In a reversal of roles that left Jim gasping for breath and barely able to function, Leonard McCoy lay unconscious in Sickbay, the biobed breathing for him. He stood there, his fists clenched by his sides, his eyes refusing to give into the tears that wanted to form, staring down at the unresponsive form of his best friend and lover.
“Spock,” he choked out. “Report.”
“I am sorry, Captain,” a very grim Spock began. He stood just behind his captain at parade rest, eyes focused on the biobed's readings, as he delivered his report in a solemn voice. “The doctor was with me while we explored the planet. I should have...”
“The doctor is capable of keeping himself out of, or getting himself into, trouble, Mr. Spock,” Kirk interrupted, not wanting to hear what he should have done. “Just tell me what happened.”
“It was a flowering plant,” Spock continued, this time looking at the back of the Captain's head. “I did not realize he had wandered away from where I was scanning a pool of water. I turned when he didn't answer a question and he was no longer in sight. I found him one point two meters away, through thick flora, next to the plant, unconscious on the ground, pollen visible on his face and tunic.”
“You're certain the dust on him was pollen from that plant?”
“He's certain, Captain,” M'Benga said as he walked into the room at a fast clip and hit McCoy with a hypo. “The samples the botany team brought back match the pollen, and the bacteria, found in his lungs.”
“And the treatment?” Jim asked, motioning to the empty hypo in M'Benga's hand.
“A modified antibiotic Dr. McCoy used to treat that bacterial infection the security team contracted on Sigma Phobias III. The two bacteria strains have similar properties. We're going ahead and trying him on a round of the original while we work in the lab to formulate a more precise treatment. Hopefully, it won't be needed.”
“When will we know for certain?” Spock inquired for the Captain, who was back to staring at McCoy's pale face and artificially inflating chest.
“He should start to show some improvement within a couple of hours.”
“Unless you need me on the Bridge...”
“No, Spock, go to the lab.”
Spock nodded and turned on his heel, leaving the med bay at a fast walk. Kirk knew that with his First Officer's help, McCoy would be OK.
McCoy didn't respond to treatment and Spock and the rest of the research team were at a stalemate. Kirk sat at his bedside a full week later. Exhaustion was in every line of his face as he rested his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped before him, his forehead resting on his fists. He was there day and night, whenever he wasn't on duty. Whenever the staff didn't chase him away to get some sleep.
Not that Jim slept very much. He simply lay in bed, wondering what he would do if Bones never woke up, staring at the ceiling until a fitful sleep came only for him to snap awake an hour, two hours before his alarm, unable to go back to sleep. Sometimes he'd take a long shower, using both his and McCoy's water rations for the day, letting the tears come. Sometimes he'd simply get dressed and head to the Bridge, relieving who ever was on duty, even hours before Alpha shift.
The shifts just blended into each other until one moment Sulu and Chekov were at the helm, then Kirk blinked and Chaterlay and Hernandez were at the helm. Rand was delivering a report from Scotty to sign off on, then just moments later Riley was bringing a report from Ortiz as well as coffee and some meal that was between dinner and breakfast. Jim didn't even realize there was a meal at that time, but it made sense to his frazzled brain. Gamma shift had to eat, too.
He only ever felt close to being himself when he was back in Sickbay, sitting next to Bones, watching his chest going up and down. He imagined that Bones was breathing on his own and that he was just sleeping. That maybe it had been a hectic shift and he was just taking a nap during his down time. He imagined that he never sent him down to that planet, to any planet, that McCoy always stayed in his Sickbay, or the Bridge, standing safely next to Jim, complaining.
God how he missed the complaints. He didn't really complain that often, as far as Kirk was concerned, but when he did it was epic. About Spock, about crew members hurting themselves doing stupid stuff, about ridiculous regulations from Starfleet, especially those telling him what he could and couldn't do in his own medbay. Most of all, he missed him complaining about Jim leaving his socks on the floor. For some reason, Jim's feet started off cold, but then as he sat, working on reports or watching a vid, his feet would warm up and he'd just shuck his socks wherever he was sitting. Drove Bones crazy.
