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Leave No Soul Behind

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Jim drifts slowly towards consciousness to the sound of beeping. It's regular, muted and really kind of comforting. Familiar.

Hesitantly, he cracks one eye open.

The view that greets him is of trees through a window. Real trees, wind- tossed and green with upcoming spring. Sycamore, he thinks, then smiles. He's on Earth. They saved the Earth.

"You are awake."

Jim turns his head towards the gentle baritone, his smile deepening. "Spock. We did it."

He nods, pushing off from the wall to stand by Jim's biobed. "You are at a private medical institution in Atlanta. Starfleet Medical denied you admittance. You have been in a coma for nine days."

Jim wants to say something, wants to apologize maybe, because it's obvious to him that Spock has been deeply concerned. Instead, all that comes out is a croak and he has to sip water through a straw.

He swallows and clears his throat. "I'm sorry," he manages.

"You are lucky to be alive," Spock scolds, dark eyes glinting with fury. "What possessed you to remain on the Narada after transporting Lieutenant Uhura?"

Jim looks him square in the eye, willing him to understand. "I had to face my demons."

"Alone, Jim?"

"No. I knew you were there. You'd never leave me behind."

He casts around blindly until Spock takes his hand. He enfolds it in both of his, the grip desperate, a little too hard for comfort. Jim wouldn't have it any other way.

"The kid, Eli?" Jim asks, memory slowly returning.

"You owe him your life." Spock sounds strangely curious about the whole thing. "Seconds before the ship imploded, he employed one of the remote transporter devices to gain clearance. Doctor McCoy has been heard to remark that the boy has 'one hell of a pitcher's arm on him,' whatever that means."

"Baseball reference," Jim explains, exhausted but still desperate for answers. "We literally transported into dead space?"

"Yes." Spock does not sound happy. "Nothing protected you from rematerializing within a piece of the not inconsiderable wreckage in orbit."

"It was our only chance," Jim recalls, thinking back to desperately cycling the closest airlock. "We'd never have made it back past the singularity to the shuttle transporter."

"It is wise to cultivate multiple options."

"Are you lecturing me, seriously?"

"You nearly died."

"But I didn't."

"This time."

"Spock..."

"Enough," Spock says forcefully, pressing the fingertips of his free hand to Jim's lips. "I do not wish to speak of it."

Jim can feel the slight tremor in that touch and his defensiveness melts away instantly. "I think there's room for two on this bed."

"You are mistaken," Spock replies, but Jim can feel a slight easing of the tension in him. "Besides, doctor McCoy is due any moment and I am quite certain that he will disapprove of an attempt."

"Fine," Jim sighs dramatically.

Spock moves to withdraw his hand but Jim catches it, holding on until Spock looks him in the eye. "But when we get out of here, you're going to bond us and then I'm never letting go of you again."


-:-


Four days later, McCoy discharges Jim from hospital. Spock suspects it has less to do with Jim's actual readiness and more to do with his incessant nagging.

F-Sec have them all up on charges. It's only by the grace of Spock's diplomatic immunity and McCoy's questionable position in the chain of command that they're not being held without bail like everyone else. Bones tried to wrangle Ashe a get out of jail free card on account of her being in a wheelchair, but the court ruled that if she was fit enough to steal a starship, she'd cope just fine with the penal system. Ashe was unaccountably pleased by that. Jim can't stop laughing at the disgruntled expression on McCoy's face every time he thinks about it.

That leaves the three of them under house arrest at McCoy's place, which suits them just fine. Admiral Pike has been missing since the evacuation of Luna, but they return from the hospital that day to find an old fashioned postcard in the mail. Puzzled by the blank section that should hold writing, Spock flips it back to the picture on the front and raises an eyebrow.

Jim takes one look at it and bursts out laughing. It's a crude illustration of a hydrospanner and a sheep with the word 'Komack' scrawled underneath in Pike's distinctive handwriting.

"Kindly explain the significance of these objects," Spock demands.

Jim hands the card to McCoy and makes his way gingerly up the stairs. He can hear the doctor chuckling and his voice as he patiently explains.

"Well, what do you use a hydrospanner for, Spock? You screw things with it. And this? This is sheep, a female sheep. So put it together and what do you get?"

There is a loaded silence and Jim pauses on the landing, one hand pressed to his grin as he waits for Spock's reply.

"Is Pike suggesting the Admiral favours intercourse with animals?"

"What? No!" McCoy laughs, then laughs harder and Jim can hear the sound of Spock getting a slap on the back. "But I like the way your mind works."

"I do not understand."

Jim thinks of all the moments like these he has to look forward to and smiles so hard it actually hurts his face.

-:-


Later that night, when the house is quiet and McCoy fast asleep, Spock and Jim sit facing one another on the rug near the open fire. The night is far from cold, but together they build a small blaze, just enough to light the room and cast a gentle warmth.

Spock is wearing a simple black robe, the sleeves long enough to conceal his hands. Jim sits opposite in a pair of pyjama bottoms and a soft cotton t-shirt. Both are barefoot. Jim spares a thought for all the pomp and circumstance that would grace an event like this on Nu'ri Ah'rak, but one glance at the intensity on Spock's face confirms they don't need it.

