He found him on the observation deck. Spock supposed he should not have been surprised, given the circumstances. The entire starboard wall and much of the ceiling was formed of the curved, transparent aluminium hull. The large space was dominated by the cold light of stars smeared by warp space against it. On first inspection it appeared empty. The door slid shut unobtrusively, and in the sudden quiet Spock found that he had been unknowingly developing a headache behind his left eye. His senses were ringing. He shut his eyes and breathed: inhale, exhale. Spaces were so different out of context, he thought.
There were no bustling bodies or chattering friends or scraping of chairs against the floor. The only noises were the constant hum of the ship vibrating through the soles of his feet and the distant, muted sounds of 423 people going about their lives. Even the low lighting programmed for ship's night had been turned off, making the far edges of the room hard to make out. This place was entirely alien from the gathering which had taken place here only 16.4 standard days ago. It was as if the ship had allowed Spock to step out of time for a moment.
Dismissing such thoughts, Spock moved further into the room and faced the stars, placing his free hand on the railing which was set a few metres back from the hull. The last time he'd seen it transparent and uncensored at warp like this, he was a junior science officer serving under Captain Pike. The bright, shifting smudges drifting past filled his field of vision and attempted to disrupt his balance, and he let the sturdy railing ground him. When he was a boy, his mother used to take him up to the flat roof of their home in the cooler air of the night and look up at the sky, the desert stretching quiet and wild around them. Spock wondered if anyone would ever see those particular stars from that particular angle again.
He let his senses reach outwards, and -- yes. There. Spock knew that breathing pattern. He followed it to the far end of the room, away from the door. A cuboidal structure was built against the aft bulkhead, panelled in the same matte white as usual, but nevertheless incongruous against the elegant curve of the hull, as if it were an afterthought of the designer. A manual sliding door was built into the front, large enough to admit a trolley of folded tables, with a finger groove and a simple lock at the edge. A gold command shirt was draped over the railing next to it. Curious. Though illogical, the Captain rarely did things with no reason at all, so Spock set his fabric bag on the deck, removed his own tunic, and placed it next to the gold one.
After considering for a moment, he climbed up on to the railing with the bag and swung it up onto the top of the box. It was 0.78 metres above his the top of his head, but with both hands free he could easily jump up and catch the edge. He pulled himself up, leaning forward to avoid a collision with the transparent aluminium, and stepped into a crouch in the space between the top of the box and the ceiling. Ah. A thick layer of dust covered the whole surface except for the smudges where he had just climbed up, and a disrupted area adjacent to the panel removed from the bulkhead to his left, exposing wires and circuit boards. He was somewhat gratified that his tunic, at least, would be clean.
Jim was watching him from where he was leaning against the bulkheads in the corner. His clothes and hair were clean but he still smelled faintly of sweat and the putrid air from the tunnels of the planet they were leaving behind. The sonics never could completely irradicate it after only one cycle of the lower setting favoured by those with sensitive human skin. Spock took in the sling and the shape of bandages under his close fitting black base layer.
"Were you injured?" he asked.
"Just a scratch," Jim said. "Chris popped my shoulder back in and cleaned this --" he gestured to his abdomen. "But I didn't wanna wait for the regen."
Spock moved to sit next to him, taking the bag with him. Jim reached inside and started unwrapping a replicated sandwich. "I knew I liked you," he muttered.
"The computer seems to be under the impression that you are in your quarters."
"I wanted a minute to think," Jim said, and took a large bite. "How's Garcia?" he asked after he'd swallowed.
"Stable. Out of surgery." Jim looked at him. "It is unlikely that she will regain the use of her legs." Jim inhaled slowly and looked back out to the stars.
"Lieutenant Giotto is merely trying to protect his people," Spock said.
"Someone's got to," Jim said, and there was not even a pretence at lightness in his voice. Perhaps it was easier for him to speak under the cover of darkness. Perhaps he was merely too fatigued to maintain the mask. "Do you know how many security personnel have been killed or seriously injured since we started this mission?"
