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Let's go on dreaming
for we know we are…
so close, so close
and still so far...

-So Close, Jon McLaughlin

***

USS Enterprise, Stardate 2261.202

It is 0200, and Jim yawns over his fifth cup of coffee in three hours. It's got a bitter aftertaste that he's never been able to program away to his satisfaction, but it still contains copious amounts of caffeine (an override of which he's rather fond and Bones need not be aware), and caffeine is necessary when a starship captain hasn't slept in over two days. He rubs the back of his neck and swallows.

In the reddish dark of the cabin, he silently regards Spock, who shows no sign of dreaming. He rests on his back, hands folded across his stomach, buried beneath two thick blankets he insisted Jim pull over him. Jim lies next to him on top of the covers, studying him intently and without reservation. Dotted along Spock's neck and chin are the first signs of stubble. The line of his black hair is slightly ruffled across his forehead. His chest rises and falls easily with each breath, and Jim can hear each slow exhale. The expression on his face almost approaches peaceful.

Jim has never lingered in Spock's quarters long enough to memorize its contents and configuration. They're always in conversation or focused on a game of chess. For now, he has nowhere to be. He trails his hand over the bite mark on his neck and shivers, even in the room's heat, at the memory of Spock's mouth on him. The stale, hot air holds lingering traces of incense. It is the same musky scent that follows Spock onto the bridge and sometimes seeps through to Jim's cabin through their shared bath. He wonders if this is what Vulcan smelled like, of sweet burned wood that is somehow comforting even though it speaks of destruction. He feels a gnawing sadness when he realizes that the artifacts displayed throughout the room and a few sticks of incense are all that remain for Spock of his lost home world.

It's ironic, Jim thinks, that Spock's rebellion against his people preserved more of their culture than had he accepted admission to the science academy and chosen to remain on Vulcan. To never view Earth again, walk along the bay in San Francisco or travel to the rural stretches of Iowa and lose himself on a back road—these thoughts give Jim perspective. He can always go home when the mission is over.

It's been almost three years since the loss of Vulcan. Whenever they talk, which is pretty much once a week, Ambassador Spock insists the new colony and the efforts to preserve Vulcan's heritage are both progressing satisfactorily. Jim used to wonder if Spock, his Spock, wouldn't rather be among his own people. But he remained with Jim aboard the Enterprise, and Jim has always been grateful. He supposes Spock will join his people on the new colony now. He'll be an asset, even without his sight. What will the remainder of the mission be like without him? The thought of head hunting for a new first officer, of looking to the science station and seeing someone else in Spock's place, sets his head reeling. He forces it aside.

Spock's eyelashes are a soft fringe against his fingertips. He slides his hand to cup Spock's face, smoothing his thumb across his cheekbone. He feels guilty for staying, but Spock hadn't actually told him to leave. Jim wonders if Spock ever allowed Uhura to watch him while he slept, if his mother watched over him as a child. Vulcans are touch telepaths—can he sense Jim's thoughts, even now? The hand falls away to his side; with the other, he fumbles for his mug. The coffee has gone cold, and it takes a minute to steady his breathing.

His eyes wander to the chess board, reset since their last game, two chairs waiting expectantly. He stands and goes to stand beside it. The tiny pieces stare back at him. He fights the urge to knock the whole setup onto the floor, squeezing his eyes closed and bowing his head, breathing hard. Slowly, he clenches and unclenches his fists, the pain spreading across his strained knuckles welcome. He stretches out on the bed beside Spock again, placing a hand against his side where Spock's heart beats.

"You're not going anywhere," he whispers.

***

Six months earlier

New York City, 1930

"Look," Jim snaps, shoving his hip into the door and taking a pin from his belt to fiddle with the lock when it doesn't budge. It is rusty and rough against his hands, parts of the handle flaking away, and Jim swears under his breath. "I'm sorry I said anything about your ears. Can we drop it?"

"You told those men it was a form of surgery," Spock counters.

"I said all the kids are doing it. That's better than saying you got mangled in some primitive machinery."

Spock stares daggers at him but doesn't respond. Shoving his shoulder against the door this time, Jim grunts and it finally yields. He falls into a dark, musty basement and pulls himself upright, rubbing his shoulder as the smell of mildew and aged paper fills his nose. Its cobweb-ridden reaches are damp and, from what he can see in the stream of light from the still-open door, crowded with broken furniture and stacked boxes. An old-fashioned furnace stands in the corner—well, old-fashioned to Jim. Considering it's around 1930 where they've ended up, the thing's probably cutting edge. A car passes slowly, and he whips his head around, ducking from view.

"Close the door," he hisses at Spock, motioning for him to follow. "We'll stay here just until we're sure those cops aren't still following us. Get changed."

Spock regards him with stoic defiance, obvious only in the tightening of his jaw.

"These clothes are stolen."

Rolling his eyes, Jim peels off his uniform top and takes the red and black flannel shirt from the pile they borrowed from an obliging alley railing.

"A technicality," Jim says. "We're here to stop the world from ending. The Prime Directive says we can't interfere with a culture's development, and I know how you feel about the Prime Directive."

Spock huffs.

"And since Bones fucked things up so badly we had to come back here to fix things, we can't do that walking around in regulation uniforms. The ship's nonexistent right now, so we can't exactly replicate era-appropriate costumes. I think we're owed a couple shirts."

"We have traveled to a date prior to Dr. McCoy's arrival, thus the incident we have come to prevent has not yet happened. While we are indeed in the early twentieth century, because it is our intention to prevent this incident from occurring, I hypothesize that the Enterprise does, in fact, exist at this moment in the twenty third century."

"Hell," Jim says, "if you can hail them and get them to transport you better clothes, be my guest."

"Negative, but it might be possible to sync my tricorder with the ship's computers."

"Are you suggesting we build a computer?"

"We?"

"I'm brilliant with computers, and we both know it," Jim says.

"You are indeed skilled in your knowledge of computer programming," Spock replies, "subroutines in particular."

"You're never going to let me live that down, are you."

"I, however," Spock continues, "possess superior knowledge of computer assembly and circuitry. If we can procure the necessary materials, it is possible that I could construct a basic computer that would allow us to access the one aboard the Enterprise. It should allow me to research anomalies in human history and predict when and where the incident we must prevent will occur."

Jim considers this, chewing his lip.

"Okay. I'll find a way to get what you need. Now strip down, or at least put on a damned hat, unless you want me making up more rumors about how you got those ears to the next person who asks."

"Captain..."

"Would you settle for Christmas elf?"

"I do not believe insults are your prerogative as my commanding officer."

"You're probably right, but, hey," Jim says with a shrug, "Starfleet doesn't even exist yet, so for now we're just two friends, okay? Bones and I insult each other as part of our camaraderie."

"I do not understand why two people who argue as much as you argue with Dr. McCoy label yourselves friends."

"You and I argue."

"Fellow officers may have dissenting opinions," Spock points out. "I prefer our interpersonal relationship remain amicable."

"Whatever you say," Jim laughs, shaking his head. "How long until we find him?"

"I believe we will have a week before Dr. McCoy arrives."

"How do we even know he's going to end up here and not Germany?"

"We do not. Hence my interest in contacting the ship's computer to attempt to gather information that might help us locate him."

Nodding slowly, Jim yanks his pants down, hopping out of them on one leg, while Spock turns his back (in modesty, Jim presumes) and moves closer to the furnace. The clothes are soft, worn cotton and a welcome change from Starfleet's no-wrinkle standard issue. Jim briefly considers keeping them once they return to the Enterprise. He rolls up his uniform and tucks it under his arm.

"Check the street," he orders Spock when he emerges from the shadows in a knit cap and jeans, and looks surprisingly human save his facial expression, which is as unreadable as ever. Something in his face tells Jim that Spock is deeply uncomfortable wearing someone else's clothes. "With any luck," he tells him in what he hopes is both a reassuring yet commanding tone, "we'll get this all straightened out in a day or so, and you can go back to those black robes you're so fond of."

An eyebrow does rise this time. "Captain?"

The all-too-familiar sound of footsteps reaches Jim's ears too late for him to form a strategy other than "Smile and look pretty," so he stands casually, arms at his side, hands ready to curl into fists if necessary, and is startled when a woman's voice calls out, "Who's there?"

The voice is strong and clear, not timid or fearful, and the footsteps grow nearer on the staircase. A slim woman stands a few feet above him, staring at him intently with a neutral to the side of serious expression—she looks almost Vulcan, and Jim almost laughs, feeling strangely and instantly comfortable in her presence—awaiting his response. Her clothing is old fashioned, a long skirt and blouse, and her dark hair is tied neatly behind her head, but her face is young, with delicate features and large, inquiring eyes.

"Sorry for intruding, ma'am...it's cold, and we didn't have anywhere else to go."

He bats his blue eyes at her, a technique he's found handy with women in the past (regardless of species, though Earth women and Orions are most susceptible) and he's not surprised when she descends the last four steps and stands in front of him, unafraid, and raises her chain almost defiantly.

"A lie is a very poor way to say hello."

"I really am sorry."

"Ah, but you see," she says, crossing her arms, "it's not cold."

"Maybe I misspoke," Jim says, grinning. "It'll get cold, and we don't have a lot of connections in town."

"I see."

"And we're avoiding a couple of police officers," he continues in a stage whisper, hoping that even back in 1930, Earth women swoon over bad boys.

"Oh, really." Her voice is steady. "And what do the police want with you?"

"These clothes are stolen," Spock offers, and Jim is amused by his confessional tone.

"Stolen?" she repeats but is strangely cool.

"We don't have any cr— money. We don't have any money," Jim admits, looking down at her and laying the charm on thick. "And like I said, it's going to get cold, and my friend here's from a warmer climate."

"Indeed," Spock agrees, and Jim is glad he insisted on the hat because Spock looks cold. Just looking at him makes Jim shiver. Though he is standing straight, with his arms loose at his sides—an attempt, Jim assumes, to look casually human—his shoulders are pinched forward slightly, and there is a tightness to his face.

"Go stand by the furnace," he orders. Spock looks surprised but complies.

"What are your names?"

"Jim Kirk," he says, extending a hand. Her shake is firm.

"And his?"

There is no point inventing a name that he will inevitably forget later.

"Spock. He's—"

"Foreign," Spock supplies.

"I can see that," she murmurs, casting a glance at him and returning her focus to Jim. "Though I venture to say you're not from around here either."

"You're good," Jim says through a widening smile, leaning closer. Spock clears his throat. The woman takes a step back.

"I'm Edith Keeler," she says. "If it's money you need, I can do with some help around here: doing dishes, sweeping, general cleaning."

"At what rate of payment?" Spock asks, moving to stand next to Jim. Heat radiates off of him now that he's been next to the fire.

"I can pay you fifteen cents an hour, for ten hours a day," Edith says.

"Is that a lot?" Jim asks.

"It is certainly more than anyone is paying you currently," she replies with a sweep of her eyes.

"Okay," Jim agrees.

"You can start by cleaning up down here," she says, and ascends the stairs just like that.

"Uh...where are we, exactly?" he calls after her.

"You're at the 21st Street Mission," echoes her reply.

"And I guess you...run it?"

"That I do, Mr. Kirk." The footsteps retreat. Jim bites the inside of his cheek.

"Huh," he says and stares after her. "She's different."

"She did not respond to your licentious behavior," Spock observes. He tugs at the hat covering his ears.

"It's called flirting," Jim retorts, batting Spock's hands away and straightening the hat for him. "And there's a first time for everything."

"I have it on good authority that Lieutenant Uhura also found your flirting ineffective," Spock says, taking Jim by the wrists and stilling him.

"Mr. Spock, are you engaging in gossip?" Jim asks mockingly.

"I merely wish to point out that perhaps if you would try your hand at diplomacy, you would achieve better results than by relying on the human limbic system."

"What, I don't turn you on?" Jim asks with a grin, freeing his arms.

"You are an aesthetically pleasing human," Spock replies without pause, "but you forget I am Vulcan and therefore able to control biological urges if you were, in fact, to have such an effect on me."

Jim punches him in the shoulder. "I'm surprised you even knew what I meant."

"I am not as naive as you assume," Spock says with a frown. Jim raises both eyebrows.

"Yeah? So you and Uhura used to...?"

"I believe I have told you before that I have no comment on the matter."

"Fine, no details," Jim says, rolling his eyes. "We better get cleaning. How the hell Bones managed to hypo himself..."

"The ship lurched when we passed through a time ripple."

Jim scowls at him at he opens a musty box.

"You ever hear of a rhetorical question?" he asks. He coughs as he pokes through the contents. "If I have a fatal allergic reaction to the mold down here, I'm bequeathing you the chess set."

***

The mess is a little run down in appearance, but it's functional. There's a line of men waiting for a helping of food, and the rest are seated at long tables with mismatched chairs.

"If you're going to bitch about the food," Jim mutters, pointing a fork in Spock's direction, "just eat bread. I'm pretty sure there's no meat in the bread."

Spock straightens in his chair and does, possibly, the worst impression of someone down on his luck.

"I did not bitch," he intones, and the word coming from his mouth causes Jim to snicker. "I merely inquired which of the dishes is vegetarian."

"Would it kill you to eat meat, seriously?" he asks through a full mouth. Spock glares at him sideways.

"It would not, but I would prefer not to consume it. My body is not accustomed to it. I would likely take ill."

"I'm so slipping steak into your plomeek soup sometime," Jim says with a shake of his head. "I'll puree it first. You'll never know; that stuff's so dark, it'll blend right in."

"When have you had occasion to eat plomeek soup?" Spock asks, angling closer to Jim.

"It's purple, right?"

"It is curious you would have encountered it in Iowa," Spock continues. "I was led to believe you lived there until you joined Starfleet."

"Yeah. Well," Jim says, stabbing a potato wedge, "there was a glorious stint on Tarsus IV, and I definitely didn't eat any soup there."

"Forgive me," Spock says quickly, lowering his voice. He leans closer and touches Jim's shoulder. "I did not mean to evoke these memories. The events of—"

"It was probably on the Enterprise," Jim muses.

"Captain?" Spock blinks.

"Where I had the soup. It was probably on the ship after we evacuated...you know."

"It has only just been added to the replicators," Spock argues. "I have been working on the modifications myself."

"It's not half bad."

The look on Spock's face is unreadable, and he opens his mouth to say something further. Edith crosses a low stage along the longest wall of the dining room, stands before an upright piano and begins to speak.

"Jim—" Spock starts, but Jim waves a hand to silence him. He leans back and slings an arm behind Spock's chair.

"Shh, I want to hear this," he says, his eyes lingering on the stage. "We can talk about food sabotage any time."

"One day, soon," Edith proclaims in a practiced voice that tells Jim she gives this same speech often, "man is going to be able to harness incredible energies, maybe even the atom, energies that can hurdle us across the universe, in spaceships..."

"I like her," Jim declares to Spock when she's finished, grinning. "Think we can bring her back with us?"

"You could find a suitable partner aboard the Enterprise," Spock says, "if you were amenable to the idea." Jim shrugs.

"I'm just saying she's pretty hot."

"That does not surprise me," Spock says dryly, turning his face away.

"Isn't surprise an emotion?"

"It is a state of astonishment. I am not astonished that you find a Terran woman attractive. You have made similar declarations thirty-seven times since our mission began."

"Only thirty-seven?"

"That I have witnessed. I did not include non-humans."

"I knew that number sounded low."

"You have an exaggerated opinion of yourself."

"And you have pointy ears," Jim says, clapping him on the back. He returns both elbows to the table. "Eat your bread."

***

The one-room apartment ("a flop," Edith called it) is drab. But it's clean and cheap, which is more to the point. There's a single bed, along with the basic essentials for living: a few chairs, a worn but decent sofa, a low table, a nightstand, and a lamp. The walls are covered in blue wallpaper, and the curtains are sheer, which lets in light from the building across the street.

"Cozy," Jim comments as they enter, setting the bundle of uniforms and spare clothes on the bed. He pushes on the mattress and then flings himself across it. "You want to figure out sleeping arrangements now or play chicken and see who falls asleep first? Loser gets the couch."

"As I require less sleep than you, I will inevitably beat you at your game, leaving you with the couch by default. However, because you sleep for a longer period of time, it is only logical you take the bed."

"Sure?" Jim asks.

"Why do you question my statements?"

"Human," Jim yawns, pointing at his chest. "Just making sure you're serious."

"Vulcan," Spock retorts, taking the second pillow from the bed and setting it on the couch. "I am always serious."

"I know for a fact you have a sense of humor, and that you're capable of lying, but I appreciate you giving me the bed. I'm beat." He shrugs off his shirt and pants and crawls under the covers. They're cold against his skin, and he winces, waiting for his body heat to seep into them and take the goosebumps away. "Hey," he says with sudden realization. "Are you gonna be warm enough over there? Are there any spare blankets?"

"I will be fine," Spock says, switching off the light. The room is cast into dim blueness from the streetlights. "I am used to atmospheres cooler than I prefer. If I become uncomfortable, I will meditate."

"Take the blanket from the bed then. I'll be okay with just the sheet." Closing his eyes, he feels the first tug of sleep and yawns again, rolling onto his side and shoving an arm beneath the pillow, stuffing it into the crook of his neck. An idea forms in his brain and he opens his mouth before he has a chance to think it through. "Or just crawl in with me. We'll both fit. This bed's twice as big as the one in my cabin, and then we can share the blanket."

"That is...logical. Thank you."

A boot hits the floor dully, then another. Jim cracks an eye when he feels the bed dip beside him and watches Spock slide beneath the covers fully clothed. Chuckling to himself, he wonders what Bones would say if he could see the two of them right now, and it's the last thought he has before sleep takes over.

***

Vulcans make excellent bed partners, Jim decides. Not only is he warm and rested, but Spock managed to stay on his side of the bed the entire night and didn't steal the covers. Being a cover hog himself, Jim appreciates the lack of this quality in others. It's been a long time since Jim has woken up next to someone, and he's surprised to find he actually likes the sensation of another body resting beside his.

His fingers are curled around something soft. It's the knit cap, he realizes. It must have come off of Spock's head sometime during the night, because Spock has his back to Jim and is either sleeping or doing a good job of faking it. Jim makes a mental note that Spock lies about sleep habits as well as, well, lying, and rolls onto his back. He stretches his legs while he tries to convince himself to get out of bed and stumble down the hallway to the bathroom.

The chores Edith assigns him for the day are easy enough. He sweeps the floor in the mess, scrubs down the kitchen counters. He helps her carry a stack of boxes from the basement to the first floor so she can sort through items people have donated over the last year.

"You would be surprised by some people's generosity," she tells him, "even with the country in such dire financial straits."

By the time the day is through, his back is sore, and he's relieved when he steps through the door into the tiny apartment.

"Honey, I'm home," he calls, and he's met with a lifted eyebrow.

"I will never understand the human tendency to state the obvious," Spock says, looking up from his handwritten notes.

"Well, I'll never understand why I accepted your candidacy for my first officer," Jim says, shrugging out of his jacket. "How far did you get?"

"I am planning the design presently," Spock says. "I will require platinum."

"I'm more of a titanium guy myself," Jim says, pulling a chair up beside him. "Course, I'm not big into jewelry, but I'd wear a ring if it meant that much to you."

Spock's glare could melt things. "I was not speaking of personal adornments," he says evenly.

"I know what you meant. You're not getting platinum, or gold, or silver either. We have..." Jim shoves a hand in his pocket and pulls out a few coins, rakes through them on his palm. "...a dollar fifty."

"That is not sufficient."

"No shit. If you have a better idea of how we can make money, enlighten me."

"Surely you have skills that are in demand," Spock says, "even in this primitive culture."

"I am not taking up prostitution, if that's what you're implying."

The exhale might as well be a sigh, by Vulcan standards. "I was not."

"Bones would kill me if I came back to the twenty third century with a primitive disease he doesn't have a hypo for."

"You are intelligent," Spock says, and Jim's pretty sure he's exasperated. "I have confidence that you will find a way to provide me with the funds I need."

"You know, you're stronger than I am," Jim says. "If you want to help me move boxes, we can get the stuff you need a lot faster."

***

It takes three days of bickering in the shelter's basement, but they earn enough to buy the basic parts. It's boring working alone after that, Jim finds, now that Spock spends his days in the apartment. Spock makes him laugh, whether it's intentional or not. He finishes beating out the threadbare carpets and is glad when Edith tells him it's time to go wash up for supper, because his left shoulder is cramped. He's disappointed when Spock asks him to bring him back something to eat, because he doesn't want to stop working.

"You're going to strain your eyes," Jim tells him. Spock merely looks at him, then looks back at the wires and spare parts in front of him. "Whatever," Jim mutters and eats by himself. He brings back a chunk of bread with him and shoves it in Spock's face.

"I promise there's no meat in this. Eat," he says, so Spock does as Jim settles in next to him.

The project doesn't look anything like modern computers Jim is used to. It is a row of ten radio tubes wired together, affixed to a six-foot board. The tricorder is perched on a nightstand Spock has dragged away from the wall and is using as a console.

Jim quickly realizes his hacking skills will not be needed. He spends eighteen minutes "helping" to assemble the relic by fiddling with spare pieces of wire that Spock has discarded, staring at the fragile radio tubes suspiciously, and kicking the underside of the table. Spock finally has enough, puts a hand on his leg to still him, and says, "Captain."

"Commander."

"Your behavior is distracting. Please find something else to occupy your time. Surely there must be books here."

Spock removes his hand and resumes working. Jim watches his hands as Spock carefully arranges the wires and weighs his options: stay here and watch Spock fondle radio tubes some more, or seek out a particular beautiful woman and chat her up about her reading habits.

"You're sure I can't help?" he asks.

Spock gives him a long look which Jim interprets as I question my sanity for having chosen to be this man's first officer. Jim grins at him and heads into the hallway. He knocks on Edith's door.

"Hey," he says when she answers, leaning against the doorjamb.

"Mr. Kirk," she says, opening it only a few inches. "Is there something I can do for you?"

"Just wondering if you have any books, actually," he says. "I'm bored and thought I might read something."

She stares at him for a few seconds, then narrows her eyes.

"Just a moment," she says. He whistles something off tune as the rustle of her skirt retreats. When she reappears in the doorway, she holds a book out to him. It's black with a thin leather cover and gold lettering.

"The Bible?" he says, glancing at the spine.

"Goodnight, Mr. Kirk," she says with a smirk and closes the door.

He returns to the room and lies on the bed on his stomach, opening to the book of Genesis. Something about that name makes him freeze. He imagines ice and fire, the feel of his face buried against someone's neck, the sensation of his molecules breaking apart. He lets the cover fall closed and suppresses a shiver.

"I'm going to turn in," he announces, and he doesn't wait for Spock to acknowledge him, turning to face the opposite wall.

When Spock climbs into bed later, Jim wakes just enough to perceive Spock turn toward him and align his hand so their fingers almost touch. Something in the motion seems familiar. Contented, he smiles, exhaling softly, and drifts.

***

"You're either a very good friend or a very foolish one, to work while he attends his hobby."

