Admit it. You're torn up and exhausted. You need to go see Bones.
That'd take things full circle, Jim thought with a silent sigh; he'd been running and fighting pretty much non-stop since he'd woken from Bones' hypo some unknown number of hours ago.
He leaned forward in the command chair, aching elbows on aching knees, trying to draw just a little more strength from his crew in the aftermath of the insanity this very long day had become. A mixed blessing, the secret peculiarity passed down from his mother's family line: "emotional vampire" was a term she'd taught him to hate, but empathy didn't really cover the way they "fed" on other people's feelings, nourished and bolstered by emotion the same way most folks were sustained by food.
Jim had ridden that wave all day, pushing his own fear and anger and worry aside; absorbing the excitement and terror and conflict around him and using its intensity to power himself through the confrontation with Nero, to draw on resources he hadn't known he had, and to ignore the injuries piling up one after another.
He could still feel the swirl of emotion on the bridge. Sulu's piquant relief after escaping the black hole tasted as keen as after they'd smacked into the transporter pad together, delivered from certain death on Vulcan's surface. Spock and Uhura were sweet and bracing, leaning on excellence and duty and each other to keep from drowning in their vinegary black grief. Chekov — with too little to do now that their course was set — hunched over his console and tapped feverishly through the reports, offsetting guilt looking for ship's problems he could solve remotely.
But Jim had pushed too hard for too long and more wouldn't take away his exhaustion, or the pain his adrenaline no longer hid.
He always had trouble disengaging himself from the action, even when he wasn't in charge — always afraid that things would turn out for the worse if he held back from giving everything he had. As Acting Captain he'd tried to think of everything Captain Pike would have done, after Nero'd been destroyed. He'd taken in the casualty and damage reports, juggled personnel to handle critical ship priorities, told the Federation and the Fleet the bare bones about who had attacked Earth and why, and confirmed the threat had been neutralized. And he'd interrogated Scotty about their options for getting home without the jettisoned warp cores, then arranged a rendezvous with the ships racing back from the Laurentian system.
Now the bill was coming due, and he couldn't let it show.
You need Bones. More than they need you here.
"Mr. Spock." He sounded firm enough, despite the effort it took to impel the hoarse words from his abused throat.
"Will you take the conn?"
He felt his cheeks warm, just a bit, asking Spock to resume command of the ship that should have been his now. Spock seemed unaware of the irony and simply weighed Jim's request a moment before speaking.
"May I recommend, sir, that instead you call beta crew to stations early? The alpha shift has performed admirably despite being pushed far beyond expected operating parameters, and will be best served if given time to recuperate. It will, after all, be twenty point six hours before the rest of the Fleet can reach us." Spock's tone and surface emotions were even and reasonable, as if command had never changed hands at all. As if Jim hadn't used every trick in his manipulative book earlier, to push Spock's buried guilt and rage over the edge.
And Jim guessed this was as close as Spock would ever come to admitting he, too, needed a chance to rest, and to grieve.
He rubbed the heel of his palm against his thigh, aware of all the eyes on him.
"Agreed," he croaked. He cleared his throat gently, pivoted his chair. "Lieutenant Uhura, please summon the beta crew to the bridge."
She nodded briskly. "Yes, sir."
He maintained his captainly composure, and remained in the chair until he'd made sure all of the phenomenal officers he'd worked with today had handed over their stations and gone off duty.
When Jim finally left the bridge, alone, it took everything he had not to collapse against the wall — or onto the floor — of the turbolift, on his way down to Sickbay. He gripped the railing with one hand, watching the deck indicator lights flick by, finally allowing himself to curl his strained right arm close against his cracked or broken ribs.
No point in trying to hide the pain from Bones, anyway.
He prayed that they'd have a few minutes of privacy, a chance to say some of the things — like "thank you" and "I'm sorry" — that had gotten lost in the frenzied chaos of the day. More than anything, he needed to share a silent moment with the one person on board he'd had a real connection with before he'd brashly leapfrogged from the hearing to the bridge to the chair itself.
The lift slowed to a stop, and Jim steeled himself when the door curved aside, but the black and blue waves of misery from Medical assaulted him: Vulcans and Enterprise personnel spilled out into the hallway and crowded the treatment bays, their physical and psychic pain reverberating off the walls, crashing against his overtaxed perceptions. The medical staff were just as emotionally bereft; they'd lost Doctor Puri and many more in the wreckage of deck six.
Aching for losses and injuries he hadn't prevented and couldn't fix, he scanned the room with eyes and senses, but couldn't see Bones. Disheartened, afraid he'd gone off duty or was still in surgery, Jim inhaled sharply, sending a brutal stab of pain through his ribcage. For a moment, his eyes narrowed against vision gone watery.
