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Author's Chapter Notes:

This series is a slashy look at the episodes of TOS. As such, it quotes liberally from the episodes themselves and uses their basic narrative structure. I have no intention of trying to pass off these portions as my own work and if anyone can think of a way to properly attribute it without breaking the flow of the story I'd love to have a better way of doing it. As it is, I’m going to acknowledge the episode’s writer at the start of each chapter - in this case John DF Black - and hope that suffices for now. The series is written with the greatest of respect for everyone involved in making the Star Trek magic happen and I have no desire to profit from or plagiarize another writer’s work.

 
Thanks to my wonderful beta penguin_attie for her support, advice and suggestions. Any mistakes that remain are there because I was determined to make them.

 

 

 

 

In retrospect, the fifth glass of brandy was a bad idea.

He’s not drunk as such – never let it be said that Jim Kirk is a man who can’t hold his liquor – but he’s fuzzy round the edges and the melancholy has set in.

It’s late, and he ought to go straight to bed. He’s not on duty tomorrow, but those are exactly the days that something important tends to go boom or someone decides to use the Enterprise for target practice, and he learned within his first six weeks of command not to schedule anything for his day off that couldn’t be cancelled at the last minute. But the cognac is warm in his belly and swimming in his head, and it has been the sort of evening that advises against an immediate return to the cool emptiness of his quarters, where silence hangs in the air like a high-pitched whine. So instead he’s allowed his feet to carry him aimlessly through the corridors of his half-sleeping ship, guided by the engine rumble that thrums through the floor and settles deep inside his bones, letting his thoughts play themselves out on a loop in the hazy centre of his brain.

His wanderings have taken him as far as the observation deck, quiet at this late hour but for the occasional muffled moan or sharply-caught breath as he passes the private rooms. Sometimes the universe is all about the pathos. Ten years ago, he would have been one of those hushed voices, struggling to contain the rising flood of pleasure, one eye warily on the privacy lock and the other on the body stretched out beneath him. Sometimes it feels like another lifetime, as though he’s stolen another man’s memories.

It shouldn’t have taken him four whole days to get around to checking up on Bones - really checking up on him - but what are you supposed to say? And there were things to do. There was the eighteen hour stopover on Corinth IV, which unavoidably meant dinner with Jose and his wife, and dinner with Jose always turns into drinks, and then more drinks, and then suddenly it’s the small hours of the morning and the ship’s leaving in three hours’ time. And then there was the paperwork, both for Starfleet and the Corinthian port authority, and the inevitable crew disciplinary hearings that always follow a shore leave, no matter how short. And there was the Quartermaster’s minor emotional disintegration about the misread cotton count requirement on the replacement sheets for the guest suites, and the complete systemic collapse of three of the synthesizers in the mess hall after some sort of virus got uploaded when they took on a new set of programming, and the catastrophic leak that flooded the men’s bathrooms on the Engineering deck and which may or may not have been caused by someone trying to quietly flush away a stash of illicit hooch in the moments before an illicit hooch inspection... And, of course, not forgetting the most important, inescapable, monumental question: what are you supposed to say?

“I’m sorry, Bones,” is the best he’s managed to date: simple, heartfelt, and to the point. It’s what Bones said to him in sickbay after Delta Vega, and there’s really nothing you can add to that. I’m sorry that you just had to kill someone you love. I’d like to say that it’s the only time I’ll ever have to ask you to do that but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. There’s still a starship to run, and we attract this sort of thing like Hell’s own flypaper. Yeah, the more you elaborate, the less convincing it sounds. So he hid behind duty for as long as he realistically could, and then, when it couldn’t be postponed any longer, he took refuge in brandy. He actually thinks Bones was a little bit relieved.

It took two refills before McCoy loosened up enough to bring the conversation around to the manifest reason that they were sitting in the Doctor’s quarters as the ship’s life support cycled them past midnight and into tomorrow. They were laughing about something Scotty had said earlier that day - about trying to shop for a birthday present for his brother’s wife and finding that he’d miscalculated the stardate conversion by a whole Terran month - and Bones’ face had suddenly clouded and he’d said, “Yeah, Nancy used to give me grief about that, too.”

Kirk let the silence linger while they sipped reflectively from their glasses. When it began to feel too heavy, he said, “How are you, Bones?”

A sigh. A shrug. “Well as can be, Captain.” A beat. “Well as can be.” He drained his glass and was reaching for the bottle before he’d finished swallowing. “Time to move on, eh? Time to let go, I guess.”

The Captain leaned back in his chair, folding an arm across his chest and lifting his glass to his lips. He watched McCoy over the rim as he sipped.

“That Yeoman of yours, whatshername, Rand - she’s been mighty kind,” said Bones after a minute. “Waiting in sickbay, soon as we hit warp, wanting to know if there was anything she could do. Nice girl.” A meaningful glance up at Kirk. “Pretty.”

“Yes, she’s very efficient,” said Kirk, smothering a grin in his drink.

“Got a thing for you, Captain.”

“I doubt that, Dr. McCoy.”

“Huh.” A long swallow of cognac, taking care of half the contents of the glass. “No you don’t.”

No, he didn’t. No he doesn’t. He’s reasonably certain that it’s what kept her from pressing charges after Alpha 177, and that makes him uncomfortable.

McCoy watched him with that eviscerating gaze of his. “What is it - duty, Jim?” The blue eyes were relentless. “No - I guess not. Thought as much.”

