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Originally published in 2001 in the print fanzine Beyond Dreams # 3

 

"Fire! Fire! Stiles, do you hear me? Fire!" Kirk could hear his own voice feed back through the intercom, echoing in the main phaser control room and then in the corridors just outside. There came no answer. He slammed his hand on the arm of his chair. Dammit, where was Spock? He’d been making rounds, checking weapons, damage control, and environmental control for battle readiness. He would have called the bridge if something were wrong in the phaser room.

If he could.

Kirk forced his mind away from the thought and fixed his gaze on the empty starfield showing on the viewscreen. The Romulan ship had appeared for a split second. It had to be now. "Fire! Fire!" he shouted again, willing someone down there to hear him.

Someone did. The ship bucked violently as the phasers roared to life. Blue-white streaks arcked out into the starfield and hit home. The Romulan vessel finally appeared, stilled in space, leaking atmosphere.

Kirk closed the intraship com and spoke with the Romulan commander for the first and last time, offered to beam survivors aboard. The Romulan looked him in the eye. "No. It is not our way."

Somehow, Kirk had known he’d say that. During the entire Great Romulan War, no Terran had ever seen a Romulan, much less captured one. The Romulans were apparently as bound by tradition as their Vulcan cousins.

Kirk racked his brain for words that would make a difference, but he knew there were none. He watched the Romulan destroy his own vessel.

* * * * *

Hours after the battle, Kirk could still smell phaser coolant in the corridors outside the main weapons room. He paced for a moment, not wanting to step inside the room just yet. He told himself that listening to his own footsteps in the empty corridor wouldn’t bring Specialist Tomlinson back. It wouldn’t even distract him from the memory of Angela Martine’s face an hour ago, brave and sad, as she sought and then pulled back from his helpless embrace and left to face her changed life alone. But he needed to be here anyway, long after the medics and the damage-control crew had left, to consider what had transpired. And to figure out how to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

He paused before the door just outside the sensor’s range, and lifted a hand to rub the tension from his brow. What troubled him wasn’t only the tragedy of Tomlinson’s loss on his wedding day, but all the losses, all the might-have-beens. The deaths of two dozen Romulans were regrettable enough; the waste of this historic opportunity for peace was incalculable. But Kirk found that he mourned most of all the Romulan commander, who had staged a space battle like a chess game played blindfolded. In a different reality, I could have called you friend. They’d stared at each other in those last moments, sensing their kinship, feeling the pain of it, because it was never to be.

And in this reality, how many centuries of distrust and war were yet to come? It had been a century since Romulans and Terrans first met in battle; only today had they set eyes on each other for the first time. Just hours after that historic meeting, all the Romulans who had seen humans were dead. Not one was left alive to report back to the homeworld how similar the Terrans were. No one would return to Romulus to testify that there might be a basis for friendship between the two peoples.

Kirk felt exhaustion finally hit him. So what are my crew and I doing in the reality where we blast the Romulans out of the universe and a young man dies on his wedding day because of a malfunction that shouldn’t have happened?

Kirk was as disturbed now as he had been the day he’d been forced to kill Gary Mitchell. They’d lost several crewmembers on that mission, and the ship had been so badly damaged before they reached Delta Vega that it would have taken them years to reach a starbase. Even with all Kelso’s and Scotty’s wizardry, it had taken weeks to limp to a base. Kirk’s nightmares had featured accusing silver eyes for months.

This incident was nothing like the Mitchell tragedy. Kirk had known, then, the reason for his pain. He was not clear on the reason now. The ship was healed; damage-control and then engineering crews had been quick to see to repairs. Martine would heal in time.

And the Federation should be safe from Romulan incursion for a while, if Spock’s theory was correct.

Kirk drew a deep breath and stepped forward. The door slid open on an empty room. That was normal; the room was checked periodically, but was not constantly manned, as the phaser room aboard a battleship would have been. Still, the emptiness was eerie.

He went to the wall where the coolant seal had given way. The new coolant seal was larger than the old one, of a lighter shade of gray that didn’t match the wall, and it now bore an alarm sensor to guard against a recurrence of today’s accident. Too late, of course. Kirk made a mental note to call a meeting of all department heads in the morning. The phaser room probably wasn’t the only area of the ship where a deadly substance lurked too close to personnel. Kirk was not an engineer, but he knew there were coolant substances that were less toxic than the pink vapor the ship’s phaser systems currently used. Perhaps they were manufactured on worlds other than Earth, perhaps Starfleet did not have a contract with whoever made them, but Kirk would be damned if he’d lose another crewman to a hazard so preventable.

Considering how lethal the pink coolant was, it was a wonder more crew hadn’t died. Kirk started as one of the thoughts that had been bothering him surfaced. It could have been Spock. I could be feeling as though I’d lost my right arm, feeling the hole in the universe that is all that’s left when someone you need is no longer at your side.

Kirk touched the new coolant seal. It was cold under his hand. Beneath the bulkhead, he knew, the faulty relay had been repaired, and the coolant had been filtered out of the air and cleaned off all surfaces, and yet Kirk could swear he still smelled the noxious stuff. He wondered how long it would take before he forgot its sickly sweet odor. He had a feeling Martine never would. Tomlinson’s body had reeked of it, and she had sat holding him in sickbay for an hour as the vital signs on the mediscanner over his bed slid down the scale to zero.

Scotty was taking it pretty hard. Och, the poor lad, he’d muttered over and over as he inspected the damaged relay, his face set like Highland granite. Before his reassignment as weapons specialist, Tomlinson had been one of Scotty’s protégés.

Kirk had laid a hand on Scotty’s shoulder, but hadn’t found a word of comfort to offer. What could he say? Scotty, it wasn’t your fault? That would be about as effective as McCoy’s telling Kirk—and he had—Jim, it wasn’t your fault. Nonsense. It was Kirk’s fault because he was the captain, responsible for his crew. It was Scotty’s fault because he was the chief engineer, responsible for the ship’s physical structure. There was no way around it for either of them.

Scotty had spent hours here, with dozens of engineers going over every relay, valve, and circuit in the room, to make sure this kind of malfunction would never happen again. Even now, instead of drinking the stiff prescription of Saurian brandy that McCoy had offered him, Scotty was in his office preparing a report on the incident and working on a phaser redesign. Kirk was going to have to order him off duty eventually, but he’d give Scotty a few hours more to lose himself in the work. Soon enough one of his engineers would probably drag him down to main engineering for the traditional wake. And then he’d go for the sake of the others’ morale.

For his part, Kirk had left the bridge when alpha shift ended, as though it were any ordinary day, and then had conducted the short military service for Tomlinson. Many crewmembers had attended, crowding the ship’s small chapel and the corridors outside. Afterward, Kirk had found himself wandering the corridors until he ended up here. He hadn’t consciously intended to come. But ritual was like that, wasn’t it—not entirely conscious. And it didn’t serve you on a conscious level, at least not right away. But it did make a difference.

Kirk realized he had moved to stand in front of the main phaser control console, the one that the phasers were actually fired from. His fingers traced absently over the console’s smooth black edge. The red button, there, was the one that Spock had pressed to fire the weapons and save the ship.

Spock, oh god. A shiver crept up the back of Kirk’s neck. In his mind’s eye he saw the room as it must have looked, with poisonous pink smoke pouring out of the wall valve, Tomlinson and Stiles lying still on the deck. Spock dashing in, choking on the coolant smoke but making it to the first console, leaning over it far enough to engage all the phasers, then stumbling to the firing console to depress that button and execute Kirk’s command, echoing over the comm, Fire! Fire!

And then Spock had found the tenacity and the strength to drag Tomlinson and Stiles out into the corridor and call sickbay, all before collapsing himself. Medics had been quick to arrive, and had taken the three men to sickbay on stretchers while Kirk was still up on the bridge hearing the last words of the Romulan commander.

Thank god Spock didn’t have to see it. Spock had done what duty and survival required, but Kirk knew it couldn’t be sitting well with the Vulcan, even now. Spock was a believer in the Surakian ideals of peace and nonviolence as well as of logic. Yes, the survival of the Enterprise had been logical; the Romulans had refused to be reasoned with; they had forced the endgame. And it was, as Spock himself had urged before the battle, logical to protect the Federation by making sure the Romulan ship never returned to its home base—yet he could not have found it easy to accept his role in the deaths of so many of his distant cousins.

Kirk swallowed. He hadn’t had a chance to speak to Spock in private since it had happened. Spock had been treated in sickbay and released fairly quickly, and McCoy hadn’t objected to his going back on duty immediately. Those Vulcan lungs were as resilient as the rest of Spock’s amazing physique. Thank god for that, too.

Stiles was also in pretty good shape, surprisingly enough, and he was probably still lying in his sickbay bed telling anyone within earshot what a hero Spock was. Kirk smiled at the image. Stiles had been downright ugly on the bridge, and as Starfleet was not given to advancing bigots to deck-swabbing crewman status, much less to lieutenant grade, Kirk had been both shocked and intrigued as to what had caused Stiles’ apparently sudden and strong antipathy toward Spock and all his kin. It wasn’t very far from hate to love, obviously.

McCoy had been apprised, of course, and was no doubt going to run his entire arsenal of tests on Stiles to determine whether the man could still qualify for duty on a ship whose mission it was to seek out alien civilizations.

Finally, Kirk knelt to touch the deck where Tomlinson had fallen. A good crewman. Responsible, thorough, good natured and cheerful even when you bounced him out of bed for a surprise phaser drill at 0300. In his mind’s eye, Kirk saw Tomlinson as he’d been this morning, at the aborted ceremony that was supposed to have been his wedding. Fair haired, strong jawed, strikingly handsome. Perhaps he owed that last partly to his genetics, and partly to the fact that he was in love and was about to marry someone who adored him.

Tomlinson had always walked with a youthful spring in his step. He’d never outgrown his childhood nickname: all his friends called him Bobby, and he’d considered everyone on the ship his friend. Everyone, no exceptions. Kirk couldn’t think of another crewman he could put in that category. How ironic that of four hundred and thirty-two crewmen, they should lose the one who was on unfailingly good terms with absolutely everyone.

Bobby Tomlinson, friend to all, fiancé to Angela, dead at age twenty-four in the performance of his duty. Because of the Romulans and their damnable idea of glory. And because of a stupid accident. Requiescat in pace.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Tomlinson, Kirk had already begun to compose in his head, it is with deep sorrow that I must inform you that your son Robert has died in the performance of his duty. He will be awarded a posthumous commendation for his bravery during the Romulan attack, during which he protected the life of a shipmate. The officer survived because of Robert’s quick actions. Kirk sighed. He had tried it several different ways, and every one was equally awful. He’d made such tapes before, of course, though thankfully only a few. They never got easier. They wouldn’t be easy even if the captain weren’t responsible.

He breathed deeply and stood up. Time to leave. The battle was over. Tomlinson would be mourned and remembered; the Romulans in their star empire would be left to wonder about the fate of their warship. And Kirk would have to find a way to absorb the experience and move on. Wiser and better able to protect his ship and crew, he hoped.

He left the phaser room and headed for the nearest turbolift. There was one more person to see to and, coincidentally, it was the one person Kirk needed to see. The one who wouldn’t try to tell him what to feel, or what to do, or how to be. The one who would look at him with complete acceptance in level dark eyes and simply be with him, equally willing to hear him speak or let him be silent.

It was late, but Spock would no doubt still be at work, probably in his office in Science section. "Deck two," Kirk told the turbolift, surprised at the weary sound in his voice.

But Spock wasn’t there. His office was dark, and the duty officer in Astrophysics next door said she hadn’t seen him all day.

Odd. Kirk had thought Spock had gone right back on duty after being discharged from sickbay. As he headed back to the turbolift, Kirk considered. Perhaps Spock was in the main computer room, inspecting for damage. But a quick call down there proved equally fruitless. Kirk hit the wall switch again. "Computer, locate Mr. Spock."

