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"BONES!"

McCoy cringed as the familiar jolt shot up his spine – the jolt he always got whenever Kirk snuck into his office and hollered at him without so much as a goddamn knock. Sickbay had been peaceful all morning, with the twitters and beeps of equipment weaving the usual chorus of a day going smoothly. Kirk was a master of disruption. Of course, McCoy wouldn’t trade that for the world, but he’d never admit that to Kirk.

Without looking up from his scanner, McCoy grumbled, “Not now, Jim. I’m tracking the mutation rate of this sample of Tellarite intestinal flu, and I can’t –”

“The flu, the plague, flesh-eating bacteria, erectile dysfunction – always some delightful disease keeping you from the fun parts of space exploration.” Kirk stuck his face directly between the scanner and the containment unit holding the virus sample. "We've just arrived at Cassia VI."

"And I've just arrived at a critical juncture in this experiment." He tried to nudge Kirk out of the way so he could get a clear read with his scanner, but Kirk ducked out of reach and then placed himself solidly between McCoy and the containment unit.

“Jim, I’m trying to work here!” He tilted his head up and craned his neck, trying to emphasize that Kirk was physically getting between him and his experiment. “I’m just about to start phase three of this mutation series.”

“I’ll commend you for your dedication to duty in your next performance review.” He took a quick glance over his shoulder at the containment unit. “You can’t tell me there are more interesting things in that glorified petri dish than there are on the planet below.”

McCoy glowered at Kirk as harshly as he could, which only made the Captain grin. Same as always. With a growl that he’d meant as a sigh, McCoy lowered the scanner. “Of course there are more interesting things down there, and I’m sure most of them are deadly. Bacteria that would dissolve your brain stem, viruses that could cause your skeleton to decalcify, protozoan species that would colonize every exposed mucous membrane on your body, turning them into a gelatinous goo –”

“All the more exciting, right? New planet, never been colonized, no known sentient species…” Kirk hopped up and sat on the table. “Which is exactly why you’re coming on this away mission.”

“Damn it Jim, I have work to do!” His fingers clenched just a bit tighter around the scanner probe, itching to get back to work. “I’m here for medical research, and so that when space cowboys like you get exposed to the germs, carnivorous creatures, and murderous aliens that you seem to like so much, someone sane is around to patch you up again.”

“Which is why it’s a great idea to bring you along,” Kirk said with a wink, then leaned closer. “That way, when I get ripped to shreds by whatever carnivorous beast is waiting for us on the surface, you’ll be right there to put me back together.” He slid off the table and stood toe to toe with McCoy, still grinning the carefree smirk that always made McCoy feel a bit twitchy.

“Captain,” he began, feeling the need to try formality and a different approach, “maybe another member of my medical staff should get some away-mission experience. You need more than one mission-trained doctor on-board.”

Either Kirk missed the hint or he ignored it – probably the latter. “You didn’t even read the mission assignment from Starfleet Headquarters, did you?”

Guilt made his ears burn just a bit. Formality be damned. “I’m sorry, Jim, I was busy with this report. I even started my shift three hours early to make some progress before things got busy for the day.”

Kirk gave a sympathetic nod, but not sympathetic enough to concede. “Well, let me summarize it for you. Starfleet has assigned us to survey Cassia VI for habitability. Because it’s so close to the Andorian-Deltan trade corridor and to the new Vulcan homeworld, the Federation wants to establish an outpost here. They require the report of a senior medical officer.” He paused. “They requested you by name.”

"Nice to be popular," he said acerbically. Feeling hope slipping from him, he gave one last try, knowing that it would make no difference anyway. “I’ve been trying to finish this report for months so I can send it back to Starfleet Medical.” It sounded petulant even to his own ears.

Kirk tipped his head casually. “Then another day won’t make a difference.” He turned towards the door, calling back over his shoulder, “Transporter room in ten minutes.”

McCoy felt the back of his neck bristle. “Shuttle bay."

"Transporter room."

McCoy stared at the doorway for almost half a minute after it slid shut behind the Captain, then looked down at his containment unit, feeling his shoulders slump as his head full of steam deflated. Yes, there was a whole planet below; new dangers, new mysteries. He turned to his computer, and with a few light taps, he’d pulled up a picture of the planet below, showing swirls of clouds over a green, blue, and purple surface. The tiny virus culture in his lab seemed so insignificant. Already two years on this mission, and there was always something new to see.

He hated to admit it, but he was beginning to enjoy space exploration.

McCoy grabbed his emergency kit and began assembling vials of every antibiotic and antiviral treatment he had, as well as testing equipment and sensors. Just because he was looking forward to the away mission didn’t mean he was about to go down into a disease-infested mystery planet unprepared.

And just because he was starting to enjoy space exploration didn’t mean he was about to tell Jim.


*********


Eight minutes later, clutching an overstuffed medical kit like a security blanket, McCoy walked into the transporter room to find Spock briefing the away team with his usual enthusiasm.

“The planet is well within class-M specifications,” Spock recited, as if reading from an invisible datapad. He paced back and forth in front of the transporter pad, hands folded behind his back. “Significant atmospheric components include 71.4% nitrogen, 24.7% oxygen, 2.9% argon, 0.4% helium, and localized concentrations of methane around numerous surface-level vents –”

“Great. Methane," McCoy interrupted as he brushed past Spock on the way to the transporter pad. "Do you people have any idea how deadly methane-metabolizing bacteria can be when present above ground level?” He didn’t have to look up to know that Spock was giving him the One-Eyebrow Glare. He flipped open his kit, found the vial of broad-spectrum antibiotics effective against the most common methanotrophs and loaded it in a hypospray… just in case.

The pacing resumed and Spock’s voice continued. “Temperature at the site is currently 23.8 degrees centigrade, and is expected to climb no more than three degrees during the away mission. Gravitational forces read at 0.93. Minimal seismic activity. Terrain is moderately hilly, and scans show patches of thick vegetation.”

“Are there any animals down there?” asked an Ensign on the back of the transporter pad. She was a young human female in a blue science uniform, and McCoy was slightly annoyed with himself to find that he couldn’t recognize her.

“Sensors have detected small mammal-like creatures, Ensign Ross,” Spock replied neutrally, “but nothing that should be of any significant concern.”

“Cats,” Kirk said cheerfully as he sauntered into the transporter room and clapped Spock on the shoulder.

Spock turned his head. “Captain… cats?”

Kirk shrugged. “Sure. Small, mammal-like creatures, about the size of cats. Maybe we’ll find you a pet while we’re down there, Spock.”

“Bringing a small creature of unknown habits and nutritional requirements on board a starship would be illogical, Captain.”

"I'm with the Vulcan on this one, Jim," McCoy interjected. Spock raised an inquisitive eyebrow, and McCoy muttered sideways, "Don't let it go to your head."

“Fine," Kirk said. "Spock, we’ll get you a hamster next time we visit Earth.”

Spock seemed ready to argue again, but appeared to reconsider at the last second. With a nod, he climbed onto the transporter pad.

Kirk clapped his hands together. “Okay. Just a quick recap - standard mission today. We’ve been assigned to determine whether this place will make a good outpost. Preliminary surveys seem to indicate that this region we've selected for our survey site has good weather, and no signs of hostile life forms, so this should be pleasant. Spock, focus on geological surveys. Ensign Ross, water and atmospheric samples. Bones, the usual. Ensign Horvat, botanical samples. We anticipate two to three hours on the surface. Any questions?”

McCoy narrowly kept himself from offering the sarcastic suggestion of level-3 containment suits as a precaution. Somehow, from the look Kirk gave him, he figured the man already knew what he was thinking.

Kirk climbed onto the transporter pad. “Scotty, if you would?”

"Aye, Captain," Scotty replied, hands moving quickly over the control panel. "Entering coordinates... er, Captain?"

"Yes, Scotty?"

"If yeh do find cats down there, sir, please don't ask me t’ beam them up."

If anything, Kirk looked bemused. "I wasn't planning on it, Scotty, but why not?

"Do yeh remember the Caitians, sir?"

"Of course."

"Well, after we transported the Caitian ambassador, it took me three weeks to get the transporter to stop spitting out fur."

Kirk opened his mouth in a silent, "Ah," then said aloud, "Energize."

McCoy gritted his teeth and tried to shut his eyes, but the beam took him before he could get them closed. The transporter room dissolved in a swirl of light and was replaced by a clearing in the middle of a thick semi-tropical forest. The plants were an odd mix of greens and reds, and the sky was tinted a light shade of purple. McCoy wrinkled up his nose and looked around. The air was thick and moist, and… so was something he'd stepped in. "Jim, I think we've found our first biohazard," he said, lifting his foot.

Kirk turned around, clearly holding back a good laugh. "You're not the type of person who likes animals, are you?"

"I'm allergic," he grumbled, wiping his boot on a tuft of grass-like plants.

"Surely you can fix that."

"Who said I wanted to?" Without another word, he snapped on a pair of lab gloves, activated his tricorder, and flipped open his sampling kit. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the other team members beginning their tasks, wandering off towards the edges of the clearing with their tricorders beeping. He felt a quick twinge of worry, wishing that he could have convinced Kirk to order the use of more protective gear, but he wrote it off as the paranoia of a back-country doctor and refocused on his own work.

The tricorder slowly began producing readouts. Standard forms of bacteria were present, but nothing terribly alarming, although one odd variation on what looked like a gram-negative-type strain would need further testing. As he pulled out some sample vials, he overheard the others members of the away team as they began reporting preliminary results to the Captain. Ross was the closest to him.

"What've you got, Ross?"

"So far, Captain, it looks pretty promising. The air pressure is almost ideal, maybe a little bit low, but the higher oxygen percentage should accommodate that. There are some odd organic compounds in the air, possibly biochemical signals between organisms. I'll do further testing up in the lab."

"Sounds good. And water sources?"

"There's a small stream about 230 meters that way, so I'm going to go collect samples from there."

"Go ahead. Contact us if you decide to explore further."

"Yes sir. It should take less than an hour."

Bones looked up from his sample swabs and watched as Ensign Ross disappeared into the forest. The blue of her science uniform was almost immediately obscured by the thick foliage, and McCoy squashed one last thought of protective gear and the dangers that the forest might be hiding. He looked back down, sealed his last test swipe from this location, and adjusted his tricorder to scan for viruses.

Spock and Horvat were further across the clearing, so he barely heard them as Kirk checked in before sending each of them off for more detailed surveys. Every so often, though, McCoy snuck a sideways glance up at the Captain. James Kirk was in his element in three types of scenarios: anything involving the unknown, danger, or sex. Here, there was only the unknown, but that was enough for the Captain to soak up the excitement that drove him. The man would dive head-first into anything without checking the water’s depth… or even making sure that it was actually water in the pool. It made him spectacular, McCoy knew, but it also meant that someday, his luck would run out.

Sure, McCoy wanted to be back in his lab, but the idea of Jim wandering around on a planet full of unknown dangers without him… well, that just wouldn’t do.

Footsteps rustled in the grass as Kirk walked back across the clearing and crouched down next to McCoy. "So, find anything deadly yet, Bones? Any bacteria that will dissolve my brain stem?"

"Nothing so interesting, Jim, but we'll know more after I run some cultures up in the lab." He held up a vial containing a sample, examining it with mock-seriousness. "Do you have any spare brain tissue to test that hypothesis?"

"Nope. I left it behind on our last shore leave. How many Andorian Ales did we drink?"

McCoy gave a short laugh. "We drank two more than you drank. I lost count of that number at eight."

Kirk nodded, looking vaguely wistful, which struck McCoy as odd.

"Jim?"

"Oh. Just thinking it was a good shore leave."

McCoy nodded warily. “It was.”

“Those two women… I don’t even remember what species they were… you need to relax a bit more, Bones.”

“Your definition of ‘relaxing’ is synonymous with xenogynecology.”

“And as you so often remind us, you’re a doctor. What’s wrong with playing doctor when you’re off-duty?”

“I’m too busy playing doctor for you to apply it anywhere else.”

A look of perfectly ripened amusement burst across Jim’s face. “Well, that would explain –”

“JIM.” McCoy felt the hairs on his neck bristle. "I need to set up a surface radiation monitor, and then see if I can find any multicellular organisms to sample directly for bacterial and viral infection."

Kirk shook his head. "A gorgeous new planet, and all you can think of is germs."

"That's because space is nothing but a giant breeding ground for germs. I'm telling you, Jim, this lovely paradise of yours is a death trap waiting to happen."

"And you know you love it." Kirk stood, stretched, and yawned. "The sun is shining, the weather is great. I almost feel like stretching out on the grass and taking a nap."

McCoy snorted. "Until we discover unusually high levels of solar radiation and you fry to a crisp while sunbathing.”

"You're a ray of sunshine, Bones. I'm going to explore the woods. Don't die of boredom while I'm gone."

"Don't die of anything while you're gone. I don't have time to file another report on top of the one for the Tellarite flu." McCoy looked up at Kirk sideways.

"Thanks, Bones." Kirk's tone was light, but his face was hard to read. Then he grinned, turned, and sauntered off.

McCoy shook his head and slid the vial into a storage compartment in his kit before taking another peek at Kirk, who was picking his way through the foliage at the edge of the clearing. A moment’s feeling of absence, that Kirk shouldn’t be walking away just then, was quickly squashed. The Captain was doing what he did best: charging into a new situation high on excitement, curiosity, and adventure. If he didn’t, it wouldn’t be Kirk. McCoy had come to appreciate that about Jim, even if he did his best to pretend otherwise.

Refocusing on his work, McCoy pulled out the radiation monitor, flipped it open, and set it up on its tripod. The unit auto-adjusted for the solar sensors to read maximum radiation from the planet's sun, while the air vents opened and began taking counts of atmospheric isotopes. The read would last an hour, which gave him adequate time to look around for animals. Out of nowhere, a mental image flashed across his thoughts: Spock, emerging from the woods, carrying a tabby cat, and proclaiming that the feline's name was Jim and that nobody would be permitted to run tests on the creature. McCoy shook his head and shuddered. Sometimes, he wondered about himself.

Kirk was right about one thing. The weather was pleasant. Relaxing. Giving in to a moment of enjoyment when nobody was looking, he took a deep breath. A moment later, a yawn. Yes, surprisingly pleasant. Not that he was about to admit that to Jim.

There were many things that he wasn’t about to admit to Jim.

He was almost through labelling his first set of samples when his communicator beeped.

"Horvat to McCoy."

He flipped the device open. "McCoy here."

"Doctor… I've found something… odd."

"Odd?” McCoy rolled his eyes – damn new Ensigns. “How about a bit more detail, Ensign?"

"It's a plant I picked. Smells nice. I… feel a bit odd. My hand's numb. I… uh… wanted your opinion."

Something in Horvat's voice made McCoy's stomach jump. "Where are you?"

"In the woods."

"WHERE?"

"I… uh… fifty… sixty meters…"

"DON'T MOVE."

In one swift motion, McCoy slammed his kit shut, jumped to his feet, and began running towards the edge of the clearing where Horvat had entered the forest. To his left, he caught a flash of yellow-gold. "JIM!"

"Bones? What's –"

"It's Horvat! This way!"

"Oh shit." Kirk fell in step behind McCoy, ducking under vines and climbing over fallen logs.

"Enterprise to Kirk." Uhura's voice sounded over the communicator.

"Kirk here."

"Captain, readings indicate that Ensign Horvat may be injured. His vitals are –"

"We know. Moving to intercept. Stand by."

"Aye, Captain. Enterprise standing by."

"Where is he?" Kirk called to McCoy.

"Said he was fifty or sixty meters into the forest," McCoy called back over his shoulder, already out of breath. "Should be close. Do you see him?"

"No. Maybe we should split up and circle –"

"Good idea. Go left. I'll go right." McCoy started towards the right, then yelled back to Kirk. "And Jim – don't touch anything!"

The Captain waved a brief acknowledgement, intent on finding his crew member. Taking a deep breath, McCoy pushed ahead. As he walked he flipped open his communicator. "McCoy to Spock and Ross. Whatever you do, don't touch any plants. We might have a situation. I'll tell you more when we know more."

Two short affirmative replies came back over the comm, which was good enough. They had to find Horvat. He shouldn't be far… just a few more meters…

"BONES! HE'S HERE!"

McCoy snapped around, just barely able to see Kirk's shirt through the trees. It felt like he crossed the distance instantaneously. He was suddenly crouching down next to Horvat, flipping his kit open, and scanning Horvat's prone form with the medical tricorder. "Ensign Horvat? Horvat! Talk to me."

"Doctor McCoy?" Horvat opened his eyes… and smiled. The smile looked off, almost like the man was drunk, or like his mouth wasn't working right. "Nice ta see ya," he slurred. "You look grumpy."

The tricorder was displaying an alarming set of vitals. "Blood pressure is down, heart rate is slow and irregular, neural response is slow. Paralysis. We need to stabilize his heart rate." McCoy pulled out a hypospray, loaded a dose of vasopressin, and pressed it against Horvat's neck.

"Ow… that wasn't nice. Hmm… kinda nice here. Smells good." Horvat's eyes fluttered and closed.

"What's wrong with him, Bones?" Kirk was clearly trying to keep enough distance to let McCoy work, but his nervous energy was still a distraction.

"I'm working on it, Jim!" He pulled out the cardiac stimulators and positioned them on Horvat's chest, then adjusted the tricorder to scan for poisons and toxins. "There's a neurotoxin in his bloodstream, acting like a sedative and paralytic. Complex organic compound… shit!"

"WHAT?"

"His heart just stopped!"

The world dissolved around him. Damn the world – it was irrelevant, because there was a man down, and all he had was his goddamned med kit. McCoy's hands flew over the cardiac stimulators and calibrated the hypospray of epinephrine with higher and higher doses as life and time slipped away. Kirk was hovering too close, babbling something about sickbay and Scotty and the Enterprise.

McCoy heard himself snap, “Shut up, Jim!” and Kirk backed off, still radiating nervous energy. McCoy thought of sickbay, miles above in orbit with the best staff and equipment in Starfleet, but it was even more dangerous to let them transport Horvat back to Enterprise in this condition.

Seconds stretched into a blur of hands and tricorders and vital signs until everything finally stopped.

McCoy sat back on his heels, feeling like he’d just lived through a shuttle crash, and now he was sitting in the silence, observing the wreckage as if from a distance. His grip on the tricorder loosened, as if in mimicry of Horvat, whose features were slack and strangely peaceful.

“Bones—”

“He’s dead, Jim,” McCoy answered flatly as he went through the automatic motion of snapping the medical probe back in its slot on the side of his tricorder. The action felt like a declaration of finality. “I’m sorry.”

McCoy raised his head slowly – damn he was tired – to see Kirk’s face pinched in anger and pain, even though the Captain was clearly trying to hide it. He’d watched Kirk lose crewmembers before, but it was always the same, and it never got easier. This mission wasn’t even supposed to be dangerous. For a moment, Jim looked like he was going to lash out, but then the Captain’s mask of level-headed leadership fell back into place.

Looking as tired as McCoy felt, Kirk dropped to one knee beside Horvat's body. "He was only assigned to the Enterprise two months ago. Fresh out of the Academy."

McCoy nodded, taking a slow breath, trying to refocus himself. "We need to get back to the ship. Analyze the samples in a lab. Do an autopsy. So much for an outpost paradise." He pulled out his communicator. "McCoy to Enterprise."

"Enterprise here. Go ahead."

"Inform sickbay to prepare an autopsy ward for one victim. We've lost Horvat. We'll be ready to beam up shortly. Stand by."

Uhura's voice was tight. "Understood, sir. Enterprise standing by."

McCoy began repacking equipment and supplies in his kit.

Without looking up from Horvat, Kirk said softly, "Yeah… so much for paradise. We should get out of here as soon as possible." He flipped open his own communicator. "Kirk to Spock. We need assistance. We're approximately sixty-five meters northwest of the clearing."

"Yes, sir."

McCoy called out, "And don't touch anything."

"Understood. I am on my way. Spock out."

"Kirk to Ross."

"Yes, Captain?"

"Contact the Enterprise and request immediate beam-out from your current location."

"Yes, sir." Ross sounded confused, but they’d fill her in later. Right now, it didn’t matter.

With a heavy sigh, McCoy turned back to Kirk… who was holding something small and pink in his hand and examining it curiously. "Bones… this flower was in Horvat's hand. Do you think –"

"FUCK, JIM! DROP IT!"

Realization dawned on Kirk's face, followed immediately by horror. He jumped to his feet; the crushed flower tumbled to the ground and lay there, looking far too innocent.

A second later, McCoy was on his feet, cursing loudly as he pulled out his canteen. "Damn it, Jim! What part of 'don't touch anything' did you miss? Hold out your hands."

Kirk held out his shaking hands, not saying a word as McCoy dumped his whole canteen of water over them.