“It’s...” said Kirk. He hesitated. “...also duty.”

“Yup.” Another huge swallow, emptying the glass. “Starfleet’s got you, every which way you turn. Captain’s not allowed to notice, huh? Not allowed to be a human being. Rest of us mortals, though, we get to notice all we want, but try and do anything about that?” He waved the bottle towards Kirk’s empty glass, and it was easier to submit. Liquid splashed unevenly into the bowl, spilling up the sides. “Nancy did her best, you know. No-one quite like Nancy, Jim. But how are you supposed to keep a thing going when you spend ten months out of every twelve in the boondocks of the galaxy?” He sat heavily back in his chair. Brandy splashed over the rim of his glass and darkened in little spots on his cuff. “Best will in the world, a woman’s going to get tired of that life. Who wants to wait around forever?” A beat, and his eyes pinned Kirk to the chair. “You know that, Jim. How many times did the job come first, everyone else be damned?”

“That’s the life we chose, Bones,” he said gently. “Nancy understood that.”

He stared into his glass. “Not sure I do anymore,” he said sullenly. “Not right now, any rate. Not sure you should, either.”

Kirk didn’t have an answer for that.

The bitterness subsided as the brandy flowed, segueing eventually into reminiscence and laughter that carried them into the small hours of the morning, but it’s sharp in the Captain’s mind as he prowls the corridors of his ship in a restless haze of alcohol and unwelcome thought.

He’s quite sure he doesn’t want to think about this, and the reason he’s sure is because he’s devoted some considerable hours’ thought to it in the past, and it’s never ended well for his peace of mind. Since he was old enough to lie flat on his back by his father’s side in an Iowa cornfield and pick out the constellations with a tiny, pointed finger, he’s known that this is where he belongs. Since the moment he felt himself coalesce on the transporter pad of this ship, that featureless longing has had a name and a place to rest. She has buried herself inside his soul so deeply that he no longer believes that it’s possible to separate the James Kirk that laughs and eats and sleeps and plans from the James Kirk who is Captain of the Enterprise - without her, he’s not sure he would know who he was anymore. No lover, no casual encounter or passionate affair, has ever inspired this devotion in him. She may well be the love of his life.

And yet...

He pauses by the window, his reflected face a pale blur in the foreground of the starfield. This is who he is. This is the life he chose. Lovers can’t touch this obsession; what burns inside the heart of James T Kirk is the fathomless void and the ship he pilots through it. How many times did the job come first, Bones asked, but the truth is, the job will always come first, and if there must be a lingering sense of regret sometimes, then this is the price you pay for living your dream. He touches a hand to the transparent aluminium casing that separates his silver lady from the wastes of space and feels the heartbeat of the ship tremble through his skin.

This is who he is. This is the life he chose.

________________________________________________________________________

 

It starts in the Rec Room in Area 3-9, as many things do. Spock is privately convinced that a proposed statistical analysis that has been recommending itself to him for quite some time would show that the Rec Rooms are disproportionally represented on a graph of Places Things Start on the Enterprise. Maintenance have only just finished painting over the cod liver oil stains from last time, and Yeoman Curtis’ eyebrows have yet to grow back.

Lieutenant Tormolen’s injuries are not life-threatening, fortunately, but the incident is troubling. They are orbiting Psi 2000, an M-class planet in the process of disintegration, and their orders were to beam aboard the inhabitants of a Federation science station on the surface and allow them to observe the planetary break-up from close orbit. All five members of the science team are dead, however, apparently in some bizarre murder-suicide pact, which in itself would be disturbing enough even if it weren’t for the Lieutenant’s subsequent breakdown. His performance in the labs is satisfactory, occasionally exemplary, and he has never previously shown signs of emotional instability, and, really, Spock would know. He doesn’t profess to understand them, but he can feel the build-up of an emotional outburst like an imminent static discharge; there is a sort of tension that hums behind the agile Human face that he learned to read at his mother’s knee and, if there’s nothing he can actually do about it, he can at least try to get out of its way. Lieutenant Tormolen had a propensity to wax poetic on occasion, but emotional imbalance? A suicide attempt? This came as something of a surprise. And it came too closely behind their beam-up from the planet’s surface to be dismissed as coincidence.

McCoy buzzes up to the bridge to request the Captain’s presence in sickbay. There is no reason to be concerned, but, in retrospect, Spock realizes, that sentiment does tend to presage some catastrophe or other.

Their orbit hugs tightly to the dying planet’s final agonies, as it spits out a stream of gravitational and magnetic distortions for the sensors to process. This leaves no room for error, a fact of which the command crew is well apprised, so it would be fair to say that it’s something of a surprise to glance up from the science console and find that the helmsman has vanished from his post.

He crosses the bridge in three strides. “Why isn’t Mr. Sulu at his station?” he snaps.

“Magnetic pull compensated for, sir,” says Riley laconically. “Orbit steady.”

Spock nods to an Ensign. “Take over here, Ryan,” he says and the young man slides into the helmsman’s seat with poorly-concealed enthusiasm. To Riley, he adds, “You haven’t answered my question. Where is Mr. Sulu?”

