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The high priest of the Jednaari explained it all to him, in a conversational tone that somehow got past Jim's bullshit sensors. They collected spirits, he said, walking around the close, dimly lit room, gesturing to the small bowls of light that lined the shelves. Not just any spirits, but the spirits of men and women who had suffered in life, either through their own actions or the actions of others. The souls of those who had died in torment. And there was sorrow in his large, protuberant eyes as he said this, sympathy, and Jim…

He listened, nodding with interest. He was curious about the spirits – if they were spirits in the way he understood – and maybe … maybe he was just a little too trusting. But he was feeling loose and at ease. The humanoid natives of this planet seemed friendly. They'd given Spock and his team of science officers permission to go off and collect samples while Jim and Bones stayed behind to chat up their leaders. They'd been offered platters of rich food and flagons of potent wine that gave the back of the mouth a spicy little kick as it went down. The women who'd served them had been beautiful in their way: long hair trailing after them like cirrus clouds, full hips rolling beneath filmy fabric, arms and cheeks dusted with a sort of opalescent powder. One of them had touched Jim's wrist as she'd poured his wine, and her skin had been soft and cool as aloe leaves.

"Do something nice for my friend over there," Jim had whispered to her, indicating Bones, who'd been rolling his eyes at them from across the table. The woman had smiled, and Jim had felt a small pang of chagrin because the universal translators were working fine, but he didn't know the customs here, and maybe his suggestion was a little too … suggestive.

But before he could tell her to forget about it, the woman had moved to Bones's side and touched her lovely fingertips to the back of his neck. He'd scowled at Jim and muttered, "Stop it." But he'd said it so halfheartedly that Jim had laughed…

"These spirits," the high priest said, drawing Jim back to the present. "Because they do not leave their hosts in a state of grace, they must be cleansed before they can be received by Sauta."

"Interesting," said Jim, remembering that the Tamonites of Ctera Prime believed something similar. "How do you cleanse a spirit?"

The high priest lifted one of the bowls and held it toward Jim. It fit perfectly in the palm of one hand. Inside, the tiny light flickered like a candle flame. And yet, as Jim leaned closer, it gave off no heat, and there was no discernible wick or any other sort of combustible element.

"A vessel is selected," the high priest said, his voice low, almost husky. "A beautiful vessel, one that will demand Sauta's attention. The spirits are placed inside, usually four or five at a time, and delivered to Sauta in a ceremony."

"How do you know if the spirits are accepted?"

"Faith," the high priest said lightly, and his lips quirked in a smile. "How do we know anything? The vessel is destroyed upon the altar, and the spirits are released to Sauta. He accepts them or he doesn't. Either way, once the vessel is destroyed and the spirits are released, my duty is done."

"Huh," said Jim, wishing he'd dragged Bones along, instead of letting him wander off in the direction of the temple gardens; this might've interested him. "The Tamonites," he began, but the high priest raised his eyes from the bowl of light, and something in them made Jim pause. "What kind of vessel?" he heard himself ask in a voice that barely quavered.

He never saw the high priest move; the light from the bowl seemed to have caught in Jim's lashes and he couldn't blink it away. Fingertips brushed his cheek, and something cold filled his throat.

"A beautiful one," the high priest said.

He tried to run, of course. He wasn't armed – as a gesture of peace, the landing party had all set down their phasers – but he was fast and strong. He should have made it. But there were five men waiting for him outside the small room, and they were armed.

*

It was intrusive in ways he'd never imagined. It made his mind meld with the older Spock seem gentle by comparison.

There were four: Shaam, Gaher, Tos, and Ayahan. They squirmed inside him, clamoring for dominance, filling every cavity with their curiosity and awareness. He felt them everywhere, fever-hot fingers probing, picking through his memories like cheap beads in a marketplace. There were secret doors that Jim had kept shut for years, doors he tried to protect by not thinking about them.

It was like they had a map, a blueprint of everything that made Jim Jim. They found the doors and burned them down and scattered the ashes. They delved through all the things those doors had guarded, secrets shoved into dark corners, shit Jim had suppressed for so long he'd half-forgotten it had happened.

