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As The Color Slows

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Part 1

1.

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."

 

2.

"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.

 

3.

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?

Chapter Text

 4.

Jim’s thoughts had scarcely coalesced before a brilliant golden light poured over him. The other Kirk stood nearby, tall and slim in a grey dress uniform, his bright hair concealed by a peaked cap, with long rows of crystalline grave markers stretching out around him. Spock stood on the captain's left, Uhura and Mr. Scott on his right, with other members of the Enterprise crew at their backs. Kirk's attention, however, was fixed on a grave marker by his knee.

Jim's blood ran cold as he read the words lasered into the block: McCoy's name, rank, and home state, underscored by the dates of his birth and death, starkly plain details that only began to describe a complex man.

"Captain Kirk."

Jim looked past the other Kirk, who turned to meet a man with lieutenant's stripes on the cuffs of his brown uniform. The captain and his crew straightened to attention when the man saluted, Kirk returning the gesture with crisp movements, curiosity sparking in his blue eyes as he issued the command to stand at ease.

"Something I can do for you, Lieutenant?"

"Barrows, sir," the lieutenant supplied, his handsome face somber under his cover. "I came to pay my respects," he said, nodding once toward the marker by Kirk's knee. “I was stationed at Starbase 11 in 2263, when Lieutenant Commander McCoy was admitted to the medical facility.”

Kirk's face paled. He gazed at Barrows for a moment before turning to Spock, Uhura, and Scott, exchanging murmured assurances that he would meet them later that evening for dinner. He waited until his crew had moved away before looking back at Barrows.

"You knew Dr. McCoy."

Barrows nodded. "Yes, sir. I was on the team providing Dr. McCoy's treatment and fortunate enough to get to know him."

Kirk’s eyes widened. "I remember your name." Surprise colored his voice. "Antony Barrows. McCoy mentioned you in his comms. You worked in the lab, kept him company sometimes when he had insomnia."

Barrows nodded. "Yes, sir. There wasn't much we could do for him, other than manage his symptoms. Keeping him awake and talking during those long nights wasn't exactly standard treatment--"

"But it worked for him," Kirk finished, the corners of his mouth quirking up. "McCoy always was a contrary bastard. It made him a great doctor and a terrible patient."

The men shared a smile, though Kirk's seemed strained. Jim could see the marks the Enterprise's five-year mission had left on the captain in the lines on his forehead and around his eyes.

"He wasn't always easy to know." Kirk's voice was quiet. "Bones--that's what I called him--well, he expected a lot of the people he called friends ... almost as much as he expected of himself."

Something twisted in Jim's chest as Kirk withdrew McCoy's familiar, battered flask from his pocket.

"Demanding the best was one of the things that made Bones a great officer and healer." Drawing himself up, Kirk flipped the flask's cap, saluting the grave marker before lifting it to his lips to drink, swallowing as he lowered it to speak again. "It made him an even better friend."

"Dr. McCoy said something like that about you, Captain," Barrows replied, accepting the flask when Kirk handed it to him.

"Did he now?"

"He spoke about the Enterprise's crew quite a bit, or did if he was in the mood for talking, at any rate."

"I'm surprised to hear he was ever in the mood not to talk." Kirk's tone was thoughtful. "Bones was never one to hold back." The corners of his lips turned down as Barrows handed back the flask and turned his gaze on the grave marker.

"Dr. McCoy suffered from depression," the lieutenant said, "which is not unusual in patients suffering from terminal illness. It wasn't always easy to get him to open up, but he seemed more willing to talk during third shift, when the starbase was quiet and there weren't very many people around.

"He told me stories about the Enterprise and her missions. A little about his time at the Academy and about serving with you, sir. It was easy to see how much he valued and missed your friendship."

Kirk's lips pressed into a grim line. "I didn't expect him to ... I planned to get back out there, to see him again before he died."

"You weren't alone in thinking he had more time," Barrows agreed.

Something in the lieutenant's tone caught Kirk's attention. "There wasn't anything that--"

Barrows shook his head. "Not at the time, no, sir. As I said, we had ways of managing the illness, and of making Dr. McCoy more comfortable. The research turned a corner while he was on Starbase 11, however, and I'm hopeful that things are about to change when it comes to a cure."

Kirk swallowed, wiping a hand over his lips, seeming unsure of how to react to Barrows's assertion.

"I left the starbase after Dr. McCoy's funeral," Barrows explained, "and transferred to Starfleet Medical to work with a team researching xeno blood disorders. We've made some real progress with xenopolycythemia in the last two years, and many of us think that a cure could be a reality in the next five years."

A mix of emotions flashed in Kirk's eyes. "That's ... extraordinary."

 

5.

Kirk took Barrows to Grady's after leaving the cemetery, explaining that the bar had been among McCoy's favorite haunts during their Academy days. The captain ordered bourbon for them both after they sat at the bar, and turned his eyes on the sandy-haired lieutenant, who seemed almost lost in thought.

"I'm still not even sure why Dr. McCoy started talking to me," Barrows mused. "He looked up one night as I was updating his charts and just started talking.

"We discussed my research and the work Starfleet was doing on xeno-blood diseases--he told me more than once that he thought I wasn't being challenged by the work I was given."

Barrows ran his finger over the lip of the shot glass on the bar in front of him. "After he died, I put some thought into what he'd said--really considered it--and realized that he was right." His eyes met Kirk's. "I needed more.

Kirk nodded, his expression encouraging. "Bones had an eye for picking out talented people--he was always observing, always aware of what was going on with the people around him. He told me that the staff at Starbase 11 were among the best he'd ever met."

A pleased smile flitted across Barrows's face. "I'm glad to know that. I didn't know Dr. McCoy for very long, sir, but he changed my life."

"That would mean a lot to him, Lieutenant." Kirk's voice was low but warm, pleasure lighting his face.

"I hope so. His opinion was important to me." Barrows's cheeks flushed with color, his expression becoming almost bashful. "This may sound odd, but I sometimes feel as though I have to live up to the things Leonard wanted to do but couldn't."

Kirk seemed to falter for a second at the lieutenant's use of McCoy's first name. "What kind of things?"

"He wanted to make a difference in people's lives, for one." Barrows looked wistfully at his whiskey.

A shadow passed over Kirk's face. "Bones made a difference in a lot of people's lives, Lieutenant, starting with the crew he served with. He saved lives, mine on more occasions than I can count."

"No, sir, I didn't mean to say that he hadn't or that he wasn't proud of his service." Barrows looked stricken. "Leonard spoke very highly of his service on the Enterprise and to her crew."

Kirk said nothing for a full minute. "I'm glad to hear it," he replied finally, his voice gruff. "I never knew if Bones stayed with us because he wanted to--because the work made him feel fulfilled--or out of loyalty to me and the crew. I wondered more than once if serving on the ship held him back from doing the things he really wanted to do." Kirk's keen gaze moved over Barrows's face.

"Leonard had no regrets about his service, Captain, only that he was unable to finish the Enterprise's five-year mission." Sincerity shone in Barrows's eyes. "He did speak of the things he'd planned for after his service ended, however."

Barrows waited as Kirk raised a hand at the bartender, signaling for a refill before he nodded at the lieutenant to continue.

"He wanted to explore academia after returning to Earth," Barrows told him, "and get back to research and writing. He considered teaching--said he'd have at least tried to not make the cadets cry." The lieutenant's smile echoed Jim's. "He wanted to reconnect with the people in his life, his friends and family--"

"But he ran out of time," Kirk finished, a muscle in his jaw jumping.

"Unfortunately, yes, he did."

Kirk worked his way through his shot of whiskey before speaking again. "Bones was my best friend. We lived out of each other's pockets for years, but he liked to play his cards close to his vest--said he didn't want to be a burden. Didn't matter how many times I told him it was okay to unload about himself, it was like pulling teeth, every time. He was a stubborn bastard.

"I'm glad he had someone to talk to out there, Barrows."

 

6.

Sadness colored Barrows's smile, but the way he worried his lower lip with his teeth caught Kirk's attention.

"What is it?" The captain's brow furrowed as Barrows appeared to hesitate. "Lieutenant?"

"Sir, at the cemetery earlier, you mentioned that you'd hoped to get back to see Leonard before he died."

"I told him I'd come back," Kirk replied, "before I left, in my comms ... Bones never mentioned it, but I know he heard me. Why?" he asked as the lieutenant shook his head, looking puzzled.

"I've never understood how Leonard came to be at Starbase 11, sir. I'm grateful to have met him, obviously," Barrows hastened to add, "but why someone like him was there in the first place just didn’t made sense."

Kirk frowned. "Someone like him?"

"Dr. McCoy was a remarkable man, Captain--I'm sure I don't have to tell you that. His thesis on neural grafting and axonal pathways was required reading when I was at the Academy, and his papers on battlefield trauma surgery and deep space disease and infection were on all of my colleagues' PADDs.

"By the time we met, Leonard was weakened by disease, both in body and spirit, but I could imagine the man he had been ... maybe even the man he might have been. He would have broken new ground in research, as he'd hoped, I'm certain of it, and would have led teams in curing diseases like the one that killed him."

The lieutenant drained his glass, frustration evident in his expression. "I knew from the way he spoke that Leonard had friends, and that he considered the people he served with as more than just shipmates."

"That's true." Kirk's voice was hoarse.

"Then how did he end up with only strangers to comfort him at the end of his life? Where was his family?"

Jim's stomach went as cold as Kirk's expression, and the lieutenant had the decency to look sheepish even as he continued speaking.

"Where were Leonard's friends and colleagues, sir, when he needed them?"

Kirk's mouth tightened and he blinked rapidly, visibly trying to control his response. "Bones didn't have much left in the way of family," he said, his voice flat. "His mother died when he was just a kid and his father passed before Bones graduated from med school. After his marriage went bust, Bones enlisted in Starfleet and never looked back. He kept in touch with a few cousins on Earth, but it was all pretty casual--he always said there was nothing left to tie him to Georgia. No kids, no parents, no spouse ... nothing.

"As for friends ... well, I'm pretty sure you already know the answer, Lieutenant. Most, if not all, of the people Bones was close to in Starfleet are still in active service. The brass are pretty accommodating when one of their own gets sick, but non-relatives don't usually make the cut for compassionate leave."

Barrows looked askance at Kirk. "Even those listed as next of kin?"

"Even then, Lieutenant." Kirk's eyes were icy. "Especially if those next of kin aren't bound by blood or vows."

The captain blew out a long breath. "I wanted Bones to stay on board the ship, but he wouldn't, and once we shipped out, my hands were tied. I made requests, tried to get the brass to play along, but I couldn't change the Enterprise's orders, even when I wanted to."

"I do know that, sir." Barrows seemed to deflate in the face of the superior officer's obvious discontent. "It just seemed ... wrong," he persisted, his voice soft. "Leonard didn't deserve to be forgotten like that."

Heat pulsed through Jim, and the ice in Kirk's eyes turned to fire. "He wasn't. We didn't forget Bones; the crew, his friends, myself--we couldn't. The doctor who replaced Bones is a fine CMO, but Bones's absence was noted, every day. He was missed. He still is."

Barrows nodded, sighing as Kirk gestured to the bartender to fill their glasses again. Kirk looked at the lieutenant with curiosity.

"Why were you there today, Barrows? At the gravesite, I mean. The memorial service was for Enterprise staff and Bones's close colleagues, but I wasn't aware of any information being passed on to Starfleet Medical personnel at large."

Barrows shrugged. "I heard about it through the SFM grapevine--Leonard was someone everyone knew of if not personally. People talk." With slow movements, he pushed his drink over the bar top from one hand to the other.

"But, I also visit Leonard's grave when I can. Mostly if something's going on with the research. Sometimes I go because the impulse strikes me ... like if I have good news or I'm struggling with something. I don't have any kin here on Earth,” he explained, "my family relocated to the Vega Colony before I was even born ... and Leonard's a good listener."

Barrows's faint smile matched the captain’s. "I miss him."

Kirk stared at the lieutenant, his expression stony, and Jim stomach hardened. "You had feelings for him, Lieutenant."

Ears reddening, Barrows fell silent for a long moment, his eyes on his drink. "Yes. I didn't--it just happened. I never told Leonard how I felt."

"Because he was dying?"

"Because he didn't need more drama in his life." Barrows shook his head, the flush sweeping across his cheeks. "Leonard needed a friend. To know that someone cared. I could do that for him then and, I guess, I'm still doing it now.

"Sometimes ..." he trailed off with a soft laugh, running a hand over his head. "Sometimes I feel as though I'm trying to live for two people--Leonard and myself. Like I owe it to him to have more."

"More?" Kirk echoed.

"More life to balance out the work. More of the things that most beings seem to want out of life and that Leonard didn't get a chance to have. A partner, a place to call home, a family--"

Kirk's crooked smile made Jim's chest ache. "What, kids rattling around a house and someone to come home to after shifts at the hospital? Bones tried marriage once, back in Georgia--I can't imagine he wanted it again."

"He did, though," Barrows offered, his green eyes sad when Kirk's smile faded.

"He told you that?" The captain's voice was raw.

Barrows nodded, his gaze returning to the glass between his fingers, instead of lingering on the too-bright eyes of the starship captain beside him. "Yeah, he did."

Chapter Text

7.