Sulu is a dedicated officer with an exemplary service record. Spock has served with him in the sciences division for several years before his transfer to command track, and his devotion to duty is commendable, so he is vaguely expecting to hear that the Lieutenant has been taken suddenly and quietly ill, or something along those lines. He is absolutely not expecting Lieutenant Riley to adopt a lilting Irish brogue as he leans back in his seat with an ear-splitting grin and says, “Have no fear, O’Riley’s here! And one Irishman is worth ten thousand...”

“You’re relieved, Mr. Riley!” snaps Spock, before he can explain what an Irishman is worth ten thousand of. “Lieutenant Uhura, take over this station!”

She moves swiftly across the bridge as Riley vacates his seat with a hearty, “Now that’s what I like! Let the women work too! Universal suffrage...”

“Report to sickbay, Mr. Riley,” says Spock.

“Sickbay?” he says, clapping his hands cheerfully. “Exactly where I was heading!” He bounds to the turbolift, and adds, as an afterthought, “Sir!”

Spock watches carefully until he’s certain that the Lieutenant is definitely gone, then snaps open the command chair comm. “Security,” he says. “Mr. Riley is headed for sickbay. See to it he arrives.” And then, because there are days when he is reminded precisely why he has never sought command, he adds, “Captain Kirk to the bridge.”

 

________________________________________________________________________

 

In the time it takes Kirk to reach the bridge, McCoy comms with the news that Lieutenant Tormolen has died, and that the Captain has just been informed. Spock files it away for future reference, but the strain is on Kirk’s face as he exits the turbolift at a brisk march and crosses to the command chair. His expression is focused, professional, and now is not the time to acknowledge his distress, but Spock stays close beside his Captain as he takes his seat and asks, “What were their symptoms?”

“Not violent at this stage,” says Spock, resting his left arm on the back of the command chair and his right on the arm. There are definite signs of distress, but they are carefully masked. The Captain knows that Spock will see it, and he will expect him to ignore it. He continues, “Despite being disoriented, Riley seemed rather pleased with himself, as if he were...”

“Irrational,” Kirk finishes. “Or - drugged.”

“Precisely,” says Spock.

“Security, Lieutenant Uhura,” says Kirk. “Both Sulu and Riley - locate and confine. I want every crewman who comes in contact with them medically checked.”

“Yes, sir,” she says, and then, almost immediately, she adds, “Sir! Level 2, Corridor 3 reports a disturbance. Mr. Sulu, chasing crewmen...” She breaks off and looks up at him, and her face is a mixture of horrified disbelief and the slight desperation of someone who has news that they really, really don’t want to have to impart to their superior officer. “With a sword,” she finishes.

There is silence.

Spock seeks the comfort of his Captain’s eyes in a world that is rapidly slipping out of his grip. Kirk’s meet his and offer no help whatsoever. If anything, they look as though they would very much like to know if Spock knows what the hell is going on either. The look lasts a fraction of a second, and then there is a little flare of resignation and Kirk says, “Put security on it.”

“Fascinating,” says Spock, who may not know what the hell is going on but can certainly extrapolate from data, and that’s better than nothing. Kirk’s eyes light up. “A pattern is developing. First Tormolen - hidden personality traits being forced to the surface. Then Riley, who fancies himself a descendent of Irish kings. Now Sulu, who is at heart a swashbuckler out of your eighteenth century.”

But before he can follow that train of thought any further, the ship bucks violently and the proximity console begins a frantic chirping. Spock crosses to the science station as Kirk calls for a status update on Psi 2000.

“Gravity pull increasing,” says Spock. “We’ve shifted two percent and should stabilize our position.”

“Helmsman, stabilize position,” echoes Kirk.

But Ryan, with a vague edge of panic in his voice, says, “Helm is not answering to control.”

Kirk stands, eyes fixed on the viewscreen. “Warp us out of here,” he says.

“No response from engines, sir.”

“Impulse power, then. Blast us out of this orbit.”

“Impulse engines also dead, sir!”

Spock crosses to the helm and flicks open the comm. “Engine room, we need power!” he snaps.

Nothing. Kirk turns back to the command chair and opens the Captain’s comm channel. “Mr. Scott, acknowledge!” he says. “Our controls are dead.”

Silence. Kirk’s eyes meet Spock’s. “Take her,” he says, and turns for the turbolift.

And then the doors swish open and a half-naked helmsman appears, wielding a sword. It is a testament to the kind of afternoon they are having that the Captain barely even looks surprised.

 

________________________________________________________________________

 

Uhura distracts Sulu with the kind of quick thinking that always reminds Kirk that her career arc is only slightly lagging behind his, and Spock floors the helmsman with a well-placed grip of his long fingers around the would-be musketeer’s collarbone.

“I’d like you to teach me that some time,” says Kirk for what is probably the hundredth time since he assumed the captaincy, and Spock is sufficiently distracted that he doesn’t even try to explain why it’s a Vulcan thing and Humans can’t do it.

“Take D’Artagnan here to sickbay,” he growls at a couple of nearby Ensigns, and Kirk cros... wait - did he just make a joke? There’s no time to process it now, and it’s happened so quickly that Kirk’s not entirely certain he didn’t just imagine it, but right there, in the middle of the chaos, warmth flowers in his belly. Spock just made a joke.

He crosses to the command chair and opens the comm. “Scotty, we need power,” he snaps, because there’s now is not the time to entertain warm and fuzzy thoughts of Vulcan humor. More silence. Kirk is beginning to wonder if the entire ship has gone mad. “Engine room! Acknowledge!”

