Hold Me Tight (I'll Hold My Breath) - Part 1
Three years at Starfleet Academy, and three more years in space. It added up to six damn years, and still Leonard couldn't stop his knee-jerk reaction to being on a shuttle. Oh, it was nowhere near as bad as it had been in the beginning, when he had needed a copious amount of alcohol to even set foot on one of these death contraptions. Years of seminars, flight sims and therapy had taken care of the worst of it, and when it came to the crunch and things went pear-shaped during a mission, the adrenaline overrode most of the lingering fear.
Usually, it did.
But this was no life-or-death situation in which lives were at stake. It wasn't one of those situations during which Leonard didn't have time to think much about being aboard a shuttle. No, this was a peaceful, carefully planned flight from the planet's surface back towards Enterprise, and Leonard couldn't help that even after all these years his heart still sped up and his palms started to feel clammy as the hatch closed and he heard the numerous bleeps from the cockpit that said Jim was getting the Galileo ready for launch.
"Don't know why the ambassador couldn't just use the transporter," Leonard grumbled, and though he thought he had kept his voice low, Jim chuckled in response.
"Never thought I'd see the day that you actively advertise transportation, Bones."
Leonard harrumphed and checked for the umpteenth time that his harness was closed and he was strapped in tightly.
"Well, if Ambassador Re'Tak had agreed to use the transporter, then I wouldn't have to be on this damn shuttle in the first place. We wouldn't have had to go down to the planet at all and could have held the whole meet and greet in the transporter room. Then he could have settled in his comfy Ambassador quarters while we beamed his stuff aboard. That would have been the easy way. This here is the complicated way, Jim."
Jim laughed at that.
"Come on, Bones, it's not that bad. It's like a little excursion, a chance to get off the ship and breathe some fresh air. Besides, the Dalarn don't have transporter technology, so it's understandable that they're a little hesitant to see their cultural artifacts disintegrated and scattered to their atoms for transportation purpose."
"Oh, really," Leonard grumbled. "How very considerate of us to take these concerns into account. Funny though, nobody ever asked me how I feel about having my atoms scattered by a machine operated by a crazy Scotsman. And just so you know, the next time you're trying to force me onto a transporter pad, I'll cite cultural hesitation as well."
Jim laughed again, and Leonard felt the shuttle start to hum and vibrate around him as the engines started up.
"I really want to be there and see Spock's face when you try."
"He'd have to get rid of Ambassador Re'Tak first. I seriously doubt that's going to happen until we deliver the Ambassador to Palas Prime. Who would have thought that the Dalarn would find Vulcan culture so fascinating?"
Jim didn't answer right away, but Leonard heard him work on the controls in the cockpit and then a beep as he opened a comm channel.
"Enterprise, this is the Galileo. We're ready for launch at your signal."
"Affirmative," Scotty's voice responded from the speakers. "The Faraday has left the planet's atmosphere and is approaching Enterprise. You're free to launch. We're ready to give you the appropriate course corrections once you reach the stratosphere."
"Understood. Kirk out."
A second later, the hum of the engines grew louder, and Leonard unconsciously clenched his fingers into the armrests of his seat. Jim turned around in the pilot's chair to look at Leonard in the back of the shuttle.
"Buckle up, Bones," he said with a wink, as if he didn't know that the first thing Leonard did aboard a shuttle was to strap himself into his harness. "We're about to take off. We'll be home in fifteen minutes."
Leonard was about to reply, but was spared the effort to find an appropriate response when the engines fired up and the shuttle lurched slightly as it took off. He closed his eyes for a second and took a deep breath as he tried to calm himself. Fifteen minutes. He could do that.
After the initial lurch of movement, the takeoff went smoothly, and Leonard felt his pulse settle a little as they cleared the platform and rose up into the sky.
He understood all the hesitancy the Dalarn showed towards transportation technology and dematerialization, he really did. But just this one time, it would have been so much easier to use the transporter instead of going down to the surface by shuttle. It was no big diplomatic mission that required all that official shebang, after all. No matter how much Starfleet tried to glorify this one, what it boiled down to was that they were providing a taxi service for the Dalarn ambassador and his Palan counterpart. They were supposed to pick up Ambassador Re'Tak on Dalak II and shuttle him to Palas Prime, where in turn they'd pick up the Palan ambassador to take him right back to Dalak II.
Other people just called a taxi for that or used their own damn spacecraft, but the situation between Dalak II and Palas Prime had been tense for over a decade now, and they had actively asked the Federation for assistance in their attempt to establish first diplomatic relations, a move that included installing an ambassador on each of their planets.
Definitely not one of the hardest missions Starfleet had ever sent Enterprise on, that much was for sure. The two parties involved actively wanted to improve their relationship, and Enterprise was just there to oversee that things went smoothly. Still, it all could have been yet so much more easy if they had just been able to use the transporter. According to Scotty, transporting to and from the surface of Dalak II would have posed neither a problem nor a challenge to his abilities at working the controls. Taking a shuttle – well, that was a tad bit more complicated.
Leonard hadn't been keen on understanding the finer technical details, but crossing through the Dalarn atmosphere wasn't as easy as simply descending at the right angle. There were statically charged layers, gas clouds and build-ups of matter that could possibly ignite if the shuttle engines got caught up in it. And all those clouds and layers were in constant motion, pushed and pressed by the same atmospheric phenomena that caused the planet's strong winds and the surprising storms that came out of nowhere. They were absolutely unpredictable, and it took very careful flying to safely maneuver the shuttle through the atmosphere.
The shuttle's sensor systems were not equipped to take scans detailed enough to safely guide the shuttle through the ever-changing atmosphere, so they had to rely on Enterprise's much more advanced sensor readings to calculate the course corrections. It was the reason why Chekov had remained back aboard the ship, to transfer the sensor readings taken into navigation data.
Hence the somewhat laborious process of having both shuttles return to Enterprise one after another instead of at the same time. It had worked just fine on their way down, Leonard told himself, and the Faraday had apparently managed to return to Enterprise just fine. There really was no reason to worry about anything now.
Leonard drew a deep breath and forced himself to relax his death-grip on the armrests at least a little. It would be a little easier if he could sit in the cockpit with Jim, but given their cargo that wasn't really an option.
They had taken two shuttles down to the planet, one to bring the Ambassador up to Enterprise, and another to transport his luggage, which consisted of one small crate of personal possessions, and two much larger crates filled with Dalarn artifacts – some as presents and signs of goodwill to the Palan government, some to decorate his future ambassadorial residence. What it amounted to in the end were two huge cargo containers filled with figures and rocks and whatever else the Dalarn considered culturally important, and in order to transport them aboard a standard shuttle the engineering crew had had to do a couple of modifications to the interior.
The co-pilot seat had been removed to place the first crate in the front starboard part of the shuttle. The second crate had been placed in the back port section of the shuttle in order to balance the weight, which left the only seat available for Leonard on the back starboard side. He felt a little like a kid in the back of the hovercar, kept far out of reach from anything he could possibly do damage to.
Their initial protocol had stipulated that the senior crew minus Scotty and Chekov would meet the Ambassador on the surface, and that Jim was going to be aboard the shuttle carrying Re'Tak back towards Enterprise. But during the initial meet and greet and the complimentary meal the Dalarns had served them, the Ambassador had shown a great fascination with Vulcan society and culture, especially in the wake of Vulcan's destruction and the Vulcans' effort to rebuild their society. Spock and Re'Tak had struck up an in-depth conversation, and in the light of that Jim had decided not to interrupt them and instead had opted to pilot the second shuttle back towards Enterprise.
It was a small breach of protocol, but one Re'Tak had shown no aversion against, so Sulu had taken the Faraday with the Ambassador, Spock, Uhura and the Ambassador's personal possessions aboard back up towards Enterprise. Leonard had immediately agreed to take the Galileo as well, because if he already had to be aboard a shuttle flying through strong winds and dangerous atmospheric conditions, it was somewhat calming to know that Jim was behind the controls of the shuttle. Not that Leonard didn't trust Sulu's piloting skills, but his trust in Jim was far more implicit than that. Besides, if this whole thing went wrong, at least Leonard could yell at Jim in person.
So that's how he ended up in the backseat of the Galileo as Jim maneuvered the shuttle through the strong winds up towards the atmosphere. The inertial dampeners did their job, and Leonard felt only a light sway even though he knew that much stronger forces were pulling and pushing at the shuttle, but even that didn't manage to reassure him entirely. There simply were some things about space travel he was never going to get used to, and all that was left for him to do was grit his teeth and bear with it.
"Good thing the Dalarns didn't throw us a feast," Jim remarked from the pilot's seat, just as if he knew that Leonard could do with some distraction right now. "The Palan High Cabinet will be holding a celebratory dinner in honor of Ambassador Re'Tak's arrival when we drop him off tonight, and we're officially invited."
Leonard felt his eyebrow lift up on his forehead. "Yeah? So what's the Palans' attitude towards transporter technology?"
Jim's laugh was loud and clear, and it helped Leonard a little to not freak out as the shuttle gave a sudden downward lurch.
"Sorry," Jim called. "Couldn't compensate for that air pocket quickly enough. Anyway, you'll be pleased to know that the Palans are not as averse to that particular technology as the Dalarns are. But we still have to bring down Ambassador Re'Tak's possessions by shuttle. Which is a good thing, because it actually leaves you with the choice of how you want to get down to the surface."
"Great," Leonard grumbled. "A choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. That's awesome. Let's just hope the Palans' idea of a celebratory dinner makes up for all the hassle of playing intergalactic taxi."
From his position, Leonard couldn't really see Jim unless the other man turned in his seat, but he didn't need to see him to imagine the slight shrug and the smile playing around his lips that his words had probably caused.
"They asked for our help. And if it helps to establish peace in this sector, I'll gladly play chauffeur and stick around for a little while to make sure that the kids play nice while they get used to the idea of having actual diplomatic relations with one another."
Leonard snorted. "Yeah, right. And I'm sure your sudden nonchalance about being on babysitting duty has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Re'Tak decided he'd much rather glue himself to Spock's side than yours."
Now Jim did turn around and lean over so that he could look into the back of the shuttle, and Leonard's stomach gave a funny drop as he realized that right now nobody was looking where the hell they were flying. There must have been something on his face that gave him away, because Jim gave a small eye-roll before he winked at Leonard and turned to face forward again.
"Do you really think I'm going to complain about not having to play the big diplomat for a day? If Re'Tak is more interested in Vulcans than in humans, I'm most certainly not going to complain about it. Besides, it'll only be about four hours until we reach Palas Prime. It's not even any real downtime."
Leonard didn't think that Jim ever played the diplomat. Sure, occasionally protocol and Starfleet regulations forced more pompousness to diplomatic meetings than Jim was comfortable with, but the actual interaction with foreign dignitaries, engaging them in conversation, finding out more about them and trying to understand their culture and background, that Leonard knew for a fact was something that was always genuinely Jim. It was the framework of those encounters that was forced onto him on these occasions, but within that frame Jim moved naturally, as if he had been born to do it.
But Leonard didn't say any of that. Now was not the time and the place, but he vowed to keep it in mind for the next time Jim started doubting himself when there was no need for it. Right now, Jim had other things to focus on.
"Bones, if you ever wanted to see what a storm system building up looks like from above, you might want to look out the starboard window now. It's really beautiful."
Leonard's faith in Jim's ability to hold the shuttle in the air went far, but not so far that he wanted to gaze out the window at a storm building up. He had to draw a line somewhere.
"Thanks, but I'll pass on the cloud-gazing for today."
In the cockpit, Jim snorted. "Your loss. But I'm sure someone aboard Enterprise can take a picture, just in case you change your mind."
"Appreciate it," Leonard mumbled while he deliberately looked the other way. The shuttle swayed slightly as Jim stopped their ascend. His eyes darted to the cargo container to his left, but just like the previous times when the shuttle had swayed unexpectedly, the large container hadn't moved. The small lights of the mechanism locking it to the shuttle floor were flashing green, and Leonard forced himself to relax. Scotty's people knew what they were doing, and the cargo containers were firmly secured to the shuttle. It was going to take more than a little swaying to dislodge them.
"Kirk to Enterprise," Jim hailed from the cockpit. "Galileo has reached the stratosphere and is holding steady at 21.000 meters awaiting navigational coordinates."
"Affirmative, Keptin," Chekov's voice came from the speakers, and to Leonard the kid sounded a little too excited about navigating a shuttle that was hovering at a height of twenty-one kilometers from a distance. But that was just Leonard's opinion, and if Chekov got them home safely, he was allowed to be as excited about it as he wanted.
"There is an unstable band of ammonia ice in the stratosphere, so I need you to adjust your bearing to two-seven-two mark five to traverse below it. Head for that bearing for four thousand meters, then adjust course to bearing two-one-nine bearing ten."
"Bearing 272 mark 5 for four thousand meters, then adjust to bearing 219 mark 10, understood", Jim confirmed, and a moment later Leonard felt the shuttle move again as they followed the course Chekov had laid out.
He could actually feel the moment the shuttle started ascending again, though it was a much slower ascend than before. Leonard realized that he hated this slow, careful flying even more than a normal, straightforward move from point A to point B.
Even though he avoided looking out of the window, it was obvious that clouds were reducing visibility to almost zero, and the thought that they were flying blind, with no sensor data of their own to rely on, did nothing to resolve the small knot of tension in his stomach.
Silence settled in the shuttle that was only broken by the regular beeping and bleeping from the instruments in the cockpit. Leonard drew a deep breath and rubbed his sweaty palms across the armrests. It couldn't be much longer now.
"Kirk to Enterprise, Galileo now ascending bearing 219 mark 10."
"Copy that, Galileo. Ascend to an altitude of 35.000 meters, then change course to a bearing of…"
A loud bang from the port side of the shuttle interrupted whatever Chekov was about to say. The shuttle lurched to the side, and the dull sound that a distant part of Leonard's brain identified as the sound of an impact was followed by a whining and grinding sound from the port engine that sent Leonard's pulse skyrocketing.
"Jim?" He barely recognized his own voice as he rasped out his friend's name.
"Something hit the port engine," Jim called out, though Leonard had no idea if Jim was talking to him or to Enterprise. "A chunk of ice, probably. It threw us off course."
"I thought we were trying to fly around the ice!" Leonard yelled, but received no answer.
"Enterprise, we're descending at about eighty meters per second, and our port engine and stabilizers are offline!"
Chekov's response was layered with static which hadn't been disturbing the connection before, and his voice sounded urgent.
"You need to change your bearing, hard to starboard…up, Sir! If you drop farther, you'll hit…band of methane and hydrogen sulfide……plasma outlets get into contact…will ignite…"
"She's not reacting!" Jim yelled back. "I can't steer her and we're still dropping! I'll have to shut down the engines!"
"What?" Leonard yelled at the same time that Chekov started shouting a garbled mess of tech-babble through the comm, only half of which arrived through the static distortion.
"You can't shut off our engines while we're tens of thousands of meters in the air! Jim!"
"Captain, between…drop of the free fall and the winds…these temperatures…engines will freeze up!"
"I'm all out of choices here, Ensign! Unless you count us blowing up with a layer of methane as an alternative, all I can do is shut them off and turn them on again once we're clear of the stratosphere!"
Chekov raised his voice to protest again, and Leonard would have done the same if he had found himself capable of doing more than just gasping for air frantically.
"23.000 meters and dropping, I'm shutting off the engines now!"
Leonard's fingers were digging into the armrest tightly enough to hurt, and though he frantically tried to breathe it felt like no air was getting through his windpipe. For a long moment, nothing happened, then from one moment to the next the grinding of the port engine and the steady hum and vibrations around him were gone.
For a moment, the barest fraction of a second, Leonard felt weightless, as if they were suspended in mid-air and held by an unseen force even without the support of their engines.
Then gravity remembered its purpose, and they were plummeting down. They had been descending the entire time, but now they were falling.
Leonard thought he might be screaming. He felt like screaming, but screaming would require drawing air, and he was fairly sure that his chest felt tight and his lungs were burning because he wasn't breathing. Distantly, he heard Jim yelling in the cockpit, and what might have been Chekov's voice trying to reply, but all he could focus on was the sensation of falling – free falling towards certain death, building up towards that one final, fatal crash.
He didn't see his life flash before his eyes, but he could not help but envision what this impact was going to render them to – bones broken and skulls crushed, their insides smashed from dropping to the ground at ever-increasing speed. It was going to be quick, but it was going to be gory, and violent, and not the way Leonard ever wanted to go out.