Edith looks down at him as he tinkers with the piano strings. He can feel something wedged underneath, which would explain why it doesn't sound right above a middle C.

"It's important," Jim says.

"Obviously," Edith replies. "You indulge him."

"He's saved my life a couple of times. I figure I owe him."

"You have a very odd way of speaking."

Jim laughs. "It's not so odd where I'm from."

"Where is that, exactly?"

"Iowa," he says, straining to fit his hand between two pieces of wood. His fingers brush something cool.

"Iowa?" she repeats.

"Does that surprise you?"

"You seem like you are from farther away. How did you come to be in New York?"

"I got sucked through a time portal," Jim tells her. Edith ducks her head, but Jim catches a smile.

"You're making fun of my ideas," she says. "I suppose you think I'm silly."

"Not at all."

"Well, you wouldn't be the first," she says. "This city might claim to be progressive, it it still looks down its nose at women with forward-thinking ideas. My family has never understood my interest in science or humanity."

"Do they live close?"

"Yes, but I don't see them often. When I rejected a marriage proposal, I think they wrote me off as a lost cause."

Jim shrugs. "Marriage isn't for everyone."

"It's difficult to be a woman today without a husband, but I get by. I enjoy my work. I enjoy helping people. It's fulfilling in a way I don't think marriage can be, because this—all of this—isn't about me, not really. It's about a greater good. If I give the best years of my life working toward a more peaceful world, I'll consider those years well spent."

Smoothing her hands over the half apron covering her skirt, the intensity that has built on her face eases, and she peers into the open piano.

"Any luck?"

"I've almost—" Jim says, straining like it will cause his arm to grow that extra inch, but it doesn't. He sighs and pulls his hand out. "We need Spock for this. He's got longer arms than I do."

"He's best where he is," Edith says. "I'm glad to have the opportunity to talk with you, get to know you. Have you tried any of the tools—perhaps pliers?"

Taking the pliers in hand, he works a small bottle from the piano strings and holds it up before her.

"Whiskey," he proclaims. "I have a friend who'd love to take this off your hands. Different friend," he assures her, holding up both hands.

"I believe I know who that belongs to," she declares, pinching the bottle between two fingers and depositing it in the trash can, "and he is far better off without illegal substances."

"Illegal?" Jim gawks.

"Why, of course. Don't tell me you're unfamiliar familiar with Prohibition."

"I...have heard of it."

"Mmm," she says, as though she doesn't believe him. "Well, thank you for your help, Mr. Kirk."

"Jim. What's next?"

"Clean the windows out front, and then you can help me peel potatoes in the kitchen. The soup needs to simmer for a few hours, so while it's cooking, you can sweep the floors. All right?"

"I don't have a lot of experience cleaning windows, but I'll do my best."

"I believe you will," she says, smoothing her apron. "What did you do before you came here? I've heard your friend refer to you as Captain. Were you in the Navy?"

"We serve together on a ship," he says.

"You speak in the present. Have you gone AWOL?"

"No, just...on leave. We're actually trying to get back to the ship. It's just become more complicated than we thought. We're waiting on a friend of ours to join us before we head back."

Edith nods and crosses the room to open a supply closet, and she takes out a bucket and large sponge.

"You can fetch clean water from the utility room, just through there. Make sure the water is hot, mind you. Ordinarily I'd have you use soap, but we're a little shy of funds this week."

From paying me, Jim thinks and frowns.

"Don't worry," she says quickly, as though she can read his thoughts. "I'm glad to have the help. Come and find me when you're done."

It's not a cold day, but there's enough of a breeze to make Jim wish he'd stolen a second jacket. He gave his to Spock. He soaks the sponge in water for a minute, then begins to wash away months of grime on the mission's small front windows. Occasionally, Edith walks past and smiles at him. He can't help but smile back, feeling giddy when she looks his way. Twice he goes inside to refill the bucket with clean water. It's easy work, but he finds it oddly satisfying to do something purely physical. As strange as it is taking orders, he finds he almost likes that too. It gives his brain a chance to shut off from the pressures of command.

Only six years ago, he was bumming around every bar within fifty square miles of Riverside, working as a bartender to pay his bills. If he hadn't shamelessly flirted with Uhura, hadn't provoked Cupcake, hadn't willingly got the shit kicked out of him, he'd never have caught the eye of Captain Pike and would be a sad, nearly thirty-something drowning his dad's legacy in cheap beer and cheap sex.

He thinks of Edith again, of her confidence, the way she holds herself. She'd never be caught dead in a place like the Shipyard. He envisions her walking toward him, sees himself from behind. Edith crosses the street against a flash of headlights, and—

"Edith Keeler must die."

It's Spock's voice. He jumps, looking around him frantically, but there's nobody near him. Across the street, people amble along the sidewalk. He glances up, but the windows are closed. His comm doesn't have a signal, so Spock couldn't have called him.

Shuddering, he throws the contents of the bucket into the street, wrings out the sponge, and hurries inside. He finds Edith in the kitchen beside a mound of potato skins, the metal peeler in her right hand moving over each tuber with alarming speed. When he sees her, he lets out a breath.

"Jim, what perfect timing. My hands are getting tired. Take over for me," and she sets down the peeler and bends to take a large soup pot from under the counter.

"Sure," he says and grabs a fat potato from the bag.

Jim has never peeled a potato in his life, though sometimes Winona would cook "the old-fashioned way" and he'd watch her get out knives and cutting boards and saucepans and preheat the oven. She'd spend hours preparing something that would've tasted about the same coming out of a replicator, but she said there was something important about cooking with love.

"Can't you press the buttons with love?" he asked when he was eight. Sam smacked him upside the head.

He never helped her cook but he'd linger in the kitchen doorway or curl up with a book just outside the door so the smells could build and float out to him. Those were the moments he liked best with his mom, watching her do something she truly enjoyed, not putting on a brave face for anyone.

Edith laughs at the way Jim peels potatoes, holding one tightly in his left hand and slowly guiding the rusty metal tool over its surface, trying to remove the skin in a single ribbon.

"Well, you certainly didn't work in the ship's galley!" she exclaims. "You'll get faster. Don't feel it's beneath you."

"I don't."

"I think men ought to know about cooking as well as women."

"I agree."

"Do you?" she says, and she sounds genuinely surprised.

"On my ship," Jim begins, "women assume the same responsibilities men do. My communications officer is a hell of a woman and serves on the bridge with me."

"Indeed?"

"Yeah, you'd like her." He finishes a potato and inwardly groans at the overflowing sack still at his feet.

"And how did you enjoy your reading last night?" she asks.

"Didn't get very far," Jim admits. "I was so tired, I drifted off. I promise I'll get further tonight."

Edith blushes slightly and doesn't look up from chopping. "I should apologize," she says. "I gave you the Bible because I found your advances...fast and wanted to send a message. I hadn't considered you might have a genuine interest in reading."

"I love it. I don't get a lot of time to read on the ship, and actual books can be hard to come by, where I'm from."

"What is your favorite?"

"I like Shakespeare, King Lear especially."

"But it is so tragic!"

"Well..." Jim thinks for a moment, and a ragged, terrible landscape stretches before him beneath a brilliant sky. "Sometimes tragedy can be beautiful."

"You have a funny way of looking at the world," she muses, but it sounds like a compliment.

***

"The weirdest thing happened today," Jim says the instant he's through the door. "I was outside washing windows, and I heard your voice in my head, really clearly. It freaked me out."

Spock is hunched over the computer, but his hands are still. He stares at the tricorder screen.

"My voice?" Spock repeats.

"Yeah," Jim said. "You said Edith...you said she was going to die." At this, Spock flinches, but Jim continues. "I heard it so clearly that I honestly looked around to see if you were there. That's crazy, right? What do you think it means?"

"Jim..." Spock begins, bringing his hands to his lap and bowing his head.

"What's wrong?" Jim asks. "Is it working?"

"I am attempting to verify my findings," Spock says.

"So you got through to the ship?"

"I did."

"I'm guessing you didn't bother to stop for lunch," Jim says, coming to stand behind him. He grips Spock's shoulders and squeezes. "When's the last time you stood up?"

"I—" Spock begins.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. C'mere." He extends a hand, which Spock ignores.

"Fine, sit there and let your legs rot off." Jim leans against the wall. "Are you coming with me to dinner?"

"Jim," Spock says, turning toward him, "I do not know how it happened, but what you heard is correct."

"What are you—" Jim starts, but he can't force out any more words once he glimpses the expression on Spock's face. It's full of regret. No. It's not possible. "Bullshit," he says.

"My findings reveal that in order to restore the future as we know it," Spock says thickly, "Edith Keeler must—"

"Bullshit," Jim repeats and storms out.

***

He can't get Spock's voice out of his head at dinner and pushes potato bits around his bowl numbly. Edith approaches the table and suggests they go for a walk after they wash the dishes. The sun has gone down. There is a chill in the air, and Edith's hand is warm in his.

"I like you," she says. "I like you despite your inability to peel vegetables in a reasonable time frame." Jim squeezes her hand. "I will be very sorry when you leave to return to your ship. I am enjoying our time together."

"Me too."

"You don't think I am too forward?"

"No," he says.

When was the last time he'd walked with a woman like this? There isn't an instance he can pinpoint, and he gapes when it dawns on him that this is a first. He grips her hand a little tighter. Her eyes light up as she smiles at him, and he can't remember that either, a time when someone looked at him like he was worthy of seeing, not because he's the youngest Captain in Starfleet history, not because he's George Kirk's son, not because he's considered a hero of the Federation, but because he is a man worth seeing.

Spock's words float back to him. He smiles at her, but he can't hold her gaze and drops it.

"Is something bothering you?" she asks.

"No," he says automatically.

"Whatever it is, please let me help."

"You know," Jim says, "one day, about a hundred years from now, a guy's gonna write a book that uses 'let me help' instead of 'I love you.'" His face heats up as the words leave his mouth, and he's glad for the cool night air.

"Mr. Kirk," Edith responds playfully, "I believe you're trying to convince me that you're from the future."

"Is it working?" he asks with a winning smile. Laughing, she opens the front door to the apartment building.

"Thank you for the walk," she says. "Come up the stairs with me for a moment. I have something for you."

He waits outside her room, noting the way Spock peers out into the hallway. He waves him off and rocks forward on the balls of his feet. He wonders what the inside of her apartment looks like, if he'll ever get to see it, if she's really going to—

She joins him in the hallway and presses a hardcover book into his hands.

"Here," she says. "I want you to have it."

The book lacks its dust jacket, but on the spine is printed A Tale of Two Cities. It's a minute before Jim can speak.

"Thank you," he murmurs.

"Do you know it?" she asks.

"Yes," he says, touching the cover. He stands in headquarters and sees an older version of himself in a red uniform, doing the same. He blinks and everything is again as it should be.

"Are you well?" Edith asks, laying a hand on his arm.

"Fine," he says, shaking it off. "Just tired."

"Well," she says softly, "good night."

***

Present Day

USS Enterprise, Stardate 2261.202

Jim wakes with a stiff neck and the stale taste of coffee in his mouth. He's sweating, and his arm is draped over something warm. Blinking to clear the sleep from his eyes, it takes a few seconds for him to recognize the red wall hangings and exotic artifacts. Spock's heart beats against his wrist. Jim shifts closer, pressing his face to Spock's shoulder.

What if Spock is right, and his blindness can't be reversed? Starfleet would never approve him remaining on board as a consultant. His disability could prove a liability. There are rumors of a device in development at Central Hospital on Altair IV, a visor that may one day enable sight, but it is years if not decades from practical use. The destruction of the Vulcan Science Academy will have slowed progress further. Maybe Starfleet will grant the Enterprise permission to shuttle Spock to New Vulcan, but more likely they will order him delivered to the nearest space station. Why use the flagship to deliver a single passenger? Spock would side with Starfleet; it would be illogical to devote the resources of the Enterprise to a task that could easily be accomplished by a long-range passenger shuttle. Starfleet could order this within the day, as soon as Bones's report on Spock's condition and his prognosis of "no cure" reaches them.

This could be their only night together. Jim's mind is numb.

He rubs the back of his neck and sits up. There's got to be a solution. He knows who to ask. The Ambassador made it clear that he won't give up any more information about his own timeline, not even after Harrison, but Jim has to find a way to convince him. If Spock leaves the ship, all of this— the epic friendship the Ambassador always talks about, everything that has been building between them for two and a half years—will end.

Fingers curling into a fist, he inhales deeply against the hot air and plants both feet on the floor.

His own cabin feels frigid when the bathroom door whooshes shut behind him, and he's instantly more awake. He falls in at his computer console and dials New Vulcan.

***

USS Enterprise, Stardate 2261.34

Bones sets the bottle of whiskey on his desk and gets out two glasses.

"Drink," he says. "It's the only thing that helps at a time like this, kid."

They're sitting in Bones's office. Jim's still in the uniform he had on when they beamed back to the ship. Bones pours them both a glass, but Jim snatches the bottle and drinks straight from it. Bones shoots him a dirty look, but Jim merely grins despite everything and steals another mouthful.

Good old-fashioned beer has always been more his style, but the bottle is square and fits easily in his hand. The sour oak taste is like swallowing smoke from a campfire. It makes him pucker, but he won't spit it out. He holds it in his mouth before he convinces his throat to swallow. It leaches into his gums and numbs them. He hopes the same numbing effect will continue down his esophagus and into his veins, or at least get him so stumbling drunk that he can't think for a few hours.

Bones mutters to himself something Jim can't make out. He leans casually back in his chair and sips his own drink, tapping his pinkie on the side, indicating that real gentlemen employ what's known as a glass. Jim gives him the finger.

He's surprised Bones doesn't have a hypo for this. It's the twenty third century, after all. It just takes a minute to heal broken bones. No one has figured out how to heal a broken heart, or at least...tune it out for a while?

Well, besides the Vulcans. Jim considers asking Spock about that again. He can picture the lifted eyebrow, the slight yet obviously disdainful head shake, but it morphs into Spock's head shaking just slightly, of his hand raised to the glass, of his eyes bright with tears. Where is Spock, anyway? He hasn't seen him since they beamed back on board. Jim drinks again, and this time, it's easier to swallow.

He leans back, chair teetering precariously on two legs, the whiskey burning his throat in the best way, drinks again, and scrubs a sleeve over his eyes like it will tear away some of the emotions clawing at the inside of his brain.

Edith is dead.

Edith is dead.

Jim can feel her death like a phaser blast to his chest. He idly wonders what will happen to the homeless men at the shelter now that she isn't there to care about them.

If it hadn't been for Spock, Edith would still be alive. Jim would've found a way to bring her back to the Enterprise, take her away from Earth and away from her time, away from the peace movement that she wouldn't be able to start —- or maybe he could have stayed with her on Earth, helped out with the movement, lived with her until the Germans perfected their weapon and everything just...ended.

Jim wanted to rush out into the street, whatever Spock had said. He wanted to push Edith out of the way of that damned truck, but all the while he knew that Spock was right.

Bones was there to hug him when it happened, but Spock remained at a distance.

Jim swallows another mouthful quickly, letting the burn sear away the cry in his throat. He can still hear the squeal of the brakes and Edith's scream. The white headlights still flash blindingly. There is a hot sensation just above his heart; he pounds his chest with a fist and squeezes his eyes closed.

***

He's a third through the bottle and it's only been a half hour. His stomach is empty, but he refuses food when Bones offers.

"I'm heading back to my cabin. Hit me with a sleep aid, would you?" Jim asks. "I don't want to think for a couple days."

"Lucky for you that I've put you on medical leave for the next 48 hours. No sneaking off to the bridge or you'll find your ass strapped down in Sickbay."

"Fine."

"What you're feeling won't wear off for a while, but you'll feel better in a couple days," Bones says. "Spock is more than capable of running the ship."

Bones stands up and goes into the next room while Jim takes two, three more sips and starts to rock forward and backward on the chair until he leans too far and it falls backwards, spilling him and a lot of the whiskey on the cold floor. He feels the liquid seep into his black regulation pants. Great. Now it'll look like he's pissed himself as he staggers back to his quarters.

Hypo in hand, Bones re-enters the room, curses at the sight of a whiskey-soaked Jim sprawled on the floor, grabs his hand, hauls him to his feet, and marches him out into the corridor.

A turbolift ride later, they stand outside Jim's door, and Bones punches in Jim's access code and shoves Jim inside. Only Jim doesn't stay inside, he juts his head back out into the corridor when he spots Spock walking past.

"Hey," he calls, forcing his eyes open as he crushes his shoulder into the wall to stay upright. Spock turns and regards him, his eyes widening slightly.

"Captain?"

"Jim," Bones barks from inside his room. "Get your ass in bed."

"Captain," Spock repeats, stepping nearer. He's freshly showered and smells like soap. His uniform is neat, every hair in place. He doesn't look like a man who watched a woman die in the street just a few hours before. "Jim. Are you well?"

"Do I look okay to you?" he asks, intending it to be biting, but it comes out weak.

Spock uncharacteristically shifts his weight from one foot to the other but keeps his eyes on Jim.

"You should find comfort in the fact that with this loss of a single life, millions of others were allowed to live, including you and I," he says. "Surely that must give you some peace."

"Not really," Jim admits. He scrubs a hand over his face.

"Is Dr. McCoy planning to stay with you?"

"No, he just wanted to make sure I got here okay."

"Do you desire company?"

Jim can't talk but finds himself nodding. He feels a sting in his eyes and looks away. Spock places a hand on his forearm.

"I must rearrange my plans with Nyota. I will meet you in your cabin in twenty minutes."

"You don't have to cancel on her for me."

"I believe," Spock says quietly, "it is what you would do for me."

Squeezing Jim's arm, he disappears down the corridor. Jim wipes at his eyes and goes inside his cabin, feeling less manic than he had a minute before. He sits on the edge of his bed and lets Bones remove his boots. When he picks up the hypo, Jim shakes his head.

"Can you just leave it?" he asks. "In case I need it? I'm feeling a little better. I think I might replicate something."

"Hmm," Bones says, crossing his arms. "Well, you're certainly familiar with how these things are administered."

"Thanks."

"If you need me—"

"I will," Jim says, lying back on the covers. The room swims around him. "Get the lights on your way out, will you?"

"Sure," Bones says. "Try to get some sleep."

He leaves, and Jim stares up at the ceiling, though he can't make it out. He should shower, or at least get out of his whiskey-soaked pants, but he finds he can't move. It's so quiet in the room. He's always liked that before, lying in his bed, listening to the sound of the engines, to the footsteps in the corridor. Tonight, the quiet makes him sick. The room lurches, and he stumbles from his bed and into the bath.

He's bent over the toilet, his arms wrapped around the base, when he feels a cool hand press against the back of his neck.

"Jim."

Spock kneels next to him and holds out a wet washcloth. Jim wipes his mouth and rocks back on his heels unsteadily. Spock catches him, lowering him into a sitting position. Jim slumps against his side. His throat hurts, and there's a horrible taste in his mouth. Spock presses the button to begin the cleaning cycle, and the air begins to clear.

"Will you be sick again?" Spock asks.

"Not sure," Jim says, letting his head fall back against the cabinet. "Was Uhura pissed?"

"She is concerned for your well being," Spock answers close to his ear.

"I feel like shit," Jim admits.

"My mother used to say that all things pass, with time."

"I bet your mom was awesome," Jim slurs, closing his eyes. "You must miss her."

"I do."

"What was she like?"

Spock is a long time before replying. "She was very much like you."

"Yeah?" Jim drops his head onto Spock's shoulder. "How?"

"She too was brave," he says, "and could be quite outspoken."

"You think she would've liked me?"

"I am certain of it."

Jim laughs and heaves in a breath. His eyes go awash with tears. His shoulders shake, and someone in the room is sobbing. The sound is alien. Spock places a hand on his arm until he comes back to himself.

"I'm not going to be good company tonight," Jim says, covering his face.

"I would not be anywhere else."

***

Jim wakes to the sound of Spock breathing, and for a minute he thinks it's all been a dream. They're still in New York, and Edith is just down the hallway. The blue glow of the chronometer reads 0437. It's too early to go and see her, but at least she's—

Chronometer.

His heart sinks. They're on the ship. He can feel the hum of the engines, and it's enough for his eyes to sting again. He shakes and presses his face into the pillow. A heavy arm wraps around his stomach and pulls him back against a solid chest.

"Sleep," Spock whispers. Jim's eyes open, and he's aware that he's shirtless, that Spock's fingers brush his bare stomach. His presence is curiously...soothing.

"I can't stop thinking about her," Jim whispers.

"That is to be expected." There is a long silence before Spock speaks again. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Will you...will you just talk to me, until I fall asleep again?"

"What do you wish me to say?"

"Just...tell me anything. Tell me what Vulcan was like. Was it beautiful?"

"Yes," Spock says, "though you would have found it unbearably hot."

"The Ambassador said I used to get injections when I'd visit," Jim says, easing back against him. "To help me breathe."

Spock tenses. "I did not realize you speak with him regularly."

"Every week, if we're in range," Jim says. "What was the sky like?"

"It varied, as Earth's sky varies, but it was predominantly reddish orange. At night, it became black as Earth's sky does."

Jim can see it, the dusty orange landscape. He is somewhere very high, looking down on a gathering of people beside a greenish craft. Someone is looking back up at him. He tries to look closer, but it fades. He must still be drunk.

"Could you see the stars from where you lived?" he asks.

"Yes."

"You can't always see them on Earth, in the big cities. I was lucky, growing up on a farm. It was really dark at night, totally dark. Sometimes I'd sneak out my window, go lie on the roof, just look up at them."

"We had a balcony," Spock murmurs, and his words are a warm breath across Jim's neck. "I would often go there."

"Are you glad you joined Starfleet?"

"I am."

"Me too," Jim says, wrapping a hand around Spock's arm. His eyelids grow heavy. "I wish I could have seen your planet."

"I would have been proud to show you."

As Jim falls into the place between awake and sleep, he swears he is standing on Vulcan and can feel the heat of its suns.

***

The smell of coffee rouses Jim. He sleepily rolls to the place where Spock should be, but the sheet is cold. He stretches, arching his back, and finds Spock fully dressed, seated beside his bed.

"Good morning," Spock says.

"Hey." Jim rubs his eyes and sits up. "What time is it?"

"It is 0715. I am to report to the bridge in fifteen minutes," Spock says.

"You made me coffee?"

"I used your preset," Spock answers.

Jim yawns and stretches his arms up over his head. His thoughts are surprisingly clear, not fuzzy like they usually are after a night of heavy drinking, but he's only been awake for a minute. "Can you see if Bones left me a hypo for a hangover?" he asks. "I don't want a migraine setting in."

"I have already administered it," Spock informs him. "I hope you do not view it as a violation of your privacy."

"No, I appreciate it," Jim says, propping the pillows behind his back and reaching for the coffee. He blows on it and takes a sip. "I know you said this is my preset," he says, "but I swear it tastes better when you make it."