"We've got to get you back to the Enterprise," McCoy said flatly, trying to ignore the fear that had already turned his stomach into a knot.

There was the sound of rustling foliage and cracking sticks as Spock broke into the clearing. "Captain, Doctor, I apologize for the delay, but –" Spock stopped cold. "What has happened to Ensign Horvat?"

McCoy glared at him. "He's dead, you heartless, green-blooded –"

"Bones, stop."

McCoy looked from Spock to Kirk and back to Spock again. "Neurotoxin. Paralytic. We think it came from that flower."

"What do you know about the flower?"

"I'm a doctor, not a botanist!" he snarled. "We had a botanist, but he can't really help us now, can he?"

Spock gave a slight frown.

McCoy exhaled sharply. "From the time Horvat contacted me to the time of death, it was less than ten minutes. The flower was in his hand. He probably also smelled it, so exposure might be a combination of inhalation and absorption." He took a deep breath. "And then Jim picked it up."

McCoy thought he actually saw a flash of panic on Spock's face before the Vulcan's expression hardened. "Then we must act quickly." From a small kit, Spock pulled out a set of tweezers, plucked the flower from the ground, and swiftly enclosed it in a sample vial.

"Bones, do you smell that?"

McCoy looked at Kirk; the knot in his stomach turned to ice. "Smell what?"

The Captain had an oddly relaxed look on his face, and was sniffing the air. "It's faint… just a bit sweet…"

"Oh shit! Spock! Grab Horvat's sample kit. We need to go now." McCoy reached down and picked up his own medkit and communicator. "Enterprise, four to beam up, directly to sickbay."

The glow of the transporter beam hadn't even faded away fully when Kirk stumbled. McCoy barely managed to catch him. "Spock, help me get him on the table. Don't touch his hands. NURSE! We've got a toxin exposure. Paralytic effect. Put some gloves on – we don't need another patient. Where are the medics? You there – bring Ensign Horvat to the other ward. Contact Doctor M’Benga and tell him we need an autopsy performed. He’s already here? Then tell him to get on it!"

McCoy ran a tricorder over Kirk while Nurse Chapel activated the biobed sensors. "Decontaminate his hands so that he doesn't absorb more of the toxin. Don't get any of it on yourself."

"Yes, Doctor," she said, and hurried off to get the decon kit.

Lying on the table, Kirk seemed to be stuck somewhere between fear and embarrassment. "I… I didn't mean to touch it. It was just in Horvat's hand… I didn't think."

"Well, that’s what’s so charming about you, Jim. You never think. It’s a wonder you’re still alive.”

“Thanks to you,” Kirk mumbled. “Sorry.”

“You can apologize after I save your life," McCoy bit out. He blinked a couple of times. He must have been out in the sun too long because he felt tired, but there wasn't time for that now. "Keep talking. Symptoms. What are you feeling?"

Kirk looked off to the side, not making eye contact. "Like the first two glasses of Andorian Ale, but not so much fun. There's this smell… a bit like hot sugar, but really faint." His eyes went wide. "My hand is numb."

He held up his hand and slowly pressed his thumb against each of his other fingers. "I can move it… a little… but I can't feel it."

Spock appeared by the side of the table. "I've set the plant sample in one of the analyzers. We should know more about the neurotoxin shortly. How is he?"

McCoy grimaced. "He's got a lot less of the toxin in his bloodstream than Horvat got, but we don't know what the lethal dose is. We need to neutralize it or get it out of his system."

"Guys, I'm right here, ya know."

McCoy looked down. "Sorry, Jim. I'm just… sorry.” He reached under the table and grabbed a pair of medic’s scissors. “Here… don't complain, but if you follow the same course that Horvat did, we've got to be ready." A moment later, Kirk’s shirt was gone. McCoy pretended not to be nervous as he pulled out the set of cardiac stimulators and attached them to Kirk's chest. "They'll kick in if your heart starts to go out of rhythm."

"That’s so reassuring,” Kirk mumbled. “Gee, Bones, the way you like to torture me the rest of the time, I'd think you'd enjoy some of this."

A lump started to form in McCoy's throat, but he swallowed past it and croaked out, "I'm not a sadist."

Kirk's lips pulled into an amused half-smile. "I'd argue that. But I won’t complain."

For a moment, Kirk looked very thoughtful for a man who might be dying, but the moment was interrupted by Nurse Chapel. "I'm ready to decontaminate his hands, Doctor."

"Then get to it," he said, without malice. He was too nervous and too exhausted to think about anything more than necessary.

“Doctor,” Spock interrupted, “perhaps I should begin research on the toxin in my own laboratory. I assume that you would find extra personnel to be a hindrance if the Captain were to –"

"Stop! You insensitive, pointy-eared automaton!" McCoy hissed. "The Captain is right there, and he –"

"Bones," Kirk barked, craning his neck around Nurse Chapel, "shut up. I can't move my hand anymore, and the last thing I need is you two arguing. Besides, I want Spock here, if you can handle that."

A flash of shame burned his cheeks. "I'm sorry, Jim." McCoy turned back to Spock with his jaw clenched. "Here," he snapped, glowering as he picked up a medical tricorder and slapped it into Spock's hand. "Go help M’Benga. Scan for nerve receptor sites vulnerable to that toxin, and biochemical pathways that it disrupts. And see if you can find out if he inhaled any of it. You're not a doctor, but you're the brightest sonofabitch left on this ship after me."

“I assume that was meant to be a compliment,” Spock said with a curt nod, then went to join Doctor M’Benga.

McCoy watched him go and realized that he wanted Spock there, too. There was no time to think on that, however, and he hurried back over to Kirk.

"How's the decon going?"

"Not badly," Nurse Chapel began, "but look at this." She held out a scanner over Kirk's hand, showing a magnified view of the surface. Small hair-like thorns studded the skin.

McCoy grabbed the scanner and punched a few buttons, pulling up a more detailed readout. "Jim, that flower had thorns. They're sticking out all over your hand. You never felt them?"

"No… not at all." He was looking tired, but still awake.

"The toxin probably acted immediately as an anaesthetic." McCoy hit a few more buttons. Frowned. "The toxin was delivered through the thorns, but… they have an unusual cellular structure. This is myosin, not cellulose. Spock! Are you getting this?"

"Indeed," Spock's voice calmly replied. "They have already found them on Ensign Horvat's hand. These fibers are highly complex. Fascinating. I have a hypothesis, but it will require another away mission for verification."

"Not now! What about the toxin? What have they found?"

"Two separate toxins, Doctor," Spock replied as he walked back from the other ward, holding out his tricorder.

"What?!?" McCoy met Spock halfway and grabbed instrument, scanning quickly through the readouts.

"As you can see, one toxin was delivered through the lungs, and the other through the thorns in the flower."

"Two toxins. That's one vicious flower."

"No, Doctor." Spock tilted his head towards the unit analyzing the plant specimen. "The flower only contains the paralytic toxin in the thorns. The other appears to be the sedative, but I do not know the source of… wait." He turned the tricorder towards McCoy.

"Hey! I'm not the patient –"

"Perhaps you should re-evaluate that statement, Doctor. The secondary toxin is present in your lungs."

"What?!?"

Spock turned the tricorder on himself. "And in mine as well. It must have been present in the air around the site." He looked up. "We should inform Ensign Ross –"

"Doctor!" The sick bay doors had just opened, and Scotty had come in, half-guiding, half-supporting the weight of Ensign Ross. "I know yer busy, but I think yeh might want to take a look at 'er. She stumbled off the transporter pad, yawning. Almost fell over."

"I'm fine, Mr. Scott. I just need a nap," she protested, but Spock had already scanned her.

"She has the sedative toxin in her lungs, Doctor. More than either of us. No trace of the paralytic."

"Toxin?” Ross’s eyes widened. “What? What's going on – HORVAT! What happened to –"

McCoy could barely keep up with everything going on, and he knew he was racing the clock at this point. He glanced back over at Kirk, who was looking back at him with a steady gaze. Kirk nodded, which was all the go-ahead McCoy needed. “Ross, lie down on that table.”

He was scanning Ross, but thinking about Jim. However this second toxin was functioning, it worked like any other sedative. It didn’t seem worrisome. He gave Ross a quick dose of standard epinephrine and instructions to lie down while the sedative wore off, and then left her with a medic while he raced over to repeat the treatment on Kirk. “How are you feeling, Jim?”

“Like I’m half the man I used to be.”

McCoy was afraid to ask, but he did anyway. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Kirk sighed. “It means about half of my body has gone numb.

“Great. That makes it harder to torment you, ya know.”

“Makes it harder to have sex.”

McCoy tried to smile as he recalibrated the scanner, trying to track the progress of the toxin. “The irrepressible James Tiberius Kirk. We’ll make sure you have sex again.”

“You promise me, Bones.” Even though he was still trying to sound jovial, the facade had slipped. McCoy knew him well enough to understand what he was really asking; Jim's eyes were begging for reassurance.

In a heartbeat, McCoy caught himself. For the first time since he’d known Kirk, he couldn’t make that promise. He pressed his lips together, but didn’t answer. Couldn't answer. After a moment, but without looking away from Kirk, he said, “Spock, have they turned up anything useful yet?”

“Affirmative, Doctor, but I am not certain that you will be pleased.”

“Give it to me straight,” he said, feeling like he was speaking for himself and Jim.

“We have isolated the biochemical pathways being targeted by the toxin,” Spock said as he walked over and handed the tricorder to McCoy. “However, there are no known treatments that will reverse the effects.”

“Then we’ll create a treatment,” McCoy snapped, reading the display quickly. “It’s a basic target-receptor bond between the toxin and the cells. We can reverse that!”

The corner of Spock’s mouth twitched. “Indeed. However, the amount of time required to synthesize such an antidote by chemically engineering a compound backwards from the target is typically over eighteen hours. The blockage is at the individual nerve endings; Doctor M’Benga has already confirmed that we would be unable to override the nervous system and stimulate it through the brain and brain stem. Using direct electrical stimulation on muscle groups would also be ineffective.”

McCoy felt his stomach fall to his feet. Slowly, he looked down at Kirk, who was looking oddly introspective.

“Well Bones, you did say the planet was a death trap. I know you like to be right.” He gave a weak laugh.

“Jim, listen –”

“Alien entities, space battles, suicide rescue missions, and it came down to a flower. A damn pink flower!”

“Jim, would you be quiet for a second!” It wasn’t a question. “I can keep you alive until we synthesize an antidote, but it’s an old-fashioned technique. It was used for life support during transplants, and even then... we haven’t needed to use it in years.”

“Well, you said you were an old country doctor, so it should be right up your alley. I trust you.”

McCoy gritted his teeth. “I haven’t told you what I’m going to do to you yet.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

For a long moment, McCoy looked down at Jim, unwilling to make a move yet. Then, he saw the muscles under Jim’s shirt twitch; the cardiac stimulators had kicked in, and McCoy knew they wouldn’t last long. “Okay.”

In a split second, McCoy forced himself into doctor-mode. Not a colleague, not a friend. Otherwise, he knew he’d never be able to do this. He’d seen Jim through dozens of injuries and emergencies. Patching up phaser blasts, mending broken bones, jabbing him with a hypospray harder than necessary just to hear him yelp… that was easy. This was different. He turned his back to the bed. “Spock, tell M’Benga to continue with the autopsy; we need that information. I’ll need your help here. Nurse Chapel, help me prep for surgery. We’ll need some unusual equipment. We’re going to completely bypass his cardiovascular and respiratory systems.”

A few quick instructions to Spock and Nurse Chapel, and they both hurried off. McCoy took the moment alone and turned back to Kirk.

“Am I going to be awake for this?”

McCoy shook his head. “You wouldn’t want to be, Jim.”

“Well, the bright side is that you wouldn’t need any anaesthetic, even if I was awake.”

“Please, Jim, I know.” He sighed. “I don’t know whether to feel better or to be thoroughly pissed at you for sounding so casual about this.”

“Be pissed at me. You look adorable when you’re angry. I think it’s that brooding, heavy eyebrow thing.” He tried to smile. Then he tried to frown. After pressing his lips together, he closed his eyes. “I’m sure this will make plenty of people happy, but my mouth is going numb.”

McCoy tried to smile at the joke, but he knew it looked more like a pained grimace. He couldn't imagine the Enterprise without Kirk's voice. He couldn't imagine anything without Jim. He didn't want to think that he might be losing the last person he had who felt like family, but that unknown was hanging over them both, and he knew it. He could tell that Jim knew it. For an instant, he wondered if he should… and realized he didn't care anymore. Knowing he had seconds until the others returned, he reached over and gently touched his finger to Jim’s lips, telling him “hush” without saying a word. He expected confusion, but there was none. Just a quiet acceptance.

Cradling one hand against Jim’s cheek, McCoy tilted his head and pressed the hypospray against his neck. Jim blinked a few times, then his eyes fell shut.

Footsteps approached rapidly behind him. “Are we ready to proceed?”

“Yes, Spock.” He activated the sterile field generators, then held out his hand. “Nurse, the laser scalpel, please.”

It wasn’t Jim he was cutting. It couldn’t be. It was a simulation in medical school. It was a faceless crewman he’d never seen before. It was a bad dream. It just wasn’t Jim.

He explained the procedure as he worked, asking for pieces of equipment and updates on vital signs, but he never looked up. Spock never said a word.

Lungs were being mechanically inflated, but they weren’t Jim’s lungs. Blood vessels were clamped off and rerouted, but it wasn’t Jim’s blood. McCoy couldn’t have kept his composure if they were.

It was only when the procedure was over and McCoy stepped back and saw his work that it all sank in. Thick tubes ran out of Kirk’s chest, carrying his entire blood supply through a machine that cleaned it, oxygenated it, and returned it to his arteries with enough pressure to keep it circulating around his entire body, like a grotesque mechanical heart and lungs on the outside. The respiratory equipment that they’d used during the procedure had been removed – it wasn’t needed. His chest was unnaturally still, with no rise and fall that helped McCoy believe he was alive. No pulse in his neck; the machine’s pressure was steady and constant, not like the beat of a real heart. He was stable, and that would have to be enough for now.

“… McCoy. Doctor McCoy!”

McCoy blinked a couple of times before he could make himself see Spock, who was standing next to him, looking at him with what must pass for concern from a Vulcan.

“Spock, you look greener than usual.”

“Doctor, I would suggest that you sit down. The Captain’s vital signs have been stabilized. In contrast, yours are somewhat irregular.”

McCoy tried to think of a snappy jab to throw back, but his brain felt fuzzy. “I’m fine, Spock. I need to monitor Jim. We need to start synthesizing an antidote. We need to... to...” He felt himself stumble, and was barely aware of Spock’s hands supporting him, guiding him to a cot.

“Doctor McCoy, you have been running on adrenaline for the past hour, which has thus far countered the effect of the sedative toxin, but that has clearly run out.”

“But... Jim... I...”

“Fascinating – there is a logical use for adrenaline in humans after all.”

“Pointy… hobgoblin… need to… help Jim…”

He was out cold before he even reached the cot.

Chapter Text



It had been precisely one minute and seven seconds since Spock had settled Doctor McCoy on one of the empty cots, but Spock hadn’t moved. He had yet to turn away and begin working on the antidote, or to review the Captain’s vital signs, or to continue to assist with the autopsy on Ensign Horvat. In part, he was paying a silent tribute to McCoy’s remarkable performance; his solution for providing life support to the Captain was both effective and clever. Also, despite his frantic human emotions over the status of his good friend, he had functioned with admirable efficiency.

Or perhaps he had functioned so well because of his frantic human emotions.

Human physiology and biochemistry had left the other members of the away team vulnerable to the toxins on the surface, but there seemed to be evidence that emotional determination and an excessive production of adrenaline had overcome that weakness, albeit temporarily. The Doctor had certainly exhibited high adrenaline levels and notable determination, and had come through the ordeal with commendable results. Still, Spock found himself relieved that the sedative appeared to have almost no effect on Vulcan physiology.

Briefly, Spock wondered if the paralytic toxin would be equally dangerous to Vulcans as to humans. He decided that while synthesizing the antidote to the paralytic toxin, it would be valuable to test that hypothesis on computer models.

He wondered if McCoy would approve.

For a moment, he considered waking the Doctor. He was certain that McCoy would want him to do so, but it would be unwise. The scans on Ensign Ross had demonstrated that although the sedative toxin created effects no different than any other sedative, it did not metabolize out of the system more rapidly with epinephrine than without it. It simply had to run its course; therefore, waking McCoy artificially would be a temporary fix at best. Also, McCoy’s face was pale and his respiration was shallow; it was clear that the man had reached the point of collapse for a good reason. Even in sleep, he appeared tense and restless.

Allowing himself a small frown and a moment of indulgent curiosity, Spock reached over and lightly touched McCoy’s hand, giving himself just enough physical contact to ascertain McCoy's emotional state. He wasn't surprised by what he learned; McCoy's subconscious mind was as deeply worried and uneasy as McCoy's behavior had indicated since the moment Spock had seen him dousing Kirk's hands with water on the planet's surface.

With anyone else, he would have considered it an ethical violation to interfere with the mental state of another sentient being, but this was McCoy. The Doctor cared for everyone else, but who would see to his health and well-being? Additionally, it was a logical decision; a well-rested doctor would be more effective. Mentally riding the surface of McCoy's emotions, Spock projected a state of absolute calmness. Within seconds, McCoy's tense features relaxed, his breathing became slower and deeper, and he slipped into a proper state of level-four sleep. Satisfied, Spock withdrew his hand and turned around.

Sickbay was quiet, in sharp contrast the tension that had reined until barely five minutes ago. Nurse Chapel was checking the readouts on the life support machine hooked up to the Captain. Ensign Ross was asleep. The voices of Doctor M’Benga and the subordinate nurses in the autopsy room were muted. The analyzers containing the flower sample were clicking and humming. McCoy… was snoring.

Before he could stop it, a little smile tugged the corner of his mouth. Just as quickly, he berated himself for finding amusement in such a peculiar quirk of the human respiratory system; Vulcans did not snore. Besides, he had certainly delayed long enough, and there was much work to be done.

"Nurse Chapel, please keep me updated on any change in the Captain's biosigns. Also, monitor the level of the sedative toxin in Doctor McCoy's body, and inform Doctor M'Benga of McCoy's status. I shall be working from the computer station by the analyzer in the research lab."

"Yes, Commander," she said softly, as if speaking any more loudly would wake the sedated residents of sickbay.

Spock had already turned and had begun walking back towards the analyzer workstation when Nurse Chapel spoke again.

"Commander Spock?"

He looked back over his shoulder without turning his body, and raised an eyebrow in inquiry.

She looked a bit awkward, as though trying to select her words. "Commander… do you think you can really synthesize an antidote?"

"Of that, I am most certain."

"Can you do it in time?"

Spock frowned slightly and turned fully towards her. "Please elaborate. Do we have a time limit?"

"I looked up the nursing support requirements for this procedure." She hesitated. "After eighteen hours, the patient can begin to suffer irreversible heart damage."

"Then as usual, we seem to be 'cutting it close,' as Mr. Scott often says. I must begin work immediately." He started to turn again, but something in Nurse Chapel's expression seemed concerning. "Is there a further problem, Nurse?"

"I… I just need to know… because seeing him like this – seeing them both like this – it isn’t easy. I just need to know if this is hard on you, too. Do you care about them enough that it bothers you?

Spock glanced at McCoy, lying unconscious on the spare cot, and then finally forced himself to take a good look at the Captain. The view of Jim was quite… disturbing. He mentally steadied himself, then looked back at Nurse Chapel. "Yes, it is. And I do."

She gave a hint of a smile. "Then I know they'll be okay."

Spock watched as she hurried back to the Nurse's Station, wondering what she might have meant by that, then turned and went quickly to the analyzer station. For the next half hour, although his hands were occupied with entering data and manipulating computer models, and his mind was focused on the delicate nuances of experimental biochemistry, some small voice in the back of his mind kept playing the Nurse's question over and over again. Do you care about them…?

Only one answer came.

Of course I do.

Finally, he was distracted from his thoughts by the sickbay doors sliding open. He turned to see Sulu standing there, out of breath, but looking calmly determined. "Commander, I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner."

"Lieutenant, nobody has called you, so there was no reason to expect you to come."

"Yes, sir, there was. I just got the preliminary report about the away mission. You should have called me sooner. Haven't you seen my academy record?"

"You were noted for exceptional piloting skills, expertise in astrophysics, and – ah, I see."

"Xenobotany, sir," Sulu filled in. "Originally, I was supposed to be assigned to the Enterprise as a Science Officer. Botany is still a hobby of mine."

Spock let both of his eyebrows raise as he remembered. "That is correct. You took over at helm because McKenna was ill, and you were the best pilot on board after that. Better, I might add."