"…not starting up again…"
"…five thousand meters and dropping…"
Heart hammering in his chest, Leonard held on tightly and screwed his eyes shut. They were falling to their certain death, the clouds and the sky had to be a blur outside the porthole, but Leonard didn't look. He braced himself for the impact that was inevitably going to come, the crash that was going to end their lives any second now, hard and brutal and bloody…
There was a loud whine to his right, and the stuttering grind of the damaged port engine somewhere to Leonard's left, and the fragment of a second later the shuttle lurched upwards again. Leonard's stomach dropped to a point somewhere between his knees as the downward momentum was caught and turned into a forward movement. The bile was rising in his throat, and that wasn't going to end up good because his throat was still too tight to breathe.
But after a second Leonard's brain registered the fact that they were no longer falling. They were flying again, swaying left and right in the strong winds as the engines struggled loudly to keep them from plunging into certain death.
How he could scream when he hadn't even dared to breathe for the past minute or so, Leonard had no idea, but he knew for a fact that he needed to hear Jim's voice. He needed to hear the other man tell him that they were going to get out of this, that somehow Jim Kirk was going to pull a miracle out of his ass and get them back home safely.
To his right, the engine started to stutter, and the shuttle lurched again.
"The engines started but I can't hold them! Enterprise, we're at two-hundred meters in strong winds, and I can't hold her up! Starting emergency descend, but we're going to come down hard!"
Emergency descend. As if free falling for thousands of meters wasn't the worst kind of emergency descend there was.
Leonard's blunt fingernails clawed into the plastic armrests, and his heart was still trying to beat its way out of his chest.
The engines stuttered one last time, then they fell silent again.
"Bones!" Jim's voice sounded urgent, desperate even, and at that moment Leonard knew that they weren't going to get out of this.
"Brace for impact, Bones. We're gliding, but we're coming down fast!"
Two hundred meters was too high. They'd never survive this, even if Leonard braced himself for the impact, but as if his body was negating his brain's certainty about this, he was already shifting, bringing up his arms to cover his head protectively as he frantically tried to remember whether he was supposed to curl up tightly or not. Before he even had the chance to deliberate how useless all those emergency drills were when he couldn't even remember them once he needed them, there was a giant crash and roar and Leonard was thrown forward into his harness with painful force, the belts digging into his flesh hard and painful enough to bruise.
As soon as his body was jerked forward it was thrown backwards again, head lolling despite Leonard's attempt to shield it with his arms. Whiplash, his mind supplied unbidden and uselessly, this was a textbook example of how people ended up with whiplash and all subsequent muscular and neurological problems.
The movement didn't stop. It should have, but instead of the eerie silence after a crash, the winds kept roaring around them and the shuttle lifted and lowered as it was thrown from one side to the other, jerking Leonard around in his harness like a rag doll.
And then he heard the waves, the sound of water rising and crashing against them, tossing the shuttle from side to side. Leonard understood, though the realization was slow to trickle through his brain, like a strand of treacle dropping from a spoon.
The ocean. They hadn't crashed into solid ground, but into the giant body of water that covered most of the planet's surface. It was probably the reason why they had even survived the initial crash, the force of the impact sending them under water for a second instead of bursting them into a thousand bloody pieces upon impact. But now the shuttle was adrift within the giant waves and the winds of the storm which Jim had wanted him to watch from above just…what was it? Mere minutes ago?
Jim's voice sounded urgent, as if he had called out before and not received an answer, and Leonard thought that considering his stunned state, that might have even been possible.
"'m all right," he forced out, screaming to make himself heard over the roar of the winds and the water crashing around them. The air aboard was keeping the shuttle afloat atop the ocean, but it also delivered them to the mercy of the storm.
"Stay strapped in!" Jim sounded relieved, and Leonard thought it was hilarious, because the last thought on his mind was to open up his harness. "The comm's down, but Enterprise knows we've gone down. They're going to get us out of here soon. We'll just stay put until they do."
Leonard had no intention of moving, anywhere, but given their current predicament it felt a little useless to point that out right now. His heart was still hammering away in his chest, but over the sound of blood pounding in his ears he could now clearly hear the waves crashing against the outer hull of the shuttle, and the winds howling around them. He couldn't see anything out of the portholes except for a blurred mist of dark blue and grey, but judged by the way the shuttle shook and rolled under every crashing wave, they had to be enormous.
One more reason not to unbuckle his harness, even though staying put meant that he couldn't see Jim. He couldn't hear him either, not over the sound of the storm raging around them. He did hear him yell into the comm in an attempt to hail Enterprise, but couldn't make out the words or tell whether or not Jim actually received an answer.
Leonard's hands were still clenched so tightly into the armrests as if he was trying to become one with the material, and he forced himself to release his death-grip, though he couldn't bring himself to let go entirely. The storm was jerking them around pretty badly, and if the storm system had only been building up as they had flown over it, things might get a lot worse before Enterprise came to get them out of here.
He could do this.
He'd just grit his teeth and sit this one out, even though he felt like his stomach was about to pull itself inside out. He had never had any issues with being at sea before. Not that there had been that many occasions when he had set foot on a boat, but the few times he had, there had been no issues at all with sea-sickness. Right now though, he felt the nausea rising inside of him right along with the waves that lifted up the shuttle, took it up high right before they violently plunged them back into the sea.
He could see the water lapping up at them whenever they were tossed around, he could see the porthole turn dark and murky whenever the waves forced the shuttle under the surface. With the dampeners offline, Leonard could feel every small shift and movement as the waves tossed them around, and he swallowed compulsively as his stomach started to roll.
Spock and Scotty should better hurry the hell up to get them out of here.
His neck and shoulders were aching from the impact and from the constant swaying, and the temptation was big to just press himself into the seat and close his eyes until this whole mess was over.
The next wave rolled around, bigger than the previous ones, and as the shuttle was lifted up atop the water, Leonard thought he saw movement from the corner of his eye. Whipping his head around sent a sharp stab of pain through his neck and shoulders, but Leonard barely noticed it above the sudden renewed pounding of his heart.
There was only the cargo container to his left, and that shouldn't be moving.
Leonard's eyes were immediately drawn to the light of the locking mechanism that secured the cargo container to the floor. The status display had been flashing green for the entire flight, but now it was blinking red in a frantic rhythm. The impact of the crash must have torn something loose from its fastenings, which meant that now the cargo container wasn't secure anymore. Leonard's stomach dropped, and this time it had nothing to do with motion sickness.
As the wave crested and the shuttle tipped to the right, Leonard saw how the cargo container tipped right along with the movement. It happened almost in slow-motion, and for a stunned second Leonard watched the heavy container tilt to the side – straight towards him. The container had to weigh a couple of hundred pounds, enough to smash right through the seat Leonard was still strapped into.
Leonard stared for maybe a second or two at the container tilting towards him, then his fingers frantically started to work on the buckle of his harness that was holding him strapped into the seat. But his fingers felt strangely numb, and the auto-release mechanism of the buckle that was supposed to be easily undone in case of an emergency felt immobile and stuck under his grip.
The wave crested, tilting the shuttle nearly completely to the side on its apex, and Leonard stared at the cargo container with bated breath while his fingers still struggled with the harness. It was toppling dangerously, held only by one of the four hinges that had initially secured it to the shuttle floor.
Things still seemed to be happening in slow-motion, as if some cruel force in the universe had decided to slow down time to make sure that Leonard wouldn't miss a single detail of what was about to happen. And then, once whatever universal force was set out to torture Leonard was sure they had his attention, time sped up again and things were happening all at once.
The buckle of the harness finally gave way under Leonard's fingers, and he started to shrug out of it as quickly as he could without getting himself all tangled up in the straps. An ominous creak of something breaking under the strain of hundreds of pounds of cultural artifacts straining against one single hinge sounded form his left, and Leonard struggled out of his seat the moment the cargo container finally tore free and came tumbling towards him.
It was all happening too fast to process it entirely. Leonard tried to jump out of the way of the container, but the shuttle was falling down along with the cresting wave and up and down, left and right were no longer reliable directions. He must have called out, or yelled or shouted, because amongst the mass of flashing snapshots that were all his brain was able to process during these seconds, the image of Jim turning around in the pilot's seat burned itself into Leonard's brain. Jim's eyes were wide in shock, his face was pale, and his fingers were reaching for the clasp of his own safety harness.
That was all Leonard saw, then the mass of the cargo container hurtling towards him blocked everything else from sight. There was a giant roar and crash, the shuttle jerked from side to side violently, and Leonard knew he was falling.
Something hit against the back of his head so hard that his vision exploded into a myriad of stars.
Then pain, so bad that Leonard was sure he was screaming even if he didn't hear his own voice.
Pain was the first thing that penetrated through the haze in Leonard's head. From the waist down, everything hurt, and his left leg was engulfed in a pain so fiery that he wished he could just slide back into the dark oblivion where he didn't feel anything. Why wasn't anyone giving him something against the pain?
But even as he asked himself that question, the memories of what had happened flooded in, leaving Leonard no hope for the reprieve of a quick hypospray and M'Benga's skills to put whatever was wrong back together. The shuttle, the damaged engine, the free-fall and their drop into the ocean. The cargo container that had torn loose from its fastenings.
With a groan, Leonard rolled his head to the side and struggled to open his eyes.
"That's it, Bones, open your eyes for me."
It was Jim's voice. There was no effort in recognizing that, and though the pain was still nearly overwhelming, it was a relief to know that Jim was there, and that he sounded relatively unharmed. Leonard tried to blink the world into focus, surprised that the interior of the shuttle was a lot darker than it should be. But there was still enough light to see Jim's blue eyes just a few inches away from his own, and the small lines at the corners of his eyes that only ever appeared when he was worried.
Once Leonard blinked the world back into focus, some of the tension drained out of Jim's face and he sat back on his heels with a sigh. Something shifted along Leonard's face, leaving a lingering trace of warmth in its wake, and it took him a moment to realize that it had been Jim's hand pressed against his cheek. He tried to chase the comforting warmth, but found he couldn't move properly.
"Are you with me, Bones?"
The pain was flaring up anew, but Leonard grit his teeth and forced himself to focus on Jim. Jim would know how to get them out of here.
"Yeah," he forced out. "What the hell happened?"
"You scared the crap out of me," Jim answered, his voice so low that Leonard wasn't entirely sure he was meant to hear it.
"The cargo got dislodged," he continued in a firmer voice, blue eyes never leaving Leonard's. "Probably when we crashed into the water. That last wave that hit us was a big one, it sent the cargo tumbling. Good thing you didn't take it as an order when I told you to stay buckled in."
Jim glanced to the side, and as Leonard followed his eyes he saw the remains of his seat crushed against the shuttle wall. If he had still been strapped in once the cargo container crashed into the seat…Leonard didn't want to think about it.
Even so, he knew that not all was right without Jim having to tell him about it. The pain in his legs was bad, especially in the left one, and he couldn't move. He didn't even need to look to know what was wrong, but he couldn't help it. His eyes wandered down his body, and Leonard groaned at the thought of just how screwed he was.
The container might not have crushed him in his seat, but he hadn't been fast enough to get away entirely. He was sitting on the shuttle floor, squashed against the starboard wall by the weight of the container pinning down his legs. Seeing the heavy container lying atop of him more than explained the sharp pain in his legs, and he guessed he had gotten lucky that the thing hadn't crushed him entirely right away. Even so, the container had him pinned pretty thoroughly between the floor and the wall. He could still breathe properly, and there was room to move his arms, but else he was pinned down pretty good. But still, judged by the pain in his legs the container had done a lot of damage, and Leonard just wanted to get the hell out of here.
Jim shifting beside him drew his attention away from the pain for a second, and he turned his head towards Jim who was kneeling to his left. Jim's face was a carefully neutral mask, but he should know by now that it wasn't enough to fool Leonard. He could see the worry Jim was trying to hide, could see it in the thin line of his lips, and the way his eyes were narrowed as if his mind was busy trying to figure out the solution to an impossible problem.
"The comm is still down. I can't reach Enterprise, but they know that we went down, and by now they're probably already figuring out a way to get us out of here. So we just have to sit tight and let them do the work, okay?"
Jim's hand jerked, as if he was trying to touch but stopping himself at the last minute. Leonard didn't quite know what to make of it. Jim was a tactile person in general, and there hadn't ever been any boundaries between them as far as casual or comforting touches were concerned. But that was something to think about later, once they were out of here and Leonard had been given the painkillers he so desperately craved right now.
"'m not going anywhere," he replied, and it brought a small, albeit pained and false, smile to Jim's face. Leonard swallowed and let his head drop against the wall behind him. "How long was I out?"
"Couple of minutes, not that long. I…you're pinned pretty good there. I tried to find a way to get the container off you, but it's too heavy. There's some larger parts of your seat stuck under it, too, so it's probably not the entire weight of the container lying on your legs."
It made sense. The destroyed seat was to Leonard's right, and if parts of it were stuck underneath the container, it explained why the pain was so much worse in his left leg. But still, both his legs were pinned, and he couldn't move anything from the waist down. Medically speaking, it was a good thing that he felt the pain, because it meant that there was no immediate damage to his spine, but still it was a debilitating kind of pain that numbed his mind and made it hard to think.
"The left leg's the worst."
Jim worried his lower lip between his teeth, eyes darting towards the container again.
"I was trying to figure out a way to get it off, but it's too heavy. And it's lying facedown, so I can't open it up and clear it out to make it lighter, either. Without some kind of lever, I won't be able to move it, but maybe if I manage to strip off the guide rails the container it was resting on, I could get a metal bar to use as a lever…"
Leonard shook his head. "No."
A frown spread on Jim's face. "Why ever not?"
"We'll have to wait for Enterprise. I'm fairly sure my left leg is broken, but without a tricorder I can't tell how bad the damage really is. If any blood vessels are damaged, the pressure will at least slow the bleeding. If we lift it…I don't know how bad the damage is, Jim. I could bleed out before they get here."
"Oh. Right." Jim turned again, rubbing a hand across his neck as he tossed aside the plan he had formed while Leonard had been unconscious and tried to come up with another. Jim didn't do well without anything to do, but Leonard was convinced that right now the best they could do was sit and wait for the help that was on its way. They'd just have to make the best of it while they waited, and that meant Leonard had to distract Jim somehow.
"We're not moving anymore."
He had been too busy with other things to notice before, but now Leonard asked himself how he could have missed it. He could still hear the wind, though it sounded different than before, and if he strained his neck to look past the container he could see a gray darkness out the port window, and the occasional blur of water splashing against the shuttle. But they weren't tossed about the waves anymore, and Leonard didn't quite know what to make of that.
"No, we're not." Jim's eyes darted towards the window above Leonard's head, then back towards his face. "That last wave stranded us. It's hard to tell with the sensors down, but from what I can see out of the porthole, we're stuck on some rocks below the surface. On the starboard side, somewhere near the bottom of the shuttle. We're stuck at an angle, maybe thirty or forty degrees."
Jim held out his hand to illustrate their position, and Leonard understood why it was such an effort and strain on his neck to even lift his head away from the shuttle wall. He wasn't sitting upright, if the shuttle was stuck at an angle then he was actually leaning back against the starboard wall. He was even more grateful for the remains of his seat that got stuck under the container, because without anything else holding it back it would have slid fully against his upper body, trapping him against the wall and probably breaking all of his ribs in the process.
It didn't feel like it, but apparently he had gotten lucky.
"Are we under water?"
"The porthole above your head is, yeah. But the one portside isn't, though the waves are breaking over us. I'd say we're about halfway submerged, but we're holding steady. Seems like our position is stable for now."
"How bad is the damage?"
"To the shuttle?" Jim's strong eyebrows rose high on his forehead, as if he hadn't really spent any thoughts on it before. After a second, he shrugged, as if he was dismissing the damage to the shuttle as completely irrelevant.
"I guess Scotty has his work cut out for him once we get her back aboard. Most systems went down during the initial crash, and the rest conked out when we hit the rocks." He indicated the dim lighting around them. "My best guess right now is that some systems shortened out when the rocks tore into the hull and water got in."
Leonard felt his eyes widen.
"We're taking on water?" Because in this absolute shitfest his day had become, the threat of drowning really was the icing on the cake. Jim quickly shook his head, though the movement lacked full conviction.
"I don't know, Bones. We're stuck on some rocks, so I'd say it's safe to say the outer hull got damaged. The shuttle's designed to withstand under water with the hull intact, but since the systems went down I'd say it's a safe bet we took on some water and the system shortened out. The shuttles weren't exactly designed to sustain damaged when under water, but for now we don't seem to be taking on water. I wouldn't worry, okay? Emergency lighting and air filters are on a different circuit, and they're working fine for now, so we're neither drowning nor in acute danger of getting electrocuted."