Spock gives him an almost-smile. "Dr. McCoy asked me to remind you that you are not to be seen on the bridge today," he says. "However, I am aware of what the mind is capable of, as an artifact of grief. Should it become necessary for you to observe your crew, I shall not alert the doctor to your presence."

"You'd lie to Bones for me?" Jim asks.

"I would not lie; I would merely omit a detail," Spock clarifies, straightening. "Will you join me for lunch?"

"Sure," Jim says. "Comm me when you're ready?"

Nodding once, Spock rises and places a hand on Jim's shoulder.

"I grieve with thee," he says. Jim squeezes his wrist.

"Thanks," he says, staring at his lap. "I'll see you in a couple hours."

Spock turns at the bathroom door, holds Jim's gaze for a beat, and exits. Jim finishes the coffee and rolls onto his side, bunching the pillow under his neck.

"Computer, bring up vid queue," he orders. He scrolls through the selection but can't find anything he wants to watch. His music library is either too peppy or too maudlin. This isn't something The Bard can heal, and god, Spock is right about what grief does to you. Every time Jim closes his eyes, he sees her. When he opens them, he hears her. He'll go for a run. That will clear his head. He'll just run until he can't run any more. That's how he got stuff out of his system as a kid. He knew every back alley on Tarsus and the best route from the farm into Riverside. He gets out of bed, but even with Bones's hangover remedy in his system, the room spins.

"Okay," he mutters. "No running."

He opts for a water shower instead, letting it stream over his face and into his mouth, tilting his head so it fills his ear and dulls everything momentarily. With a towel around his waist, he goes to his desk and takes out his glasses. Bones said he's off duty, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't check his communications. There's undoubtedly paperwork which has to be filed regarding the mission. He's the captain; it's his responsibility to submit a report, but as soon as his monitor lights up, a wave of nausea hits him. He buries his face in his hand and switches it off.

Spock said he'd be welcome on the bridge, but he just...can't. He doesn't want to see the pity on his crew's faces, risk anyone touching him. No, he'll just wait here until Spock messages him for lunch. They'll sit in the corner of the mess, and Spock will keep people away from him. He can deal until then. He's almost twenty-eight years old. He can do this.

But Edith's face is everywhere, her voice, her scream. Rearranging his drawers unearths a sock, similar in shade to the shirt he wore in 1930, and he clutches it to his chest before burying it in the back of the drawer. He tries reading, but it makes him think of the book she gave him that Spock wouldn't let him bring back, and for some reason, the words on the page blur. He finds himself pulling on his yellow tunic, running a hand through his hair, and checking the corridor as he sneaks up to the bridge.

Spock is the first person who sees him when he enters, and he nods at him slightly and motions to the chair. Jim shakes his head, but Spock somehow makes it known that Jim should stand next to him, so he does. He feels better there, just to the right of Spock's legs, close enough that he can hear Spock breathing. No one says a word to him, but twice Spock rises to oversee sensor readings, and both times he lightly touches Jim's arm as he passes. Once, when his eyes sting, Jim grabs the chair. He holds it tightly until he's able to regain his breath. Spock says his name quietly, and Jim indicates that he's okay. His legs are numb from standing by the time Spock turns the conn over to Sulu and gently takes his elbow, guiding him to the turbolift.

"C Deck," Spock orders, and it begins to move.

"I'm sorry," Jim says, leaning against the wall.

"Do not be."

"I didn't embarrass myself, showing up like that?"

"No one could observe your face," Spock assures him. "To the crew, you are merely a dedicated captain."

"I guess. God, are my eyes all red? I'm gonna look like an idiot in the mess."

"We are not going to the mess," Spock says. "We are having lunch in my quarters."

"You don't have to do that."

"I am aware."

"What about Uhura?" Jim asks. "Don't you always eat with her? Girlfriends get pissed about this type of stuff."

Spock frowns. "Lieutenant Uhura and I have not been romantically involved since the beginning of this mission," he says.

"What?" Jim says, incredulous. The downward motion slows. "Spock, it's been a year and a half since we left. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I do not know," Spock answers as the lift stops and the doors open. Jim follows him mutely, and once they're inside Spock's overly warm cabin, he sits in front of the chess set.

"Black or white?" he offers.

"You take white," Spock says, sounding a little surprised. "I will order our food."

"No salad," Jim pleads as he sets up the pieces. "For once, please ignore that stupid list Bones gave you."

"Double cheeseburger," Spock recites, "lettuce, no tomato, no onion, ketchup, sliced pickle, plain bun."

"You remembered that?" Jim asks. "That shore leave was, what, eight months ago?"

Spock gives him a quirked eyebrow. "Do you doubt my cognitive abilities?"

"Not at all. I love you so much right now, you have no idea." Spock straightens slightly, and Jim grins. "Any way you can throw in a beer?"

"My replicator is not programmed for synthohol."

"Shame," Jim says and makes the opening move.

Halfway through the burger, and feeling a little better, Jim licks his fingers and wipes them on a napkin.

"Can I ask you something?" he says.

"Of course," Spock replies and moves his queen to safety. "Whether I choose to answer you, however, is a different matter."

"Why'd you break things off with Uhura? You guys are so close. If you hadn't told me, I'd assume you were still together."

"We remain good friends," Spock says, folding his hands in front of him. "However, Nyota found my reaction to your death...confusing."

"Confusing?"

"She is unable to reconcile what she witnessed in the aftermath of your death against what she witnessed during the Nibiru incident." Spock lowers his eyes. "I admit, I did not anticipate the emotions I would experience when I watched you die."

"Spock..."

"The Ambassador's words to me after the incident with Nero filled me with shame," Spock continues, though he does not look up. "I admit resistance to your efforts to befriend me during our first mission. Yet, when you were in the core, knowing I could not reach you made me accept that I do wish for your friendship."

"I'm glad you were the one with me," Jim says. "I knew...I knew if you got to Engineering first, you'd be the one to make the climb. I had this image of you reaching into the core, and I just couldn't..." He swallows thickly. "I don't think I could have watched you die."

"Given the choice, you are correct," Spock says. "I would have given my life, as you did."

Jim hums and returns his eyes to the chessboard, calculating that he'll have Spock in checkmate in another four moves, if Spock plays the way he usually does.

"If you don't step up your game," Jim warns him, "I'm going to own you."

"I find," Spock says after a pause, a smile hovering at the corner of his lips, "that I do not mind."

 

 

***

Chapter Text

Present Day

USS Enterprise, Stardate 2261.202

The connection is poor when it first establishes, but after the screen flickers twice, the Ambassador's face sharpens into focus. His lips quirk into a smile, and he extends the ta'al.

"Jim," he says warmly. "I did not expect to hear from you for another three days."

"I need your help," Jim says quickly. "We're orbiting Deneva. You got infected with some parasite, and we figured out how to kill it with light, but now you're blind as a result of it. Did you ever encounter anything like that?"

Spock's eyes angle downward, and when he speaks again, his voice is low. "If I had, you know I cannot reveal any details to you."

"Bullshit," Jim says. "Of course you can. If you can tell me that I'm supposed to be friends with you, you can tell me if you were ever blinded on a mission. Or if I was."

"It would be cheating," Spock says. It must be the tone of his voice, because Jim can sense his internal struggle. He wants to tell Jim what he knows, but he won't.

"How is it cheating to use the resources available to me?" Jim asks. "Isn't that logical?"

"For the simple reason that I should not be available to you," Spock says. "I should not be in your timeline."

"But you are here," Jim pleads, "and my dad's dead because of it, and Vulcan's gone because of it, so why not use what you know to make things right?"

"For the same reason I did not return with you to the Enterprise," Spock explains gently. "You must work through this with the Spock from your time."

"Please," Jim says. "I don't want him transferred off this ship. Just...give me something, anything."

Spock closes his eyes, and Jim knows his answer before he says it. "It pains me to say this to you, my old friend, but I cannot help you."

Jim stares at the floor. "Computer, end transmission," he says and doesn't look up again until he's certain the screen has gone dark. Seething, he takes a PADD from his desk and launches it into the far wall. It hits with a satisfying crack, and the casing breaks away from the screen. He takes a deep breath and leans both arms on his desk.

How much more skewed will the timeline actually become if Spock reveals what he knows? Isn't it more important that they stay together as a command team? Spock can't possibly want them separated, not after the effort he made to force them to put aside differences in the first place.

Okay, he tells himself, and attempts to apply some of Spock's logic to the situation. Assuming the Ambassador did face a similar event and was blinded, he's obviously able to see now. If, as with Khan, their situations had been reversed, Jim's own counterpart had clearly recovered. Spock said they served together, what, over thirty years? Unless...unless his Enterprise never faced this, and he doesn't have the heart to tell Jim that he's unaware of a solution, leaving Jim with no hope of finding one. But it makes sense that Spock's Enterprise would have gone on similar missions. Nero's presence had changed Starfleet's priorities some, but an exploratory mission was just that. The more he thinks about it, the more convinced he becomes that the Ambassador lived through exactly what Spock is living through now.

Jim has the impression of a world cast in shadow, of an evening spent alone in his cabin, of a cold bed and a sense of fear. The darkness is the same overpowering gray he experienced just as Spock emerged from the treatment. Jim wills himself to concentrate. He can't risk it fading. If these are the Ambassador's memories, if Jim somehow made a copy of them on Delta Vega, then Jim might find his answer if he can just stay here long enough.

The darkness stretches in all directions, an endless span of nothingness. His hands are empty. He fills with a profound sense of loss. It is then that he sees it, the slightest hint of contrast, an awareness of shapes which become more pronounced, little by little. At first, he believes it to be a trick of the mind, wishful thinking, but the shapes morph into recognizable objects: the computer monitor, a desk chair, a Vulcan lute. He blinks, and—

He's in his own room again, palms flat against the desktop.

"Computer," he orders. "Pull up everything you have on Vulcan anatomy."

***

Three days ago

USS Enterprise, Stardate 2261.199

Jim distractedly taps his fingers on the arm of the captain's chair as he observes the blue planet on the monitor.

Mad.

That's what Bones is calling what's happening to people on Deneva's surface. Three members of the away team are down in sickbay now, including Spock. The humans, both members of the security team, didn't stop screaming until Bones hit them with a tranquilizer. Spock never cried out, but as Jim caught him, he could tell from the widening of Spock's eyes that he was in pain. Jim held onto him until the medical team pulled him off the transporter pad, then ran with them to sickbay. Bones shooed him out once Spock was unconscious and prepped for surgery, promising to comm Jim with any news.

How many times did Jim listen to Sam go on about Deneva the last time they talked? Aurie was pregnant at the time, and they were considering Deneva for its dedication to solid education and the planet's clean air, plus modern research facilities. The last Jim heard from his mom, they were settling into their apartment in the Hume Township on Altair IV, one of its principal cities, and the baby was eighteen months old. But Jim's had a queasy feeling in his stomach ever since they approached the planet, like he needs to call Sam. He wrote Winona for Sam's home number an hour ago and is waiting for her reply.

"McCoy to Captain Kirk."

He immediately slaps the button.

"How's he doing, Bones?"

"The tranquilizers have worn off. He's awake, for now."

"On my way," Jim says and is halfway to the turbolift when he gives the conn to Sulu. The lift seems to take longer than usual to reach the bridge, longer still to descend the few decks to sickbay. When had the corridors gotten this long? Jim runs along them, skirting past crew members, and enters sickbay in time to see Nurse Chapel administering another round of tranqs to the two humans, who are beginning to whimper.

Bones is beside the third biobed. Spock is arched off the surface, wrists bound, his hands gripping the sides of the bed so tightly that slight cracks appear like halos around his fingers. He falls back and inhales rapidly, sweat beaded along his forehead. Jim stands at Bones's shoulder and feels sick.

"The damned thing's growing all along his nervous system, but he's refusing further medication," Bones gripes in Jim's ear, nodding down at Spock. "Talk some sense into him." He walks away to speak with Nurse Chapel. Jim drags a chair beside Spock's bed and sits.

"Hey," he says, glancing at the monitor. The K3 readings are high. Jim experiences a momentary sensation of searing pain along his spine and winces.

"Jim," Spock grinds out. Jim smiles despite the pain and leans forward on his thighs.

"How come you're refusing meds?" he asks.

"I am Vulcan," Spock rasps. "Pain...is a thing...of the mind."

"Yeah," Jim says, reaching for a cloth to wipe Spock's forehead. He smoothes the line of his bangs. "But you're also human. Pain is a thing of the body, too. From what the monitor says, you're in a lot of it."

"I am capable of controlling it."

"I know you are," Jim says. He drops the cloth and returns his hand to Spock's face, turning it toward him. Spock's eyes focus on him and soften.

"Did I harm you earlier?"

Jim shakes his head. "Just surprised me a little. You haven't tried to choke me for a couple years. Not sure I deserved it this time."

"If you wish to reprimand me—"

"Spock," Jim says, lowering his voice. "All I wish is for you to get better, so you can get back on the bridge. I can't run this ship without you."

"You may have to."

"Don't say that."

"The creature…" Spock says through clenched teeth, "it is attempting to control me."

"What do you mean?"

"It intends to use me as a means of overtaking the ship. It must not be allowed to succeed."

"I won't let that happen," Jim says firmly. "We'll figure out how to kill it."

"You will need a specimen," Spock manages, straining against the bindings. "We cannot risk another landing party."

"So we'll beam one of the things on board," Jim says, mopping his forehead again. "I'll talk to Scotty about it. Try to get some sleep."

"The creatures cannot be beamed using the transporter," Spock says. "Our scanners are unable to detect them. The only logical course of action is for me to return to the planet."

"No," Jim says. "Absolutely not."

"I am already infected. I should be able to control the pain long enough to capture one of the creatures and return with it to the ship."

"Denied."

"Captain," Spock says, though his voice is gentle, "you cannot risk me losing control again. I can easily overpower any member of the crew. I could have killed you earlier, had Dr. McCoy—"

Jim shakes his head. "I'm not approving this."

"If we do not find a cure, you will be forced to beam me down and leave me to die with the other million inhabitants of this planet."

At this, Jim freezes. "I won't do that," he says.

"Ordering my death will become necessary should no treatment be found, in order to protect this ship." Spock grits his teeth and arches again. Jim glances to Spock's hands, balled to fists, and looks away.

"I'm not ordering anyone's death." He stands and folds his arms over his chest, pacing beside the bed. "You really think you can control yourself long enough to find one of those things?"

"Yes."

"I'm going with you."

"Negative," Spock says. "If you should become infected—"

"Okay. You're right." Jim sighs. "Stay on comm with me the whole time you're on the surface. I'll have Scotty maintain a lock on you. First sign that you aren't okay, we're beaming you back up."

"You must allow me time to capture one."

Jim stops pacing and leans over the side of the bed, his hand accidentally brushing Spock's. He opens his mouth to apologize when Spock takes it and squeezes. His fingers are cold, but Jim feels a surge of love. His breath catches, and he looks to Spock for confirmation. Spock just manages to nod.

"Why didn't you say something before now?" Jim whispers, daring to squeeze Spock's hand in return.

"I did not want to die," Spock says, "without telling you."

"You are not dying on me, do you understand? That's an order."

Spock looks at him fondly before his face contorts.

"It is one I shall attempt to obey."

***

"You're two of the smartest people on this ship," Jim says. "We have fourteen science labs. We've been in orbit for 72 hours. How come no one thought of this?"

"I admit," Spock says, settling on the stool while Bones secures the door to the treatment room, "I am surprised it did not occur to me that light could be toxic, but I have been compromised."

Bones rolls his eyes and hands a pair of protective glasses to Jim before putting on his own.

"Don't look anywhere near the door," he instructs. "Keep your eyes closed.

A chill crawls down Jim's chest and into his legs, spreading through his center. Suddenly, he really doesn't want Spock in that chamber.

"Bones, I have a bad feeling about this…" Jim says, getting to his feet. Bones's hand hovers over the lever.

"If we don't kill this thing, it'll kill him," Bones grinds out. "Look away, now."

"Seriously, Bones, don't—" Jim calls, but it's too late. There is a bright flash Jim can see even through the eyewear, and then Bones is unlatching the chamber door.

It is evident there is a serious problem as Spock emerges and trips on a chair leg, falling forward onto a desk, catching himself. Jim's heart begins to pound in his ears. Terror gushes over him as his own field of vision is suddenly gone. No Bones, no Spock, just a wash of gray that he banishes by squeezing his eyelids closed tightly until the sick feeling passes. He re-opens his eyes and McCoy is staring at him like he's just grown antennae. He hears himself say, "Oh god, Bones, he's blind."

"Hold your horses for a minute," Bones snaps, scanning Spock's eyes. He checks the readings and his harried face falls. "Damn," he mutters. "I'd hoped we would avoid this, but with light that intense...I'm sorry, Spock."

"The creature is dead," Spock says, one hand on the wall to steady himself, "and the pain is gone. But you are right, Captain: I am quite blind."

"Fuck," Jim mutters into his palm. He looks at Bones, who shakes his head, and Jim pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger.

"Spock," Bones continues quietly. "I suppose I should run scans on your optic nerve, to determine if there is anything—"

"Unnecessary," Spock says evenly. "I am aware of the gravity of the situation. You do not need to placate me as you would a human."

"Just sit down," Bones orders, though he places a hand on Spock's shoulder awkwardly and looks at Jim. He shakes his head.

***

A little over an hour and a battery of tests later, Bones's conclusion is the same. Jim feels queasy, like he might be sick. 

"I'd like to keep you here overnight," Bones tells Spock. 

"For what purpose?" Spock says. "My condition does not require monitoring, and I would be more comfortable in my own quarters."

"All right," Bones concedes. "I'll ask Nurse Chapel to help you to your quarters."

"I am perfectly capable of—"

"I'll take him," Jim says, cutting Spock off and taking his arm. "Come on." To Bones he says, "Comm me when you know anything."

They walk along in silence, until they are steps outside of Spock's quarters. Jim's mind is racing, so he decides it's best to say nothing until they're alone.

"Captain, I recommend we secure a replacement for me as soon as possible. I will begin making inquiries tomorrow."

"The hell you will," Jim says quietly, punching in his override code for Spock's quarters. "I'm not letting anyone else in your position until we know this isn't reversible."

"The likelihood that I will recover my eyesight is negligible."

The door slides open. Jim sucks in a breath of the air, the lingering traces of incense, and feels the fear pool in his stomach. 

"Here," Jim says, fighting to keep his voice even. "Sit down." He helps Spock to the edge of the bed and stands lamely, looking down at him. The room is hot, and Jim is beginning to sweat. "Do you want to get a shower?" he asks.

"Yes."

"Should I—?" Jim asks, touching him on the shoulder.

"I am capable of undressing and am familiar with the layout of my quarters," Spock says, shrugging away from Jim's hand. "My other senses are in working order."

"We need to talk about what happened, debrief."

"What is there to say?" Spock asks. His voice is blank. Jim sits next to him, hopeless. 

"Bones will find something," he says, mostly to comfort himself. Spock inclines his head.

"I am confident he will find a remedy for the Denevans," Spock says. Jim bites his lip. "There is no need for you to stay."

"If I leave here, I'm just gonna drink coffee all night and pull another 24 hours without sleep. I could use the rest. Bones will find me if anything happens with the parasites."

"You are planning to sleep here, with me?" Spock raises an eyebrow but his stare just misses Jim's face. There is a softening in his eyes.

"You stayed with me after Edith," Jim says, placing a hand on his arm. "I'm not leaving you, especially after what you showed me in sickbay."

Though his face is sad, Spock smiles faintly.

"Let's get you in the shower," Jim suggests. Spock allows himself to be ushered to the bathroom, where Jim begins the task of masterfully removing his uniform.

"I told you..." Spock protests. Jim pulls the tunic up and over his head, and there is the faintest coloring of green along his cheekbones. "...that I am capable of undressing myself."

"Just shut up and let me help you. I feel bad enough already. If you fall over trying to take off your shoes, I might as well put myself out an airlock."

"You do this with too much adeptness," Spock observes as Jim unfastens his pants, "for me to believe this is your first time undressing someone."

"First time undressing you," Jim dares to say through a grin, and he feels his face heat up. It's not the time or place for this, but he's always used sex to deflect. He touches the back of Spock's calf to indicate that he should raise his foot. Spock does. Jim balls up his uniform and tosses it on the counter. "How hot do you want it?"

"Use my preset," Spock instructs. Jim slides the shower door open, and Spock steps inside. "Do you plan on showering this evening?" he asks.

"I should," Jim admits, tugging at his damp shirt. "It's hot as hell in here. I'll grab one after I get you to bed. Why?"

"In the interest of conserving resources, you may join me, if you wish."

They shouldn't do this, Jim thinks. Spock's been blind...an hour? Jim hasn't slept in days, and he doubts Spock has either. Neither one of them is thinking clearly, but Spock looks at him with an expression just this side of longing. What if this is it? Will this be one of those moments he looks back on in five, ten, twenty years and wonders -- what if?

"Well," Jim says slowly, cocking his head, though it occurs to him afterwards that Spock can't see him. "If it's in the name of conservation..." He peels off his shirt and lets it fall to the ground. He stares at it, aware of a tremor in his chest, but keeps going.

"I am at a disadvantage," Spock says as Jim works his fly. "I am unable to see you."

"You've seen me naked before," Jim says, kicking his pants away. "What about that time you had to check me for those parasites, remember? The ones that you said were too tiny for humans to...wait. Those were real, right?"

"They were," Spock says, wrapping a hand around Jim's neck as he steps in beside him. "I did my best to remain objective."

"You were checking out my ass."

"Technically, yes, but I assure you that I only did so in the capacity of —"

"Should we be doing this?" Jim blurts, clutching at Spock's neck and shoulders.

"No," Spock replies and kisses him. 

Spock doesn't kiss the way Jim thought he would. He's always imagined that Spock would be hesitant, tentative and sweet, holding Jim's face in his hands and taking ages. Jim's surprised to find his back against the shower wall, Spock's fingers kneading circles into his waist, and a very wet Vulcan tongue in his mouth. By the time they shut off the shower, Jim's got his legs wrapped around Spock's middle, and Spock is acquainting himself with Jim's collarbone.

"Why haven't we done this before tonight?" Jim pants.

Spock squeezes his ass and proves he does have the exact configuration of his cabin memorized, by relocating them to the sleeping alcove.

"We're gonna get the bed all wet," Jim manages as Spock lays him down and hovers over him.

"I find," Spock says, resting his forehead against Jim's, "that I do not care."

"You sure you want to do this?"

"It is likely I will be reassigned immediately. It is logical we make use of our remaining time together."

"You're applying logic to this, huh?" Jim asks and kisses him.

"Of course."

They form an instinctual mesh of bodies. Spock ruts against him, and Jim lolls his head against the sheets, dragging his fingers along Spock's ribs. Spock bites at Jim's lower lip and arches his hips forward.

"You keep doing that," Jim gasps, "and we're going to have to shower again."

