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Wednesday, November 11th, 2009 03:05 am
Chapter Title: Lights will guide you home
Rating: T
Genre: Angst, h/c, gen
Characters: McCoy, Kirk, Spock, Pike, Scott, Sulu, Uhura, Chekov, and a mix of OCs
Spoilers/warnings: Movie spoilers up for grabs; mentions of violence and torture; language; heavy, heavy angst
Chapter Length: Approx. 8,000
Notes: Written for [livejournal.com profile] startrekbigbang challenge. See master post for notes on the story.
Link to art: See art here.
Link to fanmix: See mix here.

Summary: When the captain is captured and comes back broken, it's up to the doctor to fix him.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |Part 5| Epilogue

 
“Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones.
And I will try to fix you.”
--Coldplay, “Fix You”

“Not all those who wander are lost.”
--J.R.R. Tolkien

If one thing had remained constant about North America over the centuries, it was the fact that the Great Plains were flat and never-ending and about as entertaining as watching paint dry. McCoy had watched old holovids depicting people traversing the Midwest, and from what he could tell as he zipped down the highway on his motorcycle, nothing had changed. Waist-high prairie grass swayed in a warm breeze, occasionally shifting into fields of corn before changing back to prairie grass. The hours blended together; sometimes it felt as if it had been minutes since he’d left Winona Kirk’s farmhouse, only to feel like days just a few miles down the road.

Yet McCoy found himself drawn to the monotonous terrain. After years living on and around the crowded Starfleet campus, as well as spending the last nine months in the confines of a starship, it was refreshing to be surrounded by nothing but rolling plains and an endless blue sky. Despite the aching muscles he had from spending long hours on the bike, he relished the opportunity to be back on solid ground again.

Of course, the trip would be much more relaxing if he didn’t have so much time to think.

McCoy had considered a multitude of possible traumas Kirk might have encountered as a child. He knew firsthand that Kirk was more complicated than anyone would have thought and wasn’t nearly as carefree and lighthearted as everyone thought him to be. Still, out of all those possibilities he’d pondered, being a survivor of mass genocide had never been one of them.

He could still remember seeing footage of some of the survivors from the colony. Most were barely recognizable as people. They looked more like walking corpses, little more than skin and bones; many of the children had abdomens so distended from starvation that it looked like the skin should have been splitting. Hundreds more had died in the weeks following their rescue, and close to a thousand had died in the years immediately following the disaster.

McCoy couldn’t imagine living through that; he couldn’t even begin to comprehend the possibility of joining an organization that had allowed something like that to happen right under their very noses. And yet Kirk had done just that--he’d not only survived the disaster, but he’d seemingly bounced back from it with few consequences.

Well. Visible consequences, anyway. McCoy had experienced the backlash of the emotional consequences firsthand.

That, more than anything, was what kept him speeding across the barren landscape. He didn’t want Kirk to lose command of his ship, but this new information changed everything. Now, McCoy wasn’t tracking Kirk down just to bring him back to the Enterprise; now, McCoy was tracking down a survivor of three different massacres, desperately hoping that he would find him in time to prevent him from doing something foolish.

After mulling over the possibilities at Winona’s, McCoy had decided to head west to the cabin. It would be easier to disappear in the bustling cities along the East Coast, but McCoy had a gut feeling Kirk wasn’t wandering around in order to disappear. He’d learned long ago to never question his gut when it came to Jim Kirk; he wasn’t about to start now.

Besides, this kind of behavior was something he’d seen before. Back at the Academy, Kirk would vanish every so often, only to show up a couple days later acting as if nothing had happened. He never told McCoy where he went, but that didn’t stop the older man from trying to find out. During their second year, McCoy had followed Kirk on one such occasion, only to find that Kirk was simply retreating to a hill past the outskirts of San Francisco in order to get a better view of the stars.

That hill became their retreat from that point forward. They started spending their rough days up there. McCoy’s anniversary, Joanna’s birthday, and Kirk’s birthday were spent on the hillside. They would sprawl in the grass on their backs and share a bottle of whiskey or bourbon as they looked up at the night sky and Kirk murmured the legends behind the constellations.

McCoy knew firsthand that old habits die hard; he was hoping that this was one habit of Kirk’s that hadn’t changed since they’d been commissioned to work on the Enterprise.

After all, it was the only lead he had.

*****

He traveled for eighteen hours straight before he was forced to take a few hours to stop in some small down just inside Wyoming and get a little sleep at a motel. He knew it wouldn’t do Kirk any good if McCoy got into an accident and broke his neck just because he didn’t get any sleep.

He contacted Spock again before he headed back out on the road. “McCoy to Spock.”

Spock here. Any success, doctor?”

“I might have a lead on him, but it’s nothing solid,” McCoy replied, rubbing a hand over his face. He winced at the scratchy stubble that was quickly forming into a beard. It felt rough and itchy after having spent years clean shaven. “I’m in Wyoming. Winona thought he might be heading for a small cabin in Montana.”

Would it not be easier to beam you to the coordinates?”

