Notes: Sixth in the Keeping Love series, after 'The Independent Men.' If you haven't read 'The Independent Men' (and preferably 'The Split' before that too) then this will make absolutely no sense. I also boiled down the events of the movie a lot. Like, a lot. Much less manly heroics for a start. If this was the movie, it would have been about fifteen minutes long. It also probably has just as many plotholes but unlike Abrahms, I don't get paid so...yeah.
Disclaimer: I do not own Star Trek 2009, and I make no profit from this work.
Kirk was nervous.
He couldn't explain it, but he was. Something had dropped out of the bottom of his stomach with that report - "...a distress signal from Vulcan..." - and had stayed away ever since, and he couldn't pin it down. There was no reason to be nervous. The distress signal could be anything; Vulcans were famously cautious, and had called on the Federation in the past for backup when really they could protect themselves. And the Federation was especially attuned to asking, "How high?" whenever the Vulcans said, "Jump." Politics had kept them centralised and safe ever since humans had achieved warp, and there was no reason to be nervous.
But he was.
His transmitters weren't telling him anything, merely a flurry of confirmations from various ships on the open channels, most of them closer to Vulcan than they were. He had sent out their own confirmation of orders, as well as their status on engines. They'd blown the tertiary starboard thrusters a week before and Pike was giving the engineering crew ten minutes to shut down that part of the bay and evacuate, in case it blew a fuse during warp. (And something the size of a large military hospital 'blowing a fuse' was definitely something to stay away from.)
So Kirk had ten minutes to sit and...be nervous.
He couldn't explain it. He just felt antsy, in a way he never really did about missions. He wasn't the nervous type; he'd have had a breakdown and dropped out of the service by now if he was. He fucked a Vulcan on a regular basis, for God's sake - he was not a nervous man. But in that ten-minute gap, during which he kept meticulous track of which ships had transmitted confirmations, and the rattle of subspace as, one by one, they all jumped to warp and their communications channels went mad, he felt edgy.
He half-turned to see Pike frowning at him from the chair and he shook his head. "Just got a bad feeling, sir."
"So do I," Sulu chipped in, which was even more surprising. Sulu was famously sceptical of intuition, and Pike frowned.
"Why?" he asked, and Sulu shrugged.
"Just do. I don't like this," he said.
"Me neither," Kirk agreed. "It just feels...there's something off, sir, but I can't put my finger on it. Why would Vulcan request the entire fleet?"
But it wasn't even that. He didn't know that the Vulcans had, for a start - Starfleet HQ had sent the orders, direct from the admiralty, not from Vulcan or even the Vulcan Embassies in San Francisco, Singapore, Canberra or Berlin.
"It feels," Sulu said suddenly, "like we're going over the top, sir."
'Going over the top' was an ancient phrase referring to war, where soldiers were ordered to engage in warfare that would result in their deaths with a 99% certainty rate. 'Going over the top' had become common in military slang for a suicide mission that nobody wanted to call a suicide mission - and those were more common in Starfleet than anybody liked to admit.
Pike's face tightened. "Anything coming..."
Kirk's console burst to life and he swung back to it, frowning when a recorded message threw itself up onto his screens rather than a live transmission. A knot formed in his stomach. "We've just received a recorded message from the Hellenica, sir."
The viewscreen crackled to life, and showed fire. Lieutenant Uhura's ash-smudged face filled the screen, and she was talking a mile a minute, obviously just throwing information out there. "This is an emergency transmission to all receiving Federation ships en route to Vulcan. I repeat, this is an emergency transmission. Do not - repeat, do not - come within sensory range of Vulcan. Vulcan is under attack; I repeat, Vulcan is under attack. There is a ship of unknown origin, manned by Romulan personnel. It appears to be a mining vessel. It has..."
Something exploded harshly in the background, and the light from electrical fires cast an almost manic light to her eyes.
"...mining vessel of some description. We have tallied five ships destroyed - unconfirmed destructions of the Yorktown, the Davenport, the Londonderry, the Wren, and the Artemis. The Hellenica is on emergency systems and evacuating. We have all been attacked by the same ship; its firepower is too great for the constellation-class. I repeat: do not come within range of Vulcan. We estimate the attackers to have a firing range of ninety units; do not cross within ninety units..."
There were voices and she threw a glance over her shoulder, still talking over the sound of somebody screaming.
"...remain ninety units clear!" she snapped. "This is the USS Hellenica on evacuation and emergency procedure. I am transmitting our black box recordings to the USS Kaplakov..."
Sulu cursed under his breath. Black box recordings were only transmitted once it was known that a ship was about to be destroyed, and it was known that the last readings would be valuable to other ships. There hadn't been a black box transmission in years, even if collecting the boxes themselves from the debris left over from a destroyed ship was still mandatory.
