Within thirty seconds of entering the planet's atmosphere, it becomes apparent that the shuttlecraft is going to crash. Another five, and it's clear that they're going down over the ocean.
This in itself is not a surprise. Most of the planet is ocean, for a start - a glistening, black-crimson expanse, shimmering in the eternal twilight of its dying sun. It was the work of several hours' careful programming to persuade the navigational systems to compensate for the erratic gravitational matrix and aim for one of the shriveling landmasses that haphazardly punctuate the Cimmerian depths, and the work of several more to establish a strategy for convincing the Captain that the scientific rewards to be gained through an excursion beneath the magnetized cloud cover outweighed the substantial risk involved.
"No," he said, simply, when Spock first proposed the expedition, and before his Science Officer had had an opportunity to outline his rationale. "No. I'm sorry, Spock. I've had a look at the long-range sensor readouts and they're barely able to confirm an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere. There's no way to be certain of conditions on the planet's surface, not without risking a shuttlecraft and its crew."
Spock folded his hands behind his back and dipped his eyeline towards the floor. In his peripheral vision, Kirk straightened slightly, opening maneuvers in a long and familiar game. Sometimes Spock wins and sometimes he loses, and he has learned not to take the losses as a commentary on his professional judgment, but rather as a statement of the esteem in which he is held by his commanding officer. It is frustrating, but, he supposes, gratifying. And, in any case, he has learned how to stack the odds in his favor.
The craft banks violently as they sideswipe an electromagnetic vortex, and the throttle shudders in Spock's hands as he struggles to moderate their descent. It's possible he's gotten a little too good at manipulating the Captain.
"Mr Chekov," he says, over the cacophonous metallic wail of structural dissent and the siren-call of a panicking navigational computer, "I am going to attempt to reorient the shuttle using a staggered polarization of the hull. Stand by. Mr Sulu, you will correct for any sudden decelerations or loss of altitude, and steer us out of the drift pattern as we break free from the storm."
At the helm, Sulu's face is a mask of concentration, shoulders drawn rigidly into his body as he wrestles with a complex gravitational web. "I'll try, sir," he says, his mouth set tight with effort. "I'm not sure she has it in her…"
"On my mark," says Spock. "Three… two… on-"
It is the ordinary evening of an ordinary day. The Enterprise is running as close to optimal efficiency as a shipful of Humans is ever likely to run, and the New Captain has finally dropped his prefix in the mind of his First Officer. Kirk has been aboard for eighteen weeks and two days, and has lost a close friend to the rigors of the service. He has earned his ship.
Spock buzzes for entry at the Captain's quarters and stands back at the appropriate distance while he waits for a response. "Come!" calls the muffled voice of his CO from within, and the door slides open on a room in semi-darkness, light pooling over the small desk in the corner, where a pair of stocking feet describe one end of the Captain's body. The rest is canted into the darkness, outside the glow of the terminal screen, but springs abruptly into the light as the feet are retracted and Kirk leans forward in his chair.
"Ah, Mr Spock," he says with an easy smile. "I had a feeling it would be you." He gestures towards the empty seat across the table. "Come in, sit down. What's on your mind?"
Spock stands uncertainly in the center of the room. The light level indicates a man at his ease, and he knows enough about the constant bristle of eroded boundaries to demur from invading the Captain's privacy.
"Amended duty rosters for your approval, Captain," he says. He hesitates. "However, if you would prefer to review them tomorrow morning…"
Kirk lets loose a puff of air and sits back in his chair with an expression that would be all open-faced innocence, but for a certain glint in his eyes. "I don't believe we're likely to have any scheduling emergencies tonight, Commander," he says. The hand extends again, flat-palmed invitation directed at the empty chair, and he visibly stifles a yawn. "I think it's high time I was off the clock. I'm not sure… would it be a grave breach of Vulcan etiquette to ask you to join me in a drink?"
An eyebrow scrapes Spock's hairline. "If you are fatigued, Captain…"
"No," says Kirk lightly, and offers up a self-deprecating smile. "A little restless, perhaps." A beat. "Never mind. I can see that you're busy."
The thing is, he's really not: re-scheduling a week of beta-shifts in Engineering to cover Ensign Ramsey's recuperation from a mishandled rung in a Jeffries tube is the opposite of urgent. He was simply looking for something constructive to fill in the hours before sleep is required. However, this leaves him with remarkably few options now in terms of prevarication, and he's never mastered the art of effective lying.
Slowly, he says, "Negative, Captain. I am not currently required elsewhere on the ship."
Unexpectedly, a grin flares brightly across Kirk's face. He says, "Then won't you have a seat, Mr Spock? I've been reading a book of Surakian philosophy and I'm having a little trouble with some of the precepts…"
Reluctantly, Spock pulls the chair from its nest beneath the table as the Captain stands and moves to his drinks cabinet. "That is to be expected," he says.
In the shadows, Kirk turns over his shoulder, and, even in the darkness, amusement shines from his eyes. "Is that so?" he says. And then, "Perhaps you're right. I find that I'm not entirely sure whether or not I can offer you a glass of Scotch without causing offense."
"There is no offense where none is taken," says Spock mildly, as the Captain moves back into the little circle of light, a glass in either hand.
"Nam-tor ri thrap wilat nem-tor rim," says Kirk, and smiles. He holds out a glass and Spock accepts it with a nod. "Not all of the precepts gave me difficulties," he says innocently.
Spock's eyebrow arches. The pronunciation is clumsy, as though the speaker has read a guide to Vulcan inflections and cadences but has never heard the language spoken aloud. The grammar, however, is perfect.
"Evidently, Captain," he says.
Kirk lowers himself bonelessly into his chair and raises his drink to his First. "I believe," he says cheerfully, "That, for this evening at least, you could call me Jim."
Unconsciousness is tantalizingly brief; a dizzying dance through vertiginous blackness, before an explosion of pain scrapes up his central nervous system and drags him back to the surface. Spock opens his eyes.
The craft is remarkably intact, given that it's just dropped unceremoniously from a height of a little over two kilometers and struck the highly-salinated ocean a glancing blow along its belly. Spock lifts his head from the console, where it has left an alarmingly large pool of tacky, olive-colored blood, and runs a rapid glance over the lifeless displays. A piquant odor of burning plastic advises against expecting any kind of response from the navcon, but protocol demands that he make the attempt. It is largely demonstrative in any case. He does not need the ship's sensors to tell him that the ballasts are rapidly filling with water; the scream and list of the hull is a readout in itself.
Beside him, the helmsman's shoulders tighten and he sucks in a rapid breath that speaks of returning consciousness. Spock decides to help him along the final steps. "Mr. Sulu," he says brusquely. A beat. "Mr. Sulu!"
The Lieutenant's eyes snap open and raw, unfiltered terror flashes across his face for a moment, tailed by despair. He says, "I'm sorry, sir; I couldn't correct for that last gravitational burst…"
"Indeed," says Spock. "The shuttle is sinking, Lieutenant. I believe our priority at this time is to activate the exit hatch."
But Sulu is scrambling to his feet at a speed ill-advised for a victim of recent head trauma. He staggers for a moment and reaches a hand to the bulkhead as his legs sag beneath him. "Pavel!" he says.
"There will be time to attend to Ensigns Chekov and Ryan and Lieutenant Cruz once we have ascertained the viability of escape," says Spock.
"Sir, he's… I can't tell if he's breathing!" says Sulu. He hunkers down beside the still body of their navigator, cradled beneath the console, where he has been thrown on impact, and the helmsman's face, when he looks up, is bloodless, eyes wide and staring. Shaking hands press two fingers to the pulse point on the Ensign's throat, and Sulu releases a long breath that drains a little of the tension from his shoulders. "I can feel a pulse," he says. "He's alive."
The ship groans and shudders violently, and Sulu scrambles to his feet again, moving quickly across the listing floor to the central console, where Spock's fingers skim over the switches and dials.
"All systems are down," says Spock. "I am attempting to re-route auxiliary power to the distress beacon; however, it is unlikely that the signal will penetrate the ionosphere. Mr Sulu, kindly direct your attentions to the emergency override on the exit." A metallic protest and the nose of the shuttle dips abruptly. "Haste is advisable," he adds.
The gravity storms on the planet's surface and within the lower atmosphere create conditions sub-optimal for the effective workings of scanning and communication equipment. The reason Spock knows this is because he wrote those exact words himself, appended with scrupulous honesty to the report he was obliged to present to the Captain. That would have ended all possibility of an away mission right there, had a complicated series of diagrams and equations not irrefutably demonstrated that transmission is possible through the turbulent atmosphere… it's only that the angle must be accurate to within 0.008 degrees, and conditions are not presently ideal for precision calibrations.
A hiss and a sudden rush of air from the ceiling; Sulu has managed to force the emergency exit on the roof. Movement in his peripheral vision draws Spock's eye towards the shadows in the back of the craft and he sees Cruz untangling herself from a mess of harnessing. Blood flows freely down one side of her face as she moves unsteadily but with purpose towards the communications console.
"Let me do that, sir," she says briskly. She glances up. "Ensign Ryan's gone, sir. I think his neck was snapped in the crash."
She is a communications officer, but she is not a physicist. Spock privately doubts that she has any chance of achieving the correct co-ordinates, but this is the moment at which a leisurely wave crests the uppermost wall of the shuttlecraft and spills pungent, red-tinted saltwater across the floor. They are sinking faster than he thought.
