Nicole Clevenger (June 2014)
“I’m sorry, Bones.”
Nobody moves. Kirk’s words twist through McCoy’s mind, weaving their way between the drugs and the adrenaline and the confusion and the horror. The creature lies on the floor between them, its true form holding strong in death. The weapon that killed it still in the doctor’s hands.
Kirk wants to get up from the desk, to take the phaser from McCoy’s hands and the tragedy from his face. But he can’t seem to stand, can’t push through the exhaustion resting heavy weights on his shoulders. He shakes his head in an attempt to clear it, and his vision greys at the edges.
The weapon tumbles from McCoy’s fingers, the only noise in the cabin as it bounces muffled off the carpet. Kirk can lift nothing more than his eyes as the doctor stumbles past into the head. He lets his forehead drop to rest on the desk, relishing the cool smoothness against his skin.
It clears his head a little. He remembers Spock, realizes the Vulcan is still on the floor. “Spock?”
It’s weak, wavering. It brings Kirk’s head up immediately, cutting through the static in his brain. He struggles through the vertigo as he pushes himself to his feet, moving quickly around the desk to where Spock is sitting on the floor. “Spock?” he repeats stupidly, amazed at how hoarse his own voice sounds.
The Vulcan looks unfocused, blinking up at him with glassy brown eyes; he’s still crumpled against the wall where the creature threw him. Kirk leans heavily against the desk, unsure if he’ll be able to get back up should he lower himself to the carpet at his side. “Are you hurt?” His sluggish thoughts can’t seem to come up with anything else, even though it’s clear there’s something wrong.
Despite the evidence, Spock gives a small shake of his head. “I am… not in immediate difficulty, Captain.” A small part of Kirk’s brain snags on this – he’d swear he’s always heard that Vulcans can’t lie. “Please… see to the doctor.”
McCoy. Kirk nods, straightens painfully. Whatever cultural quirks his new First holds will wait for another time. He leaves Spock on the floor and crosses the room, giving the dead creature a wide berth. “Bones,” he croaks out. He’s not certain it’s even loud enough to be heard through the closed door. A few steps more and he triggers the sensors, the doctor having not engaged the privacy lock. The door whispers open.
McCoy’s bracing himself with a lock-elbowed stance over the room’s small sink, head hanging low in front of the mirror. He’s grey faced and sweating, his eyes dull and sick when they come up to meet Kirk’s reflection.
“What…?” McCoy chokes. “Nancy?”
Kirk shakes his head, reaches out to rest a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Wishes there was something he could say to make this better. He can feel the doctor trembling under his fingers. He squeezes the shoulder gently, a mute condolence. But the doctor is needed. “Bones,” he says softly, apologetically, “Spock’s hurt.”
It takes a long moment and a visible effort, but Kirk can see McCoy pulling himself together. Can see the physician taking over the man. He steps aside to let McCoy pass. The doctor averts his eyes as he moves by the body, swallowing hard.
Kirk intends to follow, but an unexpected wave of nausea washes him cold down to his toes; he remains where he is, trying to regain his bearings while solidly propped up by the doorframe. McCoy notices none of this, stopping only to grab a scanner from a drawer on his way to check on Spock. Kirk loses sight of him when he goes down on his knees on the other side of the desk.
His face hurts, fingertip points burning on his skin. And he’s tired, so tired. It seems he’s never been this tired, and for a moment his thoughts wander a few dangerous steps down the path of why. But the dead alien lying on the floor shouts that there are things that need to be done, things that the Captain has to take care of. He doesn’t have the time to be out of action, not yet. Kirk fights to beat back the pain and fatigue, telling himself he can hold it together long enough to see that his duties are done.
Number one: See to the condition of his officers. His friends. He sways a little as he steps away from the support of the wall, is pleased when he stays on his feet. He can hear the murmur of the two men talking as he moves to join them. Spock looks up at his approach, the squinting lines around his eyes speaking silent pain.
Kirk rests a hip on the edge of the desk, trying to make the motion seem casually unnecessary. “How is he?” he asks the doctor.
“Your First Officer is suffering from a concussion and a broken wrist, as well as the misguided assumption that he’s a medical professional. Would you please explain to him that Sickbay’s not up for debate? He seems to respect your authority, at least.”
“Captain,” Spock interjects, his voice rough, ”Vulcans have… certain healing abilities that –“
McCoy waves this away. “Fine. So let me do what I can for you, and then your alien superpowers can do the rest. Sickbay.”
“While I am certain that you must have some skill at doctoring Humans, I do not believe -” The statement disappears into an abruptly sucked in breath as he tries to shift position.
But instead of crowing at the victory of having his point proven, McCoy sighs, rubbing at his eyes. “Look, Spock, help me out here. I’m fairly sure this won’t be the only time you’ll be injured out here in the next five years. Let me learn now on the easy stuff, just in case something… not so easy happens in the future. It’ll be good for both of us.”
Spock opens his mouth as if to protest further, but Kirk gets there first. “Sickbay, Spock.”
Whether bowing to injury or the chain of command, Spock gives in with a slow nod. McCoy gets to his feet. “Good, that’s settled. Now: Should I call for a stretcher or can you walk?”
The corners of the Vulcan’s mouth pull down slightly. “My legs are undamaged, Doctor.”
“Not exactly what asked,” McCoy mutters, closing his eyes.
Kirk grabs his arm when he wobbles. A surge of adrenaline spikes through his own haze; all of it packs into one word. “Bones?”
McCoy’s smile is crooked and forced, but his eyes open as he steadies. “I’m all right, Jim. Damn sedatives still pulling at me. It’ll wear off.”
Having no choice at the moment but to take him at his word, Kirk’s hand falls from his sleeve. The lethargy sweeps back in, and he’s glad that McCoy’s already turned his focus back to Spock when he has a momentary unbalance of his own. A part of his mind registers that Spock must be in bad shape to be allowing McCoy to give him a hand up – another thing he’s always been taught is that Vulcans don’t like to be touched, and he’s certainly never seen Spock even brush against someone intentionally in the short time they’ve been together. He resolves to find a way to spend some off duty time with his private First. He wants to start sorting truth from rumor.
