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“Captain, when I- yes, Doctor, if you will take his other arm - when I advised that a captain must never appear vulnerable before his crew, I did not mean he should insist upon remaining on duty for three straight shifts while fighting off Altarian flu. Sir.

 

“Shipwide Red Alert is hardly a time to lie down and take a nap, Commander,” the captain mumbled. His listing balance and green face with eyes squeezed shut diminished the usually imposing Captain’s Voice-- to say nothing of the now quiet corridor, conspicuously free of red flashes or blaring alarms. McCoy cast around for a disposal bin, a corner, anywhere one could vomit without the loss of too much dignity.

 

Spying a janitorial cart waiting outside a nearby cabin, the doctor shared a look with Spock as they steadied Kirk and stumbled him closer to the unsuspecting container.

 

Their uncooperative burden straightened, wavered, and squared his shoulders with a deep, controlled breath. With apparent effort he softened his tone. “I’m quite alright, gentlemen.” He swallowed hard, and the three of them pretended not to notice the bead of sweat rolling down his temple.

 

Neither officer made to release him. “If that’s so, then I’m the Queen of Sheba,” groused McCoy. “I don’t even want to know how much caffeine you’ve ingested instead of sleeping, like I-- shit--

 

They pointed him toward the bucket as he bent into a violent heave, then lowered him gently to the floor to let him lean heavily on the yellow rim of the cart. The sound of retching echoed in the empty corridor. McCoy cradled Kirk’s drooping forehead with one hand and held the wheeled bin steady with the other, because that could be a mess. And where was the mop that went with this thing?

 

As McCoy was finishing that thought, the cabin door they were huddled in front of parted to reveal a confused, and then panicked, ensign. “Oh!... Uh!”

 

Kirk groaned insensibly, still laying limply over the bucket. Spock released his hold and straightened calmly. “Ensign,” he said. “Please request assistance from the Medical Bay.”

 

The crewman looked all too eager to retreat from the awkward scene but McCoy interrupted his escape. “Wait. Spock, Sickbay’s at capacity. Everyone’s up to their ears in patients.” He looked to the stunned crewman. “You. Go physically to Sickbay and ask somebody for a virus kit, bring it to the captain’s quarters.”

 

“V-virus kit. I don’t, uh, I mean, I’m just--”

 

“Ensign,” said Spock again, patiently. “You are now under both my direct orders and those of Doctor McCoy. The captains quarters are centrally located on the fifth deck, and I believe you are familiar with the location of the medical bay.”

 

The ensign nodded. “Yes sir. I’ll go now. Sir. Sirs.” He edged hurriedly around the disowned janitorial cart and trotted away toward the lift.

 

Kirk lifted his head slowly, wiping his mouth with the back of a hand. McCoy patted his shoulder lightly. “Well, would you like to bring the bucket with you to the bridge, or shall we go back to your cabin like I suggested?”

 

The captain said nothing as he attempted to get his feet under him. He made it to one coltish foot before falling back heavily into Spock’s strategically positioned chest. A wet cough made the Vulcan’s eyes widen momentarily with panic and hurriedly pull the cart closer.

 

McCoy sighed, not without sympathy. He was pretty sure there were no gurneys left in sickbay-- they were all employed as extra patient cots when he’d gone in search of their wayward Captain.

 

If he’d been smart two days earlier, he would have transferred a lower priority patient to recuperate in quarters instead of Jim. But the Captain had been so restless amongst the commotion of a shipwide pandemic that it seemed best to send him to his own bed for some peace and quiet. That thought had been under the absurd notion that he would actually stay put and rest instead of manning the Bridge through the latest catastrophe, news which came through a private message from the beta shift comms officer just as a flood of new admissions poured into Sickbay.

 

The Captain is back on duty. Don’t worry, we’ll look out for him.

 

Reluctantly McCoy took her at her word. Ship’s day faded unnoticed into ship’s night. Patients demanded all of McCoy’s concentration. The next message came near the end of gamma shift, this time from Spock.

 

The Captain is determined to see this incident through to its resolution. I will remain as well. 