They were equally fascinated with his body, which was different from theirs in subtle ways. His skin was warmer and less smooth. It tore more easily than theirs did, though their blood was almost identical. They didn't know what to make of the moles dotting his arms and shoulders, the birthmark over his ribs, or his sparse body hair; in life, the spirits had had none of these things, and they intrigued and repulsed them. They found his cock and balls hilarious, and spread his legs wide so they could study them.

They delighted in his discomfort, and then in his humiliation.

This was a new kind of torture, and there was nothing to which he could cling.

I am Jim Kirk.

It meant nothing to them.

I don't want this!

They didn't care.

Get out get out get out— Help—

Panting, shivering like a beaten dog, he tried to resist them. He tried so hard. Sweat rolled down his body. Frightened tears, the kind he'd sworn he'd never shed again, gathered in his lashes, then spilled when he closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to look at what his hands were doing.

Jim shuddered inside his body, curled up in a dark corner of his mind, and huddled there.

*

There was chanting. The air was heavy with a scent that made him think of powdered chalk, and it tickled the back of his throat when he inhaled. The floor was some rough stone, and so cold it stung the soles of his feet as he walked.

The ceremonial hall was brightly lit, and lined with polished metal, so that it was almost like walking through a tunnel of pure light. Out of the corners of his eyes, he caught glimpses of a tall, slender man with pale skin, dark blond hair, and glazed blue eyes. He looked familiar.

His feet were bare, his body draped with scarlet fabric that rippled like flame against his skin.

So familiar.

His dull curiosity didn't interest the spirits, who urged him onward, toward the altar where the high priest stood. He had a blade in his hand, a long curved blade with a hook at the end, and Jim knew what it was for and he tried to care, at least a little bit. But the spirits teemed with excitement, and he couldn't think with their babble. Go on, go on, they urged, and he did because he had to, because there was no other choice. He wasn't Jim Kirk anymore. He was a vessel.

Behind him and to the right, he heard the scrape of stone against stone, and a surprised shout. The spirits didn't let him turn to look; they were too intent on their goal. So they were all startled when something big and solid hurtled against them, and bore them to the rough, cold ground.

This was not part of the ritual, and the spirits responded immediately and with anger. Shaam took charge first. He recognized this man. They'd fought before, a long, long time ago. This was the man who'd betrayed Shaam to his death, the backstabbing bastard. He wouldn't get a second chance.

Jim was ice. He was cold, slippery, deadly. He drove his knee into the man's side and rolled them over. When he was on top, straddling the man's hips, he attacked his face, his chest, his arms. He attacked with his nails, his teeth, and elbows – every sharp thing he had.

The man beneath him made little effort to defend himself. He put up his hands, but it was to grab at Jim's wrists, not ward off the blows that rained down on him. Jim snarled when strong fingers finally closed around him and held tight. He writhed in an attempt to break the grip, but it was no good, the bastard was strong and

wait

he couldn't get free. But then Gaher was in control, and Jim was a serpent. The man clinging to his wrists was no one, a nameless obstacle to be torn apart and cast aside. Jim tossed his head back and let out a throat-scorching scream. Then he threw all of his weight against his assailant. Spittle flecked his lips and beads of perspiration dripped down his forehead, stinging his eyes. Momentarily blinded, he kept writhing, kept driving his knee into every soft, yielding surface he could. With a savage twist, he yanked one wrist free, and his fingers sought the man's throat

but

clawing for purchase.

When he could see again, Tos had pushed her way to the front of his mind, and like Shaam, she recognized the man trying to restrain Jim. Of course she recognized him. He was the one who'd forced his way into her home, and then into her body, who'd destroyed her from the inside out. Suddenly fragile as a bird, Jim paused, his heart stuttering against the bars of his ribs.

Now it was tears stinging his eyes, obscuring his vision. "Please," he said, just as Tos had years ago. "Please

he's

don't. You're hurting me – stop."

