Jim finds out in no uncertain terms (in Enterprise's mess on a Tuesday before he's had coffee, in front of Bones, after that botched volcano incident) that Vulcans don't date.
It's not that they're opposed to the principle, Spock explains (and Jim translates into Jim Kirk Standard), just that it isn't necessary when your parents fixed you up with your future bondmate at the age of seven based on supposed mental compatibility. Then you’re stuck spending the next twenty-something years of your life with a brain stowaway who, Jim figures, has pretty much unlimited access to your thoughts. Compared to human courtship, where three dates equals Jim sliding into home base (and if he's lucky, that three can be reduced to a one with a couple shots of tequila), twenty odd years of another consciousness in your mind is the sound method of the two, assuming the goal is a lifelong match. Jim’s matches tend to be more in the four-to-six hour range.
Okay. So it's logical that Vulcans don't date, but Jim still thinks that's a load of bullshit.
"So in the two years you've been together, you've never taken her out? Not even to dinner? You've got to be joking." He steals a glance at Uhura, standing in line for juice with Christine, and they’ve got their heads bent together whispering.
"Vulcans do not—"
Jim holds up a hand and closes his eyes against the inevitable. "I know. Believe me, I know."
"Then I do not understand why you required clarification."
"Spock," Jim says. "I'm human. Sometimes we speak rhetorically. This is one of those times. What I mean is, I can't believe it."
"You are aware I do not lie."
"Dammit, Spock," Bones swears into a biscuit. "Sometimes I think you do this on purpose."
"I have no idea to what you could be referring."
"Cut the sass, Vulcan."
"You never met up for coffee?" Jim cuts in before the two of them launch for jugulars. "And don't you dare say you only drink—"
Spock raises an eyebrow and a mug of tea to his lips. Jim rolls his eyes.
"Please tell me you've at least given her flowers."
Spock blinks at him. "For what purpose?"
"As a gift? To make her happy?"
"Gifts are illogical," Spock says. "If Nyota has need of something, she will procure it for herself or simply ask me directly."
"Romantic bastard, aren't you."
"Bones," Jim chastises. He turns his eyes back to Spock. "Okay. No flowers. So your entire courtship consisted of...what, exactly?"
"Why is this of interest to you?" Spock asks.
"Because Jimmy is a nosy sonofabitch," Bones grumbles.
"I'm curious," Jim admits. "I'm honestly just curious." Spock straightens himself in his chair, seeming to gain an inch in height, and Jim reads it as a sign of discomfort.
"I do not believe the details of my relationship with Lieutenant Uhura are any of your business."
"You're right," Jim says, shrugging and shoving a triangle of toast into his mouth. "They're not."
Bones drains the last drop of coffee from his mug and pushes away from the table. "I'm getting a refill," he mutters, leaving the captain and first officer alone. Jim drums his fingers on the metal surface and chews another piece of toast.
"You honestly don't see any merit to it?" he says through a full mouth. Spock scoffs.
"Dating," Jim says and swallows.
"I selected Lieutenant Uhura based on our mutual interests, compatible personalities, and her knowledge of Vulcan culture," Spock tells him. "I fail to see how drinking beverages in a public setting would serve to increase my regard for her."
Jim rubs the sleep from his eyes. "A date is about sharing an experience with someone," he says. "Planning something you don't normally do, to make the other person feel special."
"Nyota has no reason to doubt my regard."
Groaning, Jim crunches on a piece of bacon and laughs. "You ever been asked out?"
"I have," Spock says. "I found myself the target of undesired attention when I instructed at Starfleet Academy."
"I'm not surprised," Jim says automatically and for some reason conjures Spock in the black uniform he wore during the trial. He blinks the thought away.
"I was led to believe it is because of my Vulcan heritage," Spock says thoughtfully. "I am considered exotic."
"You're different, all right,"' Jim grins. "Did you ever go out with any of them?"
"No," Spock says.
"You turned them all down?"
"It is against Academy regulations for an instructor to engage in a personal relationship with an active student," Spock points out.
"So you waited until Uhura graduated?"
"I have broken no regulations," Spock says in reply.
