Spock bolted upright. Though the scream that had awoken him had since faded into silence, the pain and fear contained within it still stabbed at his mind - it was only then that he realized that in his mind was exactly where he had heard it.
Jim. His body was up and running before he had time to figure out any more than that. Judging by his experience a few weeks prior, this had somehow become his reaction to any sign of his captain in distress. Had he been in a calmer frame of mind, Spock might have felt an inclination to investigate this impulse.
As it was, the only thought running through his head was the quickest route to Kirk's quarters. Precisely two minutes and thirty-six seconds later, Spock was skidding to a stop in his doorway.
The second he located his captain, something in Spock's abdomen clenched. Kirk's eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, his skin pale to the point of being essentially white, and his entire body wracked with shivers.
Suddenly, their eyes met, and the whiteness of his cheeks was broken up by a flash of red. "I'm fine, Spock," Kirk mumbled quickly, "Go back to bed."
Spock hesitated. It was decidedly against regulation to disobey an order from a superior officer. It had to be noted, however, that said superior officer did not appear to be in any condition to be dispensing orders.
"Captain..." Spock began. He took a few, deliberate strides across the room and situated himself on the bed across from Kirk. "I mean no disrespect, but surely you must see that all evidence points to the contrary."
He raised one hand to Kirk's forehead and lowered the other to his chest, persisting even when Kirk flinched back. "In addition to your all too apparent physical distress, your temperature is several degrees above normal, and your heart is beating rapidly."
To Spock's surprise, Kirk made no further protest. On the contrary, he closed his eyes and leaned just a little into Spock's touch.
Spock could feel each rapid swell of Kirk's chest as he tried to calm himself down. When a few minutes worth of attempts resulted in no change in his heart rate, Spock suggested, "I should fetch Doctor McCoy."
"Don't." Kirk clutched at the hand Spock still held on his chest. "I've already woken him up every night this week with these damn nightmares."
"Someone else, then," Spock said, still pivoted to depart. "Another doctor, perhaps -"
"No!" Spock realized in that moment that he had never seen Kirk panicked before. Though it was an emotion he must have experienced often on the bridge, he never allowed it to show in his behavior. He was always strong, always a leader. Now, though, his captain's trademark confidence had completely disappeared; in its place was pure, frenzied fear.
His confusion and concern must have shown on his face, for Kirk squeezed his hand tighter and said, voice shaking, "They'll take her away from me, Spock." Spock did not need to ask who 'her' was. "After what Marcus did, any sign of mental instability - any at all - and Starfleet will give me a permanent on-planet gig faster than you can say 'found unfit to lead.' "
Increased exposure to Kirk had taught Spock not take such statements literally. Instead, he said, "Captain, in the past few weeks, you have been through more than any one person should ever have to bear. Surely Starfleet would not begrudge you the right to react to it."
Several emotions flitted across Kirk's face, more quickly than Spock could identify them. The hand not clutching Spock's clenched into a fist at his side. When he raised his eyes to meet Spock's, they were burning. "If they knew what was inside my head, Spock...what I see when I close my eyes. I'd be lucky if they didn't lock me up."
Spock's abdomen clenched again. Kirk was broadcasting his pain so intensely that Spock would have sworn he was feeling it himself. Surely an unaccountable sensation. It was not as if he and the Captain had...
Of course. He should have thought of it earlier. But could it work? With his captain's health on the line, surely it merited trying.
"If it is your mind that pains you so, I may have a solution." Spock hesitated. "It is rather unorthodox."
"Bones has been hitting me with everything he's got for a week now," Kirk observed. "Pretty sure we're past orthodox."
"I believe my counterpart made you familiar with the concept of mind melding."
Kirk's eyes widened, his head shook vehemently. Spock continued quickly, "It is not a thing to be offered lightly. Indeed, among my people, a mind meld is an act of great intimacy. I would not suggest it if I did not genuinely believe it capable of rendering some relief."
Kirk appeared to consider this carefully. Finally, he sighed and said, "Spock, that last meld wrecked me when I was at full power. I don't want to think of what one would do to me in this condition."
Now it was Spock's turn to shake his head. "Much of the emotional upheaval you experienced on the prior occasion was due to inadequate preparation. I can only imagine that in the other timeline, my counterpart had grown accustomed to engaging in a meld with yours. Thus, he incorrectly assumed that you would react to them as he once did."
"Any intrusion that I would make into your mind could only be possible with your complete willingness. On this, I give you my word."
"All right," Kirk said quietly. Spock raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Your word is more than good enough for me."
His abdomen clenched again - but differently, somehow. Spock pushed that aside in favor of more pressing matters.