He nods to Cruz, and crosses to the far end of the ship, feet scrabbling for purchase on the slick tiles. "Mr Sulu," he says. "Have you located the life raft?"
"Yes, sir," says Sulu. "Located and launched, sir. I found the medkit…"
But he doesn't get to finish his sentence, because, halfway through, a sparking short circuit in the navigations console abruptly explodes.
Negotiations for the trade accord are going well, and the Captain is… happy. Happy? Happy. Probably.
"Satisfied" might be a better word, in that there is always satisfaction to be found in duty and the pursuit of excellence in every endeavor, and Kirk, as his First has adequate cause to know, accepts the banalities as easily as the rush to glory, and yet… And yet these quiet, diplomatic missions fit him less well. Not every day is discovery; some days are endless star fields and countless light years of nothingness that challenge any sentient brain to question its own self-importance. Other men Spock has known have tended towards the melodramatic, have manufactured drama where there was none, and the crew have sighed and complained and played along while Spock watched from a position of detached bemusement. Not Kirk. He is content to let the ship catch her breath during these softer times, and, if he loses some of his luster when his brain is not under constant pressure, he seems a little easier for it nonetheless. Lines of tension gently unravel, furrows in his brow softly smooth, and he and McCoy and, sometimes, Mr Scott will gather for drinks in the Captain's quarters and laugh and talk about the things that it is acceptable for Human men to discuss at their leisure.
"You'll join us tonight, won't you, Spock?" said Kirk as they were leaving the bridge, Captain and CMO buried in inconsequential chat and trailed by a comet-tail of contentment. Spock had been studying the PADD in his hand, and glanced up now to see Kirk and McCoy paused expectantly by the turbolift doors, the Captain's head turned casually over his shoulder, eyebrow raised at his First.
"I regret that I must…" began Spock, but McCoy cut him off with an eyeroll.
"Told you, Jim," he said. "'Fun' ain't in the Vulcan vocabulary."
"On the contrary," said Spock. "The word 'mihrsh' translates as 'a source of amusement', while 'sanosh' describes the Human concept of pleasure. There is also 'tizh'es', which most closely resembles…"
"Thank you, Mr Spock," said Kirk. His lips pursed, as though he were smothering a grin. "I believe I'll take that as a 'yes'."
Spock has a feeling he has been played, but he can't be entirely sure.
He sips on his Altair water as the Doctor drains a second glass of brandy. Kirk lifts the bottle, raises an eyebrow in question, but McCoy shakes his head and leans back in his seat, folding one leg over the other. "I'll pass, Jim," he says. "Sure, they're all quiet now, but you wait and see who walks into a warp coil, soon as I'm three sheets to the wind."
Kirk smiles, restrained but warm. "I believe the peace and quiet has made you antsy, Dr McCoy."
"Ha!" says the Doctor. "You're one to talk, Jim Kirk. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were just 'bout bored out of your mind these days."
The Captain takes a sip from his drink. It is his first, and barely a third of the liquid has disappeared in the hour he's been nursing it. "My ship is safe. My crew is safe," he says mildly. "What more could a Captain ask for?"
"Sure," says McCoy. A beat. "But it ain't what you signed up for, huh?"
Kirk says nothing for a long moment, tilting his glass contemplatively. Low light dances on the amber surface of the brandy within as the Captain rolls the beaker in his hand. At last, he says, "It is what it is, Bones. I prefer to think of the bigger picture."
"Well, sure," says the Doctor. "We get the Ca-Alansians to sign this treaty, it's good for everyone…"
"True." Kirk nods. "But that's not what I meant." He sets the glass down on the table, so softly that the sound of crystal striking wood is almost inaudible against the gentle background hum of the ship, and folds his hands in front of him on his desk. "This is a voyage of discovery," he says slowly, but with the conviction of a man who has had many months to formulate his thoughts. "But that doesn't have to mean the physical act of First Contact, Bones. There's more to this mission than the seeking out of new worlds. This is about building a Federation, a community that's worth living in. Something we can pass on to generations to come." He looks up at Spock, who finds himself oddly discomfited by the intensity of his Captain's gaze. "If anyone had told me, a year ago, that I would count a Vulcan among my friends, I wouldn't have believed it." He smiles, and Spock finds himself unable to look away. "Discovery comes in many forms, Mr Spock," he says. "Wouldn't you agree?"
The force of the explosion throws Spock against the bulkhead, and a sudden, sharp flash of pain in his chest testifies to at least one broken rib, possibly more. Unbalanced, the ship shrieks in protest, and he can feel the shift of water in the hold beneath him, recentering their gravity towards the nose. In those long, red-hot seconds while he struggles to regain control over himself, fighting for the breath that the walls have knocked from his lungs, he can only watch as the bow of the craft tilts relentlessly into the sucking depths.
"Mr Sulu," he manages through gritted teeth.
"Yes, sir," comes the reply from the helm.
"What is your status, Helmsman?" says Spock.
"I'm all right, sir. Can you move?"
Barely. "Yes," says Spock. He glances over to the navcon, where Cruz is sprawled in a morass of blood and sparking circuitry, eyes wide and staring. "Lieutenant Cruz is dead," he says briskly, "And I estimate we have fewer than thirty seconds to make our exit before the suction of the sinking craft is too great to escape."
"Yes, sir," says Sulu. There is the sound of exertion. "Sir, I can't… I can't move him. I'm sorry, sir, I need your help…"
With difficulty, Spock levers himself out of his crouch. Searing white pain flashes along his side and blinds him for a moment before he is able to suppress it, but the effort required to control it is sapping his capacity for rational thought. He staggers through ankle-deep water to where Sulu is kneeling beside the limp body of their navigator, cradling the young man's head out of the rising tide. Chekov's eyes are closed, but rapid, thready breaths agitate his chest and speak of life not yet departed.
"Mr Sulu," says Spock carefully, "There is no time. We must leave him…"
"No!" shouts Sulu. The violence of his reaction is not unexpected, but the rage in his eyes is unsettling. "He's alive, Mr Spock! I won't leave him to die!"
"Mr Sulu," says Spock again, and hesitates. "I understand that there is a bond of friendship between you…"
"No, you don't!" snaps the helmsman. "How could you understand? You couldn't possibly understand, sir! I'll get him out of this craft or I'll die trying, Mr Spock, and you can watch or you can help me!"
He hooks a hand under each of Chekov's arms, and falls back into a crouch, straining for purchase on the waterlogged floor. The craft looses another moan and lists a little further into the ocean's grip. "Help me, sir!" Sulu yells. "Please!"
It is not logical. Two lives will be lost in the place of one; a young man, a man of promise, but a man who will slide peacefully into the black depths and never know the passing. It is not logical to allow two fires to extinguish where one can be sacrificed to allow the other to burn on. And yet…
How many times has Spock stood in Sulu's place, unyielding as a wall of granite or steel in the face of innumerable, and quite logical, objections? How many times has he stared down a subordinate officer's desperate, sir - it can't be done! and responded with an immovable, we must try, that silences any further argument? It is true that, every time, he carried the weight of duty on his shoulders - it is his job to protect the Captain - but, regardless, he knows what Kirk would do in this situation. It is almost enough to trail a noise of exasperation from him, but he reigns it in with resignation, and lowers himself to the floor as his chest screams in protest.
Hunkered beneath the navcon, the water now washes freely against his fractured ribs, sharply cold and mercifully numbing as he takes the strain of the navigator's weight. "On my count," says Spock, through thin lips and black explosions of pain behind his eyes. "Three - two - one - lift."
They rise together, more quickly than either had expected, and the shock of speed almost unbalances them. Spock steadies himself against the bulkhead as Sulu finds his feet and they shuffle backwards towards the flash of syrupy twilight peering through the hole of the exit hatch.
"You go through first, sir," says Sulu. "I'll hold him steady. If the ship goes down, sir - save yourself."
"That will not be necessary," says Spock.
The hatch is set above head height, but the listing of the shuttle has tilted it onto the side, and it's the work of a firm grip and a moment's concerted, pain-drenched effort to pull himself free of the craft. Outside, the air smells metallic and heavy, almost viscous; windy, but disconcertingly warm. There is only the briefest fraction of a second to notice this, however, before his brain points out the more pertinent fact of the almost-complete submersion of the shuttlecraft. He flattens himself against the roof and feels the ocean sucking at his feet: immeasurable red-black depths under perpetual twilight.
"Mr Sulu," he says, as he reaches inside. "Hurry. Time is short."
He sees the young man's face contort with the effort of levering his friend into position, and Chekov's head lolls slackly on his shoulders as he's maneuvered. Sulu grunts and shoulders the Ensign upwards, so that he's braced against his back. "Sir…" he breathes. "I can't… I can't reach any further…"
Inches separate the navigator's arms from Spock's questing fingertips, but the craft's surface is slick and the buffeting waves threaten to unseat him with every undulating drift. He shifts a little, bent double over the lip of the exit, and in this position it is almost impossible to draw breath into his burning lungs. But he stretches out his arms - further, a little further - and suddenly there is contact. Saturated Starfleet-issue fabric brushes against his hands and they close on flesh. Hard enough to bruise; certainly hard enough to cause vociferous complaint, were the Ensign in any position to understand the violence being done to his deltoids, but there is purchase, and it is enough. Spock braces himself and pulls, using the exit hatch as a fulcrum, allowing the planet's strong gravity to drag him backwards. For a moment, the lever hesitates, balanced perfectly between extremes, and then Spock's momentum breaks the impasse and he feels an endless second of weightlessness as he loses his grip on the shuttlecraft roof and slides, with Chekov, into the inky water. The waves close over his head, and there is a moment of violent panic as the weak sunlight is extinguished, before he breaks the choppy surface, the body of his navigator pinned firmly to his chest.
