He dies in stages.
If you test me, you will fail.
Bone’s bad metaphor is still ringing in Jim’s ears but he hears the iron slipped into Sulu’s voice, smiles at the way he says Captain Hikaru Sulu, smiles at the first name, the way he rolls the r.
If you test me, you will fail. And that’s the thing – it’s true, and Jim knows it, knows Sulu will never fail, knows that Sulu is not to be trifled with, knows it enough that he jumped off a drill into the atmosphere of an imploding planet to save him.
He trusts Sulu, with the ship, with their lives.
He’s not a captain, Bones had hissed in his ear.
Maybe we don’t need a Captain right now, Jim thinks. Maybe we just need Sulu.
Later, as they watch Nyota try to negotiate with the Klingons, Jim remembers that he’s violating orders, that Pike isn’t around to get him out of trouble anymore. He wonders if this is the last time he will be in space. He wonders if this is the last time he will be Captain to Sulu’s pilot.
It starts then, the death – the collapsing, a slow, inevitable pull.
He ignores it.
“That was a hell of an apology,” Admiral Marcus says. “But did you really think I’d spare your crew?”
Humility, desperation – things he has never encountered before, things he puts on display for Admiral Marcus, wears them like banners, like prayer flags. They mean nothing. Marcus’s smile reaches his eyes. He is enjoying this.
“Fire every –” Marcus is saying when the transmission cuts off and Jim can only stand there, feels the weight of eight hundred lives on his shoulders, thinks about what being a Captain means and turns to face them.
Are they the last things he will see? It blurs together – Nyota’s eyes, the set of Spock’s mouth, Sulu – no.
He looks at Sulu last, feels the other man’s gaze like a punch in the stomach, like an apology and Kirk can’t do anything, can’t even touch him because he is Captain right now, not Jim, and Hikaru is Sulu right now.
(That is important to him, to Sulu. The distinction of their personal and professional lives. The distinction between Hikaru, lover, and Sulu, pilot.)
Sulu accepts it; his spine stays straight. His gaze doesn’t waver. He nods, the movement barely perceptible.
This is why I fell in love with you, Jim thinks, because Sulu has always been steady and unyielding, a perfect counterpart to Jim’s brash unpredictability, a perfect anchor.
Jim feels something give in his body, in his heart and it suddenly hurts to breathe but he doesn’t break eye contact, knows that this is how he wants to greet death – anchored in Sulu’s gaze.
“My display is broken,” he tries to keep his voice even but he hears the tension in Sulu’s voice when he speaks.
“Without the display, you won’t make it,” and Jim wants to shrug but he’s pelting through space at a ‘wee’ door and can’t, knows he’s several degrees off course and that this is a bad idea.
He remembers the last time he was pelting through space, when he was hurtling to his death, hurtling towards Sulu, and Sulu’s eyes were wide and his mouth slightly open in fear and disbelief as Jim came falling after him.
He doesn’t need a psychic link to know that Sulu is thinking the same thing, thinks about the collision of when he slammed into Sulu and Sulu’s arms curled around his shoulders and back in desperate, thinks about when they slammed into the floor of the transport pad and Sulu shot him such a wild grin that Jim fell in love with him all over again.
Khan is speaking and Jim shifts, angles his body to get back on course but it feels all wrong and he doesn’t want to be falling through Klingon space with the man that murdered Pike, he wants to be falling hand in hand with Sulu, the fires of Vulcan beneath them and the endless sky around them.
Khan kicks him down and negotiates with Spock and Jim stares at the floor and thinks about how this will end, how it’s not worth it, how Spock has no choice.
How he is letting everyone down.
This is not how it’s supposed to end.
Khan hisses a ship can’t go down without her Captain just as Kirk is phasing out and he feels a piece of himself break off, feels himself withering.
4 & 5.
He dies twice that day.
The first time. He feels the ship shuddering under him and knows he has no time to see Hikaru one last time, knows that Hikaru is steering the Enterprise into a graceful fall rather than a full on collision and Jim cannot distract him from that.
He runs to engineering, Scotty cursing about how he’s only been gone one bloody day and Chekov talking miles a minute and then Scotty says the warp core isn’t aligned and Kirk remembers cartoons he used to watch as a kid, with the devil on one shoulder and the angel on another.