"Shh," the man whispered through split, bleeding lips. He lifted his free hand, not trying to take hold apparently; his wrist canted oddly and was beginning to swell. Tears collected in the grooves of his knuckles. "Jim, it's me. You know I'd never hurt you. Somewhere in that crowded head of yours, you know that. Look at me. Come on, you know me."

His words meant something. Somewhere deep, deep inside himself, Jim knew that. There was something about this man, something

so familiar

but then the other spirits became bored and shoved Tos aside. Ahayan was at the fore now, and she snarled through Jim's mouth, "I'll fucking kill you, you bastard."

And Jim was a weapon, a blade red-hot from the forge. He sizzled as he arched, could almost feel the sparks flying off him as he slammed his body downward. The impact drove the other man into the floor. Jim heard or felt a crunch, and then

he's

the body beneath him went limp. The fingers circling his wrist loosened, though they didn't let go entirely.

The spirits paused, relaxed, and in the instant that they did, Jim could see clearly. He could see the man beneath him, see him for who he really was, and his name echoed in every chamber of Jim's burned-out soul.

Bones.

The spirits started to chatter again, but Jim brushed them aside. He climbed off Bones and knelt beside him.

He was breathing. In shallow wheezes, yes, and the words punctured lung flared in Jim's mind, but at least he was breathing. Memories slotted into place, of first aid classes and drills. His own breath burning his lungs, his fingertips fumbling for the pulse at Bones's throat, just to feel it, Jim tried to take a tally of his injuries.

Punctured lung, broken ribs, looked like a fractured wrist, broken

Bones

Okay.

(Breathe.)

He's breathing. What's next?

Stop the bleeding.

Fuck, he was bleeding all over. Not heavily from any particular spot, but— A trickle of blood was pooling in the shell of his ear. Fuck.

Jim remembered the crunch, and his stomach twisted.

(Just breathe. Think. Get him out of this. Be sick later.)

So, head trauma. Elevate the head and shoulders, don't move the neck.

He tugged off what remained of his scarlet robes. He wanted to shove them away from him, but he bunched them up into a very rudimentary pillow and carefully, carefully, pushed it under Bones's head and shoulders.

Naked now, the cold stones biting into his skin, he said to the people still watching, "Get out. Run." That was all he said, and he didn't look to see if they were obeying. He thought he heard footsteps, but they seemed very far away.

He'd have fought them if they'd approached, but the only thing he cared about was the man crumpled at his knees. "Bones?" he whispered, bending closer, fingertips skittering over his lips. "Bones. Stay with me."

At the sound of his voice, one eyelid twitched – the other was swollen shut – and Jim caught a sliver of green-flecked hazel. The torn lips parted around a sound that was almost a whimper, almost words. "I c—"

"Bones! Please hold on. Don't talk, just … just hold on."

He was fumbling with McCoy's communicator, trying to raise Scotty so he could beam them both directly to Sickbay, when Spock and the rest of the away team arrived.

*

Someone was trying to hand him a blanket. When he wouldn't take it, that same someone huffed, then draped it across his shoulders. "Come on, Captain," she - Nurse Rojagopal, he thought dimly – said. "I agree modesty's overrated, but your body temperature's low. Just keep that tight around you while I find you some real clothes."

Without looking at her, he took the two folds of the blanket and held them together over his chest.

Someone else was scanning him with a tricorder. "BP's a little low, but not worryingly so." (Chapel, he thought.) "You have multiple abrasions and contusions, but nothing too serious. No fractures, no sprains. You got off easy this time. How…"

He shut her out. He didn't mean to, but suddenly he couldn't listen to her anymore.

I got off easy.

His gaze shifted briefly from the closed OR door to the scarlet robes that had been left forgotten on the floor when Doctor M'Benga and his team moved Bones to a gurney. Jim could see the rust-colored splotches. He could still see them even after his gaze flicked back to the door.

I did this.

I got off easy.

Very soon, he was going to be very, very sick.