Without warning, Jim surfaced from the transfer. His eyes stung as they absorbed the light of the world around him again, and he blinked, almost blinded by images that were his own and not lifted from the experiences of another James Kirk in another thread of time. Spock's face hovered above him, the pinched expression on the Vulcan's face conveyed concern.

"Jesus," Jim croaked, fingers curling over the edges of the pallet he was lying on, his eyes wildly seeking out an anchor in the dimly lit dwelling.

"Captain." Spock's voice was cautious.

"M'fine." Carefully, Jim lifted his head an inch or so, then screwed his eyes shut against the overload of color and movement swirling into his brain. He didn't feel anything close to fine. His senses--hell, his every nerve--felt scraped raw. An ache in his chest deepened with each breath, and a crushing vertigo kept him from even daring to move.

Jim flinched as Spock's strong fingers pressed into his shoulder, and bit his lip against a grunt. "I'm okay, Spock," he managed to grit out.

"I disagree." A communicator's chirp made Jim's stomach twist. "Commander Spock to Dr. McCoy."

"Spock, don't," Jim persisted, eyes slitting open as he tried to get his First Officer's attention. He froze as Bones's voice filled the dwelling.

"It's McCoy--go ahead, Commander."

Bones sounded curious, a natural reaction to being hailed without warning, but the undertone of concern in his voice caught Jim's attention. Uttered in Bones's deep, musical voice, those few words were enough to challenge the captain's meager reserves of control.

Bones was alive, strong and vital and whole and here, with Jim, not light years away at the ass-end of space, dying alone in the care of kind-hearted strangers.

A lump rose in Jim's throat, forcing a strangled noise from him that again drew Spock's glance. "I--I need a minute," Jim muttered, drawing one arm over his face, aware of the first officer's low murmurs even as he struggled to pull himself together.

 

8.

It seemed like no time at all before fingers, warmer and infinitely more familiar than Spock's, grazed Jim's knuckles, a broad, sure hand slipping into Jim's when he reached out.

"Jim." Bones's voice was low and close to Jim's ear, another hand coming to rest on his shoulder. "Hey. How you doin', Captain?"

The moisture that had been gathering in Jim's overstimulated eyes became true tears, dropping from under his closed lids to run into the shells of his ears. Turning toward the voice, he inhaled, shivering as he breathed Bones in, smelling warm, shower-clean skin, replicator coffee, sterilizers, and the almond-scented gel that Bones used to tame his unruly hair into regulation standards while on duty.

"I'm peachy," Jim muttered, grimacing at his own tight voice and the helpless way his fingers pressed into Bones's.

"Yeah, I can see that." Bones's tone was light. The hand on Jim's shoulder lifted away and he heard a quiet click, followed by the familiar whir of a tricorder. "Never a dull moment with you around, that's for sure."

Jim dropped his arm to peer up at Bones's studiously blank face, an almost mirror image of Spock's as the first officer hovered by Bones's left shoulder.

"Your vitals are a bit wonky," Bones told him, "but seem to be stabilizing--you feeling up to being vertical again?" Jim grunted, then focused on breathing as Bones and Spock carefully helped him lever himself upright.

Spock stepped back as Jim swung his legs over the edge of the pallet and Bones sat down beside him, still holding Jim's hand. A creeping lethargy softened Jim's limbs and fogged his thoughts, and he scrubbed at his face with his free hand while Bones's other arm slid around his waist.

"Told Spock not to comm you."

"I know," Bones replied, pausing as Jim's head came to rest on his shoulder. "I'm here anyway."

"Given your obvious disorientation, Captain, it seemed prudent to seek Dr. McCoy's expertise," Spock declared, the stiffness of his tone making Jim frown even as his eyes slid closed against his will.

"I'm okay, Spock," he muttered, leaning into Bones, his body hungry for warmth.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think you gave the Vulcan a turn, Jim." A chuckle rumbled through Bones's chest at Spock's almost inaudible sigh of exasperation.

Jim listened to his officers, recognizing the affection and concern underlying their bickering, and his heart twisted as images of the other selves he'd glimpsed flashed through his mind. He saw a grey room on a distant starbase and three familiar faces stamped with unvoiced emotions--Kirk's bitterness and anger, McCoy's regret, Spock's resignation--and his breath caught as a wave of grief for the doctor who had died swept over him.

Carefully, Jim turned his face into Bones's neck, and held his breath until the sounds of Spock and the shaman excusing themselves had faded.

 

9.

Bones sat still, holding Jim close, his cheek pressed to Jim's head, grounding the captain as he tried not to fall apart. After Jim's breathing had evened out again, Bones stirred, his hand rubbing warmth into Jim's back, waiting another minute before he spoke.

"You wanna talk about it?" Bones's voice was low and rough with the concern.

"Yeah." Jim swiped at his eyes wearily. "Not now, though, okay?"

"Okay. Whenever you're ready. Maybe you'd prefer to explain why you let yet another spaceman put his virtual fingers into your brain?"

Jim managed a watery chuckle. "Spock told you," he guessed.

"Of course he did," Bones said. "Had to explain why he was requesting a medical intervention during what were supposed to be peaceful negotiations for mining rights, didn't he? I swear, Jim, you keep letting every being in the galaxy meld with that giant head of yours--"

"Hey!"

"--and you are gonna give Spock a goddamned complex."

"It wasn't a mind meld and there have only ever been two beings in my head, Bones--old Spock and this shaman. Our Spock's never even asked me to meld." Jim bit back a yawn, aware that he sounded petulant. "If I didn't know you better, I'd say you're the one developing a complex, Bones."

"Yeah, well," Bones grumbled, nudging Jim to straighten. Untangling their fingers, he raised his hands to the captain's jaw, tilting Jim's head back to examine his eyes. Bones's sharp gaze missed nothing, despite the low light, and his next words were uttered in a voice so low, Jim almost missed them. "Maybe you don't know me all that well."

The doctor's mouth snapped closed, eyes widening as Jim's fingers curled around his wrists.

"Bones," Jim murmured, "Bones, you're not--you don't mean that? You can't--"

The deep music of Bones's voice soothed over Jim's halting protests. "Hey. Don't listen to me, okay? I'm just being a cranky bastard, that's all. Happens when I have to use the transporter at a moment's notice."  The wry smile he quirked was so much like the other McCoy's that Jim's throat tightened.

The air seemed to come alive, humming with an energy that raised the hairs on Jim's arms. He gathered Bones's hands in his own, relishing the feel of their fingers sliding together, studying the other man's dear, familiar face, keenly aware of the infinite possibilities that were unfolding unseen all around them. Was this Leonard McCoy's destiny to die young, too? Was it possible for him to be saved, just as he had saved so many?

Bones's smile faltered at whatever he saw in Jim's expression. His lips had parted to speak when movement at the door caught Jim's attention and the moment was broken.

"Captain. The chieftain and his people have inquired after your well-being," Spock said, "and I admit to being curious about the same." As he stood by the door, every line of the Vulcan's posture correct and respectful. His dark eyes told a different story, however, showing relief to see the captain upright and dry-eyed once more.

"I am well, Mr. Spock." Jim's smile was faint. "I'll admit that the ritual took more out of me than I anticipated, but I'm ready to proceed with the negotiations if the chieftain is amenable." He turned to Bones, brows raised in a silent request for the doctor's okay.

Bones watched Jim for a moment more before nodding. "I want a full debrief about the ... transfer thing, Jim, and your ass in the medbay for a full physical when you are back on board." His voice was quiet, but Jim felt the weight of the words.

"Understood," he replied, even as part of him quailed at the idea of telling Bones what he had seen. How was he supposed to  tell Bones that an alternate version of Jim Kirk left an alternate version of Leonard McCoy behind to die?

"I mean it," Bones grumbled, his forehead creased with worry. "Don't think I won't enlist Spock to nerve pinch your ass and drag you in if you try to get out of it--"

"Pretty sure Spock would volunteer to do the dragging--though it's been awhile since he had to knock me out," Jim assured, smirking after Spock made a low noise of assent. Jim's stomach fell as Bones's expression turned assessing, and he wondered if the doctor would force him to allow Spock to conclude the negotiations. A long moment later, however, Bones nodded again and Jim gave his hands another squeeze before turning back to Spock.

Spock's nod was crisp. "Very well. I shall inform the Taaori chieftain, Captain."

"No need to speak on my behalf, Mr. Spock," Jim reassured, casting another encouraging glance at Bones before getting to his feet. "I'll inform the chieftain myself."

Jim followed Spock out into the blue-tinted Taaorian sunlight, unaware that Bones lingered on the narrow pallet for a little longer, his head bowed in thought.

Chapter Text

Part 2

 

10.  

Jim made good on his promise to report to the medbay as soon as negotiations had concluded for the day, though it was past 22:00 and he felt bone tired. He lay quiet on the biobed nearest the CMO's office, his blinks growing longer as Bones drew a blood sample and ran a series of scans so exhaustive that Jim doubted some of them were even real. 

"Admit it--you're just making shit up now." He levelled a look at Bones as the doctor’s right eyebrow rose. "You don't run half as many scans when I'm actually injured, Bones." 

"With a physical injury I have an idea of what needs treating." Bones's lips thinned for a moment before he continued. "You let people into your head, though, Jim, and I have to fly blind." 

"Which you hate," Jim muttered. His stomach tightened as Bones frowned at the lines of data scrolling across his tablet's screen. Impulsively, he reached out and caught hold of one of Bones's wrists, sighing when he looked startled. "I didn't set out to end up in the medbay today, I swear." 

"That's a song I've heard before ... but for what it's worth, I believe you." Bones's forehead puckered slightly when Jim didn't let go. "You still haven't told me what the hell happened down there," he reminded, his tone gentle. "I know from Spock's description that the shaman did some form of mind meld, physically non-invasive, with a duration of about five minutes." 

Five minutes. 

Jim swallowed hard, struggling to comprehend how years of the other Kirk's life had fit inside three hundred seconds. He forced himself to let go of Bones's wrist. 

"Normally, I'd just engage the gravity holds on that bed to keep you still until I got the full story," Bones continued, "but I know you're exhausted and you'll rest better in your own bunk than here in one of mine." 

Jim's brows rose in interest. "I can go?" 

Bones nodded, his hands swiping at the tablet as he closed Jim's records. "Your scans and bloodwork came back clean and your vitals are normal, so yes, you can go. You’re gonna eat something before you sack out, though. And I’m suggesting you stay off duty for an additional shift." He glanced up as Jim pushed himself up to sit. "I already cleared it with Spock." 

Despite his best efforts, Jim's hackles rose at the comment. "You and Spock discussed my ability to command?" 

"Spock and I discussed you staying off duty for a single shift to benefit your own health," Bones clarified, steel in his gaze before he blinked and shook his head, his expression softer. "He was worried about you today, Jim. That ... the ritual with the Taaori--" 

"Consciousness transfer." 

Bones nodded. "I wasn't kidding when I said you gave Spock a turn. He seemed genuinely unsettled by whatever happened. Well, unsettled for a Vulcan, anyway," he amended, "which is to say nothing about your reaction. You've seen more than your fair share of the weird and wiggly just doing your job from day to day--it's unlike you to lose your moorings like that." 

Jim turned away, trying not to scowl and ignoring the heat crawling up the back of his neck. He flinched as the solid weight of Bones's hand landed on his shoulder. 

"Goddamnit, Jim Kirk, you stop that shit right now--there is nothing to be embarrassed about." Bones's words were sharp, but his voice much less so, and the tension in Jim's body bled away. 

"I know," he muttered, rubbing a hand over his head. He could tell Bones now, he knew, tell Bones the whole story of what he'd seen as he lay prone in the Taaori dwelling; he could just lay it all out and get it the fuck over with. The words caught in his throat, though, refusing to come, until finally he jammed his eyes shut. Bones's hand moved to cover the back of Jim's neck, his palm warm and wanted, and the moment slipped away. 

"C'mon, let's get out of here,” Bones urged, “nothing good's gonna come from arguing tonight." 

Jim nodded, relieved at the out Bones had given him, then frowned as he tried to remember where the doctor was scheduled on the medbay duty roster. "You off duty?" 

"I will be in an hour." Bones kept his hand on Jim's neck as the captain slid off the bed, then let his arm drop as they headed for the medbay door. "Outside of having to beam planet-side today, things have been quiet. The nursing staff can hold down the fort until Beckett comes on duty, and they know to comm if anything serious comes up."

 

11.  

The next hour passed in a weary haze for Jim. He didn't speak much, even after they'd reached the captain's quarters, but then neither did Bones. Jim showered quickly while the doctor replicated some dinner, their silence companionable as they sat in the little dining booth eating sandwiches. Jim rolled his eyes after Bones all but ordered him to bed, but they both knew that his complaints were just for show; he was out cold long before Bones slipped into the bunk beside him. 

Hours later and deep in the ship’s night, Jim's eyes snapped open, his heart pounding and his ears straining for the sound of quiet breathing at his side. His dreams had been vivid and confusing, filled with a sad-eyed figure dressed in blue and just out of reach, a familiar, heart-shaped face always turning away from Jim. The clarity of the dream images softened as Jim woke, but he knew one thing for certain: he hadn't been dreaming of the other McCoy. He'd been dreaming about Bones. Bones slipping out of reach, Bones looking grim and lost, Bones's eyes shifting green and gold as Jim lost him, over and over again. 