"Doctor McCoy, he's here," a clear female voice called out.
Jim focused on the blonde nurse who gazed in concern at him from across the room, but didn't get whatever emotion went with the frown — she was drowned out by a thick, thoroughly familiar marshmallow relief.
He felt one more knot of tension dissolve. That could only be Bones — even though he was farther away than Jim ought to be able to sense. Then again, he'd pushed his empathic abilities a lot harder today than he'd ever had to before — maybe increased sensitivity was one more consequence he'd have to deal with, when all this was over.
"Send him on back, then," Bones called sharply from one of the open doorways in the back wall. His voice, rough with exhaustion, made Jim smile inwardly — cranky and competent as always.
The nurse pointed Jim in the right direction and turned back to her patient; he edged through the quiet disarray, holding his arm against his side but offering a reassuring nod or touch where he could, trying to tune out every feeling but the taste of Bones' mind.
He stepped into the private room, almost shuddering with relief as he palmed the door closed and let the last of his guards slip away. Bones instantly set aside his padd and stylus, still looking somewhat alien in the blue uniform instead of his cadet reds, and a tumbled surge of intense flavors came Jim's way, some familiar and some new and bizarre: unsugared coffee, biting lemon, cherries, bourbon, mint...?
He blinked, trying to savor and sort the tide.
And then Jim saw Pike on the biobed, and his fear shook pain through him again. The captain was lying gray and still, without a trace of his complex emotional presence: the dense mix of determination and pride, authority and rebellion, compassion and snarky humor Jim had come to rely on.
His gaze jerked back up to Bones, and he was buffeted by more sour worry and guilt.
"He's in an induced coma. He'll recover," Bones added, hurriedly. "But there's a lot of nervous system damage and if I don't keep him under..."
Jim closed his eyes and bowed his head, unable to process anything beyond the fact that Pike would live. And his Bones was still here.
Fingertips touched his chin and for one dark twisting moment his brain couldn't decide which way was up. Bones' quick hands caught at his arms.
"Easy, Jim," he said, trying to gentle Jim towards the chair. Jim swayed against his chest instead, pressing his forehead hard against Bones' collarbone, fighting back the blackness. Bones' arms closed around him, fear and worry radiating from him, but where their skin touched, Jim's temple against Bones' neck, soothing energies flowed into him: another complex rush of sentiment-sensation, like tiramisu made with bittersweet cherry liqueur.
But Bones tried to throttle that rich feeling, push it aside. Jim swallowed unhappily; thrown by Bones' out-of-character reticence. Bones wore his emotions on his sleeve, unlike most of the more-or-less deceptive sentients Jim had ever met — he might tamp down the degree, when he had to, but he never pretended to be happy when he wasn't, or patient when he didn't want to be.
"How about we move to Dr. Pur— my office?" Bones asked, voice catching. He shifted Jim from against his chest to along his side, slinging the good arm over his neck and wrapping one arm around his waist. A dozen types of pain wrenched through Jim's muscles and joints, and he reached up against the hurt to grip Bones' wrist: steadying himself, renewing the contact, involuntarily pursuing those alluring flavors Bones was still trying to quash.
"Careful there. I'm still going to need that hand," Bones said, moving them forward so the door panel slid aside. Of course he had put Pike in the room closest the CMO's office, so they didn't have long to keep up the pretense he wasn't supporting most of Jim's weight.
"Won't damage my CMO, promise," he rasped, almost under his breath.
Bones huffed; not quite a laugh, almost a sigh.
"Battlefield promotion," he said, just as softly, maneuvering Jim toward the cushioned cot in the corner of the office while their regret and grief lifted and ebbed; Bones carrying along needless apprehension — he'd risen brilliantly to the needs of the crisis. "It'll never stick."
"Well," Jim paused, focusing on not groaning or grimacing as Bones laid him out flat, but couldn't do much about the stupid pain-tears that welled in the corners of his eyes. "Far as that goes...I think we'll all go down together."
Bones gave a soft grunt in response and tried to gently disengage his wrist from Jim's grip, but he held tight to the confusing layers of feeling; a blanket of comfort in the midst of everything bleak and cold. Bones finally reached out to the desk with his left hand to snag the strap of a portable scanner.
"I'm going to end up checking all of you, but any bits other than your throat need particular attention?"
"Right shoulder. Ribs." Almost funny, that Bones was more acid-sour worried when Jim confessed his aches than all the times he didn't.
"All right..." Bones hesitated, then added, "be quicker an' easier if I had both my hands for this."