 

The exasperation he felt over this development was no match for the exhaustion of his own double shift. What else is new. Under threat from his head nurse to rest voluntarily or be hit over the head with a hammer, he catnapped on his office couch, only to be awoken by patient sensor alarms and the urgent frenzy of nurses. He rejoined the fray and lost sense of time completely. That fitful nap was just enough to tide him over until the end of alpha shift, when another message came in.

 

The Captain is en route to quarters. 

 

Good, thought McCoy. It was ship’s evening, or so his nurses informed him. He reluctantly left Sickbay to get some desperately needed shut-eye, instructing the staff to wake him if anything new happened. They shooed him away amidst reassurances that everything was under control.

 

A blissfully full night’s sleep followed, a rare gift on this ship, and McCoy awoke refreshed. A review of the night’s med logs indicated that their Alterian Flu crisis was, indeed, winding down. His strongly worded letter to Starfleet recommending the relevant vaccination be made mandatory had had the desired effect; a new vaccination roster had appeared in his inbox. It’s about damn time.

 

He opened the medical status logs for James T. Kirk and scrolled through the data for the last two days. His eyebrows came together. The vital statistics read as expected until early the day before. Then a solid history of red flags-- no pulse, no cortisol information, zero oxygen saturation. An automatic flash of anxiety ran through the doctor before he calmed himself. He’d received messages about the Captain’s presence on the Bridge immediately after the first flag was thrown-- the tracker had never moved from his quarters in that time.

 

He grumbled under his breath. Jim had found the node, removed it, and overridden the alarms before sneaking off to the bridge. That meant no information on his recovery. It also meant no warning of any relapses.

 

McCoy finished his coffee. No emergencies had materialized in Sickbay during the night, so the store could wait until he’d checked in on the Captain personally.

 

At least, that was his intent. As it turned out, the Captain was not in his quarters. The tracker node, however, was on the corner of the desk. Annoyed, McCoy called up to the bridge. “McCoy to Captain Kirk.”

 

A long pause followed. He was about to repeat himself with additional adjectives when a reply came. 

 

Spock here. The Captain is understood to be recuperating in quarters.

 

“I’m in his quarters. I don’t know why I’m surprised, but he’s not here. According to the cabin log … the door hasn’t opened for anyone since yesterday morning.” McCoy hit MUTE on the intercom and swore. Jim had never even made it back here after his three-shift marathon. He swore again. Where in the hell was he?

 

He hit UNMUTE. “Shipwide broadcast. Now.”

 

For once, Doctor, I concur. Only a moment later, Spock’s voice came echoing through the halls outside. Bridge to Captain Kirk.

 

Long silent moments passed. “Anything?” McCoy asked impatiently.

 

Negative.

 

“Shipwide again. Ask if anybody’s seen him since you sent me that last message.”

 

Attention. Any crewman who has seen Captain Kirk since the Alpha-Beta shift change, please contact the Bridge.

 

McCoy scrubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. “I’m going to beat a lick of sense into him when I find him,” he muttered.

 

Patience, Doctor. Reports are coming in as we speak. Several moments passed. Reports indicate the Captain was last seen at 0100 hours in the Observatory.

 

“Headed there now.” McCoy stepped out without waiting for a reply.

 

Why was Jim like this? Why couldn’t he just go to bed like a normal sick person?

 

As he stepped out of the hoverlift on the Fourth Deck, Spock fell into step. McCoy flinched. “How… Nevermind. You spooks have your ways, I suppose.”

 

The First ignored him. 

 

The observatory door was open, and light from the corridor fell into the dark room. McCoy slid past Spock and asked the computer to slowly raise the lights. This early the room was empty but for booths, chairs, and the starry night outside.

 

To his frustration, the Captain was nowhere to be seen. “Damn,” said McCoy. “Now wh--”

 

“Doctor.” Spock’s gaze was fixed on the far corner of the room, near the windows. For a moment, McCoy didn’t see anything. Then he saw the boot peeking out from behind a bench. His heart lurched. “Jim?”

 

As he and Spock approached, more became visible. Black-clad legs, stretched out on the floor. Command gold… McCoy’s breath caught. They’d had two deaths from their Altarian Flu crisis. Both young, strong. The best health the Enterprise had to offer. He should have dragged Kirk off the Bridge as soon as he caught wind of his stubborn workaholic field trip. Under sedation, if necessary. He should have…

 

He stepped closer, dreading that he’d see the captain lying there, lifeless, long dead.

