another study to determine that on long-term missions, such as those served by Constellation class starships, these things were necessary.

Well, yeah. Jim shakes his head. Anyone who’s ever actually served on a ship could tell the bureaucrats that. He thinks of Pike’s words to him in that dingy bar he’d come from: “Your dad had that instinct to leap without looking. In my opinion, it’s something Starfleet’s lost. If you’re half the man your father was, Starfleet could use you.”

But then, twenty years ago, Starfleet could afford to worry about data processing and statistical surveys and pianos. “Starfleet’s developing a new kind of ship. The Indomitable class,” Jim tells McCoy.

McCoy pulls his head out the medical supply cupboard long enough to look at Jim and say, “Okay.” There’s an unspoken “and” tagged on the word.

“Sulu says that scuttlebutt has it that Command’s private nickname for the new line of ships is the Annihilation class.”

This time McCoy pulls his head out and stares at Jim hard for a moment before asking mildly, “How’s Sulu know that?”

Jim shrugs. “Hikaro knows everything.”

McCoy makes a noncommittal sound and frowns.

“I saw a preliminary schematic. They’re expanding sickbay. Getting rid of the science labs. Getting rid of Ambassadors’ quarters. Getting rid of the music room and rec room and officers’ mess. Shrinking the arboretum to a fifth of current standard size. For medical use only.”

“Hell,” McCoy says. His hand flexes around a skin regenerator but his attention is focused on Jim. “What are they putting in all that space?”

Jim smiles flatly. “Weapons.” The medical bay is quiet save for the low hum of equipment.

“Well then, thank god we’re on a Constellation class ship,” McCoy finally says wryly, and he puts down the regenerator with a clank, looking surprised to find it in his hand.

The clank of the regenerator makes Jim blink. He grins suddenly, mischievously. “Why, Bones, don’t you want a bigger sickbay to terrorize your minions in?”

McCoy scowls but the corners of his eyes crinkle up. “Get out of my infirmary before I inflict my reign of terror on you. Don’t you have a ship to run?”

Laughing, Jim goes. He does have a ship to run. A Constellation class ship with a music room on it. “Where did you learn to play a human instrument?” he asks Spock.

Spock’s hand drifts over a few black keys, silently, before he inhales and straightens. He clasps his hands in his lap, as if to keep them away from the keys.

Jim straddles the piano bench.

Finally Spock says, “There was one in my father’s house when I was young. My mother brought it with her from Earth.”

“She played?”

“Yes. They both did, she and my – ”

At Spock’s uncharacteristic hesitation and fumble, Jim looks up sharply. Spock says, staring at the instrument, “She taught him.”

Jim thinks about this for a moment. He can only assume that Spock means that Lady Amanda taught his father, but he has a hard time picturing the stern ambassador playing the piano. Spock’s expression hasn’t changed, but Jim still thinks that it’s pulled tight, somehow. So he doesn’t ask what he wants to ask, but instead says, “Did she teach you too?”

“No,” Spock says, and that is all. Another silence falls.

Jim has the thought, vaguely, that he should stop pushing his luck while he’s ahead, while Spock’s at least told him something since usually it’s Jim who reveals more things about himself to Spock than he’d planned. He doesn’t stop, though. How can he? He only manages, once more, to rein in the question he really wants to ask, then who taught you?

“Play for me?”

Spock looks at him, measuring, and Jim blushes, somehow put off-guard. He rephrases. “Play something?”

“I haven’t touched a piano since I was eight.”

It’s not a ‘no.’ It’s also not a general statement, not from Spock. A human saying “I haven’t touched a piano since I was eight” would mean “I haven’t played since I was eight.” But Spock saying that he hasn’t touched a piano literally means he hasn’t touched a piano since he was eight.

“Before tonight,” Jim points out. “You touched it earlier.”

Spock nods once. “Affirmative.”

“And it didn’t bite.” Jim feels a smile playing around the corners of his mouth; he carefully suppresses it. He scoots forward on the piano bench and looks up at Spock from under his eyelashes. “I’ll make it worth your while,” he promises. He puts his hands on Spock’s thighs, loving the muscle bunched under the soft fabric of his pants.

Spock pulls back, as he has done these last two weeks, ever since they found out about the small Vulcan settlement, and Jim’s temper flares, sudden and sharp, at the negative. But he hasn’t been sucking this man’s dick and learning the tells of his body month after month for nothing. It doesn’t matter that Spock has three times his strength and could push him away. Jim knows how to make him stay.

He surreptitiously inhales the skin at the crook of Spock’s leg and cock, now freed from the fabric of his pants. He would find Spock’s scent, greedy creature that Jim is – he would roll into it if he could, rub it onto his back, bury his nose in it, layer it over himself like a dog – even so, the warmth of his flesh is heady and makes Jim’s eyes flutter shut as he envelops Spock in his mouth.

Between his lips, Spock’s cock swells and rises. The sudden weight of his hands falling awkwardly behind him onto the keys creates a discordant deep noise. It slowly fades as Spock leaves his hands there, bracing himself. He leans against the piano.

When Spock is fully hard inside his mouth, Jim pulls back with a wet sound. Spock narrows his eyes and tangles his fingers into Jim’s short hair. He applies forward pressure, downward.

Jim laughs and licks his bottom lip, feeling its puffiness under his tongue. “I just want to look,” he says, and he does. The sight of Spock, entirely clothed except for the gaping opening to his pants, his cock drawn out and exposed and pulsing with a life of its own, flushed green and pulled taut, makes Jim squirm down against the piano bench. His clothing is too tight; it is too hot; his world is narrowed to the head-to-toe throbbing of his body and Spock, Spock waiting in front of him. A heady rush barrels through Jim, and he moans into Spock’s skin.

He thinks he hears Spock whisper his name, but the sound floats away like a single note and then Spock yanks his head back to his groin, and Jim laughs and sucks him deep between the flesh of his cheeks. “You left the door unlocked again,” Spock says, his voice gritty, just the way Jim loves to hear it.

“You’re thinking that no one comes down here,” Spock continues in that low voice.

“And if anyone did,” – his voice catches as Jim flicks his tongue against the head of his cock – “then maybe you’d like them to see.

“See their captain with his mouth open,” – Jim digs his fingers into Spock’s hips where he’s holding him – “lost to everything, his lips bruised and wet and— ”

“Jesus, Spock,” Jim gasps, and Spock growls and Jim shudders and swallows Spock’s cock against the back of his throat and Spock is shuddering too, thrusting in enough to choke Jim, his saliva leaking out of the edge of his mouth, and suddenly the metallic taste of Spock floods into his mouth and he swallows against it desperately.

His mouth shines, obscene.

Jim’s breath is heavy in his ears. His blood courses through him. Spock reaches for him, ready to reciprocate, but Jim shakes his head. Spock raises his eyebrow and looks pointedly at Jim’s pants, at the distorted twist of fabric pushing upwards.

“Play something,” Jim tells him, his heart racing. With you, with me like this, he means. Like this when I’m wild for you and can think of nothing else but having you, I want to hear you play. He reaches up and tucks Spock back into his pants, finishing with a gentle pat to his now-covered groin.

Spock sits down on the bench next to him, and Jim briefly, so briefly it almost doesn’t happen, leans into him and rests his head on his shoulder. But Spock lays his hands on the keys hesitantly and Jim stills, and a few notes sound and Spock’s fingers start moving faster, up and down in scales that grow more and more complicated, and then, suddenly, the notes are falling into music.

Jim doesn’t know what it is, although he suspects it’s Terran in nature, given the instrument. It’s not the most complex thing he’s ever heard or the best playing, though Spock with his superb memory and rapid coordination plays proficiently. Nor is it the most passionate thing he’s ever heard because this is Spock and he does not give himself away easily, or at all, and his fingers are cautious on the keys.

But sitting next to Spock with his body aching and his erection, though not his want, slowly subsiding, Jim can’t really think of anywhere else he’d rather be.

Until the door hisses open and Spock’s fingers slam down onto the keys with abrupt force, and Jim turns to see who’s there while Spock removes his hands from the keys and folds them in his lap and sits very still and straight.

It’s one of the Vulcan guests the Enterprise is transporting back to Starbase V, where they will pick up transport to the Vulcan colony. Most of them keep to their assigned quarters, but the leader of the group is extremely social for a Vulcan and he seems to be everywhere. Now he’s here and Spock is tense, as he always is when this Vulcan is near, and before Jim can say anything, Spock stands and says, “Excuse me, Captain,” and leaves the room. He doesn’t look at the other Vulcan as he passes by him.

The Vulcan’s face seems to smile, sardonically, and he pointedly flicks his eyes over Jim’s flushed face and swollen lip, and down his body.

Jim leaves, too.

+++

When Jim made captain, he looked up the fraternization regs. It wasn’t the first time he’d consulted them, but this time he was going to make sure they stuck in his head. Because he’d always figured that if he was going to have to break a rule someday, he’d damn well better know which rule he was breaking.

With Spock, well, he either obliterated all the rules a long time ago or they never existed in the first place.

+++

Three years and two months after the start of the mission, they arrive back from previously unexplored space to Tigoon, its edge, where they are to help mediate the dispute between the two primary governments on the main landmass. Several days after that, they are hailed by the small settlement on one of the small continent islands that their scanners picked up.

“Oh yes,” the leader of the Tiga people says when asked about the other inhabitants of the planet. “It’s a mixed colony that we allowed to settle on one of the desert islands.” She flicks her wrist, the Tigan equivalent of a shrug. “We can’t use the space as both my people and the Gippa require far more water and temperate climates. They’re mostly Vulcan or Vulcanoid, though he’s got a few of every kind, it seems. They like the heat. So we charge them a small fee and it works out well for everyone.”

“Do the Gippa also charge the colony a fee?” Spock asks.

She flicks her wrist again. “Perhaps. If they’re smart.” Her tone implies doubt about that, but then, it’s the dispute between the Tiga and the Gippa that the Enterprise is here to deal with. No border world is too insignificant these days, not with the Klingons lurking around every corner. Command might not word it quite like that.

When the settlement’s leader hails the Enterprise and appears on the viewscreen, requesting permission to come aboard, Spock rises from his station to fall in line behind Jim’s shoulder and says to him, “This is not wise, Captain. Do not trust him, for he is dangerous beyond appearances.”

+++

Sitting in the bar that had so often cradled Jim in its boozy embrace, Pike said to him, “If you’re half the man your father was, Starfleet could use you. Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes. He saved eight hundred lives, including your mother’s and yours. I dare you to do better.”

Jim’s been out here in the black over a year now. He’s been captain of his starship for a hell of a lot longer than twelve minutes, even if he is still pretty much a novice at it and mostly doesn’t know what he’s doing and feels like he’s fumbling around his captaincy the way he did the first time he got a girl naked in a room with him.

There are days he wants to say to the Admiral, “You know what, I’m not George Kirk. And I envy the fuck out of him.”

George Kirk was able to sacrifice himself rather than his crew, and his son doesn’t have that luxury. Because he’s not a captain for twelve minutes but for all the minutes that he sees stretching out before him.

+++

Spock once says to him, “Simply because you are offered a present does not mean that you must accept it,” and Jim mutters quietly, but never quite quietly enough around Spock’s sharp ears, “Mama never gave me no presents. Not since you came around and made her sad.” He thinks of Sam’s accusing face.

Shortly after that, he went to stay with his aunt and uncle.

Sometimes Scotty comes to find Jim. He’ll be all excited about this or that, some new equation to push more energy out of the dilithium crystals or some new transporter matrix. Jim’s one of the few people on board who gets what he’s talking about. Spock does, too, but Scotty doesn’t find his reactions enthusiastic enough. McCoy, on the other hand, McCoy he gets enthusiasm from but no real understanding and soon enough the doctor will be trying to tell him all about the new ocular regeneration process for use on adolescent Andorians and Scotty will wrinkle his brow and look around helplessly.

“Winona Kirk,” Scotty says to Jim, “is a damn fine engineer.” He reads her papers and lights up over them, and brings his eagerness for them to Jim.

Jim is never quite sure how to react.

+++

Hanging under the noon Etrusian suns, Jim feels his skin blister and crack. Concentrated salt from his meager sweat burns his flesh. After a week, his captors had led him out of the earth-wet heat of his cell and into the scorching suns. He blinked against the brightness and squinted, determined not to shield his eyes before these people. They left him on display, hung between rough ropes in the common square for a day and a night.

This is only four months before the Enterprise is sent to Tigoon to mediate the dispute between the Gippa and the Tiga where they unexpectedly pick up their Vulcan guests. Spock says, “The Vulcan elders have called home all our people to New Vulcan. They are answering the summons,” and Jim feels like he’s been sucker-punched left winded.

The noon Etrusian suns make his flesh split, as though his self is expanding suddenly, peeling back on itself inside out. He is being flayed alive by a merciless star, blood splattering in a wide spray, all of who he is. He is a naked human under the noon Vulcan sun that was, being burned alive. He has looked on that sun in the elder Spock’s mind on the ice planet, and in the shelter of his mind it was warm and welcoming and all-encompassing. He was wrapped up in this overwhelming love, and for a nanosecond and an eternity they had walked together in a shaded garden under that high sun. Their fingers brushed, not haphazardly.

“Jim,” Spock said calmly but with infinite affection in his voice for only Jim to hear, “stay out of the sun. It will make you ill.” There are wrinkles on his face, slight and worn easily.

Jim sees himself – he has put on weight and his hair has grown longer and there are a dozen laugh lines about his eyes and mouth, sagging, and he is old, older, and at the same time he is still young, with a young body that barely understands, and he is standing not in the fiery burn of a Vulcan noon but in the frozen bite of a cave with Spock’s fingers splayed over his face – and –

He cannot compare the elder Spock’s telepathy to that of his own Spock because Spock has never melded with him. When, heedlessly, Jim has brushed his fingers over Spock’s meldpoints, Spock jerks back. Somehow, the motion manages to lack any of his usual grace, a startled, skittish denial. His movements are usually so deliberate, so sensible. His withdrawal is not.

+++

Jim’s drawer of stones is always growing. So too is the smaller collection held in the gunmetal grey box on the floor next to the dresser with the stone-drawer, but he does everything in his power and in his mighty ship’s power and his genius crew’s power to keep that box as empty as possible.

Some stones Jim buys. Gems that sing in a shop window, crystals that burn.

Some stones are gifted to him, a few. Some knowingly – the little green pebble left on the locker room bench by Cupcake comes to mind; some unknowingly. Jim thinks of one of their first missions, a trip to the ocean world Nerea. Walking the white shoreline, the floating city far in the distance beyond the waves, Nyota had bent over and scooped up a handful of the uneven beach beneath her feet. Jim watched her widen her fingers and let the sand stream down between them. She examined the broken shells and sea stones left in her palm, and smiled. She held up an opaque white stone, small and solid. “It’s gorgeous.” Jim held out his hand. “May I?” And he kept it, always thinking of her when he looked at it after.

Some stones are not stones at all, but are bits of polished glass or smooth warm wood, circled through with rings of life.

Some stones are worth money, some are not.

Some are the size of a fingernail, some of heavy weights in the belly of his hand.

But most stones he finds himself when he’s not looking for them, if that time can be said to ever exist. Perhaps it does not because Jim has watched for rocks so long that he’s barely aware of doing it anymore. Because he never knows when he might need one.

+++

Spock plays the piano with such a light touch, yet his fingers could break adamantine. Of course, like so many things, Jim doesn’t know this until the Enterprise takes on board the forty-four Vulcans, plus their leader, from Tigoon. The Vulcans they will drop off at Starbase V; the remaining members of the settlement will engage private space transport to take them where they will, most of them willing to go to the colony on Stoneman’s Moon.

“They want to go to the commune?” Sulu says incredulously in the briefing the morning before the Enterprise leaves Tigoon. “The hippie colony?”

Chekov looks confused. “Why are we taking the Vulcans and leaving the rest? Why are they splitting up? Did they not all start the settlement together?”

McCoy snorts but manages to contain himself when Uhura frowns at him. “General Order Number 341.5,” she tells Chekov and the rest of the table. “Priority transportation for all Vulcans. Basically if a ship isn’t handling an emergency or involved in any hostile engagements, it has to give consideration to any reasonable requests made by a Vulcan who asks for transport along the ship’s route or any place not too far off-route.”

Jim leans back in his chair. He likes his chair in his ready room. It swivels and bends backwards. “So in accordance with General Order 3-whatever, I’ve decided to give this lot a lift.” His eyes flicker toward Spock, who is still looking as unhappy as Spock ever looks about anything. Something is unsettled in his eyes. Jim has seen this expression – when he said, “The cadet’s logic is sound,” and acknowledged that his home planet might very well be under attack just before Captain Pike dropped the Enterprise out of warp and ordered their shields up; when he whispered “kaiidth” before dropping to his knees and pressing his face hot against Jim’s groin; when he turned his face from Jim’s fingers pressing against his meld points.

“It’s nearly a three week trip back to Starbase V but we were headed that direction anyway. Lieutenant Uhura, please notify Ensign Carby that he’s in charge of getting them settled. Also, send out a shipwide memo notifying all crew of our anticipated guests.”

“That’s a lot people,” Sulu says. “We’ll have to double them up in quarters.”

“A lot of Vulcans,” McCoy mutters. He jerks and glares at Uhura, who is frowning at him again. Jim winces on his behalf: Uhura’s got a solid little shin kick. “What? I’m the sucker who’s got to check every single one of them out to make sure they don’t take back any bugs to the Vulcan colony. My whole sickbay, infected with stick-up-their-ass Vulcans for days on end.”

Spock finally speaks up, looking up from his contemplation of the table. “I think you’ll find, Doctor, that these Vulcans may not conform to your expectations of Vulcans.” But beyond that he won’t say anything more, and in fact Jim suspects he regrets saying anything at all. He returns to his examination of the black tabletop.

The conversation turns to the rest of their mission to Tigoon. “Report, Mr. Spock,” Jim tells him, and he does, followed by Uhura and Ensign Okuele who by this point has stopped blinking in surprise at her command crew and just looks confused. Her report is very well put together, though, and Jim tells her so. She blushes under the praise. Jim thinks of a little rose quartz rock he has that will do very well for her.

When everyone’s given their report and new assignments have been handed out – “Decreed,” McCoy says, and Jim winks at him and tells him to enjoy his Vulcans – Jim asks if there are any questions. There’s a moment of silence and he’s just about ready to dismiss everyone, when Chekov says, “Uhm, Captain, I still do not understand about the Vulcans. Why are we taking the Vulcans to Starbase V?”

Sulu laughs and says, “Dude. We covered that.”

Without knowing why, Jim straightens in his chair, and Chekov says with some frustration, “No, no, I understand why we are transporting them. Why are they leaving their settlement? There’s nothing wrong with it, right?”

There’s a pause in the room, and Jim is tense. Then Uhura says, “They want to go to the colony and help out.” This is pretty much what Jim would have said, if he’d given it much thought, if Uhura had not said it for him, but he finds himself looking at Spock with a growing foreboding sensation somewhere around his gut.

Because Spock, who had gone back to his contemplation of the table, has lifted his head and is looking back at Jim, even though he’s answering Chekov’s question. He says, “The Vulcan elders have called home all our people to New Vulcan. They are answering the summons,” and Jim feels like he’s been sucker-punched and he is left winded.

“All our people,” Spock said. “Called home.”

“Dismissed,” Jim says, and has to swallow against his dry throat.

It’s another thing Jim doesn’t know until the Enterprise has those forty-four Vulcans on board, plus their unsettling leader. Just like he has no idea Spock can play the piano.

It’s the noise that draws Jim to the music room. They’re still in orbit around Tigoon; in ten hours Lieutenant Choe’s team will return to the ship and they’ll head out and Jim will be able to put the stones away again. In preparation, they’ve already taken aboard the Vulcans from the now-defunct settlement. It’s evening on the Enterprise.

Jim stops in the middle of the hallway and looks askance at Spock. “Do you hear that racket down there?”

Spock raises his eyebrow as if to say, “Need I remind you again that Vulcan hearing is superior to that of humans?” but he only states, “I believe the music room is located in subsection C-4 of the ship.”

It’s another one of Spock’s non-answers, and Jim folds his arms over his chest and stares at him. He can’t believe that Spock would have gotten away with that shit on Vulcan, the way he answers questions that he doesn’t want to – or perhaps can’t – answer with evasion, an answer that sounds responsive but isn’t, quite.

Most humans don’t pick it up, though. Jim has to acknowledge that it’s actually a fairly typical human way to reply, but when humans do it, most of the time, it’s just the way they talk. When Spock does it, it can only be deliberate. He’s too precise, too Vulcan, too full of certainty and occasional arrogance for it to be otherwise.

Jim hates being condescended to that way.

Even though Jim’s the captain, Spock has a way of getting around the things he doesn’t agree with that amazes Jim. Spock wraps himself up in this amazing and terrifying dignity that Jim alternately ignores or deliberately jostles because that’s the way Jim is, because if he didn’t he’d probably end up feeling like a clumsy fool tripping over his own feet.

Even when they’re having sex, a measure of reserve shimmers around Spock like a barrier. It dropped when Spock tried to kill him on the bridge after he insulted his mother; it dropped when he whispered “kaiidth” before falling to his knees and pressing his face hot against Jim’s groin; it solidified when he turned his face from Jim’s fingers ghosting past his meld points.

