There wasn’t a damn thing of value on the planet Evaline IX except space: long, uninterrupted acres of it, fields and forests and hills. Nobody had ever gotten around to naming the four continents, even, not officially, though the biggest one, the one they were currently sailing over, had a nickname: Jem. Maybe it’d been the name of the fool who’d first stumbled over these vast, empty shores, in search of inhabitants who it turned out were long since gone; they hadn’t died out, the archeologists figured, they’d just up and left a couple thousand years before, leaving the few and far remains of their civilization behind.
Maybe, Leonard McCoy figured, as the shuttle made a wide, clean arc over a silver slip of a river, they’d just gotten bored. If it was quiet out this way now, it would’ve been fucking silent two millennia ago, with life on the nearest system, Deneva, just a gleam in the universe’s eye.
Now, what population there was was concentrated on Jem. There were a few dozen outposts, maybe fifty clusters of cabins too small to really be called towns, and hundreds of properties like the one they were heading for, places that held a single house, many set so long in the land that they’d almost become part of it again.
Privacy. That was the other thing Evaline had in spades. A lack of prying eyes.
“Sam hasn’t been out here in ages,” Kirk said. He swiveled from the co-pilot’s seat and gave them both an easy grin. “He used to come out here a couple times a month, at least. But now, with the baby, I guess it’s a lot harder for him to get away.”
McCoy thought of Jo, of the insistent curl of her tiny fist around his fingers, the weight of her head on his shoulder. Was she really gonna be eight this year? Gods, he was getting old. “Yeah,” he said, almost to himself. “It is.”
Jim hadn’t heard him, he’d turned back to console, and if Spock had, he didn’t give any sign. Instead, the Vulcan’s forehead was plastered to the durasteel, practically, staring at the countryside as the shuttle slowed and began to lower itself to meet it. He’d been kinda quiet the whole trip out from the Enterprise, but the closer to the cabin they’d gotten, the more mum he’d become.
Leonard leaned over Spock’s shoulder. “It is lovely, isn’t it?”
“It is, doctor,” Spock said. “It is.”
McCoy had never been out this way before, but in some ways, the landscape itself looked familiar; Jim had been jabbering at him about it, spinning yarns about his brother’s place out here since the Academy, but the holos he’d shown Leonard hadn’t done it any justice.
Maybe he’d just been in space so long, hung up among the stars, that any unspoiled vista would have made him feel like this, as if he were taking his first deep breath in a long, long time.
Together, McCoy and Spock watched the cerulean valley unfolding beneath them as the shuttle descended towards a gaggle of plum-colored trees nestled against the side of a hill. “You do realize,” McCoy said, tucking his voice under the sound of the engines, “that Jim’s gonna be insufferably happy out here, right?”
Spock’s eyes met his, their reflections colliding in the viewport. “Given the events of the last several months, I believe he has earned it.”
McCoy’s mouth lifted. “Yeah, he has, hasn’t he?”
“What are you two whispering about?” Kirk called.
Leonard raised his head and stuck out his tongue. “None of your damn business, sir.”
Kirk laughed. “We’re on shore leave, Bones. No sirs or captains for the next fortnight, is that clear?”
“Sir,” McCoy said, tossing him a messy salute as the shuttle settled on the soft ground. “Yes, sir.”
The pilot, a commercial jobber named Teague, helped them unload their gear and then leaned out of the hatch, the breeze whipping her hair into rose-colored waves. “I’ll be back in a few days, gents, to see how you’re getting on,” she said. “You get into any trouble, though, give me a shout on your communicator.”
Kirk held up his hands. “No communicators, ma’am. We’re trying to resist the temptations of the real world for a while.”
She raised an eyebrow. “But there’s an emergency comm in your place, yes? It’s against the law to be out this far without one.”
“Yeah, of course,” Jim said, all blond hair and Boy Scout. “We don’t look like lawbreakers, do we?”
Teague eyed them, her dark lips twitching with a smile. “I don’t think you want me to answer that.”
“Probably best if you didn’t,” McCoy said.
The pilot disappeared through the hatch, laughing, and a moment later, the shuttle was turning up into the lavender clouds again, sailing past the wind as it disappeared in the evening sky.
“Gentlemen,” Kirk said, pivoting to face the little house edged into the trees. “Welcome to Evaline.”
It wasn’t much to look at, inside or out, but then, that was mostly the point.
