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(15,030 words, STXI spoilers, rated R, mentions of Spock/Uhura)

Sequel to All that We Can Be, Not Just What We Are, and Who am I to Say.


- - - - - - - - -


Jim Kirk's whole body aches, and he sighs gratefully as the pulsing warmth of the sonic shower slowly undoes the tension in his back.  He feels wrecked and exhausted, sated and bruised, and the shower's low hum is a familiar, reassuring drone in his ears.  His head is still spinning around the events of the past three hours, and when he glances down his body he feels an odd satisfaction at the smattering of bruises across his skin.


He thinks back to the observation deck, and to the impossible heat in Spock's eyes even while they donned fresh uniforms-getting their hands on those was an impressive feat, and there's a confused yeoman on deck four who probably thinks he's been the butt of some inexplicable practical joke.  The uniforms were the wrong size, and the wrong color for both of them, but they were good enough for skulking through the ship's midnight-quiet corridors.


"Spock, are we okay?" Kirk asked before they parted ways.


"Yes, Jim.  Of course we are," Spock had responded.


Funny how the words could be so reassuring then, and yet do nothing for the stubborn confusion Jim finds himself mired in now.  'Okay' is such an ambiguous word.  It can mean too damn many things, and Jim understands now why Spock is always pointing out the insufficiency of the term.  The fact that this time Spock responded without debate is maybe the most vexing point of all.


The shower beeps when Kirk deactivates it, and he ponders the soft sleepwear on the chair beside the bathroom door.  He pulls the sweats on, finally, but doesn't bother with the shirt.  He already feels too warm.


"Computer, lights," he calls as he climbs into bed.  The darkness is sudden and complete, but he won't be sleeping tonight.  The manic whirr of his thoughts is too loud, reeling from the implications of his impulsive decision.  Permanent, Spock had said.  The mating bond is so much more than a mind meld.  Kirk wonders if he's supposed to feel different now-if he could feel Spock's thoughts in the back of his brain if he poked hard enough.


He certainly felt them before-Spock all over him, holding on so damn tightly, inside him in more ways than one.  Jim remembers being swept along in emotions and sensations that he could swear weren't his own.  He remembers fire and hunger and need, jolting and foreign enough to identify as someone else's mind before the storm swept him under. 


But there's nothing there now, at least not that he can identify.  He shifts from one side to the other, punching his pillow and trying to find a more comfortable position.  Even if Kirk could manage to quiet his thoughts enough for sleep, beneath them his body aches.  It's not a subtle reminder, the soft throb of his pulse too strong where bruises have settled in, and there are other places he can't quite ignore the discomfort.


He almost considers sickbay, but that's an entire mess he doesn't want to step in right now.  Bones will still be up after their earlier chat-Jim knows his friend well enough to be sure of that-and one quick look will tell him exactly what the captain has been up to since leaving his office.


Bones has seen him in worse shape, sure.  Bones has tended to him in a lot of embarrassing moments, and he's seen Jim after many a one night stand.  But for some reason Kirk doesn't want Bones to see this.  For a moment he can't figure out why.


He works it out easily enough when he pictures McCoy's face.  Disapproving, yes-always-but more than that.  Jim can picture the guilt he'll see hiding behind the weight of judgment.  Bones will look at him and see a personal failure:  should have found a medical answer, should have been smarter and cleverer and faster.  And Kirk doesn't want to see that look on his friend's face.  Not over something he still can't bring himself to regret.


The solution is simple.  He just won't tell.  Bones doesn't need to know for the moment-ever, maybe-and in the meantime Jim can try to figure out exactly what he's gone and done with his first officer.


Besides saving the man's life, that is, which he definitely counts as a win.


- - - - - - -


Kirk is extra caffeinated by the time he reaches the bridge the next morning.  He forces himself to smile and nod a greeting to the timid lieutenant manning Spock's science console, realizing he has no idea how soon he can expect Spock to return to duty. 


Part of him was expecting Spock to be here already, quirking an eyebrow and good as new, and Kirk almost flushes with disappointment at his first officer's continued absence. 


He catches sight of Uhura on his way to the center chair, and wishes there were something he could do to relieve the distracted frustration that sours her expression.  But the only idea that comes to mind is pulling her aside to tell her Spock is fine, and there's pretty much no way in hell he's going to do that.  It's not his place, for one thing.  And he's a little bit terrified, for another.


So he settles into his chair silently instead, a position that puts her out of sight behind him and lets him pretend to give serious thought to the empty view screen. 


"Mr. Sulu, report," he says, and forces himself to absorb every word as the helmsman confirms their trajectory and expected time of arrival.


Half the shift passes in uneventful quiet, nothing but the regular pinging of the ship's automatic systems and the soft murmur of conversation between two ensigns at their starboard stations.  Kirk has almost given up his irrational hope when an insistent and inexplicable tingle between his shoulder blades makes him rise from his chair to face the turbolift.


The lift doors open, and unmitigated relief floods him at the sight of Spock stepping onto the bridge.  He considers for a moment that the sight shouldn't hit him so hard, but he dismisses the thought quickly.  He's got every right to be relieved.  The past week has been rough, watching his second in command drift away, with no idea why and no clue how to fix it despite their months learning each other as a team, and even more importantly, as friends.  He's spent days feeling impotent and frustrated, knowing the man well enough to see that something was wrong without being able to step forward and help.


So he accepts the relief and lets the tension drain from his shoulders, suddenly realizing he should probably say something instead of standing here staring like an idiot.


"Mr. Spock, please report to your station for the remainder of the shift," he says, repressing a smile.  He knows Spock wouldn't have returned to the bridge if McCoy hadn't certified him fit for duty, and his eyes track Spock's movements as he relieves the lieutenant and reclaims his post. 


When Kirk finally redirects his gaze, he catches sight of Uhura's startled eyes, wide and staring at Spock like she's trying to decide if he's a ghost.  Kirk pretends he doesn't feel her gaze shift in his direction when he finally returns to his chair.  He can play the clueless captain for a little while longer.


When the shift ends, his first instinct is to stand and follow Spock off the bridge.  And maybe it really is just instinct, or maybe it's the need to know just what 'okay' means for them, or hell, maybe there's no good reason at all.  But in his peripheral vision he sees Spock and Uhura rise in unison, so he forces himself to stay seated, clicking away at a report that Yeoman Tagert delivered twenty minutes ago. 


He watches surreptitiously as they leave together, both wearing heavy expressions.  Spock's is nothing but the barest downward quirk of one eyebrow, but Uhura's expression is thick with awkward anticipation.  Jim reminds himself that of course the two need to talk, and of course it's none of his business-even as a stubborn, nagging voice in he back of his head points out that yeah, it sort of is.


Just before the lift closes and carries the two officers away, Spock's gaze locks with his.  The look is too sudden for Kirk to glance away or pretend he wasn't watching.  The Vulcan's eyes flash too intense, still so expressive behind an otherwise impassive face, and the sight kicks the breath right out of Kirk's chest.


It's not until the doors slide shut that he finally remembers how to breathe.


- - - - - - -


Kirk avoids Bones for as long as he can, which turns out to be barely a day.  Of course the man puts two and two together and figures out exactly what happened-or near enough to set him off.  His face contorts into exactly the expression Jim expected, and Jim doesn't know how to make him see that there was no other way.  He feels an extra stab of guilt for the hint of betrayal souring the man's expression even further, and the coward in him almost lets Bones walk away without trying to make it right.


"I'm sorry I didn't tell you," he says, meaning it for all the right reasons. 


"Don't let it happen again," says Bones, and Jim knows he's forgiven.


He has better luck avoiding Uhura, because they've never been the sort of comrades to seek each other out off duty.  She doesn't know his patterns the way McCoy does, and she can't very well call bullshit when she catches him in the officers' mess and he makes his escape, claiming to have an important appointment in engineering.  Well, she could, but it would look a whole lot like insubordination. 


He could probably keep ducking her indefinitely, but when she corners him in the transporter room as he beams back from Starbase Seven, he doesn't have the heart to keep running away.


"Captain, do you have a moment?" she asks as the other returning crewmembers disperse into the corridor.  Kirk briefly considers inviting her to his quarters for this conversation, but instead he gives Ensign Riley the signal to clear out.  Not standard procedure, asking the ensign at transporter control to vacate the premises for a personal discussion, but no one's due back aboard for another hour.  Riley nods and does as ordered, and once they have the transporter room to themselves, Kirk turns to give Uhura his full attention.


"You're difficult to pin down when you want to be, Captain," she says.  There's no hint of humor in her voice.


The silence that settles between them is heavy and inevitable; uncomfortable barely covers it.  He's had the 'sorry I slept with your boyfriend' conversation before, but somehow that doesn't seem like it'll be a helpful reference this time.  'You're welcome' doesn't seem particularly appropriate either, so he keeps his mouth shut and focuses on looking as neutral and harmless as possible.


Except that doesn't work either, and the silence stubbornly persists until Kirk decides neither one of them has any idea what to say.  He finally opens his mouth and blurts, "I assume Spock told you."