Of course, the computer couldn’t actually do that; only someone with access to the intraship sensors could, but the computer could yield information it had been given.

"Mr. Spock logged off duty at 0800 hours,"the soft, mechanical voice answered.

"How long is he logged off for?"

"Thirty-six hours."

"Thirty-six?"

"Thirty-six hours."

He could ask the computer a hundred times if he wanted to, and it would reply tirelessly every time. And it would still give the same incredible answer.

Spock had taken a day off.

More than a day. Spock, who never took shore leave, who couldn’t be persuaded to stay in a sickbay bed unless he was near death—and sometimes not even then—Spock, who had so much leave accrued that he could take a year’s sabbatical if he wished, but who never would…Spock had voluntarily gone off duty when he was able-bodied and well.

Unless…. Kirk pounded the intercom button a third time. "Sickbay."

"Sickbay, McCoy here."

"Bones? What are you still doing on duty?"

"I tried to turn in early, couldn’t sleep. Figured paperwork always puts me to sleep. It hasn’t worked yet, but I’m hopeful. What can I do for you, Jim?"

"Spock’s not there, is he?"

"No, why?"

Kirk breathed a sigh. "Good. Just…he was fine when you discharged him this afternoon? No aftereffects of the coolant inhalation?"

"None," McCoy grunted. "Healthy as a Vulcan…well whatever passes for a horse on that planet. Probably they have dromedaries or something."

"Good." McCoy’s own brand of humor made it abundantly clear: Spock wasn’t sick. But then…what….

"Jim? Any particular reason you ask?"

"Bones…it’s probably nothing, and I’d rather you didn’t go quizzing Spock about this, but according to the computer, he’s logged himself off duty for thirty-six hours."

"Spock?"

"Spock."

"Well now, that is peculiar."

"That’s what I thought."

"So you’re going to stalk the panther back to his lair, eh?"

‘Something like that."

"Well, go easy on him, Jim. He may have the Vulcan act down to award-winning perfection, but…he killed today."

"Just what I was thinking. I can’t remember a time when he had to do it—not this many. And not…Romulans."

"Let me know if you need me," McCoy said quietly.

"Will do. And thanks, Bones. Kirk out." He touched the turbolift controls again. "Deck five."

When the turbo doors opened onto the darkened hallway that the crew called "officer’s country," Kirk headed for his own quarters first. He would find out what was going on with Spock, but he would do it as friend, not as captain. He found something innocuous to wear—plain black slacks, ankle-length, without the characteristic belled cuffs of the uniform pants. And a soft tan shirt, long sleeved and unadorned. He tucked it in, sealed the pants’ self-stick waistband, and fortified himself with a deep, cleansing breath.

He signaled at Spock’s door once, twice. No answer. He waited a while, then buzzed a third time. "Spock? It’s me." Silence. At another time, Kirk might simply have turned away and gone to look for Spock elsewhere, perhaps on the observation deck or in the gym. But now, something didn’t let him leave. He knew Spock was here. He felt sure Spock had heard and was ignoring the signal.

And that bothered him. Why would Spock choose to ignore the signal? He couldn’t be sleeping; the Vulcan could be awakened at a moment’s notice from the soundest sleep. In fact, almost everyone on board had learned that trick long ago at the Academy; it was a necessary ability for a Starfleet crewman.

Well, he could be meditating, Kirk tried to reason with himself. He could be in the shower. Kirk knew, though, he knew, that the answer was not so simple.

If Spock were human, there might be several reasons why he wouldn’t answer his door. But he wasn’t given to human behavior, and that left Vulcan options, which Kirk couldn’t even guess at. Uneasiness stirred in his gut. This had never happened before. Not to Kirk. For as long as he’d known him, Spock had always responded when Kirk was at his door, almost as if he always knew who was there and was expecting him. At any time of the day or night.

Kirk turned to go, but the strange stirring in his gut wouldn’t let him. He turned back to the door. The thought of violating Spock’s privacy wasn’t pleasant, but neither were Kirk’s dark imaginings. He could still hear McCoy’s words, he killed today. Spock, the Surakian idealist, who would not end the life of a Rigellian stinging gnat without remorse.

"Spock? I’m…concerned about you. I’m coming in." Kirk wouldn’t even have to use the override. Spock never locked his door, ever.

Kirk stepped forward. The door slid open onto a darkened room. Kirk’s eyes adjusted as the door swished shut behind him. The desk area in the small cabin was empty, but he didn’t spare it more than a glance. He stepped to the grille that partitioned off the compact sleeping area. There was room only for the bed with its built-in shelving, one chair, and Spock’s meditation stone. And on the stone was Spock.

Kirk caught his breath. The soft flicker from the Fire Guardian lit an image that could have come straight from Kirk’s nightmares. Spock knelt on the stone, nude and bronze in the flickering orange half-light, a statue sculpted in Vulcan marble. His eyes were closed. He did not stir as Kirk entered, didn’t react to his friend’s soft gasp.

As Kirk’s eyes adjusted to the dim light, two details impressed themselves on his mind. One, that Spock was not after all completely naked, but wore a black loincloth with a flap, like a traditional Amerindian one, except that this one seemed made of translucent, finely pleated silk. The flap spread out at mid-thigh to an exotic spade shape. An eerie shape, Kirk decided, reminiscent of an executioner’s axe. And two, that there was a real blade, long and curved like a scimitar, lying across Spock’s bare knees. It gleamed dully in the orange firelight. One of Spock’s hands curled around the handle of the sword, the other, around the blade. Under the hand on the blade, Kirk could see a short length of green fabric, the exact color of Vulcan blood.

His heart skipped a beat. He’d seen a pose like this before. In Earth-history tapes about the Samurai warriors of Japan. There was a ritual they called seppuku, with a short sword wrapped in silk just so….

No! Spock wouldn’t…would he? Inwardly, Kirk cursed his own lack of knowledge about Vulcan ways. They were so damned private, so secretive. Humans weren’t supposed to ask. To hell with it. He’s my friend. He’s more than that.

Kirk crouched down next to him. "Spock?"

No response.

He lifted his hand to Spock’s shoulder. Hesitated. Then touched it. Spock’s eyes snapped open.

For a moment, Kirk thought there was no one home in the black depths. Then Spock’s eyes focused. "Captain. Jim?"

Kirk nodded. "Yes."

"I beg forgiveness. I was…occupied."

How like Spock. "No, I’m the one who should apologize. I’ve disturbed you. I…couldn’t explain it, but I’ve been concerned about you since—what happened in the phaser room. Then when you logged off duty for a day and a half—which you never do—-and I couldn’t find you, and then…to find you like this—" He indicated the sword.

Spock shuddered slightly, as though suddenly becoming aware of his body and his surroundings. He glanced down at the sword in his lap. He raised an eyebrow. "Like this?"

"I’m sorry. It must be a cultural misunderstanding. You see, on Earth, when someone kneels with a short sword wrapped in silk, it means—"

Comprehension dawned in Vulcan eyes. "Ah. The ancient Japanese tradition."

"Seppuku," Kirk said. "Ritual suicide by disembowelment."

Spock cleared his throat, and his eyes held a hint of his unsmiling smile. "I assure you, Jim, I was planning no such thing."

"I’m relieved to hear it."

"The Japanese tradition was to perform this ritual when one was in disgrace and wished an honorable end, was it not?"

"I think that’s correct."

Spock nodded. "I am in no such condition. And I am not Japanese."

"I don’t know much about Vulcan customs," Kirk said. "I do know you’re a believer in the ideals of Surak, and today you had to…."

"Yes."

Kirk suddenly realized his hand was still gripping Spock’s bare shoulder. "Uh, sorry." He let go.

Spock shook his head. "Not necessary."

What was unnecessary, Kirk’s apology or his concern?

"There is the matter of your logging off duty," Kirk said quietly.

Spock bowed his head. "I must ask your forgiveness. I should have informed you first."

"I concur. Spock, it’s okay with me for you to take some time off, but I wanted to call a meeting of all department heads in the morning. We have to find a nontoxic phaser coolant, among other things. Today’s loss was a completely preventable one, and I don’t care what Starfleet has to say about it; I will not lose another crewman to coolant poisoning."

"Agreed. There is a source on planet Delta Nine. The Federation does have a trade agreement with that planet, although we may be bending the terms slightly to purchase the chemical for military use. My report has already been sent to your terminal."

"I see. Well, then, I’ll call the meeting for the day after tomorrow. You’ll be there?"

"I will."

"Now…do you want to tell me why you logged off without consulting me first?"

"You were conducting the service for Tomlinson when I…became acutely aware of the need to find some way to absorb the day’s events."

Kirk watched light and shadow play over the angular features. Spock, had he been human, might have said that he was overcome by emotion and needed to be alone. "Your actions saved the ship, Spock. Possibly the Federation. There’s a commendation in my log for you as well."

Spock moved his bowed head slightly, his version of a shrug. "Unnecessary."

"Because you were doing your duty, I know. Because it was logical. But you risked your life anyway, and after you fired you risked yourself again to get Stiles out of there. Tomlinson, too."

"Too late."

"Not for Stiles. It makes a big difference to me, Spock, even if it doesn’t to you, that you saved one of my people." Kirk’s legs were getting cramped. He shifted his position on the deck, sitting back and clasping an arm around his knees. "Your actions made a huge difference to Angela Martine. Because of you she had time to say goodbye." He choked on the last word.

Spock lifted his head, met Kirk’s eyes. "He regained consciousness?"

"Briefly. Long enough to tell her he loved her, and to tell her goodbye. It’s still a terrible tragedy, but those moments they had will be an enormous comfort to her in the months ahead. She wants to speak to you, you know."

Spock dropped his gaze again. "Precisely why I needed to be off duty at this time. I could not face anyone in this condition. I must finish what I have started here."

"Do you want to tell me what that is?" Kirk inched his fingers closer to where Spock’s hand curled around the silk-wrapped blade. "May I?"

Spock considered for a long interval. "For anyone else aboard, the answer would be ‘no,’" he said, finally.

"And for me?"

"I would first ask you to understand what it is you are requesting."

"I want to understand, if you want to tell me."

Spock shifted his hands on the sword. He still had not changed his position by more than a millimeter, and Kirk was beginning to wonder how the Vulcan could maintain such a rigid pose without becoming stiff. But Spock had surprised him with far more unlikely feats.

"What I do," Spock said after a long pause, "is a thing called an ahr t’kal, a warrior ritual. The warrior tradition dates from the time before Surak, and its ways are still respected. They are not forgotten. Those of us in Starfleet, who are called upon to act as warriors from time to time…find comfort in them at those times."

"I see."

"Do you? It is a thing only another warrior may share. We are virtually the only ones who still practice these particular rituals; for everyone else in Vulcan society, such actions would be unthinkable."

"You’re right," Kirk said softly. "I don’t understand."

"Starfleet poses a particular challenge because it is a military organization. Each Vulcan who has chosen a life in Starfleet has had to find a way to reconcile his duty to the service with Vulcan tradition. Inside the Surakian tradition, it could not be done. It is too great a compromise. Surak went to his death rather than fight; for him, the commission of any violence was too great a price, even for his life. Most Vulcans, if pressed, could not hold to such a pure ideal, of course, but neither do most condone a Vulcan’s participation in Starfleet, where violent action may be expected of us in any moment. My father is among those who do not condone Starfleet. "

Kirk swallowed. "Oh, god."

"You begin to see." Spock nodded. "When news of our mission—and this commendation you intend for me—eventually reaches the public, my father may conclude that I have brought shame upon the House of Surak. I have been responsible for the deaths of distant kinsmen."

"I’ll reword it if you like," Kirk promised. "Yours will mention only the actions that saved Stiles and bought time for Tomlinson."

"It is of no consequence. I have, as has every other Vulcan in Starfleet, adopted the way of the warrior. I believe my father will eventually come to accept that."

