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Story Notes:

Beta'd to a fantastic level by Lyra (this was my first Spock in a while, she helped so, so much-Lyra rules!)

 

Apsides- n. pl. the point of greatest or least distance of the orbit of a celestial body from a center of attraction.
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A whorl of dark blood undulated over the surface of the muddy pool of water. It was sheltered from the light rain by the shadowy loom of his body. He refused to indulge in alarm at how weak his shadow was, at how quickly it was getting dark. Instead he watched his own blood, his life, twirl across the surface, sinking like milk in tea. The rain began coming down in earnest, disturbing the pool below him. Faint rumblings...He cocked his head, and the rain immediately set the puddle boiling with angry, stinging droplets. His blood dissipated in the onslaught, vanishing.

He tensed the muscles of his neck, looking out over the deserted yard in front of him. The mud shone faintly, reflecting the torchlight from the inside of the huts. It would be dark very soon. Testing, he inhaled deeply and choked on the air, coughing, the muscles of his diaphragm tense and aching.

He doubted, given the current circumstances, that he would live until morning without assistance.

Spock twisted his hands, pushing against the restraints that bound him to the post. As before, it was ineffectual. They had bound his arms above his head, strapped his legs tightly to either side of the post. The whole weight of his body pulled at his arms. He did not have the strength to push against the ropes and lift himself up any longer. That last beating had been severe.

He continued to tug against his restraints with his hands, almost absently now. The rope was made of  strips off a local plant with surprising tensile strength. He suspected a form of prepared glue was added at some point during the process of weaving it, but he couldn't be certain.

Spock looked out across the yard as long as he could manage to hold his neck up. He gazed past the huts, past the wooden gate that blocked the path into the trees, and fixed his eyes on the distant, dark smudges of mountains. They rose dimly up into the clouds, almost completely hidden by rain. He looked as long as he could. Once darkness fell he doubted he would ever again see such a thing.

First the mountains disappeared. Then the trees. Then the features around him, the wooden post and the mud below him outlined only in a faint, flickering reflection of firelight from a window across the yard. When it got too dark to see, when all that was left to him was the endless icy downpour from an unforgiving sky, Spock lowered his head and tried to sleep.

It was not logical. But he wished he could see the stars.

He awoke with a weak cry some hours later. He had started to shiver violently, his body thumping with a wet, meaty sound against the wooden post at his back. The jerking twisted at his bruised organs, stabbed at his cracked ribs. He realized with immediate, desperate clarity that he had lost all control over his body's functions. He could not still himself, even to spare his body pain. He endured. He was a Vulcan; He endured it. Hours. Hours at least. How many he could no longer say. Before his body was too exhausted to attempt to keep him warm any longer. He sagged against the post, but it was not a relief.

So cold...

He heard fibers snap an instant before the tension on his ankles shifted. Someone sawing rope at his back...unfathomable that he hadn't heard anything sooner. He twitched his head to the side, unable to fully lift it any longer. Blearily, he peered through the driving rain into the darkness.

The hands seemed to come out of nowhere, grabbing hard at his shoulders. A face loomed close. Unashamed, Spock's heart leaped in his side. The emotion rang clearly in his voice.

“Captain,” he choked, and he shut his eyes to hide the relief that abruptly, humiliatingly stole his ability to speak.

A breath of laughter, a warm body leaning up against him. “Hang on, Spock. We're getting you out of here.” A long line of heat pressed him back up against the post, strong arms taking his weight.

Weakly, Spock moaned his relief.

“Hurry,” Kirk snapped off to someone Spock couldn't see. Spock heard a chopping sound and his hands dropped free. His full weight fell against Kirk. Spock shuddered at the movement with a small sound of pain.

Kirk froze, and the hands, the warmth holding him up was suddenly softer, more bearable. “I've got you,” Kirk said quietly. “But I've got to lift you.”

Spock felt his hands move and braced himself. He felt himself lifted, held back a cry. Then motion. The captain was so warm, it was strange, he was so warm...

Flashes of memory, from that point on. As though, once he had leave to, his mind had taken flight from the pain and the exhaustion. He remembered individual, disjointed sounds and sights. Rain beating against tree leaves. The strong pounding of his captain's heart. Voices. Some  fragmented sense of being borne up into the trees, of torchlight reflected on wide hazel eyes.

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He woke with the unpleasant abruptness of someone beaten within an inch of his life. The pain woke him sharply and completely, and it took a few moments of careful breath control before he could focus on his surroundings. It was a small failure, and it grated much more than mere physical pain ever could.

He knew someone was approaching him. He must have made some sound, after all.

He peered up at a dark, rough ceiling above his head. The person (bipedal, rustling of cloth coinciding with footfalls, boots not shoes, synthetic not leather soles on a wooden floor) leaned in close, (roughly 172 centimeters, male) and Spock made a careful attempt to turn his head .

He aborted it quickly, a small sound of dismay escaping him.

A hand on his arm. Human warm. The rags of Spock's control fluttered in a high wind, and for a moment he felt a clear, luminous relief so bright and mingled with gratitude that he couldn't breathe and he couldn't think.

“Captain,” he said, trying and failing to strip anything incriminating out of his voice.

Jim laughed quietly, his eyes shining. “Good to have you back, Mr. Spock,” his captain said in his warmest voice. “It hasn't been the same without you.”

Kirk's tone was light and gentle. To Spock's shame, he found himself thoroughly comforted by it. Spock gritted his teeth and slowly turned his head toward Kirk's voice. The movement of his head shifted something unpleasant under his ribs, and he froze with a choking sound.

Kirk stiffened, looking alarmed. “Easy!” he urged. “You've had a rough couple of days.”

“Days,” Spock rasped. He quashed anything resembling alarm. He had responsibility. “The landing party?”

Kirk seemed to busy himself with something just outside Spock's field of vision, but he heard liquid slosh into a container and allowed his curiosity to rest for a time until turning his head did not cause so much distress. He did, however, notice how drawn his captain suddenly looked. Weary.

He lifted a curious stem-like object to Spock's lips. It delivered a small amount of water to his mouth without spilling or requiring Spock to change his position. Some kind of blown glass, Spock observed upon closer inspection.

“Interesting,” he said softly, after swallowing.

A faint smile on Kirk's lips. “Something?” he asked.

“It is interesting that there is such a multitude of bedridden Holti that they have crafted tools specifically for caring for them,” Spock replied, his voice faint but steady.

“Ah,” Kirk said, obviously unhappy with his response. Spock felt a flicker of unease. Obviously unhappy about something.

“During our briefing-” Spock began, meaning to remind him that the Holti had not progressed to the concept of mass-production, and due to the nature of their religious beliefs, spent much of their brief lives engaged in conflict. Perhaps if Jim had more information...

“Yes,” Kirk interrupted him, “thank you, Mr. Spock.”

Spock lay quiet, distressed. Kirk looked up at his face after setting the delicate object aside. His demeanor changed quite abruptly. He touched Spock on the arm, and Spock relaxed a fraction, knowing that Kirk would tell him the source of his concern.

“We seem to have been drafted into participating in an extremely nasty little custom of our guests.” There was real venom in his voice at the last. “You and I and Ensign Caberra were lucky enough to survive it.” He said nothing about  Yeoman Kim, and Spock knew better than to ask. Five years ago he would have asked. Five years ago he knew much less about humans. Certainly much less about this human.