"If that is your only argument for stopping, then I will continue," Spock says, and Jim moans into his mouth. He mutters nonsense as he's coming, pumping his hips furiously, and then Spock lets out a sharp exhale and tenses. Jim strokes his back until the muscles underneath his fingers relax. He lets his eyes fall closed when Spock rises. There's the sound of running water. Jim is aware of a warm cloth on his abdomen wiping him clean, the dip of the mattress, and the feel of Spock's arms coming around him.

"Better?" Jim asks.

"Yes."

"I've thought about doing that," he says, yawning, "so many times."

"I dreamed of thee," Spock whispers against his neck. He soon stills, but Jim begins to shiver in the hot, dark room. 

***

When Jim wakes a few hours later, the cabin is dark, but there's enough of a glow from the emergency light beside the door for him to see Spock's eyes are open.

"Hey," Jim murmurs. 

"Hello."

"I hope you're not having any regrets about what we did, because that was pretty awesome."

"I only regret that we did not begin until this evening," Spock says, seeking his hand and clasping it. He projects happiness.

"Me too," Jim says, and he couldn't get the smile off his face if he wanted to. Spock lifts a hand toward Jim's face, finds it by touch, and rests it along the curve of Jim's cheek.

"I will miss this," Spock says. Jim feels his heart break.

"Don't say that," he says emphatically. 

"May I make an inquiry?" Spock asks. 

"Sure."

"You detected my blindness before even I was convinced of it. I would mark it down to intuition, however your certainty was unmistakable. How did you know?"

"I just...knew," Jim says. "The second you stepped out of the chamber, everything around me went gray. It came right back, but I knew."

"It is likely you did as Dr. McCoy instructed against, and looked at the chamber."

"I was looking toward Bones," Jim tells him, "and I swear my eyes were closed."

"I do not understand."

Jim takes a deep breath and places a hand on top of Spock's, stroking it. He traces the knob of each knuckle, the rough patch of skin on Spock's index finger, feels the short hairs along the back of his hand.

"Do you remember when you marooned me on Delta Vega, and I met the ambassador?" he asks.

"Of course," Spock says.

"I found him in a cave, and he told me how he got here, how you and I used to be friends."

"So you have said."

"Well, what I didn't tell you is how he told me," Jim says slowly. Spock's eyebrows furrow slightly, and then his face goes slack.

"I see," he says.

"And I think that I somehow made a copy of what was in his head."

Spock is quiet.

"I mean, I can't remember any of it," Jim continues quickly. "It's not like I can access it, but sometimes I just know things."

"The mind meld does not work that way," Spock refutes.

"I'm the same person he knew. Sort of. What if his brain recognized me? What if it assumed those were my memories too, and accidentally gave them back to me?"

"If you possessed his memories, you would be able to review them at will, as you do your own." Spock withdraws his hand. "When we were on Earth, you mentioned my fondness for black robes."

The conversation is disjointed, and Jim frowns. "So?"

"I found it surprising at the time," Spock says. "While I possess black robes, I have never worn them in your presence. It struck me as odd that you would be aware of them."

"I probably saw robes like that on another Vulcan and just assumed," Jim says. "It's nothing to write home about."

"You also spoke of eating plomeek soup on the ship. You knew its color and flavor, but I checked the replicator history. It was not available in the ship's mess until after our return from New York."

"What does soup have to do with anything?" Jim asks, but Spock continues.

"And you claimed to hear my voice, speaking words I did intend to say."

"Obviously the other you said the same thing once. You're the same person."

"I do not think," Spock says slowly, "that the ambassador transferred his memories to you."

"There's no way what I'm experiencing is my imagination! I'm telling you—"

"I believe you," Spock interrupts. "I believe that you are experiencing what you describe."

"Okay," Jim says. Spock is quiet for a minute, his eyebrows furrowed in thought.

"I am tired," he says. "As are you. We should sleep."

"Okay," Jim says again, and this time he leans forward to kiss Spock, who is hesitant but kisses back softly. "We'll figure this all out in the morning. I'm sure Bones will know something by then."

***

Present Day

USS Enterprise, Stardate 2261.204

"If Vulcans bothered to cough up more than just the required medical information on their species, it'd save me a lot of grief," Bones mutters to Jim, who beams at Spock over his shoulder. Bones shakes his head. "Inner eyelids. Unbelievable."

"It was mentioned in the anatomy information I accessed," Jim says, "but as a vestigial organ. Didn't say anything about them suddenly kicking in. His vision's back to normal?"

"Both eyes are in full working order, and just in time. I hadn't submitted my report to Starfleet yet, so at least you won't have to do any backpedaling. If you two aren't the luckiest sonsofbitches alive, I don't know who is."

"It's not luck," Jims says, clapping his shoulder. "If it were, I'd be a hell of a lot richer when I play poker. Everyone on the surface checking out okay?"

"The UV light worked with a 100% success rate," Bones says. "All reported cases of parasites are cured."

"Sorry we didn't figure it out sooner," Jim says with a sigh, "but at least we saved most of them."

"Did you get a hold of your brother yet?" Bones asks.

"This morning," Jim says. "He's fine, Aurie too."

"Your nephew?"

"Has a cold," Jim laughs.

"Well," Bones says, "I'm glad it was nothing. I'm going to get back down to sickbay. Have to replenish our painkillers."

"Sure, Bones."

Bones nods toward Spock and lowers his voice. "If he starts acting funny, you order him back to sickbay," he says.

"Will do."

"And stop staring at him," Bones hisses. "You look like a damned lovestruck teenager, unless you're finally going to do something about it."

Jim grins and rubs the back of his neck. Bones smacks the side of Jim's head.

"While he was blind?" he scolds. "You waited until he was blind?"

"Actually," Jim defends, "he initiated it."

"I need to replenish my bourbon supply," Bones mutters as he turns for the turbolift, "when we get back to civilization."

***

The six and a half hours until the end of alpha shift are harder to sit through than an interspecies ethics class. Jim catches himself looking over his shoulder at the science station every few minutes, just to make sure Spock is really there. When he's not glancing back at Spock, he's formulating reasons to speak with him in front of the crew: sensor readings in the Deneva system as they exit it, the creatures' projected trajectory based on what Spock could glean from having shared his body with one. Spock isn't looking at Jim, but he seems pleased to be back.

A few times, when he hears footsteps come up behind him, Jim turns his head excitedly, thinking Spock is standing beside his chair. Twice, it's Rand with paperwork for him to sign. The third is Bones coming to insist Jim take lunch.

At 1658, Jim chews the inside of his cheek and drums his fingers on his thighs until he feels a steady hand on his shoulder. He receives little from Spock, just muted emotions, like someone trying to speak through a wall. That doesn't stop the grin which appears on his face, or the butterflies in his stomach when the chronometer turns to 1700 and the relief crew takes their seats. Jim lets the rest of the bridge crew take the first turbolift while he briefs the lieutenant replacing him, and he's happy to see Spock waiting for him in the doorway.

As soon as they get inside Spock's cabin, Jim pushes him up against the wall and kisses him soundly.

"Two of the happiest moments of my life have been you walking onto my bridge," he says, sliding his fingers into Spock's hair. Spock's lips are soft, and he smells incredible, and Jim wants to drown in him for a little while. Spock is less responsive than he was two nights ago, but Jim kisses him deeply, urgently and smiles against his mouth. When Spock gently takes Jim by the wrists and eases Jim's hands from his face, Jim experiences a frisson of doubt.

"What is it?" he asks. "I didn't think you'd mind, after..."

"I believe," Spock says quietly, "that we should discuss what you began to tell me, about the memories you believe you copied from the ambassador."

"That again?" Jim says with a frown. "What more is there to say? I think I'm carrying around memories that aren't my own."

"I would like your permission to perform a shallow mind meld," Spock says, still holding Jim's wrists but looking down. "I would like to test a hypothesis."

"You're making a science experiment out of me?" Jim asks, raising both eyebrows.

"It will be brief," Spock says as a means of answering.

"You had your tongue in my mouth a minute ago," Jim says with a shrug. "You might as well be in my head too." He lifts his chin, turning his head slightly toward his right shoulder. Spock's hand is a welcome pressure on his face.

"My mind to your mind," Spock whispers. Jim sees a flash of light, the flicker of fire on the walls of the ice cave, feels something warm unfurl in the back of his mind, and then Spock is standing several feet away with a dark expression.

"What?" Jim asks, taking a step forward. "What did you see?"

Spock shakes his head, eyes focused on his outstretched hand. It's shaking. Jim freezes where he stands.

"Spock, tell me what's wrong."

"You are telsu," Spock says finally.

"I'm what?"

"You are certain," Spock says slowly, "that the ambassador only melded with you to pass on information? He did not invite you into his mind further? You did not invite him into yours?"

"No!" Jim exclaims. "I swear it was just for a moment, and I got a flash of all these thoughts and memories and feelings—yeah, I know how much you feel, you liar. I fucking cried— and then it was over. What does telsu mean?"

Spock walks to his bed and sits, folding his hands together on his lap. He stares past them, past Jim, and when he speaks, it's almost mechanical.

"At seven years of age, I entered into a preliminary bond with T'Pring, who was to be my wife."

"You're married?" Jim says, frowning. Spock exhales heavily and continues.

"She did not survive Vulcan's destruction," he says. "However, when we were first bonded, I felt very little of her in my mind: a slight noise, an awareness, the sensation of something not quite mine. As the years went on, and the bond strengthened, I began to experience her mind. She could see what I saw, feel what I felt. I shielded myself from her constant observation, but when I desired her input, I would lower the shields and feel her impression of the situation in my own mind."

Jim's stomach twists. "Are you saying...what are you saying?"

Spock is quiet, contemplative. He unfolds his hands and clasps his knees. When he speaks, his voice is strained. "Telsu means bonded," he says.

"I don't understand," Jim says and feels the blood leave his face. "I'm bonded...to him? To the other you? How?"

"I believe he was bonded to your counterpart," Spock explains. "I sensed the link, as soon as I initiated a meld with you. His mind must have recognized yours and attempted to reestablish it. A bond explains why you are connected to his living mind."

"Are you saying I've got a live feed into his head?"

"In a manner of speaking."

"And you think they were married?"

"Bonded," Spock corrects. "Yes."

"Am I bonded to you?" Jim asks.

Spock is slow to answer. "No," he says.

Jim sinks onto the bed beside Spock and covers his mouth with a hand. Spock's breathing is unsteady.

"Do you think he knows?" Jim asks after a while.

"It is likely he has shielded himself for many years, ever since his bondmate's death. He must be receiving impressions of your mind when you are in great stress—you are likely projecting unknowingly—and is unaware that they originate with you."

"That's why my vision disappeared when you got out of the chamber," Jim murmurs. "I thought about how you looked stumbling; he must have seen it or whatever, and remembered being blind himself."

"Yes."

"Can it be broken?" Jim asks.

"It will require a healer, but it is possible."

"Well, I want it broken immediately," Jim says.

"You must discuss this with my elder self."

"There's nothing to discuss!" Jim rubs a hand over his face and leans forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. "I had no choice in this. I want it out of my head."

He tries to take Spock's hand, but Spock keeps them clasped tightly together. Jim pats his back instead, sliding an arm around his shoulders. Spock is rigid against him.

"We'll get this cleared up," he says. "I don't want anything getting between us." He presses a kiss to Spock's temple, but Spock stands abruptly.

"Captain," he says, "it would be best for us to return to a professional relationship for the time being."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Jim protests.

"You belong to another," Spock says, and he will not look Jim in the eye.

"I don't belong to anyone!" Jim exclaims.

"You do, according to Vulcan law," Spock says. "I will not dishonor you by further violating that union."

Jim stares at his hands and feels sick. He stands and walks to the center of the room. There's no point arguing with Spock. His face is like stone. Jim's never won an argument with him once he's reached this point. He tries to breathe calmly through his nose, but every exhale sounds like the roar of the ship's engines. He sets his teeth, bites down hard, until the shaking anger in his core passes.

"Okay," he concedes. "We can hold off on anything physical until we can get this bond removed, but I'm not going to pretend the last few days didn't happen."

"You must speak to my elder self," Spock says. "I do not wish to discuss this further."

"Spock..."

"Captain, I request that you exit my quarters."

"Why are you doing this?"

"I must meditate," Spock says in lieu of answering and opens a drawer in the bedside table. He takes out what looks like matches and a stick of incense. Jim flinches when the drawer closes and feels his eyes sting. "I ask that you respect my wishes."

***

He can still smell the incense wafting through the shared bath long after his face has dried. He twists his hands into the cold sheet beside him and doesn't sleep.

***

"You understand why I said nothing."

It's been two hours, and Jim is tired of staring at the ceiling. The ambassador's face fills the view screen, the only bright point in the otherwise dark room. Jim catches his head in his hands and shakes it.

"Not really, no," he says. "It would have saved me a lot of grief if you'd just told me about the UV light or that inner eyelid of yours. I've been awake for almost 72 hours."

"Something you did frequently, if memory serves," Spock says with a chuckle. "But is that what you desire in a career, to be told all of the answers so you do not have to work them out for yourself?"

"Of course not."

"Did you consider this incident might be an important step in your relationship?"

"I'm sure we'll look back on it fondly," Jim quips. "Maybe retell it at Christmas."

Spock inclines his head, "It is vital that you work with and trust one another."

"Yeah, about that," Jim says, sitting up straighter. "When were you gonna tell me that we were married?"

There is a sharp intake of breath through the speaker, which is all Jim needs as confirmation. He waits, watching the crown of Spock's head.

"How did you find out?" Spock asks finally.

"The other you figured it out," Jim says, "right around the time I was explaining how I had these memories that shouldn't belong to me. I thought I'd made a copy of yours back on Delta Vega."

Spock watches him in silence, his lips parting slightly.

"Thought I had wicked intuition, for a while," Jim continues. "Turns out it was just me receiving your thoughts."

"I do not understand," Spock says.

"Does the word telsu mean anything to you?"

"I...I had not thought that possible." Spock's confusion is palpable, and Jim experiences a new sensation, like a light brush of fingers somewhere deep in his brain. It's...nice. He smiles but shakes it off.

"He said he could feel it."

"He melded with you?" Spock asks, and Jim can sense a hint of protectiveness which Spock quickly tamps down.

"Just for a few seconds," Jim says. "Why didn't you tell me about you and him?"

"I was not certain that you would harbor the same feelings for my younger self, as my Jim had for me. I regret you found out this way."

"So you loved him."

"Yes."

Jim is consumed by warmth, the amber glow of sun-baked cornfields along a dirt road in Riverside, the impression of hands cradling his face, of strong arms encircling him. The hands fall away, and a wave of grief and longing surges up through Jim's mind and slips away, leaving a throbbing ache he tries to quell by pressing a hand against his chest, as though the pressure will ease it. He bends at the waist, feeling suddenly cold.

"How do you stand it?" he asks.

"I keep his memories, as well as my own," Spock says. "It gives me comfort to have that part of him with me."

Jim is quiet for a minute, and he can tell that Spock is still recalling the pain he experienced when his own Jim passed. He imagines turning his back to the hurt, which dulls it somewhat, but it is still there.

"Is this what it'll feel like," he asks, "when we break it?"

"Yes," Spock answers. Jim's nod is slow.

"Does it ever go away?" he asks.

"It fades," is Spock's reply. "There are ways of managing the discomfort."

"I don't know where we're going to find a Vulcan healer," Jim says. "We just left the Deneva system, and we're nowhere near the colony."

"I will arrange for one to come to the Enterprise," Spock says. "It may be several weeks."

"You've been in my head this long, and I didn't even realize it," Jim says, feeling suddenly awkward. He grins shyly. "Another few weeks can't hurt, right?"

***

Spock is at his station when Jim arrives for shift the next morning, bent over his computer, and doesn't look up. Jim yawns his way across the bridge, a cup of coffee in hand, and takes his seat after wishing a good morning to everyone.

Spock doesn't turn in his direction or speak to him, unless Jim addresses him directly. Then, his answers are to the point, and he looks at Jim no longer than is necessary, his eyes often just an inch lower that Jim's own, so they never meet. It's lonely, and Jim finds himself watching the viewscreen mutely by mid-afternoon. He's grateful when Bones makes him break for lunch and turns the conn over to Spock, hoping to catch his gaze, but Spock says, "Yes, Captain" and takes the chair without looking up.

Spock won't keep this up for more than a day or two, Jim tells himself. He's just confused. Jim is confused too. That evening, Spock doesn't eat with Jim in the mess, and he doesn't stop by for chess. Jim sets the board anyway, because Spock will likely play him tomorrow. When he sleeps, he buries his face in the pillow so he can't smell the incense.

***

A week goes by, but Spock's behavior hasn't changed. Jim keeps the chess pieces in place and even sends a picture to Spock's PADD with the message "your move," but he doesn't receive a response. Bones stops him in the turbolift and tells Jim that he looks like shit, and puts him on a revised meal plan. On the eighth night of eating alone, he takes his tray to where Sulu sits chatting with Chekov.

"Mind if I sit with you guys?" he asks, looking to the empty seat, and Sulu slides it out wordlessly. He watches Spock eat across the room with Uhura, whose back is to him. Spock never looks his way, not once.

"Is something wrong, Keptin?" Chekov asks. Jim shakes his head and grins brilliantly.

"Not at all," he lies and downs a cup of milk, watching Spock's distorted image through the thick glass base.

***

It's late, well past midnight, the first time it happens.

Jim isn't really thinking about what he's doing. He's so tired, but he can't sleep. Spock's incense has seeped underneath the door again, and it's enough to make him curl in on himself and want to hide for days. He'll never be able to smell it without the scent conjuring the taste of Spock's mouth, the slide of his hands over Jim's skin. He groans and rolls onto his stomach, burying his face in the pillow. He's changed his sheets god knows how many times since Spock stayed with him, the night Edith died all those months ago. Yet if Jim closes his eyes, he can smell Spock: a sharp, clean scent, surrounding him, as if it clings to every fiber.

Why won't Spock talk to him? Why won't he even look at him? Knowing that Spock was his in another life only complicates what Jim is already feeling. He wonders what it would be like, being bonded to his Spock, and it brings to mind the sensation of protectiveness the ambassador accidentally let slip through.

He seeks it out, closing his eyes and imagining himself walking toward the spot in his mind where he had felt the ambassador's fingers. The ambassador has been ignorant of the bond for this long; maybe he won't realize Jim is even here. He won't even touch it, merely approach it. Look at it. That's the whole point of his job, right? Exploring uncharted territory. Well, a Vulcan pairbond in his own brain is about as uncharted as Jim can imagine. Besides, no one needs to know. He'll only remain for a moment, memorize it, so he'll have it to look back on.

He expects it to be warm. He doesn't expect it to feel like home.

***

The same will that got him through academy in only three years is strong enough that he doesn't try to access the bond at all during shift the next day, or over dinner, or in the rec room when he easily beats Chekov at chess and sighs. He tells himself that last night was a fluke, that it's something he'll never do again. The conviction lasts until he is alone in his cabin, and the silence presses in on him. He lies on his back, the sheets cold around him, and he finds himself there.

And then he can't leave. He doesn't want to leave. It is indescribable. He is complete within it, and he remains until he falls asleep.

The following morning over breakfast, Bones comments that Jim finally looks like himself again.

"You've got color back in your face," he says. "I'm going to keep you on that new vitamin regimen. I think it's helping."

***

A message on his PADD from the ambassador contains the arrival date for a Vulcan healer and a Starfleet doctor. The doctor, who is apparently well versed in Vulcan medicine despite being human, is to remain on board, once the healer has severed the bond, and provide any necessary aftercare. They will travel from New Vulcan directly and rendezvous with the Enterprise in ten days.

Jim is reluctant to show the message to Bones, who reads it, frowns, and looks up at Jim.

"What the hell is this about a pairbond?" he asks.

"It was an accident," Jim admits.

"It says this happened...three years ago?" Bones gives him a questioning look. "You'd better start talking."

"Later," Jim says quietly, nodding toward Nurse Chapel.

"My office after shift."

Over bourbon, Jim fills in the details and watches Bones's face morph from confused to surprised to angry. Bones takes a long, silent drink and leans back, exhaling loudly.

"Well, I'll be damned," he says.

"Yeah," Jim agrees.

"And now the hobgoblin won't even talk to you, is that right?"

"Pretty much," Jim mutters.

"I'm real sorry, kid."

"Me too." Jim rubs his head. "Anyway, it'll all be over soon, and we can go back to normal."

"This says they won't arrive for another two weeks. How come they couldn't send someone out sooner?"

"It's not an emergency," Jim explains, tapping on the side of his glass. "Not in their minds, anyway."

Bones has a sour expression on his face and downs the rest of his glass. He sets it on the desk and runs a finger around the rim. "They sure as shit have a funny way of defining an emergency."

***

The next time Jim visits the bond, he wonders if the ambassador knows, if a part of him has sensed Jim, or if he's shielding the way he must have been doing the past three years. This is wrong. Jim shouldn't be here, but he can't help himself. Spock won't look at him on the bridge, and he won't reply to messages. He wonders if Spock believes his actions to be justified by Vulcan culture, or if the human part of him understands the world of hurt he is causing Jim to experience.

The ambassador's mind is a balm. He wraps it around himself, as if it could absorb him if only he closes his eyes long enough, loses himself deeply enough.

He could stay here.

He wants to stay here.

The incense drifts under the door for the twenty-second night in a row. Jim rocks his head back and forth, because he doesn't know if he'll ever feel Spock's hands on him again. Is he right to break this? If this bond is taken from him, will he ever feel Spock again? Was that one night together all he's ever going to experience of a love that was his in another universe?

He checks his chronometer. It's 0328. He wonders if Scotty is still awake and considers messaging him for company.

No, he needs to sleep. Padding into the bathroom, he takes out one of the hypos Bones has left him for the times he's struggling with insomnia. He injects himself in the neck, wincing. He glances toward Spock's bathroom door as he does so, wondering if Spock is in his room. Where he's sitting. If he's thinking of Jim.

This is so stupid. Everything about this is so stupid. Jim isn't married, and Spock doesn't have to shut him out, and if they could just talk this through...

The hypo begins to take effect, and Jim's eyes are half lidded as he stumbles back to bed, barely reaching it before the drugs overtake him, and he's falling face-first into his mattress.

***

USS Enterprise, Stardate 2261.247

Spock stands next to Jim on the transporter pad, but Jim is careful not to look at him, not to focus on Spock's hands as they dematerialize. The last thing he sees of the ship is Scotty's face working the transporter controls. He closes his eyes as swirls of light encircle him.

It's a relief to get off the ship and walk on dirt and grass again. Deneva, with its developed cities and fields of concrete, had little to remind him of the Iowa countryside he loves. This uncharted Class-M planet is wild and lush, teeming with life. Spock leads the away team to a nearby field, where he begins to instruct various members on their scientific duties: sample taking, measurements, personal observations. There's nothing for Jim to do, so he wanders off by himself, keeping the science team within earshot.

The grasses are knee high and reach above the top of his boots. The planet itself is warm, so he takes off his tunic and is content in his black undershirt. They'll be on the surface for a few hours, at least. There's no reason to be uncomfortable.