A splash beside him churns the water for a moment, and suddenly, Sulu is shouting: "Sir - she's sinking! We need to make it to the life raft…"
Spock kicks back with his legs, chest facing upwards towards the eternal night sky. The stars are so few around this world, where there is no competing sun to glaze them from the firmament, and he experiences a moment of sharp, illogical regret. The heavens are empty here, of both day and night…
But then there is a sucking at his feet, as though a thousand invisible hands grab at him, and his body responds automatically, battling back against the currents that snatch at him. A glance over his shoulder tells him that the life raft is close by; in his peripheral vision, he sees Sulu clambering aboard and stretching out a hand towards him, and he kicks out - mechanical, efficient strokes slicing through the water, one hand cupping Ensign Chekov's chin while the other reaches back towards the boat. He feels Sulu's fingers close around his arm and he pivots in the water, gripping the edge of the raft with one hand while the helmsman takes custody of their navigator, reeling him on board as though he were a freshly-landed fish. He slides into a heap in the bottom of the boat, and Sulu turns back towards his commanding officer.
"Give me your hand, sir!" he says, and Spock grips the younger man by his arms as Sulu takes hold of Spock around his aching, screaming chest and pulls. The ocean releases him with a gush of water, and Spock collapses into the raft.
"Paddles, Lieutenant," he says briskly, though he can hear the wheeze in his voice as his chest rebels against the effort. Sulu nods and unhooks an oar from the side of the craft, and waves a hand towards the starboard side.
"The shuttle's going under, sir," he says, wide-eyed, as Spock dips the scull into the sable waves and begins to punt them away from the wreckage as fast as his injured ribs will allow.
"Indeed," he says. He looks up. "Lieutenant, I suggest we row."
On the Captain's birthday, McCoy typically commandeers the officers' mess and stocks it with all manner of Terran delicacies - or, at least, a selection of highly combustible beverages which it pleases him to name as such. Last year, Kirk quietly took the Doctor to one side and explained that the party was not consonant with his own desires, and that he'd much rather commemorate the anniversary of his birth quietly and in the privacy of his own quarters, surrounded by one or two of his closest friends, and he did so in a tone that Spock recognized as absolutely genuine. And McCoy nodded sagely and said: "Sure, Jim. Whatever you say. S'your birthday, after all."
They are proceeding along the corridor of Deck 5 in companionable silence, Kirk scanning a PADD in his hand and Spock considering the latest equations delivered by the ongoing warp coil analysis, when Lieutenant Laginaf approaches with a look of extreme discomfort.
"Captain, sir," she says, and if her expression didn't give her away her tone certainly does, "Mr Scott has discovered a problem with the synthesizers…"
"…In the officers' mess," finishes Kirk wearily. "Thank you, Lieutenant. You've fulfilled your part of the Faustian pact. You may go."
Laginaf's face dissolves into manifest relief. "Thank you, sir," she says, and bolts.
Kirk stands in irritable silence for a moment, radiating discontent. Spock elects not to meet his eyes, and studies instead the pattern of light on the ceiling arches while his Captain composes his thoughts.
"Do you think," says Kirk at last, "That it would be unconscionably rude of me to go AWOL from my own birthday celebrations?"
Spock is not sure what the correct response might be, but he has a few ideas about cause and effect that seem to be appropriate to the situation. "I believe you have made your thoughts on this matter quite clear, Captain," he says.
That causes a reluctant little half-smile and a snort of resigned laughter. "He means well," says Kirk. "I can't fault his determination, that's for sure."
Spock hesitates. "Perhaps…" he says. "Perhaps it might be the case that the long range sensors have picked up on a spatial anomaly that requires the Captain's immediate attention."
An eyebrow crooks. "Have they?"
Spock inclines his head non-committally. "There is generally some form of spatial anomaly to be found," he says. "One need only look."
Delighted laughter sputters from the Captain, warming the narrow corridor. "Why, Mr Spock," he says. "I didn't know you had it in you." His eyes sparkle. "Remind me to double check every report I get from you from now on, would you?"
Spock nods. "Captain."
"Thank you, Commander," says Kirk, and he's grinning now, lines of anger completely erased. "But I guess I'd better show my face a while. He means well. I can't let him down. But stick close to me, will you?" Unexpectedly, his hand comes up to close around Spock's elbow, and the grip is warm and enveloping. It has the effect of drawing Spock's entire conscious thought to those inches of flesh and the fingers that encircle them. "I feel better when you're nearby."
The hand is withdrawn, abruptly, as though it were nothing at all, and Kirk, good humor restored, sets off down the corridor in the direction of the turbolift. After a moment, Spock follows, but his skin tingles with remembered touch.
There is a moment - probably no longer than thirty seconds, but time is capricious when the body is in danger, and he would not have the means to argue against an estimate that doubled, tripled, or quadrupled this span - in which it seems that the tidal rush of water into the vacant body of the sinking shuttlecraft will carry them inexorably into the roiling, bubbling whirlpool that describes her descent through the fathoms. And then, abruptly, the current releases them and the shock of their sudden momentum almost tumbles Spock forward in his crouch against the side of the raft. He slips on the thin plane of water in the bottom of the boat and crumples to his knees, harsh, labored breathing scraping in his throat.
A glance to his right reveals that Sulu is similarly slumped against the lip of the raft, panting heavily, eyes wide and white-rimmed. The helmsman catches Spock's eye and nods, and Spock returns the gesture; in the absence of adrenalin, the pain in his ribs has begun to protest the effort involved in rowing them away from the sinking ship, and speech is entirely beyond his capacity just now.
"She's gone, sir," says Sulu after a moment.
Spock tests the flavor of words against the burning pain in his chest, and finds them possible.
"Clearly," he says, and resists the urge to reflect upon the Human proclivity for stating the obvious.
A beat. "Do you think they heard us?"
He means the Enterprise. In point of fact, no, Spock does not believe their distress call made it through the thick bands of atmospheric distortion. There was not enough time, even with a fully operational communications console; in all likelihood, their signal bounced off one of a myriad energy disturbances and dissipated in the turbulent magnetic fields that crisscross this unquiet world. So he says, "It is eminently unlikely, Lieutenant."
Sulu nods. "I guess we'll just have to sit tight until they come looking for us, then."
How? How are they to be found? Scanners are useless below the magnetosphere. Their transponders may work, but without the signal boost from the comcon on the shuttle, the beacon will be almost unreadable. Sending another craft into the gravitational matrix would be folly in the extreme, given that their best helmsman has already proven to be unequal to the task of navigating the flux.
Rescue is not simply unlikely, it is unthinkable. Spock decides that this is better left unsaid.
Sulu eases himself to his knees and shuffles across the narrow space to where Ensign Chekov lies sprawled, unceremoniously, in the back of the raft.
"Pavel," he says gently. "Pavel. It's Hikaru. Can you hear me?"
"The trauma to his head is severe," says Spock. "It is unlikely that he is aware of our presence."
"I know that, sir," says Sulu. There is tension in his voice; rage tightly leashed. He raises his head but he does not lift his dark eyes to Spock's. "I brought the medkit, sir. It's in the bunker, along with some thermal blankets."
"I do not believe that the medkit is sufficient to resuscitate Ensign Chekov," says Spock.
"Maybe not," says Sulu, "But it can't hurt to try."
"On the contrary…"
"Sir." The word is quietly spoken, forced through gritted teeth. Still, he does not bring his eyes to his superior officer's, as though by shielding some measure of fury, his insubordination might be less. "You can bring me up on charges when we get back to the ship if you like. Right now, I'm going to try and save him, no matter what you say or tell me to do. You can't order me not to do this, Mr Spock. I won't obey."
Spock arcs an eyebrow, but it's for appearances only. Without a word, he opens the hatch on the central storage compartment, set into the middle of the raft, and lifts out the medical kit. Clustered into the bottom of the watertight hold, he sees three reflective blankets, assorted rations, a water purifier, and a handful of old-fashioned flares. It is possible that these items were already stored on the life raft when it was stowed on the shuttle, but he thinks not. Sulu has excelled himself. If, by any small chance, they get off this planet, Spock makes a mental note to recommend him for a commendation.
The tricorder is tucked between a selection of hypos and a coagulant shield. As he lifts it from its nest and passes it across the raft into Sulu's waiting hand, Spock runs his eyes over the contents of the kit: cordrazine, Masiform-D, tri-ox, melenex, backup medical scanner, reader tube, dermal regenerator. Bandages and a suture kit; vitamin compounds and dehydrated plasma substitute. Enough for triage, perhaps rudimentary repairs; certainly not sufficient to treat a medical emergency. He decides to wait for the tricorder readings before concluding his assessment.