“You too, Jim,” McCoy says, dragging his floating attention back to the room. Spock’s standing on his own with his eyes on the carpet, and Kirk’s had enough concussions to feel a twinge of sympathetic pain at the relative brightness of the cabin. The corridor will be even worse…
Damn. Now McCoy’s looking at him like he’s the one with the head injury. Kirk pushes himself off the desk, willing the world to stay still. He ignores the implied question in his name, makes sure to place himself between them and the body on the way out of the room. The doctor doesn’t glance that way as they pass, his attention on Spock instead. But the tense lines of his neck and shoulders tell Kirk he can see it all the same.
The walk to Sickbay seems to take longer than it should, he and McCoy on either side of Spock like an honor guard. Kirk keeps his head up and his back straight, but his boots don’t want to lift up off the floor. He doubts he’ll have the speed to react in time to catch the Vulcan should he go down. At least this position has the advantage of putting Spock between him and the doctor; he’s having enough trouble keeping up appearances for the few crewmembers they pass. Stand upright. Nod hello. Smile. The colors of the corridor pulse at the edge of his sight, snapping back when he shifts his eyes, and he’s becoming fully aware of the headache that’s no longer content to simply lurk. Stand upright. Nod. Smile.
Wouldn’t do for the new captain to be seen stumbling through the corridors like a drunk on a bender.
A sideways glance past Spock to McCoy makes it clear that the doctor’s having enough difficulty holding things together himself. His gaze is on the carpet, no notice of anything but the pictures playing out in his head. Kirk’s look jumps to Spock, all stiff muscles and staring fixedly straight ahead.
He has to consciously remind himself to meet the eyes of the last ensign he acknowledges – he digs a little, but he can’t manage to pull a name from the pounding in his skull - gratitude deepening his forced smile when he sees the door to Sickbay only a few feet beyond the young man’s head. Duty number one discharged. Now he can move on to other things. Deal with the body in the doctor’s quarters, get started on the letters home…
But his feet follow them into Sickbay seemingly on inertia alone, with no plan in his mind to actually enter. Spock takes a seat on the nearest biobed without being instructed, but remains sitting up, his long legs hanging down off the side. McCoy waves vaguely in Kirk’s direction, perhaps directing him to do the same, and disappears into the other room.
Kirk knows Spock’s eyes are on him, though his own vague attention remains on the doorway through which McCoy has gone. There’s a flash memory of the Vulcan shouting, his loud words muffled under the sounds of someone screaming. It blurs the edges of his world a little, the room dipping momentarily in and out of focus, but the solidity of the wall behind him helps. By the time McCoy returns a few minutes later, his only concession to his discomfort is the tight clench of his jaw.
Spock has said nothing.
McCoy gives Kirk a tired look, but doesn’t comment on his position by the wall rather than on a bed. He turns to Spock instead. “Might as well lie back and get comfortable, Mister Spock. I want to run a couple of tests while I’ve got you here.”
Spock stays as he is, the bandage on his forehead bright against the flushed green of his skin. “Doctor, I have no intention of becoming one of your biological experiments.” The pained squint is back. “And one would have thought you had already run enough ‘tests’ during the interminable time period you described as my ‘routine physical.’”
“Oh I’ve got plenty more tests, you green-blooded hobgoblin.“
“Of that I have no doubt. I merely question their relevancy in the current circumstances.”
McCoy scowls. “Just lie down and let me do my damned job.”
Kirk’s left leg cramps suddenly, a series of sharp spasms low in his calf. The surprise steals a grunt from him, drawing their attention. “Spock, listen to McCoy,” he deflects quickly, and surely he imagines the flicker of something like betrayal briefly in those eyes. “Bones… don’t push your luck. Just what’s necessary.” His words are clipped with the starbursts of erratic white pain, and he wants to get out of here before McCoy can call him on it. A minute more and he knows the doctor will have him strapped down with a battery of irrelevant tests of his own. Thankfully Spock is obeying without protest, and McCoy’s attention is diverted by this unexpected capitulation. Kirk slips out of the door while his back is turned.
There will be hell to pay for this later, he’s certain. They may be just starting out on this five year journey, but he’s had enough experience escaping McCoy’s medical clutches in the years before. After his surgery the doctor had despaired of keeping him still, claiming that it would be solely Kirk’s fault when he started going grey. There were just too many things to get done, things that couldn’t be accomplished from a supine position in a bed. He never intended to make McCoy’s life harder. He just didn’t see why he should sit around when it wasn’t necessary.
As it’s not necessary now. He’s just tired – understandable – nothing that won’t wait until he can get a few more things taken care of. He convinces himself that the cramps in his leg are fading; the headache is firmly shoved into its habitual box, just another headache. Nothing he’s not used to working around. He manages to make it into the privacy of the turbolift before he rubs at his aching eyes.
The moments alone are enough, and Kirk walks onto his Bridge looking every bit the image he wants to project. Red lights still flash mutely from the walls. “Stand down from GQ4,” Kirk says, taking the command chair from Sulu. Bridge illumination levels return to normal; he hits the comm button with the side of his fist. “Security team to Doctor McCoy’s quarters. Transport the creature’s body to the Science Labs for study.” He closes the channel, addresses the expectant Bridge crew. “The situation is over – the intruder has been killed.” The room relaxes subtlety, air exhaling from a balloon; they wait, watching him to see if there’s more. His brain fumbles through its maze of disconnection, comes up empty. “Ship’s status,” he finally says, turning them back to their duties.
Uhura responds from behind him; he ignores the blink of disorientation when he turns the chair to face her. “Secured from GQ4, Captain. All stations report normal.”
“Good.” He dredges up a smile from somewhere before turning back around. Kirk drags a hand over his face before he catches himself; he wonders if the sensitive circles on his face are visible, red and furious as they feel. But the crew’s not looking at him – or, more importantly, not trying not to look at him, furtive glances concerned and shadowed – so the marks must only linger under his skin. He drops his hand to the armrest, pretending to watch them work while their colors swim around him.
A stray glance at the chronometer alerts him that Alpha shift is well over, that these people have been here far too long. “Ladies and gentlemen, I think it’s time we all got some rest,” he says with as much false cheer as he can manage, and at least a few shoulders dip in minute relief. “Call your replacements up here. You’re all off duty for the next ten hours.”
Kirk sits in his chair and watches as one by one they leave the Bridge. His new crew is efficient: it takes less than fifteen minutes between the time the calls go out and when the Bridge is populated by entirely different faces. He greets each one as they enter, forcing himself not to slouch as they take their seats. These officers deserve a captain they can respect just as much as his Alpha crew.
