“Why, Minister! This is…” Charming, was the word Jim had been about to use, but after one proper look at the space they’d just entered, he dismissed it along with the other adjectives that popped into his head. Extravagant might have fit the bill. So would gaudy, bewildering, and, quite possibly, priceless - in more ways than just the literal one. “Begging your pardon, but… what is this, exactly?”
His guide - an imposing, silver-skinned woman introduced to them as the Minister of Culture and Alien Affairs - gave him a startled look. “Why, this is for your crew’s entertainment, of course.” She wagged her head at him; not a negation but this world’s universal gesture for surprise. “I assure you, Captain, we performed a thorough screening of the information we received, aiming for maximum authenticity. Is the dining room not to your satisfaction?”
Jim blinked, taking another look at their surroundings. What the lady had called a ‘dining room’ looked more like a small cathedral to him, with a forest squeezed into it for good measure. The species was one he’d never seen before, though they made him think of very plump Joshua trees; not brown or green, but a purple so dark it was almost black. Woven through the branches was a sort of thin ribbon, luminescent and vaguely organic-looking. More silver and gold ribbons hung from the ceiling, and whole patches of floor were covered with tiny candles. Now that he was looking for it, he could see an assortment of chairs and tables up ahead, almost hidden from view behind a cluster of trees.
The Minister was still watching him closely - looking for signs of disapproval, Jim guessed, and hurried to reassure her. “Oh, no, this is more than adequate! I can’t remember the last time the crew got to dine in this kind of luxury… but I think I missed something. What did you say you based these decorations on? I can’t remember being asked to -”
“Ah.” A relieved smile. “My apologies, Captain. One of your crew graciously provided us with instructions. We thought you had been informed, so…” She tilted her head to the side, just a fraction of a second before Jim heard it too: the excited murmur of voices, echoing from the corridor behind them. “But I believe your people have returned from their tour! One moment, Captain, we will clear this up instantly.”
Sure enough, groups of crewmen were already drifting in, breaking off their conversations to absorb the decor with varying degrees of bewilderment. McCoy was one of the last to saunter in, followed on his heels by Spock.
“Doctor McCoy!” the Minister called, just at the same time that McCoy sputtered, “Holy Mary, mother of…” and then broke into a grin almost too wide for his face to contain.
“Bones?” Jim said, puzzled. Then, seeing a matching smile spread across their host’s features, “I… take it you two have met?”
“‘Course we have,” McCoy drawled, radiating Southern charm. “And may I say, Ma’am, I’m impressed. I realize the specifications we provided were a bit sketchy, but you did a marvelous job with them. In fact I think this is just what the doctor ordered - wouldn’t you agree, Captain?”
Jim, who’d gotten stuck somewhere around ‘specifications we provided’, threw McCoy a suspicious look. “Wait a minute. Are you the one who put our hosts up to do…” He gestured at the extravaganza of candles and ribbons and trees. “… this?”
“Yup,” McCoy said, rocking on his heels. “Well, I didn’t order 'em to do it. You know they offered to throw us a dinner party, and apparently they’re used to seeing things big around here, because they said they could decorate this place any way we wanted; whatever I felt might lift the crew’s spirits. It’s mid-December back on Earth, so I thought: why not Christmas?”
“Christmas? But…” Jim glanced helplessly at the Minister, not wanting to say anything that might be construed as lack of gratitude, let alone an insult. He watched her eyes widen as she grasped his dilemma.
“If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen," she said, not missing a beat. “There are some final arrangements that need my attention. I remain, of course, at your disposal should you require it.” A bow to him and a last, almost coy smile at McCoy, and then she slipped through the crowd and was gone.
When Jim turned back, Spock had appeared at McCoy’s shoulder - probably drawn in by what had looked like the start of an argument, even if Jim hadn’t meant it that way. He still gave McCoy his best skeptical glare. “Bones, I… Christmas?”
McCoy shrugged. “I think the crew will enjoy a taste of home, no matter how vague the resemblance. We’ve been away from Earth for an awfully long time, Jim.”