"What about when you were a student? No one asked you out then?"
"And I bet you refused them too."
"So, for argument's sake, if I asked you out right now, would you have dinner with me? Hypothetically," he clarifies.
"I see no reason to answer a hypothetical question."
"The Kobayashi Maru simulation was hypothetical," Jim points out. "You brought me up on charges because of it, and I almost got my ass handed to me."
Spock lets out a long exhale, and Jim can see him set his jaw, the way he does on the bridge when he's about to disagree with the captain but thinks better of it. Jim can read Spock's mood in the line of his mouth. Right now, he's aggravated, even a little amused, but not angry.
"I would not accompany you to dinner were you to ask me."
"Why not?" Jim asks, a little offended. "I'm pretty good looking, smart, and we get along great. How am I not a logical choice?"
"Since departing Earth, you have engaged in multiple romantic encounters, the average duration of which indicates your intent to be a short-term relationship, likely physical in nature, which I do not desire."
“Two point six eight three hours,” Spock reports.
“How can you possibly know that?”
“As first officer, it is my responsibility to know the captain’s whereabouts at all times.”
"I don't sleep around," Jim snaps.
Spock's eyes widen slightly, and the corner of his mouth twitches.
"Okay, I hook up occasionally when we're at a starbase," Jim says. "I'm twenty six and I'm human. But never with a member of my own crew. And I don't mislead people. I'm upfront about what I want."
"I did not imply you had misled anyone. I merely state that I am not interested in pursuing a relationship that has no long-term potential, hence why I would refuse dinner with you."
"Alright, I give up," Jim says, grinning. "Besides, I think Uhura would kick my ass. Friends is fine with me."
Spock regards him with an expression Jim can't read. There's no tension in his mouth, but his stare is blank. Jim stares at him. What is it — confusion? Disbelief? There's a funny feeling coiling in Jim's stomach as he mulls over Spock's face, something panicked that makes his heart beat faster. Clearing his throat, Jim swallows the rest of his orange juice and looks momentarily at his pancakes. He probably went a little far with Spock just now, but Jim likes getting a rise out of him, the same way he provokes Bones to watch his left eye twitch. Maybe Spock really doesn't understand that Jim thinks of him as a friend. He rests an elbow on the table, chin in his hand. He lifts his eyes. The question tumbles out before he has a chance to think.
"You get why I saved you from that volcano, right?"
Spock frowns, his lips hardening into a thin line. Jim's about to open his mouth to say more when his comm chirps. He pulls it from his pocket and flips it open roughly.
"Kirk here," he answers, irritated, glancing over his shoulder at Bones, who is next in line for coffee and looking murderous. Jim motions for Bones to bring him a cup and is satisfied to watch the eye twitch from across the room.
"Captain..." Scotty's stressed voice makes Jim soften into a chuckle and shake his head. "If you've got a couple minutes to spare before shift, I could use your eyes on a wee issue."
"Can't you send Keenser? He's wee enough."
"I could, but you're faster climbing the tubes."
"I'm not getting in a Jeffries Tube right now. This uniform is clean."
"Aye, sir," Scotty sighs.
"Kirk out." Yawning, he covers his mouth with the back of his hand. "Sorry," he says. "Where were we?"
"You are finishing your breakfast. I am going to science lab fourteen," Spock says, rising from the table. "I will see you on the bridge, Captain." He takes his tray in both hands and nods at Jim, turns on his heel, and leaves. It is the same way he rises and leaves every morning when they eat together. And like every other morning as he watches Spock walk away, Jim's heart sinks a little for a reason he can't explain.
Jim is scared, terrified and alone, shivering in the antechamber, and he feels his dying eyes water as he stares up at his first officer. His palm is pressed against the cold glass. Everything hurts, his body is failing, black is bleeding into his vision, but the ship is safe. Spock is safe, kneeling on the other side of the hatch, his hand raised to mirror Jim's.
He's going to die, but the half of him looking down on Jim from the other side of the glass will live. Sam left when Jim was so young, and Spock has (without Jim's knowledge, without even realizing he'd placed Spock in the role) filled the void where Jim's brother used to fit.
