I. Atlanta, Georgia, 2254
David McCoy's eyes were closed and his hands lay limp upon the quilt, but Leonard knew that he was awake. These days his father couldn't sleep without medication, and Leonard was just coming now to dose him before heading to bed himself. As he lingered in the doorway, watching his father's fingers curl reflexively against the patchwork quilt, listening to his sharp inhalations, Leonard felt a creeping certainty in his gut.
It was easy enough to ignore when he was working at the hospital, or when he was at home, listening to Joanna chatter about preschool. It came to him – more surely with each passing day – when he was still, when things were quiet. In the locker room after a long shift, the sweat drying on his brow and under his arms, the medical tricorder heavy in his hands. Standing irresolutely on the front porch, knowing there'd be no one waiting up for him, just his dinner, wrapped in plastic on the kitchen counter, and the light on the stairs set to about 50% luminosity. When he lay in bed beside his wife, his back to hers, a foot or more of cold linen between them.
He knew. His father was dying, and he wasn't dying fast enough. Every day he was a little weaker. Every few days Leonard had to increase the dosage of the painkiller he administered. Each passing day brought them no closer to a cure for the degenerative disease that had claimed his father's dignity, his autonomy, and would eventually claim his life.
Leonard's fingers curled tightly around the hypospray. Its cold solidity gave him little comfort. He felt as helpless as he had as a boy, following the shuttle accident that had taken his mother from him.
It's not fair. The voice in his head was thin with fear, a child's voice.
But medicine wasn't about fairness. It worked or it didn't, indiscriminate of the patient's comparative worth to society, or of who depended on him, needed him to get better. That was part of its appeal, Leonard thought as he finally pushed himself away from the doorframe and crossed the carpeted floor to his father's bedside.
His father muttered indistinctly as Leonard pressed the hypospray as gently as he could against his neck. His eyelids fluttered, but didn't rise.
"Hey, Dad?" Leonard said softly, bending low.
"I gave Marcia the night off," he said, referring to the home health aide he'd hired to take care of his father when he had to be elsewhere. "Jocelyn's gone down to Savannah to visit her folks, and she took Jo with her." He paused, then decided his father didn't need to know about the fight that had precipitated Jocelyn's desire to see her parents. "I'll be in the living room if you need me."
He started to straighten, pocketing the hypospray. He felt the brush of fingertips against his wrist and froze.
"Stay a minute." David McCoy's voice was weak, but there was no strain in it; these drugs were working, at least. "Sit next to me for a few minutes."
There was just room enough for Leonard to sit on the edge of the bed. As his father leaned into him, he couldn't help noticing how light he was. A strong gust of wind could have blown him away. The man who, only a few months ago, had been able to lift five-year-old Joanna in his arms and twirl her around like she weighed nothing at all.
"Jocelyn went to Savannah? And took Jo?"
"Shoulda gone with 'em."
"I hate shuttles."
"I hate beaming."
David McCoy sighed. "We should've had more children, your mama and I. One of you clearly isn't enough."
Leonard forced himself to laugh. "It's all right, Dad. I really don't mind." And he didn't, a fact that bothered him, but he decided not to think about it right then. Instead, he reached over and picked up the book he'd just noticed by his father's side. "What're you reading?" It was a battered paperback. "Yeats," he read. "Selected poems. Oh good, something uplifting."
His father dismissed his sarcasm with a snort. "Marcia got it down for me before you came over. I was thinking … wishing I could see Ireland again. Didn't wanna go without your mama, but I should've taken you anyway. You were too young to appreciate it the last time."
"I barely remember it."
"You were six. Don't expect you to remember a goddamn thing. Got your mama that ring there," he said, touching the gold ring that Leonard wore on the smallest finger of his left hand. For a few moments he seemed almost mesmerized by the round-cut ruby set in the center. Leonard found himself gazing at it too; it glittered in the bedside lamp's warm light.
At length, David McCoy sighed again and said, "If you give that ring away to anyone, give it to someone you love. Give it to Joanna, not Jocelyn." He left it there, and after a minute, Leonard decided not to ask. His father had never warmed to Jocelyn, and now was not the time to try to convince him that he was being unfair. He'd planned to give the ring to Jo anyway, when she was a little older.
"All right, Dad," he said.
"So, are you gonna read to me, or what?"
Leonard's lips quirked. "Are you asking me to read to you?"
"No, I'm asking if you're gonna read to me, or if you're gonna just sit there with my book in your hand."