"There's no skull fracture," says Sulu. He has maneuvered Chekov so that the Ensign's head is nestled in his lap, tricorder suspended inches from the young man's face. "Delta and theta wave activity; no higher bands. I can't see a cranial bleed but there's some swelling… Damn." He looks up, hollow-eyed. "I need Dr McCoy for this. I'm not a doctor. I don't know what I'm seeing."
"Allow me to look," says Spock, and reaches out a hand. Sulu regards it dubiously for a moment, but he clearly doesn't have many options, and Spock sees the moment when he accedes to this line of reasoning.
"Here, sir," he says, and places the tricorder into Spock's waiting palm. "I just… I don't know what to do for the best."
It's in Spock's mouth to say, There may be no 'best' option, Lieutenant, and the words dance on his tongue, but there is defeat in the helmsman's eyes now, rushing in to fill the void that the anger left when it broke. He finds that he cannot encourage this. So he says, "I will assess Ensign Chekov's status, Mr Sulu. Perhaps you might see to providing us with some form of shelter. The radiation frequency from the sun is unlikely to be immediately harmful, but prolonged exposure is unwise nonetheless."
"Yes, sir," says Sulu quietly.
With infinite care, he shuffles the Ensign's body from his lap and repositions him in front of their CO. As the Lieutenant busies himself at the far end of the boat, Spock glances down at the tricorder readings, in the vague hope that they will offer a small note of optimism to drown out that dark cloud of despair that hovers in the stern, tightly leashed behind the Human urge to occupy oneself with trivia in the wake of helplessness. But there is nothing: only swelling and coma, life obstinately failing to release its fragile grip.
Kirk opens his eyes, and, surreptitiously, Spock exhales.
It's possible McCoy notices, standing by the biobed and frowning at the instruments as though they're to blame for the Captain's condition. Certainly, he's quick to react when Kirk's shoulders tighten - almost imperceptibly - as though he's planning on sitting up.
"Oh no you don't," says McCoy. "You any idea how much blood you just lost, Jim? Not to mention, you been out cold for more'n four hours. You sit tight, Captain, and don't make me strap you to the bed. 'Cause just see if I won't."
The words are couched in the Doctor's typically irascible air of general frustration with the world, but Spock has served with him long enough to note the genuine fear beneath them. By the time they were able to force the doors in Engineering, Kirk had been bleeding out from a wound to the femoral artery for almost three minutes. He barely had a heartbeat.
The Captain manages a weak smile. Through dry lips and a throat parched by thirst, he whispers, "I wouldn't presume to doubt your resolve, Bones."
And Spock understands, with a dizzying rush of satisfaction, that he is going to recover.
Golden hair rasps against the rough, utilitarian sickbay pillow as Kirk slides his head to the side. Even this small gesture is deliberate and performative, as though his neck muscles are firing a half-second slower than his brain. But slowly, with effort, the Captain turns towards Spock and twists his lips into a grin that chases some of the clouds from his eyes.
"You're not injured, Spock?" he says.
The blast seared the skin from his left shoulder, but it was the work of fifteen minutes with the dermal regenerator to correct it. The healing tissue feels tight and a little too warm, but there is no pain. He says, "I am well, Captain."
"Good." The eyes close and Kirk's breathing deepens momentarily, but, just as Spock is deciding that the Captain has fallen asleep, he adds, in a thick voice, "And Scotty?"
"Mr Scott is currently lamenting the condition of Engineering Bay 4C, which, he informs me, will never be the same again."
Lethargic lips curl. "That may be for the best," says Kirk, "Given its former propensity for explosion."
"All right," says McCoy brusquely. "Enough chit-chat. Jim, you need your rest. Spock, you've done your bit. Now, quit frettin' and let the Captain get some sleep."
Spock raises an eyebrow. "Vulcans do not 'fret', Doctor," he says.
"Coulda fooled me," says McCoy, "Way you been sittin' there watchin' Jim sleepin' for the past three'n a half hours."
A hazel eye cracks open and the ghost of a smile drifts across the Captain's face. "You haven't been on the bridge, Spock?" he says.
"My presence there was unnecessary," says Spock. "Mr Scott is capable of commanding the ship during routine maneuvers."
"Even when…" Fatigue clogs the words, but Spock knows better than to think the Captain will give in to exhaustion before he's ready. "…he's mourning the loss of an antimatter relay?"
A second eyebrow joins its twin. "I would hardly describe Commander Scott as 'bereaved', Captain…"
"Never mind, Spock." An emphysemic rumble chokes out of Kirk's chest, and, dubiously, Spock decides that it ought to be categorized as a chuckle, though he hopes it won't happen again. "I'm glad you're all right. But we'd better let Bones have his way now. You know how he gets."
"Wouldn't 'get' any way at all if people'd listen to me the first time," mutters the Doctor, eyes glued irritably to a readout by the side of the biobed. He glances up and fixes Spock with a glare. "You still here, Mr Spock?"
Spock rises smoothly to his feet. "Evidently," he says. "However, I have no wish to disrupt the Captain's recuperation. I shall leave."
The blue eyes are relentless: their habitual mix of belligerence, fire, and mulish obstinacy, focused to a point and directed uncompromisingly towards the figure of the First Officer. But buried beneath the predictable glare hovers the ghost of absolute, consuming relief. McCoy says, more evenly, "He'll still be here this evening, Spock. Come back after shift." A beat. "Do him good to see you here - and I never said that, if anyone asks."
Spock nods, and moves towards the door. It is not logical to turn and reassure himself one final time that, against all the odds, they have managed to drag the Captain back from the brink once again, so he does not do this, but he feels the Doctor's stare on the back of his head, like needles in his psi-center. As a child, struggling to learn the Vulcan way that settled instinctively into his peers and flowed through them as easily as blood or thought, he often found himself on the receiving end of a disapproving stare or a whipcord-flash of psychic distaste that seemed to fly at him from nowhere. These were the occasions on which he realized that he had misunderstood something, or improperly applied something, or simply failed to keep his Human impulses in check, and the recognition of his failure - quiet, insurmountable catastrophes against which he could not guard because he did not entirely understand the rules - was a searing tumult in his belly. And it was worse, much worse, because not only could he not predict them, but often he had no idea where he might have fallen short.
As he leaves sickbay, as the doors slide shut behind him on a sleeping Captain and his fractious medic, Spock is reminded of that precipitous adrenalin spike of shame and confusion. It was the eyes, he realizes. There was something buried in that stare, some understanding that burns through the walls and the convention, and he realizes that, for a moment, under McCoy's scrutiny, he was a boy on Vulcan once again.
Sulu has rigged two blankets to the stern end of the raft and propped them up with their oars, whose function is largely decorative, now that there is nothing to row from, on a world on which there is almost nowhere to row to. It is difficult to say how much time has passed. The planet is tidally locked to its erstwhile sun and, on this side of the equator, there is no such thing as night, but the brain is accustomed to a circadian rhythm, and it wants to see the shadows lengthening after so many hours of dusk. To occupy himself in the long, quiet hours, Spock attempts to persuade the tricorder to map the gravity storm that dances a silent, destructive waltz above their heads, but the machine is not equipped to process data so complex, and it spits out error message after error message in a series of tinny little beeps.
This mission was lunacy. Worse: it was hubris. He ought to have let the Captain win.
"I know what you're thinking, sir," says Sulu quietly. He has wrapped Ensign Chekov in a thermal blanket and shuffled them both into their makeshift shelter, where he has laid the younger man's head on his lap again, hand absently resting on his shoulder. It's a gesture that is at once careless and fiercely protective, the way a mother might sleep with one hand touching her child.
Spock glances up. "Whilst psionic ability has been observed in some members of your species, Lieutenant," he says, "I am unaware of any verified cases in which spontaneous thought transference has taken place between a Vulcan and a Human."
Inexplicably, Sulu huffs a gentle laugh. "You're right, Mr Spock," he says. "I mean, I can guess what you're thinking."
An eyebrow arcs. "I find this unlikely."
"You're thinking that this is all your fault."
Perhaps this is a side-effect of having no access to the minds of one's contemporaries, this constant need to second-guess, to read, to probe, to understand. Nevertheless, there is no point in lying. Spock says, "You are partially correct. I was reflecting on the eminent avoidability of our present situation. Regret is, however, illogical. There is only what is."
But Sulu shakes his head. "We all volunteered for this mission, sir," he says. "Everyone on board that shuttle was there because they wanted to be." A wistful smile catches the edges of his lips. "There was a moment, sir," he says. "Before the engine shields denatured, before we lost control… she was so light, it was like I was piloting the air itself. You hear about the perfect grav-field, where the flux is so completely balanced by the anti-flux that it feels like you could steer her with a thought… I wanted to find that, sir. And I did. Whatever happens, I wouldn't change it."
Spock turns his gaze down into the belly of the raft, where brackish pink water worries at his boots. Tiny waves lap at his feet with the gentle rocking of the boat; an ocean in microcosm. He looks up. "And Mr Chekov?" he says.
Fingers resting on gold Starfleet fabric tighten reflexively for a second, then release. "He'll be all right, sir."
That was not the question, but Spock decides to let it go.