“This, my friends, is true R & R,” Jim said as he led them through the house, pointing out the two bedrooms, the tiny kitchen and small living space. “No food synthesizer, no permanent comm link, just a hearth and all the old books you can read--there are more shelves in your room here, Spock, see?” He swept them down the narrow hall and back into the living space, one framed by a great window and the front door. “I’ll set my cot up in here, by the fire,” Kirk said, “and you can have the other bedroom, Bones, all right?”
“Mmmm,” McCoy said. “Sure.”
He was pretty damn certain Spock knew that he and Jim slept in the same bed most nights. Hell, Spock had served with them for four years, been their friend almost as long, and he was a long way from blind. But Jim was still skittish about putting their relationship in Spock’s face, especially in such tight quarters, and it would have been almost endearing, his shyness, if he hadn’t been the one to insist they all come out here together for one very particular reason--a reason they’d not shared with Spock. McCoy’s gut gave a nervous swoop. Not yet, anyway.
Kirk came to a halt by the door, his face as bright as Leonard had seen it in ages. “Yep, rest and relaxation, my friends, with no distractions to tempt us from the serious business of resting our tired fucking minds.” He clapped his hands together. “So! What do you think?”
“May I retire to my room, captain?” Spock said. “It was a long journey, and I find that I am in need of some repose.”
Jim blinked, and McCoy watched the joy slide from his eyes, just a little. “Yeah, of course,” he said. “And you don’t have to ask for my permission, Spock. That’s the whole point of this little, ah, excursion. Just--do whatever you feel like, all right?”
And Spock must have been tired because he didn’t take the bait, simply nodded and headed back down the short hall, to the room at the back of the house, and closed the door.
Kirk looked at Leonard, a little frown caught on the edges of his mouth. “Am I pushing him? You’ll tell me if I’m pushing, right?”
McCoy reached for him, spread his arms around Jim’s body and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “You’re not pushing,” he said. “Let the man take his time out in peace. Two days in transport is lot for anybody, even a Vulcan.”
Kirk sighed and settled into the doctor’s embrace. “I don’t want to fuck this up, Bones. I really, really don’t.”
“I know. But trust me, you won’t.” McCoy found Kirk’s mouth and bit gently at his lower lip. “‘Cause I won’t let you.”
The night came quickly, the dark draping itself over the fields and easing gently over the little house. Spock emerged to help Kirk build a fire and the three of them gathered around it, ate a few provisions, didn’t talk a hell of a lot. The silence was comfortable, though, and almost as rumpled as Spock’s hair, still askew from his meditation or power nap or whatever. He sat in a precarious-looking wooden chair, a counterpoint to the ancient armchair McCoy was settled in, and he almost didn’t look like himself, McCoy thought, without that familiar sleek shine.
Kirk sat on the floor as they ate, his shoulder brushing McCoy’s knee. McCoy ached to touch him, to spear his fingers through Jim’s hair or tease the back of his neck with a barely-there touch, the kind that would have Kirk leaning back into Leonard’s hand, impatient.
But he didn’t, and maybe that was why after dinner, after Spock had retired once more and they’d unfolded Jim’s cot before the warm, eager flames, he’d flopped back into the armchair and yanked Jim into his lap.
“Oh,” Kirk said, soft, as McCoy kissed his throat, drew his hands over the curve of Kirk’s ass. “Oh, this is not a good idea, Len.”
Kirk shivered, his hips rocking. “Because. Because I don’t know if I can--”
Leonard grinned. “What? If you can keep your mouth shut?” He nipped at Kirk’s jaw and Jim made a raw, hungry sound and glared down at him, guns blazing. “You’re gonna have to, though, aren’t you?” McCoy said. “You don’t want to wake Spock up, have him come out here to see what all the noise is about.” He found Kirk’s mouth, teased it wide with his tongue, and Kirk groaned, clutched at his shoulders. “You don’t want him to see you like this, do you, honey? All wound up and ready for me.”
“You,” Kirk said, scrabbling at McCoy’s fly, at his own, “are a bastard.”
He came in McCoy’s fist and again on his cock, his head tipped back as he moved in Leonard’s lap, groaning against Leonard’s palm, his skin like gold in the firelight.
The next morning dawned like a good blush, pink roses rising from the horizon to meet the crown of the sky. Outside, the air was filled with the soft stutters of nature, of the wind in the trees and the sound of Jim’s laughter and the sight of Spock’s smile, the tiny twitch of his mouth he probably thought nobody could see.
“I’ll have you know,” Kirk said over burned eggs and something that might once have been toast, “that the Kirks are renowned for their adaptation of the culinary arts to the back and beyond. Campfire cooking is my specialty, Spock.”