 

But James Kirk was propped up on the window by one shoulder, forehead resting against the transparent aluminum, looking out over the stars with half-lidded eyes. And breathing.

 

McCoy exhaled and knelt down. “Jim.”

 

His glazed eyes turned to McCoy. “Bones. Spock.” He didn’t react to the whirring of the scanner.

 

“Dammit, Jim. You’re supposed to be in quarters , resting. Do you know what that is? Rest?

 

“Went for a walk,” said Kirk, quietly. He’d turned back to the window. McCoy read the scanner. He was dehydrated and exhausted, nowhere near as improved as he should be at this stage, but it could be worse. The doctor mentally began a treatment plan. Fluids, electrolytes, a sedative… “Went for a walk,” Kirk said again. “Can’t look vulnerable before the crew.”

 

--

 

Despite his ambitions, the young man hunched over the janitor’s cart-- again-- did look vulnerable. McCoy watched him swallow and start trying to get up again before putting a hand out to stay him. “Alright, alright, Jim, you just stay put for a second.” There was a pressure point at the base of the skull handy for soothing migraines; McCoy gently kneaded it. Kirk melted against his hand. 

 

No gurneys meant a long stagger for someone who could barely stand... McCoy glanced at Spock, who appeared as serene as ever to the uninitiated. The subtle drawing together of the slanted brows was the only hint of anxiety over his disabled captain. “Spock, could you do an old man a favor and gather up our patient?”

 

Spock matter-of-factly scooped Kirk up with the uncanny ease of a vulcan among humans. The surprised Captain grunted in objection. “Put me down,” he rasped.

 

McCoy snorted. “He can throw you over his shoulder like a sack of feed if you’d rather, but your tender stomach might not stand for it.”

 

Kirk’s weak resistance faded and he sank in defeat, outside arm flopping limply towards the floor. “Mutiny,” he breathed.

 

“As I am currently Acting Captain, I believe it is you who are resisting orders,” said Spock, striding smoothly toward the hoverlift as the doctor kept an eye out for non-essential passerby. Word of this would get out soon enough, but the fewer eyewitnesses the better.

 

Once the hoverlift doors closed, Kirk whispered something up to Spock, whose ears seemed to prick up. “No, Captain. Serious illness is an exclusion from our previous discussion. Attention paid to one’s own well-being is a sensibly proactive measure, not a sign of weakness.”

McCoy lifted the flopped arm and tucked it across Jim’s chest. “Spock, I’m banning you from administering pep talks if this is what comes out of it.”

 

Spock definitely did not roll his eyes.

 

The doors opened and Kirk said nothing, just shut his eyes against the brighter light of the corridor.

 

Depression was a typical symptom of the Altarian Flu, but the Captain already tended to nosedive under any kind of malaise. Jim Kirk was happy to suffer on behalf of ship, crew, or the universe as they knew it, but suffering for its own sake didn’t sit well with him. He tended to ruminate. What exactly the present dysphoria was over McCoy hadn’t a clue, but his first, best cure was sleep.

 

It was a relief to get inside the Captain’s dim quarters without encountering anyone else. McCoy thought that ensign-turned-gofer should be here any second now, and as soon as he did Jim was going down for a long, long, mandatory, nap.

 

Spock deposited his charge on the unmade bed with amusingly maternal care, straightening sheets and adjusting pillows. McCoy half expected him to add a kiss on the head and an admonishment to sleep tight, but he instead turned to the more practical work of tugging the Starfleet issue black boots off and assisting with a shirt change. McCoy, meanwhile, retrieved the discarded bio sensor.

 

He brushed the damp strings of hair out of Jim’s eyes and held up the sensor. “I’m going to put this back on you, and if you take it off again, so help me, I’m going to enlist Scotty and we’re going to use his fancy space glue to permanently attach it to your person, got it?”

 

“S’prised you haven’t already,” mumbled Jim. He grunted as the sensor was replaced with a rough poke. McCoy’s PADD dinged softly from his pants pocket as the signal came back online.