The grief Jim had felt after the transfer on Taaori II flooded over him once again, sharper and crueller this time, closing his throat. Clenching his eyes shut, Jim turned onto his side, curling his body around Bones’s, greedy for the heat pouring off Bones's shirtless torso. He nosed into the crook of Bones’s neck, acutely aware of the life in the man resting against him. Bones felt solid in Jim's arms, the pulse in his throat beating strong against the bridge of Jim’s nose, the even pattern of his breaths changing as he slowly roused. 

Bones’s arms came up and around Jim, nudging the captain back with gentle movements until they lay chest to chest, his cheek pressed to the crown of Jim’s head, their legs entwined. Bones said nothing, and Jim thought he had fallen sleep again until he felt the press of lips against his hair. 

“The Taaori can follow infinite threads of existence,” Jim blurted, his voice rough with sleep. “That’s what the shaman--the Elder--showed me during the consciousness transfer. Streams of images inside my head that just went on forever. 

"Endless variations of … me,” he murmured, still awed by what he had seen. "Different Jim Kirks living different lives in different worlds, over and over." 

"Like the Kirk in old Spock's universe?" Jim could hear the frown in Bones's voice. 

"Yes ... and no. There were Jim Kirks in different times and places. Worlds where he wasn't a starship captain, worlds where Starfleet didn't even exist." Jim licked his lips as he tried to put the things he'd seen into words. "The threads were reeling out in my head, so fast they were just blurs of light, but I could see every moment in each thread with total clarity if I really looked. It was fucking wild.” 

Bones let out a breath. “It sounds like a recipe for a breakdown,” he said, lips pressing against Jim’s eyebrow in apology as Jim stiffened. “Humans aren’t accustomed to infinite possibilities of themselves being thrust wholesale into their minds, Jim--something like that just isn’t in the realm of understanding for your average being. It’s no wonder you felt overwhelmed after it was over.” 

Jim lay still as Bones’s rich voice rolled over him. There was so much more he needed to say, that Bones deserved to know, but again, Jim thought of the other Kirk and McCoy and Spock, splitting away and apart, and the words he wanted to speak would not come. His body flushed warm, his stomach twisting at his own cowardice before fear rose up in a sudden rush, leaving him shaken. What was to prevent him from repeating the other Kirk's mistakes by staying silent?

 

12.  

As was so often the case, Bones seemed to sense Jim’s need for comfort. He rolled Jim onto his back, plush lips moved against his closed eye, the apple of his cheek, the corner of his mouth, and the underside of his jaw before kissing Jim deeply. 

Jim sank into those kisses, winding his arms around Bones with a hum as the doctor settled between his legs. Heat jolted through Jim as their cocks met through their sleep pants, and he arched up with a grunt, hands spread wide on the bare skin of Bones's back. Bones pulled him closer, licking and nipping Jim's throat, making him groan. 

“This okay?” Bones's voice was rough. 

Jim's breath hitched when Bones's tongue swirled around his Adam's apple. “God, yeah." Ducking his head, he caught Bones's lips with his own, fire racing under his skin as the doctor's hips rolled against him. He broke away with a gasp and gave Bones a little push toward the bedside table where they kept the lube. 

Bones reached out, his body stretching and flexing under Jim's hands, and Jim waited for the sound of the drawer sliding open before reaching between their bodies, palming Bones's cock through his pants. He grinned when Bones froze, then slowly stroked the hard flesh from root to tip until Bones shuddered. 

“Oh, fuck. Jim ... leggo, Jim, or I am gonna blow right now.” 

"So crass," Jim teased, tightening his grip just a little more, pulling a whine out of Bones before he let go. He chuckled as Bones lunged for the drawer, not expecting the doctor's mouth to crash down over his a moment later, their teeth and tongues clashing hungrily until Bones wrenched away. 

Breathing hard, he pushed back onto his haunches, reaching for the drawstring of Jim's pants. "Lights, twenty percent." 

Jim lay back, letting Bones strip him, and hissed when Bones bent to lick a hot, wet stripe across his pelvis. Jim's nerves crackled with arousal. He gasped as a hand cupped his scrotum, Bones's fingers rolling and massaging Jim's balls in slow, maddening circles that made his cock throb. He reached to touch himself when Bones pulled back again and swore as Bones batted at his hands. 

"Nope. No one comes until my cock is in your ass." 

"Jesus, you’re a bossy sonofabitch." His glare softened as Bones popped the cap on the lube with a leer. "Oh, God," he murmured, "just get over here already." 

The doctor chuckled darkly. "Patience, Captain." 

Bones made a show of slicking his fingers, finally laying down beside Jim to reach between his thighs and spread them wide. Jim shuddered when a long, slick finger slid inside him. 

"Bones--" he began, voice wavering. A pang shot through his chest at Bones's whispered reply. 

"I know." 

Bones kissed him, fucking Jim's mouth with his tongue, working Jim open with his fingers, until Jim whined. Working his way down Jim's body, Bones sucked at his nipples and nibbled at his ribs, licking a lazy, wet curlicue around his navel as Jim thrashed against the sheets, conscious and uncaring of his own broken moans. 

Lifting his head, Jim's heart clenched at the sight of Bones below him, eyes burning gold, the expression on his face as he looked at Jim bright and open and adoring. 

"Beautiful," Jim murmured just as the doctor's fingers twisted, sending sparks of pleasure shooting through his body. "God ... fucking ... damn it, Bones." 

Bones's low laugh sent shivers racing down Jim's spine and he fell back, hips bucking up and jaw clenching as Bones's fingers finally slipped free. Something inside Jim snapped. Lurching up, he grabbed hold of Bones, hauling the other man forward by his shoulders and reveling in the strength and life of the body that fell against his own.

 

13.  

"Jim." Bones's voice was hoarse. 

Jim wound his fingers in Bones's dark hair, his body buzzing as they rutted against one another, his gut twisting with need. He couldn't get enough, couldn't get close enough, and when Bones licked his way into Jim’s mouth, Jim keened. 

Bones reached between them, his movements rough, grasping his own cock to guide himself forward. Jim inhaled sharply as Bones breached the ring of muscle, and then lost himself in the slow slide and burn of Bones pushing inside him. 

"God." 

The break in Bones's voice sent a jolt skittering through Jim. He pushed back into the pillow with a grunt, hitching his legs up against the doctor's hips, pulling Bones forward, and his body's ache deepened into pleasure. He grinned when Bones swore, and gasped as Bones thrust forward, turning Jim's bones to water. 

"Bones." 

"So fucking good," Bones murmured against Jim's jaw. 

The burn in Jim's groin expanded as Bones fucked him, and he cried out as Bones's hand finally wrapped around his dick, pumping in long, sure strokes that curled Jim's toes. 

"More," he panted, his balls tightening, "fuck, fuck, more." 

Bones did as his captain bid, driving into Jim faster and harder, the broad hand on Jim's cock pushing him higher and higher until he soared. The orgasm roared through him, forcing Jim's eyes closed as his cock pulsed over Bones's fist and Bones swallowing his moans with greedy kisses. 

Jim came back to himself slowly, stirring as he recognized the tension in Bones's body, the doctor's cock still hot and rigid inside him. Hooking his ankles together behind Bones's back, Jim dug his heels into the swell of his ass, pressing Bones deeper. 

"Oh, Jesus." Bones's voice shook. 

"C'mon," Jim murmured, his hands scrabbling at the skin of Bones's waist. "I wanna feel you, Bones." 

Bones groaned, his forehead falling to rest against Jim's as he found his rhythm again, his body trembling with exertion and arousal. Jim watched Bones, taking in the deep flush on his neck and chest and the almost desperate look in his eyes, and raised a hand to cup his cheek. His heart constricted when Bones's chest heaved. 

"Baby." Jim's whispered word seemed to fill the space between them. 

Bones stiffened and let loose a strangled shout, his eyes wide and locked with Jim's as he came. His movements stuttered, gradually slowing as he rode out his pleasure, until Jim closed his eyes and pulled Bones close, overwhelmed by the need to feel Bones's heart thundering against his own through their skins.

The unnamable things he felt for the man in his arms rose up inside Jim, terrifying and amazing, leaving him crushed in their wake. Swallowing hard, he let his hands move over Bones's body as they caught their breaths, stroking Bones’s overheated skin gently until Bones slept.

It was a long time before Jim could do the same.

 

 

Chapter Text

14.

"Do we need to talk about anything, Jim?"

The captain paused in his movements, a gold uniform shirt held loose in his hands as he looked across the room at Bones, who was replicating their breakfast.

"I don't think so," Jim said at last, pulling the shirt on over his head. "I feel fine ... rested. I know you told me last night that I should take a shift off, but I don't have time, Bones."

He ran a hand over his hair and picked up his tablet, crossing to the dining booth where Bones had placed cups of coffee and a plate of food. "Spock's staff raised some concerns about what the ryetalyn mining could do to the Taaori's ecosystems," Jim explained, accepting the cup Bones handed him. "We need teams down there surveying the proposed sites and making recommendations so the negotiations continue moving forward."

Bones said nothing, his hazel eyes on Jim as the captain sipped from his cup. He pursed his lips, and something Jim couldn't read flashed across Bones's face before he nodded. "Okay," he said evenly.

Jim watched him gather up his PADD and a bagel from the plate, frowning slightly when he realized that Bones wasn't going to push, not even about the half-assed debrief they'd done the night before in the medbay.

Bones paused at the door though, his expression stern as he glanced back at Jim. "No one's allowed to handle your brain today--CMO's orders." He palmed the panel, brows rising dramatically as he continued. "I don't care what kind of planetary crisis comes up, Jim, I will personally kick your ass into next week if I hear even one thing that sounds like 'mind meld'--"

Jim raised a hand in surrender. "Understood, Doctor--there will be no handling of brains." He grinned as Bones sniffed loudly and stalked off to the medbay, then glanced at his communicator when it chirped.

"Commander Spock to Captain Kirk."

Jim flipped the comm open. "Kirk here--go ahead, Spock."

"Dr. McCoy has informed me that you will be coming on duty as scheduled, Captain."

"Affirmative." Jim put down his cup in favor of a bagel from the plate. "I need a full briefing on the possible effects of mining on the Taaori ecosystems."

"Understood," Spock replied. "May I also know if you have debriefed Dr. McCoy on the events that occurred yesterday on the planet's surface?"

Jim studied the bagel in his hand, his lips thinning as he recognized his own hesitation in answering. "An informal debrief with Dr. McCoy took place last night as I was discharged from the medbay." The silence that met his words caught Jim's attention. "Is there a problem, Commander?"

"Negative, Captain." Spock's voice was smooth.

"Acknowledged. My ready room in fifteen--we'll also review the duty rosters for the survey teams beaming down to the planet's surface."

"Affirmative. Spock out."

Jim worked his way through his breakfast, organizing his thoughts as he ate. The negotiations for mining rights on Taaori needed his attention more than the debrief Spock and Bones wanted--neither officer would deny it, no matter how badly they wanted to know what Jim had seen in those five minutes under the shaman's hands.

Still, a pang went through him as he remembered the concern he'd seen in Bones's eyes the day before, when they'd sat together on the narrow pallet in the shaman's dwelling. Jim had promised Bones that they'd talk, then sidestepped the conversation at every turn; something about that didn't sit well with Jim, particularly with the ghosts of the consciousness transfer still fresh in his mind.

Quickly, Jim slid the cup and dishes into the recycler and headed for the door. He had duties to fulfill and a starship to run. His crew were good--the best in the 'fleet, he thought with pride--but Jim was responsible for each square meter of the ship and every being under his command; the pings of incoming messages to his PADD only served to underscore that thought.

He'd make time to talk to Bones, he told himself, after the negotiations on Taaori were settled and things had quieted down.

 

15.

Things didn't quiet down in the days that followed, however. The Taaori mining rights were scarcely settled before new orders came in, sending the Enterprise to the Rigel System to rendezvous with a party of Gheljiar and process a series of crew transfers. The ship warped through the quadrant, fairly buzzing with activity as the crew prepared for new personnel and a brief shore leave on Rigel III.

Outside of shift changes and staff meetings, Jim hardly saw his CMO during the ship's journey. Bones was holed up in the science labs with Spock, cataloguing a huge cache of Taaori flora, while Jim worked overtime covering Spock's shifts and catching up on backlogged reports and paperwork. He was always aware of Bones's location, though, using his PADD and the ship's computer to keep an eye on the doctor's movements between decks or in the captain's quarters.

"While the Taaori flora catalog is not yet complete, initial scans are promising, Captain," Spock told him over coffee in the captain's ready room. "Dr. McCoy has isolated medicinal properties in several herb species recovered from the planet's rainforest region; he believes they may further the research efforts of two Starfleet Medical teams, if not more."

Jim grinned, pride warming his insides. "I read the outline Bones submitted last night during my shift, Spock--congratulations to you both."

"Congratulations at this point would be premature, Captain--additional analysis has yet to be conducted."

"Be that as it may, you're looking pretty smug, Commander. You and Bones make one hell of a team, even if you do spend most of your time arguing."

Spock's left brow rose several millimeters. "Captain, Dr. McCoy and I have not engaged in significant debate in some time."

Jim glanced at the Vulcan, his curiosity piqued. "And how do you define 'some time,' Mr. Spock?"

"Sixty-three days, twelve hours, and twenty-five minutes have elapsed since our last disputation."

Jim blinked. "You and Bones haven't argued in over two months?"

"Correct."

"You kept track?"

"Obviously."