Spock stared at his plate, at the captain, and back. “Perhaps you are fortunate that your current position does not depend on your ability to prove such a claim.”
“What?” Kirk said over McCoy’s snorts, pointing a spoon in Spock’s direction. “You think you can do better?”
“No,” Spock said. “I know it.”
He built a careful fire in the pit behind the house and spent the afternoon tending it, Kirk stretched out in the shade nearby--ostensibly reading, actually snoring--McCoy propped up in a rickety chair he’d dragged out from the house, and by the early evening, Spock had turned out a beautiful meal, albeit of the plant-based variety.
“I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Spock,” Kirk said after his third helping, his smile sated. “I’ll never do it again. Promise.”
“Well,” McCoy said, “I probably will. But you’re a damn good cook.”
Spock gave him a lingering glimpse of that not-smile. “Thank you, Leonard.”
After dinner, they went for a walk at Kirk’s insistence, circling out from the house and moving into the low fields of blue flowers that spread from the edge of the trees. The farther they moved from the cabin, the more uneven the ground got, the dirt formed into unexpected dips and eddies that reminded McCoy of the sea. It tripped him up more than once, Kirk, too, but Spock sailed right over the surface as if he was walking on air.
“Gods, it’s gorgeous, isn’t it,” Jim said, when they came to rest at the top of a rise, the world stretching before them as if it were something new, a place made just for them. “It’s been too long since I’ve been out here. I’d forgotten.”
In the evening light, Kirk looked like a new man. It was more than just the civvie clothes, the faded plaid shirt and jeans, more than just the change of scenery: he looked like himself again, like the kid McCoy had fallen for at the Academy, all those goddamn years ago. He didn’t look like a captain anymore, was the thing. He looked like Jim Kirk.
And it was only then, in its absence, that McCoy could see just how heavily the gold braid had come to weigh on him, how much of it Jim carried every day in his shoulders, in the curve of his back, in the warm blue well of his eyes. It hadn’t happened all at once, had it; no, the changes in his body, in his face had been gradual, a steady creep of stress that Kirk could never quite shake and now, four years in the center seat, two and half in uncharted space, had hardened that burden to a fine, weathered shell, one McCoy knew so well he’d hardly noticed until now, until Jim was standing hip deep in blossoms on a world of his own choosing, staring two weeks of no Starfleet in the face.
“Captain,” Spock said, “the weather appears to be changing. Perhaps we should commence our return journey.”
Kirk turned to him, chuckling. “Nobody’s giving orders, remember? Call me Jim.”
A breeze kicked up and sent the petals at their feet dancing, a mad, happy wave. “Jim,” Spock said, an edge in his voice now, “a storm is rapidly approaching us from the south. We should return to the cabin now.”
McCoy squinted into the distance, into the folds of the sand-colored sky. “What? It’s clear as a bell out there, Spock. You’re seeing things.”
“I am not--”
Jim held up his hands and turned away from the horizon with a sigh. “Fellas, enough.” He scooted back down the rise, gestured at them to follow. “There’s a bottle in my bunk that’s calling our name, anyhow. Let’s head back.”
He gave Leonard a look and it hit McCoy like a thunderbolt: Jim’s gonna do it tonight, isn’t he? he thought. Shit. Oh shit.
His stomach flipped with fear, with anticipation, and he found himself watching Spock as they walked, wondering: Does he know? Does he have any earthly idea? Can he?
What the hell are we gonna do if he says no?
The notion made him shiver--or maybe it was the wind, sudden cold and sharp at his back--and he stopped lollygagging and scooted to catch up with Kirk.
They’d made it not ten minutes before the clouds closed and the rain hit, great gobs of it overtaking them and turning the soft dirt into muck. Leonard cussed and Spock remained nonplussed and Kirk laughed, threw his head back and his arms wide, stomped his feet in a weird little dance.
“Gods, it’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” he shouted over the thunder, over the steady pound of the rain.
He danced ahead of them, splashing through the mud like an overgrown kid, and even through the damp, McCoy could see it: the bare naked affection on Spock’s face as his eyes tracked Kirk’s every move. It’d taken Leonard a couple of years to get it, what that look meant, why Spock didn’t give it to anybody but Jim. It wasn’t much, just a curve of the mouth, a lift at the corner of Spock’s eyes, but it was there, plain as day, for anybody who knew how to look.