"72.2% of all such casualties, including Ensign Garcia," Spock said.
"Twenty-six people, Spock. Twenty-six sisters and husbands and best friends and honorary aunts and --" he sighed through his nose. He did not seem inclined to continue speaking for the moment, so Spock took the thermal flask out of the bag and poured himself a cup of tea. Jim seemed to have lost his appetite, but he continued to take small, determined bites. If Spock were sure that it would not be taken the wrong way, he would have told him to leave it for the recycler. Instead, he watched as his captain crumpled the empty wrapper back in the bag and scooted out from the corner to lay down on his back with his head at the edge of the dusty platform, and his injured arm resting on his stomach. The starlight played across his face from every angle. He reached up to touch the fingertips of his good hand against the hull where he was staring through it, but he couldn't quite reach far enough to lay his hand flat. Spock blinked and reminded himself to breathe. It was fortuitous that the human could not see his cheeks beginning to turn green.
"Do you ever get the feeling that none of this is real?" Jim asked very quietly. He had a freckle under his right nostril which Spock had not noticed before. Spock considered the question.
"Negative," he said, at a normal volume. Jim did not respond except by letting his fingers curl inwards until only two were left against the transparent aluminium. "At times..." Spock began. This was difficult for him. There was only one other person whom he had tried to intentionally invite past his shields like this. "At times, it seems as if it is entirely too real, and everything else is a dream, or a holographic recording, or something which happened to another being." He sipped his tea. "It is not logical."
Jim propped himself up on his elbows and looked at him. Spock was gaining proficiency in reading his expressions. At present, he looked curious, but in a contained, gentle way. "Can you remember what she looked like?" he asked. This had become an unspoken rule between them: do not break the silence for its own sake; do not be afraid to ask if you want to know; do not be afraid to say so if you prefer not to answer. Spock thought back to one of those evenings on the roof. He remembered with perfect clarity how the light from T'Khut had bathed her fair, sunburnt skin, her dark hair, her familiar eyes. She had slipped back into her native Québecois French, and she was telling him legends about their sister planet which she must have read in ancient, High Vulcan. She was usually careful to speak methodically and dispassionately in keeping with his father's culture, but here, with no one else listening, she let warmth change the shape of her words. She was not humouring him as some adults did, Spock could tell. Her voice had betrayed an almost childlike delight at being able to share this with him.
"Yes," he told Jim. "But I find I cannot recall her scent." Jim blinked at him. "I am certain that I would recognise it if I encountered it again," he said, "but even in meditation, the memories are..."
"Like holos," Jim finished for him.
"Yes," he said. He finished his tea and poured another cup while Jim seemed to contemplate the patch of wall just over his left shoulder.
"You could not have known, Jim."
He sat up suddenly, and Spock glanced upward for fear that he would hit his head. He missed the ceiling, just. "That's the point," he said, with a harder edge to his voice. Spock raised an eyebrow in question and slid the plastic cup towards his friend in offering. Jim crossed his legs and rested his elbows on his knees, then picked it up and gave it a sniff. It seemed to meet his approval because he took a delicate sip and cradled it between his hands as he spoke.
"I didn't know. I should never have sent her out there without knowing it was safe."
"It seems, then, that those with little practical experience will never gain any. Besides which, you did not send anyone. I have never known you to ask of others what you were unwilling to do yourself, and today proved to be no exception."
"She's been onboard - what - a fortnight? And already --"
"Approximately 17.3 ship's days."
"Right." Jim rubbed a hand over his face. "You shoulda seen her, Spock. It didn't take us long to find them after you beamed up, but they were waiting for us. She didn't even hesitate. She stood there shaking, with a knife against her spine, and she looked me straight in the eye and said tunnel sigma four, Captain."