Hard to argue with that, of course. If the crew felt homesick, then undoubtedly the ship’s doctor was in a better position to notice than the captain, but… Well, there were times when Jim preferred not to be reminded of Earth, and this happened to be one of them. He doubted he was the only one, too. “I accept your diagnosis, Doctor, but I’m not convinced about the cure. This isn’t home, and it’s hardly Christmas either - nor a decent likeness, if you ask me. Even if it was, you know as well as I do that two thirds of the crew don’t celebrate.”
“Including you?” McCoy said, his frown deepening. “Your mother's Jewish, right? I know you aren't observant, but…”
“I'm not. My brother was, up to a point. I… think maybe Peter still is, but he’s barely a teenager, so I’m not sure.” Jim paused, then elaborated, “My brother’s son. We pulled him off of Deneva when…”
“Yeah, I remember, Jim.” McCoy’s voice wasn’t pitying, exactly, but gentle enough that Jim felt his cheeks flush anyway. “And I know most people on the Enterprise don’t care much about religious celebrations, which is why I didn’t give our hosts any hard data to work with. I just painted them a vague picture about a fine meal and candles and decorated trees, and let them fill in the rest. So you’re right: this isn’t Christmas, or Hannukah or anything else. It’s an alien’s best effort based on a half-assed description, meaning the resemblance should be vague enough that no one’s likely to feel offended or left out. I figure it’ll still be enough to leave the crew with a warm, festive glow.”
That… made a fair amount of sense, admittedly, and Jim was about to concede the point when Spock cut in. “I can confirm the Doctor’s version of events, Captain. I was there when he spoke with the Minister’s staff. At the time I did not understand his reasoning, but now I am beginning to see the logic behind it.”
Jim rubbed the bridge of his nose, shutting out Bones’ exaggerated grunt of surprise. “Yes, of course, Mr. Spock. I’m sorry, Bones. Sometimes I forget that…”
“… every once in a while, I happen to know what I’m doing?” McCoy reached over and patted his arm. “No harm done, Jim. You’re tired; most of us are. Just - at least try to roll with this, won’t you? A hot meal, some wine or the local equivalent, candlelight and pleasant company… Who knows, it might be just what you need to relax. Doctor’s orders, you hear?”
About half an hour and an elaborate first course later, Jim was forced to admit Bones might have been right. He’d sampled some of the local wine - it reminded him of mead, but with a nice, sharp tang to it - and the food, while not very recognizable, still tasted far better than the replicated stuff. At some point, it had actually started snowing: little specks drifted down from the ceiling, sprinkling their uniforms with silvery fluff that took ages to melt despite the comfortable temperatures. Beside him, Spock’s hair was covered with it, miniature clouds coming off of him every time he moved his head, and McCoy hadn’t fared much better. Across from them, Uhura and Scotty were chatting, the flush in Scotty’s face probably due to more than alcohol, and Chapel was debating with Sulu on whether or not to try one of the local specialties.
“Well, I’m sure they mentioned it was safe to eat,” Christine was saying, gesturing at a bowl of what looked like small, yellow snakes. “They just said it might have some… what was it again?”
“‘Interesting side-effects’.” Sulu made a face. “Sorry, Doc, but I’m not touching it. I’m not averse to risk, in general, but when it comes to food, I like to play it safe. Suppose it’s an alien aphrodisiac or something…”
Jim couldn’t help grinning. “Wouldn’t be the first time, Mr. Sulu. Hell, it probably won’t be the last.” He tried to gauge his crew’s expressions, wondering if any of them were feeling adventurous. Christine looked closest to risking it, but… Ah, forget it. In an impulse, Jim dipped his hand into the bowl, then, before he could change his mind, stuffed one of the critters into his mouth.
The crunch when he bit down was loud enough to turn heads. Sulu gave him a look of mixed revulsion and amusement; Uhura and Scotty stopped talking to stare, and next to Scotty, McCoy was already rolling his eyes. “Oh, for God’s sake, Jim, does it always have to be you?”
