Jim didn’t know why he was back in the fog. If he remembered, and he wasn’t sure he remembered, they had broken past the fog, hadn’t they? The flashing lights, the shaking, grinding, deafening pain. If he remembered, and he wasn’t sure he remembered, they had flown through it, suffered through it, navigated their way and emerged from it. He held the vague recollection of the shuttle’s lights shining against that fog, fracturing like a mosaic against the sky.
But he wasn’t sure he remembered. At least not correctly. Because now the fog was all around him. It crowded his senses, filled his ears with static, suffocated his chest and clouded the stretch of black he usually saw when his eyes were closed, pinpricked by ebbing colors the way the night was pinpricked with stars. And he wasn’t even sure his eyes were closed. Except that he couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear or feel anything. He knew only, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he didn’t want the fog to clear, not really. He knew only that if he pushed past it, the world would be too bright, too big, too scary, too loud.
Too loud , a humming sound buzzed its way into the back of his consciousness, slipping through the white noise in his ears, a gentle, steady sensation that he knew. For some reason, it smacked of familiarity. Ceaseless, but not unpleasant. If he could open his eyes, maybe he could place it.
But the sense of sound was the only sense that had yet returned, and he didn’t want to feel anything else just yet. Feeling hurt , he remembered, though he didn’t remember why. What had he last felt? Something hot and sticky on his fingertips. Blood? But he hadn’t been bleeding. He’d been flying. They’d been flying. No, he had been laying down on something cold, arms wrapped around something warm.
At the edge of his awareness, something beeped, joining the humming with a steady rhythm. And Jim thought he may have heard footsteps. But they sounded all wrong. They clanged rather than crunched, muffled by the soles of soft shoes, muffled by his mind because he didn’t want to hear it. Anything. Not now. Not yet.
Then, a voice. It faded in and out, as though he were on the wrong communicator frequency. “...like he’s… to.”
It was a man’s voice, hushed-- or maybe Jim just thought it was hushed.
Another answered. “... want… monitor him?”
This one sounded louder, less broken, and Jim strained his ears to pick up a response.
“No, no, I’ll handle it, sir, thank you.”
A full sentence, then a set of footsteps retreating until they faded away entirely. A few moments passed and the first voice spoke again, but it sounded closer. Directed toward Jim, maybe. “You just take your time there, Lieutenant,” it said gruffly. Then, he felt contact through the haze, a hand that patted his shoulder gently, then pulled away.
The touch jarred him, and he felt breath returning to his lungs in a weak gasp. That hand had carried no charge, no spark of energy, no flash of feelings. It wasn’t the touch he was used to. It wasn’t…
Jim’s eyes shot open, and the glare that met his gaze half-blinded him, but he couldn’t raise a hand to his face to shield it. It felt like weights had been tied to his limbs, like he was being pressed between two slabs of rock. But none of that mattered, not really, because a word fell from his lips in a voice that sounded too rough to be his own and suddenly he felt himself trying to struggle upwards. “Spock,” he said as his vision cleared, and the hand returned to his shoulder to urge him down. He was too weak to resist.
The light faded from his eyes and he blinked through it, through the shine of bright bulbs that ran in rows upon the ceiling, which was itself reflective and too smooth and too close, God it was so close . But then, the person whose hand held him down moved forward, hovered over his vision, obscuring the lights. It took a moment for Jim to focus on the man’s face.
He had deep lines at the corners of his eyes and at the dip of his frowning lips, creases along his forehead that spoke to concern-- a lifetime of it. His hair was brown, tufted, a little mussed as though he’d run his hands through it enough times to make it grow that way. When he met Jim’s bleary eyes, he frowned.
“State your name and rank.” Those practiced words were tinged in a gentle, southern drawl that sounded thoroughly alien to Jim’s ears.
Jim tried to think past the pounding in his head. How long had it been since someone had asked him that?
“Lieutenant--” he started, breath hollow, blinking past the confusion and the fear. “Lieutenant James T. Kirk., U.S.S. Farragut ,” he said, a refrain he’d uttered a thousand times now returning to him.
The man nodded in approval, and Jim felt that hand pat him twice and release him. The shadow moved from his vision and he blinked again against the lights. It felt like the ceiling was falling in on him and his vision blurred around it, heart pounding as he felt claustrophobic, sick, and still so heavy. “Spock,” he managed to say through his choked throat, turning his head to take in the form of the man standing beside his bed. He saw now that he wore medical blues, a doctor. A Starfleet doctor. “Where…?”
“Don’t worry, Lieutenant, the commander is alive.”
Jim drew in a shaky breath, closing his eyes and tilting his head back on the pillow beneath him. A pillow . It held his head gently just as blankets wrapped warm around his body and he felt clean, cradled, alive, safe. And Spock-- Spock was alive. Spock was safe . He remembered now, the near silent breaths that shuddered through Spock’s laboring lungs, the way Jim had laid against him and tried to hold him without touching his wounds, the way he’d felt the stick of blood where it seeped through makeshift bandages and he trembled too hard to fix them. But Spock was alive. He was safe. Against all odds, they both were.
“Year?” Jim asked, heart in his throat.
“Yes I imagine you’d want to know that, wouldn’t you?” The doctor replied, as though somehow he knew what Jim had just gone through. But how could anyone know what he’d just gone through? “2259, December by Earth’s calendar.”
Jim clenched his jaw against the overflowing flood of relief that threatened to consume him, unable to stop the searing-hot tears that spilled out the corners of his eyes and slipped into his hair. His chest heaved and his heart pounded and he managed finally to raise his hand to his eyes, clenching his fingers into his forehead as he half-sobbed against his palm. 2259. They’d made it. All this time, and they’d made it. Alive. Home. Here. Alive.
- This was a starship. They were in space. In their own time. How long had he been out? What had happened to their shuttle? Where was Spock?
“Lieutenant,” the voice said again, and Jim forced his eyes open, forced himself to drop his hand, vision swimming over the doctor beside him, blending him into vague impressions of blue and skin. “You’d best rest up. The captain’s going to want to speak with you soon as you’re able, but I’m not gonna tell her you’ve gained consciousness until you’re good and ready, you hear?”
There was something kind in the doctor’s voice, and Jim wanted so desperately to rest, to do as he’d been told, but he found himself shaking his head even though that bare motion was enough to make it ache anew. “No,” he said hoarsely, and he wiped the tears at the corners of his eyes, trying to steady himself as his whole body trembled. “No, please. I need to see Spock. Where is he?”
From where he lay, he could see three other biobeds, all empty. And if Spock were here, in this room, he would be able to feel him. He should be able to feel him anyway, right? He could always feel him. If the doctor were lying to him, if Spock wasn’t okay--
Jim tested the mental connection that he had never had cause to search for before. It had always just been . But as he worked through the recesses of his mind it felt as though it had vanished, broken, like someone had bored a hole into his brain and removed something innate in him, vital to his survival, an organ, a lung, his heart .
“Listen, you’ve been through one hell of an ordeal--”
“What’s his condition?” Jim asked, voice harder than he thought possible, though still bearing the quake of unshed tears. He dammed them up, unwilling and unable to give into the flood just yet. He tried to get his hands under his body and heft himself up, but it took some effort. Especially as the doctor reached out and pressed back on his shoulder.
“Lay back; you’re going to exhaust yourself.”
“I’m fine. What’s his condition?” He was not fine. His head swam and all the relief he’d felt moments ago was replaced with fear, pulsating and heavy in his chest. But he forced himself to a sitting position and leveled his eyes at the doctor.
The man huffed, flopping his hands uselessly at his sides. “If I tell you are you gonna lay back down like I said?”
