“I’m so sorry, Leonard, it’s terminal.”
By 2260 the Federation’s medical research teams had found a cure for cancer, for Lupus, for Ebola, for Polio and if the plague ever came back into fashion they’d have that in the bag as well. Xenopolycythemia was, however, something that they did not currently have in the bag. And when Bones, with all his medical expertise, heard his XPCV diagnosis he knew as well as Geoffrey that this wouldn’t be something he would walk away from. Jim had suspected it was something serious when Bones had told him that he’d been advised to bring someone along with him to M’Benga’s consultation room. He could never have imagined, though, upon walking into that room, that Bones would have been handed a death sentence.
If they had found it three months earlier, before the spleen had been so badly affected…
There’s no such thing as a no-win scenario, was all Jim could think as Bones’ eyes glazed over and his breathing became ragged. M’Benga had quietly left the room when Bones nodded, his head barely moving. Jim grazed his knuckles over Bones’ thigh in a reassuring gesture, neither one able to meet the other’s gaze.
“We’ll get through this.” Jim said softly.
“Okay.” Bones replied.
“No, Bones, look at me.” Jim urged. “Please, look at me.” And Bones did and Jim knew nothing he could say would make this better, make the numbness or the all-consuming pain and terror and grief go away and so he just tipped his forehead against Bones’ and held onto Bones’ thighs. He could feel the strong muscle under his hand and it made him think of all the things he would lose if he loses Bones. He shook his head and huffed out a breath, resolute in his determination. “We’ll find something, I will go to the ends of the universe for you and we will find a cure.” Jim assured Bones and, in part, himself.
“Okay.” Bones repeated.
They decided not to tell the crew yet. Jim merely hacked into Starfleet’s system and made it appear that their next mission was a research mission, research into the treatment and a potential obtaining of a cure for the humanoid disease known as Xenopolycythemia. Spock was slightly confused by this research mission, it was unlike anything The Enterprise usually received but he kept his speculation to himself as, in the end, orders were orders and a medical research mission might do the CMO, who was looking rather unwell of late, some good. When Bones found out about said ‘orders’, he marched onto the bridge in full ire mode and not likely to take any prisoners.
“A word, Jim.”
“Hello, Bones, what can I–”
“Now!” Bones roared. Causing Chekov to physically jump in his chair and even made Uhura look around from her station.
“Doctor McCoy.” Jim warned. “Bones.” He reasoned.
“Now, Jim.” Bones whispered, oh so quietly.
“Okay.” Jim nodded, striding forward to his ready room, Bones marching closely behind.
“If this is abou–”
“Of course that’s what this is about. These are not our orders from Starfleet, and while I know you don’t give a damn about orders I think the crew deserve to know that they might be pulled up on severe charges of insubordination on my account.” Bones hissed through gritted teeth, anger turning his eyes a murky green. “If you want to go on this completely futile mission then be my guest, but do not assume anyone else wants to go with you.”
“Why are you being like this?” Jim asks. “I’m trying to save you.”
“Well you can’t, Jim, I’m dying. Terminal, why don’t you look it up?” Bones huffs, storming right back out of the ready room.
It’s then that Jim breaks for the first time, water welling in his eyes and hands trembling. He sits down in the chair behind his desk and leans his forehead in his hands, fingers clutching at his hair. He can’t lose Bones, he won’t. Gulping in a shaky breath he stands, smoothing out the non-existent creases in his shirt he finally heads back out onto the bridge. No one questions why the whites of their captain’s eyes are slightly bloodshot, blue irises made all the more blue from the red rim around them, it tells of tears unshed. Alpha shift continues, tense and terse, like worn fabric doing its damnedest not to rip down the middle.
Nyota corners him before he gets the chance to leave the bridge at the beginning of the shift change. She takes him gently by the biceps and guides him back over to the ready room. She gives him a soft shove and closes the door behind them, back against the door as if someone might try to burst through.
“What was that with Leonard on the bridge today?” She asks, her voice strong but gentle. She is firm when he can’t be, every thought about Bones now marred with hesitation and doubt.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He sighs, he can’t even try to keep up this pretence he’s just so tired.
“Jim.” She says. “You looked like you were about to sob when you came back onto the bridge. Leonard looked just as bad, he’s been looking pretty morbid for days now. What’s going on?”
“He doesn’t want to say anything, I can’t just tell you, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” Jim says, sounding suitably reprimanded, hoping that will get her off his back.
“That’s not what this is about, we all end up bringing up our personal life in some way while on duty, you remember Qo’noS?” She asks with a smile. “You’re my friend Jim, before you’re my Captain, and I’m worried.”
“He’s dying.” Jim says and then he has to frown, contort his face to stave off the tears. “He’s going to die and I can’t do a thing about it.”
“The research mission.” Nyota murmurs, thinking. “Xenopolycythemia?” And Jim just nods, not sure whether to look guilty or whether that even matters now. “Oh, Jim. I’m so sorry.”
“He wants me to call off this mission. We’re meant to be conducting a tour of the delta quadrant.” Jim sighs. “I’m such a selfish bastard, but I just can’t let him die.”