“We’re keeping this low key, remember?” McCoy reminded him. He fought back a yawn and continued, “Westervliet’s definitely going to know we’re looking for Jim if we use the transporter while the Enterprise is at space dock. And a scan for life forms apparently wouldn’t help much--Winona said there’s a lot of hikers in the area this time of year.” He rubbed his eyes and yawned.

From the sound of your voice, I have deduced you have not been taking adequate care of yourself, Doctor,” Spock said after a moment.

“I’ll be fine,” McCoy said with a dismissive wave of his hand, even though he knew Spock couldn’t see it. “It’s Jim I’m worried about.”

Did his mother indicate there is a need to worry?”

McCoy hesitated for a split second. Kirk would kill him if he found out McCoy and Spock both knew about his experiences on Tarsus. “Do you remember Tarsus IV, Spock?” he asked finally.

There was a long pause. “Jim was on Tarsus?

The doctor blinked in surprise at the hint of emotion in Spock’s voice; if McCoy had to wager a guess, he would’ve said it sounded like Spock was horrified--or as close to horrified as he would ever be. For a moment, he felt a strong sense of connection with the Vulcan. It wasn’t a feeling he was used to, and he didn’t quite know what to make of it. “Yes.”

Another pause. “Why was this not mentioned in his medical records? This knowledge explains much of the captain’s recent behavior and would have been advantageous in our efforts to help him recover.”

“I know,” McCoy replied. “I’m not sure why there is no mention of it. But we both know how good Jim is with computers; he might have deleted those files himself. And… it’s worse than you think.”

I fail to understand how that can be possible.”

McCoy’s lips twitched a little when he heard the dry sarcasm, but his expression quickly sobered. “Winona told me the truth about Tarsus.”

He could practically picture the confused furrow between Spock’s eyebrows as the Vulcan said, “To what are you referring, Doctor? From my understanding, Starfleet indicated that four thousand colonists died of starvation.”

“Not all of them,” McCoy answered grimly. “The governor had most of them killed before starvation could take them.”

Spock didn’t respond for a long moment. “I do not understand. Why would that information be kept quiet? Why lead people to believe that starvation killed the colonists and not genocide?

“Who knows,” McCoy said with a dark scowl. “Maybe Kodos paid off the right people. Maybe there was someone on the outside who didn’t want to be implicated and had the power to prevent it. Maybe the Council didn’t want to make themselves appear idiotic for appointing a psychopath to be a governor.”

No matter the reason, this new information further explains Jim’s behavior over the past month.”

“No kidding,” McCoy replied with a roll of his eyes. “Have you found any sign of him?”

No. He has not taken any more credits from his account since the day he beamed down.”

McCoy sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I just wish I knew for sure that I’m heading in the right direction.”

There was another pause. “I believe your close friendship with the captain makes you an expert on his behavior. Therefore your judgment is more sound than most.”

McCoy blinked in surprise at the quiet statement. That was one of the last things he’d ever imagined he’d hear Spock say. “This conversation should never be brought up again,” he said with a wry chuckle. “People might start thinking we like each other.”

I concur. It would be wrong to allow the crew to believe such an erroneous statement.

McCoy smirked. “I’ve got to go. I’ll let you know when I find him. McCoy out.”

The smirk fell as he stowed his communicator and mounted the bike. His lower back was stiff and his shoulders were sore from his long trip, but as much as he wanted to stretch out on the motel bed again, he knew he couldn’t. Time was running out.

“Damn it, Jim,” he murmured, zipping up his jacket and firing the bike up. “You better have gone this way.”

*****

It wasn’t until he reached the Wyoming-Montana line four hours later that he picked up solid evidence of Kirk’s trail.

He stopped at a restaurant on the edge of some small town, intending to stay just long enough to grab a quick meal and a large cup of coffee. His waitress--a tiny woman old enough to be his mother--apparently had other intentions; she stopped by every few minutes to try and strike up a conversation with him, despite the fact that he was less than responsive.

“So what brings you out here, anyway?” she asked as she refilled his coffee for the third time.

McCoy barely restrained an annoyed eye roll. Small towns were all the same, whether in the plains of Wyoming or the hills of Georgia, he mused. Warm, welcoming, chatty, and downright nosy. “Needed a break from it all,” he muttered.

“And your idea of taking a break is driving alone across the Great Plains of North America? Without anyone to keep you company?”

“Does it really matter?” McCoy growled, shoving a forkful of spaghetti in his mouth. The company wasn’t much, but the food wasn’t bad, he decided as he swallowed. Except for the coffee; it tasted weak compared to the coffee he’d had at Winona Kirk’s house.

The waitress stared at him thoughtfully, left hand on her hip and right gripping the handle of the coffee carafe. “You searching for someone? Because that’s the exact same answer another young man gave me last week. Seems like more than a coincidence to me.”

McCoy’s head shot up, his interest piqued. “What did he look like?”

“Like someone who needed a hot shower and sleep,” the older woman replied. “But then, I suppose Starfleet’s youngest captain wouldn’t have the common sense God gave a horse to realize he needs to take care of himself every now and then.”

