Red plodded patiently beneath him, her breath fogged like some kind of placid dragon. Jim couldn't remember the last time he had felt so content – the bracing cold invigorated him, Uncle Henry's dormant farm was picturesque all around him, and the man riding at his side filled him with the kind of wonder he had found lacking during his years as an admiral.

They broke out from the last few buildings and began crossing the smooth, white expanse of the old corn field together, their horses in near-lockstep. There was something satisfying about making tracks on a flawless surface, Jim thought. The snow fell lightly, a thin sheet of lace dragged across the dark line of forested hills up ahead, and he knew the field would be spotless again by nightfall. All was silent except for the soft crunch of snow under hooves and the gentle huffs of the horses as they breathed.

"I haven't been to this spot since I was a boy," Jim said as they approached the treeline. "I hope the trail is still clear." He glanced over at Spock and Moose, the patient old chocolate flax his uncle had recommended for beginners. "Are you doing all right?"

"I believe so." Spock's voice was slightly muffled, bundled up as he was beneath what looked like several dozen layers of scarves and coats.

Jim examined him for a second. He always thought his first officer's tendency toward a faint slouch was endearing, as if Spock were constantly apologizing for his height, but that wouldn't do under the circumstances. "Straighten your back a little. There you go."

"It is quite different from riding a sehlat," Spock said.

"I sure hope so. I've never known a horse to dismember someone for being late with its dinner." Jim grinned, then returned to scanning the woods and the dark stand of evergreens ahead. "Ah, here we are."

Sure enough, the trailhead was still there, situated in the middle of a pine grove. It seemed in good enough shape given general underuse, and Jim decided they would go for it despite the weather.

The trail was narrow, and he took the lead. Red followed the stripe of white between the dark tree trunks instinctively, and it was easy to blank out his mind and let the calm of nature suffuse him. He took in the soft shapes of snow-laden branches, the shadows of the trees, the fine white dust that settled onto Red's mane. A cardinal flitted across the trail at one point, a shock of color that made his heart leap out of sheer joy for having seen it. He turned around to see if Spock had noticed as well, but his friend was distracted, staring into the forest.

Before long, the slope grew steep enough that the trail began weaving back and forth as it scaled the hill. It was snowing harder now, although the thick weave of bare branches overhead kept most of it from reaching them. If they were still in San Francisco, this would be a brisk shower, the kind that tempted Jim to leave his umbrella at home and feign forgetfulness to his colleagues at headquarters. At least, since a recent turn of events had instilled the kinds of impulses in him better suited to grade school children.

"Jim," Spock called from behind him, snapping him out of his agreeable daze. "How close are we to our destination?"

Jim reigned Red in a bit so Spock and Moose could catch up. "Just a few more switchbacks," he said.

"The rate of snowfall is increasing at approximately one inch per hour." Spock's tone was detached, professional, as if he were reading from a science scanner.

"I know, but we're almost there. Think you can go faster?" He patted Red's shoulder through the saddle blanket. "These two can." Moose and Red were both Rocky Mountain horses, and their ambling gaits should be smooth enough for an inexperienced rider.

"I am willing to make an attempt," Spock said.

Jim nodded, and urged Red onward with a gentle tap of his heels.

Soon they reached the peak of the hill, and the trees opened to a small meadow, cleared for some unknown purpose long ago and maintained by a robust herd of deer. Their tracks were everywhere, as were less charming reminders of their presence, although the culprits themselves were nowhere to be seen. Jim led the way toward the rocky overhang that jutted into open air, bringing Red to a halt a few meters before the edge.

Visibility was bad, and the valley below mostly hidden behind a curtain of grey. The gorgeous vista Jim had been hyping for days was nonexistent. But the forest on either side of them was a wonderland of delicately frosted trees, and swathed in perfect silence.

"Sorry about the view. I swear it's nice when the weather cooperates." Jim shook his head. "Interstellar travel and we still can't get an accurate local forecast."

"Perhaps you could show me another time."

"That depends on whether or not this turns into a blizzard." Jim considered the heavy gray cloud cover. "The trail could be blocked all week if this keeps up."

"'Another time' does not necessarily refer to this particular shore leave." The implicit promise in that statement derailed Jim's train of thought entirely. By the time he glanced over, Spock's eyes were trained down on the abstract blur of countryside.

It occurred to Jim that this was the first time they'd been alone since V'ger, truly alone, without obligations or early meetings or discussions about simple feelings looming over their heads. That was the intent, after all, but they had only arrived this morning, and it hadn't sunk in yet. He reminded himself for the umpteenth time to be patient and keep his expectations in check. It took over a month for him to dispel the lingering bitterness over Spock's departure at the end of the five-year mission, and for Spock to articulate that he did want something more out of their relationship.