"May I ask—?"

"Anything."

"Why are the warrior traditions still respected, if Vulcan is so committed to peace? It doesn’t seem logical."

"Because Surak held to his ideals and died, and if not for the warriors who followed him, his ideals would have died with him. They considered themselves soldiers in the cause of peace, but they were still warriors. They retrieved his body and they redeemed the peace process."

"And how do you justify it? You often argue for nonviolence even when we’re in life-threatening situations."

"The warrior ideal is nonviolence," Spock said. "But for those times when such actions are unavoidable, we have traditions, rituals, that comfort us and allow us to regain our equilibrium."

"Emotionally," Kirk clarified for himself. "If you’ll forgive the expression."

"It is applicable, therefore forgiveness is not required."

Kirk should have been surprised that Spock would admit such a thing, but somehow, in this setting—with Spock’s strange garb, the sword, the flickering light—talk of emotion did not seem so out of place. "So in order to serve in Starfleet, you adopt warrior rituals."

"Which only a brother or sister warrior may share," Spock said quietly.

"And I’m certainly not a Vulcan warrior," Kirk said. "Spock—why didn’t you just say no?"

"Because there is nothing I would not willingly share with you," Spock said, his voice shading to a whisper. "You are not Vulcan, true. But you are a warrior. More important, you are t’hy’la to me."

Kirk’s throat felt thick. Nothing I would not share with you. "I don’t know that word."

"There is no adequate translation into Standard," Spock said. "One calls one’s closest friend t’hy’la, one who is an intimate, linked by a connection of the heart. It is not a thing taken lightly."

"No, of course not. Never, with you."

"Then I will ask you as t’hy’la—would you share the ritual with me? It was never intended to be performed alone, but there is no one else aboard with whom I could share such a thing."

"Yes! Yes, Spock. I think perhaps what I was looking for belowdecks was some sort of ritual. I felt my usual need to go to the area of the ship that was damaged, where my crew fell. But this time, it didn’t seem enough."

 "Indeed." Spock lifted a hand from the sword to gesture toward the bulkhead opposite the door, in the general direction of the ship’s hull. "Because the Romulans died out there."

"Yes."

"But Jim, do not answer me too quickly. I have not yet told you what the ritual entails. It is quite likely you will find portions of it distasteful."

Kirk stayed him with a raised hand. "As long as there’s no disembowelment."

"No bloodshed whatsoever," Spock promised. "The silk wrapped around the blade symbolizes blood—but no actual blood is to be shed. Too much blood already has fallen today. The silk also may protect my hands should my concentration waver for a second during the meditation. The blade is very keen."

"I trust you," Kirk said.

"The warrior ways may surprise you," Spock persisted. "They vary considerably from what you may think of as Vulcan. You may wish to leave if they offend you—"

"This ritual has meaning for you," Kirk interrupted. "I will honor it."

"Very well." The dark eyes held an expression Kirk hadn’t seen before in those depths. He wasn’t sure he could name it—pride, perhaps. It couldn’t be fear.

"This ahr t’kal has two major parts," Spock continued. "The first is the mourning meditation, in which I was engaged when you entered. The second is the ehihal an nakkh, the affirmation of life." He shifted his position on the meditation stone for the first time since Kirk had come into the room. "To begin, perhaps you would care to share the meditation of mourning with me."

"For Tomlinson—and the Romulans?"

"For all of them, yes. We will bring them to mind and hold in our thoughts the memory of our association with them, for as long as it takes to achieve completion of the memory."

"As long as it takes. All right."

"This portion of the ritual will proceed much more quickly if we assist each other." He looked down at the sword in his lap. "I have only one lirat, short sword. If we kneel facing each other it should be possible to place it across both pairs of knees. But first you must undress."

"Undress?"

"The necessity of holding perfectly still during the meditation is much more clear when the knees the sword lies across are bare," Spock said, sounding oddly logical considering his subject. "When you can feel the blade, you become aware how sharp is the knife-edge of violence, and how precarious is peace. Thus says the tradition, at least. I regret I do not possess another ‘hga garment. But whatever undergarment you have on should suffice."

Kirk’s face heated—he wasn’t certain why; surely he did not need to be overly modest with Spock—but he didn’t waste time stripping off his shirt and then unsealing the waistband of his pants. He’d been warned, he told himself ruefully. He pulled the pants off along with his boots and socks, leaving his Starfleet briefs. It was as close as he was going to get to wearing a black gossamer loincloth.

There was barely room on the meditation stone for both of them, but Spock found a way for them to share it. He showed Kirk how to kneel Vulcan-style, sitting back on his heels. Kirk shifted to find the most comfortable position.

The Vulcan lifted the lirat by its handle, allowing the green silk to slide off. He gestured for Kirk to pick up the cloth. Kirk did, marveling at how lightly it lay in his hand, no heavier than a feather. "Wrap it three times around the center of the blade," Spock instructed, and Kirk complied.

Spock shifted on the meditation stone until he knelt knee-to-knee with Kirk, and gently laid the lirat across the place where their bare knees touched. The crescent-shaped tip and the concave side of the curve lay on Kirk’s knees, so that more of the blade touched Spock than Kirk. The metal felt cold despite the warmth of the room. Something crackled in the firepot, and a spicy-sweet odor filled the chamber.

Kirk inhaled deeply. "What is that fragrance?"

"Nakhmeen," Spock said. "It is the same incense that is usually burning there."

Odd that the scent had never registered so sharply with Kirk as it did now. "What is it?"

"Essence of a night-blooming flower."

Kirk took another deep breath, enjoying the scent and fortifying himself for the trial of sitting completely still. "I’m ready, Spock."

Spock gestured for him to place his right hand over the silk-wrapped blade. The Vulcan’s left hand settled next to his on the blade, so close that Kirk could feel its heat, but not touching. Spock raised his right hand, nodding for Kirk to match the gesture with his left.

Their palms touched. Spock’s eyes fluttered closed. "Now. Bring the deceased to mind."

That was easy. Tomlinson’s youthful face, relaxed and happy in the chapel this morning as his wife-to-be joined him at the front of the room. His face, forever stilled in sickbay this evening, in the separate room to which he’d been moved so that his friends could pay their respects.

Kirk conjured the Romulan commander’s face also—grimy, the features tight with pain. The man breathed with difficulty as the atmosphere aboard his vessel leaked out into the vacuum. He had dark, far-seeing eyes a lot like Spock’s and a hawklike countenance that was nothing like Spock’s. And he could have called Kirk friend.

He remembered the other Romulans, seen only dimly under their helmets from the shadowed Romulan bridge; later, they were merely dark shapes on the deck as the commander engaged the self-destruct mechanism. Kirk felt a cold heavy lump in his throat. They made us kill them.

Under the cold blade, his knees trembled slightly. Keenly aware of the edge, he willed them to stop. He would not dishonor Spock by giving in to human weakness. Damn those Romulans, anyway. They made us kill them. His anger steadied him.

"Good," Spock said, as though he’d sensed Kirk’s emotions exactly and somehow approved. "We hold the memories of these ones who have left us today with respect. We acknowledge their sacrifice. Even the sacrifice of those that in this life we have called enemy. We do not judge them for their choices. We merely accept what has happened. We feel…strong emotion concerning what has happened. We accept that, too."

The hand touching Kirk’s trembled. Kirk opened his eyes.

"Jim." Spock hesitated.

"It’s okay, Spock. Ask it, whatever it is."

"Very well. It is traditional at this point to share thoughts."

"You mean to speak them?"

"No…." Spock’s hand moved on Kirk’s; the fingers spread into a familiar configuration.

"Ohh…the mind touch? Telepathic sharing?"

Spock nodded, his eyes unreadably black in the half-light. As though he expected Kirk to say no.

They’d done it before, twice, and both times the mental sharing was a very brief touch, a way of communicating at a crucial moment during a mission when they could not speak aloud. Spock had described it as a very superficial sharing of thoughts. Nothing outside the intended communication would be exchanged, he said. But both times, Kirk had felt the strong surge of the emotions Spock usually pretended did not exist. And after Spock had withdrawn his hand from Kirk’s face, Kirk could still feel him, as though he had slipped inside Spock’s skin and momentarily seen the world out of the slanted black eyes instead of his own.

"Yes." It was just a whisper, and it came out of him before Kirk had even thought what he was going to say, but Spock heard.

He moved his hand to Kirk’s face. "My thoughts to yours," he intoned softly. "Join. Share. Feel."

The breath caught in Kirk’s throat. He felt the touch of Spock’s fingers as though they’d gone under the skin. Warm tendrils of feeling not his own seeped into him from all directions, welling up like blood into a wound from some great, inexhaustible source. Regret. Loss. Helplessness to find another solution. Anger far hotter than his own. Grief.

Fire! Fire! Stiles, do you hear me? Fire! Pink haze of death over the phaser room. Long fingers reaching for the red button. Responding to the captain’s voice. Not considering any option other than immediate obedience. Starfleet trained me well. Obey your captain. Obey instantly. Obey instinctively the command to fire. Kill.

Poison air. Choking. Stepping back over Stiles’ supine form, falling, grasping Stiles by the wrists and, unable to stand, crawling out, dragging him into the corridor. Crawling back for Tomlinson, who lay prone near the door, terribly, utterly still. Grabbing the young man’s hands, finding them sticky from the hideous pink vapor. Realizing Tomlinson had been trying to cover the leak with his hands.

Pulling Tomlinson clear of the door so that it closed. Kneeling up long enough to punch the comm and call sickbay, then slumping to the deck on top of Tomlinson, fingers reaching for the crewman’s temples to see if he might still be alive, mind reaching to tell the young man, hold on, help is coming. Fingers reaching for Stiles likewise, missing his forehead and touching his chin. Stiles coughing. Regaining consciousness. Tomlinson, vaguely aware of Spock, holding on, his life force a mere flicker.

Spock’s mind directed Kirk’s to open to his own memory of the incident.

On the bridge, shielding his eyes as the Romulan ship blossomed into liquid fire. No, no, don’t—it didn’t have to be this way. I could have called you friend. Could have called you friend.

In the ship’s chapel, watching Martine straighten her shoulders. I loved him, Captain. I got to tell him that before he went. I want to speak to Mr. Spock, to thank him. I loved Bobby so much. Told him before he died. Before it was too late.

Pain welling, regret. It should have been different. The Romulans should be behind their neutral zone, alive and leaving us in peace. Martine and Tomlinson should be dancing together at the party planned for them in Main Rec. Too late.

Then Spock’s hand slipped from Kirk’s face, and they were separate again. Kirk opened his eyes. Spock’s were still closed, and he shuddered, once, as though he’d been stung.

The dark lashes fluttered open. "Regret is great," Spock said. "Loss of life was unnecessary and therefore tragic. That lives have been lost at our hands—sorrows us greatly. But we have assimilated the memories, just as they were. We acknowledge that what has happened has happened. Kaiidth. We acknowledge death: Kaiidth tal. We acknowledge life: Kaiidth nakkh."

He lifted the sword from their knees and unwound the silk from the blade. He stood and tossed the silk in the air, away from Kirk, and in a motion so swift that Kirk’s eyes barely followed, Spock sliced the curved blade through the air, bringing it whistling down to rest at his side, the crescent tip biting into the deck. Two pieces of green silk fluttered down after it.

Spock picked them up and handed one to Kirk, then raised the sword again as though examining its blade. Orange light glistened on the steel, the inner curve and the outer equally sharp. Double-edged.

"The sword symbolizes self-control," Spock said into the silence. "And logic. Also the knowledge that sometimes there is a logical reason to kill. The green cloth is a reminder that we risk our own mortality as well as the enemy’s; it is the sign of the blood that binds us together and the blood that is spilled if we do not achieve our ideals." He swallowed. "Today we did not achieve our ideals, and blood was spilled. Today let no more blood be spilled."