“Jim was here?” McCoy demanded, sitting straighter in his seat. “When?”

“Three days ago,” the waitress answered. “Didn’t say much--stopped in to grab a meal to go. Never gave his name, but I recognized him. Half the women in this town would give everything they own to meet the handsome boy who saved the universe--it’s all they seem to talk about anymore.”

“Do you know where he went?” McCoy asked, draining the last of the coffee in his mug and standing.

“Towards Montana,” she replied. “That’s about all I can tell you.”

McCoy handed her some credits. “It’s enough. Thank you,” he said with deep sincerity.

She tilted her head as she studied him. “You can thank me by catching up with him,” she finally told him. “That boy doesn’t belong down here. Get him back where he belongs.”

McCoy’s lips twisted into a smirk. “Trust me, ma’am. I’m trying.”

*****

The cabin was high on the mountainside, built at the end of a winding road so rough McCoy had worried he would either crash or disappear into a giant pothole. He was running on fumes--the motorcycle’s gas tank was nearly empty, and he himself had only had five hours of sleep over the last three days; his last stop for food had been at that little restaurant on the state line six hours ago. He was more than ready to catch up to his best friend and knock a little sense through his thick skull so he could get some sleep.

There was another tarp-covered motorbike parked near the shed on the side of the house. He pulled up next to it and glanced around as he turned his cycle off. As the deep rumble of the engine faded away, he could hear the soft twitter of birds in the trees and the sound of water rushing over stones as it flowed in a stream past the house and down through the woods. The cabin itself was small, looking as if it had been pulled straight from the pages of an antique history book with its pane glass windows, walls made from old logs, and dark shingled roof.

McCoy swung his left leg backwards to dismount from the bike, wincing as the movement aggravated his sore muscles. He stretched, trying to release some of the tension in his back and shoulders. His legs were stiff as he loped up the dirt path to the door of the cabin. After only a moment’s hesitation, he rapped on the door once with his fist.

Relief swept over him as he heard familiar footsteps approaching the door, followed by a wave of weariness so powerful that his knees buckled a bit, and he had to lean against the doorframe in order to stay upright. The door swung open a moment later, and Kirk looked at him, eyebrows raised in surprise. “Bones?”

“Hey, Jim,” McCoy replied with a tired grin. He tried to straighten up off the doorframe; the movement made the world around him spin violently. Then everything went white as he stumbled forward.

A pair of hands grabbed his shoulders and he heard a familiar voice shout “Bones!” with just a hint of panic as he collided with the owner of both the hands and the voice.

“‘S’kay, Jim,” McCoy mumbled, resting his forehead on Kirk’s shoulder. “‘S’kay.”

And before Kirk could respond, darkness consumed McCoy’s vision and he let himself float away into peaceful oblivion.

*****

The first thing he realized when he woke up was that he was in a bed far too comfortable to belong on the Enterprise. Then he realized he could hear the sound of something sizzling in a pan, and suddenly he remembered that he actually wasn’t onboard the ship.

McCoy rolled over and blinked lazily a few times as he looked at the ceiling. Thick wooden logs crisscrossed length of it, and he followed the pattern until it met with the wall. Through the slightly open door, he could hear movement in the kitchen. He saw a glimpse of movement as Kirk moved from the stove and put something in the sink. He scanned the rest of the room and saw a door leading to a small bathroom.

With a yawn, he tossed the covers back and climbed out of bed, shivering instinctively as his bare feet hit the cool wooden floor. He took a quick pit-stop in the bathroom, avoiding his reflection in the mirror. He didn’t have to see himself to know he looked scruffy and sleep-deprived. He ran a hand through his hair as he padded out of the bathroom to the bedroom door and pulled it open. Kirk looked up from the large sink, his arms plunged in soapy water up to his elbows. “Hey,” McCoy said.

Kirk’s lips twitched, but his voice was emotionless as he replied, “Hey, yourself.” He jerked his head over in the direction of the stove. “There’s some eggs and bacon if you want.”

“Sounds good,” McCoy said, ambling over to the stove and grabbing a plate off the counter. Kirk went back to washing dishes as McCoy loaded his plate with a couple huge scoops of eggs and four pieces of bacon. He glanced out the window as he sat down at the small table, surprised to see that the position of the sun hadn’t changed much since he’d arrived. “What time is it?” he asked.

“I think the better question is ‘What day is it?’” Kirk replied as he rinsed a bowl and set it in the drying rack. “It’s tomorrow, in case you were wondering,” he added, looking over at his shoulder at the doctor.

McCoy’s eyebrows shot up as he chewed a mouthful of eggs. “Huh.”

Kirk snorted, grabbing a towel and drying off his hands as he turned around. “Does this not seem ironic to you?” he asked, leaning back against the counter. When McCoy looked at him in confusion, he clarified, “You’re the one that passed out on my doorstep and I’m the one that had to clean you up and put you to bed.”