Although what 'something more' meant was vague and undefined, and Jim was too cowardly to call Spock out on it. Not after their last conversation that had included the word 'love' put his friend into a full retreat that sent him light years out of reach.

He sighed and watched the cloud of his breath mingle with the mist of snowflakes. "The woods are lovely, dark and deep," he murmured absentmindedly.

"I should hope we do not have 'miles to go' before we return to the cabin," Spock said.

Jim grinned at Spock, whose eyebrows were hidden by the hood of his coat. These threads of humor were almost miraculous to him after three years spent assuming he would never see this man again.

Then he realized he should probably respond, not gawk at his friend like the besotted fool he was. He aimed Red toward the other side of the meadow where the trail reappeared between birch trees. "Maybe one more mile. We're at the end of the loop," he said. "It's all downhill from here."

The going was slower though. The snow had begun piling up in drifts around the trees and across the narrow path. Although Red and Moose were comfortable wading through these obstacles, they had to walk more carefully, and preferred skirting around the larger piles whenever they were allowed. That tended to put their riders' heads in the path of branches. At one point, Jim thought he had lost the trail, but the half-hidden bridge over a frozen creek reassured him before he turned them around. It didn't bother him, in any case; V'ger had reignited his old adventurous urge, and made him realize how much he had missed a sense of the unknown in his life.

Finally the slope flattened out, and they broke the cover of the forest, emerging into a screen of white. Jim was thankful the horses knew where they were going, because he wasn't confident about the layout of the farm when everything looked like a grayscale watercolor. Presently the bulk of the stable appeared, a dark patch betrayed by its straight lines and artificial angles.

They closed in on the front wall, and Jim dismounted, landing almost knee-deep in snow. He had to heave the full weight of his body against the door to drag it open. The warm, sweet hay-and-animal smell flooded his nose, and he inhaled deeply as Red shoved past him, trotting inside. Spock and Moose followed close behind, and Jim shut the door behind them all, fending off the shower of snowflakes.

He helped Spock clamor off Moose, which almost sent them both tumbling into a stall. They shucked their coats and shook them out, and stamped the snow off their boots. Jim leaned against a post for a bit, stretching out stiff legs. It felt great just to travel again, however short the journey. "That was nice," he said, as he set about unbuckling Red's saddle.

Silence for a few seconds. "It reminded me of Sarpeidon."

One of those missions, during which Jim was accused of witchcraft, and Spock and McCoy were stuck in a winter wasteland. Jim turned around and found Spock standing in the middle of the aisle beside Moose, arms wrapped tightly around himself. He approached, touching Spock's shoulder reflexively, and realized Spock's black thermal undershirt was not thermal at all. His shapeless question died in favor of another, more concrete one.

"What happened?" He took Spock by the arms and patted them up and down, searching in vain for any scrap of warmth.

"The power supply failed approximately twenty minutes ago." Either Spock's teeth were chattering or his lips were numb, because the words came out unusually slow and methodical. "I assure you, I am fine."

Not a lie, maybe, but it wasn't the whole truth either. Spock wasn't just cold, he was obviously troubled, but Jim didn't feel comfortable pointing out that second part. He ran his hands down Spock's arms, and they almost curled instinctively around gloved fingers before he pulled away. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"There was nothing that could be done at the time. Stopping and investigating would have permitted even greater heat loss to occur," Spock said with forced nonchalance. "Do not concern yourself. Desert temperatures on Vulcan routinely drop below freezing at night."

"And what does everyone do there, given the choice? Probably sit around a fire wrapped in blankets." Jim knew he was more or less right when Spock didn't argue. "Go on, you popsicle. Into the house. I'll take care of the horses."

Spock obeyed without so much as an exasperated look. He shut the door that adjoined the stables and the house quietly enough that Jim barely heard it close.

Jim shook his head and started taking the tack off Red and Moose, hanging up bridles and wiping down saddles. His first officer was nothing if not a trooper, but Jim's stomach churned whenever that tolerant attitude turned to outright self-sacrifice. He soothed himself through the repetitive motions of brushing both horses, spending more time than what was strictly necessary to make their coats shine like polished chestnut and ebony. He could tell they appreciated the extra attention. Uncle Henry's neighbor Elise took care of them when the family was away, but she was too old to exercise them the way they liked.

By the time he joined Spock in the house, his first officer was hunched over the thermal undershirt in the kitchen, brow furrowed and tricorder humming.

