In the days and weeks between this moment and Earth spacedock, this is going to do the rounds of the ship's crew, a story told in hushed voices, behind raised hands: what could they say to each other that they haven't already? There will be whispers of thrown objects, thrown fists, something sexual, even: something to account for the intensity of it.
But it's not like that. It's the ship's shift changeover. A long night for Leonard McCoy, but now morning; a couple of sickbay's customers released back into the big wide world, with stern injunctions to not be so silly next time and come back if there's any pain. Spock on subspace transmission with someone back on Vulcan – a healer, possibly. "A researcher," he says, softly, when the man on the other side of the screen disappears for a second. "At the Vulcan Science Academy – he is hoping to write a paper about the fal-tor-pan ceremony. I can go elsewhere if the call disturbs you."
"You carry on." McCoy doesn't need his office screen right now. Dr M'Benga wants his opinion on something. Quick check of inventory; a word to one of the nurses. Spock's talking about his katra. (His soul, McCoy mentally amends: he wants to give the thing its weight and resonance, even in translation.) They need to check on their hypospray cartridge supply. Spock's talking about his parents; his memory; his receptacle.
"What?" McCoy says, out loud; he didn't mean to.
And then Spock turns to look at McCoy with his eyes steady and humourless, and says, again: "Receptacle. A human male" - and there's something about McCoy's height and weight - "who had been present, when I.."
When Spock cuts the link McCoy doesn't speak. The anger is slow in coming, taking its time to build, drawing itself up from the currents in the deep waters.
"I apologise for the inconvenience," Spock says.
McCoy nods and turns. "Receptacle, Spock?"
"Doctor McCoy, I..."
"Is that what we're calling it?" – and that's the point, maybe, where it starts to go a little out of control, flips over from their usual name-calling into something else.
"It is accurate." Spock's voice, so steady, but with a harsh note, because this isn't following the usual grooves. "A receptacle. You were there, Doctor."
"I was there?" A pause for that anger, deep, corrosive as saltwater. "That's why you used me? Because I was there?"
"Do you dispute this account?" Spock asks, and suddenly McCoy's in another sickbay, a long time ago, backing away from Spock with adrenaline rising bitter in the back of his throat. He doesn't say anything.
"Do you dispute this account, Doctor?" Spock asks again, and that's their last-chance saloon.
"Years back, the other you," McCoy says, suddenly. "The transporter accident, the other world. You remember. The other you pushed me down and got into my head." He lifts his fingers in the mind-meld gesture. "Pushed me right down on my knees against the wall and did that to me, in front of God and all His creation. And you know, I never told you." He spreads his hands. "Because I thought, why hurt you the way that would hurt you. When Jim knew, and that was enough. When Jim had told you that you were the same in any universe, a good man."
Spock says nothing.
"When did you start treating people like things, Mr Spock?"
And having said that, he doesn't storm out exactly, just turns around slowly and moves to the door, and on the threshold, he's angry with himself for pulling that old thing out of his back pocket, just to throw it like a weapon, just to lash out, to hurt; and then angrier still with Spock, who's still standing in middle of the room with that damnable concerned look on his face, like it's McCoy who's been hurt, after all.
The new Enterprise is smooth as anything, all sleek lines and curves, a silver lady. She's the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A, because apparently there's been so many damn ships of the name that now they come with identifying letters of alphabet attached: this is A and some day there'll be B and in his darker moments McCoy can picture the whole line of them clearly, all in a row up towards infinity, each one a perfect blessing with its own perfect demise. On this first mission, the one where they work out the kinks in the warp nacelles and take the plastic wrap off the control panels and figure out what all the brand new buttons and whistles do, he's cranky and oversensitive even before the thing with Spock, stumping around his quarters picking things up and putting them down and never settling to anything, everything's too bright and too loud and then afterwards he has kind of a dizzy spell and the new silver lady Enterprise is back in dock for a while.
"It's nothing to do with you, Bones," Jim insists, and God bless him, he's trying. "Saving Spock, saving Earth and then standing court-martial is enough for one crew. We all need some time."
"Yeah, sure," McCoy says, because he's too tired to argue. "It's okay, Jim. It's gonna be okay."
Jim just looks at him, like he's wondering why it's McCoy who's telling him that, that it's all okay, that everything will be fine. And McCoy wants to add more to that: he wants to say that Jim Kirk is a good man and a good captain and he'll get a new CMO, that whosoever follows him out there into the black, he'll be better than fine, he'll be glorious. That he belongs out there in space like he was born to it and that Leonard McCoy, M.D., is back on his knees in the dirt and he's not planning on getting up again.