McCoy tilted his head, surprised to hear the anger coloring Kirk’s voice. “Jim…”

“And I had a nice conversation with Spock last night,” Kirk continued, tossing the towel aside and folding his arms. “Can you guess what he told me?”

“Jim--”

“Seventy-one hours! You’ve been looking for me for seventy-one hours!” Kirk hissed. “Judging by the fact that you just slept for the last twenty of those hours, I think it’s fairly safe to say you got almost no sleep in that amount of time. And I know you were hardly sleeping the whole month before that.”

McCoy blinked in astonishment at the vehemence in Kirk’s voice, then narrowed his eyes. “Don’t even--”

“Did you suddenly decide to become an idiot and pull a bunch of stupid stunts just because I wasn’t around, is that it? You’re damn lucky you didn’t crash!”

“Don’t you start with me, Kid,” McCoy growled, shooting to his feet and leaning forward, hands splayed flat on the tabletop. “Don’t expect me to apologize for tracking down your ass. You didn’t leave me much choice, seeing as how you decided to go incommunicado on us. Did you think we’d stop worrying about you just because we couldn’t reach you anymore?”

“So you beam down to find me!” Kirk replied angrily. “You don’t drive for twenty-eight hours straight trying to track me down.”

“We couldn’t do that!” McCoy shot back. “We couldn’t let Westervliet find out what we’re up to. He wants to take the Enterprise, Jim! We needed you to come back!”

“Who says I want to, Bones?” Kirk exclaimed, shocking McCoy into silence. The younger man’s shoulders slumped a little. “Who says I want to?” he repeated softly as he rubbed a hand over his face.

The silence that fell over the little kitchen was thick and filled with tension. McCoy could tell that his mouth was gaping, but he couldn’t bring himself to care as he stared with wide eyes at Kirk. The young man stared back at him for a moment, a mix of disbelief, concern, and exhaustion on his face.

Then Kirk looked away, and McCoy felt his throat clog up. “Jim…”

“I’m going for a hike,” Kirk declared tersely, moving toward the screen door. “I’ll be back later.”

McCoy took a step forward. “Jim, wait.”

Kirk paused in the doorway, one hand grasping the doorframe. “There’s some juice and fruit in the fridge if you want,” he muttered, and then he was gone.

McCoy stared blankly at the now-empty doorway, still trying to comprehend what had just happened. Jim Kirk, not wanting to be captain of the Enterprise?

How the hell had it come to this?

He took a step backwards, and something rattled on the table when his hip collided with the corner of the tabletop. He glanced down to see the plate of barely-eaten eggs and bacon. His stomach churned, but not with hunger, as he slowly sat back down. With a sigh, he picked up his fork and began to eat again. The eggs had begun to cool and congeal already, and they tasted a little too salty, but McCoy ate everything on his plate. He kept glancing back at the screen door, half expecting Kirk to bounce back in and proclaim that everything had been a joke and he wanted to beam up to the ship right this minute.

The silence in the small cabin was nearly deafening.

McCoy waited half an hour after finished eating before he finally got up to clean the dishes Kirk had left in the sink. The water was cold, so he drained it and refilled it, staring absentmindedly out the window while he waited for the sink to fill. The small backyard was quickly swallowed by the thick forest beyond it. The sun was a few hours past its zenith, and the long shadows it cast through the trees gave the forest a dark, foreboding look.

For a brief moment, McCoy panicked. Worst-case scenarios of Kirk getting lost, getting attacked by an animal, or falling down some cliff flashed through his mind. He took a step toward the door before he stopped, berating himself for being so jumpy. Kirk had already been here for a few days; he’d more than likely been all over the mountainside already. If there was one thing McCoy knew about Kirk, it was that the younger man had an endless amount of curiosity. He was always on the look out for new and exciting things.

Except… now it seemed he wasn’t.

McCoy had no idea how to handle that. For as long as they had known each other, Kirk had always been the one eager to go into space. Neither of them had much of a reason to stay on Earth, but McCoy had always preferred to keep his feet planted on solid ground.

Yet here they were, McCoy wanting nothing more than to get back to work on a floating tin can and Kirk the one reluctant to return to space. McCoy could have laughed at the irony if it didn’t make him so uneasy.

When he’d been following Kirk’s tracks, he’d been worried that he wouldn’t find the younger man in time to bring him back. Now, McCoy worried that he wouldn’t be able to bring him back at all.

McCoy finished washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen. He grabbed an orange from the antique refrigerator, eyeing the package of steak sitting on the second shelf. It had been awhile since he’d cooked anything, but grilling steak had always been one of his specialties. He stared at the package for a moment longer before shutting the door.

He tossed the orange lightly in one hand as he moved from the kitchen to the adjacent living room. There was one long sofa and two small recliners circled around the fireplace. A huge bookshelf sat against one wall, filled from floor to ceiling with honest-to-God books. Not that the doctor was surprised--Kirk had always had a stash of old paperbacks hidden away in his room during their time at the Academy.

McCoy perused the ancient volumes for awhile, pulling a few off the shelves to flip through them before placing them back in their rightful spots. Many of the bindings were well-worn, and some of the pages had stains on them, but all of them were still legible. The books themselves seemed to be in pretty good shape, if not a little dusty.