But his mind is unfocused, a pervasive fog growing thicker with every minute that ticks slowly by. He runs again through the list of things he still has to do, the fog threatening to smother everything. He continues to repeat it to himself through the smiles and nods of the personnel rotation, afraid he’ll lose the threads if he stops. He needs to at least get started on the letters to the families; he won’t let himself stall on this. Thorpe, Green, Sturgeon, Reinhart. Four men who won’t be coming back home.
A watery rush of fatigue drains through him to his toes, slumping him surprised and boneless in the chair. It takes more effort than it should to straighten back up. Time to go.
He relinquishes control of the ship to the Beta duty officer, his voice calm and level in its instruction to maintain their current orbit, even as he’s working to ignore the way the Bridge rocks unpleasantly around the other man’s firmly solid bulk. The disconcerting sensation intertwines abruptly with the banging behind his eyes, and for the briefest moment he’s convinced he’s going to throw up.
Definitely time to go.
He escapes the Bridge without incident, tows his heavy body through the thick air of the Deck Five corridor. It makes things easier that the route to his quarters is nearly devoid of people; he doesn’t recall much of the way there. Mostly just the tips of his boots dark against the carpet of the hallway, feet treading an already familiar path. The door slips closed, the room wrapping him in its silence, and he stumbles the last few steps to his desk. Kirk drops heavily into the chair, finally allowing the luxury of a small moan into the solitude as his head falls into his cold hands.
He wonders briefly what’s wrong with him – this is beginning to feel like something more than simple fatigue. The circle burns on his face throb tightly, and behind his closed eyelids comes the unwanted vision of hairy alien hands reaching and his own inability to move away. Kirk jerks his head up too fast, away from the memory monster; the room swirls into a new and sickening spin.
He swallows, orders himself to breathe. As the walls and furniture settle by inches back into their accustomed shapes, he toys with the possibility that maybe he should have let Bones check him out after all. He dismisses this idea as quickly as it deserves. He’s tired, maybe dehydrated, nothing more. He doesn’t have time for McCoy’s overprotective coddling, that’s all. Nothing to do with the wrench in his gut at the memory of his friend standing by while…
No. Kirk’s hand is an angular fist, short nails biting into his palm. He refuses to do this now. Not that there’s any blame to be placed: he knows the doctor was sedated and confused, knows that it was McCoy who saved him in the end. Knows the sacrifice that had to be made, even if he’s currently a little fuzzy on the details. He remembers seeing Nancy at the end, the creature’s one last desperate attempt to save itself. Remembers –
The side of his fist slams down hard on the glossy surface of his desk. It jars him like a sudden motion made by someone else, and it clears his head a little. Not doing this now. He turns on his computer monitor, noting distractedly the number of reports waiting for him to sign off on. He wonders if a cup of coffee would help.
It’s over an hour later and he’s just finishing the first condolence letter, the one to Reinhart’s young wife. The sharp brightness of the computer screen is adding its malicious weight to his headache; he’s the only one there to be unnerved by the papery whisper of his voice as he tells the computer to dim the lights of the room. He promises himself, as he rests his pulsing head on his arm, that he’s only taking a moment to close his eyes.
The creature is on his ship. Empty and dimly-lit corridors, only crashes and echoes where there should be a comforting him. His phaser is crushed in his grip, a tangible weight against the shadows.
Up ahead, a glimpse of a big body turning a distant corner. He’s running now. Legs, heart, lungs working hard, into a full sprint, but the scenery doesn’t shift. The bend of the corner remains stubbornly far away, no matter how he pushes to reach it. He’s struggling to breathe, lethargy gaining the upper hand. The hallway stretches further, a thick rubber band of carpet and painted walls.
He falls to his knees and the corridor snaps back, the curved corner now only feet from his spot on the floor. It takes two attempts to stand, an invisible spiderweb cloak draping his shoulders in a sticky languor. When he rounds the corner, he finds himself in McCoy’s cabin. Confusion causes him to take a step back, and he tumbles down into the chair behind the desk.
And now here’s Reinhart, Reinhart shaking and frozen as the creature advances on him with hands reaching for his face. Kirk fights to rise, to put himself between his crewman and the alien. His phaser is gone. He can’t get out of the chair.
Reinhart screams as the suckers find his skin; Kirk’s cheeks tingle in angry sympathetic dots. He can hear a woman sobbing, pleading brokenly out of sight. Reinhart’s still screaming. Kirk’s blood throbs in his ears as he tries to force himself to his feet. This man is dying, and there’s nothing he can do.
McCoy, standing at parade rest at the edge of his sight line. “Do something, Doctor,” he growls, an effort even to move his lips. But there’s a blank nothing covering those pale blue eyes, a void that chills him through. “McCoy. Help him.” It’s closer to pleading now.
But still just as useless. McCoy doesn’t blink, a shell of the man he knows. Reinhart’s whimpering, the creature’s furry hands draining his life away. “Bones, please…” This time he is begging, shameless in this one last flailing attempt. The woman’s wailing scratches at the inside of his skull. Reinhart is fading, slumping slowly; Kirk thrashes and strains, the flavor of futility bitter on his tongue. Emptiness in his friend’s features. Uselessness and death.
Reinhart drops lifeless to the floor. Somewhere, a woman howls in grief.
He opens his eyes to find himself collapsed over his own desk, his muscles made of stone and his mouth filled with the taste of metal. His black undershirt clings to the sweat dotting his skin. When he straightens, his back loudly lodges its protests on his choice of sleeping arrangements. His short nap has been somewhat less than refreshing.
The door sounds – again? - and Kirk wonders if this is what woke him. He runs a hand through his hair, takes a deliberate breath. Brings up the lights. Squares his shoulders and presses the button to open the door. His brain isn’t surprised to see that it’s McCoy, a covered tray in his hands. But his body can’t say the same, and he shifts to cover the sudden flinch and unexpected tension in his jaw as the doctor enters the room.
It’s gone by the time McCoy sets the tray down, and when Kirk lifts his eyes he finds his friend shining behind all that blue. Dream fingers gradually begin to loosen their hold as the doctor takes his usual seat on the other side of his desk. He flashes McCoy a real smile, one the doctor returns reflexively, without understanding why.