Jim's hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed, and it was all Leonard could do not to lean too obviously into the warmth, and the contact. Jim's words might have been meant to reassure him, but they hadn't quite done the job. Jim must have seen something on his face, because he squeezed Leonard's shoulder again.
"We'll be okay, Bones. Enterprise is going to get us out of here, and in no time you'll be back in Medical, annoying your nurses and demanding to see your own damn patient chart."
Leonard recognized the horribly bad imitation of his own frustrated grumble, and it made him smile. Right about now, being laid up in his own Medical Bay sounded heavenly. They had painkillers there, and the beds were nowhere near as uncomfortable as Jim was always claiming they were. At least a whole damn lot more comfortable than being trapped underneath a cargo container.
"Are you in pain?"
Leonard looked up into Jim's wide eyes, startled by the question. It was a ridiculous role-reversal, because normally Leonard was the one who asked Jim that exact same question, only to receive a lie in response. The thought about lying didn't once cross his mind, though. It wasn't as if it was going to make anything about this damn mess any better.
"Yeah. The left leg is the worst. But I'll manage until they get us out of here."
Jim nodded and tried for a reassuring smile that fell miles short of being convincing. He squeezed Leonard's shoulder tightly before he let go, and it felt like a little bit of warmth drained out of Leonard's body at the loss of the touch.
"Think you'll be all right on your own for a few minutes? I want to try re-routing the comm through the emergency circuits, see if I can get into touch with Enterprise and see how much longer they'll take to get here."
Leonard nodded. "Do it. I'll be fine."
It was an exaggeration and they both knew it, but Jim nodded and got up from his kneeling position at Leonard's side. It took a bit of maneuvering to get past the fallen cargo container, and once he entered the cockpit he was out of sight. Leonard closed his eyes with a small sigh, unwilling to admit how reassuring it had been to see Jim, to have him right beside him in this mess.
He was a big boy, damn it. He could take being alone for a little while without Jim there to hold his hand.
"I'm sure Uhura is keeping all frequencies open right now," Jim's voice called after a moment, and despite the pain Leonard had to smile. Hearing Jim's voice wasn't a real substitute for having him where he could see him, but it was a small relief. And as if he knew how much Leonard longed to hear the constant reassurance that he wasn't alone in this, Jim continued talking.
"The emergency beacon is still transmitting, so they should be able to use that to find us even if the storm is messing with their sensors. But if I can manage to get the comm routed through the emergency energy supply, I might be able to hail them. It definitely wouldn't hurt to tell them to hurry the hell up."
Leonard had no doubt that everyone aboard Enterprise was doing their damned best to find them right now, but he had to agree that it would be good to actually hear Uhura's voice confirm it. Hell, right now, he'd even be glad to hear Spock tell them that they were already on their way, and that it'd be illogical to assume that they were doing anything but putting their best efforts into the task at hand.
While Jim was busy in the cockpit, keeping up a constant stream of technical muttering as he tried to repair the comm system, Leonard struggled to relax back as much as he could and took stock of his injuries.
Being trapped under the cargo container and rendered effectively immobile aside, he thought that from the waist up, he had actually come out comparatively uninjured. His neck was hurting, but it felt like muscle strain rather than a serious injury. Probably, the pain was going to get worse because Leonard was pretty damn sure he hadn't sustained the crash without some serious whiplash. But as soon as he was back aboard M'Benga could give him a muscle relaxant for that.
Inconvenient, but not that bad. Of course, it didn't help matters that with the way the shuttle had ended up angled against the rocks, Leonard was effectively lying back against the shuttle wall, and every attempt to raise his head meant he was performing half a sit-up that only further strained his muscles. For once, he'd probably just have to lie back and leave it all to Jim, and literally at that.
But other than the strain in his neck, Leonard was fairly sure that he hadn't sustained any serious injuries in his upper body or torso. Probably a whole lot of bumps and bruises, especially where the straps of the harness had cut into his flesh during the impact, but nothing felt torn or broken. Once the residual adrenaline faded, he'd probably be too sore to move, but for now he could move his upper body freely and without pain, at least as much as his pinned position underneath the cargo container allowed.
Below his waist however…that was another story entirely.
Most of the container's weight was resting on his left leg, but still even his right leg was pinned so tightly that he couldn't move it. He still had feeling left in his legs, though. The excruciating pain from his left leg was proof enough that his spine probably wasn't injured. Which was good, because as far as Leonard could tell the injury to his left leg was bad enough. It was definitely broken. Worst case, it was broken in more than one place, or even shattered, and would require bone-reconstructive surgery. And that was just the damage he could assess without a medical tricorder. Once the crate was moved off his leg, things could get worse pretty quickly. But he pushed that thought aside for now. Enterprise was going to send someone from the Medical team with the rescue mission; it was standard procedure. For now, he wasn't faring too badly even if the pressure of the crate was keeping worse injuries at bay. Anything else would have to wait until help arrived with the right equipment to treat him.
All in all, it could have been a lot worse, considering that they had dropped thousands of feet in free fall. If Jim hadn't gotten the engines back online for even that short a time, the impact would have killed them right away. So really, he had no reason to complain. Jim would fix the comm, and Enterprise was going to get them out of here soon. It was only a matter of minutes, surely. And until then, Leonard was going to grit his teeth and try to breathe through the pulses of pain that shot through his legs.
He wasn't comfortable, but he'd definitely manage to hold out until help arrived, despite the pain, the lingering feeling of claustrophobia from being trapped, even the uncomfortable wetness that was soaking his pants…
For a second, Leonard felt a flush of embarrassment heat up his face, even though the doctor in him knew that nobody could be expected to retain control of their bladder when free-falling tens of thousands of feet, only to be trapped underneath hundreds of pounds of cultural artifacts. The feeling lasted only for about a second, then he felt icy fear replace the unwarranted feeling of shame. His breath caught in his throat as he reached down and his fingers plunged into cold wetness.
His voice sounded hoarse to his own ears, but there must have been urgency in his tone because the sound of Jim working in the cockpit stopped and hurried steps came running around the cargo container.
"Bones!" Jim's eyes were wide with worry as he struggled around the fallen container and fell to his knees beside Leonard. "What's wrong?"
Jim's eyes were roaming over Leonard's body as if in search of any new visible signs of injury. He didn't seem to notice the water right away, focused as he was to look Leonard over for injuries, so Leonard grabbed for Jim's wrist and all but plunged his hand right into it.
If possible, Jim's eyes grew even wider and he scrambled a foot or two away from Leonard to survey the damage. Then he scrambled close again, and his hands were roaming through the water along the bottom of the wall as if searching for the source of the leak. Leonard had to strain his neck to see properly, but even from his badly angled vantage point it looked like at least two inches of water that had accumulated already. Leonard had no idea where it was coming from, or if it was about to stop anytime soon. Judged by the way Jim was running his hands along the length of the bottom wall panel, neither did he, though the expression on his face showed his increasing worry.
Leonard wanted to say something, wanted to ask Jim what the hell was going on just so that he could hear his friend reassure him that they were going to get out of this, but his throat felt too constricted to speak. For a long moment, he just sat there and watched Jim's hands move long the wall as more and more water soaked into the fabric of his pants. It felt like a small eternity until Jim sank back on his heels with a sigh and ran a hand through his hair. Leonard traced the darkened wet strands with his eyes, trying to focus on anything but the bad news he was sure Jim was going to deliver any second now.
Blue eyes met his for a second, then Jim was scrambling back to his feet and vanished out of Leonard's line of sight as he looked out of the porthole above Leonard's head.
"We're taking on water," Jim replied, his voice tense. "No surprise, since we're stranded on some jagged rocks, but it's worse than I thought."
Apparently, looking out the window provided no real visual clues, because Jim quickly knelt down again and started to feel along the wall at Leonard's back.
"I guess the rocks must have torn right through the outer and inner hull, and the water accumulated over the past minutes. The panels behind you are icy cold, and I'd say the water has built up until a few inches below the porthole already. The cabin paneling isn't meant to be air- or watertight. Hell, most of the panels can be removed to access the systems behind them. The pressure got too much as more water leaked in through the damaged hull, and now the water is finding its way through the gaps in the panels."
Once more, Jim ran a wet hand through his hair, eyes darting from one point to the next in quick succession, as if the answer to all their problems was right there in front of him if only he looked properly.
This wouldn't do. Jim was tense, and Jim was only this tense if the shit was about to hit the fan and not even his genius brain was able to come up with a way out, and that simply wouldn't do. Leonard was in deep enough shit already, he really didn't need any more added to the list.
"But it's not much water." Yet, his treacherous mind supplied, but Leonard pushed that thought aside. "Just a few inches. Even if it keeps rising, help is going to be here long before that."
Jim shook his head, his face tense.
"It's not that simple. The water changes our balance, and if we shift on the rocks its possible that the hull gets torn open even farther. More water flows in, increasing the pressure, and some of the panels might burst open under that. And then the water will rise much more quickly, Bones."
Leonard shook his head. He needed to hear some reassurance now, and he wasn't going to let go until he got it, even if Jim had to throw all his principles overboard and lie to him.
"Help is going to be here before that happens. Besides, you said it yourself that we're not fully submerged. So as long as we're suck on those rocks, we're not going to sink, and we're not going to run out of air. The water inside here is not going to rise above the waterline outside."
Jim's eyes flickered towards the porthole above Leonard's head, and a determined expression settled on his face.
"No, it's not going to rise any higher than that." His voice was almost eerily calm. He put his hand on Leonard's shoulder again and squeezed. "But your head is well below the waterline, and I'm not taking any chances."
It felt like a blow to the gut, a realization that had been there in the back of his mind that had only been pushed to the foreground by Jim's words. The way they were positioned, of course his head was well below the waterline.
Leonard was pinned quite firmly beneath that cargo container. He wasn't going anywhere, and if the water kept rising, sooner rather than later it would close down over his head. He was wedged into the lowest point of the shuttle, and the sudden realization hit him that he didn't have much time left until things got critical. Already, the water seemed about four inches high, and Leonard's thighs began to feel numb from the cold ocean water.
He was helpless, more dependent than ever on Jim to get him out of this, and he hated the feeling. But with a sudden urgency, Jim squeezed his shoulder once more and got up to look around the cabin once more.
"If I can disassemble the guard rails the container was resting on, I should be able to use the rail bar as a lever. I only need to lift the container a little, then you can slide out from underneath."
It was a bad idea for many reasons, not the least of which was that removing the pressure the weight of the container was putting onto his legs might make Leonard's injuries worse, and rapidly at that. But that wasn't even the main problem with Jim's words. If Leonard had needed any indicator as to how screwed they were, then it was the fact that Jim developed a plan that pretty much denied the basic laws of physics.
"Jim, even if you can strip the guard rail, the thing is about six feet long. You have how much room on either side of the container? Three feet, maybe four? Tell me how that's supposed to work."
Judged by the expression on Jim's face, he knew that this wasn't going to work just as well as Leonard did, and even Jim had to realize that sometimes it wasn't enough to simply want for something to work in order to actually make it work. The laws of physics applied even to Jim Kirk.
But Jim wouldn't be Jim if he wasn't able to dismiss one plan in the face of its impossibility and develop a new one. His hair was developing a dark, shining tinge from all the times that he was running his wet hands through it, and his eyes darted through the interior of the shuttle as he took note of every single part of equipment and its possible use.
"You're right. But I won't need the same amount of leverage under water. The water will help distribute the container's weight, and then a much shorter lever will do the job."
"Yes. The only problem about this plan is that by the time the container is sufficiently submerged for it to work, my head will be well below the water. I hate to rain on your parade, but if I drown then there really is no hurry to get the damn thing off of me anymore. I can hold my breath for a little while, but I'm not that good."
There was a spark of excitement in Jim's eyes that seemed totally inappropriate in the situation, and at Leonard's words a grin started to spread on his face.
"Then we'll just have to make sure that you can still breathe."
It didn't really make sense, but Jim had the sudden determination of a man with a plan, and before Leonard could even ask how the hell Jim wanted to manage that, his friend was already tearing off panels from the back wall of the shuttle.
"Jim? What are you doing?"
"I'm looking for the oxygen line."
"Oh, of course you are, pardon my asking. Do you mind telling my why the hell you are tearing off wall panels in search for the oxygen line if you said just a moment ago that the water is going to flow in much faster once it gets past the panels?"
Leonard didn't want to sound this testy, but he was pinned and effectively helpless, and he hated not knowing what was going on. But if Jim noticed anything off about his tone, then he didn't let it on. He didn't even turn his eyes away from whatever he was doing and instead kept on rooting around in the shuttle's insides.
"This part's still well above the waterline. Besides, it's not like we have any other choice right now, Bones. Help should be here soon, but I'd like to have a backup plan in case they're held up."
"And what the hell does that backup plan look like?"
Jim was still so focused on whatever he was doing that he didn't turn around towards where Leonard was pinned to the ground. With his fingers, he followed one of the lines he had uncovered behind the paneling, then took off another panel to follow the line even further. Even as he answered, he still didn't look up from what he was doing.
"The oxygen line that supplies the shuttle interior is running along the back wall. I just have to find the spot where it emerges, then I can disconnect it."
Leonard felt both his eyebrows raise high on his forehead. Normally, he thought he was quicker on the uptake, but right now he had no idea where Jim could possibly be going with this.
"And shutting off the air supply is going to help us how?"
Jim turned towards him for a second, blue eyes flashing almost mischievously at Leonard even as his hands were still working along the tubes and lines that supplied the shuttle with everything it needed during spaceflight. Jim grinned at him, then turned back to what he was doing.
"I'm not shutting off the air supply, I'm just disconnecting the supply system from its source. Then I only need to find a flexible tube to splice into the supply line, one that is long enough to reach over to where you are."
Understanding dawned, and when Jim turned around once more, the smile on his face seemed a little more genuine as he saw that Leonard had understood his intentions.
"It's not the fancy diving equipment we had on Risa, but it should work like a primitive mouthpiece."
Leonard really wanted to say something in response, but couldn't come up with any appropriate words to express his gratitude for Jim's complete and utter inability to ever give up on anything. Jim didn't seem to mind and had already turned back to his task at hand.
Even though he'd never admit it out loud, watching Jim when he was working hard on a task was something Leonard had always silently, almost guiltily, enjoyed. Even pinned down and in pain, Leonard was nearly unable to take his eyes off the other man as he discovered the juncture where the oxygen supply line fed into the distribution system. There was just something about Jim when he got like that, eyes focused and determined and every movement sure and efficient. Leonard thought he could almost see Jim's brain at work during those moments, weighing up his different options and coming up with the quickest, most efficient solution to the current problem. It was something Leonard could watch endlessly, at least when he wasn't in acute danger of drowning.
Once Jim had discovered the juncture he had been looking for, he turned around and looked around the shuttle once more.
Sometimes, Leonard wondered what it would be like to see these things through Jim's eyes. When Leonard treated an injury, he often looked at the injured body part and visualized the complicated net of bones, blood vessels, nerves and tissue underneath. He wondered if it was similar for Jim when he looked at a ship, if he saw blueprints and engine schematics and an equally complicated net of plasma lines and conduits where Leonard only saw blank panels.
It took only a few moments of looking, then Jim hurried over to the port side of the ship, where he peeled off the bottom line of the wall panels to reveal a set of grey and white tubes.
"Part of the heating system," he said even as he struggled into a crouch on the slanted floor and began to pull on one of the grey tubes. "They probably smell a little musty, but nothing toxic ever ran through those tubes, so you don't need to worry."
The thought hadn't even crossed Leonard's mind, to be honest, and that alone was a pretty good indicator as to how much the situation was tearing him out of his normal comfort zone. The water was still rising slowly but steadily, something Leonard was acutely aware of no matter how much he tried to ignore it. The water had closed over his lap by now, soaking through his clothes and spreading an icy cold numbness through him. Only now that he looked down at the rising water for the first time did Leonard realize just how much at an angle the shuttle had come to rest against the rocks. The water had risen to about navel-height, but against his back Leonard could feel it lap against the bottom of his shoulder blades already. His shirt was soaked with icy water, his skin was tingling from the cold, and Leonard felt his heart speed up as he realized that Jim didn't have all that much time left to get done with his backup plan.
Where the hell was Enterprise?