"All warmed up yet?" Jim rested a hand on the back of his chair.

"Essentially," he said. Whatever upset him earlier must have passed, because he sounded all right.

"Any progress?"

"I cannot locate the source of the failure. I suspect an entire length of wire was singed, which makes diagnosis difficult."

"A lost cause, then," Jim said. "Let's get settled in. There will be plenty of time to play doctor on that thing later."

"Yes, Admiral." Spock used the same, familiar inflection as he did when he called Jim 'Captain' during the five-year mission. The nostalgia was incredible, and Jim bolted before it could overtake him completely and make him do something rash.

He surveyed the antique replicator's dinner options while Spock unpacked the bags they'd neglected in favor of an impromptu afternoon ride. It was a good thing they had gone out when they did – all the forecasts were saying what Jim had suspected. Steady snow for at least three days, and over two feet of accumulation. They wouldn't have another chance to ride while they were here.

By the time they reconvened in the kitchen, it was getting dark outside, and Jim set about turning on every light he could find. "It looks like the replicator makes about three vegetarian dishes," he reported. "But my uncle said we're welcome to anything in the pantry. He's canned every fruit and vegetable known to man."

"I shall examine what is available," Spock said.

They both scavenged up something resembling a meal and took seats across from each other at the small kitchen table. Much to Jim's relief, conversation flowed as effortlessly as it had during his golden years as captain. It dawned on him between bites exactly how much he had missed simply talking to Spock, seeking his opinion or bouncing ideas back and forth.

They discussed whether the Klingons were telling the truth about V'ger's trajectory, and the tweaks being made to the refit Enterprise, and the nosy reporters that were beginning to lose interest in the crew. For what had to be the sixth or seventh time, Spock pressed Jim on putting forward a proposal for another five-year mission, and again Jim insisted on waiting for a formal invitation.

But soon after most of the food had disappeared, Spock's attention drifted out the window, and he grew increasingly distant as they talked. That was the exact opposite of what Jim had been aiming for when he planned this excursion. He thought taking Spock somewhere removed from the rest of the world, somewhere private, would coax the warm glow in his eyes out into the open again. Now it seemed all Spock could do was stare at the snow.

"You said it reminded you of Sarpeidon." Jim ventured into uncharted territory, recalling the way Spock had acted in the stables. Spock's attention jerked toward him, and his frame tensed, fueling Jim's hunch. "I guess it's safe to assume you're not fond of snow?"

"It is not my preferred type of weather," Spock said carefully.

"Hell of a time to tell me." Jim laughed, a feeble attempt to keep his spirits up. He swirled the last dregs of his water around in the glass. "If I had known, I would have taken you to Arizona."

"The snow itself is not particularly objectionable. Merely the quantity."

And the quantity would only get worse, Jim thought. We don't have to stay here."

"You enjoy it here."

"But you don't." Jim leaned on the table and studied Spock's neutral expression. "We can like different things, you know."

"Of course. I would never expect you to take pleasure in the calculation of Preshgar's constant," Spock said, with mock Vulcan indignation. He folded his hands on his lap, and his tone quieted. "However, my negativity toward snow is not logical. I wish instead to share the feelings you harbor toward this particular phenomenon."

A few years ago if Spock had said he wanted feelings, let alone to share Jim's feelings, Jim would have marched him off to sickbay faster than a Romulan could backstab his ally. "But my feelings come from a lifetime of memories," Jim said, and pondered how to explain an intuitive process to newly emotional Vulcan. "Snow is never just snow for me. It's sledding headfirst into a tree, or winning an ugly snowman competition, or making syrup candy."

Spock stared at him in a way that made it perfectly clear he understood nothing of what had come out of Jim's mouth. Jim scratched his head and tried again. "When my brother and I were kids, there was a squat little pine tree in the middle of the yard. Our aunt and uncle covered the thing with lights every Christmas." He smiled, recalling the epic struggle it took to get the storage boxes out of the loft. "It was ridiculous, and probably a fire hazard. Well one year there was a blizzard, and the tree got buried. We all thought that was that. But at night, when the lights came on, it was even more beautiful. Like a piece of a galaxy."

Spock looked outside as if the tree would still be there, exactly as described. "An intriguing spectacle, I imagine."

"It was." Jim started stacking empty dishes and ferrying them to the washer. "So snow doesn't always mean you're stuck outside and freezing half to death. In fact, that's about the last thing it means to me."

"Because the preponderance of the memories you have are positive."