Sometimes, now, Jim feels as though he’s dug his hand deep into his drawer of rocks and fed them to his mouth, swallowed them down. They grind in his belly, tearing; there’s a gold-glinted black stone cutting into the moist, tender flesh deep in his throat.

He’s had this feeling since some eight months ago Spock said to him, in Jim’s rooms, “You’re experiencing what humans refer to as ‘being in love’ with my person.”

Spock said to him, in a night cradled by the shining stars beyond the ship, “You’re in love with me,” and Jim couldn’t deny it. When a human says something like that to his lover, he generally means either to say something that basically means, “Sucker (I don’t feel the same way),” or he will follow it up with, “I’m in love with you too.”

Spock does neither. Jim sits on his bed and looks through his viewing port, out at those golden stars in a black night, and misses the soft full moon of Earth hung low and still at dusk.

While attending the Academy, McCoy said to him, “You know, we all think we want someone else to know every corner of our soul. But we don’t, not really. Because it’s too fuckin’ terrifying, sweetheart.” He’s drunk. Drunk and talking about his ex-wife and how she won’t let him see his little girl.

“Because if you’re letting someone see every little piece of you, you’re pretty damn gone on them. They’re filling you up, inside out. And inevitably, you’re gonna find out one day that their world doesn’t actually revolve around you exclusively. Or at all.”

He empties the bottle of Tennessee whiskey straight into his mouth. “What do you think that looks like, Jim?” he says, scowling at the bottle. “Like the bottom of a goddamn bottle of whiskey, that’s what.” He lets his hand fall to the grass with the glass bottle still in it. It clunks faintly against the earth.

Jim leans back on his elbows and stretches out his legs. He looks up at the full moon suspended low above the hills of San Francisco. “We can’t have that, can we,” he says. “We’d better go find another one, then.” He resigns himself to a spectacular hangover in the morning, at least until he can raid Bones’s stock of hangover hypos.

So Spock says to him, “You’re in love with me,” and Jim sits on his bed wishing for the moon, terrified. As usual, his fear manifests as anger. “Get out,” he spits.

Eight months later, Spock is standing in the ship’s corridor, non-answering Jim, “I believe the music room is located in subsection C-4 of the ship,” and Jim is crossing his arms over his chest, feeling the grate of the rocks in his belly.

“Do you plan on being this difficult the entire time those Vulcans are on board?” he snaps.

“I am uncertain what you’re referring to, Captain.”

“Uh-huh,” says Jim. “I’m going to investigate the noise. I think I hear a guitar.”

“Yes, Captain. You do not require my presence.” It’s not quite a question.

“Oh, no, there you’re wrong, Mr. Spock. You’re with me.” Jim only says this to piss Spock off who, for some reason, doesn’t seem to want to go near the music room. He starts forward.

After a heavy silence, “So I am, Jim,” Spock says quietly. Jim looks back quickly over his shoulder, not sure if he’s heard him right. It would seem like a snide comment, after the little exchange they’ve just had, except for how quietly he spoke. He wears a faintly troubled expression.

Jim grits his teeth and decides to ignore the comment, whatever it meant. He can’t, not right now. He and Spock come to the doorway of the music room. It’s been locked open in place. Two dozen of his crew are milling about, some chatting, some tuning instruments. In the front of the room stands the leader of the Vulcan group they’ve just taken on board. He has a cluster of people around him and is smiling at them.

Jim can feel his eyes go wide. “Is he smiling?” he asks Spock, his voice pitching high on the last word.

Spock sighs inaudibly. Jim feels it through the touch of their arms as they stand side by side. He hadn’t even known he was touching Spock. “It would appear so.”

“Oh, Christ,” Jim hisses. “I’ve brought a Romulan spy onto my ship. Why didn’t you make me listen to you when you said he was dangerous?”

“He is not a Romulan spy, Captain.” Spock’s voice is even.

“A Vulcan android with crossed wires? Is he going to blow up my ship?” he says under his breath.

“I cannot predict what he will do, but I don’t think sabotaging the Enterprise is among his plans.”

“You think he has plans.”

“Undoubtedly.”

“Crazy?”

“Who are you referring to, the Vulcan or his plans?”

“Both?”

“Possibly.”

Jim looks at Spock, actually worried now, forgetting their spat a few minutes ago. “That was really a pretty imprecise statement, coming from you.”

And finally Spock does raise his eyebrow and say, “Need I remind you again that Vulcan hearing is superior to that of humans? The subject of our conversation can likely overhear the entire thing,” and, improbably, Jim laughs.

“I cannot claim to know this Vulcan,” Spock continues. “I only know, based on his actions to date, that he may be unpredictable.” Spock is staring across the room as he says this, watching the other Vulcan steadily, and the Vulcan looks up, right at Spock as he says this to Jim.

He calls out across the room, “So! We have nearly a full Terran orchestra here. Shall we arrange for a concert? With the Captain’s permission, of course.” He bows in Jim’s direction.

Spock’s arm is tense next to Jim’s.

The self-appointed leader of the fledgling orchestra glances about the room. “Do we have any horns?” Ensign Tucker raises her hand. “Clarinets? Ah, yes. And a pianist? Who here plays the piano?” He moves to the piano at the head of the room and strokes his hand over the dark wood surface of the instrument. He picks out a few notes and lifts his head and meets Spock’s gaze, unblinking. “I can play,” he says. “But who else?” His eyes never waver from Spock’s.

“I believe you should inquire after Mr. Takhalov. My presence is required in science lab 4,” Spock says. His back is ramrod stiff as he leaves.

The Vulcan transfers his gaze to Jim. “Captain, will you join us for some music?” That damn smile hasn’t left his face.

“I think I will,” Jim says nonchalantly, as though his mind’s not racing inside his head. The Vulcan seats himself on the piano bench and lets the notes ripple over one another. Gradually someone with a violin joins in and then another, and then the clarinetist and then more. The sound’s not perfect, but above it all, the piano dances gracefully.

Jim would love to hear Spock play.

+++

In a world Jim once lived on, there were golden fields. There were green orchards heavy with fruit beyond the golden fields and deep purple rows of berries beyond the orchards. But it is those golden fields that Jim remembers most, how the summer wind set a ripple through them under an unshaded sky.

Jim remembers that to reach the school, gleaming and new and metallic, he had to pass by the golden fields. His aunt and uncle lived on the outskirts of the settlement. He would meet David Murray on his bike at the corner of Smith Drive and Main Street, sometimes with Dave’s little brother Tommy, and they would meander their way down Main Street, past the shining government buildings and governor’s mansion. Most days they even made it to school on time.

He remembers hanging out behind the dumpsters after class let out, gagging for a peep at the dirty holovids that Leroy Matsumoto found hidden under his cousin’s bed. He remembers playing baseball at the edge of the green orchards, pale with unripened fruit in the early summer. He remembers snagging his clothes on the deep purple rows of berries and cramming handful after handful into his mouth with Dave and Tommy and Tommy’s friend Kevin until they were all bursting and sick with it, and their hands and mouths stained red-blue.

He remembers that in those purpled bushes and golden fields and under those green trees and blue, blue sky, he was just Jimmy Kirk. Unlike in Riverside, he wasn’t James Kirk, son of the late and great George Kirk. He wasn’t Jimmy Kirk, son of that poor young Winona – “She can’t bear it,” Mrs. Moreley says to the store clerk, Tabitha Wise, while Jimmy’s pocketing a pack of candy in the next row over. “She’s left them with Frank again. That man!” She sighs. “It’s not right.” He wasn’t “You stupid runt, get your ass back here before I whoop it.”

He remembers those purpled bushes withering and the fruit falling, diseased, from the brown trees under a blue, blue sky. He remembers the golden fields crumpling down on themselves, the wind unable to stir them. He remembers the dry, dusty dirt littered with small rocks as the plants shrivelled away, and the silence of the skies as the song birds starved and fell, or grew fat with bloat and toxin from the sickened grains.

+++

Jim, on the Romulan ship trying to steal a cloak while Spock seduces – or lets himself be seduced by – the Romulan commander, isn’t the first person Spock’s used the Vulcan death grip on. The first person was a girl of about ten Terran years, to judge by the look of her, who Jim had spent the last three hours feeding candy and telling funny stories to. She introduced him to her friends as the day schools let out, and soon Jim had a group of eight children surrounding him.

“This is Priun,” the girl, Fik’a, tells Jim. She grins. “He’s my friend even though he’s stuffy sometimes. Because he’s twelve and the oldest son of the P’truq family and his father’s the Primus of Satnur.” She wrinkles her face. “And because he’s a boy.”

Jim laughs and tells her to be careful not to catch cooties from him, which he then has to explain because the Satnurnian child has no idea what cooties are, of course. “Oh, like the ik’ki,” she exclaims once she understands the concept. “Gross! But really, Captain Kirk, I’m too big to catch the ik’ki from boys. They’re for little kids like my sister.” Beside Fik’a, Fiq’e smiles up at him with a gape-toothed smile. Her mouth is stained blue from the sweets Jim has fed her.

Priun, the son of the Primus, is standing off to one side. He’s been watching Jim suspiciously ever since Fik’a had pulled him over to her group of friends.

Jim smiles easily at him and holds out his hand. “On Earth, we shake hands like this when we meet new people,” he says.

Priun frowns. “Strangers aren’t allowed in the sacred square. I’ve pinged my father and his security team. They’ll be here any moment.”

“Smart thinking. I’m looking forward to meeting your dad. I hear he’s pretty important around here.” Jim’s still holding his hand out.

Reluctantly, the boy steps forward. He looks at Jim’s hand. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

“You put your hand in mine, palm to palm, and grip for just a moment.”

“Why?”

Jim shrugs. “Tradition?”

“Terran lore would say that it signifies that neither party holds a weapon, and thus is a gesture of good faith.” Spock stands at Jim’s shoulder. A few feet away, Nyota is letting Fiq’e touch her long hair.

Priun stretches out his hand and places it in Jim’s. Jim’s grip tightens over his; Spock says, “Captain,” sharply; a large man in dark clothes yells something as he and a full Satnurnian security team shimmer into place just beyond the edges of the sacred square where Jim and his team stand with the children.

Jim looks down at Priun, whose hand is still caught in his. “There are always other weapons. Remember that,” he says, and he yanks the boy forward against his body, his arm locking around his neck and forcing his head up. “Your father, I assume?”

“Hello!” he calls out to the Primus. “I’m Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise. I believe you have my people. And I want them back.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Spock with Fik’a between his hands, Nyota holding a screaming Fiq’e. Behind him, he knows the rest of the team will have the other children under control.

Jim ignores the Primus’s denials and demands that he release his son and the other kids. “Their names are Lieutenant Nestor, Mr. Homapour and Ensigns Columa and Pi’ith and Lieutenant Giotto. We know you can’t transport directly into this sacred square unless you drop the shields around it. You will remain where you are – if you or your men come any closer, the children will show you what a mistake that would be. You will beam my people to where you are standing, and then you will drop the shields around this square and we will exchange our hostages for my crew. You will leave the shields down while we beam back to the Enterprise.”

The Primus laughs at him. “So now you are a murderer of children, Captain Kirk? I think not. You’re bluffing.”

Jim doesn’t blink. “Try me,” he says. “You have three minutes to get my people here.”

When five minutes have gone by – five minutes of Fiq’e wailing and Fik’a crying silently and Priun standing stiff under Jim’s hold, five minutes of the Primus’s blustering and an angry crowd gathering around the small Enterprise team held back only by the terrified children and the sacredness of the square – Jim sighs and says, “I wasn’t joking, Primus Liv. I didn’t want to do this.” He trails off.

“Commander?”

Spock steps forward, bringing Fik’a with him. “There’s no need for the girl to suffer. You can use the Vulcan death grip.”

A horrified gasp rings through the square from the muttering crowd. Spock’s eyes meet Jim’s. “Yes, sir,” he says, and his fingers close over the soft flesh of the girl’s neck. She falls to the ground, still and crumpled. Her sister screams. Jim feels the boy jerk against his body. Spock steps back, clasping his hands behind his back, expressionless.

“Who’s next, Primus? Her sister? Your son?”

“Monsters!” a woman in the crowd screams.

Jim smiles mirthlessly. “Ask your government why they kidnapped my people.”

“Lies!” someone else from the crowd yells. “Impossible lies!”

Jim continues relentlessly. “Ask your Primus where he is holding them. Do you even know of the dark rooms built in the caverns beneath the First Edifice?” He stares at Liv. “Tell your son of the science labs honeycombed beneath this very sacred square.”

The Primus blanches. He looks at his son, and his body sags. He barks an order to his guard.

Interminable minutes pass. “Nyota.” Jim jerks his head toward Spock. She forces Fiq’e into his hands. “Father,” Priun begs.

“Wait!” the Primus shouts. “Your people are coming.”

“Not soon enough,” Jim replies. “Go ahead, Mr. Spock.”

Once back on the ship, as Jim, Spock, and Nyota return to the bridge, Jim lets himself slump against the inside of the turbolift.

“Shit,” he says. “I didn’t think that was going to work.”

“It was a good plan, Captain,” Nyota tells him. “Even if it did require an extra-large helping of that Kirk luck.”

“Many things could have gone wrong.” Spock looks as unruffled as ever, but his eyes are dark.

“Too many. Good thinking on using the sacred square to hold them off, Uhura.” They’re all quiet for a moment. “Spock? There’s not really anything called a Vulcan death grip, right?”

Nyota’s eyes open wide. “Jesus. I thought you and Spock had planned that in advance!”

“Nope. I was just making it all up and hoping Spock would come up with something that didn’t involve actual death.”

Nyota shakes her head. “But, Captain, kids. What if it had gone wrong?”

“Lieutenant,” Jim says. “They had my crew.” His voice is flat.

After a long moment, the doors slide open to the bridge. No one in the turbo moves until a small smile cracks Nyota’s face and she says, “Not anymore, Captain Kirk,” and he grins at her, feeling suddenly younger, and says, “Fuck no.”

The ship will celebrate tonight. They will celebrate the rescue of their crewmates. They will celebrate and Jim will celebrate too, but he will also wonder why. Not the details of why – he’s pretty sure that Ensign Pi’ith, a Menorian, was too tempting for the Primus and his gang of so-called scientists to resist experimenting on – but the broad whys and wherefores.

Months ago, Spock had said to him, “On ancient Vulcan, passivity was a weakness. You would perhaps call it the Code of Hammurabi, an eye for an eye. The slaying of a warrior or any of his family merited revenge, justice we called it. To fail to mete out justice only opened the clan to further acts of violence, as stronger clans would be at liberty to prey on their weakness.”

Jim put his hand on Spock’s thigh as he lay beside Spock, who sat upright in the bed. “What would the annihilation of an entire planet warrant?”

Spock shook his head. Eyes closed, he said, “’The silver vilka swallow flies the straight path of logic, above the twisting rivers of blood in the desert. Beyond the slain warrior’s memory and his shieldmate’s wrath, the vilka will make his nest. Let us seek him at dawn. Thus spake Surak.’”

Jim dozed off with the heat of Spock’s skin under his hand, the firm flesh still as Spock sat on the edge of the bed quietly. A thought teased his half-awake, half-dreaming mind.

“I must go,” Spock said after some time – minutes? An hour? – had passed. He removed Jim’s hand from his leg, then stood and dressed himself. When he was at the door, Jim called out to him. “You know the Terran poet Rumi, right?”

Spock nodded.

“I was trying to think of what Surak’s words reminded me of. There’s this famous line of Rumi’s that sounds a lot like that. I can’t think of it now.”

“You could ask the computer.”

“I could.”

Jim didn’t. Spock waited a moment longer and then left.

After rescuing Lieutenant Nestor and Mr. Homapour and Ensigns Columa and Pi’ith and Cupcake from the Satnurniens, the ship will celebrate. They will celebrate the rescue of their crewmates. This is why he refuses to feel bad that he used children to get done what he needed to do.

There’s a lift in the steps of the crew Jim passes in the hallways. They wipe small smiles, small secrets, from their faces as they salute him. “Captain,” they say, with a sparkle in their eyes. Conversations hidden behind hands, whispered into each other’s ears, stop short when he comes near.

By late afternoon, the ship has an energy to it that seems to pulse with her engines. There is a crackle of expectation snapping through her air. In the captain’s chair, Jim sits and taps his fingers. Behind him, Nyota murmurs into the comm system. He cranes his neck to look at her – the same secret smile that he’s seen on a dozen crewmembers plays around the edges of her mouth. It suits her, this edge of vitality flushing out her graceful beauty.

He twists around more and watches Spock at his science station. His fingers are flying over the console in front of him. If he is aware of the anticipation growing around him, he doesn’t betray it. Nor does he show any awareness of Jim’s scrutiny, not for long moments. But when he does finally look at Jim, there is no hesitation in his face, no stuttering of his eyes. There never is. He always meets Jim head-on, and he holds Jim’s gaze until Jim calms, until his fingers no longer tap an impatient rhythm against the arm of his chair.

He grabs his PADD and types a message to Spock. It says, “Rumi wrote something that reminds me of what you said Surak said. He wrote, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.’”

He sees Spock later that night at the party.

When the away team had failed to check in from Satnur on schedule, Jim had gone to his quarters and put a dull, ungainly grey rock on the desk in his room. Next to it, he placed four others chosen from the drawer, some small, some the size of his fist, one a crystal.

After the party whimpers out and Jim has placed his fingers against his mouth and nose, trying futilely to sniff the smell of Spock on them, he puts the rocks back in the jumbled drawer. A cold, uncomfortable drip of wetness slides from his ass. He goes to clean himself up, leaving a stone sitting on his dresser, black and gold and still.

+++

“Excuse me,” Jim says when he realizes that Spock isn’t alone in the room.

“I was just leaving,” the Vulcan leader says with his customary faint smile. Across the room, Spock is tense, his shoulders high and square.

Their guest is a tall man, a little more filled out than Spock, who has inherited something of his mother’s slim build. Spock’s body is deceptive and willowy. The delicate wrapping of sinew around bone hides his strength, body and mind. Jim’s breath has carved his name into the lean lines of Spock’s body, into the tender skin caught between thigh and cock. He has imagined Spock doing the same to him as he caresses him with his mouth.

This other man, though: there is visible strength in his hands, in his back. His eyebrows are heavy and there is a shadow caught under his cheek where the bone is strong. When he’s older – perhaps a hundred years from now – his face will be described as ‘craggy.’ Atypically, his hair is grown and shaggy, no Vulcan bowl cut for him. His mouth is limber from laughter, from smiles and frowns and things in between.

But where Spock’s eyes are soft and brown and warm, his are cool and Vulcan.

“I was just leaving,” he says. “Spock, you can’t avoid me forever.”

At his side, Spock’s hand flexes and immediately stills, as though aghast at its own involuntary movement.

+++

Jim was always a survivor. He was always going to live.

On a world with golden fields – on a world that once had golden fields – on a world where the new shining government buildings that surround the main square are blood-splattered red – on a world where the school becomes an abattoir – on a world where Jim’s aunt and uncle’s bones lie in a pit with the other executed – on a world where the governor grips his shoulders and says, “I choose you to live” –

No, that’s not true.

Kodos never laid a finger on Jim. Never even saw him, except in a picture, except on paper, his grades and his past and his bloodline, son of George Kirk. He sorted Jim into one pile; he sorted others into another pile. David and Tommy Murray ended up in the other pile.

But Jim was never very good at keeping out of things he wasn’t supposed to be in in the first place, and so one afternoon he hacks his way through the government’s mainframe because he knows something isn’t right here: the fields aren’t so golden anymore, the shelves in the stores are empty, the grownups have tight lines around their mouths the way his mom always does just before she leaves again.

He’s too late, though. He can’t do anything to stop it or make it better or save his aunt and uncle. He’s not too late to see it all happen, not too late to smuggle David and Tommy out under the spritz of blood in the main square, their small, fast bodies darting beneath the guards’ feet. He trips over Leroy Matsumoto’s body, sightless eyes, and keeps running. He tugs Tommy with him. “Don’t look,” he pants. “Run.”

Eventually the guards get tired of chasing them; they have to turn back to quell the riot of people fighting for life, because it’s never easy. The main square wasn’t set up to be an execution hall. It was meant to be a garden. It’s four thousand people dying down there, Jim knows. He saw the number in Kodos’s documents that he hacked.

Over the next few days, other kids join them. Kevin Riley finds them somehow, hiding up in the rocks above the silent city. David’s the oldest of them and a natural leader. He and Jim organize sorties to raid the empty homes for food, anything left after the soldiers ransacked them. They don’t find much. One day David doesn’t come back.

By that point, they don’t have many tears left. Tears are a waste of their bodies’ energy, and they have little enough of that to go around as food becomes ever more scarce. Jim waits for a rescue that doesn’t come and learns to shush the nightmares of the smaller children at night when sounds echo too far to be safe.

He keeps his little gang on the move as much as possible, never too close to a water source because that’s where Kodos’s soldiers hunt for them. They lurk by the drying muddy holes.

And Jim learns to gather stones. Rocks, as flat as he can find them. When Tommy Murray starves, he says, “Please, Jimmy. When you bury me, don’t let the dirt get in my eyes,” so Jim promises that he won’t let it. He digs him a shallow grave, the best they can do with flagging strength, and then he’s going to lay two flat stones over his eyes so that the dirt won’t get in them.

+++

Jim was always a survivor. He was always going to live.