She nods, and he waits her out this time.  And keeps waiting until she finally purses her lips and then opens her mouth to speak.  "I don't really know whether to thank you or deck you, Captain."  Kirk can't decide if he wants to laugh or beat his head against the bulkhead at that, so he kind of knows how she feels.


"You could always do both," he suggests.  It's not really an attempt to lighten the mood.  He's halfway serious, and she has to be able to read the mix of apology and determination shining in his eyes.  He's not doing a damn thing to hide it.


"It should have been me," she whispers.  "It was never supposed to be you."


"I know that," he says.  "Believe me." 


She nods and looks at the floor, unable to meet his eyes for a moment or maybe just shoring up her resolve.  Maybe she just doesn't want to look at him when she says, "Thank you.  For helping him.  If he had died I don't know what..."  She trails off and blinks hard, and Kirk's heart pulses with painful sympathy.  He's out of his element, going with his gut, and he steps forward and pulls her into a hug even as his rational brain loudly points out that it's probably a bad idea.


But for once his rational brain has got it wrong, because instead of shoving him away or slapping him in the face, Uhura folds against him, tucking her head beneath his chin.  She doesn't hug him back, but he can feel the soft scrape of her mascara-painted eyelashes brushing against his throat.


"I can't hate you for saving his life," she whispers into the collar of his uniform.  Which is a relief, since Kirk can't bring himself to be sorry for it either.  No matter how hard he tries to open his mouth, he can't find an apology to give her.


He lets go instantly when she steps back and away, and when she raises her eyes to meet his there's determination burning behind her gaze.  He's seen her wear that look before, stubborn and strong, but he's never had it leveled straight at him before.  It's every bit as terrifying as he would've expected.


"This isn't over, Captain," she says, warm steel in her voice.  "I don't know what your intentions are, but don't think for a second that I'm just walking away."


Jim Kirk stares after his communications officer as she exits the transporter room, his eyes wide and his jaw hanging.  He's still standing there when ensign Riley returns to his station for the next wave of crew transports.


"Everything all right, sir?" Riley asks.


"Fine," Kirk says with a shake of his head.  He leaves to the ringing, metallic tone of  the transporter beam behind him.


- - - - - - -


One thing the Federation's flagship has no shortage of is crises, and maybe it's inevitable that as one week flies past and merges into the next, Kirk and Spock barely have time to speak half a dozen off-duty words to each other.  They're not avoiding each other-at least, Kirk hopes they're not-but for awhile it seems like one of them is always getting minor injuries patched up in sickbay, and the other is needed on the bridge, and there are rumors of Klingon activity in the Kuurien System, and there's just no time to do more than survive.


They're communicating with a newfound efficiency on the bridge.  Kirk barely has to open his mouth to give an order before Spock is making it happen, and Spock's eyebrow twitching up yay-high is all the warning Kirk needs that things are about to get interesting.


But Kirk wants to call at Spock's quarters and find his first officer free, quietly pleased to play chess or chat casually about the ship's newest personnel.  It seems like they've only just found their comfort zones around each other, laid their unspoken ground rules for camaraderie, and suddenly those rules don't apply.  Kirk kind of wants to beat his head against the bulkhead when he realizes they're not just back at square one, they've fallen completely off the game board. 


There's a connection between them, no question about that, but for all that Kirk feels warmth flood his chest when he looks at Spock across the bridge, he's got no idea what any of it means.


- - - - - - -


Kirk very quickly discovers that, for reasons he can't fathom, he has a newfound fascination with Spock's hands.


It's not that the Vulcan's hands aren't attractive.  Objectively, Kirk has known since they first wrapped around his throat that Spock's fingers are strong and elegant.  Long, nimble, dangerous.  Smooth like he-even then-imagined the rest of Spock to be.


But Spock's hands are compelling now, beyond objective standards of beauty, and Kirk finds himself staring all too often.  He's got no delusions about keeping his attention subtle.  Especially not the morning he catches sight of them during a strategic huddle at the science station.  He's still taking in every word spoken, brain processing and planning, but he can't look away from the view of Spock's slender fingers dancing across the console.


"Keptin," Checkov's voice jars him, suddenly disconnected from the steady flow of specs and theories.  "Are you not going to look at zee charts?"


Kirk finally, reluctantly raises his eyes, and is equal parts mortified at his lapse and proud that he manages to keep an embarrassed blush from warming his cheeks.  Checkov is staring at him with wide, concerned eyes-although Kirk thinks there might be just a hint of knowing mischief lurking his gaze-and Spock is watching him with such carefully guarded neutrality that Kirk kind of wants to laugh.


"Yes, Mister Checkov," he says, turning to give the ensign his full attention.  "Which one of these is our current vector?" 


He manages to keep his focus on the screen, but it's a feat.  It doesn't help that he can feel Spock's eyes on him the entire time.


- - - - - - -


Kirk hasn't told anyone beyond Bones about what happened between him and Spock, and he'd bet hard latinum that the doctor hasn't told a soul.  He's just as confident of Uhura and Spock's discretion.  That makes four people on the entire ship with the relevant information, none of them talking, yet Kirk can't help feeling like the whole damn Enterprise knows.


It's impossible to keep a secret on a starship of eight hundred and twenty crewmen, but even more, Kirk knows his crew is too smart for the nebulous shift in dynamic between captain and first officer to go unnoticed.  He's used to being watched, of course.  He's the youngest captain in Starfleet, and his crew is competent but new:  he's used to being looked at with curious eyes.  He expects them to be glancing and gauging, learning him as he learns them, because sometimes that's just what being captain is about. 


But the curious looks feel different now, or maybe Jim's just being paranoid.  Maybe he's desperate for a glimpse of the gossip that must surely be wending its way through the ship, because who knows, it might even give him some insight.  Seems like anything would be more than he's got to go on right now.


He doesn't want to make a big thing of it, is the problem.  Kirk's got a new, stubborn awareness of his first officer, and a sense that there's something huge and life-changing that's in the process of settling into his bones-hell, he remembers lying on the floor of the observation deck, Spock's impossible heat wrapping him tight, Spock's mouth a kiss or a promise or both-but for all that the warping contours of their relationship leave his head spinning, Kirk doesn't want to be the one to ask.


"For god's sake, Jim," Bone says one night over a glass of brandy in his office.  "Either talk to Spock or get over it.  Stop being a teenage girl."  Which on the one hand makes Kirk want to sulk and scowl and tell Bones he's a bad friend.  But on the other hand, Bones is right, which really just annoys him more.


Although, the teenage girl comparison is a pretty low blow no matter how he looks at it, so he gives a half-hearted glower and says, "I'm really glad we could share this touching moment, Bones.  Let's do it again sometime."


Bones just laughs, tosses the last of his drink back and kicks Jim out of his sickbay. 


Jim was totally on his way out anyway.


- - - - - - -


He's not going to talk to Spock about it, at least he's not going to broach the subject first, except they end up trapped for three hours in the crystal caves of Mellatine III, and there's so much enormous, cavernous silence that he kind of ends up doing it anyway.


"Sorry, sir," Scotty's voice comes bright and tinny through the communicator.  "We can't risk beaming anyone down through the atmospheric compression storm.  We'll have to wait until it clears to send a team to the surface."


"Any idea how long that will be?"


"Sadly no," says Scotty, though he doesn't sound nearly as apologetic as he should.  "The storm pressures are unpredictable at best.  We won't know how long a wait until the moment hits us."


"You're saying you have no idea how long it will be before you can dig us out of here?" Kirk asks, incredulous.  Scotty is his resident miracle worker.  He can't be bested by some stupid cloudbank.  Besides, this is a routine mission.  They're not supposed to get stuck in a cave waiting on the goddamn weather.


"Aye," Scotty says, and now Kirk can hear the unspoken apology in his voice.  "We'll get ta work the second the air is clear, Captain."


"You do that, Mr. Scott," Kirk says with a sigh.  "Keep me informed.  Kirk out."


He's not surprised to find Spock watching him when he flips his communicator shut.  They exchange too long a look, heavy and meaningful and indecipherable all at once.  There's an almost electric energy in the air that makes Kirk want to run laps or get in a fight or maybe knock Spock over and climb right on top of him-anything that lets him move.  Except at the moment the only direction he wants to move is towards Spock.


He gives in enough to take a few steps closer to his first officer, plastering a wide grin on his face as he says, "So much for our simple survey mission.  Too bad we didn't think to bring camping supplies."


"Given that we only intended to remain planetside for two point six hours, such measures hardly seemed expedient," Spock says.  "I would point out, however, that if you had not insisted on flouting regulations and accompanying the survey team to the surface, the Enterprise would not currently be operating in the absence of both commanding officers."


"Spock, that's-!" Kirk cuts off his protest and considers Spock's words, considers the tone and the arched eyebrow that accompany them, and a slow smile spreads across his face.  "Spock, are you teasing me?"


"Certainly not," says Spock, but there's a lightness to his features-and a warm pulse of something Kirk can't quite so readily identify at the back of his thoughts-that tells him he's right on the money.