He doesn't mean to, but he finds himself glancing at Spock over his shoulder, bent over a lichen-covered rock, holding a tricorder up to the surface. He looks away, concentrating instead on a blood-orange flower he thinks the elder Spock would find particularly beautiful, closing his eyes and wondering if this is how he has been sending Spock images, by simply thinking about him.

The idea of sending information to Spock this way, knowing their minds are joined, fills him with a sense of contentment he cannot rationalize. This link was not his choice. The choice belonged to another Jim Kirk, but it is not a choice he wishes to take back any longer—not just yet. To have Spock in his mind feels...right. Smiling, he listens to a flock of birds overhead, their wings softly beating against the air. He tries to send that sound, too.

A feeling of absolute acceptance and love bursts forth in his mind, and his following smile is radiant. He concentrates on pushing that feeling back through their connection, but it wavers. What seeps into him is a wave of melancholy and apology and regret. Though he had been ignorant of the bond's presence in his mind since it took hold, Jim is keenly aware when it abruptly ceases to be a part of him.

He feels the connection slide closed, like the weight of a falling book that hits with a solid force, and the shock of it knocks him backward a few steps. No! He fights to reopen it, concentrating on that place within him where he had just felt so much love, willing the connection back to life. He strains, holding his breath, and pushes his urgency at the bond which is no longer there. Reaching a hand to his temple, he touches it gingerly, expecting (what is he expecting?) some evidence of what he has just felt, but it is all within his head, and his hand comes away unbloodied. He exhales and feels his eyes sting.

It doesn't hurt physically, but an emptiness of which he is suddenly too aware is present in the back of his mind, where before there had been a source of comfort and warmth he had not recognized as foreign. With mental fingers, now he reaches there and feels nothing. There is nothing. It doesn't ache; it is simply a void.

He staggers and sinks to the ground, leaning against a sun-warmed boulder for support, and tilts his head back, looking up into the hazy, greenish-blue sky.

The isolation is poignant and all consuming, and curling into himself on this warm, sun-drenched planet, Jim begins to shake as he realizes that he is, for the first time in three years, utterly alone. Resting his head against his knees, he dips his fingers into the grass, clutching at something, anything to ground him.

Bones finds him sitting there, and Jim isn't sure how many minutes have passed.

"Jim?" Bones asks, kneeling in front of him, holding a scanner to his forehead. Jim bats it away. "What's wrong?"

"I…" Jim starts. "I'm not sure."

"You're pale as duranium," Bones says, glancing at the scanner's output.

"I think the ambassador shielded me."

“What do you mean?”

“I can't feel him anymore," Jim says, reaching a hand to his forehead. "I feel so strange.”

"I think we need to get you back to the ship," Bones grunts, taking his arm. Jim stares at Bones's sleeve, at the gold band circling his wrist, at the way it waves in the air as he signals for Spock to join them.

"No, please…" Jim begins, but Spock is standing next to him before he finishes, his face sober.

"I'm escorting the captain back to the ship," Bones tells him.

"Is something wrong?" Spock asks, and Jim closes his eyes so he can't see into Spock's when they flicker to him.

"Altitude sickness," Bones lies. "I'll return as soon as I can."

"Should I accompany you?" Spock asks, and Jim hates the concerned note in his voice.

"No," Jim says quickly, aware his voice is rough. "That won't be necessary, Commander."

"Very well," Spock says and turns on his heel.

"Come on," Bones says, close to Jim's ear. "Let's get you to sickbay."

"I'm fine," Jim protests weakly.

"The hell you are," Bones says. "The first thing we're doing when we get on board is placing a call to the damned colony."

"You can't speed up a transport," Jim tells him. "The healer arrives in three days."

"Which can't come soon enough." Jim slumps against him as Bones comms the ship and requests two to beam up.

***

"Captain Kirk?"

Jim blinks and looks up, meeting Dr. M'Benga's eyes. They are dark and focused squarely on him; Jim squirms under his gaze. The first thing M'Benga did, once given permission to board, was insist on a private meeting with Jim. They didn't wait for the healer to exit the long-range transport but went straight to the med bay. Bones has them in a private room adjacent to his office, and the door is secured with Jim's privacy code. He can't get his eyes to remain focused on M'Benga's face and swings the leg which hangs off of the biobed.

"Yes?" he says, then shakes his head when he realizes M'Benga has likely been waiting for him to speak for a few minutes. The doctor's expression is carefully blank—his years training on Vulcan have paid off—but Jim can read the concern in them. "I'm sorry. I'm having trouble concentrating."

"That is to be expected," M'Benga says and ushers for Jim to lie back as he adjusts the settings. The bed lowers to a horizontal position. "I asked if anyone has briefed you on what you are likely to experience."

"My CMO sent me a few documents," Jim says, folding his hands on his chest, "but I didn't read them."

"I didn't expect you would have. You're a busy man," M'Benga says, glancing at the monitors overhead. He crosses his arms over his chest and regards Jim. "How much do you know about Vulcan pairbonds?"

"Only what I can sense from the one in my head," Jim says. "They allow emotional transfer, memory transfer."

"That's right," M'Benga says. "You're currently experiencing the symptoms of a blocked bond: emotional distress, lapses in concentration, weight loss. What you'll experience after severance will be more intense, harder to manage. I've never overseen a severance between a human and a Vulcan before, so we're both a little out of our element."

"Great," Jim says flatly.

"You'll be heavily sedated once the bond is broken and I'm satisfied there has been no long-term damage."

"Okay."

"I'll also ask the healer to erect a temporary mental shield, which will dissolve when your brain has recovered from the trauma."

"Why do I need a shield?" Jim asks.

"You have no natural ability to protect yourself from the pain you will inevitably feel. Ambassador Spock will be able to construct his own, but you require assistance," M'Benga says.

"What if I don't want it?" Jim asks.

"The pain will likely render you unable to command your ship for several weeks," M'Benga says frankly. "If you refuse it, I'll have to declare you unfit for duty."

Sighing heavily, Jim bites the inside of his cheek and nods several times. "How soon is this happening?"

"Today, if you're ready. I'd like to monitor you for a few hours," M'Benga says, "have you meditate for a while, try to get a hold of your emotions."

"Yeah, they're a little erratic," Jim says, rubbing his head.

"The healer is going to remain in meditation until she's ready to begin. The actual severance should only take a few minutes, perhaps a half standard hour, at most."

"How long until I go back to work?"

"You'll be on medical leave for at least a week," M'Benga continues. "I won't feel comfortable bringing you out of sedation for several days. This is unprecedented; there's no way of predicting how you'll handle this. You could be better immediately; more than likely, your recovery will be a slow process."

"Is this common?" Jim asks. "That a bond could just...create itself?"

"No," M'Benga tells him. "But your situation is unique. I have never heard of a bond severed by death being reestablished, but we didn't have visitors from the future on Vulcan often."

"Oh," Jim says, feeling foolish. "Of course."

"But any bond can be broken," M'Benga assures Jim, who clenches his fists and nods. "Do you have any more questions for me?"

It's there on the tip of his tongue—will he and his own Spock ever be able to form a link?—but he can't ask it while looking M'Benga in the face. He considers his words carefully. "Once this is done," he says, "will the Ambassador be able to bond again?"

"I would imagine so," M'Benga says. "Bonding after the death of one's mate is not uncommon among Vulcans. It can be necessary, in some cases. The bond would be forged between two different individuals, so any damage left behind from the breaking of your bond should have no effect."

"So he and I couldn't...in theory..." Jim stammers. M'Benga lifts an eyebrow. "What I mean is, he's from the future. What if his Jim Kirk was able to show up here. Would they...would they be able to bond again?"

"I don't know, but the chance of that happening is slim," M'Benga says, and Jim grits his teeth. "Now if you'll lie still, I need to take some readings."

***

A few hours later, Jim turns the conn over to Spock for the next week, nods at the bridge crew, and allows Bones to escort him to his cabin. The senior crew are under strict orders not to discuss the captain's health with anyone, but the official rumor they've agreed to spread is that the team is conducting ongoing research following Jim's exposure to radiation in the warp core a year and a half ago.

M'Benga is going to wait outside of Jim's quarters in the corridor. He'll come in only after the bond is broken to administer the sedative. The Vulcan healer doesn't speak, only motions for Jim to lie on his back. She pushes the hood from her face and kneels beside him. She's maybe his mother's age. Her hair is dark like Spock's but long and plaited; he can't look at her. They're in his cabin, the temperature turned up close to Vulcan normal, to keep him lethargic. Sweat beads at his hairline and on his upper lip. He licks it away nervously as the healer extends a hand.

Jim makes a final attempt to brush the void, to coax any kind of reaction from it, but it remains stagnant.

"Do it," he whispers, and he closes his eyes.

The healer's fingers are a light pressure on his face. He becomes aware of another presence in his mind, a foreign presence. Every one of his cells is screaming at the intrusion, but he fights it, allowing her to comb through his mind, locate the filaments which bind him to the elder Spock. One by one, she separates them, holding them at length. One at a time, she breaks them. They snap back, recoiling as might a wounded animal. When she takes the last one between mental fingers, he tries to beg her to leave it, but she can't hear him or won't listen.

As it breaks, he feels a heat in both eyes which spills down his cheeks. The healer begins to speak in Vulcan, ancient words which sound far in the distance. He hears the rustle of her robes as she rises, the swish of his door opening, and a pressure against his neck. He gasps in a breath, and then he's drifting.

***

The aftermath is hazy, like a drunken fog. He can hear his own breaths come heavily in his ears, cognizant of a horrible emptiness in his mind. He's so thirsty, but he can't lift his head to drink. M'Benga is there, pressing a hypospray to his neck, checking his vital signs. The hiss of the hypo is faint, and he's sinking back down into the darkness.

The fog parts, and he is aware of Bones's hands on him, checking his pulse, opening his eyelids, placing a straw between his lips. Jim lies still and swallows gratefully, but even the act of swallowing hurts. Bones places a hand on his forehead, pats his hair lightly, and is gone.

When he dreams, it is of Spock, his Spock, coming into his room. The scent of Vulcan incense is suddenly more intense, and there is a dip on the bed as Spock settles next to him. He lies beside Jim, cradling him in his arms, and pulls him back against his chest.

"Sleep," Spock murmurs, and Jim does, exiting consciousness as Spock's fingers trace gentle patterns on his temples. He can still feel Spock against him when he wakes a few hours later and struggles for air. Those same arms close around him more tightly, and he shudders within them.

"S'ti th'laktra."

Spock's sympathy is a whisper, and Jim swears he can feel Spock's breath against his skin. He reaches for the arms that surround him and takes one of Spock's hands within his own.

"I miss you," he chokes out.

The dream fades. Jim wakes to M'Benga administering another sedative. What must be hours later, he comes to enough to see Bones sitting beside his bed reading before he receives the next round of drugs and is asleep again. The room is bright when he opens his eyes to find M'Benga taking readings with a type of handheld scanner Jim has never seen before.

When he is again aware of someone else in the room, it's dark, and he's curled against another body. He recognizes the scent, the softness of his robes, the steady breathing.

"Spock?" he whispers.

"Yes?" Spock says quietly.

"Are you really here?"

"You must rest," Spock says, trailing fingers along Jim's forearm.

"You have no idea...how much I wish...you were really here with me," Jim murmurs. Spock's hand clasps Jim's, and Jim brings them to his mouth and kisses Spock's knuckles. "Don't leave me," he says.

"I will remain until morning."

"Okay."

When he wakes again, the bed is cold, and there's no indication that Spock was ever there. 

Chapter Text

Eight days after the healer severed the bond, she reenters Jim's cabin to construct a shield. Jim backs away from her when she holds out a hand. She glances to M'Benga, who takes Jim's arm.

"This will help you, while you adjust," M'Benga tells him, guiding him to the edge of the bed.

"Are you sure this is necessary?" Jim asks. "The pain's not so bad."

"You're still medicated," M'Benga tells him. "By Starfleet regulations, I can't allow you to resume command under this type of synaptolyzer. It can impede judgement. You are, however, permitted the mental shield we discussed, so long as it doesn't impair your cognitive functions."

Jim sighs and sits on the edge of his bed. He stares at the floor for a long time and sucks his lower lip between his teeth. "What will it do to me?" he asks.

"She will construct the shield around the area where the bond existed," M'Benga explains. "This will prevent you from accessing it, which will effectively block any emotional pain caused by the void. But the pain is also physical. We need to prevent sensory input to the brain: touch, pain, pressure, while leaving your visual and auditory systems intact. You'll retain some sensation, but it'll be reduced, perhaps as much as ninety percent. We also need to block output from your limbic system, which will essentially mute your emotional brain, but leave your cognitive processes intact. You'll experience a reduction in all of your emotions as a result."

"What do you mean, a reduction in my emotions?"

"The pleasure center of your brain will be switched off, so to speak."

"I won't be able to get it up for a while?" Jim guesses.

"You won't wish to, most likely," M'Benga says and gives him a light smile. "You might find yourself less inclined to do things purely for pleasure. Since you won't be able to sense pain, I'm not permitting you to accompany any away missions until the shield dissolves, and you'll need to be monitored at all times."

"Awesome," Jim says flatly. "What about my balance? Will I be able to walk on my own?"

"Your balance shouldn't be affected. If it is, it will be slight, though it's possible you won't be able to sense movement as well as you can now. The block on your limbic system will be the most noticeable change, of course, but you will be able to think clearly, make decisions. They simply won't be based in emotion."

"So you're turning me into a Vulcan, basically."

"If it's easier for you to think of it that way," M'Benga tells him with a smile. "Perhaps you'll have a better understanding of your first officer when all is said and done."

Jim glances to the healer. "Okay," he says. "I just want this to be over with."

***

He sleeps soundly that night and dreams of Spock. He experiences no emotion when Spock crawls in beside him beneath the blanket or when the circle of his arms come around him. He hardly feels the mattress dip. Is the ship even moving?

"Goodnight, Jim," Spock whispers.

Jim hears the kiss that Spock presses to his hair but can't feel it. He blinks into the darkness and doesn't answer.

***

The first day Jim returns to active duty, Spock and Scotty debrief him for an hour before the beginning of shift. Jim listens to them over coffee, nods when Spock hands him a stack of PADDs which need attention, and agrees to stop by engineering at lunch to check on a power drain issue which is affecting forward shields.

"Glad to have you back, Captain," Scotty says, smiling at him brightly and clapping his shoulder.

"Mr. Scott," Jim says politely, nodding his head. Scotty looks at him for a second longer than is necessary. He smiles one more time, his lips tighter, and exits the conference room.

Spock remains seated, looking at the edge of the table until the door whooshes shut, and it is just the two of them. He rises, coming to stand at Jim's side.

"I am also gratified by your return," he says quietly, touching his fingers to Jim's wrist. Jim looks to see Spock touching his skin but doesn't feel anything.

"Thank you, Mr. Spock," Jim says evenly and takes his hand away, covering his mouth as he yawns. A funny look crosses Spock's face, but Jim doesn't question it, just nods at him and heads for the door himself. "And thanks for keeping her in one piece."

Jim trails a hand along the corridor wall as he walks to the bridge. The wall might as well not be under his fingertips. When his hand strikes a gauge panel, he doesn't notice until Spock exclaims, "Captain, you are bleeding!" The red on his thumb is curious. He angles his hand so no one is able to see, and stops in the nearest fresher to clean the scrape.

Crewmembers nod at him as they pass on the way into the turbolift. He nods back. He supposes he should feel excited that he's back in command. He is...satisfied? His stomach is full, and he's had plenty of rest. His mind is certainly clear enough, and his hand is no longer bleeding. Spock's footsteps echo behind him, and he distantly wonders why Spock doesn't bother to walk faster when he takes hold of the railing in the turbolift.

Jim is met with smiling faces following Chekov's announcement of "Captain on the bridge," and he thanks everyone in turn before taking his seat. He barely feels it press into his back and thighs.

"Mr. Spock, report," he says.

"Captain, we are passing the Malurian system. Scanners report no anomalies."

He waits for the flash of recognition in his brain that the system's name should conjure, but it doesn't come. How strange that he'd become accustomed to receiving the ambassador's thoughts, and how strange for them to be absent. He stares at the viewscreen and doesn't look back at Spock over his shoulder.

"Very good, Mr. Spock," he says.

***

When Jim is hungry, he breaks for lunch, turning over the conn to Spock and paging Bones in sickbay on his way into the turbolift.

"You're leaving the bridge voluntarily?" Bones asks. "No coffee until 5pm, then one of your usual binges?"

"I'm starving," Jim says. "I'll meet you in the mess."

Bones greets him with a med scanner that he holds up to Jim's cheek as they stand holding trays and wait for the next available replicator.

"We should eat in the officers' mess more often," Jim states, slapping Bones's hand away. He glances at the line forming behind them. Bones opens his eyes a little wider and checks the scanner readings.

"You've always said you think it's important to bridge the gap between enlisted and officers," Bones tells him, "and there's no better way to do that than with food."

Jim considers this and gives a noncommittal shrug. "Seems impractical that the ship's captain and chief medical officer waste ten minutes standing in line," he points out.

"Well, sure it's impractical," Bones agrees quietly, "but the crew sure does like seeing you in here." He points to a nearby table with a few yeoman and members of the security team, who all grin up at Jim shyly.

"Tomorrow, I think we'll resume using the officers' mess," Jim declares, though he nods at them in acknowledgement. McCoy stares at him, so Jim clarifies. "It just makes more sense," he says. "For productivity. I'm sure Mr. Spock will agree with me."

"Are you sure you're feeling all right?" Bones asks. His voice is lower, softer, and he tilts his head slightly.

"Sure," Jim says, though in truth he feels...nothing, not good or bad. "I feel great." He supposes it's true.

When they reach the replicators, Jim scans over the menu, but nothing stands out. He knows that he usually replicates a burger, but the idea of all that grease in his stomach for the afternoon gives him a premature stomachache.

"Pick for me, would you?" he instructs Bones, who pauses, purses his lips, and punches a series of numbers into the keypad. "They're voice-activated, you know," Jim reminds him.

"I'm using my override code to unlock a few items I'd hidden," Bones tells him. "I need to do an experiment."

What appears in the replicator is a steak, one-inch thick, medium rare, and juicy.

"You specifically banned me from steak six months ago," Jim reminds him as the smell wafts to his nose.

"Did I?" Bones asks. He takes it out of the replicator, deposits the plate on Jim's tray, and orders something for himself. They sit down at an open table, and Jim nods courteously at several crewmembers who say hello to him as they pass the table.

"Why'd we do away with saluting again?" Jim asks when Bones slides in across from him. Bones slumps back in his chair.

"They said there wouldn't be any memory damage," Bones murmurs, and he's got the scanner back out again. Jim bats his hand away.

"Stop that, will you?" he orders. "The crew doesn't need to see the CMO scanning the captain in the mess. What kind of message does that send?"

"Sorry," Bones mutters, and the scanner disappears from view. "You're right, but I'd like you to come by sickbay before you return to the bridge."

"How come?"

"I want to scan your vitals on one of the biobeds," he says. "I'm not getting as much information as I'd like out of the handheld unit."

"Do we need to invest in better equipment?" Jim asks, taking up his knife and cutting into the steak. He lifts a chunk to his mouth and chews while Bones forks a salad.

"You're offering to up my medical equipment budget?" he asks carefully.

"If you're in need of the equipment," Jim says honestly, spearing another chunk of meat. "We're on a five-year mission, and you're constantly reminding me that we can't always get to medical facilities. It's important we have the best equipment we can get on the ship, right?"

"Logical," Bones agrees. "How's that steak, by the way?"

"Tastes like steak," Jim says through a mouthful. "Going to sit a little heavy, to be honest. I thought you'd order me a salad and grilled chicken. I could use the vegetables."

"Right," Bones says, his voice thin and trailing off as he brings a grape tomato to his lips.

***

"Your vitals are strong," Bones says, crossing his arms over his chest as Jim pulls his gold tunic back into place. Jim hops down from the biobed and stands next to Bones, looking up at the screen. Bones is right: Jim's heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels are all normal.

"And your weight is back up," Bones adds. "You'd lost a couple pounds before the healer came on board. Dopamine and serotonin levels are significantly lower than usual, however."

"It's only been a few days, and what he's experiencing isn't uncommon," M'Benga chimes in. "For a Vulcan, at least. I've often hypothesized that part of their stoicism is actually a result of strong mental shields, which prevent the processing of certain emotions. I believe the shield constructed by the healer is having a similar effect on the captain. We expected a reduction in emotions. Maybe not to this extent, but his cognition is fine."

"I feel fine," Jim tells them both. "I'm sleeping well, I'm eating, I'm not falling asleep in the chair. So, I'm not smiling as much as you're used to—maybe it'll make me a better captain."

"Jim," Bones says, "it's not that. I'm concerned that you seem to be experiencing a complete personality shift."

"Look," Jim says. "I'm in command of my ship. That's all that matters here. Now unless something on that chart says I'm unfit for duty, I'm reporting back to my bridge. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir," Bones says, though he doesn't look at Jim, who exits sickbay without a glance over his shoulder.

***

Spock comes by for chess after dinner, standing in the door to Jim's cabin with a hesitant expression, like he thinks Jim will tell him to get lost. Jim didn't expect him, but he invites him inside and offers him a drink. Spock appears relieved, a slight smile in place, and replicates a cup of tea before settling across the table from Jim, who arranges the pieces.

"I was uncertain you would agree to see me," Spock tells him.

"You're my first officer," Jim replies. "Why wouldn't I agree to see you?"

A handful of seconds tick past, and Jim watches as Spock struggles to keep the frown off his face. He blinks several times, dropping his eyes to his lap, and finally asks, "How was your first day back?"

"Fine," Jim replies, "though I still have a few reports to go over."

"I am pleased that you have resumed command," Spock says and returns his eyes to the chess board.

"By all accounts, you were a solid acting captain," Jim says. "I've had no complaints. Command still isn't your thing?"

"It is not."

"The ambassador's told me it was never his either," Jim recalls.

"Have you..." Spock begins, and Jim has to lean forward because Spock's voice is suddenly much quieter. "Have you spoken with him since the severance?"

"No," Jim says. It occurs to him that he should care about the elder Spock's well being, he just...doesn't. He leans his elbows against the table, but he barely feels the uncomfortable press of its sharp edge. "How is he?" he asks.

"He is managing," Spock says. "It was difficult for him to lose you again."

"I guess," Jim says, reaching for his glass of water. "I'm glad he came through it okay."

Jim beats Spock in thirty-six minutes and wishes him a pleasant evening. Spock freezes, then he quickly gathers the pieces and tucks them into the compartment concealed in the base, collapsing the board.

"Tomorrow," he says haltingly and stands. Jim nods at him. Spock pauses in front of Jim's legs, the chess set tucked beneath his arm.

"Something wrong?" Jim asks. Spock's mouth drops open, but he merely shakes his head. Jim watches him go and settles at his desk to go over reports, showers, and goes to sleep.

