He went for his annual checkup without a single complaint. That's how bad it was.
It turned out that going from having someone touch him whenever he wanted to being outright untouchable was a shock to the system. He knew no one hugged him or put an arm around him in deference to his station, but that didn't make the situation any easier. What good was respect, he often wondered, if it meant everyone had to keep their distance?
The invisible bubble around him was starving him slowly, made all the more solid by their recent stressful encounter with Klingon 'renegades.' The ship was damaged, the lithium crystals almost shorted out, and they were limping toward a safe harbor that was still a week away. No one wanted to suggest that Jim was vulnerable during times like this with so much as a supportive pat on the back. So these days he went for hours feeling unanchored, not quite real. He encased himself in pillows at night, and developed a habit of leaning on the ship's bulkheads and drumming his fingers on the arms of the captain's chair, simply to remind himself of his own physical existence.
So when McCoy looked him over, briefly manipulating his limbs to check his muscles and joints, Jim felt more like himself than he had in a month. It was over far too soon. McCoy clapped him on the shoulder to signal he was done, and Jim wished that hand had rested there for a second, just one more second of human contact.
He wallowed for a minute on the exam table, staring blankly up at the ceiling as McCoy went to put away his instruments. "So what's eating you, Jim?"
"What do you mean?"
"Never seen you so cooperative," came the grumbled response.
Jim lifted his head to study McCoy from across the room, who was looking at him with a vague suspicion. He knew Bones would hug him if he asked for it. Almost immediately he imagined what it would feel like to have someone's arms around him, the warmth and strength of another body reassuring him that he was cared for, or hell, that he was even there.
But he didn't want to burden his friend or make him feel awkward. Bones wasn't a touchy kind of person, or at least, he did a good job of hiding it if he was. Sure, he would do it, but the whole affair would be uncomfortable and reluctant. It was getting close to the big divorce anniversary anyway, and McCoy was especially prickly, his attitude screaming through his professionalism that all he really wanted was to be left alone.
So Jim clenched his fingers into his palm and lied through his teeth. "I'm just tired. Didn't feel like hearing you nag me about this." He was glad he could get a half-hearted snicker out of McCoy. At least one of them benefited from the exam.
He returned to duty, more anxious than he had been before his appointment, his desire for touch made all the worse for having received such a small, impersonal amount. He forced himself to return the greetings he got from the bridge crew before he settled into his chair and watched the stars pass by, trundling along rather than zooming like they should have been. He slipped into a blank haze, and the emptiness of space seemed like it was opening up to swallow him whole.
His eyes wandered to the navigators' stations, and when they fell on the back of Sulu's head, he was floored by a powerful memory. The wind tore past his face as they hurtled together through the empty air, spiraling out of control. Now he could barely recall the fear; instead he only remembered Sulu clinging to him tighter than anyone had before, literally for dear life. He remembered how grateful he was that he wouldn't be alone when he died right before they slammed onto the transporter pad.
Jim pulled himself out of the strange daydream with a faint shake of his head. Craving medical exams and near-death situations for such a stupid reason did not bode well for his sanity.
Neither did the overhead lights flickering, or the vacuum-like whoosh of a power surge. That was all the warning they had before the bridge were plunged into an eerie, quiet darkness. A few people gasped, and somewhere to his left, Sulu moaned "Not again!"
Jim let his head fall into his palm, a visible sign of frustration that he was free to express when no one could see. The third outage in as many days, but this time they had no lights at all.
"Where's emergency power?" he demanded, to whom, he didn't particularly care.
"Inactive, apparently," Spock's steady voice floated over his shoulder. "I assume the backup systems are malfunctioning."
"I thought Mr. Scott said the crystals would last until we hit Starbase thirty-two."
"He was right. I saw zhem myself. Zhe damage should not be so extensive," Chekov offered.
Jim heaved a sigh. "I don't suppose anyone has a tricorder? Portable scanner? PADD?" A few quiet 'no sir's drifted out from all directions, and Jim bit back an oath. Every five minutes there was an ensign bugging him to sign something, so of course they all chose this particular shift to stop hovering. "What about the emergency supplies?" One of the bridge ensigns apologized and started fumbling at her station behind him.
"Um, zhe flashlight is not zhere, sir," Chekov said, and the rummaging noises trailed off. "Zhere was a party last week, and we may haff been drinking, and we wanted to tell scary stories, you see–"
"Ensign, I suggest you stop right there if you enjoy your job," Jim snapped. "Uhura, get me engineering." Communications had its own separate backup system. God only knew what it meant that Scotty hadn't used it to report in yet.