"Captain." Chapel again.

Leave me alone.

"Captain, I think the best thing for you right now is rest. You're exhausted and you're hurting. I'm going to give you a regenerative gel, which you can slather on yourself. I can give you something to help you sleep."

"No," he said.

"Captain."

"No."

She touched his arm, and the air of tart professionalism fell away. In a much lower and gentler tone, she said, "You can't do anything for him right now. It could still be a few hours. But I'll let you know the moment—"

"No." He'd have shoved her away, but he felt another, larger hand cupping his shoulder. Spock.

"Jim," his first officer said, "she is correct. Moreover, if Doctor McCoy were present, he would insist—"

At the sound of Bones's name, spoken in that inscrutable tone, Jim snapped back to himself. Clutching the blanket to his chest, he turned to face Spock. "Well, he's not present, is he? He's in there." There was no need to gesture toward the OR. He drew a breath. Bit his lip. Tried to sort through his facts; something had to require his attention. "The Jednaari. What are we—"

"With your permission, Lieutenant Uhura and I shall handle the situation with the Jednaari. Since our return to the ship, she has apprised Starfleet Command of our current situation, and is awaiting orders—"

"We can't just fire on them?"

"Jim."

"I'm kidding, Spock. I'm joking." He gave a mirthless laugh. "Let me handle things. I just need to get changed, then I'll meet you on the bridge, and we'll—"

"I must advise against this course of action. As Nurse Chapel has pointed out, you are exhausted, hurt—"

"I'm fine." He felt like he was reciting lines from a script, but that was good. I need this, he thought, looking Spock in the eye. I need something to do. Otherwise, I'll be alone with myself, and I just can't. I can't.

"Jim." And now Spock almost sounded kind. "Not only are you hurt, I believe you are compromised emotionally. It would be best if you relieved yourself of command. Regulation six-one-nine…"

"Oh, come on. Now you're joking."

"I am perfectly serious," said Spock. "Nor do I say this lightly."

Of course he didn't. And he was probably right, but Jim let his temper flare anyway because that too was something he could do. "For fuck's sake, Spock. Plenty of people have been hurt for me. This is the first time you've ever tried to stop me from doing my job. Just because I don't suppress my emotions the way you do, it doesn't mean I'm going to let them control me." Which was exactly what he was doing, he knew, but he kept going while Spock stood there and regarded him with seemingly infinite patience.

When he finally paused for breath, Spock said, as calmly as if they'd been conversing over tea and chess, "Jim, this time it is Doctor McCoy. That is the difference."

His anger smothered itself so quickly it left him cold and dizzy. He shivered and, clutching the blanket tightly, he let his gaze slide from Spock's face to the OR door. It was still closed.

"Fine," he heard himself say tonelessly. "Fine, I relieve myself of command. You have the conn. Keep me informed about – about everything. I'll be in my quarters."

*

They found him a fresh off-duty uniform and a pair of slippers. They gave him a tube of gel for his cuts, a hypo of analgesic to dull the pain from his bruises, and a couple of pills that were supposed to help him sleep. Spock escorted him to his quarters. Neither spoke. Jim knew he owed his first officer an apology, but he couldn't find the energy for it just then. Nor could he bring himself to meet Spock's occasional questioning look. At some point, he knew, he'd have to tell him exactly what had happened in the temple. He'd have to put it in the mission report.

Just not right now.

In the doorway, Spock said, "I, too, am concerned about Doctor McCoy. He is, however, receiving the best possible care, and there is no reason to believe that he will not make a full recovery."

Jim nodded.

"I shall keep you apprised of the situation on Jednaar."

"Right. Thanks."

"Captain…"

"You're the captain now." He stepped backward and let the door slide closed on Spock's expressionless face.

Once he was alone, he started stripping. He left the borrowed slippers, pants, underwear, and shirt in black puddles on the floor as he made his way to the head. There, he leaned heavily against the sink and studied his reflection in the mirror.

I look like shit.