The silk was light as a cobweb in Kirk’s hands. He smoothed its softness. "I’m not going to kill…today."

"Yes." The single syllable was poignant.

Then Spock padded carefully over to the red-draped wall and replaced the blade among its fellows in the display, and laid his piece of the silk on his desk. He returned to Kirk’s side and knelt before him on the meditation stone again. "Ehí an nakkh," he said softly. "We affirm life."

He grasped Kirk’s arm at the biceps, firmly, with one so-warm hand. Kirk searched the Vulcan’s face uncertainly, then matched Spock’s gesture, closing his hand around the slender steel of Spock’s muscle. "I affirm life with you, Spock." He could feel the pulse in the arm, rapid and strong.

Spock grasped his other arm and pulled him gently to his feet. "Do you, Jim? With me?" The Vulcan’s eyes were space-deep wells, impenetrably black.

"Yes. I do."

"How do you affirm life?" Spock asked, in the same tone of voice in which he had spoken the ritual words.

"I go on," Kirk said simply. "I go out of here and be the captain another day. I tell the crew there is meaning to everything even if we don’t understand it now. I live another day; the ship goes forward. And I remember what happened in case I ever face a similar situation. I hold on to the hope that I can come up with a different solution."

Spock nodded. His eyes closed for a second as though trying to hide an inner pain. He met Kirk’s gaze again. "Those are good ways," he said. "You are wise."

Spock let him go abruptly, pressing his own palms together, upright, the fingers separated, and raising his hands until they touched his lips. Whether it was a ritual gesture, or simply a physical outpouring of tensions the Vulcan could not contain, Kirk did not know.

"Vulcan warrior tradition," Spock went on, "prescribes a more primal, less philosophical method." His eyes seemed to see right into Kirk. "It will distress you." He seemed certain.

"I won’t leave you," Kirk said.

Spock nodded slowly. His eyes steady on Kirk’s, he began to unwind the black loincloth from his hips.

Kirk started slightly, surprised despite all Spock’s warnings, but he held his ground.

Spock pulled the loincloth all the way off and laid it on the stone, tucking it under his knees. He made no request of Kirk, so Kirk didn’t move a centimeter. He was not quite sure he breathed, either. The air seemed thick and close, like Earth’s just before thunder.

Spock knelt again and gestured for Kirk to resume his place, knee to knee with him. The Vulcan sat back on his heels, allowing his knees to separate naturally, and raised his arms once toward the ceiling. Then he brought his hands down between his legs and bowed his head. Kirk’s gaze was captive, fixed on the lean, pale form in the darkness; he could not have looked away if he had possessed Vulcan restraint.

Orange light flickered from the direction of the Guardian’s incense cup, reflecting off Spock’s sleek cap of hair and—oh, gods—off the tip of his very large, suddenly very erect cock, where a drop of fluid scintillated for a moment. Spock’s hands, both of them, wrapped around his thick shaft one before the other, and still the flared head was exposed to Kirk’s sight. The Vulcan stroked himself once, then twice, with aching deliberation.

Kirk was sure he did not breathe, and he dared not make any movement or sound lest the trance be broken. Or lest he come to his senses and realize what he was watching.

Spock’s long fingers—the fingers that danced expertly over the science console by day, the fingers that coaxed spellbinding music from the ka’athyra at evening—now stroked his most delicate skin before Kirk’s eyes in the shadowed night. Kirk wanted to look away from the utter beauty, wanted to look anywhere else so that his cheeks would not be burning and so that he would not have to feel the confronting rush of arousal in his own body. But he could only stare as Spock moved two fingers to the shining tip of his cock and smoothed the fluid welling there back over the elaborate, double-ridged head and thick shaft.

Spock, eyes closed tightly, lifted his head and allowed it to arch back, so that Kirk could see the Vulcan’s bared throat, pale and sculpted, with the prominent vein along the side. That exposure suddenly seemed far more intimate a thing than the shocking revelation of Spock’s dark, swollen cock. Kirk could see the gathering tension in the lean body, each sinew standing out starkly in chest and neck and shoulders and forearms as Spock arched his body further back. His thighs parted even more. He had beautiful, perfect thighs, Kirk noticed, and he wondered why he had never noticed that about Spock before.

One of Spock’s hands cupped his balls; the other stroked that magnificent cock slowly, tightly. Watching, Kirk felt every hair on his body stand up. His own cock swelled, his balls tightened.

Then the angular face contorted and a single, loud gasp tore from the strong throat. Spock went utterly still as he came, spraying glistening fluid onto the black cloth. A droplet narrowly missed Kirk’s right knee.

Kirk’s shoulders tensed till they hurt. He wanted to get up and bolt from the cabin, but he’d sworn he would stay, and he was hardly dressed for the corridor, anyway. The crew didn’t need to see the captain run out of the first officer’s cabin at midnight, shellshocked, in his underwear. With a hard-on. He was, he realized, very hard.

And Spock, stark naked and sitting almost knee to knee with Kirk, was drinking in a very deep breath and slowly refocusing his dark eyes on his friend. He merely observed Kirk’s face for a long moment, and Kirk, though he wanted to look somewhere, anywhere else, did not.

"Ehí an nakkh," Spock said quietly. "We do not shed blood to affirm life. We do not shed tears. Mourning is past. Only life calls unto life." He gathered up the black cloth carefully. "Nakkh’sa, fluid of life."

It was an explanation of sorts.

Kirk swallowed, and found his voice. "That was certainly a most…unexpected Vulcan ritual."

Spock’s right eyebrow lifted as though to say you were warned, but he did not speak.

Kirk started to get to his feet but stopped when he realized exactly how stiff an erection he had acquired. He sank back down on his knees and tried to breathe.

Spock, watching him, said quietly. "I regret that was distressing to you, Jim."

"’Distressing’…isn’t the word I would use," Kirk said. Something crackled in the firepot and a renewed scent of nakhmeen filled the air. "Is it complete?" he asked, to fill the uncomfortable silence.

Spock rose smoothly to his feet, still holding the impregnated cloth. "It is traditional now to immerse ourselves in water. Since total immersion is possible only elsewhere on the ship—perhaps you would care to share a water shower with me?"

"Uh, Spock," Kirk stammered, his face hot. It was ridiculous for him to have a sudden attack of modesty, considering what he had just witnessed. But he couldn’t seem to help it; he was still aroused, it would show, and, illogically or not, he feared it would set back all the progress he had made in winning Spock’s friendship. Spock had looked so elegant, so alien, so completely self-possessed as he stroked himself; Kirk felt like a horny teenager who shouldn’t have been trusted to witness such a sensual yet reverential display.

He had not felt this shy with Spock since the week he had assumed command.

Spock glanced down, his sharp eyes immediately noticing Kirk’s condition. He knelt next to Kirk. "Forgive me. I assumed you did not wish to participate in that portion of the ritual. Do you wish to do as I have done?"

"That…uh, wouldn’t be my first choice, no." It suddenly struck Kirk as somewhat funny, but he couldn’t find the nerve to laugh.

"Very well. Perhaps the shower, then?" Spock extended a hand; Kirk took it and allowed Spock to help him up. It was a good thing, too, because his legs were very cramped. Kirk willed himself to relax, but the more he thought about it, the worse he got.

"Is sharing a shower typical on Vulcan?" He spoke to distract himself, even though the question sounded ridiculous in his ears. Spock had said the warriors were not typical, and besides, it didn’t seem possible that masturbating with an audience could be typical on Vulcan, either.

"Indeed. In ShiKahr, as in most places on Vulcan, no one ever bathes alone if it can be helped. We revere the gift of water. We share it. I would share it with you."

"Make it a cold shower," Kirk said, trying to retain the fleeting moment of humor, and relaxing a little because Spock was looking only at his face as he stood up.

"Cold?" Spock cocked his head. "Jim…that would be torture. The ritual is intended to soothe, not to hurt in any way."

"I realize that, but I’m still apparently…indisposed," Kirk said, aiming for a light tone and not entirely succeeding.

"We will take care of that in the shower," Spock said calmly.

We?

But Spock didn’t give him time to ask, he just propelled Kirk into the head, and the door slid shut behind them.

An Enterprise head was typically small, but the ones in the senior officers’ and guest quarters were luxurious compared to those of the crew. There was room for two in Spock’s shower. The Vulcan gave the computer instructions for what would be a perfect warm shower for Kirk.

"You’ll be cold, Spock," Kirk said, abruptly regaining command of himself and telling the computer to make the water a few degrees hotter. It was just a shower, after all. He’d showered with Spock in the gym on occasion, and once on a dusty little planet that had the same water constraints as those of Vulcan.

And so what if the captain had an erection—it wasn’t as though Spock hadn’t seen that before. Kirk always got erect during workouts. Except that those erections were just some kind of reflex, and Kirk could always forget about them and they’d subside. This one had quite a different cause, one that Kirk feared to examine too closely.

He’d have to take his cue from Spock, then. He pulled his briefs off, trying not to respond to the maddening feeling of the cloth rasping over him. He avoided glancing at his groin, sure that his cock would be purple and leaking at this point. He felt starkly aware of his nakedness in the warm air.

Spock turned, gesturing for Kirk to step in first; then the Vulcan joined him. It was close quarters in the shower. Kirk stuck his head under the largest, overhead spray, where he couldn’t see Spock’s face, and let the water stream down, willing himself to forget the picture still in his mind: Spock, arching back on the meditation stone, allowing a single, open sound to tear from his throat. His dark, swollen cock pulsing and spilling his essence, diamond droplets shining on black silk. His face—oh, gods, his face—for one fleeting second devoid of its inscrutable mask.

The image did not help Kirk calm his physical reactions. Worse, the gentle sprays from the sides of the wall touched him like warm fingers, encouraging him to stay hard no matter how determinedly he tried to visualize the layout of the engineering decks. Apparently nothing short of a red alert was going to do the trick. He pushed his wet hair back out of his face, and moved to allow Spock to step fully under the overhead spray. Spock moved past him, but as he did so, his warm, hairy thigh brushed Kirk’s erection. Kirk’s eyes snapped open and he felt his skin flush again.

Spock, his eyes as receptive as Kirk had ever seen them, said, "Jim, would it not be more logical to simply deal with the problem?"

Kirk tried to smile. "It probably would," he admitted. "But…I’m not a Vulcan, Spock." I can’t be an elegant, lean arch of self-possession on a green meditation stone.

"Human anatomy and Vulcan are functionally similar in this regard, or so I am given to believe." As usual, Spock was probably severely understating his knowledge. He had several advanced degrees in various sciences; Kirk supposed that exobiology was one of them, and the Vulcan could probably write a dissertation, were he so inclined, on the comparative functions of the male anatomies of a dozen races.

"I can’t just will it to go away," Kirk said after a moment’s silence.

"That was not what I was proposing. Jim, among the warriors, this ritual is usually performed a bit differently than you observed. There is not another Vulcan warrior present, so I adapted it to fit the circumstance. The intent is to spill the seed, one way or another.

"It is obvious you would not be comfortable with the method I employed, so my suggestion is that you allow me to assist you."

"Assist me?" Kirk repeated. It wasn’t quite a question.

Spock nodded. "If you will permit my touch."

Kirk couldn’t look at Spock’s sincere black eyes, and he couldn’t look away. Spock’s warm physical presence was so close, his face damp and his bangs disarrayed, his elegant upswept eyebrows glistening even blacker for being wet. "Spock, I couldn’t ask—"

"You have not asked, I have offered. Your permission?"

Suddenly, Kirk couldn’t think of anything he wanted more than to be touched by this exotic creature who bore a resemblance to his first officer, but surely could not be the same man who worked by his side on the bridge every day. Kirk didn’t know why Spock was offering such a thing. Perhaps the rapport of the mind-touch was still between them; perhaps Spock sensed what had caused Kirk’s difficulty in the first place and felt responsible. Whatever the reason, Kirk suddenly knew the heady sensation of throwing caution and propriety away without forethought, the feeling of launching oneself head-first off a cliff, not knowing or even caring whether he was going to crash to the ground. Or soar.