"Yes, absolutely," Jim said, leaning on the counter. "I know from experience that snow can be enjoyable. Sometimes it even traps you indoors with good company."

Spock raised an incredulous eyebrow for a moment. "I understand in principle, if not personally. Thank you for clarifying." He went back to finishing his bowl of canned peaches, chewing in a contemplative sort of way.

Jim left him to his thoughts, but not before inching out on the limb he'd been eyeing for weeks. "I'm going to get a fire started in the living room. Maybe sit around and read awhile," he said. "You're welcome to join me."

About fifteen minutes later, Spock did join him, bearing two mugs of what looked like Vulcan spice tea. How he had persuaded the crotchety old beast of a replicator to pull a trick like that, Jim didn't care to know. He suspected it involved blood sacrifices and guttural chants.

When Spock appeared, Jim was busy tossing a few more logs into the hearth. He picked up the poker and shoved them into the heart of the fire, jabbing orange flakes off the wood, stalling for a minute. "This is actually a superefficient heater that takes over when the solar panels are covered," he explained, checking the thermostat on the mantelpiece. "There are gel pipes embedded in the brick."

"Interesting. It was installed before molten salt batteries were in widespread domestic use, I presume?" Spock said, sitting down on the worn, hideously floral couch.

"Probably. This house has been around since the twenty-one thirties." Jim grinned. "I doubt it's had a single upgrade."

Then he swallowed his fear and eased down beside Spock, careful to leave some space between them. He received the mug Spock handed him with a murmured thank you. They watched the fire and nursed their drinks for a minute or two, engulfed in a silence that wavered from comfortable to uncomfortable and back again. The heat of the tea settled into Jim's core, lingering in his mouth and throat thanks to the spices. All Earth substitutes, he noted; cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and a hint of nutmeg.

He started wondering if he should put an arm around Spock, or lean against him, or something, but their late night discussions had only gone so far. He still wasn't certain how the emotional aspect of their friendship had changed in Spock's mind, let alone the physical one. Maybe neither of them were.

Hell, given the chance he knew they could sit here all night, all shore leave, doing exactly this and nothing more. Neither of them bold enough to upset the tentative equilibrium that Spock had discovered. Jim made a decision and set his half-full mug down on the coffee table a little too hard.

"Admiral?"

"I've never been good with words when it comes to this sort of thing," he announced to his startled companion. "It's easy giving grand speeches to hostile aliens, but when it counts, I mean reallycounts…" He gave up. If he still knew Spock as well as he thought he did, candor was the best approach. "Can I kiss you?"

Spock was silent long enough to make Jim's heart stampede over his ribs. "I am uncertain regarding correct execution of the gesture," he said.

Normally Jim would be thrilled at the chance to play teacher, but now he couldn't muster up anything but pure nerves. Maybe it was the way Spock's gaze darted to the fire and landed somewhere around Jim's feet. Maybe it was the fact that it was all on Jim to make it good, make it seem worthwhile. Persuade Spock that emotions could be indulged in and trusted.

He steeled himself. "Forget everything you've ever seen, first of all. That includes from me," he added sheepishly. "The mouth is a more delicate instrument than people give it credit for." He wiped a damp palm on his knee, steadied his hand, and reached for Spock's cheek to guide him closer.

Spock resisted the touch and stayed where he was, lifting his eyes to meet Jim's. "Then what, precisely, should I do?"

Good question, Jim thought. He struggled to come up with an response. "We'll start slow. Follow my lead."

"I find that instruction unhelpful."

"It's like riding a horse," he offered, after floundering for another moment. "It's strange at first, but once you figure out how to move, it comes naturally. Except without the shooting pain in your legs the next morning." That depends on the circumstances, an unhelpful part of his brain added. He shoved it aside.

"I see." Spock didn't look convinced in the slightest.

"I guess the only way to figure it out is by doing it," Jim said, and went with the most rational plea he could muster. "Surely a man of science like yourself can appreciate that."

"I can," Spock conceded.

His expression was inscrutable, but Jim tried again anyway. This time there was no interruption, although Spock seemed so guarded that Jim wasn't expecting their lips to meet.

The surrealism of the moment crushed any other reaction he might have had. He couldn't believe this was happening, and he felt disconnected from his body, lost in shock.

The fact that Spock didn't respond wasn't helping.

His lips were cool and firm and fused together, like the kiss had turned him to stone. Jim would rather he pull away in disgust than sit there as if he were tolerating something unpleasant. With that notion creeping through his skull, any thrill Jim might have gotten from being allowed to do this at last vanished in an instant. He drew back, a mess of tension and competing emotions.