That night, when he dreams of Spock, Jim finds him sitting on the edge of the bed with his head hung between his shoulders. His hands are gripped together tightly, and he's shivering. Before he rolls over to face the wall, Jim stops to wonder why Spock doesn't bother getting underneath the covers if he's cold.

When his alarm goes off at 0600, the dream of Spock has dissipated, though Jim notes an unexplained indentation on his coverlet.

***

"Jim."

Jim's knuckles collide with the punching bag. Though he can scarcely feel the connection of his fingers with the hard surface, he conjures the memory of the sensation with every strike. He bobs around it, raising both hands in front of his face to ward off invisible blows.

"Jim," Bones's voice calls again.

His heart rate is elevated; he can hear that his breathing is labored. The rush of physical movement creates clarity, so he continues to weave and avoid the punches he imagines the bag would direct at him in return.

"Sickbay to Captain Kirk."

He drops his arms, wipes his sweat-slicked forehead with the inside of his wrist, and strips the glove from his right hand. With two fingers, he presses the button to accept the call.

"Kirk here," he says, leaning against the wall. He checks his heart rate with the same fingers and heaves in a breath.

"Why the hell did it take you so long to answer the page?" Bones barks over the speaker. "Is something wrong?"

"Personal pages aren't considered priority," Jim answers. "What can I do for you?"

"For the love of..." Bones's voice is muffled. Jim supposes he's covering the microphone or his mouth. He inhales and yawns, flexing his right foot and leaning forward to stretch his hamstring. "You missed your checkup this morning."

"It's not on my calendar," Jim says, switching legs.

"Last night in the mess, you said you'd come by."

"Last night, you told me that I should come to your office after alpha shift," Jim corrects. "I didn't agree to anything. Now if you only called to ask me why I didn't show up to an appointment which I never agreed to, I'm getting back to my workout."

Bones is a second before he replies through a heavy sigh. "Is Spock with you?"

"No."

"When's the last time you sparred with him?"

"I can't remember," Jim says honestly. "I'm following the recommended PE routine for deep-space missions. I can feel the difference already."

"I thought you couldn't feel anything," Bones shoots back.

"I'm able to run three miles before I get winded," Jim replies. "That's an improvement I can track. I've also gained a half-inch in muscle on both biceps, and lost one in my waist. Happy now?"

"Ecstatic."

"M'Benga's optimistic."

"Aren't you two...chummy."

"I'm going to disconnect this channel now," Jim announces, "in case someone needs to reach me for something important."

"Spock's leading an away team down to the surface in an hour," Bones says.

"I know," Jim says. "I ordered him to go."

"These Zetans aren't the nicest folks," Bones continues.

"He's capable."

"Aren't you the least bit worried that something will happen?"

"Mr. Spock is a trained Starfleet officer who is more than able to handle negotiating a simple trade agreement," Jim says. "Nogura isn't concerned. Why should I be?"

"I don't mean you should be concerned about the mission!" Bones says, his voice elevated. "I'm asking if you're concerned about him, as a person."

"No," Jim answers. "But I'll be in the transporter room when they beam down."

"Fine," Bones says. "I'll see you there. And then I want you in sickbay for another scan."

"This is pointless," Jim says. He knows that he'd usually be irritated with Bones by now for harping on the issue, but he just shakes his head and drapes a towel around his neck. His breathing has almost returned to normal. "What do you expect to find?"

"Split knuckles, at the very least," Bones intones. "You and my dermal regenerator are getting to be good friends."

Jim huffs but studies his right hand, observes that Bones is correct. The skin across his knuckles is torn in two places, and a spot of blood has welled up at the base of his index finger. He flexes his hand, imagines the sting of air into his broken skin, but there is nothing.

"I'm right, aren't I."

"It's not serious," Jim says after a pause, "but I'll come by after the away team beams down so you can heal it."

"If you've broken your hand again, Jim, I swear..." Bones is saying, but Jim presses the button to end the conversation and pulls the glove back on.

***

"I'm still not used to you standing here calmly, while your first officer is about to beam down and have all the fun," Bones comments. He's got his arms folded over his chest, but his scowl is amicable. "Never thought I'd live to see the day."

"Even if I could go," Jim says, watching Scotty's hands work the transporter controls, "it's ridiculous to send the two highest-ranking officers on the ship into a situation where both of us could become compromised."

"Should I just start calling you a 'hobgoblin' now?"

"That language is xenophobic," Jim says, "and I won't tolerate it on my ship."

"When the hell is that thing going to dissolve?" Bones gripes. "You're intolerable."

"Six to eight weeks," Jim says, "and I think the word you're looking for is 'logical.'"

"It's only been three," Bones says. "God help us."

"I don't know," Jim says, folding his hands in front of him. "My productivity is up. I'm getting through my reports in record time, beating Spock at chess more. I wish I'd had this thing back at the academy, to be honest. It would've meant a lot fewer distractions."

"I'm going to remind you that you said that," Bones says, "as soon as you're back to being yourself."

Jim opens his mouth to reply, but the transporter room door opens and Spock strides in, securing his mission belt and checking his phaser.

"Phasers to stun only, Commander," Jim orders.

"Yes, Captain," Spock says. He stops a few feet away, straightening his shoulders. "Any additional orders?"

"Get yourself back here safely," Jim tells him. There's a flash on Spock's face, Jim would almost call it a smile, and then it's gone. He files it away and turns to Bones.

"Let's get this thing healed up," he says, motioning to his hand.

"Captain?" Spock asks, stepping closer.

"A mishap in the gym, Mr. Spock. Nothing to worry about."

"Indeed, as your first officer, it is my—"

"Now, Spock," Bones says, "I'll take care of Jim. You get going, unless you plan to be down on the surface after nightfall."

He claps Spock on the shoulder. It occurs to Jim that this is something he usually does to Spock, yet he feels no compulsion to touch Spock or reassure him. He stares at the point where Bones's fingers press into Spock's blue tunic and wonders if he is supposed to feel jealousy. He recalls every detail of the night he spent in Spock's quarters, though recalling it does nothing to excite him. Considering he's never seen Bones touch Spock outside of sickbay, he concludes this is an attempt to force a reaction out of him. He merely lets out a breath.

"Stand by to energize," he tells Scotty and nods to Spock, who inclines his head in a sort-of salute and takes his place on the first pad.

***

The away mission is uneventful. Spock beams back onto the ship within two standard hours, agreement reached and signed, and meets Jim in the officers' mess for dinner. They have the small room to themselves and both eat a bowl of vegetable stew over two games of chess. Jim wins the first and concedes the second when he yawns.

"Bedtime, I think," he announces and thanks Spock for the game. Spock blinks rapidly as if surprised, but he dutifully tips Jim's king for him and stands.

"May I see you to your quarters?" he asks as a yeoman clears their plates.

"Sure," Jim says with a shrug. "We're both going the same way."

Spock doesn't talk as they make their way through the corridor and down a floor to the officers' quarters. When Jim's door slides open, he enters without asking permission and walks to the center of the room.

"Spock?" Jim asks as the door closes behind him. He toes off his shoes and sets them in front of his closet. "Is everything okay?"

The white of Spock's hands is stark against his tunic where he holds them low against his back. Jim notes a tension in his fingers, in the way his neck is bent forward, in the vise-like grip on his own wrist.

"I have made a mistake," Spock says hoarsely, not looking back at Jim, who comes up behind him.

"On the mission today?" Jim asks, removing his tunic. He folds it and lays it over the chair next to his bed, stepping out of his pants. "Why didn't you say something at debriefing?"

But Spock shakes his head and lets out an unsteady breath, almost a sigh. He inclines his head further. Jim stares at the nape of his neck and remembers kissing Spock there, the press of his lips just at the hairline. It is no different than recalling he drank coffee with dinner. He shifts his weight between his legs and waits for Spock to continue.

"I should not have pushed you away," Spock says.

Jim clears his throat and recalls the rejection he experienced when Spock wouldn't acknowledge him, but it doesn't feel like his memory, just a fuzzy vid projected in his head. "I'm not upset about it," he says.

"I am."

When he turns, Spock's expression is so similar to the one he wore when Jim was dying that Jim is still for a few seconds, replaying it. This memory feels closer, more like his own, like he's watching it from a vantage point underwater. He hears the distorted rumbling fire of the warp core, the heat of radiation under his skin, as though it's boiling him from the inside out. A shiver passes through him, and he holds his breath for three, four, five seconds, and it passes.

"Oh," is all Jim says.

"I did not wish to violate a bond, even one created by accident, but I did not realize the distance between us would continue." Spock pauses. "I miss you," he adds carefully, and deliberately widens his eyes. He holds Jim's gaze and waits. Jim stares back, blank-faced, conscious of the fact that he is clad only in boxers while Spock is fully clothed. Spock's expression morphs from hopeful to neutral to pained; Jim experiences relief when Spock isn't looking at him any longer.

"I am going to meditate before bed," Spock says quietly, casting a sidelong glance at the door to the bathroom. Jim wonders if he is waiting for him to speak when Spock turns back to him quickly and tilts his head. "Will you join me?"

Jim considers this, biting into the skin inside his lip until he tastes iron. He touches a finger to his mouth and is unsurprised by the sight of blood.

"Okay," he agrees, because M'Benga did recommend regular meditation while he's recovering. "Do you want to do it here?"

"You are bleeding," Spock observes, raising a hand to Jim's face. Jim can barely discern the pressure of his thumb as it strokes across his lower lip.

"It's not much," Jim says and only realizes that Spock isn't touching him any longer when he sees both arms hanging at his sides.

They meditate in Spock's quarters. Jim slips into the state easily, finding it simple to let go of his conscious mind. He is surprised to find Spock there, staring at him across a void.

"How?" Jim asks.

"We are touching." Spock speaks in shades of regret. "But you cannot feel it."

***

Jim hasn't dreamt of Spock in days, but tonight he finds himself lying next to Spock in the dark. Spock's eyes are open and glassier than Jim recalls from past dreams. One arm is wedged under his neck, the other is stretched over Jim's side.

"Hey," Jim says. "I haven't dreamed of you in a while."

"You are not asleep," Spock murmurs and shifts closer. That makes sense. Why had he thought it was a dream? Because Spock hadn't been speaking to him leading up to the severance, and in Jim's emotionally charged brain, for him to be dreaming made the most sense.

"Were you actually here all those other times, too?" he asks.

"Yes."

"After they broke it?"

"I stayed with you," Spock says. Jim can barely discern the arm around him tighten.

"I can't..." Jim starts, frowning. "I don't feel anything for you. I know I should. I remember everything: how much I wanted you, how scared I was when you were in sickbay, that you love me. I know you like it when I bite your fingers and the sound you make when you come, but I can't feel anything right now."

"Do you wish for me to leave?"

"Is this fair to you?" Jim asks.

"I do not know," Spock says. He is quiet for a long time. "Before, you would say, 'I wish for you to stop talking, Mr. Spock.' I used to dislike the way you mimicked my speech patterns, but I find I miss that as well."

"I guess I'm pretty different," Jim admits, "but it's only temporary. M'Benga says as soon as my brain is healed, the block will dissolve."

Spock looks at him sadly, tilts Jim's chin up, and leans toward him. Jim's eyes are open, and he watches as Spock's face grows close, hovers against his mouth—they must be kissing—and pulls away. He blinks and watches Spock raise a hand to his own mouth and shudder.

"Yes," Spock says. "It should."

"You can stay if you want," Jim offers. "I don't mind."

When Jim wakes to use the fresher at 0430, Spock is asleep beside him.

***

"You have a message," Spock says, pointing to the blinking indicator light on Jim's computer. Jim gets out of bed, climbing over Spock, and walks over to it, falling into his desk chair.

"Computer," he says, "play message."

The small screen displays a picture of Admiral Pike in a faded blue shirt, hair longer and curling at his ears. He's smiling.

"Jim, give me a call when you can. I'd like to catch up on a few things. And your mother asked me to tell you to call her."

The picture freezes and goes dark. Jim considers what Pike said.

"You told him?" Jim asks, glancing at Spock, who sits up in bed with the sheet pulled to his chest.

"I asked him to contact you," Spock admits, "but I did not provide him with any details. However, as he is still an active admiral, he is privy to the information."

"That's true."

"Will you join me for breakfast?" Spock asks, stretching his arms over his head in what looks like a ritual movement. Jim looks at him, really looks, at his pale greenish skin, the dark hair on his head and chest, the way he looks at Jim hopefully. Jim remembers a time when all he wanted was for Spock to look at him that way. He supposes he still wants that.

"Sure," he says.

***

USS Enterprise, Stardate 2261.360

"This is ridiculous," Bones says. He simultaneously paces and scowls at M'Benga, who checks the scanner readings with a neutral expression, the way he always checks the readings. Bones stands at his shoulder, the way he always does, then turns on his heel and walks a path to the door and back. On the biobed, Jim lies with his hands folded on his stomach and regards a familiar crack in the ceiling.

"It's been four months!" Bones goes on. "You said this thing was supposed to last no more than six to eight weeks."

"That was our prediction," M'Benga replies, "based on the length of time a Vulcan brain takes to recover from a bond severing, but we all knew that everything to do with this case was unprecedented."

"Well, we can't leave him like this!"

"I can hear you both, you do realize that?" Jim asks. Bones wings a glare in his direction.

"What do you propose we do, doctor?" M'Benga asks.

"Get someone out here to remove the damned thing," Bones says. "He's practically a robot. The admiralty has been on me about a proposed timeframe for him returning to full duty. They want to remove him from command again, and they'd be right. What good is a starship captain who can't leave the ship, who has no idea that he's just tripped and snapped his ankle trying to climb a jeffries tube?"

"Scotty needed help," Jim says, "and I knew what I was doing."

"If Spock hadn't found you lying unconscious on the floor, you could be dead," Bones snaps. He stops pacing and takes a deep breath, exhaling through his nose. "It hurts me to say it, kid, but I'm about to strip your command myself. I vote to remove it."

"If we remove the shield prematurely," M'Benga counters, "and his brain isn't healed, he won't be able to command."

"Have you considered that the human brain has to process emotions in order to heal itself?" Bones asks. "I went along with Vulcan theory on this because telepathy is outside my area of expertise, but it's been long enough. He isn't improving. Maybe blocking the pain is the opposite of what he needs."

M'Benga considers this, leaning against the edge of Jim's biobed and pursing his mouth. He touches his index finger to his lips, hooks his thumb beneath his chin and bobs his head.

"It won't be easy to get a healer out here again," he says. "It was difficult enough last time. They won't view this as urgent."

"What about Spock?" Bones asks. "He doesn't need to construct anything, right? Does he know enough about shields to remove one?"

"Shielding techniques are taught to all Vulcans from a young age," M'Benga muses. "I suppose we can only ask him."

"What if I don't want it removed?" Jim asks.

"Ordinarily," M'Benga says, "you would have the final say in this matter, but because your CMO is acting in the best interest of the ship, I feel certain that Starfleet will order you to do as he prescribes or face court martial."

"Jim," Bones says, coming to stand at his side. His face is tight and worried. "I've known you for a lot of years. I'm asking you to trust me."

Jim pauses and can't recall a time when Bones has steered him wrong. Bones is the reason Jim is alive. Based in fact alone, Jim concedes. He nods once.

"But you want to let Spock poke around in my head?" he whispers.

"You'd prefer that to another healer, wouldn't you?" Bones asks. "If you weren't half-Vulcan yourself right now, you'd be over the moon at the prospect of him digging around in that melon of yours. I know you can't process it, but you're pretty fond of the guy. And aren't you two co-habitating anyway? When's the last time he slept in his own bed?"

"What if he removes it and my brain's not healed?" Jim asks, ignoring Bones's question. "What then?"

"I suppose we'll have to wait it out," M'Benga says. "You might have to take an extended leave."

"Can it be removed in layers?" Bones suggests. "Peel it back, like an onion, so it's not removed all at once?"

"I have heard the shields described in similar terms," M'Benga answers, bobbing his head. "Let's page the commander and find out if he's even willing to do this."

"Oh, I have a feeling he'll be willing enough," Bones mutters and crosses to the intercom. "Sickbay to bridge."

"Spock here."

"I need you in my office," Bones says.

"On my way," Spock replies, and the hum of the intercom ceases. Bones returns to the side of the bed and shines a penlight in Jim's eyes. Jim blinks at the intrusion and decides the crack in the ceiling is worse than the last time he was here. He needs to talk with Scotty about that. He has a hand on his comm when the doors to sickbay slide open, and he detects notes of incense.

"Captain," Spock says. "Doctors."

"Spock," Bones says. "Have a seat."

"I will stand," he says and comes to Jim's side, looking down at him with a half-smile before he directs his attention at Bones. "Is the captain well?"

"There's nothing wrong with me," Jim tells him. "They want you to rip this thing out of my head."

"So much for delicacy," Bones mutters, rubbing his forehead. Spock turns to M'Benga and lifts an eyebrow.

"You no longer believe it will dissolve on its own?" he asks.

"Dr. McCoy hypothesizes, and I agree with him the more I think about it, that because Jim's brain is human, it can't heal without processing the emotions it experienced. He thinks that by blocking them, we've actually prevented his brain from healing naturally."

"He has been shielded for months," Spock says, turning back to Jim. He keeps his hands behind his back, but Jim watches his eyes sweep over the length of his body and come to focus on his face. "To simply remove it would likely be a shock to his system."

"Can it be done in stages?" Bones asks. "M'Benga said he believes these shields are complex."

"It is possible," Spock says. "However, I am not trained—"

"I just want you to take a look," Bones says quickly. "See what you can tell us. Maybe you'll tell me that we're wrong, that his brain's just fine in there."

"I don't want anyone in my head," Jim protests.

"I will remove you from duty," Bones reminds him, pointing a finger in his direction. "This was fine for a month, even two, while you recovered, but you aren't recovering. You're alienated from your friends and crew. Your performance on the ship is fine, but you aren't able to perform your full duties as a captain. You're just lucky we had so much travel time, so there were only a few missions where you had to be benched. What's going to happen if Spock gets injured and can't take over for you? Or if you're the only person left on the ship, but you severely injure yourself because you aren't aware you did it? Are you telling me that your new, fancy brain doesn't see that's illogical?"

"That is not a word I ever expected to hear from you, doctor," Spock says. "However, I find that I agree."

"What?" Jim says. "You're suppose to be on my side."

"I am," Spock says sincerely. "I will meld with him," he informs the two doctors, who both nod.

There's no point in arguing. Bones would never joke about removing Jim from command, and if Spock finds M'Benga's suggestion reasonable, then it is. Jim relaxes his neck, letting his head loll toward his right shoulder, and shrugs.

"Fine," he says. "The sooner we get this over with, the sooner I can get back to work."

"I will perform a shallow meld," Spock explains, "only going deep enough to detect the shield and ascertain whether his brain has healed. Will that be sufficient?"

"Yes," M'Benga says. "I don't want you to remove it just yet. If there are adverse effects, I want to be able to get him off this ship at a moment's notice."

"Understood." Spock reaches toward Jim's face, but he stills his hand a few inches away. "I ask that you leave us," he says without turning to address either doctor, who look to one another and quietly exit.

Once the door closes behind them, Spock brushes Jim's hair from his forehead and looks at him softly. "I would prefer your permission," he says.

"I'm not fighting you," Jim says and turns his face further. He hears the brush of Spock's sleeve against his shirt, is aware that Spock touches his face by the blurred hand in his peripheral vision.

"My mind to your mind," Spock whispers, and Jim is standing on the sidewalk in New York City. He is curled around the toilet in the fresher. He sits across a chessboard and looks up through his eyelashes at Spock with a lazy half-smile. He is a warm pair of hands in darkness, a connection long cherished, a mind that already belongs to another. He is telsu. He is not Spock's. He is—

"Stop," Jim orders, bringing both hands to his face and scrubbing at his skin, knocking Spock's hand away. "That's too much right now."

"I saw what I needed," Spock says and straightens.

"Will you be able to remove it?"

"I believe so."

"Think we'll have any trouble getting the admiralty to approve another shore leave?"

"We are overdue," Spock says. "The recommendation is one week of leave for every six months in space, and it has been one standard year."

"How close are we to Risa?" Jim asks.

"I will confirm with the navigator, but I would estimate three days' travel time."

"Good," Jim says, sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He hops down and leans back against the edge. "The crew will like that."

"I will make the arrangements when we are finished here," Spock says.

"Alright," Jim says. "You'll...do your thing, and I'll hole up in a hotel room for a few days."

"I request permission to stay with you."

"I'll have Bones and M'Benga with me," Jim counters.

"They are not Vulcan," Spock says. "They cannot meld with you, if it becomes necessary."

"If what M'Benga says will happen does," Jim says, "I'm sure I wouldn't want you to see me like that."

"Jim—"

"He'll page you, if I need you. I want you to take care of the ship," Jim continues, "unless you plan to enjoy shore leave yourself, in which case, you have permission to go."

"I will remain on board, Captain."

"Good," Jim says. He's aware of Spock's hand curled around his. His own is limp; though he isn't sure why he repeats the action, he closes his fingers over Spock's hand in return and hopes he isn't holding too tightly.

***

"Jim," the ambassador says, his eyes opening in surprise. The room around him is dark, and only his face is illuminated in the glow from his screen. He looks older than the last time Jim spoke with him, somehow shrunk into himself, but he wears a forced smile. "I am surprised to hear from you."

"Bones has been on me to call you," Jim says. "How are you?"

"I am well," Spock replies. "And you?"

"They think there's something wrong with me," Jim replies, "but I feel fine."

"From what my younger self tells me," Spock says kindly, "you do not feel at all."

"It doesn't bother me," Jim says, settling back in his desk chair. He folds his hands together and rests his chin on them.  

"No," Spock says after a pause. "I suppose it would not."

They stare at each other for a few seconds before Jim finds his voice.  "You got through everything okay?"

"I shielded for the first three weeks," Spock tells him. "The pain is tolerable now."

"They said my brain hasn't healed." Jim runs his teeth over his lips and tries to recall the last time he did that and felt any sensation. "Bones compared me to a robot."

"I regret my role in this."  

"Why? It wasn't your fault," Jim tells him, and he doesn't understand why Spock's eyebrows furrow.

"I hope you will forgive him," Spock says finally.

"I'm not angry with him," Jim declares.

"Perhaps not now," Spock murmurs.

***

That evening when they contact headquarters, Nogura is so glad to hear Jim will soon be back on full duty that he approves the weeklong shore leave on Risa without a second thought. "Anything for Chris Pike's kid," he says and looks proud before the connection ends.

"Admiral Pike is not your father," Spock declares, turning to look at Jim.

"He's the closest I've got to one," Jim says, leaning back on the couch. "Better let the hotel know we're coming so they're not overwhelmed when two hundred people show up in the lobby at once."

Spock nods, opening his PADD and tapping a note to himself, before settling at Jim's side. "I will ensure it is done," he says.

"See if you can swing a water view for mine," Jim says. "Bones would like that."

There's a pinprick sensation beneath his skin, just at his temple. With his right hand, he idly scratches the side of his face. Spock's head jerks up, his eyes locked on Jim's fingers.

