Makara crept along carefully as he found a vantage point, watching where he placed his feet to ensure that he made no noise. The strangers seemed friendly, but Akuta’s instructions had been specific. Earlier this eve, he had gathered a small group of the People together and given them each assignments.
“As I am the eyes and ears of Vaal, so Vaal wishes you to serve as my eyes and ears,” he’d explained. “Each of you will be assigned to watch one of the strangers. Do not interfere with them; Vaal has assured me they cannot harm us while his protection covers us. But be vigilant; learn what you can of their manners and customs.”
Makara had been given the responsibility of watching the one they called Captain, or Captain Kirk, or sometimes Jim, who was the group’s leader, judging from his demeanor and the way the others in his group deferred to him. It was rather confusing how many names he had; the People each had one name. But perhaps the strangers gave their leaders more names to mark their importance.
Nardalen, one of Makara’s friends, had been assigned to watch the odd-looking stranger with the pointed ears, the one the others called Spock. Nardalen now stood with Makara outside the hut where the strangers were staying, just behind Makara’s right shoulder, the faint warmth of his body comforting in the chill of evening.
“I wonder if they are all asleep,” Nardalen whispered.
Makara shook his head. “Listen,” he whispered in turn. Just audible over the sounds of night birds were voices, the voices of several of the strangers. Some moments later, the covering over the door was pushed assigned and the one called Spock left the guest house. Both Nardalen and Makara froze; they had observed this stranger earlier, and he seemed to possess far keener senses than his companions. Spock stood for a moment looking into the sky, which was foolish; there was nothing there but lights which were harmless, but Spock seemed to look deeply into them for long moments before moving off into the surrounding vegetation. Makara felt Nardalen’s hand, strong and reassuring, on his shoulder.
“I will follow that one,” he said softly, “and you can stay and…”
“Wait.” Makara nodded towards the doorway, where the one called Captain now stepped. He looked around for a moment, and both watchers shrank back into the covering shadows. But the Captain did not see them; instead, he headed off in the same direction Spock had gone.
“We must follow,” Nardalen murmured, and Makara, nodding in agreement, set out to do so, his friend right behind him.
Jim moved along the path, grateful that the plant’s moon was full, providing a faintly violet light that was nonetheless strong enough for him to see where he was going. There were thousands of fragrances in the air, the scents of night-blooming flowers and vines. Jim remembered what he’d thought when they’d beamed down earlier today; this place was a paradise—albeit one with dangers. He remembered the sight of Hendorff as he collapsed, his veins full of poison from one of the plants, the sight of Mallory’s broken body when he’d fallen over one of the outcroppings of exploding rock. Jim closed his eyes for a moment. He grieved at the loss of every crewman, did everything he could to prevent those losses—but they were an inevitable part of life in space. Any one of them could die on any away mission—and now another vision filled Jim’s mind, the sight of Spock lying crumbled on the ground, thorns form the same plant that had killed Hendorff embedded in the Vulcan’s chest. By some miracle of Vulcan physiology, Spock had survived, apparently none the worse for wear. But there had been a moment there when…Jim deliberately put the thought from his mind, as he had so many times before. It hadn’t happened. Spock was all right. But Jim had still needed some fresh air, so he’d left the guest house and gone for a walk. Spock had slipped out a few minutes before to do some reconnaissance, but Jim wasn’t surprised when his footsteps led him right to Spock. Jim had noticed the phenomenon before this; no matter where Spock was, Jim somehow seemed to know without any other knowledge. He never had to ask the ship’s computer about Commander Spock’s location; he simply seem to know.
Jim moved along the path until he came to the clearing where they’d beamed down, stopping abruptly as he pushed through the trees and into the roughly circular cleared area, to find Spock standing there, the moonlight flooding the area and gilding Spock’s figure with liquid silver. The Vulcan turned in his direction as Jim approached, nodding a greeting as his captain came nearer and the two watchers observed.
“Everything all right?” Jim asked, looking around the clearing.
Spock nodded again. “I perceive no threat, sir.” He decided not to mention the two native males who were currently concealed in the underbrush approximately 10 meters to the southwest. He perceived no malicious intent, and it was only natural for their “hosts” to place sentries.
Jim sighed, running a hand through the loosely-waving hair, an action Spock had often seen him perform when he was tired or under stress.
“It didn’t seem so damned unthreatening earlier. His mind went back to Mallory and Hendorff, the suddenness of their deaths—and the stillness of Spock’s body as he had lain on the ground, barely breathing, those wicked-looking thorns embedded in his chest.
“Forgive me, Jim,” Spock said, his voice a quiet murmur against the backdrop of night sounds. “I know how much their deaths grieve you.”