“Come on, Bones,” he whispered, close to his ear as he sat up and took his hand in his, stroking his thumb over the back. “I need to hear you griping. I need to hear you call me 'darl'n.' I need to hear you say you love me, the way I love you. Please.”
He pressed that hand to his forehead and willed him to start breathing on his own, to wake up.
Jim looked up to see M'Benga pulling up a chair next to him, the look on his face a shade of neutral that Jim knew meant he wasn't about to deliver the miracle he was hoping for.
“What's the news?” he asked, turning his eyes back to his CMO, his boyfriend, the man in the bed.
“Nothing has changed,” the doctor admitted. “He's in a persistent coma and his lungs... they just aren't working. He's not getting worse, but he's not getting better.”
“Any progress on a treatment?”
“We've modified the antibiotic to fight the bacteria, and it worked as far as we can tell, but for some reason his lungs are still paralyzed and he's still in the coma. It left something behind that we can't detect.”
“He can't stay here, can he.” A statement, not a question. Jim knew the regulations better than Spock at this point.
“We've got two weeks until we get to Starbase 9, unless we've had a course diversion I'm unaware of.”
“No, we're still on course.”
“Then that's how much time we have. I won't give up; none of us will. But in two weeks, if he's not awake or about to wake up AND we're positive he can fully recover onboard the Enterprise within a short amount of time, he's being transferred to the starbase and onto an emergency medical transport back to Earth and Starfleet Medical where he'll get state of the art care and cutting edge treatment.”
“Cutting edge?” Jim scoffed. “We're the cutting edge. You guys are the best and the brightest Starfleet Medical has to offer.”
“Leonard definitely is, but he can't work on his own case,” M'Benga sighed, patting the captain's shoulder. “It's first and foremost a teaching hospital, Jim. Geniuses that think outside of whatever box the last genius redefined are joining every day. Someone will figure this out.”
“I hope you're right.”
Another week went by, the same as before. Dr. M'Benga and Spock reported daily, but nothing changed. Nothing got worse, but nothing got better. Kirk took to working next to McCoy. His yeomen brought his reports, his coffee, his meals to McCoy's bedside. He spent more time with the other man in the time since he fell ill then he had in two months. He wondered how he was going to cope once Bones was no longer onboard ship.
The end of that second week, one week before they would arrive to Starbase 9, Jim put the hand he had been holding over McCoy's chest as he stood and looked down at his face. He was pale. Jim had never seen him pale before. He felt as if he had been living on hope for two weeks, but Bones barely looked alive. He didn't believe in a no win scenario, but Jim was finally accepting that Bones' win wouldn't be happening on the Enterprise. Geoff was right. Starfleet Medical was McCoy's best bet.
Jim leaned over and kissed his forehead. He managed to keep himself from crying; it felt like he was telling him goodbye. He was, wasn't he? He turned and left, heading to their quarters, intending to stay there. He had to make the transition. It hurt. It hurt like hell, but he had to get used to the idea that Bones wasn't going to be there anymore. He had to sleep alone, he had to take over his own quarters again, he had to get back on his normal schedule. He'd still sit with him during this last week, he promised himself, but only after his shift and he'd leave when he was supposed to be getting ready to go to bed.
But he wouldn't sleep in the middle, he decided, almost defiantly. This wasn't breaking up, he wasn't moving on. His own parents were rarely stationed together; this was like that. He was still with him, he still loved him. He would leave standing orders for daily reports on his condition even if the Enterprise couldn't receive them daily. He had to say goodbye, for now. Not forever.