He finally settled on a thin western novel and stretched out on the sofa. Propping the book between his legs, he started peeling the orange as he read. Reading about murders and mysteries and the occasional shootouts sounded a lot less stressful than thinking about real-life murders and massacres and messed up best friends.

*****

McCoy finished two Louis L’Amour novels and was just finishing up the steaks when Kirk finally returned.

“Honey, I’m home!” he joked as he walked in the door. “Glad to see you pulling your weight, Bones.”

McCoy snorted, not bothering to look up as he pulled the steaks out of the oven. “I haven’t had a decent steak in years. Didn’t want to risk the chance of you screwing up.”

He knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as it left his mouth, and he could sense Kirk stiffen up across the room. “Gee, thanks,” Kirk muttered on his breath.

McCoy suppressed a frustrated sigh as he set the pan on top of the stove and closed the oven door. Two months ago, that kind of comment would never have been an issue. “Damn it, Jim, that’s not what I--” He paused when he turned and looked at his friend. “What happened to your face?”

Kirk raised a hand to brush at the scratches near his right eye, and McCoy’s frown deepened when he saw only skin on the tips of the fingers; they looked strange with no nails. “I had a close encounter with a tree,” the younger man said nonchalantly.

“Looks like you nearly poked an eye out,” McCoy grumbled as he moved to get a closer look, his doctor instincts swinging into full gear. Kirk stood silently for a moment as McCoy grabbed his chin and turned his face to get better lighting to see the marks. The scratches weren’t deep, but they were long. One trailed down his forehead and crossed his cheekbone, and when Kirk blinked McCoy saw a small scratch on the eyelid that connected the mark. The scratches were an angry red color, and McCoy could see the tell-tale signs of infection beginning to form in a couple of them. “I’ve got a med kit out in my bike. You hurt anywhere else?”

“I’m fine,” Kirk replied, jerking his head out of McCoy’s grasp. He kept his eyes averted as McCoy stared at him for a long moment.

“I’ll be right back, then,” the doctor declared finally, striding past Kirk and out the door. He kicked a rock in frustration, watching as it bounced across the ground before disappearing into the dark undergrowth at the base of the trees. The sky hadn’t completely darkened yet, but the sun had disappeared behind the mountains awhile ago. The air had cooled significantly, and overhead the first stars were just starting to appear. He moved quickly to the bike, lifting the seat to access the small storage space underneath. He grabbed his med kit and let the seat fall back into place as he jogged back toward the cabin.

The table was set when he reentered the kitchen, and Kirk was just pulling a couple of bottles of Bud classic out of the fridge. The younger man sighed a little when he saw the kit in McCoy’s hand. “Can’t that wait until after dinner? I’m hungry!”

McCoy rolled his eyes instinctively. “It’ll take two minutes, you baby,” he replied, setting the kit down on the table and pulling out the small dermal regenerator. After a second’s hesitation, he pulled out a small packet of painkillers and held it out. “Here.”

“Bones, I’m--”

“You’ve got a headache, Jim, I can tell,” McCoy interrupted. “So unless you want to be jabbed in the neck with a hypo, take these.”

Kirk’s lips twitched into a brief smile for a moment as he grabbed the packet from McCoy’s hand. McCoy gave a small nod of satisfaction and activated the regenerator while Kirk dry-swallowed the pills.

“By the way--where’d you get that bike?” Kirk asked as McCoy dabbed the scratches with a cotton pad soaked in disinfectant. The captain flinched away instinctively from the sting of the alcohol.

“Hold still,” McCoy admonished, placing his free hand on top of Kirk’s head to keep it still. “Picked it up from some dockyard worker in Riverside. Why?” he asked, forehead wrinkling in confusion as Kirk started laughing. “What’s so funny?”

“That was my bike,” Kirk replied. “Built it from scratch. I gave it away the day I joined up with Starfleet.”

McCoy blinked and pursed his lips in surprise. “If that’s your roundabout way of asking to have it back, the answer’s no,” he declared flatly.

Kirk smirked a little. “I thought you hated motorcycles.”

“I do,” McCoy replied as he finished cleaning the last of the scratches. He tossed the cotton pad in the nearby trashcan. “They’re death traps on wheels.”

“And yet you drove halfway across the country on one,” Kirk pointed out. His smirk widened. Typically it was a look that drove McCoy nuts because it meant Kirk was actively trying to annoy him; he’d never been more relieved to see it on the younger man’s face. “Admit it--you loved it,” Kirk added.

McCoy rolled his eyes. “Yes, Jim. I enjoy nothing more than having wind drying out my eyeballs and sitting in a seat that’s designed to throw my lower back permanently out of alignment,” he said in a deadpan tone. Kirk’s smirk turned into a knowing grin, but instead of being annoyed like he usually was, McCoy was relieved to know that Kirk had seen through his lie. It was a sign that his friend was really getting better.