“How’s Spock?” he asks, watching with some appreciation as McCoy reveals he’s brought an offering of brandy over food. He doesn’t particularly want to drink, but the doctor can probably use the commiseration; the thought of trying to eat something flips his stomach disturbingly, and he flicks his gaze to his computer screen for a moment to keep this from McCoy. When he looks back, the other man is holding a glass out to him. And not even bothering to hide his scrutiny.
Kirk ignores the look but accepts the glass, taking a sip as he waits for an answer to his question. The brandy whispers fire down to his stomach, his throat closing briefly against his nausea. McCoy’s still watching.
“Resting peacefully in Sickbay,” eventually comes the answer, the doctor taking a drink of his own. “Turns out that Vulcan healing mumbo-jumbo doesn’t work as well with a head injury. Took a little time, but I eventually convinced him of the logic of using the bone knitter to fix his wrist – good as new now. I’m keeping him under observation for the time being, but you should have your First Officer back on limited duties in time for his next shift.”
“Good. That’s good, Bones.” Even he can hear the distance in his voice, the fuzzy wool in his head oozing out to thickly wrap his words. He clears his throat, sets the unsolicited alcohol down on the desk. He twists the glass in his fingers, distracted by the way the dim lights of the room splash highlights over the liquid. “What about you?” he asks, not looking up. “You should be… off-duty,” he finishes lamely, not really sure where it is that his friend should be. Sleeping? Reminiscing? Drinking alone in the dark?
McCoy takes another drink, chooses the lightest of strings in the question. “Don’t worry about me – I took something to counteract the last of the sedatives as soon as we got to Sickbay.” It isn’t what he was asking, but they both let it lie. It occurs to him that McCoy must have little desire to return to his room.
“How are you feeling, Jim?”
The sweat on the back of his neck is drying cold; shivers of sensation quiver across his skin. It’s making his back teeth itch. He shrugs through it. “I’m fine. Tired.”
He should have known that even this tiny concession would raise a flag; if he thought the doctor’s study was intense before, he’d forgotten with whom he was dealing. “You’re looking a little pale,” McCoy observes, his half-empty brandy placed on the desk beside Kirk’s. “I’d like to get you down to Sickbay, check you over.”
The tint of his skin feels like the most minor of his problems, and he has to smother a giddy laugh. Spock’s voice in his head points out that perhaps this unexpected mirth is a sign he should listen, another sign that all is not well. But there’s a letter on his screen that’s waiting for his signature, three more that have yet to be written. Reports to be composed, read and filed. Services to be organized and performed. And no doubt empty blue eyes should he try to sleep again.
“Later,” he tells McCoy, and he’s not so far gone that he misses the grumpy bristle. ‘’I’ve got some things to take care of first.”
“What else is new? I can make it an order.”
“Don’t.” Suddenly he finds he has to get out of this chair, has to prove to himself his ability to move. McCoy says nothing from his own seat as Kirk fidgets about restlessly in the small space, into the sleeping area and back, without enough room or energy to really pace. He stops behind the desk with his back to the doctor, vertigo tickling at the edges of his senses. “I’m just tired, Bones,” he says again. His fingers trace absently over the long spines of the books on the shelf, some of the frantic energy leaking away, leaving him hollow. “I’ll come by when I’m done. Promise.”
He silently wills the doctor not to argue; there’s a growing part of him that wants nothing more than to curl up on his bed and sleep this dense exhaustion away. He looks through the grille partition, his pillow inviting despite the threat of dreams. He knows McCoy will probably be satisfied without a trip to Sickbay if he just agrees to get some sleep.
But responsibility’s nagging tones urge for a few more hours, convince him of the need to work a little longer. Remind him that giving in to sleep also means leaving his friend alone. His friend who is still here, who is being uncharacteristically silent. He turns around to see why that is, and the lurking dizziness swells to sweep the room into streaks of muted color.
“Jim?” McCoy’s at his elbow faster than seems possible, guiding him to sit before he can shake him off.
“…’m alright, Bones,” he tries, but it comes out more of a mumble than he’s comfortable with. McCoy’s not pleased either – Kirk registers the whirring of the hand scanner as the room begins to settle from its sloshing. He rubs hard at an eye with the heel of his hand, as if this will force his vision to sharpen. “Dizzy… it’s fading,” he explains.
“Heart rate, respiration, temperature all elevated. I – No, just sit right there for a minute, Jim...”
Because he’s fighting to get up again, prodded by the sudden knowledge that there’s something off, something not quite right. But he can’t grab hold of it. Something with the ship. He shifts under McCoy’s restraining hand on his shoulder, trying to place the sibilant hissing of this nebulous looming danger.
“Jim? What is it? What’s going on?”
His hands open and close around nothing, fingertips twitching their anxiety. “Something…” Something with the Enterprise. The vibrations of his ship, subtle and constant, feel foreign coming up through his feet. Wrong. Ignoring McCoy, he reaches for the intercom toggle. “Kirk to Bridge.”
“Bridge. Lieutenant Watson here, sir.”
“The engines. Report.”
His tone is sharp; Watson looks like a man who’s missed the beginning of the conversation. “Captain?”
The vibrations feel stronger now, and he shoots a glance at McCoy. But the doctor doesn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary - other than the behaviour of Kirk himself, if the expression on his face is anything to go by. Kirk jerks his head away from the other man’s concern, back to the screen. “Ship’s status,” he demands, no time or patience to explain. The faulty tingling is crawling into his bones.
“All systems report normal, sir. No problems here.”
He doesn’t bother to acknowledge this before cutting the man off, flicking the switch to activate the intercom again. “Kirk to Engineering.”
“Engineering, Joniti here.”
“Engine status.” He can feel McCoy’s frown, the eyes trying to scan through the back of his head. The vibrations from the deck are being absorbed greedily by his body, his skeleton buzzing under his skin. He can’t believe McCoy doesn’t feel this.
“Engines functioning within established parameters, Captain.”
Should he call Scott? His Chief Engineer will be off duty now, but if there’s something wrong with the engines, he’ll be the one to know. McCoy’s running his scanner again, the noise just audible under the ringing that’s started in his ears. He realizes the channel is still open, that Joniti’s waiting expectantly. He tries to remember why.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” he pushes out through lips that suddenly feel swollen and numb. Clumsy fingers find the toggle to end the connection; a shaky hand comes up to cover his eyes. He thinks the doctor might be saying something, but it’s lost in all the ringing. The buzzing creeps up his neck, tickles electrically at the tight muscles in his jaw.