"So, how do we do this?" Kirk asked. He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck in a gesture Spock had come to recognize - in others, at least - as nervousness.
"A cross-legged position is traditional," Spock suggested. He assumed it himself and waited for Kirk to follow.
It was when he began to comply that Spock realized his captain was still holding on to his hand. He took advantage of the opportunity to lead this hand down to Kirk's side, before repeating the process with its mate.
"Are there any magic words?" Kirk asked. He was still broadcasting nervousness. "Abracadabra, hocus pocus, that sort of thing?"
Spock smiled, a gesture he believed humans to find reassuring. "In the olden days, ritual words were always used, but as they hold no meaning for you, I had intended to leave them out. There is one thing, however, that I do wish to say."
"James Tiberius Kirk, do I have your permission to enter your mind?" Kirk stared at him for a long moment, then nodded and closed his eyes. "It is important that you know this permission may be rescinded at any time. I will go no further than you wish me to."
Kirk smirked. "I'll be sure to tell you to back off if you start trying to unhook my mind bra, but thanks." The smirk faded. "Really, thanks. I'll let you know if we're going in too deep."
Spock leaned forward and prepared to place his index and middle fingers on Kirk's temples. Though this position was not strictly necessary for a meld, Spock found comfort in the familiarity of it. "Ready?" he asked. Spock could have sworn he heard Kirk's affirmation before he spoke it.
The second his fingers touched Kirk's skin, he was transported. No sifting through blurry images and confused feelings, hoping for a picture to appear - one touch and he could feel his captain's presence all around him. Even in what were surely the outer layers of his mind, his will was overpowering: Spock could feel the strongest impulses of his personality - his drive to succeed, his courage - warring with his emotions - fear, pain, uncertainty.
Spock? Jim's voice seemed to emanate from everywhere. It held no tone, but this did not matter; Spock was immersed fully within his state of his mind.
Though unsure how to attempt this sort of communication, Spock did his best to reply. I am here, Jim. On what Jim would have called 'impulse,' he added, Everything will be... what was that phrase McCoy was always saying? ...all right .
The frenzied pulse of Jim's emotions seemed to calm slightly. When Spock tried to isolate any specific memories creating the cloud of panic diffusing through Jim's mind, however, he found himself coming up against something solid and impenetrable.
Jim? There was no response, but he could feel a sort of focusing on his words from the environment surrounding him. If I am to help you, if your mind is to heal...you must allow me to access the root of your feelings.
The wall shook and weakened, but still held. Spock felt fear enveloping him from all sides. Perhaps a less direct approach was needed here.
Jim. Spock had observed a slight calming in Jim's mind whenever he said his name, and resolved to use that to his advantage. Forget for a moment what we are doing here. Focus your thoughts somewhere else.
Where? The fear was still there, but it was permeated by little ripples of curiosity.
A place that you feel completely safe. Though he had been instructed in the implementation of this particular technique, Spock had never before had occasion to use it. He just hoped his meager skills would be enough.
The sceneless void around him blurred for a moment, then reshaped itself into a tranquil beach scene. Lilac water lapped against red sand as two suns began to dip below the horizon, tinting the whole scene with orange light.
My grandparents had a vacation home here when I was a kid. My mother used to bring me up for a few weeks every summer, at least before she got remarried. I'd read, swim, fish when my grandpa let me borrow his equipment. It was one of the happiest times of my life.
Spock felt enveloped by warmth - whether from the phantom radiation coming from the setting suns or the happiness emanating from Jim's memories of this place, he was not sure. Regardless, he took it as a positive sign that this location would function quite well. This place is most beautiful. I believe it is ideally suited for my purposes.
Thinking of going for a mind swim, Spock? The newfound lightness flooding Jim's mind pleased Spock considerably; he wished he did not have to dampen it.
Perhaps another time. The scene around them sparkled with what Spock could only interpret as laughter. But for now, I need you to anchor yourself to this scene. Try to maintain in your mind the feeling of calm and safety that this place gives you. It is my hope that this will allow you to access more painful memories without being overtaken by them.
I can't promise anything. But I'll do my best. Spock sensed in Jim's mind an increased determination to match his words; it gave him hope.
To Spock's surprise, the twin suns on the horizon began to shake and reverse their direction. As they ascended, the entire scene was filled with an increasingly brilliant light.
One final blinding flash, and Spock found himself ripped from paradise and hurled into the chaos of the tumbling Enterprise. He felt the coursing flow of Jim's adrenaline as he clung to a railing. The world seemed to slow as an ensign plummeted past, the terror in her eyes visible as she tried and failed to grab Jim's hand.