“I…” Jim shuddered, chewed, struggled to swallow. “I didn’t hear you volunteer, Bones.” It wasn’t that the taste was bad, exactly, but there was still something off about it, sweet and with a faint hint of decay. “Besides, wasn’t it you who told me to just ‘roll with it’?” He swallowed again, willing his stomach to cooperate.
“First impression, Captain?” Uhura smiled sweetly, like she’d read every thought that had just passed through his mind. “What about those side effects they mentioned? You think it’s safe for the rest of us to try?”
Jim shrugged noncommittally. Was he sweating? It had been warm here before, but it seemed decidedly hotter now. Beside him, Spock shifted in his seat, probably to keep a closer eye on him, and Bones’ eyes were practically popping out of his skull. Jim didn’t usually mind being the center of attention, but at the moment, the scrutiny wasn’t helping his nausea at all.
“Not exactly traditional fare, innit, Cap’n?” Scotty threw him a sympathetic look. “Still, got t' love what they did with th’ place. Nothin’ above a bit of Christmas cheer to make a person feel at home, aye?”
Jim started to nod, grateful for the attempt at distraction - and then the world blurred as dizziness swept over him.
Dimly, he was aware of his mouth opening, a string of muttered words coming out, but he couldn’t tell what they were until he saw his crew’s faces, caught halfway between concern and disbelief.
“Keptin,” Chekov said slowly. “Did you say -”
“I said I hate the holidays.” Jim’s voice sounded not just raw but bitter, like it hadn't come from his own mouth at all. “Nothing but wasted memories and longing for things that are already gone.” This time he could hear himself say it, realized at some level it wasn’t a lie… but he’d never say a thing like that for all the crew to hear. Except, for some reason, that was exactly what he’d just done.
“Jim…” McCoy said, looking more worried than affronted. “That’s being a bit harsh, isn’t it? You feeling alright?”
Jim tried for a grin, started to say I’m fine, but something in his chest clenched before he could manage. What came out instead was a strangled “No… I’m not.” Jim pressed the nails of his fingers into his palms. Damn it, what was wrong with him? “I think…” he mumbled, “I’m starting to get an idea of what those side effects are.” At least he could still form a coherent sentence; it seemed it was only certain statements that his brain was determined to override.
“You’re not looking too good, Jim.” Bones started to reach for his medkit. “Here, let me…”
“Please put that away, Bones.” He couldn’t add I’ll be all right, because whatever alien substance was trickling through his veins apparently wouldn’t let him. “Just… let me go stretch my legs for a bit. If this gets any worse, I’ll call you, and then you can scold me for not heeding the dietary warnings.” He pushed back his chair to get up, not really surprised when McCoy followed suit.
“Now, wait a minute. If you think I'm letting you go out there alone, knowing you might be having God-knows-what reaction to that thing you just gulped down…”
“I will accompany the Captain.” Spock was already on his feet, like he’d been poised to the entire time. “Would that be an acceptable compromise, Doctor?” McCoy muttered something inaudible, then, after a long moment, gave a grudging nod and sagged back into his seat.
Jim was already moving, not trusting himself to say anything else before he was safely out of earshot from the crew. There was a small patch of trees maybe fifty meters ahead, and he didn’t relax until both him and Spock had passed behind it.
“Captain…” Spock caught Jim’s arm when he stumbled, helping him lean against one of the trees. It was surprisingly sturdy, its surface soft like moss, but with a harder core underneath. “There is a bench a short distance away. It will be more comfortable. Do you need assistance?”
Ah, damn. Leave it to Spock not to ask if he wanted help - the reply to which was an emphatic negative - but if he needed it, which wasn’t at all the same. Still, Jim made himself think no, no, no, repeating it in his head like a mantra, until he opened his mouth and ended up choking out, “Yes.”