All the bruises on his face and arms had come from the Jednaari guards who'd held him down while the high priest fed him the four spirits. He prodded one experimentally. Thanks to the analgesic, it didn't hurt at all. He wished that it did.

He looked down at his hands. One was curled around the tube of gel, the other around the small bottle of pills Chapel had handed him. The skin over his knuckles was cracked and bruised, and flecked with blood. His own, probably. His nails were crusted with dried blood.

Bones's.

He doubled over the sink, and for a few moments he was violently ill. All the rich food and wine the Jednaari had fed him came up in chunks. When he was finally empty, limbs trembling, the strong taste of bile in his mouth, he forced his head back up and stared at himself again.

He was pale, almost green. A shade Spock would envy, he thought, as he scrubbed a hand over his face. He half-expected something to have changed when he lowered his hand. Someone else to be looking back at him through his own eyes, maybe. He turned his head, looking at himself from different angles, trying to catch a glimpse of … something. A glint, or any sign of Shaam's thirst for vengeance, Gaher's brutality, Ahayan's malice, or Tos's fear. He listened for their voices, but all he heard above the soft hum of the Enterprise was his own raw breathing.

He almost wished they would speak to him again. Tos, at least, was not to blame for what had happened. Knowing what she'd been through, he wanted to offer her comfort. It would have been something to do.

But now even the memory of their minds was fading.

He felt so empty.

He should've let me die.

Leaving the gel and pills forgotten on the sink, he sank to the floor, pulled his knees up to his chest, and hugged them tightly.

*

He didn't sit there for long. Unless he was sedated, unconscious, or completely fucked-out, Jim Kirk could stand to be still for only a certain amount of time. After that, his brain required stimulation, his hands employment. He wasn't sure when he got up, showered, washing Bones's blood from his hands, got dressed, and got to work. But it was well before Uhura came looking for him. In fact, by the time his door chimed and then opened, admitting her, he had his mission report – a perfunctory one – all but completed.

"Captain," she began, but he raised a hand, forestalling her. After signing the report with his personal code and saving it, he turned off his computer, then swiveled in his desk chair and looked up at her.

"Lieutenant."

"I just received word from Sickbay. Doctor McCoy is out of surgery. He's still unconscious. It was…" She faltered. "It was close. But Doctor M'Benga expects him to make a full recovery."

He stared at her for a few moments, not comprehending. Then – "Wait, you just received—"

"I took the liberty," she said, sounding slightly uncomfortable. "Spock and I conferred, and decided that – just in case the news was … bad – someone should deliver it in person."

"And he sent you?" Obviously, he thought.

"I asked to go. Leonard's my friend too," she said. "I care about him. I was anxious, and he thought – we both thought – it should be someone who—"

"Has emotions?"

"Expresses emotions," she corrected him, lifting her chin. "And maybe understands them a little better."

"Right. I'm sorry." He looked at his blank computer screen and waited to feel something. Anything.

"You can go see him, if you like," she offered. "They were just moving him to recovery when Doctor M'Benga contacted me."

Jim continued to stare at the screen. He could see his reflection in its shiny blackness, the hard angle of his jaw, the shadows around his eyes. He looked down at his fingers, curled loosely around the edge of the desk.

"No," he said.

"Captain?"

"No, I can't go and see him. Go back to the bridge. Tell Spock the mission report is submitted. Have him read it, then have him come and see me. You'll have the conn."

"Yes, Captain," she replied, all business. "But if there's anything else I can—"

"Oh, God," he snapped. "If I need help, Lieutenant, I'll ask for it."

"As always, Captain."

Her clipped tone made little impression, but he knew he'd crossed a line. As she was leaving, he said, without looking up, "Your concern for Doctor McCoy and myself is noted and … appreciated."

"I know, Jim," she said softly, as the door closed after her.

He'd forgotten to ask about the Jednaari, he realized.