Survivors always have blood on their hands. On Tarsus IV, there was a boy Jim couldn’t save. There were a whole lot of boys and girls and adults, too, Jim couldn’t save. Jim knew Tommy was going to die, like so many of them. He’s always lived with blood on his hands because when they died, over and over, he couldn’t do anything.

That’s not true either: there was one thing he could do, but he refused. When they asked, when they knew from watching the others gone before them, if he would just let them go – “Please, Jimmy, I don’t want to die like that, I hurt so much already, my stomach, just make it stop now” – he refused.

“You will live,” he said vehemently, as if that could be enough. “It’s going to get better, I’ll do something, I’ll find some food, rescue’s coming. You'll live.” At thirteen he was old enough to know it couldn’t be enough, although they did live, for a few more days, until they grew too listless to move or care, and then they didn’t live anymore.

Jim wouldn’t make that same choice now. If it came down to it, if it was absolutely and irretrievably inevitable that one of his crew would die and die in pain, without hope, he wouldn’t refuse. If he was asked.

But Spock – if Spock ever asked – how could – but then Spock would never ask. This isn’t some conclusion of one of the pointless mental games Jim plays with himself, mostly on the bridge when they’re cruising through space from point A to point B with nothing better for him to do than paperwork, but sometimes when he wakes up gagging from some dream that he tries not to remember.

No, he’s discussed this with Spock.

“Captain Kirk,” Spock had said. “This insistence of yours in joining every team that leaves this ship is ineffective at best.” It was two and a half months into the mission. Bones was patching his elbow up while Spock stood before him, hands clasped firmly behind his back. It isn't the first time Jim finds himself in this position with his first officer. Disapproval fairly radiates from Spock’s taut body.

“More often,” Spock continues, “it is actually detrimental to the mission. You are not a science officer. You are not an engineer. You are not a botanist. You are not a geologist. You are not a communications officer. You are not a horticulturist. You are not security personnel. You are not a nurse or a doctor or a therapist. You are not—“

“No, I’m not,” Jim snaps, pushing himself off the medical bed and facing Spock, chest to chest. If they were both to inhale sharply at the same time, they would touch. “I’m the goddamn captain.”

“And you are in the way. Sir.”

Somewhere in the middle of this McCoy leaves the room. After Spock walks out, Jim will wonder if McCoy didn’t barge into the argument in his usual belligerent way because he thought Spock had a point.

“Stop micromanaging me, Commander. I’m not one of your scientists for you to terrorize with your impossible nitpicking and perfectionism.”

Spock cocks his head. “You’re attempting to distract me from my point.”

Jim laughs shortly. “No, not really. Did you know that Ensign Rutherford was huddled in Lab Three last week bawling her eyes out because you’d torn the experiment that she’d spent the last two months working on day and night to shreds? And that since that time Lieutenant Marans has been able to put the data Rutherford gathered to good use with the shuttle guidance systems?”

“I informed the Ensign that her work was a tolerable beginning and suggested areas for improvement,” Spock says stiffly.

“Uh huh. I don’t think that’s what she got out of that conversation, so if that’s what you intended to say, you need to find a better way to do it.”

“If the Ensign cannot accept criticism in order to better perform her duties, then perhaps she is too gentle a person for life on a starship where she must encounter every manner of situation and be able to react appropriately.”

“Or maybe you just don’t know how to talk to people! Kind of essential to helping run a starship, wouldn’t you say? ” Jim punctuates this with flying hands, as though he can counterbalance that preternatural stillness Spock has. It’s funny, Spock’s never really still even though he appears to be. In the normal course of things, his skin is so mobile, intimating that its supple resiliency cannot quite contain the vibrancy within.

Right now, though, it’s the last thing on Jim's mind.

“Captain.” Spock’s voice is so reasonable that Jim knows he’s just got to be seething way down inside, buried way below anything Spock would ever acknowledge. Jim figures he may not be doing a stellar job out here at most things, but he’s got a knack for getting under Spock’s skin. Actually, he’s got a knack for getting under most people’s skin. Sometimes this is even a good thing. Maybe not so much with his first officer.

“Starfleet is the military branch of the Federation. Its members, at a minimum, must be able to—”

“Oh, Jesus Christ, listen to yourself, Spock,” Jim says in frustration, on the verge of yelling. He runs his hand though his hair. “Not you, too! What happened to peacekeeping missions? Exploring the galaxy?”

“It is that as well. But it’s not only that, and you must be aware of that, Captain. Please refrain from attributing words to me that I did not say.”

Jim glares at him. “Right.” His voice is sarcastic, but he remembers Spock speaking slowly to Pike in his office after they limped back to Earth post-Nero, saying, “The Enterprise is an exploratory vessel, Admiral. You are speaking of adding more weapons of war to it.” He remembers the disquieting frown lurking just under Spock’s smooth face.

“And what is it that the members of this” – Jim makes a jerky motion with his hand – “Starfleet must be able to do, Commander?”

Spock raises an eyebrow and says very distinctly, “Maintain their composure. Under all circumstances.”

Jim raises his eyebrow right back at Spock. He still hasn’t stepped away; in fact, he – was it Spock? – has inched closer. “Did Ensign Rutherford bitch back at you when you bitched at her?”

“Your characterization of my interaction with Ensign Rutherford is spurious.”

“And offensive, too, I bet. If you weren’t above being offended. Oh, please, Spock.” There’s really nothing else to do at this point but to grin at Spock, his Jim Kirk grin, cocky and bright and a little bit sincere. “Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m an asshole, Spock. But you didn’t answer my question. Did she bitch at you?”

“If by that you mean did she complain, then the answer is no.”

“Did she cry?”

Spock doesn’t move. “Her eyes became reddened.”

“Okay, so basically she waited until you were gone to break down after you ripped her a new one.”

“Irrelevant. There was no need to lose her composure. The initial stages of her experiment were tolerable, as I informed her.”

Jim smacks his hand on the table of medical supplies next to him. “Spock, you make me,” he says with deliberate enunciation, “want to tear my eyelashes out. Could you try, just once, to be a little bit more human?”

Jim winces as soon as the words are out of his mouth. A tense silence stifles the room. “Aw, shit, Spock, I didn’t mean—”

“I am not human, Captain Kirk.”

“I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

Spock talks over him. “And I’m surprised that you of all people should be xenophobic. I had not supposed that to be one of your faults. Other things, yes, but not that.”

“Wait, me of all people? What does that mean, Mr. Spock?”

“Merely that your sexual escapades with species other than your own have a particular notoriety.”

Jim rolls his eyes. “Whatever. It’s an expression.”

Spock regards him with dark eyes. “One that I respectfully suggest you excise from your vocabulary, in that case.”

Jim really isn’t feeling a lot of respect from his tone, but he supposes he deserves it. “You don’t consider yourself human at all? Your mother was human.”

If possible, Spock stiffens even more at the mention of his mother. Jim really should have left that one alone. “I am aware of that fact.” Spock inhales and for the first time in this argument, his eyes flicker downward. For a second, it seems as though they skim his body. Jim resists a shiver. A tense silence swims between them.

Finally, “Captain, may we return to our initial conversation?”

Jim nods curtly.

“I surmise that you brought up Ensign Rutherford’s reaction to my supervision for two reasons. First, because it is your habit to attack at every opportunity where it is a choice between being on the offensive and the defensive. My initial words put you on the defensive and you wanted to maneuver yourself out of that position. Second, you mention Ensign Rutherford to demonstrate that my manner of offering advice, while quite logical and suitable for a Vulcan, may not be the most effective method when dealing with humans. Is this correct?”

Shrugging, made uncomfortable by Spock’s perspicacity, Jim says, “Something like that.”

“Then allow me to rephrase. It is not the captain’s place to be on every away mission. Leadership need not mean personally leading every team.”

Jim actually knows this and doesn’t need his first officer to point it out. He knows that he can’t do everything. He knows that other people can often do what needs to be done better than he can – he’s not an engineer, he’s not a geologist, he’s not a horticulturist, as Spock said. A captain’s task is not to do every job himself, but to put the best person in charge of what needs to be done even if that means sending his crew into danger.

Spock tilts his head. “And I believe you know this, Jim.”

Jim pinches the bridge of his nose. “Look,” he says abruptly. “You’re not wrong. It’s just – every time I order someone to leave this ship, hell, even when they’re on the ship because it’s not like the ship’s such a safe place – every time I order someone to do something, especially go to some unknown place, I could be ordering them to their death. And if I don’t join them in that, if I don’t ask of myself as much as I’m asking of them, what does that make me?”

“You do not contribute to their wellbeing by hindering them in the performance of their duties by your unnecessary presence.” Spock finally unclasps his hands from behind his back. “The satisfactory discharge of your duties consists of recognizing who is best suited to the mission at hand.”

Jim smiles tiredly. “That’s how I’m the best captain, is it?”

“That is one definition.” Spock looks as though he might say something else but stops himself. Instead he says, “Perhaps it would alleviate your concern if you allowed crew to volunteer for missions.”

“Not likely. That’s the easy way out. A way to avoid responsibility. No, if they’re going to get hurt and killed out there, it’s going to be on my damn orders.”

“This is not logical.”

Jim leans back on the medical bed. “Look, can we end this cozy little chat?”

“I have said what I intended to say.”

“I don’t want to talk to you about this. It’s just –”

“As you wish, Captain.”

Jim's aware that now he’s just confusing Spock and being an utterly illogical human. “No, I really don’t want to talk to you about this.” He turns on Spock, as though it’s his fault somehow. “What about you? Has anyone ever asked you for a mercy death? You know, when there’s nothing else to do but end it quickly and mostly painlessly or slowly and painfully?”

“No, they haven’t.”

“So thank your lucky stars for that.”

Looking at him quizzically, Spock informs him that stars are not lucky. “They are gaseous masses that sustain nuclear fission.

“Jim,” he says, “some may have asked you that question. It is likely, eighty-three point two five percent probability, that you will be asked again in the future. What you do when asked will be your decision. But I will not ask you that question.”

Jim smiles wryly at the sudden edge in Spock’s voice. “I don’t expect you to, Spock.” He really can’t see Spock ever asking to be put out of his misery, asking to die. From his tone, Jim gathers that this is something abhorrent to him, that in fact Spock might consider those who would ask to be weak or lesser. Maybe it’s a Vulcan thing.

“Hey, Spock? Next time we have a heart to heart, why don’t we pick a more comfortable place than Bone’s sickbay.”

“Affirmative. You should know, Captain, that despite our having a ‘heart to heart’ as you called it, my estimation of you has not changed. You are still” – he pauses to quote Jim – “an asshole.”

And Jim has to laugh, delighted, breaking the lingering tension. Spock really didn’t get it right, this clumsy reassurance that he doesn’t think Jim’s an emotional basket case, but he tried.

With a nod, Spock slips out of the room.

+++

Later he realizes that it might have been an apology. That it might not have been arrogance when Spock told him that he would never ask Jim for a mercy killing, but an apology of sorts, Spockian.

+++

A year later, after that first time with Spock when his lips brush Jim’s, breathing “kaiidth,” while Jim’s skin shivers, they don’t actually manage to play quite as many chess games as they had before. Half of the games they start get interrupted. Jim ends up spending a lot of time crawling around his floor on his knees looking for chessmen that they’ve scattered with their heedless bodies.

He learns the indentations of Spock’s spine, the ticklish spot behind his knees. He finds out that the green flush that subtly touches his cheeks when he is aroused extends down his neck and chest. He chases the faint scent of Spock around his body, batting Spock’s hands away when he would pull Jim up to circle his tongue around his nipple because he knows it drives Jim nuts.

He learns other things, too: the way Spock’s room is kept at Vulcan-norm and that Vulcans have all sorts of complicated mind rules – “There are reasons, Jim,” – and that T’Pau, holy shit, T’Pau is Spock’s grandmother.

Jim goggles at this revelation. “Her? She’s your grandmother!”

She’s as close to royalty as Vulcan has. Both before and now. Her name is all over the textbooks at the Academy. It’s also all over all sorts of Starfleet documents that Jim got access to when he became captain. Legitimate access to, that is. He’s met her, too, and still winces thinking about it.

He was still acting captain. On the way back to Earth, he’d sat in sickbay with Captain Pike, who was mostly kept under by McCoy’s magic cocktails of happiness. At some point, he’d become aware that he was being watched. Stiffening, he’d turned to see one of the Vulcan elders that Spock had rescued steadily regarding him. Guessing her age was beyond him.

“You are the acting captain of this ship,” she said.

Jim was tired and her manner was cold. So he just said, “Yeah?” and of course what he meant was implied human-style, a juvenile “Yeah, and what of it?” but that wasn’t how she took it. Or chose to take it – in retrospect, upon further contact with Vulcans, he rather thinks it’s a matter of choice, not understanding.

“You are not certain that you are acting captain of this ship?” Her expression and tone didn’t shift at all, but Jim suddenly felt like he was about two inches tall. He squared his shoulders. “It is true that your methods of promotion are unconventional, Captain Kirk.”

Jim somehow got the feeling that this woman knew everything, not just of the last few days, but of his entire life. Apprehension his skin, and he fought a scowl at this sensation of being judged. She raised her eyebrow and left as silently as she’d come. For just a moment, she reminded him of someone but then Pike made an uncomfortable noise and Jim put the elder out of his head.

“Shit,” he exclaims. “I don’t think your grandma likes me, Spock.”

Spock doesn’t look concerned. “You’re undoubtedly correct.” He moves his pawn and looks at Jim expectantly.

Jim looks back at him with wide eyes, urging him to continue.

After an infuriating moment, Spock inclines his head. “My grandmother does not ‘like’ most people.”

Leaning back in his chair, Jim studies him. While Spock looks the same as ever, there’s something about him that suggests he’s uncomfortable with this conversation. Jim isn’t sure, but he’s game to change the topic.

“Did you hear that Sulu’s trying to teach Chekov how to fence? The peanut gallery’s placing bets.”

As expected, Spock raises his eyebrow and says, “Fascinating. You’re suggesting that the arachis hypogaea is sentient?”

Later, when Jim’s tracing aimless patterns on the long planes of Spock’s naked back with his fingertip, he says quietly, “I think your grandma does like you.” He feels Spock stiffen next to him, under the leg Jim has heavily draped over him. Spock doesn’t say anything. “At least she didn’t like me stealing your ship from you.” Jim breathes out. It’s not quite a sigh.

Finally, Spock replies, “I never sought command,” and this is as much as they ever discuss the matter.

Jim also learns that coming from Spock’s mouth, “Live long and prosper” coupled with a respectful ta’al can be the biggest “fuck you” ever. “Who was that?” he says, tracking the back of the departing Vulcan through the crowded port of Starbase II.

“That was Stonn,” Spock tells him, somehow managing to look pleased with himself without batting an eyelash. “My deceased fiancée’s lover.”

He learns that there are going to be nights when he ends up with a raw ass, an aching jaw, a bruised body. It’s funny. He had this idea, totally wrong, before all this began, that Spock would be reticent about sex. Not through shyness but because of that natural reserve and cerebralness he wears like armor.

There’s this thing Spock did once that felt beyond amazing. Jim’s always scheming to get it to happen again, and since he’s been successful in his scheming, it’s not just this thing that Spock did once. As long as it’s sex, as long as it’s the slow roll of an orgasm building in his balls somewhere under the clench of muscle, whiting out his vision and wrenching a pained noise of suspended intensity out of him, he can handle it. This thing – he loves Spock to fuck him after he’s first fucked Spock, deep and hard, until his legs tremble with it and his body is slick with sweat. He loves Spock to fuck him when he’s spent, loves the thought of his come dribbling out between Spock’s tight cheeks as they flex, driving his cock into him, filling him to the brink. He stuns himself to discover that he loves being wiped out, limp, loves letting Spock manhandle him like a rag.

It feels – and after, if he turns into Spock’s body, very close, he can find the scent of Spock in the faint suggestion of moisture, invisible, unglinting, known only to Jim’s fingertips and nose and mouth when Spock has been aroused beyond all knowledge of it and Jim is blind with the pleasure-pain of need and want that never fully abates.

He has the thought that he should ask Uhura or Pike about Spock, about this minute vibration of anger. “Was he always this – this?” and that’s where he’d run out of words.

“I don’t know, Jim. Were you always this fucked up?” Pike would say, sarcastically.

Nyota would look at him like a slug under her boot. In fact, she does. “Captain. You know that the Federation gave him the same award they gave you after Nero, right? Savior of the universe, preserver of life, et cetera.” She rolls her eyes.

“Uh, yeah, I guess.” Jim’s never really thought about it. His medal is shoved in some box deep in his closet. He was so thrilled with the idea of getting it, of getting an award instead of lockup in some dingy jail cell, but once he had it in hand it just felt heavy. He’d have shipped it off to Winona if he thought she would have done anything with it – tack it to the fridge – anything other than bury it with the stash of George’s medals.

“Did you also know that somewhere in some hidden Vulcan file, he’s got a commendation from the Vulcan High Council? For services rendered? Something about the preservation of Vulcan culture in the form of saving most of the Elders.”

“No?”

“Mmm,” she says, pursing her lips. She eyeballs him. “Don’t – do not – tell me I have to lay this out for you.”

“Yes?”

“Kirk. Jim, come on. They tell him all his life, in big and small ways, that he’s not Vulcan enough for them, so he does twice as well as any of them. He beats every test, breaks a dozen records, is off the charts on psi abilities, and they tell him he’s done remarkably well despite his disadvantages. And then he gets there too late to do anything but watch his planet, the one that he’s never been good enough for, get sucked into nothing. So he rushes to the surface to save his mother – and fails. He fails. And then, for the first time ever, they say ‘good job.’

“So I don’t know, Jim. Were you always this fucked up?”

Jim looks at her, standing there with her eyes flashing and her hands on her hips. “Why aren’t you with Spock, Uhura?”

She laughs. It’s a happy sound, the way water sounds bubbling over hard, quiet stones. “Spock’s badass, Captain. Me? I’m just a good girl.” She winks at him and saunters out of the officer’s mess.

Jim learns to steal kisses from Spock. Kisses of his hands, kisses of his mouth. Jim’s always liked kissing, liked getting up close and personal with someone else. He likes getting mussed; he likes doing the mussing. He stands in front of Spock’s door and lets it chime so that Spock can let him in.

“Captain,” Spock says. He’s seated at his desk. It looks like he’s reading over the numerous reports that get sent to him for approval.

“Hey, Spock. What ‘cha doing?” Jim asks anyway.

Spock’s eyes flicker up to him. “Reports.”

Jim nods. “So you’re pretty busy?”

“Affirmative, Captain.”

“Okay. Don’t worry, then. This won’t take long,” and Jim grins and pushes Spock’s chair back from the desk and swings his leg over Spock’s lap and settles in, backwards on the chair on top of Spock. He circles his arms around Spock’s neck, more for balance than anything else.

Spock raises his eyebrow. “I must finish these reports tonight.”

Jim leans in and nips his top lip. “Pretty sure the captain won’t reprimand you if they’re a few minutes late.” He kisses Spock once, twice, three times, short little things, teasing, and then he suckles Spock’s bottom lip between his own, soft, pulling a bit.

One of Spock’s hands comes to rest on his back. It supports him and Jim leans back into it the smallest amount. He knows Spock’s strength can handle his weight. Gradually he draws Spock in. He brushes his lips over his, a slow back and forth. The tip of his tongue touches his lips like a whispered secret. He loses track of where one kiss stops and the next begins, each so light and brief that he has no choice but to press forward for one more and then another.

He’s careful to keep his hands away from Spock’s temples, from his meldpoints. He pulls lightly at the short hairs at the base of Spock’s neck. When that’s done to him, it always sends a rapid shiver through him.

Kissing Spock reminds Jim that Spock is, actually, an alien. He is hot to the touch; his mouth is hot. His every breath licks a small curl of flame across Jim’s lips, and under such heat, they become tender and they are swollen. Every touch sears a small pain into Jim’s flesh that burns into his core, and he would crawl into that heat, his tongue would curl into Spock’s mouth, seeking, pushing for more.

He restrains himself, and when he’s dizzy from sucking in air too quickly, too eager for the next kiss to take time to really breathe, he pulls away and slips from Spock’s lap. He has to straighten his uniform.

“Carry on, Commander,” he says. He has to look away from Spock, from the flush high on his cheeks. But on his way out, he glances back at him sitting immobile in his chair, eyes blown. Jim touches his thumb to his mouth.

This thing they have – it’s always there, but they’re not always doing it. Life running the Fleet’s flagship isn’t really conducive to it. They’re either running for their lives or standing around on a razor’s edge on some diplomatic tightwire or trying to talk or blast their way out of something. Or: the opposite. All the long moments of travelling from point to point, all the lines of starmapping, endless hours on duty sitting in the captain’s chair filling out forms and signing reports and trying surreptitiously to crack his back six hours in.

Somewhere in between fall the other moments. Maybe they simply relax together – Jim slumps in his chair; Spock’s shoulders loosen fractionally; maybe they end up screwing in all the wrong sorts of places at the wrong times because sometimes that’s all there is and Jim can’t – he needs – it really ought to be enough. It should be enough.

+++

Jim rolls the small green pebble between his fingers. Today was a bad day. Mr. Yan is lying in a medically induced coma. He looks at Cupcake, who is standing in front of him, not quite at attention but not really relaxed either. He’d refused Jim’s offer to sit. Jim had slipped the little green stone in his pocket when he’d left the bridge and stopped by his quarters on the way to see McCoy and get a progress report.