There was a plaintive note just beneath the querulous tone. Leonard opened the book to the page his father had marked with a folded-down corner, and began to read:
"The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky—"
His father interrupted him: "Not that one, the one on the other page."
Leonard rolled his eyes. But then he read dutifully,
"When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes once had, and of their shadows deep…"
"I can't read anymore," David McCoy said quietly when Leonard paused to moisten his lips with his tongue. "Just don't have the goddamn strength." The admission sank into Leonard and he found that he had to swallow a few times before he could speak again.
"How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved—"
His father touched his hand again. "Len."
"This isn't living."
Leonard closed his eyes. "I know."
"Fuck this disease. I've lived on my own terms. I want to die on my own terms."
Leonard opened his eyes. The words on the page blurred and ran into one another. The whisper squeezed itself through the cracks in his heart: "I know."
II. Atlanta, Georgia, 2255
Leonard thought, I can do this. I can do this if I just don't think about what I'm doing. "Jo," he called.
Above him, the leaves of the red maple shivered, but that was the only response he got. Moving a little closer to the tree trunk, ignoring the bits of moss and lichen that flecked off onto his sleeve, he tilted his head back and peered upward. He could see the little pink sole of Joanna's sneaker, and maybe an inch or two of denim pant leg, but that was it.
"Come on, sweetheart," he said gently. "I have to go now, and I wanna—" The words say goodbye stuck in his throat. After a few moments of harsh breathing, he tried a different tactic: "You're too high up. Come on down, before you fall and break something."
"What d'you care?" she shot back finally. "You ain't my daddy anymore."
Her words shredded him. It was some time before he'd pulled together enough of himself to make a reply. "Jo, I'm always gonna be your daddy. Wherever I go, and whatever happens, that doesn't stop just because your mama and I are getting divorced. Some things never stop. I'm always gonna love you, baby-girl. So come on down and give me a hug. It's not goodbye, it's—"
But it was goodbye, he thought, as he turned and leaned back wearily against the tree. He'd come back to Atlanta sometime – if for no other reason than to see his Joanna – but it wouldn't be the same. With his parents gone now, and the house where he'd grown up going to Jocelyn as part of the divorce terms … this wasn't home, anymore. He slumped down among the roots of the red maple and closed his eyes. The sticky air moved sluggishly around him, carrying the scent of magnolias and ginger lilies. He tried to concentrate on the simple mechanics of breathing.
Inhale, he told himself. Exhale.
Above him, the leaves fluttered. In the glare of the late-afternoon sun, their undersides were the color of fresh bruises. Leonard was unaware of the passage of time, of how long he sat here, neck craned back, staring at the leaves and the scraps of white sky between them. He was very stiff and uncomfortable by the time Joanna shimmied down the tree trunk. He didn't move, only flicked his gaze from the leaves to her face, pale beneath the smudges of dirt.
Slowly, very slowly, she sank down beside him and wrapped her arms around him. Just as slowly, he lifted his hand to cover hers. She was wearing the ruby ring, he noticed, the one he'd tried to give her yesterday, when she was hiding under her bed and refusing to come out. After thirty minutes of cajoling, and another thirty of just sitting in that blue-and-cream room he and Jocelyn had decorated together, he'd gotten up and dropped the ring into one of Joanna's jewelry boxes, the heart-shaped one that played a tinny version of "Waltz of the Flowers" when you lifted the lid. The ring had landed amid charm bracelets and plastic bangles with a clink that had sounded oddly final to Leonard's ear.
It's you, baby-girl, he'd wanted to say as he'd walked out of her room and gone to finish his packing. You're the love I've been looking for all my life. Feeling so much older than twenty-eight…
Joanna's slender arms tightened about him, and it occurred to Leonard that she was trying to hurt him.
"It's okay, sweetheart," he murmured, turning his head so he could kiss her hair. The citrus scent of her shampoo filled his nostrils; he wished he could hold it in his lungs. Just take it with him to wherever he was going. "I'll call you as often as I can. And I'll come back."
"When?" she demanded thickly. She'd buried her face in his shoulder.
"I don't know," he said, which was honest. "Soon," he added, which was not. He suspected that she knew – Jo had always been astute – but she didn't say anything. She just clung to him, and he let her.
III. USS Enterprise, 2258
"Bones? You said you needed to see me?"