"This also reminds me of Sarpeidon," Spock said quietly.

"Oh." Jim frowned and leaned farther away until he hit the arm of the couch. He waited for his head to clear, but Spock's words still didn't make any sense. How could a mission gone wrong three or four years ago have any bearing on their current situation? "I'm not sure I'm following you."

He wished he hadn't said anything, wished he had been more patient from the start, because Spock visibly shut down. He looked toward the fire and into nothing, and the lines of his face tightened. "I had assumed Dr. McCoy told you."

"Told me what?"

"I was not myself in that place," Spock said, his voice low. "The biological changes wrought by the atavachron awakened a strange madness within me. I became like my ancestors, many millennia ago."

He fell silent, leaving Jim at a loss. Jim knew the ancient Vulcans were a brutal, warlike people, but not much else. He cleared his throat and summoned a comment to encourage Spock further. "No, he didn't tell me that part. Probably thought it was confidential."

"Indeed," Spock said. He kept going even though every sentence seemed forced. "I resigned myself to our fate so quickly because I did not wish to return. The distance from certain… influences was welcome, as was the comparative simplicity of our situation." He shot Jim a sidelong glance. "There was a woman in the past named Zarabeth."

"A woman?"

"A prisoner of sorts, sentenced to live and die alone," Spock said. He made as though to speak a few times before he actually succeeded. "I kissed her. I did more. The desire was absurd, yet I could think of nothing else."

Not just this Zarabeth woman either, Jim realized through a stupid wash of jealousy. Leila too. As far as he knew, whenever Spock had kissed anyone before, he had been warped by external forces, turned into a shadow of himself. He wasn't embarrassed, or afraid, or maybe even as reluctant as he acted on the surface. He just couldn't connect kissing to positive emotions, and with good reason.

"You've got some serious baggage, don't you?" Jim said, after a few awkward seconds.

Spock raised both eyebrows at him in genuine confusion. "Is two suitcases considered excessive for a week's leave?"

"Never mind." Jim waved a dismissive hand. He slumped into the back of the couch, considering their situation. This is what you get for chasing a Vulcan, he chided himself, and shook his head minutely. "It's not the same thing, you know. Nothing is making you do this," he said. Then, just for good measure, he added, "I'm not making you do this. Say the word, and I'll let you be."

"I am aware." Spock hesitated, and continued in a very small and nervous voice. "Please, do not mistake me. There is a definite pleasurable experience connected with touching you."

It took years of practice bluffing a dozen species for Jim to keep the manic grin off his face. He wanted to convey appreciation and support, not the aspect of a madman about to pounce. "I… I'm very glad to hear that," he said, and inspiration sparked within him. "Then this doesn't have to be a problem. If human kissing bothers you, why don't we do it your way?" He held out two fingers and hoped he wasn't missing some important cultural nuance.

Spock studied at him for a long, tense moment. Then the muscles of his jaw relaxed, and he presented Jim with a Vulcan salute. "The ta'al is the customary positioning under more intimate circumstances."

"You're kidding." Jim stared at his own hand, whose fingers conspired against each other, refusing alternately to stay together and stretch apart. "I never could manage this. I don't think I have the right tendons."

"Exact placement is immaterial," Spock said, and Jim was relieved to hear the light hint of amusement in his tone. He was the one who made first contact this time, clearly far more at ease with this idea.

His fingertips traced Jim's knuckles, gentle enough that it tickled, and Jim stifled an undignified snort. But the touch grew firmer, until the pads of his fingers were dragging over Jim's hand. It was still sort of funny, until Jim paid attention to his face. Spock was alternately watching Jim and the place they touched, his eyes dark and intent.

When his entire palm brushed the back of Jim's hand in a long, slow caress, Jim almost jumped.

"You're still cold." Without thinking, he took Spock's hand between both of his own and squeezed gently.

Spock's eyes closed, and his lips parted, and his breath hitched. He swayed in his seat with the force of his inhale. Jim let go as soon as he realized what he had done, offering open palms in a desperate gesture of goodwill.

"I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. I didn't mean to…" To what, exactly?

Spock stared at him, then caught his lips in a tentative kiss.

Their noses bumped, but Jim tilted his head and they settled together far more easily than before. Spock kept perfectly still, like he was waiting for a bomb to go off, but it felt different this time. It felt good this time. Letting Spock take the lead hadn't even occurred to Jim, although it made sense in hindsight.