All they need is each other.

"I'm ready," Jim says, matching Spock's pose, close enough that their knees touch.

Spock nods solemnly and Jim feels a surge of love for the fact that he doesn't ask if he's sure, doesn't question Jim's resolve.

In silence, Spock lifts first his right hand, then his left. Carefully, with immaculately manicured fingers, he makes intricate little folds in the belled sleeves of his robe. With each flick and tuck, more of his arms are revealed. Jim wonders why it took him until now to realize that this isn't going to be about sex, that the bonding ceremony will be steeped in tradition and mystery no matter whether it is held here or on the red sands of Vulcan-that-was.

His eyes follow Spock's every move until he stills, palms facing the ceiling between them. "Place your hands over mine, but do not touch," he instructs.

Jim reaches out and lets his hands hover barely a centimeter above Spock's own.

"Close your eyes."

Jim does.

Suddenly, he's incredibly conscious of the fact they are nearly holding hands. His fingers tingle with energy, almost like static, except hotter, like he's cupping a flame. "What is that?" he breathes.

"We share a natural affinity," Spock responds softly. "Our minds are very compatible."

"Why couldn't I feel it before?"

"Because I blocked it."

Jim's eyes flutter open and Spock seems to sense it because his do, too. "Why would you do a thing like that?"

"You know why," Spock reminds him. "To share the mind of another without express permission is a violation. After the bonding, it will be virtually impossible to block. It will not bother you?"

Jim glances down at their hands, feels the growing warmth between them and shakes his head. "No. It's...comforting. I like it."

Spock follows the direction of Jim's gaze. "Parted from me and never parted, never and always touching and touched," he recites, and there is something reverent in his voice, something Jim has never heard before. When Spock looks up, his eyes are the most human Jim has ever seen them; big and brown and filled with a mix of fear and love.

"All the barriers, Jim."

"Yes, I remember."

Spock swallows and lets his left hand rise to clasp Jim's right. The contact is visceral. Jim feels it deep in his gut. The other hand lifts to hover at Jim's temple and cheek. Tentatively, hot fingertips settle against his face, gently sliding into position with a deliberation and tenderness he's never before experienced in a meld.

Using both hands, Spock draws them inwards so their foreheads rest together, until they are breathing the same air.

"My mind to your mind," he whispers. "My thoughts to your thoughts..."

Spock witnesses the beatings of Jim's childhood, all the horror and the perversion he has kept hidden for so long. Jim shows him the shame and the fear. He displays the scars he keeps hidden deep inside, the places that never see the light of day except in his nightmares. Spock comes to know the dread of footsteps in the night, the pain of broken bones and the gut-wrenching loss when one at a time, his family leave him. First Dad, then Mom, then Sam, until there is only Frank and Jim is terrified that one day he'll wake up to find all the fight has gone out of him and Frank has won. So instead, there is a gun and a lot of blood and a town that he doesn't want to talk to because they can't possibly understand. There is guilt so heavy it is suffocating and a sense of worthlessness that haunts his every failure. It is not enough to be good at something, he has to be the best. He has to keep running until he finds a place to call home.

Spock lays comforting hands on Jim's bruises. He bars the door to Jim's room and holds his hand in the emergency department. He whispers promises of something better when the people of Riverside curse and spit. He shows Jim the Stalwart and the Enterprise and the sunlit kitchen of the San Francisco apartment.

Jim tumbles into the cold disapproval of Spock's peers, all the snide remarks and barbed comments. Spock shows him the inner rage, incandescently Vulcan. He shares the memories of countless treks out into the desert, shaking with emotion, afraid of what he might do. Jim comes to know the moment where Spock held a blade against his skin the night after his khas-wan and really thought about whether it might feel good. Jim is there when Spock throws himself into logic, dedicates himself to the Vulcan ideal, because the only way to end the suffering is to truly experience control. Instead, there is a Vulcan girl who repudiates him and her father who digs around in his mind and does not like what he sees. There is his own mother, so desperate for him to purge his humanity even though it was her gift, and he does not understand how he has twisted that blessing into something she can hate. He is trapped, deeply flawed, and the only safe course of action is to withdraw, smother, shut down.

Jim runs riot down the halls of Spock's disapproving childhood, a whirlwind of colour and life that banishes the tension and disapproval. He firmly takes the knife from Spock's hands and holds them instead. He embraces Spock's dedication to logic but also revels in each moment of sarcasm, each glint of humor or mischief. Jim holds a mirror up to his human self and smiles until Spock smiles back. He shows Spock his own compassion, his fanatically loyal crew and the faces of every save he remembers.

Somehow, amongst all the viciousness of history, they find each other.

When Jim opens his eyes they're damp with tears and he's shaking. Spock pulls back so they can see each other and he looks just as wrecked.

"Oh, my god," Jim breathes. "I don't even..."