The good of many out weight the good of a few Spock whispers in his head, and maybe Spock is his angel, or maybe he’s just Jim’s resident shoulder-Vulcan but he rushes to the warp, Scotty tagging behind him.
Scotty says we’d die even before we’d make the climb and Jim punches him, catches Scotty and lowers him to the floor before saying, you’re not going to make the climb.
The ship swerves, bucks and Jim has never ridden a horse and now he never will – he shoves that thought aside – but he recognizes the movements of a shuddering, dying thing, and thinks he and the ship are one right now, clings to the cables and pulls himself up to kick furiously at the warp core.
There’s blood inside his mouth but the ship has righted herself and Jim drags himself to the outer chamber and slumps against the wall, feels life leaving him like water bursting from a dam, the pressure building and then relenting.
He can hear Scotty saying you can’t open the door, it’s locked and wonders who has found him.
The second time. Spock presses his hand against the glass separating them and Kirk knows he cannot even say goodbye, can barely keep his eyes open, cannot articulate his emotions or let Spock press against his psi points and know everything in Jim’s head.
(Jim tries not to let the haze of regret fog this, tries not to analyze what is happening while it is happening, chokes out I’m scared. How do you choose to not feel? and watches as Spock’s eyelashes flutter against his cheek, wet with tears.
I do not know Spock replies and Kirk gives up and tries to embrace this fear, tries to focus on the stabilizing ship beneath him, knows that Hikaru is doing his job, knows Hikaru is on this ship, knows he saved Hikaru. Hikaru, and Chekov, and Bones, and Spock, and Scotty, and Uhura – but Hikaru, most of all.
“Do you know why I couldn’t let you die?” Jim asks and Spock nods, tears slipping down his skin.
Jim can’t say, can you tell Hikaru that I love him? Or can you tell Bones that I’m sorry? Or Can you tell Scotty this isn’t his fault? Instead he presses his palm against the glass, forces his fingers in the Vulcan salute and thinks about falling.
Bones says something about transfusions and Jim asks “Khan?” even though he knows the answer, knows that in heaven, Bones wouldn’t be wearing all white and Jim wouldn’t be in a medical bed.
Spock is like something soft with half of it’s shell pulled away, the intensity of his need for Kirk to be alive badly hidden in the lines of his body and Kirk can only smile when Spock says You are welcome.
He thinks he’s taking it in stride but he’s cold and Bones says it’s been two weeks and he’s shaking, he can’t stop shaking and then Bones leaves the room and a moment later Hikaru walks in.
“Captain,” Sulu – not Hikaru, Sulu – says, the restraint pulling on his words and Jim looks up at him.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“Permission granted.” They’re not on duty, Jim is back from the dead for christsakes but Sulu’s fists are clenched and Jim doesn’t want to test him.
“Your crew is – glad to see you alive again,” there’s a faint emphasis on the ‘again,’ “and grateful for your…sacrifice.”
“Are you as well, Mr. Sulu?”
“As your Lieutenant, I am,” Sulu’s jaw is clenched.
“And as a civilian?” Sulu doesn’t say anything so Jim lowers his voice. “Hikaru?”
“If you ever,” Hikaru starts, but his voice cracks and he’s by Jim’s bed in an instant, and even though he’s shaking the hands that cup Jim’s face are gentle, and the lips that brush his are reverent. “If you ever do that again,” Hikaru says, but doesn’t finish and he doesn’t need too; instead he leans his forehead against Jim’s and Jim lays one hand over Hikaru’s, waits until Hikaru has stopped shaking.
“I love you.” He says, instead of explaining it was for the greater good or it was for you or I was thinking of you the entire time.
“Yes,” Hikaru agrees – to all of it, the violent shuddering of his body finally gone. “Please never leave me again.”
Jim thinks about how he essentially said that after they had rescued Pike, when Bones was cleaning the cut on Sulu’s cheek and Jim had said don’t ever fall off a drilling platform again, do you understand me? and Sulu had grinned at him, because he knew what Jim was really saying I love you, you stupid asshole.
“Yes,” it’s Jim’s turn to agree. “Yes, I won’t.”
Sulu climbs into bed with him and wraps a careful arm around Jim’s body and Jim relaxes against him, lets Sulu run careful hands along Jim’s sides, down his arms, across his face, his mouth, his neck.
Life blooms everywhere Sulu touches.