"I don't even know how to respond to that, Spock." Jim shook himself slightly. "Should I ... be worried?"

Spock's smooth brow furrowed. "On the contrary, Captain. Given your encouragement that Dr. McCoy and I improve our working relationship, concern on your part is the opposite behavior that one might expect, particularly in light of the circumstances of late."

Jim frowned at the first officer. "What circumstances are you talking about, Spock?"

Whatever Spock planned to reply, the chirp of Jim's comm silenced them both, and the two men headed for the bridge as Lieutenant Sulu announced the Enterprise's entry into the Rigel System.

 

16.

Jim was buttoning the collar of his dress jacket as the door to his quarters slid open and Bones hurried in.

"I was about to give up on you," he chided, turning from the mirror to watch as Bones hauled his blue tunic over his head. "We're beaming over to the Lurian ship in ten minutes, Bones, and you've been blowing off my comms all day--what's going on?"

Bones looked aggrieved. "I'm sorry. One of the scans Spock and I were running on the Taaori samples went wrong--I had to start it over again or risk losing all of the preliminary work we'd done."

Sympathy softened Jim’s irritation as he took in the doctor’s frazzled state. A lot of research was riding on the successful completion of the Taaori flora catalog, and he knew how hard Bones and Spock had been working beyond their usual duties.

"I understand that you've been focused, Bones, but you can't just go dark on me. You'd answer a red alert or comms from the medbay if they needed you," he pointed out, eyebrows rising in challenge as the doctor scowled. "Get the junior crew to do the communicating for you if you can't step away from a task."

Bones grimaced at the idea of using his staff as gophers but nodded and moved to the wardrobe to withdraw his own dress uniform. "I'll be ready as soon as I can."

“I’m on my way out." Jim calmly met Bones's wide eyes when the doctor’s head snapped around. "The Gheljiar are meeting us, along with the Lurian ambassadors--it’d be bad form to keep them waiting.”

He bent to pick his cover up from the bunk. “I'll go on ahead with the others and you join us when you're ready."

Uncertainty flashed across Bones's face. "Won't that, I don't know, cause a diplomatic incident or something?"

“Prince Guran is eager to talk to anyone and everyone stationed on the Enterprise," Jim assured, walking toward the door. “He wants Starfleet’s aid in creating an outpost on Lurian's outermost moon and he’s been very upfront about wanting a tour of the ship. As long as you slip in before we’re seated, he’ll be so busy talking to the rest of us he won’t have time to miss you.”

Jim paused by the door panel as he realized Bones still seemed dubious, and gave the doctor a quick smile. "Stop worrying. I'll explain about the flora catalog, get Spock talking about it, and we’ll put some bourbon on ice for you."

Bones wheeled around toward the head with a huff. "Ice just waters down good booze, you heathen."

"What if it's shitty booze?" Jim called after him, his grin widening.

"Then you drink it anyway," Bones shot back. "Save me a glass, Captain."

"Aye, Doctor!"

Chapter Text

17.

Prince Guran accepted Jim's explanation for Bones's tardiness serenely, as did the ambassadors, though Jim thought he caught a trace of impatience in the Terran diplomat's dark, almond-shaped eyes. Curiosity piqued by that fleeting expression, Jim sought out Ambassador Galina Dymkova toward the end of the cocktail reception. Dymkova's good looks made falling into the habit of flirting that much easier.

"I was surprised to learn that the Enterprise had been sent to rendezvous with our party, Captain Kirk," she told him over a fresh glass of Lurian wine. "It must seem a rather mundane mission coming fresh after your success on Taaori II."

Jim covered his surprise with a smile. "Every mission is important in its own way, Ambassador, though I wasn't aware that the negotiations for Taaori mining rights had become public knowledge."

"I never said they had." The ambassador's shoulders rose and fell in a small shrug. "Starfleet's gossip machine is alive and well, however, and busy supplying fodder to those of us who do not command starships. Surely that isn't news to you, Captain."

"No, it's not," Jim acknowledged. "There's a sense of insularity that comes with traveling in deep space for extended periods, however, and I'm still sometimes surprised by how quickly information travels. I suppose there's a certain amount of reassurance in knowing that some things never change."

Dymkova hummed in agreement, one hand coming up to finger the collar of her suit, its midnight blue color setting off her golden skin. "Perhaps you aren't aware then that the discoveries made by your Sciences Division are generating the most ardent discussion among both command and scientific circles. From what I've heard, the walls of Starfleet Medical are practically vibrating with excitement. Well, as far as the geniuses that wander its halls are capable of excitement at any rate."

Jim smiled, warmed with pride in his crew's accomplishments. "The initial reports on the flora recovered from the planet are very promising," he replied, parroting Spock's earlier words, "and we're all looking forward to seeing the results of the crew's hard work, particularly my Chief Science and Medical Officers."

"Ah, yes, Commander Spock and the redoubtable Dr. McCoy." Dymkova nodded, her plush lips curling in thought. "I had the pleasure of making their acquaintance following the incident with the starship Vengeance in San Francisco. I was in Administration at SFM at the time--I served on the board of inquiry that investigated Dr. McCoy's activities following your injuries."

Jim's posture stiffened slightly at the ambassador's words. Starfleet Command had turned Bones's life upside down in the weeks following Jim's climb into the Enterprise's warp core. The brass knew that something dire had happened to James Kirk on board the ship and that Leonard McCoy had led the charge to save the captain's life while San Francisco burned beneath them. Bones declined to disclose the procedures he'd performed, however, using the shield of doctor-patient confidentiality to deflect the brass's inquiries. Still reeling from Admiral Marcus's betrayal and decimated my Khan's attacks, the frustrated admirals had turned to Starfleet Medical to hammer at Bones beyond the boundaries of his rank.

The doctor was summoned by the board of inquiry before and after Jim regained consciousness. There was talk of arresting Bones, of reassigning him to the furthest outposts of the galaxy, even stripping him of his rank and medical license, all to no avail. Through it all, Bones had stood his ground, stonewalling questions and threats, backed at every turn by his own medbay staff and Spock.

Finally, the brass had brought in Khan for questioning and, presumably, to rattle Bones's cage. Unsurprisingly, the augment refused to play ball and had instead neatly turned Starfleet's strategy on its head.

"Khan smiled at them--mocked them like it was all his idea of a big joke," Lieutenant Marcus had told Jim as he lay on a biobed at SFM, waiting for his body to come fully awake. "Khan stopped smiling when he looked at Leonard though."

Jim's stomach fell at the haunted expression on Marcus's face. The last time he'd seen Khan, the augment had been moments away from killing them all, his pale eyes filled with cold rage.

"What did Khan say?" Jim murmured.

Marcus shook her head slowly. "Nothing to Leonard--not a word. I could tell by the way Leonard was holding himself that he was furious--seething, really, and holding it all in. But the way he and Khan looked at each other ... there was something there. Acknowledgement, maybe." Her lips thinned as she remembered. "Like warriors meeting off the battlefield." 

A chill worked its way through Jim's body. Something had gone down between Bones and Khan after the augment had been dragged back aboard the ship--Spock had admitted as much in his conversations with Jim, without going into detail. Bones refused to talk about Khan, though. He didn't want to talk about anything that had happened as the Enterprise had fallen toward Earth, or about the days that had led up to Jim's awakening. Or not with Jim, anyway. 

Marcus sighed, a faraway expression in her blue eyes. "Finally, Khan turned back to the board and told them that they were wasting their time. That there was nothing they could do to 'the good doctor' or to himself that would get them what he knew they wanted." The science officer shuddered delicately. "Leonard's face went pale," she said, "but otherwise it was like he was made of stone. Khan refused to say another word and finally they led him out."  

Now, Jim caught sight of a tall figure clad in grey at the lounge door, and some of the tension bled out of his posture as Bones made his way into the room.

"Dr. McCoy proved to be very loyal to his commanding officer and the Enterprise's crew," Ambassador Dymkova observed, her gaze on Bones as Jim turned toward her. "Some might even say to the detriment of own career."

Jim hid his irritation behind his most charming smile. "Lieutenant Commander McCoy's first instincts are as a physician, Ambassador, and with his skills, he's an asset anywhere he serves. He could have his pick of any assignment in the galaxy, and every member of my crew knows we're lucky to still have him on board. Hell, Starfleet's lucky to still count him in its ranks after everything they put him through."

Dymkova showed Jim a small smile of her own. "I daresay that many at SFM feel the same way, Captain, despite Dr. McCoy's reputation for obstinance." The ambassador sipped wine from her glass, her expression growing serious before she continued. "For what it's worth, I argued against questioning McCoy after the Vengeance. Whatever regulations he may or may not have broken doing his job to save your life, any fool could see that the board of inquiry was just a distraction from the real problems at Starfleet's core."

 "It's unfortunate that you didn't voice your opposition when the doctor was actually standing in front you at SFM, Ambassador. You might have found him to be more cooperative."

"I doubt that," Dymkova retorted, her voice dry. "McCoy was flatly uninterested in discovering his supporters from his detractors at the time. Every member of the board was equally subject to his scorn."

Jim let his gaze cross the room again, finding Bones chatting with the Gheljiar prince, a drink in his hand and Spock and Uhura by his sides. "The clan McCoy is known to possess a sharp wit and an acid tongue," Jim murmured.

"Neither of which your McCoy hesitated to display," Dymkova agreed, "though he was very careful. He made sure every one of us was aware of the extent of his disdain, without ever actually saying the words out loud."

Pleasure sparked through Jim's chest at the idea of Bones giving back as good as he'd got during those terrible days. "I'd apologize, Ambassador, if I felt even remotely sorry."

Dymkova's expression was amused when Jim met her gaze. "I'm almost sure you believe that, Captain Kirk. I can't say I blame you, of course--the whole affair was a terrible mess." She gave a small sigh, raising a hand to smooth a stray tendril of blue-black hair behind her ear. "The way Starfleet handled things after Marcus and the Vengeance prompted me to step away from SFM." She arched a brow at Jim's skeptical expression. "I may be a petty functionary in your eyes, but I took my responsibilities to Starfleet Medical quite seriously. I prefer not to support an organization that attempts to eat its best and brightest when times are tough.

"When the opportunity on Lurian came up, it seemed the perfect time to make a change. I'm not ashamed to say that it's turning out to be the best move of my career." Dymkova's tone was light, but the tension in her jaw belied her words.

A kind of grudging admiration filtered through Jim as he looked at the ambassador, recognizing the tenacity beneath her elegant demeanor. He thought that perhaps she was worth making an ally.

"May I escort you to dinner, Ambassador Dymkova?" He asked and offered his arm, smiling genuinely as Dymkova's slim hand slipped into the crook of his elbow.

 

18.

There was food and wine in abundance at dinner, both Terran and Lurian, and some of the tightness that had wound its way around Jim's heart and lungs since Taaori II loosened as he chatted with Prince Guran and the Lurian ambassadors. The party had moved from the dining area and back to the lounge, however, before Jim realized that Bones was nowhere to be seen, and the irritation that ran through him as he crossed the room toward Spock was difficult to hide.

The first officer seemed to sense Jim's disturbance at once--his brow furrowed as he met the captain's gaze, and he excused himself from Uhura's side without prompting.

 "Captain."

"Spock, don't tell me Bones is back in the labs already." Jim's jaw clenched at his own petulant tone. "I understand that the two of you have been focused on the flora catalog, but this mission needs our attention as well--"

"Dr. McCoy returned to the ship because he was feeling unwell, Captain," Spock interjected, his softer than normal tone catching Jim's attention. "He paid his respects to the Prince and his consort before departing, but was loath to interrupt your discussions with Ambassador Dymkova."

Heat crawled up the back of Jim's neck as the Vulcan's brows rose in what Jim recognized as a challenge. Jim had spent the bulk of the evening in discussion with the Lurian party, leaving Bones and the other crew to their own devices. While charming Prince Guran was a very necessary part of Jim's job, the kind of attention he'd paid to Galina Dymkova was not, particularly in light of the ambassador's acquaintance with both Bones and Spock.

"What happened to Bones?" he asked quietly.

"Dr. McCoy attributed his condition to a combination of unfamiliar Lurian food mixed with Terran wine," Spock replied. "However, I am inclined to believe that his recent periods of inadequate rest and nourishment are to blame."

Jim frowned, puzzled. "What are you talking about?" 

"As you noted, Captain, Dr. McCoy has spent a significant number of hours in the Enterprise's labs of late. Against my advice, he has been ignoring regular meal and rest periods, leading to what I believe is physical fatigue."

Jim was silent for a long moment, his lips pressed thin while his stomach tumbled. "Christ, Spock. I know you've both been keeping long hours, but ... Honestly, I'm not sure what's worse--Bones deliberately working himself into the ground, or that I didn't notice he was running on empty." He wanted to curse at the almost sympathetic look that crossed the first officer's face.

"Given Dr. McCoy's concern for your own well-being, Captain, I do not find it surprising that he concealed his behavior from you."

"Concern for me?'

Spock was quiet for a beat. "The doctor has expressed some anxiety regarding your reaction to the Taaori consciousness transfer, concern heightened by the continued absence of a full medical debrief regarding the incident."

"Bones never said anything." A long, tense moment passed before Jim brought a hand up to scrub at his forehead. "But we haven't seen each other much in the past week, so why would he?"