Sulu looked oddly guilty for a second. "Thank you. But that doesn't mean I've forgotten my other skills. I could help. And –" He grinned tentatively. "– I have some ideas."

Inside, Spock breathed a deep sigh of relief. Although he could certainly handle the initial stages of analysis and synthesis by himself, having a second person with a highly specialized set of skills would make the process much more efficient. Additionally, Spock did not wish to be alone at the moment. "I highly welcome your input, Mr. Sulu. Please join me," he said, gesturing to the chair next to his, "I shall brief you on our findings thus far."

The next two hours ticked by in a procession of chemical structures, reaction curves, plant physiology, and steady progress. M’Benga provided information on the progress of the autopsy, allowing Spock to refine the model of the toxin's interface reaction with the nerve endings. Twice, Nurse Chapel stopped by to give status reports on the Captain, McCoy, and Ross. Both times, there were no significant changes in any of them, aside from the gradual decrease in the sedative concentrations, as expected.

Lieutenant Sulu was a rational and intelligent research partner, which Spock found helpful in multiple ways. He also knew far more about xenobotany than Spock did, including a wealth of knowledge about poisonous and carnivorous plants, and Spock mused that his skills were somewhat wasted on the helm. He wasn’t as skilled of a biochemist, but at that moment, while the computer was still running molecular modelling programs, they had time to study the actual life form they’d found.

Spock was in the autopsy ward, scanning for metabolites of the paralytic toxin in Horvat's body when Sulu called him over.

“Commander, if you’ve got a minute, you might like to see this.”

When Spock got back to the research station, Sulu was holding out a datapad. "I've finished modelling the structure of those thorns down to the molecular level, and I recognize this." He poked a section of the diagram with his stylus. "You said that you and Doctor McCoy noticed that the fibers in these thorns looked more like muscle tissue. That's because you're right."

Spock took the datapad and enlarged the section of the diagram that Sulu had indicated. “I am not a physiologist, but I believe I would recognize muscle fiber when I saw it.”

Sulu nodded. “The structure isn’t myosin-based, like you suggested, but it’s similar.”

“This is not a common variety of life form,” Spoke mused aloud.

“Not at all, Commander.” He hesitated. “I know this information won’t help the Captain, but I think it may be important.”

“Please continue, Lieutenant. We have another forty-seven minutes before the computer models will be ready for the first synthesis trials.” If nothing else, the information was a powerful distraction from the Captain’s status, which made it far easier to maintain emotional control. Spock welcomed it.

“Okay, sir.” Sulu spun his chair around and pulled up some information modules. “This is a variety of plant life present on barely one percent of Class-M planets, where plants develop animal traits down to the biochemical level. Actually, I shouldn't even call them plants in the classic sense. The proteins and physiology are more animal in nature than botanical. Just because these organisms are sessile doesn't mean they're really plants. Some of these traits are passive, and present as reflexes and physical structure. Some of these traits are active, and can range from varying degrees of mobility to… sentience."

"Sentience, Lieutenant?"

"There's evidence in some cases, but there's never been any proof. When I was finishing at the Academy, one of the xenobotany labs was beginning a project on –"

The sound of groaning interrupted him.

"Spock," McCoy mumbled, then groaned. "You green-blooded bastard… urgh…"

“Nurse Chapel, Doctor McCoy has awakened,” Spock called out as he hurried over to McCoy. "Doctor, how are you feeling?" Spock put a hand on his back to steady him as he struggled to sit up.

"Ugh…" He leaned forward and covered his eyes with his hands. "Like two glasses of Andorian ale, but not so much fun. How long have I been – oh God, Jim! Is he –" McCoy's head snapped up, which only seemed to worsen his headache as he immediately put his head down into his hands again.

Nurse Chapel was there a second later with a tricorder. “Doctor McCoy, by all rights you should still be unconscious,” she chided, scanning him quickly. “I’ll get you a painkiller for that headache.”

“Do I look like I care about that right now?” he grumbled into his hands. "Spock, how's Jim?"

"He is still stable, Doctor."

"Are you sure?"

"Your query is redundant, Doctor, but understandable. Yes, I assure you that the Captain is in stable condition."

McCoy grunted in acknowledgement, rubbing his eyes and temples. "How long have I been asleep?"

"You have been unconscious for approximately two hours and thirty-eight minutes."

Spock suppressed a surge of pained sympathy as McCoy forced himself to look up, blinking and squinting.

"Why did you let me sleep that long, Spock? I need to start synthesizing the antidote. What the hell were you thinking?" He hissed in irritation as Nurse Chapel pressed a hypospray to his neck.

“You’ll thank me for it later,” she said flatly.

McCoy blinked a few times, and the tense lines of pain seemed to fade from his face. “Thank you, okay? Please check on Jim and give me an update.”

She gave him a scathing look, then crossed the room and began taking a set of vitals on the Captain. McCoy turned his attention back to Spock.

“You'd better give me a damn good reason why I was taking a nap when I should have been working on an antidote for Jim.”

"I have already begun the analysis process, Doctor, which is proceeding on schedule. There is nothing more you could have done in the interim. We will be able to begin the synthesis stage shortly. Also, you should note that the sedative was not metabolizing from your system while you were awake, and to awaken you artificially would only delay your recovery." He held out a datapad containing the tricorder readings he'd compiled from McCoy's biosigns. McCoy stared at it. "If we had awakened you, not only would the toxin continue to wreak havoc on your ability to concentrate, but the adrenaline and epinephrine required to override the sedative would put an unnecessary strain on your heart. In order for you to function efficiently, you required sleep, so I –"

"What is this?" McCoy grabbed the datapad.

An old human proverb about hands and cookie jars came to mind. If Spock had human emotions, he suspected his cheeks would be burning with guilt. Instead, he simply looked up at the far wall, folded his hands behind his back, and said, "What is what, Doctor?"

"This. My brainwaves… the sleep pattern here. What is this?" He pulled up a graphic readout of his sleep cycle and jabbed his finger at the screen… directly on the sudden change caused by Spock's emotional assistance.

Spock looked down, pretending that he was just noticing the anomalous readings. "Ah, that." He was grateful that he had never acquired the human habit of fidgeting. "Your biosigns indicated that you were not entering deep enough sleep to recover from the toxin, so I assisted in calming your emotions so that you were able to sleep properly."

"You did WHAT? What do you think you were doing, going into my head like that? That's an invasion of privacy, and completely inappropriate! It's a violation of the medical code of conduct! If you were a doctor, you would be –"

"I am a scientist, not a doctor." He allowed one corner of his mouth to turn upwards.

McCoy continued to glare at him for a moment, but then his shoulders dropped. "Maybe you'd make a good one," he said under his breath. "Thank you."

Spock inclined his head just slightly. "You are quite welcome, doctor. It was a logical course of action."

"You and your pointy logic," he mumbled, spinning his legs around and sliding off the cot, then startled as he realized that they weren’t alone. "Sulu, what are you doing here?"

Sulu spun his chair towards them and gave a subdued smile. "Good to see you, too, Doctor. I’ve been trying to analyze the plant you've been playing with."

"Great," McCoy said with a melodramatic groan as he walked stiffly over to the analyzer station. "We've got a Vulcan trying to feign a bedside manner and helmsman playing a botanist. Let me know when they put Uhura in Engineering and stick Scotty in the miniskirt."

"I wouldn't want to be on the bridge when they try that," Sulu said drily.

"Nor would I," Spock said.

McCoy looked at him incredulously. "Why Spock! Is that a blossoming sense of human aesthetics?"

"Not at all, Doctor. However, Uhura does not have the necessary skills to handle the ship's engines, and Mr. Scott is monolingual and has possibly suffered hearing damage from working near engines for so many years. The inherent dangers of that staffing arrangement in any sort of crisis would be –"

"Forget it, Spock. Maybe someday you'll learn an appreciation for the finer things in life." McCoy sighed and looked down at Sulu's computer readout. "What are you finding? What's this plant got?"

"Actually, Doctor, it's not a plant."

McCoy grumbled. "Does it want to wear the miniskirt now?"

Spock blinked and frowned. Sometimes, he was glad that he didn't always understand humans.

He listened as Sulu explained their analysis of the flower sample, plus some of the other samples Horvat had collected, and distinct animal characteristics found in all of them. As Sulu talked, Spock kept glancing sideways at McCoy. He wasn't sure what he was watching for – perhaps the development of further symptoms and side-effects of the toxin. Whatever the reason, he kept taking quick looks.

When Sulu began talking about the evolution of venoms in such plants, however, Spock became engrossed in the scientific discussion, comparing sections of DNA from a sumac plant on Earth to the nucleotide sequence from the Cassia VI sample.

Spock finally noticed that McCoy hadn't said a word in a couple of minutes, and he turned to see the Doctor standing with his back to the analyzer station, staring through the laboratory door at the Captain.

"Doctor McCoy?" Spock said softly.

Sulu stopped speaking and turned around.

"Doctor McCoy?" Spock repeated, more forcefully this time.

"I heard you the first time, Spock," he said without blinking or looking away from the Captain.

Before Spock could speak again, Sulu stood. "I think I ought to bring some of these samples back to the science labs. The medical equipment here isn't designed for this work. Besides, I can’t do anything else to help here." He quickly gathered a few sample containers onto a tray and tucked a datapad under his arm, then stood close to Spock. He spared a second's glance at McCoy, then said in a confidential tone, "I'll contact you if I find anything new, Commander."

Spock nodded to him. "Likewise, Mr. Sulu." A moment later, the door of sickbay slid shut behind Lieutenant Sulu, and Spock turned his attention back to McCoy.

McCoy was walking slowly across the floor towards Kirk, looking dazed. He stopped about three feet from the table, as if there was a force field in place keeping him away. Spock stepped up behind him, stopping just behind McCoy's right shoulder.

"Doctor, are you –"

"No, Spock, I'm not," he said in a hoarse whisper. "Not okay."

"You have performed most admirably under extreme duress, and it is because of your skill that the Captain is still alive."

McCoy snorted, then coughed. "You call that alive?" he hissed. "Good God, Spock! Look at him. This is Jim! Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

"Indeed it does. He is my Captain, and a trusted leader. His presence on the Enterprise is vital to the good order and morale of the crew, and –"

“He’s your friend, Spock! ‘Captain’ and ‘leader’ are good enough for anyone else, but not for Jim. Damn it, not for Jim.” He sounded tired and hurt, as though he was trying to take on the burden of both doctor and family for Kirk, which was more than most humans could handle. Here, in sickbay, where a doctor should be most comfortable in his own territory, McCoy looked as though he was ready to jump out of his skin.

“Indeed, Doctor."

"I want… I have to do more for him. He's just… lying there, alone. This isn't what Jim deserves."

"At the moment, Doctor, he deserves our best efforts towards synthesizing an antidote.”

“He deserved to know that… that he wasn’t alone. That someone cared.” Finally, as if breaking that invisible force field, McCoy reached out and touched Kirk’s hand, lightly clasping his shaking fingers around Kirk’s still ones. “I never let him know.”

Spock frowned. This was a most unusual tirade from Doctor McCoy. “Doctor, the Captain is thoroughly sedated and can't be aware of any emotional efforts you might make. This will not help him.”

McCoy spun around to face Spock, eyes blazing with a sort of anger Spock had never seen in him before. "You God damned computerized excuse for a humanoid! What does it take for a cold-blooded machine like you to care? You Vulcans substitute logic for everything that makes this damn life worth living! Have you ever cried in your life? Have you ever loved?"

Spock was finding the air in sickbay to be unusually heavy, and his collar suddenly tight. "You are well aware that I have –"

"NO! Not good enough! I don't care that you've been bedding Uhura as if none of us have noticed. Hormone-driven animals can do the same." He stepped up nose-to-chin with Spock, who could not avoid being held by the fury in McCoy's glare. "You don't know what love is until you'd give anything to take away someone else's suffering… until you know what you'd give your own life to save."

"If that is the definition, Doctor," he whispered, "I must love both you and Jim."

McCoy looked as though he'd been kicked in the gut, eyes wide and mouth slightly open, and Spock felt strangely satisfied by that look.

"Spock…"

"I must go to my laboratory and retrieve several isomers to begin assembling the first antidote trials. Currently, that is what it will take to save the Captain." He spun on his heel and walked swiftly to the door, which slid open in front of him, but he stopped short. Without turning around, he said, "But if my death would save Jim, I would offer that instead."

The only sound from the room behind him was the sound of bioscanners beeping softly.

Spock squared his shoulders and exited sickbay. The doors slid shut behind him.


*********


There were no actual changes in the corridors of the Enterprise, but Spock noted that the atmosphere was unusually solemn. Crew members passed each other without making eye contact. There was none of the typical chatter and conversation creating a soft murmur against the beeping and chirping of the ship's circuitry. It felt like a wake.

It was unsurprising; the report of the Captain's status had been released to all section leaders, who had then briefed their people. It seemed that the whole ship was holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen. While holding one's breath was a pointless act, Spock could rationalize the metaphorical implication.

The door to the lab slid open in front of him, only to reveal Lieutenant Uhura pacing across the room. She stopped and stared at him, her face drawn and eyes tense.

Surprised but unfazed, Spock walked past her into the room and began pulling open storage cabinets and selecting vials of the isomers he expected to need. "Nyota, I do not have time at the moment for personal discussions, but once we have formulated an antidote for the Captain, I will make time to –"

"Commander, I'm not here for a chat," she said flatly. The stark professionalism in her voice and the fact that she had addressed him by rank clashed with red eyes and strained lines, but made it immediately clear that she was there on business.

Spock spun back towards her. "What have you discovered, Lieutenant?"

She held out a datapad. Spock set the chemical vials on a bench top, took the datapad, and began to study it as Uhura spoke.

"When we arrived in orbit, I started mapping subspace frequencies in this region like usual. That's when I found this." She toggled a couple of buttons, highlighting one frequency.

Spock cocked his head. "I do not see a pattern."

She shook her head. "Neither did I, but it's on a frequency not typically used by the Federation or any other known spacefaring races. At first, I thought it was some sort of background radiation from a nearby nebula or a planet in the system with unusual electromagnetic patterns, but there was nothing. So… I narrowed my search pattern and got a source."

"It was coming from the surface," Spock said, both surprised and not.

"Yes, Commander." She hesitated. "From everywhere on the surface."

Spock nodded, not taking his eyes from the datapad. "That is most unusual. Also, there appears to be no defined pattern in this transmission."

"But there is. Look." She reached over and adjusted the analysis pattern and narrowed in on one small subset of the signal. "I realized that these were multiple signals overlapping each other, so I isolated one of them – which took the better part of two hours – and ran it against various computer models, including logarithms, algorithms, and fractal patterns."

"And what did you find?"

"Nothing."

Spock frowned.

"Until I ran it against the universal translator."

Spock's eyebrow shot up. "What did that analysis reveal?"

"Most of if didn't make sense to the computer, but certain linguistic concepts came through loud and clear." She pressed another button on the datapad.

Spock quickly read through the words that kept appearing in the translation, first raising both eyebrows, then furrowing them together. "Invaders… defend… prey… hunt … kill."

"There's something on that planet that doesn't want us here," she said, her voice icy.

"Indeed." Spock looked up at her as he handed back the datapad. "Have you spoken of this to anyone?"

"Not yet, sir. I wanted to know what you thought."

Normally, this sort of find would go to the Captain first, but then he remembered that he was acting Captain until further notice. He signalled his approval with a tilt of his head. "The crew has enough tension at the moment. Keep monitoring this frequency. Attempt to translate more of it, if possible, and keep me informed about any new information. Inform Mr. Scott only if the situation becomes dangerous. Whatever is sending this signal, it may have already claimed its first victim from our crew." He grabbed the vials of chemicals off the lab bench and held them up. "I must return to sickbay to prevent it from claiming another."

"I understand, Commander."

He was halfway to the door when Uhura's voice, uncertain and timid this time, stopped him.

"Spock?" This was Nyota, not Lieutenant Uhura. "Is the Captain going to be okay?"

Spock looked over his shoulder to see the fear in her eyes, a fear that had been echoing down the silent corridors and hanging over everyone's heads. "Doctor McCoy and I are doing everything in our power to ensure that he will be."

She nodded to show her understanding, but it was clear that she would desire his companionship and support later. He hesitated, then crossed the room in a rush, kissed her, and without another word, hurried out of the lab.

You never know if it might be your last chance to let them know.

 


Chapter Text


Doctor McCoy was extremely quiet when Spock returned to sickbay. He merely looked up as Spock entered, face drawn and eyes clouded with distress, and said, “I’m sorry, Spock. And thank you.”

Spock merely said, “I understand, Doctor.” And he did.

With Horvat’s autopsy complete, Doctor M’Benga had been relieved as he had already been on duty for fourteen hours, and other staff had retreated from sickbay, leaving Chapel to manage the floor while McCoy nursed his research and solitude.  He spoke no more than what was necessary to share information. He refined computer models of the toxin with the nerve cell receptors, then silently passed the updated versions to Spock, who would then synthesize a new antidote compound to match it, attempting to improve the results each time.

The process reminded Spock of his classes on the history of battle. Ancient Earth artillery units would take a shot at a target that was a "best guess," based on raw visual observation. Typically, the first shot would miss. Then, they would overshoot intentionally in the other direction and compare the two shots. Then they would overshoot in the first direction again, but by less. The process seemed exceedingly wasteful by modern standards, but it was quite effective. They had called it "bracketing." While the molecular structure of the proteins and receptors were far more complex than simple target practice, the methodology was similar. It was the systematic, controlled adjustment process towards a perfectly refined final product. Logical and predictably effective, yes, but also tedious and painstaking.

It also made it easier to appear as though he wasn't paying attention every time McCoy would suddenly jump out of his seat, hurry across sickbay, and compulsively check Kirk's vital signs.

Every so often, Nurse Chapel would come in with something for them both to drink. Spock accepted the beverage each time, seeing no reason to decrease his own mental acuity for lack of water and nutrition. However, the Doctor kept pushing his own cup to the side and grumbling that he didn't have time to eat. Finally, after nearly four hours, and the Nurse's third attempt to get McCoy to drink something, Spock felt the need to intervene.

"Doctor, if you are somehow attempting to punish yourself for the Captain's injuries by forgoing basic nutritional requirements, it seems prudent to remind you that you need to maintain your strength if you are to perform your duties optimally."

"How can you expect me to eat or drink anything at a time like this?" McCoy seemed as though he was trying to sound irritated, but he only succeeded in sounding tired. "Damn it, we've gone through eight testing cycles, and have only managed to prove that we have no idea how this nerve toxin really works. Jim's been on life support for seven hours now. Spock, maybe you have a cast-iron stomach to match your computerized brain, but humans can't eat when we're nervous."

Spock had learned enough about human psychology to understand that in times like this, brief and simple suggestions were safest. It would allow McCoy to speak his mind, which, Spock suspected, was what he really needed. "If your stomach is upset, then perhaps you could administer yourself an anti-nausea treatment."

At that, McCoy actually laughed, though not happily. "It's not that easy, Spock." He sighed and spun around, putting his back towards the computer screen. He leaned his head in his hands. "In three years at the academy and two years floating around in this godforsaken hell of space, I've patched Jim up dozens of times. Black eyes, broken bones, phaser blasts, concussions, contusions, lacerations, and more than a few cases of alcohol poisoning – I'm used to that with Jim. I know how to fix him. I’ve always been able to fix him. Hell, I know I've lost people. I'm a doctor. It happens." He looked up bleakly. "I can't lose Jim."

"Then we shall continue to work on formulating an antidote."

"But what if it doesn't work? What if we're too late?" McCoy's eyes looked glassy and dazed. "You didn't hear him, Spock. He said 'You promise me, Bones.' He was joking about sex, but I know him well enough to know what he meant. He was asking me to promise that I'd save his life."

"And I am certain that you gave him appropriate reassurance."

"No." The word came out as a grunt.

Spock raised an eyebrow in surprise.

McCoy nodded miserably. "No, I didn't. I had a dying man on the table – I had Jim on the table – who just needed the most basic piece of comfort a patient can ask for. He asked me to promise that I'd save him, and I couldn't even say 'yes.' I didn't say anything. And it's eating me alive."

"Your anxiety is understandable, Doctor. He has been your best friend for several years."

"He's more than that, Spock," McCoy said so softly Spock had to lean closer to hear him. "He's the closest thing to family I've got left." His voice dropped even lower. “And I never told him.”

McCoy's words hung in the air until a soft but insistent beeping from across sickbay broke the silence. McCoy jumped up in a panic and took two steps towards Kirk's bed, only to stop when it became clear that the beeping was coming from the other direction.

"Doctor, I believe Ensign Ross is awakening," Spock said, already walking quickly towards her bed as she began to stir.