"Well," he says, and his smile feels more genuine as he drops to the ground and sprawls as comfortably as he can.  "At least we're stuck somewhere scenic.  Can't complain about the view."  He sets his hand lantern down, and his eyes follow the beam to the wall, where the light shatters against an outcropping of crystal-blues and silvers that refract and reflect and scatter the light in every direction, only to repeat the phenomenon at the next outcropping.  Spock's lantern does the same, a dazzling shift of brightness that ricochets across the walls as he gracefully folds his legs beneath him and takes a seat a short distance away.  'Close enough to touch,' Jim thinks, then willfully refrains from doing so.


"The setting is indeed aesthetically pleasing," Spock concedes. 


"Downright romantic," says Kirk, and instantly wants to smack himself in the forehead.


The silence that settles between them is the sort of stretched and unreadable quiet that Kirk has never been able to abide for long.  Taut and expectant, with an undertone of off-balance uncertainty.  It's nothing like the knowing silences that settle between them in the midst of a game of chess, or the comfortable quiet that comes with doing their parts to accomplish some mutual aim or complete a difficult mission. 


It makes him feel like they're both waiting for something, and his resolute determination not to talk about it crumbles and drifts away on a nonexistent wind.


"Spock.  Look," he says.  "I know I already asked, and you said we're okay, but.  Are we?  Really?" 


"I would not lie to you, Jim."  Spock's face doesn't change from its careful, Vulcan neutral, but the minute twitch of his left eyebrow says Jim might as well have just punched him in the gut. 


"I know that," Jim says softly.  "I just... I don't really know what the protocol is here."  He sighs self-consciously and slides a hand back through his hair.  "I just really want to know where we stand right now." 


"A curious Human phrase," Spock observes neutrally.  "Doctor McCoy asked me a similar question."


Kirk's head snaps up so fast his neck twinges.  "Did he," he says blandly.  "That nosy, conniving bastard."  He gives it a moment, eyes trailing along the sharp, glinting edges of the surrounding cave walls.  When it becomes apparent that Spock doesn't plan on speaking up, Kirk adds, "I don't suppose you had an answer."


"In truth," says Spock, and this time he sounds downright discomfited, "I had hoped you could enlighten me as to that matter, Jim."


"Oh," says Kirk, and immediately deflates.  Because he doesn't have any more of an answer than Spock, and if they're both lost, how is Kirk ever supposed to get his head on straight? 


He's too busy thinking to notice the silence this time, brain sloshing its way through the dilemma and trying to apply his usual problem solving tactics.  He doesn't have much success.  He's not even sure why it feels like such a crisis, honestly.  Why does he need to know anything more than the fact that they're okay?  Why is it so important that he be able to perceive clear boundaries?  But no matter how much logic he tries to apply to the situation-ironic, considering his present company and the source of his dilemma-Kirk can't get past the fact that for some reason he needs to know.


Unable to solve the puzzle, Kirk sighs and comes back to the here and now.  He realizes with a jolt that he's staring at Spock's hands again, and when he raises his eyes he feels inexplicable guilt shining in his face.


"Sorry," he mutters. 


Spock quirks a quizzical eyebrow at him.  "For what reason do you apologize?"


"I...," Kirk flounders.  "It's...your hands," he says lamely.  "I know it's not polite to stare, but they're kind of distracting lately."


He expects to see the peak of Spock's eyebrow arch upwards in a sign of confusion, or maybe amusement-some subtle cue to showcase the fact that, yeah, Kirk's going a little nuts right now.  But instead of detached amusement, or anything else Kirk might've expected, Spock's eyes darken with something that just might be heat.  It lasts barely a moment before the Vulcan's shields slide back into place, and Kirk would think he hallucinated the sight if it weren't for the new edge of tension he feels singing along his skin.


Spock regards him for a long moment with that same deliberate, neutral expression, and Kirk doesn't know why it makes him want to climb the walls.  He drops his eyes, and hell, there are Spock's hands again.  Slim and strong.  Beautiful.  Kirk clenches his teeth and struggles to keep any embarrassing sounds from escaping his throat.


He doesn't expect Spock to scoot closer, but that's exactly what his first officer does.  He shifts smoothly along the uneven stone surface until there are only a few inches separating them.  And now Kirk should look up.  He should look up and meet Spock's eyes and try to figure out what exactly they're doing here, but he can't stop staring as Spock raises his hand from the ground and lets it hover between them.  Kirk watches as he forms an unfamiliar gesture, index and middle fingers extended together, his other fingers and thumb curled towards his palm.  Without really comprehending the why of it, Kirk imitates the gesture and, so slowly he forgets to breathe, touches his fingertips to Spock's.


"Holy fuck!" he gasps, and for a second the sensation is so intense he wants to snatch his hand away.  He feels an intimate heat slipping beneath his skin, warming him and touching him and making his heart stutter in his chest.  Spock's fingers trace a path along Kirk's own, down the length of them from tip to knuckle and back again, then brushing along the other side, and Kirk will remember how to breathe any second now.


The newfound, overpowering intensity fades slowly, but the intimate buzz of connection continues to pulse between them, strongest at the point of contact.  Kirk swallows hard and thinks, 'Huh.  No wonder,' because maybe his new obsession with Spock's hands is only logical after all.  It's totally not his fault if it's just some freaky quirk of Vulcan biology.


"So," he says, slowly putting two and two together in the distracted space that is his brain.  "I guess that's the bond you were talking about, huh?" 


"Yes," Spock breathes, and Jim is gratified to hear that Spock's voice sounds as husky and distracted as his own.  A guy always prefers to know he's not the only one losing his cool.  "It will be less of a shock to you in time," Spock adds.  "Your brain chemistry is not yet accustomed to functioning in this way."  Kirk doesn't mind if it gets a little less intense-for the best, really, or else he's liable to spontaneously orgasm if he accidentally touches Spock on the bridge.  Which raises another question Kirk hasn't yet been able to muster the mental faculty to consider.


"Is it just hands?" Kirk asks.  "Or is it," he swallows, "any kind of touch?"


"Vulcans are touch telepaths," Spock explains, as if Kirk didn't already know that at least.  "Any direct contact renders a connection easier, but the hands are a particularly... potent focal point for our telepathic energies." 


"So is this how Vulcans kiss?" Kirk asks, cheeky confidence returning as the gears in his brain finally manage to click back into motion.  He's still touching his fingers to Spock's-returning the caress-and frankly he doesn't plan to stop any time soon, but as his mind becomes accustomed to the sensations he finds himself able to breathe and think and speak all at the same time again.  He meant the question as a gentle gibe, but Spock's face creases into a considering look.


"The comparison is not inapt," he finally says, and then-far sooner than Kirk approves of-slowly withdraws his hand.


He doesn't know why Spock is distancing himself-maybe the sensations are even more intense for his half-Vulcan blood, or maybe the bond is too new or, hell, maybe he's just decided that's enough mind-touching for one day-but Kirk's pretty sure he's not ready to let Spock off the hook.  He drops the mimicked gesture, and rises to his knees.  The stone is smooth beneath his shins as he slides across the bare inches separating them-as he scoots until he's right up in Spock's space, close enough to drag him into a deep, fast kiss.


Kirk isn't sure how he expects Spock to respond.  Maybe his first officer will shove him away, or maybe he'll sit there stoic and unmoving, a creature of pure logic now that he's had weeks on end for his body to forget the fires of-what was it?  Pon Farr?  Spock certainly wouldn't kiss Kirk back.  He wouldn't drag Kirk flush against him and manhandle him until the captain is straddling his lap, Kirk's fingers lost in the Vulcan's soft, straight black hair.


That would be illogical.


Which doesn't explain why that's exactly what Spock does.  Not that Kirk is complaining.  He's too busy parting his lips beneath the exploring sweep of Spock's tongue.  He's too busy reveling in the feel of being pressed chest-to-chest, impossible Vulcan body heat setting him on fire through their uniforms.  The soft humming buzz of connection is a constant loop, shared feedback, and he groans into the kiss.


Kirk lets his right hand slide from Spock's hair, down the line of his throat, and brings it to rest against his chest.  He startles for a moment at the lack of heartbeat beneath his palm, before he remembers he's looking in the wrong place.  The hesitation lasts all of a second, but it's long enough that Spock reaches for him, hand settling warm and electric over Kirk's and sliding it down until their hands press, together, against a spot low on Spock's side.  And there it is.  The steady, lightning-fast beat of Spock's heart-always disconcertingly rapid, Kirk knows, but right now it's thrumming so fast he can barely count the beats.


When Spock finally puts a stop to the kiss-because like hell is Kirk going to be the one to pull back and ruin the mood-there's a moment where they almost fall back into each other.  Spock's mouth is right there, and his hair is just a little disheveled, his cheeks tinged the slightest bit green.  Kirk wants to keep going and see just how much of a mess he can make.


"We don't have to stop now," Kirk tries to point out reasonably.  He's sure the rapidfire pulse of his own heart gives away the fact that his observation is anything but idle.


"I am afraid we do, Captain," he says, and Kirk can't complain about the use of his rank when Spock's got that look in his eyes.  "The atmospheric compression storm may pass at any moment.  It may even be passing as we speak, and we were not able to ascertain how far back the cave-in progressed.  It could be hours before the rescue party locates us, or it could be mere minutes."