"I can't, sir." Uhura said after an oddly tense moment, her voice steeped in concern. "I have power, but I can't hail anyone past C deck. Something must have happened to a junction box along the way."
"Captain, perhaps we should go check on engineering in person," Spock suggested.
"How?" Jim spun his chair around and squinted in the general vicinity of Spock's station. "You can't see anything, can you?"
"No, but my superior hearing allows me to construct a crude sense of my surroundings."
Jim nodded before he remembered that wasn't a good response under the circumstances. "All right. Let's go then." He stood up, reached out for the railing behind his chair, and carefully climbed the steps to the upper level of the bridge. "Turbolift shaft or service conduit?" One was dangerous considering that power might be restored any minute, the other uncomfortably cramped.
Spock, as usual, aired on the side of caution. "I recommend the latter, captain."
"Then that's the plan." Jim felt the faint caress of air on his cheek as Spock passed him to find the correct panel, and for some reason, it made him shudder. He turned toward Uhura's approximate direction. "Lieutenant, you're in charge. If we're not back in an hour… hell, I have no idea. Good luck."
She chuckled a little, more nervously than anything else. "Yes, sir. And be careful, both of you." Nice of her to say, but kind words had become meaningless to Jim. He couldn't pinpoint when that particular issue had started, but it was probably around the same time everyone started to avoid the space around him.
"I'm here." Jim approached the sound of Spock's faintly echoing voice, arms out to feel his way, and realized he might have to touch Spock to figure out where he was. He groaned inwardly; things were getting really bad when he would welcome touching Spock. His first officer had his own bubble, entirely voluntary, and Jim was not keen on intruding.
Fortunately by the time he found the square hole of the conduit with his fingertips, Spock had already lowered himself down onto the ladder. Jim followed, waving each foot as he searched for the rungs, trying not to think about the long fall beneath him. He didn't have a problem with heights, but somehow not being able to gauge exactly how dead he would be if he slipped was unnerving. To make matters worse, the darkness and narrowness of the conduit seemed to concentrate the hollow feeling inside of him to a sharp point in his chest, and he had to remind himself to breathe.
He focused on the metallic scuff of their boots against the rungs, and after about a minute's climb, Spock announced they had reached the correct deck. Too relieved to think, Jim clamored down the second he was sure Spock had vacated the bottom of the ladder. Only when his boots hit the deck did he realize this was a bad idea.
The conduit was too small to fit both of them comfortably. They were stuck in close quarters as they searched for the exit panel, Spock shoved up against him. "Sorry," Jim muttered. "I thought it widened out down here."
"It does not." Spock said unnecessarily, and Jim flinched at the terse tone. But when he tried to move, Spock's body trapped him against the wall, a solid, shifting weight. It felt wonderful, even beneath the sickening burst of embarrassment. Spock was firm, and faintly cool, and even though Jim tried to recoil and give them more room, his entire body ached as it came alive for the first time in a very long time.
He was both miserable and relieved when he heard the click of a latch and Spock moved away from him, out into the hall. Jim leaned against the wall of the conduit for a second or two, grasping in vain for the sense of self that had latched onto Spock and was now stretched to the breaking point. He took a few deep breaths and recovered enough to feel his way out of the conduit.
They shuffled down the dark corridors in silence for awhile, relying on sheer familiarity to guide them. Jim knew the ship just as well as Spock, but he wasn't too sharp on exact distances, and he found himself passing junctions, or trying to turn a little soon and running into walls. It didn't help that he was distracted by the fading echoes of Spock's unintentional touch. After his third minor accident, Spock implored him to stop.
"Put your hand on my shoulder, Captain," he said. "I will lead."
Less than eager to bump his nose on a bulkhead again, Jim carefully stretched out his hand, found the fabric of Spock's shirt, and patted his way up to a shoulder. The muscles there shifted under his palm, and he tightened his grip as they started moving again, impossibly thankful that he was allowed to notice such a subtle thing on another person. The ship felt cavernous and empty around him, but that fragile link between himself and Spock kept him from getting lost in the void. They continued this way for about twenty seconds when Spock stopped abruptly.
"Are you well?"
The fact that Spock had even asked such a question made Jim's heart ache with gratitude, even if he couldn't give a truthful answer. "Sure, Spock," he said. "Why do you ask?"
He thought Spock would refer to the Klingon incident, or the stress of their current situation. These assumptions left him completely unprepared for what Spock actually said. "Whenever I touch you, I sense… an intense need."
Oh no, Jim thought, and snatched his hand off Spock's shoulder. Absolutely not. He was not having this conversation with his first officer, let alone his Vulcan first officer. He was not going to break into displays of absurd human emotionalism in front of Spock. "Why are you poking around in my head?" he demanded, failing to keep his voice steady.