 

Spock retrieved the virus kit from the anxious ensign moments after the door chimed. He dismissed their temporary errand runner and handed the pack off to McCoy before clasping his hands behind his back and stepping aside.

 

The logical thing to do would be for the Acting Captain to go back to the bridge. McCoy knew he’d remain hovering nearby instead, masking his worry behind one rationalized excuse or another, until the doctor’s apparent all clear .

 

“He’s alright, Spock,” he muttered. “A kindergartener,” he said more loudly, “but he’s alright. You can leave off gargoyle duty.”  

 

Spock glanced from the doctor to the bed. “Captain?” he asked softly.

 

“M’fine. Have fun being me,” Jim breathed, eyes closed. Now that he was horizontal on a more forgiving surface than the hard floor, he was getting closer and closer to drifting off.

 

Spock spared him a soft look before accepting McCoy’s nod of confirmation and taking his leave.

 

Sitting on the bed next to Kirk’s limp sprawl, the doctor organized and adjusted dosages. A visual assessment of his patient corroborated his earlier scan. Elevated temperature and respiration. Exhausted appearance. And a pitiful, baleful look levelled at his doctor.

 

McCoy pulled one of the clammy arms away from his patient’s chest to drape it across his thigh and push the sleeve past the elbow. He picked up a disinfectant swab. For all the progress of medicine, there was no substitute for good old fashioned intravenous fluids. Even if he did take advantage of an automated doodad to start the cannula these days.

 

“Bones.”

 

Fluids started, he turned his attention to readying the Captain’s special nightcap . “What is it, Jim?”

 

It was a few breaths before McCoy looked up to investigate the long pause.

 

Kirk was watching him handle the sedative with something like panic. McCoy frowned and set it aside. “Jim?”

 

“I don’t...” he rasped, shutting his eyes suddenly as if the words pained him. “I don’t want to…”

 

“One way or the other, you have to sleep,” McCoy said gently, resting his free hand on Kirk’s chest as if to ward off even the idea of sitting up and escaping.

 

Starfleet’s youngest captain rarely looked his age. His presence was something to behold, his command career a legend verging on the fantastical. But right now, ship safe and crew secure, he bled insecurity. McCoy had seen him with gut wounds that left him looking less shaky.

“You’re startin’ to worry me, Jim. What?” 

 

Kirk swallowed, finally looking up. “Stay?”

 

McCoy sighed, rubbing his thumb across the kid’s sternum. Because that’s what he was-- a kid, at least that’s what McCoy was at that age. He’d been a new father then and even that much had been an overwhelming responsibility. Sometimes, it was an isolating one. He thought of the dozens of panicked phone calls to both his parents, the commiserating way his mom held him when he sagged in, half-dead, with Jo in his arms and a killer case of pleuritis that needed sleeping off. Don’t worry, Leonard. We can take care of you both.

 

It was lonely at the top. “Aw, Jim… yeah. I’ll stay.”

 

Kirk nodded minutely, releasing a relieved breath. It was easy to forget, with all the bravado, that vulnerability was occasionally a non-negotiable fact of life. It was even easier to forget that those moments didn’t have to be spent alone.

 

The sedative went in without further objection. McCoy watched him blink sleepily, knowing he was fighting it. That was Jim. He’d rage against the dying of the light even when it was a healing light.

 

McCoy took a radial pulse, despite the meticulous readouts of the sensor. It was for Kirk’s sake, an excuse for contact. He put a palm to the hot forehead, grunted at the stubborn fever. He brushed the hair back and left his hand there, feeling the head grow heavy against it, a sigh brushing past his wrist.

 

After he’d handed Jo off to her doting grandparents, McCoy had collapsed in his childhood room and slept like the dead. Then fever dreams chased him in and out of the deep until he came gasping into half-hallucinatory wakefulness.

 

His dad was there, sitting on the bed. He was folding a wet cloth, cooling his son’s neck, draping it across his brow, with absolutely no regard for the strong, independent grown man persona that McCoy kept trying to cultivate.

 

McCoy had been too far out of it for words. But the look they shared, the tender touch of a rough hand, was all that was needed.

 

He’d stay as long as he wanted.