He and Giotto have gone over what happened three times, and Jim can’t see another way it could have played out.

“There must be something, Captain.”

Jim tilts his head. “Why?”

“Sir?”

“Why does there have to be something? Are you some sort of deity who can do whatever he wants?”

Cupcake shifts his weight. “No, sir. But if there’s nothing else we could have done, then we can’t stop this same thing from happening again. And that’s not acceptable.”

The door hisses open. Spock stands in the entryway, hands at his sides. “Pardon me, Captain. You asked me to join you. Am I interrupting?”

Jim shakes his head. “Mr. Giotto here and I were just trying to figure out what happened today.” Turning his attention back to Cupcake, he says, “It won’t happen again, Mr. Giotto.” He puts on the table the little green pebble given to him months ago when Yan joined the crew, small and solid on the wooden surface between them.

Cupcake stares at it pensively; Jim looks at Spock. He smiles.

He smiles because sometimes he will look at Spock and smile, and Spock will look back steadily, as if contemplating what crazy stunt Jim’s about to pull, and the faintest flicker of a smile will twitch across Spock’s face, and then Jim’s smile will burst into an unrestrained grin.

He smiles because that little green stone will go back in the drawer with the rest of them, waiting for another day. It will not go in the gunmetal grey box where they go and do not come out.

He smiles because, “I don’t believe in no-win scenarios, Cupcake. And we won’t let that happen again. Let’s go over it one more time with Commander Spock.”

Later, when McCoy brings Yan out of his coma and Jim drops the green pebble into his drawer, Spock comes up silently behind him and stands next to him. He puts his hand on the edge of the open drawer.

“Do you have one for yourself?” he asks.

+++

As many times as they relax together, so many times too do they end up screwing in all the wrong sorts of places at the wrong times because sometimes that’s all there is and Jim can’t – he needs – it really ought to be enough. It should be enough.

But, then, Jim never really learned how to use that word.

Two years and six months into the mission, two months after Spock tells Jim that Jim’s in love with him, they’re mapping the Beck’s Omega System, leisurely progressing from star to star, when the ship is nudged off course.

There’s no other way to describe it: one moment they’re sailing along, the next there’s a little bump, quite gentle, but enough to send every console on the bridge beeping and whirring. In that instant between the nudge and his next breath, Jim snaps from a lazy, half-annoyed memory of himself saying stupid, stupid things to Spock like, “Come up here, I need you here,” in the aftermath of a boneless orgasm to a fierce alertness.

Times like this Jim is certain, without any need for scientific evidence, that he can feel the crackle of voltage firing across his synapses, lighting up his neurons, making him think one step faster. Times like this are in direct contrast to those stupid, stupid moments where he says stupid, stupid things to Spock like, “Come up here, I need you here,” lying on top of crumpled sheets, as though he could keep Spock on the bed longer by blurting such things out before his brain, one step behind, catches up with his mouth. No wonder Spock thinks he’s in love with him.

But this is forgotten as Jim uncrosses his leg in the captain’s chair and leans forward. “Chekov?”

“Our trajectory has been altered by four point eight six percent, Captain.”

Jim taps his finger once on the arm of his chair. “Yellow alert, Uhura. Shields up.”

“Aye, sir,” and a muted alarm starts spinning in the background.

“Lieutenant Sulu?”

“I swear my fingers didn’t slip, sir. Ship’s course is still laid in the same. We’re just not on it anymore.”

“How?”

“We were pushed, Captain. Or maybe pulled, but it felt like something pushed us.”

Jim has to agree. “Commander?”

Over his right shoulder, Spock’s voice is steady. “Sensor scans of this sector of space taken as part of our ongoing space-charting mission indicate the lack of presence of any planets capable of supporting life as we know it. Four light years from this point there is an asteroid belt, but the ship’s sensors show no asteroids within three point three two light years of our current position. Additionally, while the star nearest our position is experiencing high velocity stellar winds, any gaseous solar matter being emitted into space is negligible at our current position.”

Jim opens a comm link to Engineering. “Scotty, you got anything down there?”

“Not a thing, Captain. My lass is right as rain.”

“Internal sensors confirm that there is no malfunction to the Enterprise,” Spock adds.

“Uhura, any damage reported?”

“Negative, sir. I’ve got every department reporting. A few bumps and bruises, that’s all. No damage to the ship, either.”

Frowning, Jim swivels in his chair. Spock’s eyes are already on him. “So somehow we end up off course in the middle of empty space with no damage. Accident or intentional?”

“Intent by whom, sir?” Chekov asks.

“I don’t know.” Jim doesn’t look away from his first officer. “Want to find out?”

Spock raises his eyebrow. Jim takes that as assent. “Mr. Chekov. Lay in a new course. Alter ship’s trajectory four point eight six percent. Sulu, take us back, impulse only. Uhura, maintain yellow alert.”

At first it seems like nothing’s going to happen and then, there it is, another small nudge pushing them back.

“Huh,” Jim says. “Any damage?”

“No, sir.”

“Sulu, one more time.” And the same thing happens.

“Mr. Chekov, mark those coordinates. Spock, still nothing on the scanners?”

“Negative.”

Jim sits back with an internal shrug. That little tingle on the back of his neck tells him there’s something going on here that they should know about. Something they shouldn’t just walk away from, chalking it up to some spatial anomaly. Besides, he can’t resist a mystery. “Okay, so, we’re on an exploratory mission, team. What say we do some exploring?”

He’ll come to regret those words bitterly in the next month, although even his regret probably wouldn’t change his decision not to walk away, had he known its weight. It’s just not who he is, who he can be or wants to be, and stupid, stupid things like Vulcans who inform him that he’s in love with them don’t change that.

Jim grins as he sees Sulu flick a glance at Chekov, and the tension in the ensign’s shoulders drops away. “Uhura, cancel yellow alert, but leave the shields up. Let’s see if these coordinates are the only ones we can’t get to, or if there are others. Commander?”

Spock already has the calculations ready, as Jim knew he would, before he even made up his own mind. “I am sending a successive set of equations to Mr. Chekov’s terminal which should allow us to systematically move the ship at impulse in order to determine the boundaries of this area of space we apparently cannot enter.”

Chekov’s fingers fly over his console and his face lights up. “Of course! I can calculate each next set of coordinates to attempt based on the angle of deflection and the velocity of the ship’s movement once we get pushed back.”

“Sulu, I want you to cut all impulse power as soon as we get our little nudge. Let’s see how strong the push really is.” Jim looks around the bridge. There’s a hum of anticipation in his gut. “We ready? Good. Anytime you want, Mr. Sulu.”

Pretty quickly it becomes obvious that the area they’re being pushed back from is quite large. No one leaves the bridge at the change of shift. About five hours in, Spock’s got enough numbers from which to derive an estimated total. “Captain Kirk,” he says. “The area of space is planet-sized.”

Behind Jim, Uhura is silent. Beside her, Ensign Robles is silent, too. Jim watches Sulu blink, as if in slow motion or underwater. Finally, Jim says, “Come again?”

Spock rises and walks over to face him.

“Hey, I didn’t mean literally.”

Sulu snorts and tries to turn it into a cough. Perhaps it was a bad choice of words to use, given he’s talking to Spock and that their activities are something of an open secret. Spock’s expression doesn’t change, but Jim’s still sure that he’s looking at the navigator with something a whole lot like disdain and thinking, ‘juvenile humans.’

“The area of space in question is a sphere similar in dimension to Earth. Distance from the nearest star suggests that, were a planet to occupy this space, life would be possible, providing of course for sufficient atmosphere and hydration.”

“Are you saying you think there’s a planet in front of us that we can’t see?”

Spock shakes his head once. “Negative, Captain. I lack sufficient data on which to base such a specific hypothesis. However, I can say with sixty-two point four percent certainty that there likely is something that we cannot see occupying that space. It is twenty-four point nine percent probable that the space is empty and it is some other force keeping us out.”

“And the rest?” Uhura asks.

“Insufficient data to speculate.”

Jim looks at Spock standing in front of him. “Recommendations?”

Without turning, Spock asks Chekov how long it will take to fully map the area. When he responds with an estimated seven and a half hours, Spock suggests that Jim relieve the alpha crew for that time, taking himself with them – here the edge of Spock’s mouth almost twitches – and then come back for more tests.

“You heard him. Uhura, call the beta shift up here. Spock, you’re with me. The rest of you, too, if you want. I’m headed to the mess hall. We can come up with more tests.” As he heads to the turbo, he says, mostly but not entirely jokingly, “We could fire at it. See if a weapon can get through.”

Jim can just hear Spock’s eyebrow going up. “And if it ricochets?”

“I wasn’t going to try it with shields down.”

“But Captain,” Sulu says, “what if there’s something there?”

“I’m thinking that if something that big can cloak itself, then it can shield itself too.” He glances at Uhura’s expression. “Something to add, Lieutenant?”

“You don’t think that’s a bit aggressive? And could be taken as such? Look, if there’s something or someone there, clearly they don’t want to be found. And they must be more advanced than we are if they can cloak something the size of a planet.”

Jim hums a bit. The small pleasures of getting a rise out of his communications officer. “So you’re saying we should start smaller? Maybe see if we can pull something to us in the ship’s tractor beam?”

Two days from now, Jim’s going to hate the merest thought of tractor beams with a burning cold anger.

Not yet, though, and they spend the next thirty-six hours trying to figure out their mystery. After eating, Spock goes back to his quarters to meditate. Jim sleeps for five and a half hours before heading up to the bridge after they’ve mapped the entire area that’s blacked out to them. They spend the next day running more tests. Scotty calls up Jim and warns him that they can’t keep the shields up like this much longer. Jim knows he probably doesn’t still need to have them up, except for this nagging feeling in his gut that all is not as peaceful as it seems, that there’s got to be something out there.

He’s waking up the next morning just as the wailing klaxon of a red alert sounds through the ship. “Captain to the bridge,” he hears over shipwide. He’s still pulling on his golden tunic as he rushes out the door; he slides into the turbolift just behind Spock. It’s a silent few seconds and then he’s on deck, relieving Lieutenant Peters.

“Status?”

Well, he can see the status. It’s right there on the viewscreen in front of him – the Enterprise is enveloped in a shimmering beam of some kind and there, right there in the space that was so black, there’s a blue and green world

“We’re caught in a tractor beam, sir.”

“Impulse engines?”

Sulu shakes his head. When did he get here? “Not budging.”

“Let’s try Warp Two. Get us out of here,” Jim orders.

Sulu’s still shaking his head. “No, sir, that’s not happening.”

Jim feels his teeth grind together. “Give it everything.”

But they can’t move. Whatever – whoever – has got them has them good. “How the fuck were we not able to find them? Right in front of our faces, an entire planet.” Jesus. This really pisses Jim off. Give him a good firefight any day over being trapped, over being caught immobile.

“The evidence suggests that their technology is far superior to ours.”

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Spock,” Jim snaps. “Are our shields still up?”

“Yes, sir,” Chekov responds.

“Small favors. Can we disrupt their tractor beam somehow? Modulate the frequency of our shields to create feedback in their beam?” Jim hits the comm. “Engineering? Can we create a resonance—“

“Already on it, Cap’n. Don’t know if it’s going to work. Better hang tight, just in case. Scott out.”

The minutes tick by slowly, though, with Jim pacing on the bridge and Spock’s busy fingers working at his console, and they’re still suspended in the shimmering silver beam.

“Scotty?” Jim finally says.

“Sorry, sir, it’s a no go. Can you get a fix on the source of the beam? Maybe we can knock it out,” his disembodied voice suggests.

Jim glances at Spock. Spock shakes his head. “The planet is heavily shielded. I cannot ascertain anything behind it.”

“Do we have any sense of who’s down there? Can we pick up lifesigns?”

“Negative. It is a class-M planet capable of supporting carbon-based life. It is eighty-three point eight percent water. The shield extends past the upper atmosphere. Based on the trace amounts of elements just beyond the shield, I believe that, like Earth, the atmosphere is primarily nitrogen and oxygen. It appears to have a higher nitrogen concentration than Earth does, implying that the breathing apparatus of any inhabitants would be adapted to this.”

Jim waits for more. There’s a pause. “That’s it? That’s all we can tell?”

He shuts his eyes briefly, as if answers are written behind his eyelids. He’s furious at the ease with which they are held. “Unacceptable.” He’s tempted to fire at the planet to see if their weapons will even make a dent, but he’s pretty sure he knows the answer to that and the responsible thing here is probably not to pick a fight with a superior force and get his ship blown up. He lets himself fantasize about it for a moment – god, it would feel so good to poke some holes in these bastards.

A day later, he’s still staring at the viewscreen, at that goddamn silver beam that’s holding them utterly immobile in shining grasp. All communications to Starfleet, to anyone, are down: Uhura can send them out but they just bounce back undelivered. Whoever’s on that planet must have a cloaked communications array hovering out there. The Enterprise’s hails have gone unanswered, and that really, really pisses Jim off. Even more.

By that evening he’s in the gym with half his security force, working on taking them out one by one and maybe some of his frustration with them. Cupcake curls his lip at him across the mat. “Bring it on, Captain.” Every touch of Cupcake’s body is slick with sweat, so unlike when he spars with Spock, and he can smell them, smell all of them, and taste his own blood too, a cut on his lip slipping into his mouth. There’s a smear of blood under Cupcake’s nose by the time they’re through, both panting, and Jim has Cupcake pinned beneath him.

He swings his leg off him and offers a hand up. “Nothing new, then?” Cupcake says as he wipes his nose with the back of his hand.

Jim doesn’t answer. Instead he says, “Who’s next?”

A slim black-clad figure stands against the wall. “I am, Captain.”

Jim hadn’t seen Spock there. He wonders how long he’s been in the room. He grins, feral, at his first. “Bring it on.”

There’s a quick answering flash of gold awareness in those dark eyes, and then Spock bows to him and all of Jim’s concentration goes toward the movements of his body, the movements of Spock’s body. He tastes the iron of his own blood in his mouth. The room narrows. Spock is kinetic, his arms wheeling above his legs, his legs flying up to chop into the air, into Jim’s body if he fails to spin away. He narrows in on the rush of fabric passing by his skin, Spock’s skin; on the stick of the mats beneath his feet; on the heat under his hands when he gets Spock tight in his grasp for an impossible second before Spock is leveraging his body’s mass and twisting away. Jim becomes all body, all attack and response choreographed a hundred times before but new again each time he does it.

When he ends up beneath Spock, he feels the hardness of his body brushing past his and suddenly the room expands again. It includes the men standing around watching as they always watch him and Spock when they spar, if the door is left open. Jim lets Spock pull him to his feet, effortlessly, and they bow before Spock heads to the shower. Jim grabs a towel and says, “I’m going to catch a shower in my quarters.”

Spock nods. “I must report to the bridge for duty, Captain.”

The chrono says it’s three minutes past the hour. Jim feels his eyebrows shoot up. “You’re arriving late?”

Spock nods again. “I am.”

Jim really doesn’t know what to make of that, so he just turns and heads back to his room. In the shower, he strokes his cock to fullness and thinks of the hot brand of Spock’s body on top of his. The seconds of release give him no relief.

He’s been back on the bridge an hour when Uhura sits up straight in her chair. “Captain! We’re being hailed.”

“Those fucking bastards,” he says under his breath. He has rarely felt so impotent, and it churns low in his belly. “On screen.”

“I’m Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise,” he announces without giving them time to speak first. Several humanoid-looking beings in flowing robes are in front of him. Their skin is so pale it’s nearly translucent. Odd ridges line their necks.

“We have heard of you, Captain Kirk. We are Uludrim.”

Jim’s not sure if the speaker means that his people are the Uludrim or if he means that his name is Uludrim, but he really can’t give a rat’s ass at the moment. “Well I haven’t heard of you,” he says shortly. “But you have been holding my vessel prisoner for nearly three days. Where I come from, that’s considered pretty rude. I demand you release this ship immediately.”

“We cannot,” Uludrim says. The ridges flutter. “You will inform your kind of the existence and location of our home.”

Jim’s standing with his legs spread, as though he can stare Uludrim down. He takes a deep, calming breath. “What do you want from us?”

“We want you to be gone.” Uludrim makes a strangely graceful movement that waves through every other Uludrim standing behind him. Or her – Jim’s not sure. When they move, dark shapes inside their bodies shift. Are those organs behind their milky see-through skin? Jim narrows his eyes as a hundred thoughts flash through his head simultaneously. They look so fragile. If he had one of them under his hand, could he crush it?

“So let us go then,” Jim says, his voice low and deliberate. He likes to think that he’s usually a bit more diplomatic on first contact, but they’ve been holding his ship prisoner for two days and he’s just about had it.

“We spoke inaccurately. We wish that you had never come. We seek only to live our lives without outsiders. We have heard about the Federation. We have heard about the Klingon Empire. We have heard about the Romulan Empire. Why do you not call yourself Empire as well?”

Jim doesn’t let his surprise, his distaste show on his face at this question. He feels Spock come up to stand in his customary place just behind his side. There’s the briefest press of shoulder to his shoulder before Spock clasps his hands behind his back and stands at ease. Jim settles. “Because we are not an Empire,” he says in a calmer voice.

“Most empires do not believe themselves to be empires when they begin. But you are correct. We do not know your intentions at this time. We will consider.” Their hooded eyes flicker toward Spock.

“While you’re considering, consider this as well.” Jim hasn’t broken eye contact with the head Uludrim, which he’s noticed seems to distress him. “You’ve blocked our communications with our people. Sooner rather than later, they’re going to try to reach us. Think about what happens when they can’t find us and come looking at our last reported coordinates, which by the way are these coordinates. You said you wished we had never come. Will you bring down a fleet of ships over your planet?”

He crosses his arms over his chest. “Kirk out.” Determined not to act like he’s stuck here without many options, without any control over his own ship or even communications, he dismisses the Uludrim before they can dismiss him.

“Well played, Captain,” Spock says quietly in his ear. Jim smiles wryly at him before he can stop himself.

“Now what?” Sulu twists his chair about.

Jim shrugs. “We wait. We’re still caught in their tractor beam. Uhura, send the recording of that conversation to Ensign Gitelson. Give her my authority to pull in anyone she needs to draft a preliminary ethno-sociological report in the next hour on the Uludrim. Then get a replacement for yourself up here and join me and Spock in the officer’s mess so we can go over what we know about these people.”

Some twenty minutes later, Uhura says, among other things, “They seemed interested in Commander Spock.”

“I know,” Jim agrees grimly. Since the destruction of Vulcan, Vulcans have become a desired commodity in some parts of the galaxy.

“It seems like they want peace, though.”

Spock, sitting straight at the table, glances at Uhura. “But we know that a desire for peace and a desire for isolation are not the same.”

“I don’t mean that. Or just that. They haven’t tried to harm us in any way.”

Jim makes a sharp, annoyed gesture. “You don’t think that holding us prisoner is harming us?”

“You know what I mean, Captain.”

A silence falls among the three of them. Uhura looks upset, Jim knows he looks pissed, Spock looks like Spock. “Captain—”

Jim cuts her off. He presses his fingers to the space between his eyebrows and smoothes the skin out against the pounding of his head. “I know. Are we really becoming just another empire? Does Starfleet – do we – really just run around enforcing the Federation’s dictates?”

Surprisingly, it’s Spock who answers. “No. It is not like that. It won’t be like that.” His voice is firm.

It’s really not all that unexpected, or it shouldn’t be, when several hours later the Uludrim call back and announce that while they don’t like it, since their presence is now known and that cannot be undone, some sort of accord must be found. “We do not like this method of communication. We must conduct discussion face to face. You may transport a representative to the surface. We will allow the transporter beam through safely.” Uludrim’s neck ridges flutter rapidly.

Jim wishes he knew what this meant. Ensign Gitelson speculated that it could be a simple nervous tic, or, equally likely given Uludrim’s speech through only the plural pronoun, some form of communication. “They don’t appear to individualize themselves, sir,” she’d said.

“However,” Uludrim continues, “we will only speak to Commander Spock.”

Jim waits a heartbeat before smiling his best smile and saying, “Hell no. Kirk out—”

“We will release your ship from our tractor beam if you send Commander Spock to us.”

“The answer would still be hell no. You take me, or you don’t take anyone.” He can feel Spock’s eyes painting a frown onto his back.

The Uludrims’ translucent bodies ripple. “The commander will not be harmed. Based on our knowledge of humans and Vulcans, we believe that our interactions will progress with greater accord with a Vulcan. And we have heard of Commander Spock. We do not seek out other races, but we maintain a database of them in preparation for occasions such as this one. Commander Spock’s actions taken during the destruction of his planet were commendable.”

Jim doesn’t twitch a muscle. “You can call back in three hours. Kirk out.”

The screen flickers out. Without even turning around, Jim holds up his hand against Spock’s inevitable words and says, “Yes, Mr. Spock, you can speak with me. Yes, permission granted to speak freely. Yes, we use my ready room.” He watches Sulu and Chekov carefully not smile at the familiar scene. If he weren’t strung so tight, he might not-smile with them; he usually does.

The doors to the turbo have barely hissed shut before they’re both speaking over each other. Spock holds himself still. Jim does not.