He lifted a hand to Spock’s shoulder. "All right," he said softly, almost surprised to hear the words as they came out.

Whatever he’d expected Spock to do, it was not to step forward and hug him gently, wet naked body to wet naked body, and then ease him back against the shower wall. Spock’s hands roamed over Kirk’s chest; dark Vulcan eyes met his, shining. You are beautiful, they communicated without words.

Kirk’s chest tightened, his nipples contracted to aching points, and his consciousness centered in his cock as Spock swept his hand down to grasp the sensitized organ. He stroked it for a moment as he had stroked his own, firmly and slowly. Then, to Kirk’s shock, he knelt and rubbed the side of his face against Kirk’s shaft and touched his lips to it. He looked up, heedless of the water dripping off his bangs and into his eyes. "It is considered a gift to be permitted to drink the nakkh’sa of one’s t’hy’la," he said, and somehow Kirk heard it clearly over the hiss of the shower sprays and the thudding of his heart.

He couldn’t make himself move as Spock, still stroking him, took the head of Kirk’s cock into his mouth. But he moaned aloud as the hot mouth took him in farther and farther, till he thought Spock must certainly choke. Long fingers closed around Kirk’s hips, supporting him, but not restraining him. His hips rocked of their own volition, thrusting his cock into Spock’s warm mouth. Spock sighed around Kirk’s cock and opened his throat, allowing deeper penetration.

Kirk arched back against the shower wall and groaned, "oh," and felt his fingers slide into Spock’s sleek black hair. It was unreal, this moment under the warm spray of the shower. He forced his eyes open to see, and almost believed he had accidentally transported into one of the alternate universes that Spock had told him must exist.

His hips thrust, his cock disappeared into Spock’s mouth and reappeared, hard and wanting more of this expert loving. Wanting more of the white teeth scraping so gently on the underside of his cock just behind the head, more of the hot moving tongue, and the strong, tireless, enveloping throat.

Kirk gave up and moaned, and moaned again as Spock took him deep, and yet again as the strong fingers closed around his buttocks, branding him. Spock’s lips touched the root of him; the full lower lip grazed his balls. Bright pleasure centered in his cock and coursed like sweet fire along every nerve, and he came, spouting into Spock’s throat.

Kirk watched Spock drink of him, the prominent Adam’s apple moving in perfect rhythm with each pulsation of Kirk’s cock. Kirk spent himself in Spock’s mouth and then, as the Vulcan gently released him, he slid limply to the shower floor. He had to put out a hand to keep himself from falling nose-down onto the floor drain.

Spock, breathing hard also, reached up to wave his hand over the sensor, stopping the water. Then he put his arms around Kirk and drew him close, supporting him for long moments while Kirk caught his breath. Just before Spock let him go, Kirk felt the whisper-touch of Spock’s incredibly soft, incredibly sensuous lips on his shoulder, a benediction.

He looked up. Spock smoothed Kirk’s bangs back and smiled at him, a real smile, and said only, "T’hy’la," in the deepest and most affectionate tone Kirk had ever heard him use.

He said the word out of swollen lips, his face flushed olive. Kirk touched the trembling lips with a forefinger. Remembered them stretched around his cock. Remembered the elegant, serious mouth drinking him as though he were the only water in the desert. It meant something, Kirk concluded, but he wasn’t sure what, because he couldn’t make it mesh with the picture of Spock he’d harbored—before. An eternity ago, in that time before he had barged into Spock’s sanctuary and found him kneeling half-naked with a sword across his knees. In that time before reality shattered.

Kirk got to his feet, Spock following. They faced each other. "Spock, I, I don’t—" Kirk began, but Spock shushed him with a gentle shake of his head.

"Unnecessary, Jim. I thank you for water. For sharing nakkh’sa, and for willingly sharing the ahr t’kal with me. You will always be welcome among the warriors. If you ever have need of their assistance, and I am not available, tell them that you are t’hy’la to Spock, of the House of Surak, and they will aid you. They would die for you, as I would."

"T’hy’la." Kirk breathed the word, ethereally light on the tongue. The rest was too much to take in. Vulcan warriors. Spock someday not being available. The way Tomlinson was not available? He didn’t let his mind go there.

"Yes." Spock stepped out of the shower enclosure and found Kirk a towel. Kirk dried himself and tried not to watch as Spock did likewise, rubbing the water off his lanky form and scrubbing at his hair with the towel so that the front stood up in long black spikes.

"I should go," Kirk said into the quiet of the bright room. His body felt sated; his mind, numb. Eleven years of exploring outer space, discovering civilizations more alien than Earth had ever dreamed, and Kirk was well and truly dumbfounded by a tall, male, half-Vulcan scientist—warrior—in a shower. His best friend.

Spock had wrapped his towel around his waist, his face unreadable again. He looked much as Kirk had found him, except that he wore white now, instead of black. He regarded Kirk calmly but closely.

Kirk let out a slow breath and decided. He straightened his shoulders, picked up his briefs and pulled them on. He handed Spock the towel. "Enjoy your day off," he said.

Spock inclined his head.

Kirk went out to find his clothes and then to go look at the stars. And figure out what the hell had just happened.

* * * * *

In the absence of a red alert, a captain should not run through the corridors of his ship. So Kirk forced himself to walk. His first thought was only to keep moving, get away from Spock’s quarters to somewhere he could think, which usually meant one of the observation decks. He’d combed through his hair with his fingers and it was drying, although anyone who looked closely, even in the subdued night-cycle lighting, would see that it was still fairly wet. He hadn’t toweled it well; he’d been too focused on getting out of that stark, well-lit room with the naked Vulcan in it.

But eventually, as he wound himself down a gangway from deck five to deck six, he realized he was headed in the vague direction of sickbay, where an insomniac McCoy was probably still doing his paperwork.

Kirk stood in the corridor three doors down from sickbay and thought better of it. Yes, he was instinctively headed for his best counselor, and the one person aboard he was supposed to unburden himself to, but what in the universe was he supposed to say? He probably looked sufficiently thunderstruck that McCoy might actually believe him when he described the loincloth and the sword, but anything further, and McCoy would have Kirk up for psychological testing.

What was he supposed to tell Bones: I’m upset about Spock, but I can’t tell you why? Or was he supposed to spill it all: I participated in a Vulcan ritual that you wouldn’t believe, and Spock’s fine now about the Romulans. And he and I are both feeling fine, you see, because as part of the ritual he jerked off in front of me, and then he brought me under the shower and sucked my cock till I cried out. I cried out, and I didn’t once call his name while he was doing it, but he didn’t seem to mind. Gods, he looked like a Rigellian whore, the kind you hear stories about in spaceport bars. The kind they say a man would sell his soul for.

He drank my come, and he thanked me, and I told him to have a nice day.

It sounded like one of those weird dreams McCoy was so fond of deciphering.

The doctor would have him under the psychoscan in no time flat. Kirk grunted. It wasn’t the psychoscanner that he feared. It was the thought of revealing to anyone what had happened in Spock’s quarters, because no one who hadn’t been there could possibly understand.

It had been beautiful. That was the thing. It had been perfection from beginning to end, and Kirk didn’t want to mar the beauty of the memory by exposing it to anyone who would think any less of it. Or to anyone who couldn’t understand that the ritual was sacred.

Kirk’s crew was a good one. They possessed the best minds and bodies that Starfleet could muster, and they had taken alien perspectives in stride before. But it might be beyond them to understand the perfection of what had just happened.

The perfection of Spock, confiding in him. Spock, offering to share thoughts, memories, in a way they never had before. Spock, nude and aroused and completely unselfconscious. Well, he was normally unselfconscious about his body—anyone who’d worked out in the gym with him knew that—but tonight he had allowed his face to be stripped bare of his Vulcan mask as well. Without explanation, without outside influence, without even fighting it. It was beyond remarkable.

And Kirk knew without a doubt that there was no one else aboard, maybe no one else in the universe, before whom Spock would have shed so many layers of defenses.

The image of Spock, his head thrust back, his face contorting at the peak of orgasm, would be burned into Kirk’s memory forever. It was that stark beauty that had enthralled Kirk, rendered him unable to analyze, unable to leap to any conclusions, only to stay with Spock and see him through it, as he’d promised.

And if seeing him through it meant allowing Spock to—

I let my first officer suck me off.

He’d never accepted sexual favors from one of his crew before. That was the problem. It was also the reason he’d instinctively headed for McCoy. Starfleet drilled it into all Command candidates: If anything changes in your personal life, anything at all, you go straight to the CMO. The captain’s stability was of utmost importance. You think you’re the boss because you’re the captain? Think again. The CMO’s word is law on your ship.

No! No and no. This isn’t about my command!

Sure it was. Everything, but everything, is about your command. When it comes to maintaining command fitness, the captain has no privacy.

Kirk stopped short just outside the main sickbay door. He couldn’t make himself go in. He couldn’t face McCoy like this. Not in this turmoil, not when he wasn’t even sure what it meant.

He turned back from the door. He would give himself an hour; figure it out himself in that time, or go to McCoy, no matter what. The ship’s safety came first.

Kirk took the nearest cross-corridor and practically ran to the gangway. He could climb up to the deck two portside observation lounge from there, and probably would not meet anyone in so doing. He’d been lucky enough already not to run into anyone in the sickbay section.

The gangways were blessedly clear; the two crewmen he encountered outside the observation lounge were more interested in each other than in what the captain might be doing there an hour into gamma shift.

He stumbled inside the darkened lounge, allowing his eyes to adjust. Empty. He stood before the viewports, windows onto eternity. There were three in this lounge, floor-to-ceiling, each wider than his open arms could span. The ship was in interstellar space, at warp, and beyond the slight shimmer of the warp field, stars streaked by and disappeared into blackness, and out of blackness new streaks appeared. Kirk pressed both palms against the pane of transparent aluminum, spreading his fingers as though to hold back the star-streaks for a moment.

The view was astonishingly beautiful, and the knowledge that space went on forever thrilled him. But his hands were not trembling on the window because of the stars’ beauty.

Maybe because of Spock’s.

Oh, the Vulcan was not beautiful by any conventional definition that either he or Kirk would have accepted. In this galaxy, they’d seen women, and men of such breathtaking comeliness that neither one would have considered himself beautiful by comparison. But to Kirk the Vulcan was beautiful in his own way: tall and lean and possessed of catlike grace. Dark and exotic, with those upswept brows and perfect elfin ears. And his body—gods.

More, there was something so complete and right about Spock. The night’s events had not changed that. They’d shocked Kirk, to be sure, but they’d never seemed in any way wrong.

The problem was that Kirk had rules of conduct for himself, strict ones. Number one on the list was, no one gets preferential treatment; number two was, no one fucks the captain. He’d decided that before he took command. He’d noticed the high transfer rate of senior officers on some vessels, even on the Enterprise under Pike, and he’d found out there was a high correlation between transfers and captains who slept with their crew.

On the Farragut under Garrovick, it hadn’t been an issue. Captain Garrovick had been twenty years older than Kirk, for one thing. For another, he’d had an on-again, off-again thing with the ship’s CMO, a woman of his own age, and nobody on the ship was willing to cross her. Garrovick was also married, with a wife and two sons back on Earth, though like any starship captain, he hadn’t seen them in a while.

Kirk had loved Garrovick like a father. When he’d been on the Farragut, he’d believed the man could do no wrong. He still felt a pang when he thought of his former captain. Tried not to think of him. But the point was, Garrovick had been sexually unavailable to the crew, and that fact had worked in the ship’s favor.