"And I understand that the cloud cover is quite beautiful at sunset," Kirk is saying. He hesitates, then visibly changes tactics. "It's the high allurite content in the water vapor, apparently. Its refractive properties create a prismatic effect." A beat. "No other world in the Federation has the precise climatological conditions necessary to maintain atomized allurite within the troposphere." Another beat. "So I hear."
A long, expectant pause obliges Spock to lift his gaze from his steepled fingers, which effectively erases all hope of surreptitiously avoiding the Captain's eye. Further equivocation is now impossible. Kirk is clearly waiting for a response.
"Indeed," he says, in hope rather than expectation.
Predictably, it fails to placate. Kirk rolls his eyes and pivots on his heel, taking one full step across his quarters before spinning back to face his First. "Look, Spock," he says. "If you don't want to spend shore leave with me, just say so."
It's precisely the sort of aggrieved illogic that Spock finds so exasperating, primarily because it is its own confirmation bias. There is absolutely nothing he can say at this point that will be correct. And now deflection is manifestly off the table as well, so he's not sure where that leaves him.
Carefully, he says, "Captain, I would remind you that no such invitation has been issued."
"Oh, for heaven's sakes, Spock!" There is nothing he can say. Absolutely nothing. "Very well. I've reserved a villa in the Fretanian Mountains for two nights. I can go on my own, but I'm requesting the pleasure of your company. Is that clear enough for you?"
It certainly removes one prevaricatory option, yes. Spock finds himself somewhat at a loss. He says, slowly, "I had planned to make use of the shore leave period to conclude my report on the ionic phase-shift we encountered en route to Magellan V."
Kirk raises an eyebrow, but it is testament to the understanding that has developed between them that he makes no comment on Spock's choice of vacationary activity. Instead, he says, "Well, you can do that in a villa in the Fretanian Mountains just as easily as you can on board the ship."
"Surely this negates the imperative of the exercise?" says Spock, without thinking.
A wide grin spreads across the Captain's face. "Why, Mr Spock," he says. "I believe you've just inadvertently recognized the rationale behind shore leave."
He has. There is no denying this. The entire enterprise seems eminently illogical, and, thus far at least, his evident distaste for the pursuit of recreation without discernible purpose has been sufficient to excuse him. And now, with eight ill-considered words, he has backed himself into a corner from which he knows better than to think he can extricate himself. He has conceded that to occupy himself in report-writing is to invalidate the exercise that he has steadfastly refused to acknowledge. There's probably no way out of this now.
"Captain," he says slowly.
"Jim," says Kirk.
Spock resists the urge to roll his eyes. "Jim," he amends. "I am unskilled at collegiality. I see no reason to believe that I will be a satisfactory companion on your vacation."
Kirk's brow furrows. "Spock…" he says. "Do you really…? Is that what you believe? That I find you poor company?"
"I believe," says Spock cautiously, "That you would find Dr McCoy a more suitable associate in this endeavor."
Kirk shakes his head, waves a dismissive hand. "Oh, Bones is heading off with Scotty to the capital. Apparently, there's a twelve star hotel on the main plaza that he's always wanted to visit. I think I spend quite enough time indoors without wasting shore leave in a city center, don't you?"
Perhaps, but that doesn't answer the question. Spock allows his eyebrow to comment on his behalf.
Kirk grins - that warm, honey smile that lights his eyes from within and colors the air around him. He says, "Spock, Bones and I have been friends for a long time. You and I have not. I don't seek out your company out of any misplaced sense of duty, I do it because I want to. I can think of no other person with whom I'd rather watch the sky turning all the colors of the rainbow than you." He hesitates, and uncertainty clouds his face. "If I've misspoken, I apologize. I consider you a close friend, Spock. You're under no obligation to return the sentiment."
It's not the first time that Kirk has used the word to describe their relationship. It's not even the first time that his actions have reinforced the rhetoric. But there is no disguising the motivation behind this gesture: evening games of chess; invitations to long post-shift debates, propelled by brandy and enthusiasm into the small hours of the morning; easy familiarity; respect and courtesy; all these things are the mark of esteem, but none of them speak so irrefutably of naked affection than the simple desire to share these days of quiet time with his colleague.
This, then, is what they have become. And Spock finds himself disturbed.
He says, "Forgive me, Captain. I have no frame of reference from which to proceed. I am uncertain of the protocol."
An uneasy laugh. "There is no protocol, Spock. We vacation together, as friends do. We'll either get along just fine or we'll barely avoid killing each other. Either way, the worlds of the Federation will keep turning. What do you say?"
What can he say? Spock inclines his head. "I accept your offer, Captain," he says. "Thank you."
Kirk's grin flares widely, obliterating the creeping doubt. "Excellent!" he says. "Pack warm clothes, Spock - I hear it gets chilly at night…"
And in the end, it turns out that the guidebook was not wrong: the clouds of the Fretanian Mountains at sunset cast geometric rainbows into the heavens that could disappoint neither a poet nor a scientist. Spock and his Captain talk easily of many things, and when there is no need to talk, they sit quietly in silence, like two men who have known each other all their lives. There is no reason to feel so uneasy, no reason for the noisy tumult in his unsettled mind, and yet he finds he cannot suppress it, no matter how he tries.
Sulu is sleeping, head lolling on his neck and bobbing upwards in periodic little fits and starts as his breathing is obstructed by the angle of his throat. It does not look particularly restful, but his eyes never open, and, anyway, how would Spock know what passes for acceptable slumber amongst his Human peers? His arms, slackened by unconsciousness, loosely grip the supine chest of their navigator, who is pressed up tight against his friend's ribcage and cocooned in a thermal blanket. Chekov's temperature has dropped alarmingly in the hours they've been aboard and they have no way to regulate it, so Sulu is attempting to use his own body as a thermostat of sorts, and, after long, empty minutes spent staring silently into the featureless ocean, his eyes have closed of their own accord. He looks younger when he sleeps. They both do.
Spock watches them absently. The pain in his chest has eased, now that he has the time to devote to its control, and it would be easy to slip from this twilight haze of contemplative stillness into a meditative trance. But he finds that, afforded the luxury of observation, he prefers to simply sit and look. Chekov's face is slack and motionless, but the delicate crest and fall of the blanket speaks of life that refuses to fail. It is not logical, but, then again, when was life ever logical? Tenacity is its hallmark; chaos and asymmetry and anomaly its lifeblood. His people can turn away from discord and disorder and seek to systematize the business of survival, but the thunder and turmoil of procreation exposes the Disciplines as a facade. Life simply takes what it needs and carries on.
The life of one man is, objectively, worth very little. One hundred years from now, had Chekov simply slipped with the shuttlecraft into the Stygian deep, he might be remembered as a footnote at the bottom of a long and crowded page in the lives of those who knew him once. Two hundred years from now, and there will be no-one left to care. Sulu had a choice, in those disordered moments, and he made it so easily it was as though it was no decision at all. I'll get him out of this craft or I'll die trying, he said, and the fact is that he would have died trying, had Spock not been available to lend his superior strength, and then two lives would have been lost for the sake of one. Subjectively, then, the life of one man might be worth more than everything. More, even, than the chance for continued survival. This makes absolutely no sense, from an evolutionary perspective, and yet… And yet Spock knows that he has walked in those shoes and made those choices; he knows from experience that, sometimes, continued survival is unthinkable if it's at the expense of one particular life. And he cannot bring himself to call this wrong.
Spock watches his companions sleeping, watches the care with which the Lieutenant protects his fragile charge, the tenderness of his touch and the devotion it betrays. He watches, and he wonders.
"There you are, Spock," says a familiar voice as he exits the turbolift. "Are you avoiding me?"
Well, not anymore. "My presence has been necessary in the computer laboratory," says Spock. It's not an answer, but he understands that Kirk will process it as such. It allows them both to take what they need from this exchange.
"Yes," says Kirk. "That often seems to be the case these days. Since we got back from shore leave, in fact."
Too late, Spock realizes that there is nothing he can do to prevent this conversation from happening. Moreover, by specifically seeking to avoid it, he has essentially ceded control of it to Kirk, which means that the Captain gets to choose where and when it will take place. And if the 'where' turns out to be the corridor outside the turbolift on Deck 5, then there is very little that Spock can do to obviate this, since it's clear that the 'when' is going to be right now.
At the very least, he can attempt to steer them towards his quarters, which he does by striking off at a purposeful pace. As expected, the Captain falls into step alongside him.
Spock elects to open with a defensive maneuver. "In the event," he says, "I was able to devote very little time to report-writing while we were planetside."
Beside him, the Captain's face creases into a censored smile. "Yes," he says. "I believe I may have encouraged a certain air of complacency…"
Spock quirks an eyebrow, but on the side of his face that Kirk can't see. "Indeed," he says.
They have reached the door to his cabin. Kirk rocks back on his heels, and Spock wonders if he needs to invite his Captain inside or whether they can quietly conclude their business now. There is an air of restless energy buzzing around his companion that is difficult to read.
Kirk casts his eyes towards the ground. "Spock…" he says slowly. He hesitates, catches a breath, tries again: "It's not my intention to…" And this sentence fragment goes the way of the first. With obvious effort, he schools his features and makes a third attempt: "Look, Spock - I would hate to think that my actions made you uncomfortable in any way. I simply… I never know. I value our… our time together. But perhaps…" He trails off, and now he glances up. His eyes meet Spock's, and there is nowhere to look but directly into their relentless gaze. "Perhaps I'm projecting my own… my own desires?"