When Jim walked into his quarters he took a good look around for the first time in two weeks. He not only had left at least three pairs of socks in the floor, but he had casual clothing laying around, as well. He scowled at his own messiness and began picking everything up and stuffing it into the laundry shoot. He even found uniform pieces in his and Spock's shared bathroom, loosely folded into a pile in the corner. He'd have to apologize to Spock later. He took those out and put them in his own recycler so he'd get fresh ones back.
The desk was harder. He and McCoy weren't official, so they hadn't moved into bigger quarters, hadn't rated separate desks. PADDs and disks were scattered all over it. If Jim was bad about leaving socks around, Bones was bad about crowding the desk. Jim stacked them up, most of them McCoy's. Those he set on the table he kept near the door to take to M'Benga. McCoy's personal items would stay with him, he decided, but anything medical related would go to M'Benga, whom he'd be asking to permanently take over as CMO.
He circled the partition between the sitting area and the sleeping area, finding more clothing that he put in the appropriate places. He stopped when he found, sticking out from under the bed, one of Leonard's uniform shirts. It was rare that he left clothes on the floor, but Jim remembered that he couldn't find it after they had frantically stripped each other of their uniforms, making love before the doctor had to beam down to the planet. It was like a punch to the gut, that reminder. Jim held it close to his face, hoping to smell him on it, but no scent remained. He almost put it in the recycler as well, but decided he wanted to keep it, even if it didn't smell like his lover.
He carefully folded it and looked around. There wasn't very many places he could put something like a folded shirt. He decided on McCoy's nightstand, the one extra piece of furniture they had moved in, squeezing it between his side of the bed and the wall. Jim sat on Leonard's side of the bed and opened the drawer, intending to remove anything that could go bad or that belonged in medical, and to place the shirt inside. Instead, he sat and stared at the contents, once again feeling as if all the air had been knocked out of him.
“Computer, what is today's date at Starfleet Command?”
“Today is Stardate...”
“No, Computer, what is today's calendar date?”
“Today is December 25th, 22...”
“Thank you, that is all.”
Heart pounding in his chest, Jim picked up the wrapped gift he found. It was a flat rectangle, fairly large in his hands, clearly in a box. The paper was shiny in stripes of red, green and gold, a gold bow in one corner. A tag bearing his name and the simple message of 'Happy Holidays' hung from the bow. Turning it over, though, was Bone's neat handwriting, expressing thoughts of 'love,' 'together,' and 'for as long as I'm allowed.'
A tear splashed, unchecked, onto the paper. He sucked in a shuddering breath and gently placed the uniform shirt into the drawer and the gift on top of it, before closing it.
“Mr. Spock? Please report to my quarters,” he called to the computer, waiting for the acknowledgment before he sent the same request to M'Benga.
“Gentlemen, I know you're busy,” he began, “so I'll make this brief and to the point. I am stepping down as Captain of the Enterprise and I will be going to Earth with Dr. McCoy. If Starfleet will not accept a transfer, then they will accept my resignation.”
“Will that be necessary?” Dr. M'Benga asked in alarm. Jim wasn't sure if he meant him leaving the ship or resigning from Starfleet, but answered the only question he didn't think was obvious.
“Not with the help of you and Mr. Spock. If I have both of your official testimony as to the nature and length of my relationship with Dr. McCoy, I can get a retroactive Partnership Status. Not marriage, of course, but it's good enough for Starfleet. They won't argue with me going on sick leave with him. They should agree, at the least, to a transfer and light duty.”
“Well, I can certainly show that you have been each other's next of kin for as long as you two have been on the ship,” M'Benga agreed.
“And I have spent two years sharing bathroom space with both you and Dr. McCoy,” Spock chimed in, not sounding near as annoyed as he probably should. “Will Starfleet not be vexed that you haven't filed for Partnership Status when you two first began to cohabitate?”
“They'll understand that it could have come under scrutiny, that my detractors might have accused me of playing favorites and that this deception afforded me the opportunity to prove that I am capable of having a relationship with a crew member without it affecting command decisions. I might still face disciplinary action for it, but they'll understand, which may save my bacon. At the very least, they won't argue me resigning if they're truly mad.”