A beat. And then a familiar voice - but a voice that should absolutely not be anywhere near the other end of this comm channel - says, “You rang, sir?”

“Who’s this?” says Kirk, although he suspects he knows very well.

“This is Captain Kevin Thomas Riley of the starship Enterprise,” says the voice, so it turns out Kirk was half right. The Captain bit, he missed. “And who is this?”

“This is Captain Kirk,” he snaps. “Get out of the engine room, Navigator! Where’s Mr. Scott?”

“I’ve relieved Mr. Scott of his duties,” says Riley in an irritating sing-song voice. Kirk gives up and smacks the comm closed, but of course it doesn’t respond. Of course it doesn’t. He stalks to the turbolift as Riley’s voice continues to drift melodically across the bridge. “Now, attention, Cooks. This is your Captain speaking.” The turbolift doors don’t open. Of course they don’t. “I would like double portions of ice cream for the entire crew.” Kirk thumps the doors with both hands and this actually helps his mood, if not the doors themselves.

“Clear that too, will you?” he barks to Uhura, waving a thumb towards the recalcitrant entrance.

“Yes sir,” she says.

And then Riley starts singing.

 

________________________________________________________________________

 

Scotty is stranded outside engineering with no immediate prospects of breaking through the door, and under other circumstances Kirk might enjoy the irony that his Navigator is compos mentis enough to seal himself into an impenetrable cocoon, while still being so utterly out of it that he’s about to allow the ship to crash and burn in the atmosphere of a dying planet. There is nothing to be done besides leave the engineering team to it, and Kirk returns to the bridge to another shipwide chorus of I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.

Spock has ordered Alert Condition B-2 in the face of an increasingly restive and unpredictable crew and he looks as close to flustered as Kirk has ever seen him. The Captain could almost swear his First Officer rolls his eyes as Uhura delivers the news that Riley has cut off the alert channels mid-broadcast.

“Cut him off!” snaps Kirk.

“I can’t, sir!” she protests. “There’s no way to do it.”

Spock strides to the communications console with the air of a Vulcan who has had just about enough as Riley announces there will be a formal dance this evening in the ship’s bowling alley, which doesn’t actually exist. “There’s no way, Captain,” says Spock. “He controls the main power panels. He can override any channel from down there. Seventeen minutes left, sir,” he adds, and Psi 2000 decides to confirm the accuracy of his prediction by throwing out a gravity loop that sends the command crew sprawling across the bridge.

Seventeen minutes until their orbit decays directly into the planet’s atmosphere, and the Enterprise was never designed to leave the wastes of space. On a good day, with Sulu at the helm and full engine control, and with the beneficent smiles of assorted local deities shining upon her, she might be able to manage a shaky entry and a nose-first collision with terra firma, but she’s out of control, the helm is dead, and 80% of the crew is drunk. And if the atmospheric friction wasn’t enough to end the mission in a ball of flames, then there’s the small fact of the planet’s imminent destruction to consider.

He’s running out of ideas. And then Scotty’s voice announces over the comm, “Engineering to bridge - try your helm. You’ll have enough power to keep her stabilized.”

It’s not much. But it’s a start. Kirk’s eyes shoot up and across the bridge in search of his First Officer’s, and find him engaged in monitoring his consoles. He turns to the bridge, deep in calculation, as Kirk crosses to the science station. “Sixteen minutes left, Captain,” he says. “We’ve stabilized, but still spiralling down.”

Kirk accepts a PADD from a nearby Ensign which confirms that, no, nobody knows what’s going on yet and, no, nobody knows how to stop it. He scribbles a signature.

“Emergency signal, Captain,” says Uhura. “Both decks four and five. Fights and disorders.”

“Get me sickbay,” he says.

“I have no intercom for sickbay, he keeps switching channels on me,” she says.

The Captain turns to his First Officer. “See what you can do to help Dr. McCoy,” he says. Spock is moving almost before Kirk has finished speaking.

 

________________________________________________________________________

 

A cackling maintenance tech has scrawled Love Mankind across the walls in crimson paint as Spock exits the turbolift, causing his shields to drop another critical notch. It is becoming increasingly difficult to suppress the rising tide of irritation and, truthfully, loving mankind is not the sentiment uppermost in his mind at this point.

Sickbay is deserted, apart from Lieutenant Sulu, who is still heavily sedated, and Nurse Chapel, who is standing in front of a mirror in Dr. McCoy’s office wearing an expression of slack-muscled serenity that is becoming depressingly familiar. The doctor is nowhere in sight.

“Nurse,” says Spock, without any serious expectation of a coherent response, “Where is Dr. McCoy?”

“He’s gone to the lab,” she says, and, if the tone is less than professional, it is an answer at least. He spins on his heel and stalks through dispensary towards a comm terminal that does not come equipped with an intoxicated medic.

“Lab,” he snaps. “Lab, respond please, Spock here. Lab!”

She has followed him out of the office and stands in his path towards the exit. When there is no response to his hail, he turns quickly and strides past her without a glance in the hope that this will defuse the impending emotional explosion he reads in the air around her.

“Mr. Spock!” she says.

“What is it, Nurse?” he snaps, and she grabs his hand.

