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A Million Candles Burning For The Help That Never Came

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Jim Kirk has a habit of throwing himself face-first into danger and coming out the other side laughing. Having known the man for going on five years, and having been trapped on a starship with him for one, Leonard had already patched him up countless times.

When they were at the Academy, it seemed like Leonard was forever staving off Jim’s allergy attacks with well-timed hyposprays, as well as fixing all the bloodier situations he got himself into with alarming regularity. 

He remembered one eventful night when Gaila had broken up with the blond cadet, leading Jim to find the nearest bar, get himself three sheets to the wind, and provoke a bar fight. Leonard had had to carry him home, unconscious and dripping blood from his nose. The next morning, Jim had been sore as all fuck and hungover, but he’d still laughed and brushed off Leonard’s concern.

Leonard chuckled to himself as he recalled the memory, even as he slumped into the captain’s chair on the bridge. Jim, Spock, and Sulu had beamed down to a new planet, the inhabitants of which they were supposed to entire into joining the Federation. Jim had called for him, a cheery “Bones, you’re in charge!” floating his way even as the transporter whirred and they disappeared.

That had been five hours ago. The mission was supposed to have taken two.

“Chekov, what do you have for me?” Bones pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Nothing, sir. The signal is blocked, I cannot tell if there are signs of life.” The young navigator was bent over Spock’s console, scanning for the humanoid life signs their crew members would show up as. Internally, Leonard thanked his lucky stars that the aliens on this particular planet were cold-blooded, even if they looked like humans. It made it easier for them to keep track of the landing party. Or at least it had, before the landing party had disappeared.

“Uhura? Any comms coming in?”

“No, sir. Too much interference. Maybe they’re underground?”

“Maybe. Give it fifteen more minutes and I’m sending in a rescue party.”

***

The rescue party wasn’t necessary. Three minutes before Leonard was going to give the order, the comms crackled with Sulu’s voice, frantically requesting to be beamed up now, please.

Leonard will never admit to sprinting the distance to the transporter room. He was a doctor, he had dignity, he didn’t sprint through the halls. He hurried, very respectably, because he was worried about his friend.

His worry was entirely justified.

Sulu was standing on the transporter pad, blood trickling down his face from a cut near his hairline. Spock stood next to him, swaying slightly, a very worrisome patch of green wetness spreading across his abdomen. And Jim… Jim was slumped on the floor, barely moving.

Leonard radioed Nurse Chapel to bring gurneys to the transporter room, then rushed forward with his tricorder to assess the damage.

Sulu was fine, with some light bruising and the one cut. A date with a dermal regenerator, and he’d be as good as new.

Spock was loaded onto the gurney and rushed away first, as he was closest to the door. Leonard himself pushed the one carrying Jim to Sickbay, then set about treating his patients.

Spock needed shrapnel removed from his wound, which Nurse Chapel set about doing. If they could prevent infection and get him a blood transfusion, he’d be fine.

Jim didn’t have any external injuries showing, so Leonard went over him with the tricorder. He gaped at the display, which indicated a mass of internal injuries. It was like someone had used Jim as a punching bag. Leonard immediately began assessing how best to heal the damage and stabilize Jim - he was going to need surgery, thanks to a broken rib puncturing his lung. And it looked like his gallbladder was ruptured. Leonard was working with frenetic frenzy, trying to keep Jim stable while he prepped him for surgery.

Then Jim coded on the table.

***

It took four hours of intensive surgery, all of Leonard’s medical knowledge, and a healthy dose of luck to keep Jim alive.

Over the course of the operation, they had two more close calls. Jim’s body had been overloaded, it was just trying to shut down.

Leonard emerged from the operating theater exhausted and unsteady on his feet, with his heart pounding from the extended period of stress. His gloves were soaked in his best friend’s blood. After this, he thought, I’m going to need more than one drink.

Spock was resting peacefully on one of the biobeds, wound well on it’s way to being healed. Leonard thanked his lucky stars that they’d made provisions in case the half-Vulcan had ever needed a blood transfusion; they couldn’t exactly pump him full of Vulcan C+ or human O-.