*

Spock showed up fifteen minutes later, looking agitated … for Spock. Jim was pacing, since he'd found he couldn't remain seated after Uhura left, and he kept pacing while Spock said, his patience maybe just a little frayed-sounding, "I do wish that you had given me more details regarding your abduction. Had I known, I might have dealt differently with the Jednaari. Moreover, I would have insisted you remain in Sickbay for further testing and observation."

"You wanted to be in command."

"That does not follow. You had ample time to tell me, both in Sickbay, and as we walked to your quarters. Why you chose not to—"

Jim cut in, "Can we argue about this later? Please? I need you to do something for me."

"Captain." Spock stood at ease, one eyebrow cocked.

Jim kept pacing. Bones had joked once that he'd wear a groove into the floor before he'd been captain a year.

Bones. Just thinking his name should've been like taking a blow to the gut. He didn't feel a thing.

"I need you to do something for me," he said again quickly. "I need you to do a mind meld on me. You read my report. You know about the – the spirits." For some reason, he stumbled over the word. Gathering air into his lungs, he went on, "I can't hear them anymore. I haven't heard them or felt them since Bo – since right before you found us in the temple. I need you to make sure they're gone. Before I let myself interact with anyone else on this ship, I need to know I won't…"

Now the room seemed full of invisible hands. They were trying to touch him everywhere. He felt their fingers plucking at the folds of his shirt, his hair. He felt them slithering across his shoulders. Some of them were trying to wrap themselves around his wrists, the way Bones had. He had to keep moving.

"Jim," said Spock, "I will not do this."

"It's an order, not a request."

"And I refuse. You may call it insubordination if you so choose, though I must remind you that I outrank you at present."

"Spock, for fuck's sake—"

"No."

Jim stopped and looked at him sharply. "Why the hell not?"

"Because," said Spock, "I fear it would do more damage than good. Hear me out," he went on, raising a hand as Jim opened his mouth to protest. "Of course, until I have given the matter careful study, all I can do is postulate that your mind was, as your report indicates, joined forcibly with those of four other individuals. I must also postulate that your experience was analogous to a Vulcan mind meld. As you are well aware, the melding of two willing minds is taxing, particularly for non-Vulcans. The melding of unwilling minds is anathema to my people. It is a gross violation, and can be highly dangerous. Given what you have already endured today, I would not strain you further, merely to satisfy your curiosity."

"My curiosity. Oh, God." Jim laughed. "You don't understand. I had four other people in my head today. One more isn't going to hurt me."

"It might," said Spock. "As you stated, you can no longer hear the four other minds, or spirits, as you term them in your report. In all probability, you cast them out yourself before we beamed back to the ship. While I am not a healer, in your situation, I believe sleep is the best medicine, though Lexorin might be beneficial as well. Doctor M'Benga is familiar with the drug, and can administer it when you go to Sickbay to see Doctor McCoy."

The emphasis on when made Jim laugh again, and if Spock detected the panicked note, he gave no indication. Scratching at his hair so that his eyes were partly shielded by his wrist, Jim said, "No. I'm not going to Sickbay."

"I think that you should," Spock said. "I believe that it would be beneficial for you, as well as Doctor McCoy."

Jim dropped his wrist as if it were a burning brand. "You think it would be good for Bones if I went and saw him? He wouldn't even know I was there, and even if he did…" His gorge rose again, though there was nothing left for him to vomit. "I can't. I can't. I can't go see him. Please, just – try to understand. What if you're wrong? What if they're still in me? What if I—?" He couldn't go on, he was shaking so hard.

Spock took two steps closer, reached out, and took him by the shoulders. "Jim, look at me, and listen. I believe I understand. You must trust me. If even one of the spirits were still inside you, you would know. Minds locked together cannot hide from one another. I believe you know this, for you have melded with my older self. What you are feeling, therefore, are guilt and fear. Guilt over what you did to that which you value most, and fear that, having done it once, you could do it again."

Jim wanted to protest, but Spock's words penetrated deeply. That which you value most. Bones? No, what he valued most was the Enterprise, and the trust Admiral Pike placed in him, despite – well, everything. Bones was…

"But Jim," Spock continued, "he knows that you would not."