The air flexes thick around him, the room bending and contracting. The ringing rises in pitch.
McCoy’s lips are definitely moving.
It suddenly occurs to him that the problem might not be with his ship. A heartbeat before his entire world goes white.
He claws his way out of a hazy dream featuring a friend in the skin of a familiar shape-shifting creature, his eyelids refusing to cooperate and his throat achingly dry. The buzzing is gone, but it’s left a smothering blanket over his senses, left his muscles heavy with lead. He was in his quarters, with McCoy… had the doctor taken the opportunity to dose him with something?
Wouldn’t be the first time.
But this lingering lassitude feels different than McCoy’s usual concoctions, though he can’t immediately define how. And the distinctive smells and sounds of the medical bay are slowly seeping into his awareness, crawling their way through the confusion. When did he go to Sickbay?
“Come on, Jim – that’s it. Open your eyes for me. Come on now, just for a minute…”
It’s not the words but their shape that registers with him first, worried curves nestled in a coat of calm. McCoy’s putting up a good front, but without the distractions of his sight, Kirk can clearly make out the sparking undercurrent of the doctor’s fear. The notice of this shoves the memory of his dream away for now, prods him to force his weighted eyelids open. The blue eyes above him wiggle mostly into focus, the relief growing there all the reward he needs.
“Bones…” he attempts, failing with a painful rasping noise. A glass of water appears, a hand lifting the back of his head. When his shaky grip can’t manage the glass, he has nothing but a frustrated frown as McCoy helps him to drink.
“How do you feel?” McCoy asks, his eyes darting between Kirk and the panel above the bed. “Do you know where you are?”
“Sickbay,” he whispers, and it’s intelligible this time. “What -?”
“You had a seizure, Jim. Scared the hell out of me."
It’s in the past tense, but it’s clear he’s still scared. Kirk struggles to get his elbows under him, to prop himself up on the bed; his weak arms refuse to hold him, and almost immediately he falls back with a grunt, his head cushioned by the thin pillow. McCoy appears neither amused nor comforted by the attempt.
“Let that be lesson and just lie there. Let me finish making sure you don’t have any brain damage, for chrissake.” The words are snarled, full of feeling.
Brain damage? “What’s wrong with me?” Still a scratch, but stronger now. He wants to pretend his body is recovering as quickly as his voice.
McCoy pauses in his near-frantic checking of his instruments, focuses on Kirk’s face. For a moment his eyes are so sad that Kirk’s absolutely convinced that he must be dying. McCoy blinks, recovers somewhat. “Hyponatremia. Massive salt deficiency.”
Oh. Skin pulled taut, burning tearing. Draining his body through suction fingerprints. Makes sense. “Fatal?” he asks, unable to keep from tensing against the answer.
But the doctor bites his lip, shakes his head. “I think we caught it in time.”
He lets out a breath. The light flush of relief he feels dissipates as rapidly as it comes, leaving a thick sludge of exhaustion behind. Now he can barely keep his eyes open. They flutter closed for a beat, two, three. But he remembers the sadness, and he needs to know its cause. “Then what… s’matter?” he exhales, the words slurring despite all of his efforts to keep them apart.
“What’s the matter? You almost died, Jim! Almost died, and it’s my fault!”
His eyes are open now, McCoy’s unexpected explosion shooting an adrenaline spike straight from his heart to his brain. Unfortunately, it’s not doing a whole lot to help him think. “Your -?” McCoy refusing to listen. McCoy standing by, doing nothing. He fights to push himself upright, with little more success than the last time; he collapses onto his back, blinking up at the ceiling uselessly. Kirk shakes his head against the pillow, unable to find the words he needs. The sludge is inching back over him, pulling him under. He has to say something, to set this right.
The room is dimming, ever so gradually. He feels like his brain is shutting down.
“Bones, s’not… I don’t…” The fat lump of his tongue mocks his battle to get the words out.
A warm hand settles lightly on his shoulder. McCoy moves purposefully into his darkening line of sight, the doctor’s expression now gentle and blurred. Kirk thinks he can still see the sadness stowed away in his eyes, but the blackness is dragging him down fast. “Just sleep now, Jim,” McCoy says softly. “It’s okay. We can talk later.”
Having no choice, Kirk sleeps.
His dreams are filled with the moans and whimpers of his dying men. The transition from that world to this is slippery, subtle. Slowly the awareness of the Sickbay filters in again, nudging through the cries of pain. Kirk opens his eyes. But still he can hear their echoes.
He’s alone. Alone is good – it gives him time to assess how he feels without the burden of watching eyes. He’s pleased to find that the heavy exhaustion has mostly faded, that the headache has retreated to a faint lapping at his temples. Vertigo murmurs as he pushes himself up, but it fails to manifest and the room stays where it is. Deciding to press his luck, Kirk slides carefully off the bed. He tells himself he’s not surprised when he stays solidly standing on his feet.
If in his socks, with his boots nowhere in his line of sight. Kirk glances toward McCoy’s office, wondering if the doctor’s inside. How long was he out? He pads over to the wall intercom, his black socks whispering on the carpet. He’s not sure if he’s amused or annoyed with McCoy’s creative efforts to keep him here.
He presses the intercom button. “Kirk to Bridge.”
“Bridge. Arebeen, Captain.”
So he’d slept through a shift change. Kirk rubs at his eyes. “Ship’s status, Mister Arebeen.”
“All systems normal, sir.”
Kirk nods, reminds himself that the channel isn’t a visual one. “Thank you. Kirk out.”
“And just who told you it was okay to be gallivanting around out of bed?” comes McCoy’s voice behind him.
Kirk turns, his hands coming up in a gesture of faux surrender. “Hardly gallivanting, Bones.” He waits patiently, obediently lets the doctor look him over. “Besides,” he says, wiggling his toes, “someone hid my boots.”
The playful tone gets him nothing, not even a smile. “It was supposed to be a hint,” McCoy grumbles at him. “Get back in bed.”
There’s no lightness in this room, and Kirk’s mood abruptly sours to match. “I’m fine. Whatever you did, you fixed me. Now I need to get back to work.” He starts to move for McCoy’s office door, assuming that’s where his boots are being kept, but the doctor stops him with a hand on his arm.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better, Jim but you’re far from ‘fixed.’ We’re having to bring your sodium levels up slowly, to avoid any other complications. You need to take it easy.”