“Yes,” Jim lied.
“And are you going to go back to sleep?”
The doctor searched his eyes for a moment, as if looking for any sign of duplicity. Luckily, Jim was about as good at poker as he was at chess.
“Fine. I’m not going to lie to you, he’s been unconscious since we picked you up. About twelve hours now.”
Jim felt the breath leave his lungs, hollowing out his chest, but he bit back any other bodily reaction. Unconscious was better than nothing. God, anything was better than nothing. “How bad?”
The doctor ran a hand through his hair, blue eyes canting downwards to the floor as though the force of Jim’s gaze were too heavy. Jim didn’t blame him, he felt fury welling up in himself, but it was directionless, lost.
“He lost a lot of blood from whatever it was that scratched him, and it looked like he might have an infection. But while we were doin’ surgery he slipped into this trance--”
“ Trance ?” Jim blinked himself through that word. What the hell did that mean?
“It’s a Vulcan thing. I’ve never understood what goes on in those green-blooded machines, but we’ve got a Vulcan nurse who’s staying with him. She’s supposed to update me or Doctor Boyce the second something changes.”
“Wait,” Jim barked, “where is he?”
The doctor’s lips pursed. “Private room. I’m under strict orders not to let you go anywhere until you’ve spoken with the captain, though. And you aren’t doing that until me and my CMO clear you to leave Sick Bay.”
Jim grit his teeth, looking away and clenching his hands on the red blankets under his fingertips. “Then bring the captain down here. I’ll talk to them and then I’ll go see Spock.”
“This trance thing is delicate, Kirk, you really don’t want to--”
“Don’t tell me what I want!” Jim cried, but he regretted it the moment he did. Even that slight exertion was exhausting. His vision went a little black at the edges and he felt his balance waver. Settling a flat hand on the bed to steady himself, he looked into the doctor’s wide, blue eyes then closed his own. Balance , he thought to himself as he took a steadying breath. He had to find balance, physically, mentally. Wasn’t that what Spock was always talking about? Focus, logic, balance.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally, using all his strength just to remain sitting. “I know I should be thanking you-- and honestly, thank you -- but,” he cracked his eyes open to see the man’s expression had softened. “But please, I just need to see him.”
Those deep-set eyes seemed to speak to a kind of apology, one that the doctor didn’t voice. “I can’t let you do that just yet, Mister Kirk, all right? You need to lie back down.”
Jim shot him a withering look. “Then get the captain. Bring them here.”
With a sigh, the doctor gave Jim a wry smile. “Garrovick said you were stubborn,” he said, and Jim’s mind almost blipped past the name of his own captain. Was this… was this the Farragut ? “We called him when we figured out where y’all were from. Said ‘if anyone was to come back in a homemade shuttlecraft after two years being dead, it’d be James T. Kirk.’”
The man chuckled, but Jim found he didn’t have it in him to feel amused or happy or proud. He didn’t care what Garrovick had to say, didn’t care about the captain of this ship or this doctor. He just… just needed…
Jim’s vision blackened, and he vaguely registered that he was falling backwards, head dropping against the pillow as it throbbed with fresh pain. It felt like he’d been floating and someone had just turned on the gravity.
“Alright, then,” the doctor’s voice, ringing with finality, washed over him just as Jim’s vision cleared. He turned his head to watch the man tinkering with something out of his sight. “You’re going to sleep a few more hours, then we’ll arrange everything, okay?”
“No,” Jim protested, trying again to right himself, though his body was barely responding. “Please, Doctor-- Spock .”
“Name’s McCoy, not Spock,” the doctor corrected, misunderstanding Jim’s plea-- or perhaps trying to put him at ease with a joke. “Leonard McCoy.” He approached Jim with a loaded hypospray in his hand. Jim tried to shuffle away from it, but was unsuccessful, barely shifting an inch from center. McCoy pressed the hypospray against Jim’s shoulder, and Jim felt his eyes fluttering immediately. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Lieutenant.”
“Spock,” Jim requested once more.
But if there was an answer, Jim didn’t hear it. Sleep encroached upon him with all the force and urgency of a tornado, whisking him off against his will and making him weightless, flying, falling, but-- at least-- no longer in the fog.
When Jim came to, it was dark, but the darkness wasn’t opaque. He thought for a moment that it was strange-- how he could vaguely see the reflection of flashing red lights on his retinas when he should’ve only seen a dark blue glow. It should have been cold. Or maybe hot. It should have been hard, under his back. There should have been a body beside him, or maybe not. The air should have weighed heavy on his lungs with humidity, but--
But he lay in the Sick Bay of a constitution class starship, and he was alone and the air was perfectly environmentally controlled and somehow still it felt too thin. The wrong temperature. The bed beneath him was too comfortable, the fabric that shifted against his skin as he moved was too stiff.
At least he was actually awake this time, he thought, attempting to find some silver lining, something he could cling to. His vision didn’t blur anymore, his heart didn’t pound, and exhaustion had faded largely from the tension of his muscles. He wondered how long he’d been asleep, wondered at the strength of the tranquilizer the doctor had shot him with.
But he didn’t have time to wonder. No matter how long he’d been out, and it must have been hours, he’d left Spock alone too long. He had to see him.
Tossing the blankets off his body, Jim tested his strength, pulling up his knees one by one and dragging himself upwards. His hands were trembling slightly, but that was probably just the after-effects of the tranquilizer, rather than the result of injury. Instead of dwelling on it, he tossed his legs over the edge of the bed, pulling in a deep breath.
It was ship’s night, and someone would be in Sick Bay-- those were the rules-- but maybe they’d be more likely to let him go if they saw him up and moving around already.
He was surprised to find he wasn’t in pain. Not much, anyway. His head ached, but it was likely they’d healed whatever injuries he’d sustained in their escape. He rolled his ankles before setting his bare feet on the cold metal floor, leaning heavily with one hand planted on the mattress while he tested his weight.
His legs were weak, wavering, but they would hold him, so he pushed himself off the bed and took a tentative step. Something felt different, and he couldn’t quite place it. It took a moment to orient himself, to move forward one more time.
And then it struck him. The constant channel of fire that shot from his calf to his thigh was gone. He bent the knee of his left leg and shifted weight to his right, experimental, tentative. It held him, though obviously weaker than its counterpart from nearly two years of limping, dragging.
Awestruck and a little terrified, he took a few more steps away from his bed into the dark of the room, arms out just in case he needed to grab the wall for support. But he barely limped.
It had never occurred to him that they could heal the misaligned bone. He’d grown so accustomed to pain, to gritting his teeth each time he walked. And it had been well over a year since he’d resigned himself to living with it. Forever, if need be.
But now he rested his weight on it on every other step and marveled with a bubbling sense of disbelief that he could do so without biting the inside of his cheek against the anguish. His throat constricted, choked on wonder and reverence. He wanted to take a lap around Sick Bay, to run out those doors, to escape and wander the halls and find Spock, but he was distracted before he’d made it more than a few feet from his bed.
The sound of footsteps alerted him to a presence and he wheeled around, meeting the blue, disapproving eyes of Doctor McCoy, who commanded the lights on. Jim raised a hand to his sensitive eyes, unused to the pure white glow that shot from the ceiling. “You couldn’t wait ten seconds after waking up, could you Kirk?”
“You still on shift?” Jim asked, walking shakily back to his bed and holding onto its edge. He couldn’t focus on his leg right now. So, he shifted tack, shoving every overwhelming emotion to the back of his mind where it had to fester. At least, for a time. “I was hoping I would wake up to a doctor who didn’t tranquilize his patients.”