The question is clear, and it needs an answer. Prevarication will not work. But what is the truth?
The truth is that he has never felt so easy in himself as he did in those quiet days of indolence, when there was nothing to do but enjoy the company of the single person who has ever sought out Spock's companionship for its own sake. He has never felt so contented as he does at his Captain's side. Kirk's simple, uncomplicated regard washed over him like the waves of a warm sea: his smiles, sunshine-bright and uncountable; his ready laughter; his hand on Spock's shoulder, on his elbow, on his forearm, on his wrist. Inches from his fingers, casual intimacy, and yet he said nothing and did not pull away. He fears that he has come to accept the gradual erosion of the walls between them; that he will come to depend on the affection that swims between them. That he will come to depend upon the man who accepts him wholly and in all parts; that he will begin to require the evidence of his esteem as he now requires food and air.
That this has already happened.
But he cannot say any of these things. To speak of them aloud is unthinkable. So he says, "I merely require time to moderate my present workload, Captain."
Kirk holds his gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment, and it seems as though he will press the issue. But then he smiles, and the challenge in his eyes is erased behind an easy camaraderie.
"All right, Spock," he says. "Just don't work too hard. The point of shore leave is to alleviate stress, you know." His hand rises swiftly to grip Spock's elbow: careless, familiar appropriation of Spock's personal space. It is an effort not to react.
The craft jerks, rests, twists, and suddenly there is a powerful tremor running through the hull. Spock sucks in a breath and it is half a second before he realizes that he has been woken from a deep sleep; a half second longer before his furiously re-booting brain will supply him with details of his current location. It is, therefore, almost 1.25 seconds before he realizes that the source of the agitation is Ensign Chekov, and the cause is a violent seizure that grips and trembles his supine body.
Sulu is a moment behind his CO, and then his eyes flash panic. "Pavel!" he cries, and slides out from behind his friend to take hold of the navigator's shoulders as though he can force the fit to stop if only he can pin him down tightly enough. "Pavel, stop! Stop!"
Spock moves swiftly to the central bunker and fishes inside for the medical kit. "Lieutenant, you are attempting to talk a comatose man out of an autonomic bodily reaction," he says as he selects the hypospray and an ampule of cordrazine. It is far from ideal as an anti-seizure medication, and he has no real idea of what dosage is effective in a Human, but he reasons that convenience is the prime consideration when compiling a standard medkit, and they have presumably settled on the volume inside the applicator for a reason. He presses the hypo to Chekov's neck and releases, and then, on the basis that it can't hurt, he reloads with tri-ox compound and waits.
"Sir, it's not working!" says Sulu desperately, as Chekov writhes and thrashes in the bilge water. The raft bucks beneath him, dancing on the gentle waves, spilling seawater over the sides in irregular splashes.
This much is obvious, but Spock swallows the words before they can form. "Patience, Lieutenant," he says, though he's not sure how long a Human can be allowed to fit before the risk of permanent damage becomes acute. There is another ampule of cordrazine in the kit, but can he use it safely? And what if another emergency should arise - will melenex be sufficient if they run out of cordrazine? More to the point, when did he start thinking along the lines of their long-term survival?
"Patience," he says again, though, in truth, Spock is becoming more than a little impatient himself. They have not prevailed this far, risked life and limb to bring Ensign Chekov with them, only to fail now. He will not succumb to a seizure in the bottom of a life raft, swaddled in salt water and watched helplessly by his shipmates.
It has been almost ninety seconds, Spock realizes, and the Ensign cannot be receiving sufficient oxygen. Quietly, he passes the tri-ox spray to Sulu, who takes it without comment and delivers it into his friend's jugular vein. Perhaps it works; perhaps it doesn't. There is no way to tell. Even as the convulsion releases its clutch, even as the feverish tremor settles and gradually stills, there is no way to know what chaos has been wrought inside the navigator's skull. Sulu takes the tricorder from Spock with trembling hands and runs it over Chekov's head, but he looks up, ashen-faced, and shrugs.
"In the absence of a definite prognosis," says Spock firmly, "Let us proceed as before."
A melodramatic roll of the eyes, and Kirk spreads his hands in mock despair as his king falls. "Again…" he says. "I believe tonight has become an exercise in humility, my friend."
It is not unusual for their games to stretch to three, five, seven days: snatched evenings and hasty lunchtime battles, while each man plots and connives at supremacy. This evening has seen two games pass in rapid succession, both culminating in the Captain's catastrophic defeat. Were Kirk not genetically disinclined towards losing, Spock might suspect that he was being humored.
He says, "Is anything amiss, Captain?"
"Jim, Spock," says Kirk, and there's a hint of impatience in his tone. "Must I always remind you? I believe you do it on purpose sometimes."
His eyes are light but his tone is dark. Spock says, carefully, "Jim. It seems you are distracted tonight."
"You noticed that, did you?" Kirk laughs uneasily. "It's nothing, Spock. Just some things that have been on my mind."
The Enterprise is running smoothly, now that the phaser damage to the port nacelle has been repaired, and both crewmen injured in the attack are back at work on reduced duties. But an instinct tells Spock that his Captain doesn't mean the ship.
"Perhaps," he says reluctantly, "It would help to share your concerns?"
Kirk smiles, but it doesn't quite meet his eyes. This in itself is worrying.
"I'm sure you're right," he says. "But…" He swallows, and it is the most diffident gesture Spock has ever seen him make. "Another time, perhaps."
Spock hesitates, then nods. "As you wish."
"As I wish," mutters Kirk, softly, almost bitterly. He huffs a small, humorless laugh.
Spock is not sure if he's supposed to acknowledge the words. Slowly, he says, "I… fail to understand, Captain." Hazel eyes shoot up, and he realizes his mistake. "Jim," he amends quickly.
Kirk holds his stare a moment, then drops it abruptly. "No," he says. "I know, Spock. I'm sorry. Shall we play again?"
It seems somewhat unfair to subject his superior officer to further humiliation this evening, but there's a restless energy in the room that Spock doesn't understand. He feels as though a challenge has been issued, as though his next gesture carries enormous symbolic importance, but he has no idea what it should be. So he says, "That would be acceptable."
It seems to be the right thing to say. A grin flares brightly across the Captain's face and a little of the tension leaches from the air.
"Good," says Kirk. For a moment, it looks as though he'll add to that one, ebullient syllable, but instead he sets to gathering up his discarded pieces. And so Spock follows suit, quietly resetting the chess board, but the energy persists, a buzzing kinetic cloud across the table from him that speaks of unvoiced words.
So it's not really a surprise when Kirk abruptly pauses in his endeavors and catches a breath to speak. Nor is it a surprise when he releases it without a word. But the silence feels unfinished.
Another breath, resolute now. And Kirk says, "I'm sorry, Spock." For what? Spock wants to ask, but Kirk is too quick. "You know - you know I wouldn't risk our friendship. For anything."
Spock resists the urge to raise an eyebrow. Now is clearly not the time to be manifestly confused, regardless of the reality of the situation. "This much has been made abundantly clear, Jim," he says.
Kirk smiles. "I'm glad to hear that," he says. His hand flexes, rises from the table, and hovers as though he wants to close the gap between them. Swallowed by an onrushing tide of intimacy, Spock reflexively steeples his fingers in front of his face, safely withdrawn, and, even as he does so, he wishes he could undo the gesture. Kirk's hand flexes again, and gently drifts downwards to rest against his own leg, but the smile wilts a little, loses a little of its fire.
He nods, as though something is resolved. Hesitates, then nods again. "I believe it's your turn to play first," he says.
It is not only the absence of visual stimulus - the silence is disturbing in itself. There is something about the lap of waves on the edge of the craft that has the effect of reminding one's ears that there is nothing else to hear. They are an aberration on this empty world.
The purifier filters through the water at the atomic level, desalinating it and removing trace chemicals that neither Vulcan nor Human systems were equipped to handle, but the machine cannot make it taste like something they ought to be drinking. Sulu takes a tentative sip and screws up his face in disgust, and Spock finds his stomach roiling mutinously as he forces the liquid past his gag reflex. Nevertheless, it has been almost twenty-four hours since they last hydrated. It is imperative that they persevere.
"Are you sure the tricorder gave this stuff the green light?" complains the Lieutenant.
"Quite sure, helmsman," says Spock, who has been resisting the urge to retest it.
Another sip, and Sulu visibly has to master his stomach's instinctive urge to eject its contents. "You don't know how lucky you are, Pavel," he tells his unconscious friend.
They have not discussed the pressing question of nutrition for their comatose passenger. The medkit contains a selection of chemical rehydration compounds and three ampules of electrolyte supplements, but the air is warm and the weak sunlight is relentless; his kidney function is already depleted and there is simply no way to pass water into his body without the risk of aspiration. Sulu pats his shoulder absently, fingers drumming a distracted rhythm against the stiff fabric of Chekov's uniform shirt, brittle and flecked with crystals of salt where the seawater has dried.