For a long, frozen moment, he cannot respond. Her fingers close on his private skin and she slides her other hand over his to capture it in an obscene cocoon. She is not Vulcan and the gesture does not carry the same lascivious connotations, but she is Starfleet and she is a medical professional - she cannot be unaware of the significance this act holds for him. Even by Human standards it is scarcely innocent.

Shock roots him to the ground as she says in a low voice, “The men from Vulcan treat their women strangely...” She cocks her head and offers him half a smile. “At least, people say that. But you’re part Human, too. I know you don’t... you couldn’t... hurt me?” It is phrased as a question and his mind is so disordered by her licentious touch that for a moment he believes she is afraid of his physical strength. All he can think about is the pressing need to release his flesh from her grip. “Would you?” she asks now.

He slides his hand from hers and moves, unsteadily, towards the exit, holding his arm away from his body as though distance can erase the cloying sense of violation. “I’m in love with you, Mr. Spock,” she calls to his retreating back.

His first instinct is to flee. The door is in front of him and she takes a step towards him as he turns over his shoulder, and she will certainly expect that his failure to retreat constitutes permission to further disregard his boundaries. “You - the Human Mr. Spock,” she says as she moves to stand in front of him, and still he cannot move. His thoughts are cloudy and disorganized and he can fix upon nothing, not even the commands that will make his legs move. “The Vulcan Mr. Spock.”

He grips his injured hand. “Nurse, you should...” he tries, but she interrupts him.

“Christine, please,” she says. “I see things - how honest you are.” Her hands flutter in front of her, punctuating her words, and drift dangerously close to his again. “I know how you feel,” she says, and her fingers close on their target. He squeezes his hands into fists, but she does not notice. “You hide it, but you do have feelings. Oh how we must hurt you - torture you...”

The thought drifts through the tumbling maelstrom of his mind that cruelty cannot be her intention. He knows Chapel well enough to understand that these words are not intended to wound him, that they come from some misguided sense of kindness based only on her own appreciation of the sentiment and its Human connotations. Her hands are not intended to humiliate him, just as her proximity, in violation of every Vulcan social norm, is not intended to offend him. And yet she cannot be ignorant of her actions, she simply chooses - as most Humans do - to believe that her way is better, and, because it is what she wants, some part of him must want it too.

His shields are almost completely eroded. His is not certain how much longer he can tolerate her presence without succumbing to the instinctive urge to push her away, and he is aware that his strength is dangerous, all the more so when his control is so erratic.

“I am in control of my emotions,” he says, as much to himself as to her.

She shakes her head. “The others believe that. I don’t.” And now she touches a hand to his cheek, and if his curled fists welcome their release, the relief is fleeting. “I love you,” she says. “I don’t know why, but I love you - I do love you.”

It is just as it was on that long-distant day on earth, when another Human woman - another kind-hearted, well-intentioned Human woman who had decided to call him friend - spoke almost identical words in a difficult, extended conversation that ended when she burst into tears and ran from the lab. He remembers the emptiness of that evening as he stood alone in the shadowed, cavernous room with his eyes fixed firmly on the dancing screens of the terminal banks, long into the night, choked by the understanding that something precious had been destroyed and there was nothing he could do about it.

He remembers crimson wine on a white carpet, and a slowly-fading smile.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. Emotion bubbles in his throat, impossible to repress. How much of it is hers, transferred through her relentless assault on his hands, he cannot tell, but the fact that he has to ask himself the question at all is disturbing. In moments, the need to escape will overwhelm all sense of propriety and he must act before that happens.

The ship’s whistle sounds, startling him, and Uhura’s voice - never so welcome in all his years aboard the Enterprise - says, “Captain is en route to engineering, Mr. Spock, can you take the bridge? Acknowledge.”

“I am sorry,” he says again, and her face crumples.

“Christine,” she says.

“Christine,” he agrees gently, and releases his hands from hers.

“Bridge to sickbay,” says Uhura again. “Is Mr. Spock there?”

He is not.

 

________________________________________________________________________

 

He stumbles along the corridor, and only a fragment of his oscillating mind is aware that he is moving at all. Love mankind, said the graffiti, and now he wonders. It is one of those innocuous phrases that hides an ugly heart behind carefully-constructed innocence. All that wide-eyed idealism and philanthropy is designed to deter the real question that it deliberately obfuscates, which is this: for whom, precisely, does it exhort affection? He speaks Standard as easily as he speaks Vulcan and he thinks in both languages, but familiarity has not elided the invisible ideology in his mother’s tongue. Mankind, not earthkind, as though fifty percent of the population are beneath consideration, and hundreds of years of explicit acknowledgement of the gender divide has not erased these little idiosyncrasies from the language that evolved to naturalize them.

Mankind, as though there were no other. Love mankind, when on this ship at least there is one very visible occupant who is not included under that banner. When his exclusion from the general call to amity is all the more pronounced because he is the only one who doesn’t fit.

His mind is reeling. The imprint of Chapel’s fingers on his burns a tattoo into his psi-centre and fragments any semblance of control he has left. Tears flood his throat like acid and he wonders bitterly how he could ever have thought that he had the respect of the Human crew. A race whose every spoken word depends on a subtle meta-language of nuance and expression to lock down its meaning, among whom emotion flows like lifeblood, for whom gut feeling is celebrated and esteemed as a factor in decision-making? Love mankind - why bother even to enunciate it, when love is used so cheaply and valued so highly? No wonder they exclude him when his first response to this emotion that they prize above all others is to section and analyze it, to pin it down to a precise semiological position and determine a logical response.