"You're saying we shouldn't be in the middle of anything untoward when the crew gets here," Kirk concedes with a sigh.


"If we continue in this fashion," Spock says matter-of-factly, "I am not confident in my ability to stop."


Jim kind of knows what he means.


He climbs off of Spock with reluctance, because his first officer is right.  They both know the shipboard rumor mill is already circling.  The last thing they need to do is add fuel to the flame.


Anyway, once he's got some distance, the immediacy of his desire settles back to a quiet murmur in his bones.  Not gone, but banked for the moment.  Tucked away so that his willpower has a fighting chance, and he sits back down in his vacated seat.


Scotty finally contacts them three hours later.  It's pretty much the longest three hours in history.


- - - - - - -


Kirk wants to drag Spock back to his quarters once they return to the ship, but by then he's got his head clear enough to wonder if that's really the best idea.  He almost suggests it anyway, but the second he steps off the transporter pad-Scotty clapping him on the back and welcoming him home-the bridge calls down.


"Is Captain Kirk back onboard?" comes Sulu's calm, competent voice. 


"Aye, lad," says Scotty, just as Kirk reaches for the panel and says, "I'm here, Sulu."


"Sir," says Sulu with more than a hint of relief.  "We're picking up a distress call from Gamma Ceti II.  Priority one."


"Lay in a course, Mr. Sulu," Kirk says, throwing Spock a look and trusting his first officer to follow him as he exits the transporter room and heads for the nearest turbolift.  "I'm on my way."


By the time they reach the Gamma Ceti solar system, the distress signal has disappeared.


"I don't understand, sir," says Uhura from her station.  "One second we're reading them loud and clear, and the next nothing.  No breakdown of the message, the signal's just gone.  I'm getting nothing on this frequency."


"Like it's been cut off at the source?" Kirk asks. 


"Yes, sir," Uhura nods grimly.


"Captain," says Spock.  "There are over twelve hundred colonists on Gamma Ceti II."


"Thank you, Mr. Spock," says Kirk.  He was already aware.  "Sulu, take us into orbit.  Uhura, are you picking up anything from the planet's surface?" 


"Nothing but static," she says.  "Wait.  There's a different signal... very faint.  I can't identify it, sir.  It doesn't correspond to any known codes in the ship's database." 


"Where is it coming from, Lieutenant?"


"Seven kilometers southwest of the primary settlement."


"Hail the settlement," Kirk orders.  No one is surprised when their hails go unanswered.  Scans of the surface are inconclusive, and Kirk knows this particular variation on Spock's arched eyebrow conveys frustration at not being able to provide the necessary answers.  Especially once it becomes clear that they won't find the information they need from orbit.


"I'm taking an away team to the surface," Kirk announces, and before Spock can protest says, "You'll stay with the ship, Spock."  He steps forward and says, more quietly, "Something is off about all this.  I want you in that chair in case something goes wrong.  If you lose contact, you take the ship and you get out, that's an order."


He's still only got Spock's eyebrow as an indicator, but it more than conveys his first officer's disapproval. 


"I want a full security team to meet me in the transporter room," Kirk says more loudly, stepping back and sweeping his eyes across the bridge.  "Have Lieutenant Connell and Ensign Marsh join us."  Because he's pretty sure he'll need a medic and a scientist down there.  "Uhura," he says, heading for the turbolift via her console and stopping just behind her chair.  "You're beaming down, too."  He can't put it into words, but he's got a feeling-and he waits as she picks up a tricorder to download a recording of the new signal, then beckons her to follow him into the lift. 


His gut says he needs her there, and he's long since learned to trust his intuition.


- - - - - - -


Of course the colonists are all dead.  The main settlement is a crumbling disaster area, rank with the smell of death and failure.  And as the away team moves out into the surrounding countryside, they find more of the same.  There are no life form readings, because there's no human life left here.  Kirk can't help wondering if these people would still be alive if the Enterprise had arrived faster.


He shouldn't be surprised when the away team gets split up, or when the comm channels go dead, or when a landslide almost kills them, and he and Uhura find themselves lost in a deep, jagged canyon with nothing but each other and a very bad feeling to keep them company. 


"Not to state the obvious, Captain," says Uhura, hitting the button on her tricorder that loops back and replays the recorded transmission that she's still trying to decipher.  "But this is bad."  Her jaw is set in an expression of stubborn defiance, but Kirk can read the fear behind her eyes.  They still don't know what killed the colonists.  They could both die out here, where no one would find them-where no one would ever even know for sure.


"The rest of the team is still out there," he says, face determined with the force of his false optimism.  "Hopefully they're figuring out a way to contact the ship.  Maybe they made it back to the settlement."


"Maybe," says Uhura.  Her brow knits tight as she plays the transmission again.


They stop to rest when they find a shady outcropping at the base of an especially tall cliff, and neither one of them speaks.  Uhura plays the recording again, and her face is still tight with focus.  Determined.  It's almost enough to make Kirk smile, despite the dire circumstances. 


"You could take a break from that, too," Kirk points out gently.  "Just for a few minutes."


"Is it bothering you?" Uhura asks quickly, looking genuinely concerned as she finally raises her eyes.


"No," he says.  "Not at all.  Just... maybe you should ease up a little.  No one can crack a code like you.  If you haven't figured it out by now, maybe it just can't be done."


Her eyes soften and warm, a hesitant smile tugging at her lips, and Kirk smiles back, stubbornly wide and trying to convey as much confidence as he can.  He has to believe they're getting out of this with their skins intact.  There's no such thing as a no-win scenario.


"Captain," says Uhura.  "I'm."  But she doesn't finish, and there's the same flash of fear behind her eyes.  Kirk recognizes it.  He's feeling it, too.  He shifts closer, just enough to give her arm a reassuring squeeze.  She smiles at him again, and stands suddenly-urges him to his feet with a tug at his wrist. 


"Come on," she says.  "We should keep walking.  There has to be a way out of this damn trench eventually."


So they walk, and Uhura keeps replaying the tape, and the cliff walls rise tall and ominous and unassailable to either side of them, from horizon to horizon.


- - - - - - -


Kirk sees them first, and his immediate instinct is to shoot-shimmering clouds of gas, seven distinct shapes that approach and surround them, drifting right down the steep sides of the canyon.  Their presence charges the air and makes his head hurt, makes the hair on the back of his neck stand literally on end.  As the seven nebulous shapes encircle them, he realizes this must be what death looked like to the colonists.  Even as he wonders if his phaser will make a difference-it won't, or the colonists would still be alive-he can feel the air crackling with electrical charge, threatening heat as the things circle closer.


They stop in sudden unison, and Kirk feels his eyebrows fly high with surprise.  The shapes maintain their circle, but stop their approach, and the charge of electricity building in the air actually lessens.


Kirk turns to give Uhura a quizzical look, but before he can open his mouth to ask she blurts, "Captain, I've got it!  It's not a code, it's a language!" 


Kirk's mind is already flying, and his eyes dodge restlessly around the circle of clouds surrounding them.  He's listening more closely now, and he can hear low whirring clicks of sound echoing between the clouds-noises that match the transmission Uhura has been playing and replaying through the speaker of her tricorder.  It explains why the clouds-creatures, Kirk amends-have drawn up short of killing them or frying them or whatever it is they did to the colonists.  They don't know what to do upon hearing their own language playing through the tricorder.


"Can you speak it?" he asks, edging closer to his communications officer.


"Not a chance," Uhura says.  "The human mouth can't make these sounds, sir.  I don't think I could approximate them even with years to practice."


"Great," Kirk mutters, knowing she won't take it personally.


"But I'm recording the creatures now, and we have the previous transmission to work with.  I might be able to construct a message to tell them we're not a threat, at least."  Kirk watches her fiddle with the tricorder for upwards of half an hour, but when she's done she turns up the volume, holds it high, and lets a buzzing, clicking stream of sound play.


"What did you tell them?" Kirk asks when the message has ended and the mass of clouds has drifted back to give them more space.


"That we come in peaceful exploration and mean them no harm," says Uhura.  "Or that we want to dine on thunderstorms in their garden of crustaceans.  It's hard to say, really."


But she must have conveyed the intended message, or maybe the attempt is enough, because as more of the cloud-creatures approach, both humans remain breathing and decidedly un-electrocuted.  And as the noonday sun fades from sunset to evening, and Uhura's tricorder records more and more of the strange, clicking language, Kirk watches in awe as the woman slowly, dauntingly manages to engage in an honest-to-god dialogue with the things.


The colonists were an accident:  the cloud creatures-Neamurides, Uhura dubs them after staring at the tricorder's language readout for a solid ten minutes-didn't realize they were killing sentient beings.  They thought they were exterminating nothing more innocuous than an influx of unwanted vegetation.  From the way their particles tinge orange when Uhura translates that part for him, Kirk suspects they're capable of feeling guilt.


"Ask them if they've seen the rest of the away team," Kirk says.  "And why our communicators don't work."


Uhura nods, focused and intense, and turns a knob on her tricorder.