“Ensign Caberra?”

Kirk jerked his head toward a far wall. “By the door.”

There was a table between them. Spock shut his eyes and listened. He could hear her, breathing. Slowly for a human. Raspy.  He could hear something else, as well, some kind of creaking...

He heard Kirk lean forward.

“Apparently, it's more common for those who survive to be in your position than mine.”

Spock listened to him. His breathing was even and strong.

It appeared Spock's supposition was distressingly accurate. The natives were even more violent than they had gathered from the preliminary survey. Unsurprising his captain was disturbed. They were trapped here without support from the Enterprise.

He could feel himself weakening, feel the small reserves his body had built being spent. It was difficult to open his eyes, but he continued to listen.

“And you, sir?” he said, faintly, faintly. “How did you escape?”

Kirk hesitated. In Spock's mind, he could see the bemused expression on Kirk's face. He felt Kirk's hand on his arm, though it seemed that he was much closer.

“I threw them...a few curves,” Kirk said gently.

A wry amusement washed over him, and Spock did not think it belonged to him. Kirk was closer than he could possibly be, warm and bright. He should be concerned about that, he should--
 
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He awoke in twilight, his first sense the sound of the rain pattering on the roof over his head. He could not tell how much time had passed. He was distracted before he could become disturbed by that, however.

Raised voices, outside the door. An argument, possibly. Male and female voices, it was difficult to discern. There was a storm outside, wind and rain and that strange creaking noise again. It drowned out the words. He could hear Ensign Caberra breathing, heard her move underneath cloth with a small sigh.

He raised his right hand slightly, then his left. He shifted carefully on the cot, testing himself, searching for the injuries.

The door opened, and Jim Kirk came in, wet and angry. He ran a hand through his hair, wringing water out. Then he pulled his uniform shirt over his head and hung it to dry.

Spock meant to speak, but when his captain began to undress himself, some strange impulse kept him silent. He felt oddly still inside, watching. His captain set about making a small fire in the brazier by the wall, filling the room with flickering shadows. The light played over the muscles in his back as he worked. It was not cold by any means, but the light was welcome.

Jim worked for eleven or twelve minutes, adjusting the wood and encouraging the flames before he seemed satisfied and stepped back. Spock watched him roll the stiffness out of his neck, lifting his hand to massage the muscles and tilting his head. It was...pleasing to watch. Aesthetically. Kirk moved his shirt in front of the fire and removed his boots. He checked on the ensign then. Spock heard cloth shift, heard her take a deep breath and roll over.

He found his voice.

“Is the ensign all right?” he asked quietly.

Kirk's head snapped up and his face broke into a smile. “Spock,” he said, pleased, taking a step toward him. “She'll be fine; She was up earlier.” He stepped around the table, sat beside the cot. “Her wrist is broken and a few ribs,” he added soberly.

“Unfortunate,” Spock said. Kirk retrieved his tricorder from the table and held it in a loose grip.

“How are you feeling?” Kirk asked, leaning close. He was running the tricorder, and Spock listened, glancing down at it before answering.

“Somewhat...fatigued, sir,” Spock said hoarsely.

Kirk retrieved the little drinking instrument and filled it. Spock  lifted his head when Kirk brought it to his lips, disliking being so helpless.

His body rebelled immediately, tensing in a bone-deep spasm of agony. He breathed shallowly, adjusting to the new level of pain. He did not make a sound. He was almost certain.

Kirk was close to him. Holding on to him.

“Spock,” Kirk called him, tightening his grip on his arm insistently. “Spock.” A command tone. Spock forced his eyes open, not knowing when he had shut them. Forced himself into the present.

Kirk's eyes were large and concerned.

“Spock, are you all right?”

Spock hesitated. “No, sir, I am not.”

Kirk face darkened. It was unpleasant to watch. Spock looked down at the tricorder again, and Kirk tilted it away so he could not see. Spock lifted an eyebrow. He did not tell his captain how illogical his action was. He did not need to. Their eyes met for a moment in perfect understanding.

Kirk tightened his lips and held the tricorder up enough for him to see the screen. It was not adjusted to the precision he was accustomed to, but it was enough for him to see what he had already suspected.

“Fine time for the doctor to be out,” Kirk said softly, and looked away for a moment. “We need to get you back to the ship.” Kirk leaned close to him. Very close. Spock could feel his captain's breath on his face. “You'll have to hold on until then.” There was iron determination in that voice that would accept no refusal.

Days, certainly. Forty-eight hours at least.

“Spock?”

Spock opened his eyes with a jolt, clinging tightly to wakefulness.
 
“I shall attempt it sir,” Spock said, trailing off, his eyes fluttering.

Jim touched his face, and he caught his breath, riding on a sudden dangerous shock of pleasure. He had never done that before, never... Jim's thoughts were suddenly very close, very warm, familiar, buoying him up.

“Can you go into a healing trance?” Jim asked. Had he asked out loud?

“Yes, I...” Jim was so near to him, so warm, it was almost more of an effort remaining apart from him.

“You can.” Jim's voice was low, breathy, as if he could feel how close their minds were, a gossamer thread away. It was comforting. It was more than comforting.

“I will need time. I must rest. The concentration required is...difficult.” So close. It surged over him, a warm tide of thought, concern-bright, it was...almost close enough...

“So close,” he said faintly, and was shocked to hear his own voice.

“Yes,” Jim murmured it, sighed it, and Spock recoiled back.

 Spock wanted very badly to just relax, and let him in. It would be so easy to allow it.

“I must rest now,” Spock said, sounding slightly strangled to his own ears. Kirk withdrew his hand, looking momentarily startled.

“Take all the time you need,” he said with a lopsided smile, recovering fast. He stood and stretched in a way that was quite attractive to the eye. Spock shut his eyes. “Let me know if you need anything,” Kirk added. Spock heard him walk away. Bare feet on wood.

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Spock dreamed. Vulcans did not dream often, as a rule, but Spock did. A gift from his mother. Just then he was dreaming of rain. Of wet vegetation and stumbling around in the dark. A young girl was clinging to him, another was leading the way. A young boy brought up the rear.

If at any time the quality of the dream seemed strange, Spock let the thought fall away from him. Things often seemed out of place in a dream. If there was anything in particular that troubled him about what he was experiencing at all, it was how muffled everything sounded. A small irregularity, easily dismissed.

The girl stumbled in his arms, and he caught them both from falling by grabbing a tree branch. She cursed and spat blood onto the forest floor.

“Yinnan,” he hissed, and the boy came forward. He turned to Caberra, angry every time he looked at what they had done to her face. Hitting a woman...

“Ensign, I want you to go with this boy from here on.” Her first reaction to that was fear, and he accepted that, as she clutched a little tighter onto his arm. He put a hand on her shoulder. They'd beaten her up pretty badly, but she could still move with help. “Mr. Spock's still out there strapped to one of those posts.”

Her jaw firmed and she straightened up. She was angry about that. Good.

“I can help you, sir,” she said stoutly. Dark eyed little Ensign Caberra. He liked her. She was tough. He'd picked her for this landing party himself, which was something he really didn't need to think about when her swollen lip and bloody nose were staring him in the face.