Spock blinked, as if he hadn’t expected that answer any more than Jim had intended to give it. Recovering quickly, he tugged at Jim’s arm. “Here, Captain. Allow me -”
Jim put up a hand, waving Spock off so he could make his own way towards the bench. His body felt clumsy and sluggish, and there was still the unnerving sensation that his mind wasn’t entirely his own. But something was starting to dawn on him, and it hardly made sense to keep it from Spock. “I… may know what’s happening to me. That thing I ate…” He swallowed. “I’m guessing that, on humans, it has the effect of a… a truth drug. Could be natural, or maybe the food was dosed with it, I don’t know.”
Spock frowned. “You mean - you are currently unable to lie?”
“Not just that, but I think my brain’s trying to get me to spout truths even when I don’t want to. Hence the, ah… unfortunate outburst in front of the crew.” Jim picked his way across the candle-strewn floor, sat down on the low bench with a sigh of relief. “That’s better. Frankly, fighting this thing is damn exhausting.”
“Whatever substance you ingested must be affecting your neural pathways, causing discomfort when you attempt to resist.” Spock raised a speculative eyebrow. “I would theorize that the best option, then, is not to offer resistance.”
Jim had to smile in spite of himself. “Yes, Mr. Spock, you’re undoubtedly right. It’s just… some instincts are hard to shake.”
“Like claiming one is fine, despite the fact that one isn't?” Spock hadn’t moved a muscle, but Jim could recognize a subtle rebuke when he heard it.
“Yes, Mr. Spock. Like that one.” Jim resisted the temptation to rub his eyes, try to chase away the lingering vertigo. He patted the surface of the bench instead. “Why don’t you have a seat? Riding this out might take a while. I’ll try not to say anything embarrassing if you don't ask any trick questions, all right?”
If Spock was tempted to react to that, he apparently thought better of it. Instead he sat down, a little stiffly, then pointed at one of the brightly lit trees. “Fascinating. There is no obvious energy source in these decorations. Bioluminescence, perhaps?”
Jim nodded, recognizing Spock’s version of small talk and latching on gratefully. "Could be. Whatever it is, they sure went through a great deal of trouble to make us feel at home here.” A shudder ran through him. "Pity it didn't work on me.” Jim bit his lip, more dizziness washing over him as he tried, too late, to take that back. “God damn it…”
Spock’s eyes narrowed in concern. “Forgive me, Captain. I was merely trying to make conversation. If you wish me to stop, or leave you to your privacy…”
“It’s all right,” Jim muttered, not even sure that he meant it until he’d managed to get the words out. But this was Spock he was talking to, and Spock would never think less of him for something outside of his control. Maybe Spock was right, and he should just stop fighting this; it wasn’t doing him much good anyway. “I’m fine with conversation if you are. As long as the worst symptom is me brooding over an alien Christmas party, I expect my dignity will survive.”
Spock cleared his throat. "I must confess that I, too, have a - shall we say, ambiguous relationship with Earth holidays.” Jim turned his head, surprised. "My mother continued to observe certain rituals, even after moving to Vulcan. I never inquired as to her motivations, but… it seems my human half still responds to the symbolism, and I am uncertain whether to be unnerved or comforted by it.”
“It’s not wrong to be both,” Jim said. Hearing Spock’s thoughts had been enough to help ground him, which, knowing Spock, might have been the point. “I’m pretty sure I’m both, too. Not many people know this, but… you’re not the only one to have had a rocky history with their parents.” Jim couldn’t tell anymore if that was the drug talking or not; just that holding back had been taking more and more out of him. “It didn’t help that my father was off-world so often. Easy to rebel against an authority who’s never around to make good on his promises, after all.” Obviously there'd been more to it than that - his father's perfectionism, for one, and of course Tarsus was in a category all by itself - but Jim would happily chew off his tongue before mentioning that to Spock right now.
Spock’s head dipped down. “I… was not aware.”
Jim shrugged faintly. “We did mend our bridges after he retired. For a few years, I tried to visit for the holidays, at least, and so did my brother and his family. Then Sam and Aurelan were killed when those creatures attacked Deneva, and… we haven't spoken much since. I can't shake the feeling they blame me for Sam's death, though they never actually said so. Wouldn’t fault them for it, either. Hell, I still blame me, even knowing there was nothing we could have done. And Sam… he was always the one to look for compromises. Without him…” He swallowed. “I just… I’ve always felt certain traditions are meant for families. I suppose I don’t like to be reminded of how broken mine is.”