Jim was transferred to a biobed of his own, looking small and fragile as he rested against the blankets. His face was unnaturally pale and he remained unconscious, although Leonard saw no reason he shouldn’t wake up.

Sighing, he scrubbed a degloved hand over his face, thought idly that he really needed to shave, and went in search of a certain helmsman.

Said helmsman was in the officer’s lounge, talking in an unsteady voice to a certain Russian navigator.

Leonard squinted at the other side of the room. Looking closer, it appeared that Sulu was using Chekov rather like a teddy bear. Right, something had obviously happened on that mission, and Leonard needed to know what. “Sulu?” He called across the room.

Sulu startled, and hurriedly began disentangling himself from Chekov as Leonard walked across the room. “Dr. McCoy! I, uh, I was- did you need something?”

“Calm down, man,” Leonard said gruffly. “You and the kid are both of age. I’m not going to have you locked up or anything.”

Sulu sat back down, giving him a grateful smile. Chekov waved awkwardly. “Hello, Doctor.”

“Hey, kid. So. Sulu. What the fuck happened down there?” Leonard sat across from them, making himself comfortable.

Sulu shuddered and composed himself, grabbing ahold of Chekov’s hand as he did so. “Well, we beamed down…”

***

As the Enterprise disappeared around them and what looked like endless sand dunes appeared, Hikaru Sulu breathed a sigh of relief. It had been nearly two months since he’d last set foot planetside, and he was thrilled to be on solid ground again.

Or, well, as solid as constantly shifting sand got. At least it wasn’t cold, he thought optimistically, as sand made its way into his shoes.

Their little party of three started walking toward a large cluster of tan, squat buildings, and were soon arriving at a gate. “Hello,” Kirk called to the figure behind it. “We are from the starship Enterprise, representing the United Federation of Planets. I believe your Council is expecting us?”

The figure nodded and unlocked the gate, then ushered them through. “Yes, I will take you to them.” His (was it a him? Sulu couldn’t tell for sure) voice was deep and sonorous (almost definitely male), but his speech interspersed with clicks and odd whistling noises. He was shaped like a human, with two arms and legs. He was covered in small, tan and yellow scales, and his eyes had slit pupils. As he turned to lead them into the maze of narrow streets, Sulu saw a tail swishing beneath his bulky robes. Some type of reptilian DNA in there, then, probably. He tried to surreptitiously get a scan of the creature’s biological readings.

They came to a larger, fancier building, and were ushered into a plush meeting room. Three more lizard people were sitting there, waiting for them. Kirk stepped forward to do his Captainly thing with Spock at his side, and Sulu, shortly after discovering that the alien race was called Heelans, tuned them out. This was an easy diplomatic mission, he was only along for the ride because Starfleet wanted a minimum of three personnel on all missions.

He was in the middle of wondering if their tails came off when they were attacked like Earth’s skinks when his attention was caught by Kirk throwing a punch at the one that seemed to be in charge. He rushed forward, only to be caught by a Heelan guard standing behind him. He thrashed in its grip as Spock ran to assist the Captain, trying to signal for a beam-up.

Evidently the building they were in was disrupting the signal, because Spock’s communicator remained silent. Behind the Vulcan, Kirk was thrown to the floor and the Heelan’s heavy tail was crashing down once, twice, three times on his chest. Sulu struggled with renewed vigor, hearing the crunch of ribs breaking. The Heelan holding him dashed the butt of its pistol against his head, and he slumped, knocked unconscious.

He woke up in a holding cell with Spock. The Vulcan appeared unharmed, and Sulu blinked slowly as he took stock of his own injuries. Bruises where he was held tightly, and the cut on his head. No real damage, then. “So,” he said, causing Spock to open his eyes. “What was that?”

“The Heelans wanted to know if Starfleet would aid them next time there was a famine,” Spock answered.

“Okay. That doesn’t explain why the captain went crazy.”

“Do you remember the story of Tarsus IV?”