He pushed forward, letting Spock know he was on board, and Spock pulled back only to readjust and kiss him again. This time his lips parted, and Jim mirrored him, allowing him to slot their mouths together. A cool hand followed Jim's arm and rested on top of his shoulder, and a thumb tentatively stroked the skin along his collar. Jim took that as permission to touch in turn. He dragged his hand up and down Spock's arm and sucked lightly at his lips, clinging to each kiss.

Then Spock pulled away without warning, his expression unreadable. "Is something… why did you stop?" Jim said, breathless and mildly terrified.

"To ascertain if I could." Spock peered at him, a faint green flush high on his cheeks.

"Oh." Jim smiled and pretended he was less flustered than he actually felt. He placed a hand over Spock's on the couch, earning him a faint shudder. "What's the verdict, science officer?"

"It is a very different experience when I am in control of my faculties," Spock said. He visibly drifted into the headspace where he sorted through problems with no real solution. "To be capable of rational thought and yet feel so powerfully at the same time… I did not realize such a thing was possible."

"It's possible, all right," Jim said, after his brain had chugged past the part about powerful feelings. He never dreamed anything could sound better than simple feelings, but there Spock went, proving him wrong.

"Any sound experimental design dictates multiple trials, however." Spock murmured, and Jim's heart trembled in his chest. "Shall we engage in a second test?"

"By all means."

Jim barely had time to suppress his grin before Spock kissed him again. He was curious, Jim realized. The more he did this, the more his concerns were fading. He was unwinding into the kiss now, opening up, inviting Jim to take a more active role. He shifted closer until their thighs were pressed together, and Jim rested a hand on his knee. The cautious touch of his tongue against Jim's lips was a surprise, but one he was glad to take in stride. Spock tasted like spice tea, with sour metallic undertones that Jim chased into his mouth, deepening the kiss.

Then his hand cupped the back of Jim's head, and they crossed the invisible line between kissing and making out like clumsy but eager teenagers.

Jim's entire body ignited as his hands found Spock's waist. The heat from the hearth scorched his side, and a bead of sweat prickled down his spine. The back of his neck was on fire where Spock's fingers teased the edge of his hair, and the fire spread slowly but inexorably, winding its way over every inch of his skin.

He was the one who broke them apart this time. "Hold on a minute."

"Did I do something wrong?" Jim was comforted to note the faint tremor in Spock's voice.

"No. No, quite the opposite." He tugged at his collar, and wished he had the foresight to take off his sweater before sitting down in front of a fireplace, next to the man who had fueled his fantasies for the better part of a decade. "It's just… the thing is… there's kissing, and then there's foreplay," he said, when he trusted himself to speak instead of stammer.

"Ah." Spock's gaze dropped down his body, deliberate and inquisitive, and Jim fought the urge to pull the nearest pillow onto his lap. It couldn't be that obvious through his jeans, but it sure as hell felt obvious to him. "You are aroused."

"Yes." Jim chuckled, not sure whether to be concerned or amused at Spock's blunt assessment. "You sound surprised."

"Merely intrigued at having served as the catalyst for such a reaction." His eyes met Jim's anxiously. "You do not find the condition unpleasant?"

"Of course not," Jim said. "Well, if one were to keep going with no end in sight, it can reach that point. That's why I stopped." He wondered how it worked for Vulcans, if Spock felt even a fraction of what he did. Sheer force of will kept his eyes fixed above his friend's belt.

"I am sorry for having caused you discomfort." The concern on Spock's face put a serious dampener on his libido, and Jim heaved a sigh.

"Don't be," he said. If Spock had trouble adjusting to kissing, of course he'd have trouble with this. Regardless, Jim could use some privacy to calm himself down either mentally or physically, whichever worked best. "Look, maybe we should turn in early tonight. Talk about this over breakfast."

"Agreed," Spock said.

They stood at the exact same instant, almost colliding with each other. Spock gave him a teasing look as if to say 'fancy meeting you here,' and Jim couldn't help but chuckle. "There are towels and extra sheets in the linen closet," he said. "Let me know if you need anything."

"I shall."

"Goodnight." He tilted his chin and touched Spock's arm, a silent request.

He wasn't sure Spock would catch the hint, but then two fingers brushed over his lips, brief and chaste, as Spock echoed his words. A hybrid of Vulcan and human styles that somehow trumped every other kiss thus far. Jim's lips were still tingling when they parted ways in the hall.

Jim didn't know why he woke up, but he was cocooned in warmth and darkness, so he didn't mind in the least. His awareness skated back and forth over the edge of sleep, but the faint creak of old floorboards pushed him onto the more alert side. He opened his eyes and squinted, levering up on his elbows.