The kid sounded all out of breath, like he'd just run up here from Engineering. He probably had, come to think of it. The Narada had done so much damage to the Enterprise that most of the turbolifts had been taken off-line in an effort to conserve power and redirect what little they had to where it was needed most – like life support. If you wanted to get anywhere on the ship, you basically had to crawl through a maze of Jeffries tubes. Or walk.
Or run, if you were Acting First Officer James T. Kirk, and had to do every goddamn thing at a faster pace than anyone in his right mind. Until Starfleet got a rescue ship out to them, Kirk evidently thought conserving energy was a grand idea, so long as it wasn't his own.
Hence the ambush here on Observation Platform C.
"Door locks," McCoy said as soon as the kid was well inside the small dark room.
Worn out as he was, Jim understood what was happening. "Computer, belay that order."
"Computer," McCoy said calmly, crossing his arms over his chest, "override. Authorization: McCoy Epsilon Alpha Joanna Five Seven Nine."
"Computer," Jim began huffily, then stopped. His handsome, haggard features screwed up in annoyance. "I don't have an authorization code. No one gave me one."
"I know," said McCoy.
"Bones, I don't have time for this – whatever it is. I'm needed—"
"I know," McCoy said again, advancing slowly. "I know you are, kid. But you need a break or you're gonna make yourself sick." He stopped and reached out a hand to grasp Jim's shoulder. He felt the little shiver through the thick cotton shirt. Jim was actually trembling with fatigue.
"Bones, I can't. Everything's a mess, and the nearest Federation ship is still days away. No one is taking any breaks—"
"Bullshit," McCoy cut in.
"Everyone's working overtime," Jim amended, which was nearer to the truth, so McCoy let him go on. Though he maintained an air of rigidity, he wasn't particularly bothered by the kid's protestations. Letting Jim work himself into such a lather that he passed out from sheer exhaustion was Plan B.
"Morale's way down," Jim continued like he thought he had any chance of moving McCoy. "And that's understandable. There isn't a single person aboard this ship who hasn't lost someone they knew. And if that weren't bad enough, there's Vulcan. Bones, I can hardly wrap my mind around it. A whole planet – gone. Six billion people, just – gone. If I stop to think about it, if any of us stop—" The words were coming out fast and harsh, and the light in his blue eyes was hectic. McCoy tightened his grip. "Spock hasn't taken a break either, you know."
"Oh, I'll get to him. But Spock," said McCoy, forestalling whatever else Jim intended to say, "wasn't fighting Romulans on a goddamn drill thousands of feet above a planet's surface. Spock didn't get his ass half-frozen and damn near eaten alive on Delta Vega. Spock…" His voice dropped to a growl and anger burned in his throat, "…didn't almost get himself choked to death. Twice." He was standing close enough to see the finger-length bruises on Jim's neck. "Besides, Spock has a Vulcan's constitution. Whereas you, kid, are a little more breakable. It's not a character flaw, it's a biological fact."
As he'd spoken, Jim had started to relax. At the word breakable, however, he'd tensed up again. He started to pull back, but McCoy grabbed his other shoulder. "Listen to me," he said in a tone that brooked no argument. "I'm speaking as a doctor now. Your doctor. I'm asking you to trust and respect my professional opinion. Now, I've patched up all your cuts, I've mended all your fractures, but your body's still healing. I can suture a wound; that doesn't make it go away. And you're not doing yourself any favors, trying to be everywhere at once. You're exhausted. The crew - your crew – can spare you for a little while. Because you really are going to make yourself sick if you keep this up. Your judgment's gonna be impaired, if it isn't already. Lead by example: show your people that they've gotta take care of themselves in addition to the ship. All right?"
Jim's nostrils flared and his chin jutted, but McCoy kept his gaze steady, his grip firm, but after a few moments of tense silence, he said, "All right."
"All right," said McCoy, relieved but not altogether surprised. Jim didn't set limits for himself, but he generally respected the ones imposed on him by others – providing the explanations were acceptable. "I had you come here because it's quiet … and you apparently haven't been assigned quarters yet. I don't have any drugs with me. No pills, no hypos. You're gonna sit still for forty minutes. We can talk. Or not. I brought you a sandwich, since I have this sneaking suspicion you've been getting about as much food as you have sleep."
Jim's head bobbed, and another shiver raced across his shoulders. But he said with surprising strength and authority, "Twenty minutes."
"We're not negotiating, Jim," McCoy told him dryly. "Forty minutes, and that's an order. Or I will declare you medically unfit for duty … for the duration of the trip back to Earth. And if you think that's an idle threat, just try me."