"I want you to know why I couldn't let you die...why I went back for you," Jim says, and the words are the most important he has ever spoken. He knows they are his last. He looks at Spock, implores him with his eyes to understand. When Spock speaks, his voice is broken.
"Because you are my friend."
It is enough. Though they cannot touch, the imagined press of Spock's fingers against his own provides a sense of calm. Jim stops shaking, and in this last moment together, he is at peace. A single tear spills from Spock's eye. Jim feels his fingers slip away from the glass, and then the darkness embraces him.
"It's cheating, you know," Jim croaks, his throat dry, and he coughs. The hospital smells like antiseptic and rubber-soled shoes. He can't wait to sleep in his own apartment again. He's been awake for most of a day. Spock holds up a glass to his lips, and Jim sips, barely able to lift his head from the pillow. Spock must sense this, because he slides a hand to cradle Jim's neck and helps him to sit up just enough that he can drink comfortably. His thumb strokes Jim's skin once, twice, and then the same hand is lowering Jim back to the pillow, withdrawing. Jim hears the clink of the glass being set on the bedside table.
"Thanks," he says, letting his eyes fall closed.
"What is cheating?" Spock asks. There is a scrape of chair legs against the tiled floor, and Spock's voice is close to his ear.
"Using his blood," Jim says, smiling despite how wrecked his body feels. "I shouldn't be alive. How long have you been here?"
Spock doesn't answer but passes a good-sized package into Jim's hands.
"Aren't you the one who told me gifts are illogical?" Jim asks, tearing the paper by feel and opening his eyes when he reaches the smooth box within. He smiles at the picture printed on it. "Chess, huh?"
"It will provide a diversion and stimulate your brain."
"You'll play me?"
"Set it up, Mr. Spock."
Spock beats him. Jim blames it on being recently dead and reaches out to clasp Spock's hand, glad when Spock doesn't pull away. They stare at each other quietly, Spock's eyes seeming to memorize the lines on Jim's face, and Jim lets himself do the same. They relearn each other, and he isn't sure if the warm feeling in his stomach is coming from him or from Spock, whose fingers move just barely against his own as Jim drifts to sleep.
There's a knock on Jim's door, and he has half a mind to ignore it and crawl back under his covers, but there is something in the evenly spaced sounds that makes him grin for the first time today and bite his lip against the sudden fluttering in his chest. Spock looks at him across the threshold when he opens the door a few inches.
"What's up?" Jim says, pushing the door open completely and inviting Spock inside with the sweep of his arm.
"Dr. McCoy instructed me to ensure you receive exercise," Spock says, remaining in the corridor, ramrod straight. He’s in civilian clothes, long robes, and his hair is slightly wind tossed. "Do you feel up to walking?"
It's chilly along the bay. There's a breeze off of the water, but the sun is out. Jim shoves his hands in his jacket pockets and falls into step beside Spock, who walks at a leisurely pace. It’s mid-afternoon, and they’re passed by the occasional jogger and person pushing a stroller.
"How are you feeling?" Spock asks, and he glances sideways at Jim, then returns his eyes to the sidewalk.
"I'm okay," Jim answers, kicking at the ground. "I keep thinking about it."
"You recall your death?"
Giving a desperate smile, Jim widens his eyes and exhales. "I was trying not to say it, but yeah."
"I, too, think of it often."
It hits him then. His eyes flood at the overwhelming memory — the ever present ache throughout his body, the specks of black taking over his field of vision, Spock touching him but not touching him, being so, so cold, and then nothing —
He stops walking in the middle of the promenade, tilts his head back to gaze at the sky and inhales deeply.
"I know it's only been a few weeks, and they said I might have trouble adjusting, but I was only dead for a few minutes.” He scrubs a fist into his eye and hates that his hand is shaking. “I just want to stop thinking about it, get back to normal—"
"Jim." Spock touches his wrist and gently pulls Jim’s hand away from his face.