They fold into each other, a mess of knees and arms until they're just clinging, faces buried in shoulders, holding on for dear life. It seems impossible that they should let go, so Jim reaches out and wraps them in the throw from the bed and they fall asleep in front of the fire.


-:-


Jim wakes in the cold light of dawn with his head pillowed on Spock's arm. It's not a particularly comfortable arm, wiry and masculine as it is, so he jacks himself onto one shoulder and stares down at his bondmate.

Spock regards him calmly, dark eyes huge in the semi-darkness.

Jim feels a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach and suddenly breaks into a smile. "You're laughing at me, I can feel it."

Spock reaches up a lazy hand to pat at Jim's head. "Your hair assumes most amusing configurations first thing in the morning."

"Oh yeah?" Jim counters. "Well, you talk in your sleep."

"I do not."

"How can you be sure?"

"I am only certain that you have no evidence to back up your claim."

"This bond is really inconvenient." Jim smiles down at him, fully aware that Spock knows he's joking. "It's got to be good for something other than helping you beat me at chess."

"I am sorry you find the experience less than satisfactory. What were you expecting?"

"Oh, I don't know," Jim considers airily. "There are so many rumors about Vulcans, it's hard to know where to start."

Spock quirks an eyebrow, playing along. "Perhaps I can assist you in determining their validity?"

"Okay, mindmelds. Specifically mindmelds and sex," Jim says firmly.

"You already know the answer to that."

Jim purses his lips. "I suppose I do, except...can you make me come with just your mind?"

"Truthfully, there is speculation about this amongst EPAS employees?" Spock sounds kind of appalled and intrigued at the same time.

"EPAS be damned. Try the whole Federation."

"You are exaggerating."

"Well, what do you guys expect? You walk around so uptight all the time and then take your fine selves off into the desert to have kinky telepathic marathon sex every seven years. That's bound to get people talking."

Spock opens his mouth and then shuts it again. "Pon farr is no joking matter," he manages finally.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Jim boggles. "It's only the biggest evolutionary punch line of all time."

Spock attempts to look stern, but fails utterly. "What else do people say?"

"Well, there's the ears," Jim explains, settling against Spock's body for better access. "Supposedly an erogenous zone."

He lies there for a time, allowing Jim to kiss and gently bite his ear before he pulls away. "I apologize for any disappointment, but no."

"Okay, hands," Jim redirects.

"Hands?"

"Let's have them."

Obediently, Spock offers his right hand. The elegant fingers lie relaxed on his chest awaiting Jim's next move. The scars on them are fainter now, but still visible. Jim lifts it in one of his own, gripping the palm to bring Spock's fingertips to his mouth. Gently, teasingly, he trails his lips along the knuckles. When Spock says nothing, just watches, he grows bolder and takes the tip of his index and middle finger into his mouth, swirling over them with his tongue.

And there it is.

Jim's eyes widen in disbelief as a green flush washes over Spock's face. "Sonofabitch," Jim pronounces in a revelatory way.

Spock closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, in and out before opening them again. "If you only knew how obscene that gesture is amongst Vulcans, you would not find my response unexpected."

"So," says Jim, eyes locked on Spock's blown pupils. "Hand kink."

"It is not a 'kink' but rather a simple physiological response," he explains a little defensively. "Vulcan hands are more sensitive."

"I love it when you get all flustered," Jim confesses, rolling on top of him.

"I am hardly flustered."

Jim tucks Spock's fingertips in his mouth and then leans in to claim his lips as well, putting pay to that theory almost immediately.

"Just tell me one thing before we do this, because it's very awesome," Jim stalls, loving the way Spock is already just a little bit out of control.

"Yes?"

"Will this get me pregnant?"

Apparently, that is what it takes to finally make Spock laugh.

-:-


For the first time in his life, Bones walks onto the bridge of a spaceship with a spring in his step. He still thinks living in a tiny manufactured bubble surrounded by the utter hostility of deep space is the height of stupidity, and he still hates flying. But if he's going to die horribly out here, he couldn't wish for better company.

"This is a damn fool's errand," he growls anyway, mostly because that's what they all expect from him.

Spock has the center seat with Jim hovering over one shoulder. Uhura, Chekov and Scotty are crowded around. They all look up at McCoy's pronouncement of doom, but it's Spock who speaks.

"The probability of our success is..." he glances at Jim and obviously amends his decimal point perfect prediction to something more ambiguous, "...small but not negligible."

"Give them some time, Bones," Jim agrees. "You know how hard it was for us to get here, and not everybody got a free pass from President Wescott."

"Ex-President Wescott," Ashe reminds them.

"Hey, don't harsh my man-crush!" Jim objects with a frown. "He'll be re-elected in no time, you just wait."

Everyone laughs except for Spock, but then one of Jim's hands comes to rest on the Captain's shoulder, affectionate and far too telling. McCoy expects Spock to ignore it or remove it, even knowing as much as he does about what lies between them. Instead, the Vulcan raises one of his own hands and pats Jim's lightly. It's not exactly demonstrative, but for a Vulcan it's kind of like a declaration of undying love.