McCoy was by her side seconds later, already scanning her with a tricorder. “It’s okay, Ensign. Just relax for a moment.” He already sounded calmer, as if soothed by the simple act of working with a patient who wasn’t on the brink of death.

“Doctor McCoy… Commander Spock… how did I… oh. Sickbay.” Her eyes went wide. “Ensign Horvat! Is he okay? What happened? Oh God, please tell me he’s okay.”

McCoy glanced up at Spock briefly, his face grim, before looking back down at Ross. “I’m sorry Ensign.”

She screwed up her face and squeezed her eyes shut, clearly trying not to cry. “Just tell me he wasn’t in any pain.”

“No, he wasn’t in any pain,” McCoy said softly. “The toxin he was exposed to was like an anaesthetic. He just fell asleep.”

Ross nodded, then opened her eyes, which were red and slightly bloodshot. “What happened to me?”

Spock stood back and listened as McCoy explained the situation to the young Ensign. He watched the Doctor’s body language, noted the soft tone of his voice, and observed the gentleness of his hands as he guided Ross to sit up. Leonard McCoy was certainly an emotional man, but Spock suspected he would not be such a good doctor without that. At least, not such a good doctor for human beings. The bedside manner seemed to assist the healing process.

After another quick scan, McCoy declared that her system had purged the remaining toxin, and then he called for Nurse Chapel.

“Nurse, keep an eye on Ensign Ross for another half hour, but get her to walk around and get her blood moving again. Maybe go for a walk around the deck.”

The Nurse smiled knowingly. “Yes, Doctor. Come on, dear. Let’s go for a walk.”

Once they had left sickbay, McCoy gave a deep sigh. "Poor kid."

Spock had to entertain his curiosity. “I have a question, Doctor, if I may.”

“Go ahead, Spock.”

“Is it prudent for your Nurse to take a healthy patient for a walk when we might need her assistance here at any time?”

“Humans need two types of healing, Spock. We don’t have shrinks on this space-faring tin can, so nurses and doctors do the best we can to heal the body, and if we have any time or strength left, to heal the mind and soul. Maybe Vulcans can ignore that part of medicine, but I can't.”

“We approach it differently, Doctor, but I do understand your point."

McCoy shook his head, clearly to himself, as he lightly clapped Spock on the shoulder. “Come on, Spock. We’ve got a puzzle to solve.”

At first, McCoy seemed somewhat refreshed and able to focus on the task at hand more clearly. As another hour ticked away, however, he became progressively more irritable. Finally, after yet another fruitless test, he slammed his hand down on the table.

“This isn’t working,” he said, glaring at the reaction matrix as if he could cause the proteins to bond by sheer force of will.

“Doctor, this methodology is sound. If we deviate from this technique and attempt to create an antidote by random guessing, we could conceivably fabricate the correct compound in one hour, or one week. I do not believe that is acceptable. Our current technique is a proven method.”

“Then why isn’t it working, Spock? Take a look at our results! Not even a marginal reaction curve! Nothing! The compound you just formulated has no more effect than the one you tried five hours ago.” He clenched his fists and pressed the knuckles of his right hand against his mouth as he continued to stare at the screen. “We’re missing something. I know we’re missing something.”

“What could we be missing, Doctor? We are analyzing the structure of the toxin and its receptor molecule and formulating the appropriate compound to neutralize the toxin.” He tipped his head thoughtfully. “We have the lock, and we simply need to create the key.”

“No… no, we don’t have the lock. This doesn’t look right.” He slammed his fists again. “Damn it, it’s not right!”

Spock sat silently, watching McCoy intently, but unsure how to respond to this outburst.

For several seconds, McCoy simply stared at his own two fists on the table. Then he frowned. Then his cheek twitched. Slowly, he raised his hands off the table. Keeping his right hand clenched in a fist, he opened his left hand and rested his fist in the cup of his palm, slowly curving the fingers of his left hand around his fist, like a pair of molecules fitting together, but not exactly. He stared for a few seconds, then glanced over at the flower sample sitting in the analyzer, then his eyes went wide. “Spock,” he whispered, then yelled, “SPOCK!”

“I am right here, Doctor.”

He jumped out of his seat and waved his clasped hands in Spock’s face. “Don’t you see it?”

“Your hands?”

“No, you logic-addled computer, the toxin! It’s missing a part!”

Spock frowned. “If I am logic-addled, then perhaps that would explain why I find your logic illogical.”

McCoy glared incredulously.

Spock furrowed his eyebrows. “We have taken the toxin sample directly from the flower, and –”

“And that’s the problem! We need to take another look at a sample from a person who’s been contaminated with it. The structure will be different, I guarantee it, and I’ll bet I know why!” He all but ran to Horvat’s body, deactivated the stasis field around it, grabbed his tricorder, and began scanning. “If my guess is correct, the molecule in his body is different than the one in that flower. We’ve been formulating the antidote against the molecule in the flower, but testing it against the model based on the scans of the Captain and Ensign Horvat. We never bothered to analyze the toxin directly in their bodies.”

“Doctor, if you are correct, then from where would the missing part have originated?”

“There! Right there!” He hit a few buttons to transfer the data to the main computer and pulled up a diagram on the screen. “Look! The red part is what matches the molecule in the flower. The section in green is the cell’s receptor. Do you see that third part? Take a look! There’s your linear Vulcan logic holding you back! What are you going to say about human intuition now, huh Spock?”

The results of the scan were absolutely clear. Doctor McCoy's wild hypothesis had been unequivocally proven correct. He turned to McCoy and said simply, "Lucky guess."

McCoy scowled at him. "Cheeky bastard."

Spock ignored the jibe. "We have ascertained that there is another molecule present, but we do not have any of this substance in its unaltered state. If we are to model this substance and back-engineer an antidote from it, we will need to find the source of the compound and collect a sample."

“Well, I suppose we – NO.” McCoy’s eyes went wide. “You want to go down to that death trap of a planet again, don’t you?”

“I can see no other logical way to obtain a sample of this compound.”

McCoy shook his head as though trying to dislodge something from his ears. “Spock, has your circuit board blown a fuse? We were down there for what – half an hour? We lost one man, almost lost another, and poisoned two more.”

“And if you will notice, I was not affected.”

McCoy turned his head to the side and his upper lip wrinkled. “I knew we’d find proof someday that you’re an android.” He looked back at Spock. "There has to be an alternative."

"I can think of no alternatives. In order to synthesize an antidote, the complete chemistry of the toxin must be known. For that, we require a sample of the original toxin."

McCoy folded his arms across his chest and fidgeted, refusing to make eye contact.

"There is no other way to save the Captain."

Another few seconds passed, then McCoy made a sound between a sigh and a grunt. "I’m not letting you go down there alone.”

“I had not intended to go alone, Doctor. I was planning to ask Lieutenant Sulu to join me.”

With a sudden huff, McCoy turned around, grabbed his emergency kit, and started tossing stuff into it. Spock watched him curiously. “Doctor, if I might ask –”

“I’m coming with you, you suicidal nut.”

Spock decided that it was better not to argue.


*********


Fifteen minutes later, McCoy, Sulu, and Spock were on the transporter pad, all wearing level-3 containment suits, as McCoy had demanded. Nurse Chapel had been charged with constant observation of the Captain, and told that if there was any change in his vital signs, she should contact McCoy immediately. Although he had not yet told the others of the issue raised by Lieutenant Uhura, Spock had instructed her to contact him directly if she observed any changes in the transmissions from the planet's surface during the away mission.

“I still believe that the protective gear is unnecessary for me, Doctor,” Spock said again, “and it may interfere with my ability to make unhindered observations.”

“What’s wrong, Spock? Are your ears too crowded in that hood?”

“Not at all, Doctor.”

“Then stop complaining and let’s do this before I change whatever's left of my mind.”

Knowing that further discussion would be both futile and time-consuming, Spock conceded. “Mr. Scott, energize.”

He thought he heard McCoy grumble, "God, I hate transporters," just before they dematerialized.

The sun was low in the sky at the landing site, casting deep shadows through the woods. Spock pulled out his tricorder and began taking readings as he walked towards the edge of the clearing. "We have approximately 52 minutes until sunset, which would make this mission more hazardous, so we should move quickly. The site where Ensign Horvat was poisoned is approximately 65 meters in this direction." He strode off into the woods, knowing that the rest of his team was following close behind him.

"Commander," Sulu called from behind, "I'm getting some distinct readings from some of the plants… uh… organisms here. They definitely fit the pattern I anticipated after studying that flower."

"Then they are indeed more animal-like in nature than our original observations had indicated?"

"Yes, sir. I'm scanning for key biomarkers… getting preliminary results."

McCoy cut in from further back. "Are either of you picking up any traces of that toxin component?"

"Not yet, Doctor," Sulu replied. "Plenty of organic compounds in the air, many of them similar to other biochemical signals used by sessile plant-like animals. Trying to narrow the search field."

"We do not yet know if the compound we seek is airborne," Spock reminded them. "But it is one possibility."

McCoy and Sulu continued to speak back and forth, exchanging information, but Spock was too busy focusing on two separate tasks to which he'd set himself on this away mission. Firstly, he was searching for the compound required to synthesize an antidote for the Captain. Secondly, he was searching for sentient life forms. Seeing as that was one of the primary missions of the Enterprise, it seemed prudent. Quietly, he activated his communicator. "Spock to Lieutenant Uhura."

"Uhura here. Go ahead, Commander."

"We are moving northwest from the landing site. Focus your scans on our location. Have there been any notable changes?"

"Minor fluctuations only, Commander. Nothing outside the patterns observed over the past several hours."

"Noted, Lieutenant. Contact me if anything changes. Spock out." He tucked away his communicator on his containment suit’s utility belt and pulled out his tricorder again. “Doctor, Lieutenant, we are approaching the area where Ensign Horvat was poisoned. I suggest we divide our surveys.”

“I’ll keep doing air sampling,” McCoy said. “You two play with those man-killing plants you seem to love.”

Spock began his own search by circling the tree where Horvat had been found. He looked at the tree and narrowed his eyes at the clusters of pink flowers on its branches. However, just like the sample in the medical lab, these flowers did not contain the other part of the toxin. Several other compounds his tricorder picked up fit the classification and general structure of the compound in the laboratory, including two that were being vented as vapors by pores in the leaves. He set the tricorder to analyze those as he took other observations.

Then, he set his tricorder for a closer scan of the tree. The only surface with thorns or excreted toxins seemed to be the petals of the flowers themselves. The trunk, however, appeared benign. No residues, no spines. More interesting than that, however, were the traces of myelin he was detecting in the core of the trunk.

“Commander Spock, this is Lieutenant Uhura.”

“This is Spock,” he said quietly.

“Commander, I’ve detected a slight increase in the intensity of the transmissions originating in your vicinity.”

“Noted. I may be close to isolating the compound, but I need to test a hypothesis. Please stand by.”

A quick glance back over his shoulder confirmed that McCoy and Sulu were thoroughly engrossed in their own observations. He should have just enough time. Quietly, casually, he wrapped his heft hand around the right-hand cuff of his containment suit and separated the glove from the sleeve. Moving slowly, he reached out and placed his fingers on the trunk of the tree, searching for a connection…

In a mental swirl of lights and colors, Spock found himself unable to find where he ended and the other organism began. It was a mind unlike any other mind he had ever contacted. Its entire perception of the world was something new and alien. It was sentient, defensive, proud, angry… then curious. So very curious…

He was snapped out of the connection physically as someone grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around. It took him a moment to readjust his perceptions, and he recognized McCoy standing directly in front of him, livid inside his own containment suit. Sulu was standing off to the side, looking uneasy.

McCoy was cussing and scanning Spock with his tricorder. “God damn it, Spock! What kind of twisted logic is this? Do you think that just because you’re green too, you should be cavorting with the plants that killed your crewmate? Are you insane?”

He cleared his throat. “Not at all, Doctor. Based on my readings, the portion of the tree with which my hand made contact showed no signs of toxicity.”

That didn’t seem to diffuse McCoy’s wrath. “And I’m sure Horvat didn’t think the flower was deadly when he picked it up, either! Why on this devil-planet would you be daft enough to take that risk? What were you trying to do?”

“I was trying to make contact.”

“Make… what?” McCoy pulled back and stared at him, eyebrows furrowed. He looked at the tree and then back at Spock. “I’ve heard of people talking to their plants, but this is ridiculous.”

“Actually, Doctor, Spock may have a point,” Sulu said cautiously, clearly unsure whether it would be dangerous to get into the middle of their conversation. “I told you that some of these organisms have animal-like characteristics. Well… now that I’ve been able to survey the organisms in their entirety, it’s clear they’re very complex.”

Spock nodded slowly. “And sentient, Doctor.”

McCoy's mouth fell open. "What the hell… ?"

Just then, Spock’s communicator beeped.

“Uhura to Commander Spock.”

“Spock here. Go ahead Lieutenant.”

“The intensity of the signals from the planet’s surface is increasing exponentially. The area of the source is radiating outwards from your current location.”

“Understood. Does the signal itself pose any risk to us?”

“No, Commander.”

“Stand by.” Spock put his communicator back in his belt. “The signal detected by Lieutenant Uhura is the communication frequency used by these creatures. Yes, they appear to be sentient.”

Sulu actually grinned, but McCoy looked like he’d been back-handed. He blinked a few times, then looked down at Spock’s hand. “I didn’t detect any contamination, but put your damn glove back on.”

As Spock fastened the glove back onto the cuff, his tricorder began to beep. “Doctor, we seem to have found a match for the missing compound. It is an airborne compound released by pores in the leaves of the same tree that produces those flower.”

McCoy’s eye twitched, but other than that, he showed almost no emotional response. “Then collect a few of those leaves. I’ll take air samples. Then can we get the hell out of here?”

Spock inclined his head. “Absolutely, Doctor.”


*********


The atmosphere in the sickbay laboratory was woven thickly with the tension of one determined medical officer and one science officer working as quickly as possible to synthesize an antidote in a time window that would be considered impossible by most standards. The small delta-shift staff in sickbay kept clear of the laboratory, with only Nurse Emert running in with status reports on Kirk's condition, which was beginning to show signs of instability. At one point, Spock began to mention that the task would be almost insurmountable, only to have McCoy all but rip his head off.

Jim doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, Spock, and right now, neither do I.

After that, McCoy didn’t speak again for hours. He would hand his datapad to Spock silently, who would then transmit those results into the chemical synthesis computers. The modifications McCoy made with each attempt were quite liberal, but highly insightful, and they made rapid progress.

Time began to lose meaning. Even Spock ceased checking the clock; there was no point. The only thing that mattered was the next modification, the next test. The events down on the planet, the new race of sentient beings, and the translation of the strange signals being produced by the trees – those things were meaningless unless the Captain was revived.

After a lengthy period of time and nearly three dozen tests, a beeping monitor sent McCoy jumping out of his chair and running from the lab into the surgery and recovery ward. Nobody moved until he returned a few minutes later, his eyes tense but dry. "He's still stable. I've paged Nurse Chapel, and she's rested enough to come back, so she's on her way. Let's keep working."

Every minute felt both too long and too short, with the slow blinking of computer lights keeping time like a perverse metronome. The air from the ventilation system seemed stale and humid. Spock found himself barely able to keep pace with McCoy, who was working feverishly, only pausing occasionally to wipe his sleeve across his forehead. Spock had seen the Doctor give everything he had before on a patient, but never like this. He was quite convinced that McCoy wouldn't quit until he saved Kirk or reached the point of absolute collapse. Bearing witness to an effort such as this, Spock found himself able to accept the irrational human saying, "to give 110%."

And then, suddenly, McCoy sat up straight, put his hands on the workbench, and pushed his chair back. He was staring straight ahead, with deep circles under his eyes giving the appearance of a man on his last legs.

Spock furrowed his eyebrows and leaned towards him. "Doctor McCoy, is something wrong? Are you unwell?"

McCoy shook his head. "Move over, Spock."

Spock obliged, but had to raise the point, "Doctor, I am perfectly capable of loading the next set of design parameters."

"I'm going to do it." It was a voice that would bear no argument.

With the parameters loaded, McCoy engaged the next test cycle. Nurse Chapel stepped into the lab and watched from the door. Spock found himself doing something illogical: hoping.

The computer began to generate a reaction curve. Before the graph was complete, Spock knew. "Doctor, I believe you have indeed done it."

He shook his head. "Not yet, Spock." He hit a few control buttons to start the synthesis process, then spun his chair around. "Nurse Chapel, prep the Captain for surgery. As soon as the antidote kicks in, we're going to need to get Jim off that machine and restart his heart."

She nodded, but frowned. "Doctor, you've been on duty for who knows how many hours, and you haven't stopped once. Perhaps we should call Doctor Carlson to –"

"No," McCoy said flatly. "Nobody is going to touch him but me."

She pressed her lips together, clearly nervous, but nodded and hurried off to the surgery ward.

Spock considered the situation. Although it was unlikely that McCoy would reconsider, and although this was the one area where mere rank could not trump McCoy's authority as CMO, Spock had to speak up. "Doctor, perhaps you should consider what Nurse Chapel has said. Her duty shift began hours after you had already been awake, and she has had periods of rest during this ordeal. You have not stopped for over twenty hours, with the exception of the brief period of time you spent unconscious due to a toxin."

"And that nap was too long, Spock," McCoy shot back. "You're not lying down and taking a break either."

"Vulcan physiology evolved under much more harsh conditions than human physiology, Doctor. I could continue to function adequately for over a week without sleep."

"And you'd be amazed at what humans can do when the shit hits the fan." He shook his head. "I have to do this. Nobody else in this flying circus has the skills I have. I can't leave something like this to anyone else. Not this. Not Jim. I'm wide awake, Spock. I've never been this awake in my life. Maybe I'll sleep for a week when this is over, but now –"

He was interrupted by the ping of the synthesizer, calling out like the bell for the final round of a fight. He reached down and withdrew the vial from the unit, which was now filled with the newly synthesized antidote. "Right now, I have to do this. Because that's Jim… and this is me."

With that, McCoy spun around and strode off to the surgery ward. Without a word, Spock followed.

 

Chapter Text



First, Kirk was aware of an odd dream he’d been having. He was beaming down to a planet, then back up. He forgot something, then forgot that he’d forgotten it. He was in a hurry, but he couldn’t move. He saw someone else in a Starfleet uniform, the blue shirt of a science or medical officer, but then that person disappeared. He was tied up, drugged, and… was he dead? No, of course not. Disjointed images swirled together, but despite that, he was strangely comfortable and relaxed. Someone was watching out for him… like always…

Next, he slowly realized that he was lying down. That made sense – if he was having a dream, he must have been asleep. The bed was comfortable enough, and it was quiet.

But it wasn’t quiet. His ears were ringing, and then, as if a sound dampening field was slowly fading, muddled voices started coming through. Who was in his quarters? Wasn’t he trying to sleep? He tried to open his mouth to ask who the hell was in his quarters, but he couldn’t move his mouth. The first hints of panic started to reach him through the fog. He tried harder to speak, and then heard one of the voices more clearly.

“He’s responding! Nurse, get the respirator out of the way.”

Something was removed from his mouth – So that’s why I couldn’t talk – and next thing he knew the voice was directly overhead.

“Jim? Jim, can you hear me?”

He knew that voice. Bones? What's going on? He vaguely remembered some sort of medical emergency… an away mission… he'd been injured – no, he'd been poisoned.

"Jim! Come on, Jim, say something, damn it!"

"Bones?" he croaked, shocked by the hoarseness of his own voice. His throat felt raw and dry, and he suddenly realized that his chest hurt.

There was a sound that was something between a cough and gasp of relief. "Jim, do you know where you are? Can you open your eyes? Are you in any pain?"

"I…" He tried to think through a haze that seemed to be slowly dissipating. "Sickbay…" His eyelids must have converted to lead while he was out because lifting them felt like he was giving the Enterprise herself a push-start. The light overhead was too bright, and he quickly shut them again, groaning. "Ow."

"Computer! Dim lights by seventy percent."

A hand brushed Kirk's forehead, then cradled his cheek, gently supporting his head and neck. "Try it again, Jim."

He’d crossed the galaxy and fought deadly aliens, but opening his eyes just then was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. The reward, however, was the best. Bones was there, leaning over him. Jim felt a weak smile creep across his own face, but then he felt it fade as he got a better look at Bones. Red eyes, dark circles, drawn features – it looked like he’d been awake for days.

Kirk licked his dry lips. “How… how long have I…”

“Twenty-two hours, Jim.” Bones sniffed, then turned his head to cough against his own shoulder. “Almost twenty-two hours," he repeats without looking up.

"Captain, it is good to see you awake."

Kirk turned his head a few inches – he must have lied, because that was harder than opening his eyes – to see Spock standing on his left. "Spock… you're still here."