Jim had pulled about two feet of the tube out of the wall paneling by now, and was still yanking at the grey plastic. Leonard watched and forced himself to breathe deeply and evenly. Jim had a plan, and he was going to get them out of here. Jim wasn't someone who gave up, and all Leonard needed was a little faith.
"You know, I think I'm going to skip on the celebratory dinner on Palas Prime tonight. I've had my share of transportation excitement for today. Think you can make an excuse for me?"
Jim laughed, but didn't turn around as he gave one more sharp yank on the tube. He didn't say anything, but Leonard could see that things weren't quite working out the way Jim had imagined. The tube seemed stuck, and even if Jim tried to play it down, Leonard knew that this was putting a serious dent in his plan. Still, he turned to look over his shoulder and grinned at Leonard.
"I'm sure the Palan council will understand. And even if they don't, I'll personally write you a sick-note."
Jim let go of the tube and got up. "Right. I'll need a cutter to get the tube free. It'll only take a minute, then all I need is some sealant to fix the tube to the outlet and…"
It happened without warning. The porthole behind Jim's shoulder suddenly turned dark, and a moment later the sound of a giant wave cresting over them roared through the shuttle. He saw Jim's eyes widen in shock, hand going out to steady himself, then the force of the wave jerked the whole shuttle around. Leonard saw Jim stumble, struggling in vain to keep his balance before he fell, then Leonard's head was thrown back against the shuttle wall and bright stars exploded in front of his vision.
He didn't black out, but for some endless seconds he was unable to do anything but screw his eyes shut and fight the rising panic as the water lapped over his face, closing off his nose and mouth. The pressure against his legs shifted and increased, and the pain that shot up his legs turned into white-hot flames. Leonard screamed, choking and spluttering at the same time even as the shuttle slowly tilted back into a more upright position.
He could breathe again. For a few seconds, that was the only thought on his mind as he continued to cough out the water he had swallowed. He could breathe again. That was his first thought.
The second was that the shuttle was still moving.
Before, there had been Jim to focus on, Jim and his plan to make sure Leonard was going to hold out until Enterprise came to get them. He had been aware of the storm raging outside then, but they had been stuck on the rocks, and the shuttle hadn't been moving. Waves had crashed against the hull, but Leonard had been so sure that they were caught on those rocks in treacherous safety that he hadn't even paid any mind to anything going on outside the shuttle.
But that last wave must have dislodged them, and now they were moving, sinking lower and lower even as the waves still tossed them about, and Leonard hadn't seen Jim since he had stumbled and fallen…
A rough jerk stopped Leonard's frantic thoughts, broke it off with a new white-hot wave of pain through his legs and up his spine. But the pain didn't matter right now. He had lost sight of Jim, that was the only thing that counted. If Jim had gone under, if he was unconscious, there was no way Leonard was going to be able to help him.
There was splashing and coughing to his left, and Leonard didn't think he had ever felt this relieved before to hear the sound of Jim in discomfort. As long as it meant that Jim was all right and relatively unharmed, the sound was music to his ears.
More coughing, and the sound of boots dragging heavily through water, and Leonard turned his head to see Jim stumble towards him. He was thoroughly drenched now, his hair plastered to his head, and a small cut above his eyebrow was oozing a line of blood down his cheek. It was just a minor injury, but even so Leonard reached out automatically, pulling Jim down by his shoulders and tilting his head to the side to inspect the cut.
"You let Geoffrey take a look at that once we're back."
Jim laughed harshly and gently pulled his head out of Leonard's hold. Leonard felt warm hands wrap around his own, and a shiver ran through him as he realized how cooled out he was already.
"I'm okay, Bones. M'Benga is going to be busy fixing you up once we get back aboard."
Leonard forced a smile, but there was a bad feeling spreading in the pit of his stomach that he was unable to ignore. Something was different now.
Jim shrugged, then let go of Leonard's hands in order to look out the porthole above his head.
"The wave lifted us off the rocks, I think. We sank down farther, but it feels like we're stuck again." There was something in his eyes and he quickly knelt down beside Leonard, seemingly uncaring about the icy water as he plunged his hands right into it and felt against the wall.
"Damn it," he hissed as he straightened up again. "Damn it, damn it, damn it."
There was something in Jim's hand, and as he tossed it away Leonard realized that it was a piece of the wall paneling that had torn loose. Heart beating fast in his throat, Leonard mimicked Jim's movement and reached along the wall. He didn't have to search for long. Just a few inches to his left, two pieces of the wall paneling were torn off, and water was streaming in. Not in the earlier steady but slow trickle, no. There was a whole lot of pressure and force behind it, and the water was all but shooting into the cabin interior.
Leonard pulled his hand back and looked up at Jim. Their eyes locked for a second, and the expression on Jim's face told Leonard all he needed to know about how screwed they were.
As if Leonard's voice tore him out of some sort of stupor, Jim jumped back to his feet and waded back towards the tube he had been trying to work free. Already, the water had risen high enough so that Jim had to wade through it, and Leonard knew with sudden clarity that whatever Jim had planned, they had no time left. Already the water had risen to Leonard's chest, and the cold wrapped like a vise around his chest, making it hard to breathe.
Jim didn't react but kept on yanking at the tube, all thoughts about finesse forgotten, and Leonard couldn't stand to see the desperation emanating from Jim's every action. Leonard had always known when it was time to admit defeat, and right now it was high time.
This time Jim did turn his head, though he didn't let go off the tube. The cut above his eyebrow was still bleeding, and random sprays of water had rendered half of his face splotched in red.
"I only need to get the tube free…"
Leonard shook his head. "And then you need to find some sealant in this mess, and fix the tube to the outlet without the sealant getting wet, which we both know is impossible. And the water is rising too fast, Jim. There's no time."
Eyes wide and thoroughly drenched, Jim still managed to look defiant, even though he let go of the tube and waded back towards the spot where Leonard was pinned against the wall. Leonard felt the water slowly creep up his chest towards his throat, and he couldn't help the fear that rose inside of him at the thought that this was going to be it then. This was going to be how he was going to go, no matter if Jim accepted it or not. But there was nothing they could do.
"Bones, I'm getting you out of here, and if it's the last thing I do…"
"That's exactly the point, Jim! I'm pinned here, but you're not. You can get out of here."
Jim shook his head defiantly. "I'm not leaving you here, so you can as well forget about that right away. But there has to be a way to get you some air as the water keeps rising. We just have to find something for you to breathe through."
"And what, Jim? The standard equipment snorkel?" There was nothing Leonard wanted less than to yell at Jim right now, when they were running out of time so quickly, but he needed to get through to him right now, before it was too late. "Newsflash, Jim. We're nearly completely submerged, and the water isn't going to stop rising. Soon there's not going to be any air left, no matter what ingenious breathing device you're going to come up with in the next minute or two."
Anger flashed across Jim's face, and Leonard was actually glad to see the desperate hope there replaced by something else. It wasn't exactly the kind of parting Leonard had ever envisioned, but then again Jim's usual confidence had always made it easy to believe that they were going to get through everything. Until this, that is. Leonard had always known that one day Jim was going to encounter the no-win scenario he couldn't beat. It sucked to be stuck on the losing end of that one, but at least there was the chance that Jim was going to get out of it unharmed.
Jim, however, didn't seem ready to accept that, which was ironic considering that the water was already lapping at Leonard's collarbones.
"I'm going to force open the hatch to the airlock. The EV-suits are in there, they have their own air supply."
"And the helmets only seal off with the suit, Jim. You're not getting me into one without getting the damn container off me. Hell, you probably don't have enough time to get into one of the suits yourself, and if the airlock is flooded you won't even get the hatch to open."
"Then what do you want me to do?" Jim spread his arms wide, and a vein began to throb on his forehead. "Do you want me to just give up and curl up somewhere to die? Is that what you want me to do, Bones?"
It was good that Jim was getting angry. Angry was better than desperate, and Leonard couldn't help but hope that he'd get through to Jim more easily that way, when he wasn't fueled by fool-hearted plans born out of sheer and utter desperation.
"What I want you to do, Jim, is to grab something that floats and hold on to it. Hell, tie yourself to it if that's what it takes. And then you're going to open the outer hatch."
Jim started shaking his head before Leonard even finished speaking, but Leonard wasn't having any of that, so he didn't let his friend get a word in.
"I don't know much about shuttles, but even I know that the locking mechanism runs on the emergency circuit if the main energy fails. So don't try to tell me that you can't open the outer hatch. You're going to open the damn hatch, and you're going to get the hell out of here. That damn storm is probably still raging, but as long as you have something to keep you above water, you can brace it. Besides, it's probably going to be a hell of a lot easier for Enterprise to pick you up if you're out there, and not trapped in here."
Jim was still shaking his head. "I'm not leaving you behind, Bones. Forget about it. I'm not leaving you."
"To what end, Jim?" The water began brushing against his chin, and Leonard craned his neck to keep his face above the surface for a little while longer. The movement brought Jim to his side in an instant, and warm fingers cradled the back of his head and his jaw to help him keep his head above the water. How could Jim's fingers still be warm? And why did he have to touch him now, why did he have to hold him so gently and securely and make everything so much harder for Leonard?
"To what end?" He repeated. "So that we'll both drown in here? It's time to face the facts, Jim. I'm not getting out of this, no matter what you do. You tried everything you could have, and it just didn't work."
"No, Bones. There's…"
"What, Jim? There's no no-win scenario? Trust me, there is. This is it. And it's okay, Jim. As long as I know that you're getting out of this, it's okay."
"I'm not leaving you behind. End of discussion."
"You have to, Jim. You're needed on Enterprise."
"What, and you aren't? Stop this bullshit, Bones."
Leonard shook his head, no small feat considering Jim's hold on his head and the water that was still rising quickly and steadily. Already it was nearly covering his ears, and he'd have to knock some sense into Jim soon before he could no longer hear him. But damn it, why did the kid have to have this stubborn streak that only made things so much harder on them both?
"You're the Captain, Jim. The crew needs their Captain. And you're responsible for all of them, not just for me. You can't get yourself killed if there's a fighting chance that you're going to get out of this mess alive. You owe it to your crew not to give up like that, Jim."
Jim's lips moved as if he was about to say something, but no words came out. Leonard felt Jim's hold on him tighten, gently tugging his face yet another fragment of an inch upwards and holding it there to protect him from the water. Jim's hands were getting cold now, too, but Leonard could still feel the gentle movement of Jim's fingers against his skin.
"It's the only way, Jim."
Jim's eyes were boring right into his, blue and shining brightly even in the dim light of the shuttle interior, and at that moment Leonard knew that he had lost this battle. Jim wasn't going to go. He wasn't going to leave him behind no matter that it was the only option left for him. Maybe he was going to leave once Leonard had succumbed to the water, but he wasn't going to leave as long as Leonard was still alive.
And maybe, selfishly, Leonard had hoped that Jim would just leave so that he didn't have to witness how he drowned, and it seemed he wasn't going to get granted that particular wish.
"Jim…" He didn't care that he sounded pleading. Hell, he'd resort to begging if he had to, if he thought there was the slightest chance that Jim was going to listen. But he knew his friend well enough to be absolutely sure that Jim had made up his mind, and nothing he possibly said was going to sway him in his decision.
The water was lapping at his ears, tiny pinpricks of ice that burned against any residual warmth that might still be left in his skin. Jim's fingers tightened against his neck and jaw, though the numbness didn't allow him to feel it as anything more than an increasing pressure against his skin. But there was no denying the intensity in Jim's eyes as he leaned in close, so close that Leonard could nearly delude himself into thinking that he could actually feel the warmth of Jim's body.
"Listen to me, Leonard, and you better listen good. I'm not going to leave you here. That's not an option, so you better save your breath, because you're going to need it."
Leonard tried to shake his head, tried to scrounge up some last desperate reserves to make Jim understand that he wasn't out of options, that he didn't have to throw his life away just because Leonard was facing his own mortality and wasn't going to emerge as victor from this particular encounter. But something stopped him from launching into a last, desperate round of protest.
Jim never called him by his given name, and he couldn't help but regret that he probably wasn't going to hear Jim call him Bones one last time. Leonard realized the finality of his decision Jim was trying to convey, but that didn't change the fact that Jim was about to make the worst possible choice and throw his life away when Leonard had devoted the last couple of years to keeping the fool kid alive.
He couldn't let that happen, not while the water still left him enough time to say one more thing. But even as he drew breath to say – though he had no idea what else he could possibly try to convince Jim that this was madness – a cold finger pressed against his lips.
"Trust me, Bones." Leonard's eyes slid closed with a sound that was almost a sob, and he turned his head to keep at least one ear above the water. Maybe if he could only hear Jim's voice, it wasn't going to be all that bad. "Just keep breathing. We're going to get out of here. I promise you Bones, we're…"
Water sloshed into his ear, crackling loudly against his eardrum like the remnants of pool water that he just couldn't shake out after a swim, and instinctively Leonard turned his head towards the other side. Water spilled over his mouth with the movement, and Leonard gasped reflexively, puffing out air desperately as he realized that it was only going to be seconds until the water closed over his mouth, and not much longer until only his nose was going to be covered, as well.
His ears were fully submerged now, and he could no longer strain his neck in any way to raise them above the waterline. Water must have splashed over the top of his face, too, judged by the sting in his eyes as he tried to blink them open. Jim was right there in his line of vision, blue eyes mere inches away from his own, and for once in his life Leonard would have wished that he couldn't read Jim as well as he could. Maybe then he wouldn't see the fear in those eyes in such a stark clarity now.
He felt the sudden desire to say something, some profound last words that would convey how much it all meant to him – those last years with Jim, their friendship, the fact that no matter what, Jim had never given up on him. He wanted to let Jim know how much he had changed his life for the better, but there was no way to wrap that up in the few words that were all he had left the time for.
The words nearly slipped out then, though he had never even thought them in this clarity before, but he swallowed them down almost painfully. He had no right to say them, no right to leave Jim behind with that revelation as his parting words, no matter how much it hurt to not say it now that he realized the simple truth his relationship with Jim boiled down to.
He had no right to leave him with such an emotional burden, and no chance to ever answer back to him.
Jim was talking, and though Leonard couldn't hear what he was saying he clung to the movement of his lips like a lifeline. It was a longer string of words than what Leonard had nearly blurted out just now, but no matter how much he tried to focus on Jim, he couldn't determine what his friend was saying. And then the water closed over his mouth, and he frantically sucked in as much air as he could through his nose. But the water kept rising, and Leonard drew a last frantic lungful of air before the icy water closed over his nose, too, and Leonard screwed his eyes tightly shut.
This was it.
His heart was beating a frantic tattoo against his sternum, and intellectually Leonard knew that his increased heart rate was only going to increase his need for oxygen. It was only going to make his air run out so much more quickly.
He didn't want to die. It went without saying, but despite of his false bravado during the past minutes, the realization now hit him like a blow to the gut. He didn't want to die, but that didn't matter because he was all out of options and there was no other alternative. He was going to die.
The sound of the water streaming in through the missing panels was an almost deafening roar in his ears. Nothing like the tranquil image of drowning those old poets were trying to make you believe in, but so loud that Leonard only wanted for it to stop. Who would have thought that water could be so loud? Cold, yes. The water was so cold that his entire body was numb, and all he felt was the occasional stab of pain from his left leg. And of course the burning in his chest that were the first signs of protest from his lungs.
Not long now, and even though Leonard was scared more than he had ever been, there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Jim's hands were still framing his face, and though Leonard's skin was so numb that he barely felt the contact, it was the one reason why he didn't just exhale what little air was left in his lungs and wait for the water to inevitably rush in to replace it. Jim was still there, and he wanted to feel it as long as he possibly could.
But then the hand against his face shifted, and Leonard couldn't suppress a startled gasp that made him exhale far too much air. One of Jim's hands remained resting against his jaw, but the other felt its way over his mouth and farther up, until it reached his nose and pinched it shut. Before Leonard even had the chance to register surprise, there was the sound of something splashing through the surface right above him, and then Jim's lips were on his and air was breathed into his mouth, and Leonard was inhaling without question.
A hundred different thoughts raced through his mind at the same time, but the only thing he could focus on with any real clarity was the thought that whenever he had imagined to feel Jim's lips against his own, it hadn't been like this. And then Jim's mouth was gone, though his hands remained, and Leonard's thoughts began racing again, trapped inside his head as they were with no chance for him to say them.
This was madness.