- - - - - - -


When they finally make it back to the ship, the away team is still nearly intact. 


Ensign Marsh didn't make it-she got too close instead of running to hide when they ran into their own pack of cloud creatures, damn medical curiosity-but the security team and Lieutenant Connell were waiting outside the canyon when the Neamurides led Kirk and Uhura back towards the settlement.  The comm channels came back online immediately, and the Neamurides apologized for that, too. 


Kirk is already drafting the letter in his head-the one he's going to send to Ensign Marsh's family.  He knows the young woman had a father on Mars, a wife and infant child somewhere on Earth.  He goddamn hates this part of the job, because he knows every crewman that doesn't come home is blood on his own hands.  He's responsible for the safety of his crew, and every failure is a stinging mark on his soul.


He sets those thoughts aside when he meets Uhura on the transporter pad-does his best to focus on the positive, because there's good to be done now.


"You sure you don't want to stay down there?" he asks as she moves gracefully down the steps.  He's only mostly joking.  "I think you had a real rapport with those things."


She smirks at him, fondness and exasperation wrapped up in one bright expression.  "I'm sure the Federation linguistics and diplomatic teams will do fine, Captain.  You need me here a hell of a lot more."


"You're right," says Kirk.  "I do."  And before the moment can start to feel too somber, he takes her arm and starts pulling her down the corridor towards sickbay.  "Come on," he says.  "McCoy said something about sticking you with needles to make sure those clouds hadn't given you any weird diseases."


"Terrific," says Uhura in her driest voice.  But she follows him all the way to deck five, and she doesn't tell him to let go.


- - - - - - -


They're more than due a break, so for once Kirk isn't annoyed when the Enterprise gets stuck ferrying a handful of Federation ambassadors to a conference.  It means they get to take some easy leave while they wait in orbit of Laucos, the designated location for the talks, and Kirk's attention gets caught by Ambassador D'aabar's flirtatious attaché-or, more accurately, by the attaché's shapely figure, soft hair, and the way she blinks at him with wide, dark eyes.


For a couple of days, he actually resists his baser inclinations.  He's flattered, and he's interested, but he doesn't feel right about it. 


He doesn't even think about why, really, until the entire senior staff is attending a diplomatic reception and the woman makes an obvious pass at him while Spock stands stiffly at his elbow.  Kirk turns her down with politely calculated grace, and after she leaves with a wink and a lingering touch, he edges closer to his first officer.  Not enough to make an obvious scene.  Just enough for their elbows to brush together, like an accident.  It's almost imperceptible, but Kirk can see the tension drain instantly out of Spock's shoulders.


They go their separate ways at the end of the reception, just like they always do, despite the low buzz of anticipation Kirk can feel in his blood.  He's almost getting used to the constant, inevitable frustration of this precarious limbo they're maintaining.


- - - - - - -


Two days later, the last day of the conference, Kirk catches sight of a private moment between Spock and Uhura-one that passes so quickly that anyone else might have missed it.  It's nothing but a meaningful look, a sudden connection of gazes, but Jim knows exactly what it means when Uhura quietly takes her leave from the rec room.  Spock follows moments later, just enough delay for discretion. 


Kirk tries not to feel the flare of jealousy that surges up in his chest.  After all, Uhura's got prior claim.  And Jim, what does he have?  An inexplicable bond, a whole lot of sexual tension, and the all too vivid memory of Spock's fingers dancing along his skin.  He's got jack squat in the way of standing to protest, and he can't very well complain about the existing relationship between his second in command and his communication's officer. 


He doesn't give himself time to wonder if he'll be able to feel anything through the nebulous touch of the bond at the back of his mind.  He's not that much of a masochist, and he doesn't want to know.  Bones gives him a curious look when he retires early, but what Jim needs is the privacy of his quarters so he can make a call.


Ambassador D'aaBar's attaché answers his hail after only a moment has passed, and Jim smiles and greets her by name.  "Leeanni."


"James Kirk," she says with a smile.  "I did not expect you to call me."


They exchange small talk just long enough to be polite, and then Jim lets his smile turn warm and meaningful as he says, "I'm given to understand the capital city of Laucos is a beautiful place."


"It is, Captain," she says, eyes narrowing teasingly.  "Have you never been?"


"No," he admits, playing along.  "I've never had the privilege."


"Well," she says.  "Then I insist you beam down at once.  I will have to give you a tour of the sights I have encountered since our arrival."


He beams down and meets her at her assigned quarters.  They never actually take that tour. 


Leeanni has pale orange skin, soft to the touch, and when Jim kisses her the tones shift like a sunset to deep, eager burgundy.  She's warm and lovely beneath his hands, everything Jim has ever admired about the female form.  He makes love to her with a gentle reverence, soft and slow and perfect, prolonging the experience with all the ample skill he can muster.  It's almost enough to leave him satisfied. 


But as he lies in her bed, a predawn edge of gray sky visible through the window, she doesn't feel quite right in his arms.


- - - - - - -


He beams back up to the ship three hours before they're scheduled to depart.  The look Spock gives him in the transporter room is dark and heavy and startlingly indecipherable.  It's been a long time since Jim had this much trouble picking out the thoughts behind Spock's eyes. 


"Mr. Spock, status report," he says, stepping through the swish of the doors into the corridor, and heading for his own quarters with a steady gait.  He needs a shower and a clean uniform before he returns to the bridge for his next shift.


"We have received our next assignment from Starfleet command," Spock says stiffly.  "Admiral Komack has ordered us to investigate the situation on Argos III.  There is a more detailed report awaiting your perusal."


"Good," says Kirk.  "We can leave as soon as the last of the crew has returned from the capital." 


"Indeed," says Spock, and stops alongside Kirk at the door to the captain's quarters.  For a moment, Jim wonders if he ought to invite Spock in-the Vulcan has the definite air of a man with something more to discuss.  The fact that he's standing there suddenly quiet hints that it's something better discussed in private.  But Kirk needs a shower and a moment to himself.


"Thank you, Spock," he says, entering his code into the panel beside the door and stepping over the threshold.  "I'll see you on the bridge."


The last thing he expects is for Spock to follow him through the door.  He doesn't have time to question the unexpected intrusion before Spock is shoving him against a wall, kissing him-deep and possessive and almost terrifying in his focused intensity. 


Not that Kirk minds.  At the moment he's too busy wrapping his arms around Spock and dragging him closer to bother entertaining any higher brain function.  Spock's tongue is in his mouth and feels warmer than it should-a detail Kirk is fast becoming familiar with-and Spock is grabbing for one of Kirk's hands, twining their fingers together, which blows the existing tickle of mental contact wide open, and Kirk is flooded with too much to process.  Hunger and jealousy and the dangerous hint of rage-Kirk groans helplessly and clutches Spock even harder.


Between one blink and the next, the moment shatters.  One second Kirk is holding on for dear life, and the next Spock is halfway across the room.  For all of two seconds, Jim can read the shadows darkening Spock's face, and then the man is fighting his reactions back under that stoic Vulcan control.  Locking them away behind an impenetrable shield and leaving Kirk staring at his calm, collected exterior.


"Apologies, Captain," Spock says, quickly mastering the quaver in his voice.  "I had not intended to...  My behavior was inappropriate.  I will leave."


"Spock, don't go," says Kirk, already thinking about ducking between Spock and the door in case he needs to use more than words to stop his first officer's retreat.  He doesn't really know what he's supposed to say here, but 'Do we need to talk? ' sure as hell doesn't feel right.  He shouldn't have to say that anyway.  Clearly they do.  "Is this about Leanni?" he asks, substituting one obvious question for another.


"I have no standing to control your romantic activities, Captain," says Spock with stilted formality.  "To endeavor to do so would be an unforgivable hypocrisy."  Kirk doesn't really know what to say to that.  It's not like Spock is wrong.  But god, there must be a way to do this without making each other miserable.  There must be a way to figure out what the hell they are to each other, at least.  Kirk's getting a little sick of not knowing. 


Doesn't mean he can bring himself to voice the question aloud.  But that's okay, because at the moment he has plenty of other questions he can ask.


"Spock," he says stepping forward and letting curiosity guide his tongue.  "How did you know?"  He's got his theories, of course, but he wants to hear Spock say it.


"We are bonded, Captain," says Spock.  "Traditionally, such an arrangement is strictly monogamous.  It is not difficult to discern when that is not the case."


"Oh," says Kirk dumbly.  Yeah, that's about what he figured.  "Spock," he says suddenly.  "It didn't cause you pain when I..."  He hadn't really thought about that possibility, but Vulcans are telepathic and maybe it's something he should have considered.


"No," Spock is quick to reassure.  "My discomfort was not physical."  Which isn't the clear-cut reassurance Kirk would've liked, but it will have to do.  "Besides," Spock continues, and one corner of his mouth quirks up in what Kirk might almost describe as a self-deprecating smile.  "We have already established that I have no right to control your affairs." 


"You could still ask," Kirk says softly.