He knew he'd won already, but he raised both eyebrows anyway. For some reason, since their first meeting on that shuttle in Riverside, Iowa, Jim had taken McCoy's eyebrows very seriously. The fight went out of him like a candle flame being snuffed out, and he sagged in McCoy's grip.
Gently, McCoy drew him closer so he could wrap an arm around his shoulders. Jim stumbled as he was led to one of the low, window-facing couches, and sank against the cushions with a grunt so soft it was almost a sigh. McCoy sat down next to him.
"Forty minutes," he said. "Close your eyes."
"F'I close my eyes, m'gonna fall asleep," Jim mumbled, the words slurring into one another.
"Don't close your eyes, then. Look at the stars. Get used to them, since you'll be back out here before you know it. You were born to be out here … pushing the limits of what we know about our universe." He liked the way that came out. Jim seemed to as well, because he smiled, albeit limply. "I'll be there too."
"Space s'not so scary."
"Oh, yes it is," said McCoy. "But someone's gotta keep an eye on you. That's all later, though. For now … relax. Lean into the cushions. Lean against me. I'm not going anywhere. Just … be still."
He tried to keep his voice low, soothing. It worked. After a few minutes spent staring at the stars, Jim began to nod off. First his eyes fluttered closed, then his head tipped forward. McCoy had to catch him, to stop him from falling off the couch. As he hauled him back, McCoy noticed that he was still shivering. He wished he'd thought to bring a blanket. He could've told the computer to raise the air temperature in the room, but he didn't dare speak, for fear of waking Jim. So – his own judgment just the slightest bit impaired, perhaps – he slouched against the cushions with Jim in his arms.
Jim's head lolled against his shoulder and he muttered something indistinguishable.
"Shh." McCoy stroked the tawny hair. It was gritty and oily, and there were clumps stuck together with dried blood. Some of it was red, some Romulan green. He carded his fingers through it, but found only minor scratches. Disgusting, he thought fondly. You're a wreck, kid. An absolute wreck. I've never been so afraid for anyone. Or so proud.
McCoy watched the stars and held Jim Kirk while he slept soundly for forty minutes. Then, very carefully, he slid the kid's communicator out of his pocket and turned it off, before also turning off his own. He'd told Chapel where he'd be; if she needed him, she could page him over the ship's intercom, or send someone to get him. In the meantime…
He retrieved his PADD from the arm of the couch and started to scroll through the crew biographies he'd downloaded. They were his responsibility too, now, each and every one of them.
IV. USS Enterprise, 2259
Uhura was still seated by Spock's bed, stroking his hand, when McCoy returned to Sickbay. She was singing softly in a language he didn't recognize. She broke off and looked up when he approached.
"He's going to be all right," McCoy assured her, after a quick glance at the monitor above the bio-bed. Spock's vitals were low, but steady. Which was normal for a Vulcan in a healing trance, or so all his research told him. And which a quick consult with Doctor Geoffrey M'Benga on the new Vulcan colony of T'Shakaar had confirmed. "You should get some sleep. I won't need you to slap him out of it for a while."
The corners of her lips curved upward. "You just want me out of the way so you can do it yourself."
"The thought had occurred to me." McCoy grabbed a chair and wheeled it next to hers. He sank into it, bent forward at the waist, and groaned as his vertebrae popped.
"But?" she prompted, when he straightened.
"Ethics," McCoy grunted, stretching his arms and legs. He rotated his neck until he felt the pop there too. "Damn ethics. Besides, I really think he'd prefer it if your face were the first thing he sees when he wakes up." He didn't add, And he wouldn't be the only one, but hey. Uhura never seemed to mind his harmless flirting – probably because she knew it was entirely harmless – but her lover's bedside was the wrong place for it.
"You don't dislike Spock half as much as you pretend to," Uhura declared, like she'd caught him stealing a cookie or something.
"I don't dislike him at all," McCoy said. He looked at the man in the bio-bed and had to smile. Even unconscious, his eyes closed and his lips slack, Spock looked disapproving. But there was definitely a bit more color in his cheeks than there'd been when McCoy had stepped out earlier, and his breathing seemed natural.
"But you do pretend to," Uhura persisted.
"I don't." Sensing her skeptical glance, McCoy conceded a moment later, "All right, I do. Sometimes. But it's not about dislike or disrespect."
"What is it, then?"
McCoy shrugged. "Does it bother you?"
"Sometimes," she said.