"Indeed, Captain. I believe you requested that I stay. It would be unseemly to undermine the order of my Captain when he appears to be dying." The words were dry, but it was clear that Spock was relieved, which Kirk found both heart-warming and a bit amusing.

"Good to know… I won't have to… court martial you for… violation of orders. I was worried about that."

Spock frowned in confusion, which only caused Kirk to laugh, which in turn caused his chest to hurt.

"Oh… ow."

In an instant, Bones was surveying him with a medical tricorder. He shook his head and unceremoniously grabbed a hypospray, calibrated it, and pressed it to Kirk's neck. "Painkiller," he said flatly. "The tissue regenerators did as much as they can do, and you should heal back to normal soon enough. You almost…" He trailed off and shook his head. "You'll be fine."

Something in his voice made Kirk uneasy, but he didn't ask. With as little sleep as Bones had probably gotten, it shouldn't surprise him that his bedside manner wasn't its usual stellar best. "Thanks, Bones," Kirk said, trying to sound light-hearted.

Bones looked down, his face strained and tired, but also unreadable. "You're welcome, Jim." He pulled out the tricorder again. "You'll need to take it easy. Your muscles have had no nerve stimulation for twenty-two hours. You might feel a bit of tingling –pins and needles – while your nerves start working again."

"Okay." Kirk tried to wiggle his fingers, and found that they still felt a bit numb. Then… "Wait, yeah, I can feel that. Damn, that's starting to sting."

McCoy's face pinched with concern. "I could give you something to dull the sensation while your nerve endings wake up."

"No!" Kirk blurted out, feeling a sudden wave of panic. At the look of surprise on McCoy's face, Jim explained, feeling slightly self-conscious, "The last thing I remember is going numb. I… I…"

"I understand, Jim." Strangely, Bones sounded a bit sad. He finished his scan and nodded. "You're going to ache a bit, but everything is stable. The antidote has fully neutralized the toxin. You have full nerve function again, and your body will readjust soon."

"You're a genius, Bones."

The only reply was a tired grumble as McCoy turned away and put the tricorder on a shelf.

"Bones?"

The Doctor leaned heavily on the edge of the next biobed, his back towards everyone else. "The next watch will be starting in about fifteen minutes. Doctor Carlson will be taking the shift with Nurse Zhang. I'll brief them on your condition. You get some rest, Jim. I need to do the same."

Kirk was sure that he'd never seen Bones looking so completely exhausted, wrung-out, and spent as he was right now. From where he was lying, he couldn't see his friend's face, but he could still read it in the half-slouched, half-tense posture; it screamed from the slight trembling of his shoulders, the bow of his head, and the white knuckles of his hands that were clenching the edge of the biobed like a drowning man clinging to a life raft.

Then, without looking back, Bones sidestepped the bed, plodded across sickbay and disappeared into his office.

"Bones…" Kirk heard himself whisper. There was something wrong, and it left an uncomfortable lurch in the pit of his stomach that was somehow worse than the sensation of pins crawling and prickling all over his body. Now that the last traces of sedative seemed to be fading, his full memory of the events leading up to this came back to him. This time, he had really felt like this was it – the end. He'd felt himself dying. He'd asked Bones if it would be okay… and now Kirk remembered… for the first time, there hadn't been a ready answer.

Yet here he was: awake, alive, and feeling like a piece of himself had just walked out of sickbay without so much as turning around.

"He's exhausted, Captain," Spock said softly.

"I know."

"His performance was… quite remarkable."

This time, Kirk turned to look at Spock. "What did he do?"

The subtleties of Spock's facial expressions had become a familiar language to Kirk, and he could read admiration, stress, and even a trace of sympathetic anguish as Spock's eyes fixed evenly on the door of the CMO's office. Finally, Spock looked back down at Kirk and said, simply, "Everything."

Kirk knew better than to ask anything more right now. He closed his eyes slowly – even his damned eyelids were tingling – and asked, "So, what have you learned about that planet? What's down there?"

"Something most fascinating, Captain, although it would take some time to explain."

"Well, I don’t think I'm going anywhere for at least a little while, so fill me in." He glanced back at the door to the CMO office, but Bones was out of sight around the corner. He sighed. "I could use the distraction."

With an obligatory nod, Spock began detailing the events that had taken place after Kirk had been sedated, but with most of the focus squarely on the new life form that had been discovered on the allegedly uninhabited planet. Sentient plants – unbelievable. Finally, Kirk had to interrupt.

"How did you actually determine that they were sentient? The transmissions weren't really detailed enough, and Uhura couldn't tell what was producing them."

"Lieutenant Sulu had suggested the possibility, and the evidence indicated that there was enough of a chance that it was worth exploring."

"Well," Kirk said thoughtfully, "It is our mission to seek out new life forms. But Spock – how did you confirm it?"

Spock's mouth set itself in a straight line and he stared at the far wall – a behaviour that Kirk had learned meant that Spock was feeling sheepish. "Our search for an antidote required a second away mission to retrieve a sample of another organic compound. During that mission, I felt it prudent to attempt to make contact with the life form."

Kirk pursed his lips. "How do you talk to a tree?"

Spock glanced down sideways and held up his hand, his fingers set in a familiar pattern.

Kirk shook his head incredulously, trying to ignore the fact that it made the stinging sensation worse. "Wait, Spock, you did a mind meld with a tree?"

"Not precisely, Captain. But for the sake of explanation, yes."

"Spock, you're unbelievable, you know that?"

A slight tip of the head. "I was unaware of being unbelievable; should I take that to mean you cannot believe me?"

Kirk chuckled. "No, Spock. Not at all. So what were these creatures like?"

"Highly intelligent, Captain. They almost seem to exhibit a group intelligence. Telepathic. They relay information rapidly via a frequency that can be picked up by their unique neurological structures."

"So the whole planet knows we're here, huh?"

"That would be a logical conclusion."

Kirk shifted slightly on the biobed, feeling restless, and more than a bit uncomfortable. "How do you think they would react to us?"

"I am uncertain, Captain. They seemed to demonstrate aggressive thoughts towards intruders, but the organism with which I made contact showed signs of curiosity before Doctor McCoy pulled me away."

Kirk smiled. "Curiosity is a good start, Spock. I'm curious, too. Perhaps we can use that to establish a common ground and learn about each other. I'd like to try to make contact with them."

Spock leaned forward just a tiny bit. "Captain… it would be fair to say that these creatures attempted to kill you. You still wish to make friendly contact with them?"

"Is that so illogical, Mr. Spock?"

If anything, Spock actually seemed pleased by his response. "No, Captain. It is not illogical whatsoever. I believe it would be beneficial to the mission of Starfleet."

Slowly, Kirk nodded. "You need some rest, Spock. What time is it?"

"Ship's time is 0847 hours, Captain."

"Alpha shift," Kirk muttered to himself, balking slightly at how long he’d actually been unconscious. "Spock, go stand down. Don't report back for duty until alpha shift tomorrow. Unless our medical staff objects, I'll conduct a thorough debriefing with the senior staff tomorrow morning, and we'll come up with a way to make contact with this new life form."

"A rational plan, Captain," Spock said as he stood. He started to move, then hesitated.

Kirk gave him a critical look. "Is something wrong, Spock?"

Spock opened his mouth, stopped, inclined his head and said, "It is… a relief to see you awake and alive, Jim."

Kirk couldn't keep the surprise from his expression. "Spock?" he said in disbelief.

"Captain?"

"Was it that bad?"

"Affirmative, Captain." He lowered his head slightly. "Worse."

Kirk's breath caught in his chest, and he settled his weight back against the biobed. "Thank you, Mr. Spock. You're dismissed."

The Vulcan nodded once, then left… walking more slowly than usual. Kirk watched him go, feeling the silence overtaking the room behind him. The stinging and prickling all over his body was finally starting to subside, but it had been immediately overtaken by another sort of ache.

He knew that it had been bad, but what could have been bad enough to pull an emotional response from the unflappable Spock? Spock would be okay, but Bones… he hadn't even looked back when he walked out of the ward. Kirk could only imagine how much his CMO and best friend had been taxed by the ordeal. They needed to talk.

"Bones?" Kirk called out. "You still here?"

There was a shuffling sound in the CMO's office, but it was Doctor Carlson who emerged. "I'm sorry, Captain, but Doctor McCoy has already gone. He left as soon as he briefed me." She came over and quickly checked his vitals. "Everything is looking fine, Captain. McCoy told me that you shouldn't have any further complications. Is there something I can do for you? Are you in pain?"

Kirk shook his head. "No, Doctor. Thank you though. I'm fine. Just fine."

Doctor Carlson smiled. "Call me if you need anything. You're staying here for at least twenty-four hours for observation, so get comfortable."

"Comfortable. Yeah." Oh, he was not looking forward to this, but he tried to seem polite about it. "Thank you."

Doctor Carlson returned to the office, leaving Kirk by himself. It was then that the aftermath of the situation began to sink in. The entire crew had probably known that he'd almost died. Hell, he still couldn't quite wrap his head around that fact, so he couldn't imagine what the crew had been thinking. At least he'd gotten to essentially sleep through it all. The crew – God, the crew. It was his job to worry about them, and it sickened him slightly to think that they might have been worrying about him. He hated it when people worried about him.

And Bones.

Kirk was sure that extra visitors had been kept out of sickbay, but he was just as sure that there was one man who hadn't left it once. One thing he learned early in his command was that a Captain can't look weak in front of his crew. However, he knew he'd looked completely helpless in front of Bones, and yet there was nobody else in the crew whose opinion mattered quite so much.

Sure, Bones had seen him through quite a few scrapes. But this time, there was something in his face… something in the haunted look in his eyes – and no, it wasn't the exhaustion. That would be too easy. He knew Bones well enough, had sat with him through final exams for three years, to know what exhaustion looked like on the man. This was something else, and that thought alone was enough to make Kirk feel sick.

Kirk had been stupid. Kirk had been distracted. Fuck Kirk. Jim had been a stupid little boy who couldn't follow the most basic instructions even after Bones had kept telling him to keep his goddamned hands to himself.

Two years as a Starfleet Captain, and he'd made so much progress. His crew had learned to trust him, and he'd learned how to earn that trust, but underneath it all, he'd always felt as though he was trying to live up to a reputation that had never existed. James T. Kirk was a great man, but that was another life. Those words had faded, but had never quite stopped haunting him.

They haunted him now.

He was no "great man." At least, he sure as hell didn't feel like it right now.

He couldn't exercise self-restraint. Couldn't stop himself from leaping without looking. He'd been so upset over the senseless loss of a crew member – had reached out to hold Horvat's hand, as if that would make it better – found the flower and had picked it up like it was the most natural motion in the world. He'd put everyone through hell because of his own ineptitude. He'd put Bones through hell, and that was un-fucking-acceptable.

Bones had once called him accident-prone. It had been back at the Academy, after an evening of Parisi Squares, the hottest new game in the quadrant. Sure, he'd whacked his head on the edge of the platform taking a dive, but he'd won. And he hadn't passed out from the head injury until he was back at his dorm room… in front of Bones… who had the privilege of watching him collapse so suddenly that Kirk himself hadn't realized it had happened until he woke up to the sight of Bones lecturing him and waving a hypospray in his face.

Jim, you crazy bastard! Do you know how bad this concussion is? No, don't move, you have a C-spine injury. I've called for a stretcher. Don't give me that look. What the hell were you – oh, the gym bag. You were playing Parisi Squares again, weren't you? That crazy new-fangled game is going to kill more cadets… and I don't want you to be one of them! You're already accident-prone as it is.

I'm not accident-prone, Bones.

Oh really?

Nah. Just reckless. You should have seen that dive.


In truth, Bones had been frantic, and hid it by pretending that Jim was the biggest burden in the world. It had only been after the second loss of consciousness that Kirk had finally understood, when he had woken up to find a red-eyed Leonard McCoy holding his hand, muttering to himself, "They've got to be here soon. What's taking them so long? I can't treat him for this here… damn it. Damn it, Jim…"

If that had been tough on Bones, Kirk could only imagine what this must have been like. Kirk had figured he'd be relieved, and even justifiably proud of his accomplishment, but instead he was sullen and angry. It made no sense, even for Bones, and Kirk knew that as soon as he was allowed out of sickbay, he was going to get to the bottom of it.

And, of course, there was the small matter of planetary exploration and a new race of sentient beings to consider.

After he'd dealt with Bones.

 

*********


Kirk tried to sleep. His limbs had stopped prickling, and he felt fine other than a dull ache in his chest. The nurse had checked on him twice, and the Doctor had done a full workup up his vitals. Everything was fine, but they wouldn't let him leave. They told him that he needed to rest, but he wasn't tired. For some reason, Doctor Carlson wouldn't accept that twenty-two hours of a drug-induced coma was the same thing as a power nap.

"Then can I at least hold a staff meeting in here?" Kirk tried.

"Captain, your entire senior staff has finally gone to bed for the first time in twenty-four hours. None of them are awake." She sighed. "As tempting as it may be, I'm not going to sedate you, but you need to relax."

Kirk rolled his eyes. "How about some reading material?"

She smiled sympathetically. "I'll get you a datapad with some novels loaded on it."

Kirk shook his head. "Let me use the datapad to call up Uhura's report on the transmissions from the tree-creatures down there. I need to study it."

She gave him a look that she must have learned from Bones. "You really don't know how to relax, do you?"

"Nope." He grinned. "Not when there's a mystery to be solved and an adventure to be had."

"Well, now I understand why," she said with a note of surrender.

"Why what?"

"Why Doctor McCoy says he can't live with you and can't live without you." She patted him on the knee patronizingly. "I'll go get your datapad. Just don't tell McCoy I did. He'd never let me live it down."

Kirk mimed zipping his lips shut.

For the next three hours, Kirk found himself thoroughly engrossed in reading reports. He worked through Uhura's work – brilliant as always. She'd managed to supplement the results from the Universal Translator by augmenting the primary frequency with other frequencies she was picking up. The creatures were communicating on several harmonically compatible frequencies at once. Effectively, they were singing in harmony. He found it hard to be angry at them, even for almost killing him, when they were so elegant. He could almost hear Spock in the back of his mind, calling them fascinating. The thought caused the corner of his mouth to quirk in a smile.

After digesting that report, he began reading through the incomplete reports from the away team. None of them had revised or finalized their reports, of course, but the preliminary information was already in the system.

First, he read Spock's report; as expected, it was informative and dry. Soil and substrate composition, geological readings, tectonics. Next, he took a peek at Ross's work. She'd actually done some revision of her surveys after coming back to the ship, and her analysis of the air samples was eye-popping. There were hundreds of individual organic chemicals floating in the air in various concentrations, and the report suggested that several of them were potentially dangerous to humanoid life. Further testing was recommended. He found it difficult to look at the information Horvat had recorded. It wasn't even in report-form yet – just a catalogue of scans and images. It had been cross-referenced, however, with a supplementary report that Sulu had filed – since when has Sulu been a botanist? – which painted a picture of the planet's ecology.

And that left the Doctor's report.

The queasy knot tightened in Kirk's stomach, and he shifted uneasily. They'd been assigned to survey a planet for colonization, and instead, they'd found the death trap that Bones had been warning about. A doctor's report in a planetary survey should normally have basic data about biological hazards on the planet's surface. Kirk knew this wasn't going to be normal.

The walls of sickbay and the soft beeping of computers and biobed sensors seemed distant as he pulled up the report.

It started with raw data from the surface, but that part didn't get very far. After that, it went into medical records. Kirk shuddered. Horvat's fate had almost been his own, and most people wouldn't want details that soon after such a near miss. He still didn't want to admit that part – couldn't look his own mortality in the face. But still, he had just enough morbid curiosity to keep digging.

Sometimes, rank has its privileges, he thought morosely as he used his command codes to cross-reference the datapad with the sickbay mainframe, and pulled up the full sickbay reports for the previous twenty-four hours.

One of the drawbacks of being a hyperkinetic, irreverent genius – Kirk simply preferred “high-speed wise ass” – was that when things were too easy, he got bored. Back at the Academy, he’d finish his own homework, and then grab the nearest book available. Nine times out of ten, it was one of the medical texts Bones had left lying around. He didn't want to deal with that sort of stuff for a career, but he had to admit that he'd learned a few things, and he hoped he remembered enough to make sense of the sickbay logs.

The record started with the incident on the planet’s surface. Bones had set the tricorder to compile a clinical report of Horvat’s condition – a very standard technique for cataloguing medical emergencies so that the doctor can simply focus on the patient. The report on Horvat led into the autopsy.

There was nothing more painful than the reminder that he'd lost one of his own. He'd dealt with it before, but it never got easier. Clenching his jaw, and knowing he'd have to read this report eventually anyway, he set to it. Toxicology screens, neurological scans – all impersonal and clinical. All he could see was the bright, eager face of the young man who'd joined Starfleet to see the universe. It had been the kid's first away mission.

Didn't you almost die on your first away mission? A nagging voice in the back of his head mocked.

Shut up.

Multiple times, if I recall.

Go away.

You weren't even supposed to be on the ship, never mind on some goddamned save-the-world escapade, and you were a bloody mess.


Kirk squeezed his eyes shut. Why did the voice have to sound like Bones?

You were younger than Horvat.

I thought I told you to shut up.

Do you know how much it hurts the rest of them when you come back in pieces? Didn't you see what it did to them?


Kirk dropped the datapad on his lap and squeezed his hands into fists as tightly as he could, just so he could feel his nails digging into his own palms.

Did you see what it did to Bones?

"SHUT UP!"

It was only when Doctor Carlson came running into the ward that Kirk realized he'd called out.

"Captain! Are you okay? What happened?"

He stared at her bleakly, then shook his head and looked down. He tipped his head at the datapad. "Not every report is a good one on a day like today, Doctor."

She pressed her lips together grimly. "I understand, Captain. But try not to overstress yourself. Your body is still recovering from a very invasive procedure."

"Yes, Doctor," he said, feeling the surrender in his voice.

She gave him a sad sort of look – God, he hated that look – but mercifully left him in peace.

Steeling himself, he picked up the datapad and pulled up the next screen… only to be surprised that there had been another patient in sickbay.

"Ensign Ross?" he said aloud, his own voice surprising him.

"Captain, are you certain you're okay? Do you need something?" Zhang called from the nurse's station.

Kirk shook his head. "No. No, I'm fine. But thank you." He leaned back over the datapad and continued to read.

The record on Ross showed that she'd been unconscious for over four hours. As far as he'd known, he and Horvat were the only two who had been affected. "What the hell happened…" he whispered to himself. The record went into an airborne toxin present at the landing site, which meant –

With a knowing frown, he pulled up the next record. Leonard McCoy. "Bones…"

As he read the record, a sense of guilt settled deeper and deeper. Aside from Spock, every member of the away team had been poisoned. They'd all been exposed to a toxin because he hadn't been cautious enough to simply order the use of basic protective gear. He'd been too busy enjoying the subtropical paradise. He'd sent the other members of the away team into the woods and had sprawled out in the clearing with Bones, joking and teasing, completely disregarding the warnings his best friend kept giving him. Not only had he endangered himself, he'd risked everyone.

I'm such an idiot.

It seemed that Nurse Chapel had continued to have the computer set to monitor Bones throughout the entire time he was in sickbay – clever woman, he thought reverently, because Bones never would have agreed to it – and Kirk couldn't stop reading. He didn't understand all of it, but he saw notes about abnormally high adrenaline levels, blood pressure, and norepinephrine. Bones hadn't eaten anything, drunk anything, or rested once the entire time, and Kirk was smart enough to figure out what that meant.

Which left only one question: what had been so bad that Bones had put himself through all that?

He didn't really want to know – it would make it real – but it wasn't worth avoiding it any longer. He wondered what Spock would say about the need for every Starfleet officer to face fear. With a few touches, he pulled up his own record.

 

*********


“Captain, you need to lie back down.” Doctor Carlson was more than just a little bit irate as she tried to block his way out of sickbay.

“No, I need to go speak to a member of my crew.” Kirk tried to sidestep her, only to be blocked again. Damn, she was quick. Vaguely, he remembered seeing in her file that she was a 4th degree black belt in Aikido.

“You’re not ready to be out of sickbay.”

“I thought you said I was fine.”

She looked at the ceiling as though asking for patience from a mystical source. “You will be fine – IF you lie down and continue to get some rest!”

“I feel fine. So tell me what’s wrong?” He grinned smugly, trying to goad her.

“What’s wrong?” Definitely exasperated. “What’s wrong is that you were poisoned, you're still recovering from surgery, and tissue regenerators can only do so much!”

“I’ve lived through worse.” He tried a step to the left – blocked again.

She folded her arms in front of her chest and lowered her head at him. “No. You haven’t.”

That was an opening. Kirk straightened his posture and leaned on his back foot, surveying her critically. "Haven't what, Doctor? Haven't lived through worse, or haven't lived through it?"