"Captain," Spock began, before pausing and starting again. "Jim. As Chief Medical Officer, it is within Dr. McCoy's purview to compel you to provide him with a full debriefing of the events that occurred on Taaori II. That he has not done so speaks to his reluctance to 'rock the boat,' as the saying goes."

"We both know Bones won't force me to talk, Spock--not unless he feels that my ability to command has been compromised."

"Perhaps Dr. McCoy would insist were he to feel that your friendship has been compromised," Spock suggested.

Jim's scalp prickled as he considered how fiercely protective Bones could be when pushed. Bones never hesitated to throw himself on his sword in defense of the people he valued--particularly when it came to Jim.

Slowly, Jim shook his head. "I'm not sure Bones would force the issue even then, Spock."

 

19. 

After beaming back to the ship, Jim took the turbo-lift to deck 9, acting on a hunch as he made his way through the quiet corridors to the CMO's cabin.

In the days following Khan, Bones had bunked with Jim, helping the captain through rehab and offering much needed emotional support. By the time Jim was cleared for duty, the connection between Bones and himself had changed, becoming something else--something more, a quiet voice in Jim's head insisted--and Bones's feelings for Jim were plain, if not often spoken. Without discussion, Bones had simply stayed, moving first into Jim's San Francisco quarters and then into the captain's cabin aboard the Enterprise. Outside of being used to house guests aboard the Enterprise, the CMO's quarters remained uninhabited, unless Bones went out of his way to spend time there. Claiming that the barren unfamiliarity of the rooms was calming, the doctor sometimes retreated to the cabin after a particularly tough shift or mission, or after he and Jim had argued and Bones needed a little space to cool down.

Tonight, Jim tracked Bones to the disused cabin, finding him stretched out asleep on the bunk, his dress uniform hanging over the nearby desk chair beside a change of clothes. Over the edge of the grey, standard issue 'fleet duvet, Bones's cheeks were flushed, and the slight scowl that marred his sleeping features made Jim's chest ache.

Quietly, Jim stripped down to his black boxer briefs, then ducked into the head for a quick clean up before sliding into the bunk beside Bones. He drew Bones against his chest, holding him close as Bones turned toward Jim, muttering in his sleep without fully rousing, coming to rest at last with his cheek against Jim's shoulder. The captain pressed his lips against Bones's soft hair, breathing in his smell and soaking in the overheated weight of his limbs before falling into sleep.

Sometime past the ship's dawn, Jim woke, his internal clock aware of the hour without checking the chrono. He and Bones had shifted as they'd slept, throwing off the duvet, though they were still wound together, their limbs entwined. Jim had dreamed of Bones and the other McCoy, the vague, discomforting images of the two doctors clinging to the edge of Jim's memory, making it difficult for him to do more than doze fitfully while Bones slumbered on.

He surfaced a second time to a soft touch on his hair, blinking blearily as he realized that he was alone in the unfamiliar bunk. Bones was nearby though, sitting on the edge of the mattress, already dressed for duty, petting Jim's hair and watching him with a fond expression on his face.

"Hey, Bones."

"Hey, yourself."

Jim propped himself up on one elbow, frowning at the hoarseness in Bones's voice, and looked him over. There were still dark shadows under Bones's red-rimmed eyes, and too much color in his cheeks and nose. "How you feeling?"

The doctor shrugged. "I'll live. Feels like I caught a cold. Nothing that can't be treated with some analgesics. C'mon," he urged, his hand dropping to pat Jim's cheek twice. "You're on duty in an hour.

"I got the replicator to spit out a uniform for you," he added as Jim sat up, and then gave a dry chuckle. "Not sure it got the tunic size quite right, though. You'll just have to deal with it until after breakfast."

 

Chapter Text

20.

Jim punched his order into the mess hall replicator with a grimace. "People are staring at me."

"That's because you look like you're wearing Chekov's tunic," Bones told him.

"It's not that tight."

"It's practically pornographic."

Jim sighed and loaded a plate of scrambled eggs onto his tray. "You don't have to sound so happy."

"I can't smell or taste anything and my throat feels like I gargled with sand." Bones smirked, carrying his tray to the nearest empty table. "Watching the crew ogling you could very well be the highlight of my day."

Jim's smile faded slightly as he sat down and watched Bones fidget with his breakfast. Underneath his neat hair and uniform, Bones looked worn out.

"You need some time off, Bones."

Bones grimaced around a spoonful of oatmeal. "Not gonna happen. I've got staff transfers to process over the next two days--wouldn't be fair to my staff for me to be off-duty. Or to Spock."

"What does Spock have to do with your off-duty schedule?"

"The Taaori catalog's nearly finished--I can't just leave him in the lurch. He's been after me to take some time off, too, though." Bones pushed his tray away with a sigh. "And that's a crock of shit because Spock needs time off just as badly as I do--"

Jim's stomach flipping uncomfortably. "What's that all about, anyway?" he blurted, heat crawling up the back of his neck as Bones looked up, his brows raised in question.

"What's what all about?"

"This whole Spock-and-Bones-are-buddies thing--when did that happen?"

"We ... Spock and I have been working together for years, Jim," Bones began, his mouth snapping closed as Jim spoke over him.

"Yeah, you've been colleagues for years, Bones, and you’ve learned how to tolerate each other's idiosyncrasies pretty well, mostly out of respect to the crew and me. Or at least that's what I've always assumed.

"That's not what I'm talking about though. What I want to know is why Spock knew you'd been working yourself sick while I didn't have a clue. Or why you talked to Spock about not wanting to stress me out but didn't mention it to me." Jim narrowed his eyes as Bones's expressive face went still. "When did Spock become a confidante, Bones?"

"After you died," Bones replied quietly.

It was as if all the air went out of the room. Jim blinked, startled by the raw vulnerability in the doctor's voice, and watched, heart clenching, as Bones's face paled.

"Spock and I had to talk to each other then. Had to work together without all of the bitching. Well, without my bitching, if I'm honest." 

"Bones--" 

"It was a fucking nightmare while you were unconscious, Jim. Spock and I managed to keep each other semi-sane because we had something to focus on but without you there to run interference, we had to figure out a way to work around ... me. My 'redundant humanity,' as Spock calls it, sometimes makes me a shit officer." Bones smiled down at the table, not seeing Jim mutely shake his head. "I can be emotional and stubborn and sometimes just a mean son of a bitch. Despite all of that, I'm a still a good doctor and we both knew that's what I needed to be for you then."

"You're a damned good officer." Jim swallowed hard as Bones glanced up at him, doubt written clearly on his face. "I mean it. You're a credit to the 'fleet and to this ship."

Sadness flitted across Bones's face before he blinked and his expression became determined. "I don't have any illusions about who or what I am. I just want to do my job well. The crew deserves that, and so do you."

Jim reached across the table, laying his hand over the doctor's. "Jesus, Bones. You're more than just the CMO on this boat. Much more, to the crew and to me. You know that, right?"

Bones seemed to deflate slightly, though his eyes never left Jim's. "There are days, I'm not sure I know anything, Jim. Not a goddamned thing. Especially when it comes to you," he murmured, flipping his hand over to catch Jim's fingers in his own.

It took a moment before Jim trusted his voice to be steady. "Is that why you were in the CMO's quarters last night?"

Bones said nothing for a long moment, his silence twisting Jim's insides with what Jim recognized as fear.

"I thought it'd be a good idea to clear out for the night," Bones told him finally, "in case you had plans with Ambassador Dymkova."

Jim stomach twisted. "Nothing was ever going to happen with the ambassador."

"Okay," Bones replied, his voice even despite the doubt that seemed to radiate from his body.

"I mean it, Bones--Dymkova and I were just talking."

"I believe you."

"No, you don't."

"If you say it was just talk, then I do believe you, Jim," Bones insisted. "It just ... that wasn't quite how it looked from where I was sitting."

The anger that swept over Jim was dizzying. "I'm surprised you noticed anything considering how far you went out of your way to avoid me last night." He felt a surge of petty satisfaction as heat blazed in Bones's eyes, the doctor's infuriatingly calm facade cracking for a moment before he reigned himself back.

"You sure you want to go there, Jim? Because you are the one who's been MIA for the last week."

"Oh, come on--"

"No, you don't get to blow this off. You've been freezing me out since before we broke orbit over Taaori II. Felt like I had to schedule a meeting just to lay eyes on you. Then last night we're finally awake and in the same goddamned room for more than thirty minutes and you spend the entire time chatting up Galina Dymkova." 

Jim huffed in irritation. "It was my job to talk to Dymkova!"

"Uh-uh." Bones rapped the table sharply with his knuckles. "I know what I saw. God knows I've watched you flirt with enough life forms over the years to recognize what it looks like when you're trying to do more than charm someone, and last night you were pulling out all the stops for that woman."

"I know." All of the fight drained out of Jim. Bones was right: Jim was responsible for the awful awkwardness filling the space between them. He had retreated when Bones gave him the space and time he'd asked for, and refused to talk, aware all the while that he was acting like a douchebag. Again. "Shit. I know, Bones. I've been an asshole."

Sorrow softened Bones's tense features. "What is it? Don't shut me out. I think we owe each other that much after everything we've been through together. If this thing between us isn't working anymore, we can, I don't know, make a change or something--"

"No." Jim gritted his teeth, squeezing Bones's fingers, aware that they were drawing some looks from the crew around them. "That's not what I want at all. Jesus."

Bones opened his mouth to reply but groaned as his comm chirped with a code that Jim knew meant Bones was needed in the medbay, stat.

"Goddamnit. I'm sorry to cut this short, I really am, but I've got to go."

Jim got to his feet when Bones stood, following him to the recycler where they dumped the trays before heading for the exit. They'd turned down the corridor toward the turbolift when Jim brushed his knuckles against Bones's. "We're not done talking, Bones--"

"No, we're not--"

"--but listen for a second. The Lurians are coming aboard for the tour today. Prince Guran is very interested in the medbay. They're looking at it as a model for the infirmary they want to see on the Lurian space station so you need to be prepared for some attention when the tour hits the medbay, as well as questions--lots of them."

Bones swore under his breath. "The new crew are coming aboard in the middle of Alpha shift," he explained, his expression tense. "We're matching them up with the outgoing crew for a couple of shifts."

Jim nodded. "I understand. All I ask is that you make yourself available."

"You know I will, of course, but what I'm saying is that we can't shut down the rest of it--the medbay's going to be packed to the gills and really busy."

"That's okay," Jim told him, smiling encouragingly after Bones grunted. "Go ahead and show the prince how a real Starfleet medbay functions on a busy day. Minus blood and gore if possible, of course."

"I'll see what I can do," Bones retorted before his comm chirped again. Waiting for Jim's nod, he took off down the corridor at a jog.

 

21. 

A change of clothes and twelve hours later, Jim palmed the pad outside of his quarters with a shaky hand. He waited for the door to slide shut before leaning back against the wall, eyes closed and palms spread wide. Bowing his head, he fought for control, his breaths growing shallow as pressure grew in his chest, quickly becoming impossible to ignore. He'd spent the last several hours with a smile pasted on his face, escorting the Lurians though the final part of the tour of the ship, answering their endless questions while anxiety knotted his stomach and unsteadied his hands; now that he was alone, he let it sweep over him.

Prince Guran had been openly impressed by the Enterprise's sleek beauty. He complimented the bridge, exclaimed over the arboretum, and beamed with pleasure as he strolled the observation deck. He insisted that the party eat lunch in the main mess hall rather than in the officer's dining hall located in the saucer section and his deep-set amber eyes gleamed with enthusiasm in his gray-skinned face as he entered the medbay. Jim, on the other hand, felt every bit of his good humor drain away.

It wasn't so much what was happening in the medbay that was the problem, despite the element of controlled chaos in the air. The space was filled with new crew, most of them clustered around one of the central biobeds and staring raptly at Bones and Beckett who were giving them a rundown of the facilities. Bones called the crew to order when he caught sight of Jim, but the buzz of activity resumed after the captain put them all at ease and waved the CMO over. 

Bones was in his element in the medbay, confident and empowered by his own knowledge and experience, acutely aware of his surroundings and of every person in them. On occasions like this, when there were no actual injuries and no one was in danger of dying, Jim loved watching Bones's hard, bright focus as he moved through the compact space. 

Now, pride warmed Jim's chest as Bones showed the Lurians around his domain. Despite his red nose and roughened voice, Bones was engaging and open, his considerable natural charm shining through as he answered the Prince's and ambassadors' questions. 

"How long have you been unwell, Dr. McCoy?" Dymkova asked, her brow furrowed with what appeared to be concern. "Should you be on duty if you are suffering from illness yourself?"

Jim's heart twisted a little as Spock took a step closer to Bones in what Jim recognized as a silent show of support.

"It's nothing serious, Ambassador," Bones replied, his tone unnervingly neutral to Jim's ears. "A variant of nasopharyngitis, treatable with a symptom suppressant and localized quarantine field." He waved a hand in front of his face. "Nothing will get past the field for the next twelve hours, after which I will be off duty and safely behind another containment field in my own quarters. Rest assured that I'm leveraging every opportunity to protect the health of the crew."

The peculiar hardness in Dymkova's smile made Jim's scalp prickle. "I would never assume otherwise, Lieutenant Commander."

Bones said nothing, but the minute narrowing of his eyes was cue enough for Jim. Without preamble, the captain drew Prince Guran's attention toward the adjoining medbay lab, aware that the ambassadors would follow. 