Jim couldn't hold it up for long, in fact it was pretty damn dangerous to perform old-fashioned rescue breathing for too long a time even in ideal conditions, and this was pretty much as far from ideal as it got. Jim was screwing with his own breathing rhythm, was probably right now breathing too hard, too deeply above the surface in an attempt to breathe in as much air as possible. If he kept this up, he was going to hyperventilate, or strain himself so much that he didn't have any strength left to leave the shuttle and save himself once there was no air left to breathe. And the strain was only going to get worse as the water kept rising, when this insanity would force Jim to dive and resurface repeatedly, the distance between Leonard's face and the surface increasing with each second.
He couldn't let Jim do this, even though despite the icy cold numbness his body was caught in the thought that Jim was still fighting this hard, fighting for him, spread something warm through his chest. He couldn't let Jim kill himself in an effort to save him, when Leonard knew that he was already lost.
But his body started to betray him, and he released air from his burning lungs as the sound of Jim splashing through the surface again overlay the almighty roaring in his ears.
He couldn't let Jim do this.
His lungs were screaming for oxygen, but Leonard wasn't going to allow Jim to risk his life for him. Not like this. And though it cost an almost superhuman effort, when Jim's lips closed over his mouth again, Leonard kept his own lips pressed tightly together. If he didn't accept the sacrifice Jim was about to make, then Jim would have no other choice but to stop this madness, and worry about himself instead.
Jim seemed startled for a moment, hesitating for a moment when he realized that Leonard wasn't allowing him to breathe for him. And for one second Leonard thought that his plan might work, that Jim might give up saving his life in favor of saving his own. But then he slid the hand that had been cradling Leonard's jaw up against his cheek, and despite the numbness of his skin Leonard felt the gentle, almost tender movement of Jim's thumb against his cheek.
Jim's lips were moving against his own, too, in a way that had nothing to do with resuscitation. Before Leonard even had the chance to really think about what this meant, he treacherous body was reacting, his lips moving against and in time with Jim's. If he was already going to die, he wasn't going to deny himself the feeling of at least one kiss, even if it was under these circumstances. But as soon as he gave in and his lips started to move in time with Jim's, he felt his head tilted back and Jim was breathing air into his lungs again, buying him yet another few precious seconds even as the water kept rising.
Before Jim rose to the surface again, he pinched Leonard's cheek, so sharply that he felt it despite the cold and the numbness of his skin. And even without words any words spoken, Leonard understood it as the warning it was meant to be. Jim wasn't going to give up on him, and Leonard was only wasting time and energy for them both if he refused to cooperate.
The pinch was followed by two quick taps against his cheekbone, and Leonard opened his eyes to find that despite the darkness of the rising water around them, he could still make out Jim's form clearly against the dark backdrop of the cargo container. Once Jim was sure that he had Leonard's attention, he let go of his hold on Leonard's face and tapped his left wrist. Leonard immediately flashed back to their second-year EV-suit emergency training, and more than one conversation in which they had made fun of the fact that many of Starfleet's hand signals referred back to archaic things that were no longer in common use. Like wristwatches that nobody wore anymore, and yet still a tap to the left wrist was the silent sign for time.
Leonard gave a nod, and Jim immediately stretched out both hands towards him, palms out front and all fingers outstretched. Ten. One hand withdrew, and the other was pushed towards his face again. Five. Leonard nodded that he understood, and Jim's face vanished as he rose to the surface again.
Time – ten – five.
Jim wanted him to count so that they'd settle into a rhythm. So Leonard began to count, and hoped he had understood the message correctly. If Jim had wanted to tell him something different entirely with those hand signals, he was screwed.
Leonard slowly counted, trying to measure the seconds by memory and not by his treacherous, racing heartbeat. As he reached ten, he slowly started to release the used air from his lungs. At fourteen, he heard the dull splash of Jim breaking the surface again, and not long after Leonard reached fifteen, Jim's lips closed over his again and Leonard greedily inhaled the air that was breathed into him.
It worked. Their count was a little off and not perfectly synchronized, but it worked to keep Leonard breathing and to keep his lungs from burning and screaming for oxygen, at least for now. But most of all, it gave Leonard something to focus on, something other than the raging fear inside of him. He had to keep the count, had to give his body the illusion of regularity in order to stop himself from panicking.
One – two – three – four – five – six – seven – eight – nine – ten – exhale
Fifteen second intervals. That meant he was breathing roughly four times a minute.
Eleven – twelve – thirteen – fourteen – fifteen – he always stopped counting at fifteen to focus on the more and more distant sounds of Jim struggling through the surface, the feeling of Jim's hands on his face, one pinching his nose shut, the other lifting his chin until his lips finally closed over Leonard's and he could breathe in the air he so desperately needed.
His world reduced to nothing but that, his silent count, the sounds and movement Jim was making, the feel of yet another breath that started the whole cycle over again. It helped that his body was numb, that the cold was seeping into his every pore and he no longer felt the excruciating pain in his legs that strongly. He could almost forget about it entirely if he only focused on the rhythm of counting, inhaling and exhaling his life had been reduced to. A count, that was all that was keeping him alive.
One – two – three – four – five – six – seven – eight – nine – ten – exhale
Four times a minute. It was below the average breathing frequency, but under normal circumstances it should be enough to keep him sufficiently supplied with oxygen, at least for a little while.
Eleven – twelve – thirteen – fourteen – fifteen
But those weren't exactly normal circumstances. He was injured, his heart rate was too high, and most importantly he wasn't breathing fresh air. He was breathing used air, and that meant his body was getting less oxygen and more carbon dioxide.
One – two – three – four – five – six – seven – eight – nine – ten – exhale
He didn't even want to think about what Jim was doing to himself with this, either. He was breathing double time, for himself as well as for Leonard, in the same damn fifteen second intervals. How many seconds did he have above the surface? Ten? Even less as the water kept rising? And during that time he had to satisfy his own need for air and breathe in enough to breathe for Leonard, too. Probably he was gulping down as much air as he could during that little time, then held his breath as he dived. How long could he keep that up before he became dizzy from it? How long until those fifteen seconds would no longer be enough for him to breathe and dive? How long until there was no air left in the shuttle for Jim to breathe at all?
Eleven – twelve – thirteen – fourteen – fifteen
But help was on its way, wasn't it? Enterprise should have sent out help a long time ago already, it was about time they finally found them. But just maybe, Leonard could hold out. The count was working, and though his body was tingling and his lungs were burning more and more with every breath of used air he took and released, he could still hold out. Not for much longer, but for a little while at least.
One – two – three – four – five – six – Leonard twisted his head, startled at the sound of a sudden loud bang, dulled by the metal and water and yet so incredibly loud that it hurt his ears. He stared unseeingly into the murky darkness, straining to make out the cause of the sound. He had lost count, too, and no way to judge when exactly Jim was going to dive down for another breath. Should he have already reached ten? Was it time to start releasing his breath? Or did that banging sound mean that something in the shuttle had torn loose, had maybe hit Jim and hurt him?
What if Jim was hurt and needed help?
Suddenly, the shuttle jerked violently, and Leonard's first thought was that they had slid off the rocks and were sinking now, free falling into the depths of the ocean and towards certain death.
Another bang, another jerk in the opposite direction, and suddenly white hot pain shot through Leonard's body as the cargo container shifted on his legs. The pain was so sudden and strong that he couldn't stop himself from screaming, and even as his brain shouted the warning that he had to hold his breath, his body's reaction was beyond his control. He drew breath even though there was no air to breathe, and adrenaline made his body run colder than it already was as the water filled his lungs. He tried to exhale, tried to cough against he force of the water, but there was no air left in his lungs to do so. His arms were flailing helplessly as he tried to find purchase against nothingness, tried to find a way to pull himself free from out the cargo container and struggle to the surface to breathe, and even though he knew it was impossible his body had a mind of its own.
But there was nowhere for him to go, no air left for him to breathe, and as his vision blackened out he was treated a last view of Jim, eyes wide and screaming under water, screaming out precious air as his hands went out towards Leonard, and his last coherent thought was that Jim should get back up to the surface and breathe, then…
Dark and cold emptiness, nothing else.
Drowning was fucking painful.
He had no idea where that thought came from, or why it stood out with such stark clarity when everything around him felt dark and muted, but it stood out firmly and Leonard found himself clinging to it.
Drowning. Jim. The shuttle. The cargo container. Water.
It didn't really make sense, even though the picture was getting clearer and clearer with each passing second. He had drowned, and now he was hurting all over. It didn't really make sense at all, because drowned men were dead and didn't feel any pain. And if they did, it had to be a huge cosmic joke that Leonard didn't want to be a part of.
It felt as if his lids were weighed down with lead, but once the realization sunk in that he might have drowned, but was still there – somewhere, somehow – he struggled to blink open his eyes.
Everything was bright, but it was a muted brightness that reminded him of the gamma shift lighting in his sickbay. But still the brightness felt like too much for his eyes to handle, and they started tearing up. Leonard blinked frantically against the tears that were rising in his eyes as he tried to get a clear view of where he was.
It didn't make sense.
He was in his Medical Bay. It was an immediate realization as soon as his surroundings swam into focus, and though it didn't make sense Leonard could do nothing but accept it for a fact that somehow, by some stroke of luck, he had made it out of that shuttle, even though he was fairly sure that he had been pinned down until he had drowned.
Or maybe this was the afterlife, which made even less sense, but Leonard figured that the universe had a way of screwing with him, and had proven so time and again. Often enough for him to not put anything off as impossible right now.
The sound of a curtain being drawn aside drew his attention, and as he looked up he found Christine Chapel step up towards the foot of the bed, a slight smile of relief breaking through her otherwise always so professional expression. If Christine was here, that meant he was alive. It had to, otherwise the world had stopped making sense altogether. It still didn't explain how he had gotten out of the shuttle in the first place, or why he hadn't died. But apparently, somehow he had made it.
"Hello Leonard. How are you feeling?"
He really didn't know what he could possibly say in reply to that. Confused pretty much summed it up, but his brain and mouth must have been somewhat disconnected for the moment, because he didn't even make an attempt to speak. He must have been staring at Christine rather dazedly, and when it became obvious after a few moments that no answer to her inquiry was forthcoming, she gently patted his foot through the blanket and smiled at him.
"I'm going to get Doctor M'Benga. Try to stay awake for a moment longer, okay?"
He wanted to nod, but really couldn't tell for sure if he had succeeded at all. Christine stepped away from the bed but left the privacy curtain open. He heard her steps retreat and the sounds of a short, muffled conversation in the background, and then Geoffrey M'Benga was stepping up towards his bed. He made absolutely no attempt to hide the smile on his face, but Leonard knew his colleague well enough to see the signs of fatigue and exhaustion on his face.
Just how long had he been unconscious?
"It's good to see you awake again, Len. How are you feeling?"
In pain was the appropriate answer to that particular question, but even as Leonard struggled to get the words out coherently, what came out in the end was a hoarse "Alive." Geoffrey chuckled, though there was no mirth on his face as he pulled up a chair and sat down beside the bed, pulling a PADD out of the holder fixed to the beside table.
"Yes, and you can thank your lucky stars for that. Or the Captain, whichever you prefer. It was a combination of pure luck and his trademark stubbornness that got you through this."
Something inside of Leonard reared in alarm at the mention of Jim, and he felt his heart speed up in his chest, a feeling that was confirmed by the biobed monitor above his head beeping in alarm. Geoffrey looked up at the monitor at the sound, and with an almost imperceptible eye-roll moved to turn off the warning signal.
"Jim?" Leonard croaked out, unable to put all his questions and worries into words, but Geoffrey must have understood. He sank back into his chair with an exaggerated sigh, placing the PADD across his lap.
"The Captain is fine, Len. He was thoroughly drenched and slightly cooled out, and he had a small cut above his eyebrow, but it was nothing a quick run with the dermal regen and a hot shower couldn't fix."
Leonard knew that Geoffrey wouldn't lie to him, but still he couldn't help the slight feeling of unease that was lingering in the pit of his stomach. If Jim was all right, then where was he? Why wasn't he here?
Because that was the only possibility Leonard could think of that would explain Jim's absence. He probably wouldn't go and get some sleep voluntarily, not even after such an ordeal, but if Geoffrey had sedated him so that he could get some rest, it would explain Jim's absence. But Geoffrey shook his head.
"No. I recommended he get some rest, but duty called. He's on Palas Prime for the celebratory dinner to honor the arrival of the Dalarn ambassador. From what I heard, the Palan High Cabinet insisted on his presence even after they were told about the shuttle accident. And since he wasn't seriously injured in the crash, he couldn't refuse. The Palans insisted on his presence to mediate in case the first meeting with the Dalarn ambassador doesn't go as smoothly as planned. It was obvious that the Captain didn't want to go, but he was not left with much of a choice."
That explained Jim's absence, of course, but still Leonard couldn't help a small irrational pang of…was it regret? He had believed he was going to die, and now that he had miraculously somehow managed to get out of that shuttle alive, he really would have loved to see Jim, to see for himself that Jim was all right, to tell him…
Yes, to tell him what, exactly?
He wasn't going to think about this now, he decided. Later, once everything had settled a little and he felt as if he could think clearly again. Definitely not now.
"If it's any consolation," Geoffrey cut through his thoughts, "the Captain only left under protest. Loudly expressed protest, to be precise. And under the condition that I'd comm him immediately if you woke up, which is what I'm going to do right away once we're through here. And I'm sure he'll come back aboard as soon as the Palan protocol allows him."
Leonard struggled hard to not let his inner turmoil show on his face. Jim was Captain, of course his duty came before everything else, no matter how much Leonard might wish that it was the other way around. He was a grown man, he could be alone for a little while without Jim there to hold his hand.
In the meantime, he could just as well try to fill the gap in his memory between those last frantic moments in the shuttle and waking up back in Medical. It was a question Geoffrey probably had some answers to.
Geoffrey leaned back in his chair and ran his hand over his face with a sigh.
"All right. But only the short version because I know you won't get any rest otherwise, no matter how much you need it. So what do you want to know?"
Well, he might as well start with the really important questions.
"How did we get out of that shuttle?"
"Barely alive, but that's probably not what you were asking." Geoffrey sighed and shifted on his chair. "Once the shuttle went down in that storm, Enterprise could barely pick up the emergency beacon. There was no chance to use the transporter under these conditions, so we had to take another shuttle down. The Dalarn have experience rescuing ships that get lost in these storms. We went down aboard the Faraday, and they sent two shuttles equipped with grapplers out to help us, otherwise we wouldn't have gotten the shuttle off those rocks."
A distant memory was stirring as Geoffrey mentioned the grappler, that of a loud bang echoing through the water, of the shuttle jerking so violently that the cargo container shifted on his legs, making him scream and breathe in water, destroying the careful rhythm of breaths he and Jim had established to keep him alive…
"Easy, Leonard." Geoffrey's hand fell on his shoulder and squeezed as the other doctor leaned over him and adjusted some of the biobed settings. "While I appreciate your effort to help me raise your blood pressure a little, I'll have to sedate you if you don't calm down. The last thing your body needs right now is any additional strain."
Leonard realized that his heart was beating faster, and that he had started to breath quickly and almost raggedly, as if he was trying to suck in as much air as he could in the face of the memory of what it felt like not to be able to breathe at all. As Geoffrey settled back in his chair, Leonard tried to will himself to relax back into the mattress. He still had far too many questions he needed answers to. He really didn't want for Geoffrey to get trigger-happy with the hypospray and knock him out before got at least some of those answers.
"All right," he forced out, trying to chase away that it had been the Dalarn grappler, the rescue he had been hoping for during those endless minutes aboard the shuttle as the water kept rising, that had nearly killed him. Rescue had been just moments away, and he had nearly drowned.
But he hadn't died. He might be hurting all over – seriously, the more he thought about it, the more his pain-levels were rising – but he was still alive. He had no idea how the hell that had happened when his last coherent memory was that of Jim staring at him from wide eyes, screaming silently into water as he watched Leonard drown.
"How bad was it?"
Geoffrey was a seasoned doctor, one who had seen plenty of emergencies over the course of his career and someone whom Leonard had never seen lose his cool even under the most dire circumstances. The fact that right now he took a long moment to answer already told Leonard a lot about just how bad things had been.
"Bad, Len. I promise I'll never underestimate Vulcan upper body strength again. Without Spock, we probably wouldn't have gotten you out from underneath that container in time. As far as close calls go, this one cut it pretty damn close. Nearly too close."
Leonard had never been a friend of beating about the bush, and if Geoffrey wasn't sitting too far out of his reach, he'd have made a grab for the PADD containing his patient file himself.