"I am not. The emotion is so strong I have little choice but to take notice."
"Oh," Jim said, suddenly guilty. "Sorry about that. It's… it's nothing."
"Captain, if your mental state is compromised–"
"I'm not compromised, and it's not important. Let's keep going." He tried to step around Spock and carry on, despite having lost his sense of direction. He was glad the darkness obscured his anxious frown and the sweat beading on his forehead.
When Spock's hand bumped into his wrist, right beneath the sleeve, Jim moaned. Not a sexual moan, but a desperate one all the same, half-whimpered, forcing itself from his throat like his body was fed up and determined to alert the world to his distress. He froze on the spot, physically unable to take one more step.
"Jim…" Spock murmured, his voice low with awe. He didn't let his hand drop, but rather, trailed it slowly and deliberately up along Jim's arm. Jim didn't have the presence of mind to object. Every square centimeter of him begged to lean into Spock, wanted to fit into the small piece of his person that was privy to the gentle contact. "You require touch," Spock stated, and there was a hesitation in his voice that Jim rarely heard.
"I don't require anything," Jim protested, but he still couldn't move away.
Then Spock stepped in front of him, and hands gently gripped his upper arms, drawing him through the darkness. He knew what was happening, he just couldn't believe it, and so he braced himself against that insistent tug.
"Spock, wait. You don't… you don't have to…" he said weakly.
"I am doing nothing against my will."
At that point, any thoughts of dignity or rank were thrown as far away from Jim's mind as Starbase thirty-two. He stopped fighting and let his muscles go slack, and he was pressed against Spock, folded into a strong embrace. He brought his arms up to wrap them around Spock, squeezing automatically, pushing his palms into Spock's back. Spock's grasp tightened in return, a slow massage of pressure that spread all the way down his spine.
For the first time in weeks, Jim wasn't a disembodied voice barking out orders, but a person with skin and bones and sensory neurons that needed to be fired up on a regular basis. Those neurons were overloaded now, waves of warmth sweeping out from every place their bodies were in contact to the very core of him. He wanted to be closer than what the laws of physics permitted, wanted to melt into Spock until there was no part of them that wasn't connected.
"Humans evolved as a tactile species." Spock said somewhere close to Jim's ear, breath stirring his hair. "There is no shame in this."
"Mmm." Jim couldn't speak. He was blissfully happy, so happy he could have cried at the slightest provocation. All Spock would have to do was say something along the lines of 'you are an adequate captain,' and the waterworks would have overflowed like he was a teenage girl watching some godawful romance movie. But Spock didn't say anything, only held him, and Jim just sank into that essential sensation of being compressed against another person, surrounded by them.
For a few strange seconds, he wanted to say he missed this, but that didn't make any sense. It wasn't like this happened often between him and Spock. Or at all. Although now he couldn't shake the feeling that maybe it should.
His eyes were closed, so the only thing that alerted him to someone approaching them was footsteps. Strangely, Spock didn't seem to notice, and Jim was torn between breaking the embrace or simply doubting his own senses. He was forced to go with the first option when a faint light appeared at the end of the hallway.
"Captain?" Spock sounded a little dazed, like he wasn't all there.
"Captain?" Another voice said at almost the exact same moment. "Mr. Spock?"
Jim turned around to see Nurse Chapel about six meters away, her face lit by a medical scanner. She looked almost angelic, the only illuminated thing they had seen in what felt like hours, but Jim couldn't suppress the irrational annoyance that bubbled up at the disruption.
Chapel explained that she had been leading people back to their quarters to wait out the mess, trying to keep everyone calm. She took Jim and Spock to sickbay to give them a spare scanner.
After that chance encounter, they made their way to engineering without further incident, their path laid out by the faint blue light of the scanner. Jim struggled to keep up with the brisk pace Spock set, mainly because he couldn't take his eyes of his first officer. He still couldn't wrap his head around what had taken place between them, couldn't help suspecting he hallucinated the whole thing. Even so, he kept wondering what that stoic face had looked like when they embraced. He wanted to say something, but the words caught in his throat.
Scotty was apologetic, and more flustered than Jim had ever seen him when they arrived at their destination. While he discussed collapsing crystal matrices and microscopic flaws with Spock, one of his ensigns helped Jim jury-rig a few flashlights out of spare parts. Jim almost started humming as they worked, barely catching himself before the idle songs in his head escaped to the air. He felt as refreshed as if he'd jumped into a cold pool after a perfect, lazy nap.