Jim closed his eyes, struggled to relax his fingers, pull them back from Bones' skin. His friend's emotions receded to a lower hum, literal and professional distance kicking in, and he gritted his teeth, feeling unaccountably betrayed again, just as he had by Bones' perfectly understandable shock and doubt when Jim took the command chair. That didn't matter, he reminded himself, there'd also been slow, creamy wonder and the tiniest burst of crisp green-apple pride beneath all that fear.
The hand-held scanner's familiar whine almost covered Bones murmuring a catalogue of Jim's injuries, presumably recording them in his padd.
"....obvious exhaustion...strange imbalance of neurotransmitters in the amygdalae... superior ligament... cracked ribs... right scapula... extensive contusions on torso and extremities... larynx, trachea and esophagus..." He broke off, distantly brimming with cherry, and coffee, and the whiskey lemonade taste of the scowl Jim couldn't see. "Jesus Christ, Jim — was it just Spock you invited to throttle you, or the whole damn universe?"
"I'll live," Jim sighed, not bothering to push his voice beyond a whisper. He was sure he could still feel the distinct imprint of three different hands on his trachea.
"The hell did you put yourself through?" He shuffled for another instrument, and Jim pulled his eyes open to watch the intent concentration in Bones' hazel-green eyes as the regenerator eased the raw swelling and pressure in his throat.
"Melvaran Mud Fleas," he mumbled, and then regretted it when Bones grimaced guiltily. But he continued, ticking his thumb against index finger to pinky and back again. "Romulans. Gravity. Security. Spock. No, giant ice bugs first. Then Spock. Then more Romulans. And....a black hole."
"Oh, is that all?" Cinnamon sarcasm over triple-espresso terror. "Surprised you're not hiding from me in a Jeffries tube somewhere."
"Just...needed to see you."
"Yeah," Bones said, those weird black cherry notes reaching briefly above the harsh lemony concern Jim knew all too well. He started loading up a hypo. "Got to bind those ribs for now — all the osteos are in use — and find one of the portable neuroscans. And get a meal for you to dig into while I figure out what the hell's going on in your brain."
"No—" Jim reached out to Bones, even as he tried to bite off the protest. He wanted — needed — Bones to be here with him.
"Not negotiating this with you, Jim," Bones growled, but he caught Jim's hand and gave it a quick squeeze. "Scanner reports something off in your head, and with all the abuse you've taken today we need to make sure you don't have a slow bleed or something worse going on."
The renewed immediacy of his friend's emotions was a relief, even with the harsh peppery notes of stubborn anger backed by fright, but there was no way to stop Bones now short of the truth, and... and Jim realized he didn't give a damn about keeping the secret anymore. No matter how Bones reacted.
Jim's heart thumped, and he squeezed Bones' hand harder, willing him to stay. "I know what it is. Genetic quirk. Not life-threatening."
Bones frowned at him, anger and worry backing off uncertainly, wisps of that cherry-red yearning trying to swirl slowly over even fainter blackberry mistrust.
"You're forgetting that I know you, Jim. You'd tell me everything was okay even if you had no idea what was going on. Anything to avoid more time in Medical."
"Will you believe me if I ask you to give me whatever's in that hypo?"
Eyes narrowing, Bones regarded the hypo in his own hand with bittersweet purple-black suspicion he turned back on Jim.
"What don't you want me to find?"
Jim wanted to inhale slow and long — hard to fathom how many hard-taught rules he was breaking today — but his ribs protested and the deep breath stuttered into a wince.
"Shouldn't give you a damn thing without a more detailed look at your head," Bones grumbled, but this time Jim barely felt the hypo press against his neck before the flood of analgesics and whatever else Bones was giving him swept through his system. He exhaled shakily, relieved Bones was still willing to trust him, and all the tension he'd been relying on to hold his battered body together began melting away into the cushions.
He glanced up worriedly.
Bones shook his head, stroking his thumb absently along Jim's knuckles.
"No sedatives, I promise. I know we've all got too much to do," he said wearily. "So."
"So..." Jim lifted his chin, gazing up at the ceiling but holding onto his friend's hand.
"Hell. I either should have told you this way back when, or not be telling you now; no way you won't be mad but please, just...." He reached again for reserves that weren't there, struggling for strength to continue, logic to find the right words. "It is a genetic quirk, in my family line, that allows me to ‘feed' on other people's emotions — one-way empathy, harmless to everyone else. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it, today I needed it..."
He inhaled a couple of times, quick and shallow, trying to reel in the rambling fear that Bones wouldn't believe, wouldn't accept. "It's not impossible and I'm not crazy and I'm supposed to keep it a secret and I'm just...all used up right now, Bones...."
Bones' eyes fluttered shut for a moment, muscles tensing up like he was preparing to pull his hand free from Jim's, conflicting feelings roiling over each other in a stew of flavors: sea-salt hurt, almond bewilderment, more bitter coffee, more lemons, an overwhelming sour-cherry flare of absolute panic, all of it gradually blending and softening into a sweet, mild bisque tinged grey with exhaustion.