"So you wrote in your report." Jim was silent; Spock fought the urge to reach out and touch him. "The Ibraxian government extended their thanks for retrieving the launch codes." Jim did not seem to hear him.
"I should have taken someone more experienced, let her go through Giotto's excercises, waited for a safer --"
"I believe she was aware of the risks when she asked you for the oppurtuni--"
"And how exactly does that change the fact that--"
"The fact that the entire party returned alive at all is --"
"Don't." Jim said, with a look in his eyes that would have intimidated a lesser man.
"84.2% of your -- our crew -- has less than 18 standard months of field experience, Captain." Jim shot him a look from under his eyebrows at the title but Spock ignored him. "In addition, the security department in particular has a severely depleted number of experienced officers due to casualties." Jim winced. Spock pushed onwards. "Those we now consider experienced are not in fact those who have been on board for slightly longer, but those who have weathered difficult missions with us. Ensign Xi, for example, was your reserve choice, were they not? And yet they have barely been on board for 2 standard months." Jim pressed his lips together but kept his gaze on the cup in front of him. "Furthermore, if we are to wait for missions with less risk than we expected to be involved with this one, training opportunities will be extremely few and far between." The tension finally broke, and Jim huffed out a laugh.
"I knew you were stubborn, Mister Spock, but I never took you for one of the contrary ones."
Spock raised an incredulous eyebrow. "I am sure I do not know what you mean, Captain." Jim shot him a grin. "But for the log, I advocated adding Ensign T'Sel to the landing party to act as a partner for Ensign Garcia, which we did. I did not suggest pulling her from the team altogether." Spock sat back and regarded him. "You cannot take sole responsibility for the events of today, Jim. I will not allow it."
The Captain looked somewhat resigned as he slid the empty cup back over to Spock, who took it and replaced it with the last item from the bag. A slow grin spread helplessly across Jim's face.
"Does Bones know you have that?" he asked.
"I believe the Terran phrase is 'forgiveness is often given more freely than permission,'" he said calmly.
Jim let out a surprised guffaw and then winced, and Spock reached out in alarm as he leaned perilously close to the edge of the platform. Jim moved towards the bulkhead to placate him and slipped his sling off before carefully removing his black shirt. Spock frowned minutely. That was more bandages than should be needed for a simple abrasion, and he did not miss Jim's wince when he started unwrapping them. When the entire length of cloth was pooled in Jim's lap, he could see the angry red and purple skin extending past the edges of the steri-gauze in the half-light. Just a scratch indeed. Spock swallowed and tried not to imagine the violence which could result in such a large bruise. Jim peeled back the seal at the top edge of the gauze, leaving the rest of it covered for now to protect it from the dust, and reached for the dermal regenerator.
"Thanks, man," he said over the low hum. "I owe you one."
Spock arched one eyebrow. "Only one?"
Jim mock-glared at him as he peeled back more of the gauze. "Don't push it, mister."
"I do not believe that you would find as much animosity in sickbay as you seem to be expecting," Spock said.
Jim looked up sharply. "You didn't have to smooth things over," he said.
"I did not," Spock told him. "Ensign T'Sel presented an account of the unexpected nature of the attack, and the lengths to which you went in order to retrieve her partner. Lieutenant Giotto puts a great deal of faith in her word."
Jim made a thoughtful noise and wrinkled his nose at the itch of the regeneration. "They had to be beamed onto one pad, you know. She wouldn't break skin contact."
"I am aware," said Spock. "I believe she was able to provide some emergency pain management and monitor Garcia's condition." Jim looked up at him through his lashes and gave him a small, secret smile. We've got the best crew, Spock, his eyes seemed to say. Indeed, Spock's eyes smiled back.
Spock sat and watched him, and concentrated on cataloguing every detail of this in his memory. The scent of him, the shape of this space, the small sounds of his heart and his breathing and his gut and his foot tapping against the bulkhead. The moving shadow of his eyelashes on his cheeks; his silhouette against the dizzying warped stars. The bright murmur of his thoughts not far from Spock's own, surrounded by their ship and their crew but hemmed in alone together in this pocket of time. His head no longer ached.