“I know you can,” he said calmly. “I need you to keep this boy safe and get him back to camp. We'll meet you back there after we locate Mr. Spock.”

“Aye sir,” she said, though she didn't particularly seem to like it. He gestured Yinnan forward and the boy took her arm, looking frightened and excited. She hesitated in letting go of him and he didn't blame her a bit for it. A bleeding woman and a child running off into the wilderness.

He pressed his knife into her palm, even though he knew he might need it. She'd lost hers in the river, days ago. It felt more like years.

She looked up at him and nodded once before turning to go. Tough girl. It didn't make him feel any better.

He looked away from a young girl's dark eyes into a young girl's blue ones. She watched Caberra leave with her brother. Her blond hair was plastered flat to her head with the rain. She looked chilled and lost. He took her hand, and she squeezed it and tried to smile.

“Adda, we've got to hurry,” he said, and she nodded, tugging him along, another brave little girl in the dark.
 
She'd cried. He remembered, a sweet little thing, she'd cried when they'd set Spock onto the lift and she got a good look at what they'd done to him.

He hadn't seen her in days, he thought they had her locked up somewhere. He was going to find out where and wring some necks. She'd run right off to get her grandmother as soon as she could. Her grandmother had been upset to see Spock, but when she saw Caberra she was furious. A ritual was fine for them but women didn't do that. They had their own rituals. They were afraid of his people, and they got sloppy in the frame up. Forcing strangers into a test of charecter was fine, if some (or all) of them died that was terrible but it happened sometimes and that was fine--but not if some of them were women.

Adda said she was saving them from the wrath of the gods for blasphemy, beating a woman at the post, but I'm pretty sure there's going to be some kind of trial or inquiry or something. She looked so brave and defiant in front of the council, I'll be damned if they lay one hand on her I'm going to get some answers even if I have to...is Spock waking up? He looks like...hmm. Check his readings...

Spock woke to the strange but familiar sensation of looking at himself from two different sets of eyes. Kirk's hand was on his arm, and the other held his tricorder, whirring softly.

There we are... Kirk's thoughts were bright and strong and far too compelling for his own good.

Spock stared at him in shock. At the hand he had casually rested on Spock's arm. Spock had drifted in his sleep, something he hadn't done since he was a child. Drifted into Kirk's thoughts, Kirk's memories.

Spock had melded with Jim more often than with any other being. Perhaps too often. The idea came with it's own kind of hollow certainty. He had done it out of duty, he had done it out of necessity, but he had done it. Spock had melded them again and again and pushed aside the thought of how easy it had become, how simple a thing it was now to do, how thin the walls between them had grown.

Kirk would have to be told. Spock would have to try and explain it to him. Common politeness demanded it. If he could no longer trust him afterwards, then Spock deserved to live through that.

However, Spock was as close to completely certain as one could be with humans that Jim Kirk would not react in that way. He would brush any discomfort at the loss of his privacy aside and reaffirm his confidence in Spock's discretion. Spock was also quite aware that this was a dangerous certainty for him to have.

For a moment, for no reason at all, he thought of his father's face, and flinched.

“It's all right, Spock,” Kirk said immediately. Then Spock pulled back from him, pulled back hard, and Kirk felt it. He frowned and blinked, shaking his head as if to clear it. After a moment, he shrugged it off. Humans were so resilient sometimes, it was easy to forget how fragile they were.

Spock felt better. Stronger. And Kirk...he looked tired. He had taken from him, he had taken from him, was there nothing now he would not do?

“Your readings are up,” Kirk said, sounding pleased. Spock did not react to that, he did not.

“Indeed,” He replied, looking away. Passive resistance. If he were any kind of Vulcan, he would not allow himself to profit from the strength stolen from another. If he were any kind of Vulcan, he would...

“Something wrong?” Kirk asked sharply, his eyes narrowing a little.

His mother's father had kept dogs, on earth. Pointers. Unusual animals. It was not logical, but at that moment his captain's face took on a sharp attention that reminded him of those animals.

Unusual, and quite striking.

He thought suddenly, looking at him, that if Kirk had known to offer, he would have gladly given what Spock had unknowingly taken. Perhaps that was how it had happened. Perhaps.

“Mr. Spock,” said a female voice from the door, sounding surprised. Kirk looked up, distracted. “You're awake.” Ensign Caberra approached with a tight-lipped smile. He saw why this was so when she got closer. She had a split lip that was swollen and scabbed over. She also had extensive ecchymosis around her left eye. The bruising gave her a rather asymmetrical appearance, and seemed to be the cause of a great deal of anger from his captain.

“Apparently so, Ensign,” Spock replied, which for some reason brought both humans some amusement. “It is gratifying to see you well.” Her breathing was still shallow and he could see one of her wrists was bandaged, but she was mobile and the sentiment seemed to please her.

“Thank you, sir. You're looking better yourself,” she commented. That was, unfortunately, an area of discussion he wished to avoid.

Kirk was looking at him again, disquieted. He was far too observant for Spock to hide much from him for very long.

“Captain, I think I've found where they're keeping her, but there's guards all around,” Caberra continued.

“Where?” Kirk asked quickly, straightening. Spock was grateful to have his attention diverted.

“The rope bridge past the kitchen stores is blocked off,” she replied. “By ladies, of course.”

“The kitchens,” Kirk mused, and then smiled. “Takes a woman's touch, Caberra.”

She laughed, keeping her lips tight.

“Here, at least, yes sir.”

“As the Holti practice an extreme separation of the sexes as part of their religious traditions, might I assume-” Spock began.

“-No men in the kitchens, exactly.” Kirk finished the sentence for him, a common enough occurrence   that on occasion was the cause of some amusement from the junior officers. Spock was certainly aware that to humans it was, in a sense, rather rude, but his captain managed it with such an ease and air of familiarity that Spock could not help but see it as a kind of compliment. Kirk smiled in a way that seemed to warm the room by several degrees, and glanced over at Caberra.

“You should have seen the fuss they made when I insisted we all sleep in the same place,” Kirk said, and for some reason, Caberra's face flushed red.

“How did you convince them?” Spock asked, spurred on to curiosity.

“Congratulations, Mr. Spock, we're married,” Kirk said with some amusement, making a gesture that quite clearly included everyone in the room.

Spock opened his mouth and stared at him, momentarily at a loss what to say. He did not care for the ominous stirrings of confusion and distress that Kirk's statement had evoked.

“Am I to-” he hesitated, “-to understand, that the three of us...?” He glanced at Ensign Caberra, who shrugged expressively. He glanced at Kirk, who looked quite pleased with himself.

It was certainly a...novel solution to the problem.

“A convenient deception, Mr. Spock,” Kirk said gently, touching him lightly on the arm, filling him with warm affection and the slightest sense of possessiveness. He did not, to his shame, ask his Captain to stop.

The slightest flicker of a frown flashed across Kirk's face, and he removed his hand, rubbing his fingers together as if he'd felt something strange.

Spock couldn't hope to keep it from him, couldn't hope to do more than distract his captain from difficult questions until he could control again.