"Geoffrey." He tried to lower his voice into a warning growl, but considering the amount of pain he was in, he probably failed pretty pathetically. Still, he thought he managed at least a pretty solid glare. "How about you give me some damn facts, or let me see my own damn patient chart."
Geoffrey rolled his eyes, but Leonard thought he saw the other man's grip on the PADD tighten significantly, as if he was worried that Leonard might jump up and try to snatch it away from him.
"…and in no time you'll be back in Medical, annoying your nurses and demanding to see your own damn patient chart…"
Jim's voice suddenly echoed in his head, stirring up yet another memory from the shuttle that had been buried until that moment. But Jim had only been joking, hadn't he? The memory was still a little fuzzy, images with blurred edges and bad sound, and Leonard couldn't focus on it properly. And then Geoffrey finally started talking. He seemed a little pissed off, but Leonard really didn't have the energy right now to contemplate when exactly he had struck the wrong note.
"All right. You want the facts? Well then, here you go. You've got a minor concussion, and trust me when I say that that's the least serious diagnosis on your patient chart right now. Your body temperature was down to 34.3 °C, so you were mildly hypothermic, but we got that raised back to normal levels by now. The injuries to your legs are what really worried me."
He leaned forward in his chair, elbows on this thighs, as he started to list Leonard's injuries as if it was a speech he had practiced a few times over already.
"The weight of the container caused two stress fractures in your right tibia. There's a clean break right through your left tibia and fibula that was caused by the container crashing onto your leg rather than the prolonged exposure to its weight. Which leads us right to your left femur, which – to put it bluntly – was a mess. Comminuted fracture, with a side order of accompanying muscle and tissue damage. And then there's the small matter of the significant bleeding from a number of damaged blood vessels that got a whole new level of bad as soon as the pressure from the container was removed. It took two and a half hours of surgery and three units of blood to put everything in there back together the way mother nature initially arranged it, and let me tell you that you were damn lucky no bone fragment hit the femoral artery, because otherwise you'd probably have bled out before I even got you on the table."
Geoffrey sighed and put the PADD away. Distantly, Leonard wondered why he had even pulled it out in the first place. He definitely didn't need it to give him the rundown of his worst injuries, and Leonard doubted that his brain would be able to deal with the finer details of his diagnosis right now even if Geoffrey was willing to give them to him.
He was about to say something to that effect, but as it turned out Geoffrey wasn't yet done.
"Of course, very nearly none of that even mattered, because by the time you were pulled out from under that container, your lungs were filled with water and your heart had decided it could as well spare itself the effort to keep pumping blood through your body if there was no oxygen coming into your system, anyway."
It really shouldn't come as a surprise, but Leonard couldn't help it. It was a tough thought to get used to.
"I was in cardiac arrest?"
Geoffrey nodded. "For about three minutes, yes. You wound up with four broken ribs, but I put those through two rounds of osteo-regen while you were in surgery, so you should be fine. However, any lingering pain you might experience in your chest probably comes from that."
It took Leonard a moment to piece together what Geoffrey was saying.
"You performed CPR?"
Geoffrey nodded. "Old fashioned and rather crude, not to mention invasive as hell, but it was the only choice I had. As soon as I find a few minutes, I'm going to abuse my privileges as Acting CMO and write a proposal that a portable cardio-respiratory unit be added to all medical emergency kits. Just because Starfleet doesn't think that drowning is a high-risk threat out here in space doesn't mean they're right about it, as you so spectacularly proved today. And I don't think the Captain will have any objections to that proposal after witnessing the alternative treatment to a portable unit. He was…distraught, and that's putting it mildly."
"He was probably in shock," Leonard replied with a shake of his head, trying to chase away the mental snapshots of Jim wide-eyed and pale, staring at him and taking in every detail as Leonard drowned right in front of his eyes. But he also remembered the determination with which Jim had breathed for him, the way he hadn't allowed Leonard to evade the help he offered. "He was breathing for me for a good while, I doubt seeing someone else perform CPR would shock him."
Geoffrey frowned. "It's one thing to perform rescue breathing under water. It's another thing entirely to see someone else compress your best friend's chest until the bones break. Audibly. You were in pretty bad shape when we pulled you from that shuttle. There's no way he didn't notice that."
All the more reason why Jim should be here now instead of down planetside, babysitting those idiot diplomats who were scared to be in the same room with one another. But there was no way Leonard could change that from here, not unless some new features had been added to the biobed controls that he hadn't been told about. Though maybe it was good that he was given a bit more respite until he had to face Jim again, a little more time to get the raging confusion inside of him into some kind of order. Right now, those last minutes aboard the shuttle were a series of snapshots and flashes of memory that were mostly terrifying. And those that weren't scaring the shit out of him were ones Leonard really didn't know what to think about. So yeah, some time was probably a good idea to get his emotions back under control before he faced Jim again.
Though that didn't mean that Leonard was in any way keen to spend any more time on this biobed than strictly necessary.
"So what's the verdict?"
Geoffrey rolled his eyes, though this time he made no effort to hide it.
"We've only just started gamma shift, and you're most definitely going to spend the night. I'm content with the osteo-regeneration to your ribs and right leg, but your left leg needs at least two more rounds with the regenerator."
Leonard drew a breath to reply something, but Geoffrey cut him off.
"I know what you're going to say, and I'll gladly let you make the decisions again as soon as you're back on duty. But right now, you're the patient here. I'm going to examine you again tomorrow morning, and then I'm going to decide whether or not to release you. But I can already tell you that I'll only release you if the bone looks good and the surgery incision is showing signs of healing. And you will be on crutches, because you're not going to put any weight on that leg for at least a couple of days. But since you're actually one of the few people aboard this ship whom I trust to heed a doctor's advice, I expect you'll be back on full duty within a week."
A week sounded like a small eternity, but considering the fact that he had been about to die, Leonard had to concede that he had probably gotten off easy. Geoffrey seemed to take his silence for agreement, because he rose from his chair with a nod.
"Right. Now, I've got a comm call to make lest I want the Captain to charge me with insubordination. You should get some rest. You're maxed out on painkillers for at least another two hours, but I could give you a mild sedative to help you fall asleep again."
Sedative always made him fuzzy upon waking up, but considering that the pain was a steady thrum in his chest and left leg, he probably wasn't going to fall asleep on his own, at least not easily. And maybe the sedative would help to keep the nightmares at bay. He really did not want to revisit the shuttle, and those moments after the water had closed over his nose and mouth and he hadn't been able to breathe. He nodded at Geoffrey.
"Sedative sounds good."
Geoffrey smiled and pulled a hypospray out of one of the drawers in the room. Loading a cartridge into the cylinder, he stepped up to Leonard's bedside again.
"I'll start another round of regen on your leg while you're asleep. You shouldn't notice a thing with the sedation, though. And if you wake up and are in pain, you know how to call Christine or me."
They hypospray hissed as Geoffrey discharged the medication into his bloodstream, and a few seconds later Leonard already felt the fatigue pulling at him.
"Get some rest, Leonard."
Leonard wanted to reply something, but his eyes were already dropping close, and with the gentle beeping of the biobed monitor above him he allowed himself to drift. The soft lull and hum of the ship around him was just the background noise that he needed to remind himself that he was home and safe, and no longer trapped aboard that shuttle, and for once Leonard was content to just let the drugs in his system take over and carry him off. As long as the drugs kept the dreams at bay, as long as they stopped him from remembering what it felt like to be trapped underneath a heavy weight with the water rising above him, coldness seeping into every pore until his whole body was numb, the burning of his lungs as the water finally closed down over his mouth and nose and cutting off his air, Jim's lips on his, breathing precious air into his lungs until that container shifted and he screamed and breathed in water, Jim's eyes wide – yet still so incredibly blue even through the murky water – as he watched him drown…
The soft sound pulled Leonard closer to awareness. There was movement on the side of his bed, and his first foggy thought was that it was Geoffrey about to start the next round of treatment on his leg. But then he felt a soft touch to his face that was not at all like the clinical touch of a doctor during treatment. A palm pressed against his cheek and a thumb gently traced over his cheekbone. Leonard recognized the touch, just as he recognized the subtle smell of spice and lemons and something he had never been able to put his finger on, but which Leonard would have been able to pick out amongst hundreds of other scents. Something inside of him relaxed, something he hadn't even realized had been tense before.
"Shhh." It was barely a whisper, but so close to his ear that he could feel the warmth of Jim's cheek beside his own, skin nearly brushing against skin. "It's past midnight. M'Benga will kick me out if I keep you awake."
Leonard hummed in response, or at least he thought he did. It was hard to be aware of anything over the soothing, almost tender movement of Jim's fingers running through his hair. It felt like all his muscles were melting into the mattress until he couldn't feel anything but those fingers running across his scalp. Rationally he knew that this complete relaxation had to be a lingering effect of the sedative, but at this moment he was ready and willing to attribute it to Jim's presence that he was finally feeling as if everything was spinning back on its axis.
He could have drifted back off to sleep again like that, but inwardly he fought a little against it even though his body craved more rest. But he wanted to savor this moment and the proximity for a little longer. Jim was tactile, but normally not like this. Yet it felt right to have Jim this close to him, close enough to feel his gentle and even breaths against his hair, and Leonard was too tired and drugged up to really question this sudden, previously unknown need. He only wanted to have Jim close, wanted to hear him, smell him, and feel the slow and soothing movement of his fingers through his hair.
He might be hurt and medicated to the gills, and up to some serious trauma confrontation once he was back on his feet, but right here, at this moment, it felt as close to perfect as it got.
Leonard felt himself begin to drift off again despite his feeble attempts to stay awake for a bit longer. Jim must have noticed it too, or maybe he thought Leonard was already asleep again, because after a little while he leaned in yet another bit closer, his cheek brushing against the rough stubble on Leonard's face. His voice was barely a whisper, but there was so much determination in his words that they couldn't have cut through Leonard any more even if he had shouted them.
"Don't you ever ask me to leave you behind again, Bones. I'm not going to do it. If I have to make the choice between dying with you or living without you, I'll stay. Always, and without hesitation. So don't you ever tell me to leave you, because I can't."
Leonard was too far gone to reply, too close to sleep to even be absolutely sure he hadn't dreamed this up. But there was something in Jim's voice, a conviction that resonated within him even on the edge between sleep and wakefulness. Jim's words were important. There was something in them, something profound and with enough power to change things irrevocably, but Leonard wasn't able to pinpoint what it was, or why it was so important.
He could only try to cling to the sound of Jim's voice as the last traces of consciousness fled, and hope he still remembered all of this tomorrow.
The next morning, Leonard woke slightly disoriented and with a fuzzy feeling in his head, but considering the severity of his injuries, he had to say he was feeling good. Taking into account that he had fucking drowned less than a day before, he was feeling practically awesome. Geoffrey of course had other ideas, and the battery of examinations and treatments he made him endure reminded Leonard of the various times he had put Jim through a similar experience just for the sake of keeping him in Medical and under Leonard's watchful eye for just a few hours longer.
Though in his defense, Leonard most definitely hadn't earned his stay in Medical Bay by reckless behavior, so Geoffrey really had no reason to dole out additional examinations as a form of punishment. Besides, he was still the CMO, despite the fact that he was temporarily laid up in his own Medical Bay, doling out any kind of treatment as punishment for stupidity was his damn prerogative. Not to mention that contrary to Jim, Leonard knew very well which tests were necessary and which weren't, and he had absolutely no reservations about making his opinion known as Geoffrey subjected him to yet another round of tests that weren't strictly necessary.
Not that Geoffrey seemed to care, the bastard. As soon as Leonard was back on duty, they were going to have words about this little power trip the other doctor apparently was on. He seemed to enjoy all this a little too much. But Leonard also remembered the exhaustion and worry he had read on his colleague's face the night before, and decided to cut him some slack. He had snuck a peek at his patient file while Geoffrey had been busy getting some test results, and the report on his surgery spoke a clear language. It had been hard work putting his left leg back together the way it was supposed to be, and his outlook right now was a full recovery, so he really couldn't complain.
Even if it was annoying as hell to be stuck on this biobed if he could recover just as well, if not better, in his quarters, and his own damn bed.
Jim dropped by in between a deep tissue scan and yet another osteo-regeneration session on Leonard's left femur. The visit was short, since Enterprise was taking the Palan ambassador back to Dalak II, and he could only squeeze in a few minutes in between exercising diplomatic hospitability. He seemed his usual self, his relief that Leonard was awake again nearly palpable as he regaled the story of how Scotty had nearly burst into tears upon seeing the damage done to the Galileo after it had been recovered and brought aboard.
But despite that, there was something strained about the visit. Jim never once mentioned his midnight visit during the previous night, or the words he had whispered into Leonard's ear, and so Leonard didn't say anything about it, either. But that didn't mean he stopped thinking about it, mulling it over and over in his mind in a desperate attempt to figure out if it had been real, or if he had just imagined it.
If I have to make the choice between dying with you or living without you, I'll stay. Always, and without hesitation.
Maybe Leonard just wanted this to be true so much that he put words into Jim's mouth. And maybe the experience of counting down the minutes and seconds until he died had turned him into an emotional mess. He had felt his time run out when he had always been convinced that time was something they'd have in abundance if he only stayed sharp and managed to keep Jim alive during their mission. Of course he was projecting after that.
So don't you ever tell me to leave you, because I can't.
They would have to talk about this, because whether or not Jim had really said those words, there was just too much standing between them after those endless minutes in the shuttle. In the end it all boiled down to the fact that Jim had put his own life on the line the moment he had decided to stay with Leonard instead of leaving the shuttle, and that was not a choice Captain Kirk had made. Yet Jim was never just Jim, and he had a responsibility towards his crew that should have forced him to make a different choice. But that conversation could wait until Leonard felt on emotionally firmer ground. He'd probably see a lot of things clearer with a little distance, so maybe there was something good about the fact that Jim would be busy chauffeuring alien ambassadors through the sector for a little while yet.
Geoffrey eventually released him at the beginning of beta shift, with a pair of standard-issue crutches and the admonishment to keep any and all kind of strain off his left leg, not to overtax his right leg, either, and basically to just stay off his feet for as much as he could lest he wanted to be confined for Medical for the foreseeable future. Considering the lectures and admonishments Leonard himself doled out on a daily basis, Geoffrey's little speech was amateur level at the most, but still he couldn't help the feeling that his own staff were forgetting that he was a damn doctor and knew how much strain his body could take.
He was glad when he could finally hobble back to his quarters on his crutches. He'd never admit it out loud, but he felt as wrung out as if a pissed off Nausicaan had been using his body for a punching ball, and all he wanted to do was lay down on his bed and sleep the rest of the day away. Geoffrey still had him on a number of meds, and he knew that his exhausted and somewhat woozy state was to blame largely on the side-effects. He knew he'd feel better once he got some more rest.
Stepping into his quarters, he breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of his bed. He didn't think that anything had ever looked as inviting before as his bed did now. He could probably use a shower, but that was going to be difficult without putting any weight on his left leg. Not only that, but the mere thought of being in a confined space with water pelting down on him uncontrollably, pouring over his body and onto his face, against his nose and mouth…
The thought alone was enough to send Leonard's pulse skyrocketing, and for a moment he had to stop and lean against the wall for support until the spell passed and his heart began to slow down again.
No shower for tonight, definitely not. His sense of hygiene might demand it, but he was going to push it off until he had figured out a way to actually pull it off without having a panic attack. Tonight, he only wanted to rest, and he was going to think about the shower-issue tomorrow.
Instead he washed up as best as he could while balancing on one leg in front of the sink, clutching the edge of the sink with one hand for balance, then shrugged into an old but comfortable pair of sleep pants and a t-shirt and hobbled back into the bedroom.
He wasn't deluded enough to think that he could just brush everything off as easily as he had done just now, not if something as ordinary as taking a shower was enough to make him break out in cold sweat. He was going to have to confront it, sooner rather than later, but definitely not today. He'd prefer to be off his meds and have his wits together before he decided whether or not drowning was a good enough reason for a psych consult or not.
For today, all Leonard wanted was some distraction, and a whole lot of rest.
Laboriously, he sank down on his bed, the crutches within easy reach on the floor. It was only early afternoon, but Geoffrey had forced some lunch into him before he had allowed him to leave Medical, and now Leonard actually felt tired and drowsy. His body was craving more rest, but instead of going to sleep, Leonard switched on the vid-screen on the opposite wall and started to browse through the video files in the ship's library.