And it worked for Kirk. The Enterprise was widely considered the plum starship assignment, the best ship in the fleet. Kirk was determined to keep it that way, even if it meant total celibacy for the five-year mission. He almost chuckled. Well, it hadn’t quite come to that, although it had restricted the available dating pool to shipboard visitors, people met on leave, and the occasional person met on a planetside mission.

But he’d never, had never, touched anyone under his command, despite the fact that more than a few junior officers had tried hard to reverse that situation.

He’d once turned down Lt. Noel in her underwear, for heaven’s sake; she’d been cuddly, willing, and ready for him, and he’d walked away. But Spock? It had never occurred to him to think of Spock as a threat to his decision. He’d been completely unprepared to confront Spock in a sexual situation. He’d been completely unprepared for his own reaction.

Desire.

Wasn’t it just a normal human male reaction to an erotic display? That was the kind of question Kirk would have to ask McCoy, except that he couldn’t ask McCoy. He could tell himself that was because he wanted to protect Spock’s privacy, but it wouldn’t be entirely true. Spock, after all, had seemed completely comfortable with his actions. They were part of his people’s tradition and he found them logical, so he was not ashamed. Rather, it was Kirk who had been ashamed. Of what? he asked himself. Of responding? Of breaking my command policy?

I didn’t take advantage of him, for god’s sake. He offered. He even had to talk me into it.

So what was wrong?

Kirk’s knees ached—probably a result of the rigid postures he’d been required to hold in Spock’s quarters—so he let himself slide down to sit on the floor. His spread fingers smudged the windowpane. He pressed his cheek against it. It was faintly cool.

Why was I ashamed? Kirk asked himself again, deliberately conjuring the image of Spock that he feared would now never leave his inner sight—the Vulcan in orgasm, his head thrown back, his control relinquished before Kirk for one stunning, utterly beautiful moment.

It was Kirk’s actions that hadn’t been so beautiful. Getting unbearably hard at the sight, trying to talk himself out of it, acting like a confused teenager. Letting Spock talk him into a sex act.

Which Spock had easily accomplished because Kirk wanted to do it. Wanted to. He let the knowledge sink in. I wanted him to do it, and I wanted to be completely passive so that I wouldn’t be the one stepping out of line.

It wasn’t the first time Kirk had felt the impulse to let someone else decide, at least in an off-duty situation. On shore leave he had occasionally let Scotty talk him into one more whiskey than was prudent, and he’d gone with local women because they wished it, even at times when he would have been happier to catch up on sleep or walk alone on a beach. He’d never taken the impulse to a dangerous level before.

Kirk sighed, his breath misting the windowpane. No—not dangerous, he realized. It could have been dangerous, had his partner been anyone else. But Spock was the one person aboard with whom intimacy posed no threat. He wasn’t just another subordinate. He was the only other fully qualified commanding officer aboard, Kirk’s equal in everything but that one step in rank that Spock cared nothing for. If anyone aboard could be totally trusted to keep work and relationship from colliding cataclysmically, it was Spock. He was completely incorruptible.

Suddenly there seemed to be new air to breathe in the lounge, as though the recirculators had clicked on. This isn’t going to consign my command to hell after all, Kirk realized, which I would have comprehended sooner if I’d just stayed and talked to Spock for a few minutes. I can choose to see it the way Spock sees it. As a Vulcan ritual, appropriately performed. Two warriors together, taking what comfort they can in the moment.

He didn’t have to make it mean any more than that.

Kirk got to his feet. He needed to do two things. One, talk to McCoy and, without giving him details, let him know that Spock had solved his dilemma in an appropriate Vulcan manner. And two, talk to Spock. Let him know that Kirk understood and that nothing between them had to change or disrupt the ship in any way. He could speak with McCoy in the morning, Spock after his day off.

He put a hand to the back of his neck to stretch it, feeling the tension start to release. The urgency had left him. He would have to be on the bridge for alpha shift, but that would leave him a good five hours for sleep. He headed out of the lounge without so much as a backward glance at the stars.

Everything was going to be fine.

That was what he told himself all the way back to his quarters.

* * * * *

Someone signaled at Kirk’s door the next morning before shift.

Spock, he thought, and hit the control on his desk to admit the Vulcan. They could get the necessary conversation out of the way this morning.

But of course it wasn’t Spock. He wouldn’t be coming here as usual to update Kirk on ship’s status before the shift. For the first time in months, Kirk was going to have to get that report from Uhura on the bridge.

"What’s the matter, Jim?" McCoy said, raising his expressively arched eyebrows. "Expecting someone else?"

Kirk waved a hand. "Sorry, Bones. I was distracted."

"Spock’s taking a day off is a mighty unusual thing," McCoy said. Kirk was glancing at his terminal and not at McCoy, but he could feel the perceptive blue eyes on him anyway.

He snapped the terminal off and looked up. "He’s fine, Bones."

"You helped him through it."

"That’s about right." Kirk let out a deep breath. "He has a Vulcan ritual for dealing with that sort of thing. Mostly meditation. He’s assimilated the experience and accepted what happened. End of story."

"I suppose you’re not going to tell me whether there was an emotional display connected to this ritual."

Kirk shot him a disbelieving look. "Emotional display? Surely you’re joking, Doctor."

"Thought so. It was a doozy, huh? Wish I could have been a fly on that wall."

Kirk’s stomach went suddenly icy. "No, Bones," he said. "You don’t."

They started out the door together, Kirk looking anywhere but at McCoy, knowing the doctor was not going to just leave this alone and mad at himself for not being able to lead McCoy off the scent.

"Jim, maybe you need your own ritual," McCoy remarked with that casual tone of his that meant he was very, very serious. "I know you spoke at Tomlinson’s memorial, and I know you probably went belowdecks to check on the damage, but what about the Romulans?"

"I dealt with that with Spock. The ritual was as much for me as it was for him."

"And then there’s Spock."

"What do you mean, Bones?" Kirk looked up.

McCoy shrugged. "He could have been killed. That’s got to be an issue for you."

"Of course. It always is, but that’s life in deep space."

McCoy stared at him, unblinking, for a moment. "Okay, Jim," he said, finally. "You can play this game if you want to. I can see you’re all right at the moment, so I’ll speak as your friend and doctor, instead of your CMO."

"Go ahead. Doctor."

"Something about either Spock or his ‘Vulcan ritual’ spooked you, Jim, so badly that you’re worried it will threaten your command. And if your CMO finds that out, he might want to run all sorts of intrusive and embarrassing tests."

Kirk clenched his teeth to keep his jaw from dropping open.

"Which," McCoy continued, "would be required under regulations, and as you’re the guy giving the orders in tense situations like the one we faced yesterday, the CMO is highly disinclined to conveniently forget about them."

"Bones, you said yourself that I’m fine."

"For the moment," McCoy corrected. "Since Spock’s off duty today, the issue won’t be in your face while you’re on the bridge. But here’s the advice from your friendly country doctor. Go see Spock and deal with this before your CMO has to take a more active role."

"Go…see Spock?"

"Solve it, Jim. By the time he’s back on duty, or I’ll have you both in my office separately for consultations." McCoy raised a hand to Kirk’s shoulder, clapped it once, affectionately. "And good luck."

Kirk stood in the corridor at least a full minute, watching the doctor disappear around the curve and wondering how the hell McCoy had figured it out.

* * * * *

Eight hours on the bridge without Spock seemed very strange. Kirk took a short break at twelve hundred hours to wolf down a sandwich, another at fifteen hundred to terrorize the deck two science labs with a surprise inspection. Might as well do it today since Spock’s not going to be there. Make sure no one is slacking. The crew on duty there shot one another surprised and concerned glances. Probably wondering if the captain had heard of some problem in their department that they had not been apprised of.

Kirk aimed a curt smile at astrophysicist Chiang as he left the outermost lab. "Good work, ladies and gentlemen." Chiang nodded stiffly in return, and just before the door swished shut, she released an audible sigh.

Kirk stayed resolutely on the bridge for the rest of the shift, even though the Enterprise would not reach command base for two days, and there were little more than fuel-consumption reports and a new alpha-shift navigator to occupy him.

Two navigators in recent days had disrupted discipline on the bridge: Bailey and then Stiles. Stiles was still in sickbay; when he was released he’d be reassigned belowdecks until McCoy certified him fit for bridge duty. So the second-shift navigator, Lt. De Salle, had been moved to first shift, and he appeared to be a much more stable personality. Kirk would have preferred to know Spock’s opinion. The Vulcan’s evaluation of personnel often proved remarkably astute, perhaps because Spock was not burdened with a human viewpoint. But today the science console was manned by someone else. Spock was not there. Kirk felt his absence keenly, as though his own right arm were not quite there.

Especially when Yeoman Rand brought him the compslate he’d requested, and he read Tomlinson’s name at the top of the duty roster. A mistake Spock would not have overlooked.

"Rand!" Kirk stabbed the compslate with a finger, and it beeped indignantly. "Look at that."

Her blue-gray eyes went wide. "Sir?"

"Get Tomlinson’s name off the roster," Kirk said between his teeth.

"Oh," she said, a little gasp of sorrow.

Kirk immediately regretted his harshness. Rand was one of Angela Martine’s best friends.

He handed her back the compslate. "I’m sorry, Yeoman. Just fix it, and…carry on."

"Yes, sir."

But he could feel Rand’s eyes meeting Uhura’s over his head. Probably wondering what the hell was wrong with the captain.

They didn’t know the half of it.

It could have been Spock.

That was the moment he realized that he would interrupt Spock’s day off after all. Vulcan rituals and the captain’s personal rules of conduct be damned.

He was not going to risk facing weeks and months of looking over his right shoulder and seeing someone other than Spock at the science station.

* * * * *

He didn’t stop to change this time. He didn’t stop for anything except to log himself off duty and leave orders that he not be disturbed except in the case of emergency.

He went right up to Spock’s door intending to signal, but stepped into the sensor beam accidentally. The door opened.

"Come." The calm in the deep voice told Kirk he was expected.

"I’m sorry, Spock, I didn’t mean to barge in on you. Clumsy of me." Kirk peered into the darkness, letting his eyes adjust. It was profoundly dark this time; there was no light at all except for that eternal orange flicker from the firepot in the bedchamber. He stepped around the grille.

Spock lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. He was swathed in black from neck to ankles, his feet bare, his long fingers folded on his chest. He turned his head slightly when Kirk approached but didn’t meet Kirk’s eyes. He waved a hand over the sensor and the overhead light began to glow faintly, casting the Vulcan’s face and hands in stark white contrast to his black hair and black robe. The red metallic coverlet underneath him glittered dully. "Clumsiness…would seem to be catching, lately," Spock said.

It couldn’t have been a joke. No, it couldn’t. Kirk suddenly understood what Spock referred to.

Yesterday. Two ships drifting in space. The bridge in near darkness. The Romulans, invisible. Waiting. Each waiting for the other to make a move or a sound that would give away its location. Spock, finished with a repair under his console, put a hand up to pull himself to his feet—and accidentally turned on his sensors, giving away the Enterprise’s location. Starting the final battle.

Kirk sighed. "I know I sometimes seem to expect perfection from you, Spock," he said softly. "And you certainly seem to expect it of yourself. But no one is perfect."

"That much is certain."

Kirk waved a dismissive hand. "The battle had to start somehow. You also saved the ship." He moved closer to the bed. "May I?"

Spock moved over.

Kirk sat down next to him. "I’m sorry to interrupt your rest."

Spock’s eyes, so black in the darkness, finally met his. "You do not interrupt."

"Is that because you weren’t getting any rest?"

Spock’s shoulder moved; it could have been a shrug. "You are t’hy’la. It is no interruption."

Kirk cleared his throat. "That’s what I came to talk to you about."

"Of course."

"Well if you already know what I’m going to say, why don’t you say it?"

Spock raised himself on one elbow, his eyes never leaving Kirk’s. "You are disturbed because of the events of last night. It is…my fault."