His anger wasn’t incendiary, just a hum under the surface of every other emotion it was possible for a human being to feel. In truth, he hardly cared anymore that he’d been knocked out. He just wanted to pick up exactly where they’d left off. And make his way to Spock.
McCoy walked over to him, pulling a medical scanner out of his pocket and running it over Jim’s head. “Don’t act like you didn’t need it,” he said somewhat gruffly. “If I’d’a let you, you’d’ve dragged yourself down the hall til you passed out anyway, and I’d’ve had to carry you back to bed.”
He clicked the scanner off, glanced at it seemingly satisfied and gave Jim a once-over. “How you feeling, Lieutenant?”
Jim looked down at himself now that the light had stopped blinding him. He was shaking slightly, but nothing like the full-body tremors he’d felt upon waking the first time.
“I’m fine. I want to--”
“To see Spock, right?” McCoy deadpanned, sounding impatient. “I think I picked up that much, but the captain says--”
“I know,” Jim interrupted in turn. “Tell them I’ll talk to them now. Please.”
McCoy gave him a long look, eyes narrowed, sizing him up. Jim stayed steady. “You stay right there--” he finally said, “and I mean that-- but I’ll go make a couple calls.”
Some tension eased itself from Jim’s taut back.
Turning away from Jim, McCoy paused, then cast a look over his shoulder. “For the record, don’t you dare try sneaking out while I’m gone. I’ve got eyes in the back of my head and you know I’m not afraid to use another tranquilizer.”
Jim managed a weak smile at that. He was out of practice, but he thought he recognized that as a joke. Then again, the sting of the hypospray still smarted his shoulder, so he wouldn’t put anything past the good doctor.
When McCoy left the room, he hefted himself back onto the bed, feeling the shift of soft fabric against his skin where, for so long, he’d only felt the crinkle of an emergency blanket or the prickle of fur. If he absorbed himself in the comfort of it, he worried he’d fall asleep again, so he just kept his eyes glued to the wall across from him, looking over the biobed scanners that lay dark and dormant, wondering where those private rooms were. He wanted to look for Spock in his mind again, wanted to seek out the connection that he knew just by feeling wasn’t there, but he tried not to let himself think about it.
If he thought about it, he’d think about Spock’s pale lips, the way his blood had soaked hot and thick into Jim’s clothes. If he thought about it, he’d think about him lying motionless somewhere, completely outside Jim’s reach, his protection, his care. If Jim thought about it, he would run straight out those doors and find him, find the remains of their mental connection and follow those strings the way he knew Spock could do with him.
So he didn’t let himself think about it.
Instead, he thought about what he might tell the captain, and how he could condense the last two years into a conversation that wouldn’t keep him from Spock any longer than necessary. It wasn’t easy. What could he say? How could he explain Sha Ka Ree to her? To anyone? How could he explain everything that planet was, what it had taken, what it had given them? And how much was he willing to reveal?
It felt private, somehow, everything that had happened. Even the ship graveyard, the Vulcan village. It felt as though Sha Ka Ree had let them in on a secret, the mysteries of its past that had long-since been covered with sand. It felt as though the planet had created a world for them, and now that it was gone what did it matter to Starfleet what they had seen?
But of course it mattered. Sha Ka Ree didn’t belong to him and Spock. Or, maybe it was more apt to say that Alpha Novus V didn’t.
He remained with his troubled thoughts for a time, feeling his energy return, little by little as he sat impatiently, fingers digging into the mattress each time he felt restlessness and apprehension rising in him.
After what seemed like hours but must have only been minutes, he heard the doors on the other side of the divide swish open. In short order, McCoy wandered back through the little doorway between Jim’s room and Sick Bay’s entryway. In his wake, he pulled an older gentleman, stooped at his back and with flyaway gray hair. He, too, wore medical blues, and for some reason he looked somewhat familiar. McCoy stepped to the side and allowed the man to move forward, his eyes on Jim.
“I’m Doctor Boyce, CMO,” he said without preamble. And suddenly Jim knew where he’d seen him before. The Enterprise ’s holotapes. Recordings of their missions and briefings.
“ Boyce ?” Jim asked almost incredulously. “This-- this is the Enterprise ?”
Boyce shot a look at McCoy, unruly silver eyebrows furrowing. “You didn’t even tell him what ship he was on?”
Jim hardly heard him, sinking instead into the revelation. The Enterprise . Of all ships, the one that found them had been the Enterprise . Had they been looking for them? Or was it coincidence? Luck?
“With all due respect,” McCoy responded, “he didn’t give me much time. He wants to see the captain.”
“I want to see Spock,” Jim corrected immediately. “But I’ll see the captain first if that’s what I have to do.”
“Well you aren’t seeing her until I’ve cleared you,” Boyce said, stepping forward with his own medical scanner. He ran it over Jim, eyes glued to the readings. Jim shot a look at McCoy. He didn’t know why, but somehow he got the feeling McCoy was on his side, in spite of the fact that the man had sedated him earlier. Maybe it was the kindness Jim saw under his gruff demeanor, or-- more likely-- the fact that he was the first human Jim had seen in two years. He found he didn’t quite care for the idea that he may have imprinted on the doctor like a baby duck.
Boyce clicked off the scanner and tilted his eyes back to Jim. “You aren’t in the best shape of your life,” he said, “but you’re at least functional.”
Jim allowed himself a breath of relief.
“So, the captain?”
“She’ll see you,” McCoy said, stepping in. “‘So long as Boyce doesn’t have a fit,’ she’d said.”
Boyce turned to the doctor, eyes half-lidded with exasperation. “I’m going back to bed. You’ll take him to Captain Robbins?”
It felt surreal to shift his eyes between two people, to watch them address each other, to hear the rise and fall of two separate, unfamiliar voices. McCoy had that distinct southern accent, his tongue falling lazily on each consonant. Boyce spoke brusquely, but largely gentle, the croak of age in the back of his throat. Neither of them had that calm, practiced tenor that had become Jim’s normal. Neither of them spoke formally, purpose hefted behind each word. They just… spoke.
For many months, Jim had missed that, but now it felt almost wrong, and certainly uncomfortable.
Boyce huffed, not even sparing another glance at Jim before shuffling away. Jim thought he heard him mutter, “I’m getting too old for this,” before disappearing out the door.
Jim turned his eyes to McCoy. “Thank you,” he said, meaning it.
“Don’t thank me yet, Kirk,” McCoy said with a chuckle. He moved toward one of the cabinets at the far side of the room, removing what looked to be a pair of Starfleet issue slacks and a black thermal. When he turned, he was smiling. “You’ve still gotta deal with Number One.”
Jim swallowed. He’d heard stories of Pike’s first officer, seen her in holos. She had a reputation of being calm, cold, calculating, and almost scarily capable. He’d wanted to meet her all those years ago, but now he found himself a little intimidated by the prospect. She wouldn’t be Number One anymore. Now she was Captain Robbins of the U.S.S. Enterprise . And she probably had a lot of questions for Jim.
He stood on weak legs outside the briefing room, marveling on every breath at the slacks that fit his waist, at the solid, stitched hem of the shirt that stretched over him. Two years since he’d worn clothes that fit, that weren’t threadbare and peppered with worn holes. Somehow he felt intensely uncomfortable. The fabric was stiff and unyielding and each fold felt like it would leave creases in his skin.
Beside him, McCoy pressed the call for the door, and Jim jumped when it swished open.
God, he wasn’t used to this. The clang of their boots on the floor, the bodies that had occasionally passed them in (blessedly) near-empty corridors, the bright colors and the artificial lights and that humming sound that never went away. And the insistent slide of the doors. He tried to calm his heart as he stepped into the room, eyes scanning the empty chairs at the large table and falling, finally, on the one that was filled.