“Who,” Spock asked wearily, letting his eyes close, “Is currently being held prisoner?” He was already filled with the unpleasant certainty that he knew the answer before he'd posed the question.

“You probably don't remember Adda,” Kirk said. Spock was grateful he had not chosen to express his statement as a question. “She and her brother helped us escape our posts. I'm afraid we've gotten both of them in some trouble.”

“They're just children, really,” Caberra said, sounding anxious. “It's barbaric, captain.”

“So were human beings, not so very long ago,” Kirk said mildly. His voice warmed. “In fact, I'm sure there are some people who would say we still are.”

Spock heard his clothing shift, as if looking away from Caberra and toward him. He heard the tricorder running again. Spock would have to enter the trance soon. Soon or not at all.

“Spock,” Kirk said softly, sounding concerned. He put a hand out, lightly, on Spock's shoulder. Spock wanted to tell him not to, wanted to tell him he didn't trust himself.

“You said you could enter a healing trance here,” Kirk said, interrupting Spock's thoughts. He squeezed his shoulder gently. “I think now is the time.”

“I, also,” Spock sighed, and pressed his lips together.

“What is it?” Kirk was leaning down now, very close. Spock looked up at him, meeting his eyes.

“It will be at least twenty four hours before I can be awakened.” He took time, took a breath. Kirk made an encouraging noise. “I will not be able to aid you in freeing the young woman.”

“You're worried...about me?” Kirk said with real affection. “Now is there any reason to think I'm going to get myself into trouble?”

Spock said nothing, but managed to lift his eyebrows.

Kirk looked down for a moment, then back up. He wasn't quite smiling.

“All right, Mr. Spock, point taken.”
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The art of healing with trance was a trying skill for any Vulcan to learn. It was the most delicate of balancing acts. It required the absolute height of focused concentration. And as difficult a skill it was for Spock to master, it was always orders of magnitude more arduous whenever he actually needed to utilize it.

As Spock worked to heal himself, he could spare no portion of concentration to control the pain. He  toiled within it. The pain gave him focus. As his body responded, as the discomfort began to lessen and fade back in along the repaired nerve endings, so did his focus. Leaving him gasping and exposed to a vast, empty wasteland without even thought to shield him.

Words came to him, from out of the terrible blank expanse of nothing that held him. Words drilled into him, carved into him until they came without effort, without thought.

“Strike me.”

An explosive puff of breath, a sharp spike of pain. Sweet relief.

“Again,” he gasped, pleading.

His head rocked back from the blow. For an instant he could breathe freely. Color bled back into the world. A flash of life, swallowed quickly by aching white numbness. He opened his mouth to beg for more. More life, more breath, more pain. A fist met his face. Someone grunted, as if he was hitting Spock as hard as he could.

Spock gasped, stiffening on the bed as the careful walls that he had built to isolate his conscious mind from the world crumbled all at once. He reached out and grabbed the boy's shoulder.

“Yes,” he croaked. Then, in relief, “Yes, enough.” He touched his mouth as sensation came pulsing in, riding the beat of his heart. There was blood on his hand when he pulled it away.

The brightness of the color was stunning. Unbearably green. Spock blinked and looked up.

Yinnan stood beside him, trapped by Spock's grip on his arm. He was red-eyed, his face streaked with tears. Just a boy. A boy who could strike amazingly hard.

Greater-than-human strength. The natives here, they...The briefing. It had been in the briefing.

Yinnan was here, but the captain was not. Where...

The sound of Yinnan's sniffling was like thunder to his ears. The rough, peat-like scent of the room felt as if it was beating its way into Spock's head. He took a shallow breath and tried to re-order his perceptions. The moments after a healing trance could often resemble the effects experienced after coming out of a sensory-deprivation tank. Everything was far too clear.

Just then, just when Spock reached for equilibrium, the stored memories of the past twenty-four hours unlocked themselves.

The captain had indeed gotten himself into trouble. Something had gone wrong in the attempt to retrieve the girl-they had retreated back here. Yinnan had hidden under the cot, while Kirk made a rather heroic attempt to gather any blame entirely onto himself.

The natives had taken them both. Jim and Caberra. Jim had not gone quietly. Spock thought, with a certain amount of detached horror, that given the sound of the blow, Jim may have made a fatal miscalculation.

“Mr. Spock?” Yinnan said.

For an instant, Spock was frozen in dismay. Then he pushed Yinnan aside, rose to his feet and walked towards the door.

“Wait-” Yinnan gasped.

Spock paused, considering possibilities. His thoughts were not as ordered as he would like. He took a deep breath and felt a faint throbbing underneath his ribcage. Spock pressed a hand against his side. He had not possessed the time to heal himself completely. More than enough for easy mobility, however.

After a moment he turned and gave Yinnan a penetrating look. The boy had been alone with the captain several times while Spock was healing himself. Unless he was very much mistaken...

“Jim said,” Yinnan began, his voice high and frightened, as if Spock himself was a danger. “He said, I-” the boy's breath hitched, and Spock lost his patience.

“The captain left a message with you for me,” Spock said with complete certainty. Not because of what he remembered of the evening, but what he knew of the man. He took several large steps toward the boy, who jumped. “What was it he said?” Spock demanded, clamping down firmly on any sneaking spread of anxiety.

The boy flinched back a little. Spock frowned slightly, wiping blood from his mouth. There was dried blood on his uniform sleeve, and fresh. Spock sighed, aching and weary and feeling the strain on his emotional control. It was possible he was not acting wisely.

“Please,” Spock added, his voice much gentler. “Knowing the captain, time is of the essence.”

The boy eyed him warily, as if he wasn't certain of Spock's sanity. Under the circumstances, the reaction was understandable.

“He was going to make sure Adda and I were safe. He said he wasn't going to let anybody throw Adda to the wolves because they're afraid of the council. He said he figured you'd know what that meant and,” the boy frowned, thinking. “This was important,” he said, and then brightened, as if just remembering. “He said to take care of his ship, Spock.”

No.

Spock stared at the boy for a frozen  moment, took a breath. He turned his face away.

“Thank you,” he said, taking care to modulate the tone of his voice. “That is...quite helpful.”

“Then you know what he'll do?” Yinnan asked eagerly.

Spock felt very cold. He could not say why. He was dismally aware of the length of time that had passed since the captain and Caberra were taken. The sound of the blow that had undoubtedly felled the captain was crisp and clear in Spock's memory. As was the limp sound of him being dragged out the door. Spock's eyes flicked down to his sleeve. He brushed his hand over his mouth again. The strength of these people was...formidable. And humans were so fragile.

If Jim was conscious, he would...if he was alive, he would-

Spock had been lying right there, within two meters of him. Helpless.

“Yes,” Spock said, and nearly flinched at the sound of anguish his own voice.  He took a breath, imposing what small measure of restraint he could. “And unless I am very much mistaken, he will need our help.” Spock did not add 'If he is alive'. He had to put aside any further speculation about the probability of his captain's survival. It impeded his ability to function.

Spock turned and regarded the door. He put a hand out and rested it on the wood, leaning his weight against it and forcing himself to concentrate. Spock tilted his head and shut his eyes, straining to listen. After a moment he nodded to himself and reached once again for the handle.
 
Yinnan gasped and grabbed at his arm.