McCoy studied his palms for a minute before answering. "He suppresses his emotions. I know that's the Vulcan way – cthia, or however you pronounce it – and I don't have a problem with that … in principle. It's not my way, but it's theirs, and to each his own. Seems to be working for them. But Spock's half human. He has human emotions. And – presumably – human emotional needs. Suppressing those emotions, denying those needs … can't be healthy. Granted, my background's in human psychology, not Vulcan, but I've seen him lose it twice, and it was scary."
"You worry about him?"
"I worry about everyone," McCoy admitted.
"Well," Uhura said, with a flash of a smile and a flick of her hair, "if it makes you feel any better, I've seen him lose it plenty of times, and it wasn't scary at all."
McCoy pinched the bridge of his nose. "I needed that image, thanks."
"In any case," he continued quickly, "I do like him, and I do enjoy arguing with him. Keeping him on his toes, as it were. Believe me, he keeps me on mine. Never meant to offend him, though. Or you. I'm sorry that I have." He meant it; Nyota Uhura was one of his favorite people aboard the Enterprise, one of the few whose approval really mattered to him. He didn't like the idea of being on her bad side.
"I wouldn't say you offend him," Uhura said. "Offense being an emotion. He did tell me, though, that of all the people on this ship, you often seem the most alien to him."
"Huh," said McCoy.
A few minutes slipped by. Spock's dark eyelashes quivered, and his feet moved restlessly under the thermal blanket. Uhura shifted closer to the edge of her seat, but McCoy shook his head. "I'll let you know when," he said.
She nodded, and tightened her grip on Spock's hand.
After another few minutes, she said, "How's the captain?"
"Sleeping," he replied. "I hope. Least, he was when I left him. Let him debrief Sulu, Chekov, and Scotty, then I marched him straight to his quarters. Tucked him in myself. He'll be sore in the morning and probably cranky as a result, but he'll be all right." And I have Spock to thank for that. Wonder if he'd appreciate my gratitude, or try to insist he acted logically?
"You really care for him deeply," Uhura said. "Beyond friendship." This time, there was no gotcha! in her tone.
McCoy stared at Spock's monitor until the numbers and symbols blurred.
"Now who's suppressing his emotions?"
"I can't get any more involved than I already am." The words came easily, despite the sudden tightness in his chest; he'd said them to himself any number of times. "Again – ethics. I'm his doctor, and he trusts me as such. More, I suspect, than he's ever trusted anyone in the medical field." He wondered if maybe he was feeding her too much information. Not about Jim – the captain's self-reliance was so well known among his crew that they'd all taken to looking after him in their way – but about himself. Still, it felt good to articulate some of the things that had been bothering him for months now, and when he slipped her a sideways glance, he read only empathy in her lovely dark eyes.
"That trust," he said, "I can't give it up. Can't hand him over to someone else, even to pursue… There's following your emotions, and there's letting yourself get tangled up in them. If I'm going to think clearly in an emergency situation, I need to keep some boundaries up." For some reason, he imagined a heart-shaped box snapping closed.
"And besides, I don't even know if he…" He bit his lip because now he was getting into dangerous territory. Early in their friendship, McCoy had made Jim promise that there'd be no flirting between them, with the implication that there'd be dire consequences if he broke his word. After the divorce and the abrupt move to San Francisco, he'd wanted – needed – a friend, he'd said, nothing more. And Jim had nodded solemnly and said, "All right." Now McCoy wondered if he'd made a mistake. He'd been wondering it since the kid had woken up in his arms six hours after the start of what was supposed to have been a forty-minute nap, and mumbled, "Hi, Bones." There'd been something so unguarded and trusting in his eyes. It had hit McCoy like a hammer, especially since he'd been anticipating anger and steeling himself for it.
She saw his expression, of course. "I'm sorry. It's none of my business, is it? I'm only giving you a hard time because I'm worried about Spock. I can't stop thinking about what he did, and how I'm sure he rationalized his decision. I think maybe that's what frightens me the most: that he was able to rationalize throwing himself between…"
"It's not illogical," McCoy said when she trailed off, grateful for the change of subject. "You love him." He reached over and covered her free hand with his. She smiled briefly, almost shyly.
"You love him," McCoy said again. "Your illogicality is perfectly logical to me. He's going to be all right. I promise. We'll stay with him until he is. Then, if you like, we can both tell him off."
V. Malab II, 2263
"It's gonna be all right, son."