Captain Robbins stood from her seat, immediately recognizable by the victory curls at her temples, her shining black hair, the straight line of her mouth and the gold tunic whose rank stripes gleamed in the room’s bright lights. Jim stood straight at attention the moment he strode over the threshold, Starfleet decorum returning to him out of sheer habit more than anything.
“Lieutenant James Tiberius Kirk,” she greeted him, holding out her hand to indicate that he should sit. “And Doctor McCoy. Thank you for bringing him. If you will please wait outside?”
“Ma’am,” McCoy confirmed with a nod of his head, meeting Jim’s eyes once more before turning on his heel and walking out the door. It swished shut and Jim realized he had forgotten to sit.
He did so now, taking the seat across from her, folding his hands in his lap and trying to keep his posture straight.
Robbins had all the practiced confidence of a captain, all the composure and professionalism that Jim had admired so deeply in Pike. And now he saw it in his first officer. Or, rather, the woman who had succeeded him.
She retook her seat now, eyes running over Jim. Her gaze was steely and sharp, and though Jim had learned that it was, in fact, about two in the morning, she looked as awake and aware as if she’d just been in the middle of her shift.
They looked on each other in silence for a time, Jim attempting to bite back the impatience he felt welling in him. Every moment she spent staring at him was a moment wasted. He didn’t know how many times he had told these people that he needed to see Spock, but still they pulled him around like a toy car.
“Captain--” Jim said eventually, but Number One held up her hand to him, silencing him.
“Lieutenant. I understand you are in a hurry. Let me first assure you that Commander Spock is alive, if unwell.” McCoy had told him as much, but he kept his mouth shut. “You are incredibly fortunate that we were nearby when your distress signal reached us, as the area around Alpha Novus V has been quarantined since your landing party disappeared. Had we not been on our way to an adjacent star system, it is likely the two of you would be dead.”
He didn’t know exactly why she was telling him this, except perhaps to satisfy his unvoiced curiosity or to fish for thanks, but he did feel as though those thanks were deserved. So he offered them, attempting to keep his voice sure and steady.
“Thank you, sir,” he said.
She straightened her jaw. “Thanks are unnecessary. You can imagine that this entire crew has long wondered about the fate of our captain and the lost landing party. We hope that you might be able to enlighten us. Settle some… some very unsettled emotions surrounding the tragedy. Before we begin, is there any possibility that the rest of the landing party survived?”
Jim thinned his lips and looked downwards, trying to keep the rapid beat of his heart from expressing itself anywhere else. “No, sir,” he said. When he glanced back to her, a flicker of sadness passed over her expression. It settled in her eyes, but bled quickly from the lines of her face.
“I thought not. Very well, Lieutenant.” She took a small, silver device from her pocket and pressed a button. A red light began to blink steadily and she set it on the table in front of him. A recorder. Well, of course, it wouldn’t do not to get his testimony on the record.
“You will be required to submit to a formal interview when we arrive on Earth,” she said, “but until that time we need a preliminary report. I understand this may be difficult,” there was a pause, a quiet breath Jim wasn’t even sure he heard, “but I need you to tell me everything that happened on Alpha Novus V. ”
Jim’s mind stuttered again over the name, immediately correcting her in his thoughts, but she wouldn’t know that Jim and Spock had christened it anew. Nor did he know if he should tell her. If he wanted to tell her. He didn’t know if he wanted to tell her anything. The dam he’d begun building in Sick Bay began to crumble, to crack, and he thought in one flashing second that he couldn’t do this. That he couldn’t relive the last two years when the most vital, integral piece of this puzzle was missing. He needed Spock. This wasn’t right without Spock. He couldn’t be strong without Spock.
But he knew that wasn’t true. He had managed to be strong without Spock so far. He had managed to get them off of Sha Ka Ree. He could manage to talk about it all, too.
“Right,” he said after what felt like a very long time, delaying himself now. “Of course. I… I suppose I should begin with the ion storm.”
Shifting to make himself more comfortable, he met Robbins’ eyes, deciding to hold them as long as he could. And, with a breath, he began.
He started with the crash, the circumstances surrounding it, the immediate loss of their three crewmates. Barely able, in spite of his resolve, to sustain eye contact as he described the nature of their deaths, he resisted the urge to fidget with the sleeve of his thermal, heart hard. He had to keep his heart hard as he spoke, had to keep the emotion out of his voice. There wasn’t time to crumble right now. Nor could he allow himself to do so in front of Robbins.
He described Spock saving him, described Captain Pike’s condition those first few days, then his death. He didn’t fail to notice the way Robbins gripped her own hands on the desk, knuckles white, nails digging into her skin. Her expression didn’t change, but her teeth were clenched behind the straight set of her lips, and his heart ached for her. There had been rumors, as there were with most command teams, that there had been something more between Pike and his first officer. But whether or not those rumors were true, Number One had lost someone very close to her, and Jim had been one of the last people to see him alive.
So he didn’t linger long on those memories, delivered them with cold, solid facts and continued on. Number One did not want his sympathy, especially not on-record. What she wanted was the story, so he did his best to tell it. He described the planet itself, and how it had seemed so different from their original scans. When he began to explain why, Captain Robbins didn’t stop him, but he felt her straightening her spine in disbelief, felt her skeptical gaze. But he didn’t leave out a single detail about the wormhole web, not one. If the Federation had quarantined the planet, that meant they knew it was dangerous, but it also meant they hadn’t studied it at all. Every word he said, he watched Robbins’ expression change from disbelief to quiet, controlled astonishment.
He tried to summarize the next year and a half-- the cave, the wildlife, the ship graveyard, the crashed Vulcan colony vessel, the Vulcan village and all of its generations of implications. But for all this, he didn’t discuss his personal relationship with Spock. In fact, he hardly mentioned Spock’s name when it wasn’t relevant. It was always ‘we,’ ‘us.’ It had been ‘them’ for so long that it felt strange to parse anything about their lives into ‘he.’ Into ‘me.’
When he finished with the account of their tumultuous journey forward in time, his voice hoarse and his exhaustion peaking, he met the captain’s eyes with a look that he was sure begged for that to be it. For that to be enough.
She studied him for a moment when he’d finally finished talking, and Jim thought at the irony that it was easier for him to read Spock’s expressions than it was hers.
“Well, Lieutenant,” she said, “scans of your shuttlecraft indicate that you are telling the truth, at least about the time travel and the Vulcan ship. As no one has explored Alpha Novus V, I cannot verify your account of the village and the rest of the crashed ships, but I also cannot fathom a reason for you to lie.”
A flash of anger lit up in him, tired as he was, and he attempted to keep it from his expression. “I understand,” he said cooly, “that my account of our experience will be sent to Starfleet Command. I’ve told you the truth in every regard and I need you to believe that. Trust me, I’ve lived it for nearly two years and sometimes I’m not sure I believe it.”
“You are questioning your own sense of reality?”
Had this woman been raised by Vulcans? She took things more literally than Spock did.
“No, sir,” he said, trying to counsel himself into patience. “I mean to say that it’s incredible and unbelievable, but it’s exactly as it is.”
She considered him for a moment.
“Then, Lieutenant,” she said quietly, “I believe I must thank you for returning our science officer to us.”
Something caught in his throat and he felt himself nodding, though he knew he didn’t deserve her gratitude. Without Spock, he’d have died a thousand times over. But now may not have been the proper time to say so.
“Thank you, sir,” he said after a moment. Unable to say ‘you’re welcome’ when the credit was not his to take. Especially when Spock may still not--
He forced those thoughts from his mind, swallowing the fear that rose unbidden in his throat.
