Despite Spock's apprehensions, Jim consented to the Taaori chieftain's request--he had little hope that negotiations for mining rights on the planet would continue if he declined. Casting a reassuring glance at his XO, Jim stretched out on a narrow pallet in the dimly lit dwelling, and let a shaman known as the Elder initiate the ritual of the consciousness transfer.
The transfer was nothing like a Vulcan mind meld. Jim had been aware of the elder Spock's presence during those bewildering moments on Delta Vega, even as a flood of memories that were not his own filled his mind. Spock's restraint had been evident as well; underneath the profundity of emotional impressions and grief at his planet's destruction, the old Vulcan had tried to be gentle.
Nothing about what Jim experienced at the hands of the scarlet-skinned Taaori shaman was gentle, despite the Elder's light touch. This was no melding of minds, but a concentrated upload of information into Jim's awareness, the flow so violent it was like being struck with a blunt object. Jim shuddered, blinking as his sight turned inward, images showering through him and spiraling outward into threads of light that seemed somehow alive.
"There is much for you to see, James Kirk." The Elder's thoughts echoed over the impressions crashing through Jim's mind. "Many worlds, many lives. Lives that might have been. Lives still to come and those gone by."
The Elder’s words sent uneasiness creeping up Jim's spine. He'd already seen another James Kirk through the elder Spock's mind and understood too well how easy it was to be seduced by a different--and rarified--version of his own life.
"What may I show you, James Kirk?"
"Nothing, Elder." Jim's thoughts were clipped and strong over the maelstrom in his head. "I mean no disrespect when I say that I am not interested in any life but the one I have."
"A brave assertion, if unusual." The Elder's thoughts sounded pleased. "Nonetheless, the Taaori welcome this opportunity to gain understanding through you. "
"Understanding of what, Elder?"
"Of your race, James Kirk. The threads of existence that surround us serve as windows into the beings that we encounter. The threads around you give us a window into humanity."
Wonder and apprehension washed over Jim. "Elder, the threads around me won't give you insight into anything other than me. And I'll be the first being to tell you that I am not the best representative of the human race."
The Elder's thoughts seemed to curve in a smile. "Perhaps. There are lessons to be learned in the threads of everyone we encounter, James Kirk, in both their successes and failures. The paths we choose affect the threads, echoing amongst them, and among the existences of those around us."
Cool discomfort trickled into Jim's belly as familiar faces rose unbidden in his mind. His crew. His mother and brother. Pike. Spock. Bones.
"That one," the Elder observed as Jim's thoughts lingered on the image of the doctor's changeable eyes. "He is one you love."
"I--don't know how to answer that."
Jim had been eleven the last time he'd loved someone. His mother's shuttle was already well out of the atmosphere but his heart felt crushed by the weight of words he spoke out loud to an empty room. He felt exposed and made vulnerable by love. Stripped bare.
He hardened himself against those feelings over the years, using his smile and clear blue eyes to charm his way into people's lives while always holding back a piece of himself. Enlisting in Starfleet allowed him to use his brains, too, especially after he befriended Bones, who suffered no fool gladly.
Gradually, Jim came to understand that he didn't need to charm his way into every job or heart or bed. By the time he'd gained his captaincy, Jim found he didn't want to, not after gaining the respect of his peers, and not with Bones in his life and bed, the man steady and true, and always ready to call Jim on his bullshit.
Bones loved him. Bones had told Jim years ago, after Khan and the warp core, when the doctor was too raw and too grateful to keep himself from blurting out the words. The confession had startled Jim, but centered him too, and Jim sometimes thought that it was because a part of him had always known how Bones felt.
Now, nearly five years after he and Bones had first fallen into bed together, Jim was ashamed to be unable to put a name to the way he felt about the man.
"I do not doubt your words." The shaman's thought was gentle. "I also do not doubt the true nature of your feelings. It is my hope that you come to understand them, James Kirk, where others have failed."
"Others?" Jim had time to think before the torrent of impressions came down over him with renewed force.
The stream sharpened, its acuity stealing his breath, filling Jim's consciousness so completely that his body seemed to scream. He soared, higher and higher, images of Bones and himself flashing around him. Different times and worlds folding in on themselves. Jim and Bones, often together but sometimes not, saving each other in one moment, turning their backs on one another in the next.