“I see.” Sitting shoulder to shoulder as they were, it was impossible to read Spock’s expression. “Understandable, of course. Although, I believe… there is an error in your reasoning.”
Jim frowned. “What kind of error?”
“You claim your family is broken… yet there is a part of your family you may have overlooked.” Jim followed Spock’s gaze towards a small copse of trees - the one that hid the Enterprise crew from view. “They care, Jim.” Spock’s voice was as gentle as Jim had ever heard it. “I know you feel it is your duty to look out for them, and not the other way around. But I do not think they could bear to see you lonely, or in pain.” Unexpectedly, Spock’s fingers brushed his wrist.
Clasping Spock’s hand was more impulse than anything, their shoulders touching as Jim leaned in. Warmth pooled inside him, seeping into his belly and chest, and for a moment, there was nothing he wanted more than to feel Spock’s arms around him, regulations and chain of command be damned. It wasn’t the first time he’d ever had that thought, but it was the first time - and, damn, that had to be the drug talking - he was actually tempted to say it out loud.
“Jim…” Spock said softly. “I am well aware of the burden of command, but that does not mean you must bear it alone. If there is something I can do, something you require of me… there is no need to hold back from asking. Not for my sake.”
Jim squeezed his eyes shut, tried to anchor himself by the feel of Spock’s hand in his own. He should have realized this was bound to happen, from the second he'd felt the effect of that damn alien dish and let Spock - Spock, of all people - watch him react to it. But maybe this could still be a good thing. Clearly Jim wasn’t himself right now, so Spock would never blame him for anything he said, however outrageous… and however true.
“Spock, I…” Dear God, he really was going to say this; now that he’d started, there was no way his drug-fueled brain would let him pedal back. “I think…” Jim forced himself to meet Spock’s eyes. “What I would like very much, is… to be able to kiss you.”
A cascade of emotions tumbled across Spock’s face: shock, disbelief, followed by the sudden, stunned realization that, whatever this was, the one thing it couldn’t be was a lie. All of it lasted maybe two seconds; then Spock’s expression closed down, and he pulled back his hand. “Perhaps… I should not have been the one to accompany you,” he said, his jaw taut with effort. “I do not know if…”
“I understand,” Jim muttered, not sure he could bear to hear the rest, or control his own reaction if he did. But of course he understood. Spock was his friend, and Jim had just cheapened that friendship, or at least complicated it in a way that might be irreversible. Even if he wasn't in control of himself, his feelings were still his own, and so was the responsibility. “I’m not asking you to stay if you don't want to. Just… don’t tell the crew…”
“Jim.” For Spock to interrupt anyone was so rare that Jim’s mouth snapped shut instinctively. “Please do not misunderstand me. I say that my presence here may have been a mistake, not because I am shocked or repulsed by your feelings, but because…” Spock trailed off, letting out a breath that wasn’t quite steady. “… you are not the only one to have experienced them.”
Jim stiffened, certain he hadn’t heard that right. “What -”
“You aren’t yourself, however,” Spock went on. “Therefore, it would not be ethical to agree to your request, knowing I cannot be trusted to protect your interests in a situation where I am not impartial and, under normal circumstances, would never…”
“Whoa, whoa. Spock… slow down.” Jim’s hand slid up Spock’s arm again, as much to steady himself as to get the flood of words to stop. “Break this down for me, will you? What is it you’re trying to say?”
“I believe, in essence, what it comes down to…” Spock straightened, his throat working, “is that, although I know it cannot be wise… I would very much like to kiss you as well.”
If it had been anyone else, in any other circumstance, Jim might have laughed, or cracked a joke, just to cover his surprise. But Spock looked deadly serious, and for a moment Jim couldn’t think of a single thing to say. It wasn’t that he’d never imagined this moment; just not without an accompanying slew of arguments convincing himself it would be a terrible idea. Regulations aside, it wasn't fair to the rest of the crew, and his crew had to come first, or he didn’t deserve them. But then, he’d always assumed Spock wouldn’t reciprocate, had been trying for years to live with that by telling himself he wanted the impossible. Knowing Spock wanted it too… that had to make a difference, didn’t it?