With a sigh, she stood, taking the recording device from the table and shutting it off. “You would do well to rest. Doctor McCoy says he’s been monitoring your condition and you’re stable, but I can see that you’re in no shape to go wandering around. You have been assigned temporary quarters close to Sick Bay.”
Jim sat up straighter, decorum leaving him for a moment. “What?”
“You are to rest. McCoy will take you to see Commander Spock when you’re fully functional.”
Attempting to contain his frustration, he clenched his hands in his lap. “Sir,” he said, practically a plea, “when I last saw Spock he was bleeding out on the floor of a shuttlecraft that was falling to pieces. All I have is your word that he’s alive. I have to see him, do you understand? I have to see him with my own two eyes to make sure he’s still breathing and--”
To his horror, he heard his voice break. The Jim Kirk of two years ago would have been mortified that the captain of the Enterprise now saw him in such a state, but it was impossible to hold all this together, to keep water in his cupped hands, to feel so much without letting something slip through.
Some hard emotions softened in Robbins’ expression. “You won’t rest until you see him, will you?” She asked, as though she already knew the answer.
Pulling up and squaring his shoulders, he tried to rein it in again, to pull himself together just a little bit longer. Then, he shook his head curtly. “No, sir. Not unless Doctor McCoy sedates me again. And, no, that was not a suggestion.”
Her lips quirked somewhat subtly, a familiar kind of smile that, in spite of himself, put him at ease. “Alright. But you need to listen to everything Doctor McCoy and Nurse T’Sik tell you, do you understand?”
“Yes sir,” Jim responded immediately. He wasn’t incapable of following orders, after all. Just a little out of practice. “And--”
Robbins stood, looking down at him very literally, but no longer in a way that made her seem imposing or intimidating.
“Sir, have our families been told? I’d like to send a message to my parents-- my brother.”
She tucked her hands behind her back and looked him over once more. “We’re on our way to Earth,” she informed him, “just four more days’ travel, but we have waited to inform your families until-- well, now that you are stable we can arrange a subspace call, but allow me some time to converse with Starfleet. Much of what you have seen is still classified information-- as is the mere fact of your existence. If you will be patient, I will see what I can do.”
“Yes sir,” he said again, though his heart felt a little hollow. Two years he’d been working toward the goal of seeing his family again. But he was close. Four days from Earth, from his parents, from the life he had thought, in his darkest moments, he might never see again.
Robbins strode to the door and pressed the command as Jim struggled to his unsteady feet. His head went a little fuzzy, but he held himself up with a hand on the table until the brief fog cleared. When it did, Robbins was looking at him.
“After Doctor McCoy has taken you to see Commander Spock, you will go immediately to bed. Is that clear, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir,” he said, a little numb, wholly exhausted.
She nodded in staunch approval. “ Alright. Thank you for your testimony, Kirk. I will speak with you again soon.”
With that, she turned on her heel and walked out, her footsteps echoing eerily down the empty corridor.
Jim didn’t have time to register her absence before McCoy strode in, giving him a rather appraising look. “How are you feeling?”
Jim didn’t let on he was a little dizzy, just managed a small smile. “Oh, you know,” he said with a sore attempt at humor. “Reliving two fairly traumatic years and trying to readjust to sitting in chairs. Just… feeling fine.”
McCoy pulled back the corner of his lip in a near-grimace as he took a small medical tricorder from his pocket. Jim stood as still as he was able, impatiently shifting on his feet while McCoy ran the scanner over him. He waited for the whirring to stop before McCoy snapped it back into his hand and gave him a hard look.
“Well, Captain Robbins says you can go see the commander, and according to this thing you aren’t liable to pass out just yet, so if you’re ready--”
“Please,” Jim interrupted him. “I’ve been ready since I woke up.”
“Until you passed out.”
“Until you tranquilized me,” Jim corrected, and McCoy gave him a wry smile.
“Six of one. Come on then.” He beckoned Jim to follow and Jim did, trailing after him like a lost puppy until he caught up to him, which wasn’t easy. McCoy walked in wide, sure strides through the halls, but Jim was still a little shaky. Of course, the last person he was going to say as much to was the doctor.
“We ain’t staying long, okay?” McCoy said as they walked, and Jim was about to speak up when McCoy continued, raising a hand like he’d sensed Jim’s protest. “Nurse T’Sik was clear about that much. This Vulcan healing trance is delicate. So you can go in, take a look, sit with him for a minute, then we come right back. No touching, no talking. It might, erm, ‘distract’ him, she said. Understand?”
He remembered his promise to do as McCoy and T’Sik said, but no talking? No touching? How could he just--
Jim swallowed and nodded.
“Alright. As long as I get to see him.”
McCoy gave him a side-eyed look, but didn’t say anything, so they walked in relative silence for a time. Jim was glad the corridors were nearly empty this early. They passed only two crewmen. One nodded her head at McCoy and shot Jim a suspicious look. The other was absorbed in their padd and didn’t look up at all. Each time someone walked past, though, they felt too close.
Even the walls felt too close. Their steps echoed. Everything around him shined and gleamed and glittered, even with the lights down to fifty percent to indicate ship’s night. It had been two years since he’d been on a starship, and it felt as though he were walking inside a shadowbox, or a rat’s maze, something small and surreal and fabricated. So much of his life, he’d believed a starship was exactly where he belonged and now-- now it just felt wrong.
But it wouldn’t forever. Consciously, of course he knew that. All he had to do was get his space-legs back. He chuckled weakly, humorlessly at the thought, comparing the swell of the sea with the quiet, sure way a starship sailed through the sky. Maybe he was more tired than he realized if that was enough to make him laugh. But, god, sometimes laughing was all he could do, and he knew he wasn’t laughing because he’d actually found the thought humorous.
“What’s so funny?” McCoy asked from beside him as they made their way into the turbolift. Jim leaned against the wall as they sped downwards. His stomach fell to his feet and he could actually feel his body speeding unnaturally down the lift’s tube, nausea swirling in his gut as it had on the way up, but decidedly more insistent.
“Just-- this,” he said to cover the moment, steadying himself with a hand on the wall. “This whole situation. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”
McCoy looked at him, “You talkin’ about traveling through time twice only to end up number one on Starfleet’s ‘how do we explain this one’ list?”
The hollow laugh that burst out of Jim’s lungs almost surprised him. He hadn’t expected it. Although, to be honest, he hadn’t expected any of this.
“That’s one way to put it,” he croaked.
The turbolift slid to a blessed halt and the doors swished open. As they stepped out, McCoy gave him a quick look and took a breath. His voice was hard, almost authoritative when he spoke. “I’m no ship’s counselor,” he said, “-- you’ll be talkin’ to one of them tomorrow-- but I do know two things. For one, you’re alive . And for two, what you just did is impossible accordin’ to every physicist on this damned ship. It’s ridiculous, don’t get me wrong, but if I were you I’d be thanking my lucky stars right about now.”
His lucky stars. Jim huffed at the thought. He was lucky. Insurmountably lucky.
“Spock doesn’t believe in luck,” he said, half to himself.
McCoy scoffed. “Of course he doesn’t. I tell ya, Kirk, I don’t know how you spent two years alone with a Vulcan. I can barely spend two minutes with one.”
They reached the doors to Sick Bay and Jim followed McCoy through them, wondering how much offense he should take to that comment. Except for the fact that he had felt exactly the same way before he had actually spent time with Spock.