“The Uludrim have requested my presence—”

“I don’t like it—”

“We cannot stay like this indefinitely and all our efforts have not—”

“They are not going to tell me what to do—”

“They have promised to release the ship—”

“We don’t even know if we can trust—”

“They have not harmed—”

“They might try to sell you to the Or—”

“Sir, with all respect, you must—”

“I must? I don’t have to do anything, Commander. Or have we forgotten who’s giving orders here?” The lift door is open. Jim curses. The hallway is blessedly empty of crew. “Computer, shut that door and lock, Captain’s authorization.”

Spock is staring over Jim’s shoulder at the wall.

“Oh, stop it,” Jim says impatiently.

Spock continues to stare at the wall. “It seems that the captain has revoked his permission to speak freely and does not require input at this time. As such, I have nothing further to say but await orders.”

“Christ on a crutch, you drive me nuts,” Jim mutters. Spock’s Vulcan hearing, of course, picks this up but he remains silent. Can’t he see – Jim can’t – well, he can but – he’ll do whatever he has to do.

He had asked Cupcake about how Mr. Yan was performing a month after Yan came on board. “He’s got promise, sir,” Giotto had replied. “Needs to learn not to put himself forward so much. Told him it won’t get him far on this ship. The captain’s got to have choice about who to order where. When he got up to leave the locker room, a small green pebble sat on the bench.

Jim thinks of the two stones his fingers wear away the most. One is a dull, ungainly grey rock. It is a common garden stone, such as one might find ground into gravel, in every way unremarkable. It's nothing at all like the other, polished and black flecked with gold, silently exuberant from the brightness of sun in the vault of the heavens. Yet both are worn by his fingers; both have been touched too many times, with worry or with relief.

“Every time I order someone to do something,” Jim had said, “especially to go to some unknown place, I could be ordering them to their death. And if I don’t join them in that, if I don’t ask as much of myself as I’m asking of them, what does that make me?”

Spock was solemn. “The satisfactory discharge of your duties consists of recognizing who is best suited to the mission at hand. Perhaps it would alleviate your concern if you allowed crew to volunteer for missions.”

“That’s the easy way out. No, if they’re going to get hurt and killed out there, it’s going to be on my damn orders.” Jim had thought of Tommy Murray silently volunteering his portion of their shared food to the younger children, same as Jim had done. He had thought of Tommy begging him not to let the dirt get into his eyes when they buried him.

So it fell to Jim, over and over again, to order Spock into situations that could end in his death, clean or gory or otherwise. And it never mattered that Spock went willingly, willingly for Starfleet, for the Federation, for the sake of knowledge and curiosity and steadfast courage. For Jim. Because after that, Spock never volunteered. Of everyone, only Spock and Cupcake never volunteer. Someday, Jim’s pretty sure, he’ll order them to what really will be their deaths. Maybe not in this five year mission, maybe not in the next either, but someday, somehow. “It’s called growing up, kid,” McCoy once said, about something else entirely. “We all gotta do it sometime.”

In the stationary turbolift, “They can’t have you,” Jim finally says, quietly.

Something about Spock becomes less rigid. His eyes leave the wall over Jim’s shoulder. “Jim,” he begins, but Jim waves him off.

“Don’t Jim me. Please.” He rests his back against the wall of the turbo, thumps his head backwards, and shuts his eyes. When he opens them, he is Captain Kirk again. “Commander, you will beam to the surface of that damn planet where you will find out what they call it so that I can at least order you to it properly. Standing orders from Starfleet require you to ascertain whether all first contact species are, first, hostile, and second, a desirable ally. Standing orders from your captain are to find a way back to the ship in one piece. Also, to turn that damn tractor beam and communications block off.”

“Yes, sir.” Spock tilts his head. “The Uludrim did promise to release the ship once I was on planet.”

“We’ll negotiate a communications release as well before you go down there. But I get the feeling they know that I’m not leaving while missing any member of my crew.”

Which of course turn out to be Jim’s famous last words. He has to eat them spectacularly only a day later, and by the time three weeks have gone by with Jim nowhere near the Uludrim planet and his stranded away team, McCoy’s threatening, only half-jokingly, to sedate him just so that when he wakes back up, he’ll wake up differently. Less wired, less angry, less worried maybe.

In the end, Jim gets the Uludrim to agree to let Spock be accompanied by two security members. Jim sends Cupcake and Yan down.

“Just so we’re clear,” Jim tells them from in the captain’s chair. “If you hurt my men, I will personally see to it your world ends in nothingness, less even than Vulcan-that-was, because I will obliterate every memory of you save one: that you tried to cross the Enterprise.” He sits back. “Got it?”

Uludrim’s neck ridges spasm.

Jim smiles toothily. “Commander Spock, you have my permission to beam down.”

Spock nods once, sharply. His eyes hold Jim’s for a moment, and then he is headed out to the transporter room where he’ll meet security.

“Uludrim, I expect to see my men standing with you shortly.” He speaks as though his gut isn’t churning.

“You will, Captain Kirk. But only from this room can they speak with you. Whatever communication devices they carry will not work on this planet.”

Jim had suspected as much. That doesn’t mean he likes it. “You will, of course, be allowing our communications from the ship to reach their destinations as agreed. And I, of course, will be sending one to Starfleet alerting them to the situation.”

The Uludrim don’t look happy about this. Jim has noticed their translucent skin take on a pearly sheen of displeasure over the course of their negotiations, always all together. He wonders if they’re telepathic in some way and hopes Spock will keep his mental shields strong. A ridiculous worry, because Spock never does anything else. “Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that you already have sent that missive to your commanders, Captain Kirk.”

“Perhaps it would be,” he agrees genially.

Jim doesn’t like losing contact with his men. He also doesn’t like sitting around on his hands. After he sees that Spock, Cupcake, and Yan have arrived safely, the Uludrim terminate communication and ignore all hails sent by the Enterprise. “I’m going to kill them,” he informs Uhura.

“Yes, sir,” she says, and he stalks off the bridge to go put the stones that belong to Spock and Cupcake and Yan out on his desk where he can keep an eye on them. They’re a group that doesn’t appear to belong together, the flicker of gold fire from Spock’s stone, the solid reassurance of Cupcake’s dull brown rock, and the small, dark greenness of Yan’s pebble.

He spends the night reviewing the dispatches, Starfleet logs, and news reports that the ship has been cut off from for the last few days. To his dismay, he sees there’s a situation with the Klingons rapidly building up only five days travel from here at warp six in the Dolen system. And when he sees Commander Kor’s name show up as the leader of the Klingon birds of prey, he slams his hand down on his desk – was it only two weeks ago that he goaded Spock into letting him fuck him right in the center of it? – and then, useless, goes to have a drink with Bones.

When he gets Komack’s priority one message, it goes something like this: Where the fuck have you been, Kirk? Knew we never should have given you that ship. Get your ass over to the rest of the fleet in the Dolen System ASAP and I’ll roast you later for disappearing off the grid. Or maybe I’ll feed you to the Klingons. Kor’s been asking about you and Commander Spock. And no, I don’t care if you have to abandon anyone on that planet that you claim cut off all contact between your ship and Command. I expect to hear of your arrival immediately.

That’s not actually what he says. But that’s what Jim hears, so close enough.

It’s not really a question. Jim rests his head between his arms crossed on the table in front of him. “Shit,” he whispers to himself.

Striding onto the bridge, he barks out orders. “Uhura, I don’t care what you have to do, get me Uludrim now. Chekov, lay in your fastest course for the Dolen System. Sulu, don’t do a thing yet. T’og, pull up everything you can find on Commander Kor since the last time we saw him. Uhura, do you have them?”

“Not yet, sir. They’re not responding.”

Jim bites back frustrated words. She’s not the real target of his ire.

“Got them, you’re on screen, Captain.”

Uludrim – the batch of them that appear every time – fill the viewer. “We understand there is an emergency?”

Jim is standing up. He makes himself take his hands off his hips so that he doesn’t look too impatient and brusque. He also forces himself to deal with the situation at hand, rather than demanding to know where Spock and security are. “That’s right. My ship has been ordered to the Dolen System to help out with a Klingon situation. I need Commander Spock, Lieutenant Giotto, and Mr. Yan back. We will return as soon as we are able.”

“But Captain, we have not concluded this matter.”

“And I apologize. However, circumstances dictate that we must leave. As I said, we will return to continue negotiations.”

The Uludrim sway placidly. “We will not prevent you from leaving, as that damage has already been done and you have alerted others to our presence. Yet we cannot suspend discussion once it has begun. Surely you understand this. You may leave your officers here and return for them when the Klingon matter has been resolved.” Uludrim twists his head, a languid motion. “This is a perfect example of why we shun outsiders. We want nothing to do with these affairs.”

Jim clenches his fist behind his back. “I can’t leave my men behind.”

“Then you have a dilemma, Captain Kirk.”

Jim stares at him. Uludrim’s neck ridges flutter and his skin washes translucent but he doesn’t break the stare, either.

“Sir, another message from Starfleet. They want our ETA to the Dolen System.”

“I want to see my crew.”

“They are in discussion and cannot be disturbed.”

Jim bares his teeth at Uludrim. “You can damn well disturb them.”

Uludrim says nothing, but a few interminable minutes later, Mr. Yan appears. He looks healthy and unharmed. “We’re fine, sir.”

“There’s a situation and the fleet has been recalled to the Dolen System. Tell Commander Spock to proceed as ordered and that we’ll be back to pick you all up. Uludrim has graciously offered to host you for the time being.” Jim doesn’t think that the Uludrim do sarcasm, but he doesn’t really care even if they do.

“Yes, sir.”

See, the thing is this:

Jim doesn’t know what he imagined when he first heard Spock say, “The fact remains that you are attracted to me and I to you” over a game of chess in the rec room. He doesn’t know what he was thinking when he stood, finally, in front of the door to an empty science lab and felt the ghost-touch of Spock on his back and neck even though Spock’s hands were still at his sides. He doesn’t know if it ever so much as crossed his mind that years later he’d still be feeling, at every moment, that ghost-touch faint against his body like a damn tease leaving him always itching for more.

He doesn’t know what he expected.

But it was not this. It was not this pierced sensation in his gut.

Commander Kor greets him five days later when the Enterprise arrives in the Dolen system. His toothy smile is almost genial, remembered pleasures perhaps. “Ah, but where is Commander Spock? I was so looking forward to meeting him again, Captain.”

Jim doesn’t bother getting out of his chair; he leans back and spreads his legs, opens his hands, and smiles back. It’s not a submissive posture, at all.

“Help me to my quarters, Jim,” Spock had said eleven months ago. Some of his weight leaned into Jim.

“How did you talk McCoy into releasing you?” he asked, askance.

“There is nothing physically wrong with me.”

Which was true – McCoy had healed his broken cheekbones and clavicle, regenerated the flayed skin on his back and ribs, stemmed and sealed his ruptured internal organs while Vulcan healing took care of the rest. Spock had wiped the blood trickling from his mouth away himself.

“The mind-sifter,” Spock said. “Kor threatened to use it on you after he found out who we were, but they used it on me when they thought I was a spy.”

“I know,” Jim said.

“I resisted.”

“I know,” Jim said again.

“I must meditate and rest.” Spock spoke quietly. “It was most unpleasant.”

Jim knew this too. When Spock came stumbling back to him after being released, having convinced the Klingons he was merely a trader visiting Organia as he claimed, his hand brushed past Jim’s. “Captain,” he’d said before falling to his knees and pulling Jim down with him, as Jim tried to catch him under his arms. Jim stared at that damn trickle of green blood seeping from the corner of his mouth, caught on the edge of his rough trader’s sleeve as he coughed into it.

The flash of Spock’s bare skin against his, Spock’s eyelids shutting silently for the briefest moment – and there was an explosion behind Jim’s eyelids, the way there is when he stands under Sol and stares upward into a blue sky, squinching his eyes shut against the sun’s damage. It’s yellow and orange and red, painful, the way they beat Spock’s body and ripped into his head. The Klingons forced the mind-sifter ever deeper as it uncovered no secrets, layer after layer peeled back from Spock’s cranium.

“They went to what Commander Kor called level four,” Spock murmured as Jim walked him to his quarters.

Jim knew about level four – he felt it in that brief transference of agony and emptiness as Spock fell to his knees before him. His spine wrenched in shared torment.

“I would not let them take – Kor could not have – those memories are mine.” Spock’s door hissed shut behind them as he spat the words, venomous, a green flare on his newly mended face, un-Vulcan. For a second, it looked like he was reaching out to Jim’s face with his hands before they stilled and dropped to his sides. Something sharp pierced Jim.

Kor had smiled at Jim and told him that he was going to make level four look like child’s play. “I do not know how the Vulcan withstood even that. A human,” he sneered, “would have been drooling and babbling long before. But I have heard, Captain Kirk, that you are made of warrior material. Let us see if that is true while my scientists dissect Commander Spock one muscle, one membrane at a time to discover how he made it to level four.”

Beside Jim, Spock had sat chained to his chair as Kor loomed over them. From the corner of his eye, Jim had watched blood bubble up and stain the edges of his mouth green. It dripped to his chin.

Now, eleven months after his first encounter with Kor, sitting in his captain’s chair, Jim smiles back at Kor and spreads his legs because this time, he’s got the bigger cock. He’s got men being held by a technologically superior race who would like nothing better than for them all to just disappear – he doesn’t have time for Kor’s shit.

He has a small, well-worn trio of rocks sitting on his desk in his quarters. At night he curls his fist around them. His thumb strokes the golden glint on the black stone. “Computer, time,” he says as it passes, until he says again, in the dark, “Computer, time.” He stalks through the unused corridors of his ship and says, “Computer, time.”

When enough time has passed and his shift has come again, another day of Starfleet and Klingons posturing at each other with too many worlds caught in the balance, he strides onto his bridge and asks Uhura if there has been any communication from the Uludrim.

“No, sir.”

“Which is it, Jim?” McCoy asked him a day before they reached the Dolen system for rendezvous. Jim had been alternating between coldly furious at the Uludrim, Admiral Komack, the Klingons, and himself, Spock, Jesus, everyone, and biting off the heads of anyone who so much as looked at him sideways. “What’s really eating you? You more upset about having to leave your away team behind or at losing out on the biggest balls contest to the Uludrim?”

Jim nearly decked him right then and there. And McCoy, being Leonard McCoy and Jim’s best friend and not nearly afraid enough for his own good, called after him when he stalked away with his hands fisted, “Don’t know, do you.”

+++

The standoff with the Klingons takes two weeks. Two weeks and one day and 123 minutes. “Until next time,” Kor growls. “Then we may finally see if the great Captain Kirk lives up to his warrior’s reputation. I have seen only deceit and trickery, not bravery.” He spits on the floor of his ship, toward his viewscreen.

“And yet you’re the ones turning tail and running,” Jim doesn’t say, but only because if he did they wouldn’t leave, and he’s got places to be. Instead he rubs his finger over his bottom lip and stares at Kor, at his swollen lip where blood has dried, dark and crusty. The same blood is smeared across Jim’s knuckles. Kor glares back at him.

It’s another 1,953 minutes before Starfleet will allow the Enterprise to head off. “She’s the flagship, Captain Kirk. Her presence is required.”

“The Klingons are gone,” Jim responds tightly. “And I have people that we abandoned on an unknown, potentially hostile planet.”

“There are two planets down there with nearly ten billion people on them between the two of them, Kirk. They will see us here last, not the Klingons. Am I understood?”

Jim is crisp. “Yes, sir.”

+++

“Are we compromised?” Jim asks Spock. “You and me. This … thing. Are we endangering the ship?” He doesn’t wonder, out loud, if one day he’ll make the wrong choice when it comes down to the ship or Spock.

Spock looks at him steadily.

Jim’s thought about breaking it off. He was smarter before he began it. Back before, he knew Spock would only break his heart. It’s not like Jim hasn’t had his heart broken in the past, a dozen times over. Better to break it off before he breaks your heart.

But this was before he knew how he would long for him, and once you get to that point you’re pretty much gone and your heart’s going to break anyway, on its own, because that’s what hearts do when you love that hard.

+++

When they finally hightail it back to the planet of the Uludrim, the planet has been cloaked again and it looks like so much empty space. Jim exchanges a long glance with Uhura, and he takes a deep, frustrated breath. In his pocket, his fingers find Cupcake’s small common garden stone. He thinks of the last time Giotto had been trapped planetside, on Satnur, and how he’d threatened to murder children in order to get him, the rest of his men, back.

Pike said to him, “Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes. He saved eight hundred lives, including your mother’s and yours. I dare you to do better.”

A month ago during their first conversation with the Uludrim, they’d said to him that most empires don’t believe that they are an empire, not when they first begin. Jim had asked Spock if the implication was true. If Starfleet was really heading that way after Nero changed the trajectories of all their lives and showed them things about themselves they didn’t know they were capable of, as long as those things meant saving the world or saving a few more souls.

“No,” Spock had said. “It is not like that. It won’t be like that.” His voice was firm.

“Hail the Uludrim, Lieutenant Uhura,” Jim says in the same pleasant tone he’d taken to using with Commander Kor before he finally gave in and decked him hard enough that even Klingon strength staggered back and bled.

He settles into his chair, bracing himself for a long wait. Chekov taps at his screen and pulls up the set of equations he’s been working on for the last month.

Jim taps his finger on the arm of his chair; behind him, Uhura makes a small noise of surprise. “Captain,” she exclaims, “they’re answering.”

“On screen.” For the briefest moment, all the sound buzzes out of Jim’s ears and he can hear only what’s inside him, the quick beat of his heart and pulse of his organs, and then he’s rising, hands at his side, and the viewscreen is flickering on, and –

“Commander Spock,” he says. Because it’s Spock standing there with his hands on the instruments in the Uludrim council room or whatever it is. There’s not a hair out of place on his head, not a bruise in sight, although somewhere along the way he seems to have lost his blue science tunic and replaced it with something black and glinting, a material that gives much like the garments of the Uludrim. Around him, the Uludrim flutter and look generally iridescent and unsettled, but Jim doesn’t know enough about them to tell if that’s the way they always look or if they’re actually unhappy.

“Captain Kirk. The matter with the Klingons has been resolved?”

“For now.” The side of Jim’s mouth quirks; something tense in him eases. “As much as it ever is.”

The Uludrim waggle at one another. Spock tilts his head and says calmly, “We have come to a temporary accord here, Captain. Our presence is no longer necessary. Per regulation 79.3(b), a Federation diplomatic team should be sent following first contact.” He looks at Uludrim, the one who had spoken for them all before. His translucent body flushes a faint blue when Spock looks at him.

“That is so. Please take your people back to your ship now.”

A wave of light blue ripples over the bodies of all the assembled Uludrim. They all watch Spock, the way a bird watches a cat, Jim thinks – not quite afraid because they know they can fly away but still wary of being caught. No one comes within five feet of him.

Spock’s eyes are steady and dark, remote, cool. He stands with his hands clasped behind his back at parade rest.

Jim looks at him and thinks about Satnur and how Spock used the Vulcan death grip on those children on Jim’s command; he thinks about Spock standing in the open bowels of the ship saying, “I feel anger.” He thinks about impossible things that he doesn’t know yet because they haven’t happened, about Spock saying in a terrible voice to the smiling Vulcan leader they bring onboard at Tigoon seven months later, “Do not touch me.”

“Permission for three to beam on board, sir,” Spock says.

“Granted.” Jim sits back in his chair with a whoosh of satisfaction.

+++

The first time Jim killed a man, he did it from behind. He was thirteen and felt like a coward shooting Kodos’s guard in the back, from above, from the rocky outcropping where he lay hidden.

Maybe he would have made a better Klingon. Give him face-to-face combat over stealth and deceit any day.

“I disagree, Captain,” Spock says while they eat dinner.

McCoy snorts. “Remember that shit you pulled with Gaila? Sleeping with her to get at the programming of the Kobayashi Maru?” He frowns at Jim. “Don’t lie to yourself, of all people. You know how to get exactly what you want by any means.”

“The doctor is right. You have a superior tactical mind.”

Spock doesn’t say, “You told me I never loved the mother I’d just failed to save in order to hijack my command of the flagship of the fleet. Did you do it because the other me told you the fate of worlds hung in the balance, or because you watched them build this ship from the ground up and you wanted her for your own from the time she grew out of your cornfields?”

Jim scowls into his lasagna.

“What’s going on, Jim? Do you care? Suddenly?”

Spock raises his brow. “I believe that the captain is engaged to have after-dinner drinks with the Nestonian Ambassador and her consort. She has not hidden her interest in him.”

McCoy leans back, a long drawl of his body. “Huh. And she knows the codes you’re looking for.”

Jim throws him a sharp glance. “She’s a smart, sexy woman. Maybe I see something I like.”

Across the mess, someone carelessly drops a spoon on the floor.

Jim grimaces. “Starfleet is interested in certain information.” He pauses. “But there’re other ways to get it.”

“None so quick,” Spock points out.

Jim meets Spock’s direct gaze. “I’ll be late. I’ll see you both in the morning.”

“Don’t break her heart.” McCoy’s voice is slow and heavy as molasses.

With a quizzical glance, Jim says, “It’s business, Bones.”

+++

Jim orders the Enterprise away from the Uludrim and toward the Klingons, leaving Spock and Cupcake and Yan down there with a race that wants nothing to do with any of them and no means of escape or communication.

At night, time passes, and Jim waits until enough time has gone by so that he doesn’t know the hour any longer. That way he can ask the computer again, “Time,” as he lies on the edge of his bed on his back. His hand falls over the side and trails on the floor, barely. Like this, he is flat and spread open, his ribs split wide in his chest so that his heart is free to beat as fiercely as it wants to. Like this, it can protest as loudly as it wants to.

