“You know, I’ve often wondered about Vulcan physiology.”
The words came out of Bones in between breaths as he trudged along the dirt path, half the syllables lost as he sucked air into his burning lungs.
“I mean, you folk are all so tight-lipped about it all, it’s like you’re asking for curious men like myself to stick their noses where it doesn’t belong. Ah-”
The rough wood digging into Bones’ palms had become unbearable. He paused to catch his breath, lowering the makeshift stretcher to the ground as gently as he could manage. He shook out his arms, rolled his neck from side to side, and then stretched his hands to the sky, gritting his teeth as his shoulder joints protested the movement. He turned around with a sigh and looked at the two long, unbroken gouges in the earth that the stretcher had made - if you could even give that name to the two branches he’d tied Spock to. He stood there for a moment longer, gazing back along the path as he listened carefully. He scanned the path through the tangle of impossibly tall, thin tree trunks. Under the canopy of thick yellow leaves that filtered the daylight into a sickly haze, he felt enclosed, baking alive under the heat that they trapped beneath them. The canopy itself generated the electromagnetic field that made it impossible to transport out from beneath. He hated those trees. He hated this whole planet.
Nevertheless, he watched for any sign of movement or any noise that didn’t fit the natural sounds of the area. Not that he had much knowledge of that, either - they’d only been here two or so Earth days. He’d check for a more accurate number, if he had anything to do that with.
Satisfied they weren’t being followed, Bones allowed himself a few moments to check on Spock.
“Wish I knew what I was doin’. S’hard enough when I’ve got a tricorder on me, but hell, I don’t even know what your pulse is meant to feel like.”
He watched Spock’s face as he put his fingers to the inside of his wrist, focusing on the Vulcan’s lax features, the dark lashes against his too-pale skin. He only had consistency to base his judgement on, but whatever the heart rate was, it was holding steady. That would have to do.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, “your fault for never letting me do any of this manually.”
The makeshift bandage around his waist was holding, and he didn’t look any worse, which was a blessing. There was no way he was coming out of that healing trance any time soon, though.
“Wish you would though. Let me. Alright, back to it.”
He lifted the branches once more, and dragged his friend onwards.
“I’m gonna pick your brain about those healing trances of yours when you’re awake as well. I’m sure you could explain it to me if you wanted to. As your doctor it’s only right that I should know as well. That, and I’m feelin’ like a busybody right now.”
Bones kept up the litany of nonsense as he pressed on. It was something to distract him from the way everything ached, from the afternoon heat beating down on his head, from the tickle of sweat as it ran down his back and stung his eyes.
“You know, I’m only doin’ this so I’ve got something to hold against you when we’re back on the Enterprise. Remember that time I dragged your sorry ass ten miles to the rendezvous point because you decided to take a Vulcan nap? That’s all those healing trances are, ya know. Lazy bastard.”
Suddenly behind him, the sound of groaning. Bones quickly lowered the stretcher and knelt down.
“Spock?” he said softly. When no reply came, Bones reached out and gently patted his cheek.
“Spock, is that you? Are you tryin’ to wake up?”
That same groan sounded again, but Spock’s face did not move. Bones looked up and saw an old road sign in lettering he didn’t recognise, swaying as a hot wind picked up. The metal creaked from disuse, making the sound he had mistaken for Spock.
Bones realised his hand was lingering on Spock’s cheek, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to take it away. He smoothed his thumb over his cheekbone, feeling the inhuman heat that radiated from his skin, reassuring himself that Spock was still alive. That beneath the lifeless exterior, he was still fighting. Bones took a shuddering breath, then forced himself to his feet once more.
“That was a hell of a trick to play, wasn’t it? Where was I, anyway - oh that’s right! You’re gonna owe me for this one. I’m gonna get you to that rendezvous because when I do, you’re never gonna hear the end of it.”
Bones looked up, and noticed that he’d made it to the bottom of a hill. The prospect of tackling that only intensified the ache in his joints, and he resolved to rest a moment before he attempted it. He could hear no sounds in the distance, and lord knew the Phastrae weren’t exactly masters of stealth.
“That’s what I wanna know,” said Bones, going through a few stretches.
“You could’ve completed the mission much more safely without me. Collecting your officer before you’ve had a chance to contact the ship is a pretty risky choice.”
Bones had to laugh at himself there; even he had to admit he had something of a talent for understatement. They’d tied him up in full view of the blazing sun on this godforsaken nightless planet, and his skin was still smarting from the experience. Spock hadn’t come to collect him so much as fought his way through several soldiers to cut him down.
“Why’d you do it, you dumb bastard?”