Spock looked down at him. “Yinnan, if we do not leave this room there is very little chance of us helping anyone. There is no one outside the door close enough to hinder us if we take care to be silent,” he said reasonably.

Yinnan bit his lip and nodded, letting his hand slide away.

“Do you know where they were most likely taken?” Spock asked. Yinnan hesitated.

“There's the Theatre,” he replied. “It's on the ground.”

Spock lifted an eyebrow. “Indeed,” he commented. “Is there some reason it would not be?”

Yinnan gaped at him for a moment. “It's by the men's village,” he said slowly, as if Spock were stupid.

“Satisfactory,” Spock said, letting the matter drop. He reached out and carefully pulled the door open, stepping outside with a minimum of noise. He stopped in his tracks.

“I am a fool,” Spock commented quietly.

The natives had built dwellings in the trees. They were almost thirty meters into the air, on a platform built right around the trunk of a massive conifer. There were dozens of simple suspension bridges strung between platforms, giving the strange impression of a spider's web floating amidst the trees.

The sight was a blow to his confidence. He had heard the sound of the platforms creaking, the sound of wind in the branches. He had even seen the trunk of the tree, along one wall of the room he had spent the last few days in. Still he had not managed to put the clues together. The lapse was appalling, and made him doubt his own fitness. If he could miss something so patently obvious, what else was he missing?

Spock shook his head faintly, deeply disturbed.

He heard Yinnan step up from behind him.

“The women and the children live here,” Yinnan said softly, catching on to the source of Spock's confusion. Spock glanced over and saw concern and pity on the boy's face. An acid bite of humiliation threatened to seep out of a dark corner of Spock's mind.

“Yes,” Spock said quietly, “I see.”

“Is there something wrong with you?” the boy asked with blunt curiosity.

Spock set his jaw. “Almost assuredly,” he said, his voice low and disgusted. Yinnan looked surprised.

“Which way?” Spock prompted. The boy pointed, and Spock gestured for him to lead on.

They were not met by anyone. The bridges were empty, the platforms silent.

“This isn't right,” Yinnan said, after several minutes of walking. “Where are the people?”

“If I were to speculate,” Spock said simply, “I would say they were watching a trial.”

Yinnan glanced back at him, his face very white. He moved faster along the bridge, imparting more swing to the structure.

They descended to the ground via a relatively large hoist and a rather ingenious system of pulleys. Spock had a brief, wistful thought of his tricorder when he saw them. He could have made recordings of the system in action, but it had been taken. Or destroyed.

As they hurried through the forest, Spock was startled by several sharp flashes of memory that were not his. Jim had come this way, carrying him through the rain. There were deep emotions tangled in the memories, anger and despair and desperation. Spock felt a swell of vertigo as if he were falling and blinked hard, shaking his head a fraction. Jim's emotions, not his.  

Yinnan was nearly out of sight before Spock realized that he had stopped in his tracks. He moved to resume following, and was struck again by a twinge of vertigo, much milder. He felt a faint flash of unease.

It felt... He was going the wrong way.

There was absolutely no logical basis for the idea. Yinnan was leading him along a trail through the woods that would in all probability end at the correct destination, eventually. Spock continued on for several steps, feeling oddly stubborn, and found that he was turning his head, almost blindly, as if fixed on a distant point beyond the trees. A point that did not seem to intersect the path he was taking. Spock stopped, groping with the strengthening feeling, almost unconsciously leaning toward it.

He did not want to think about what it was. Who it was. A strong, living mind. If he was right, Jim had survived...Hope threatened Spock's thoughts menacingly. He took a step, moving almost in a daze.

Yes. That way.

The sensation was not strange. It felt instead as if it had been there a long time, a whisper in his mind too faint to notice, but slowly growing. Spock continued walking, expecting the sensation to fade, but it did not. If anything it grew more solid, having finally gained his attention.

Spock felt a curious sinking in his stomach as he went, moving toward the captain as if pulled on a string. There was a sense of inevitability in the action, as if it had only ever been a matter of time. Spock walked faster, his confidence growing toward a level of certainty that alarmed him.

Jim was there, Spock thought with a warmth that was thoroughly disturbing.

He heard the shouts and sounds of a crowd long before he could see anything. It was an incentive to keep moving despite the gnawing ache beneath his ribs. He was beginning to have difficulty breathing.

When he approached nearer, he found he was quite grateful that he had lost Yinnan.

They had built a kind of amphitheater in a natural cleft of sloping hillsides. The trees were trimmed back, the valley in the center flattened out. A platform set to one side gave an imposing air to those sitting upon it--a judges' bench, perhaps? It might just as well have served as choice seating for important guests watching a performance. Spock drew closer, to the edge of the tree line.

The captain and Caberra were facing those imposing figures on the platform, as Spock suspected they would be.

Jim was upright. Relatively unharmed. Alive. Spock reached out and leaned briefly against a tree.

A young girl stood with them, looking terrified. It was illogically tempting to call out to them, even for Spock. Yinnan might have made things difficult. Spock hoped that when the boy did finally arrive, he would have the sense to remain unobtrusive.

The moment after Spock looked down and saw them, the captain looked up and met Spock's eyes. He turned his head, disregarded the crowd that had gathered to watch, and fixed his gaze on Spock as if he had always known that Spock would stand right there. Spock felt a cold shock of connection run down his spine. Jim's eyes showed the full force of his personality, as if he was trying to silently bridge the gap between them through will alone. Had he felt Spock coming? Staring down at him across a theater full of people it seemed plausible enough to be a working theory.

Then, while Spock watched breathlessly, the captain flicked his eyes away, deliberately looking down and to his right. Then back up at the grave figures who were currently asking Caberra some penetrating questions, as if nothing had happened.

Spock followed his captain's eyes and lifted his eyebrows in appreciation.

On a small table near the front row of natives, just to the captain's right, were their communicators, phasers, and Spock's tricorder.

Spock took a moment to look around and consider his options.

Silently, he drew back further into the trees, circling around the edge of the crowd. He needed to find someone isolated. He needed to find someone wearing a hood.

Very shortly, Spock was changing out of his uniform. Then, moving casually and taking care to keep his head lowered, Spock began to pick his way closer to their equipment.

His disguise was adequate, and he moved through the crowd without drawing undue attention. The task was made simpler by the riveting nature of his captain's behavior before the council members. Kirk was giving a rousing speech that would have undoubtedly induced many of the more sentimental members of the Enterprise crew to entirely abandon any sense of decorum, had they been present to hear it. Kirk spoke about compassion, and duty to one's fellow man, and the rejection of fear in favor of friendship. He moved about quite energetically, with much hand waving and pointing of fingers.

Spock made a note of it as he drew closer to his target, thinking it would undoubtedly be a fine contribution to the mission report, and might even have some positive effect on crew morale, if it were posted. The speech did not, in fact, have much at all to do with the questions the council had asked Kirk, but it was having an effect on the crowd. They seemed to be quite distracted, and Spock found it much easier than he had anticipated to push right though to the front, within two meters of the table holding their equipment.

He paused to assess the situation. There were several courses of action open to him, the most straightforward of which would be to simply start a fight in the crowd to distract anyone from noticing him retrieving the communicators and the phasers. However, taking into consideration the behavior of the captain, Spock calculated the chance was nearly ninety-one percent that Kirk already had something in mind.