He really wasn't in the mood for watching a movie, and quite honestly he doubted that he'd be able to keep his eyes open for any length of time, but he wasn't sure that he'd fall asleep easily, either. Unlike last night, he didn't have the benefit of a sedative to help him drift off and keep the potential nightmares at bay. Maybe it would help to watch a mindless movie, something without a serious plot to follow. And definitely something without boats, water, or shuttle crashes. Just something to provide a little background noise.
He picked an action movie that he distantly remembered watching with Jim a few months back, something with spies and undercover missions, lots of phaser-fights and some explosions, but no oceans or underwater scenes as far as he could remember. It would serve its purpose.
The movie was indeed just as mindless as Leonard remembered, which was just what Leonard wanted. He wrapped his blanket around himself and shifted around until he had found a comfortable position that didn't put any strain on his leg, then he tried to relax into the mattress as much as possible.
It was a bit like movie night with Jim, he mused during the opening credits. Without the booze and the fast food, of course, but he wasn't particularly hungry anyway, and alcohol was only going to screw with his meds. And of course it wasn't the same without Jim beside him, giving a running commentary no matter how many times Leonard told him to shut the hell up.
Somehow, Leonard missed the constant chatter beside him as he watched how the Andorian agent onscreen got caught up in some sort of interstellar conspiracy that led to some explosive encounters with a group of Romulan enforcers and a Klingon killer squad. The movie was so bad it was hilarious, and for a few blissful moments he drifted along with the horrible plot.
The agent really didn't have it all that bad, no matter that his own government left him to fend for himself against a whole bunch of bloodthirsty aliens. He might have to get through a firefight or two, but the Romulan enforcers really weren't that much of a dangerous obstacle, and the Klingon killers were actually pretty damn stupid, so it really wasn't as if he had to work all that hard to save the entire quadrant and uncover a secret government plot to provoke a war between Andoria and Vulcan.
At least the agent didn't have to leave Andoria for the entire length of the movie. Hell, he didn't even have to get aboard a shuttle, so the agent really didn't have a reason to complain. He didn't know what it felt like to be aboard a shuttle that dropped twenty thousand feet without engine power, and as far as Leonard was concerned that sucked a whole lot more than to be chased down by a group of Klingons who were as dumb as a bag of rocks, and who were actually played by Andorians in bad makeup.
No, free-falling aboard a shuttle was a lot worse than that. Leonard's stomach clenched at the mere memory of dropping into bottomless depths. The only thing worse than that had been the crash into the water, and the way the waves had tossed them up and down until they had gotten smashed against the rocks, and the cargo container had smashed onto his legs.
And that had still been nothing compared to feeling the water rise around him with no chance to escape it. Leonard remembered the cold seeping into his clothes, numbing him inch by inch as it rose higher and higher. He remembered Jim's increasingly desperate attempts to once more manage to do the impossible and save them, how his fear had abated somewhat in the force of Jim's determination that he was going to find a way, and how that fear had turned into sheer terror at the realization that this time, there was going to be no miraculous escape from certain death.
Leonard had never felt a stronger will to live than at the moment when he realized that he was going to die.
He was never going to forget the feeling of the water closing over his mouth and nose, of his heart beating frantically in his chest as his lungs started to burn. The desperate need to draw breath even though he knew that it was going to kill him, the terror of tethering on the edge of death for endless moments, those images were burned so vividly into his brain that not even the memory of feeling Jim's lips on his was able to weaken their hold on him.
Jim had kept him alive long enough for help to reach him. Jim had kept him sane as the water had risen over his head. Jim had breathed for him when Leonard no longer could do so on his own.
Until Leonard had screamed from the pain and had breathed in water. As terrifying as it had been to feel the water rise over his head, nothing could come close to the terror on Jim's face as Leonard had breathed in water. He was never going to forget the image of Jim's wide-eyed scream. Leonard's blood turned to ice as he remembered the feeling of water filling up his lungs instead of air, and his heart was beating a frantic tattoo against his chest. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't breathe, and Jim was screaming though the water swallowed all sounds. He couldn't even hear Jim's voice one last time, and he was going to drown right in front of his eyes, and this time there was no getting out of this.
Desperately, Leonard tried to draw breath despite the fact that he knew there was only water around him, tried to fill his lungs with oxygen one last time, just to get through a few more seconds, a few more moments to spare Jim the terror of watching him drown. But the vise was tightening more and more around his chest, and the edges of his vision were blurring as Leonard struggled to find one thing to hold on to as the world turned dark, just one good thought, just a sliver of hope that Jim was going to survive this even if Leonard drowned…
With a gasp, Leonard shot up in his bed and frantically gulped in air. His heart was hammering away in his chest, and he breathed as if he had been holding his breath for far too long. Startled, he looked around, but it took a long moment for him to realize that he was in his quarters, safe and dry and breathing, and not dying aboard the damaged shuttle. It had been a nightmare, nothing else. He was back aboard Enterprise. He was safe.
Jim was safe.
"McCoy to Kirk."
His fingers had hit the comm button without conscious thought, even though he knew that everything was all right. He didn't really need to hear Jim's voice in order to know that, and his fingers had merely acted without consulting his brain first. And now the damage was already done. Jim's voice when he replied sounded sleepy, as if the comm call had woken him up, but there was an obvious undertone of worry in it, too.
"Bones, what's wrong? Are you all right?"
Was he? Damned if he knew. And how was he supposed to answer that when he had no idea what to say, and while his throat still felt as if he was choking?
"I'll be there in a minute."
"Jim, wait! You don't need to…"
But Jim had already deactivated the comm, and Leonard untangled himself from the blanket and swung his legs out of bed with a sigh. His left thigh was throbbing, and almost unconsciously he began to rub the sore muscle through the fabric of his pants. His breaths were still coming in sharp bursts and pants, though, and Leonard knew that he was going to hyperventilate if he didn't stop sucking in breaths like he had to save them up for later. But it was hard to force himself to calm down. His treacherous body had a mind of its own and was still too caught up in the nightmare to understand the message that he was home, and safe.
And even once his breathing finally slowed, a lingering pain remained in his chest as his recently mended ribs protested against the strain he was putting them through. But at least the pain gave him something to focus on while he struggled fully awake.
He was in his quarters, on his bed. Of course he was. He was safe.
The crutches were still lying on the floor in front of his bed, and the lights were still on. He must have fallen asleep at some point during the movie. He glanced up at the vid-screen, but found it dark. Lacking any further input, it must have turned off after the movie had finished playing. So he had probably been asleep for a while. Leonard would have gone and checked the chrono on the other side of the bed, but the chime of his door interrupted all his musings.
He knew there wasn't going to be any sense in trying to send Jim away, but before Leonard could raise his voice and call him in, the lock beeped in confirmation of a correct code, and the door slid open with a pneumatic hiss. Jim was inside the room before the door had opened fully.
Jim all but stormed across the short distance between the door and the bed, and as Leonard caught a glimpse of those wide blue eyes that were scanning him almost frantically, he realized he had underestimated the degree of worry his disjointed comm call had caused. Jim crouched down in front of him, one hand braced against Leonard's good knee, looking up at him with undisguised worry in his eyes.
"Bones, are you okay? Do I need to call M'Benga?"
Leonard nodded, forcing his lungs to cooperate enough to actually produce speech. "I'm okay."
It probably wasn't the most reassuring answer, and Jim's eyes went from the hand that was massaging his thigh to the one Leonard had unconsciously pressed against his aching sternum with a disbelieving frown on his face.
"No, you're not." The worry was still there, laced plainly into Jim's voice. The thought that he was the cause of that wasn't a comforting one, and it caused a painful twinge in Leonard's chest that had nothing to do with his previously broken ribs. He let his right hand drop from his chest and stopped his attempt to knead the kinks out of his aching thigh muscles with the other. Jim still didn't seem entirely convinced by the motion, but at least he straightened up and with a sigh sank down on the bed beside Leonard.
For a moment, a heavy silence settled between them, and the need to say something just to fill the silence before it became oppressive grew and grew with every second.
"I'm sorry," Leonard finally rasped out. "I…I shouldn't have commed you. But I was still half asleep, and not really coherent."
Jim shook his head. "It's all right. When I got back from the planet, M'Benga said that he had released you, and that you were probably asleep. I wanted to drop by, but I guess I must have nodded off once I got back to my quarters."
There were dark smudges underneath Jim's eyes, and Leonard realized that while he had been floating on the good stuff in Medical, Jim probably hadn't gotten all that much sleep the previous night. He hadn't really had any chance to catch up on the missed rest either, what with playing host for alien diplomats all day. This was probably the first chance to get some rest Jim had had in nearly two days, and Leonard had to go and ruin it just because of a nightmare.
Brilliant. Just what kind of a needy asshole of a friend was he?
He cast his eyes to the floor and deliberately didn't look at Jim. Once he realized that there really wasn't anything they needed to talk about, Jim could go back to his quarters and get some well-deserved rest. Leonard was a big boy. He had been dealing with nightmares on his own for nearly thirty years now; he couldn't expect Jim to come running and hold his hand now of all times. It was simply ridiculous.
The rustling of a blanket and the feeling of warmth on his shoulders tore him out of this thoughts. He looked up at Jim even as his fingers almost automatically wrapped around the blanket Jim had put over his shoulders and pulled it more tightly around him.
"You're trembling," Jim remarked, and Leonard burrowed further into the blanket's warmth.
"Haven't really been warm all day." Even as the words left his mouth, Leonard realized that it had been the exact wrong thing to say. The worried frown on Jim's face deepened, and he seemed ready to place a comm to Medical any moment now.
"M'Benga said your body temperature was back to normal. He wouldn't have released you otherwise, would he?"
Leonard shook his head. "I'm fine, Jim. It's…I'm all right."
Jim seemed unconvinced, but didn't say anything for a long moment. Leonard started to fidget as the silence settled between them once more, and burrowed himself further into the blanket. It was pretty insufficient as a shield, but he had the feeling that if Jim kept prodding, he was going to need it.
"So," Jim said after a few long moments, eyes trained on his folded hands. "One hell of a nightmare, huh?"
Leonard shrugged, but the movement got lost in the blanket wrapped around him.
"The usual, you know. Shuttle crashes, rising water, drowning, that kind of thing."
Tiredly, he ran a hand over his face. He didn't really know why he had said it like that, he only knew that the immediate reaction to his words was that Jim tensed beside him, hands clenching into fists for a moment before he visibly struggled to relax again.
"It's okay, Jim. Give it a couple of days and I'll be fine."
Jim's eyes wandered up and down his body as if searching for visible confirmation of those words.
"Yes, Jim, I'm sure. I just need a little time to get my head back on straight."
"What about your legs?"
Leonard shrugged. "I'm supposed to keep from putting weight on my left leg, but give it a few days and I can get rid of the crutches. It's healing fine, otherwise Geoffrey wouldn't have released me."
Something in Jim's eyes darkened.
"M'Benga also thought it was a good idea to pound against your chest until your ribs broke. I'm not too sure I trust his judgment right now."
Leonard hadn't believed it when Geoffrey told him that witnessing the CPR had disturbed Jim, but apparently he had been wrong. Apparently, Jim was a lot more shaken by it than he was letting on, and in all honesty Leonard couldn't explain it. Jim had witnessed emergency medical treatment on more than just one occasion, and bleedings, phaser burns or broken bones had never bothered him this much.
"Jim, CPR is invasive as hell, but without a cardio-respiratory unit at hand it's pretty much the only thing left to do when someone drowns and goes into cardiac arrest. I know it must have looked scary as fuck, but it was the only thing Geoffrey could do. A few broken ribs are a small price to pay as long as I'm still breathing."
"Yeah," Jim's voice sounded more shaky than convince, though. "M'Benga saved your life. I'm certainly not going to complain about that."
There was a defeated note in Jim's voice that Leonard couldn't quite explain. Ignoring the sting in his leg he turned towards his left until he could look at Jim properly. If there was one thing he had learned over all those years of being friends with James T. Kirk, then that some things needed to be spoken aloud, again and again if necessary, so that Jim finally understood them.
"You saved my life, Jim. Geoffrey couldn't have done shit if you hadn't kept me breathing until they got there. I think it's safe to say that I'd be dead now if it hadn't been for you."
Whatever reaction Leonard had expected to his words, it definitely hadn't been that Jim all but jumped up from his perch on Leonard's bed.
"I didn't do anything!" He started pacing up and down in front of the bed, and if it hadn't been for the pain in his legs Leonard would have followed him suit, would have crowded against Jim to break through his flight instinct and make him admit what his problem really was. Because it was damn obvious that Jim was struggling with something right now, even if he didn't have the nightmares to show for it.
"The hell you didn't! Jim…"
"No Bones. Tell me what good I did down on the planet? I crashed the shuttle, I couldn't get you out from under that container, I didn't get the comm to work again so that we could tell Enterprise to hurry the hell up, and in the end I couldn't even do something as simple as to keep you breathing! So don't you dare tell me that I saved your life when I watched you drown right in front of my eyes and there was not a damn thing I could do to stop it!"
Anger had always been Jim's way of releasing emotions that he didn't know how to deal with, so the yelling didn't come as a surprise. What did surprise Leonard was that Jim revealed his emotional state without any poking and prodding. It was unusual, and it was a clear sign that things were far too close to the surface for Jim to deal with them.
Leonard pushed his hands against the mattress and struggled to get up.
But Jim didn't even let him get another word in. He shook his head almost violently. "You drowned, Bones. And there was not a damn thing I could do to stop it." He sounded broken now, and somehow that was a lot worse than the anger.
Leonard eventually managed to get to his feet, but it was a wobbly balancing act on one leg, and his crutches were well out of reach.
"Jim, listen to me, damn it!"
Almost unconsciously, Leonard made a move towards Jim, but without a second leg to lean on all he managed to do was upset his balance. He started to sway and already braced himself for the inevitable and indignant face-plant, but suddenly Jim was right there, hands against Leonard's shoulders to stop his fall. Leonard gladly leaned into the steadying hold for a moment and allowed Jim to take some of his weight. But just because he couldn't stand on his own damn feet right now didn't mean that Leonard forgot for just one moment that he needed to talk Jim out of this funk before he tangled himself up in misplaced guilt like he was wont to do.
Jim tried to shift him back towards the bed, but Leonard put his own hands against Jim's arms and stopped the movement.
"Listen to me, Jim."
Jim shook his head and once more tried to push Leonard back towards the bed. "You need to sit down, Bones."
"What I need right now is for you to listen to me. What happened wasn't your fault, Jim. It was an accident, and you did everything you could to get us out of there. We're both still alive because of that."
He tried to catch Jim's eyes, and even though Jim wouldn't meet his gaze Leonard saw the unnaturally bright shine to them. He had the sudden feeling that he should understand why all this was bothering Jim so much when he braved the dangers of life in space each and every day. Jim had seen worse situations before, and those had never thrown him off track this visibly. It was nagging at him, this feeling that he should understand why exactly – other than because this time Leonard had drawn the short stick – Jim was bothered so much by this.
"You drowned, Bones. Right in front of my eyes. Whatever I did, it just wasn't good enough to save you, and I can't…"
Jim stopped himself with a shake of his head, and Leonard tightened his hold on him and pulled him closer, so close that their foreheads were almost touching. It wasn't really a hug, but it was no mere attempt to hold Leonard up anymore, either. Truth be told, at this moment Leonard wouldn't have been able to tell who was holding up whom.
There was something lurking on the edge of this conversation that Leonard was convinced he should be seeing, something that would put it all into perspective and finally help him make sense of it all, but either Leonard was still too tired and foggy from meds and sleep, or he just plainly didn't see it. He only knew it was there, and that it was important that he figured it out.
His leg was protesting against holding up so much of his weight, though, and bucked slightly under him. Jim's grip on his shoulders tightened, and this time Leonard didn't protest as Jim turned them back towards the bed and gently pushed him down again. If he collapsed now, it was only going to take attention away from what Leonard really wanted to talk about. And he knew for a fact that if Jim only had enough time to hide behind his usual shields, it was going to be damn near impossible to get through to him about this in the future.
Jim sat down on the bed beside him, just far enough away so that their legs weren't touching. Somehow, that distance felt wrong, but shifting around was painful with his leg, so for now he would have to ignore the distance between them.
"I'm sorry," Jim finally said, though Leonard had no fucking clue what exactly he was apologizing for. But with Jim, it was always best to take the bull by its horns. It was an art Leonard thought he had mastered over the past years, though Jim still managed to throw him for a loop occasionally.
"The only thing you should be apologizing for is not saving your own damn life when you had the chance."