“Captain,” Spock began, carefully, “I understand your desire to remain by Dr. McCoy's side, but there is little that you can contribute to his recovery. Once we hear from Starfleet Medical that his status has changed, we can return to Earth...”
“Can we, Spock? We might be in the middle of something time sensitive. And McCoy might not make a turn for the better. He might make a turn for the worse. It might not be something that can wait hours much less days or weeks. I'll be angry with myself if he wakes up and I'm not nearby. I'll never forgive myself if he dies and I'm not there. No, I've made up my mind. I'm not leaving him. So long as he's alive, I'll be there.”
Jim stopped pretending, and so did everyone else. The Partnership Status was submitted and approved retroactively, after a very uncomfortable conversation with the Fleet Admiral. The ship wouldn't be turned over to Spock until they reached Starbase 9, but Jim took leave starting immediately in order to stay beside his partner and travel back to Earth with him.
He was back to manning the seat beside Leonard, but he no longer wore a uniform, preferring one of Bones' old Ole Miss hoodies and Academy sweatpants. No one brought him reports, but they did bring him coffee and food as well as words of sympathy, encouragement, and expressions of how much they would both be missed. Many hoped for their return and that possibility was the only thing Jim still pretended about, but only for them. He was no longer lying to himself.
He returned to their quarters long enough to pack up and get everything ready to go, but he no longer slept there. The bed had already been stripped and the contents of their nightstands, including the shirt, the unopened present from McCoy, and a similar one to McCoy from his own nightstand, were also packed up. The Sickbay staff had moved a disabled biobed next to McCoy's, and while not really comfortable, it was better than sleeping in a chair.
Another week crawled by in this manner, the only difference being Jim was less stressed. He still thought Bones looked barely alive, and that hurt him down to his soul, but he knew he wasn't leaving him and everyday proved to him that that was the right decision. That didn't mean that leaving the Enterprise and his family was easy. He missed her long before he actually left. He did manage to pull himself away to take a quick tour of Engineering and have a drink with Scotty, the much loved activity bittersweet, knowing it would be the last time.
It was with a heart heavy with all of this, but full of hope once again that this was a situation Bones would pull out of, that he went to sleep the night before they were arriving at Starbase 9.
Jim woke to alarms, bright lights and urgent but calm voices. He started to leap up, forgetting where he was and not realizing at first that the alarms weren't red alert klaxons. A hand was on his shoulder and the surface beneath him was moving. He woke up fully before reacting, thankfully.
“Captain, I need you to stay on the bed. We're just moving you out of the way.”
He sat up and watched as the two medics that had moved his bed several feet away from McCoy's active biobed came around him and joined the medical staff that was surrounding Bones. Bones, who looked like he was seizing.
“Alright, we're turning off support,” M'Benga announced after several empty hypos hit the floor. “Three, two...”
“What?! No! You can't turn off support!” Jim shouted, jumping from the bed and rushing the team and straight into two medics larger and stronger than any security guard he'd seen, lifting him off his feet as they held him securely and immobile.
“... one. That's it! You've got this, you old son of a bitch!” And a cheer went up from the medical staff.
“Geoff?!” he called, letting himself go limp in the medics' hold, hoping they'd relax enough for him to fight his way free without hurting them, but that thought evaporated when the doctor turned to look at him with a smile that lit up his entire face from the inside.
“He was fighting the biobed,” he told him with a tone that said he could hardly believe what he was saying. “That's what the alarms were. He's breathing on his own, Jim. He's breathing on his own!”
The doctors, nurses and medics peeled away from Leonard's bed, cleaning up hypos as they went, tears streaking more than a few faces, and Jim's captors let him go with a pat to a shoulder and a squeeze to an arm. He didn't even look at them, too busy keeping his eyes trained on the man on the biobed. His chest rose and collapsed in a more natural, familiar pattern and his color seemed to be returning. M'Benga was grinning at the display.