As they filed into the lab, a face at one of the workstations caught Jim's eye. He couldn't quite place the sandy-haired tech working with Lieutenant Murphy, but there was something about her face that seemed familiar. She was fair-skinned and pink-cheeked, and similar in stature to Lieutenant Uhura, the absence of stripes on her tunic's blue sleeves identifying her as an ensign. Jim eyed her carefully, trying to remember if they'd ever met, until Bones approached the workstation, and the world seemed to tilt. The ensign smiled at Bones, pleasure flashing across her face, and the pieces in Jim's memory slid into place, leaving him cold. 

Forcing himself to look away, Jim swiped at his PADD, his heart thundering in his ears as he flipped through the transfer rosters, quickly finding the name he'd hoped he wouldn't see.

Barrows, Antonia L., Ensign. SN920-4751 Assignment: Research, Medical Bay.

 

22. 

"Jim." 

Jim blinked, abruptly aware that he'd gotten from the door of his quarters to his bunk, and that he was sitting on the edge of the mattress with his head between his knees. He drew a deep breath, and reached up to cover the warm hand that had settled at the nape of his neck with one of his own. 

"Jesus."

Bones's voice was dry as dust. "I prefer Leonard, but whatever floats your boat, kid."

Jim sat up, his sharp laughter startling them both, the giggles bubbling out of him until his eyes watered. Bones watched him, looking bemused as his hand slipped down Jim's back to rest between his scapulae.

"You haven't called me that in years," Jim managed at last.

Bones frowned. "Haven't called you what in years?"

"'Kid.' Pretty sure we were still in our Academy reds the last time I heard you call me that."

"Well, you're not a kid anymore--or that kid, anyway. You haven't been for a long time," Bones replied, his expression turning thoughtful. "You still act like a jackass from time to time, and Lord knows you know how to work my very last nerve, but you grew out of being that delinquent I met on shuttle years ago.

"It just ... it doesn't feel right to call you 'kid' when I call you 'Captain,' Jim." 

"You never call me 'Captain,'" Jim teased. 

"Sure I do," Bones told him, "in my head, and followed by 'Dumbass.'"

Jim blew out a wavering breath, aware that his bout of giddy laughter had brought him perilously close to the edge of real tears. Reaching for Bones's free hand, he held it with care between his own. "So when you called me 'kid' a minute ago--"

"My inner wiseass had a moment." Bones smiled as Jim snorted, and rubbed warm circles into Jim's upper back. "You okay?" he asked at last.

"I recognized one of your new techs," Jim replied, sidestepping the question as he met Bones's glance. "In the lab--Ensign Barrows."

Bones nodded. "She's replacing Murphy. How do you know her?"

"I don't know her, or not the way you'd think, at any rate. I saw someone like Barrows," he explained, "a version of Barrows, I suppose you could say, back on Taaori II."

Understanding dawned on Bones's face. "The consciousness transfer. You saw Barrows in the existence threads you told me about?"

"In one thread. The Barrows I saw there was a man." Jim nodded as Bones's eyebrows rose in interest. "He was a researcher on Starbase 11."

"And that's where we met? Or they met, I guess? On a starbase?"

"McCoy met him there, yeah. Kirk didn't meet Barrows until after ..." Jim trailed off, his mouth going dry.

Bones's gaze sharpened. "After what?"

"After McCoy died." Swallowing hard, Jim forced himself to continue. "After Kirk left him behind."

Bones said nothing for a moment. He looked weary, Jim noted, the symptoms of his illness creeping back, the fever flush in Bones's cheeks making his eyes appear very green. There was only concern for Jim in Bones's gaze, though, as he ran a thumb over the captain's knuckles.

"What happened back there on that planet, Jim? What did the shaman show you?"

 

Chapter Text

Part 3

 

23.

Despite having spent days trying to forget what he'd seen during the Taoori consciousness transfer, Jim's words came easily. His voice rose and fell in the hush of the captain's quarters, spinning a story of another captain and doctor, so like Jim and Bones in many ways, and literally worlds apart in others.

Bones listened, his hand warm in Jim's, emotions playing out over his face. He looked shell-shocked after Jim disclosed McCoy's illness, and haunted upon hearing that McCoy had chosen to leave the Enterprise, but said nothing until Jim fell silent.

"Is ... Jim, is that why you sometimes look like you've seen a ghost when we're together?" The strain in Bones's voice made Jim wince.  "Because another man named McCoy died in a world we'll never know?"

"I know how it sounds, Bones, but you don't understand."

"So help me understand."

"Sometimes you do or say something and all of a sudden I see him. I see that other McCoy." Jim swallowed hard as Bones's face paled. "Shit, I'm sorry."

"No, I ... I understand, I think." Bones ran his free hand through his hair. "It had to be unsettling. You weren't exactly a willing witness to that transfer, after all."

Jim shook his head. "Don't make this about consent, Bones--we both know that I let the shaman perform the ritual. I went into it with my eyes open, even if I didn't know what was going to happen to me." He frowned. "The hardest thing about what I saw was not being able to do anything to stop them."

"What do you mean?"

"I've gotta be honest with you--I was floored when McCoy opted to stay behind." Jim's chest ached as Bones cast his eyes down. "And Kirk agreed with McCoy. I just didn't think they'd go through with it--specifically that Kirk would go through with it."

"They were scared." Bones's voice was low. "I know I would be, in McCoy's place, and angry, too. That goes for Kirk, too."

"What the hell did Kirk have to be angry about?"

"He wasn't the only person being left behind, Jim."

Jim scowled. "Jesus, Bones, McCoy was sick."

"No--McCoy was dying." Bones drew a deep breath, his head drooping a bit as he closed his eyes. "He wasn't on leave or on a mission, or filling in for someone on a temporary basis; he was leaving, permanently, and there wasn't a damned thing any of them could do about it. Kirk probably saw it as a betrayal."

"Which makes it okay for the guy to act like a selfish bastard?"

"No, but I think it makes his behavior a little bit easier to understand, at least from my perspective."

Jim's stomach dropped. "Because that's how you see me, right? You think I'd do the same in Kirk's place and leave you alone on some goddamned rock out of spite."

Bones straightened abruptly, his eyes flying open to meet Jim's. "God, no--that would go against everything you are. I can't imagine you ever wanting to leave anyone under your command behind, let alone a friend."

"I'm not sure I could make that decision, Bones. Not even for you."

"You could." Bones's voice was calm and sure.

A pang shot through Jim's chest. "And what the fuck does that make me?"

"My friend. We might disagree and argue until we're both blue in the face, but the one thing I know is that you're my friend." Bones paused, looking suddenly uncertain. "Even if things, uh, change between us, I'll still be here for you, however you need me to be. I hope I'm not wrong to hope you'd do the same for me."

"Of course I would." Jim's stomach sank. "I would never just walk away from what we have even if... I wouldn't do that, Bones."

"And that's my whole point, Jim. Those men--" Bones gestured vaguely in the air with one hand "--they're not us. The decisions they made are not our decisions. You are not that Jim Kirk, and never could be."

A chill fell over Jim. "What if you're wrong?" His eyes burned as Bones's hand came up to cup his cheek.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that in some ways I really am like that Jim Kirk."

Bones narrowed his eyes at Jim. "Why, because you've been avoiding me and acting like an ass for the past week?"

Dropping Bones's hand, Jim got to his feet, pacing in the small space that separated the sleeping and living areas. "I've been avoiding a lot of things, Bones, not just you. Everything I saw in that transfer, everything it made me feel." He shook his head in self-disgust. "Didn't help, though--I couldn't stop thinking about it. The way McCoy looked when Kirk walked away. The way Kirk struggled with McCoy gone. God, the opportunities they missed to be honest with each other."

Bones's expression turned thoughtful. "Earlier, you said that their friendship was platonic ... you think they had feelings for each other?"

"I can't say for sure." Jim came to a standstill, blowing out a long breath as he turned to meet the doctor's gaze. "Fuck it, yes, I can. There was something there. The way they looked at each other, spoke about each other ... anyone who looked close enough could see it. Anyone but them." 

He crossed the room to sit down beside Bones again. "Neither of them said anything, though. They weren't brave enough to tell each other how they felt." Jim shook his head, his voice dropping to a whisper. "I'm like that Kirk, Bones. Out here in the black, I can't run when shit gets too hard, but I can cut you out. I can still pretend that I don't give a fuck about anything, even when the opposite is true. I can still hurt you."

Bones's lips thinned. "Stop being so hard on yourself. You don't see me complaining, do you?"

"No, I don't." Bitterness rose up in Jim, threatening to choke off his air. "You should, though. You should expect more from me."

 

24.

"You shouldn't be wondering if what we have is going to melt down, or if I'll lose interest or get distracted, or whatever. You should know that those things are not gonna happen, Bones. Not because you're good at sussing out my feelings, and not out of loyalty to our friendship, but because I've got balls enough to tell you."

Bones's smile was sweet and just the least bit sad. "Okay--point taken. But I'm not unhappy with the way things are between us, Jim. I'll admit that there are times that you confuse the fuck out of me, and more often than not you drive me bat shit crazy, but I'm okay with the way we are. Sometimes I think that one of the best things about being with you is never knowing what to expect."

"And when I fall back into old habits and start acting like the cocky asshole we both know I can be?" A hot flush of shame crept over Jim's face. "Are you really going to tell me that you're not bothered when something like Galina Dymkova happens?"

"No. The way you were acting around her did bother me--I'd be lying if I said otherwise." Bones's frown was deep. "I didn't think anything was gonna happen between the two of you, but ... I couldn't stop thinking about it, either, probably because a part of me understood why you'd consider it. Dymkova's beautiful and dynamic, and she's--"

"Not who I want," Jim finished. "I wouldn't do that to you, Bones, not least because you and Dymkova know each other." He nodded when Bones's face fell--the undisguised hurt in his eyes made Jim feel very small. "She told me that she knew you before we sat down to dinner last night. I knew flirting with her was a shitty thing to do, but I did it anyway, and that's probably the part that bothers me most."

Carefully, Jim laid a hand over the hands clasped tightly in Bones's lap. "I know it sounds like bullshit, but I was telling the truth--nothing was ever going to happen with Dymkova. She knew it, and I knew it, and neither of us let anything get in the way of doing our jobs."

Bones nodded, his eyes somber as he caught hold of Jim's hand between his own. "I know. I believe you."

Jim let go a shaky breath. Reaching out, he pulled Bones close, his head buzzing with relief as Bones returned the embrace. He pressed a kiss against Bones's neck, murmuring apologies into the warm skin of Bones's throat and along the line of his jaw before pulling back to kiss him, grumbling when the doctor gently turned away.

"You'll get sick," Bones protested, his breath hitching as the captain pushed him back onto the bunk.

The corners of Jim's lips curled up in a melancholy smile. "I don't care," he breathed, brushing his nose over Bones's cheek before catching the doctor's lips with his own, heat curling in his gut. He bit back a groan when Bones pulled away again, flopping back against the mattress with a huff. "What the hell, Bones?"

"We not done talking, you bozo," Bones muttered, raising himself up on one elbow and ignoring Jim's disbelieving expression. "Look, you may be feeling okay now, but It's not every day I find you hyperventilating in your own quarters after bumping into one of my lab techs. I need you to tell me you're not going to freak out the next time you run into Tonia Barrows, Jim."

Jim stilled. Not Ensign Barrows, or even Antonia. Tonia. Jim well remembered the way the ensign's bright eyes had followed Bones around the medbay. Bones knew Barrows, away from the Enterprise and its medical labs. 

"When did you meet her?" he asked, surprised by the steadiness of his own voice.

"A couple of years ago," Bones replied. "She was on the team at Starfleet Medical that kept tabs on your recovery after Khan." A shadow crossed his face. "Tonia's also a researcher--you know that from looking up her file. She works with a team focused on studies in cell regeneration and blood diseases."

Jim's stomach tightened. "Is that what she'll be doing on board the Enterprise? Continuing the research?"

"When her duties on board the ship allow, yes." Bones's brow furrowed. "Something about that bother you?"

"No, but wouldn't an actual research station be better suited to the work?"

"Sometimes the stations are a better fit for research," Bones agreed, "but serving on the 'fleet's flagship has its own benefits, too, especially if you're an ambitious sort, like all the staff we take on. Some of the things we learn on this tin can can't be duplicated anywhere else, and it's not like the staff don't keep up with other projects."

Jim nodded, aware that Bones had a point--despite sometimes inconsistent scheduling and limited down-time, the Enterprise's Sciences Division personnel were consistent contributors to Starfleet Medical's research efforts. It was difficult to keep that in mind, however, as Jim remembered the way Ensign Barrows's face had lit up as Bones stepped up beside her. Knowing the part that Lieutenant Antony Barrows had played during the last days of the other Leonard McCoy only served to make Jim more uneasy.

"What's the matter?" Bones ran a gentle finger over the line that had formed between Jim's brows. "You look like your brain is on fire."

"It's nothing." Jim rolled his eyes as Bones looked at him askance.

"Try again."

"It's Barrows," Jim admitted. "Seeing her here kind of weirded me out. I mean, I understand the concept of the multiverse, obviously, but it still threw me for a loop."

Bones nodded, his expression thoughtful. 

"I mean, I didn't even know Barrows existed anywhere until a week ago, and now she's here, with us, too." Jim groaned and scrubbed at his face with both hands. "I know the Spocks are big believers in destiny but we're talking about crossing worlds here, Bones. The overlap among the threads fucks with my head."