“It wasn’t so bad,” he said instead of arguing, feeling a bare twitch of a smile, thinking about the way Spock’s eyes smiled, even when his lips didn’t. “Of all the things I can say about, ah, Alpha Novus,” he continued, glad he hadn’t let ‘Sha Ka Ree’ slip, “I can’t complain about the company.”
But his smile faded as he remembered where they were going, and why, as the memory of Spock’s face faded from his mind and his eyes focused again on the unblemished, silver floor stretched out before them.
McCoy led him through one of Sick Bay’s side passages, into a short hallway. Only four rooms branched off of it, each behind a solid green door. Narrow walls pressing heavy on him, in spite of how much room he actually had, Jim felt himself labor for his next breath. But McCoy didn’t seem to notice. Instead he moved forward, leading Jim to the last of the doors.
Just as Jim looked to him for confirmation, McCoy gave him one last warning look.
“Alright, Kirk. What are the rules?” he asked, almost motherly.
“No talking, no touching,” Jim parroted, heart pounding.
“You’re damn straight,” McCoy said, leveling a finger at him. “And if you aren’t scared enough of me to listen, you’d damn well better be scared of T’Sik. She’s not gonna give you any passes. You hear?”
Jim nodded, clenching his hands at his sides. “I understand,” he said said with more emphasis than the words needed, begging McCoy to hear his impatience.
And, finally, McCoy tapped the door controls. When it slid open, Jim swallowed, trying to keep his shoulders straight, trying to keep his heart from leaping out of his chest, trying to tell himself that, no matter what he saw when he walked in there, he would keep it together.
Jim vaguely registered the presence of another person in the room the moment they walked in, an olive-skinned Vulcan woman who sat in a straight-backed chair in the far corner, but his eyes didn’t stay on her. Instead, they slipped immediately to the biobed, where-- beneath a set of glittering red sheets-- Spock lay as still as death. And yet, if Jim hadn’t known any better, he would say Spock was sleeping. He always slept on his back, his hands laid over his stomach, his lashes fluttering gently and his chest rising and falling with steady breaths. Jim thought with an aborted choke in his throat about all the times he had waved his hand over Spock’s sleeping face to see if he was really out, all the times he had shoved himself under one of Spock’s arms and curled against him, all the times Spock had stirred, opening bleary eyes to shine on Jim as he pulled him close. As the flood of tender memory tore down his defenses, Jim’s heart stumbled over itself, vision blurring as his knees felt like they might buckle underneath him.
The door closed behind them, but Jim didn’t hear it. He moved forward a few steps, hands trembling, buzzing with the need to touch, to feel, to press a hand to Spock’s heartbeat, even as he saw evidence of it blinking above the biobed. He needed to feel the pound of it under his fingertips, to lay his hand against Spock’s warm skin.
The vague presence of Doctor McCoy hung back by the door, and Jim knew consciously that the Vulcan nurse had stood, but when he reached the edge of the bed, his world narrowed to eclipse nothing but the quiet form of the man he loved. Spock looked pale, green veins standing out along his neck, in his temples, lips tinted verdant. His hair lay flat on the pillow beneath him, no longer frizzed with humidity, no longer carrying that familiar scent of tree oil. Jim swallowed something hard in his throat, and all his composure, his professionalism, his training, everything faded from the tension of his shoulders. All he wanted to do was reach out, to run his thumb over Spock’s lips and card his hands through his hair and tell him softly that he loved him and he was sorry he couldn’t take care of him and he was going to stay right here with him as long as it took, but somehow he managed to restrain himself.
He felt the burning, steady stare of the Vulcan nurse on him, as though she were waiting for him to slip up so she could kick him out, but he wouldn’t let her. His eyes were starving for the sight of Spock, the one, singular, familiar thing in his life. An anchor for the feeling of disbelief and terror that hadn’t shed itself from his mind. If he could just sit here with him, he would be okay. If he could just stay beside him, wait for him to wake up, then they could figure out how to navigate this world together, just as they had figured out how to navigate Sha Ka Ree.
He needed that surety, that second set of hands, that rationality to balance out his recklessness, that logic to balance out all of his overwhelming emotions. He needed Spock .
Thankfully, Nurse T’Sik didn’t know that Jim could speak to Spock without speaking to him. He’d done it a hundred times. Not with words necessarily, but with thoughts and feelings and impressions. He’d once managed to call Spock from more than one-hundred yards away just by being sad . From right here beside him and feeling the veritable natural disaster of his anguish welling up in him, of course Spock would feel him.
So he tried once again to find the remnants of the mental connection as he clenched his fingers along the edge of the mattress.
I’m here, Spock , he thought as loudly as he could, I’m here and I love you and we’re safe. We made it. I’m sorry I let you get hurt. I’m sorry you’re lying there but you have to come back to me now, okay? I need you. I can’t do this on my own. I can’t do this without you. Please wake up, please --
“Remove him,” the harsh words of the Vulcan nurse cut through his thoughts and he shot his eyes up to her.
“What?” McCoy asked, affronted. “He was doing exactly what you said--”
“He was not.” Her voice was as stoic and devoid of emotion as Spock’s had once been, and Jim found that while he’d thought he had gotten better at reading Vulcans, he’d really only gotten better at reading one of them. “He is attempting to wake my patient before the healing trance has done its work. I was not informed that these two were bonded.”
Jim’s eyes widened and he stared at her, confusion and panic draining his face of heat. Had she heard him? How had she heard him?
She approached, hands behind her back, staring down her nose at him, though he was taller than her by at least a foot. “Your bondmate did not teach you how to think quietly,” she said, voice venomous in its calm. “You have not learned how to utilize the connection and, even if you had, you could have irrevocably damaged my patient’s recovery. If you care for him you will leave immediately.”
Swallowing, Jim straightened, feeling himself falter on his exhausted legs, but McCoy’s arm shot out to steady him as he drew up next to Jim. “Now don’t go advancing on my patient, alright? We’ll get out of here.”
“Kirk,” McCoy said, meeting his eyes with purpose. “Come on. You’ve seen him, haven’t you?”
Jim swallowed, casting a look back at Spock. All this time, Spock’s presence at Jim’s side had begun to feel like a certainty, as if he’d always been there. How could Jim leave him now?
He shifted his gaze back to the nurse. “I’m sorry. I’ll-- I’ll keep my thoughts to myself. I wasn’t trying to--”
“You have distracted his mind enough. Leave.”
McCoy’s hold on Jim’s arm tightened, and he made to turn him.
“No!” Jim snapped, shaking McCoy’s hand off of him, but desperation immediately replaced his brief flare of anger. “Don’t do this. Please, I’ll-- I’ll just sit here quietly, I promise. I won’t think, I won’t-- Please, let me.”
“Kirk,” McCoy said as T’Sik huffed her disapproval. He barely registered the sound, barely registered his name. He just turned his eyes back to Spock and suddenly he was gripping the sheets in his fists and forcing himself not to reach out. This was all they could ask of him, wasn’t it? This was all they could possibly expect. He wasn’t strong enough--
“Kirk,” McCoy said, softer this time. His hand returned to Jim’s arm, and Jim recognized that it didn’t feel right, recognized the lack of humming contentment. And, finally, he allowed himself to fall into the hollow feeling that gave him. “It’ll be better for him if we leave, alright?”
He felt himself going boneless, resolve leaving him, everything he had leaving him until he complied almost unconsciously with the guidance of McCoy’s touch. That hand turned him toward the door, though he kept his eyes on Spock until the last moment.
He wanted to reassure Spock that he would be back, but frankly his fight was gone, and he was terrified of the woman who stood like a wall between them-- the cold, hard bite to her eyes. He couldn’t feel her emotions, not the way he could feel Spock’s, but he knew just by looking that she was furious. And maybe she had a right to be. Maybe Jim’s presence would hurt Spock more than it would help him.