Jim catches Spock's eye and grins. "They're coming," he insists, fingers tight on Spock's shoulder. "I know they are."

Spock nods and turns back to the scanners. "We shall wait."

As Jim moves back to his own station, McCoy glances at the others as if to say, you saw that right? All he gets from them are blank stares and innocent eyes. They haven't seen anything, no sir, and he realizes anew that they love Spock as much as Jim, despite, or maybe even because of his Vulcan demeanour. They trust him, and what's more they like him just as he is. No revisions necessary.

Bones turns on his heel and stalks back to the turbolift. Ashe shoots him an amused expression so he makes sure he's scowling. However, it doesn't quite hide the smile that's threatening to overwhelm him, so he keeps his face downcast. "I'll be in sickbay, because god knows with you two in charge, someone's going to need a doctor."

The doors swish shut behind him and he's deep in thought. He's pondering life aboard a ship where respect is more important than regulations, where the crew are loyal out of love rather than duty, and where there's more to each mission than acceptable losses and calculated risk. A ship where their Captain and First Officer are together and people don't just accept it, they're fiercely protective of it.

When he bumps into Chapel as the lift doors open, he forgives her startled squeak because it's not every day that Leonard McCoy, CMO of a renegade starship, picks you up and twirls you round before planting a big kiss on your cheek.


-:-

Back on the bridge, Jim's confidence isn't just a front, but even he is slightly concerned as the clock counts out the fifth full minute after the appointed rendezvous time. The constraints they suffered when disseminating the subspace message means they have no idea how many, if any, are intending to put in an appearance. Still, one glance at Spock, intently bent over the scanners, is enough to renew his confidence.

EPAS, Starfleet, the Federation - they all loved Spock once. He used to be their golden boy. His defection alone has to be enough to secure significant numbers for their movement. It's human nature to follow a strong leader, and Spock certainly has no competition on that front. When Admiral Pike left Starfleet for EPAS, he'd left a huge hole that had never really been filled. The Fleet is has remained like a headless corpse, still twitching but utterly purposeless. After the near destruction of Earth, the Federation has a new hero, and he has pointy ears. It was typical of Pike to capitalize on that momentum. Jim can understand the need, with the Council, F-Sec and the fleet crippled by in-fighting.

Jim glances around the shiny new bridge and feels a moment of fondness. They have half a galaxy to stitch back together, and Jim has no reason to be this optimistic.

Uhura straightens in her chair. "Captain..."

"On screen," Spock replies.

There's a burst of static and then Hikaru Sulu's smiling face resolves, ten feet tall and smiling.

"Captain Spock, Divisional Commander Kirk, fancy meeting you here."

Jim slams his fist down onto his console in triumph, and it's possible that Scotty dances a little jig. They may tease him about it later.

Spock stands and gives his shirt a little tug to straighten it. He steps calmly down the two steps to stand in front of the center seat. "It is most gratifying to see you, Captain Sulu. May I enquire as to your intentions?"

Hikaru's smile fades, fresh scars giving him age beyond his years. He fought at Aspera and again at Earth. "I intend to follow you, sir, and to assist in your efforts to defeat the remnants of Nero's fleet, and reunify the Federation." Behind him, several crewmembers step forward into view. They are a ragtag mix of Fleet coloured shirts and EPAS blacks. Some are even civilians. Sulu gestures around him with an open hand. "We're not much to look at, but we're manning a Constitution Class starship designated NCC-1657 Potemkin, sir. She's an older model and not fully repaired, but she's got some fight left in her."

Spock opens his mouth to reply but another hail cuts him short.

Uhura presses a hand to her earpiece. "Another contact, bearing two hundred clicks starboard, z minus twenty, sir."

"Split screen," Spock orders.

Chekov appears flanked by two very shifty looking Vulcans.

"USS Intrepid reporting for duty, sir!" the young Russian grins impishly, snapping off a very passable 'Fleet-style salute.

Spock half-raises a hand to return the gesture then stops himself, settling instead for his customary split-fingered greeting. The two Vulcans on the screen reciprocate swiftly. They seem young, even by human standards, let alone for a race so long-lived.

"I was lead to believe the Intrepid has not yet been commissioned," Spock makes it a question with a twitch of one eyebrow.

Chekov's grin widens. "Yes, sir. That's right, sir," his eyes sparkle impishly. "These are some wery sneaky Wulcans, sir."

Spock's other eyebrow joins the first.

Jim smothers a smile with one hand, leaning an elbow on his console so that it looks a little more natural.

One of the Intrepid's Vulcans steps forward and clears his throat in a very uncharacteristic show of nervousness. "We...appropriated the ship prior to the conclusion of warp drive testing, sir."

"Appropriated?"

Jim thinks Spock sounds a little pained.

"Affirmative. It is the reason our arrival was delayed." There is a brief pause wherein the Vulcan realizes clarification is required. "Lieutenant Chekov advised us not to proceed at a speed greater than warp three on an untested drive, sir."

Spock does a brief mental assessment of the apparent seniority of Chekov and asks, "who is your highest ranking commissioned officer?"