The ground grew slick, the grass weighted down with water, and still Jim skirted ahead, tripping over rocks and ridges and not slowing down a bit.
“Damn it, Jim!” McCoy barked, Spock hot on his heels. “Slow the hell down.”
Kirk skidded to a halt and turned, his face wet and jubilant. “Aw, come on, Bones! I know you’re not that out of shape.”
“It’s not my shape I’m worried about, idiot, it’s--”
His words broke, snapped clean in two, because one moment, Jim was ten feet away, grinning; the next, he was fucking gone.
McCoy got a flash of him falling, the split second where Jim hung in the air, the sound of Spock’s voice, fierce among the thunder, shouting, and he took off, sprinting for the spot. But a strong arm locked around his waist and pulled him flush just as the edge of the ground fell away, down into a ragged gulley where Jim’s body lay silent, not moving.
“Shit,” McCoy spat, flailing, “goddamn it, Spock, let me go!”
Spock ignored him, towed him back across the grass and dumped him into battered flowers. “Be still,” Spock said, “and wait here. I will retrieve the captain.”
“The hell you will. What if he’s busted something? You can’t move him. I won’t let you.”
Spock stared down at him, dignified despite the rain, despite the water pouring over his shoulders, down his face. “Very well,” he said. “We shall retrieve him together.”
Gingerly, they edged their way down into the gully. No wonder Jim had fallen, McCoy thought; the damn thing was almost invisible until you were right up on it, the edges softened by flowers and knee-high grass. The dip wasn’t deep but the walls were steep and studded with rocks, and when Spock made it down first and offered his hand, Leonard didn’t hesitate to take it.
Jim was unconscious, McCoy could see that just by looking. Kirk’s body was the wrong kind of askew, water pooling around him and mud soaking into his clothes. Leonard didn’t have his scanner--why the hell would you need one on an after-dinner stroll?--so he relied on his hands, on the knowledge he carried in the tips of his fingers: what fractured ribs felt like, or broken bones. Which cuts would heal and which would take the life right out of a man, if you let them.
“Yeah,” he said, finally, smoothing Kirk’s hair from his forehead, away from the wicked bruise on his temple. “It’s ok. We can move him.”
Spock knelt beside McCoy in the mud and slid his arms under Kirk’s body, picked him up as if he were made of straw. Together, they eased him up and out of the gulley and moved as fast they dared through the rain, back towards the cabin.
Kirk’s arms hung limp the whole way, made no attempt to hang on to Spock. That scared Leonard worse than anything, that kind of unwilling surrender.
Inside, they stripped him and McCoy battled him into dry clothes while Spock dragged out the cot and set it in front of the fire, lifted Kirk from Leonard’s hands and settled him into the sheets. Jim wouldn’t stop shaking, which in a way was a good thing--it meant his autonomic functions were strong, his basic systems still firing--but it was also damn hard to watch.
McCoy retrieved his medkit and dragged the blankets off his bed, carried the whole mess back into the living room. “Blankets,” he snapped at Spock. “Go get every damn one you can find.”
The scanners confirmed what he’d thought--nothing major broken, some pretty good gashes, a few busted ribs--but showed him something new: a tiny torn artery inside Kirk’s brain. There wasn’t much bleeding, so far as he could tell, no pooling within the cranial cavity; just an interruption in the blood flow carrying oxygen around the captain’s frontal lobes.
He dug around in his kit, cursing; he’d only brought basic tools with him because fuck, they were supposed to be on shore leave. Yeah, right. He dug up a simple arterial knitter and carefully laid it across the bruise on Jim’s temple. The thing was meant for repairing major tears like a rip in the jugular, a nick in the femoral; it was kind of like hunting a flea with a flyswatter, but hell. Hell. It was the best he could do.
The knitter hummed to life and added its voice to the other tools that dotted the captain’s body, a symphony of healing that said all they could do now was shut up and wait.
One by one, the machines finished their work, filled the room with their satisfied beeping, and Leonard lifted each one away. Finally, even the knitter was done, returned to the depths of his kit, but still, Jim didn’t stir, not even a twitch. His breathing was steady, his pulse regular, but he showed no signs of consciousness.
McCoy swallowed his alarm and leaned over the cot, waving his scanner back and forth over the still form again and again and thought: at least Jim had stopped shaking.
But Leonard hadn’t.
He didn’t realize how bad it was until he felt Spock’s hands on his shoulders, felt himself being pressed into the wooden chair that Spock had retrieved from the garden and placed for him next to the bed.
“Doctor,” Spock said softly.