Spock would never lie down in such a careless manner. When Spock sleeps, he sleeps with a straight body. Jim knows, though, that his weight is always minutely shifted onto one side or other, even when it looks like he’s perfectly balanced.

But sometimes in the aftermath of sex, he is tousled. His hair juts out of place, and if Jim happens to look at him at just the right moment, the smallest moment, his eyes are heavy-lidded and unfocused.

Jim watches for these moments, the same way he watches for the little slips that escape Spock when Jim presses his bare body against Spock’s, a tiny jerk here against the flat of Jim’s belly, a quiet flutter of his fingers there, so unlike Spock’s usual deliberate, always sensible motions. Jim hoards these things.

Occasionally, even, in a moment of what Jim wants to see as tenderness, Spock will rub his cheek against the length of Jim’s cock, there where he is fragile and vulnerable.

+++

At Tigoon, the Enterprise takes on board the Vulcan members of a colony started in an unused part of that world.

“Why?” Chekov asks.

Spock looks at Jim as he answers the ensign’s question. “The Vulcan elders have called home all our people to New Vulcan. They are answering the summons,” he says, and Jim feels like he’s been sucker-punched.

By the time he reports to the transporter room to welcome the Vulcan leader and those beaming onboard with him, he’s in a mood. Spock has been uncharacteristically quiet since Jim gave the order to facilitate their transport, and that’s not helping.

“What,” he says shortly to Uhura when she stops him on his way down to the guest quarters a week later. It’s ship’s evening. As captain, it’s his duty to make sure his passengers remain comfortable, even if they put him on edge. It’s not even them, really. It’s – he knows he’s being irrational. If Spock were about to answer the Vulcan summons to report home to New Vulcan, he’d have already heard about it.

He should have already heard about it. Spock would have had to ask permission to leave; there’d be paperwork to sign off on, communications to and from Starfleet. He’d have already heard about it.

Uhura gives him a level look. “I forwarded messages to your PADD for your signature, Captain.”

“Fucking hell, sorry, Uhura,” he says. He runs his fingers through his hair. He pulls her aside, down an empty corridor. “Didn’t mean to bite your head off. I’m just on edge for some reason.”

She purses her lips. “A Vulcan reason, maybe?”

For a moment, Jim’s pulse skips a beat as he thinks she means Spock. He prides himself on keeping his relationship with Spock separate from his command. It’s the only reason they work, because they both know what comes first and it’s not either of them. But then he realizes that she’s talking about the Vulcan leader.

“There’s something off about him. He smiles.”

She shrugs. “There are Vulcans who choose not to follow the way of Surak. Most of them didn’t live on Vulcan, so more of them are left alive now. They weren’t there when it happened.”

“He’s not like Spock at all.”

She laughs, a mellow, musical sound. “Captain, Spock’s practically royalty. His family are descendants of Surak. They’re the most Vulcan of all Vulcans.” As if Jim didn’t know.

“I don’t like it,” Jim says. He doesn’t like the way Spock has shut down since their guests have come onboard, the way he’s been eating in his room rather than the mess hall where the Vulcan leader has been charming Jim’s crew in the evenings. He doesn’t like the way Spock carries himself, tense and straight. He doesn’t like the lines of anger in Spock’s body that may not be apparent to anyone but him. He doesn’t like the way the Vulcan leader’s eyes follow Spock almost hungrily, surreptitiously, when he doesn’t think anyone’s watching. He doesn’t like the knowing look in those eyes when they land on Jim. He doesn’t like the yearning in them when they watch Spock, and most of all, he doesn’t like the way Spock sometimes sways back toward him before catching himself in those straight, angry lines.

Leaving Uhura, he continues down the hallway toward the guest quarters where he’s housing the Vulcans. The corridor takes a sharp left just before the start of living quarters when it’s approached from this side.

Jim hears voices coming around that corner. They are clipped voices, Vulcan voices, Spock’s voice, and he finds himself stopping before he’s fully aware of it.

“You fail to respect my request that you do not speak to me,” Spock is saying in a hard tone.

The other person chuckles. Jim can’t see who it is, but he knows anyway.

“Your request is based on emotion, Spock. The same emotion you scorn. Why should I honor such a request? I find it much more interesting that I provoke this emotion in you. You haven’t forgotten me, then.”

“I feel no emotion on my own behalf, for you do not exist in my mind any longer.”

“Spock,” the other Vulcan says with his voice torn between something that sounds like apology and an unwilling pleading. There is no trace of his usual smile lighting up his voice. There is the rustle of clothing, of short steps taken, and then Jim hears Spock saying in a terrible manner, “Do not touch me.”

“I’ve missed you—”

“That’s a lie—”

“I taught you to curl into I-Chaya in the cool desert nights—”

“This conversation is meaningless—”

“We walked through Vulcan’s Forge together under her cloudless night sky—”

“You took another path—”

“I taught you to play the piano. I loved you most—”

“You left me,” Spock spits out. “That is what you did. You left me,” and Jim staggers back against the wall. Something sharp has just pierced his side. Perhaps it is the naked pain in Spock’s voice.

“I had no choice, you know that.” The Vulcan leader’s is uneven.

“There’s always a choice,” Spock casts back at him, his voice somehow ferocious as Jim hears him struggle to regain his Vulcan calm. “You had a choice and you chose, but do not now expect me to embrace you.”

“I—”

“No, you do not. I awoke in the morning to find you gone, nothing more than one last imprint of your body in my bed. The link between us was dull and muted, until one day, one night, I woke up screaming because suddenly it was gone and you were no longer in my mind. You left only a hole there.” Spock’s voice is back to that terrible sound, and Jim cannot pull himself up from the wall.

“So do not touch me,” Spock says.

Jim exhales shakily.

+++

A few days before, Jim had laughed and straddled the piano bench in the music room.

“Where did you learn to play a human instrument?” he asked Spock. He watched him drift his hand over the black keys, silently, and then clasp them together as if to keep them away from the keys.

“There was one in my father’s house when I was young. My mother brought it with her from Earth.”

“She played?”

“Yes. They both did, she and my – ”

At Spock’s uncharacteristic hesitation and fumble, Jim looked up sharply. Spock said, staring at the instrument, “She taught him.”

“Did she teach you too?” It was an entirely different question than the one he wanted to ask.

“No,” Spock said, and that was all.

+++

Jim really is a bastard. He’s always known this, of course. He knew this when his mom would cry as she rocked him in her arms, even when he was too big to be held that way.

He knew this when Sam kicked his feet in the dust of the cornfields and said, “Mama never gave me no presents. Not since you came around and made her sad.”

He knew this when he got shipped off to Tarsus and ran to save his own hide when Kodos gunned down his aunt and uncle in pools of blood. He knew this when he tripped over Leroy Matsumoto’s body, sightless eyes, and kept running anyway, tugging Tommy Murray with him. “Don’t look,” he panted. “Run.”

He knew this when he killed his first man from behind on Tarsus.

He knew this when he couldn’t find enough food to feed the kids who were foolish enough to trust him to keep them safe as they ran from the guards hunting them down.

He knew this when he wasn’t quick enough to run away that last time from the guards who caught him stealing their food. He knew this when the only way to escape was to wait until they were all asleep but the one left on watch, and then to get down on his bloody knees and suck him off until he emptied himself into Jim’s mouth. When he was sated and lethargic and unaware, Jim found a sharp rock and with the last of his energy, pounded it into his head.

He knew this when he refused to help out his children who he knew were going to die anyway, a slow horrible death from the inside out of starvation. When he couldn’t find enough food and the only thing he could do for them was bury them with rocks over their eyes so the dirt wouldn’t get in.

He knew this when he got back to Earth and found his uncle Frank lording it over his dad’s Corvette, so he simply drove it over a cliff, not caring if he nearly got himself killed in the process, as long as it ran fast.

He knew this when he got drunk, got his ass tossed in jail, hacked his records, spent most of his time underneath his bike jamming up his hands with machine oil, got drunk again, got his ass tossed in jail again, and then somewhere along the way ended up in Starfleet knowing that he was nothing like his dad and eventually it was all going to end up in the shits anyway because people were going to expect one thing and he was … another.

Jim’s a bastard because four months ago Spock came to his room one night with something in his hand.

This is nearly three years into the mission, and it’s just after he’s spent three weeks captive, sweltering in too much humidity and heat and his own ripe sweat in his six-by-six cell. After a week, they led him out of the earth-wet of his cell and into the scorching suns. He blinked against the brightness. They left him on display, hung between rough ropes in the common square for a day and a night. Under the noon Etrusian suns, Jim felt his skin blister and crack; under the golden stars glinting in a black night, Jim thought of Spock and his gold-black stone, Jim’s shard of hope.

“But look at you now, Captain Kirk. Hung by your arms, unable even to lift your head. Are you so weak and frail that you cannot withstand even our life-giving suns? And this is the great captain of the great flagship of the great empire? H’raktyu shulik’m.” They laughed at him.

By the time Spock came, parasitic worms had hooked their way deep into Jim’s flesh and spread their eggs in his body. His body was wracked with fever-chills, and his feet swollen with great wounds from the worms.

Later, as Jim drifted in his fevers in sickbay, swimming in and out of consciousness, came the sound of McCoy yelling at Spock for letting him walk even a hundred yards to a safe beam-up site in his condition.

“Was the captain to be carried out of there like a helpless child in front of his crew, in front of his captors?” Spock asked McCoy. “Jim holds his dignity at a high price.”

“Stuck-up Vulcan,” McCoy snorted, but even swimming in his fevered delirium, Jim feels the concern swirling through his tone. “There weren’t any captors left alive to see him. You took care of them all.”

When McCoy finally releases him from sickbay, then from limited duty, he heads up to the bridge of his ship. The turbolift doors hiss open, and Spock stands up in a long, graceful motion from Jim’s chair, instantly aware of his presence.

“Captain on deck,” he says, and everyone comes to attention.

Jim walks over and stands in front of him. “You are relieved, Commander Spock. At ease.”

The crew relaxes. Sulu grins at Jim and Nyota swings her ponytail jauntily. Spock inclines his head and returns to his science station. Later that night, he comes to Jim’s door with something in his hand.

“Permission to enter, Jim.”

Jim smiles. “Granted.” With Jim having been gone for three weeks and then spending four days in sickbay and five more on light duty, Spock’s had his hands full. Jim hasn’t seen much of him since he got back. He holds out his hand to him, not sure what he means by it, just happy to see him.

Spock stills and looks at his hand, and then, just as Jim’s about to drop it, reaches out his fingers and runs them along Jim’s. Nodding, still smiling, Jim asks what’s in his other hand.

Some time ago, Jim had sat with Spock and Cupcake trying to figure out what they could have done differently to have avoided the situation that ended up with Mr. Yan lying in a medically induced coma. Yan’s green stone sat on the table.

Cupcake stared at it pensively; Jim looked at Spock. When McCoy brought Yan out of his coma and Jim placed the green pebble back in his drawer, Spock came up behind him and stood next to him. He put his hand on the edge of the open drawer.

“Do you have a stone for yourself?” he asked.

“No,” Jim said.

Now, standing again in Jim’s quarters after he has relinquished the command chair, Spock slides his hand away from Jim’s and holds out his other hand. In the middle of his palm rests a small dusty red rock.

“That’s not mine,” Jim says without thinking.

Spock looks at him steadily. “I know.”

Jim stares at him and then he looks away, and then he stares at him again. A sudden rush of blood makes his ears ring. There is a painful pressure in his head. “I—” he says, but he’s thinking ‘shit.’ And he’s furious in a way he hasn’t been for a long time, a quick anger that makes him want to lash out and punch something and see his hand bleed.

What is he supposed to do with that? What does Spock mean – how can Spock not know what the stones mean? Of course Spock does, and Spock is trying to tell him something and Jim isn’t – he can’t – he hasn’t told him about Tarsus. He hasn’t told him about his dad’s car. He hasn’t told him about all those nights smashed out of his mind, but those Spock probably knows about because he’s still got a record. It makes him want to laugh, him the captain of the flagship of the Fleet.

But then, Spock should know all these things. After the past three years. He would already know them – he'd already fucking know them if he would let Jim in and give him an ounce of trust. It’s not like Jim particularly wants Spock rummaging through his head in a mindmeld; why would he, dear god. Isn’t his head enough of a mess without someone else seeing it, too?

Yet – if only Spock wouldn’t skitter away every time Jim even comes anywhere close to his meldpoints. If his eyes didn’t pull away, not that Jim goes anywhere near his temples, not deliberately. Jesus, what does he think Jim’s going to do, rape his mind or something. But it’s fucking insulting the way Spock constantly, silently denies him his trust.

Because Jim’s the captain of this ship and Command’s always watching him, and his crew can’t fully make him one of their own. His father sacrificed himself for 800 lives while Jim's nearly started a war with the Romulans, another one with the Klingons, and threatened to murder children to get a handful of his crew back. He’s got a juvenile record the length of his arm and he killed his first man at thirteen, and he sucked off a man who’d beaten him for five crusts of bread that didn’t manage to keep Tommy alive for more than another two days anyway, and he let Tommy die a wretched death because he wasn’t strong enough to make it easy for him.

He’s got a box of stones of people who served on this very ship who he failed.

So, yeah, he wouldn’t trust himself either. But that doesn’t stop him from wishing someone – Spock – would.

He looks at that fucking red stone in Spock’s hand. He knows where it’s from. It could only have come from Vulcan-that-was, damn him, damn Spock for doing this, for offering him something by halves, for offering Jim only half-pieces of himself, and from his lost homeworld of all places. In Jim’s belly there is a stone quarry. He feels as though he’s dug his hand deep into his drawer of rocks and fed them to his mouth, swallowed them down. They grind inside his tender organs, tearing; there’s a gold-glinted black stone cutting into the moist flesh deep in his throat.

“I—” Jim says. His breath bursts from his lips in an angry puff. “No.”

Spock had said to him, in a night cradled by the shining stars beyond the ship, “You’re in love with me,” and Jim couldn’t deny it even when Spock left him sitting on his bed missing Earth’s moon.

This time Jim doesn’t tell Spock to get out. Instead, he spins around and heads for the door, because it’s his own room. He has to get out and get away from Spock because he doesn’t know what to do with this, he doesn’t know what – he can’t.

+++

Jim really is a bastard. He’s always known this, of course.

Because three months after he says “no” to Spock and the stone he offered Jim for himself, he overhears that conversation between Spock and the Vulcan leader. And when he hears Spock’s voice and the way it cuts itself, he wishes that he were the one who had done that. He wishes he could make Spock’s voice cut on itself that way.

“I loved you most,” the Vulcan had said, and Spock spat back at him, “No, you left me, and I woke up screaming because our link was severed and you left a ragged hole in my mind.”

At an evening gathering designed for the benefit of the ship’s Vulcan guests, Jim makes sure to be at his most sparkling. He knows that when he turns it on, people cannot help but feel an attraction to him. He pulls on this and the resulting vortex of energy. He feels their eyes track him as he charms his way through the room.

He makes his way to Spock’s side. Spock is aware of him before Jim even gets there. “Captain,” he says.

“Commander.” Heat radiates from Spock’s body.

When he sees the Vulcan leader watching him, Jim turns and smiles at him.

+++

Jim likes to mouth the bruises he leaves on Spock’s body, those faint yellow-green ungainly blotches made by his lips and teeth and tongue. He waits until Spock’s forgotten they’re there so that he can mark him again in the same places by sucking, hard, the blood back to the surface just under the skin and breaking the fine capillaries there.

+++

By the time Jim reports to the transporter room to welcome the Vulcan leader and those beaming onboard with him, he’s in a mood. Spock has been uncharacteristically quiet since Jim gave the order to facilitate their transport, and that’s not helping.

“With me, Spock. Let’s go say hello.”

Spock’s face is as neutral as ever, but Jim’s not convinced. If the man were the sort to purse his lips, they’d be sealed flat. Nonetheless, he falls into place at Jim’s shoulder without a word.

Jim nods to Ensign Norelli, the transporter tech on duty. “Whenever you’re ready.”

They’re beaming aboard groups of five, except for the last group. Their leader, of course, will be in the first batch.

Their shapes shimmer and solidify into drab Vulcan figures. Jim steps forward and raises his hand in a Vulcan salute. “Welcome to the Enterprise. I’m Captain Kirk. This is my first officer, Commander Spock.”

The one he spoke to before steps forward and smiles.

Jim blinks at the sight of a Vulcan smiling. Spock stands with his hands caught behind his back, legs slightly apart. He stares at some point on the wall behind the Vulcans. The leader’s eyes rest on him, as though they were looking for him, and his smile grows wider.

“Captain Kirk, a pleasure. I am the leader of the colony. My name is Sybok.”

Spock is tense beside Jim. Sybok tilts his head in a curiously familiar gesture, though it’s warped by that unsettling smile. Jim realizes that the other Vulcans with him are smiling too, or frowning, or generally looking curious. They all wear different expressions, but there is not one blank mask among them, except on Spock.

“S'chn T'gai Spock,” Sybok says. “An honor.”

“Sybok,” Spock returns evenly.

Jim resists glancing at his first. For Sybok to greet Spock by his full name – how did he know it – and Spock to stonily use only their guest’s given name seems rude bordering on insulting, assuming, as Jim does, that Spock must know his full name just as Sybok apparently knows Spock’s.

Spock had said, “This is not wise, Captain. Do not trust him, for he is dangerous beyond appearances.”

Jim’s more than a little pissed that Spock didn’t bother filling him in more than that. The only other thing he’d said was that the computer scans confirmed all potential passengers to be Vulcanoids listed in the computer database as originating from Vulcan. He can’t imagine a threat to the ship or his crew, or Spock would have been more explicit. Still, though. He smiles back at Sybok, uneasy with that expressive face, and says, “Let me show you to where you’ll be staying. Commander Spock, dismissed.”

+++

Naturally, when he gets some privacy, he says, “Computer, entry on Sybok.”

“Sybok, founder of Vulcan colony on Tigoon; also founder of defunct colony of Rith V,” the computer’s unmodulated feminine voice reads back at him.

“Date of birth?”

“Unknown.”

Jim taps his finger on his desk. “Full name?”

“Sybok.”

“Family name?”

“There is no name listed.”

Jim can feel his eyebrows climbing into his forehead. He’s never gotten these responses before. “Computer, what planet is Sybok a citizen of?”

“No citizenship listed.”

“Where’s he from?”

“Planet of origin: Vulcan.”

He sits in his chair and tips it back as far as it will go. “Date of last known activity on Vulcan?”

“2239.”

“Nature of last known activity on Vulcan?”

“Banishment.”

This makes Jim snap forward, startled. “What for?”

“Unknown.”

“Anything that connects him at all to any family, person, or group of people other than those in his colony?”

“Negative.”

It’s only a lifetime of interacting with voice-command computers that makes Jim refrain from saying, “Really? You’re sure? He’s not a citizen of anywhere? He has no family anywhere? How the hell does Spock know him if he comes from nowhere?” because that would be entirely pointless, although it might feel good.

“Huh,” he says instead, and he rolls a small pebble around in his hand that he picked up on Tigoon.

+++

Jim has always known he's a bastard, of course.

He knew it from his first memories of his mom and Sam and all of them of Tarsus. He knows it every time he looks at his piles of stones. He knows it as those same rocks cut into his belly like ungainly knives when Spock holds out a desert-red rock to him and Jim walks away, when he hears Spock’s voice cut in on itself and wishes that he had been the one to make that happen.

Jim really is a bastard. Because all those things he’s done that make him a bastard – he’d do every single one of them again in a heartbeat.

+++

Some days it seems like every way Jim turns, Sybok is there. The other members of his colony mostly stay out from underfoot; Sybok doesn’t. “May I join you, Captain?” he asks in the mess. “The stars are beautiful, no?” he’ll remark to Jim upon entering the otherwise empty viewing bay. “Thank you for hosting my company,” as he neatly slides into the turbo just before the doors can hiss shut.

From across the room or down the corridor, Spock’s gaze will follow.

“What’s your deal?” Jim says finally, exasperated. He’s not trying to be rude, even if he thinks the other man occasionally deserves it. He’s not asking about his banishment, just his emotional inflection. Of course, by asking about one he might very well be asking about the other.

Sybok raises an eyebrow at him. Jim doesn’t look away.

With a faint smile, Sybok says, “Ah, very good, Captain. I do not follow the path of Surak. Not all Vulcans do.”

“But you do more than that. You convince others to follow you.”

Sybok’s smile grows wider. “Clever. I see why he finds your company stimulating.”

A small frisson of unease tickles Jim’s spine. He’s referring to Spock, obviously. He doesn’t like that this Vulcan speaks so familiarly of him, especially when he knows that Spock wouldn’t have said anything to indicate such an opinion to this man. “You left only a hole in my mind,” Spock had spat at him.

“Why do you do it? Why do you want them to follow you and leave behind what they were taught and everything they know for life on a backwater?”

“Many people, both Vulcan and otherwise, carry great pain inside them. I simply seek to share their pain, to help them live through their greatest fears, and thereby release them.”

Jim narrows his eyes. “I didn’t ask how. I asked why.”