Spock blinked, and Jim was stuffing the folded gauze into a pocket and placing the regenerator aside. He looked as if he were about to toss the rest of the bandages over the side of the structure. "What are you doing?" Spock asked. Jim shrugged with one shoulder and looked at him sheepishly. Translation: It's sort of a two-hand kinda job, Spock. Spock looked over the edge, judged the distance to the ground, and made a decision. "Allow me," he said, moving towards him and taking the end of the fabric without waiting for a response. The stretchy bandage was still cool to the touch. Good. The endothermic reagents it was impregnated with had not yet worn off. Jim was watching him carefully. "Hold this," Spock said, and started rolling up the rest of the fabric from the other end. When he had a neat bundle, he started wrapping it back around Jim's torso. Not tight enough to restrict his breathing, but enough to give some support. When he first touched his skin, the feeling of his mind hit him like sonics set too high. Spock tried not to let it show on his face. He could feel Jim's eyes on him, but he could hardly breathe, let alone meet his gaze.
Ah, but it was so good. Keeping his fingers in contact with Jim's skin as he wrapped the cloth around his chest, he felt his breathing slowing and his thoughts settling down to a level which he had not been able to achieve since before pash-Ah'rak. Jim was willingly sitting right here within Spock's reach, warm and calm and safe. He could vaguely feel the level of Jim's pain through his fingertips, enough know which places were the most tender, but it was tasteless. Experimentally, he pulled back the outer layer of his shields. They were almost touching, separated only by a thin membrane. It would be so easy... He would not be invading his privacy, Spock reasoned. And if he explained exactly what it would involve, Jim was not likely to agree. It was only logical to simply... Spock allowed just a little of Jim's pain to flow across the membrane into his own mind, his own ribcage. Jim breathed a little more easily, and Spock barely bit back a purr. He let more diffuse across, greedy for the relief he felt through Jim's skin.
"Are you... ?"
Oops. Spock resolutely kept his eyes on his hands. This time it was not possible that Jim did not see the green flush heating his cheeks.
"I am not listening to your thoughts," he said, gratified when his voice remained steady. "If this is causing you discomfort, however--"
"Hey, no. It's alright. More than alright." Jim ducked his head down to try to catch Spock's eyes and pain flared across the contact. Spock kept his face straight but let the fingertips of both hands fall into light contact with Jim's sides to hold him motionless. "And it would be alright if you were. Listening." Spock's eyes snapped up to Jim's, and his shields faltered out of shock; he grit his teeth and held them in place. "You do not know what it is that you are--"
He was serious.
Gently, Spock laid his palms fully along Jim's ribs and released the remainder of his shields. An equal share of the discomfort from the bruised area his hands rested on flowed across the contact, like water levelling out, and Jim gasped from the shock of it. He frowned, and Spock felt him start to suspect exactly where the rest of his pain was going.
"Spock," he said slowly, and Spock suppressed a shudder at feeling his name with all of his senses at once. He hushed him, and rubbed small circles into his abdomen with his thumbs. It was only natural. Humans had even created an idiom about it: a pain shared was a pain halved. Their breathing fell into sync; their heart rates were too disparate to do the same, but it seemed they had found a sort of second harmonic, with Spock's beating once every time Jim's beat twice. Fascinating. Feeling Jim relax against his mental presence induced a flare of unidentified emotion. This level of intimacy had been intimidating and overwhelming to Nyota, and he had taught her how to construct her own shields so that she could retreat if and when she wished to. Jim must have sensed him on some level, because clumsy, blind tendrils of his awareness moved towards him curiously. Spock squirmed.
"That... tickles, for lack of a better term."
Jim was amused. "Sorry," he said.
"It is... not unpleasant."