Her eyes went wide, and Kirk sensed victory.

“Then why doesn’t someone give it to me straight?”

Carlson’s squared jaw slackened. “What… I… what do you mean?”

Kirk pulled the datapad from under his arm and tapped it. “Command codes give you access to a lot of stuff, Doctor.”

Her mouth fell open. “You read your own medical report.”

Jim pressed his lips together, trying not to scowl too sharply. “One for one,” he confirmed.

“Those are meant to be read by a doctor.”

“Well if my own Doc can’t give me the news, I guess it’s up to me.”

Doctor Carlson’s expression morphed from irritation to guilt to anger in seconds. Kirk didn’t wait for her to speak, and continued to push ahead.

“Why didn’t Bones tell me?”

“He was exhausted, Captain. He needed to leave –”

“Bullshit. Yes, he was tired, but he also told you not to tell me either. Otherwise you would have told me by now.”

For a second, she met his glare, then her shoulders slumped in surrender.

Kirk eyed her warily. “Why?”

“I don’t know, Captain,” she said, sounding tired. “He just made me promise to keep you in bed until he came back, and not to tell you what happened. You’d have to ask him why.”

“I plan to.” He made another move for the door, but Doctor Carlson held out her hand.

“Please Captain… you’ve seen the report now. Just wait and rest. You know you need it. You know he needs it.” She wasn’t demanding or ordering this time – just pleading, and that finally made him stop in his tracks. She nodded. “It won’t help, Captain, and you’re only hurting yourself. Just wait… he’ll be back.”

Kirk considered her for a moment, and he was just about to agree – he really was – when the yellow alert klaxon sounded, and the amber panel on the wall began to pulse. The decision took less than a second, and he simply looked at the doctor and said, “And so will I.”

He was out the door and running down the hall before he even knew his feet had moved. He vaguely heard her calling from behind him, yelling that his heart couldn’t handle the additional strain yet, but he didn’t care. A yellow alert on his ship meant his ass was on the bridge, no exceptions. He’d be fine… he’d be fine…

The turbolift’s inertial dampeners didn’t seem to fully cushion the acceleration, or maybe it was just him, but he spilled out onto the bridge to find a skeleton crew being led by –

“Scotty, what’s going on?” Kirk rushed over to the communications console, where the Chief Engineer was leaning over the display studying the readout with two young Ensigns.

The delight on Scotty’s face was immediately overtaken by horror. “Captain! Yer supposed t’ be restin’! What’re yeh doin’ here?”

“You really think you could keep me in sickbay when you call a yellow alert?” Scotty tried to speak, but Kirk held up a hand. “I’m here, I’m fine. What’s going on?”

“It’s nothin’ we can’t handle ourselves, Sir. Forget about it. We shouldn’t’ve sounded an alert for this.”

“Scotty.” It was the voice he only used when he had to remind people that he was Captain. It always worked. “You called the yellow alert for a reason. What’s going on?”

Looking nervous, Scott tipped his head towards the display. “We’re gettin’ a transmission from the surface. Nothin’ like the signals Lieutenant Uhura got earlier. These are stronger, Captain. Much stronger. I’ve paged Uhura to the bridge, and she’s coming, but we cannae make heads or tails of it without ‘er.”

Kirk leaned over the console and began pulling up readouts and graphs of transmission strength, frequency, and origin. “When did this begin?”

“About fifteen minutes ago, sir. We only realized what it was about the time yeh heard the klaxon.”

“Do you think they’re trying to threaten us?”

Scotty shrugged helplessly. “I don’t speak Douglas Fir, Captain,” he said, just as the turbolift doors opened, revealing Uhura and Spock.

Uhura marched across the bridge purposefully. “The language is being dubbed ‘Cassian,’ Mr. Scott, not ‘Douglas Fir.’” She glanced at Kirk, an uneasy strain on her face. “Captain… it’s good to see you… but I’m going to leave this to Commander Spock.”

Uhura set to work on the transmission, and Kirk turned his attention to his First Officer, who was standing in front of the turbolift doors, looking mildly perturbed. Kirk immediately knew that meant Spock was frantic.

“Captain, I did not expect to see you here.”

“On the bridge during a yellow alert? Come on, Spock, where else would I be?”

Spock took a few steps closer. “I must insist that you return to sickbay with me immediately.”

Kirk waved a careless hand at him and looked back at the communications readout. “In a minute, Spock. I want to see what our leafy friends on the surface are saying.”

Spock was at his side in an instant. “Captain,” he said in hushed tones, “I was informed that you would be unable to leave sickbay for a minimum of twenty-four hours without significant risk to your health.”

Kirk looked up at him bemusedly. “Really now, Spock? You were informed? Mind if I ask how much you were told?”

For the second time that day, Spock looked past Kirk’s shoulder and spoke at the wall. “If you remember, Captain, I was in sickbay the entire time you were there.”

“Oh yes, that’s right,” Kirk said, his voice slow and steady, despite the fact that he could feel himself shaking. He stood upright and faced Spock, standing toe to toe with his First Officer. He kept his voice to a whisper, and could feel the other staff on the bridge slowly backing away, giving them space. “You were there. You know. Bones knows. Doctor Carlson knows. Who else, Spock? But nobody bothered to mention it to me. So as far as I’m concerned, until my doctor tells me otherwise himself, I’m fine, and I have work to do.”

"Captain, please…" Spock's voice trailed off.

Kirk stared at him, weighing the situation. Logic told him that he was out of his mind. Reason told him to get his ass back to sickbay. Even a flimsy scrap of common sense would be enough to tell him that he was going off half-cocked and reckless, and that if he lost this gamble, he'd be putting everyone through hell all over again, himself included.

Too bad common sense and logic didn't diffuse the fact that he was angry enough to feel immortal.

"Commander, modify the subspace transmitters to work on the same frequencies used by the Cassians. I want to speak to these creatures."

Spock's face was completely unreadable. "Yes, Captain."

As Spock settled down at the science station, Kirk let his feet take him around the comfortable walkways of the bridge as he set things in motion. "Uhura, see if you can integrate your analysis of the Cassian language back into the Universal Translator. As soon as Spock has modified the transmitters, we'll patch it through."

"Aye, Captain," she replied, but her typically clear voice was strained with nerves.

Kirk frowned, but didn't mention it. He blinked a couple of times – he must have been sleeping too long because things seemed fuzzy. "What have you translated so far, Lieutenant?"

"Quite a bit, sir." She pulled up several screens of text and enlarged one. "They're talking about us, it seems. They know we're in orbit above their planet; they know we've scanned them – Captain?"

The room had become blurry around him, and Kirk found himself gripping the back of one of the chairs. He shook his head to clear it. "Keep going, Lieutenant."

"I… okay… well, we've found evidence that a certain frequency is used exclusively by what must be their leadership, and the creatures communicating on that channel seem to be – CAPTAIN!"

Kirk wasn't sure when the floor had become so familiar with his back, but there it was, and the ceiling filled his vision. The vague thought, Gee, I feel stupid now, crossed his mind, but he was too distracted by the whirl of activity over him. He caught snippets of speech, hastily spoken and soaked in anxiety.

"…have found his pulse. It's weak…" Spock, is that you? "…Doctor is on his way…" Which Doctor, Uhura? Bones? Is Bones coming? "…should never have allowed him to remain on the bridge. I am responsible for…" "…couldn't have known, Commander…"

Sounds and sights blurred in and out, and Kirk’s stomach felt sick as the deck seemed to tilt and sway beneath him.

"…shouldn't've sounded the yellow alert. The Captain came t' the bridge because of…" "…can't blame yourself, Mr. Scott…" No Scotty, it’s my fault…

Footsteps and a new voice and… Bones. Bones, cursing and berating himself and Spock, his voice tense with anger and worry. "… my fault. I didn't tell him…pacemaker was supposed to be temporary. It's not designed to handle this sort of strain. He needed to know…" Why didn’t you tell me yourself?

"…allow me to carry him, Doctor…" "… already died once today …not going to lose him now. Damnit, Jim…"

Jim heard his own voice join the cacophony clashing above him. At least he thought it was his own voice. He didn't know anymore. "I didn't mean to… I had to be… on the bridge. I'm sorry. Sorry. My fault. Wanted to see my crew. My ship. Couldn't stay there. I'm sorry, Bones. Bones…"

And Bones was saying, "It's alright, Jim. I've got you."

"I know you do, Bones. I know…"

There were strong arms lifting him, and another hand gripping his tightly – the voices were further away now – then the whoosh of turbolift doors, and the muffled thud of feet running down the hall…

 

*********

 

Chapter Text


Consciousness and dreams blended together, neither particularly pleasant. No matter how drowsy or how deep he drifted, he couldn't forget why he was there. Two incredibly stupid decisions on one damned mission, and good God, what would his crew think? The unstoppable and immortal Captain had become the unreasonable and irresponsible. If he couldn't take care of his own life, how the hell could he care for the lives of his crew?

Images flashed through his head – the flower in his hand, the datapad with his medical report, the yellow alert klaxon, the broken twist of emotions on Bones' face looking down at him. He thought he could hear voices in the distance, but they were too far away to understand. Finally, after the grotesque kaleidoscope in his head could become no more torturous, he felt a familiar bite and hiss at his neck, and the world slid into focus, just barely.

"Bones…" He blinked furiously, trying to fight his way to wakefulness.

"Take it easy, Jim," came the soft, familiar reply. A warm hand rested gently on his chest. "We've got you stabilized. We couldn't put you totally under because you've had too much full anaesthetic in your body in the past twenty-four hours to do that again, so we only partially sedated you."

Kirk nodded weakly. That would explain the strange half-dreams. "Bones, listen, I –"

"No, Jim. Not now." He shook his head and looked away. "I only woke you up to tell you… well… basically your own status report. You'll be fine. That is, you'll be fine if you rest."

"I'll rest! I promise, I'll rest –"

Bones shook his head again, and Kirk knew what was coming. "I can't risk you doing that again, Jim. Twenty-four hours. Not a minute less. Maybe more depending on your condition. Spock can handle the bridge, so don't you even think about it. Doctor M'Benga will be acting CMO. I'm relieving myself of duty for the next two days."

"Please, Bones, no…"

"I can't fix it next time, Jim. I almost couldn't fix it the first time." He reached up and touched Kirk's cheek. "It'll be okay."

Kirk opened his mouth to protest, but he never got the chance. There was the sharp sting of the hypospray, and Kirk sank back into the strange world of half-dreams and nightmares of his own bad decisions.

Hours or minutes went by – it was hard to tell. Every time he thought he was climbing closer towards full consciousness, he felt a hypospray and was submerged back into his own mind again. Sometimes, there was a buzz of conversation near him. Sometimes, he felt the peculiar tingle of tissue regenerators on his chest. Sometimes, he thought he felt a hand clasping his own. He must have been imagining it, because those times, he thought he heard Bones speak to him, but he could never make out what was being said.

He finally slumped towards a lazy wakeup, uninterrupted by another dose of sedative. This is different, he thought, as the quietness of sickbay replaced the turmoil of his own head. "Bones…"

The clip of shoes on the floor cut the stillness, and Doctor Carlson's face came into view. "Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty," she said neutrally.

"More like Humpty Dumpty."

She furrowed her eyebrows. "Humpty Dumpty?"

Kirk sighed and closed his eyes. "All the king's horses and all the king's men…"

"Ah," she said softly. "I see. Well, you've been put back together again, and this time, it should work… as long as you don't do anything reckless."

Guilt made Kirk's stomach clench slightly. "Where's McCoy?"

"Sorry, Captain. He's off-duty." Disappointment, yes, but Kirk had expected it.

"What about Doctor M'Benga?"

"Well, don't I just feel appreciated?" she quipped as she pulled out a tricorder and began scanning him.

"I just…" Kirk looked away, feeling unusually embarrassed. "Sorry. Bones said M'Benga was going to be acting CMO."

"Ah, so you remember that much," she said, this time with a bit more understanding in her voice. "Doctor M'Benga remained on-duty for two full shifts. Gamma-shift was covered by Nurse Chapel."

Three shifts gone, so this was the fourth. "Damn – how long have I been out? What time is it?"

"It’s 1830 hours. You’ve been out for twenty-nine hours, Captain." She put aside the tricorder and gave him a level glare. "You needed every second of it."

He felt himself wilt a bit under her gaze – fuck, he must be tired if anyone else but Bones could make him back down. Taking a deep breath, he raised his chin and tried to look like he was still the goddamned Captain. "So does that mean I'm clear to leave?"

Her hard features relaxed. "In an hour. I need to run some stress tests that Doctor McCoy ordered before he left. We kept you sedated until we knew you were almost ready to leave."

Kirk felt a bit nauseous from the idea that members of his own staff had to keep him sedated in order to control him – as if they couldn't trust him. It was fair, he supposed. He'd already broken that trust once. "Am I cleared for duty?"

She chuckled. "Don't get carried away, Captain. No, you're relieved of duty for another forty-eight hours, most of which should be spent resting. That means in your quarters, not on the bridge."

"What if I go to the bridge wearing my bath slippers?"

"Then we'll have you restrained in sickbay for the entire forty-eight hours, and Commander Spock will berate you for the uniform violation."

"Ah," Kirk said softly.

"You should know that the only reason you're being permitted to leave sickbay is because Doctor McCoy feels sure that you'll actually listen this time. Plus, you'd probably drive everyone nuts, including yourself, if you were stuck here. You'll still need to report back to sickbay every day for the next two weeks for monitoring," Doctor Carlson continued, "and no away missions for a month. Light duty only. Doctor McCoy's orders, and both M'Benga and I agree."

Kirk took it all in, loathing the feeling of being restricted and supervised, like he was a broken and fragile thing. Even more than that, he despised the knowledge that he was broken. He grit his teeth and cast his eyes downwards as he asked, "When does the hardware come out?" He didn't even want to think about it.

"Two weeks, minimum," she said plainly.

Kirk closed his eyes, feeling the guilt of his own stupidity weighing on him even more. Stuck on the ship, with a tag of restricted duty dangling around his neck – a shining example for the crew of what not to do. "Some Captain I am."

"The crew thinks so," she said simply.

He glanced up without raising his head. "Even after this?"

She leaned closer and spoke in a confidential tone. "If you think for a moment that your crew would…" She shook her head. "You underestimate them, Captain."

"I overestimated myself."

A knowing smirk. "It's your nature." She turned away to enter her tricorder readings into the sickbay mainframe.

Kirk watched her silently, sullenly. He didn't like this feeling of helplessness and limitation; the subdued calm forced by the situation when all he wanted was to go rejoin his crew, sit in his command chair, put his feet on alien soil, and pretend that this had never happened. He wanted normalcy, so that he wouldn't have to continue worrying that he'd ruined his ability to command, shattered the confidence of his crew, or destroyed the most important friendship he'd ever had in his life. His closest friend who wouldn't even talk to him…

"He's not angry at you, by the way."

"Huh?"

Doctor Carlson continued to enter data without looking back. "Doctor McCoy. He's not angry at you. Just worried. And maybe a bit angry at himself."

Kirk felt his mouth fall open slightly, and he snapped it shut again before responding. "He talked to you?"

"It's a small medical staff, Captain." She turned her head towards him just enough for him to see the amusement on her face. "He didn’t say anything, but we all know. Plus, he kept coming back to check on you until M'Benga reminded him that he was restricted from duty, and told him to either leave sickbay or be sedated. Doctor M'Benga even recorded that in the sickbay logs, so McCoy must have been pretty persistent. He's a good boss, Captain, but he gets pretty hard-headed about just a few things… like you."

A dozen different possibilities played out in Kirk's mind, but Doctor Carlson didn't give him a moment to work them through because she was back by his bedside and having him swing his feet around. Stress tests, Kirk thought in frustration. I'm stressed, okay? Can I just go? But he cooperated and didn't complain, because he swore he could never again let himself put his own arrogant pride before his duty to his crew.

The hour passed quickly enough, and then the door of sickbay was open in front of him, with Doctor Carlson giving him last minute instructions that he'd already heard three times. His chest ached, and he thought he could feel his heart thudding unhappily against the cold metal embedded there with it. It was all in his mind, of course, but it didn't take away the odd creepiness of it. In addition, he'd been fitted with a cardiac monitor bracelet, which Doctor Carlson had promised would beep at him if he overstressed himself, and would alert sickbay if he didn't stabilize on his own. It might be his ticket out of sickbay, but it was still a glorified leash. He shuddered.

"Captain, are you listening to a word that I'm saying?"

He nodded, then faced her, reluctant to look away from the door and his ticket to freedom. "I've memorized it from the last three times you told me, Doctor."

"Well, we're not about to take any chances. The last time you walked out those doors, your First Officer had to carry you back in."

"And McCoy?"

She cocked her head. "What about him?"

"I thought he was off-duty. I didn't think of it before, but why was he there, on the bridge?"

"I paged him the moment you ran off." He gave her an inquisitive look, and she sighed. "I figured he'd be the only person left on this ship who could get you to listen. I'm sorry I couldn't reach him soon enough."

Kirk felt a chill go through his stomach. "I'm sorry that I –"

"Ah," she put her hand out to stop him. "It's my job to put up with stubborn patients who don't know what's best for them. And right now, it's your job to put it out of your mind, rest, and recover. We need our Captain back, preferably in working order."

He nodded, more to himself than to her. "Thank you, Doctor."

"Don't thank me," she said gently. "Someone else did all the work."

Kirk almost left it at that, but he had to ask, had to know… "One question… does McCoy know that I… that I read my record? Did you tell him that I know?"

She shook her head. "No, Captain. That's between you and him."

Kirk thought he said 'thank you' again, but then the door slid shut behind him.

The corridors were almost empty, which seemed unusual for that time of evening. The few who did pass him in the halls greeted him appropriately, but he couldn't ignore the sense that they seemed to be walking on eggshells around him, as if breathing too close to him would cause the bubble to burst and he would be gone. He did his best to grin casually, hold his chin up, and walk with his usual stride, but he was tired, and not just physically. The cardiac monitor on his wrist was like a handcuff, chaining him, and he felt like the whole world could see it. He was grateful to have the turbolift to himself, and the last few meters of the corridor before his quarters were empty.

Empty, like his quarters.

He almost felt as though he shouldn't be there, as though the last time had been so terribly long ago. There was the breakfast plate he hadn't yet returned to the reprocessor. His personal computer was still displaying data and schematics taken from the original long-range surveys of Cassia VI. The bed was poorly made from the morning – Damn, was it two days ago or three? – before the away mission.

Shaking his head at nothing in particular and everything at once, he trudged to the bathroom and finally caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror.

"Oh god," he groaned. He blinked twice, but the image was still there; a ghost of himself stared back at him. No wonder the crew was giving me funny looks. Unhealthy pallor, dark circles under his eyes, and – "Damn, I need a shower." He toed off his shoes and kicked them back through the door into his sleeping area, then pulled off his shirt. Instantly, he wished he hadn't.

"Fuck…"

He'd still been trying to cling to the last strings of plausible deniability, and this was the blow that finally shattered the last shield of comfort he had. Feeling stunned and somewhat detached, he reached up with his right hand and lightly touched the almost-faded incision line across his chest, and the faint but deep bruises surrounding it, noticing that it was still sore to the touch. I guess tissue regenerators really can only do so much.

It had started with a stupid flower and stupid lapse of judgement by a stupid Captain whose brilliant Doctor had done brilliant work to save the Captain's life. Bones had left the scar on his chest – the only visible sign of all the work those skilled hands and that brilliant mind had done in the past two days. Three days. Whatever.

In his mind's eye, he saw Bones, exhausted but determined, working a laser scalpel, focused on his work but refusing to look at Kirk's face. The mental image was too much.

He finally had to turn away and step into the shower. A twist of the shower controls, and a blast of cold water hit him. We've got the technology to travel across the galaxy, and I still can't get a shower to start hot. After five seconds of shivering, and cursing himself for not having adjusted the temperature before getting in, the water warmed, and he spent the next twenty minutes trying to wash away the memories of what he'd just seen and imagined.

It didn't work.

Less than an hour later, clean and wearing fresh civilian clothes, Kirk had exhausted every scant option for things to do in his quarters. He'd tried to bring up information on his personal computer terminal about the situation on Cassia VI, only to find that Spock had locked out all work-related functions. In fact, an automated message had played when he tried to override the lockout:

Captain, while I understand your need for intellectual stimulation and your desire to remain involved in the current mission, it is illogical to permit you to continue to place your health at risk. Until you are cleared for duty, Doctor McCoy has insisted that you be kept from all duty functions. I apologize for this unorthodox method, but I agree with the Doctor's assessment. As of the time of this recording, nothing unmanageable has transpired. I assure you that if the situation changes, I shall inform you personally.