Spock regards him with a heavy scrutiny, long minutes that stretch even longer as Kirk fights the urge to fidget under the Vulcan's intense regard.  He wants to go back to the kissing part, because that at least he knew how to respond to.  Plus, it felt pretty damn good, and hey, they've got plenty of time before they have to be on the bridge for departure.


But Spock doesn't close the distance between them, and Kirk doesn't dare do it himself.  When the Vulcan turns and exits his quarters, Kirk lets him go.


He stares for a long time at the closed doors, and finally remembers to take that shower.


- - - - - - -


Kirk stays in his chair for an extra shift, but when he finally leaves the bridge with the Enterprise still en route to its destination, Kirk makes for sickbay instead of his quarters.  It's late enough that Bones shouldn't be occupied with anything more important than a hangnail or a duty roster, and Kirk's pretty sure he'd rather be called a teenage girl again than spend the night alone in his own head.  He needs to talk to someone, and if not his best friend then who?


He doesn't even have to say anything when he walks into Bones's office.  He just flops down into the chair opposite the desk and waits for his friend to crack out the Saurian Brandy he keeps stashed behind the sliding wall panel.  'Medicinal purposes,' his ass, but then again, Kirk can't deny that it helps.  It loosens his tongue anyway, and if he rambles a little less than coherently about the whole mess, it's not so much the liquor as it is his own jumbled state of mind.  It's hard to tell McCoy what he thinks about his bond with Spock when he keeps failing at sorting it out for himself.


"Why did you do it, Jim?" Bones asks, leaning forward across the desk to pour him another glass.


"I don't know," Kirk admits.  "I didn't really give it much thought at the time.  Spock was dying.  He said I could help."  Hadn't Admiral Pike once told him that his tendency to leap without looking was a good thing? 


"But surely you've thought about it since," Bones insists.


Kirk sighs and gives a conceding nod, leaning uncomfortably back in his chair.  He thinks about standing up and pacing, but there would be too much temptation to pace right out the door and damn the rest of this conversation.


"At first I thought it was just about saving Spock's life," says Kirk.  "He's a member of my crew, and that makes him my responsibility.  I couldn't just stand by and watch him die if there was something I could do about it."  Besides, no matter how messy things get in the aftermath, Jim is never going to be able to regret that decision.


"And now?" Bones prompts when the silence lapses too long.


"Now I wonder," says Kirk, and for a long moment that's all he can put into words.  Bones doesn't press immediately, just waits for him to get his thoughts together.  Waits for him to figure out just how much he's going to admit. 


"Did you know I mind melded with the other Spock?" Kirk asks finally.  McCoy's eyebrows shoot up to his hairline, but he doesn't interrupt as Kirk continues, "or rather, he mind melded with me.  He said it was just to explain the situation faster-and he was right, because seriously?  I wouldn't have believed him if he hadn't put the whole story straight into my head."  He doesn't have to explain to Bones that there's another Spock out there:  his CMO already knows, and is already sworn to secrecy.


"But?" Bones presses now, and Kirk sighs tiredly.


"But I think he was lonely, too.  I think he was lonely, and hurting, and needed that contact to keep it together.  And the way his mind felt... I don't know how to describe it, Bones.  But I think the Jim Kirk in his own timeline meant more to him than he was letting on."


"You said they were friends," Bones points out.  "Are you saying they were more than that?"


"I don't know," Kirk says with a helpless shrug.  "It's not like he was showing me that stuff.  But I felt..."  He struggles for words, trying to quantify the warm ache of sensation that he remembers so clearly.  "I felt cherished," he finally says.  "It was a good feeling."


"I see," says Bones, and his voice is aggravatingly neutral.


"So maybe that got me thinking about ourSpock," Jim theorizes.  "Or maybe not, god, I don't even know.  It's not like I walked into the situation planning to fuck him."  At least he's reasonably sure he didn't.  But at the same time, he had surprised even himself with how quickly he got on board with the idea.  And he's pretty sure no Vulcan bonding link can explain away the number of times he's woken up hard and practically feverish from a fragment of memory fading away like a dream.  It can't explain the way he craves Spock's proximity, or the quiet tug of jealousy at watching his first officer disappear from the rec room with obvious designs on someone else.


"I think I'm in love with Spock," Kirk realizes aloud.


"Yeah, I'm getting that," says Bones, and Jim looks down so he doesn't have to meet the quiet sympathy in his friend's gaze.  He scrubs at his face with one hand, shaking his head as if to clear it, and when that doesn't work he exhales a long, slow breath into the quiet of the office.


"What the hell am I going to do?" he asks, shoulders slumping in defeat.


"You got me, Jim.  This is uncharted territory.  You've sure as hell got your mess cut out for you, though." 


Understatement of the century as far as Kirk is concerned, but he thanks Bones for the brandy and bids him goodnight.  He's lived without resolution this long.  He can deal with it a little longer.


- - - - - - -


Argos III is a war waiting to happen, but somehow the Enterprise manages to mediate a tentative peace agreement between three violent factions.  Starfleet issues commendations for half a dozen crewmembers, and for once nobody dies in the line of duty.  Kirk's counting that one an extra win, especially once they finally vacate the solar system and leave a solid week of tense negotiations behind them.  It's like a ship-wide sigh of relief, and Kirk feels it all the way down to the marrow in his bones.


It puts him in high spirits, and his crew is nothing but bright smiles in the corridors, so he's startled when he takes a shortcut through the arboretum and finds Uhura staring morosely at a vine-covered, purple tree.  She's obviously not sharing in the general easy atmosphere that permeates the ship, and she doesn't even seem to have noticed him through her intense inward focus.  He thinks about retreating the way he came, shortcut be damned, and leaving her be, but the captain and concerned friend in him win out.  He takes a seat on the bench beside her, far enough away for decorum but close enough for his proximity to lend an extra edge of support if she needs it.


"Everything all right, Lieutenant?" he asks, sticking to a professional tone for the moment.  If she answers him with the firm, clipped 'Just fine, Captain' he expects, that will be his cue to haul ass out of her way.


"Jim," she says, noticing him with sudden surprise.  She's using his name, which means he's in it, now, and maybe he should've just walked away in the first place. 


"Are you okay?" he asks, dropping his tone to something lower and softer.  He almost reaches for her hand, but he's not sure yet if that would be welcome.  This is a little different than being stranded on a dangerous planet and reassuring a scared crewmember.  She might not want to be touched.


"It's pointless, isn't it," she says quietly, eyes drifting off into the distance.  "I keep thinking we'll find a balance, that we'll make it work, but I'm never going to be what he needs."


Kirk feels helplessness close over his head, a futile sense that there's nothing he can say here, but he opens his mouth anyway.  "Spock does need you," he says. 


She laughs, and it's a high, desolate sound.  The smile that twists across her features is rueful and gut-wrenchingly ironic.  "He needed me and I couldn't be there," she corrects him.  "He'd be dead if it weren't for you.  It's not really his fault he can't stop thinking about you now."  Even bogged down as he is by guilt and sympathy, Kirk feels a thrilled, selfish little tug in his chest at that.  He kind of wants to ask her about their last night in orbit around Laucos, but at the same time he's pretty sure he doesn't want to know.


He settles for shifting closer until their shoulders touch, and following her gaze along the bushes and trees of the arboretum, leaves and branches brightly lit by artificial sun.


"I can't begrudge you what you are to him," she says, and the words come out on such a soft breath that Kirk almost misses them.  He feels his own breath stutter in his chest, and he turns to regard her with wide, honest eyes.


"And what am I to him?" he asks, because he goddamn needs to know. 


But Uhura doesn't answer him, and maybe that's not so surprising.  She meets his questioning look head-on, a curious expression in her eyes.  It's an odd mix of warmth and sympathy, befuddlement and exasperation, all swirling together behind the overwhelming weight of sadness that shines at the forefront.  She looks at him until apparently she can't anymore, and then she turns away and clasps her hands together, interlacing her fingers delicately in her lap.


"I can't do this anymore, Captain," she says finally.  "I'm not strong enough."


"You're one of the strongest officers I know," says Kirk, because it hurts to hear Uhura say those words.  He needs her to understand how untrue they are.


"Then maybe strength isn't enough," she says. 


They sit in silence for a graceless moment, neither knowing what to do.


"You'll break his heart," Kirk finally says, the words sticky in his throat.


"I know," she whispers.  "But I can't do this anymore."


The next question he has to ask hurts so much that he almost chickens out.  He needs the answer to be no, because if his ship needs Spock to run right, then it damn well needs Uhura, too.  But he owes her the question at least, so finally he asks, "Do you want me to arrange a transfer?"


"No," she says, quickly enough to make his shoulders sag in relief.  "I want to stay."


"Good," he says, and they share a moment that could almost be a smile under different circumstances. 


Uhura stands, looking for all the world like she's about to trace the faux-rock path to the exit.  She stops after one step and turns to regard him with knowing, familiar eyes.  They're dark with so much emotion that Kirk feels tiny under the weight of her stare.


"I don't know what your intentions are, sir.  And I know this probably wasn't what you wanted.  But you're in it now.  And he does need you."


'I know,' he wants to say, but this is the first moment he's really been sure of it.  'Thank you,' he could say, but it feels wrong.  He settles for a curt nod, and she returns it in kind.