Bones watched Spock’s face, as if the unconscious Vulcan could somehow give him an answer. Of course, none came, and Bones got to his feet once more.
Before too long, all attempts at speaking aloud fell by the wayside as Bones struggled, gasping for air. He was now occupied with the arduous task of putting one foot in front of the other, and dragging his increasingly heavy burden along behind him. The tracks he left became jagged as his rhythm became a stilted step-drag, step-drag. The fact that it was Spock helped some. There wasn’t a chance in hell he was going to let him fall, or leave him behind. Not before he’d had a chance to yell at him while he was conscious. And the other reason - the fact that the idea of leaving Spock behind hurt worse than anything else he could imagine. It would be beyond enduring. That thought he had kept carefully tucked away, ever since it had risen in his mind and made his hands numb with some unidentifiable emotion. No, he focused on berating the Vulcan in his mind, until finally he made it to the top of the hill.
He stood there briefly, sucking in great lungfuls of air. From his vantage point, he could see that the path was uneven from here, with more rises and falls than flat ground - but nothing as steep or as high as where he stood now. Good. He could do that.
In the distance, the trees themselves began to clear as well, as the terrain smoothed out into grassland. It was quite a distance yet, but it was in sight. He fought the urge to simply let the stretcher drop, knowing that here he was most visible of all.
Instead, he dragged Spock to the bottom of the hill before he allowed himself to fold to the ground and rest a while. His hands had cramped into painful claw shapes from holding the branches, and the skin of his palms was rubbed red and raw.
“You know,” he began, “you’re lucky I-”
He broke off; his lungs were screaming for air and he lay back until his panted breaths evened out again, and his heartbeat wasn’t deafening his ears. His vision briefly greyed out, but thankfully that did not last.
As the worst of the aches drained away, his energy went with it, and he found that sitting up now seemed to be an insurmountable effort. He flung one arm over his face and sunk his teeth into his shirt sleeve, biting down hard. Frustration filled his chest, pressing outwards so hard he thought his ribcage might burst, and he spat out the fabric and pounded his fist on the ground.
“This wouldn’t’ve happened if you’d stop puttin’ yourself in harm’s way every time you get the chance,” he said, forcing the words through clenched teeth, “I don’t give a damn what regulations say, if anybody’s volunteering to get put out of action it oughta be me! I was outta the way already! You had your instructions! You could’ve always come back for me later! How’s that for logic?”
Spock would likely have come back for his body only, and Bones could almost hear the measured rebuke in his head. Tears slipped out of the corner of his eyes as his frustration spilled over, and he rubbed angrily at his face.
“I can’t do this,” he said, and the words came out as a whisper.
“I just don’t have the-”
Bones’ mouth snapped shut as a bundle of twigs in the distance went crunch . All at once he was on alert, scrambling to his feet and pushing aside the futility of trying to outrun the Phastrae soldiers while trying to haul Spock’s dead weight around. Logic screamed at him to just get going, but he looked anyway, he needed to know how far away they were, even if it wasted precious seconds - and he looked directly into the shining black eyes of a bear.
Bones froze where he stood, staring straight back. Was the creature - it wasn’t a bear, there was no way it could have been a bear, they weren’t on Earth - was it going to take staring as a challenge? An act of aggression?
There was a tingling in his hands that he recognised as fear, his body preparing to fight or flee. Which would he do?
The creature ambled towards him with the cautious, measured steps of a hunter. Though it was monstrously big with a body shaped like a barrel, its head was long and tapered to a pointed black nose. Shaggy, coppery fur formed a half-mane at the top of its head. It turned into a stripe that went all the way along the top of its body, ending in a long tail that swished from side to side. The rest of it, from its belly to its huge paws, was covered in small whorls of short hair. Bones kept his eyes on the face though, and the beady eyes that bored into him, unblinking. The side of its mouth lifted in a snarl, revealing a glimpse of pointed, carnivorous teeth.
A thought flashed unbidden through Bones’ mind - a memory of Spock’s teddy bear with the six inch fangs. Spock would know what to do. Damn him.
The animal prowled towards him, and Bones remained, unable to run with Spock, unable to leave him behind, completely out of options other than to stand his ground. The realisation sunk in that he would very likely not come out of this encounter alive, and so his hands balled into fists. He had made his choice.
“Come on then, dammit,” he whispered, “do what you’re gonna do, but don’t think I’m not gonna put up a fight.”