"What?" Jim asks and scratches again.

"I have not witnessed you experiencing skin irritation since the shield was constructed," Spock says, turning Jim's face in his hands.

"It's probably nothing," Jim says. He scratches a third time, harder—he thinks?—and is aware that the sensation moves from his temple into his forehead, spreading over his cheekbones and the sides of his nose, to his chin, his scalp. His neck. Down his chest, his groin, along his arms and legs, finally pooling in his palms like fire. He scrapes his fingernails along the inside of his hands, digs them deeply between his fingers, but the itch won't stop.

"What's happening?" he asks, looking at his palms which are crisscrossed by angry red marks.

"Your brain is beginning to process sensory input. The shield must have cracked," Spock says, "when I joined with your mind."

"We're not even near Risa," Jim says, experiencing a flicker of fear. As momentary as it is, it's overwhelming. It's been months since he felt anything like it. He gasps and his mind is blank again. "Can you put it back?" he asks hastily and scratches his face again. And again. His palms throb, but he continues to scrape at them.

Spock doesn't answer, pulls out his comm and pages Bones to Jim's quarters. He arrives with an array of hyposprays and topical anti-itch creams which he lathers on Jim's hands and neck. Jim thrashes on the bed, clawing at his skin, but everywhere he scratches only makes the itch burn hotter.

"Hold him down," Bones orders Spock, who looks apologetic as he closes his hands over Jim's wrists and holds them against the couch cushions.

"My skin is on fire," Jim heaves. "It's like I'm back in the warp core."

"I'm sorry, Jim," Bones says and injects him in the neck. "This should take the edge off, but if you're intent on ripping your own face off, I'll have to put you in restraints."

"Then do it," Jim says, grinding his teeth. He tastes blood. Did he bite his tongue? He tries to pull out of Spock's grasp, but Spock keeps ahold of him easily.

"Should I carry him to sickbay?" Spock asks Bones, who is preparing the next hypo and administers it before answering. The fire extinguishes within seconds, and Jim sinks boneless into the cushions. Spock's hands continue to circle his wrists, and he can feel them, can feel the affection Spock pushes toward him through their skin.

"We'll keep him in here," Bones says. "I don't want anyone seeing him like this. Christine wouldn't say anything, but I can't guarantee the rest of my staff. As soon as we get to Risa, we'll beam him straight to the hotel room."

"Understood."

Jim is aware of sweat beading along his hairline, of a crawling feeling in his scalp. It doesn't burn, but he arches his head back and opens his mouth in a silent cry.

"Oh, Jim," Bones mutters, and he feels Bones touch his forehead, administer a third hypo, feels Spock push another wave of fondness at him.

"Can you knock me out for a little while?" he slurs, his fingertips pulsing. He wonders if he's drawn blood.

"Already administered," Bones says. The last thing Jim remembers is Spock leaning close to his ear, whispering a word he doesn't know.

***

Jim wakes in the captain's chair. The bridge is empty, the viewscreen dark.

Something is wrong. The chair is the right size and shape. The armrests are the correct density, buttons at his fingertips. The screen is the same distance it always is. The room smells the same as he remembers, the dry static odor of recycled air. The pulse and ping of the ship's computers thrum like a heartbeat, punctuated by the deep rattling of the turbolift several floors down. He hears it rise, watches the doors open, but no one emerges. It's all there: the strobe-like computer screen flashing at Spock's station, Uhura's headset abandoned on her console, the rainbow of control options on the navigator's dash. The vibrations under his feet are familiar, yet something is...off.

This is not his Enterprise, not his ship. He is alone, and there are no voices, no signs of life.

He stands and is a solitary figure on the observation deck. Beyond the window, there are no stars. He presses his fingers to the glass, but they pass through it, stroking the nothingness on the other side.

Gasping, he turns, and he is standing in the mess beside an unfinished game of chess. The board is his; he recognizes the chipped corner on the opponent's second level. Both kings stand defenseless on their respective tiers. They are the only pieces remaining. Hand shaking, he reaches for one when footsteps come up behind him.

"Spock," he says, relieved. Spock crosses to Jim's side, and Jim gratefully clasps his arm.

"Captain," Spock replies, head angled down. His voice is no different than usual, but it isn't Spock's voice. Jim begins to shiver.

"What's going on?" he asks. "Where is everyone?"

"They are gone," Spock says.

"What are you talking about?" Jim is frantic.

He takes Spock's chin and angles it so he can look into his eyes, but Spock's stare is as black and empty as the surrounding space.

***

Jim bolts upright in bed, throwing the covers off of him, and heaves several large breaths. It was just a dream, he tells himself, the memory of it already fading out of his recollection. Just a dream. His breathing evens as the blackness fades and his quarters shift into focus. He looks around for Bones, who isn't there. But Spock is seated on the couch, a PADD on his knees, looking at him.

"Are you well?" he asks.

"I'm going to throw up," Jim announces. Everything around him is shaking, and his stomach lurches. He feels like he's falling backwards, even though he's sitting still. He slings his legs over the side of the bed, his head swimming, and gets unsteadily to his feet. He stumbles across the cabin and just makes it into the fresher before he's on his knees, arms draped over the basin.

"It is the movement of the ship," Spock says behind him. "You have not felt it for four months. Would you like me to administer another sedative or an anti-nausea medication?"

"No," Jim says weakly. "I just want to sit here for a while."

Spock kneels beside him, resting a hand on Jim's lower back. He can feel it—he can feel it—when Spock begins to knead his back gently. A state of calm settles over him, leaching into his veins, and it's a minute before he realizes it originates with Spock. He's grateful, wiping his mouth with the back of his left hand, and leans back against the cabinet.

"Deja vu, huh?" he says.

"The circumstances are quite different," Spock tells him. He holds Jim's hand, carefully avoiding his palm, which is still swollen and tender. Spock projects protectiveness and worry and caring and hope, and it's unfair. It's unfair for him to do this now, when he left Jim to go through this alone in the first place. The anger is fierce and consuming; his lower lip trembles, and he can't stand the pressure of Spock's hand anymore.

"Please don't touch me," Jim whispers, though he doesn't have the energy to pull his hand away. He catches his face in his free palm and looks at the far wall, swallowing against the next lurch of his stomach. If he just breathes evenly, he can control it, but all around him the ship is rumbling.

"Dr. McCoy asked me to stay with you tonight," Spock says, but he releases Jim's hand and places it on the floor. Jim splays his fingers against the cold tiles and breathes a little easier.

"That's fine," he says, "just...please don't touch me right now."

"I will not," Spock murmurs.

He feels it then, rushing up at him: the migraine-ache of the gaping hole in his mind, which had once been a source of comfort. Unwanted tears spill hot down Jim's face and pool at the seam of his lips. He licks them away, barely tasting the salt before another wave of nausea rises from his core to his throat. When he's sick a second time, Spock doesn't rub his back, but he remains inches from Jim's side.

After an hour, the dizziness is less severe, and Jim is able to stand. Spock respects his wishes and retrieves a blanket and pillow from his quarters, stretching out on the floor beside Jim's bed. He wears his uniform down to his boots and looks uncomfortable, colorless hands folded atop his chest.

"I'll be okay by myself," Jim tells him. "You're going to freeze your ass off sleeping in here."

"It will not be the first time," Spock tells him, and they don't speak until morning.

***

The dream comes to him again, of Spock with space-dark eyes, a stretch of nothingness, and the feeling of total isolation. Jim wakes up crying, stuffing his hand in his mouth to stifle it, and hears the familiar hiss of a hypo and a pinch in his neck.

Strong hands guide his head back to the pillow and pull the covers up around him. Fingers ghost over his cheek, light and fleeting, and some of the anguish fades. Before he goes under, Jim imagines comets trailing after Spock's fingertips. 

Chapter Text

Risa, Stardate 2261.364

As soon as his molecules reconstitute, Jim throws up on Bones's shoes. 

"Sorry," he mumbles, swiping a hand over his mouth and groping for the wall. 

"Yeah, well," Bones says, grimacing, "I never liked transporters either."

He goes into the bathroom, presumably to clean up, and Jim falls back on the large bed. It's soft, not upscale, but a damned luxury compared to Starfleet issue. He relaxes into it and tries to ignore the acid sting in his throat and nose. The room's okay, dated in appearance, with a worn comforter and matching curtains, and threadbare carpet. It's clean and quiet, though. He's half asleep, eyelids heavy, when a warm washcloth lands on his face.

"I'm your doctor, not your mother," Bones says. "Clean up and I'll order us some food."

"I can't eat right now," Jim says as he scrubs his chin. He blows his nose in the cloth, earning him a sharp look. Bones takes the cloth from him in two fingers and drops it in the bathroom sink.

"That wasn't a request. You're going to eat, or I'm going to have food pumped directly into your stomach."

"Fine," Jim says, raising both hands off the bed in submission. "Just no more steak."

"You could stand to put on another pound or two," Bones admonishes. Jim lifts his head and begins to protest, but Bones cuts him off with a pointed finger. "And don't start lecturing me about your health. I don't believe for a second you've developed an interest in your cholesterol levels. You're worried you won't fit into those jeans of yours."

"We all have our assets," Jim defends and lets his head fall back onto the mattress.

"And we all know what yours are," Bones replies dryly. "Never thought you'd be the one talking me into ordering you a salad, but one salad coming up."

"Thanks."

"Tofu okay?"

"Fine," Jim says. "Whatever you think. You're the doctor."

"My god," Bones mutters. "I'm never letting one of those hobgoblins near my brain. At least you're semi-normal again."

Jim ponders this while he listens to Bones call in their food order, tracing his fingers over the stitched pattern in the comforter. He finds a rough spot, a knot in the thread, and picks at it. 

"Real, cooked food," Bones exclaims, sitting on the bed next to Jim. "I love shore leave."

"You?" Jim says with a lifted eyebrow. "Love something?"

"At least they didn't scramble your brain completely," Bones comments. 

"I remember everything," Jim says, scratching his face. Bones swats his hand away. "and I...don't. I remember facts. Was I really that different?"

"Let me put it this way," Bones says. "Compared to you, Spock was damned operatic."

Jim chews the inside of his cheek, tonguing the rough spots where he's bitten himself without knowing it. 

"Is he spending any time with you while we're here?"

"He's staying with the ship," Jim says. 

"Everything okay between you two?" Bones asks. "I admit, I was surprised to see him so...affectionate, while you were recovering. He took good care of you."

"See," Jim says, rolling onto his side and propping up on an elbow, "I know he did all that, but the last thing I remember is that he found out I was bonded to the ambassador and wouldn't speak to me for a month. That's the last memory I have of him that involves any feeling, so that's where my brain keeps going. I can't even look at him."

"Sounds like a few days apart will be beneficial to both of you," Bones says. 

"I just want to sleep, clear my head, and have a good time while we're here."

"Good thing I brought my usual Jim Kirk hypo cocktails. You come to me before you do something stupid, understand?"

"Might as well dose me now," Jim says flippantly, rolling onto his back and stretching. "I have every intention of getting laid while we're here."

Bones presses his mouth into a line and looks down at Jim with a frown. 

"This isn't any of my business," he starts.

"You're right," Jim says pointedly.

"But as your doctor and your friend, and his doctor and his..." Bones sighs. "I don't want to see you do something—or someone, in this case—that's going to screw up whatever it is between the two of you. Because whatever that is, I know it means a hell of a lot to you."

"What happens on shore leave—"

"Comes back to bite you in the ass, sometimes literally." Bones shakes his head. 

"That wasn't shore leave," Jim defends. "That was the living sand on Izar VII, and that was humiliating, thank you very much."

"No one told you to sit down," Bones reminds him. "And I didn't see you or Spock complaining when he volunteered to check for hitchhikers." 

Jim gives a noncommittal shrug, and his stomach twists. "I think I'm going to throw up again," he says and lurches for the bathroom.

***

Bones doses him with more anti-nausea medication and instructs Jim to nap after they finish eating lunch. Reluctantly, Jim agrees, but he stays awake another two hours watching vids and glancing longingly out the window at the hotel courtyard. The hotel is fifteen stories tall; they're on the twelfth floor, but he's not so high up that he can't appreciate the parade of bathing suits. He sucks in a prayer through his teeth that he's not ogling members of his own crew.

The courtyard's centerpiece is a freeform swimming pool, surrounded by large green and pink and blue plants which sway gently in the breeze off the bay. It would still be relaxing if he was poolside. He pokes his head into the front room; Bones is conveniently absent. The meds should continue to work for the next few hours, so Jim pockets his comm and heads for the lift. 

He snags a towel from the cart, selects a chair in the sun, and stretches out in the warm afternoon. The sunlight on his skin feels incredible. Despite the advances in starship technology, no amount of artificial light has ever been able to reproduce the delight Jim experiences from sitting under a real sun. He basks in it, feeling warm all the way to his feet, and dozes.

Uhura finds him there, peering at him from under a wide-brimmed hat, a hand on his shoulder.

"Jim?" she says. 

"Hmm?" he answers, blinking himself awake. She's in a red, one-piece swimsuit with a towel wrapped low around her waist, and Scotty is staring at Jim over her shoulder. 

"You're sunburned," Uhura tells him. Jim glances to Scotty for confirmation. He winces sympathetically and points to his nose. "I thought you were supposed to be in bed for a couple days," Uhura continued. 

"Bones said I needed to rest," Jim informs her. "I'm resting."

After a moment, she smiles and takes the chair next to his. "I can't blame you," she says, laying her hat on the ground beside her. Scotty begins lathering something on his skin. "It's gorgeous out here."

Jim nods and closes his eyes again.

"How are you feeling?" she asks. 

"Better."

"What you need is a good night out," Scotty declares. Uhura scoffs, but he continues. "In a day or two, we'll grab drinks, you and me."

"Sounds like a plan," Jim agrees and they mime a fist bump across Uhura's chair. She bites her lip and turns to Scotty.

"Will you get me a drink?" she asks. "Something fruity."

"Something fruity, coming right up. Jim?"

"I'm okay," Jim says and watches Scotty trot off. 

"They have waiters," Jim points out. 

"I know," she says with a grin. "Is Spock coming down?" It's Jim's turn to frown.

"No," he says with a sudden interest in his fingernails. "He's staying with the ship."

"Should I even ask?" she says. He shrugs, so she does. "How are you two?"

"I don't know."

"It's strange not seeing him here with you. He's been glued to your hip for months."

"That's what Bones tells me. I mean, I remember it," he says at her confused stare. "But it's like I was watching someone else's life."

She nods slowly, turning her face back toward the pool. 

"You know, I used to believe that he used his Vulcan heritage as an excuse for his behavior, because he didn't want to deal with certain aspects of being half human: emotions, for one. Attraction. Sensuality. He's capable of all of that, and I..." She sighs. "I wanted him to be capable of that with me."

"Uhura—" Jim begins, but she raises a hand and shakes her head.

"I'm not upset about it," she says. "Not anymore. What I'm trying to say is that I used to think he hid behind his culture—and I think he does, sometimes—but where you're concerned, what happened between the two of you...I promise you he deeply regrets it."

"How much do you know?" Jim asks quietly. 

"I caught him reading a tome on Vulcan pairbond law and ethics, and told him to spill," she says lightly. "He was miserable."

"He didn't speak to me for a month," Jim reminds her. 

"He'd just slept with someone else's husband," she points out. "There are consequences to that."

"It's not like the ambassador was going to say anything!" Jim exclaims. "He didn't even know we were married."

"That's not the point," she says. "Look, what Spock did was wrong—very wrong—by human standards. I told him he was an asshole for the way he was treating you, even though I understood why he did it."

Jim feels a surge of affection for her and casts her a smile. "Honestly? Thanks," he says. 

"But," she continues, "it shows he's serious about you, that he was willing to let you go rather than let you be known as si-kun-utik. There are consequences for that, too. It's unlikely, but he thought it could have caused problems for your career. So in a really backwards, Spock way, he was showing you how much he loves you by doing what he believed was the right thing."

"I guess."

"And he was heartbroken," she says. "Not the best mental state for good decision making."

Jim rubs his head. "Even if things worked out, you know we might never be able to bond? M'Benga said they don't know if it's possible, because I technically had a bond to him severed. You think Spock would want to be with me anyway, even without that?"

"Yes," she says. 

"How would you feel," Jim asks, "if you were me? Would you honestly be able to forgive him?"

"I don't know," Uhura says after a while. "I hope so." They stop talking as Scotty approaches with two ridiculous cocktails as blue as the Suraya Bay. He holds them up and beams. 

"You've got him whipped," Jim whispers in a congratulatory tone.

"Don't I know it," she grins.

*** 

After a few seconds of deliberation and a glance toward the bathroom door, Bones opts for the sofa bed, declaring that it's safer. "I don't need you throwing up all over me," he says and relieves Jim of his extra pillows. Jim greedily hogs as much of the king-size bed as he can reach and dials up a little interspecies adult entertainment on the vid system. He's in a pretty good mood when he falls asleep with a hand on his dick.

He comes awake suddenly, aware that he's shivering. Sitting up, he blinks to clear the sleep from his eyes and yawns. The covers fall to his lap. The screen is still on, but the movie is over. It's a static sea of dark green. He half expected to find Spock here, discover he'd beamed directly into the hotel room. Jim had even planned a little, "What are you doing here?" speech, but there's no one to deliver it to. He's alone in the room. He can't remember the last time he woke up without Spock there, even if it has been on the floor the past few nights. 

His eyes drift to the nightstand, to the unblinking indicator light on his comm. He's surprised by his own disappointment when there are no messages. He'd expected that too, he realizes, from the way his heart sinks. Is a weekend going to be long enough? Nogura approved five days of leave; Jim is staying on surface the whole time. He doesn't want to think about transferring Spock, but maybe a transfer is the only solution at this point. The Bradbury would probably still take him, though Jim had no idea who he could get to replace him. Carol might be interested in taking over his science duties, but what about his first officer? He tries to imagine looking over his shoulder at anyone else, and it makes him shudder. 

No. A transfer is out. 

In the hallway, he can hear footsteps and muffled voices. He considers sneaking out, going to the lobby bar for a drink, but a glance into the front room lets him see the glow of a vid screen. Bones is probably asleep, but Jim's not going to risk it. Stretching his arms over his head, he goes to the window and slides it open, inhaling the warm, fragrant air. 

Maybe they should talk. Jim could call the ship right now, and Spock would probably beam down. They wouldn't even have to talk tonight. They could just sleep, like usual, and deal with everything in the morning. He grabs his comm and flips it open, scrolls down to Spock's ID, but he can't get his voice to work. All he has to do is say "call Spock," but the words stick in his throat. The courage he'd found a minute before wavers. He closes the comm, setting it back on the nightstand, and gets a glass of water. 

He stands in front of the sink and drinks it quietly. It tastes processed, heavy with chlorine, but it's fresher than what he can get on the ship. He drinks another cup, wipes his mouth, and sets the glass aside. He curls both hands over the edge of the counter and looks, really looks at his own face. He looks older than twenty-eight and too thin, almost skinny. He's got dark circles under both eyes, and god, he just needs a few hours of shut eye. 

It's harder than he thought to fall back asleep. He tries jerking off again, but his brain isn't into it this time. He gives up and rolls onto his stomach. 

***

It's three days before the nausea passes and Jim is able to convince Bones he's well enough to sit in the hotel bar. He puts on his best wounded expression and knocks Bones in the shoulder.

"Just for an hour," he says. "I promised Scotty I'd have a drink with him while we're here, make up for the last few months. Want to come?"

"To watch you get shitfaced and make an ass out of yourself?" Bones says. "Sure. I don't have anything better to do."

"You should invite Carol," Jim says and pulls on his leather jacket. Bones makes a face.

"Do you have to wear that thing?"

"Do you know how many times I've scored in this thing?"

"I don't think it was the jacket," Bones tells him and pockets his credit chip.

The bar is loud and dark, with multi-colored flashing lights sweeping over the bar and the row of stools that lined it. The music is so loud it's assaulting, but his ears quickly adjust to the level. He can feel the bass in his legs as he walks and bites his lip to keep the grin off his face. He passes scores of men and women, catching their eyes. He almost stops to talk with an adrogynous redhead who's got a hip against a column, but Bones pushes him past. Scotty is already a pint in, Keenser seated to his right, and holds up two fingers when he spots them approaching the bar.

"Uhura's not joining us?" Jim shouts over the music. 

Scotty shakes his head. "She went to some martini bar with Carol," he calls back. Jim elbows Bones in the ribs, then slides into the stool to Scotty's left. He pats the seat beside him. Bones glares at Jim and slings his jacket over the back of the seat before sitting down. 

"What did you order me?" he barks at Scotty.

"A pint of lager," Scotty says. "I figured we'd better take it easy, since Jim hasn't had anything to drink in a while. Don't need him tapping out in the first round."

"Well," Bones says as the bartender slides a pint glass to him and to Jim. The beer sloshes over the sides. "Good."

"Cheers," Jim says, holding his glass up and drinking before either of them can return the salute. It's cold and refreshing and tastes so good. "Damn, I missed that," he declares, wiping his mouth. "I think."

"Glad to have you back, Jim," Scotty says. 

"Glad to be back."

"No more incident reports when you fall out of a jeffries tube."

"I'll drink to that," Bones says and reaches over Jim to clink his glass against Scotty's. 

"No more dinners in the officers' mess," Scotty adds and they clink glasses again. "I was beginning to feel elitist."

"It's practical!" Jim exclaims. Bones stares at him. "It is," he emphasizes and takes a drawn-out sip. 

"You'd better enjoy that," Bones says, "because that's your first and last drink."

"Okay, mom."

"Your mum drinks more than you do," Scotty points out. 

"You would know," Jim says. "I didn't think I'd get her off my ship after the two of you met. How long ago was that?"

"Maybe...eight months?" Scotty says. "When we were docked at Starbase 8."

"Oh, yeah," Jim says. "Which reminds me, I need to call her."

"Does she know everything that's been going on?" Bones asks.

"What, that she had a 158-year-old son-in-law?" Jim asks, taking another drink. "Nah, I told her it was ongoing radiation treatment and that it might cause some...mood swings."

"And she bought that?" Bones asks.

"She's an engineer," Jim says, "not a..." He grins and swallows the rest of his sentence, content when Bones rolls his eyes and looks away. He nudges Scotty. "See anything you like?"

"Keenser mentioned the steam-pools."

"Don't forget the Nuvians," Jim says, leaning forward to catch Keenser's eye. "I hear they give one hell of a rubdown."

Keenser shakes his head at Jim and orders another drink. Jim orders himself a second when Bones isn't looking and shrugs innocently when it's put in front of him.

"My mom taught me not to waste good beer," he says and drinks it down. It goes to his head quickly, leaving him feeling light, like he's floating. He smiles lazily and sways his head side-to-side with the music, which seems to beat inside his chest. A third drink appears in front of him. The bartender points to the redhead, who is now seated at the bar a few seats away with a raised eyebrow. Jim holds it up and nods his thanks, drinking it while Bones scoffs.