McCoy half-dragged him through the door, and the second it swished shut behind them, Jim let out the breath that had stuck itself in his chest. He leaned bodily against the wall, holding himself up, but barely.
A moment passed, awkward and uncomfortable, and Jim tried not to let the sadness rage inside him like it wanted to. It felt like the eye of a storm, as though in moments the winds would whip through him and his whole world would be uprooted.
Although, the second the thought occurred to him, he knew it already had been.
“She can be a little intense,” McCoy said after some time, though he looked strained himself. “Are you okay?”
Jim ran a hand through his hair, feeling the prick of tears behind his eyes. God, but he was exhausted. Emotionally, mentally, physically. He wasn’t strong enough to see Spock like that, but he wasn’t strong enough not to see him, either.
“I’m okay,” he said, but it was a lie. He hadn’t been okay since the moment he’d gained consciousness, and now he was about as far from it as he could be. But he tried to keep himself steady. He owed it to Spock to keep himself steady. Spock would need him to be strong when he woke up to the same, scary world that Jim had.
McCoy nodded, pursing his lips and tilting his head down the hallway, as though inviting Jim to take the first step. But Jim could almost feel Spock on the other side of that door. He couldn’t leave him now. Jim shook his head, trying to steady his roiling stomach, and McCoy seemed to understand.
“I’m sorry,” McCoy said gruffly after a moment. Jim didn’t like the way those words felt. As though McCoy were consoling him for the loss of someone he hadn’t lost.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for.”
Yet , his mind suggested savagely, but Jim shut it up with a clench of his teeth.
McCoy shrugged, and he seemed somewhat uncomfortable. Jim didn’t have the energy to wonder at it, but it looked as though the doctor wasn’t exactly the type to keep his thoughts to himself.
“What I meant is I’m sorry you had to see him like that. I mean, I suspected there might be something going on between you two. There were some, erm, bruising patterns --” It took all of a half a second to realize what McCoy was implying, but then Jim felt a flush overtake his cheeks in spite of himself. Still, of everything he’d felt today, the worry that someone had noticed hickeys on his neck didn’t really measure up. At least Jim didn’t sense any judgement in McCoy’s tone. “But I didn’t think y’all were-- what’d she call it?”
“Bondmates?” he suggested.
“I didn’t either,” he admitted lamely, “I thought we were just dating. But, you know. Vulcans, right?” a weak chuckle fell out, forced and truncated. “Gives us something to talk about when he wakes up, I guess.” His voice sounded empty and tremulous to his own ears. Unstable. For a moment, he worried McCoy could feel it in him, but he had to remind himself forcibly that his emotions were his own. At least, around humans they were.
“Well in either case,” McCoy said, crossing his arms. “I’m sure it ain’t easy.”
Jim hadn’t expected such a soft admission from the doctor, but he also hadn’t really thought of what to expect. It hadn’t occurred to him beyond their individual families how people might react to he and Spock as a pair. But McCoy, for all his apparent distaste of Vulcans, gave Jim the courtesy he likely would’ve given anyone in that position. So the least Jim could do was give him a smile; small, sad and powerless though it may have been. “Thanks,” he said. “I’m… I’m sorry I had to see him like that, too.”
McCoy nodded and they stood in silence for a moment longer. Finally, with a sigh, the doctor beckoned him. “Alright, Kirk,” he said, as though the sentimentality of moments before had passed. “Let’s get you to your temporary quarters. Mister Spock will still be here in the morning.”
Jim struggled not to ask ‘will he?’ because he knew McCoy couldn’t promise him anything, and knew that the medical team was doing everything they could. So he just swallowed and forced himself to follow as McCoy began walking back toward Sick Bay’s front room.
“Before you go passing out, though,” McCoy said, “I gotta tell you the ground rules, okay?”
Jim straightened, blinking his confusion, walking a little unsteadily in McCoy’s wake. “Ground rules?”
“I’ve discharged you from Sick Bay, but you’re still in my care, and I take my job more serious than a cat on a floor full’a marbles. You’re going to get in there, synthesize yourself something more substantial than that nutrition pack you sucked down earlier, and then you’re going to go straight to bed, you understand me?”
“I-- yes, I suppose--”
“And you’re going to sleep at least six more hours because it’s nearly four in the goddamned morning.”
“And if you so much as think about coming back here to visit your-- ah, what in hell did she call him again?”
“Jesus, Vulcans. That. Then I’ll hypo you into the next quadrant. Got it?”
“For a doctor, you sure threaten your patients a lot,” Jim joked a little weakly as they made their way out of Sick Bay and into the darkened corridors. McCoy twisted a smile at him.
“And for a patient you sure mouth off a lot. Listen, the least you can do is rest up and try to get your mind off all this.”
‘All this?’ ‘All this’ could only mean one thing. Spock. How could anyone suggest he get his mind off Spock when Spock was everything. All he had left? How could anyone--
“I--” Jim stuttered, drew his lip between his teeth. His head pounded with the beginnings of a nasty headache, and he took in a deep breath. “Okay. I’ll try.”
They moved quietly through the corridor, only making their way past a few identical doors before pausing in front of one. McCoy tapped the controls, waited for the door to swish open and nodded into the room, whose lights had flashed on. “Here we are.”
Jim turned to him, realizing only then exactly how tired he was. But he tried not to show it. Instead, he leveled a look at the doctor. McCoy had been good to him so far, so maybe…
“Will you please tell me if he wakes up? Or if anything changes? Anything at all.”
McCoy’s shoulders slackened slightly and he looked concerned. Though Jim was starting to think that might be his natural state-- well, concerned and grumpy.
“I’ll tell you,” he promised. And all Jim could manage to do was give McCoy a brusque nod.
“Good night, then,” Jim said. “And-- thank you.” He stepped into the room and turned just as the door closed behind him, before he even heard McCoy respond.
And then Jim was left on the threshold of a room he only recognized because it was exactly like every room he’d stayed in since joining Starfleet, with the addition of a food synthesizer, which he assumed was included in outpatient medical rooms. There was a standard-issue computer console on the standard-issue desk, a chrome divide that half-obscured a small, impeccably made bed, a whole room filled with empty drawers and empty cabinets. He looked around, lost, remembering his promise to get some sleep but finding himself as restless as he was exhausted.
So he walked a little weakly around the perimeter, shoulders slumping now that no one was around to notice the posture. His fingertips traced the cabinets and he breathed in that stark, clean scent that smelled like-- well, it smelled like nothing. The scent of sunlight baking fallen foliage, the musky smell of old furs, the flower-sweet odor that flowed from buzzing forests-- it was all gone.
“Computer,” he said, feeling it strange to speak to an empty room, “increase humidity, ah, twenty percent?”
A click and a hum reverberated from the walls, a sound that made him jump. He took a breath and steadied himself on the desk where his computer console sat. As he looked down, he realized it was blinking-- a message.
Curious, and momentarily grateful for the distraction, he settled down in the seat, scooting forward and tapping the controls. At least some things came back easily, and Starfleet hadn’t yet updated the computers in crew’s quarters. Small blessings.
The message, it turned out, was indeed addressed to him.
Lieutenant James Kirk,
I am writing to inform you that all items contained in your shuttlecraft have been quarantined pending scientific study and decontamination. All plant-based material will be retained in the Enterprise ’s science labs. If you would like to retrieve your clothing, equipment and other possessions, you may do so in the morning.
Our botanist has requested your presence in the botanicals lab, Deck Six, at your earliest convenience. It is the opinion of our department that the study of these plants will go much quicker with your input, and we are very anxious to speak with you.