The creature neared him and Bones waited, watching for any kind of movement that would suggest it was going to attack. It's head stretched out, sniffing the air, the cold tip of its nose brushing his forehead. Bones fought the urge to recoil at the sensation, and briefly hoped that the creature would pass him over. For a moment, this seemed like the case, as it huffed at him and then lost interest. He let out a breath.
But then it turned its attention to Spock, and Bones suddenly found himself moving once more.
“Get away from him,” he said, his voice hoarse and broken from terror. The creature’s head snapped up and stared at him for several seconds, and then returned to Spock. It seemed much more interested in him.
“I said, get away from him!” said Bones, louder this time. The creature ignored him this time, and licked Spock’s cheek with a long, brown tongue. Seemingly satisfied, its jaws opened, and Bones reacted the only way he could think to - he aimed a kick directly at its nose. The creature let out a sound that was halfway between a growl and a shriek, clutching at its face with its front paws in a manner that was disconcertingly human-like. Bones took the opportunity to place himself in front of Spock in that time, bracing for a fight. He checked around him for a branch, or a rock - anything he could use as a weapon. There was nothing though, nothing but thin twigs that fell from that terrible yellow canopy.
The creature reared, seemingly for another attack, and Bones drew himself up as tall as he could.
“I told you to get the hell away from him!” he shouted, “I know you can’t understand what I’m saying but by god I’m going to shout at you! He’s mine, ya hear me? You leave him the hell alone!”
The creature remained sat on its hindquarters, staring at him as he shouted. It didn’t seem in the least bit perturbed by him, but neither did it look like it was going to attack again. It looked from Spock, to himself, and then back at Spock once more.
The creature looked as though it was going to leave, but then suddenly there came another growl, and another creature came trotting through the forest, clearly looking for its mate. This one was smaller and more compact, with a flatter snout.
It pawed at the ground near Spock, and Bones braced to try and force this one away too, but to his surprise the first creature butted its mate out of the way. It huffed, and made a series of odd whining noises. The second creature once again looked from Spock, to Bones, to Spock, and then gently butted its head against the first in a way that Bones could swear was affectionate. The two of them examined him with something akin to curiosity in those round black eyes. There was something in there. A kind of recognition that his frazzled mind was struggling to grasp the significance of. The first one nudged the second, and the two of them turned and ambled back into the woods from where they had come.
Bones’ knees buckled, and he sank to the ground as he watched them leave. More so than his trek through the forest, the encounter with the not-bears had wrung him dry, leaving him hollow and confused.
How long he sat there, he didn’t know. Time seemed to have stopped momentarily for him, or that could have been the dizziness he was currently experiencing. Seconds, perhaps minutes later - maybe even longer, he heard a sound that was now familiar to him, the shrill sound of a Phastrae death whistle in the distance.
They blew them out of respect for the dead, or the soon-to-be. The air had been full of them when he and Spock had arrived. One would think people like that would be glad to receive a cure when the degenerative disease it was for affected the entire population.
They’d blown a whistle for Spock too, when the soldiers had brought him down. What a victory.
Bones drove his knuckles into his eyes, trying to banish the image from his memory.
“Get up,” said Bones, though this time he was talking to himself.
“Get up, you worthless sack of-”
Bones pushed himself to his feet, grabbed the stretcher, and went on his way, as fast as he could manage. Just a few more small hills to go. Just until he was out of the forest, out of the cover of those awful, suffocating trees with their electromagnetic canopy.
He was out of words by now, concentrating on pushing himself as hard as he could go, now that the Phastrae were drawing nearer. Going uphill, he focused on anger to spur him onward, and reached desperately for any memory that would fuel it.
The Phastrae, all smiles and kindness. Food, piled into bright gradients of blue, green, red. Spock and himself, seated at a table together, away from the others. They’d thought it had been a sign of respect.
“Bastards,” muttered Bones at the top of one of the hills, pausing before he stumbled his way down as fast as he could, letting gravity pull himself and Spock downhill. He winced at how this jostled the injured Vulcan, but he was so close. Already the forest was less dense, cracks beginning to form in the canopy as the world around him grew brighter, the air cleaner and easier to breathe.
There was no time to feel elation at any of this, however - the closer he drew, the louder the sounds of the Phastrae became. He could hear voices shouting orders now, and the thundering of the two-legged mounts the soldiers favoured.
Betrayal. That was the only thing he could feel as the Phastrae neared. He let it course through his veins and feed his flagging strength. They’d welcomed him here under the guise of requesting help from the Federation, and in return for his research they’d tried to beat out of him what he’d come here fully intending to share freely. What good was selling his cure when the buyers were dropping dead around them? He would never understand.