The feeling passes. Jim nods that he is okay, and they resume walking. Spock's index and middle fingers are curled around Jim's, arms loose and swinging between them. It's pleasant. Spock’s hand is slightly cool, and Jim finds he doesn't mind holding it as they walk. It makes him feel anchored. He squeezes lightly and wipes his eyes.
"Do you require nourishment?" Spock asks after several minutes.
Jim shrugs. "I could eat."
Something approaching a smile tugs at the corners of Spock's lips — it's the same face he made when Jim first taught him how to bluff — and Jim knows he's up to something but keeps the thought to himself.
"Come," Spock says, turning around. "We will return to your apartment."
They walk most of the way in silence, though Jim can somehow sense Spock through the touch of their skin. It is a simple feeling, and the world around him is strangely brighter and more vibrant. He slips his whole hand into Spock's, tangling their fingers, and Spock walks closer to him then, their forearms brushing.
Spock leads him past the front door to the apartment building and across the street, to the park and playset Jim can see from his bedroom window. Beneath a tree beside the swingset is a neatly folded blanket atop a woven basket, a note pinned to it ("You're welcome.") with handwriting that looks suspiciously like Uhura's. Spock is not surprised to see it — what Jim senses through their joined hands is apprehension and nervousness — but it doesn't show on his face except for a tightening in Spock's jaw.
Jim's usual babble is, strangely, absent. He watches as Spock shakes the blanket out, lays it along the ground and sits cross legged, smoothing his robes. Jim flops down opposite him and props himself up on an elbow, quirking an eyebrow in his best Vulcan facsimile.
"So," he says. "What's in the basket?"
With the same precision Jim has seen him use while collecting samples, Spock unpacks the items and places them in a semi-circle before him. Jim identifies a roast beef sandwich (which must be for him), something beige and lumpy (which he hopes is for Spock), cookies (up for grabs, as long as there aren't any nuts), two plates, a set of utensils, a roll of napkins, and two bottles of cranberry juice. Spock unwraps the sandwich and sets it on a plate, shyly sliding it to Jim.
"Thanks," Jim says, biting into it. He tastes horseradish and tomato and moans a little. "This is good," he says through his second mouthful. Spock looks unabashedly pleased, and his lips curve into a smile. He opens the container of suspect beige foodstuff and consumes it with a spoon.
"What is that, soup?" Jim asks.
"It is not unlike soup," Spock says. He holds the container toward Jim, who dips in his pinkie and brings it to his mouth. It's not bad. Spock tilts his head in disapproval but doesn't reprimand him.
"Kinda like hummus," Jim decides and finishes his sandwich. He brushes the crumbs from his jacket and reaches for one of the bottles. Taking a long drink, he wipes his mouth on his sleeve and for some reason holds the bottle out to Spock. Spock pauses, and then his long fingers wrap around the glass, overlapping Jim's. Jim slides his hand away and watches as Spock brings the bottle to his own lips, heat rising in Jim's face. For one moment, he imagines his mouth pressed to Spock's, of their breath mixing, of laying him back against the blanket and nuzzling his throat. When did he start thinking of Spock this way? The breeze rustles the leaves, and one descends, falling to rest on Spock's shoulder. Jim leans over and brushes it away, then once, barely, caresses the skin of Spock's neck. Spock gasps quietly, and Jim can't interpret the sound. He's just crossed a line, he realizes, and jerks his hand back. His cheeks burn and he fumbles for the cookies.
They're chocolate chip. He eats one in two bites. He holds the other aloft, but Spock shakes his head. His lips are tight. Jim crams it in his mouth and stands abruptly.
"I'm gonna go swing," he announces and walks the few feet to the swingset, turning so he cannot see Spock beneath the tree.
The metal chains creak under his weight, and the swing begins to glide slowly back and forth as he kicks his heel into the scooped-out earth. He closes his eyes. The chains of the adjacent swing groan as Spock sits beside him.
"Something has upset you," Spock says quietly. "Does this not please you?"
"What, all this? No, this is...this is really nice." He forces himself to look at Spock and smile. "Did you set this up?"
"I had assistance."
"Well, I appreciate it. I've been cooped up in my apartment too long. Thank you."