"Sure, but from what we've seen, not everything is the same from world to world," Bones pointed out. "Barrows was a man in the other thread. Some things play out differently, Jim." His expression gentled. "Nero. Your dad. Vulcan. Pike. Even you and I."

Jim swallowed hard against the ache in his throat and propped himself up on his elbows. "Yeah, and other things play out the same, regardless of the differences. There's an Enterprise here, just as there was in the other thread. I'm still the Captain, Spock's the XO, and you're in charge of the medbay. 

"Now, despite a whole fleet of ships and any number of starbases in the galaxy, we have a researcher named Barrows on this ship, who specializes in blood diseases." He looked meaningfully at Bones, who made a face.

"You're really bothered by this."

"I'm bothered by the coincidences, yes, and what they could mean to my life." Jim held up a hand when Bones opened his mouth to speak. "You didn't see them, Bones--the other Kirk and McCoy ... even Spock." Jim's voice was somber. "McCoy's departure impacted them all. There was a kind of ... hole after he left and I don't know if it was ever completely filled. I don't relish the thought of something like that happening here, in this existence.

"I hate the thought of something like that happening to you."

The minute tightening of Bones's lips caught Jim's attention. He held his breath, cold dread pooling in his gut as he watched the shifting strains of green, brown, and blue in Bones's eyes.

"Something you want to tell me, Bones?" he asked at last, his voice steady with a calm that he didn't really feel.

"There have been cases of xenopolycythemia in my family, on my mother's side," Bones replied, his gaze never wavering from Jim's. "I tested positive for the gene a couple of years ago."

 

25.

The ice in Jim's belly seemed to spread through his whole body. "When were you tested for the gene?"

"After Khan. Starfleet took a good hard look at every member of the Enterprise crew once we were back on the ground.” Bones's mouth twisted with scorn. “Wanted to make sure none of us had abetted the son of a bitch ... that we weren't like Khan or his crew. They tested those of us who were human to make sure we were just regular old Terrans with non-augmented DNA."

Bones looked away, rubbing a hand over his forehead. Shell-shocked, Jim simply watched him, unable to wrap his head around what he had heard. He'd had known about the mass DNA analyses of the Enterprise's crew, of course--he’d argued endlessly with the brass for doubting their own people. He'd never heard a word about Bones’s results, though, and certainly nothing about Bones being sick.

"You had just regained consciousness when they tested me," Bones said, his tone measured again. "And to be honest, I think I was so ... caught up in making sure you stayed alive, that the news didn't even really sink in. I hardly thought about it until after you were back on your feet and back out in space dock with your lady." Bones’s laugh was broken, but the raw joy in his smile tore at Jim's heart.

"Jesus, Bones." Jim's voice was the barest whisper. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"Nothing," Bones replied, one warm hand coming to rest against Jim's belly. "The disease was dormant when I was tested, Jim, and still is. SFM's been working on a cure for years, and there was a breakthrough during that year that we were on the ground."

"Because you were there, right?" Jim raised unsteady fingers to his own lips. "You and Spock--you were both working in those labs while the Enterprise was in space dock."

"There were a lot of people on the research teams, Jim, but yeah, I did my part. Spock did too, though you might be surprised to know which Spock."

Jim's brows rose in understanding. "Ambassador Spock?"

"Yeah. The McCoy in his universe got sick, too. Resigned himself to dying from what I understand ... and to staying behind while the Enterprise went on ahead." The doctor shook his head, clearly disturbed by the emergence of another parallel among the threads, while Jim swallowed against an urge to be sick.

"They worked out a cure, though,” Bones told him, his voice steady and strong. “McCoy recovered and lived to be an old man. And when Ambassador Spock followed Nero into the wormhole, he brought his knowledge of the disease and its cure into this thread."

 

Chapter Text

26.

A giddy rush swept over Jim as Bones's words took hold. "So there’s a cure. And you'll be okay?"

"Spock gave us the cure that he knows," Bones clarified. "Xenopolycythemia in his universe is similar to the disease we know here, but not identical. Spock's information pushed SFM's research forward by at least a decade, enough to create a vaccine that actually works."

The relief that swept over Jim was so intense, his voice shook. "So you're okay," he breathed. "You can just use the vaccine and keep from getting sick at all."

"That's not--" Bones broke off, his conflicted expression turning Jim's gut to stone. “That's not quite right.”

"What?"

"I've elected to wait until the disease becomes active in my body before taking action."

Jim went rigid. "Why the fuck would you--Bones, why would you wait?" 

"Because I've studied the research and talked through a treatment strategy with the big brains at SFM." Bones's voice and hand on Jim's chest were soothing. "The vaccine uses a virus to deliver a gene therapy payload that rewires a patient's DNA, replacing the mutated gene carrying the disease with a healthy gene. Right now, all of the collected data indicates that maximum efficacy is achieved when the vaccine is administered after the disease becomes active."

"And if you don't wait? If you vaccinated yourself today?"

Bones was silent for a long moment, his lips pressed tightly together while Jim worked very hard to hold on to the last shreds of his patience. "If I vaccinate now, there's a chance that the vaccine could fail to provide the full therapeutic payload." 

Jim swallowed down the gorge that had risen in his throat. "Meaning that you could get sick anyway."

"Yeah." Weariness settled over Bones's features. "I'd rather not take that chance." He gave Jim's chest a gentle pat. "I know you don’t agree with my decision but … carrying around a genetic time bomb is bad enough without fucking around with the only cure available." 

There was nothing Jim could say in answer to that, even if he had trusted his voice enough to speak. Instead, he reached for Bones, crawling up over him to stretch out at his side. Jim pulled him close, lips pressed to the doctor's dark hair, listening to Bones talk about the vaccine. He wondered all the while if Bones had ever planned to tell Jim that he was sick.

 

 27.

It took less than a week for Jim to ask Bones that question.

Three days after the rendezvous with the Lurians, Starfleet sent the Enterprise to a planetoid near Azati Prime to check in with a research facility experiencing a communications failure. Afterward, when the dead and injured had been beamed back aboard the ship, Jim wondered if, somehow, they'd missed some sign that things on the planetoid had gone very wrong.

He struggled to focus during the mission debrief, his thoughts haunted by the knowledge that the losses they'd suffered could have been even more devastating if he hadn't changed the duty roster, pulling Spock and Bones off the away team and replacing them with lower-ranked staff who needed the field experience.

Of the team of four, only Ensigns Stewart and Reeves survived the beam out, both officers bloodied and unresponsive as they were rushed into surgery.

Jim and Spock returned to the planetoid's surface with a platoon of armed security officers, easily tracking the pirates who had raided the science station and attacked the away team. The pirates and their shuttle were already destroyed, however, their charred remains leaving behind very little information and no leads to pursue.

"What in God's name happened down there?" Jim murmured now, more to himself than anyone else, looking up in surprise when Uhura laid her PADD on the tabletop with a brisk snap.

"Captain, with your permission, I'd like to submit the communications findings to Starfleet Command ahead of the mission report." The Communications Officer pursed her lips. "Starfleet Command should have been alerted that there was a problem at the research facility, sir. From what I can tell, the destruction of the facility’s data centers automatically triggered a long-range distress call back to Earth."

Jim eyed her carefully. "I see. Are you saying that someone at Starfleet Command was negligent?"

"I don't know, sir," Uhura replied, her forehead creased with frustration. "But there has to be a reason that no one acted on the distress call. The Enterprise should never have been allowed anywhere near that planetoid without warnings to be on alert."

Spock’s eyes were shadowed as he looked from Uhura back to Jim. "The Lieutenant's logic is sound, Captain.”

Jim blew out a long breath. Was it really that simple? Could the act of filing a report have prevented the violence and loss they'd suffered?

No.

Jim stopped himself from thinking on possibilities beyond his or anyone's grasp. Nodding at Uhura, he granted her permission to file a separate report, then waited for her to exit the ready room before looking back down at his PADD. 

"What a waste," he said. "Two crew lost, two listed as critical in the medbay, the science station and her staff gone, along with almost all of the data they'd amassed this quarter ... and we don't even know why."

Jim's stomach turned as he pushed himself to his feet. "But what I keep coming back to, Spock, is that it could have been you and Bones down there."

Spock stood, his expression severe. "Captain, such thoughts are not only fruitless but are, I believe, detrimental to what humans refer to as your 'peace of mind.'" His face softened slightly as Jim shook his head. "While the impulse to harbor remorse is understandable, ultimately it serves no purpose. You made decisions based on the information made available to you."

"Not entirely." Jim swallowed, his mouth dry. "Intuition also played a part in my decision-making--it always does." 

The first officer inclined his head slightly. "While I do not claim to understand your instinct to look beyond logic, Captain, our years of service together have allowed me to observe that your ability to acquire knowledge beyond the structure of reason serves you well."

Jim trained his eyes on the table before him, aware of Spock's keen gaze. "In my mind, that instinct served me selfishly today.”

“How so?”

“Like you, Dr. McCoy was overqualified for the mission parameters." Jim’s gaze flicked up to meet the Vulcan's. "However, I have recently become aware of some medical issues that the doctor may be dealing with in the near future. So my decision to replace him on the away team was motivated in part because I wanted him here on board the ship. Safe. I allowed the line between my personal life and duty to blur, Spock, and let my desire to keep Bones out of harm's way take precedence over the mission."

The first officer remained quiet for several long beats, his eyes holding his captain's without wavering. "Captain, had the mission's parameters been different and its success dependent on Dr. McCoy's inclusion on the away team, would you have signed off on my original duty roster?"

Jim's response was immediate. "Yes, of course."

"Then your self-recrimination in this matter is unwarranted," Spock replied in a measured tone. "Given the lack of information coming from Starfleet Command, it is unlikely that much could have been done to change the mission's outcome. Crudely put, changing the players would not have affected the outcome of the game."

The captain nodded, bowing his head for a moment before withdrawing his communicator from his pocket. "I know that, Spock. Knowing it doesn't make it any easier to accept what happened."

Intent on hailing the Medbay, Jim flipped open the communicator, realizing then that there was an unread message waiting for him. His expression was inscrutable as he looked up to meet Spock's gaze, and his tone of voice subdued. "Ensign Stewart expired thirty minutes ago. Ensign Reeves has been moved to recovery. Her status is stable but critical."

 

28. 

The ship’s day came to an end as Jim and Spock filed their mission reports. Despite the late hour, Jim took the turbo lift to the observation deck, knowing from past experience that the medical staff often went there to unwind as a unit after a tough shift, and that Bones would be with them.

He found them clustered at the far end of the deck, some slouched on the couches, some seated on the deck, passing an unlabeled bottle or two back and forth as they chatted. There was a pause in conversation when they noticed Jim, and then Bones broke the silence, waving the captain over with a lopsided smile.

They made room for Jim, clearing a space to allow him to squeeze in beside Bones, and Beckett passed him a bottle, her laughter bright but kind when the mouthful of booze he swallowed made his eyes water. Jim sat back, listening to the doctors and nurses joke and tell stories, impressed not for the first time by their ability to compartmentalize. 

They'd labored for hours to put Stewart and Reeves back together, only for Stewart to slip away in the end. Bones and M'Benga had conducted the autopsies of their fellow crewmen, but that job was only half-done; there were still the remains of the research facility's staff to be processed in the morning. For now, though, the doctors and nurses sat with their captain, capturing a few minutes of calm. Jim understood their need to feel normal in the face of suffering and death; these seemingly careless, oddly tender moments kept the medbay staff from burning out or losing the compassion that made them among the best in the 'fleet. 

Eventually, as the hours ticked closer to dawn, the othes filtered away, leaving Jim and Bones alone, and Jim slid his hand around the doctor's. 

"I'm sorry about Stewart, Bones," he murmured.

Bones nodded, his expression somber. "Me too."

"You okay?"

"Reeves has been upgraded from critical to serious ... it's too soon to call, but her vitals are strong considering what she went through. She just might make it yet." 

"You didn't answer my question," Jim reminded, his smile fond.

Bones tipped his head back to rest against the seat, giving the captain a sidelong glance. "Well, my exciting plans for running inventory with my head nurse today were dashed, but we'll both get over it. How are you?” he asked, brows quirking up as he gazed at Jim. “I noticed an absence of redshirts, half-Vulcans, and starship captains in the medbay when I got out of surgery ... I take it that the second wave onto that piece of rock out there went off without a hitch?"

"Well, there were hitches here and there but no additional casualties on our side." Jim reached up to pat Bones’s dark hair. "I'll tell you about it sometimes if you want."

"We know what happened yet?"

"Nope--we don't know a damned thing. Why the facility was raided, why the away team was attacked, who was paying the pirates ... nothing. I'm a man waiting for answers, Bones. And lately, I feel like that's all I do--wait for answers."    

A furrow settled between the doctor’s brows, though he said nothing, his long fingers tightening around Jim's with warm, reassuring pressure. This time, the knowledge that Bones was keeping things from Jim made him ache.

Chapter Text

29.

Carefully, Jim moved his hand to cup Bones's cheek. "Why didn't you tell me that you were sick?"

"Because I haven't been sick." Bones's tone was blithe. "There didn't seem much point in talking about it until something actually happened."

"Why not?" Jim dropped his hand, licking his lips as he considered his next words. "I'll tell you, Bones, I'm having a little trouble understanding your reasoning in this whole thing. I'm also pretty sure I should be pissed off at you. I mean ... if I kept something like this from you, you'd have killed me and made it look like an accident."