"Remember that bar we went to on Antillus Prime?" he says suddenly. Spock glances up from his cup of liquid purgatory, eyebrow raised, but the Lieutenant's head is bowed, canted towards the figure resting in his lap. "Yes, you do. You always pretend to forget about it, but you know the place I mean. 'Try the lanu,' you said. 'They call it the drink of the gods on Mandorel IV. I've always wanted to try this stuff,' you said." He chuckles. Spock feels oddly uneasy, as though he's party to a private conversation; as though he ought not to be here. "I don't know why I let you talk me into these things," says Sulu now. "But this stuff? This is worse than lanu. You need to wake up and let everyone else share the rehydration hypos, Pav. 'Cause if I have to drink this stuff, you better believe you owe me, buddy."
Sulu curls his hand into a fist and chucks his friend on the shoulder, then tilts his head back and pours the contents of his Starfleet-issue beaker down his throat. There's a moment when it looks as though his stomach will rebel, but determination prevails, and a shallow dry-heave and a full-body shiver of revulsion are the extent of the repercussions. He glances up at his CO and grimaces. "That's the only way to do it, sir," he says.
Spock nods, though his mind is full of the scene he has just witnessed. "Thank you, Lieutenant," he says. "I will consider your advice."
The helmsman grins and turns his head out towards the flat plane of the ocean, hazy crimson-black nothingness bleeding into the distant, dark horizon. His arms close in a loop around his friend's shoulders: an automatic action, Spock has come to realize, born of the illogical notion that proximity equals protection. Or perhaps it just makes him feel better to connect himself by touch to a man with whom he has no other means of communication. Either way, Spock finds himself magnetically drawn to the warmth of the gesture; the simple, easy familiarity, desperation transmuted into affection. Chekov ought to be dead, but he is not, and this warmth, this affection, is the reason. It is not logical. By all laws of cause and effect, he and Sulu should have slipped into the abyss together, and he knows that Sulu knows this. He also knows that, given the chance to do it again, even armed with the knowledge that the odds are stacked against their survival - that for every time they scramble out of the shuttle before it begins its final descent, there are ninety-nine mirror crafts that suck them down to their deaths - he would do it again without hesitation.
This is not logical. But it is noble. It is fascinatingly, irresistibly beautiful.
It was not logical when Kirk delayed the transport of medical supplies to Makus III in order to search for the crew of the Galileo. It was not logical to agitate for the destruction of the last scion of a vanished species when it threatened the Captain in the mines of Janus VI. It was not logical for Kirk to risk his career to transport his First Officer to Vulcan in defiance of a direct order from HQ. It was not logical to halt the Enterprise in the center of enemy space while an unknown and hostile race built an energy web around them, only so that he could follow the flimsiest of chances that the Captain would be recovered alive.
It is not logical that Kirk should continue to seek him out, time and again; to request his company over the company of others; to stand beside him against anyone and everyone. Against Spock himself: against his carefully constructed barriers, against the wall he has built around himself, against the Disciplines that he struggles to impose. And now he wonders what it is that he truly fears. For years he has explained his frantic scramble for distance as a necessary safeguard against the complexities of emotional attachment; the creeping fear that he is too different, too Human, to allow a crack to appear in the armor of self-reliance. But what does any of that mean, when his actions repeatedly return to mock his ferociously defended autonomy? The instinctive urge to dissociate himself from the affection that his friend lays bare between them is tempered by a stronger instinct to protect him at any cost. Kirk takes a step forward and Spock takes a step back, but never too far. There is nowhere else he would want to be but in the Captain's company. And he remembers the warmth of Kirk's smile; the familiarity with which he casually invades his First Officer's personal space; the encouragement, the invitations, the patience. And he wonders.
No, it was not logical to risk two lives to save the life of one. But if it had been Kirk by the helm of the shuttlecraft, unconscious and helpless as the craft began to fill with water, Spock would not have hesitated. He would have carried him from the ship or died in the attempt.
"He'll come for us, Mr Spock," says Sulu now, eyes fixed on the unchanging horizon. "The Captain won't leave us here. He'll find a way."
And Spock has no doubt that he is correct. Because he would do the same himself.
"No," says Kirk, simply. "No. I'm sorry, Spock. I've had a look at the long-range sensor readouts and they're barely able to confirm an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere. There's no way to be certain of conditions on the planet surface, not without risking a shuttlecraft and its crew."
Spock folds his hands behind his back and dips his eyeline towards the floor. In his peripheral vision, Kirk straightens slightly, opening maneuvers in a long and familiar game. Sometimes Spock wins and sometimes he loses, and he has learned not to take the losses as a commentary on his professional judgment, but rather as a statement of something that he's not quite able to name. The Captain calls it friendship, and Spock does not have the vocabulary of interpersonal connection with which to argue the point, but something tells him that friendship is not the right word.
"Captain," he says slowly, "The Grazinski-B'Storan gravitational matrix is exceptionally rare. I am unaware of any instance elsewhere in the galaxy in which it has been observed in formation on a planetary surface. The potential for incident is, as you have stated, substantial. However the primary goal of this mission is discovery. I do not believe that it would be consonant with our objectives if we were to pass up the opportunity to study the matrical architecture in action."
Kirk twists his lips into a wry grin and shakes his head. "That's not going to work this time, Spock," he says. "You can't pilot the shuttle on your own under those conditions, and I won't order any of my officers to take part in such a mission. The risks are unacceptable."
Spock inclines his head. "I had anticipated your objections, Captain. Lieutenant Sulu has already volunteered to pilot the craft, and Ensigns Chekov and Ryan have expressed an interest in joining the mission. Lieutenant Cruz is presently compiling data for her doctoral studies in subspace disturbances and has requested assignment to the communications console, should permission be granted to visit the planet's surface."
An eyebrow arcs. Kirk says, coldly, "You had no business soliciting interest in this mission without my consent, Commander."
This is unquestionably true. However, there is little to be gained by admitting culpability. Spock says nothing and allows the Captain's anger to blow itself out.
"Did you happen to mention to any of your volunteers the small fact that you hadn't consulted with me yet?" snaps Kirk. "Or that the gravitational anomalies are, by their very nature, unpredictable and unstable? Or that communication through the atmosphere is almost impossible? Or that the planet is subject to fluctuating polar shift? Or that there's no way to tell if it's even possible to land a craft on the surface?"
"They are aware of all of these facts," says Spock mildly.
"Damn it, Spock!" When Kirk is agitated, he paces. It is, therefore, no surprise when he pivots on his heel and strides to the other end of his quarters. Spock says nothing, but follows the rapid rise and fall of his Captain's feet as he stalks out his anxieties. "What if something were to go wrong? Damn it, when something goes wrong, what happens then? How am I supposed to get you back?"
"Your concerns are not without foundation," says Spock. "However, I believe I have made sufficient calibrations to…"
"You 'believe'," says Kirk. "That's just it, Spock. You 'believe'. You can't possibly know."
Spock hesitates. "Scientific endeavor is frequently predicated on extrapolation from theory," he says.
"In the lab," says Kirk. "I can't let you risk your life like this, based only on a computer simulation."
"If you would care to examine the results, Captain," says Spock. "You would see that…"
"Jim," interrupts Kirk. He raises an eyebrow in manifest challenge. "You know as well as I do that my objections are partially based on our… friendship."
This is true. It is also the reason that Spock now knows he has won. Kirk will not prioritize a personal concern over their mission objective; admitting his preference was a tactical error. So he simply nods, slowly, and says, "Jim… You must see that this is a valid use of the ship's resources. We may never have such an opportunity again."
"Damn it," says Kirk for the third time, but more quietly now. He raises his eyes to meet Spock's, and there is naked emotion behind them. "Just… Come back safely, Mr Spock, all right? That's all I ask."
Just… Come back safely, Mr Spock, all right? That's all I ask. And Spock only nodded and turned out of the glare of sentiment, out of the plea that was written into his friend's face, because he did not care to read any further. What he saw there struck panic into the iron in his soul, and he turned his back on it before he could process it any further and find that it's not the monster that he feared. He should not have turned away.
How can it be that he has never understood this until now? These years of their mission have been a dance in shadow and silence: tentative advance, connection, retreat; an invisible two step of attraction and flight. All this time and he never knew.
He watches Sulu, shouldered up against the edge of the life raft, carelessly peering into the twilight sky of an alien world, while Chekov rests, suspended between life and death, in the safe cocoon of his protection. The smallest shift of perspective, and it suddenly becomes clear. This thing that he has run from is not anathema, it is not the destroyer of Self. It is a privilege. It makes a man greater than the sum of his parts. It causes him to do magnificent things, terrifying things, incredible things. It has been a part of him for so long now that he can barely remember what it was like to exist without it, and he can't remember why he thought he ought to be afraid of it.
And so it is no surprise when a sudden noise thrums on the very edge of hearing - like a buzzing ravot sher'khah in a distant room. He sees Sulu prick his ears suddenly, sees his face cloud with confusion and doubt, sees his slow turn towards his commanding officer with a tentative hope etched into eyes that fear to acknowledge it.
"Is that…?" he says in a hushed tone.
Spock inclines his head. "I believe so," he says.
"But they can't… The gravitational matrix is too strong! They can't pilot a craft through it…"
"I believe," says Spock, "that we must hope that you are wrong."
McCoy is bustling up the access ramp with a gaggle of orderlies and three antigrav gurneys almost before the landing bay doors have sealed.
"Damn it, man!" he snaps at Spock. "You mind tellin' me what you've done to our navigator?"