Spock continued wrapping the bandage, trailing two fingers around his friend's torso as he did so. Jim did not seem to be worrying about accidentally sharing private thoughts. Perhaps it was because he was so calm that he did not have trouble preventing them from coming inadvertantly to the surface. He seemed as content as if they were merely sharing a conversation over a chessboard. Although, Spock thought, given the easy honesty that existed between them, perhaps this was not so different.
Jim wanted something from him, but did not want to take it without his permission. He started to find the words to ask, but without thinking Spock said, "Anything, ashal-veh." Grinning, he nudged Spock's black shirt up and touched his own hands to Spock's torso, one cool palm against Spock's heart. It should have made Spock's task awkward, but they were coordinating without needing to think about it.
"Are you -- purring?"
"Negative," Spock said, but he could not bring himself to desist.
"Is it like sound? Voices?" Jim asked after a while.
Spock looked up at his face before refocusing on the last few wraps.
"Not precisely. It is likely similar to the presence that you can sense, only... clearer. Most of the information is transmitted non-linguistically. With practice, though, it should not be difficult for psi-null individuals to moderate which information is communicated, not dissimilar to choosing a tone of voice."
Spock tasted the colours change, sensed mischief, questioning, greeting. "Yes," he said. "Like that."
Jim pouted. Does this mean that I don't need to practice? he projected rather loudly.
"There is always room for improvement, Captain," Spock said primly. Jim gave a delighted laugh. Spock clipped the end of the bandage into place, but left his hands still, just for another moment.
"I should probably..." Jim said out loud, and gestured back to the open panel. Spock let him go and busied himself with tidying up the items he had brought while Jim fiddled with something in the bulkhead. Spock heard the snick of a power cable being plugged back in and the dim lights along the deck slowly came back on. The hull turned opaque black and then came back online in sections. The view was no longer as dizzying as warp space, but neither was it the flat dots of the standard at-warp display of sensor data. A degree of depth and movement remained. At the red and blue ends of the spectrum, new stars were shown which emitted enough radiation for the sensors to detect but not enough in the visible frequencies to be seen directly by most humanoid eyes. By comparing it to the view through the transparent hull, Spock also knew that the data was closer to real-time than before, and updated more smoothly.
This developement was sufficiently distracting that he only realised Jim's intentions when he had already stowed and pocketed the portable soldering iron and a discarded microchip, replaced the panel, and sat down on the edge of the box. "That is not the intended function of the --" Spock said, alarmed. But Jim was already reaching down to the door's opening groove with his good arm swinging around, coming to rest with one foot braced each side before sliding down to the deck. He looked up at Spock innocently. Spock narrowed his eyes. This man would be the death of him. He gathered up the sling and undershirt before dropping the whole bag down to Jim and scooting off the edge. He had landed higher jumps before without incident, but his angle was a little off and he could not suppress his surprised wince as the sharp force was transmitted through his ankles. Jim's grin was a little too smug.
"I am not the one with three broken ribs," Spock said. He brushed off his trousers and retrieved their uniform tunics from the railing.
"Oh, come on, they're only bruised," Jim said. Spock was not impressed. Jim rolled his eyes. "Hairline fracture at the most, you know it's hard to tell with the portable scanners."
Before he could reply the door at the far end of the room opened and a figure stepped through.
"Captain?" it called out. "Forgive me sir, but you weren't responding to your communicator and your biosigns were in here. I hope I'm not intruding."
The Captain turned slowly to level an accusatory glare at Spock, who folded his hands behind his back and stared straight ahead.
"Not at all, Ensign." Jim called back. "What can I do for you?"
"It's Ensign Garcia, sir. She's awake and asking for you. I thought you would want to know."
"Of course. Thank you, Ensign. Tell her we'll be right there, would you?"
The Ensign threw him a nod and a salute and was on his way. Spock allowed himself a small smile and followed after his Captain.