McCoy doubted Ensign Baum could hear him, but he kept up a steady stream of encouragement as he applied direct pressure to the worst of the young man's wounds, and kept a careful eye on the rest. "It's all right, I've gotcha. You just hang in there. As soon as the fighting dies down, they'll be able to get a lock on us, and beam us back to the ship. Then I'll get you all patched up. You'll be back on your feet in no time, risking your damn fool neck, no appreciation whatsoever for the time and effort I…"
He was lying, of course, and if Baum had even a spark of consciousness, he probably knew it too. There was just too much blood. It bubbled up hot and sticky between McCoy's fingers, soaked through the gauze bandages he'd already applied. Baum was pale as a corpse already, and that familiar certainty clawed at McCoy's belly, but he just drew a deep breath, wiped the sweat from his brow with his shoulder, and started again.
"This is a dumb place to die. You and I both know that. So hold on…"
A shell struck the rock that sheltered them, spraying them with dirt and pebbles. McCoy threw himself on top of Baum, shielding him. Though why he was worried about keeping the wounds clean now, when…
It mattered. McCoy couldn't say why, only that it did.
Another shell hit the rock, starting another cascade. Fragments struck McCoy's scalp and neck, and he grunted at the sting. He wished he knew if their attackers were actually aiming for the rock, if they knew where they were hiding, or just kept getting lucky as they tried to take out Jim and the rest of the away team.
In McCoy's last memory of him, he, Sulu, and Lieutenant Quaisar were pinned down by enemy fire. Jim was gesturing frantically toward the spot where Ensign Baum had fallen, and mouthing, Go, go! to McCoy. Through the smoke and the dust that their fighting had kicked up, his eyes were about the most vivid blue that McCoy had ever seen.
Don't think about that.
One thing at a time. Right now, Baum was his priority. He couldn't be worrying about Jim when this kid was bleeding to death in his arms.
But when am I not worrying about Jim?
Baum deserved his full attention.
"This is a dumb place, period," McCoy muttered in Baum's ear. "'Magine you agree."
To his surprise, the ensign's lashes fluttered feebly and he coughed. It was a thick, wet sound: not good, not at all good.
"Yeah," Baum breathed.
"Don't talk," McCoy cautioned. He could feel Baum's heartbeat stammering against his own. "Shh. Just—"
"If not here, where?"
"Where's it a good place to die?"
"Nowhere." The word tore itself from his throat just as another shell hit their rock. A jagged chunk thudded into McCoy's back. He grunted in pain. "Georgia," he said, after making sure Baum hadn't been struck too. "It's as good a place as any, and it's sure as hell better than here. It's warm there, for one thing, unlike this freezing mudball. You got that red earth, and the scent of mint and magnolias…" Something caught in his throat and he had to swallow a few times. "But not until you're older. God, I sound like I'm talking to my daughter. She's fourteen now, can you believe that? Not that much younger than you."
"Gorgeous. A peach. Not that that's any concern of yours. I mean it, now, don't try to talk."
"Thanks, doc." Baum coughed again, and a bubble of blood appeared at the corner of his mouth, then ran down his chin in a thin ribbon.
For what? McCoy wanted to ask. Instead, his arms trembling, his heart breaking, he said, "Come on, come on."
On the other side of the rock, shots were still being fired. Which was good, McCoy knew, because it meant that Jim and the others were still alive.
Please, Jim. Stay alive.
But sounds of combat sounded so far away now, like they were part of some holovid soundtrack. A haze settled over McCoy. He felt strangely detached, like someone had given him a nerve block. Or several. It occurred to him dimly that that chunk of rock might've done some actual damage when it hit. Either that or he was losing his mind.
"I think I'm going crazy," McCoy informed Baum, who couldn't possibly give a shit, even if he were still alive. "I'm sorry, kid. I'm real sorry. It should've been somewhere else. Years from now, when you're old…"
When you are old and gray and full of sleep.
McCoy closed his eyes.
I can't keep doing this.
&1. T'Shakaar, 2275
The silver eyebrows lifted, and McCoy regretted the harshness of his tone. But he went on pacing by the foot of the bed, occasionally glancing down at its occupant. For some reason, one that he knew had nothing to do with the reddish afternoon sunlight streaming through the window, he could only stand to look at Spock out of the corner of his eye.
"Why did you send for me, of all people? Why not your younger self? Or Kirk?"
The old Vulcan's voice was soft and dry: "My younger self is as logical a man as I have endeavored to be for most of my life. But I think that even he would be a bit … perturbed by a summons to his own deathbed. As for Jim Kirk," he went on before McCoy had had time to formulate a retort, "I said goodbye to him once. And once was enough."