He reached the top of the final hill, and he could see it in the distance. Grass. Sweet, sweet grass, blowing gently in the breeze, within reach now. Heartened by this, Bones ran down as fast as he could, but in his haste he tripped and stumbled the rest of the way down, the stretcher bouncing along the ground behind him. He felt the shift of the branches in his hands, the way the two of them split apart, sending Spock tumbling to the round, rolling to a stop at the bottom of the hill. At the top, the first of the Phastrae soldiers arrived and raised an arm to signal the rest.
There was nothing for it - Bones bent and lifted Spock with every ounce of strength he had left, slinging him across his shoulders in a fireman’s carry and staggering forwards towards the grass. In his state of exhaustion Spock’s weight was crushing, and it wasn’t long before his legs gave out underneath him. With it went the last dregs of his determination, and he simply lay there beneath Spock’s insensible body, closing his eyes and praying for their execution to be swift.
His stomach churned with nausea as a feeling of vertigo washed over him, and for a second he chalked it up to his body finally protesting the abuse he’d put it through in the last few days. But then the feeling subsided as swiftly as it had come, and there was cool metal beneath him instead of prickly grass, and somebody was lifting Spock off him.
Jim. It was Jim’s voice. He’d made it. He was in the transporter room. Spock was already being rushed away, and he watched Spock leave dispassionately. Somehow, none of this seemed quite real yet.
“Jim,” he said, and his voice sounded like it was being scraped along that dirt path.
Chris was scanning him, and for some reason the sound of the tricorder hurt like the pricking of a needle.
“Sorry Len, nearly done,” she said softly. He must have flinched.
“Hmm,” came his reply. He wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by that, but they would worry if he didn’t respond. They could figure out the meaning themselves. There was something important he had to-
“Jim,” said Bones, “Jim, you’ve gotta. We didn’t roll the cure out, they tried to - you’ve gotta contact the Federation-”
“What do I tell them?” said Jim, hating himself for the command he layered into those words. But Bones was fading fast, and he needed to know.
“They’ve gotta do it. All at once. To everybody - or else they’re gonna try to… they tried to steal-”
“Alright,” said Jim, “ alright. Consider it done. Let’s get you to sickbay-”
And then Jim went and put his hand on Bones’ back, right between the shoulderblades, and the solid warmth of it brought him crashing back down into reality.
“ Jim, ” he gasped, and then Captain James T Kirk of the Enterprise found himself with an armful of sobbing Chief Medical Officer.
Jim tried not to panic at Bones’ uncontrolled, exhausted weeping. Instead he held him, wrapping his arms securely around his friend. Bones’ skin radiated heat through his shirt, and his entire body shook with tremors.
Christine chose that moment to hypospray Bones and he collapsed against Jim with a whimper. Jim held him close, and thanked the small mercy that Bones’ consciousness was finally free of whatever he’d endured for the past two days.
“Shut up, Spock. You’re meant to be resting.”
“I am adequately rested. My healing trance grants me-”
“An arm wrestling match says you’re lying.”
Spock raised a perfunctory eyebrow at the illogical nature of Jim’s proposed medical fitness test, but did not take him up on the suggestion. Jim smiled back at him, because he had won. The silence hung between them for a moment longer, and then Jim returned to the work he was doing on his PADD.
“Spock,” said Jim, “what’s up?”
“Has Doctor McCoy made his report on our mission yet? I fear I have no recollection of our time on Phastrius past my… injury.”
“Doctor McCoy,” said Jim, lowering his voice to a whisper, “is still asleep. Exhaustion, they tell me. A few scrapes and bruises. Sunburn. Nothing a good rest won’t cure.”
Spock’s brows drew together imperceptibly.
“Then how were the two of us brought back to the ship?”
Spock had lowered his voice too, and his eyes darted to the next biobed over, where Bones slept. He was curled on his side, his hands tucked up under his chin, with the blanket sliding off his narrow shoulder. Even in sleep he looked troubled, his brow creased when it should have been lax with sleep. Jim followed Spock’s gaze.
“As far as I can tell, he carried you out,” he said, his voice filled with quiet awe. He had seen Bones’ poor hands, scraped raw and cramped into strange claws. He’d watched from afar while they were healed, along with strained muscles and tendons, and nasty looking scrapes Bones didn’t seem to have noticed - perhaps cared to take note of. All of these together conjured the image of Bones, alone on a hostile planet, dragging his friend’s body along with the dogged determination he recognised all too well.
“On his own?”
Spock’s voice was soft, as though he barely dared to speak the thought into existence. Jim could understand. None of them liked to think of the other suffering on their behalf.