"I am, sir," the same Vulcan replies. "Ensign Sanek."

"And the remaining crew compliment?"

"Three junior Ensigns, two hundred fifty six cadet volunteers, nineteen civilian scientists and one dishonorably discharged Admiral."

Jim and Spock exchange glances.

"How many cadets?" Jim asks, his throat a little tight. When he signed up to rally the people, he hadn't expected them to be kids, for fuck's sake.

"Forget about the cadets," comes a new and instantly familiar voice. The perspective pans wide and narrows in on the new speaker. Christopher Pike is leaning heavily on the bridge railing and using his other hand to point right at Spock. "Your real problem is going to be with the F-Sec when they realise you've re-stolen their new flagship, Spock."

Perhaps Uhura and Scotty see the slight straightening of their Captain's shoulders, but only Jim sees the flicker of muscle in his jaw and can interpret it correctly.

"At your orders, Admiral." Spock's voice is conversational, slightly inflected, more expressive than usual. "A fact I am certain they will not overlook. Perhaps, however," he glances at Uhura who is making demanding motions at the communications display, "that issue can be debated at a later time."

"And a more distant quadrant!" Pike laughs and shakes his head. "By God, Spock, I never thought you'd go through with it, I really didn't."

He collects his hands in the small of his back and his voice is utterly devoid anything when he replies, "I regret causing you to doubt me, sir, but I needed to confirm that the existing administration is currently incapable of protecting the Federation. I could not act as I have without such assurance."

"Apology accepted."

Jim pushes upright and takes two quick steps to stand at Spock's shoulder. "Better to try fixing the system first, before writing it off all together, Admiral."

Pike's eyes stay the same intensity but his lips twitch. "That's a hell of a statement coming from you, Jim."

"EPAS was good for me, sir."

"Yeah, it was."

The pregnant pause is interrupted by a lone voice over the comm. Enterprise, Enterprise, this is Andorian Battle Cruiser Siganau, our shields are down, our intentions are non-hostile, please respond...

The first message is drowned out by another, and another, then a whole cascade of voices as ship after ship comes out of warp around them. They hover in place; a glinting array of familiar and alien vessels against the dark backdrop of deep space. Uhura is hard pressed to acknowledge them all and they start talking amongst themselves, passing the message, spreading the word.

Ashe frowns around the bridge. "So, are our clocks five minutes fast, or what?"

Her words generate a nervous chuckle on several ships over the interlinked comms.

Jim gives it a moment before he turns his back on the viewscreen and speaks for only Spock to hear. "What are your orders, Captain?"

"Our allies are greater in number than we anticipated," he observes, lips hardly moving.

"Yeah, it's a pretty fine turnout." Jim puts one hand on Spock's shoulder and squeezes. "What're you going to do with them?"

Spock turns to look at him, his dark eyes fierce. "I am going to do my best, with your assistance."

Jim nods, lets his hand fall, and turns to face the music.

- NINE MONTHS, SEVEN DAYS SINCE THE BATTLE FOR EARTH -

Jim stows their overnight bags in the trunk and slaps it closed firmly. His worn, grey-with-age messenger bag goes in the back seat next to Spock’s folded overcoat. The sun is still high in the sky, determined to chase them with light as they embark upon their overland journey.

Spock emerges from the apartment perfectly on time. It’s finally warm enough in San Francisco that he’s dispensed with multiple layers, leaving only one long-sleeved henley. Jim takes a moment to admire the view as his partner secures the door. It’s been eight weeks since their scheduled shore leave began, six months since their official pardon and nearly ten since they risked everything to confront Nero.

And won.

Jim still has to remind himself of that, sometimes. They actually won.

As Spock approaches the car, he doesn’t question Jim’s smile, just responds with a small one of his own: a trademark quirk of the lips that seems to come more easily with every passing day. Jim feels his heart rate kick up a notch just as his stomach drops away a little, leaving him wondering whether their connection will ever seem commonplace. Spock is big on mental privacy, but as he circles the vehicle to assume the driver’s seat, his hand gently travels the length of Jim’s arm, a firm and grounding pressure that suggests he’s sensed just enough to know exactly what is needed.

Normally, Jim loves to drive, but today he’d rather pour himself into the comfortable passenger seat and kick his shoes off. The appearance of his bare feet on the dash earns him a long-suffering frown from Spock, but it’s worth it to feel the sun on his toes. He wiggles them for effect and Spock lets it pass, starting the car and deftly reversing into the street.

As they merge onto the freeway, Jim can feel some of the tension bleeding out of him. Rationally, his anxiety should increase as they speed towards their destination. Irrationally, this time, it seems to have an inverse relationship with every mile they clock. He takes a long swallow from his water bottle and reclines the chair a little more, letting his head rest against the window. For as long as he can remember, the thought of going home has haunted him like a bad taste, an illness he can’t cure. Any happy memories are tainted by that one moment, that sharp retort, the cold snap of recoil and the fiery smell of gunpowder.

The first overhead sign signalling their final interstate change flies past and Jim has to check his wrist in surprise, wondering whether he dozed off or simply spaced out. Spock glances at him, then back at the road.