No wonder there is such sadness in his mother’s eyes when she looks at him.

His stride fails him and he stumbles. He reaches out a hand to steady himself and when he glances up at the plaque on the wall, he realizes that the words are blurred by tears. What he needs right now is to retreat from the eyes of the ship before his controls fail completely. Even he doesn’t know what will happen then.

Spock staggers through the doors of Briefing Room 2 and falls back heavily against them as they close behind him. The image of his mother’s face swims behind his closed eyes and chokes a sob from his burning throat. The love in her face when she looks at him, her uncomplicated acceptance of everything he is and everything he does, the knowledge that she would throw her arms around him and shut out the thousand daily injuries his heritage inflicts if he would only allow her, the fact that she will never do this because she knows that he can’t. Everyone else sees what he is not; she sees only what he is. She and the Captain are the only two people he has ever known for whom this has been enough.

They are the only two people for whom he has wished he could be more than he is.

“I am in control of my emotions,” he says, but the quiver in his voice cannot be denied. “I am in control of my emotions,” he tries again, and tears swamp him. He shakes his head. “I am an officer! I am on duty!”

The last vestiges of his mental barriers collapse, and he falls, sobbing, towards the briefing table. “My duty is to...” To what? Starfleet? The ship? His Vulcan disciplines? His humanity? His Captain?

“Too late,” he whispers. “Too late. I am sorry...”

 

________________________________________________________________________

 

Uhura buzzes down from the bridge to say that they are entering the planet’s outer atmosphere just seconds before Scotty, who has finally broken back into engineering and shipped an unrepentant Riley off to sickbay, delivers the only piece of news that could actually top Uhura’s: their Navigator has turned the engines off completely. A full restart will take thirty minutes, which is twenty-two more than they have left to live.

At least the singing has stopped.

There is a theory. It’s not a very good one, which is presumably why it’s remained a theory, and Scotty’s less-than-precise, non-Vulcan estimates put their chances of success at less than ten thousand to one, but in the first place, they are rather short on alternative options, and in the second place, they have Spock. This is exactly the kind of reasoning that is likely to earn the Captain an imperious eyebrow raise, but this is also exactly the sort of thing that Spock just fixes. At the risk of adding a charge of illogic to the indictment, he is prepared to believe, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that Spock will be able to do this. He just knows it.

The First Officer is slumped in a chair in Briefing Room 2, where the ship’s computer said he would be, and it’s immediately obvious that he has been crying. For a moment, the sheer enormity of this fact acts like a veil, obscuring the pressing danger, and Kirk crosses to the table in two rapid strides before he pulls himself up sharply. The instinct is to lay his hand on his friend’s shoulder and offer words of comfort, because whatever has happened, if it’s made Spock lose control then it’s massive and destructive and very, very bad, but, whatever it is, he’s still a Vulcan. There are rules to be observed. And there is still a ship in imminent danger of destruction.

Spock looks up and his face is damp. “My mother,” he says thickly. “I could never tell her I loved her.”

Well. He was not expecting that. “We’ve got four minutes, maybe five...” says Kirk, because he’s not sure how else to react to mommy issues in the middle of a crisis.

But Spock continues as though the Captain hasn’t spoken. “An earth woman. Living on a planet where love - emotion - is bad taste...”

Bad taste or not, Kirk can count the life of his crew in seconds now and there quite simply isn’t enough time for melancholy. He grabs his First Officer’s arm and drags him to his feet. “We’ve got to risk a full power start,” he says urgently. “The engines were shut off - no time to regenerate.” Spock’s eyes are downcast, his face slack with grief. Kirk shakes his shoulders. “Do you hear me? We’ve got to risk a full power start!”

“I respected my father - our customs,” says Spock. “I was ashamed of my earth...”

And Kirk hates himself in advance, but there will be time to apologize later. He raises his hand and strikes his friend’s face, hard enough to make him stagger backwards. Spock catches his balance, and now, for the first time, he meets the Captain’s gaze. What Kirk reads there is... indefinable. The dark eyes are black with emotion, hooded and intent. “Jim,” he says in a low voice that raises goosebumps on Kirk’s flesh. “When I feel friendship for you... I’m ashamed.”

Ashamed? It has been almost seven months, seven months of chess and late night conversations, of a gradual dance of acceptance and trust, of stumbling over Shi’Kahran vocab and a series of increasingly humiliating Suus Mahna-based annihilations, of gently-opening expressions and censored smiles, of a growing sense of warmth and affection and comfort in each others’ presence, and the best his friend can come up with is ashamed? It’s not noble, but it feels perversely satisfying to have duty to fall back on as an excuse when he swings and strikes again.

“You’ve got” - slap - “to hear me!” - slap - he snaps, but when he lifts his arm to deliver a third blow, Spock suddenly animates and clasps his hand with unsettling strength.

For a moment, the Captain is too shocked to speak. Their eyes lock and Spock’s expression is unreadable, even buried behind an unprecedented mask of emotion.

“We need a formula!” Kirk manages. “We’ve got to risk implosion!”

“Never been done!” says Spock, and forces Kirk’s hand towards the table. His fingers release their hold, and Kirk’s skin tingles where the air rushes over the space they have left. There is no time to consider what it means, this simple gesture of friendship he’s so scrupulously avoided in deference to Vulcan privacy, because that same bastion of Vulcan seclusion is now pacing around him like a stalking predator. His shoulders are hunched, his eyes hooded, and Kirk moves with him, as though their gaze glues them together.