Besides, it hadn’t been a very good lie, anyway. McCoy was still stiffer than he’d ever been in his life, but he had no plans on getting rid of the bike anytime soon, even if he wasn’t going to be around to drive it much.

“Now shut up and hold still if you want me to patch you up without permanently joining your eyelids,” McCoy finished. Kirk pantomimed zipping his lips shut and leaned against the edge of the counter. McCoy barely resisted rolling his eyes again; instead, he activated the dermal regenerator and got to work.

The tension in the air was the lowest it had been in weeks, and for the first time in a long time, McCoy felt relaxed as he worked. The scratches were healed within minutes. The only sign they’d ever been there was the lighter-colored pink lines of new skin, but McCoy knew from experience that it would fade to the regular skin tone in less than an hour.

“Alright, I’m done,” McCoy declared as he packed up his med kit. “You’ve got to be the only person I know who can go out on a peaceful hike and come back injured.”

Kirk smirked again. “Keeps life interesting, though.”

McCoy’s grip on his med kit tightened for a moment when he remembered how catatonic Kirk had been just weeks before. “Yeah,” he muttered, swallowing hard when his voice cracked. “Interesting.”

And just like that, the tension was back. There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment before they both started moving; McCoy set the med kit out of the way while Kirk grabbed the beers off the counter and brought them to the table.

They ate in silence for several minutes before Kirk finally asked, “Have you had a chance to see Joanna yet?”

McCoy shook his head. “She and Jocelyn are on some worldwide tour.”

“I’m sorry, Bones. That sucks.”

McCoy shrugged a shoulder. “I wasn’t planning on shore leave for another four months. It’s not like I expected them to change their plans last-minute, especially with Jocelyn being the way she is. Besides,” he added after just a moment’s hesitation, looking Kirk in the eyes, “she’s not the only family I’ve got to keep an eye on.”

Kirk flushed a little as he grabbed the bottle of beer in front of him and took a drink. He lowered it back to the table, then picked it up again and stared intently at it as he twirled the bottle between his fingers. “I don’t know if I can go back, Bones,” he confessed so quietly that the doctor almost missed it.

McCoy stared at the younger man for a long moment, eyebrows furrowed in concentration as he studied his friend. Kirk kept his gaze focused on the beer bottle as he picked at the label with his thumbnail. “C’mon,” the CMO finally growled, rising to his feet and grabbing Kirk’s arm.

Kirk looked up in confusion. “Bones, what--”

“Jim, just shut up and come with me,” McCoy interrupted, tightening his grip on Kirk’s arm slightly as he guided his friend around the kitchen table and out the door.

The night air was cool and crisp. McCoy felt goose bumps rise on his skin, but said nothing as he released Kirk’s arm and plopped down on the grass in front of the cabin. “What are you doing?” Kirk asked as McCoy laid flat on the ground, crossing his ankles and resting his head on one hand.

“Taking advantage of the location,” McCoy replied, pointing with his free hand at the millions of stars twinkling in the sky. The atmosphere was thinner this high up the mountain, and the lack of cities nearby meant there was no light pollution to drown out the soft glow of the stars.

Kirk’s lips twitched a little as he stretched out on the grass next to his friend. “This never used to be your kind of thing,” he pointed out. “You always hated looking at space.”

McCoy snorted. “Who said the only habits I picked up from you were bad ones?”

“You did. After that mission near Risa.”

A cool breeze drifted over them, and McCoy suppressed a shiver. “Maybe I was right. We might catch pneumonia at this rate,” he muttered under his breath.

“Mmmm,” Kirk hummed in contentment as he stared up at the stars. McCoy smiled, letting his shoulders relax a little. He hadn’t realized until this evening just how much he’d missed this kind of banter with Kirk.

They stared at the sky in silence for awhile. McCoy followed the flight path of a satellite until it disappeared from sight behind the Bridgers. “Bones? Why are we out here?” Kirk asked.

McCoy twisted his head slightly so he could glance over at his friend. Kirk was still looking up at the sky, and McCoy could see bits of starlight reflecting off his eyes. The doctor turned his own gaze back to the stars. “Remember how you used to drag me out to our hill any time I started second-guessing my decision to sign up with Starfleet?”

“Bones--”

“You’d make me stare up at the sky and tell me every myth related to every single constellation,” McCoy continued, ignoring Kirk when he tried to break in. “Not to mention all the myths from a slew of different alien races. I still don’t know which ones are actual myths and which ones you made up.”

“I know what you’re--”

“It worked, you know,” McCoy finished. It was true; he wasn’t exactly sure when it happened. But somewhere along the way, space stopped being a place McCoy was sure he would get lost in; now, it was a place he wanted to travel through, even if he still hated ships, shuttlecrafts, transportation, and anything remotely related to flying.

Kirk sighed through his nose. “Bones…”

“You can’t honestly tell me you don’t want to go back,” McCoy declared, twisting his head to look at Kirk. “That’s what you’ve always dreamed about, Jim! Exploring space, getting a close up view of all the stars in Orion’s belt, orbiting Polaris…you talked about it so much it made me crazy enough to want to do it, too. So don’t give me any bullshit about not wanting to be in space anymore.”