Jim gasped, his sightless eyes going wide as the stream ground to a halt, leaving him standing in an unfamiliar room, staring at ... himself. Himself and Spock and Bones, three men standing in a circle, their expressions and postures intent.
"It's for the best," said the man who looked like Bones. His expressive eyes looked tired and shadowed underneath, his skin pale against his grey medical scrubs.
"I disagree, Doctor," the other version of Spock replied, his face severe where his tone was not.
McCoy's smirk was wry. "I certainly wouldn't expect anything different, Spock."
"While the medical facilities and personnel of Starbase 11 are excellent, they are not comparable to those of Starfleet Medical." Spock's dark brows drew together as the doctor grunted. "Your decision to remain here rather than returning to Earth is not logical."
"Spock's got a point, Bones." The other Kirk's voice was rough. "You'd have more access to alternative treatments, not to mention your friends and family.”
A deep furrow worked its way across Kirk’s brow. "Help me understand why you want to do this. There's no reason for you to step down as CMO right now."
McCoy shook his head. "I won't be fit for duty before long. The crew deserves better than a doc who's too weak to do more than half-ass his way through the job, Jim."
"Then let us get you back to Earth instead of staying way the fuck out here--"
"It doesn't matter if I'm at the ass-end of the galaxy or back in San Francisco," McCoy interrupted gently. "We all know there's no cure for what I've got."
Kirk shook his head, his face grim. "I know that's what you've told me, but I don't buy it. There has to be something that can be done," he said, his mouth closing as McCoy raised a calming hand.
Pain coursed through Jim at the quiet resignation he saw in the doctor’s face.
"Xenopolycythemia is terminal, Jim, and there's no way around that," McCoy told the other Kirk. "Only thing to be done is to manage the symptoms until my body's decided it’s had enough."
Jim's breath caught in his throat as McCoy stepped toward the other two men. He reached forward, laying his right hand lightly along the captain's arm.
"If I'm lucky, I've got a year." McCoy held Kirk's gaze for a long moment before looking to Spock, though McCoy's hold on the captain didn't waver. "There's no point in draining resources either on board the ship or at SFM when those resources are better used to work on curable diseases."
Spock's dark eyes held McCoy's, his voice surprisingly gentle. "Is there no one that you wish to see, Leonard? Your family? No one whom you would like to contact?"
"Comms will do just fine. I won't look like myself soon and I don't wanna worry anyone ..." McCoy trailed off with a frown before looking at Kirk, who had paled.
"Chapel's gonna kick your ass if you don't come back, Bones," Kirk protested, his eyes flashing with anger as McCoy spoke over him.
"She'll understand because I will explain, and so will the other folks on the ship." The doctor fell silent after his voice wavered, and he drew a long breath before giving Kirk's arm a squeeze.
"It’s funny but I've gotten used to being out here in the black--bet you never thought you'd hear me say that." McCoy’s grin was crooked. "I've lived on that tin can of yours longer now than anywhere else since leaving Georgia, Jim."
Jim's heart ached as McCoy finally let his hand drop away from the captain's arm.
Kirk's stare was mutinous. He said nothing for a long moment before something in his expression shifted. "Never thought you'd take the easy way out of a fight worth fighting, Bones." Licking his lips, he turned away, exiting with a nod to the lab tech taking notes on the console outside of McCoy's room.
Jim swallowed against the tightness in his throat, struggling to understand why Kirk had simply let the argument die. His stomach sank as he caught the sadness in McCoy's heart-shaped face. He doesn't know, Jim realized, Kirk doesn't know how McCoy feels.
After a moment, McCoy turned to the first officer, his eyes on the minute tightening of Spock's mouth that telegraphed his disapproval of the captain's actions.
"Go easy on him, Spock. Jim's got every right to disagree with my decision."
"The captain is clearly angry," Spock agreed, "though it is unclear if his ire is caused by your choice to remain here or the situation in which we find ourselves at large."
"Probably a little bit of both." McCoy blew out a breath. "He's upset at me for leaving ... and for getting sick in the first place." He shook his head as Spock's lips parted. "I know it's illogical and Jim does too. Doesn't change the way he feels though.
"He's also angry at himself for being unable to help, which is just stupid, though I can't say I'm surprised. Never did meet a man better suited to beating himself up over things he can't control."