“Understand, Jim,” says Spock. “I spent a whole lifetime learning to hide my feelings...”

And it’s too much. Whatever comes after those words sends a jolt of panic through Kirk’s spine and he reacts instinctively, raising his hand and dealing a blow that snaps Spock’s head sideways. There will be plenty of time later to work out where the reaction comes from, and a crash-zoom flashback to a hideous recent incident in the Captain’s quarters is not helpful, but for now there’s only a time to register a sudden blaze of confusion and hurt in Spock’s eyes before the full force of that legendary Vulcan strength knocks Kirk face-first over the briefing room table.

He scrambles to his feet, tasting blood, and tries again. “We’ve got to risk implosion - it’s our only chance!”

The anger that flared so brightly just seconds ago has leached from Spock’s face, leaving it drained and empty. His voice is soft and broken. “It’s never been done,” he says.

“Don’t tell me that, Science Officer!” yells Kirk. “It’s a theory, it’s possible! We may go up into the biggest ball of fire since the last sun in these parts exploded, but we’ve got to take that one in ten thousand chance!” The words tumble haphazardly out of his mouth and he can feel the anger rising in his belly and twisting in his throat as the ship’s whistle sounds.

“Bridge to Captain,” says Uhura’s voice, maddeningly even. The ship is minutes away from complete destruction and she has barely broken a sweat. “Engineer asks did you find...”

Yes, I found Mr. Spock!” he shouts, smacking the terminal as hard as he can and feeling something protest in his hand. “I’m talking to Mr. Spock, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” she says, and horrified realization dawns. “Three and a half minutes left, Captain.”

“I’ve got it,” he breathes. “The disease...!”

Three and a half minutes. Two hundred and ten seconds left to pull off the impossible, and it wasn’t as though there was much of a chance before he lost his mind. The Enterprise, all he’s ever wanted, will die. The Enterprise, for whom he lost Gary, for whom he’d give up a thousand Garies, for whom he’ll sacrifice every personal happiness and every genuine emotional connection, because of whom there will always be an empty chamber in the deepest recesses of his heart, and it turns out it was all for nothing anyway.

“Love,” he spits. “You’re better off without it and I’m better off without mine.”

He glares at the walls that surround him. “This vessel - I give, she takes. She won’t permit me my life. I’ve got to live hers.”

“Jim...” says Spock.

But he’s not listening. How many times did the job come first, everyone else be damned? Every time. Every goddamn time. Every fleeting glance he’s ignored, every smile. That brunette at the Christmas party - he could have charmed his way into something more exciting than a thirty-minute discussion of the stars as viewed from an Iowa cornfield, and maybe it would have gone somewhere, maybe it wouldn’t - the point is, he could have tried. That look in Gary’s eyes when he said it was over and there was a moment, he’d swear there was, when the bluster crumbled and he waited for Kirk to say something like, no - this is important. You’re important. We’ll make it work. And he didn’t, because the job came first, the damn ship came first. That incident they don’t talk about, the one where he didn’t almost mess up the best friendship he’s ever had with a spectacularly ill-advised half-naked quasi-seduction: what if there hadn’t been a captaincy and a command protocol and the ever-present noose of duty?

She’s got a thing for you, Captain, said McCoy, and it’s not her, it’s not Rand that he wants, but he wants the chance to make that decision for himself for a change. He wants to be able to say no and know that it’s because it’s what he truly wants to say.

“I have a beautiful Yeoman,” he says. “Have you noticed her, Mr. Spock? You’re allowed to notice her. Captain’s not permitted...”

“Jim,” says Spock again when Kirk’s words fail him. “There is an intermix formula.”

Even now, even in the middle of his complete emotional disintegration, the ship demands. “Now I know why it’s called she,” he says bitterly.

“It’s never been tested,” says Spock, and there might just be a hint of desperation in his tone that reminds Kirk that he will certainly regret this later. “It’s a theoretical relationship between time and anti-matter.”

“A flesh woman,” says Kirk, glaring at the bulkhead. “To touch - to hold. A beach to walk on. A few days, no braid on my shoulder...”

Spock’s eyes are liquid and they are fixed on the Captain’s face. Belatedly, Kirk realizes that his First Officer’s confession of shame was, in fact, also - mostly - a confession of friendship. Whatever baggage their connection may bring with it, however poorly Spock is equipped for companionship, however fiercely he has to fight with a lifetime of institutionalized Vulcan contempt, it’s not enough to make him retreat.

This has to be enough. Maybe it’s even enough to shut out the loneliness of command.

The doors swish open and Scotty practically tumbles through, radiating panic. “Captain!” he says.

“Scotty!” whispers Kirk. “Help...”

Spock steps quickly to the Engineer’s side. “Stand by to intermix,” he says, all brisk Vulcan efficiency, but his eyes don’t leave the Captain. “I’ll call the formula in from the bridge.”

“I’ve got to hang on,” says Kirk. “Tell them - clear the corridors, the turbolift. Hurry!”