Spock glanced up under the fabric of the hood he was wearing, and Kirk paused in his oration to gesture at the crowd. Their eyes met, and Spock tensed, knowing whatever it was Kirk was planning, it would happen in a moment.

Then, one of their communicators went off. Kirk's eyes widened.

Spock stiffened, glancing over at the table. The Enterprise was back early. One of the natives sitting close jerked back, startled. Spock took a step forward, clenching his teeth as the tall male that had been surprised stretched out a hand slowly toward the beeping object. As if hesitant to touch it, but curious nonetheless.

Spock intended to pluck it directly out of his hands if necessary, but was brought up short by the sudden shocked reaction of the crowd. He had been so thoroughly distracted, Spock had actually lost track of what was going on in front of the platform, but the words he heard now made him lift his head up sharply.

“Are you challenging me?” one of the men on the council asked in response to whatever it was Kirk had said. Once the words were spoken, Spock knew very well what his captain's answer would be.

Spock flicked his eyes over to the table, edging closer. The native had completely forgotten about the communicator, temporarily riveted by the drama unfolding in front of him. Temporarily. The first communicator had fallen silent. However Spock was certain that in a few moments, the Enterprise, having failed to contact the captain, would attempt to signal the other three members of the landing party.

“Yes,” Kirk said boldly. The crowd erupted.

At the precise moment everyone leaped to their feet, Spock leaned down, snatched a communicator off the table, and ducked around several shouting natives, melting back into the crowd. It took less than three seconds.

“Spock to Enterprise,” he said, keeping his head and voice low, shouldering his way past several people. He ignored a twinge from his ribcage.

“Mr. Spock!” Mr. Scott exclaimed, and Spock saw an elderly man standing next to him give him a strange look. Spock pushed past him and cut Mr. Scott off.

“Mr. Scott, I need you beam the captain and Ensign Caberra aboard immediately. They are roughly-”

The crowd gasped, and there was a short, horrified scream from Caberra. Spock snapped his head up to look and went cold.

On the ground lay the young girl. He could not hear her breathing. There was a great deal of orange blood around her head and in her hair. Caberra was kneeling down beside her, looking entirely overcome with shock and dismay. The elder who had struck the girl stepped back.

From several feet away, James Kirk pushed himself up off the ground where he was sprawled. There was human blood on his face. His face-

“You bastard,” Kirk hissed under his breath, too quietly for anyone to hear. Anyone but Spock.

“Mr. Spock?” came Mr. Scott's voice, from the communicator.

“-They are ten point five meters in front of me,” Spock said, fighting to keep the anxiety out of his voice. The captain knew Spock had a communicator. He knew they would be beamed up any moment. The logical thing to do- the logical thing-

Kirk got to his feet, and almost smiled.

He would not do the logical thing, Spock thought then, with a certainty that bordered dangerously on hysteria. He started to shove his way back toward the captain. He would not-

Captain Kirk charged. The council member was expecting it, and used the momentum against him. They both rolled in the dirt, grappling for advantage. The strength of these people...

“I've got a lock on the ensign, but I can't separate out the captain's signature-”

“Then beam the ensign up, Mr. Scott!” Spock said sharply into the communicator, not bothering further with attempts at subterfuge. Someone grasped at his arm, suspicious, and Spock snapped an elbow into his face.

Around him, there was a general exclamation, a consensus of shock and alarm, as Caberra dissolved into the glow of the transporter. It was suddenly much easier to make his way forward, and with a few more shoves, Spock broke from the crowd and tore for his captain at a dead run. Something tenuously healed protested inside him. Spock knew he could not hope to last in a prolonged altercation. He did not care.

Kirk was on his back, and seemed to be getting the worst of it, as Spock had feared. They had their hands at each others throats, but Kirk was flailing, his grip weak. It was clear he was being choked. He was being choked to death-

Something deep inside Spock flinched, and he threw himself at his friend's attacker with an instant of real fury in his heart. He drove the man into the ground, drew back, and bashed him in the face with his fist as hard as he had ever hit anything in his life. The strength of the emotion he felt in that moment whited out any pain, any discomfort, any thought he might have had in his head.

The native man's head snapped to the side, leaving a wide spray of blood from his mouth across the dirt. He went entirely limp beneath Spock, and for a frozen second Spock thought he might be dead. Then he took a breath, and Spock took hold of his own shocking loss of control and shoved it aside for later recrimination. The captain-he had to see to the captain-

Kirk had rolled up onto one elbow, looking slightly dazed and out of breath. His nose was undoubtedly broken, and perhaps his left cheekbone as well by the swelling, but he did not seem to be otherwise damaged. Spock rose to his feet and went to him, passing his eyes over the crowd cautiously. Some had run away. They all seemed...suitably impressed. Spock leaned down, offering a hand. He had to take a breath to steady it.

“Captain,” he said gently. Kirk was staring at the deceased young girl lying awkwardly where she had fallen. His face was tight and dark with self-recrimination. It was a look Spock had seen there before, on away missions that went bad.

“Jim,” he said then, insistent. It would be better if the captain arrived on board the Enterprise on his feet. He would appreciate it later, when he was in a more rational state of mind.

Kirk looked up. Spock stood there without speaking, accepting of the raw emotion he saw on Kirk's face. Then, deliberately, Spock looked down at his own outstretched hand. Kirk followed the path of his eyes, and let out a shaky breath. After a moment he reached out, letting Spock pull him to his feet.

Briefly, Kirk rested a hand on his arm in thanks. Then Kirk looked him up and down once, as if examining him for any signs of injury. Perhaps comparing what he saw now to how Spock had looked twenty-four hours ago. Kirk flashed him a brief, questioning expression.

Spock nodded once. He was functional.

Kirk turned away, accepting that. He stepped toward the council members as if to address them, turning his head to include the portion of the crowd that had not already fled.

Spock moved quickly to gather up the remaining equipment from the table. The natives closest to him scrambled back in alarm.

“We came here,” Kirk said savagely, “on a peaceful mission. To offer to trade with your people, for your minerals, your stones. Mutual benefit. Friendship.” Kirk's voice was getting louder and cut through the air with all the force of his outrage. Spock turned to face him, slipping his tricorder strap over his head.

“We survived your tests,” Kirk said without faltering, “we answered your questions. And this-” Kirk gestured roughly towards the girl's body at his feet. “This is your answer to us?”

Kirk was nearly shouting at the end. Spock stepped up close beside him, resisting a strong impulse to touch his arm. Kirk turned his head fractionally, as if he could feel Spock's concern.

Spock's shoulders relaxed by a minute amount.

Kirk held out a hand, and Spock gave him a communicator, firmly quashing a swell of relief.

“Scotty,” Kirk said, sounding very tired, “get us out of here.”

------------------------------
It was twenty-seven hours, thirteen minutes and forty-seven seconds after they beamed aboard before Doctor McCoy called him down to sickbay for a discussion. Seventeen minutes after that, Spock left sickbay to look for the captain.