"How," Jim said dully, remembering the blood on his hands, and the sickening crunch, "can he possibly know that?"

"Logic," said Spock. "Though he would likely call it faith. Doctor McCoy knows you. Of all the people on this ship, he has known you the longest, and the best. I have only known you for one year, three months, and five days – and I know that you would not. You are not a man who derives satisfaction or pleasure from another's pain. There is no part of you that would willingly hurt Doctor McCoy. What happened was not only against your will, but against your very nature. He knows this. He knew it when he chose to sacrifice himself for you. I do not know how to put it more plainly. What he did was not out of duty or obligation. He acted as I believe I would have, had it been Nyota."

Duty and obligation. Something burned behind Jim's eyes. It wasn't tears, not yet – but they were coming. He wasn't going to cry in front of Spock, he told himself. He wasn't. Duty and obligation.

Bones.

"I think I owe Lieutenant Uhura an apology," he said, avoiding Spock's eyes. "Make it for me?"

"Make it yourself," said Spock. "Later. Will you go to Sickbay?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah. But I don't know what I can possibly do for him."

"Just be with him. And, Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"He sacrificed himself for you. While you may be tempted to consider his actions rash, even foolish, it is unlikely that he does."

Jim was out the door and running before it crossed his mind to wonder when the hell Spock had gotten so good at reading human emotions.

*

He found Christine Chapel still on duty when he got to Sickbay. Before the doors had even closed behind him, he was asking, "How's he doing?"

"How are you doing?" Chapel asked, rising from her desk and reaching for a tricorder. "You didn't get any sleep at all, did you?"

"Come on," he said while she scanned him, "tell me. How is he?"

"You read Doctor M'Benga's report."

"Uh – no. Actually, I didn't."

Apparently satisfied with the results of her scan, Chapel set the tricorder aside and looked up at him, eyebrows raised. It was an expression so reminiscent of Bones that his heart skipped a beat.

"Come on," he pleaded. "Look, I'm sorry about the way I spoke to you before. I didn't sleep, but I rested. Kind of. Please." He looked past her to the closed doors of the private rooms. The light above Room Three was on.

Bones.

She followed his gaze. "He had a fractured skull," she said. "There was a lot of bleeding, but – fortunately – no brain damage. There might still be some memory loss, but we won't know for sure until he wakes up. Apart from that … several broken ribs, a punctured lung, fractured right wrist, hairline fractures to the zygomatic arches on both sides, to the clavicle, damage to the kidneys, the spleen, internal bleeding … and more cuts and bruises than I could count. Someone really did a number on him."

Jim absorbed all of this dispassionately, and nodded when she was done. "Can I see him?"

"Come on."

She led him to Room Three, and when he found that his legs balked at carrying him inside, she got behind him and stood there stolidly, giving him no choice but to enter.

He didn't know what he'd been expecting. Blood-soaked bandages, perhaps, or tubes joining Bones to elaborate machinery. He'd seen too many old holovids. Bones had an IV in him, but that was the only bit of tubing visible. There were no bandages, blood-soaked or otherwise. He simply lay on the bio-bed in regulation gray pajamas, a thermal blanket tucked up to his chest. His face and hands were covered with vivid bruises, but otherwise there was little sign of the traumatic injuries he'd sustained.

There was a chair beside the bed. Chapel gave him a gentle shove toward it, and he sat down heavily.

"Obligation and duty," he murmured. The words tasted stale in his mouth.

That which I value most.

"Permission to speak freely, Captain?"

"Sure," he said. After Uhura and Spock, what could she possibly have to tell him?

"Don't berate him," Chapel said. "Don't tell him what he did was stupid, and that he shouldn't have done it. Don't diminish what he did for you."

How did she even…?

"If there's a mission report," she went on, "I haven't seen it. But you're a magnet for trouble, Captain, and the only way he could have gotten so badly hurt is by defending you. So, please. Don't. You don't know what he goes through when you're the one who comes back injured. When it's you lying there."

"You know what he goes through?"