Spock’s gaze mutinies, but he turns on his heel and strides out of the room with Scotty behind him. Alone, Kirk scrabbles the pieces of his fractured self together, squeezing his hands into fists and straightening his spine. The Enterprise hums around him, all insouciant innocence and puerile need, waiting to see what he’ll do next. But there was something in Spock’s eyes a moment ago, something in that raw confession of friendship as though he dared not speak its name, that warmed the empty place where Kirk keeps those lingering regrets that are the price of living your dream. Maybe it’s okay.

“Never lose you,” he whispers to the walls. “Never.”

 

________________________________________________________________________

 

Sinner Repent, says the graffiti in the lift. Sometimes the universe is all about the pathos. Whatever - he’s not feeling particularly sinful right now, more as though he’s been thoroughly cleansed and scrubbed until his skin tingles, and, in any case, it’s not as though they’re about to meet their maker. There is no reason to think that the formula will work, except for the fact that it’s Spock’s formula, and that fact alone is good enough for Kirk.

McCoy is waiting on the bridge with a stealth-hypo that he shoves into Kirk’s shoulder as he exits the turbolift. The Captain takes his seat as the chemical cocktail swirls in his blood and the first prickles of post-intoxication remorse settle in. At least he didn’t cry, though.

He opens the comm. “Engine room,” he says, “We’re set.”

The bridge is silent but for the increasingly insistent chirp of the proximity console, which just cannot believe how close they’re letting the ship get to the planet, as Kirk issues the final orders and Sulu lays in their course. Rand has taken up position to the left of the command chair and he turns his head to look at her. It would be so easy - she has forgiven him things no woman should ever forgive, and she is here beside him on the bridge for what might be the last seconds of her life. It would be so easy to forget the crushing loneliness for just a few moments, to reach out for her. He’s seen the way she looks at him.

No. It’s also duty. “No beach to walk on,” he murmurs, and she turns her head at the sound of his voice.

“Sir?” she says. He looks away.

“Engage,” he says.

 

________________________________________________________________________

 

Spock arrives on the bridge in the minutes after the engines give up their high-pitched protest and accept the inevitability of Vulcan logic, looking every bit as though he hasn’t just rewritten an inconvenient physical law. He crosses immediately to the command chair.

“Are you all right, Jim?” he asks.

Kirk smiles and nods. “You?” he says.

 

________________________________________________________________________

 

They’ve gained three days on the universe, which isn’t bad for a ship that looked set to crash and burn seven hours earlier and, if it’s not precisely the day that Kirk would have chosen to live through again, he’ll take it anyway. Spock’s blood is now richer to the tune of one hypo of Dr. McCoy’s miracle cure and his Vulcan shields are firmly back in place, so that was definitely not childlike excitement written all over his scientist’s face at the discovery that not only does his impossible formula work, but he’s also discovered time travel. Kirk left him in the labs with an empty injunction to get some rest, but he’s seen that light in his First Officer’s eyes before and his quarters will be lucky if they see him at all in the next week. Oh well. At least the Captain will have the bathroom to himself.

It’s late and he ought to go to bed, but there’s a restless buzzing in his veins that recommends against the cool silence of his cabin so he’s let his feet carry him where they will, and they’ve brought him back to the observation deck. It’s not exactly a surprise. Given the choice, he suspects his feet would keep him here every second they can’t be on the bridge, because this is, really, the only other place he belongs. He pauses by the window, his reflected face a pale blur in the foreground of the starfield. This is who he is. This is the life he chose. Lovers can’t touch this obsession; what burns inside the heart of James T Kirk is the fathomless void and the ship he pilots through it. But maybe he doesn’t have to do it alone. If the job always comes first, if the love of his life is a Constitution-class starship prowling the edges of the charted galaxy, if he will always be set apart by duty and his own inviolable code, then maybe the companion of those lonely hours ought to be someone who needs almost nothing and whose obsession matches Kirk’s own. Lovers may come and lovers may go, but a friendship that can struggle through Vulcan isolationism and emotional denial is something rare and precious. He curls a metaphorical fist around that strangled declaration in the briefing room and holds it tightly.

Soft footsteps pad the carpetted floor behind him and he twists his head, vaguely expecting Spock, but it’s McCoy who emerges from the shadows, hands clasped behind his back.

“Couldn’t sleep either, huh?” he says.

Kirk grins. “Are you going to scold, Doctor?” he says.

“Be a mite hypocritical,” says McCoy as he takes his position to the Captain’s left. They watch the stars in silence for a moment, and he adds, “Hell of a day.”

There’s no answer to that, so Kirk purses his lips around a laugh that threatens to escape and fixes his eyes on the void.

“Chapel’s going to put in for a transfer,” says Bones after a minute. Kirk’s head snaps around, and the Doctor nods. “Don’t grant it,” he says.

“I won’t,” says Kirk. “I’m not about to lose half of my best medical team. Did she say why?”

“Not a word,” says the Doctor.

“But you can guess?”

“I can guess.” He rocks back on his heels. “Quit your rubbernecking, Captain, I’m not going to tell you.”

“If it’s something I need to know...”

“You don’t.” And that is clearly that. Kirk knows that tone, and it’s a tone that clearly and concisely broadcasts the fact that his authority holds no weight in this particular situation, so he might as well drop it.

He drops it. It’s impossible to hold onto concerns or frustrations in the watery starlight, bathed in the most breathtaking sight in creation. Warmth seeps into his bones, the warmth of belonging, of understanding, of connection. He’s not alone. He hasn’t been, not really, for quite some time.

 

 

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