Experience tells him that the current look on McCoy’s face means he won’t budge on this, not yet; Kirk suspects that the next step is McCoy pulling medical rank, which can only add to the time he’s going to be confined uselessly to that bed. So he reaches for the compromise, while moving back toward the bed to show his compliance. “Let me work here then, in your office,” he suggests, taking a seat on the edge of the biobed. “I can get some things done, and you can keep an eye on me.”
McCoy doesn’t respond while he checks Kirk’s readings; the captain sits quietly, waiting for the verdict. His headache is already returning, a rough licking tongue scratching behind his eyes. He ignores it, watching McCoy.
Finally the doctor sighs, meets Kirk’s gaze. “Fine. One hour.” Kirk opens his mouth to protest, is ruthlessly cut off. “One. You can use my office, but I’ll be looking in on you. And I expect to hear about any symptoms you’re still experiencing. Got it?”
“Okay, Bones.” He’s not thrilled, but it’s something. He stands. “How’s Spock?”
“Released him to his quarters. He was getting on my nerves.”
It comes to him how tired McCoy sounds, makes him take a real look at the man in front of him. Dark smudges under his eyes, new lines etched deeply into familiar skin. He remembers the anguished guilt in his friend’s voice from before. “Bones,” he starts softly, groping for the words, “I –“
But something in his eyes gives his intentions away, and it seems McCoy has no desire now for the conversation. He waves Kirk off before he can go any further. “Get out of here before I change my mind,” he says.
Almost two hours later, Kirk’s finished the letters and is starting on his report to Starfleet Command. His headache is back in full force now, the text squirming and jumping nauseatingly on the screen. But he’s working on borrowed time, an extra hour won by playing nice and sitting still while McCoy shot him up with who knows what and fussed over him with a hand scanner. It had probably helped that a random glance at the computer had shown McCoy what he was doing, Green’s name standing out bold near the top of the page. He’d winced at the shadow that passed over McCoy’s face at the realization; he should have thought to turn the screen off when the doctor had come in.
But McCoy had said nothing, just nodded an agreement to his request for another hour and left the small office. And now his extra hour is almost up. With very little to show for it. Kirk runs a hand through his hair, scrubs at his eyes. He scowls at the tiny characters dancing blurred on the computer screen.
He can’t shift his mind off of McCoy. Before he really registers what he plans to do, Kirk’s hand reaches out and hits the intercom. “Kirk to Security.”
“Security. Lieutenant Almas, sir.”
“Send a team of two down to the planet, whoever’s at the top of the duty roster. Tell them they’re to search the perimeter of the camp for a grave, presumably marked. Have them start in the hills by the closest dig site.”
“Report to me as soon as it’s found. Kirk out.”
He closes the channel, but there are other calls that need to be made. He makes them with one eye on the office door, certain that McCoy’s going to enter at any moment like a grumpy babysitter and haul him off to bed.
He’s halfway through organizing a brief sweep of the ruins by the A&A Department before they leave orbit - wanting to be sure there’s nothing that can’t safely be left behind until the Federation can send another team out – when a brutal cramp streaks through his side, stealing his breath and his focus. He doubles over, narrowly missing cracking his forehead on the desk, and tries to remember how to get air in his lungs. The pain is stabbing, unending. A groan escapes his clenched teeth.
Audible, he realizes, as a concerned voice leaks through the intercom speaker and into his awareness. “Captain? Are you in need of assistance, sir?”
Kirk sucks in a breath, unable suddenly to remember which of his crewmen he’s talking to. “Everything’s fine,” he grinds out. “Carry… out your orders.” He can only hope he actually finished giving the orders that need to be carried out. He misses the intercom button on his first try, biting down hard on his lower lip as he makes another swipe at it. He curls in on himself in the chair, riding through the spasms.
He doesn’t register the hiss of the door when it opens, but the hand that comes to rest warm between his shoulder blades serves to make him conscious that he’s cold all over. He can hear the scanner, whirring high-pitched about his head, plucking at his headache like twanging strings. He wants to swat it away, but that would mean releasing one of his arms from their embrace of his side, something he’s not ready to do yet. McCoy curses above him, empties a hypo into his arm.
The cramp immediately begins to ease, the abrupt cessation of the pain making him feel a little sick. The cotton candy haze of McCoy’s drugs crawls through his system, and Kirk’s had enough practice at being dosed by the doctor to suspect that there’s more than a simple painkiller in there. The room lurches around him, even with his head hanging low, and he shifts just enough to be able to rest his forehead on the desk. The hand on his back moves in light comforting circles.
“Better?” McCoy asks after a minute, maybe ten. Kirk has no idea how long he’s been floating here, but this is his cue to pull it together.
He drags his head up from the desk. “Better,” he agrees reflexively, forcing himself up straight. “Thanks, Bones.” His mouth is having trouble shaping his words, the cotton candy gumming up his brain.
“For what? For letting you overexert yourself? Or for letting you get to this state in the first place?”
Kirk’s rapidly losing his focus to the drugs, but he knows this has to stop. “Not your fault, McCoy.” He has to use the desk to get to his feet, but he wants to be able to look his friend in the eye. He clearly isn’t getting through to the doctor, no matter how many times he reiterates that McCoy is not to blame.
He needs to change tack. “All right, Doctor,” he says, using his best authoritative tone when McCoy refuses to respond, “then why don’t you go ahead and tell me just what it is that you feel so guilty for.”
McCoy frowns, his eyes jumping sharply to meet Kirk’s, uncertain if he’s being mocked. But there’s nothing but a soft seriousness, a simple request for him to lay it all out. An order, if he needs it to be.
Still it takes some time for McCoy to speak, long moments of waiting while the drug gains further control of his system. Kirk refuses to fold, knowing they have to do this now. His fingers find the top of the chair, resting there for support.
“Well for one thing, if I’d kept you in Sickbay could have taken care of this hyponatremia immediately. It would have never escalated to this point.”
This one’s an easy one, and Kirk gives him a small smile. “Bones, I left Sickbay. And you came by my quarters not long after. So, if anything, that one’s on me.”
McCoy’s scowl deepens. “That’s supposed to make me feel better?” he says, and Kirk rethinks his admission. But better to get it off McCoy’s personal scorecard, especially as it’s the truth. He shrugs. Waits.