Frustration bubbled up, and Kirk slammed his hand down on the table. "Fuck!"

His monitor bracelet beeped a preliminary warning at him. He glared at it. "Well double fuck."

Next, he tried music. Then a holovid. He almost pulled out some adult entertainment before he realized that if he did that, his damned monitor would have the entire medical staff in his quarters before he could blink. Entertainment wouldn't do.

He didn't want to read; his feet were practically begging to move. He couldn't sit, couldn't lie down, and couldn't rest. The walls of his quarters felt as much like a cage as sickbay had felt. There was only one thing he needed to do; one place he had to go.

*********


Kirk pressed his thumb against the hailing pad of the quarters of Leonard McCoy. He heard the chime inside the door, but then several seconds went by with no footsteps, no sound, not even a grumpy, "Go away." Kirk pressed the pad again, harder this time, even though he knew it made no difference. Again, no response.

"Bones? Are you home?"

Silence.

He leaned his arm against the wall and rested his forehead on his wrist, staring at the keypad. He shouldn't, and he knew it, but he didn't care much at that moment. With the touch of a few buttons, he pulled up the override screen. "Computer, activate room lockout override, authorization Kirk-Beta-Beta-Epsilon-Gamma-Alpha."

"Override accepted." The doors swooshed open, granting entry to Kirk before smoothly sliding shut behind him.

McCoy's quarters were dark, with the only light coming from the viewports, the screens of his computer terminal, and a datapad that he'd left activated on his table. Kirk leaned over and looked at the datapad, immediately recognizing his own name at the top of the screen. Medical report. He flinched, and kept walking.

"Bones? Come on, I know you're here." The living area was empty, except for the shoes in the middle of the floor that almost tripped him. That only left the bedroom.

A small desk lamp was giving a soft night glow – just enough light to let Kirk see. Bones was still in his uniform, sprawled across the bed sideways, laying on his stomach. His right foot was hanging off one side of the bed, and his left arm dangled over the other side, knuckles brushing the floor. On the nightstand was a bottle of bourbon and a shot glass. It took Kirk a few seconds to realize that it was a full shot-glass, and that the bottle was almost untouched.

Confused, Kirk took a couple of steps closer and saw the bottle of pills sitting behind the bourbon. In a flash of worry, he seized the bottle and read the label. Sleeping pills. And it's mostly full. No longer worried that Bones had done something drastic, a deeper sort of concern settled in. He knew that Bones kept a small supply of sleeping pills handy, but he'd only seen them used once.

It was after an away mission, over a year ago. The Enterprise had been assigned to lend medical aid to a Capellan settlement that had been struck by a particularly nasty virus. Humans were immune, so there had been no risk to the crew, and the Capellans were quite hospitable, but they disdained doctors and medical treatment. Almost a quarter of the tribe died before they'd let Bones begin administering treatment. One incident stood out in Kirk's mind. A Capellan man whose wife and child were infected had stood between Bones and his family, politely but firmly telling him that his services were not needed. The woman died during the argument. The child died a half-hour later in McCoy's arms.

That night, as soon as they were back on board the ship, Kirk had gone to Bones' quarters, toting an unopened bottle of bourbon, figuring his best friend could use it. He'd found Bones sitting on the end of his bed, kicking his shoes off his feet so hard they'd flown halfway across his quarters.

Jim, what are you doing here?

Kirk had held up the bourbon. I figured after a day like this, you could use a drink and a friend, priority not necessarily in that order.

No, Jim, Bones had said, shaking his head in harsh, jerking motions. If I drink, I'll still remember. Then I'll drink too much. He'd held up the pill bottle. I just need to sleep so I can forget for a few hours.

Kirk had almost panicked then, too. Bones! You're not going to –

What do I look like, Jim? A suicide case? He'd tossed a pill back and swallowed it without water. I've seen too much needless, pointless, goddamned death today, and I have no intention to add to it. I just… damn it, I can't get that kid out of my head! I just need to sleep.

Want me to stay?

Bones had shrugged. In five minutes, I won't know that you're here.

It's okay. Kirk had crossed the room, put the bottle of bourbon on the nightstand, and sat on the bed. I'll keep an eye on you.

That night, Bones had fallen asleep sprawled across the bed on his stomach, with Kirk rubbing his back and thinking how amazing it was that one man, just flesh and blood like everyone else, held life and death in his hands and coped with that responsibility every day.

With that memory at the forefront of his mind, Kirk sat tentatively on the edge of the bed next to the nightstand and looked at the bottle of bourbon. It was the same one he'd given Bones after that away mission.

For the next half hour, Kirk sat on the edge of the bed, still as a statue, not really thinking about anything except what he might say when Bones finally awoke. Then, he felt the bed shift. Slowly, Kirk slid off the bed and sat on the floor where Bones could see him when he woke up.

A minute later, one groggy eye opened, blinked a couple of times, and –

"JIM! Goddammit, what the hell are you –" He had already pushed himself up onto his knees and looked like he was ready to launch into action, but Kirk shook his head silently and held out a hand – the one with the cardiac monitor attached to his wrist. Bones stopped and stared at him, and Kirk suddenly knew what to say.

"You called it, didn't you?"

"Jim, I…" His voice trailed off, and he flopped backwards, barely propping himself up with his hands.

"Medical log, Stardate 2260.27," Kirk recited. "Record of death: Kirk, James T., Captain. Time of death: 0625 hours, ship's standard time. Cause of death: heart failure."

"You read it."

"You made the call."

"I didn't want to, Jim." His voice sounded thin and distant. "Nurse Chapel reminded me that I had a duty, and I had to perform it."

Kirk nodded slowly, keeping himself calm, and his voice even. "Was I really dead?"

"Yes." The word cracked a bit.

"How long?"

"Almost five minutes."

"What did you do?" Kirk reconsidered and rephrased the question. "How did you bring me back? And why, if I was already dead?"

Like a much older man, Bones shifted around on the bed and sat on the edge, his elbows resting heavily on his knees. "How? Well, that's easy enough to explain, I guess. We’d neutralized the toxin, so your nerves were working. You still had brain activity, and the signals were getting through, but your heart had too much damage to keep rhythm. So the only way to keep your heart going was direct stimulation."

"A pacemaker," Kirk said solemnly.

Bones looked away. "Good, old-fashioned, hands-on medicine.” He clenched his fist and ground it against his forehead. He was trembling.

"Bones…"

"Wait, Jim. Just listen. I didn't tell you before, but I need to tell you now. Just let me. We've already opened Pandora's Box."

Kirk hesitated, but this was why he came. He knew what had happened, but he needed to hear it from Bones. Bracing himself, he gave one slow nod.

Bones squared his jaw and took a deep breath. Staring at the wall, be began. "Twenty-one hours of hell, and we were almost there. Created an antidote, pulled you off life support, and then you flatlined. You’d been on life support for almost three hours past the safe limit, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. I kept trying, but your heart just wouldn’t restart.”

For a moment, his eyes seemed to glaze over, then he shook his head and continued.  “I called it, and it was supposed to be over, but I was just… standing there. It was like the world had ended, Jim. Nurse Chapel was walking away, and I knew she was going to go cry where nobody could see her. But then Spock… oh god, Jim… he just reached out and grabbed your hand. He was upset – yes, actually upset. And that's when I snapped."

Bones held out his own hands in front of him, as if remembering what those hands had done. "Just because we couldn't get your heart to beat on its own didn't mean we couldn't force it to keep it beating. I yelled at Spock to back away, and called Nurse Chapel back in.  I had to try it.  I couldn't just give up like that.  It took two tries to get it to take, but it worked."

“I’m glad it did,” Kirk said. His voice sounded far away, as if someone else had spoken.

Bones nodded absently, still clearly locked in his own memory. “We kept you on a respirator until it stabilized. They didn't think it would. I wouldn't listen. It took almost an hour. Your heart had so much damage, Nurse Chapel was certain that there was no way it could sustain blood flow. And truth be told, by all medical standards and rules, she was right." He laughed; it was a painful sound. "Trust you not to follow the rules, Jim, even when you're dead."

"You didn't follow the rules, either." Jim leaned forward. "So… why?"

Bones looked up at him, eyes finally showing signs of wetness. "Because my best friend once told me that he didn't believe in no-win scenarios." He coughed, then spoke at his feet.  Head bowed and shoulders slumped, he looked like a broken man.  His voice teetered on the edge of cracking, barely above a whisper.  "I went a bit nuts, Jim, seeing you lying there, with all the biobed sensors showing flatlines.  I must have looked like a madman. Damn it, I was a madman, but if I lost you, it would have been worse."

Kirk felt his throat tighten. He wasn't upset at what had happened to him – he was alive, so he had no right to complain about anything for himself – but upset at what the ordeal had done to Bones. The clinical report had made him angry. He'd never stopped to consider what it would have been like for the man making the report.

"Fuck," Kirk breathed. "Bones… god, I… I can't even imagine…"

"That's why I couldn't tell you, Jim. That's why I walked away." He cleared his throat and wiped his sleeve across his eyes. "I didn't want you to know how bad it really was. Not yet. I didn't even want to think about it myself. I couldn't handle it. God damn it, Jim, you'd just died in front of me! Do you know what that did to me?"

Kirk opened and closed his mouth a few times, but had nothing he could say. He must have looked pretty shocked because Bones' eyes tightened up for a moment before he leaned his head heavily into his hand, rubbing his temples harshly.

"I'm sorry, Jim. I was going to tell you. I just couldn't right then. I was going to tell you after I'd slept and you'd rested – I thought you'd still be there. I was going to come back. I'd always come back." He sounded desperate, like he was begging Kirk to believe him. He looked up again. "I never could walk away from you, you know."

"I know," Kirk echoed. He did know.

"I just… I thought it would be better if you could start recovering without that stress."

In an instant, Kirk felt the tide of the discussion come flooding back on himself. "If I'd done what I was supposed to do, you would have been right." He couldn't keep the self-accusing tone out of his voice. "Everything that happened was because I didn't listen to you. You told me not to touch anything, but… I just went to hold Horvat's hand. I don't know why. I thought that would make it better somehow. I just took his hand and there was something in it, so I just picked it up."

Bones nodded slowly, a distant look on his face. "I wondered why you did that. But I can see it now. That's just you, Jim."

"But then I didn't listen to you again, and I left sickbay."

"You had no way of knowing –"

Kirk shook his head. "The medical report, Bones. I'd already read it."

Bones' eyes went wide. "You ran out of sickbay knowing that it would probably kill you?"

Guilt again, thick and hot, flooded through him. "I was angry. Furious, actually. I'd died, I was relying on a piece of metal to keep my heart beating, my own doctor – fuck, my best friend had left without even looking back, and nobody had bothered to tell me any of this! I'm supposed to be the Captain, and I felt like I was the only person on this ship who didn't know what the hell was going on! It was a yellow alert, and I thought I could focus on the mission and stop thinking about what I'd just learned." His breath hitched at the memory. "I was alone… I was sitting alone in sickbay when I read my own fucking death record –"

He was interrupted by his monitor beeping. He clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut. "And now I've got this thing stuck to me like a collar and leash. And I did this to myself."

Gentle but firm hands clasped his, and Bones was pulling Kirk's hand towards him. Silently, Bones flipped open the cover of the monitor and tapped in a code. The beeping stopped. Fingers wrapped around Kirk's wrist and pressed lightly against his pulse point. Bones reached out with his other hand and gently rested it on his shoulder, and Kirk realized that he was shaking.

"Take it easy, Jim."

Kirk shook his head. "I can't stop blaming myself."

"Neither can I."

Kirk felt his breath catch as Bones finally looked him straight in the eye for the first time since this fiasco had begun. He didn't blink. "I gave up on you, Jim.  I called it... because I gave up on you.  And I couldn't face you.  After that, how could I?  And because of that, I almost killed you.  I'm sorry. Good God, Jim, I am so sorry."

There were a million things Kirk wanted to say and wanted to ask, but he sat there, mouth gaping open, unable to say any of them. He stared back at the man who'd all but literally held his heart in his hands, and had kept him alive by being just crazy enough to refuse defeat. No-win scenario indeed, Kirk thought bleakly.

There were no words. Nothing he could say would make it right. The unspoken understanding between them said so much. We both fucked up, but we both made it through, and here we are, and it's okay – it has to be okay because there's no other way for it to be and god please tell me it's going to be okay?

Nothing he could say could possibly make his thoughts known. He was Captain James T. Kirk. Masterful diplomat, youngest Starfleet Captain in history, and the hero who had saved the galaxy, but Kirk couldn't cross that distance to connect with the man who had saved him; who had always meant the world to him, and now meant everything else, too. Kirk couldn't…

But Jim could.

Without standing, he slid around so that his back was resting between Bones' knees, leaning his weight against sturdy legs. He heard Bones gasp in surprise behind him, but there was no word of complaint. Slowly, he leaned his head on a warm thigh, and a second later was rewarded with a tender, familiar touch smoothing his hair, coaxing him to relax. With a sigh, he let his eyes close.

He felt comfortable there, like he'd found the one place in the universe where he could be vulnerable, and it was okay. He didn't need to be a starship Captain here. He didn't need to be a leader or a hero. It was good enough to just be Jim. Here, it didn't matter that he was broken – he was in the hands of the person who had fixed him. After a moment of stillness, Bones shifted. For a second, Jim was afraid he'd done something wrong, but then strong arms wrapped around him, and Bones was burying his face against Jim's neck and shaking.

"Bones, are you okay? Did I –"

Bones lifted his head for just a brief moment – the air on Jim's neck felt cool where tears were evaporating – just long enough to say, "Damn it, Jim, just shut up."

So he did.

*********

 

Chapter Text


The next few hours were spent talking about everything and nothing; all that mattered was that they were talking again. When Kirk finally found himself becoming tired, he'd moved as if to leave, but Bones grabbed his arm. You take my bed. Bones dragged his own armchair into the bedroom, propped his feet up on the bed, and slept there.

What Bones said was, "It makes it easier to keep an eye on you. Monitor you for complications."

What Bones didn't say was, "I lost you today, and I don't think I could let you out of my sight right now," but Kirk heard that anyway.

Kirk awoke the next morning disoriented. The blankets didn't feel like his own, the pillow didn't smell like his own, but the hand touching his forehead was familiar. Bones was back on duty as CMO that day, and as he left the room, he reminded Jim that he had a mandatory follow-up in sickbay before the end of alpha-shift.

"If you miss it, I'll send Spock to physically carry you into sickbay, and trust me, he'd do it."

Kirk smiled softly and nodded, then listened as the door whooshed shut behind him. Of course he'd go to the follow-up. As much as he hated sickbay, as much as he hated admitting weakness and getting help, he knew he'd hate himself more if he ever put his crew, and his CMO, through that again.  Keeping an appointment in sickbay was a small price to pay.

And that was about the time he realized that he was hungry. With a light laugh, he rolled out of McCoy's bed, tried to fix up the blankets more neatly than he ever did with his own, and pulled on his shoes. The mess hall seemed like a good idea. Then he caught his reflection on the inner surface of the viewport. Damn, that's the worst case of bed-head… shower first. Then he noticed the view beyond his reflection.

Walking up to the viewport, Kirk looked down at the green and purple planet spinning lazily below him. It was as beautiful as it was when they'd first arrived, and he felt a pang of longing to be down there, dangers be damned, just to put his feet on alien soil again. He remembered the unique color of the sky, the peculiar scents in the air, and the comforting warmth of the sun as he'd stretched out on the grass next to Bones, trying to tease his friend into a conversation. His breath caught as he remembered that it came close to being the last pleasant conversation they'd ever had.

A thought grabbed him – What if that really had been the last chance I had…

With a sigh, he turned away from the viewport and went to the comm panel. "Kirk to Spock."

"Spock here, Captain."

"Spock… meet me in the mess hall in one hour."

There was a noticeable pause. "Captain, would that be wise?"

"Well, I need to eat, don't I? And I've heard that pleasant conversation is good for digestion."

Another pause. "Yes, Captain."

"Great. See you in an hour. Kirk out." Kirk closed the comm channel and leaned back against the wall. Time to start facing reality. He gathered himself together and walked out the door.

Almost an hour later, Kirk emerged from his own quarters showered, dressed in casual civilian clothes, and carrying two small datachips. He smiled at his crew members that he passed in the hallways. They returned his greeting properly, with a bit less trepidation than they had the last time he'd walked the halls. The confidence wasn't back, but it was coming slowly.

Spock was waiting in the almost-empty mess hall when he arrived; he stood and greeted Kirk with a formal, "Captain."

Kirk waved him down. "I'm relieved of duty for another day, Spock, so there's no need for formalities." He grabbed a tray from the food slot – he must really be hungry, because it actually smelled good.

Spock still waited for Kirk to sit down before seating himself again. "Nonetheless, you are still the Captain." He tipped his head thoughtfully. "In fact, perhaps it would be both fair and beneficial to inform you that your crew has been stating their support for you without reservation. Several have also expressed their concern that they have, perhaps, been uneasy around you since the incident, thereby adding to your discomfort."

Kirk found himself smiling. "Tell them it's okay, Spock. I'm just glad they haven't judged me to be incompetent. Hell, I haven't exactly been comfortable around myself since this fiasco began." He stopped cold and held up one finger as if to punctuate the statement, "Don't tell them that part."

"I had not intended to do so."

"Good, Spock. That's good." He looked down at the datachips in his hand. Not yet. "So, I know I'm restricted from duty, but seeing as I haven't heard any alerts and you haven't reported any disasters, the news can't be all that bad. Care to humor a dead man with a status report?"

Spock shifted slightly in his chair. The Vulcan Fidget, Kirk thought sardonically. “There is nothing of significance to report.”

"Spock, if you don't give me something to go on, I'll have to assume that the warp engines are failing, the bridge has lost helm control, and the tree creatures on the planet are about to knock the ship out of orbit with a catapult that launches oversized watermelons."

"Captain, such an assumption is both highly improbable and irrational."

Kirk chuckled. "Spock, don't ever change."

Spock merely raised an eyebrow.

"Come on, Spock," Kirk prodded, leaning over his dinner plate. "You know I'm more likely to stress out if I don't know what's going on. The doctor wants me to avoid stress. The only logical response is to tell me what's happening."

For a moment, Spock didn't move. Then, Kirk swore he heard the Vulcan sigh, before he said, "Captain, if I am to violate the orders of the Chief Medical Officer concerning the health of my commanding officer, I would ask one favor."

"Sure, Spock."

"Promise that you will not tell Doctor McCoy."

Kirk crossed his heart and held up his hand, giving an exaggerated nod. Logic… sometimes I love it.

A half hour and two sandwiches later, both Kirk's stomach and curiosity had been satisfied. He sat back, musing aloud, "So their culture is really that complex? Elected officials, politics, and even an economy?"

"It is different than most methods of governing a society, but indeed, they have a fully functional culture and society. They have not created the mechanical technologies that humanoid species tend to achieve, but their biochemical and communications techniques are technologies that have been intentionally cultivated."

"Was that a pun, Spock?"

"Negative, Captain."

"Oh. Well, it was a good one." He absently pushed the remaining half of a pickle around his plate with his fork. "That's just amazing, though – that they developed those technologies when the humanoid species native to their planet almost wiped them out. Evolution for survival."

"Indeed. It would be interesting to study more of that history. With the contact we initiated, they are open to the possibility of an alliance."

"I'm impressed that you managed to negotiate that with them, Spock."

"Thank you, Captain." Spock's tone was as neutral as ever, but Kirk got the sense that he was still waiting to see if the Captain harboured any personal grudges against this species that almost killed him. "I would suggest that we make a recommendation to the Federation that we continue diplomatic relations with the Cassians. While such an alliance would offer little tactical advantage for the Federation, the academic value could be immense. The Cassian leadership has made an offer of diplomatic cultural exchange. The uniqueness of this society is something that should be studied."

Kirk smiled his reassurance. "I agree."

Spock's shoulders relaxed just slightly – relief. "Additionally, due to the fact that Vulcans seem immune to many of the Cassians' defences, and we are able to communicate directly, we may be able to negotiate for them to accept a Vulcan science team to study their culture and planet."

"I think that would be an excellent idea, Spock. I'll be back on duty tomorrow for alpha shift. See if you can request a conference with the Cassian leadership at that time."

"Yes, Captain."

Kirk sat upright and began piling his fork, knife, and napkin on his plate as if getting ready to leave, but Spock held up a hand to stop him. Kirk frowned. "Spock, is there a problem?"

"Not precisely, Captain." He tucked his chair in closer to the table, and Kirk mirrored the action. Looking more like a conspirator than a distinguished Starfleet officer, Spock leaned towards Kirk and spoke in a confidential tone. "Although Doctor McCoy might not approve of my asking such an invasive question, I do have something I wish to enquire –"

"Oh? Please, ask."

