Earth is gone.
By the time the survivors from the Enterprise have a camp set up on one of the terraformed planets in the Alpha Centauri system, they’re mostly sure of that much. If it isn’t destroyed, then it isn’t the same, Kirk finds himself thinking when he finally stops circling the perimeter of their camp, checking with every fire to talk to someone. No one can bring themselves to meet his eyes, but that’s all right with him. He can’t bring himself to look at them directly anyway knowing that he was right to pursue Nero, just too late to prevent the zero-sum game he’s lost. Knowing that Spock made it off the Narada with the Ambassador’s ship, that at least Nero isn’t armed with that physics-defying weapon of his, isn’t much of a comfort.
No one speaks for hours, unless they have an order to relay or a request to make. Someone is creating a list of survivors, but the secondary lists, the list of people missing or dead or desperately sought, those are much longer. There’s a sense everywhere that they’re somehow all that’s left, and maybe they are. The entirety of Starfleet Academy has been wiped out in a matter of hours, save for them, reminding them cruelly how far they really were from actually joining the fleet; how powerless that fleet really is.
Even Kirk is quiet as he can be, and he paces for hours until he finds himself next to a small fire where McCoy is sitting with her head down by her knees. Kirk watched Chapel drape a blanket over her shoulders a few hours before, and he’s certain that McCoy was in precisely the same position before, when there were no crewmen left for her to save; no wounds left to heal but her own.
In the flickering glow of the fire, her face is shadowed and gaunt. Kirk thinks she looks much older than she has any right to be, but he doesn’t need to ask her why. His mother, Sam and Aurelan are all off of Earth, but McCoy’s ex-husband and their daughter were home in Georgia.
“Bones,” he says hoarsely, his throat sore from smoke and screaming and exhaustion. Kirk clears his throat and tries again: “Bones.”
She doesn’t react at first, and then her eyes lift and meet his. The full intensity of it hits him like a phaser on stun and Kirk loses his breath for a moment. Not that he needed a reminder of his role in this, but McCoy’s stare is just short of accusing for a moment before it flickers out.
Kirk hadn’t known what was going on when he rematerialized on the transport pad, only that he had still been breathless with adrenaline from his fight with Ayel, and he had looked up to see McCoy bent over Commander Scott’s shoulder, staring up at him with a dark, terrified look. He remembers screaming something at her and it was only much later that he also recalled the flashing regret in her eyes before she gave the order to go to warp (within the solar system for the second time in an hour, he had thought through the haze of impotent fury).
Now, looking at her again, Kirk can’t even remember what he said in the transporter room, but he thinks that McCoy would have been better in Command than she thinks. (“I’m not cut out for it, don’t be stupid,” she had hissed to him when he’d brought it up sometime in their first year in the Academy. “My job is to keep people alive, not send them to their deaths.”) She’s probably better suited than he is, but here they are, where no choice Kirk could have made could have prevented this from happening.
Kirk can’t think of a thing more to say to her, not in comfort for her pain or in criticism of her defiance of his orders, especially because they saved his life and that of the crew he would have led to death. He settles for the obvious. “Mister Scott is working on that communications relay for us. Said it should be up any time now.”
McCoy doesn’t answer, but Kirk doesn’t let it stop him from speaking. It comes out in a flow now, as if he’s been waiting to say it all to someone.
“Uhura says that Spock’s last transmission to the Enterprise told us he was heading for the rest of the fleet.” Whatever he wanted to say next is lost when he trails off into silence, but McCoy is looking up at him again.
“Stop.” Kirk silences as if on command. “I can’t,” she begins and stops to take another breath before she can go on, but then she pushes it back out and looks so devastated that Kirk doesn’t know quite what to do.
Neither of them speak for a long, long moment, staring between one another. Kirk quietly moves closer and puts his arms around her tense form, hugging her so tightly he thinks that he’ll stop breathing because he needs her, needs his best friend as much as he needs to somehow go back and change everything, maybe even from the very moment that Nero broke through to this universe on the day Kirk was born.
“I’m sorry, Bones,” he whispers into her ear, and she releases her tension, whatever resentment she might rightfully be holding against him, and returns the hug with all the same force as he gave her. His throat tightens uncomfortably and he closes his fist around her uniform shirt. “You were right about me all along. I’m just a dumb, arrogant—”
McCoy’s laugh is joyless, and she punches him in the back to get him to shut up. Before she can say anything at all, Commander Scott clears his throat from the opposite side of the fire. Kirk looks up at him and released McCoy hesitantly, because he needs her to hold him together, but there’s business to attend to, and Pike made him executive officer, after all.
“Captain,” Scott says with an unconcealed smile that seems so incongruous, so out of place among his shattered self-perceptions and McCoy’s deadened spirit.
“Mister Scott,” Kirk says wearily. “Is that communications relay working?”
“Aye, sir. Good news, sir.” His smile betrays some of his weariness and all his enthusiasm.
McCoy exchanges a look with Kirk, and begins to shrug off her blanket. “Well, what is it? Spit it out.”
“Cardassians on their way here to rescue us, Commander,” he says directly to McCoy, sensing her anticipation before he pauses and smiles a little wistfully. “And Earth. We’re getting messages from Earth.”