“Dammit, Jim, don’t you see? If I hadn’t been so wrapped up in my own feelings, I would have noticed something was wrong. Hell, maybe if I hadn’t been so focused on memories of Nancy, I would have seen what was going on sooner, before it killed those men –“
Before it killed my men. “That responsibility is also mine, Doctor.” It’s quiet, a dramatic contrast to McCoy’s loud regret. A statement of fact. “I’m the Captain. I should have seen what was going on, and somehow put a stop to it.”
His fingers tighten on the back of the chair, the furniture taking more of his weight now.
McCoy softens a little at this; Kirk pulls his gaze up from the floor where he finds it’s fallen when he feels the doctor’s hand on his bicep. “Jim, you can’t protect everyone…” he begins.
“And you can?”
The tension is back; McCoy removes his hand, folds his arms across his chest. “I knew Nancy. Very well. Out of everyone, I should have been able to tell it wasn’t her.”
A surge of annoyance at the doctor’s stubborn determination to find fault with himself, an icy tendril snaking through the numb swirling around it. He takes hold of it, anything to fight against the muddying medication. “That’s not fair. Not to you, and not to the men it killed. Clearly the creature had some kind of powers of mental persuasion. That has to be how they – we – let it get so close to us.”
Now it’s McCoy who’s making a study of the bland industrial Sickbay carpet. He doesn’t look up; his words barely loud enough to float all the way to Kirk’s ears. “I let it get close to you, Jim.”
And here they finally are.
“Bones…” he tries, more of an exhale than a real beginning to anything. He rubs at his forehead, wondering why the drugs that are working to drown him can only take the edge off the throbbing pain there. He wants to sit down. “Bones, look at me.”
It’s a request balancing on the fine line of an order, and the doctor slowly brings his eyes up to obey. For a moment Kirk debates whether his friend is really cut out for this life, if his request for McCoy’s assignment here was motivated only by his own selfishness. Maybe the doctor would be happier some place more out of the way. A posting a little more peaceful than these next five years are promising to be. But when he imagines standing here, in this small office, with anyone else as his CMO…
“I don’t blame you,” he tells McCoy, and he realizes he means it. “You were half-asleep. Drugged. You had no idea of the situation, the current facts. I burst into your quarters making what could only seem like crazy accusations. I think it’s safe to say… I think it’s safe to say I would have done the same…”
He feels himself sway forward, gravity buckling under his feet. McCoy grabs his shoulder. “Jim!” The doctor relocates his hand to get a better grip on Kirk’s arm. Moving slowly, McCoy maneuvers him toward the office door. “Come on, Jim. Time for bed.”
They’re crossing the room by inches, but still the air is spinning around him. He fumbles through his thoughts, trying to decide if he’s said all he wants to say. A long blink and he finds they’re in the main room; he struggles to get his feet to track so McCoy doesn’t have to take all his weight. Did he get through to the other man? An attempt to turn his head and catch McCoy’s expression goes barely farther than the thought itself. He works to swallow, but there’s no moisture in his throat.
Another blink and they’re at a bed; he’s grateful for its substantiality as McCoy guides him to lie down. Kirk stares blearily up at the doctor, not ready to give in just yet. He needs to know if he’s made any impact at all.
“You saved me, Bones,” he hears his own voice say. “Every time.”
“Jim, I…” McCoy trails off. Kirk’s losing the battle to keep his eyes open. Damn these drugs. He can’t win, and his eyelids droop closed, heavy and final; McCoy’s words, when they come, drift across the darkness like smoke against the sky. “I hear you, Jim.”
And he lets go.
This time when he wakes Christine Chapel is beside his bed. She looks up from the notes she’s making, favors him with a broad smile. “Well hello, Captain.”
“Hello.” His voice comes out at a reasonable volume, and he smiles back up at her before pushing himself up from the pillow. Chapel looks like she’s about to protest this; Kirk turns up the charm in the smile and speaks before her. “Where’s Doctor McCoy? Finally resting?”
It diverts her, and he sits all the way up, judging the stability of his center of balance while half listening for her answer. He doesn’t expect it to be a yes anyway – he’s certain that any second now McCoy will emerge from his office or one of the other rooms, alerted to his consciousness by the sound of them talking.
The room does not dissolve into a nauseating blur. Score one for Jim Kirk.
“No, sir,” she says. “At least I don’t think so.”
He turns to her, the unanticipated addendum snapping for his attention. “Explain.”
“He only said that he’d be gone for a little while, sir. It’s just that –“
She’s obviously concerned, and a tiny part of his brain sparks in distracted contentment at the early bonding of his new crew. Especially with McCoy not always being the friendliest of first impressions. A larger part is trying to quash a rise of worst-case scenarios, summoned by Chapel’s vague concern. “’Just that’ what?” he asks.
She’s uncertain, weighing her instincts against what little she must know of her new CMO. He watches it play out in her face, biting down on his impatience.
“Only that he seemed to leave in a hurry, Captain. And right after the Ensign came by. I asked if he needed me to go with him, but –“
Kirk holds up a hand, cutting her off. “The ensign? What ensign?”
“From Security, sir. She had a report to deliver, and Doctor McCoy didn’t want to wake you.”
They must have found the grave. It’s not a big leap to guess where McCoy has gone. He nods to her. “Thank you, Nurse Chapel. I think I know where he is.” She looks surprised, but she doesn’t ask. He’s pleased to see some of the worry drop from her eyes.
Kirk swings his legs off the side of the bed, but it seems he’s found the limit to which he can push her good nature. She’s nothing but firm as she insists he stay where he is. “Doctor McCoy’s orders, Captain,” she apologizes sweetly.
So he pretends to get comfortable, lying back down and making polite conversation while she finishes recording his readings. A docile nod when she tells him she’ll be back in a bit as he’s doing so well; a promise to call if he needs anything because someone will be nearby. A model patient.
He stares at the unadorned ceiling as minutes slide by, listening to the muffled sounds of people and machines working out of sight. The noises of his ship, running as it should. It’s soothing, and he finds himself relaxing toward sleep. Kirk blinks his eyes back open, and moves to sit up in the now-empty room.
He slips off the bed, his attention on the door to the labs as he crosses to McCoy’s office. He’d forgotten to look for his boots before, but here they are, against the wall just inside the door. He sits at the desk to pull them on, having one more thing to do before they leave orbit. Kirk activates the intercom. “Security.”
“Renin, sir. What can we do for you, Captain?”