“He's still unconscious, but he's no longer in the coma. Whatever that bacterial infection left behind seems to have been cleared out.”
“When will he wake up?”
“That's hard to say. We've been at a loss throughout this entire nightmare. Jim. I'm still recommending he be transported to Earth.”
“Yes, of course. And I'm still going with him.”
“But, this might just be medical leave, not a medical discharge. I normally would be more cautious, but...”
“You can't help but hope.”
“That man is always pulling miracles out of nowhere. And so are you. I can't help but expect this to turn out the way we want.”
It didn't turn out the way they wanted, but it was pretty damn close.
Because he had started breathing and waking up was an imminent fact not a hopeful possibility, Spock and Starfleet independently decided that the transfer of command would only be temporary, for however long the doctor needed medical leave. Both men were expected to return to duty.
Bones woke up on the transport to Earth. Since he was stable, the medical ship had put them in a private suite that was like a hotel/hospital room. Jim couldn't sleep in the same bed with him, still, but he was right next to him, allowed to hold his hand throughout the 'night' as he slept. The second morning he woke up, just hours from Earth, his hand was being firmly gripped back and a scarily quiet nurse was giving a propped up McCoy water.
“Look who's awake!” he said cheerfully but almost silently, and Jim didn't know who he was talking to, him or Bones. But it didn't matter. He was too busy looking at the drawn, still too pale, beautiful face. The nurse left them with promises of the on duty doctor being by.
“Hey,” McCoy croaked.
“Hey,” Jim whispered in awe, finally seeing those eyes he loved.
“Heard I've been out awhile. Long enough I gotta go back to Earth.”
“Doesn't explain why you're here.”
So Jim explained it to him as best he could. He got up from his bed, never letting go of Bones' hand, and wrapped his arms around his shoulders like he thought he'd break, then collapsed into his chest and cried. He finally let all the tears fall, all the tears he had been holding back and choking on. He let out great, wracking sobs that shook his and Leonard's bodies both and pressed as close to him as he could get without crawling into the bed with him. Bones held him as best he could with his weakened arms and cried for the pain he knew his lover had been in, all too familiar with the uncertainty.
When they finally pulled back, it was to soft, wet kisses on too dry lips and with stale breath. Jim didn't care that Bones tasted of hospital and sickness, the medications in his system reflected in his skin; and Bones didn't care that Jim tasted like he had slept soundly the night before. They just kissed and held each other until they felt like they could pull back, both smiling and wiping the dampness away from their cheeks.
“So, I wandered away from Spock, huh?” McCoy said as he shook his head. “Hoisted by my own petard.”
Jim hadn't laughed that hard in ages.
Once they docked in Earth orbit and were life flighted down to Starfleet Medical via shuttle the scene around McCoy became hectic again. Jim was sent to report in to Command while Bones was taken for every test under the sun. By the time Jim was done and had rushed to Medical, Bones was still being examined, poked, and prodded. Kirk was forced to wait in the room the doctor would be assigned to for his stay.
“What's this about you being my official partner?” he asked the moment he was wheeled in and his bed hooked up to the room's scanners. “At first I thought they were generalizing because they know you're my boyfriend and you've left the ship to be here, but then I realized they were giving you a lot of access without consulting me, and then I saw my file and it's LISTED. Care to explain?”
“Oh, I was going to tell you when we got a quiet moment,” Jim hedged, having actually forgotten that he hadn't told him. “It was done retroactively with testimony from several people on the ship. It's how I was able to take leave to be with you and was given the temporary transfer without too much argument.”
“Oh, I see, you do it while I'm unconscious so you think that gets you out of a proposal.”
“What? We're not married, Bones, we're...”
“You're damn right we're not, but when you get it into your fool head that you want to get married, don't just assume that I'm going to go along with the suggestion. I expect you to plan a proposal and to do it right. My response will be in direct correlation to how much effort you put into it.”