"No, not yours, Spock. Mine. It was my own behavior that confused me. You were just acting according to your culture, your tradition. I can understand that. At the time I was just…unprepared for my own intense…reaction. I was undoubtedly making it mean more than it means."

"You were making it mean less than it means," Spock corrected. "When you left here, you were only beginning to understand the extent of the meaning. Of t’hy’la." He pronounced the word as though it were a sacred incantation. "I—I believe the expression is—‘rushed you.’ I beg forgiveness."

Kirk shook his head. "I’ve had a rule for myself since I took command. I don’t sleep with my crew. I don’t have sex with my officers. This way no one can accuse me of playing favorites, and I don’t have to watch a lot of good people transfer off this ship. The way they did when Pike was in charge, as I’m sure you remember. Yesterday I broke that promise to myself."

Spock rolled onto his back, his eyes closing as though he were in pain. "I would beg your forgiveness for that as well. But I see the crime is too great. I took…I took sexual advantage of you. Such was…not my intention." The last word was a harsh whisper.

"No, Spock—" Kirk leaned forward and grasped one of Spock’s hands. "No, you did nothing wrong. I was the one who was not quite on the right page. I didn’t really understand, but I went ahead with it anyway because I—because I wanted to." He squeezed Spock’s fingers. "Tell me, Spock. Tell me what I didn’t understand—last night—about what t’hy’la is."

Spock’s eyes remained closed. "The word can have three translations in Standard. T’hy’la can be ‘friend,’ and you are that to me. It can mean ‘brother,’ and you are certainly that, also."

"Agreed."

"And it can mean ‘lover.’"

Kirk felt the three meanings fall into place, and found that the idea didn’t seem as weird as he would have imagined. "And does that last also apply to us?" He knew Spock would understand what he was asking. What we did yesterday—was that a warrior ritual between two friends, the kind of sexual play that sometimes happens and does not change who we say we are…or was it something entirely, utterly different?

Spock opened his eyes. "I had thought…that you felt it, too, in the meld. Perhaps a projection of my own…what humans call ‘wishful thinking.’" He shook his head.

Kirk released his hand. "What did you feel in the meld?"

"An affinity of mind and spirit." Spock focused his gaze on the ceiling. "The rightness of…our being together. It seemed so obvious to me that I assumed, mistakenly, that it would be obvious to you also. And so I…what I did with you was an attempt to affirm what I believed we both knew."

"You mean, the ritual was really—"

"That was the ritual; it has been practiced in that fashion for thousands of years. But later, in the shower—my actions were, in part, a clumsy attempt at courtship."

"That was courtship?"

Spock pulled himself up to a sitting position and maneuvered his legs around so that he was sitting next to Kirk, his bare feet touching the floor, appearing pale and exposed next to Kirk’s boots. He allowed a corner of his mouth to quirk up into a wry smile. "Among the male warriors, it is. However, I spent much of today researching Earth courtship customs, and I have discovered they are quite different. I suppose I should have understood this from my limited experience of human females, but, Jim," he shrugged, "you are not female."

"I’d noticed," Kirk quipped. He rubbed his jaw. "Spock—it isn’t like you to act first and do your research later. Whatever possessed you?"

"We have touched minds before. I did not think I needed to do further research, because it did not seem possible for us to have such a strong link and not be acknowledged t’hy’la. I believed you felt it, too. I ask forgiveness if I was in error."

If. The all-important word.

Kirk stood as though jerked to his feet by something other than his own volition. He felt rather than heard Spock stand behind him, not too close.

"Jim, I did not mean to disrespect your customs," Spock said. "I…would offer you a token as is traditional on Earth, but I…at this moment I am not certain how it would be received."

"Huh?" Kirk turned his head far enough to see Spock, but his body resolutely faced the door.

Spock produced something small from a fold of his robe. It gleamed darkly in the faint overhead light—a triangular stone, faceted and deep blue, Kirk realized.

"A sapphire," Spock said. "Symbol of constancy and truth." He held it out for Kirk to take.

Kirk turned and touched the stone. It was warm—Spock’s heat was in it, as though he’d been holding it a while. "Synthesized here on the ship?"

Spock shook his head. "Mined," he corrected. "On Vulcan. Part of my estate."

His estate. What was Spock, some kind of prince? Kirk turned the stone over in the light. It was the size of a cherry, deep navy blue with an inner light. There was no flaw that he could see. "My god, Spock, this must be worth—"

Spock just blinked at him.

"Well," Kirk said, "I am…honored you would want to give such a thing to me, but—don’t you know you don’t offer someone jewels on the first date?" He smiled, trying to make it a joke.

"My research indicated that the typical ‘first date’ was some sort of shared meal or outing where the couple exchanged information about themselves. Succeeding meetings would include more of the same until the people felt they knew each other better and wished to experience each other’s company more often and more intimately. Was this information in error?"

"Uh, no—" Kirk chuckled. "It was basically correct."

Spock straightened his shoulders. "You and I have had many such ‘dates.’ We have proceeded well beyond that stage, have we not?"

"Now that you put it that way, I guess so," Kirk answered.

"At the time at which one of the couple wishes to bring the relationship to a new and more meaningful level, often called ‘commitment,’ it is traditional for this person to present the other with a token such as I have given you."

"Understood, but it’s not usually a thirty-carat sapphire," Kirk choked out.

Spock’s warm hand closed around his, holding the sapphire within their nested palms. The Vulcan’s voice lowered to a rough whisper, and Kirk could feel the puff of hot breath on his ear as Spock said, "According to this tradition, acceptance of the token indicates acceptance of the commitment."

Kirk started. "Spock—what kind of commitment do you have in mind?"

"That of t’hy’la," Spock said. "In my heart I call you t’hy’la already, and always will. But…will you?"

Kirk turned to face him fully, but did not shake off Spock’s gentle grasp on his hand. "You mean, will I agree to all the meanings?"

"Yes. Will you be my lover?"

His lover. To fall into the arms of this dark, alien god and surrender to his heat, his mystery. His male, his alien, strength…..

He searched Spock’s face. The dark eyes held steady on Kirk’s; Spock’s expression was outwardly impassive as always, but Kirk could see right through that façade as he always had to the delicate soul underneath. Spock so wanted to be loved, he realized.

Kirk’s hand clenched around the stone, but Spock’s hand around his did not. It merely supported him, surrounding his smaller hand completely without pressure.

"Humans," Kirk said carefully, "often become lovers without necessarily committing to anything much. I don’t know what you’re asking."

"T’hy’la is more than what humans call a ‘love relationship.’ It is a mental…link, for lack of a better word. We might be able to feel each other’s presence—know each other’s whereabouts in a general way. You would feel when I was on the ship; you would know when I was in the shuttle or on a planet."

"Could come in handy on missions," Kirk said. "I take it there’s more?"

"When we…made love…there would be a resonance of thought. I do not know if I can explain it in your terms." Spock cleared his throat and forged on. "It would be most…pleasurable. Over time, if we continued the relationship, we would become more and more attuned. It would most likely lead to what you would think of as a marriage and more than a marriage—the Vulcan mating bond."

Oh my god, he is asking me to marry him. Eventually. "Spock—"

Spock stopped him, letting go his hand. "It is also customary to take some time to think about such a proposal. If you wish—you have all the time in the universe."

"Or none," Kirk said. "Martine and Tomlinson probably thought they had all the time in the universe, too."

Spock folded his hands. "Jim, you need not…."

"No, Spock. I do need to. This is exactly what was bothering me yesterday, what I couldn’t quite grasp. I—when I went to the phaser room, I realized it could have been you."

"There is always a possibility that either one of us could be lost in the line of duty. I know you accept the risk, Jim."

"I always have. I suppose I always will. If I say yes—could you live with that?"

"You already possess my heart. I would grieve even more deeply if I lost you, knowing that we had never taken this step, even though we both wanted to."

"I will. Think about it," Kirk said. "I…think I need to take a turn on the bridge now."

"Understood." The dark eyes were not entirely serene. But they shone. Clearly, there was relief in speaking one’s desire even if its realization was not certain.

Kirk held out the stone.

"Take it with you," Spock suggested.

"All right. And Spock…."

"Jim?"

"I will…think deeply on it."

"I know you will."

Kirk put out a hand to grip Spock’s shoulder, then changed the gesture at the last moment to a soft brushing of fingertips against the Vulcan’s cheek. He trailed his fingers down to the corner of Spock’s mouth, and then gently over the bottom lip. Spock’s eyes fluttered closed.

Kirk did not say it. But he was thinking it. Spock, I love you. That wasn’t in question.

"Jim,"Spock’s lips whispered against Kirk’s fingers.

No, not in question at all.

What was in question was what he was going to do about it.

Kirk’s hand closed so tightly around the stone that it hurt. He drew the other one away from Spock’s face.

"I’ll…see you…later," he managed.

Spock’s eyes did not open.

Kirk left, then, and went straight to the bridge.

The stone was warm in his hand as he checked each duty station, finding everything in order, and then nodded curtly to the third-shift conn officer before leaving. It was Kevin Riley, who answered him with a respectful nod but kept the center seat as Kirk had ordered.

No one seemed in the least perturbed by Kirk’s late-night visit, even though he’d logged a do-not-disturb. Nor did anyone seem to notice that Kirk was holding something as he paced the bridge.

In the privacy of the turbolift, he looked at the stone again. It still seemed to shine with a deep, serene inner light that would not be quelled. Like Spock.

He paced the tiny chamber as it moved back toward deck five, and he sought to isolate the thought that was bothering him. Spock and I touched sexually for the first time yesterday. Today he wants to commit to a relationship. Today he wants to…get engaged.

Was that odd? It sounded odd; it certainly hadn’t been what Kirk would have expected from the Vulcan, and yet, they weren’t living in some Iowa farm town. They were in interstellar space, facing the unknown every day. Here, life itself was far from certain.

The turbolift doors sighed open. Kirk made a beeline for his quarters. He’d lose himself in paperwork for a while and perhaps things would make more sense later.

Two hours later, he gave up and went to shower and change into civvies. Half the items on his desk he needed to discuss with Spock, but none was urgent enough to warrant disrupting the only personal day Spock had ever taken on board Kirk’s ship. Most of the paperwork was up to date, anyway. There were only three things he needed to deal with fairly urgently, and Spock had already handled one of them, by finding a source for nontoxic coolant. The other two concerned Tomlinson. The letter had to be sent to his next of kin. And his personal effects had to be sent back to Earth, along with his body for burial there. Angela Martine had requested leave to accompany the body to Earth.

When he returned to his desk, Kirk logged permission for Martine and assigned a yeoman to assist her in packaging the personal effects. Then quietly, resolutely, he recorded a brief message to the Tomlinsons. He knew what Starfleet would do. He’d seen that ritual up close once, when he was a boy and his father hadn’t returned from space. A senior officer would go to the family with the captain’s message, then, later, when the body arrived on Earth, four young officers would go to the home to assist the next of kin, to stand guard at the door, to honor him at the funeral. Four people who hadn’t known Bobby would go, so that they could assist the family rather than grieve for their own loss.

Four officers had arrived at his family’s farm on a June day when Kirk was fourteen. Somewhere, Kirk had thought, for someone else, it is simply a beautiful day in almost-summer; school is out, and they are going to have an impromptu soccer game in the field behind the library. Somewhere there is someone who is having an ordinary, happy day. And there is no Starfleet officer at the door with a set jaw and big dark compassionate eyes.

Someday, such a detachment might very well go to the Kirk family farm again, to tell Winona….

Kirk’s throat constricted. Oh, god. It could be happening now. Yesterday, we all almost died.

…and another would go to the residence of Spock’s parents on Vulcan….

Yesterday, Spock almost died.

Kirk had been prepared for the dangers of deep-space duty long before he’d ever set foot on a starship. He’d survived improbable odds on the Farragut and downright impossible ones on the Enterprise. He’d always accepted that someday his luck might run out. He’d always focused himself firmly in the present.