Sybok is still smiling. “Your Commander Spock would tell you that I have chosen to embrace the animal passions of our ancestors, and that in doing so, I have lost my reason. My mother was an adept of Gol. Had her katra not been lost in the destruction of my former planet, I would have returned one day to seek the knowledge held in her soul. Does such an idea make me sound like I’ve lost my reason, Captain Kirk?”

Jim doesn’t answer. He watches him carefully until Sybok laughs. “Why should I not help people, if I can? Would you like me to help you? Would you like me to meld with your mind and give you release?”

Something in Jim recoils.

+++

Two weeks pass. Sybok continues watching Spock; Jim feels the weight of his eyes on him now as well.

A year and a half ago, Spock said to Jim, “I would not let them take – Kor could not have – those memories are mine.” His hands seemed to reach out for Jim’s face before dropping into stillness.

“I do not take memories, Captain,” Sybok tells him. “But I do force you to relive them when I meld with you.”

Two years ago Spock said, “My people had even their bones stolen from them in the destruction of Vulcan.”

Sybok says, “Do you not believe that Commander Spock would also seek the katra of his mother if it now existed?” and Jim replies, “Amanda Grayson was human,” and Sybok says, “Don’t humans also have souls?”

Jim narrows his eyes and shifts his weight forward in his chair. He asks Sybok if in the course of providing this release of pain and anger he’s ever killed someone. “To put them out of their misery?”

“I have. When there was no other way.”

Jim taps his finger on the table before him.

“My offer stands open. I will meld with you.”

“I don’t want release from whatever suffering it is you think I must endure,” Jim says evenly. His stomach roils.

Sybok’s mouth quirks up. “Perhaps not. But you do want something from me.”

Across the room, from a table he shares with Nyota, Spock frowns imperceptibly. Jim stiffens, gets up, and walks away from them both.

+++

Three months into the mission, Jim had taken the ship joyriding. “We’ll hear from Command about this, Captain,” Spock had said. “I must formally state that I do not support this plan.”

“I get very, very nervous when you smile like that, sir,” Chekov had said hesitantly.

Jim grins. “Like what?”

“As though you’ve just conceived the most illogical, harebrained scheme.” Nyota shoots him a pointed look.

“I’m stuck in a tin can with a bunch of lunatics,” McCoy mutters and shuts his eyes.

Scotty looks around the room and claps his hands. “Well, I like this ship. Let’s see how fast she can go!”

Jim imagines the stars dancing dizzyingly as the ship shoots off; he lays his hands on her console and thinks, “I’ve got you, darlin’.” For a moment he wishes he could feel her hull shudder with speed and an impossibly angled trajectory, even if the shock sent his people careening into each other and throwing up in the hallways. Nothing dangerous, just enough to make them all feel the edge a little more sharply. In his quarters, his rocks would tumble around in a delirious jumble. If they could speak, they would squeal with laughter and refuse to stay still long enough to rest on anyone’s dead eyes. When Jim goes fast like this, like the ship is doing under his command, it seems he can outrun even the fate of men. It’s always been this way.

His grin is wide on his face.

Later, Jim gets a call from Admiral Pike. He’s still coming off the high and wheeling the ship about so fast that the artificial grav units seemed to be a second behind them and everyone bounced a few inches off the ground. Sulu whooped; Jim slapped his shoulder happily.

“I’ll get right to the point,” Pike says. “We’re starting to hear things about the Enterprise. Apparently she’s gaining a reputation as a party ship. Know anything about this?”

Jim doesn’t bat an eyelash. “My people work their asses off. We have the highest mission success rate and the lowest mission mortality rate. What they do off-duty, as long as they don’t hurt anyone or jeopardize this ship or morale, is up to them. What’s this really about?”

Pike stares at him. “You knew we’d be checking up on you, Kirk.”

Spock steps forward, up to Jim’s shoulder.

After the call, Jim turns to Spock, pleased. “That was probably pretty irresponsible. But. The best defense is a good offense.”

Something tightens at the corners of Spock’s eyes. “Not always,” is all he replies.

Many months later he says, into Spock’s skin, fiercely, “I will not let this ship become the harbinger of the Federation’s empire. I will not let my people turn into that, even if I have to hijack the ship and take her joyriding again, just to remind us all why we came out here in the first place.”

Spock does not reply. But the next day, he does allow Jim to lead him into the tight confines of a shuttle locked down in the shuttle bay.

“This is unwise,” Spock tells him, even as he is pulling Jim closer. Jim takes that to mean, “This is spectacularly stupid and I don’t know why I’m having any part of it, and I blame you.” He grins and flicks his tongue against the curve of Spock’s ear. Spock doesn’t quite give him the satisfaction of making a noise, but he does incline his neck so that Jim can reach him more easily.

What Jim really wants to do is take the shuttle out and put it on autopilot and have sex with Spock in the pilot’s chair while looking out at the stars around them, so many and infinite while they are on a small, small shuttle drifting in the black. He’s pretty sure, though, that that would be considered a waste of resources by Starfleet.

“Or lead to a court martial for both of us,” Spock points out.

“Aw, Spock, I thought you said we had no rules.”

“That statement was intended to refer to rules between us, Jim, not rules that apply to us.”

Jim thinks, not for the first time, that it’s horribly unfair that Spock manages to sound so composed even while he’s naked and hard, the tip of his cock deliciously flushed, a creamy drop appearing on its head. Jim has always been turned on by seeing his partner’s arousal – it’s the most erotic thing to him, and with Spock the effect is exponential. His own body aches in response; his muscles clench and he breathes over the fat head of Spock’s cock. His mouth waters at its closeness. If he just reached out his tongue, he could taste that creamy bitterness seeping there.

He looks up at Spock. Spock’s dark eyes stare back at him. Jim cannot see to the bottom of them. With a long, slow exhale blown over Spock’s bare skin, Jim says, “Make me.”

Spock raises his eyebrow.

Jim licks his lips; he knows they glisten rudely. “Come on, put it in. Shove your cock in my mouth. Fuck my face. You know you want to.”

Spock shakes his head once even as his cock flushes with a green tint. “I will hurt you.”

In Jim’s groin, there is a hot pressure that sends a deep tingle through him. He moans. “You won’t. Do it.”

Spock’s body is inching incrementally closer. “I don’t wish to harm you,” he says again, and Jim swallows.

“I don’t care. Just – Spock, c’mon.”

Spock brushes the head of his cock against Jim’s lips, back and forth, smearing precome across them until they are slick and swollen. An embarrassing sound escapes Jim.

“Give me your hands.” There is, at least, a small catch in Spock’s voice as he speaks.

Confused but not wanting to stop this, Jim extends them toward him. Spock catches them easily and presses them to his hips. “They stay there. If you drop them, I stop.”

Jim curls his fingers into Spock’s ass. It takes every ounce of restraint that he has to not use his grip to pull Spock into his face. Spock’s teasing his mouth with his cock. His breathing is calm and regular, but Jim feels the faintest tremor run through his thighs. He smiles triumphantly and Spock narrows his eyes. In warning he pulls away from Jim’s mouth.

Jim refuses to – he will not – chase him. He can taste a coppery bitterness on his lips and he feels empty. His mouth is waiting and empty, and he needs Spock to come back.

Spock clenches his hands into fists at his side and then, deliberately, straightens them back out and, as if against his will, comes back. He slides the head of his cock past Jim’s lips, and Jim sighs. Spock lets him push his cock into the pocket of his cheek. Soundlessly, he reaches down and brushes the skin of Jim’s check. His long index finger traces the outline of his own cock bulging there where inside Jim’s mouth it is smooth and hot and wet.

Jim’s torn between wanting to stay like this forever, this long slow slide, and wanting to gag and swallow against the back of his throat as he feels Spock’s cock pressing deep into him. Spock takes the decision from him when he places his hands over Jim’s hands, still holding desperately onto his hips – as if to remind him that he won’t hurt him, that he refuses to hurt him, and Jim doesn’t know what to do with that so he tilts his head to give Spock better access to thrust as far in as he can – and he does.

For a second, Jim can’t breathe. Spock’s hands grip his hair as his hips snap back and forth into Jim’s face. Jim’s nose get shoved into the black crinkle of hair curling above his dick, and there, there if he can only inhale quickly enough, there must be that faint, tantalizing scent of Spock’s invisible sweat. For that, for the sweet fullness of his mouth, Jim doesn’t care about the saliva mixed with a smear of precome dribbling down his chin and falling to the hard floor of the shuttlecraft.

+++

Finally, Jim says to Spock, “Why don’t you ever meld us?”

“I have no wish to.”

+++

He has another question. He says, “Does Sybok make you uncomfortable with his displays of emotion?”

Spock replies, “No.”

Jim folds his arms over his chest and leans back against the dresser. Spock is sitting at his desk working on a PADD. “So why does he make you so upset?”

With the barest glance, Spock says, “He does not upset me. I feel no emotion regarding him.”

“Fuck that shit,” Jim snorts. This time Spock does actually look over. “That means I don’t believe you, in case you were confused.”

Spock returns to his PADD. Jim stares at his bent head, pissed off. “Why don’t you ever meld us?” His voice is hard, betraying his resentment over something he doesn’t even want, and Spock doesn’t look at him when he says, “I have no wish to,” and Jim says, “Fuck you, too” and leaves.

+++

After, when Jim’s not stumbling backwards, stupidly off-balance with surprised ringing in his ears, he’s furious.

He hears about how Spock had been the officer on deck when it happened, how he’d been quietly working at his station when his fingers suddenly started flying over the console, as though something urgent, unpleasant, had caught his attention. “It definitely wasn’t something going on here on the bridge. His attention was somewhere else,” Chekov said, “And then he was in the turbo lift almost before he’d even managed to give the conn over to Sulu.”

“That was running, for him,” Sulu agreed. “He was flipping out. Spock-like.”

Jim hears about all this and doesn’t give a shit, because he’s so mad at Spock. This is what he knows: he’s standing with Sybok in his guest quarters and Sybok says again, “You want something from me, Captain. I can meld with you and show you what it is you want.”

Jim eyes at him speculatively. “You don’t know what it is I want. Why don’t I just tell you, and then you can answer. Verbal communication’s worked great for me for a long time.” He pauses. “I want to know how you know Commander Spock.”

Sybok looks wary, and Jim feels a small, vicious pulse of satisfaction. “That is not my story to tell. And yet you should know. It pains me that you do not.” He tilts his head in that stance that is so familiar, regarding Jim. “I will bear his anger,” he says, while his expression shifts to one of sorrow. “He is my brother.”

Jim trips blindly back into the corner of a table. It jabs his hip unforgivingly and his legs fail to catch him. He falls into a crouch, back to the wall, as though he has some kind of defense against the horrible slicing pain of the rocks grinding in his belly; Sybok stretches out his hand to him even as Spock bursts into the room, moving fast and light on his feet, his hand whipping out and backhanding Sybok viciously across the face.

“Don’t touch him,” Spock grits out, something feral in his voice. Keeping one eye on Sybok, Spock half-turns. “Jim?” he says. His voice is calm again. His breathing is not.

He touches Jim’s shoulder, his jaw and cheek with a quick cupping of his hand. He kneels in front of him.

Jim opens his eyes and stares at him. The taste of bile is rancid in his mouth; the feel of Spock’s hand on his face is foreign. “Your brother,” he says. He pulls himself up and with some source of strength, some restraint he never knew he had, doesn’t slug his first. “Excuse me, Commander.”

+++

“Are we compromised?” Jim had asked Spock. “You and me. This … thing. Are we endangering the ship?”

He hadn't wondered, out loud, if one day he’ll make the wrong choice when it comes down to the ship or Spock. He hadn't wondered because he didn’t know which choice, exactly, would be that wrong choice.

Spock had looked at him steadily. In the aftermath of Sybok’s revelation, he chimes at Jim’s quarters four times. Each time, Jim denies him entry. Finally McCoy shows up and pushes his way in.

“I’m fine,” he snaps.

“Hobgoblin didn’t think so. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was worried. Any reason for that?”

“Oh, no reason in particular,” Jim says acidly.

McCoy harrumphs. “Stranger things have happened. I suppose.”

Jim sighs. “Go away, Bones.” Once he’s alone, Jim gets up and drops the black and gold rock into the drawer. He can’t look at it right now.

How the hell had he not known that Spock has a brother? How the hell has Sybok been on board for almost three weeks without that little detail coming up, somehow?

There are no rocks cutting up his innards now, no shards piercing his gut, for he has thrown them all up.

+++

Of course the ship continues running as smoothly as ever. Professionally, he and Spock have always made a great team, even when Spock brought him up on charges of ethical violations and marooned him on an ice world and Jim manipulated him into surrendering his ship to him by insulting his dead mother in front of the crew.

They exchange information as required by duty. They don’t run into each other in the mess hall. Spock’s always preferred to eat earlier than Jim anyway, though he’d altered his schedule to better coincide with Jim’s. Jim knocks two sandbags off their hooks in the gym. One explodes. Cupcake whistles low under his breath and Jim tells him to shove it. With a grin, Cupcake offers himself up to Jim’s fists. Half an hour later, they’re both bruised and bloody, and Jim’s still got that damn thrum under his skin.

The worst part? The worst part is not that Spock didn’t tell him his brother was onboard, that he had a brother at all, that he didn’t trust Jim enough to say something. The worst part is that Jim overhears another conversation between them that goes like this:

“I can help them manage their pain,” says Sybok. “In the wake of Vulcan’s destruction, the survivors feel much turmoil. I don’t deny logic as a path to serenity, but I can offer something in addition.”

“They will reject you. Not only because you were banished.” Spock’s voice is measured as always. “I have visited the colony. They are pulling into themselves, into what they know, wanting to protect what little they have left. They will not want to try something new.”

“We are all scrambling for the old.” There is a certain wry quality to Sybok’s words. “I can only try.”

This is the most civil, even sympathetic exchange Jim’s ever heard Spock have with his brother. He’s about to stalk away, his chest clenching tightly because, dammit, the least Spock could do is still be furious with his brother, when he hears Sybok say, “You could come with me.”

Weeks ago, Chekov had asked why they were picking up the stray Vulcans and Spock had replied, looking straight at Jim, “The Vulcan elders have called home all our people to New Vulcan. They are answering the summons.”

Sybok says, “You could come with me,” and Jim swallows against a dry throat, and Spock says, “I will remain here.”

“You have reason to remain, then.”

“The cause is sufficient,” Spock replies. Whatever Sybok says next is too faint for Jim to hear.

That evening, Jim slams his closed fist into his wall and lets it swell up with grim satisfaction. Because he really is a bastard and he’s always known it. Spock didn’t tell him that Sybok was his brother, once upon a time, before being cast out from the family. But then, Jim didn’t tell him about Tarsus and starvation and killing men and whoring himself for a crust of bread and burying his children with stones over their eyes because he was too weak to put them out of their misery. And when, despite not knowing, Spock held out his hand with a precious red rock from Vulcan-that-was, Jim basically spat on his offering.

+++

Later Spock says, “I didn’t tell you about him because he is not my brother, not anymore. That relationship was severed,” and Jim says, “Bullshit. You don’t just wake up one morning and not have a brother,” even though he knows that Vulcans kind of do.

“Vulcans do,” Spock tells him. “The familial bond was severed between all of us upon his banishment. He ceased to mean anything to me,” and Jim says, “You can either give me your report on the soil composition of Delft 9 or get the hell out of my ready room, Commander Spock.”

Spock tries again, later. He says, “He was my older brother and he abandoned me,” and Jim says, “Jesus, get over it already.”

Still later Jim says, “You don’t hate him. Stop lying to yourself. It’s not about whatever bad things he did on Vulcan, whatever he got banished for. He’s still your brother and he’s a piece of your family, part of what’s left, and you’re afraid of him because of that, because there’s not much left.”

And Spock says, “I didn’t tell you about him because I didn’t want him to mean anything. If I said something to you, then he would. Because he would have mattered enough that I had to say something to you.”

“I’m your fucking captain, Spock,” Jim snaps back. “You think something like that’s not relevant?”

Spock clasps his hands behind his back, as though holding them fast there against – Jim’s not sure what. “I do not refer to ship’s business or telling my captain. I refer to telling you.”

Later Jim says, “That’s illogical, Mr. Spock,” and Spock says, quietly, “I find I am frequently illogical when it comes to you, sir.”

Jim snorts and crosses his arms across his chest.

Later, Jim says, “Why don’t you ever meld us?” His voice is hard, still furious at Spock, at himself, at the whole thing. Spock doesn’t look at him when he says, “I have no wish to,” and Jim says, “Fuck you, again.”

Spock looks up at him. His face is pale. “Jim. I fear that I would burn you. I think about the senselessness of it all, and I am ashamed to feel such anger as I do.” He glances away. “Kaiidth.” The word would be a sigh coming from another.

Jim clenches his hand against his thigh, forcibly stilling it there so that it does not move of its own accord, toward Spock. “You’re making excuses, Commander.”

A fierce light flares in Spock’s eyes, and finally, finally he hits back after a week of simply defending himself against Jim’s frustrated attacks. “I am aware, Captain, that it is your habit to attack at every opportunity where it is a choice between being on the offensive and the defensive. Does it satisfy you to throw my every word back in my face, as I believe the human expression is?”

Jim raises his chin.

+++

“Are we compromised?” Jim had asked Spock. “You and me. This … thing. Are we endangering the ship?”

He hadn't wondered, out loud, if one day he’ll make the wrong choice when it comes down to the ship or Spock. He hadn't wondered because he didn’t know which choice, exactly, would be the wrong choice.

But there is no wrong choice because if he would not choose the ship with all its lives, with its great heart beating between its metal ribs, he would not be James T. Kirk.

Spock looked at him steadily.

+++

Two years and nine months after the start of the mission, nearly five months before Jim finds out that he brought Spock’s brother onboard without Spock bothering to tell him, Jim spends three weeks captive, sweltering in too much humidity and heat and his own ripe sweat in his six-by-six cell. He digs though the dirt floor, only to hit the metal cage that the dirt walls of his squalid cell is built around. His feet are lacerated; parasitic larvae from the earth worm their way into his skin. His captors laugh.

“Do you think your people, your precious Starfleet and Federation, are the only advanced ones? Your arrogance leads you to peril.” Their coarse jeers surround him.

After a week, they lead him out of the earth-wet heat of his cell and into the scorching suns. He blinks against the brightness. They leave him on display, hung between rough ropes in the common square for a day and a night, and then throw him back in the cell with a soft pouch of water. It will have to last all day, he knows.

“The Federation is no better than the Klingons and the Romulans,” spit the Etrusians. “You’re one more greedy empire in a list of empires. And your ship, your Starfleet, for its all its fancy title and explorations, is just another military branch meant to enforce the dictates of your empire.”

Jim feels his skin blister and crack. Concentrated salt from his meager sweat burns his flesh. Some of the passersby laugh at him or scoop up handfuls of sharp dirt to pelt him, but most ignore him. By evening, he’s too weak and dehydrated to lift his head. His piss is a dribble of concentrate. Each cycle of the suns burns his bare flesh more. Great blisters welt his body and the parasites spread into his intestines. “The great Captain Kirk who cannot even withstand our small turook worms,” the Etrusian guard sneers.

This becomes routine until, one day, the sound of phaser fire stirs him. He is wracked with fever-chills in the blazing suns, and his feet and legs have swollen with raw wounds from the worms. Spock is the first into the clearing where he hangs. Dead Etrusians pile haphazardly on the ground behind him. He is covered in their orange-red reptilian blood, and even as Jim uses his precious energy to look up at him, Spock snaps the neck of one of the Etrusian guards. Orange blood spreads across the fallen bodies; Spock isn’t using a phaser. A long knife has gutted the belly of another guard. Spock wipes the edge on his thigh.

The commander of the guard cuts a curved blade into Jim’s side. “I will slice him in two like the animal he is if you take one step closer.”

Spock stares back at him coolly. “You will not touch him.”

The sound of running feet means that, finally, the rest of the rescue team has managed to catch up with Spock, but Spock pays them no heed. Quicker than Jim’s weary mind can process, Spock’s hand moves and silver glints through the air like an angry star wheeling against the sky. With a strangled cry the Etrusian commander falls. His blood sprays across Jim’s skin. It burns.

Five other Etrusians move forward to attack, and Spock says in that same cool voice, his face smeared with blood, “I will slice you in two like the animals you are if you take one step closer.”

They freeze. Cupcake quickly stuns them; later he confesses to Jim that he did so because he really wasn’t sure if Commander Spock was going to kill them anyway. “You should have seen what he did,” Sulu tells him. “I was not about to mess with him. Starfleet’s probably not too happy with him right now. The Etrusian government was shitting in their pants after thirty seconds with him.”

On the planet, Spock looks at Jim for an impossible moment that Jim is barely aware of as he hangs there, and reaches out his hand. He cuts through Jim’s bonds with a small knife that Jim’s seen displayed on the wall of his quarters, some artifact from ancient Vulcan. Pulling Jim up, he helps him walk a hundred yards to the beam-up site.

Jim doesn’t think he’s going to make it. Each step is an agony of dirt grinding into his raw feet, and his legs turn to jelly more than once, but Spock’s hand is tight around his elbow and he doesn’t let go.

In sickbay, as Jim drifts in his fever, swimming in and out of consciousness, he hears McCoy yelling at Spock for letting him walk even a hundred yards to a safe beam-up site in his condition. “Jim holds his dignity at a high price,” is all Spock says in his own defense. “Some things are worth suffering for.”