“Do you require a rest stop?”

Jim smiles to himself, wondering if that’s a subtle way of asking if he needs to use the head. “Sure, why not? It’ll feel good to stretch my legs.”

Spock pulls into a service station and unfolds himself without a trace of stiffness. Their model of car doesn’t require refuelling, but that doesn’t stop him from circling the vehicle once to inspect it for undetected faults or damage. Once a Point, always a Point.

Jim gestures over his shoulder at the service counter. “Get you anything?”

“No.”

“Mind if I do?”

“It has been six hours since you last ate and we have a further two hours of travel. A small meal would be advisable.”

“Meet you by the tables,” Jim agrees, turning on his heel and jogging lightly over to the hot food stand whilst patting down his pockets for his identification.

Spock waits for him in the full glare of the afternoon sun, soaking it up like the desert creature he is. Jim heads over with his hands full of hamburger, the smell making his stomach rumble. Wordlessly, Spock rescues the bottled drink from the crook of Jim's elbow, setting it down on the table within easy reach.

As Jim takes a cautious bite of the piping hot burger, he knows that if Bones were around, he’d be bitching about cholesterol or something. Spock, who lives with him and knows how religiously he takes care of his body, says nothing. The freedom to enjoy things without guilt is another thing he’s never had with anyone else. It's a pleasure that extends from the sauce dripping over his fingers to the way he can take off on his motorbike without wondering if that’s okay. Spock is always there when he gets back, and if he’s not, there's a message in his inbox or a neatly lettered note on the kitchen bench. Once, and Jim swears it wasn’t an accident, Spock left him a haiku in magnetic letters on the refrigerator.

He smiles at the memory and the way Spock steals his drink, takes a swallow and recaps it before putting it back down on the bench.

“Want me to drive for a while?”

“You are more familiar with the route,” Spock replies in that way he has of answering a question without really answering it at all.

Jim just nods clumsily, halfway through another bite. Surrounding conversation floats on the breeze, snippets of traffic information, demanding children and car radios to fill their comfortable silence. He’s always been a motor mouth, forever relying on conversation as a social buffer, but when it’s just the two of them he’s gradually getting better at simply being present. He's letting go of the need to perform.

Spock takes another drink and Jim balls up his paper wrapper, licking his fingers as he does so. “Just keep it. You know I hate ginger beer.”

"Indeed."

Jim slaps him on the shoulder and then laughs at the way Spock inspects the fabric for traces of hamburger. "Shut up, I licked it clean."

Spock just raises a very pointed eyebrow.

Flustered, Jim raises both his hands defensively. "That was one time, all right? One time, and I said I was sorry."

Spock says nothing, just regards him with gentle humor.

"Oh, quit it," Jim sighs, turning away to hide his blush. "We need to hit the road if we're going to get there before sundown."

On the way back to the car, Spock rests his hand on the nape of Jim's neck; a warm, heavy weight and a brush of one thumb that conveys so much more than words ever could. Jim leans into it, rolling his head to brush his hair over Spock's knuckles. They slide apart easily around the car, swapping places so they both have to adjust the seats.

Jim pulls out smoothly onto the interstate and sails through the last few klicks into Riverside. The sun is just setting as they crunch along the old meandering driveway, and he supposes they could have used the transporter and arrived less fatigued, but there is something about the process of getting here that's just as important to him as actually arriving.

He parks and engages the brake. "This could be a big mistake."

Spock turns to look at him. "Let us find out."

"Okay."

In unison, they exit the vehicle and begin to unpack their bags. When Jim looks up from shouldering his messenger bag, his mother is watching them from the porch.

"Hey," he acknowledges a little stiffly.

"Do you need a hand?" she calls back.

"No, we've got it."

She disappears back inside the house and Jim gives Spock a very pointed look. "This is about as welcoming as Delta Vega."

"I thought you agreed to attempt reconciliation?"

"And it's going brilliantly, don't you think?"

Spock lifts his eyes to the sky and trails them to the horizon. "I think it may rain tomorrow."

"You and the weather," Jim sighs. "I swear, you were born to be a corn farmer."

Spock declines to respond and they walk shoulder to shoulder in silence to the front door. Winona holds it open for them, pressing herself against the wall to let them pass. Jim can't help but glance around in surprise because the house has undergone a total transformation.

"I like what you've done with the place," he admits grudgingly.

Winona comes to stand with them, hands on her hips as she surveys her house with fresh eyes. "It's not bad, is it? I took out the center wall and opened the place up a bit. Upgrading the facilities was a must and we got a new kitchen because Peter loves to cook."

"What is he, eight and a half?" Jim raises his eyebrows. "Isn't that child labor?"

Winona laughs nervously and can't meet his eyes. Jim stumbles over his next words, trailing off into a mumble about stowing his bags in one of the guest rooms. She waves them on up the stairs, the memory of Frank still so powerful between them, even now. Jim's face descends into a frown and his jaw clenches. He sets about unpacking with entirely more force than is necessary until Spock's hands settle over his, pressing them down into the overnight bag.