"Have you spoken with the Doctor since being released from sickbay?"

Kirk furrowed his eyebrows. "Now that's an odd question, Spock, but yes, I have. Not that I have a problem with the question, but why do you ask?"

Spock's gaze settled firmly on the far wall, and he folded his hands on the table in front of him. "I observed evidence of significant interpersonal tension between Doctor McCoy and yourself, and was concerned that there could be lasting damage to your professional relationship if you had not discussed matters. It would not be conducive to the effective running of the Enterprise if the Captain and the Chief Medical Officer were to be at odds for personal reasons."

Kirk couldn't keep the grin off his face. "So you're worried that we're pissed at each other, and that it could cause problems down the road?"

Still staring at the wall, Spock said, "A gross simplification, but in part, yes."

Kirk reached over and lightly patted Spock's arm. "We talked, Spock. It's okay."

This time, Spock actually looked at him, eyebrow raised inquisitively. "Are you certain of that, Captain?"

Somewhat surprised by Spock's persistence, Kirk gave him a critical sideways look. "Spock, what am I missing here?"

"Perhaps nothing, Captain. However, I feel it prudent to mention that I have observed many reactions to death during the previous two years." A tiny twitch in his right eye was the only hint at just how much death he had really witnessed, and Kirk knew what he meant.

"Go on, Spock."

"I have seldom witnessed a reaction as strong as the one exhibited by Doctor McCoy."

Kirk's stomach lurched slightly, and his mouth had suddenly become dry.  The guilt he'd felt the previous night came flooding back.  "That's… interesting."

Spock inclined his head. "An observation, Captain, nothing more, as your First Officer… and your friend."

"As always," Kirk said as evenly as possible, "I appreciate your observations."  If Bones had been so upset that Spock would describe his reaction so strongly, it must have been intense.  Not just the loss of a friend, but the loss of family.  He clenched his fist lightly, causing the datachips in his hand to click together, and he knew it was time. "Spock, I've got something for you, and I need you to do this for me."

"Of course, Captain." Even Vulcan training couldn't keep the puzzlement from Spock's face.

Kirk took a deep, bracing breath. This was the real reason he'd wanted to meet with Spock. Getting an update on the mission was a bonus, as was the unusual observation Spock had made, but neither was the prize. Time to get it over with.

"I know I almost didn't make it this time, Spock. In fact, I know that technically, I didn't make it at all until Bones worked his magic. Well, I'm a Starfleet Captain, and I'd better stop acting as if this is a gambling adventure and my life is just another bet." Like a pair of poker chips, Kirk slid the datachips across the table. "One is for both of you, and the other is just for Bones. They're in case I… in case I die. The one for both of you – watch it together. And make sure Bones gets the one I've recorded for him. Not right away… give him a little bit of time, but make sure he gets it. Can you do that for me?"

"Why do you not give Doctor McCoy's datachip to him directly?"

Kirk didn't miss the obvious evasion. "Because he wouldn't be able to take it right now, Spock. I know you were upset, too – Bones told me, so don't pretend you weren't. But… it almost broke him. You two need…" He stopped himself. "I just hope you never have to watch them. But if you do, I want to make sure it's covered. Consider it my final request."

Spock's hand hesitated over the chips, and he looked up at Kirk as if asking for permission. Kirk nodded, and Spock's hand closed over the chips.

Kirk let out a breath of relief. "Thank you, Spock."

"You're welcome, Jim."

*********


"We appreciate your communication, Captain Kirk of Enterprise, and welcome future communication. My grove shall think fondly of your grove."

Kirk couldn't stop himself from grinning. He was back in his Captain's chair – tired but okay – and exhilarated at having been involved in the discovery of such a unique new life form. The audio conference with the Cassians was almost over, but it had been brilliant. He'd been practicing his diplomacy skills, learning to echo speech patterns to make other species comfortable. Although the Cassians' thoughts were different from most species he'd encountered, they were not incomprehensible.

"We appreciate your communication, too, Jah'lear. My grove shall also think fondly of your grove. The Vulcan grove will be pleased to communicate with you in the future. We hope that we can learn from each other."

"Knowledge is a valuable seed to cultivate, Captain Kirk of Enterprise. It grows strong where it takes root."

"We appreciate the chance to help it grow in this case. We will communicate with you again soon."

"Our appreciation to you. Also, before your Enterprise breaks roots from our planet, we wish to offer a personal regret."

Kirk felt himself startle slightly. Caught off-guard, he tripped over his words. "Uh… okay."

"We communicated of this with your Commander Spock, but you are Chieftain of your grove. We offer our regrets for the falling of your Ensign Horvat, and also for almost causing you to fall."

The room seemed to get a bit warm and uncomfortable, and Kirk's fingers twitched against the arm of his chair. "Your regret is appreciated, Jah'lear, but not necessary. Our people would call it an accident."

"Regardless, we wish to make amends. Although the humanoids are gone from our planet, we have moving companions. We wish to send a companion to you, as a token of friendship."

"Wha –"

"Captain," Uhura interrupted, "we appear to be receiving a transporter location being piggybacked on the primary signal."

"Is that –"

"A gift, Captain Kirk of Enterprise. May you grow tall and strong, and your grove be peaceful."

Somewhat concerned, but interested enough not to care, Kirk smiled and said, "You have my appreciation. May you also grow tall and strong, and your grove be peaceful." He nodded to Uhura.

"Signal has been deactivated, Captain," she said, scanning her readouts. "Transmission activity on the surface is reducing to original levels."

Kirk nodded and stood. "Lieutenant, send those coordinates to Scotty. I'll be in the transporter room. Spock, you have the bridge." He walked to the turbolift, but Spock followed.

"Lieutenant Sulu," Spock said as he moved, "you have the bridge. I shall accompany the Captain."

Kirk did his best to look put out. "Afraid I'm going to keel over if I step out of your sight, Spock?"

"Not at all, Captain. I am merely curious about this gift being offered by the Cassians."

Kirk nodded in acceptance and stepped into the turbolift as he called out, "Sulu, we'll be back soon."

The turbolift doors slid shut, and Spock, staring directly at the wall in front of him, said, "Additionally, Doctor McCoy made it explicitly clear that if I did not keep an eye on you, my next physical would be highly unpleasant."

Kirk opened his mouth in indignation, but then grinned and let it go. There was no point. At least he was back on duty. "Deck three," he said to the turbolift computer.

Scotty was waiting for them in the transporter room, and to Kirk's surprise, so was Bones.

"What brings you out of sickbay?"

Bones pursed his lips in the manner of a shrug. "We're allegedly bringing a live creature on board this ship. It only makes sense that I should be present in case there's a complication."

"Fair enough," Kirk conceded. "Scotty, are you all set?"

"Yes, Captain, we've got the coordinates locked in. Should we set up a containment field, just in case –"

"That shouldn't be necessary, Scotty. En –" He was distracted by a look from Bones, complete with a scowl and eyebrow raised as if to say, did you not learn your lesson yet? "Okay, set up a force field. Energize."

The beam solidified into a small bundle, that couldn't have been any bigger than a –

"It's a cat!" Kirk blurted out, unable to quite contain his amusement.

"Oh good grief," Scotty grumbled. "I'll never get the fur out of the matter stream condensers now!”

Spock tapped a few buttons on his tricorder. "It appears to be completely innocuous, Captain. I believe we can drop the force field."

"Go ahead, Scotty. Would you look at that?" Kirk climbed onto the transporter pad and sat down, holding his hand out to the creature. "It doesn't quite look like a housecat, but what else would you call it? Hey look, it's friendly!"

Spock looked mildly disconcerted. "Captain, I'm not certain that this is a wise decision."

"What decision, Spock? It was a diplomatic gift. Who was I to refuse? We couldn't risk a breach of protocol because we're not sure what it likes to eat." The creature rubbed its head against Kirk's knee, and Kirk absently scratched its chin. "Besides, think logically for a moment. If this creature lives side by side with the Cassians, then it makes sense that it's immune to the toxins. I think it would be worthwhile studying it to see if we can work out some sort of immunity for ourselves."

Spock inclined his head. "That would indeed be a logical approach. There may be great scientific value in this diplomatic offering."

Kirk was just starting to enjoy the warm buzz of victory when – "ACHOOO!"

The creature startled and ran from the transporter pad, only to hide behind Spock's legs. Kirk sniffled and rubbed his nose, only to sneeze again. "Well, that was unexpected. I'm not allergic to cats…"

He trailed off as Bones pulled out a tricorder, scanned him, and chuckled. "Well, it's not a cat, Jim. It's an alien creature from Cassia VI that just happens to look like a cat. And you're allergic. But don't worry, we can fix that."

Kirk sniffled again. "Great." He looked up and shook his head in surprise at what he saw. "Spock?"

Spock had picked up the animal, which seemed to be quite comfortable in his arms. "It appears to like me. Captain, it would seem that your off-hand comment before the away mission gives the impression of clairvoyance. Perhaps I shall call it Jim."

Bones choked. Surprised, Kirk gave him a couple of thumps on the back. "Bones? You okay?"

Bones closed his tricorder and got to his feet, shaking his head. "I'm getting too old for this," he grumbled as he walked off the transporter pad. He stopped at the door and looked back over his shoulder. "Captain, follow-up in sickbay immediately after this shift."

Kirk watched him go, feeling a bit perplexed and a slightly concerned. "What got into him?"

"I would venture a hypothesis, Captain, but I believe that would be pointless."

Kirk nodded, more to himself than to Spock, stood, and climbed down from the transporter pad. "I'll talk to him later." He turned to Spock, who was absently stroking the creature’s fur. "Bring the critter down to the science lab for now, just for safety, but… I don't know, I think he'd make a good pet. Might be good for ship morale. Just… pick another name for him, okay?"

"If you insist."

Kirk swore he could hear the sarcastic amusement dripping behind Spock's voice. "Yes, I insist. I'll be on the bridge."

*********


Alpha shift was over, and Kirk had to admit to himself that he was pretty damn tired. It had been a good day though. They’d broken orbit from Cassia VI and had laid in a course for the Starfleet base at Rigel VI to drop off the samples taken during the away mission. Travelling at Warp 3, they would be in transit for two days. Kirk had spent the remainder of the shift reviewing bridge logs and updates from every major section, and doing his best not to feel awkward as every member of the crew he encountered made certain to express relief and wishes for him to rest and recover well.

And then, with the shift over, he had one last task for the day before he could go back to his quarters and do exactly that.

The door to sickbay slid open. Nurse Zhang was the duty nurse, and she was currently tending to the shoulder of a junior crew member who was wearing a fitness training uniform. Back to normal, Kirk thought to himself. Nurse Zhang greeted him with a quiet smile, and indicated with a tilt of her head that Doctor McCoy was in his office.

Kirk stuck his head around the corner of the doorway, affecting the most foolish grin he could manage. “BONES!”

Bones jumped in his chair like he’d been pinched – I love it when he startles like that – and looked up from his datapad. “Jim, you’re right on time. Come on in. We don’t need a biobed for this, so pull up a seat.” He reached under his desk and came back up with a tricorder as Kirk sat on the edge of the spare chair. “How was your first shift back?” he asked as be began running the scan.

“Well, other than diplomatic negotiations with a forest and an alien pet cat, it was pretty uneventful, really. We’re en-route to Rigel VI, so we’ve got a couple of quiet days ahead.”

“Good, good,” Bones murmured without looking up from the tricorder. “You could use the quiet.”

“I think you could, too,” Kirk said. He nodded at the tricorder. “So, how’s it looking?”

“Well, the damage is starting to heal on the cellular level, so at least I know you haven’t run yourself ragged today. I’d like to treat you with the tissue regenerator every other day to try to speed recovery.”

Kirk nodded, almost feeling eager. “Anything to get rid of the restricted duty tag sooner is fine by me.”

Bones’ eyebrow raised by a hair. “What’s this? Jim Kirk actually taking the advice of his own Chief Medical Officer? And hell has frozen over.”

“Thanks, Bones,” Kirk groaned.

“Anytime, Jim.” He turned off the tricorder and stowed it back under his desk. “Shirt off.”

Kirk actually felt mildly self-conscious as he pulled off his gold uniform shirt and black undershirt, as if removing the vestments of his rank simultaneously pulled off the mask he’d been hiding behind all day. He stared at the ceiling as Bones leaned in to take a closer look.

“Well, you shouldn’t have a scar,” he said as he traced the incision mark with his fingers, “so don’t worry about that.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Kirk said, feeling even more self-conscious.

“Is it sore?”

“Not really.”

“Glad to hear it.” Bones stood and went to his equipment cabinet, rummaged around for a few seconds, and pulled out a small device. “Three minutes should be good,” he said as he attached the tissue regenerator to Kirk’s chest, “Just enough to help the process, but not disrupt your natural healing, and then you’re free to go for today.” He activated the device, sat up, then furrowed his eyebrows. “What?”

Kirk realized he was staring, and shook his head quickly as if to shake off whatever thoughts had been creeping into his mind. It didn’t work. “Nothing, nothing. Well… actually, something.”

“What’s that, Jim?” It was impossible to miss the slight hesitation, or the odd wavering in his voice.

I owe him this
, Kirk thought as he took a steadying breath.  I owe him more than I'll ever be able to give, but I owe him at least this.  “I know I put everyone through hell this week… but I also know you bore the brunt of it.”

Bones looked away, shrugging edgily. “I’m a doctor, Jim, and the CMO. If someone on this ship gets injured, of course I’m going to take the brunt of it.”

“That’s not what I mean, Bones, and you know it.” He reached out with his foot and nudged Bones’ boot, causing the man to meet his gaze again. “We’ve been friends since the Academy. Technically since before the Academy, if you want to split hairs. You’re the closest thing to family that I’ve got, and I’ll take a leap of speculation here, but I think that goes both ways.”

Kirk could tell that Bones was forcing himself not to look away. “Yeah, Jim. It does.”

“I’ve been thinking about this all day, Bones. I want you to know…” He sighed. “If nothing else, I want you to know that I’m aware of it. That I know what this must have done to you, because I know what it would have done to me if I’d thought you’d died. It would have killed me.”

“Jim, no.” Bones shook his head and finally did look away. He stared at the ceiling. “No, don't say that. You’re the most independent person I’ve ever met. You’re in your element that way. You don’t blink, you don’t flinch, and while you’re as protective as possible of your crew, you don’t need anyone.”

“I need you,” he blurted out before he’d realized it. He tried to bite his tongue, as if he could take it back, then realized he didn’t want to. “Listen, I can't put you through that again. I never want you to have to walk away from me because you can’t face me.  I never want to put you in that position because I’ve finally done something so stupid that it can’t be forgiven.”

A deep frown furrowed Bones’ face. “I’m sorry, Jim, but you're not responsible for that.  I am.  I should never have done that.”

“But you had every right to. Every right.” He leaned forward. “I almost blew it this time. I really did. With everybody, yes, but… with you. You were worried and you were furious and you had every godddamned right. I can’t do that to family. What can I do, Bones? I can’t do this to you again. What can I do?”

Bones stared at him helplessly for a few moments. “Jim, the only way I’m going to stop worrying about you is if you never step into harm’s way again. You’re a Starfleet officer, you’re a ship’s captain, and you’re James T. Kirk. I can tell the Earth to stop turning. I can tell the stars to stop shining. I can tell you to find a safe place to hide from the dangers of the universe and to stay there for the rest of your life. And none of those things are ever going to happen.”

"But I have to change something, Bones! I have to fix this."

Bones just shook his head, a strange smile coming to his face. "You don't fix things, Jim. You break them, and I fix them. And that's the way it is, and… I'm okay with that."

"How can you be okay with that? How can you say that you'll just keep going through that sort of thing?"

"If not me, then who? Someone else?" He snorted derisively. "If I wasn't here, you'd be in someone else's hands. Someone less skilled. Someone… someone who would give up sooner.  Someone who wouldn't have tried again." He shook his head with a shudder. "I can't let that happen any more than I can ask you to be a different person."

"Maybe I should be a different person by now." Guilt welled up in his chest, buzzing more prominently than the tissue regenerator. "I've been Captain of a Starfleet vessel – the fucking flagship, no less – for two years now. You'd think I'd have grown up a bit."

"You have," Bones said so suddenly and so bluntly that it couldn't be challenged. "Jim, I almost told you this years ago, but here it is, for what it's worth.  You're a goddamned fixture on the face of reality.  You are.  But no matter what happens, no matter how many planets you've visited or dangers you've overcome, no matter how many battles you win or planets you save, you're still going to be you at the end of the day. Unless the universe turns on its head, you're not going to change, and – can I make you understand this? – I don't want you to! So someone's gotta be there to fix it up."

Kirk shrugged uncomfortably. "Why should it have to be that way?" He stared down at his hands, unable to look away from the monitor bracelet on his wrist. "If I was a different person, I wouldn't be so fucking impulsive. Maybe I'd look before I leap once in a while. Hell, I might not end up in your sickbay getting blood all over your biobeds as often."

Bones shook his head, a look of fierce fondness sparking in his eyes. "Jim… I can't put it any more bluntly than this: if you were someone else, we wouldn't have a home planet left. I'd be dead. We'd all be dead. Hell, if you were anyone else, I wouldn't have stuck my neck out and smuggled you onto this ship two years ago in the first place. And in the two years since then, there have been hundreds – no, thousands of lives that would have been snuffed out of existence if you hadn't been the impulsive sort of person you are. This ship, in the hands of anyone else… it would be gone a dozen times over. And if that means that you occasionally end up flat on your back in my sickbay…" An enigmatic smile finally quirked the corners of his lips. "In the grand scheme of things, I suppose that's a fair trade."

Kirk hated to think what might have happened if anything had gone just a little bit differently in the course of that crisis. He thought about Bones on the Enterprise as it got blown out of the sky by an oversized Romulan mining ship with a homicidal maniac in command. And then, of course, there would have been that whole thing with the Earth getting destroyed, which would have also sucked. A fair trade? "Yeah. I guess it is."

When Bones didn't reply for a moment, Jim wondered if he'd said something wrong. "Then what can I do, Bones?"

Bones looked at him long and hard, then gave a resigned sigh. "Just try not to kill yourself out there, Jim. Come back so I can at least try to fix it up.  You promise me that, and I promise you that I'll never give up on you."  He blinked a couple of times, then swallowed thickly.  "And goddammit, just remember that as good as you are, you're not immortal, and some of us care about you. I might not always sleep at night, but it's worth it. You're worth it." He looked up sharply. "Just don't forget it."

There were a million thoughts swimming through Kirk's head, but none of them materialized into anything coherent, so he said the only thing that he could. "Okay."

Bones raised an eyebrow. "Okay? Just like that – okay?"

"Yeah, Bones." Jim let himself risk a tentative smile. "Just… okay."

At that, Bones chuckled softly. "Well, maybe you can change. Not much, but just a bit."

For a moment, the tension of the previous four days disappeared. The crisis had never happened, he hadn’t died on the operating table, and for that moment, Kirk felt that it was just him and Bones, without the burden of responsibility, danger, and the knowledge that they'd finally reached that one-near-miss that never quite fades. 

But then the timer on the tissue regenerator beeped, and the moment was broken. Bones blinked a couple of times and took a deep breath as he seemed to remember that he was technically busy treating a patient. He detached the instrument, stood, and walked away to return it to the cabinet. Kirk quickly pulled on his undershirt, so by the time Bones turned around, he was feeling a bit more covered.

“I’ll see you for your appointment tomorrow, Jim,” Bones said, once again sounding tired. Still standing, he leaned his elbows on his desk, levelling his gaze at Kirk. “Let’s get you back up and running so you’ll be ready to save the world next time.”

Kirk nodded and stood, pulling his gold shirt back on. “Sure thing, Bones. And I’ll do my best not to mess up your handiwork next time things to go hell.”

The corner of Bones’ mouth twitched a faint smile. “Sure you will. But that’s okay. Now get out of here.”

With a nod and an attempt at a casual grin that he knew looked far too pensive, Jim waved and strolled out of the office. He wasn't about to stop being himself, and he was sure he'd continue to do plenty of reckless things, but he'd try to stop being quite so stupid about it. He owed it to himself, to his crew, and to Bones.

Once in the hall, however, his legs refused to take him any further. He felt like the world had just paused around him, and he was supposed to pause, too. He leaned his back against the bulkhead just outside of the sickbay door and listened to the soft hum of the warp engines of the Enterprise. It was soothing, almost like the voice of a dear friend. Other than the constant, reassuring presence of the ship herself, there was nobody in the hall. Nobody heard him as he spoke softly, his words fading quickly into the calm sounds of the ship.

"Thanks, Bones."

Back in his office, with the door shut, Bones put down his datapad and looked up at the empty chair across from him, and smiled.

"You're welcome, Jim."

*********

~FIN~