He doesn't say any of those things. He's ducking his head anyway, holding up his hands against the city lights at night, and he disembarks from the shuttle without turning back.
Jim comes to visit him down at the old house in Georgia, which is odd – it's like seeing his schoolteachers in their summer clothes, to see Jim Kirk in civvies standing in this house, pouring sweet iced tea into an old glass cup and sitting down to drink it on the porch. McCoy leans against the jamb of the screen door and watches Jim set the rocker going, sipping his own tea with the slice of lemon in it. "My mother would have smacked me round the head," he says, after a moment, "letting a guest serve himself."
Jim smiles up at him, taps his spoon on the side of the glass. "This is your chair, isn't it?"
"It's my house, Jim, they're all mine" – but he relents as Jim runs a finger lovingly over the polished wood of the armrest, as though it's a thing to wonder at. Not a lot of wood in space, or fresh lemon. "But it's where I, ah, habitually sit, yeah. How'd you know?"
"I just figured." Jim pushes forwards, then back, looks out at the front yard and the mandevillas dripping pink and green. They're a devil for water but McCoy's mother loved them. "I was gonna say, your accent…"
"Gettin' thicker, is it?" McCoy looks down into his tea. "My, what a surprise."
"And then I decided not to." Jim's still rocking, the ice-cubes rattling against the glass. "Everyone's gotta be from somewhere. Leonard…"
"Don't," McCoy says. "Don't give me my name here. I can't – not here."
"Bones, then" – and McCoy wonders at that. He has been, was, James T. Kirk's sawbones for a long time, but not forever. Not when those mandevilla vines were planted, when he stood out in that yard with the shovel in his hand and salt-sweat breaking from his palms. "I'm not putting in for a new CMO," Jim says. "I mean it. My crew can bandage their own hurts from now on. Man up and deal with it when they lose their limbs. But if you're staying…"
"I think I am." McCoy tips his head back against the doorframe, looks up into the bright blue sky. Not forever.
"There's something for you, then." Jim puts a padd on the table next to his tea. "Old friend of mine from the Academy, needs the loan of a general practitioner."
"Not out here, I guess."
"No. Think about it, Bones." Jim stands up, gently so the rocker barely shifts. While he's looking for his communicator and arranging for transport, McCoy sips the last of his own tea. Before Jim turns to go, to walk to the local beam-out station down in town, he says, "Spock will be around. He's doing a couple of guest lectures for the incoming batch of cadets."
"Sure," McCoy says, and lets Jim put a loose arm around his shoulders, doesn't tense up at the touch, though when Jim has gone he finds he's shivering again, even here in the Georgia sunshine, the first starlight he ever felt.
He can't sleep for a couple of days after that, sitting by the window watching the purple dawns and twilights. He misses the ships coming in. Joanna's not around – she's got a new girlfriend, they're on Vulcan of all places, working on some horticultural project out in the Vulcan polar region, who even knew Vulcan had a polar region. McCoy sends her a message and she sends one back. She doesn't believe he's staying.
He drinks and doesn't sleep and looks up at the stars. And then, because God knows this is how Leonard McCoy made that leap in the first place, went out into space with the rough taste of day-old bourbon in his mouth and every shit-poor decision he'd ever made etched and aching in his bones, he heads out to the transport station in the morning, so early that when he comes to on the other side of the continent it's just before dawn breaks over the bay. He's holding the vague note that Jim gave him; it's some guy at the civilian wing of the Academy hospital who's asking for the loan of a general practitioner, and McCoy figures he can duck from bright lights and shiver just as well in harness as sitting on his ass. When he checks it again there's a note from Spock, too, which he deletes without reading. He crunches along the streets down to the hospital in the dark frost, throws his bag down when it's time to scrub up. This morning he left the house in Georgia and a couple of months before that he was on Vulcan, standing next to what passes among folk there for an ocean, the water salt-sweet and yellow-green, and he wonders how he got here.
The first patient of the day is a teenage boy who wasn't paying attention to his friend's serve. McCoy cleans up the kid's black eye and advises no more tennis for a day or two. The next is an older Vulcan woman, come for maintenance review of her diabetes prescriptions; McCoy goes through the records and does a couple of quick tests and tells her everything's fine, she's in perfect health and she will be for a long time yet. The third patient is starting to feel a wrongness inside her, like she's woken up a stranger in this place she's always lived. McCoy finds her some leaflets and pamphlets and asks her if she gets much sunlight on her skin, and talks about long-term therapies and potential avenues for medication, and she thanks him and says he's been very kind and leaves. And then after she's gone he draws the curtains and just sits in the dark for a while, until Spock comes knocking just before lunchtime. "Doctor McCoy," he's saying, as the door opens, "are you..."