The fresh eagerness in that voice makes him grin. It already seems like forever since he felt that young. “I need a few volunteers to take Professor Crater’s body down to the surface. Seems only right he should be buried beside his wife.”
“You’ll get them, sir. Immediately?”
“No, have the transporter room inform you when they’re beaming Doctor McCoy back up. Take care of it then.”
“Aye, Captain. We’ll see him home.”
He thanks the officer, closes the channel. A furtive glance out the door reveals that his exit remains unblocked. As Kirk leaves Sickbay for the transporter room; he assures himself that he’s not sneaking out. A captain does not sneak about on his own ship.
Kyle’s on duty when he enters the room, the lieutenant a familiar face even this soon into the mission. He turns from his work when the door opens, straightening up when he sees who it is. He moves to set his PADD down on the console, but Kirk waves him back to what he was doing. “As you were,” he instructs with a light smile. “Lieutenant, how long has it been since Doctor McCoy beamed down to the surface?”
Kyle checks a panel. “About twenty minutes, Captain.”
Kirk nods, suddenly unsure what to do with himself. How long does it take to say goodbye to someone you once loved? Seeing that the captain seems to have no further orders or requests for him, Kyle slowly goes back to what he’d been doing. Kirk leans against the side of the console, staring at the empty transporter pads and asking himself just how long he plans to stand here and wait.
He isn’t sure. He only knows that he wants to be here, when McCoy beams back to the ship.
So he waits. He tells himself he has too many other things to do, that the Captain has no time to stand around. Tells himself that if he is going to simply stand here, he should at least be making conversation. Using the opportunity to get to know one of his officers. Not staring blankly off into space, trying to convince Kyle that his new captain might be missing a few screws.
But he’s tired, an annoying irony for someone who’s recently spent so much time asleep. Not the crushing exhaustion from before, thankfully, but still unshakably tired. A feeble excuse, and he chides himself for it. Ashamed, he tosses out a friendly-pitched question about the lieutenant’s family.
When the crackle of the intercom breaks through their talk twenty minutes later, Kirk is sure it’s Sickbay calling to hunt him down. He certainly has no plans to underestimate Christine Chapel.
“McCoy to Enterprise. One to beam up.”
“Acknowledged,” Kyle confirms, moving to accommodate. Kirk watches his hands pass over the levers and dials on the console, doing his part to ensure a smooth transport. “Energizing.”
McCoy’s shimmering form begins to materialize on the pad; Kirk steps away from the support of the bulky terminal, standing as tall as he’s able. “Inform Security,” he unnecessarily reminds Kyle as the doctor begins to solidify. “Let the other parties down there know we’ll be leaving orbit within the hour.”
“Yes, Captain,” Kyle says.
McCoy’s shoulders are slumped, his attention on the floor. With one quick look between them, Kyle returns to his work, perceptively making himself as unobtrusive as possible while needing to remain in the room. Kirk ignores him. Takes a step toward the platform and McCoy.
“Bones… I’m sorry.” It feels as ineffectual as the last time he said it. His friend’s eyes come up to meet his, and he’s caught in a loop starting how many hours ago. Kirk shakes his head, a quick flick of his neck, and closes the distance between them.
“What’re you doing here?” McCoy says. It’s not angry as he might have expected, no vitriol backed by frustration and concern. Just flat and wiped out. Resigned. Sad.
“I wanted to be the one to tell you.”
McCoy’s hand makes a vague fluttering motion, brushing this away. He sighs, stepping down to stand next to Kirk. “I already knew she was dead, Jim. Spock told me. I suspected… and I made him confirm it. It’s a lot easier getting information out of him when he’s concussed. Less sass.”
McCoy shrugs. “Not that he’ll turn it on you.”
It’s an effort at lightness, at normality. It’s almost believable.
The transporter room doors hiss apart as they approach them, their path leading out into the hall. “Seriously, Jim, what are you doing here?” McCoy drawls. “You’re white as a sheet in the sun, and don’t try pretending you don’t still have that headache. I told Chapel to keep you in bed.”
Kirk ducks his head, suddenly sheepish in a way only this man can make him feel. “Not her fault. I, uh… left.”
“Again. We’re definitely going to be laying some ground rules around here, Jim. Number one: No sneaking out of Sickbay.”
“I didn’t sneak out. I left.”
“Yeah, yeah. Semantics. I’m not your first officer. You’re not gonna impress me with your fancy turn of phrase.”
He relaxes a little as they walk down the corridor, McCoy keeping pace at his side. It feels natural, having him there. “You going to be okay?” he asks quietly, not looking at the man next to him.
He can sense McCoy’s nod without seeing it. He isn’t certain it’s the truth, but it seems like a good sign. When the doctor stop abruptly, Kirk does too, turning toward him.
“Thank you,” McCoy says. Between the depth in the words and the emotion in his eyes, Kirk thinks he understands some of what McCoy is trying to communicate. He clasps the doctor’s arm, his own nonverbal response.
He’s looking forward to these next five years.
The moment passes and they continue to the turbolift at the end of the corridor. “Coming up to the Bridge?” Kirk asks. “I think it’s time we got out of here.”
“No, I’m gonna go check on Spock. See if he can be trusted to follow a medical order.” Kirk steps into the lift, attempting to look properly abashed. “I expect to see you back in Sickbay as soon as we’ve left orbit,” McCoy warns him. “I’m not done with you yet.”
He finds the Bridge a gentle hum of organized activity, the planet round and looming on the screen. Kirk takes the center seat, informing the crew present that they’ll be departing once everyone’s back aboard. His yeoman appears with reports needing his signature, and he settles into the routines of his ship. By the time Uhura notifies him that the last of the crewman have been beamed aboard, he’s almost managed to forget the headache McCoy saw pulsing behind his eyes.
The turbolift doors open, admitting Spock and McCoy. He doesn’t have to look up; they slip seamlessly down the deck to flank him on either side. Tired as he is, there’s a pleasant warmth that comes from having both of them here. Beside him.
Not so alone.
He’s thinking of the creature, about the devastating loneliness of being the last of a kind. He doesn’t hear Sulu, his focus drawn back only when Spock speaks.
“Something wrong, Captain?”
Kirk shakes his head, returns his attention to his Bridge. This is the only place he wants to be. He’ll fight harder to keep from leaving it in the future. He gives his First a smile, ready to leave this place behind them.
“I was thinking of the buffalo, Mister Spock.”
And he gives the order to take them to their next adventure.