Like people, a star’s death can be predicted by its pattern of life. If a star has enough mass after its birth, it will explode as a supernova when it dies, leaving nothing but debris and a black hole behind as it collapses back into itself. Leonard McCoy learned that at Starfleet, but never really understood it until Jocelyn left him and took Joanna with her, leaving him to cave in on himself.
He wandered empty for awhile, trying to fill the gaping hole in his chest with booze until he finally decided to join Starfleet. If he survived the shuttle ride there without having a heart attack, maybe he stood a chance of doing some good in the world again. Looking back, it was the best decision of Leonard’s life. It was how he met Jim.
James Tiberius Kirk was a force unlike any other. He was a star so blinding Leonard found it hard to look him in the eyes sometimes when they first became friends. They were just so warm and so damn blue. Leonard could get lost in them for hours. Leonard knew it was putting a lot on Jim, burying him in details about his divorce and the depression that followed, but for his part Jim was ecstatic to fill in the gaps Jocelyn left behind. He was excited to see Bones on any occasion, although Leonard was often less than happy to see Jim slinking into Medbay skull cracked with that stupid toothy grin on his face. Still, Bones couldn’t help but grin himself while Jim recounted the details of whatever fight he’d been in this time.
Leonard McCoy was no stranger to death either. He was a doctor. Death came with the territory. It was always hard for him to lose a patient. The first patient he lost almost made him quit. He wasn’t sure if he could keep doing it, but the same day a young girl had come up and thanked him for helping to fix her father’s back so they could play catch again. Every time Leonard thought of quitting, he pictured her family together again because of him. Even if he couldn’t keep his own family together he could help others.
He adopted a gruff bedside manner too keep himself distant from patients. It quickly became the talk of most of the small town hospital in Georgia. Patients would come in from across the state to see him for his skills, and nurses would always warn them that Leonard was, well, less than tactful. Most of the time, patients appreciated his no-bullshit approach. Several patients, though, accused him of not caring, and he couldn’t find the words to tell them exactly how much he cared. That it ripped his damn heart open every time he got a terminal case. That he’d taken more pro bono cases than he could afford. That he cared so damn much he felt like he was going mad sometimes.
So yes, Leonard McCoy was friends with death. He knew depression, and he liked to think he was strong enough for whatever life could throw at him, but absolutely nothing could have prepared him for Scotty grabbing his shoulder in the middle of the worst medical emergency the Enterprise had seen. Didn’t he understand that Leonard had patients?
“Spit it out. I’ve got work to do,” Leonard said, exasperated. He’d been working nonstop for hours and he didn’t have time to waste when Scotty couldn’t even look him in the eye. He still didn’t say anything, merely pointed to a bed with a body bag. That’s when things clicked into place for Bones. That’s when things started caving in.
Someone else unzipped the bag - his hands were shaking too much. He clenched them in fists at his side, setting his jaw and preparing himself for the worst but even the worst his mind could create wasn’t as bad as seeing Jim lying supine on the table. At least someone had the decency to close his eyes. Those beautiful blue eyes that always twinkled with life. Leonard didn’t think he’d survive seeing them go cold.
He stared at Jim longer than he should have, memorizing every line on his face, every wrinkle and pock mark he’d never noticed before. He catalogued it knowing full well he should have done it before. He should have known good things don’t last around him. He was a sinking ship, crashing and burning. He was a black hole caving in.
When he fell into the chair at his research table, Leonard hardly believed it when the Tribble moved. Told himself it was a hallucination, the grief. But then it moved again. He grabbed his tools faster than ever, studying the creature’s vitals, heart hammering in his chest. When all the scans came back clear, Leonard laughed an honest to god, full belly laugh. He felt like he was going mad. He could do it. He could save Jim.
Putting him in the cryotube was hard, watching his skin go cold and waxy, hearing the empty flatline of the heart monitor all confirming that the last light in Leonard’s sky had gone out.
“But not for long,” he told himself as he dove into his work. It didn’t take long to synthesize Khan’s blood into a treatment he thought could fix Jim. M’Benga had tried to stop him, but Leonard wouldn’t listen.
“We don’t know the risks,” Geoff implored, “It’s unsafe, Bones.”
“Don’t call me that,” Leonard snapped at him. “And damn the risks Geoff. The man’s already dead. What am I gonna do kill him twice?” With that, he took Jim out of cryofreeze, careful not to touch his skin or even look at him for too long, lest his resolve freeze along with Jim. He began the transfusion and prayed to every god he could think of.
When Jim finally opened his eyes, Leonard was still half convinced he was dreaming. He told Jim to stop being dramatic about something, but Leonard was on autopilot, eyes grazing over every inch of Jim’s body. He noted the waxiness of his skin, the sheen of sweat on Jim’s upper lip, the bags under his eyes - God those big blue eyes. Leonard had to excuse himself after scanning Jim, locking himself in his office as he began to shake. Sob after sob tore from his throat and he dug his palms into his eyes, trying to stop the tears.
Leonard didn’t know how long it was before he managed to calm himself down, but as soon as he did he was on his feet, marching into Jim’s room. When he got in, Jim was sitting up, chatting to a nurse with the same toothy grin Leonard had dreamt about the whole time Jim was dead.
“Bones,” Jim called to him. Leonard’s chest tightened, but he stepped into the room, scanning Jim again wordlessly. “Come on, you scanned me 20 minutes ago.”
“Yeah, well given your track record I wouldn’t be surprised if you hurt yourself sitting up.”
Jim laughed and Leonard wanted to live in the sound forever. “Glad to see even death didn’t change you, Bones.” Leonard wasn’t willing to admit to himself how much it actually had.
He checked in on Jim far too much, especially considering M’Benga kept trying to take him off the case. Leonard was too close to Jim and shouldn’t have been working on him after the remedy worked, he knew that. Of course he knew that. That didn’t mean Leonard could stay away, though. He tried at first, he really did - even went so far as going back to his office to take a nap. He woke up with a screaming, picturing Khan with his hands wrapped around Jim’s throat in the biobed, squeezing the life out of those blue eyes while the heart monitor beeped away until it faded into a flatline, a wordless droning that filled every inch of Leonard’s head as he sprinted out of his office back to Jim’s room. Leonard’s hands shook as he waved the tricorder over Jim’s sleeping figure. He pressed his fingers to the side of Jim’s wrist gently, not satisfied until he felt Jim’s pulse for himself.
After that, he checked on Jim at least once an hour, always with a physical exam. He put his fingers on Jim’s wrist to feel his pulse. A stethoscope under the cotton hospital gown to hear his heartbeat. Even when M’Benga cleared Jim to leave, Leonard insisted on giving him one last physical. Leonard told himself it was part of his own recovery, that the more he touched Jim the more he would believe he was actually real, but half a year later and they were on the Enterprise again, floating through deep space, and Leonard still gave Jim physicals. He was careful to bump knees with him in the conference room or squeeze Jim’s shoulder when they were in his quarters drinking. He still had nightmares about Jim dying, looking at him with glassy eyes that didn’t see anything anymore. He could still feel the clammy, rubbery skin that came with death. Leonard had enough self control to wait until the next morning when these dreams woke him in the dead of night, but he’d almost always beat Jim to his chair the next day, tricorder out and waiting. Hands eager to feel the pulse that kept Leonard grounded.