He was not in his quarters, and not on the observation deck, which led Spock to believe he did not wish to be found. By the time Spock finally used the computer to locate him in a small secondary recreation lounge on one of the lower decks, he was quite convinced of it. There was nothing of that former certainty of Jim Kirk in Spock's mind, and that also seemed to speak of Kirk's desire to be left alone.

Spock did not care to intrude upon his captain's private life so obviously uninvited, but sometimes duty precluded courtesy.

He nearly walked face-first into the door before he realized it was locked. The possibility was so outside his expectation he stopped and stared at the door panel for a moment in confusion, thinking he had perhaps mistaken someone's private quarters for his destination somehow.

Of course, he had not. The captain had locked Rec 4. Caught off guard, Spock actually spent an instant looking for a button to ring his presence. There wasn't one. The only people who were even authorized to lock off a public section of the ship (barring emergencies) were the captain, the CMO or the chief engineer.

Hesitantly, feeling oddly foolish, Spock lifted a hand and knocked on the door. There was, predictably, no response. Spock had an uncomfortable moment or two considering the captain's possible reaction should he pull the plate and force the lock. He had just lifted his hand to knock again when the lock disengaged with a faint beep, and the door slid open.

The lighting inside was rather low, and Spock paused briefly before stepping forward.

“Captain?”

“Why, Mr. Spock, fancy meeting you here,” Kirk said wryly, from a table near the bulkhead. Spock straightened, fighting off a swell of relief. The captain did not look as troubled as McCoy had led him to believe. Kirk folded his arms, leaning back in his seat a little. “I don't suppose you're looking for someone else, are you?”

Spock flicked his eyes around the otherwise empty room.

“No, sir,” Spock replied, troubled by the question. Perhaps he had been premature in his judgment.

Kirk saw the look on his face and sighed, relaxing his body language and gesturing him to come closer.

“Come on in and join me. I don't suppose I can stop you, anyway,” He smiled and shook his head, which was oddly incongruous, given the resignation in his tone of voice.

Spock stepped closer, slipping his hands behind his back.

“Doctor McCoy seemed to feel you were...somewhat unsettled. Lt. Uhura confirmed you received a packet from Starfleet several hours ago, and I thought perhaps-”

“What, Mr. Spock? That I might need a minder?” Kirk asked without looking at him. He had something in his hand that he was toying with.

Spock stared at him, shifting slightly on his feet, discomforted. An unpleasant flash of memory brought him the clear image of the native man he had nearly killed. The spray of orange blood across the ground. It came to him, that should he ever be placed in the position Kirk accused him of appropriating, his hard-won control over his own emotions would be sacrifice.

He glanced up at the chessboard that was set up on the table next to the captain. He had not placed the pieces correctly. There were only three pieces on the entire board. Two black pawns, one white.

“Were you about to play, Captain?” Spock ventured weakly.

Kirk glanced up at him with a slight smile.

“No, Spock.” He took several seconds to look Spock over.

“I read the doctor's report,” he began with some warmth, “he said you beamed up to the ship with three broken ribs.”

Spock inclined his head.

“Sir?” he inquired innocently.

“I take it they were broken before you got into a fistfight with the local magistrate?” Kirk asked, a bit more sharply.

“Yes, however I-”

“That strikes me as a rather reckless thing to do,” Kirk observed.

Spock stared at him, then looked down at the deck.

“You required assistance,” he said carefully. He tried very hard to hide the rising discomfort he was experiencing. He did not wish to discuss the reasoning behind his actions, because reason had been very far from his mind. In fact, it had been an increasingly difficult state for Spock to attain, whenever Jim Kirk found his way into danger.

He felt a faint, brief sense of warmth. A feeling of not being entirely alone within his own mind. Kirk was giving him a fond, affectionate look that was very effective in bringing home an unpleasant truth.

Reason would have forced him to speak to Kirk of that faint touching of minds. To begin a conversation that would, in all probability, do very little to damage Kirk's trust in him. But would also leave Spock in a position that would demand he control that connection. Pull back from it. Because once Kirk knew what it was, understood it, he could not fail to notice when it happened. To recognize how much...emotion...Spock had allowed to take root between them. Reason, it seemed, had fled entirely.

“I think I understand,” Kirk said with a faint smile. Spock jerked his head up, startled. Kirk was eying him in a way that left him feeling...very well known. It was both alarming and dangerously pleasant.

Kirk put a hand over his mouth. Spock leaned forward slightly, feeling, knowing Kirk had decided to confide in him.

“Starfleet has acknowledged the...lack of success in our mission,” he let out a breath of what might have been amusement, “and we are hereby ordered to pick a new location on the planet below, and try again.”

Spock blinked.

“Yes, I know,” Kirk said.

“Captain, I believe we have conclusively proven that these people are not ready for contact with-”

“The Federation needs the rights to mine those minerals,” Kirk interrupted, shaking his head. “Since they don't yet have a form of centralized government, as far as our superiors are concerned, we can keep trying until we can get someone down there to give them to us.”

Spock took a step, and sat down at the table across from Kirk. They were both silent for seven seconds.

“I find that...quite disturbing, sir.”

Kirk leaned on the table and nodded his head in Spock's direction.

“Disturbing is one word for it,” he said thoughtfully. He put an elbow on the table and held up the white pawn he'd been holding. “The Klingon Empire is right on their doorstep. They're small players in a larger game, Spock.” Kirk examined the piece sadly. “Insignificant,” he continued, and Spock was no longer certain he was speaking to Spock.

Kirk reached over to put the piece on the board next to the other white pawn. He did not pull his hand away, but kept it there, as if holding the piece down so it wouldn't fly away.

The pieces were all on the same level, and when the fourth pawn was put in its place, their positions sparked an unpleasant connection in his mind. It resembled an old-style Albin Countergambit. Also called a pawn sacrifice. His eyes were drawn to the white pawn Kirk had been holding.

Insignificant.

Spock reached out and took Kirk's hand, startling him. Quietly, he relieved his captain of the pawn, gently tugging the white piece out of his grasp. Their eyes met for a moment across the board, and Kirk's expression softened. Then, without speaking, Spock pulled the other pawns and started to set the board for standard play. After six seconds spent watching him, Kirk began to assist, setting the pieces back to their proper places.

“You need not concern yourself about our orders,” Spock said then. “I will go.”

Kirk looked up sharply. “You nearly got killed last time,” he said, frowning.

“Which leaves me better prepared for what I will encounter,” Spock replied quickly, placing the last piece and sitting back a little.

Kirk looked as though, were the table not between them, he might have embraced him. The thought was...dangerous, and Spock was abruptly quite grateful for the table.

“That won't be necessary,” Kirk said, a strange, distracting intensity in his voice. “I'm planning on interpreting our orders rather loosely.”

“Sir?” Spock said, sitting up straight. Kirk had a look on his face that often signaled he was about to do something unnecessarily hazardous. Spock's mind raced, grappling with possibilities. He lifted his eyebrows. “You cannot mean to beam back down to our previous location,” he said, and it sounded to his own ears much more like a demand than a statement.

Kirk smiled faintly. It was not a pleasant expression to witness.

“I owe that boy an apology, Spock.” He lifted his chin a little. “For what I failed to do. Him and his grandmother. They saved our lives.”

“Walking voluntarily into a life-threatening situation is a dubious repayment,” Spock said vehemently.