“Not your call for the Captain’s health.” Bones sounds tired. “Not your call, Spock.”

And as Jim swims back under his delirium, maybe he hears Spock say, “Is it not?”

+++

He thinks he remembers talking to Spock through his fever-dreams. He thinks he asks him if the Federation is really like that, another empire in the making. If Starfleet in the wake of Nero’s destruction is just one more armada becoming larger every day. If the Enterprise, and through her Jim and Spock, are just generals in an empire of acquisition and destruction.

Through the drugs and delirium, he tells Spock that people on Earth used to worry about the Apocalypse. That in the aftermath of that, the survivors would band into fierce and feral groups, fighting for scraps, fighting for their place in the universe.

“But the world didn’t end, Spock,” he slurs.

He thinks he feels Spock run his fingers against his own, but maybe this is just the fever. “My world ended,” Spock reminds him.

Jim drifts.

“But no, Jim. It is not like that. It won’t be like that.” Spock’s voice is firm, something for him to hang onto.

Spock leans in. Jim can feel the press of his chest across his arm and ribs. “Jim, you must remember this when you are well. It will not be so.”

“How do you know?” Jim asks, caught by the quiet confidence in Spock’s words. They are something solid to steady himself with amid the swirling incoherence of his parasitic delirium. He struggles to open his eyes.

“Because you’ll be there to remind them, to remind us all, not to make it so.” Spock runs his fingers, fine callused tips, over Jim’s eyelids, soothing.

Jim slurs. “I’ll get in their faces, you mean.” Even under the weight of his fever, Jim doesn’t quite know what to do with Spock’s statement.

“If circumstances demand.” There’s a long silence. Jim cannot measure the time that passes because he is still caught in a hot haze where not all things make sense. “You must rest, Captain.”

+++

There are times Spock manages to look exasperated and amused together. It’s a non-expression Jim sees all the time on his face, mostly when they relax together off-shift but rather frequently while they’re working too.

Maybe it’s not really there; maybe this is simply what Jim reads into it.

“Do not try to fix me,” Spock says when Jim scoffs and says, “Stop lying to yourself. You’re afraid of him not because he’s not your brother anymore, but because he still is. Because he’s one of the few things you have left.”

Jim stares at him. “Then don’t you try to fix me.

Spock cocks his head, inquisitive and birdlike, somehow brittle in the days of their estrangement. “When have I presumed to do so?”

+++

“If my crew is going to get hurt and killed out there, it’s going to be on my damn orders,” Jim had exclaimed in the middle of some stupid argument with Spock, years ago. He pressed his fingers up against his eyebrow as though to smooth away the tension in his head. “I’ll rot in hell with my eyes wide open before I become the captain who can’t take responsibility for the deaths on his watch. Before I let someone volunteer something that I’m not out there doing myself.”

Spock had unclasped his hands from behind his back. “The satisfactory discharge of your duties consists of recognizing who is best suited to the mission at hand.”

“Exactly.” Jim smiled tiredly.

Now, Jim looks around his quiet assembled staff. Nyota meets his eyes and then turns her head, staring out the viewport. He sees her blink twice, rapidly. Chekov bites his lip. Cupcake’s meaty hand is a fist at his side, and Sulu taps quick fingers on the table. Scotty’s uncharacteristically silent after nine hours of talking himself hoarse with proposed solutions, each one increasingly brilliant and mad and desperate, none of which will work in the end.

Spock regards Jim steadily. His gaze doesn’t waver.

“Aw, Jesus, Jim, don’t do this to yourself,” Bones mutters under his breath, finally, and it’s as though he’s broken the silence. A babble of voices rises up.

“Let me try one more time to communicate with it,” Nyota says. “Maybe I can get through to it this time, Captain.” Her voice is calm but there’s an underlying note of pleading in it.

“Give me a day,” Scotty asks. “Just a day, and I can build you a – a something – so that it’s safe to go down there and deal with that thing without it sucking the life out of you. It’s not really alive, you know. It’s just this evil, mindless mass that’s bent on destroying us.”

Chekov and Sulu whisper furiously between themselves. “It’s not really alive, Captain,” Chekov bursts out. “We could try to destroy it. I will run the calculations and Mr. Sulu will make sure the Enterprise gets it done.”

Jim doesn’t raise his voice above theirs. He doesn’t need to – his is steady and relentless against the protests they know to be futile because they’ve spent two sleepless nights and all the energy of the shields and most of that from the impulse engines and even some of it from life support trying to make it otherwise.

“We can’t destroy it,” he tells them. “Not from here. We’ve tried; it’s beyond our capabilities. We wouldn’t be standing here if that weren’t true.” He looks at Nyota. “We know it’s some sort of artificial intelligence, but it’s not sentient enough for real communication. Just enough to control the entire planet and this mad web we’ve caught ourselves in. It’s a giant spider steadily sucking the life out of our ship. You cannot reason with it. We’re food.” He shakes his head at Scotty. “Short of you developing a personal shield overnight, nothing we have on this ship, nothing you can construct in a day, can withstand that thing. Even if you could, we don’t have the energy left to power anything. At last reading, ship’s reserves were down to 12%.”

He looks at them. “You all know the only thing we can do is go down there and blast it to smithereens from a foot away. We knew this a day ago, two days ago, but now we’ve exhausted every other option. We’ve located the heart of it, its brains. We can take it out where it’s vulnerable.”

Their voices explode again. “Captain, no one could survive—” “It’s impossible—” “You won’t make it—” “It’s not worth it—” “There must be another choice—” “You don’t believe in no-win scenarios, remember?”

Jim’s eyes flicker away from Spock’s to McCoy’s. “It’s not a no-win scenario, Bones. We do win if we do this. The Enterprise gets away, may that thing burn a thousand fiery deaths.”

“Captainless. With you dead. Because whoever goes down there won’t be coming back. How the hell isn’t that a no-win scenario?”

“This ship comes first,” Jim snaps. “Always. That is my choice.”

“Then I’ll go.” Cupcake steps forward suddenly. “Let me, Captain. I can do this. If you don’t trust me to do it, I have a list of volunteers from my department that reads like a personnel roster.”

Sulu shakes his head. “Sorry, Giotto, but this is going to take some technical knowledge of systems. Captain Kirk, I would like to volunteer for the mission.” He swallows and steps forward too.

“Well, really, I should be the one,” Scotty says. “I can do it quicker than anyone else here. And you never know, if I’m quick enough, I might even get out.” His smile is crooked.

Chekov, improbably, grins at him cheekily. “You may know more than I do, but I can run calculations in my head faster than you. I would be best able to react to what it does if it all doesn’t go according to plan.”

“Which you know it won’t,” McCoy says. “You’re all idiots.” His voice is gruff.

“And you all know that I don’t take volunteers.” Jim looks over to Spock, who is still standing at parade rest, perfectly still. McCoy follows Jim’s gaze.

“Don’t you have anything to add to this? Make him see reason!” he demands.

Spock looks unperturbed. “The Captain’s logic is sound. If we do not escape or overcome this artificial semi-intelligence in the next 1.3 hours, the ship will be destroyed and the crew with it. But its defenses are against large scale threats, not one man with a blaster in his hand. It is regrettable that that person is unlikely to survive his attack.

“Regrettable?” McCoy sputters, while Nyota exclaims, “Unlikely? Try won’t.”

“Let me go, sir,” Giotto says again.

Jim smiles faintly and reaches out to clasp him on the shoulder. “I’m afraid not, Mr. Giotto. That won’t do.”

“Christ, Jim.”

He exhales. “Commander Spock,” he says.

“Captain.” Spock inclines his head, attentive.

“As you are the most fully qualified for this mission, both in terms of expertise and strength, you will beam to the surface of the planet and take whatever steps necessary to disable or destroy the AI, in such a manner that this ship is able to leave this—” Jim swallows back dark words “—place. We will then attempt to retrieve you.” He stands very straight; Spock mirrors him.

Nyota stifles a gasp. The rest are silent. Their hands hang helplessly at their sides.

“Aw, Jesus, Jim, don’t do this to yourself,” Bones mutters again.

Jim ignores him. Here, at the moment, there is only him and Spock standing here, Spock standing here with such perfect acceptance in his warm human eyes.

“Understood, sir,” he says.

“You have twenty minutes to be in the transporter room, Commander. Excuse me,” he says to his command crew.

He has a rock to go find. It’s black and glints gold as it burns with the light of an ancient hidden sun.

+++

In the transporter room twenty minutes later, the stone weighs heavy against his palm.

To Spock, Jim does not say thank you. He doesn’t say thank you for not volunteering, for not taking that from me. For not trying to make this better.

Instead he says, “Remember to close your eyes.”

Spock holds up his hand in the ta’al. “Jim. The cause is sufficient. Mr. Scott, energize.”

Jim’s hand clenches around the stone so hard that he draws blood.

+++

He stays on the bridge while Spock goes to work on that thing. They can’t monitor him, but they’ll know if he succeeds, won’t they. When the ship is freed.

He stays on the bridge once he sends Spock down there to his death. There is nowhere else to go, after all.

In his pocket, his hand bleeds as he stares unblinkingly at the blank viewscreen in front of him. Around the ship, space is cold like Tommy Murray’s shallow grave on Tarsus IV. Jim can feel the dirt scraping against his skin as he digs, the heft of flat stones weighting down his pocket so that he can lay them on Tommy’s eyes.

They don’t have proper shovels, so they use scraps of metal and rocks to dig through the dry, hard soil. When they cannot dig deep enough, they gather heavy rocks and pile them over the bodies, patching up the gaps that the earth won’t cover.

Jim won’t let them stop scratching down in the earth deeper and deeper for Tommy’s grave, though. He can’t. Tommy’s body won’t be left to be scavenged by the vultures.

A sudden commotion makes him jerk his head up. “Jimmy, Jimmy,” Annemarie is yelling in a hoarse whisper. “They’re coming, we have to go! Kodos’s guards have found us. Run!”

Jim grunts and doesn’t pause his furious digging. “I just need a few more minutes. Come on, hurry, we have to finish!”

Annemarie reaches him, panting, her skeleton body jutting into his as she grips his arm. “There’s no time, come on, Jimmy.”

“No,” Jim yells. He wrenches himself out of her weak grasp. “I promised him. No dirt in his eyes.”

But the guards are cresting over the rocky hill and they see Jim silhouetted there against the horizon, and the sound of their blasters firing sounds so distant until the pulse hits the rocky outcropping next to Jim, exploding it.

“Please,” Troy begs him. “Please. Tommy will understand.”

Jim runs.

At the bottom of his drawer of rocks sits the ugliest, plainest rock of all. But it’s perfectly flat, just the right size for covering a boy’s eyes.

When the ship jolts and the computer lets loose a thousand happy sounds of systems rebooting with a sudden influx of energy, the crew cheers. There are smiles all around in that relieved moment before they remember what this cost them.

Jim doesn’t smile. Instead he stands, pulls down his tunic, and says, “Ensign Chekov, with me.”

He puts him in the transporter room at the controls. “Find him,” he orders Chekov.

“Captain,” Chekov says quietly. “Our sensors don’t work down there. Unless Commander Spock activates the homing beacon now that that thing has been destroyed, there is nothing.”

Jim shakes his head. “No, you find him, Ensign.”

Chekov shakes his head back, looking helpless. “I wish I could, but – Captain!”

He breaks off as his fingers fly over the keypad, and then he’s shouting in Russian, an excited babble, and the transporter is shimmering, golden and bright, and Spock, bent in a half-crouch, materializes on the pad.

His hair is singed and his face is cut and his uniform is torn and bloody, but he is wonderfully, gloriously alive.

“Report, Mr. Spock,” Jim says as Chekov gapes incredulously at him, at both of them, at Spock being alive and at Jim ordering him to report instead of grabbing for him like every atom in his body is urging him to do. “Report,” he says, because he knows that if he doesn’t hold himself perfectly still, if he takes only one step forward, he won’t be able to stop.

Spock straightens. “It is incapacitated. I recommend our immediate departure.”

“Have McCoy check you out.”

“Captain – ”

“Now, Commander.”

Spock moves past him, but the edge of his sleeve brushes Jim as he does so, and something in Jim snaps, something wild and uncontrolled and desperate that he doesn’t even want to control anymore. “Are you all right?” he grits out, because that’s all he can manage.

Spock stops next to him. “Superficial wounds only.”

“I thought—” Jim says, just as Spock says, “I didn’t think—” and they are reaching for each other, and Jim’s mouth is on Spock’s, an endless press of lips as his arms lock around him. “Thank god,” he whispers into Spock’s mouth, and Spock’s hands tighten on his back and neck; they ghost over his face delicately.

The last Jim sees of Chekov is his wide eyes as he leaves. “I will – the ship – orders, we’ll leave,” he stutters on his way out.

Spock orders the computer to lock the door, one of them remembering for once. This is not for anyone’s eyes but their own. Jim slams Spock into the wall, heedless of his battered body. Spock lets him. He grabs him back just as fiercely as Jim has touched him. For once he is not graceful and economical in his motions, and when a helpless whimper escapes Jim, he swallows it into his mouth, into his skin.

Jim buries his face into the crook of his neck and breathes. In this moment, he thinks that if he doesn’t push into Spock’s body, stretching him until he knows only the sensation of oblivion, he’ll die from want of it. He needs to envelop himself in the burning heat of Spock’s flesh so thoroughly that his heart ends up in his throat, which is where it is anyway, where it’s been ever since he looked at him and knew he was going to give that order.

Spock has pulled the clothes from Jim’s body, enough of them so that he can stroke his bare skin. Jim manhandles him over the angled transporter console; Spock urges him on. Jim can feel the slickness of his own sweat-covered body, still reeking with the stench of fear, now being licked with the sweet fire of Spock’s warm, vibrant back and ass touching him.

Against him, Spock’s body quivers with a fine tremble. “Say something, Jim,” he whispers.

Jim’s breath is a quiet sob in his mouth. “You’re here.”

“I’m here,” Spock tells him. Jim slides the length of his cock between Spock’s thighs, between his cheeks. They both groan.

“Come on, Spock, what do you want me to do? I need to feel you, let me have – let me—”

He breaks off with a half-pained gasp as he buries himself inside Spock. He feels Spock’s body stretch to welcome him. Spock’s back arches up, and Jim bites down on his neck, hard. They both cry out.

“Jim,” he says, “Please,” as a tiny bead of sweat forms at the back of his neck. Jim shuts his eyes, unable to bear the sight. He presses his mouth to the spot blindly.

Jim doesn’t know what Spock’s asking for, but he’s going to give it to him, whatever it is, because Spock never asks. And he is now. “Oh god,” Jim says. He can’t bear this, this heat and desperation, whatever it is they’re both straining for. “Anything you want,” he finds himself babbling. “Anything you want me to do, I’ll – just tell me, or don’t tell me, just do it, Spock, anything, anything you want, I swear, just come on, just say it or show me, don’t stop, don’t stop anything, Spock—”

They can’t last, not like this. Impossible. Spock comes first, his muscles spasming unrestrainedly around Jim. Spock’s cock jerks in Jim’s hand. With a sigh, Jim lets go because there is nothing else he can do, nothing else he would want to do.

Boneless, he hangs over Spock’s body on the edge of the transporter controls until Spock pulls them both up to face him in a long silence. When Spock leans forward and presses a soft, slow kiss to Jim’s temple, to his meldpoints, Jim closes his eyes and bites his lip. He keeps his eyes closed as Spock leans his forehead against Jim’s. This close, after this day of fear and desperation, Jim can smell Spock’s faint odor on him, metallic and contained.

They stay like that for many moments. Finally Jim says, low, “Don’t do that to me again, Mr. Spock,” as though it’s Spock’s fault, as though Spock’s the one who decided to go down there on a suicide mission.

“I shall endeavor not to, Captain,” Spock replies, equally low, as though he’s the one who made that choice.

+++

Three months later, Jim is furious at Spock for failing to tell him that Sybok is his brother.

“The elders have called all Vulcans back the colony. You could come with me,” Sybok tells Spock. Around the corner, Jim does not double over and wrap his arm around his belly. He clenches his jaw and swallows against a dry throat.

“I could not,” Spock replies.

“It is not logical to remain here when we must rebuild our people.”

“And it is not logical,” Spock says with the faintest edge to his modulated voice, “to live my life without the greater part of my soul.”

+++

“Are we compromised? You and me. This … thing. Are we endangering the ship?”

He hadn’t wondered if one day he’ll make the wrong choice when it comes down to the ship or Spock. Because there is no wrong choice; because if he chose wrongly, he would not be him and Spock would not be Spock and they would not be each other, and all things would be shifted and uneven between them, like so many broken stones.

+++

“Why don’t you ever meld us,” Jim asks Spock, and Spock looks at him strangely and says, “Jim. Do you not think that you are always in my mind?”

+++

“It’s not the world we knew,” Bones says over a glass of whiskey. “But I guess we’re stuck with it now.”

Jim was always a survivor. He was always going to live, and he’s going to drag his damn crew with him and be the best captain he can be, no matter how much blood he gets on his hands.

On Tarsus IV, there was a boy Jim couldn’t save, a boy who got dirt in his eyes because Jim failed him. He knew Tommy was going to die, like so many of them. He’s always lived with blood on his hands because when they died, over and over, he couldn’t do anything.

That’s not true: there was one thing he could do, but he refused. “You will live,” he said vehemently, as if that could be enough. He wouldn’t make that same choice now. If it came down to it, if it was absolutely inevitable that one of his crew would die, in pain, without hope, he wouldn’t refuse. If he was asked.

But Spock – if Spock ever asked – how could – but then Spock would never ask. Two and a half months into the mission, Jim asks Spock if anyone has ever begged him for a mercy death. “You know, when there’s nothing else to do but end it quickly and mostly painlessly to prevent the same thing from happening slowly and painfully?”

“No, they haven’t.”

“So thank your lucky stars for that.”

Looking at him quizzically, Spock informs him that stars are not lucky. “They are gaseous masses that sustain nuclear fission.”

He says, “Some may have asked you that question. It is likely, eighty-three point two five percent probability, that you will be asked again in the future. What you do when asked will be your decision. But I will not ask you that question.”

+++

So when Spock comes to his door after too much time apart because Jim has been so furious with him over Sybok, Jim lets him in.

They’ve dropped Sybok and his colonists off at Starbase V. In the transporter room, when Sybok gets on the pad, he holds his hand up in the ta’al. Spock looks back at him steadily and then says, “Good luck,” and Sybok laughs at the human expression.

In Jim’s quarters, Spock’s holding something in his hand, the same red stone from the heat of Vulcan-that-was that he’d tried to give Jim once before. “Will you take it?” he asks again.

Jim glances over to his open drawer, to the black and gold stone sitting, ever-present, on the top of his dresser, and then back at Spock’s calm, steady face. He marvels at the trust glinting out from hidden angles like so much gold in a black stone, despite everything, just waiting to be noticed, and says, “No.

“No, you hang onto it for me. It’s better off in your hands.”

+++

Standing amid an increasingly frantic crew, Spock looks unperturbed. “The Captain’s logic is sound. If we do not overcome this artificial semi-intelligence in the next 1.3 hours, we will all be destroyed. However, one person could disable it. It is regrettable that that person is unlikely to survive the mission.” He cocks his head, attentive, toward Jim.

Jim holds his eyes and Spock does not blink away. “As you are the most fully qualified for this mission, you will beam to the surface and destroy the artificial intelligence so that we can leave this charnel house.” He stands with perfect posture; Spock mirrors him. If there is a pained, stunned silence surrounding them, Jim is barely aware of it – he knows only himself and Spock standing in place, Spock with his perfect acceptance and “Understood, sir.”

Finally, blinking, “Excuse me,” Jim says to the rest of his command crew. On his way to his quarters, he shares a turbolift with an ashen-faced ensign. He walks down a hallway spotted with muted, flashing alarms and too many silent crew snapping to a kind of helpless, stunned attention at the sight of him – news of his orders has spread quickly, and against this, the only thing he can do is continue to stand tall and calm.

But once in his room, he leans back against the shut door and scrubs his face with his hands. He shuts his eyes for a second, and then pushing himself off of the wall, reaches into his drawer of rocks and feels among the sharp edges for the familiar smoothness of the golden black stone.

He doesn’t find it. The dull emptiness in his stomach turns sharp. It cuts. “Computer, lights 100%,” he snaps as he yanks the drawer more fully open and looks into it. He doesn’t see it and he paws through the rocks with a terrible franticness; his hand trembles. To still it, he places it on the bottom of the drawer, flat over a perfectly flat, ugly stone, the oldest in his collection.

“Fuck,” he whispers. “Where the—” and his breath catches on the half-formed edge of an idea. “Computer, who’s entered this room in the last fifteen minutes? Other than me?”

“Commander Spock.”

Jim lifts his hand off the rock at the bottom of his drawer. Without bothering to check the drawer one last time for a missing stone, he takes the fastest path he knows to the transporter room.

Spock is waiting for him there, weapons strapped to his body, his tricorder sitting on the pad next to him.

“Captain Kirk,” he says upon Jim’s entry. He holds out his hand and Jim automatically reaches for it. Something warm and solid presses into Jim’s palm. Through his fingers, he sees the glint of gold flecks. “I trust,” Spock says in his measured tones with no trace of fear, “you will look after this while I am gone.”

Jim closes his fingers around the stone, hand steady. His fingers brush against Spock’s, and he smiles. “For as long as I need to.”