"Try not to hurt him," she adds, one last parting shot as she disappears down the path.


- - - - - - -


Kirk jury-rigs the duty rosters that week to give Uhura time to corner Spock when neither officer will need to report for duty too soon after.  He tries to be subtle about it, but the look she throws him from her post when she receives the update says she's on to his scheme.


Not that it really matters, but he doesn't want her to think he's eager for selfish reasons.  Not when he's just trying to help.


He's on the bridge himself when the carefully contrived off-shift overlap takes place, and he actually feels the moment things go to shit.  'Go to shit' is a relative term, of course.  He can picture the conversation clearly enough.  It's calm, and logical, and unerringly polite.  It's Uhura explaining the situation in a carefully eloquent fashion, and Spock standing with the stiff appearance of calm, his hands clasped tightly behind his back as he congratulates her on her unassailable logic. 


But Kirk can feel it in the back of his mind, a subdued hum of Spock's true reaction, and he curls his fingers hard around the arms of his chair.  It's all he can do not to abandon his post and storm through the corridors until he finds Spock.  The immediacy of the sensation is disconcerting:  he's not used to feeling anything so vivid when Spock isn't touching him. 


When the shift finally ends, he leaves Sulu with the conn as he heads for the turbolift.  He should probably check with the computer, make sure he's not interrupting, but he's pretty much over this whole willpower game.  He's following his gut, and he's not particularly surprised to find it leading him straight to Spock's quarters.  He keeps his pace as slow as he can stand, because the ship's got plenty of gossip to play with already.  He doesn't need to set off another round by speeding through the corridors when there's no crisis. 


When he reaches Spock's door, he hesitates.  He might be interrupting, if Uhura is still in there, and even if she's not, what the hell is he supposed to say?  He can't exactly hurl himself into Spock's arms and fix things with the magical power of his cock.  Much as he would maybe like to.


The door slides open while he's still standing there like an idiot, and when no one knocks him over on their way into the corridor, Kirk takes it as an invitation and steps inside.  The air is warmer here, the light tinged just slightly red, and it's been so long since Kirk last set foot in Spock's quarters that he marvels for a moment.  If this is Spock's preferred environment, the rest of the Enterprise must get to be hell by the end of a long shift.  Not to mention all those stupid ice planets they visit on away missions-Starfleet regulation uniforms and gear are meant to allow survival in plenty of conditions, but fabric and fake fur can only do so much.  He twitches in sympathy, then startles when Spock says, "I apologize if my quarters make you uncomfortable.  I can adjust the settings if you would prefer."


"No, no," Kirk recovers quickly.  "It's fine."  And he's staring now, but damned if he's got any idea how to break the ice.  He's here.  Now what?


"I presume you are here to inquire after my wellbeing," says Spock, and the image of him is exactly how Kirk imagined:  shoulders stiff and hands clasped tightly behind his back.  For all that he knows Spock needs him, Kirk suddenly feels like he's standing on unstable ground.


"I felt..." he starts, but cuts himself off.  The last thing Spock will want now is a reminder that he can feel.  Better to let him reconstruct his walls, and Kirk notes idly that he no longer feels the swell of borrowed emotions.  Spock must be deliberately blocking him, which hurts a little, but makes it easier to think.  "I was worried," he finishes lamely.  "I'm sorry if I'm being an irrational human, or whatever, but.  I was worried."  It feels good to repeat the words.  It grounds him.  Reminds him this is where he needs to be.


Apparently they're the right words to say, because the stiffness melts-slowly and almost imperceptibly-from the tight line of Spock's shoulders.  His eyes soften cautiously as they take in Kirk's concerned face, and Jim finds himself fighting the urge to smile reassuringly.  He doesn't actually know how a smile would go over right now.  He settles for stepping further into the room, closer to Spock.  He perches on the edge of Spock's desk when his approach doesn't earn him any objection-a position that puts him a scant foot away from where his first officer currently stands-and he folds his arms across the front of his gold uniform shirt.


Spock regards him inscrutably, and finally says, "I take it, from your presence and your rearranging of the duty roster, that you are already aware of what has transpired between myself and Lieutenant Uhura."  Which is a little more direct than Kirk was expecting, and he fights not to fidget.


"I'm sorry," he says, pretty much at a loss.  "I didn't think it was my place to say anything."


"You were correct in your assessment, Captain," says Spock, and Kirk really, really wants to call him on the use of his title, but he keeps his mouth shut.  "Interference would have been both unwise and unwelcome."  Kirk hopes rearranging the duty roster doesn't count as interference.  In the big scheme of things, it's probably a pretty minor infraction.


"Can I ask you something?" Kirk says, suddenly curious.  And maybe it's nosy, hell, it's probably inappropriate, too, but it's something he suddenly can't help wondering.  When Spock gives an acknowledging nod of permission, he continues, "If you knew you were a ticking biological time bomb, why didn't you stay closer to the new Vulcan colony?  You said compatibility with Vulcans was more likely than with other races, so why chance it?"  He doesn't mean to be impertinent, or judgmental, or anything besides quietly curious.  Thankfully, there's no tightening of Spock's spine to indicate the questions offended him.


"For two reasons, Captain," says Spock, and there's that goddamn title again.  He must catch something in Kirk's face, because he pauses.  "I'm sorry," he says.  "Jim.  First, I had hoped that, being half human, I would be spared the experience entirely.  Second, even in the event that this was not the case, I should have had several more years before it became a consideration.  I do not know whether it was my human heritage or some other factor that triggered Pon Farr prematurely.  Perhaps the death of my wife with the destruction of Vulcan.


"The death of your..."  Kirk didn't know it was possible to be this flabbergasted.  "Spock, you were married?"


"An imprecise term in this instance," Spock hedges, though Kirk gets the sense he's genuinely struggling with definitions.  "We were bonded as children, less than a marriage but more than a betrothal.  She perished with Vulcan."


"Spock, I'm sorry," says Kirk, but Spock shakes his head. 


"The likelihood that we would have consummated the bond was very low, even before the loss of Vulcan."  Which Kirk supposes helps explain Spock's relationship with Uhura.  Infidelity doesn't seem particularly logical. 


"Still," says Kirk.  "I'm sorry."  Then, with a slowly dawning air of revelation, "Spock.  Are we married?"


The uncomfortable pause is confirmation enough.


"According to ritual and tradition, no," Spock finally says.  "In practical effect, yes."


"Huh," says Kirk.  But there's clearly more.  The stiffness is back in Spock's shoulders, and it's obviously a discomfort that goes beyond wondering what Jim's response will be to this most recent revelation.  There's a growing tension in the room between them, stubborn and strong, and so intense that Kirk can feel it at the base of his skull.


"Spock, what is it?" he asks.  The way Spock's eyes dodge around the room is seriously starting to upset his calm.  "Spock, come on.  You're freaking me out way more by not telling me than you will if you just say what's on your mind."  The last time his first officer was this reluctant to divulge information was, well... Kirk needs to not think about that right now.  He needs to focus on things that aren't the memory of Spock's hands-holding him down, stroking along his skin, forming that peculiar gesture that makes Kirk want to reach out.  He needs to focus on here and now, because Spock's nervous manner is making him think they're approaching an actual crisis.


"Talk to me," Kirk orders, pushing off of the desk and moving until he's standing right in Spock's line of sight, so close there's nowhere else the man can look.


"It is possible," Spock says awkwardly, "however uncommon, to sever the bond that ties us to each other."


"You said it was permanent," Kirk breathes in surprise.  He's starting to hate all the nuances of conflicting information that are running circles in his head.


"That is correct," Spock says, inclining his head slightly.  "The mating bond is, by its very nature, a permanent connection.  The process of severing it is unreliable, unpleasant and potentially dangerous.  Even on Vulcan there were only a handful of individuals capable of performing the ritual.  There are now only two.  But it can be done." 


"You're offering me an out," Kirk realizes in a rush. 


"It will be seven more years before I am again faced with the effects of Pon Farr," Spock explains.  "Should we be successful in severing the bond, I am certain that in that time I could find someone-"


"No," Kirk growls, and the word comes out with such vehemence that he takes a step back, blinking in surprise at his own outburst.  Spock has so many walls up that Kirk can't read his face.  Even his eyes are darkly masked, and Kirk struggles to get his own thoughts and emotions back under control.  There's more to this equation than just what he wants, and when he opens his mouth again the words pour out without direction.  "I don't need you to do that for me," he finally says.  "But if it's what you want.  Hell, Spock, I didn't even think... you've got every right to want someone else.  I'm pretty much the worst Vulcan spouse you could ever find.  And fuck, you probably want kids."


"No," Spock says simply.


"No?"  Kirk is pretty sure he must've heard that wrong.


"I have already made the selfish choice by remaining in Starfleet.  This life is hardly conducive to procreation or the raising of children."


"Then why do you want to sever the bond?" Kirk asks, still confused and really starting to hate the feeling.  More than he already did, which was impressive to begin with.


"I have no interest in finding another bondmate, Jim.  But I would not hold you to me unwillingly."