"...Lieutenant, we have to leave! That is an order!" a man's voice was shouting.
Commander Choi stood rigid and frozen at Kirk's side as they watched Uhura glance back once more, and reach up for the transmission switches.
"I am broadcasting to every Federation ship. Do not come within ninety units. Vulcan is under attack. The threat is Romulan," she stressed, and then the recording ended and the screen went dark without feed from Kirk's console.
"Bridge to engineering," Pike said calmly. "I trust that the starboard thrusters are closed off?"
"Yessir, we're ready to go."
"Good," Pike said coolly. "Kirk, get confirmations from the rest of the fleet on the limit of ninety units."
A unit was the firing range of the first armed, warp-capable shuttles to leave Tellar Prime, and had been adopted across the fleet. It really wasn't that far - Tellarites were argumentative, but not violent, and had really had substandard weapons until they began to properly trade with other races. A small Starfleet transport shuttle had a range of five units at minimum, and the Enterprise had a range of seventy-nine units. Romulan vessels, as far as Kirk knew, had a maximum range of seventy units, not ninety. In fact, he didn't know of anything with a range of ninety units.
"Sulu, I want you to drop us out of warp one hundred units from Vulcan. Choi, Kirk; go to long-range sensors. Kirk, I want you to get confirmation and location tags on every ship out there; we're going to need backup for this."
A chorus of muted 'yessirs' met his orders, and Pike leaned back, the lines in his face suddenly tight with grim professionalism.
"Punch it, Mr. Sulu."
They dropped out of warp a hundred units short of Vulcan. The planet filled the viewscreen, a dusty tumble of red and gold rock that burned in the light of its sun - and lurked in the shadow of a massive dark shape hovering over it.
"Jesus," Sulu breathed.
The ship was huge. It outstripped the Enterprise; Kirk was willing to bet money that it outstripped the size of your average starbase. It was definitely bigger than the last space station he'd visited. It was a huge, hulking monster of a ship, surrounded by a cloud of debris that made Kirk feel faintly sick. It looked like a baby planet being born, all rough edges and points and dusty clouds; it looked like death.
Kirk's console began to slowly fill with the stuttered stops of transmissions in both Vulcan and Romulan, and he turned away from the sight slowly, like a man tearing horrified but fixated eyes from a bloody train wreck. The transmissions were weak and stuttering, some kind of jammer attempting to interfere with them but not entirely succeeding. The Tellarites (of course) had developed new communication systems to avoid standard Romulan jamming boards, and the Vulcans had eagerly traded the knowledge with them. Whatever this ship was, or whoever had made it, they had some version of a Romulan blocker.
"I'm picking up Vulcan transmissions on the other side of the planet," Kirk reported into the silence that had fallen over the bridge. "I'm getting signatures from both the Shi'Kar and the T'Karath."
"Both registered to the Vulcan colony at Daramos?" Pike mused, and nodded. "Alright, so whatever this thing is doing, Uhura was serious about Vulcan evacuations."
"Yes, sir," Kirk said, frowning at the Romulan readouts.
"Sir, my readings aren't making any sense," Choi complained. "When I'm comparing the ship's dimensions and features to the database, it keeps trying to tell that it's some kind of Romulan mining ship - but that is not a Romulan mining ship!"
It certainly wasn't. It looked, Kirk faintly decided, like an oversized and ridiculous hairclip that had been in fashion amongst the female cadets when he'd been in his final year at the Academy. They had been enormous pointy claw-like device, used to clip enormous bundles of hair to the head, and were downright ugly. Romulan mining ships did not look like oddly-shaped and dubiously-designed hairpins; they looked like Vulcan mining ships. That was to say, they looked like shoeboxes with an engine crudely taped to the back.
"Some of the technology is...bizarre, sir," Choi continued. "I've never seen readouts like these before. There's definitely something alien about this."
"The Romulan's a little odd as well," Kirk reported. "It's...almost as if it's a different dialect, but...it's too close for the Romulan dialects to Standard Romulan to be..."
"Sir," Choi interrupted, standing back from her console and going slightly pale. "I've got a manufacturing signature, but..."
"But?" Pike prompted. He'd kept his gaze firmly fixed on the ship for the entire time, frowning at it as though picking at a puzzle.
"It's from Romulus," Choi said, "but it's also not been built yet."
"What?" Pike snapped.
"The origin of date on the signature is quite clear, sir. That thing is supposedly built over a hundred years from now," Choi said, and the bridge crew stared at the hairclip-ship in shocked silence for a moment.
"Bullshit," Sulu said eventually.