At the sight of him McCoy gets up then jerks back, brought up short by the edge of the biobed. Then Spock comes properly into the room, because how the hell is McCoy going to stop him, and that's what takes the fight out of him, that realisation. He sits on the biobed, draws up his feet and hugs his knees and stays there for a few minutes, and Spock doesn't say anything, just sits on the chair next to the bed and they both wait for the shaking to stop.
"Doctor," Spock says, very gently, "the time for the lunchtime serving approaches. The captain advised me of your presence here, and I had thought to ask you…"
McCoy nods, not in agreement but understanding. "Spock," he says, looking at the floor, "I can't do this, okay? If I mean anything to you at all, you'll let me alone."
"I will, if that is what you wish," Spock says, after a moment. He turns to go out, then pauses on the threshold. "However…"
McCoy lifts a hand. "That's just it, Spock, I can't fight with you any more. I know it's what we do. I know the thing about remembering who you are, okay?" He looks up as he says it, driven for a second by his old fierceness. It feels like wearing someone else's clothes. "I know. God, I know. But I can't do this any more."
"Doctor," Spock says, with an infinite gentleness, and McCoy hates him for that. He's moving slowly; he takes only small steps back into the room, as though McCoy is some animal he doesn't want to frighten, and McCoy lifts his head again.
"Are you – is this because, what I said…"
"It is about what I said, Doctor."
"I guess," McCoy says after a while, "this is where we realise it's a big misunderstanding and we laugh about it, huh. You weren't talking about me at all. You were planning an away mission and arranging for a packed lunch. We were giving someone a tow and you needed something to put the dilithium crystals in."
Spock lifts his eyes. "I was speaking of you."
"Well," McCoy says, rocking forwards, then back, "that's that, then."
"I was speaking of you," Spock says, steady as the ocean, "and it was a disrespectful way to speak, and a cruel one."
"Did you mean it?" McCoy says, sharply. "Am I really just…"
"No," Spock says. "I apologise unreservedly, Doctor."
McCoy hugs his knees some more, then turns. "For what it's worth," he says, tiredly, "I accept your apology, Mr. Spock." He looks up. "I don't know what it's worth. I'm kind of a mess."
Spock regards him, still steadily, but with some gentleness in that gaze, maybe. "I believe you are quite severely depressed."
"No kiddin'." McCoy tips forwards again, then back. "I dunno. They pumped me pretty full of all kinds of drugs when they thought I was straight-up crazy. Just gotten rid of all those, may the good Lord bless the human renal function, when your lady T'Lar laid me out under that sky and I don't know how that comes out, if it does. Guess I'll live. I always do."
"I am," Spock seems unsure for a moment, of what to say and how to say it, "grateful. For what you did, and what you carried. For you."
"That's the hell of it, Spock," McCoy says. "I never doubted that till now."
Spock takes a moment to consider that, and then takes on a familiar look of determination. "When did you last take sustenance?"
McCoy shrugs; breakfast's always something that happens to other people, and last night's dinner was a half of Kentucky bourbon, smoky and sweet.
"If I bring a tray for you from the cadets' mess," Spock says, "will you try to eat a little? And afterwards rest?"
"Physician, heal thyself," McCoy notes, but he nods, and Spock goes to get the tray. When he comes back it seems for a moment that it's going to get kind of awkward, because McCoy is still shaky and tired and has decided with all that old awful aching certainty that if he goes outside he will crumble beneath that clean San Francisco sky. But Spock has brought something for himself as well, a clear broth that smells of fennel and aniseed, so McCoy gives a boiled egg God's honest try, and they eat together like civilised people. And afterwards Spock finds a blanket for him, and he does sleep a little, and it's okay.
It's hard work, but not the kind that hurts. The next day there are sniffles and coughs as the city turns towards autumn; a Betazoid cadet who's absent-mindedly picked a stockpot straight off the stove; and a team of trainee engineers who disassembled their first warp coil without waiting for it discharge fully first. McCoy regenerates dermal layers, fixes broken bones, straightens out damaged antennae, prescribes rest and fluids and tells a lot of them not to be so damn stupid next time. An Andorian kid comes in who's looking to delay puberty and McCoy takes a breath and then spends a quiet few minutes with them, explains their options while handing over tissues one by one from his private supply.