The bedroom door was ajar, and a silver of light tumbled in from the hall. A silhouetted figure stood there in the doorway, frozen with one hand on the knob.

"Spock? What is it?" He sat up, gathering the blankets around his shoulders against the room's faint chill. He should have turned the heat up more; old systems like this were prone to undershooting their mark.

Silence, then a voice quiet enough that it could have been muted by snow. "May I come in?"

"Of course."

"I knocked, but you did not answer." Spock turned off the hall light and stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. It seemed like a funny thing to do – they were the only ones here, after all – but something about the gesture triggered an understanding in Jim. Whatever Spock was here for, it must be personal.

"I sleep like a log on shore leave," Jim explained, running a hand through his hair. He noted Spock's sleep clothes and bare feet, then the time on the bedside clock. Just about one in the morning. "Are you all right?"

"Affirmative." Spock didn't move from his position across the room. "I have been meditating."

"Oh." Jim scooted against the headboard. "What about?"

"My entire life, I have drawn erroneous conclusions," Spock said, staring at the floor. "I have allowed negative experiences to taint my perception of love. Of desire." He looked at Jim, his face half-shadowed and his voice fragile. "Could it have been like this before?"

That thought was like a blow to the chest. Jim often wondered how much time they had wasted dancing around each other under the guise of professionalism, but dwelling on the past would get them nowhere. "No. You weren't ready," he said.

"Because all I had known was shame," Spock amended. He stared out the window, and his voice turned hushed. "I do not wish for shame to rule me any longer."

Jim waited some more, but Spock seemed tapped out with the confessions for tonight. The ball was in Jim's court. He went through a dozen different questions, all of which seemed too prying or too frivolous, before settling on one. "Aren't you cold?

"Yes." No denial, no insistence that Vulcans could handle temperature extremes, just an honest and unqualified answer.

Jim hesitated, but trusted his instincts and held up a corner of the layered blankets. "Come here."

Spock paused before approaching the bed, then again while standing beside it. Jim smiled in an attempt to put him at ease, even though he probably couldn't see well in the dim room. Then again, maybe it worked, because Spock climbed in and slid beneath the covers. He didn't lie down though, nor did he look at Jim, and he confined himself to the extreme edge of the bed.

"No pressure," Jim said, and the darkness made him bold. "We have plenty of time to figure this out. The cycle won't come for another year, will it?"

"You have been counting?" Jim didn't think Spock meant for that question to sound so charged, but the way he said it was a hairsbreadth below seductive.

"It's not exactly advanced mathematics." Jim sighed and shifted closer. He tugged Spock's shoulder until he reclined onto his side, facing Jim, and wrapped an arm loosely around his waist. Spock had already been cold once on his watch, and he wouldn't let it happen again. "Is this all right?"

What felt like an eternity passed with Spock lying there stiffly before Jim got his answer. "No," he murmured, and he surged into Jim, crushing their lips together.

Jim could tell right away Spock was pushing himself. His movements were earnest yet ambivalent, almost erratic. The way he rested his hands on Jim's chest and clutched the fabric there, like he wasn't sure if he wanted to drag Jim closer or shove them apart. The way he pressed their lips together too hard, and pulled away after every kiss, a full separation that made the whole affair feel rushed.

Jim encouraged him to slow down with measured kisses and gentle hands, but he didn't try stopping the flood. There was a determination in Spock that he couldn't find the strength to fight. Not when everything he'd wanted and waited for was happening at once.

He didn't worry overmuch though, because it got easier. Every touch smoothed away a hesitant tremor, every gasp was less jagged than the one before. The sheer nervous energy Spock was carrying couldn't sustain itself, and all Jim had to do was keep him calm and ride it out. It wasn't long before the tension in Spock's frame was gone, and they melted together without any more jabbing elbows or misplaced knees. They lay face to face, most of the distance between them closed, while Spock buried his face into Jim's neck and gasped for breath.

When he made a small sound, half resignation and half pleasure, Jim knew the worst was over. His heart leapt into his throat, and the urge to laugh drummed in his chest. He tucked his leg around Spock's and pulled them flush, and Spock shifted his hips forward to meet him. Jim felt Spock hard against him, an indistinct and firm ridge tenting the front of his pants. He started rocking them together, setting a slow, strong pace

Spock's hands found their way under his shirt, fingers tracing his spine. Jim thought about trying to undress them and decided against it. It was chilly, for one, and he didn't want to disrupt their momentum in case they couldn't find it again. The friction of his briefs was far from ideal, but the fabric was soft enough not to chafe, and he knew the pressure of Spock against him would be enough.