“Not half as goddamned much as yours would.” There was sudden anger in the captain’s voice, and Nardalen and Makara exchanged glances. Were the two going to quarrel? Indeed, it seemed for a moment that might be the outcome, as the one called Jim began to pace before the silent figure with the pointed ears.
“What the hell were you doing?” Jim demanded. “That plant almost killed you, all because you were so busy throwing yourself on it you didn’t bother to tell me to get the Hell out of the way! Goddamnit, Spock, don’t you dare do anything like that again!”
The slim, dark figure stiffened slightly. “It is my duty to protect my crewmates and most especially my commanding officer, and…”
“IT’S NOT YOUR DUTY TO DIE FOR ME!” Jim froze even as the words left his mouth, realizing that both the content and the decibel level were completely out of bounds. IN a nearby tree a small flock of roosting birds rose into the sky for a moment with a series of alarmed calls and then settled back as no threat was revealed. Nardalen and Makara looked at each other once more, unsure of why the golden-haired one was so angry.
Jim took a step towards Spock and then another. “You can’t die for me,” he said, his voice softer now but just as intense. “You can’t, Spock. Don’t you…you don’t understand what it would do to me, to watch you die and know it was my fault.” He took another slow, careful step, almost as if he were trying to gentle a wild thing—and perhaps he was, Jim suddenly realized. He was so close to Spock now, close enough to see the gentle rise and fall of his chest as the Vulcan breathed, close enough to see the pulse, a little fast as it always was by human standards, beating in Spock’s throat, close enough to feel the warmth of Spock’s body, to watch his throat muscles constrict as Spock swallowed hard.
“I….To stand idly by, to see you die…again….I cannot do it, Jim,” he whispered, almost shy. “I must protect you. I must, Jim. It overrides all other imperatives in my mind…and in my heart.”
“Spock.” Greatly moved, Jim took yet another step, so close now he could have reached out and taken Spock into his arms—if he’d dared. He didn’t dare. He settled for gently laying a hand on Spock’s shoulder, afraid the Vulcan would move away—but Spock didn’t.
“Spock,” he murmured again, “what happened on Vulcan—that wasn’t your fault.”
“Perhaps not.” Spock’s voice was gentle. “But it was my responsibility, and under the influence of the fever, I laid hands on what is most…dear to me.” He looked away from a moment, his eyes seeming to look right through Nardalen and Makara as they crouched in the underbrush.
“I should not say this now.”
“No.” Jim’s voice was suddenly strong and sure, and his other hand moved to Spock’s opposite shoulder, both hands now gripping lightly, forcing Spock to look at him once more.
“I’m glad you’re saying it,” Jim said softly. “I’ve wanted to say it for a long time, but I didn’t have the nerve. Spock, I…you cannot know all that you mean to me, but….”
Whisper-soft fingertips touched Jim’s lips, moved up his cheekbone to brush against one temple. “I do know,” Spock murmured. “Believe me, Jim—I know, and everything you feel, I feel a thousand-fold.”
As Nardalen and Makara watched, spellbound, the tension seemed to leave the captain’s body, and he stepped into the other’s loose embrace, his arms going around the Vulcan in turn. For long moments, they stood together thus, each supporting the other. At last, Jim raised his head and met Spock’s eyes once more, finding a smile.
“Thank you,” Spock.” He laid a light hand on the blue Science tunic, still marred by a circle of puncture marks. “Take care of yourself, please, for my sake. I can’t bear to lose you.”
Spock raised one hand, fingers paired and ran it softly along Jim’s temple once more and Jim’s eyes closed beneath the caress. “I will, but I must care for thee as well,” he murmured. For another moment, they stood together, and then Jim took a deep breath and stepped back.
“Come on,” he said. “We’d better check back with the others.” He then did an odd thing, at least odd in the eyes of his watchers. He caught Spock’s hand in his and pressed his lips to the palm before releasing it once more.
“When we get out of this, mister,” he said quietly, “you and I are going to have a long talk.”
Spock’s expression didn’t change but it was as if the sun had risen in the midst of night. “I will…hold you to that, sir.”
Jim laughed, a low and joyous note, and the two left the clearing heading back to their guest house. For a moment, Nardalen and Makara forgot to find them, looking at one another.
“I do not understand,” Makara said at last. “it was as if they were communing with one another without words, as Akuta does with Vaal. Yet—the pointed eared one does not seem to be a god.”
“I do not know,” Nardalen replied thoughtfully, remembering the sudden tightness in his throat when he’d watched the captain press his lips to Spock’s hand. “Their ways are strange and yet….” He looked at his friend, imagining his touch as the visitors had touched one another. The visitors were strange—but perhaps they had knowledge even Vaal did not possess. After all, Vaal was never touched.
“Come,” Nardalen said. “We must guard the visitors.” He moved off through the greenery, resolved to learn more about these strangers—and more about the touching.