"That's what this is about?"  And okay, not confused anymore.  More like incredulous.  He steps closer again, searching Spock's eyes until he finds a spark of warmth to confirm it.  Spock does want him.  Spock is trying to be considerate of Jim's feelings.  "You really don't see it, do you," he murmurs.  "You've got a door straight into my brain, and you still have no idea what's going on in my head."


"I would not intrude upon your privacy in that way," says Spock, actually looking a little offended at the implication.


"Not even by accident?" Kirk asks.  When Spock's perturbed expression persists he sighs and says, "Of course you wouldn't.  But.  Spock, I don't want out.  If you had any idea how I've been feeling these past few weeks, you wouldn't even ask me that."


Spock looks downright skeptical, and for a single, daft moment Kirk's got no idea how to convince him.  Then it hits him like a starfreighter, and he forms his hand into the gesture Spock taught him weeks ago now.  He extends his fingers towards Spock, his face a wash of pure expectation, and notes the careful hesitation before Spock forms his own hand to match and touches his fingertips to Kirk's.


The sudden gust of psychic sensation is just as strong as before, and Kirk breathes out in a rush.  But he can also feel, now, the way Spock is careful-the way he's not taking advantage of the contact to skirt the surface of Kirk's conscious thoughts.  It's nothing but an exchange of sensation, and he needs Spock to see deeper than that.


"God damnit, Spock, you're missing the point.  Stop being so careful and look already."  And because he thinks it'll make his point better than words, and because it can't hurt to yank Spock off-balance along with him, Kirk leans forward, threads the fingers of his free hand through Spock's hair, and pulls his first officer into an insistent kiss.


Kirk smiles against Spock's lips when he finally feels the walls fall.  Spock's mind is nova bright, heat and want and unspoken questions that thrill along Jim's synapses and warm beneath his skin.  He answers as well as he can, which is probably not eloquent at all to someone who actually has telepathic abilities, but all that matters is that Spock gets the point.  All Jim needs is the spark of recognition telling him that Spock sees exactly how much both of them need this.


He feels that spark kindle between them just as Spock finally leans forward to kiss him back, and suddenly Kirk can barely breathe for all that he's wrapped tightly in the Vulcan's strong arms.  The point of contact between their fingers is lost, but they don't need it anymore.  Spock is kissing his way into Jim's mouth, trailing his fingers along Jim's back beneath the fabric of his uniform, burying his face against Jim's throat and breathing in the scent of him, and Kirk can feel it all.  He can feel it all from both sides, his own senses and Spock's, and it's almost too much.


"Bed," he whispers, because his legs aren't going to support him much longer.  They trip and stumble, shedding clothes as they move in a messy disarray across the floor.  Even naked, Kirk still feels his skin overheating from the air temperature settings, and from the furnace of Spock's body against him.  He gives an appreciative moan when Spock lowers him to the bed, reveling in the silken heat of skin-on-skin.  It feels like he's been waiting on this for months.


"You got anything?" he gasps, arching when Spock slides against him just so.  "I really want you to fuck me right now."


Spock is fast looking as wrecked as Jim feels, but still manages to pull back and say with irritating evenness, "If your ambiguously phrased question translates to a request for artificial lubrication, the answer is no.  I do not have such supplies at hand."


Kirk swears colorfully and plops his head back against the pillow.  Spock looks at him, and he's got no walls up at all as he gives Kirk a long look of unabashed amusement. 


"Jim," he says, controlled tone managing to sound downright teasing.  "There will be ample opportunity for such an endeavor in the future."


When he puts it that way, Kirk can't really argue.  He feels a pulse of warmth in his chest, a happy kernel of contentment that slides right in alongside his arousal, and he lets his mouth spread into a conniving smirk.  "And we can do plenty of other things in the meantime, right?" he says, already trailing a hand along Spock's chest and down between their bodies.


"Affirmative," says Spock, but there's a green flush spreading across his cheeks and down his throat, and Kirk would bet it'll be tingeing the entire length of his body in seconds.  He's always kind of had a thing for green.  He leans up and kisses Spock again, loving the way their minds feel together, entwined and raveling even tighter with passion.


'I love you so much,' he thinks, and since his mouth is occupied with other things at present, he loves that he doesn't have to say it out loud.


- - - - - - -




They're at the new Vulcan colony for two full days before Kirk realizes that his Spock already knows about the other Spock's existence.  He feels lied to and a little bit surly about it, but when he confronts his Spock, all it gets him is a guileless look and softly uttered, "I apologize, Jim.  I did not realize you were still operating under your previous misconceptions."  Which makes it a little hard to be annoyed.


But he's still annoyed at the other Spock for giving him those misconceptions in the first place, so when he meets the aged Vulcan alone in his study, he points an accusing finger and says, "You lied to me."


"Did I?" says Spock, and Kirk would swear he sees laughter in the old man's eyes.  "To my understanding, I merely provided you with strong instructions that you were not to communicate certain information to my younger self.  I did not attempt to offer you an explanation, yet you followed this directive and successfully carried out your mission."


Kirk thinks about it-thinks back really hard-and realizes Spock is right.  He flops into a chair opposite the one Spock currently occupies and says sullenly, "You let me think the universe would end if I said anything.  I've been worried ever since that I might unravel existence because of some stupid slip of the tongue, and you've... probably been pen pals this entire time."


"I am sorry, Jim," Spock says sincerely.  "I would not have misled you lightly.  There was no alternative."  Kirk is kind of curious what Spock thinks there was no alternative to, but his pride at least is sated by the apology, and by the genuine intensity in the elder's wise, dark eyes.  He considers the words of apology for a long moment, knowing his continuing silence won't make his host uncomfortable.


"It was about me and him," he realizes aloud.  "You knew we needed each other.  You were trying to put the timeline back on track."


Spock inclines his head to concede the point, and Kirk considers that, too.  He wonders how far their special circumstances will let him stretch propriety, because suddenly there's something else he desperately wants to know.


"You and your Jim Kirk," he says, finally deciding that it's just going to eat at him until he knows.  "Were you together?"


"Not in the sense that you mean."  And Kirk instantly regrets asking, because a decidedly un-Vulcan look of sadness settles across Spock's age-worn features.  The depth of it takes Kirk's breath away, leaves him feeling gutted and open as Spock continues, "He was my T'hy'la, but we spent a lifetime never letting ourselves see how deeply our connection ran."


Kirk doesn't know what T'hy'la means, but he makes a mental note to ask his Spock about it.


"You were never bonded?"


"I did not say that," says Spock, and suddenly the sadness in the air makes perfect sense.  Kirk can't even imagine what it must have been like, sharing a bond he's only beginning to understand while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge its existence-or worse, never realizing it was there until too late.  He wonders with a quiet pulse of melancholy which it was.


"I never got to say goodbye to my Jim Kirk," Spock murmurs.  "Circumstance took him from me far too soon, and it was not until he was gone that I realized what we shared."  Kirk's glad to know, but he's even more glad he didn't have to ask.  He already feels like an uninvited intruder, or worse, an unwanted memory.


"Maybe I should go," he says uncomfortably.  The last thing he wants is to break the old man's heart all over again just by being here.


"I wish you wouldn't," Spock says, and when Kirk looks at him he sees the Vulcan walls of propriety already rebuilding themselves in his eyes.  "Forgive me," he adds.  "I did not mean to overwhelm you.  That was inappropriate of me.  But your presence does not discomfit me, Jim.  On the contrary, it brings to mind memories of more pleasant times." 


Spock offers him tea, and Kirk accepts, and they sit in mostly-comfortable silence for long, settling minutes.  When Spock eases forward with lighter topics of conversation, Kirk welcomes them, and they talk for unexpected hours about warp theory, diplomatic directives, and the variety of native Vulcan plant life that has been successfully transferred to the soil surrounding the new colony.  They touch on life aboard the Enterprise, and Kirk thinks it can't be coincidence that his brilliant crew lines up so exactly with the men and women this Spock remembers with such understated-yet obvious-fondness and admiration.


When the sun has disappeared and left nothing but the darkness of night visible through the windows, Kirk finally stands and stretches, offering an apologetic, "I should probably get back to my ship."


"Indeed you should," Spock says with something alarmingly close to a smile.  He stands and offers the traditional salute.  "Thank you for spending this time with me, Captain.  I hope you will stay in touch."


"Likewise," Kirk says warmly, and makes his way for the door.  He pauses at the threshold, turning to toss a considering look over his shoulder.


"So um.  There's this ceremony tomorrow," he says, feeling a little self-conscious.  It's kind of the whole reason the Enterprise is in orbit, and he's already feeling a little overwhelmed by all the preparations and politics, all the well wishes from people he's never met. 


"Your wedding," Spock says with a knowing smile, and Kirk probably shouldn't be surprised that he knows.  It's kind of the talk of the colony, never mind the rest of the Federation. 


"Can you come?" he asks.  He would have asked in the first place if he hadn't been worried about ending the whole goddamn universe in the process.


"Of course," says Spock, nodding.  "I would not miss it."


"Good," says Kirk, and quietly takes his leave.


- - - - - - -




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