Spock was struck with a crippling wave of despair, followed immediately by an equally powerful one of guilt. Jim's voice echoed everywhere, his thoughts broadcasting over the memory. I failed her. I failed all of them. My crew is dying, and it's all my fault.
Before Spock could attempt to separate himself from the intense emotions bombarding him - to comfort or calm - the scene tilted and spun again. He was transported to a different deck to witness the death of a different crew member - a middle-aged man dressed in the red of engineering crushed by a falling beam.
He had only a few seconds to take in this horrible sight before the picture changed yet again. The scene continued to spin at a dizzying pace through death after death, as if trapping them inside some sort of hellish centrifuge.
Most would have been dulled to the sight of death after witnessing so many; for Jim, each subsequent casualty seemed to increase his agony, which had reached such a peak by the end of this parade of destruction that Spock was having significant difficulty maintaining the meld. Over the top of it all, Jim's words played on an awful loop. I failed them. I failed them all.
Then there was silence, and the only words spoken were Khan Noonien Singh's. He sneered menacingly at Kirk as he said, "You cannot even guarantee the safety of your own crew." Amid the shame and disappointment overshadowing the memory, Spock could feel a steadily growing current of rage.
"Oh, you are smart, Mr. Spock." Same sneer, same mocking tone, but this time it was coming from the comm screen. Then Khan struck Jim and the current of rage became a torrent, drowning out everything else in the memory.
Suddenly, Spock was screaming Khan's name again, staring at Jim's lifeless body through the glass as rage crackled around him. Spock. Spock! Jim's voice dispersed the rage easily. It was then that Spock realized: these had ceased to be Jim's memories, his emotions. They were Spock's own.
The shock of this revelation brought him back to his senses, and the space became Jim's again. The scene before them rotated and rewound, until they were on the other side of the glass, looking out.
The sheer force of the agony emanating from this memory nearly knocked Spock out of the meld. Every cell in Jim's body seemed to be tearing itself apart. Yet this seemed almost secondary in comparison to the range of emotions warring for dominance in Jim's psyche.
It was fear that Spock separated first. The image of an endless void, black and cold, hung suspended in Jim's mind, depriving him of breath as surely as the irradiated cells in his lungs. His every thought seemed to shake and shudder with it.
Beneath the sprawling reach of fear, there was a deeper pain - sharper, more pointed. Its identity eluded Spock until he began to pick out little bursts of images and thoughts sparking from it: the Enterprise speeding its way toward an unknown planet; an annoyed Dr. McCoy chasing Jim around the bridge with a hypo; Uhura laughing with Scotty as he bumped his head tinkering with the communications console. Regret.
But as Spock watched himself kneel and extend a hand, felt Jim's regret sharpen and cut through him like a knife, an entirely different feeling began to surface.
It burned hot, so as to singe and warm simultaneously. The heat seemed to radiate outward from the place where their hands met on the glass, casting everything in its fiery glow. Soon it was so omnipresent that Spock truly didn't know whether it was coming from Jim's mind or his own.
The molten glass between their fingers shimmered and melted away, and naming the feeling became somehow very important. The distance between them slowly closed, and Spock could feel the name lurking just on the edge of the scene, if only he could find it...
A glancing brush of fingertip on fingertip - the name flashed in front of him for a moment, then disintegrated in the white-hot light that had engulfed everything in an instant.
Thrown back, Spock gulped in the cool air of Jim's quarters with desperate relief. His heart raced. His head ached. Hot tears made their way unbidden down his cheeks.
A quick glance at Jim revealed him to be in much the same condition. Spock opened his mouth to inquire after his health, and to apologize for not anticipating the emotional intensity of the meld. Whatever words he might have intended, however, flew from his mind as his gaze found Jim's.
The strange heat he had just felt washed over him once again. Impossible. An unusual after-effect, perhaps. Or were the two of them somehow still connected?
"Spock." Jim's voice wavered a little, but remained determined. He began to lean toward Spock, an inch or two at a time. Spock noticed with confused dismay that the inexplicable heat grew stronger the closer Jim got, so by the time he was but a few inches away, it had reached the level of a summer day on his home planet.
Jim seemed about to say something else, but then his eyes blinked tiredly a few times, his arms buckled, and in what seemed an instant he was wrapped around Spock's torso, head buried in the curve of his neck.
Spock felt his breath hitch again. He knew from experience that at such a moment, some sort of action was required. If the ache in his chest was any indication, it was even desired. Logically, this should have prompted him toward it.
But illogically, much to his shame, he could only sit there, Jim falling asleep on his shoulder, and hold out an irrational hope someone would come and tell him what to do.