Sulu nodded; everyone knew the story of Tarsus IV. Their crops had been destroyed by a fungus and the civilization had deteriorated, culminating in Governor Kodos ordering a massacre of half of the colony’s people to ensure the survival of the other half. Tarsus IV was a horror story, a grotesque reminder of the darkness that humanity was capable of. Of the roughly three thousand that had survived the initial ordeal, less than five hundred carried on with their lives with any semblance of normalcy. The rest died from health complications, diseases their weakened bodies were more susceptible to, or suicide. The ones that didn’t die were admitted to asylums, unable to function in society.

Five hundred people living nearly normal lives, out of the original eight thousand. Yeah, Sulu knew about Tarsus IV. It remained one of Starfleet’s greatest failures - they hadn’t gotten there in time. They hadn’t saved the four thousand people that had been put to death.

“Yeah.” His voice cracked. Spock, blessedly, ignored it. “Yeah, I know the story.”

“Something very similar happened here, just two years ago. The one the captain punched was talking about how he gave the order for half of his people to be killed.”

Since there wasn’t much to say to that, Sulu kept quiet.

A couple of hours later, he and Spock were dragged back to the meeting room, where a beaten and bruised Jim Kirk was crumpled on the carpet.

***

“Spock grabbed the captain and I pulled out my phaser, and we made it out. Called for help the second we were outside, and got beamed up just as one of them shot something at Spock.” Sulu finished his tale, his voice shaky. He leaned closer to Chekov, obviously seeking comfort.

“Okay,” Leonard said, “Sulu, you’re on medical leave for the next forty-eight hours. And you probably need to have a chat with the staff psychologist.”

Sulu, of course, protested.

“Nope. It’s standard procedure. You were held captive by hostiles, you gotta go see the shrink. Doctor’s orders.” And Leonard walked out of the room, leaving Sulu to seek comfort from his Chekov.

Leonard went straight for Sickbay, and was driven out again immediately by Nurse Chapel, who ordered him to get some goddamn sleep for one, Bones, and maybe you’ll be less grumpy in the morning.

He went back to his quarters and had a stiff nightcap before collapsing, fully clothed, on the bed.

***

The next day, Spock was up and about and defying Leonard’s orders to take it easy, but Jim was still in his biobed.

Big blue eyes blinked up at Leonard as he took a seat next to his friend and noted with shock that the fire that had always burned in those eyes was gone. Jim looked defeated… no. He looked haunted.

“Jim, man, are you all right? Any pain?”

Jim shook his head slowly.

“You gonna talk to me?”

A small nod. Then “I killed him. The one that gave the order.”

That must have happened before Sulu and Spock were brought back out of their cell, given that Sulu hadn’t mentioned seeing a body or anything. “You wanna elaborate a little bit, Jim?”

“I killed him, Bones. I killed him like I wanted to kill Kodos but this just makes me as bad as they were.” Jim was looking off over Leonard’s shoulder, his voice small.

The silence that followed that pronouncement seemed to swell up and swallow them, and finally, Leonard had to ask. “Jim, were you…?” Were you what? On Tarsus IV? Marked for death? Starving in the streets? Jesus, the man would’ve been a child back then.

“Yeah,” Jim said. “Yeah, I was.” And despite Leonard’s best efforts, he wouldn’t say any more.

Two days after that saw Jim back in the captain’s chair, with Leonard hovering over him.

Leonard knew that Jim was doing his best to act the way he always had, but it was obvious that he was fighting some draining mental battle. If Jim really had been on Tarsus IV, because Leonard was pretty sure that he had but still, he didn’t know for sure what question Jim had really been answering that day in Sickbay, then obviously his recent experiences had dredged up some pretty awful memories.

After a week and a half of watching his friend walk through life with slumped shoulders and that hunted look in his eyes, Leonard had had enough. He called Jim to his office at the end of Alpha shift.

“Care to tell me why you haven’t been eating?” He was behind his desk, fingers steepled. The epitome of patience.

“Not hungry. Can’t keep it down.” Reluctantly, Jim sat down in front of him.

“Jim, it might help to tell someone about this. The staff psychologist-”

“No!” Leonard’s surprise at the vehemence of the reaction must have shown on his face, because Jim softened his tone. “No. The thought of telling someone I don’t really know, I. I just couldn’t do it. I tried once, and it just made me sick.”

“What about me?”

“Well, what about you?”