"And deservedly so." Bones's eyes gleamed playfully for a moment before he sobered, drawing his hand from Jim's and straightening in his seat. "As for why I went about things the way I did, well ... I'm not sure I have an answer for you, Jim, or not one that you'll like, anyway."

"Try me."

"I don't want to live in fear of this disease. Lord knows, there are plenty of things I'm already afraid of without adding a terminal disease to the list."

Something vital in Jim's self-control snapped. "Goddamn it, Bones, stop fucking joking around."

Anger flashed briefly in Bones's eyes. He drew a deep breath and blew it out with deliberate care before speaking again. "I'm not joking, Jim. I promise you that I am taking the state of own my health as seriously as I take yours."

"Bullshit."

"It's not. I run a blood test once a quarter and--" 

"So the medical staff know about what's going on?" 

"Geoff knows," Bones acknowledged, his expression tight and unhappy. "I hadn't planned to tell anyone else on the staff until it became necessary to share the treatment and recovery plans I've got laid out. I'm ready to file all of the appropriate paperwork through all of the appropriate channels, and I've put all of my affairs in order, in case, you know ... it doesn't work out for some reason."

Nausea knotted Jim's stomach. He wasn't even aware that his hands had clenched into fists until Bones reached to run his fingers over Jim's right knuckles. Inhaling through his nose, he blinked hard, focusing on Bones's eyes through the observation deck's low light.

Bones's lips pursed. "Damn it, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have unloaded all that shit on you all at once."

Jim's jaw dropped slightly. "Shouldn't have--" he managed before breaking off with a strangled laugh. "Bones, I want to know all of this shit. You should have told me years ago, before I was even released from Starfleet Medical." 

"You had more important things to focus on at the time."

"Then you should have told me after I was reinstated to active duty, or on any of the hundreds of days that have passed since then. You should have told me."

"I did tell you," Bones said flatly, "just like I told you two minutes ago that I've taken care of everything I can think of. There's nothing left to do at this point but wait for the other shoe to drop, Jim, and when it does, I'll be ready."

"And where will I be?"

Bones paused for a long moment, his gaze dropping as he lifted Jim's knotted fist to his lips, pressing a warm, dry kiss to the top of his hand. "Wherever you want to be. With me, I hope."

All of the air in Jim's lungs wooshed right out of him. Grabbing Bones's shoulders, he pulled him into a crushing embrace, aware that his own body trembling and that--once again--Bones's hands were moving over him, imparting comfort, anchoring Jim when he felt like he might fall to pieces.

"Jesus, Bones," he muttered, lips pressing close to the doctor's ear. "Where the hell else would I be?" 

Jim's throat worked as he struggled to speak past the rock that seemed to be lodged there. "Look, I know I'm an emotionally constipated asshole but there are things that I--no, we--should have been saying to each other all along, and--" 

"Jim--"

"--no, listen to me for a second," Jim insisted, pulling back to lock his gaze with Bones's. "This is my fault. I never should have kept quiet after you told me that you loved me. I should have said, I don't know, something then and so many times afterward. But I didn't and I think that by staying quiet I gave you reason to start keeping things from me.

"Not everything," he clarified quickly as Bones shook his head, "but the hard stuff that we'd have to deal with together. Like that you could get sick or that you want more from me ... that both of those things scare you. You stopped telling me those things, Bones. You stopped talking to me about the way you feel because you don't trust me to say anything back to you."

Bones's face fell, his eyes dropping as he pulled away from Jim. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have--I do trust you, Jim, I just--"

"No, baby." Jim's breath hitched as Bones's gaze snapped back to his. "Don't blame yourself. You were right not to trust me. I'm a coward."

"You're not." Steel ran through the doctor's voice, his eyes narrowing into a glare.

"I am." Jim's smile was thin as he recaptured Bones's hands in his own. "During the consciousness transfer, the Taaori shaman asked me, straight out, to admit that I loved you and I couldn't answer him. You have no idea how ashamed I am to admit that. The shaman was right, too." He nodded as Bones bit his own lip. "I knew it the second you walked into that hut and said my name. The other McCoy died, Bones, but you ... you were alive, sitting right next to me, bitching at Spock, and all I could think was that I was just so fucking grateful." Jim's voice faltered. "Every time I looked at you, it felt like my heart would explode.

"I couldn't say the words, though." His laugh was bitter. "Still can't. I'm sitting here, looking at the best thing in my life, and everything I want to say is locked up in my head."

Bones's expression softened. He watched Jim for a long moment before leaning forward to kiss him, the slow, sweet pressure of his lips speaking volumes against Jim's. Tenderness. Acceptance. Apology. Forgiveness. Love. Jim's heart seemed to swell.

"It's okay," Bones murmured, pulling away to press their foreheads together. "You don't have to say anything at all to me. It's not always about words, you know. We can tell each other how we feel with a touch or a look. A kiss." His eyes closed for a moment, a shy smile lifting the corners of his mouth as he looked at Jim again. "I hope you know how I feel about you without my ever having to say a word."

"I do," Jim admitted, his voice hollow. "God help me, but I do know how you feel, Bones, every time you look at me. I'm just not sure you can say the same about me."

"So show me," Bones breathed, his eyes shining through the gloom. The certainty on his beautiful face made Jim's heart race. "Show me how you feel about me, Jimmy."

 

30.

Time seemed to slow after they made their way to the captain's quarters. Sitting on the bunk, Jim pulled Bones between his legs, pressing his chest against the doctor's broad, warm back with a sigh. Wrapping one arm around Bones's shoulders, he angled the other down between Bones's legs, stroking the doctor's heavy cock in his spit-slicked hand, making Bones groan. 

"Fuck," Bones muttered, his breaths coming hot and fast as he tried to shift forward out of Jim's embrace. "Let me--"

"No, stay." Jim kissed him hard, their teeth and tongues clashing before they broke apart gasping. "Stay here, Bones," he murmured. "Let me make you feel good."

Heat thrummed through Jim as Bones pressed back against him. The doctor rocked his hips, grinding his ass against Jim's cock, the delicious friction frying Jim's nerves. He surged forward with a grunt, setting his mouth against the strong lines of Bones's neck and shoulders, marking the fair, freckled skin as he sucked and bit. 

Flicking his thumb playfully over the head of Bones's cock, Jim smiled as Bones's hips bucked forward, shoving his cock through the tight ring of Jim's fingers. The desperate edge in Bones's moan made Jim's gut twist, however, as did Bones's downturned lips and the moisture shining at the corners of his closed eyes. 

"Hey. I've got you, Bones," Jim murmured, the words pitched so low they were nearly lost in the harsh rasps of their breaths. Bones heard them though, the shiver that ran through his body speaking as loudly as words.

 I know. 

With an almost audible click, the swell of stubborn words locked inside Jim began to tumble free. He whispered them against Bones's lips, murmured them into Bones's skin, using his mouth and hands to wring pleasure from his lover's body until Bones fell apart, shaking hard in Jim's arms as he came. Jim laid him out on the bunk, caressing the doctor’s slack limbs with care before taking Bones in his arms, his chest constricting almost painfully as Bones cupped his face between unsteady hands for a kiss. 

"Come on," Bones urged, his voice rough as he slid his fingers through Jim's sweat-damp hair. "Need to feel you inside me, Jim."

"Oh, Christ." Blindly, Jim made a grab for the tube they'd left on the nightstand, biting back a whine moments later as the lube hit his skin. He dragged his fingers through the cum on the doctor's belly and smiled at Bones's muttered curse, swallowing hard when Bones slowly drew his knees up and spread them wide.

Bones shuddered under the captain's touch, head pressed hard against the mattress as wet fingertips traced along the cleft of his ass then pushed inside, one and then another, working Bones open until he was writhing on the sheets. "Oh, God." The sob in his voice made Jim's hands shake.

"Okay, Bones. Okay."

Jim braced himself up on one elbow, using his free hand to guide his cock into Bones, his breath stuttering as he breached the ring of muscle. He slid forward slowly, eyes locked with Bones's, overwhelmed by the heat and pressure of the body around his, gasping when Bones's hands came up to wrap around his biceps.

"Jim."

For a moment, Jim tried to hold back. Bones was hard again, his cock pressed hot and ready against Jim's belly, and Jim wanted to make this last, make it good for Bones, too, to savor the pleasure roaring in his ears and blurring the edges of his vision. But then Bones smiled, a rare smile he saved just for Jim, that made his eyes shine and seemed to light him from within ... and Jim was gone.

He surrendered, letting himself fall and be swept up again by sensations that threatened to pull him apart. Two bodies moved, two hearts thundered, and everything in the captain's consciousness narrowed down to the man holding Jim's heart between two strong hands.

His awareness splintering, Jim's body arched under the bright roar of his orgasm. And though the weight of the confessions he'd murmured hovered close, threatening to crush him, this time Jim's heart slipped out from under the burden to soar instead of falter. 

This time, as Jim came back to himself under the touch of those warm, well-loved hands, he smiled.

 

31. Conclusion 

The captain paused in his reading when the figure in the bed beside him stirred. Glancing at the chronometer, Jim laid his PADD aside, reaching for the tricorder on the nightstand to begin another scan, his brows furrowed in concentration as the results scrolled across the display. 

"How'm I doin', Cap?" Bones asked, his voice hoarse over the device’s whir, but with a familiar--and only slightly blunted--edge of snark that made Jim smile. He'd missed Bones's bitching. 

"Looks like you're gonna live," he replied, sending the results to the medbay before putting the tricorder back on the nightstand. "Or so Beckett and M'Benga tell me, anyway." 

"Coupla quacks," Bones joked before a light shiver shook his frame. "Probably been makin' an unholy mess of my medbay for the past week." 

Jim smoothed the hair back from Bones's damp brow with careful fingers, gazing at his pouting mouth and the fringe of lashes under his closed eyes. Even clammy with fever and unshaven, Bones was beautiful. 

"Guess it's a good thing you'll be back on your feet in a couple of days," Jim told him, tucking the blankets in around Bones's body. Raising a brow as one hazel eye cracked open to glare, he gave the doctor a cheeky smile. "No rest for the wicked, Bones." 

"That explains why you're still runnin' your mouth then," Bones got out past another shiver. In lieu of a reply, Jim wrapped himself around the other man, a pang running through him when, instead of complaining that Jim was crushing him, Bones let out a soft grunt and burrowed closer. 

They'd had nearly two years before the disease lurking in the doctor's body became active. It took less than a week to put the treatment protocols into place, but every moment that Bones went untreated felt like agony to Jim; waiting had never been one of his strengths. He took his cues from Bones, though, forcing himself to calm the fuck down, aware that Bones's air of organized calm was as much for Jim's benefit as his own. 

They began in the medbay, with constant monitoring of the vaccine's progress as its virus systematically reconstructed Bones's DNA. It hurt, from everything Jim observed, draining Bones’s face of color and his body of energy, making his limbs twitch and ache, though Bones rarely admitted to being in pain. Despite having spent years grumbling while being treated himself within that cool white space, Jim had never hated it more than when he was forced to simply watch Bones endure.

He did his best to help the medical staff, keeping out of their way as they worked, while making sure that Bones was aware of his presence. He held Bones's hand when the doctor could bear it, and fell to talking if touch proved too much, coaxing liquids and soft foods into Bones whenever he could. At night, he bunked on a cot beside the biobed as Bones tried to sleep, waking more than once to meet Bones's bleary gaze. Jim smoothed the doctor’s sheets and murmured the ship’s gossip into his ear until exhaustion pulled them both under to sleep for a little while. 

Gradually, the vaccine's side effects began to ease. Bones was released to his own quarters to continue recovering, and though he made the journey in a hoverchair, he sprawled across his bunk with a happy-sounding groan, falling fast asleep even before M'Benga finished his scans, looking, for the first time in weeks, like he was truly resting. 

"You thirsty?" Jim asked him now, his lips against Bones's hair, unsurprised when Bones took a moment to answer. 

"Nah, m'okay." 

"Hungry?" 

"Mm-mm. Might need to use the head in a bit.” 

“I’ll help you shower.” 

“Oh, fuck--yes, please.” Bones stretched his legs, sighing when one knee popped. “Kinda tired of this bunk. Th' one in your quarters is more comfortable." 

"Then we'll move down there." Jim chuckled at Bones's hum of approval. "Those quarters are only mine in title anyway--everyone knows you moved all of your junk in there years ago. Shit, I almost grabbed your cover the last time I had to wear my dress uniform." 

"Keep your hands off my cover, Jim--don't want you stretching out the band with that big head of yours." Bones pressed his cool nose into Jim's neck when Jim huffed. "That thing's only for special occasions anyway,” he murmured, “like state dinners with tentacled princes, or blowing my boyfriend while he sits in the Captain's chair." 

Jim's laughter rang through the room, making his chest ache and his eyes sting, and he reveled without shame in how good it felt. "Wow, Bones--now I know you're feeling better. First time you’ve ever offered to suck me off on the bridge before." 

"Rewrote my bucket list." Bones smiled against Jim's skin, his voice soft and drowsy. "Yours too. We've got a whole mess of perversions to work our way through before we do something crazy like retire and have a bunch of kids."

Jim nodded, his heart light as he swallowed against the ache in his throat. "Challenge accepted, old man."