And it's all – well, it's okay. It's something to do. No one comes in with a leg hanging off by a thread or any such thing, but that's not the job that's in front of him, right now. When the Andorian child finally heads off down the hallway McCoy is on his feet, saying, "It'll be fine, kid, everything will be all right" – and then a crisp, dispassionate voice says, "You are a kind man, Doctor" - and McCoy knocks two padds and a stack of papers to the floor, and then scatters a handful of styluses everywhere for good measure.
"It's my job, Spock," he says, irritated, and takes a moment to catalogue the physical signs of anxiety in the adult human before he goes on. "That's the great thing about general practice – you just do what you've got to, as it comes along."
"Indeed." Spock inclines his head. "It is my understand that a certain compassion and a willingness to deal with whatever comes along are important attributes of a ship's doctor, also."
McCoy rolls his eyes. "Did Jim put you up to that?" he asks, without rancour. "It figures he'd work on you next, to get me to…"
"Not at all, Doctor." Spock looks innocent. "However, Captain Kirk has kept his word and has not, indeed, requested the assignment of a new Chief Medical Officer. As a member of his crew, who will now have to endeavour to remain in perfect health at all times, it is in my interests to persuade you…"
McCoy chuckles despite himself. "Save it, Spock, I get it. Now, what can I do for you?"
"I had merely come," Spock says, "to remind you of the hour." He nods, formally, and suddenly there's a sandwich on McCoy's side table.
When he turns to go, McCoy says, "Spock, wait."
"Thank you," McCoy says, and it's not forgiveness, but it's something.
Jim visits again, the weekend after that, and he and McCoy and Spock have a quiet dinner back in Georgia on the one evening none of them has to teach or do a shift or captain a starship. No one talks much. Spock clears away the plates when they're done and when he gets back Jim is standing under the open shutters, up at the enormous starry sky. "Reminds me of Iowa," he says, reflective. "I guess lots of kids who go into Starfleet come from places like this."
"A study could be done," Spock remarks. "A higher rate of enlistment might be established among young people raised in areas of low light pollution."
McCoy shrugs and holds out his hands. "I'd be your outlier, then. I was born in this house, but I didn't dream of the stars."
"And nevertheless the stars your destination," Spock quotes, quick as thinking, and rather than argue McCoy just laughs a little, still holding out both hands.
"Don't always go where we're meant to be, Mr. Spock," he says, and rises to fill a glass of water from the faucet.
"I can't help but notice," Jim says, just before leaving, "that Spock seems to be spending a lot of time with you, these days."
"It's not like what you're thinking," McCoy protests, and then stops. "Maybe it is, I dunno what you're thinking. He's decided this is all his fault and he's going to fix me."
"Hell if I know." McCoy shrugs. "Did you think that was the set-up for some kinda joke, Jim? Yeah, I'm unfixable. It's not funny."
"Bones," Jim says, very gently, "you know that's not what I meant. If I thought it'd help, I'd…" He trails off, and gestures, and that gesture, McCoy knows, is meant to indicate all manner of things, the moving of heaven and earth, maybe. It's painful and humbling and more than he can deal with right now. Instead, he says his goodbyes, and hands over a box of leftover peach pie, like his mother taught him, and then just enjoys the quiet, the cool night air fluttering the shutters. Spock is in the house, too, and McCoy's aware of his presence moving around close at hand, but for a moment, at least, he's calm, breathing easy.
Later, after Jim has gone, McCoy looks up and isn't surprised to see he's being followed. "Thought you'd check up on me, did you?"
"I was curious," Spock says, unrepentantly, but his expression softens after a second. "I do not wish to disturb you. I will leave if I am unwelcome."
"Oh, hell, Spock," McCoy says, waving a hand, "you might as well stay. The place is worth seeing."
They're close to the shoreline, a large low moon providing most of the illumination, although there are a few lights shining out over the water from the town behind them, and the odd bright shuttlecraft darting into the clouds above. "Where is this?" Spock ask.
"Place called Tybee Island," McCoy says, brushing sand off his hands. "Look out to sea – north a bit, that's the light."
Spock watches the great sweep of the lighthouse beam cross the bay, and asks, "There is commercial shipping here?"
McCoy shakes his head. "Not so much. But you can't take down a lighthouse, you know? Bad luck. We used to come out here a lot when I was a kid."
"I see," Spock says, bringing a whole wealth of meaning into those two words, and McCoy bristles.
"If you're gonna talk about regression to childhood or some such thing, Mr. Spock," he starts, but Spock holds up a hand and McCoy realises suddenly that they're sniping at each other, comfortable and familiar.
"Not in the way you mean, perhaps," Spock says. "I must accuse you of insight instead, Doctor."