"You're going to make yourself sick," he says, pulling at Jim's sleeve and taking the glass from his hand. "I'm taking you back upstairs."

"Actually," Jim says, "no, you're not. Nothing in regulations says I can't kick back on my own shore leave."

"I'm your physician," Bones reminds him, half-shouting in Jim's ear. "If you forgot, per regulations, I can tell you what to do."

"Not on shore leave," Jim says through a sly grin. "I'm not in command right now, Spock is, so you can't remove me from duty. I'll be sober by the time I beam back on board. There's nothing you can do to me."

"I can stun your ass and throw you in the turbolift."

"Bones," Jim says, slapping his back. He rubs circles into Bones's shirt, which is soft. It feels nice against his fingers, so he continues to do it even when Bones shoots him a nasty look and tries to shrug Jim's hand off. "You need to relax. You should go find Carol. Scotty, help me out here."

"Aye," Scotty says. "She's rather fond of you, from what I hear."

"You aren't going to trick me into leaving Jim alone with you," Bones says firmly. 

Jim slumps unhappily back in his seat, sans drink. The bartender motions to ask if he'd like another, but Bones answers "no" before Jim can nod. This shore leave sucks, he decides. He would've been better off staying on board with Spock, just the two of them and their ship.

No. He's definitely not going to think about that. 

On the dance floor is a tangle of arms and legs moving ungracefully in the ever-changing light, like a writhing organism. The lights pulse blue, casting the dancers in a sickly pallor. The floor darkens, and the beam that sweeps over the crowd changes to red, then morphs into green, then goes dark again. Floor tiles illuminate in a configuration Jim decides is random after he watches it for a few minutes and can't discern a pattern. He laughs at the idea that he's mostly sober in a bar on Risa, on freaking shore leave, and he's honestly observing the floor lights. It's probably something Spock would do to keep himself entertained if he were here. Jim sighs. Maybe he should've agreed to let Spock come with him, just to test things out. They could've gone on a date or something. Grabbed dinner. Checked out the steam-pools Keenser mentioned, which actually do sound appealing. Jim's heard they're warm, so Spock would probably like them. Jim imagines them walking side-by-side down a darkened stretch of beach, lit only by the twin moons, imagines Spock leaning over to whisper in Jim's ear, softly—

Someone places a hand on Jim's shoulder. He whips his head around to see the redhead—it's a guy, he's pretty sure from the flat chest...only no, maybe it's not as flat as he thought. How much beer did he drink again? Risian stuff's strong, but it shouldn't cause hallucinations. The redhead looks deliberately at Jim's mouth, back to his eyes, then turns and heads toward the bathroom without a word. Jim scratches the back of his neck, waits a few more seconds to be on the safe side, and pushes back from the bar.

"I've gotta take a leak," he announces and starts toward the bathroom without looking back over his shoulder. It's tucked into the back corner, beside the dance floor. The floor and walls are painted black. The ceiling projects a moving image of space; it's a little like being at warp, with stars and galaxies streaking past as he pushes open the door to the men's room. 

He's not surprised to see him—he's sure it's a him, the more Jim looks at the guy, at the slightly square jaw and wiry arms—perched on the bathroom counter. 

"Thanks for the drink," he offers as the door shuts behind him. It's been a while since he picked someone up at a bar. He fights down a flutter of nervousness in his stomach. 

"I'm glad you accepted," the redhead says. 

"You got a name?" Jim asks. They don't move toward each other. 

"Not one I share."

Okay, Jim thinks. Anonymity is cool with him. 

"And you?" the redhead asks.

"Quid pro quo," Jim says. Narrowing his eyes, the redhead nods once. Jim thinks he looks impressed.

"You may call me Malik," he says. 

"Jim."

"You have a most unusual eye color, Jim."

"I hope so," Jim says with a grin. "Cost my stepdad enough credits. You here on leave?"

"Is that important?" Malik asks, standing and thrusting his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. The action causes the fabric across his crotch to tighten—they're on the same wavelength, Jim thinks—and Jim bites his lip to keep from smiling broadly at the obvious hard-on. 

"I've got a room here," Jim says casually, feeling in his jacket for his room chip. He closes his hand around it.

"So do I," Malik says and comes closer. 

"Mine's up twelve floors."

"Then mine is nearer."

They're standing close enough that Jim can smell him, bright and fresh like lemongrass. "Are you human?" he asks.

"If you like," Malik says slyly and leans in to bite the shell of Jim's ear. He keeps it just this side of painful.

"Shapeshifter, huh?" Jim says and lets his head roll back between his shoulders. 

"I'm a Chameloid."

No wonder Malik's appearance had confused him earlier. Can they really transform into anything? He shivers at the idea. "I've gotta ditch my friends," he says hoarsely. "Meet you in the lift?"

Malik steps back, and he looks a little different—greener, maybe. "I hope I won't have to wait long," he says. 

"Give me two minutes," Jim says, arranging himself in his jeans and backing toward the door. He licks his lips as a parting gesture and pushes the door open with a hip. Goal in mind, he approaches the bar with a theatrical yawn, slinging an arm over Bones's shoulder.

"I'm gonna head up to the room," he says. "I'm beat."

Bones glares at him in disbelief. 

"You're up to something," he says.

"I'm honestly just tired," Jim lies. "If you want, you can come with me, make sure I get there okay. I'll even let you tuck me in."

Bones pauses a moment longer than necessary, and Jim knows he's got him. "I'll finish this round," he says. 

"And a few after that," Scotty adds. If anyone can convince Bones to stick around the bar for a few hours, it's him. Jim beams at Scotty and slaps him across the back. 

"Meet you guys for breakfast before we head back up to the ship?" he says, looking between them and over at Keenser, who nods enthusiastically. 

Jim yawns once more for good measure, covering his mouth and shrugging apologetically as he walks away from the bar. He turns on his heel and picks up the pace once he's swallowed by the crowd that seems to propel him toward the lift. A Chameloid. He's never been with one of those before—well, not that he knows. His heart is pounding in anticipation. 

Malik is waiting for him and presses the button to call the next car. Jim stands across the closed doors from him. When they open, he raises both eyebrows in challenge. Malik steps in, so Jim follows. 

"Your posterior is exceptionally well formed," Malik compliments as the lift rises. His hair is darker than it had appeared in the bathroom, with a deep luster. Jim's fingers itch to rake through it.

"How's this shape shifting thing work?" he asks.

"I'm slightly empathic," Malik explains. "I'm able to sense desires and transform my appearance accordingly. Of course, my senses are heightened by touch." 

"Oh, yeah?" Jim challenges. Malik places one hand on Jim's elbow. His eyes are smoldering, pale irises growing darker as Jim watches, until they are a deep brown. The lift doors slide open. Malik beckons him to follow with a crooked finger, and Jim greedily hurries after him. 

Inside the hotel room, Malik shoves Jim up against the door and divests him of his jacket and t-shirt. Jim threads Malik's hair through his fingers and tugs roughly when he feels teeth bite his neck. It's gentle at first, exploratory, but the third bite stings. Jim hisses and thrusts his hips forward. Malik mouths along his jaw, kisses the curve of Jim's ear, and angles his face so their mouths are only an inch apart. Usually, Jim would dive in, bite Malik's lips swollen, but he leans his head against the door and pants. Malik's eyebrows are raised in a slant, cheekbones sharper, hair so dark it's almost black. Jim glances to his ear. With an index finger, he traces where it comes to a point.

"Vulcans, hm?" Malik asks softly, stroking the side of Jim's face. Jim shudders, overcome by the sense that he shouldn't be here. His body begins to shake, like he might be sick again. He drops his hand to his side. 

"Is something wrong?" Malik asks, stepping away with a confused look. His Vulcan appearance begins to morph back into the redhead Jim first encountered, warm skin tone and curious, ice-blue eyes. 

"Yes," Jim says as relief floods him. He swipes a hand across his eyes, which have begun to water. "And no. Nothing's wrong. I've just gotta go."

He gathers his shirt and tugs it over his head, shouldering his jacket. Malik stares at him, his eyes blank. 

"I don't understand," he says. "I sensed strong desire for a Vulcan."

"Yeah," Jim says sheepishly. He rubs his neck where Malik bit him. "That's the problem." 

"I see," Malik says and inclines his head with a faint smile. "That explains why he dominates your thoughts."

Jim shakes his head and turns the doorknob, looking back over his shoulder. "Hey, there's an uptight medical doctor seated at the bar. Answers to McCoy. Pretty fond of Orions." 

Malik chuckles and bows his head further as a farewell. Jim doesn't wait around to watch the door close. He bolts to the lift, rides the additional floors up to his own room. He fumbles for the door chip—why are his hands still shaking?—and sits on the very edge of the bed. 

He just turned down guilt-free, guaranteed sex. 

With a shapeshifter. 

On Risa, of all places. 

He groans and flops backwards, rubbing his hands over his face like it will clear his head. He's still half-hard and palms himself through his jeans, but all he can think about is Spock: his arms, his mouth, the sounds he makes when Jim rubs against him. He remembers the quiet nights Spock spent with him, how they shared a pillow, how Spock was always awake first and watching him when the chronometer rang. He rolls over onto his stomach and shoves his hips into the mattress once, twice, until he's panting and humping the bed like he's ten years old. It's Spock's body he imagines under his, and it's Spock's name he mouths just before his breath catches. 

"Fuck," Jim swears into the comforter, but he's smiling. 

He peels off his jeans and wet boxers, and balls them up in his tote bag. A quick water shower removes the stale-beer stink of the bar. He towel dries his hair, touches the reddened marks on his neck—nothing he can do about those right now—and shoves the few toiletries he brought into his dopp kit. He checks the time; Bones won't be back for at least an hour, and if he takes the time to message him, he might lose his nerve. 

He feels for his comm. "Kirk to transporter room," he says.

"Hendorff here."

"One to beam up."

***

Jim stands outside of Spock's quarters for five minutes before he works up the nerve to signal for entrance. He's grateful most of the senior officers are currently on planet, and the rest are either sleeping or in one of the rec rooms. They won't walk by and see the captain in jeans and damp hair, pacing nervously in front of the first officer's door. 

What's he supposed to say? What can either of them possibly say? It occurs to him that he doesn't have to say anything. It would be better for the ship if he didn't. They're still a good command team. Their friendship will probably recover. But what if Spock requests a transfer? Jim thinks of the ambassador, of that feeling of absolute love, and presses fingers into his temples. No, he has to do this. 

He's about to push the call button, hand hovering just over it, when he hears footsteps come up behind him.

"Captain?" Spock asks. Jim turns around too quickly, and it's obvious the beer isn't quite out of his system. He sways on his feet; Spock takes his arm gently.

"Dr. McCoy informed me that you are experiencing side effects from the transporter."

The transporter. "Yeah," Jim says, not quite looking Spock in the eye. "I puked on his shoes."

He shifts his weight back and forth between his feet and chews on his lower lip. 

"Have you consumed alcohol this evening?" Spock asks, looking at him seriously. Jim shrugs. 

"A little."

"Would you like me to assist you to your quarters?"

Jim shakes his head. "I came to see you," he says. "Can I come in?"

There's a pause before Spock replies, just a slight bob of his head, but it gives Jim hope. Spock moves in front of the biometric scanner. The doors slide open, and Jim is enveloped by the room's heat. Spock leads him to the chair he usually occupies during chess. The board is still set up from their last game. Jim picks up his king and passes it back and forth between his hands. 

"So I just turned down a shapeshifter," he starts, because he has no idea where to begin. He hears Spock's sharp intake of breath and presses his lips together firmly. 

"Captain," Spock says in his no-nonsense voice. "I do not wish to hear this."

"You're going to listen," Jim orders, "because this involves you." He takes a deep breath and continues without looking up. "I turned down a shapeshifter because...he could sense what I wanted, and he could transform into it. Do you get where this is going?"

Spock pulls out the opposite chair and sits, folding his hands neatly on his lap. "I presume you are about to tell me he transformed into a Vulcan."

"Yeah," Jim says. "And I couldn't...I couldn't go through with it. I thought if I went down there alone, I'd be able to get you out of my head, but I can't." 

He hears his ears pop when he swallows, and he finds himself wishing for the dark anonymity of the dance club. He's never felt so exposed, not even during that first meld with the ambassador. His lip quivers, so he bites it to steady himself. 

"We can't take back the last six months," he says, "and we can't pretend they didn't happen. Nothing you say can make up for what you did."

"I understand," Spock says quietly, bowing his head. He is the picture of misery, with his eyebrows knit together, and his hands twisted together on his lap. 

"The thing is..." Jim says, and it's a minute before he's able to continue. He speaks around the lump in his throat and stares at the chess piece in his palm. "The thing is, I'm kind of in love with you. So I forgive you, because I think you only did what you did because you thought it was the right thing. I don't think you did it to hurt me." 

"Jim..." Spock says, and Jim's eyes snap up. 

"No. I don't want to hear that it's illogical or that it won't work out, or that you discovered another facet of Vulcan law that says we can't be together," Jim says emphatically, squeezing the king until it's painful. "We're good together. I don't care if you can't ever bond us. I—" His throat hurts too much to keep talking. He coughs and covers his mouth, and he is not crying

"I was merely going to state," Spock says quietly, raising his eyes, "that I still return your affection." 

"Oh," Jim says and wipes his eyes. Spock reaches across the table and takes his hand. He sends wave after wave of apology, so Jim pushes back it's okay, it's okay, it's okay. Something dissolves in his chest, something tight and painful, and he tries to send that feeling of relief to Spock through their skin. 

Spock draws him around the table and onto his lap. He lowers his face to Jim's shoulder. Jim's knees frame Spock's hips, and he breathes in against his hair. They sit quietly locked together for a long time, until Spock lifts Jim in his arms and carries him to the bed. He removes Jim's shoes and pants and shirt before stepping out of his own clothing. When their skin meets underneath the covers, it's like coming home. 

Jim moans and kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him—six months of kisses. He grips Spock's hair between his fingers. Spock's arms encircle him, crushing their chests together almost painfully, but Jim doesn't care. He's here, and Spock is here, and Spock loves him. He does bite Spock's lips swollen, sucks them in apology, and caresses the tips of his ears until Spock begins to whimper into Jim's mouth. 

Spock finally brings his hands to cradle Jim's face and separates them by inches, studying him. He traces his fingers over Jim's cheekbone, the bridge of his nose. 

"Promise me we'll never be this stupid again," Jim pants. He notes Spock's eyes, which don't meet his. "What?" he asks. 

"I feel jealousy toward others who have touched you, anger toward the one who did this—" Spock murmurs, gingerly touching the bruise forming on Jim’s neck. He lowers his mouth to it and kisses softly. 

When their eyes meet again, Spock closes his. 

"I will not even be your first sa-telsu."

"Well, technically, you and he are the same person," Jim says. "So, you were the guy I was married to."

Spock shakes his head. "Genetically, we are identical, but our experiences have made us different beings."

"Then you’ll be the first person I ever wanted to let in my head. There’s stuff up here I don’t even like to think about."

With his thumb, Spock presses the meld point at Jim's temple.

"I would be gratified if you would let me see it," he says, and Jim feels him, just for a moment, in every cell. 

"You want to do it right now?" Jim asks, widening his eyes, though he arches up into him. Spock kisses him and rolls onto his side, so they lie facing one another. 

"Yes," Spock admits, "though I may never wish to leave."

"I may never let you," Jim grins and takes Spock's hand. He massages a circle in Spock's palm with his thumb. "Will you...will you be able to tell if..."

"I will know instantly," Spock says, closing his fingers around Jim's thumb and holding their hands against his chest. 

"What if we can't?"

"Then we will seek out a healer," Spock tells him, projecting calm. "Or we will join in the Terran tradition."

"Is this a proposal?"

"If you wish."

"Okay," Jim says, taking a deep breath. "Just do it. I want to know."

Jim's stomach flip-flops when Spock brings a hand to his face again and positions it along his cheekbone. He leans into it and closes his eyes as Spock begins to whisper.

The meld with the ambassador had been momentary, a massive download of information that left Jim stumbling when it ended. And though he's melded with this Spock before, there is something different about this one. The first two were perfunctory, professional. This feels like he has disconnected from his body and exists on another plane, another dimension. 

He can feel Spock around him, his essence, like a warm breeze. It's a poignant reminder of the sense of absolute safety he had discovered in his link to the elder Spock. He seeks out the place in his mind which had been a haven for weeks, only to find it smoothed over. It doesn't hurt. It's...sore, maybe, is the best word for it. He touches it, longing for anything, a mere whisper of fondness, but it's silent. He pulls back from it, feeling unsteady on his mental feet, and is grateful when Spock's hands catch him.

"It's quiet," he says, "but it doesn't hurt."

"It is healed," Spock tells him. 

"So," Jim says, swallowing hard. "What's the verdict?"

Spock is quiet for a long time, moving his hands down Jim's arms to his wrists, closing around them gently. He turns Jim around so they face one another. With their foreheads pressed together, he says, "Your mind calls to mine."

"Really?" Jim asks, beaming. "So we can—"

"Yes," Spock says, "as soon as you are—"

"I am," Jim says, and he pulls Spock's mouth down to his. 

They're kissing on the bed and they're kissing in their minds. Jim can't separate the two, doesn't care which hand is a phantom pressure on his waist and which is actually curved around his neck. The gray surrounding space begins to crackle and shift as swirls of light beat up through the murk. Slowly, slowly, colors bleed into the landscape: midnight blue of an Iowa sky at twilight, green and brown of sun-baked grass, the golden yellow of cornstalks. The shades converge and explode, and if it's going to be like this all the time, Jim's never reporting for duty again because they're never getting out of bed. 

He's laughing into Spock's mouth when Spock's hand finally comes away, and they're in Spock's quarters, in the incense-laden air. Jim is lying across his chest, and Spock has both hands in Jim's hair. 

"Okay, that?" Jim says, tracing a finger along Spock's sternum. "We're doing that at least once a day."

"I look forward to it," Spock murmurs, "though it will not always be so intense."

"I should message Bones," Jim says, turning his face to kiss the inside of Spock's wrist. "Let him know I'm back on the ship."

"That would be wise."

"Don't go anywhere," Jim says, standing up and padding to retrieve his jacket. He fishes in the pocket for his comm. 

>> went back to the ship

>> I thought you might. Will you be gracing us at breakfast?

>> I'll be there, plus one

Smiling, he returns to the bed and fits himself along Spock's body, because they fit together, he realizes. He's on his side, leg slung over Spock's thighs. Spock kneads the muscles in Jim's leg, from his knee to his hipbone. Jim splays a hand across Spock's chest and kisses his shoulder. 

They start like that, gently, until Spock rolls on top of him and bites into the existing mark on his neck. Jim groans, and he groans again when Spock is thrusting into him. He hisses against the burn—god, how long has it been?—and grips Spock's thighs, pulling him deeper. 

Spock doesn't need to tell him that showering together saves resources; Spock ends up pressed against the shower wall this time with Jim sucking bruises into his neck.

"The marks will be visible," Spock warns but doesn't tell Jim to stop.

"Don't care," Jim says. "You can write your name on my forehead, if you want."

"Unnecessary," Spock pants, and he's getting hard again. Jim can feel Spock's arousal throughout his entire body, like he's a live wire. Interlaced is a surge of possessiveness. "I am aware that you are mine."

"Damn right," Jim mutters and bites, just a little. 

***

It takes convincing to get Spock to beam down to Risa for breakfast. Spock insists it would be more practical for him to remain with the ship, since he doesn't require anything for breakfast this morning. But Jim pouts and grinds their hips together, and when Spock is coming in his fist and Jim repeats his request, he nods that yes, he'll come with Jim to breakfast, he'll do anything.

They go in uniform, even though it's unorthodox, because Spock wants to report to the bridge immediately upon returning to the ship. Jim was afraid he'd use that as an excuse to beam up early, so they got dressed. He touches Spock's hand in the transporter room when the technician looks down at the controls and says "thanks."

The hotel restaurant is crowded, but Jim spots Bones and Scotty sitting in a corner booth and nods to Spock. They cross the room shoulder to shoulder, and Jim watches the heads turn. They're a damned fine command team, he muses, and a damned fine looking couple. God, they're a couple. He smiles at the assortment of crew members who greet him as he passes their tables, brushing Spock's hand surreptitiously as he does. He expects Spock to put some distance between them, but he touches Jim's hand in return and puts a hand on his lower back when they slide onto the bench. 

"You're late," Bones comments.

"Jim could not locate clean pants," Spock says and picks up a glass of water. 

"I want it on record," Bones states, pointing at them both, "that I never want to hear about your sex life, except when it's medically necessary. Understood?"

"He doesn't want to hear about mine, either," Scotty adds helpfully.

"Nor do I," Spock says pointedly. 

"Jealous?" Jim whispers close to his ear. 

"Hardly," Spock replies. He touches Jim's hand again and pushes a wave of lust at him. Jim grins, reassured. 

"I'm telling you, man," Jim says to Bones, leaning back and opening the menu. "Carol likes you."

"You're a terrible matchmaker," Bones replies. 

"Although I generally deem it inappropriate to engage in what constitutes gossip," Spock says, "I can confirm that Lt. Marcus frequently references you in conversations, in which you are not relevant to the topic." 

Bones looks mildly surprised, suppresses a smile, and raises his coffee mug at Spock. "Well," he says, "if Spock says it's true, I'm inclined to believe him."

Spock raises an eyebrow. Under the table, Jim slides a hand to Spock's knee and squeezes. He leaves it there, orders eggs with extra crispy bacon, and gets lost in the cup of coffee the server puts in front of him. He hasn't been this hungry in months and consumes everything on his plate with enthusiasm, then finishes Spock's toast.

"So when's the wedding?" Bones asks when Jim offers the last bite to Spock, who actually accepts it from Jim's fingers. 

"Last night," Jim says, and he'll laugh at the memory of Bones's shocked face for a long, long time before it stops being funny. 

***

Uncharted Class-M Planet, Stardate 2262.206

As much as Jim enjoys interacting with a new species—learning new customs, terrifying Bones with his allergic reactions to ceremonial food, maybe discovering a kink or two—there's something to be said for an uninhabited planet. 

Of course, Spock would tell him the planet isn't uninhabited; it's not developed by Federation standards, but there are certainly organisms that live here: large flying insects which float past, colorful fungi, amphibians that lurk in shallow pools. The air here is sweet, almost cloying, but the sun is bright and warm. Jim watches Spock bend down to take a sample and notes the green flush in his fingertips. 

Jim sends him a little something that makes Spock's blush deepen and spread to his ears and cheeks. Spock raises his eyes, catches Jim's, and lifts an eyebrow. Jim winks, and while Spock appears disapproving, Jim can feel a brush of affection. 

Laughing, he wanders away from the rest of the crew members, back toward the shuttle, and sits on the ramp. At his feet is a small orange flower, maybe an inch across. Jim stares at it for a long time and finally pulls out his comm. He snaps a holo and sends it to the elder Spock with the message, "Thought of you." He looks back across the field to Spock, his Spock, and beams.

To boldly go.

Yes, he thinks. They definitely will.