Spock’s throat worked, as it looked like he wanted to say something further. He even drew breath to say something, but no words would come. He was ignoring Jim outright now, his eyes glued to Bones’ lined face as he rested. Jim suddenly got the feeling that he was interrupting something of great significance.
“Damn heavy bastard, too,” mumbled Bones, shattering the silence. Spock’s eyes widened at this, and Jim got up from his seat, rushing to Bones’ side.
“You should be resting Bones, go back to sleep.”
Ever the contrary fellow, Bones’ eyes fluttered open instead. His gaze was bloodshot and weary, but alert enough.
“Spock?” he said, peering over at the Vulcan in question. He flapped a hand at Jim, although even that minor action seemed to cost him.
“Push my bed closer,” he said, struggling onto his elbows.
“Absolutely not,” replied Jim, “you’ve got to-”
“I’ll just get up and walk over then,” grumbled Bones, and Jim put a firm hand on his chest, holding him there. Where Jim was expecting Bones to react with irritation and some kind of insult though, he found only Bones’ blue eyes staring up at him. Exhaustion had worn away all but the truth - and the truth was that Bones looked frightened. Of what, he could only guess, but to see the emotion in such a raw form from his friend was terrible enough to convince Jim to do whatever it took to take it away. He undid the locks of Bones’ biobed and pushed it over until it bumped sides with Spock’s. Spock did not react to this, but nor did his gaze waver.
Bones winced as he struggled into a sitting position.
“How long were we-”
The intercom whistled, interrupting him.
“Kirk here,” said Jim.
“Captain, we have Starfleet wanting to know the results of your debrief with Commander Spock and Doctor McCoy-”
“My debrief? They’ve barely been conscious a full minute, what do they-”
Jim paused, and reconsidered.
“I’m going to take this in the office. Don’t worry about it, Spock. Bones.”
The door slid shut behind Jim, and Bones and Spock were alone.
Around them, the steady beeps of the monitors continued, the hiss of sterilized air, and the faint hum that was the Enterprise herself, that they had both come to recognise as the sound of home. Despite the sound they were surrounded with though, both men focused only on the silence, the absence of the words they both sought to give their thoughts some shape.
“You carried me,” said Spock, and even to his own ears he sounded ridiculous. His eyelid twitched, the closest the Vulcan would come to cringing at himself. Bones, sensing the shapeless something that lay behind Spock’s words, bit back a teasing retort. He could be patient.
“You asked me what I meant,” said Spock, “when I came back for you, despite the danger to our mission.”
Bones went cold.
“You… you could hear what I was saying? While you were unconscious?”
“A healing trance does not render one truly unconscious,” said Spock, “I heard… snatches.”
“What else did you hear?”
Spock shook his head sharply and Bones fell silent again, waiting.
“You could have left me behind,” said Spock.
“You know I couldn’t.”
“I could ask you what you mean by that, too.”
Bones let out a long breath. He wanted to say it. But he barely even knew what “it” was. All he knew was he wanted , and surely if they both knew that, they could-
“I remember one other thing,” said Spock, snapping Bones out of his thoughts.
Spock lifted one hand and let it hover near Bones’ cheek, asking for permission. Not just permission to touch, but to feel. Bones shut his eyes and leaned in the rest of the way, allowing Spock’s hand to rest against his cheek.
His skin was warm. But the sensation that trickled into his consciousness was like cool water. It flowed through him, so gentle, smoothing over the parts of him that were heavy with strain and worry.
Bones pressed closer, seeking more of - whatever this was, this part of himself that Spock had shared with him, and he felt a hand on his other cheek, and a forehead come to rest against his own.
What could he give Spock in return? A feeling of admonishment surfaced briefly, a kind rebuke at the thought that he somehow needed to reciprocate. Bones smiled at that, and then carefully untangled that shapeless feeling that had sat in his chest. The feeling that made him want to bite and scratch and kick and fight to keep. It was a feeling that gave him strength where he felt like he’d had none. The feeling that those creatures had somehow recognised, even while he struggled to give it a name. He laid it bare where Spock could sense it, and the relief that flooded the both of them was enough to make Bones sob into Spock’s hands.
The doctor was intensely weary. Spock could feel his consciousness slowly becoming fuzzier, harder to discern as the flow of his emotions receded back into his resting state.
Spock kept one hand in contact with his skin as he settled back. Bones followed him, awake enough to arrange himself against Spock’s chest. His presence remained, breezing softly through the back of Spock’s brain, as he knew his own would be doing for Bones.
Spock buried his nose in Bones’ hair and whispered a soft thank you , and held Bones while he slept.