McCoy's eyes were earnest as he considered the first officer. "Take care of him, Spock. Jim's going to need a friend."
Spock said nothing for a time. "As always, I shall endeavor to be that for him," he replied at last, "and to you, too, Leonard, for as long as I am needed."
A small, oddly tender smile flickered over McCoy's face. "Thanks. Make sure you give him some shit every now and then, though--Jim needs to be reminded from time to time that he puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else."
The two men moved toward the door, Jim following behind, his head spinning as he struggled to understand how this could be happening, how any version of himself anywhere could walk away from a friend. Surely the captain would change his mind, or McCoy would, or Spock would tell them--with exquisite Vulcan politeness--to pull their heads out of their asses before something irrevocable happened.
"It won't happen--it can’t," Jim said to himself, so sure he was right, that any one of the various pieces to this puzzle would shift and change the outcomes of the lives Jim was witnessing.
The pieces didn't shift, however. Kirk visited with McCoy over the next two days, but neither man brought up McCoy's decision to stay. The unspoken words seemed to hang heavy over them, though, even after Kirk promised to visit McCoy as soon as the Enterprise made its way back to that quadrant.
At 05:00 on the third day, the Enterprise shipped out. Leonard McCoy stayed behind.
Kirk continued his command of the Enterprise and its deep space mission, his behavior more sober but otherwise unchanged when in the company of his crew. In the privacy of his quarters, however, the captain seemed unsettled. He worked late into the ship's night, skimping on sleep to slog through paperwork. If forced to take a break, he frequented the Deck 5 gym, running for long stretches on the treadmills, his pounding steps and harsh breaths echoing through the silence.
Kirk's stealthy behavior did not escape Spock's attentions, of course. Rather than lecturing his captain, however, the Vulcan followed the absent McCoy's advice, extending companionship to Kirk in the form of shared meals in the mess and regular chess games after shift.
Nothing seemed to ease the captain's state of mind, though, when he recorded video transmissions to McCoy. Kirk looked so serious sitting behind his desk, rambling through stories about the crew and their missions in a voice as controlled as his demeanor.
"He's frightened," Jim thought, watching Kirk, "of seeing McCoy sick ... of watching him die."
As if he’d guessed the captain’s fear, McCoy sent voice-only replies to Kirk. His messages were succinct and often wry, peppered with complaints and compliments alike about the Starbase 11 medical staff while saying little about his own condition.
"The doctors are practically babies," McCoy grumbled in one message. "Can't say they don't know what they're doing, though. A couple of the techs kinda remind me of Chapel, too--they'd have the run of the place if the CMO stopped paying attention."
Under the grumping, Jim heard the care with which McCoy chose his words, as well as his fatigue. Kirk heard it too, if the deepening lines on his forehead were any indication, particularly as the gruff McCoy admonished him to not to get his fool self killed.
"You know I can't control what happens on away missions, Bones," Kirk protested one evening, "and it’s not like we actually go looking for trouble, believe it or not.
"Like three days ago, we beamed down to a L-Class planet in the Rutherian Sector last week and I'll tell you, man, for about an hour, it was so goddamned pleasant I was almost bored." Kirk had poured himself a drink before turning on his PADD, and his words seemed to flow more easily than was habit.
Kirk's smile was wistful. "Sulu found some plants he couldn't identify and you know how much he loves that shit but I swear, even Spock looked intrigued. Or he did until one of the plants started trying to mate with him, anyway. Thing knocked Spock down and humped his leg like a big old leafy dog."
A short laugh bubbled up from the captain's chest at the memory and he leaned forward, yearning in his eyes as he gazed at the PADD. "You'd have laughed yourself sick, Bones--I almost did myself. I'll show you the diagrams Sulu drew up the next time we're in your quadrant and I can visit."
The visit never happened. Six months after the Enterprise departed Starbase 11, Lieutenant Commander Leonard McCoy died.
"Impossible." Jim's breath caught in his throat as he watched Kirk standing alone on the Enterprise's observation deck. The captain's eyes were focused on the cold fire of the stars, his fist curled around the Starfleet ring that had accompanied the package containing McCoy's old flask and death certificate.
"In this thread of existence, the captain and the healer followed different paths." The Elder's thoughts were somber. "The healer could not be saved."
Jim's blood ran cold. What paths did he and Bones follow in their own thread?