Kirk kept his eyes glued to the sky. “I want to, Bones,” he whispered after a long moment. “I just don’t think I can.”

McCoy blinked. “What? What do you mean?”

“It follows me everywhere.”

What follows you?”

In the faint light of the stars, McCoy saw the corner of Kirk’s mouth twist in a bitter smirk. “Chaos. Destruction. Death. All of it, Bones. Everywhere I go.”

McCoy’s fist clenched in the grass. “Jim, you can’t--”

Kirk thrust an arm in the air and pointed. McCoy twisted his head to look in the direction Kirk was pointing. “There? That’s where the Kelvin was destroyed.” Kirk shifted his arm slightly and pointed at another area of the sky. “That’s Tarsus IV.” The arm shifted again. “There’s where Vulcan used to be.” Kirk moved his arm once more and was quiet for a long moment. “Wertus I,” he whispered, leaving his hand in the air for another moment before letting it fall back to the grass.

McCoy swallowed as a heavy silence enveloped them. “Jim…”

“It’s like a curse. I can’t get away from it, Bones,” Kirk whispered, voice thick. “And next time, it might not be some random colonist that I just met. It might be Chekov. Or Scotty or Uhura. Or you. It might be the entire Enterprise, and I just… I can’t do it, Bones. I can’t let that happen.”

“You’re not cursed, Jim.”

Kirk’s chuckle came out more as a strangled sob. “Sure seems like it. Everywhere I go, people die. It might not be my fault, but that doesn’t change the fact that everyone around me dies.”

“That’s because you throw yourself headfirst into dangerous situations, Jim,” McCoy replied firmly. “You face down the challenges no one else can.”

“What good does it do if everyone dies?” Kirk asked bitterly. “If I accomplish the mission but destroy lives and spread chaos in the meantime, what good is any of it? Because that’s what happens around me, Bones. That’s what happens when I let people get too close.”

McCoy scowled. He raised his arm and pointed. “That’s where a father gave his life for his family because he knew his son was worth dying for.” He shifted his arm and spoke before Kirk could interject. “That’s where an innocent child escaped a madman that slaughtered four thousand people without due cause.” His hand moved once more. “That’s where another madman nearly annihilated an entire race, and would’ve wiped out the entire Federation if not for a crazy kid who might not always know what he’s doing but who’s damn good at what he does.” He hesitated for a moment before moving his hand again. “And that’s where the Romulans broke the treaty, nearly killed the best captain Starfleet’s ever had, and unofficially declared war on the Federation,” he finished, lowering his arm and tilting his head to look at his friend.

“Bones…”

“Jim,” McCoy said sternly. “It wasn’t your fault. There was absolutely nothing you could have done to stop any of it.”

“But if I hadn’t been there--”

“If you weren’t near Vulcan, the Enterprise would have been destroyed the moment we dropped out of warp and Nero would’ve wiped out Earth and every other Federation planet,” McCoy interjected. “And if you weren’t near Wertus I, Starfleet never would have known that the Romulans had breached the treaty.”

“Damn it, Bones, you have to listen to me! I can never go back!” Kirk exclaimed, scrambling to his feet and glaring down at the doctor. “There’s too much risk having me around.”

“I’m pretty sure Spock can prove you wrong,” McCoy replied as he rolled over and pushed himself to his feet. “You might be reckless, sure, but you’re smart, Jim. You don’t back down from a challenge because, in case you haven’t noticed, you’re always able to find a way out of it. Hell, Kid, I’m pretty sure you’re the safest captain to serve under in all of Starfleet. Everyone knows it, too--that’s why they all want to transfer over. Uhura told me there’s three hundred people on a waiting list for an assignment on the Enterprise.”

Kirk stared at him, a muscle working in his jaw as his eyebrows furrowed in thought. “But… Bones, I don’t--”

“Look, Jim,” McCoy cut in gently, laying a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “One way or the other, the Enterprise is going back out on its mission. The crew’s going to be in danger whether you’re there or not. Are you going to let them go through that alone? Do you honestly think you’ll feel better if you’re down here while we’re up there?”

They stared at each other for a long moment before Kirk’s shoulders slumped. The doctor was sure the younger man was about to say something, but instead Kirk sat down and stretched out on the grass again. McCoy had to resist the urge to sigh as he laid back down on the ground next to Kirk.

Silence fell over them again as they looked back up at the stars. “You knew about Tarsus,” Kirk murmured after awhile. “My mom tell you that?”

McCoy nodded. “You should’ve told me about it a long time ago, though,” he added. “Even if I weren’t your friend, it’s still information that a captain’s CMO should know.”

Kirk shifted a little on the grass. “I thought I was over it. Been there, done that, and all that crap,” he replied softly. “I didn’t think it really mattered anymore.”

“Well, I can’t speak from experience, but I would bet my medical license that no one can ever completely get over something like that,” McCoy said, keeping his tone carefully neutral.

“Who else knows?”