"Haven't come like this since high school," he panted, placing kisses on Spock's neck. He closed his mouth over an earlobe, and Spock jolted.

Until that point, Spock hadn't moved much on his own, but that involuntary jerk stirred him into matching Jim's thrusts. It took a few agonizing minutes for him to get the hang of it, but when he did, it was too good to last.

They peaked one right after the other. Jim came first, groaning and clinging to Spock's back. He kept the rhythm going as best he could, kissing Spock's neck until he went over the edge too, quiet except for a single, stifled cry. Jim got a pleasant shock when cool fingers grazed his temple, blending them together and dragging him through a second climax, intense and inexplicably different. More like a single, unbroken wave than a few sharp bursts.

Afterwards they clung to one another, pressed as close as the sensitive post-orgasm ache allowed. "Was it… satisfactory?" Spock said, his breath warm on Jim's throat. "I have no point of comparison."

"Oh yes. God, yes." Jim snuggled into him, and hoped he didn't mind being trapped in an illogically constrictive position. "The meld was a nice touch."

"Thank you."

Jim snickered at the formality, charming and silly and utterly Vulcan.

Silence ensued for awhile. Jim drifted in a sleepy haze, ignoring the wetness staining his briefs for the moment. He let his hands wander, innocently mapping out the muscles in Spock's shoulders and back through the sleep shirt. He breathed in the peppery, alien scent of his bedmate, a minor detail he had never been able to fully appreciate before.

"I love you," he said, the words escaping him without thought. The same words that had ruined everything three years ago. His heart sank deep into his stomach. He really shouldn't have said that. Not yet, maybe never.

"I am grateful." Spock rearranged himself, tucking an arm under his pillow. "Despite the regrettably subjective nature of emotion, I believe I can say that I love you as well within a reasonable margin of error."

It took several dozen frantic heartbeats for Jim to parse through that statement, and another dozen to get over the whiplash. He laughed, squeezing Spock in a brief, tight embrace, and savored the total relaxation that overtook him. There were only a handful of incidents in his entire life where he'd felt this relieved, and most of them involved a ship in dire peril. He closed his eyes, committing Spock's stilted reply to memory.

"The snow is reminiscent of stars," Spock said suddenly. Jim forced his eyes open again, and found that Spock's gaze was trained over his head.

"Hmm?"

"Outside the window."

Jim twisted his neck to peer behind himself. A swarm of white dots streaked through the square of darkness set into the wall, illuminated by the dim front porch light. With a little imagination, it was almost like they were back on the Enterprise, sailing through space.

"I believe I can understand the appeal now. Your positive emotions regarding snow," Spock continued. "It appears varied and repeated exposure is required decouple a pleasant stimulus from an unpleasant experience."

"Mmm," Jim said, settling back down. Spock probably could have told him he planned on opening a tribble ranch, and Jim would have nodded and asked when and where. A few moments later, his brain kicked into gear again. "So are you telling me you need varied and repeated exposure to fully appreciate sex?"

"Perhaps."

The coy tone, the cocked eyebrow, barely visible in the darkness – dear God, Spock was flirting with him. Jim decided to file that away for later, because he really couldn't handle the thought in his current state. Instead he shifted his focus to simpler things, like the fact that he had sweated right through his sleep shirt. His briefs were also clinging to him in a distinctly sticky way that would get worse the longer he waited.

"I could use a shower," he said. Truth with a side of suggestion.

"Yes," Spock said, matter-of-factly.

Jim planted a mock slap on Spock's chest and hauled himself out of bed. He grimaced as the chilled air pummeled his damp clothes, and more cowardly parts of his anatomy made a strategic retreat. He waddled over to the thermostat and cranked it up, muttering oaths under his breath, before turning his attention back to Spock. "You don't need one too?"

"Given the circumstances under which I achieved orgasm, I made the decision not to ejaculate."

Jim stared at him, waiting for a punch line or sarcastic eyebrow. Then he remembered Spock's sense of humor didn't involve making blatantly false statements. "That's… useful." He stood there, feeling a bit lost and wondering what exactly he might be dealing with in terms of alien anatomy. If he was assuming too much based on Spock's half-human heritage.

He could think of one way to find out.

"Suit yourself." He shrugged and headed for the bathroom door, peeling off his shirt as seductively as he could. "I might get lonely, though," he called over his shoulder.

"Illogical," Spock said, but Jim heard the squeak of bedsprings, and the rustle of sheets, and the soft footfalls that promised he wouldn't have to worry about that. His friend was determined to purge himself of old associations, and Jim was equally determined to help.