Spock nods once, though there is uncertainty in his eyes, and Jim wants to press a hand against his face, reassure him. What's all this mean? he wants to ask but he can't bring his mouth to form the words. He is reminded of a conversation months ago in the Enterprise's mess about bonded pairs and buying Uhura flowers and finds his mind in turmoil.
"Uhura came to see me a couple days ago," Jim says, changing the subject. "She said you went pretty crazy after I died."
"I nearly killed him," Spock murmurs.
"I'm glad you didn't. I don't want that on your conscience."
"I wished to kill him," Spock says. "I intended to kill him, but I could not."
"Killing's not in your nature."
Spock shakes his head and stares straight ahead, hands wrapped tightly around the chains. "Vulcans were once a warrior race. I wished to avenge you," he whispers fiercely. "To honor you. I have never experienced such rage."
Jim touches his arm, and Spock visibly calms after a few breaths, hands dropping to his lap.
"I would have succeeded, but I heard Nyota speak your name. She said Khan must remain alive. He was our only chance to save you." Spock takes a breath, and it is unsteady. "Do you understand why I could not kill him?"
"For the same reason I wouldn't let you die," Jim declares, leaning back and pushing off the ground again. "We're friends. We're..." He searches for a word he doesn't know. "I couldn't let you die," he says finally.
Spock stills Jim's swing and frowns, eyes cast down. Jim waits, rounding his back and slumping against the chain. A bird calls, another, and Spock continues to stare at the dirt. Jim is about to push off again when Spock reaches toward him with two fingers extended. His eyes are wide, lower lip trembling faintly. He’s scared, Jim thinks and instinctively reaches toward Spock in return. Their fingertips meet, and the electric sensation is shocking. Jim takes in a sharp breath and feels his heart begin to race. He doesn't understand what's happening, but he keeps his eyes locked on Spock's as his breaths come faster. Spock raises his other hand to Jim's temple, and Jim's eyes widen in recognition. He nods his consent rapidly, and then he's—
Angry at his captain for violating the Prime Directive and yet illogically grateful that he has done so. His own life is not worth interrupting the natural development of a culture. He is overwhelmed by emotion, finding himself on the transporter pad. The captain rushes to see him. Spock’s heart thumps in his side, and he’s—
Pressing his hand against the glass of the antechamber, and Jim Kirk's eyes are dead. A scream tears from Spock's throat, and he will avenge this man's death. Lungs burn as he runs and leaps without looking — illogical, something Jim would do, but Spock does it — and his fists collide with Khan's face. He will kill him, he will kill him, he will kill him, and he's—
Standing beside Jim's hospital bed, and Jim lies pale and death-still. Spock sits beside him in a chair and will not move, refuses sleep. It is past visiting hours, but Dr. McCoy has given him a pass. He will not leave. He cannot leave. Nyota brings him dinner and kisses his cheek and says she loves him. She understands, and he's—
Standing in the hospital gift shop. Jim is awake and Spock buys him a chess set, even though they both own one. Spock thinks of this as their set and chastises himself for the sentiment until he sees the look in Jim's eyes, wide and gazing at him again. He would spend all the credits in the universe, he thinks, to put that look on Jim's face, and he's—
Answering his comm. Dr. McCoy says Jim is depressed and instructs Spock to take Jim out of his apartment. Spock recalls a conversation in the Enterprise's mess, about a human social ritual. He contacts Nyota, and he's—
Holding Jim's hand as they walk by the water, guilty because Jim does not understand what this means to a Vulcan. Spock is illogically selfish and will not tell him, and he's—
Linked in a meld with his t'hy'la on a swingset.
Their connection ends, and the word floats in Jim's mind. It is not one he has heard before, but it is beautiful. He whispers it, over and over, and watches as Spock's eyes seem to melt with each repetition. Somehow, Jim understands. It is a Vulcan word for friend, but it carries with it so much more.
He understands this, as he understands now that their joined hands are a display of intimacy, of love. Oh. This is how Spock thinks of him, Jim realizes, as friends, as brothers...
"Yes," he says, pulling Spock's hand to his chest and leaning over to kiss him. "All of it."