“Jim.” And then Nyota pauses. “This disease is something that they have never found a cure for, perhaps you need to think about more palliative care plans. If this is terminal-”
“I wish everyone would stop saying that. It’s not terminal because I won’t let Bones die.” Jim says, his voice rising with each syllable. “I can’t.”
“It’s not giving up Jim.” Nyota says. “But you need to focus on making Leonard fell as comfortable and as comforted as he can be, he loves you, he’s going to want to spend time with you, not see you wasting his last days running yourself into the ground. You need to inform Sulu that we’re changing course and you need to find Leonard and talk things through with him. This has to be something you face together.” Nyota says, kissing his cheek. He knows she’s right, and all her time with Spock has meant her logic is flawless. But Jim doesn’t want logic, or facts, or statistics and probabilities, he wants a solution. He wants Bones. Alive. End of story.
Bones prepares for death the way he prepares for a long surgery, meticulous attention to detail and a concentrated heavy gaze, pursed lips. When Jim returns to their quarters that evening Bones is looking over a chart on his PADD, it’s M’Benga’s predictions, his report on the possible rate of Bones’ decline. There are a stack of envelopes next to the PADD, sourced from Bones’ actual-paper, letter writing kit that he’s had since he moved to Mississippi and his mother told him hand written letters always meant more to people. They said you cared enough to make the effort. The letter on the top has Christine’s name scrawled on it.
“What’s with the letters?” Jim asks.
“There for some of the crew, people that mean the most to me. People I still have things left to say to.” Bones replies.
“Then say it to them. You’re not going anywhere Bones.” Jim huffs.
“You can’t fight this Jim!” Bones snaps. “This isn’t something your stubborn ass can get us through. I’m going to die, Geoff’s given me six weeks at best and then I’m going to be dead. I need to get my shit in order and if you can’t understand that and you don’t want to help me then get out.”
“Why are you letting this win?” Jim breathes, close to tears.
“Because I don’t have a choice.” Bones whispers. “I have six weeks, Jim. I thought I had another sixty years, that we had another sixty years and now I don’t and I have all this stuff that I have to do.”
“I’m so sorry.” Jim says, inevitably welling up. “Tell me what you need me to do.”
“I need you to hold me.”
They spend most evenings like that, Bones curled into the warmth of Jim’s body while his begins to wither and fade, Jim holds him through the dizziness and the headaches. Holds him when he begins to shake in medbay and is taken off of active duty. Geoff said the transformation of polycythemia to acute leukaemia is rare but Bones’ aspirin dose clearly wasn’t high enough and maybe they needed to find a better solution than Bones bloodletting in the bathroom twice a week. M’Benga didn’t approve of that practice but Bones wasn’t giving up without a fight. He was getting weaker, too weak to stand chemotherapy and too weak to continue bloodletting on his own. His ever steady hands shook now, from tension, fear, exhaustion.
Bones doesn’t have to ask, he just sits on the edge of the bath tub one evening and waits for Jim to come to his aid, gently murmuring instructions, follow the line of the scars, not too deep, keep a steady pressure around the incision.
Jim doesn’t know how much longer he can watch the love of his life die right in from of him, but he doesn’t know how much longer he can leave for the bridge every morning when the only thought that goes through his head is what if he’s gone before I get back.
“Mister Spock you have the conn, indefinitely.” Jim says two weeks after Bones’ diagnosis.
“Yes, Captain.” Spock nods, understanding in his logical brown eyes.
When Jim gets back to his quarters Bones is examining the purpling skin of his torso, he looks like he’s been taking a beating on a regular basis, his once tanned skin so pale now, in comparison to the profusion of dark, blackened bruises. Bones pulls his t-shirt down when he sees Jim eyeing him at the door, but he moved to quickly and he winces.
“I’m fine.” He huffs, sounding breathless.
“I’ll run you a hot bath.” Jim says with a smile. “And then you need to eat.”
“I already ate, I’m not an invalid, Jim.” Bones huffs.
“You ate three forkfuls last night. That isn’t eating, Bones.” Jim counters and then sighs. “I don’t want to argue about it. I’ll replicate peach cobbler?”
“Don’t pander to me, kid.” Bones pouts but it makes them both smile slightly, thinking of better times.
Jim spends a lot of his nights watching the rise and fall of Bones’ chest as the doctor pretends to sleep. They’re both drawing their own warped sense of comfort out of this. Bones allowing Jim that slight bit of normalcy even though he can rarely find the solace of genuine slumber – Jim let’s Bones give him that much if it means Bones will stop thinking about dying, focus his attentions elsewhere.
When Bones asks Jim to make love to him the one last time doesn’t need to be said aloud. They haven’t since Bones’ diagnosis and Jim knows that Bones is on the brink of being too weak to ever really entertain doing it again. He’s become like a doll, a precious china doll that Jim can’t stand to scratch, let alone nick or, god forbid, break. But he can’t say no to Bones, can’t face those hazel eyes and actually give him any reason for them not too.