"It will take practice," he says gently. "Most likely years of it."

Jim closes his eyes and focuses on the comfort flowing across their bond. "Remind me again why I'm doing this?" Spock only has to think of his own mother and Jim is instantly contrite, taking his hands and squeezing in apology. "You're right, of course you're right. This place just makes me crazy, is all."

"I suggest a shower," Spock says reasonably, "while I make 'small talk' with your mother."

As expected, Jim's face relaxes into a smirk. "You could sell tickets."

"I expect people would ask for a refund."

"Fine, I'll take a shower and chill the fuck out while you make nice with your mother-in-law," Jim sighs, but his bad mood has broken and both of them know it.

Half an hour later, when he's pink from the hot water and dressed in fresh jeans and a casual shirt, what he does not expect to find is the house full of people. It's such as surprise that he pauses on the stairs with a stupid look on his face just in time for Bones to take an incriminating picture.

"Happy birthday, Jim," he drawls. "I feel a mission's worth of bribery coming on."

Jim lets himself be drawn into a confused embrace, staring over the doctor's shoulder to find Ashe, Hannity, Chekov and Uhura dotted amongst faces he barely remembers from childhood.

"My god," he screws up his face. "Gary?"

The tall brunette in a plaid shirt steps forward, a beer awkwardly clutched in one hand. He glances down at it, then back up at Jim. "I didn't know what I was going to say, so I thought, you know, liquid courage." He laughs nervously.

Jim wants to come up with something reassuring, but his head is stuck way back in the past, drenched in the memory of telling Gary a little of what was going on at home and then having him freak the fuck out and never speak to him again. "Holy shit," is all he can think of. "It's been a while."

"Yeah," Gary nods, radiating tension. "Look, Jim, I'm going to suck at this but I've been waiting twenty years to say it so...I'm sorry, okay? I was young and stupid, and when they sent you to juvie, I..."

Jim grabs him by the shoulder as Gary's eyes fill with tears and he shoots the room at large an apologetic look but they've all busied themselves with other things, granting him at least the illusion of privacy. "Come on," he suggests. "Let's go outside."

Gary nods and follows eagerly.

When the screen door bangs behind them, Jim keeps walking until they're out by the old barn. There's still a low fence there that is just the right height for sitting on. He leans against it, arms folded and waits for Gary to join him. They'd been the best of friends once, thick as thieves, but Frank had taken that from him as well.

They talk for a long time, the two of them. Once the issue of Frank and Gary's guilt is dealt with, they talk about fishing in the river and playing war games in the fallow fields. They laugh over the time they convinced Margie Sullivan to show them her underwear and then laughed even harder at the detention it earned them. When the memories draw to a natural close, Jim digs the toe of his boot into the soil and takes a deep, calming breath.

"I don't blame you, Gary, but it seems to me you need me to say this, so...I forgive you."

Gary nods, eyes flooding again. "Thank you, Jim." He looks up, tears welling over. "All this time I've been angry at myself for failing you."

Something warm and calm wells up from the center of Jim's chest and he finds a smile at the ease of it. "You were just a fucking kid, Gary. Same as me."

"I know, but..."

"We were just kids," Jim presses.

"Yeah. Jesus."

The silence stretches and eventually Jim shifts, acutely aware that he's just walked out on his own surprise birthday party. "I better be getting back."

"Shit, yeah," Gary wipes his eyes. "Give me a minute, I'll be right behind you."

Jim is entirely unsurprised to find Spock waiting for him on the porch. He steps forwards as Jim climbs the steps and they meet in the shadows beside the door.

"Okay?" Spock asks.

"Yeah. You responsible for this?"

“In part.”

“Thought so.”

And that's all it takes between them these days.

Jim reenters the house and is kind of overwhelmed by all the smiles that turn his way. The solid presence of Spock at his side helps him to navigate the room. Every second face is someone from town and he can't get over how tentative they are, how embarrassed and apologetic. The younger people are better, people around Jim's own age who remember him as a bit of a hell raiser or a rebel. The ice is broken more easily there and Jim begins to suspect that he could actually live amongst these people if he had to. With time and a little bit of effort...maybe, eventually.

It's not until later in the night that the Vulcan contingent arrives. Sarek cites diplomatic engagements but Jim suspects they're just not as tolerant of barbecue as Spock is.

Jim greets his father-in-law with flawless Vulcan in the family accent, which causes his two aides to arch their brows. Jim hasn't had much to do with either of them, but he likely will in the future, so he plays nice and doesn't try to shock them too much.

Standing to one side, watching his bondmate's antics with amused tolerance, Spock does not realize there is someone beside him until he hears a voice.

"He is much like the James T. Kirk of my world," Prime observes, his voice rough but warm.

"In that he finds himself infinitely more amusing than he actually is?" Spock replies.

Prime huffs once under his breath. "In that, yes, but also in his bravery and his compassion. I trust you know what it would have cost him to come here tonight, to speak to these people, to stand in the same room."