"I'll get mad later, I guess," he finally said, eyes opening but looking at the cot next to Jim's shoulder. "Or maybe not. Don't think I can get too upset about anything helped you live through today.
"Empathy makes enough sense with the amygdala, handles memory and emotion — and connected to smell and taste, huh — and ‘all used up' is a pretty good description of the state of yours right now...."
He trailed off, looking back into Jim's eyes, a little tart uncertainty saturating the sweetness in his mind.
"An'.... you've known what everyone's been feelin' this whole time? What I've been feelin'?"
There were a lot of qualifications and complications to that answer, but the long-form explanation was better saved for when they weren't up to their asses in alligators.
Faint sounds filtered in from the outer bay, but they might as well have been alone in the universe.
"Yes," he answered, waiting for the inevitable.
Bones sat heavily on the cot, hand tightening on Jim's.
"If you're not out of your mind, I must be out of mine."
He leaned down, and Jim was so caught up in the richness of the bewildering flavors in his mind that he didn't quite realize Bones was going to kiss him until warm lips brushed against his own. With only a brief stutter, his mouth caught up, giving the kiss back. Warmth and well-being suffused him, thumping deep in his chest, tingling on his skin, and the exquisite dark cherry tiramisu flavor dominated his reeling mind.
When had he first tasted cherries today? His visit to Medical, after his miraculous beam-up during Vulcan's dying moments? His arrival on the Bridge, after his return from Delta Vega? That brief handclasp, handing Pike off to Bones in the transporter room?
But the feeling was so deep and rich it had to have been building before today, and somehow he'd managed to miss it — or had Bones managed to hide what he was feeling? Or — such a strange thought — had Bones somehow not known?
Jim brought a hand up, stroked his thumb against the tragus of Bones' ear, and knew, thoroughly, madly, deeply, that he was never going to be able to live without this. He couldn't count the number of times his mother had told him "never fall in love with one of them," when he was growing up. He'd never expected to fall in love at all, but what Bones suddenly felt — what he suddenly felt in return — was so potent, so overpowering, he now knew exactly why she'd said it, and how she'd had no choice in the matter herself...
Bones' hand wrapped warm and strong around the back of Jim's head, the flavor of the cherries and the coffee overpowering the creamy sweetness. Jim could feel the trembling in the arm that braced Bones off the cot, and his breath caught in his nose — Bones was as scared, as overwhelmed, as exhausted as he was.
Bones pulled back, hand falling away to trail over Jim's shoulder, brows drawn together over eyes searching Jim's face. In gradual stages, marshmallowy reassurance eased through his uncertainty, and he gave Jim a crooked smile.
"That....tasted....really good," Jim whispered, fingers stroking the soft hair at the nape of Bones' neck. Bones huffed and pressed his forehead against Jim's; speechless, for the first time Jim had ever seen.
He smiled, faintly; pushed his heel down so he could shift over on the narrow cot, and tugged on Bones until he really didn't have a choice about collapsing next to Jim.
The long exhalation Bones made might have been a groan, if he'd spared the energy to vocalize.
"Jim, I've got to—"
"If I can take a break to rest then so can you." They laid almost nose to nose on the pillow, and he looked deeply into Bones' eyes, trying make it a command.
"You can fix me later. I promise what ails me isn't going to get any worse."
"Bones. I don't need treatment as much as I need..." He hesitated, throat tightening on a childish apprehension. He lowered his chin a little, opening himself up fully to the tiramasu flavors of Bones' mind: mascarpone-sweet affection and relief; rich, loving cherry; sprinkled traces of edgy coffee fear and cinnamon cynicism. He loved it all. "I need what you're giving me right now. Stay with me. Please."
Bones sighed, long and hard, searching Jim's eyes, and Jim could see the moment when he accepted that all of this — Jim, the weird bond they'd just formed, whatever was going to happen next — was inevitable, inescapable. And welcome.
"Let me up for just a second."
"Not a chance," Jim said, and raised his voice just a little. "Captain Kirk to Nurse Chapel."
"Are there any urgent reasons that Doctor McCoy can't be relieved for an hour?"
"No, sir. Doctor Takahashi and I have been trying to get him to take a catnap in shifts with the rest of us since he finished with Captain Pike."
"Consider him off duty, then. Thank you." His eyes were falling closed before he remembered to say, "Kirk out."
"Infant," Bones said, low and gruff, but he hadn't tensed up and he didn't pull away. The two of them shifted together until they were comfortable as they could be on the narrow cot, limbs entwined.
"Definitely out of my mind," Bones murmured into Jim's temple. "Computer, alarm in sixty minutes."