So they go slow. And Jim lets tears well in his eyes when he begins to move inside Bones. Both their chests are heaving, both their shoulders tense. Jim is so terrified but Bones is murmuring words of encouragement, repeating a litany of darlin’ and kissing Jim’s jaw and his neck and his lips.
“I love you.” Is the first thing Jim can manage once he’s come, holding Bones tight enough to bruise.
“I know, Jim.” Bones nods, sounding mentally and physically drained. “Thank you.”
That quiets the storm for a while and M’Benga even notes a physical improvement, Jim makes a joke about his miraculous cock but only Bones seems to find it funny.
They spend a lot of time holding hands, needed the reassurance that comes from the constant touch.
Jim gives out Bones’ letters because he’s finding it difficult to spend too long out of bed, his body feels heavy. He tells Jim what a strange sensation it is, to feel so frail but so weighty at the same time. Like his bones are simultaneously hollow and fit to burst. Now Bones is spending a lot of time sleeping for real and even though Jim wants to spend as much time awake together as possible he just contents himself with holding Bones close around the middle and placing light kisses to his shoulder, murmuring what ifs and impossible promises.
At the beginning of his sixth week people make their last visits. Bones feels uncomfortable having all the attention on him, especially when he looks so wretched and pale, body emaciated – something almost unrecognisable. Christine and Nyota handle it well, making gentle chitchat and offering easy smiles.
Spock’s show of profound sorrow is concentrated into the slight downturn of his tightened lips.
“You promise me you’ll look after, Jim.” Bones whispers, taking Spock weakly by the wrist, being careful to mind his hands.
“I will do my best, Leonard.” Spock vows gently, with all the gravity that the Vulcan cadence offers. Jim has to hold in his sob from where he is currently sitting on the floor lent against the cabinets of their small kitchenette.
“Give this to Jim.” Bones says. “If I give it to him he’ll open it before I- But I know you’ll wait.”
Jim doesn’t ever want to be given his letter, because that means Bones is gone. But when he wakes up the following morning Bones is lying too still beside him. Eyes closed as if to mimic sleep but his chest won’t rise and fall like usual and Jim wants to beg him not to go but it’s too late because he’s gone and there were no last goodbye or gentle kisses. Bones just slipped through his fingers two days too soon and Jim wants to choke on his grief because this pain inside him, this horrible gut twisting anguish is too much to bear.
He doesn’t cry as much as he thought he would. He murmurs a few shaky I love you, Bones, please I promise I do, please come back, please don’t leave me, I need yousand his cheeks are slightly wet, a saltiness clinging to his lips. Then he just lays there a while, maybe if he doesn’t get up he can just kid himself that the pallor and coldness of Bones’ skin doesn’t mean anything. He feels wretched and alone and bruised. His heart aches.
He comms Spock and doesn’t even have to say anything, his first officer just knows to send Christine, knows that they’ll need a gurney and knows he doesn’t have to order medbay to prep the operating theatre.
Jim sits alone in their room for the rest of the day, opening some of Bones’ old paper novel and letting the sweet smell of the pages sooth the sickness that wracks him to his core. He pulls on one of Bones’ old t-shirts, one that he’s had since the academy and wraps himself under the duvet, sobbing until his throat threatens to give way.
When Spock arrives he commands the lights lower, sets a pot of Vulcan tea down in front of Jim and offers Jim his letter.
“I can’t.” And Jim starts crying again, taking in gulping breaths as his body quivers from trying to stop himself from weeping. He sniffles back a choked sound and diverts his gaze from Spock, who shares a look of the grief stricken.
“Then I shall leave it here until you are ready.” Spock says, placing the letter on the desk and exiting the room.
I left this letter ‘til last, thought I could use the extra time to psych myself up for it. But I've realised I don’t know how to explain how much I love you with words; I hope I did a good enough job with my actions because it’s too damn late to fix it now. But I need you to know, without doubt, that I love you. More than life itself. It hurt me most to have to watch you wait for me to die, to feel like I wasn’t just letting my own life slip away but that I was bringing you down with me.
But I couldn’t have done it alone. You are my rock, James, and I would have been honoured to spend the rest of my life with you. I’m certainly glad that I could give you my last few weeks. I'm glad I met you Jim, I'm glad we got to spend the years we did as friends, and more. You saved me, I know you won't believe that now, but you did and you have.
Last night I heard you whisper that you didn’t want to be alone, that you wouldn’t be able to go on. But you can Jim, you’re so brave and stubborn, almost to a fault. Please don’t let my death be your end too. Instead, think of me as a sunset. But the sun will rise again tomorrow, Jim, and you will still be as beautiful as you always were.
I love you, Jim. Thank you, for letting me into your life, for having the right words when I needed them and the silence when I didn’t.
It might be easy to give up now, but I’m always going to be with you and whenever your heartaches remember what we had, what you gave me, and smile. Those baby blues are the brightest things I’ve ever seen, and it’d be a damn shame if no one else ever got to enjoy them.
You don’t believe in no-win scenarios, kid.