Jim smiled. It was nice to see Bones feeling so much better.
Bones was kept in the hospital for three days, mostly to catalog the effects of the pollen on his system. They might have kept him longer but he was bossing around the staff, much to his own doctor's annoyance, and had even convinced a medic to take him on a hover-chair tour of the hospital, where he had a few things to say. He was finally visited by Phillip Boyce, the head of Starfleet Medical, who personally signed off on his discharge and informed him he could make all the changes he wanted once HE was the Admiral in charge.
Jim got him out of there as quickly as possible.
“You're giving me gray hair,” Jim complained when they finally got to Jim's condo in San Francisco.
“Well, now you know how I feel all the time dealing with you,” Leonard groused as he levered himself out of the hover-chair Jim had insisted on using to get them home. He took a few steps forward and just stopped for a minute and stood, wondering what he was going to do next. Jim took the opportunity to wrap his arms around him and hold him close.
“I do,” he whispered. “You scared me, Bones. I know I can't ask that you never do that again, but damn, please try.”
“I will, Darl'n, I will.”
It took six months of physical therapy to get McCoy back to normal. The last three of those months were spent at the Academy clinic on light duty, getting him back into the swing of things, alternately impressing and infuriating his colleagues (often both at the same time). Once his physical therapist cleared him for active duty it was declared that he, and his desk bound partner, were ready to get back to the business of exploration, and none too soon. Starfleet was ready to get them both off the planet.
“Leave or take?” Jim asked, holding up a small painting they had bought while wandering the art district of San Francisco.
“Leave it here, I can't think of where we'd put it,” Leonard said, looking up from where he was packing.
“Don't forget, we're getting bigger quarters.”
“How is that gonna work?”
“We're actually going to be on the other side of Spock. Scotty just sent me the modified blueprints. The best part is we don't have share a bathroom with him anymore. There's a room about the size of Spock's that's not being used, but also a large storage room Scotty's breaking through the bulkhead into. That's going to be our bed/bath suite. Here, let me show you.”
Jim reached over and pulled his PADD off the top of a tote they hadn't gotten to, yet, knocking it over, the contents sliding out onto the floor.
“What's this?” Bones asked, bending down and picking up a large square box wrapped in green and red paper, allowing the flat rectangular package, similarly wrapped that had been behind it, to also slide out. “Oh, hey, I didn't think to ever wonder about that. That's the present I bought you for Christmas. I was in a coma, and missed Christmas.”
“Hey, hey, it's OK,” Jim was quick to reassure his lover who was just standing there, holding the package and staring at it with an almost hurt look on his face. “I know we didn't celebrate, or even remember afterwards, but there were so many more important things going on, namely helping you recover. And the presents are still here, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to open. Which I think is now.”
Jim picked up his own gift and gently guided Bones to sit with him on their sofa. Bones let out a huff and smiled at his boyfriend before tugging at the wrapping. Jim took a moment to reread the message that had made him realize he couldn't send McCoy back to Earth on his own.
To my best friend and the love of my life. I will be by your side, where ever that may take us, always, or for as long as you'll let me. You're my home and we belong together. Love, Bones.
He finally opened it, revealing a picture frame that, when turned on, cycled through a series of pics of the two of them together from the Academy to their last shoreleave together. Jim laughed and looked over at Bones who was also chuckling. In his hand was a picture cube, all six sides flashing pics of them as well, pictures of Jim's choosing, and they seemed to fill the gaps in their story that Leonard had created. They fit together, the way the two men did.
Bones set his down on the coffee table, balancing it on one corner, the pictures orienting themselves, and smiled warmly.
“We should definitely take these. They'll look great in our new quarters.”
“You haven't even seen the blueprints,” Jim laughed.
“Don't need to. I know they belong.”
“Yeah,” Kirk agreed as he he slid into McCoy's arms and nuzzled into his shoulder. “Just like we do. On the Enterprise and to each other.”