Spock signaled the technical chat was over by touching him on the arm. In that moment, Jim knew for sure the hallway incident wasn't his imagination.
That knowledge didn't prepare him for Spock showing up at his quarters later that night.
Despite his exhaustion, Jim wasn't looking forward to going to sleep, not when the ship was so dead quiet around him. Scotty estimated a twelve hour repair, which in Scotty-speak was more like six hours, but even so, nothing would be back online before early morning. Jim dressed for bed anyway, and was starting to settle under the covers for a long and difficult night when there was a knock at the door.
Jim switched on his flashlight and prompted the visitor to enter once he announced himself. Spock stepped beyond the threshold just enough to close the door again and stood there in a set of gray flannel pajamas. Jim hadn't known what to expect, but it definitely wasn't this.
"Mr. Spock," he said, careful to keep the flashlight beam pointed down.
"Jim." Spock nodded.
The use of his name meant this wasn't official business. Jim propped himself up against the headboard and crossed his arms, vaguely self-conscious in nothing but his sleep pants. "What brings you here?"
"A query, and perhaps an offer." Spock stared at the floor. "Do you still require physical contact?"
Jim swallowed and pulled off what was probably a fantastic deer in headlights impression. Every impulse screamed at him to say yes, even though he wasn't sure what Spock had in mind. He had come down from the high of the embrace a few hours ago, and while it revived him from his zombie-like stupor, it wasn't enough to make up for the past few weeks of isolation.
"I'm thankful for what you did earlier," he began, and hesitated. "Honestly, I could use some more. But Spock, it's not your responsibility to, uh, offer."
"It is my responsibility as your friend to ensure your well-being," Spock said, like it was the most rational thing in the world.
Jim shook his head. "No, see, it doesn't work like that. You can't ignore your own comfort because I want something."
"Has it occurred to you I would do no such thing?" Spock frowned minutely and took a few steps closer to the bed, and Jim realized then what he was proposing was something a bit more intimate than another hug.
"But I thought Vulcans aren't… I mean, Vulcans don't…" Jim sputtered.
Spock stopped almost at his bedside and peered at him expectantly.
"Well let's face it, you're not exactly in the running for the most warm and cuddly species in the galaxy."
"Vulcans are averse to certain gestures between strangers," Spock said, with a slight emphasis on the final word. "We are selective, not solitary."
"I am not so altruistic that I would force myself into a situation like this." Spock interrupted, and dropped his eyes again. "Furthermore, you are not the only one to derive benefit from contact. Your emotional response to touch is… fascinating. It is as though every nerve of your skin resonates."
Jim's face got uncomfortably warm. He wasn't sure if he disliked the idea of being a weird, rational curiosity for Spock, or if he was flattered for the attention. Either way, it was getting late, and Spock seemed pretty damn determined. Jim scratched the back of his neck and decided to stop overthinking. "So… should I move over?"
"That would be of some assistance."
Jim sat the flashlight on the nightstand, shifted to the other side of the bed, and held up the blankets so Spock could slip beneath them. When Spock seemed to find a spot he was comfortable in, sprawled out beside Jim with a good few inches between them, Jim fumbled for the switch on the flashlight and turned it off. This time the darkness wasn't disheartening, but fortifying. He waited, pulse thudding in his ears, for Spock to make good on his offer.
Nothing happened for what must have been half a minute. No sound, no shifting, not even the slightest tug on the blankets. As far as Jim could tell, Spock was just lying there face-up, limbs tucked in, completely immobile. It wasn't long before he couldn't take the tension.
"Hey, are you sure about this?"
"I am merely uncertain regarding… preferred logistics."
Jim chuckled, his own discomfort erased by Spock's admission. It was easier to take charge when he knew someone depended on him to lead. "Roll on your side. Toward me," he said. He faced the same direction, and in what proved to be a pleasant surprise, Spock needed no more prompting. He looped an arm around Jim's waist and scooted closer so his front was flush against Jim's back, molding them together. His fingers rested against Jim's stomach, and his entire body seemed to relax the moment skin touched skin.
"Is this acceptable?"
"More than acceptable." Jim exhaled, and on that single breath rode most of the poisonous loneliness that had been knotted in his chest far too long. What was an impossible, strangling snarl only hours ago dissolved away into nothing; he let it go without even trying. He was safe, and warm, and wanted, and there was no more reason to feel otherwise.
"Good night, Jim," Spock said, his voice utterly serene.
Jim nestled against Spock as tightly as he could. "Good night, my Vulcan friend."
A/N: Apparently, I am incapable of ending a story without either porn or fluff. XD