"Afraid you might get emotional?"
"Not afraid," said Spock calmly, and the withered lips actually pulled back in the wisp of smile. "I know that I would."
"But I'm safe."
His tone was not reproachful, but McCoy felt the sting. He stopped pacing, ducked his head, and scratched at the back of his neck. "Sorry," he muttered. "I'm sorry. I'm being a real— Well, this isn't very professional of me. I just—" He twisted so he could look out the window at T'Shakaar's copper sands. They stretched to the horizon, over which the arching sky shimmered like the inside of a seashell. The survivors of Nero's genocide had found themselves a starkly pretty world, he thought.
After a few minutes, he realized that Spock was waiting for him to say something more. He scratched his neck again while he thought about what he could say that wouldn't sound peevish or stupid. In the end, he just sighed and let loose; it was his way, and he wasn't about to change, even for a dying old man. Spock had to have known what he was asking for when he asked for McCoy.
"You're my friend," he said gruffly. "Not you, but the younger you. The one I served with for fifteen years. The one who's captain of the Enterprise now that they've gone and made Jim an admiral. I like him. A lot. Even though I still give him a tough time whenever we talk. It's just a habit by now. A bad one, but I can't break it. I think he understands."
"I always did," said Spock quietly.
"And you're him," McCoy said, still turned toward the window even though the brightness of the sand was beginning to make his head ache. "I don't want to watch him die. I don't want to watch anyone die. I get that it's an intrinsic part of my profession, but…" He drew a sharp breath. "I keep thinking," he went on, more to himself now than to Spock. "If you called me here to tell me something about myself, like you told Jim on Delta Vega, I don't wanna hear it. Don't wanna know about what might've been. 'Cause I keep thinking…"
He had to look away from the window then. The sand was too bright; his temples were throbbing. As he turned to Spock, black spots danced before his eyes and he had the oddest sensation, like all the atoms in the universe were being scrambled while he stood perfectly still and unchanging, a rock buried deep in the bed of a moving river. "I keep thinking," he said for a third time, "about that star. The one that went supernova in the future. Will go supernova. That could still happen. It could still engulf Romulus, couldn't it? So maybe you – the other you, the one on the Enterprise now – might do exactly what you did. Will do. You know what I mean. Maybe he'll fail to save Romulus just like you did, and end up following Nero – or another grief-crazed Romulan – back in time. That'll erase everything that's happened. We'll start over from that point, and maybe … it'll all be different the next time around. Maybe it'll be better. Maybe I'll be able to save more people next time. Maybe I'll be able to save my father."
Spock said, "That is not likely to happen, given the information I have passed on to my counterpart, as well as to Starfleet, the Vulcan High Council, and certain well-placed and influential Romulans. The future is not written." Another wisp of a smile moved across the deeply lined face. "I have been there, after all, and I can tell you that it is not written. Come here."
It was a command, but the brittle quality of the voice made it sound like an entreaty. McCoy felt his legs move, and then he was seated on the edge of Spock's bed, hands resting on his knees. He tried to focus on his hands because he was still having trouble looking directly at Spock. He'd seen plenty of people in the last stages of illness, well past the point where medicine could do anything more than make them comfortable. Over the years, he'd established a reputation for frankness; on the Enterprise, and later, as an attending physician at Starfleet Medical, he'd never avoided a patient's eyes or pussyfooted around a serious issue.
But looking at Spock was like looking at the gutted, burned-out ruins of a castle. The foundation – the bones, and the spirit behind those dark eyes – remained, but there was little else. It was a haunting sight.
"Do not be so full of regret," Spock said. "Your life is not and has never been an empty one – in this reality or any other that I have known. Listen to me now. I sent for you for two reasons. First, I must ask something of you."
"It is not that," Spock assured him gently. "I would not ask that of you, even if I were in great pain. Which I am not, only very, very tired. Listen to me. I have already taken measures to ensure that certain things that happened in my timeline do not happen in yours, but there is something only you can do. Remember the stardate 9715.5. On that stardate, do not let Jim Kirk be at these coordinates." He gave them to McCoy in a furtive whisper.
McCoy did his best to sound wry, even as the chill washed through him. "Thought you said the future wasn't written."
"It is not," said Spock, age and sorrow clouding his voice, "but after much debate with myself, I have come to the conclusion that certain things should not be risked. Remember, my friend. Promise me."
"I'll remember. I promise."