So what am I waiting for?

Spock wasn’t offering him t’hy’laon the condition that they lived happily ever after, only on the condition that they lived now. And now was just long enough for Kirk to say yes.

To say, Yes, I will dare to love you.

It was quite possible that nothing in the universe mattered more. If Kirk had any doubts, he could go ask Angela Martine.

He felt as though he’d been kicked in the stomach. Oh, god, I do love him.

It all made sense. He hadn’t been inappropriately aroused by Spock’s unnerving ritual. This connection between them wasn’t "fooling around." It was love. It was love, not only the brotherly kind but the romantic kind, the forever-after kind, and obviously Spock had known that all along, long before he had dared to expose his sexuality to Kirk is such a surprising manner.

It was love, and Kirk wanted it more than anything in the universe.

Kirk glanced at the sapphire, which he’d set on the desk next to the terminal screen, and he smiled. Spock had looked up Earth courtship customs and come up with this most unusual interpretation. Symbol of constancy and truth. He picked it up and felt it go from cold to warm in his palm.

There was only one response possible to such devotion.

* * * * *

Kirk signaled at Spock’s door; it slid open immediately. He stepped through. A small light now glowed from the bedchamber, though the orange flicker of the firepot still colored the room. "Spock, you still awake?" He peered around the grille.

Spock knelt, still robed in black, on his meditation stone. He looked up slowly.

"I’m sorry," Kirk said. "You were meditating."

"Do you wish to join me?"

It was not something a Vulcan would ask his captain, but it was something he might ask his t’hy’la.

Kirk dropped to his knees in front of Spock, remembering how he’d knelt just that way the night before. He held the sapphire out on his palm, admiring its deep blue beauty.

Spock lifted an eyebrow, and swallowed, and made no move to touch the stone.

Kirk smiled. "I accept." He curled his fingers around the gem and brought it close to his chest. "Constancy…and truth. And—"

"T’hy’la—"

"Yes. T’hy’la. A relationship. The possibility that it might become more, if we both wished it."

Spock smiled then, a real smile, fleeting, and no less beautiful for that.

Kirk tucked the stone securely into his pocket. "I will treasure your gift. Now…do you mind cutting short your meditation?"

Spock lifted an eyebrow.

"I’d like to perform a human courtship ritual with you."

Slowly and deliberately, the Vulcan unfolded his lanky form from the meditation stone and stood up.

Kirk gestured toward the door. "Follow me?"

"Always."

They walked to the turbolift in silence, stood shoulder to shoulder inside, and Kirk wanted to speak, wanted to break the somewhat awkward silence, but he couldn’t find words that would suit the dignity of the occasion. He could feel Spock next to him, slightly tensed but completely trusting. Finally, Kirk settled for moving his right hand just enough to cover Spock’s left one. As his palm slid over the back of Spock’s hand, he felt the veins pulsing warmly against his skin. Spock did not move a millimeter, but he cleared his throat.

Wondering, obviously, about human courtship rituals.

The turbolift opened on a darkened corridor. Still clasping Spock’s hand, Kirk stepped out. Spock stopped, looking down at his hand imprisoned in Kirk’s. Kirk watched as the Vulcan raised an eyebrow and then turned his hand over in Kirk’s so that they held hands palm to palm. Strong fingers squeezed Kirk’s.

Kirk smiled and squeezed back. "It’s only two doors down from here. I don’t think anyone will see us, but if you…."

"Your concern is unwarranted, Jim," Spock answered quietly. "I would not be ashamed to be seen holding your hand."

"You’re not concerned about the crew’s reaction? About whether it’s conducive to proper discipline?" Kirk asked as they began to walk again.

Spock shot him one of his half-concealed smiles. "At least half the medical department has seen me holding your hand—-and you mine—on several occasions. A community of four hundred thirty-two people is a very small one. I am quite certain the crew already knows."

"Already knows?"

"How things stand between us."

Kirk glanced up into the dark eyes. Spock looked entirely serious and entirely calm, as though he’d expected this turn of events. Or as though it was completely natural. Shaking his head in wonderment, Kirk drew Spock through the doorway and into the same portside observation lounge he had visited the night before. He drew Spock up before the windows, and together they regarded the starry depths of space.

After a moment, Spock cleared his throat. "The human ritual?"

Kirk, still holding Spock’s hand, shifted to lace their fingers together. "We look at the stars. Maybe we talk. I tell you of my dreams, my hopes, and you tell me yours. But as you pointed out, we’ve already had many such talks. And then…." He lifted his free hand to Spock’s lips, traced two fingertips over them, outlining the graceful bow of the upper lip and the full softness of the lower one. "And then we kiss." Still holding Spock’s hand, he leaned up and forward, expectantly, offering but not demanding.

Spock’s lips descended on his, whisper-light, as though the Vulcan were afraid Kirk was fragile. Or maybe that Kirk’s resolve was fragile.

Kirk freed his other hand and clasped both around Spock’s neck, drawing him in, and pressed his lips firmly to Spock’s. He let them linger there a moment, then he drew back just far enough to speak. "I meant it, Spock. I want to be your…t’hy’la. I want you."

"Jim." Spock’s eyes closed. Then reopened, the irises dark as space. "What made you—"

"Change my mind?" Kirk cleared his throat. "About you, I didn’t. I’ve always felt the closeness between us, and I’ve always known you were…part of me. About the regs, and my own personal philosophy, well, either I just found something I wanted so much that I compromised myself, or…."

He drew back a bit, held Spock by the arms. "Or I realized that if Martine and Tomlinson hadn’t broken the regs, they wouldn’t have had the happiness they did have, however short-lived." He let out a deep breath. "I wrote that letter…to Bobby’s next of kin. Someday someone will probably be writing that letter to my next of kin…and yours." His voice caught on the last word. "I don’t want to die never knowing—never letting you know—I love you."

"Jim," Spock murmured against his lips, the Vulcan’s breath sweet and fever-warm. Long fingers lifted to stroke Kirk’s temples.

"Meld?" Kirk said.

"If you wish it. However, under these circumstances, it might lead to…."

"I know what it could lead to." Kirk chuckled softly. "I got a pretty good idea last night." He moved his hand up over Spock’s shoulder and down over his chest, stroked softly over the swell of one pectoral. "I’m off duty. You’re off duty. We’re well within Federation space by now. I think we could risk a little meld."

"Very well." Spock sought Kirk’s left hand and coaxed him to raise it, palm forward. The Vulcan mated his own right palm to it. Warm tingles began to spread through Kirk’s hand and proceed up his arm. And then Spock moved his hand.

"Ohh!" Kirk’s knees almost buckled as a line of sweet fire arcked up his arm and filled his body. He was instantly hard, his skin sensitized everywhere. His clothes suddenly chafed him, constricted him. "Spock—"

Spock seemed to know what the trouble was. He tugged Kirk’s shirt free of his waistband and slid his hands inside, running his sensitive fingertips over Kirk’s chest, coaxing his nipples to hard points. Kirk had always been sensitive there, but the feeling went beyond any earlier experience, as though he’d suddenly developed extra nerve endings. Or heightened Vulcan senses. He looked a question at Spock.

Spock nodded. "The meld has already begun. It feels different because we have never before melded as lovers."

And then Spock’s thoughts were there, inside Kirk’s head, the impressions blooming like subtle little explosions, each one a puff of joy, a flower bursting into fullness. Spock’s brilliance and precision were clearly etched in Kirk’s mind, along with the tumultuous Vulcan emotions, barely—oh, Kirk ached to realize how barely—restrained by Spock’s will. And right now those emotions were focused powerfully on Kirk. A fine tremor ran through the Vulcan’s body and instantly through Kirk’s as well, and in that moment he read the contents of Spock’s heart: love and desire, inseparable and beautiful.

Kirk heard someone laughing softly, and belatedly realized it was he. This is what I was resisting? This utter beauty is what I wasn’t sure I wanted?

Under Kirk’s fingers, Spock’s lips formed a real smile. We both resisted, until last night. I wasn’t certain that I could be what you needed. That you wished to perform a warrior ritual with me was unexpected. It was…sheer luck…or what humans call a miracle.

So you believe in those, now?

Spock’s arms went around Kirk, a sacred circle of protection. I do indeed.

Let me make love to you. Kirk didn’t need an answer. He could feel Spock’s response as Spock conceived it, and he quickly shrugged out of his shirt and parted the front of Spock’s robe so they could press chest to chest. Spock pulled gently back from the meld, but his thoughts still echoed in Kirk’s: Yes, yes, yes.

They pushed the bench away from the floor-to-ceiling window; Kirk called out for the computer to extinguish the lighting and lock the door. Spock pulled his robe all the way off and spread it over the carpet, inside out. Then Kirk shed the rest of his clothes and they sank down together on the robe, kneeling, facing each other in front of the window, before the stars.

"T’hy’la," Spock breathed, aloud, in Kirk’s ear. "I am yours." He held both hands up and Kirk pressed his to them without hesitation. Tingling started up both his arms. Then Spock slowly began to lean back, keeping his palms mated to Kirk’s, drawing Kirk with him even though they were barely touching, drawing him down until Spock lay flat and Kirk knelt, straddling the lean hips. The Vulcan’s palms under Kirk’s were strong magnets, pulling him in. Come to me.

Kirk draped himself over Spock, his skin alive with tingling everywhere they touched, his cock a bright hard arch of pleasure and maddening need. He felt Spock’s answering need prod his thigh; he shifted so their cocks touched, rubbed, stroked each other. Soft slick fluid spread between them; only a few drops of pre-ejaculate from each, but it was enough to ease the sweet friction. Spock shifted his hands to grip Kirk’s buttocks tightly, grinding their bodies together.

"Another warrior ritual?" Kirk gasped into Spock’s ear.

Spock only nodded and threaded one hand into Kirk’s hair, urging his head down. Kirk lowered his mouth to Spock’s slowly, slowly, drawing the moment out until it almost hurt. When their lips finally touched, the rightness of the feeling flowered into another subtle explosion in Kirk’s consciousness. Of course. We were meant to be.

Kirk plundered the hot mouth, slid his fingers into the silky black hair, stroked one delicately pointed ear. He felt Spock shift his hands back to Kirk’s ass, guiding their thrusts. They struggled together in this new way, remarkably in sync, perfectly in step as they often were when walking together.

"Ah-ah!" Spock moaned under him, and Kirk felt white-hot pleasure surge through Spock even before Spock froze and began to shoot slick fluid onto Kirk’s belly and cock. Kirk found himself at the edge of his own precipice; he began to cascade over, his pleasure doubled and mirrored back by the knowledge that Spock was feeling it with him.

He lay bonelessly on Spock for long, delirious moments. When he finally lifted his head, he found himself gazing into languid dark eyes. He could see pinpricks of light in them—reflections of the stars outside the window.

"So this is what t’hy’la is?" Kirk whispered

"This is only the beginning," Spock said, his voice husky.

Kirk put a hand up to stroke the angular jawline. "For whatever time is granted to us," he said, "I want to learn of t’hy’la with you."

"We will learn together," Spock said. "There can be no other way."

"No prescribed ritual? Doesn’t sound very Vulcan."

Spock shook his head. "Our relationship is ours alone. We shall shape it together."

Kirk thought of the Romulans, and Bobby Tomlinson, and the mysterious Vulcan warriors, and even Starfleet protocols, and he decided ritual could be respected overmuch. It had its place, but sometimes there was no substitute for spontaneous action.

"You’re right—we’ve had enough ritual," he said, seizing Spock’s arms and rolling them both over so that Spock lay on top of him. "I want to be free to explore the possibilities with you."

"Indeed," Spock said. "However, I must confess that I find myself most intrigued by your human ritual called ‘the kiss.’ Will you demonstrate it to me again?"

Kirk did.

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