"I'm pretty observant," she said. "And I know that it's not enough for him to put you back together. He wants to keep you from getting hurt in the first place. This one time, he was able to do it. Don't take that away from him. Please."

He looked up at her, and gave her a brief smile. His first in what felt like a very long time. "All right," he promised. "I won't."

After that, she left him alone. He could still hear her in the main room, opening and closing drawers and cabinets, but she might as well have ceased to exist. Everything beyond the closed door to Room Three might just as well have ceased to exist, or slipped into another universe. Everything that mattered, everything that Jim cared about lay unconscious before him.

Idiot, Jim thought, watching the rise and fall of Bones's chest. Fucking idiot. Were you absent the day they taught self-preservation at the Academy? Or do you really not get how much I need you?

He bent closer until he could see the shadow of each dark eyelash on the bruised cheeks, and could almost taste the air moving in and out between the half-parted lips. Tentatively, he reached out and touched a lock of hair that slanted across Bones's brow. Smoothing it carefully aside, he whispered, "I need you. Spock was half-right. I love this ship. I do value it more than anything, but I have to. Duty and obligation, Starfleet, blah blah."

His gaze drifted down over Bones's face and chest, to his left hand, which lay against the blanket, the fingers lax. Jim covered that hand with his and squeezed gently. "But a ship without a crew is just empty metal floating in space. The crew's her heartbeat, her lifeblood … and you're mine."

*

When Bones awoke, some hours later, Jim was still sitting there, stroking his hand. He looked up when he heard Bones sigh deeply, watched his lashes flutter a couple of times before his eyes actually opened. They were glazed with sleep and painkillers, but they focused on Jim's face, and there was no accusation in them, no fear, just relief. "Hey," Bones whispered. Then, as he took in Jim's cuts and bruises, "Oh. Look at you."

"Look at you," Jim said, curling Bones's hand between his own two, and holding it close to his chest. "Bones, I—" He swallowed, and then the tears came. He'd known they would, but they still startled away everything he'd planned to say. Blinking rapidly, clinging to Bones's hand, all he could stammer was, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Bones, I'm so, so sorry."

"Not your fault."

"I was in there," Jim insisted. "I knew what I was doing to you, but I couldn't stop. I wasn't in control." And there it was, the thing that had frightened him the most, which he hadn't been able to admit, even to himself. I wasn't in control. "Not until—" He swallowed again. "Not until you…"

"Let go?" Bones supplied.

"You didn't, though," said Jim, frowning as he remembered. "You sort of … stopped fighting, but you didn't let go. It was enough. Those spirits, whatever they were, they relaxed for a second and I was able – I was able to…"

"Jim…"

"Please don't say it wasn't my fault. If I'd lost you… If you'd died, it would've been because I'd killed you and…" He trailed off. He was so tired. He could keep blabbering or keep stroking Bones's hand, but not both. But it seemed to him, as his fingertips moved gently over the delicate skin and bumpy veins of Bones's wrist, that he'd crossed the bridge he'd needed to cross. Whatever happened hereafter, he and Bones could tackle it together, from the same side.

"It'll be okay," Bones mumbled. "Eventually. Gonna be okay. Sr'sly. If there's … captainy stuff you need to do…"

Jim just looked at him, and eventually Bones sighed, "Okay. Just … don't let go. 'Kay?"

His eyelids twitched, then sank as though the weight of the lashes had dragged them down. But between the quiet entreaty and the last glimpse of hazel, Jim caught the unspoken words: I love you, stupid.

Of course.

It felt so fresh and green. Which meant no alien spirit had touched it. It cooled and it soothed, like the first rain of spring, or mist from the ocean.

A man could drown in love like that. Or he could dive into it, swim through it and let it flow all around him, cleansing him with every stroke.

The tears still flowed, but Jim no longer minded. He lifted Bones's hand to his lips and brushed the knuckles tenderly. Then he turned the hand over and kissed the palm. "I do too, by the way," he murmured. "I've got you, and I won't let go."

3/7/10