"Repeat the information."
McCoy rolled his eyes, but did as he was told.
"Good," said Spock. "Look at me, Doctor."
McCoy raised his eyes.
"I also called you here so that I might give you something. This, I believe, belongs to you." Spock turned his hand over and uncurled his knotted fingers. In his palm lay a ring, a small gold ring with a round-cut ruby set in the center.
McCoy stared, his heart stuttering against his ribs. "But I gave that ring to my daughter. I gave it to her twenty years ago!"
"In another version of events," said Spock, "you gave it to me."
"Why?" He could think of only one reason, and it was crazy.
"Because you were dying, and I was there. And I could not take you with me. I could not carry you, as you had once carried me. So, you see, I am being quite selfish now. And perhaps somewhat illogical. But I wanted you here, to tell you what you needed to know, to give back to you that which was once yours, and … simply to have you by my side. You, who always challenged my logic, and consequently made me a better Vulcan than I might otherwise have been."
The light coming through the window now was a deep, deep rose. McCoy felt its warmth on the back of his neck. The light lent color to Spock's pale skin and made the ruby twinkle like a star.
"I'm here," McCoy said, curling forward, covering Spock's hand with his own. "I'm right here. Let me do something for you, damnit. Tell me what I can do. What did you do for me when I was dying?"
"Mostly," said Spock, "I sat … much as you are sitting now. I read to you. As I recall, there was a poem you particularly liked. Yeats, I believe."
"I bet I know it," McCoy said. "It's the only one I could ever remember by heart:
"When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes once had, and of their shadows deep;
"How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
Dry fingertips brushed the pulse at his wrist. "Leonard."
"There is more than one," Spock said. "In this reality, there was never just one."
Jim was standing there when McCoy finally left Spock's house. In the moonlight that now flooded the small stone garden and the surrounding landscape, he seemed almost ghostly, and for a strange moment, McCoy thought that he was dreaming.
Then Jim said "Bones," and the sand was sighing beneath the soles of his boots, and then he was there, so close that McCoy could feel the warmth of his breath against his face. "Bones, Bones…"
Close up, Jim was reassuringly lifelike. Though still trim at forty-two, McCoy could see the silver in his hair and the creases at the corners of his eyes. In the past, they'd only appeared when he smiled.
"I commandeered the Enterprise," he was saying, his eyes alight with mischief and self-satisfaction. "Rank has its privileges. Though Spock and Uhura didn't seem to mind, once I told them where I needed to go. They're here too, of course, talking with Sarek. I'll take you to them. They'll be glad to see you. You should've told me. I only found out by accident, when Ambassador Shon mentioned to Admiral Nogura that he didn't see a human doctor succeeding where a whole bunch of Vulcans hadn't, and that made me curious, so I tried to get hold of you, but you weren't responding, so I pulled some strings and found out you'd cleared your schedule and—"
"I'm sorry," McCoy broke in. "I should've said something, but I was asked to keep it quiet. Still, if I'd known how little time he had left…" He breathed out harshly. Once again, he had the terrible feeling of being stuck while the universe raced along without him. "It's too late, Jim. I'm sorry."
Jim looked at him. Then he reached for him. He placed his warm hands on either side of McCoy's face, and swept the pads of his thumbs across his cheekbones. "I'm sorry I missed him," Jim said. "I am. But what I meant was … I wish you'd told me so I could have gone and been with you. I came here for you. Unless…" Uncertainty flickered in the blue eyes "…you're talking about something else? When you didn't say anything, I wondered if maybe you didn't—"
McCoy felt the weight of the ring on the smallest finger of his left hand.
Give it to someone you love, his father had said.
He had, when he'd given it to Joanna.
Spock's words echoed in his memory: Leonard … there was never just one.
Jim was looking at him just as he had when he'd woken up in McCoy's arms almost seventeen years ago: a little dazed, but so unguarded and trusting it could break you.
Deep inside McCoy, something sprang open.
"No," he said, leaning into Jim, wrapping his arms around him, and it was like coming home. He kissed Jim's cheek, then rested his chin against his shoulder and breathed deeply. "It's not too late for that. Never too late."
McCoy half-expected Jim to say something then, something smart like What about your ethics, Doctor? Instead, he just held him, stroking his hair and the curve of his back. What was there to say, after all, and after all this time? I've got you? I'm here? McCoy knew it, deep in the marrow of his bones … which were suddenly so light he could have floated away into the star-crowded sky, were it not for Jim's arms holding him close.