“I’m a medical professional. I’m your doctor. You could tell me.” Leonard leaned forward in his chair. Jim was silent for a long time, then:

“It won’t, I don’t know, change your opinion of me?” He looked impossibly young as he sat hunched in the chair, and the sheer insecurity in his words knocked Leonard speechless. He shook his head, and watched intently as Jim settled himself in. “Okay, then. I was, uh. I was thirteen when it happened.”

“I was living with my aunt and uncle, and their two kids when we got the news that the crops were just… gone. Some fungus destroyed them. Two weeks after that, we heard that it was gonna take Starfleet a while to respond. Too long.”

Leonard can’t help the little noise he makes, then, when he realizes that thirteen year old Jim Kirk would’ve had to come face-to-face with his own mortality. When Leonard was thirteen, he was worrying about whether anyone would go to the Spring Dance with him, for Christ’s sake!

Jim continued, unbothered by the noise. “It was… awful. People were terrified, they started to go almost feral. Gangs were roaming all over the place, breaking into houses to steal food.

“Then Kodos started calling for the executions to start. He judged who would live and who would die by your ethnicity, and my uncle fit the bill. So they took him and my cousins. When they put a bullet through my youngest cousin’s head, my aunt ran in front of Kodos’ guards and begged them to kill her, too. Guess she forgot about me.” A wry smile tugged at Jim’s mouth as he blinked back tears.

“Jesus, Jim,” Leonard whispered.

“That’s not the worst of it. After that I was on my own for a while, living on the streets. I got by, sometimes people would be kind. And sometimes I’d steal.” He let out a bitter laugh. “You can’t not condemn me for stealing from starving people, Bones.”

“I- no. Christ, man. You were starving, too. You were-” Leonard swallowed thickly around the tears he could feel rising up, “You were just a kid. Fuck, Jim…”

“Yeah, well. I started picking up other kids, Orphans, all of us. I was the oldest. There were eight of us, and we stuck together. We didn’t have hardly anything, but what we did have we shared. And then we found Emily. Emily Molson. She was near dead when we found her, starvation and exposure, and she was the youngest of us. She was six. When we found her you could see every one of her bones through her skin. She was tiny.”

Jim’s voice had gone flat and dead, and Leonard wondered how this narrative could possibly get worse.

“She needed more food than we had, and so I went to steal from Kodos himself. When I got inside, I was… I was shocked. Kodos was practically stockpiling food. He had enough for him and his soldiers to have three square meals a day until Starfleet showed up, and there were people dying in the streets for want of a crust of bread.

“Anyway, I took what I could and got out, and from then on, I only stole from Kodos. There was enough for the nine of us, plus we could sometimes help others. It wasn’t anywhere near enough, of course, but it kept us alive.

“Then one day I got sloppy. I hadn’t eaten in a while, I was moving slower than usual. And Kodos himself caught me in his storeroom.”

“Fucking hell, Jim.” Leonard couldn’t believe what he was hearing. To know that his friend had gone through such unimaginable torture made him ache to comfort the other man, but he didn’t know how.

“Yeah. Well, that was the day I learned that Kodos liked painfully thin boys with blue eyes.”

What the hell? “Jim, tell me you’re not saying what I think you’re saying.”

“What do you think I’m saying, then, Bones? That I was given the choice to rot in a prison cell for thievery or to let him fuck me every few days in exchange for enough food to keep myself and eight other orphans breathing until the great and mighty Starfleet could swoop in and save the day? Because yeah, that’s what I’m saying.” The rant, which had started at a rather high volume, tapered off into almost a whisper. 

Leonard sat frozen. Jim had been thirteen. Thirteen and starving to death and still trying to take care of the people he felt responsible for.

“Yeah, I knew this would change things. That not letting this change your opinion of me stuff? Bullshit.” Jim looked exhausted, but at least the spark had returned to his eyes. He was no longer beaten down and broken, he was lashing out, full of righteous fury.

“No, Jim. No. Not changing the way I see you. I just wish, hell, I don’t know. That you’d never had to go through that.” What could Leonard even say to that?