“I'm not going to discuss this now,” Kirk said with a sigh, standing up. “I'll take every precaution-” he continued, turning from Spock as if the matter was closed.

Spock was on his feet and had grabbed his arm before forming any conscious thought to do so.

“Jim-” he began, and stopped himself when he heard the anxiety in his own voice.

Kirk snapped his head around and glared at him. Then, pointedly, down at the offending hand. “Control yourself, Mr. Spock.” Kirk said through his teeth.

Spock let out a breath and dropped his head a fraction, feeling bizarrely as if he had been struck. He withdrew his hand. Briefly, he shut his eyes, appalled at his own reaction. When he looked up again, his face was quite blank.

Kirk had, to his shame, seen everything, and his posture softened. His captain looked, for an instant, entirely regretful.

“I don't have a death wish,” Kirk said then, very quietly. “I understand sometimes that may be difficult to believe.” He paused, and sighed, reaching up to grip Spock by the shoulder. The action was surprising, and Spock gave him an uncertain look.

“Mr. Sulu has been monitoring our previous position for me for several hours now,” Kirk explained. “There's been a lot of fighting, some fires.” He narrowed his eyes a fraction. “Unless I miss my guess there's been...a change of management.”

“Indeed,” Spock said faintly, struggling with a relief that left him feeling strangely sick. He wished to offer some form of apology, but to apologize would mean to acknowledge just how far outside of logic he was capable of reaching where Jim Kirk was concerned.

Spock could not say if there was a precise moment when the convergence of his choices had made this outcome inevitable. If there was a specific point when the intensity of his emotional reaction leaped out beyond his ability to contain it.

When had the bleeding of their minds into one another became a certainty? The first meld? The third? He recalled the feeling that had tugged at him while following Yinnan, the pull that had drawn him to Kirk's side. It had not felt sudden, or unnatural. It felt like some deep, abiding part of his own mind had finally come to his notice. Spock caught his breath. Regardless of when the blurring of the boundaries between their minds had begun, given what had already occurred, Spock knew they would need to discuss the ramifications. It was a fixed point. It would happen. The only question was when.

He wished very much that it would wait. It was entirely illogical, but at the moment, he wanted nothing more than time. A few hours. A few days. Enough for Spock to gain a modicum of composure. The thought of leaving himself so open to Kirk right now left him deeply unsteady.

Kirk was looking at him with a somewhat alarming expression on his face. Spock noted, with an odd detached concern, that they no longer had a table to separate them. Kirk was watching him as though he had heard every nuance of Spock's internal struggle. As if Spock had been whispering his thoughts into Kirk's ear.

Spock could feel him, he realized. He could feel the sympathy in his captain's regard. His regret for snapping at Spock. The...affection.

“Spock,” Kirk's hands came up to grip his shoulders in a near-embrace. “Not tonight,” he said quietly.

Spock opened his mouth, and left it open.

“I...” he said faintly, “I do not know...” he stopped, looked hard into Jim's eyes. “Jim?” he asked helplessly, something huge and warm swelling inside him, threatening his equilibrium.

Jim leaned forward, completing the illusion of an embrace. It was another blow to Spock's control, and he wavered a little, already beset on all sides.

“I don't know about you,” Jim said then, his face very close, “but I find it comforting to be able to keep an eye on you without having to keep an eye on you.”

The relief that hit Spock in that moment was almost sufficient to knock his feet out from under him. Kirk remained beside him, and allowed him time to wrestle back some scrap of his former control. Spock realized he was holding Kirk tightly by the arms, as though he needed an anchor to keep him in place.

“Yes, Captain,” Spock said finally. He breathed the words with some effort, turning his head slightly toward Jim as he spoke.  

“I'm right here, Spock,” Jim said in a quiet, intimate voice. The sound of it did extraordinary things to Spock's central nervous system. Kirk's hand came up and around the back of Spock's neck, as if bracing him. His eyes searched Spock's face. “I'm always right here.” Whenever you're ready to talk, his words seemed to imply. There was the faintest of recriminations in his voice. As if it was something Spock should certainly know by now.

The realization came to Spock suddenly and with little fanfare. Kirk knew what he needed better than he did. He was standing so close to Spock they were touching, one long line of heat from his chest to his thigh. Right there, where he always was. Spock shut his eyes briefly, concentrating, and found his thoughts similarly close. A faint, steady presence of acceptance leaning lightly against him.

Acceptance. It was a reaction Spock had craved at certain points of his life more than any Vulcan had a right to. Spock opened his eyes and stared down at Kirk. When had he known? How had he...?

“And I,” he said truthfully, his voice rough, “am here.” Always here. They stood together, literally joined in silhouette at the center of the otherwise empty room.  
Kirk's eyebrows went up and he smiled, his expression one of pure, boyish delight. “Why Spock,” he sighed, his eyes shining, “if I didn't know better I would think you were getting sentimental.”

Spock looked down, then back up.

“Jim,” he said softly, knowing that he had been pushed right to the edge. Another word from Jim-any other word-and Spock would tell him everything. Anything he wanted. “I-” Spock was about to apologize. For not speaking as soon as he knew. For not seeing the possible danger and preventing it from happening at all.

Jim angled his head a little, and their lips just brushed. It was not accidental. It was the lightest of touches.

Desire hit Spock like a blow to the stomach. Ravening, uncontrollable and not, to his shame, entirely unexpected. Spock caught his breath, shutting his eyes, frozen in terror. Jim pulled back from him and sighed softly. His hands gripped Spock's shoulders.

Spock made some small sound. He managed, after a long moment of agony, to open his eyes and look up with something resembling sanity.

Jim was close, and calm, and sympathetic.

“Not tonight, for that either,” he said gently, and smiled. They both looked at the floor for a few minutes, while Spock got his breath back. The events of the evening were so highly improbable that Spock had no framework in place to even begin to process them. He found himself concentrating on the lukewarm temperature of Kirk's hands on his arms. On the faint, underlying presence of his captain in his mind. Jim was...calmer...than he was at the moment.

“I'm going down with a landing party to the planet at 1300 hours,” Jim said after a time, and Spock was illogically grateful for the normality of the comment. “If you're coming, you'd better report to transporter room two by 1250.”

“Yes,” Spock said faintly, and Jim straightened, pulling back a bit. Spock lifted his head. “Yes, sir,” he corrected himself, his voice much more level. The thought of Jim's mouth on his darted through Spock's mind with a shiver of pleasure. He had a sudden suspicion that particular thought would be causing him a good deal of distraction in the future.

Jim tilted his head, eyeing him for a moment as if to be certain he was functional. Spock attempted to appear to not notice.

“Come on, Spock,” Jim sighed, stepping away, towards the door. “Before the 'fleet sends me something that'll tie my hands even further.”

Spock strode beside Kirk down the corridor, their shoulders close, their movements in sync. It was not a remarkable or unusual way for them to walk together. This time it caught Spock's attention. A visual confirmation of the growing unity between them. Like the feeling of being drawn to Kirk's side through the woods, it was there before Spock noticed it.

He glanced over at Jim, feeling a curious lightening sensation.

Always here.

Beside him, as if he had heard the thought, Jim smiled.

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