Jim's head snapped up, indignation written clearly on his face. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"It means that I was trapped under that container and there was no chance in hell to get me out. And with the comm down there was no way for you to know that help was nearly there. You…damn it Jim, I know that the only reason I'm still around is that you were stubborn enough to put your own life on the line and stayed with me, but what if things hadn't worked out the way they did? What if Enterprise hadn't been able to localize us? What if they hadn't managed to get us out of the water? What if we had slid off those damn rocks and dropped to the bottom of the ocean? You would be dead now."
Jim met his gaze squarely. "We both would be."
Leonard nodded. "Yes, but the difference is that my chances of getting out of there were getting pretty much nonexistent as the water kept rising. You could have opened the outer hatch at any time and gotten out of there. There's an entire crew depending on you to be their Captain, and as Captain you should have gotten off that damn shuttle while you still had the time."
It would have left Leonard to drown for certain, and it would have left him to die alone. The thought of that was even more terrifying as the memory of the water closing over his head, and Leonard didn't even want to imagine what the situation would have been like without Jim's presence there to keep him sane. But it would have been the right choice if Jim had left, and Leonard had known for a long time now that being Captain and subordinate was a large part of their friendship. When it came to the crunch, Jim had to be able to put his position aboard above their friendship. If he couldn't do that…considering the lives they led, he had to be able to do that.
"So what do you think I should have done? Cut my losses and left? Left you to die?"
Leonard's words had been meant to provoke, to get a rise out of Jim, but contrary to his expectations Jim's voice merely sounded resigned. It wasn't the reaction Leonard had expected, but he didn't allow it to throw him off track.
"I think you should have acted like the Captain, and not like my friend. I know it sounds pretty damn hypocritical considering that you saved my life, but you can't put my welfare above that of the entire crew. Captain Kirk should have left that shuttle, and I don't understand why you didn't."
Jim shrugged, but he slumped in a little on himself, eyes staring away from Leonard towards the far-off wall, and his body slumped forward with his hands dangling between is thighs.
"The simple answer? I just couldn't do it, Bones. And even if that makes me a bad Captain and a horribly selfish asshole, I couldn't do it. I could never do that."
It all hinged on the next question. Leonard had no idea why he was so convinced of it, but just like he was sure that there was something lurking underneath the surface of this conversation that needed to come out if they were ever going to get past what had happened, he also knew that it all depended on his next question, and whether and how it was going to be answered.
Jim still didn't turn to look at him, and he didn't answer right away, either. He drew a couple of deep breaths, and his hands were nervously wringing each other, an outer sign of whatever he was struggling with on the inside. When he finally spoke, though, his words were absolutely not what Leonard had expected to hear.
"I've been thinking a lot about some things Spock said. Not our Spock, Ambassador Spock. Not all the time, of course, but for a while it's been pretty hard not to think about it. And occasionally it keeps popping up in my head and I can't help it."
Leonard was surprised, and his worry was rising immediately. Meeting the older version of Spock with all his tales of the universe he came from had thrown Jim for quite a loop. It had taken a lot of time to make sure that his friend didn't get lost in the thoughts about the alternate life he had never gotten to lead, but in all honesty Leonard thought they had long since moved past that. The revelation that Jim kept on thinking about those what ifs from another timeline came as a surprise, and it made Leonard wonder what other troubles Jim was trying to make out with himself instead of letting Leonard in on them.
Jim shook his head. "No Bones. It's not what you think. But…for a while it sounded tempting, you know? That other Jim Kirk's life. But there was always that one thing – he died alone. I mean, he had it all – the family, the friends, the devoted crew, but in the end he had no one who stuck around when he died. And for a while I thought that it was okay, you know? He had a full life, so many great years aboard his Enterprise, he became a living legend. So it wasn't really the worst life to lead, even if he died alone in the end. I…well, I guess I thought there could be worse ways to live, even if the way he went out kinda sucked."
Leonard didn't know if it was worse that Jim had never managed to banish the thoughts of that other life entirely, or that he kept contemplating his own mortality and death in comparison to the life and achievement of someone who merely shared a name with him, nothing else. He wanted to interrupt Jim, he really did, but at the same time it felt wrong to do so now, when he was sharing something almost voluntarily. It didn't happen as often as Leonard thought it should, and Jim continued before Leonard could come to a decision as to what was the right thing to do.
"It's funny because I never really thought about how I would go out. I mean, it was clear that one day it was going to happen, but it wasn't as if I ever planned anything farther ahead than a week or two. And then I joined Starfleet, and Nero happened and they gave me Enterprise, and knowing what I did then about how the other Jim died, I figured it wouldn't be any worse than his fate if I didn't live as long, as long as I died doing something worthwhile. You know what I mean?"
Finally, after what felt like far too long a time, Jim turned his head to look at Leonard from the corner of his eye, as if to gauge his reaction to those words. Leonard wasn't surprised. Jim's at times risky heroics had been a bone of contention between them ever since they had boarded Enterprise at the start of their mission. His words didn't really come as a surprise, either. They might have never spoken about it, but Leonard had never needed his degree in psychology to figure out that Jim's issues of self-worth and his lack of plan for a future made for a dangerous combination.
"So dying in an attempt to save me is something you consider more worthwhile than living on, and being the man we both know you can be?"
Because if that was what Jim was trying to say, they were going to have words.
"Yes. No. It…that's not what I mean. What I'm trying to say is that I thought this was all the plan I ever needed. You know, trying to save the day for as long as I can, and once there came the day I screwed up irrevocably, at least I'd be going out without any regrets. And it was a thought that worked, until you came along and screwed it all up."
"Me?" Leonard felt his right eyebrow creep up towards his hairline. "What the hell did I do?"
Jim just smiled and turned his head towards his folded hands.
"I don't really know when it changed, but lately, whenever I think about the future, I think that maybe that isn't all there is. That there are some things worth sticking around for. Going out in a blaze of glory and all that crap, it sounds great, but I know what it feels like to be part of the mess that's left behind. Maybe it's more heroic to brave things out, and stick through till the end, no matter how hard it gets. I mean there has to be a different way, right? One that doesn't mean ending up alone, or going out much too early." He nervously twiddled his thumbs, his eyes focused on his hands as if the movement was the most fascinating display in the entire universe.
"So when I think about the future now, I find myself thinking that maybe growing old isn't really a bad thing. And I can't help it, whenever I think what my life is going to be like in five, ten, or fifty years, I always imagine that you'll be there, too."
Jim turned towards him again and forced a smile, though it was strained and didn't reach his eyes.
"And that's your answer, I guess. Or at least the only one I can give you. I couldn't leave you behind, because then I would have lived and you would have died. And it's essentially selfish, but I want you to stick around. I want…hell, I don't even know. I want to live long enough to retire from being Captain, and I want you to be there to hear you rant on about finally having firm ground under your feet again. And maybe I want to live to eighty, and do something as simple as spend a day sitting on my front porch, and I want you to be there to grumble about the neighbors' kids kicking their football into the garden. Whatever happens, I just want you there, and that's why I could never leave you behind."
The thing that had been lurking on the edge of Leonard's awareness for the entire conversation suddenly grew and started to shift into focus. He didn't know why, but his heart started pounding a rapid beat against the inside of his chest, and his palms felt clammy.
He was doing the same thing, Leonard realized. He had never consciously thought about it, but that didn't make it any less true. For the past three years aboard Enterprise, keeping Jim alive had been one of the focal points of his life. And only part of that was for shortsighted reasons, because keeping Jim alive to see the next mission, making sure that he was still going to be around for whatever the universe had planned for them next, was only one side of it. The other, bigger and far more selfish part of it all was that Leonard would run himself ragged in order to keep Jim alive because…well, because he could no longer imagine a life without Jim in it.
He got it. He understood what Jim was trying to say, and though that didn't make the thought that Jim would rather throw his own life away than save himself while Leonard died any more bearable, he got it.
From one moment to the next, he understood what this was all about, what realization had been nagging at him ever since that fateful shuttle crash. It suddenly seemed completely impossible that he could have been blind enough not to see it before.
If I have to make the choice between dying with you or living without you, I'll stay. Always, and without hesitation. So don't you ever tell me to leave you, because I can't.
As far as declarations of love went, this was probably the most honest and at the same time most vulnerable one Leonard had ever heard. Something inside his chest tightened at the thought of how much this meant, how much Jim had offered him with those few words, even if Jim had only dared to say them when he had thought Leonard was unconscious. All he wanted to do was wrap Jim up in his arms and never let him go again, as if that could somehow shield him from all the people out there who didn't get what an incredible man he was.
His heart was beating fast in his chest at the realization that yes, a life without Jim didn't seem particularly worth living anymore. That realization felt like an important puzzle piece sliding into place, and the thought that Jim might be feeling the same…
But he couldn't push away that last remnant of doubt. If he misread things and jeopardized everything on a whim that was fueled by a near-death experience and lack of sleep, he wasn't going to forgive himself for it. Jim's friendship was the one thing in his life that he wasn't willing to put on the line for anything, not even the hope for something more. Not unless he was sure he and Jim wanted the same thing.
Not unless he heard Jim say it, one way or another. Preferably while Leonard was awake this time.
"I doubt that your wife, or whoever you're going to share that future house and bed with once you turn eighty and spend your days sitting on the porch, is going to be too excited about my grumpy self being around all the time. Some hallmark moments in life are reserved for family."
Jim tensed noticeably, his eyes still turned on his nervously wringing hands. His shoulders lifted as he drew in a deep breath and finally, just as Leonard had convinced himself that Jim was not going to respond to his last words, he sighed almost inaudibly.
"Maybe," he interrupted himself and started worrying the cuticle of his index finger with his thumb, but stopped himself with a determined movement of his hands. His voice, however, didn't exactly mirror that determination. "Maybe…being out here in space, and then going back to Earth someday to retire and grow old, what if…what if you are the only one I want to have around for all those things?"
Something in Leonard's chest lurched almost painfully, but the most surprising thing was how calm he felt in the face of that confession. In fact, it felt a little as if the pieces of his life slid into place one by one, and he really thought he liked the picture they formed. Jim was worrying his cuticle again, and this time he made no move to stop himself. It seemed like the most natural thing then to reach out and take Jim's hand into his own.
"I think I'd like that."
Jim turned his head to look at Leonard for the first time in long minutes. His eyes were wide with something Leonard couldn't quite define, but which looked a little like surprise, mixed with disbelief.
There were a number of ways Leonard could think of to convince Jim of what he was trying to say. Sometimes though, words only complicated things, and they had been talking and beating about the bush for far too long already.
Leonard had no idea where he was taking the courage from, but with Jim's gaze still steady on him, he leaned in closer and pressed his lips against Jim's. It was a short kiss, almost chaste, but Leonard's eyes slid closed at the feeling of Jim's lips on his own because he hadn't even known how much he wanted this.
It was over way too quickly, even though Leonard was the one to withdraw from it, it felt much too soon. Jim was looking at him somewhat dazedly, his lips slightly parted. Leonard squeezed the hand he was still holding in his own.
"I think I'd like that very much."
It took a second, then Jim's lips pulled up into a smile, and Leonard couldn't help it, he had to lean in for another kiss. Jim's lips were warm and soft, and as they started to move against his own, Leonard brought his free hand up against the back of Jim's neck and pulled him even closer.
It was nothing like that first mockery of a kiss they had shared underwater, when Jim had broken through his determination to not let him waste his own life in an attempt to save Leonard's. It was new and exciting, but at the same time it felt like coming home after a long and exhausting journey. Jim's body was warm against his own, and the hand he slid up his side to rest against Leonard's hip felt as if it belonged there. And when Jim tilted his head slightly and parted his lips even further, Leonard leaned in closer and deepened the kiss.
He might have imagined a few times what kissing Jim would feel like, but he had never pictured it like this. It was neither hungry nor wild, but it was perfect just the way it was – slow and almost achingly tender. It wasn't just a step on the way to some passionate sex, and not just because right now Leonard was barely able to keep himself upright. It felt like they had reached a point that irrevocably redefined everything about their relationship, but it felt right. It felt right to pull Jim even closer against himself, to listen to the small, almost desperate sound Jim made in the back of his throat as he slid his hand up Leonard's side and gripped his shirt tightly. It felt right to keep chasing those full lips for a few more small kisses even as the need to breathe forced them apart.
With a small sigh, Leonard leaned his forehead against Jim's, fingers still idly running through the short hairs on the back of his head. Jim released his death grip on Leonard's shirt, and Leonard couldn't suppress a small shudder as those fingers gently ghosted across the dip of his spine between his shoulder blades. His left hand was still entwined tightly with Jim's right, and Leonard gave it a squeeze as he sagged a little further against Jim.
It felt hard to find any words now, when it felt like this was all he ever needed – Jim close against him, close enough to smell his scent, to feel his breaths against his face, and the thrum of his pulse under his skin. This was all he ever needed, but there were no words to say it out loud that wouldn't have sounded needy, like too much, too fast. For now, Leonard was content to just bask in the feeling of having Jim this close, and it was enough.
It was more than enough, and it was only the start.
A content sound, half a sigh and half a murmur, rose from somewhere deep in his chest. It must have sounded sleepy though, because Jim gently drew back a little and pressed the palm of his hand that wasn't still entangled with Leonard's fingers against Leonard's face with a small chuckle.
"You need to get some rest, Bones."
Up this close, there was no way not to see the dark smudges underneath Jim's eyes and the lines of exhaustion on his face. Leonard brought up his own hand to cup Jim's cheek, thumb tracing over his cheekbone.
"So do you."
Jim smiled and pressed another quick kiss against Leonard's lips, then he pushed him back into the mattress. Leonard went along with the gentle pressure, mostly because he didn't have the strength to struggle against Jim right now even if he wanted to. But then Jim got up from his perch on the bed, and Leonard started to panic. If Jim left now, things were going to be awkward between them come tomorrow morning for sure, and Leonard didn't want that. He wanted for whatever had started between them now to progress, wanted to see where it took them, but had no idea how to put it into words.
But Jim made no move to leave. He shrugged out of his shoes and pants, and clad in just his boxer shorts and t-shirt turned back towards the bed. He didn't get in, though, instead he stood in front of it almost shyly, as if he didn't quite dare to lie down beside Leonard. He brought up his hand and rubbed the back of his neck.
"Think there's room enough for two in your bed?"
There was none of his usual cockiness to the question, and Leonard was surprised to notice that there was something almost insecure about the way he stood there, all but asking for permission to join him. And he didn't quite know how to put it into words that there'd always be a place for Jim – in his bed, his heart and in his life. But they had never needed words to understand each other when it really counted. Besides, they were still at the start of whatever was happening between them. They still had time to figure out how to find the right words for when they needed them.
So instead of saying anything, Leonard drew back the blanket and in wordless invitation scooted closer against the wall to make space for Jim on the narrow bed. Full lips turned into an almost shy smile, and then Jim slid into bed beside him. There wasn't much room on the narrow Starfleet standard issue mattress, but their bodies lined up almost automatically. Leonard had long ago given up being surprised about most things to do with Jim, so he really wasn't surprised about how their bodies fit together like they belonged like this. Maybe they simply did, and that was already the simple truth to it.
Leonard had never considered whether or not his bed was really comfortable. It was a place to catch up on the rest his body needed, nothing more, noting less. But right now, as Jim shifted into a comfortable position beside him, sliding his body up against Leonard's until it felt like they were touching everywhere, he realized that yes, this was probably the most comfortable he had been in years.
They finally settled, and Jim burrowed his face into the crook of Leonard's neck as Leonard ordered the lights out and wrapped his arm around Jim's waist, pulling him in even closer. For a few minutes, they lay like that silently, reveling in the feeling of new and right, and Leonard silently vowed to do anything in his power to keep this.
It was Jim who finally broke the silence, though his voice was barely more than a whisper.
"Just don't dare to nearly die on me again, Bones. Don't you dare."
Leonard tightened his hold on Jim and, just because he could, leaned down to press another kiss against Jim's lips.
"Just promise me you'll do the same."
"I'll always do my damn best to come back to you, Bones."
It wasn't an easy promise to keep, considering the lives they led, and maybe the future was going to make a liar out of either – or both – of them sooner than they thought possible. But as Jim pressed another kiss against his lips and then settled against him, Leonard figured that it was a start. They'd figure the rest out as they went along.
They still had time. And for tonight, Jim was in his arms, and he was going to be there when Leonard woke up tomorrow morning. All this was still going to be real come tomorrow.
Maybe for now, that would be enough to keep the nightmares at bay. In any case, it was a start.
Leonard closed his eyes, and with the sound and feel of Jim's breathing soft and regular against his neck, he drifted off.