It was only then that McCoy realized that the sky outside had begun to lighten, that the whole of the night had passed as he leaned over the love of his life, willing him to heal, to wake up, to return.
“He’s still unconscious,” he said, his voice crowded with tears. “He shouldn’t still be unconscious, Spock. He should’ve woken up by now, opened his eyes at least. I don’t understand it.”
Spock’s hand found his shoulder again and squeezed, a straight-up human gesture that would’ve made McCoy laugh in other circumstances. But then, he thought, scrubbing the water and exhaustion from his eyes, in other circumstances, Spock never would’ve done it.
“Rest,” Spock said. “Close your eyes for a few moments, Leonard. I will wake you if you are needed.” His voice was low and steady, a warm bath that seeped into Leonard’s bones, and McCoy couldn’t help but obey the gentle, insistent command.
“Rest,” Spock said again, and for a moment, the thin one between the sunrise and sleep, McCoy thought he heard Spock’s voice inside of his head, too, felt a brush of fingers over his thoughts, and another gentle squeeze:
Leonard, the voice said. I am here. Sleep now. You are of no use to him exhausted.
When he opened his eyes again, the room was filled with light and his hand was folded around Jim’s, his thumb tracing Jim’s pulse. He sat up, half-expecting to see Kirk looking up at him, his expression exasperated and fond, maybe a little bitchy at being down for the count, but--
But the captain’s eyes were still closed, his face a pale blank, and Spock didn’t look much better.
“The emergency comm is not working,” he said without preamble, moving away from the window and back to McCoy’s side. “I have attempted to repair it without success.”
“Oh,” McCoy said.
Spock looked uncertain. “It is no comment on your talents, doctor, I merely surmised that additional medical support would be--”
Leonard waved him off. “Of course, Spock. Of course. But it’s not--?”
“It is not functioning. I do not think it has been tended to in many years.”
McCoy spread his fingers, clutched a little tighter at Jim’s. “And you haven’t seen so much as a twitch, huh? Not a peep?”
“No,” Spock said. “He has given no outward sign of awareness, much less consciousness.”
Leonard did his best to ignore the rise of fear in his gut, the deep, awful certainty that this time, the universe was not gonna be on their side. “Well. One of us could go for help, walk out to the nearest outpost, you know. Go bang on some neighbor’s door.”
“Doctor, the nearest neighbor, as you put it, is located some 250 kilometers away. At an average walking speed of 8.2 kilometers per hour, it would take me approximately 30.48 hours to--”
“We can’t just sit here!”
Something fluttered over Spock’s face. “The pilot is scheduled to return within the next 36 hours. If we can keep the captain’s status nominal until then, we should be able to--”
McCoy dropped Kirk’s hand and stood up, abrupt. “Nominal? Are you even hearing yourself right now, Spock? Jim’s not a goddamn piece of equipment!”
“He’s a man, damn it, he’s your friend, and you wanna lecture me about him being fucking nominal?”
“Leonard,” Spock said. “Please, you do not--”
McCoy got in his face, backed him up, pinned him to the wall with a glare. “No, you do not, Spock. You don’t understand. I’ve done all I can. If we were on the Enterprise, oh sure, I could tell you what was wrong. Better yet, I could fix it! But instead, we’re stuck out here in this godforsaken place with no equipment, no technology, no chance for me to fix him, and you expect me to just sit here and wait?”
“No,” Spock said. “I do not. There may be another way.”
And that was how Leonard McCoy came to find himself seated before a fire on Evaline IX, witness to a ritual older than the tides, one he didn’t understand, one on which he hung all his hopes.
Spock flexed his hands, the skin and muscle beneath stretching, reaching, like they were searching for patterns or familiar rhythms in the air. He sat in McCoy’s chair, his back towards the hearth, his face shadowed by the sun drifting in from outside, oblivious to the tension within. “I will touch the captain’s face,” Spock said, his voice soft, almost melodic, “specifically, his psi points, and in that moment, his thoughts and my thoughts will join. If all goes well, I should be able to gain some insight into his current state and determine how we might most effectively aid him.”
“All right,” McCoy said, because they both knew it wasn’t.
Spock met his eye and Leonard could have sworn that the Vulcan’s had changed color, had moved from their familiar brown to a soft, almost iridescent black. “Wait here for us, Leonard,” he said, his hand moving towards Jim’s face deliberate, drifting. “Wait for us here.”
“Easy for you to say,” McCoy said, brittle and terrified, but Spock was already gone.