Spock turns to look at his counterpart. "He is my t'hy'la," he says stiffly. "Of course I know."

"Have you told him?"

"Clarify."

"Have you told him that he is t'hy'la to you? Brother of your soul, friend of your heart?" Prime shifts stiffly, never completely healed from his torture aboard the Narada. "I only ask because human life is so short...over before you know it." He looks away wistfully. “In the blink of an eye."

"I am aware."

"Are you?" Prime is suddenly sharp as a tack, dark eyes implacable. "Because I saw what this town did to Jim, what Frank did to him. I was there in the aftermath and I know that it is not enough that he feels it through the bond, he needs the words."

With that, the old Vulcan makes his way slowly over to Leonard McCoy, whose face lights up in a complicated mixture of fondness and exasperation at the sight of him. Spock does not understand his counterpart's fascination with the doctor, but he welcomes the old man's departure, whatever the reason.

When a newcomer takes his place, Spock is on the verge of excusing himself before he sees who it is.

"Captain Spock." Eli salutes him with a glass of water. "You look disturbed."

Spock glances back over at his counterpart. "Talking with oneself is unexpectedly dissatisfying," he comments. "I do not recommend it."

"He has a good heart," the youngster says, his tone laced with fondness. "However annoying he may be."

Spock arches an eyebrow at Eli's emotive language, but only gets one in return, which is no answer at all. "How goes your work at the Vulcan Science Academy?"

Eli nods. "Our progress is slow, but I am confident of an eventual breakthrough."

"And the topic of your research?"

The youngster stares out across the room as he replies. "Tachyon radiation amelioration. It is a highly specialized field, but I anticipate an increase in genetic illness, tumors and lymphomas in the upcoming decades, thanks to Nero's widespread use of Red Matter."

"I did not realize you were a doctor," Spock confesses, finding the revelation difficult to reconcile with Eli's age.

"I am not," he replies, then glances up with a small smile. "But I am a scientist. I also paint and play piano."

Spock doesn't know what to say to that, so Eli simply melts into the crowd, leaving him to think it over.

-:-

Around midnight, they all sing happy birthday and cut the cake. Jim holds out for a good twenty minutes and then disappears. Winona trails him all the way to the front gate.

He looks up when he hears her footsteps and she takes it as a blessing that he doesn't turn away.

"Hey, Mom."

"Hey kiddo. It's getting cold out here, you want my jacket?"

"Nah," he shakes his head, turning back out to stare at the dirt road and the cornfields.

He looks so young in that moment but so old at the same time. It seems like only yesterday that he used to run riot in those fields, driving Frank crazy by trampling the tender young stalks. The memory of Frank drives a shiver down her spine and she shies away from any further reminiscing. Better to live in the here and now than get bogged down in the past.

"I'll come back, just give me a few minutes," he tells her, and there's an apology in it, if you know how to listen.

She chucks him on the shoulder, leaving him his personal space. "You take your time. I'll be here, whenever you're ready."

He looks up at that, catching her eye, holding it. "Yeah. That sounds good."

"Okay," Winona says, forcing it past the lump in her throat.

"Okay," he confirms.

She leaves him there in under the clear night sky, but when passing Spock on her way back to the house, she halts him with an outstretched hand. She knows better than to touch a Vulcan, but he stops regardless. By all rights he should hate her almost as much as Jim once did, but he doesn't. She can see it in his eyes. He's hopeful for her, and she doesn't know whether she wants to hug him or slap his face.

"I am so glad, so very glad that he has you," she tells him instead.

For a moment he studies her, completely alien and unreadable, then he nods, just once, and continues on his way to Jim.

Winona figures that wasn't her worst parenting moment ever.


-:-


"Hey," Jim sighs, rolling to lean his shoulder blades against the gate instead of his chest. "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to?" he tries hopefully.

Spock says nothing, just steps up into his personal space, buries hot fingers against his scalp and proceeds to kiss him within an inch of his life. Jim melts into it, slings his arms around Spock's shoulders and feels the warmth soak into him. They kiss until Jim's lips tingle and his heart is racing. When he goes back inside he's going to have a badass case of stubble burn, which everyone will notice, and Jim is totally okay with.

"What was that for?"

Spock's hands trail down to frame his face. Those eyes are solemn and warm at the same time, so deep and serious that Jim goes silent and just waits to see what will happen next.

"You are the bravest person I know," Spock tells him. "I aspire to have a fraction of your resilience and your ability to see the best in everyone around you. I cherish your warm-hearted gift of forgiveness, offered even to the most difficult people in your life, but most of all..." he pauses, lost in the moment. "I have a word to share with you."

"A Vulcan word?"

"Yes."

"Will I like it?"

"I hope so."

"Is it my birthday present?"

"In a way."

"Can I have it now?"

"Shhh," Spock laughs softly, moving both thumbs so that they cover Jim's lips. "You are ruining it."

Jim blinks up at him expectantly, obedient in his silence. Spock leans down until his lips are level with Jim's ear. He presses a kiss against the hollow beneath the lobe.

"T'hy'la."

-FIN-