McCoy scowled, turning his head to glare at the younger man. “Jim, if you honestly think people would question--”

“It’s not the questions I’m worried about,” Kirk interrupted, propping himself up on an elbow. “I don’t need anyone’s pity, Bones. What happened on Tarsus was horrible beyond words, but it’s done. Over. In the past. I got out and moved on. I don’t need anyone feeling sorry for me about something they can’t change.”

McCoy studied Kirk for a moment. “Fair enough,” he relented. “I did tell Spock. I doubt he’ll tell anyone else without your permission because that’s how he is, and I don’t plan on spreading it around, either.”

The corner of Kirk’s mouth lifted in a small smile. “Thanks,” he murmured, lying flat on the grass again.

They silently watched the stars for a few minutes. McCoy’s eyes followed the path of a shooting star as it streaked across the sky, flaring in the sky for a moment before fading away into the night. “How did you escape?” he asked.

“From Tarsus or the Romulans?” Kirk countered after a moment.

“Yes,” McCoy replied, his lips twitching into a faint smirk.

Kirk snorted but didn’t reply for awhile. “The Romulans kept me on their ship, not all that far from the Neutral Zone. After a couple days, they figured I couldn’t escape, and the guards got sloppy,” he said finally. “They didn’t tighten the restraints around my wrists as tight as they could go.”

McCoy scowled when he remembered the deep abrasions on Kirk’s wrists and hands; the marks would have scarred without a dermal regenerator. “They were tight enough,” he growled.

Kirk sighed through his nose. “I finally managed to get a hand loose. Once I had that free, I was able to slide the chain through the loop holding it to the wall. I choked one guard out with the chain and used the nerve pinch on the other.” He paused. “I never did thank Spock for teaching me that move.”

“I didn’t think that move would work on a Romulan or a Vulcan because of their physiological differences,” McCoy commented, raising an eyebrow.

“You’ve got to squeeze a little higher on their shoulders, but they still have the same cluster of nerves there,” Kirk replied. “Anyway, I managed to get to their transporter without too many problems, and you know the rest.”

“And Tarsus?”

Kirk was silent for a moment. “We haven’t had enough alcohol for that yet.”

McCoy nodded once and let that subject go for the moment, chewing his lip and frowning a little as a thought crossed his mind. “It’s been more than a week, Jim.”

Kirk wasn’t thrown off by the non sequitur. “I know.”

“So tell me the truth, Jim,” McCoy prodded, staring at Kirk’s profile. “How are you?”

Kirk folded his hands across his stomach and sighed. “Better,” he murmured. “Not great. But better than before.”

McCoy nodded and smiled a bit. Some progress was much better than no progress at all; it gave McCoy hope that, in time, things would get back to their version of normal.

In the meantime, there were other pressing problems to deal with. “Did Spock tell you about Westervliet?”

Kirk nodded. “The message notifying everyone about the change in plans was sent out this morning. The Etlics’ diplomatic party should arrive tomorrow afternoon.”

“And?” McCoy prompted after Kirk didn’t continue.

Kirk rolled onto his side to look at McCoy. “And… you’re right,” he declared. “I would go nuts if you and Spock and Sulu and everyone else were up there and I was stuck down here.” He grinned when McCoy started smiling. “So I guess that means I’ve got to have a little chat with the Council tomorrow.”

“I’ll go in with you.”

“No,” Kirk replied with a shake of his head, shifting so he was sitting cross-legged on the grass. McCoy’s forehead furrowed in confusion as he moved to mirror Kirk’s position. “If I’m going to get my ship back, I need to face them alone. They have to believe I can do this on my own.”

“And can you?” McCoy asked.

“No,” Kirk replied bluntly. His lips curved in a smile. “But then, I’ve never needed to in these last nine months. I doubt you guys are going to let me start now.”

McCoy smirked. “Damn straight, Kid,” he declared. “So… what’s your plan?”

“The crew’s supposed to report back to the ship at oh-nine-hundred hours,” Kirk said. “In the morning, I’ll have Spock beam you aboard and me to San Francisco. If everything works out, I should be able to be onboard the ship at ten-hundred.” The corner of his mouth lifted. “We can keep our bikes stored here in the shed--for next shore leave.”

“How do you know the Council’s going to be available then?”McCoy asked. “Don’t they need at least twenty-four hours notice for a meeting?”

Kirk smiled ruefully. “Pike sent me a message this morning telling me the Council would be waiting for me then,” he admitted. “Guess he figured you’d be able to persuade me in time to make it.”

“Do I ever make you do anything you don’t want to?” McCoy pointed out.

Kirk grinned. “Studying for tests, taking bi-monthly physicals, eating vegetables,” he listed, ticking each one off on his fingers. “And that’s only the tip of the iceberg, Bones.” McCoy rolled his eyes as Kirk stood. Kirk’s expression sobered. “So… we good?” he asked, holding out his hand.

McCoy smiled and grabbed the proffered hand. Kirk’s grip was warm and firm as he tugged the doctor to his feet. “Yeah,” McCoy declared with a nod. “We’re good.”

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