“All right.” Jim tried to capture the tone of command, didn’t quite manage it. “Two things, Spock. One, there’s no need for you to protect any interests other than your own. I’ve been drugged, possessed, mind-controlled and duplicated often enough over the past few years to know that I’m still in my right mind; I promise you my judgment isn’t affected. Two…” He pressed his lips together. “I’ve never believed in fate, but sometimes, when life hands you an opportunity…”
“… it would be a waste not to at least consider taking it,” Spock said. Something tugged at his lips that wasn’t exactly a smile, but close enough that Jim felt the corners of his own mouth tremble. He could actually see Spock's resistance crumbling, the tension falling away when he met Jim's eyes. “Very well. In that case… I will defer to your best judgment.” Which was as close to a simple ‘I trust you’ as Spock had ever come, and enough to clear all doubt from Jim's mind.
He’d touched Spock’s face before, of course. Not as often as Spock had touched him, counting all the mind-melds throughout the years, but then, none of those times had been quite like this one. Jim kept his movements slow, deliberate: cupping Spock’s cheeks between his hands, thumbs sliding across Spock’s chin and up towards the little hollow below his cheekbones. Spock’s skin was smooth, but not impossibly so; he felt warm and alive and real, and Jim brushed a finger across the delicate tip of an ear, smiling as Spock’s eyes widened slightly.
It was Spock who closed the last few inches between them, arms wrapping around Jim’s waist and pulling him in. Jim made a low noise of surprise and encouragement, his eyes fluttering shut when Spock’s lips brushed his own. Then their mouths pressed together, Spock’s palm digging into the small of his back, and for the next couple of moments, Jim couldn’t quite remember how to breathe.
When they broke apart, he almost felt like himself again, the alien drug’s lingering sense of wrongness replaced by a deep, blissful calm. Jim gulped down a breath, wondering if his instincts were right. “Why, Mr. Spock…” he muttered. “I was expecting one of the most amazing kisses in my life, but it seems I was wrong.”
“Captain?” Spock’s brow creased, and just for a second, he actually looked like he believed it. Then Jim snorted with suppressed laughter, and understanding dawned in Spock’s face. “The effects of the truth drug… they have passed.” He squeezed Jim’s shoulder. “You’re all right?”
Jim thought about it. “Still a bit shaky, but… yes, I think I am. Maybe I just had to get this out of my system, who knows.” The relief that filled him was almost euphoric, and Jim let himself lean against Spock’s side, the two of them a silent island amid an ocean of flickering lights. There was something faintly dreamlike about it all: not just the ethereal atmosphere of their surroundings, but the heady post-adrenaline rush that came after risking something forbidden. “How about you? You’re not regretting this already?”
Spock’s smile was tight-lipped but genuine. “Not at this time. Although… if Doctor McCoy ever learns what transpired here, we may both have ample cause for regret.”
"Ah. True.” Better not think about that; knowing Bones, he’d never let them live it down. “Well, I suppose we’ll cross that bridge if we ever get to it.”
Spock nodded slowly. “The rest of the crew…?”
“… won’t know unless we tell them. No need to make hasty decisions, or change anything if we don’t want to.” Did he want things to change? That was a tough question, and one Jim didn’t trust himself to answer yet. All he knew was, here and now, he was happy, and part of him wouldn’t mind staying here with Spock instead of going back to the others… but that, too, would be less than his crew deserved. “I suppose we should rejoin the celebration, before Bones gets antsy and comes looking for us.” Jim mustered a smile. “Whatever happens next, we can figure it out… later.”
“Later,” Spock echoed. "I suppose that would be best. Though, in that case, before we return… if I may I have your permission…” His voice wavered slightly, the hand on Jim’s cheek finishing the question.
“Permission granted,” Jim murmured, and lifted his head for Spock to kiss him again.