"Huh," McCoy says, and they've started walking along the shoreline, his boots sinking into the sand slightly and the smell of salt air thick and familiar. It's the off-season down here, with the smallest hint of night's chill in the air. "That's new."
Spock pauses for a moment. "You have returned here," he says, slowly, "to a place I have never been. To a place wholly different from a starship in interstellar space."
"Yeah," McCoy says, wearily. "Me, not you; my past, not yours. I can't even begin to tell you what it was like to have you in my head, Spock. And then to – not."
Spock nods, but says nothing, and they trudge on, down to the rockpools and the sludge and sand giving way to the tide. McCoy's got some half-baked idea about putting his hands in the water, about feeling the lick and warmth of it.
"Doctor," Spock says, awkwardly into the silence, "what you said, previously. About that other universe, and my counterpart..."
"God, Spock," McCoy says, quick as thinking, "I should never have - it wasn't you, okay? It wasn't you, it was a long time ago, it wasn't you."
Spock seems to accept that for a moment, then stops walking to him, turns to him. "I suspect," he says, "this may be an instance of your well-documented kindness."
"Take it, Spock," McCoy says, holding out his hands. "It's all I have."
"Not all," Spock says, "but the greater part" - and McCoy laughs a little.
"I was so angry with you, Spock," he says. "My old man used to get rageful like that, he'd go out to the woodshed and work it off on the lumber, said it wasn't for being around decent people. You and me, we've gone at it over the years but I never had that in me, not that sinful thing."
Spock considers. "Tell me, Doctor," he says, "do you have regrets in life? Things you wish you had done, or had not?"
McCoy frowns at that. "Sure," he says, after a moment. "Doesn't everyone? I guess mine are about my marriage, mostly. You'd think after all this time, I'd be over it, but even after years sometimes you don't sleep for thinking." After another second he's surprised at himself for that. Perhaps it's the near-darkness; things like that slip out when you can't see the face of the person asking.
"Anger," Spock prompts, when McCoy doesn't say anything else, "that is directed at oneself..."
"Oh, no." McCoy pauses, then walks on. "You're telling me that because you were part of me... shit. Self-loathing, ain't that one of humanity's most appealing traits."
"Vulcans are not immune to it, Doctor." Spock lets out a heavy exhale that might edge on a sigh. "And - the fal-tor-pan is not what, in medical terms, could be called an excision."
"I'm getting that." McCoy lets out a sigh of his own, letting out tension. "You are a part of me, still." A pause. "Am I, still..."
"Well," McCoy says, "guess we've gotta be careful not to yell at each other." He has a vision of that, suddenly: some ordinary disagreement on the bridge of the Enterprise, transformed into some vicious horror by two people who can slice each other apart with surgical precision. But then he thinks about the silence and strangeness of a life where he and Spock unremarkably and quietly get along. "Or perhaps," he amends, "we've gotta be careful of each other. Simple as that."
"Some would say," Spock says, neutrally, "that we have practised that art for many years."
They've reached the edge of the water. They're too far, now, to see the lights from town, and in between sweeps of the lighthouse beam it's dark as pitch out here, with just a sprinkling of stars. McCoy unlaces his boots and gets down on his knees, letting the incoming tide slosh gentle and easy over his feet and his outstretched hands. "This is where I'm from," he says, after a while. "The salt in the air and in the water – that's the salt laid down in my bones. That's what I carried with me out into space. And then I wake up one day and I've got deserts in me, too. Dried-up old bones bleaching under Vulcan's Forge and it all cut too close. My name's Leonard McCoy, you know. I wasn't born called… you know."
Spock says, very gently: "There are oceans on Vulcan, too."
McCoy smiles. "Yeah, Spock, I know. Why're you doing this?"
"You know" – McCoy waves a vague hand – "telling me to eat, and following me halfway round the world to make sure I do. You know damn well what."
"It is logical."
"I asked for that, huh. Care to elaborate on that, my friend?"
"You carried me," Spock says, simply, "and now, I..."
"Oh, hell, Spock," McCoy says, again, and on impulse, puts his head in the water, so his toes and fingers curl and when he comes up for air his nose and mouth and eyes are streaming and burning with salt.
"That," Spock says with a familiar severity, "was foolish."
"Call it a ritual," McCoy says, coming up for air again, kneeling in the waves with his hands up and saltwater cascading from his mouth. "What you gonna do about it, Mr Spock? You gonna save my soul?"
"No," Spock says. "That is for you to do" – but after a while, he takes his own boots off, and throws them across to the dry sand, and steps into the dark water. "That," he adds, offering McCoy a hand, "is yours."