Spock attempts to get to his feet, and finds, unexpectedly, that his legs are reluctant to hold his weight. To cover it, he says, "Ensign Chekov sustained a severe blow to the head at 0938 hours ship's time yesterday morning…"
"I can see that!" says McCoy irritably. "And don't go pretendin' like I can't tell you can barely stand. Get your green backside onto a stretcher before I decide to sedate you."
"I am well, Doctor," says Spock.
"Oh yeah?" says McCoy. "You get your MD while you were bobbin' around like a cork in that godforsaken puddle?"
Spock opens his mouth to reply, but, just as he is drawing breath, there is a sudden bustle of footsteps in the hold outside and someone barks, "Captain on the deck!" And before he can compose himself, before he can work out how to assimilate his newfound knowledge into the practicalities of interaction and coexistence, Kirk strides purposefully onto the shuttlecraft, and halts, abruptly, in the entrance. His skin is ash-gray, his eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot, his face slack with fatigue. But his gaze falls on Spock, and, slowly, he smiles.
He holds it for a moment, and, though his expression does not change, though his eyes betray nothing but purest, absolute relief, Spock knows then, for certain, that he was not mistaken.
A nod to McNally at the helm and the moment is gone. "Good work, Lieutenant," says Kirk. To Spock: "What about the others?"
"I regret that Ensign Ryan was lost in the crash," says Spock. "Lieutenant Cruz was killed shortly afterwards as she attempted to make contact with the Enterprise. It is thanks to Lieutenant Sulu's efforts that Ensign Chekov has survived."
"What's his prognosis, Bones?"
McCoy is hunched over the portable biobed, scanning the tricorder screen with an expression of furious concentration, while Sulu hovers at his side, watching intently. "I don't know yet, Jim," he says without looking up. "He's in bad shape. But he's hanging in there. I need to get him to sickbay."
"That goes for everyone," says Kirk. He shoots a glance at Spock. "And I do mean everyone, Mr Spock. I'll come by and see you later if I may?"
Spock is a neophyte in emotional nuance, but something in the delivery of those words shoots an electric jolt of anticipation through the cloudy edges of his disordered mind. He says, "That would be agreeable, Captain."
"Until this evening, then," says Kirk, and turns to go.
"Captain," says Spock, and Kirk stills, turning over one shoulder, eyebrow raised. "Might I ask how our rescue was effected? Given the speed with which we lost control of the shuttle upon entering the atmosphere, I am… surprised… that another craft was able to successfully navigate below the gravity field."
Unexpectedly, a grin blazes warmth across Kirk's face, and he laughs. "Yes, I thought that might irritate you somewhat," he says. "Let's just say, Mr Spock, that you're not the only one who can crunch numbers. Though, admittedly, I had an unfair advantage over you."
"Indeed?" says Spock, and arcs an eyebrow.
"Yes," says Kirk cheerfully. "I had the advantage of knowing that your calculations were wrong."
McCoy coms Spock's quarters in the early evening with the news that Ensign Chekov has regained consciousness, and is expected to make a full recovery. Caught in the headlights of the Doctor's disapproving glare, no less obstreperous when delivered via a terminal screen, Spock simply nods and thanks him for the information.
"You're supposed to be in bed," says the Doctor. "Seem to remember that was one of the conditions of you gettin' outta sickbay early."
"I have spent the afternoon resting," says Spock, and it's true: he has. Not in bed, per se, because he finds it excessively uncomfortable to spend any length of time on his back, and reclining on his injured side is unthinkable. So he has spent his time in meditation - or attempted meditation - cross-legged on the floor, while thoughts danced irrepressibly at the forefront of his consciousness and obviated any attempt to find a central plateau of peace. It's almost the equivalent of what McCoy had in mind, he's fairly sure, though he doubts the Doctor will appreciate the connection.
"Yeah, well," says McCoy. "Don't come cryin' to me when it takes three times as long for them ribs to heal. Bad enough, gettin' them all bowed up like that, draggin' a man out of a sinkin' shuttle…"
Spock says nothing, but allows his eyebrow to telegraph his skepticism. And it works, because McCoy concedes the point. "Yeah," he says slowly. Gruffly: "Pretty sure you saved that kid's life, Spock."
"I believe Lieutenant Sulu rightly deserves that credit," says Spock.
"Maybe so," says McCoy. "And maybe this old country doctor knows a thing or two, you ever think about that?"
Spock doesn't know what that means, so he lets it go. He is very tired.
Kirk buzzes at his door after alpha shift, at the hour they generally reserve for socializing when there's time and when they're so inclined. Adrenalin spikes precipitously and Spock finds that, now that the moment is here, he is utterly unprepared.
"Enter," he calls, and the door slides open on the irresolute figure of his CO, framed against the utilitarian light of the corridor outside. The Captain hesitates in the doorway and his eyes shift from Spock, to the floor, to the passageway behind him, and finally up to meet the vacillating gaze of his First.
"May I come in?" he says.
"Of course," says Spock, and inclines his head.
Still it takes Kirk another moment to cross the threshold, and another before he realizes he's not far enough inside for the door sensors to recognize his entrance. He takes a second step forward, and the door slides shut behind him, cocooning them in silence. The Captain flashes an uncertain smile and folds his hands behind his back.
"Well," he says. A beat. "How are you feeling?"
"I am recovering adequately," says Spock.
"Good," says Kirk. He rocks on his heels. "Good."
The silence lengthens. Finally, Spock says, "I am grateful for your efforts in recovering us from the planet's surface."
Something crosses Kirk's face then, like the ghost of a terror too deep to name, and he says, softly, "I really thought we'd lost you, Spock." A pause. And then, with difficulty: "I really thought I'd lost you."
There it is: the confession, buried beneath a lesser disclosure, freely given to him, had he only the sense to hear it.
And Spock says, "I believe I understand, Jim."
Kirk chokes out a small laugh. "Do you?"
It's not unexpected. This has been offered before, and Spock has refused it without understanding what it was. He has no idea how to make this right. But an ancient instinct makes him take a step forward, closing the physical distance between them by the length of one Vulcan stride. He says, "Yes."
Kirk looks up abruptly, and his eyes widen in sudden comprehension. But still the gathering hope is tempered by doubt; it flashes inside his eyes as they fix on Spock's. He says, "Why now?"
Of the many questions Spock has anticipated, like a student preparing for an exam, this was not one of them. He says, "I have no answer for that." A beat. "However, I find that there is no room for doubt."
A diffident smile worries at the corner of Kirk's mouth. "From a scientist, that's reassuring."
Spock quirks an eyebrow. "Indeed." And then, "I am uncertain of the protocol."
Kirk grins then; a supernova blast of uncensored elation. It's like color in a world of gray; the first sprinkling of sunlight after a long winter. He grins, and he says, "I'm not."
He crosses the space between them in three rapid strides, and lifts his face to Spock's. Their lips meet without hesitation, and the last vestigial doubt disintegrates. This is not to be feared. This is what he has been searching for. This is who he is.
Spock's arms move without conscious instruction, mirroring Kirk's as they fold around his body, drawing him closer, deepening the kiss. His hands fist in the back of Kirk's tunic, twisting at the fabric and pressing the tight, solid body against him. Kirk opens his mouth beneath Spock's and turns his head and their teeth clash, tongues tangle as they find their rhythm. Questing hands sneak downwards, over Spock's shoulder blades, fingers crooked so that the nails dig into the flesh beneath the fabric as they rake down his back. They clatter across his injured ribs, and, involuntarily, he sucks in a breath.
"Oops," says Kirk into the hollow of his mouth. "I forgot about that. Perhaps… perhaps we ought to go a little easy?"
Spock pulls back slightly and stares into the face in front of his. So many years, so many black and empty nights, so much energy invested in denying this, and for what? Kirk meets his gaze and holds it, and a barrier has dropped behind his eyes: there is no mistaking the love written there. Or perhaps it's simply that Spock has never chosen to see it before. He says, "I am reluctant to let go."
Kirk considers this. "I concur," he says. A beat. "But you're tired, my friend. You need to rest."
Spock is privately certain that, should he press the point, Kirk will not refuse. However, the victory would be Pyrrhic, since there's a chance he's going to fall over if he doesn't lie down soon. An image flashes before his eyes: two men, joined by a bond that Spock will not interrogate out of respect for it and for them, nestled in sleep in the bottom of a boat. Disaster rages in their immediate past, despair hangs heavily in their future, and yet they are curled together in repose, and everything is better for it.
He says, "Will you stay with me, Jim?"
Kirk smiles. "I will," he says.
It takes some confusion and shuffling, some plumping of pillows and arranging of limbs, a little reordering of the spatial dynamics of a single Starfleet-issue bunk, but in the end they find a position that does not discomfort Spock's mending ribs and does not cause the Captain to dangle off the edge of the mattress. This, too, will be learned - the small accommodations alongside the large, the compromises and the care, the fundamental precepts of sharing a life. And it's all right, it seems, to find their way for now through trial and error. The Captain presses his body along the length of Spock's back, and Spock can feel the tangible evidence of his desire between them, a promise for another day. For now, Kirk simply wraps his arms tenderly over his First Officer's bruised and aching chest, nestles his chin into the hollow at Spock's collarbone, and whispers, "By the way - I love you."
"And I you," says Spock in the final seconds before he allows himself to drift into contented sleep.