Finally, on behalf of the Enterprise science team, thank you for rescuing Commander Spock. Many of us served with him, and it is gratifying to hear he is alive.
Looking forward to meeting you in person,
Commander Lanaea Czenovski, Science Officer
Jim settled back in his chair, glancing around the room. Of course it would make sense for them to confiscate all their possessions. Honestly, he didn’t much care if he got any of them back. Except, maybe the chess pieces, even though they would be useless now, as he had his own well-worn chess set at home. But he’d worked so hard on those carvings, and over the months they’d come to represent something a little bit more than what they represented.
He sighed, closing down the message and shutting off the computer. It felt better in here now that the humidity had gone up, but it still wasn’t quite what he was used to, and it still felt oddly claustrophobic without an insistent echo and the crunch of sand beneath his boots. But he’d spent so much of the last couple years dreaming of coming back to a room just like this one, hadn’t he?
McCoy had told him not to dwell on things. To get his mind off ‘all this.’ So maybe he could turn his attention to something that made him happy. Do all the things he’d said he wanted to do when they returned. Without the ability to contact his family, that really left only one thing. Standing, he made his way to the food synthesizer and eyed it almost suspiciously.
Thinking back on his diet over the last two years, he wasn’t sure exactly what he should start with. He’d dreamed of filet mignon, macaroni and cheese, chicken sandwiches and hot coffee and a thousand other things-- but it was too easy, wasn’t it? To stand in front of a machine and tell it what he wanted? No hunting, no foraging, no slicing, measuring, starting a fire. None of that. Just…
Just a button.
So he keyed in a familiar code. In moments, the hatch opened up, and he looked down to see a perfectly replicated bowl of rocky road ice cream. Two scoops, just as he’d asked for.
He choked out a laugh at the familiar and foreign sight, the way its very presence seemed unnatural in the synthesizer’s little hatch. The bowl was cold when Jim took hold of it, and the spoon clanged a little bit as he brought it shakily back to the desk. His hands were trembling, he realized then, insistent now that the distraction of the day had bled from him.
Sitting down, he stared at it for a while, watching it bead into creamy drops as its surface melted. Chocolate chunks stuck up like little crags of rock, like the desert of Sha Ka Ree had become dessert, and he found himself chuckling again, something halfway to hysterical shaking his shoulders as he gripped the spoon and dug it into the first scoop.
With a sting of tears behind his eyes, he raised the spoon to his lips and took a bite.
It melted around his tongue, sickeningly sweet, and chocolate clung to his teeth as he chewed each chunk. Huffing around the mouthful, he began to laugh in earnest, sticking the spoon in again and taking another bite just as he swallowed the first.
It tasted exactly like he remembered and nothing like he remembered, freezing his tongue and his temples and making his teeth sting as the flavor filled his senses like it used to do when they’d make it on the farm. He’d shoveled it down back then, too. Irreverent spoonfuls that always made him sick. He could almost hear his mother’s admonishing voice, her warnings that he’d get brain freeze if he weren’t careful and his mumbling, full-lipped response that it was worth it.
Laughter quaking in him, he dropped the spoon onto the desk, cradling his head in his hands. It didn’t feel right. None of this felt right. That sense of surreality that had colored his mind for months after Tarsus had returned and he only recognized it now for what it was. This was familiar , this horrified ache in his chest that didn’t, couldn’t go away. This sense that everything he touched was somehow tainted by his hands. This feeling that nothing could ever be the same because he was changed, and so his world would be changed. This abject terror that he had no idea how to navigate a life that had been blown off course. How many times did he have to feel as though the weight of others’ deaths were on his shoulders and-- worse-- that the weight of his own life was too? How could he possibly exist in this place after everything he’d seen, everything he’d felt? And how could he ever hope to do it alone?
He watched in near-shock as his tears fell hot against the ice cream, melting it until streaks flowed like rivers down the scoops’ slopes. He didn’t know when he’d started crying, but now the feeling burned his eyelids even as he forced them shut.
His stomach turned.
Scrambling to his feet, he struggled over to the bathroom, threw open the door and knelt over the toilet. Sobs of grief and relief and fear and exhaustion tore themselves from his lungs as he retched, emptying the meager contents of his stomach.
His body shook dangerously as he gripped the bowl, head hanging over the water, sputtering short breaths around the acidic taste that coated his dry mouth. But air wasn’t reaching his lungs, no matter how he gasped for it. Each time he tried to open his throat it just constricted tighter and his head began to swim and he could feel his fingers tingling where blood wasn’t rushing and he wasn’t even in his body enough to realize that his feet had gone numb from where he was kneeling or that his vision had gone black from lack of oxygen and he was terrified because if he could do one thing it was breathe, right? He should at least be able to breathe. Why couldn’t he breathe ?
This isn’t real , he kept thinking, mind repeating the same words until he began to say them aloud, a scratched whisper that sounded more like the shift of sand over metal than it did his voice. “This isn’t real, this isn’t real, this isn’t real...”
And he didn’t know what that meant. Was he afraid that he was dreaming? Was he afraid he was dead? Or was it more that this didn’t feel real? After everything he’d been through, how could it?
Jim screwed his eyes shut, the hot streaks of his tears burning his cheeks as he forced himself away from the bowl and the stench of his own vomit. Laying himself on the floor and letting the cool metal soothe his hot skin, he felt raw, defenseless, burning and freezing and too alive. Too aware. Too… too everything.
His nerves were alight, prickling and tingling the way they did when an ion storm raged overhead, an insistent itch he couldn’t scratch. And it was the only thing he could feel, overwhelming in its intensity, wracking him with sobs he couldn’t contain anymore because he’d been holding them in for hours-- no, for years -- pushing them aside, and there was nothing for him to do now but let the waves take him because he just couldn’t be strong anymore. No matter how much he needed to be, wanted to be. He was alone and he was weak and he wasn’t ready to face the world outside these walls.
It took a long time for the tremors to ease, for breath to return to his heaving chest, for the tears to stop squeezing themselves from his eyes, for him to notice the numbness in his extremities, but eventually the feeling faded into the cold background of his thoughts, leaving his body limp and drained.
He lay there for a stretch of countless minutes, the only sound the hum of the ship around him. He ached from shaking, from holding himself too tightly, but still it took every ounce of strength he had to release the clawed fabric of his thermal.
Finally, he managed to pull himself off the floor as he’d done a hundred times throughout his life, after every panic attack that had made him shake and sob and every nightmare that had forced him to relive the worst moments of his life.
Exhaustion bled deep into his bones now, and he couldn’t stand the idea of food, of anything, really. So he washed out his mouth, wobbled into the room, tossed the bowl of soupy, melted ice cream into the receptacle and wandered to the bed.
“Computer,” he half-whispered, “temperature to eighty-seven degrees. Raise humidity thirty percent.” The click-hum of the environmental controls let him know his request had been answered.
Then, yanking the sheets from the bed, Jim tossed them into the center of the room. The floors in these rooms were hard, unyielding, covered in that stiff, thin carpet. It wasn’t the same, but maybe it would help. With a shaking breath, he pulled off his shirt, tugged off his boots and laid down on top of his little makeshift bed. It still didn’t feel right, smell right, look right, but if he closed his eyes he could pretend he heard the ripples of a hot spring around the corner and he could pretend the soft sheets crinkled and he could pretend that Spock was just out, doing whatever it was he did while Jim slept during midday.
Nearly two years, all he’d wanted in the world was to return to his life. Starfleet, space, and now that he was here his body begged to go back to Sha Ka Ree.