Jim snorted. “Can’t change the past, Bones. Can’t change those months I spent starving, or the ones I whored myself out through.” Leonard flinches at the sheer hatred in Jim’s voice. He can’t tell if it’s directed at him, Kodos, or Jim himself.

“When Starfleet showed up, I gave my statement, and so did the rest of my group. Then I got taken in for a medical examination. What they found, it’s not in my real file, but you’ve seen it anyway. I was Patient J in the records they released.”

Fuck. For Kodos’ trial, the medical records of some of his victims had been released to demonstrate the starvation he’d subjected his people to. Patient J had been the file that shocked the entire Federation, and turned Leonard’s stomach when he’d studied it in his classes.

Kodos had been a sadistic man, and the details in that file, along with Patient J’s statement ( Jim’s statement, Jesus Christ ) had fully reflected that. The things Kodos had done to Patient J in exchange for food were the cherry on top of the mass genocide sundae, and had swayed the jury away from life imprisonment to the death penalty for the former governor.

Jim was Patient J. Those things that had made Leonard choke on tears just from reading had actually happened, in the flesh, to Jim.

Jim, who was still looking at him like he was expecting Leonard to lash out.

“Jim.”

“Mmh?”

“Thank you for telling me, for trusting me.”

“Mmm. You gonna report to Starfleet that I’m emotionally compromised now?”

“No! Fuck, no.” Leonard doesn’t even know what to say to that. “You’re still you. Still my Captain. This doesn’t change anything, Jim, I promise you that. I know you’re still a competent captain. I still trust you with my life.”

Hearing that must have been the last straw for Jim, because Leonard distinctly heard a sniffle coming from his direction. Discreetly, he nudged a box of tissues across the desk. “Thanks, Bones. I’m just gonna… go, now.” And Jim left, leaving Leonard sitting behind his desk and pondering the way his entire fucking world had inverted itself and danced a jig while he watched and questioned everything.

Jim was Patient J.

Patient J was Jim.

Holy shit, Leonard had written his paper for his Psychological Trauma course on Jim .

***

Secrets, Leonard found, were rather like infected wounds. If you pushed through the pain and drained all the bad stuff out, they’d start to heal. Leonard was doing his best to help Jim Kirk heal.

It was very difficult. Jim was a bad patient at the best of times. Leonard was a doctor, not a psychologist. And, of course, the day after their conversation, Jim had firmly planted his cheerful mask back on and ignored everything.

Repressing and ignoring were what led to an alien leader getting bludgeoned to death on a diplomatic mission. Not that Leonard was against the bludgeoning, the Heelan had deserved it, but still. Jim had issues that needed to be resolved, and ignoring them wasn’t going to help.

Leonard brought up the possibility of Jim seeing a therapist at some point. They could find one that did it remotely, he’d always have access to a video call with them no matter where the Enterprise was. 

Unsurprisingly, Jim refused.

Leonard declared Jim on medical leave for two weeks over a sprained wrist, and kept him in Sickbay for half that time. After several long and involved rants, Jim grudgingly agreed to talk to someone. “Only if you get off my back about it. I know you’re concerned, Bones, but fucking hell!”

Three weeks after that, Jim conceded that the therapy was very useful, and he was doing better, but he most certainly wasn’t going to thank Leonard for forcing him to go. 

“There’s no need to thank me, Jim. I was just looking out for my friend.”

***

Six months after starting therapy, Jim talked to Bones about Tarsus IV again. He’d maintained a cool, almost clinical detachment from the events throughout the entire conversation. When Leonard had asked him about the tone shift, he responded with “It still hurts, but now, it’s just a memory. I don’t have nightmares anymore, it doesn’t feel as real. Not as painful.”

***

Roughly a year after their first, eye-opening conversation, Jim stopped talking to his therapist. “Don’t need her anymore,” he said. “I’m doing better now.”

“You sure about that?” Leonard asked.

“Yeah. I won’t ever be really healed from it. And it made me into who I am today. But it doesn’t hold as much power over me anymore. I’ve come to terms with it.”

“I’m proud of ya, kid,” Leonard said, then ducked as Jim playfully threw his own paperweight at him.

“Yeah, yeah. Come on, old man, we need you planetside for this next mission.”