"Lieutenant Sulu, you learn very quickly in this job that anything is possible," Pike said grimly. "It explains the technological superiority; the Romulans just don't have that kind of firepower right now."
"I'll tell you what else they don't have," Sulu said suddenly. "A ship that size in comparison to us? We're like piranhas attacking a whale. If we armed the torpedoes and had a lot of ships attacking at once - and moving at once - then they're going to be in trouble."
"Uhura said they've destroyed five ships," Kirk argued. "Six if you count the Hellenica." He felt simultaneous flares of sick fear, and sick pride for not having stuttered over the name.
"But they won't have attacked at once," Sulu argued, turning entirely to stare Kirk down. "They would have come from different places and dropped out of warp at different times. I bet you anything the Hellenica got there while another ship was being attacked - that's why Uhura had the time to send out a warning. If multiple ships attacked at once, and kept moving, then..."
That was the crux of it. This ship being bigger than them was...well, it was a shock. Starfleet produced the largest armed ships of the Federation members, and the nearest competitor were the new Romulan battle cruisers - which were still physically smaller. Starfleet ships were just big; as such, 'Fleet pilots often dropped into the habit of essentially standing ground when fired upon. Fancy flying was a thing of the past for officers on constellation-class ships. The shuttles weren't designed for it, and the ships themselves were too big to out-manoeuvre their smaller attackers.
But with this thing, that status quo was quite effectively turned around.
"I don't think it can manoeuvre right now, sir," Choi added, glowering intently at her scanners. "It looks to be...I think it's drilling into the surface of Vulcan."
"Drilling?" Kirk blinked. "What would it...?"
"Make a hole, drop explosives, boom," Pike muttered. "If it's got the firepower to take out six Starfleet ships and not take a scratch, then I wouldn't put it past them to have the firepower for that."
The sick feeling was growing in the pit of Kirk's stomach.
"And we can't help with evacuation if it's there," Sulu said quietly.
They were right; the transporters wouldn't work over such a distance. The transporter range was nowhere close to the firing range of the Enterprise; Hell, they couldn't even transport between warping ships yet. They would have to be much closer - and they couldn't be.
"The Laurence and the Mayflower just dropped out of warp off the port side, sir," Kirk reported into the lull.
"Good," Pike said. "How many are expected?"
"The Einstein, the Hua, the Rutherford and the Washington all acknowledged Uhura's warning," Kirk said. "The Yaxley acknowledged but they're an unarmed search-and-rescue ship, sir, so they won't be able to assist in combat."
"But they can assist in evacuation. Are they coming?"
"Yes sir, they jumped to warp ten minutes ago."
"Then if we get the Romulans distracted enough with us, the Yaxley can inch closer and start evacuating, or drawing out the pods. Choi, any number on drifting escape pods?"
"Can't read for them over the debris, sir," Choi shook her head. "I tried that already. I'm getting scrambled signals for at least ten pods from the Yorktown and the Hellenica, but whatever blocking system that ship's got up, it's good enough to mess around with things."
"Confirmed," Kirk agreed. "It's not up to par against the new Tellarite systems, but it's good enough. The pods weren't fitted with those systems, sir, it was considered a waste of time."
Pike looked very much like he wanted to swear.
"Why haven't they destroyed the pods?" Sulu asked, frowning. "All of that debris is in range; why haven't they...?"
"They're not interested," Pike said. "Look at us. They can see us, they can probably hear us, they know we're here. But they're not interested in us; they want Vulcan. As long as we don't get in the way, we're none of their concern."
"The Hua just dropped out of warp."
"Alright, then," Pike leaned back. "Kirk, go to red alert and open a ship-wide channel."
"This is Captain Pike. I want all crew members at battle stations, and all science personnel rerouted to secondary battle specialisms. I want shutdown activated in all science labs, and the medical bay cleared for casualties. This is going to be bumpy, so any and all loose belongings should be shut away immediately. The tertiary starboard thrusters are still off-limits to all personnel."
The sirens began to wail and the emergency lighting came up as the Kirk opened channels to the other waiting ships and Pike began to broadcast to them as well.
"This is Captain Pike of the USS Enterprise. The threat to Vulcan appears to be Romulan, and has destroyed six ships. I am recommending a joint assault, with mobile piloting; the ship is too large to manoeuvre well against us, and appears to be in a geostationary orbit above Vulcan. Please confirm."
There was a crackle of static, before low, equally grim confirmations began to float back from the other ships. Nothing like seeing the debris remaining from over twelve hundred personnel floating across your viewscreen to gain an agreement to go to war - and a lone voice spoke out over the feeds.
"This is Captain Donovan of the USS Laurence. We're a much smaller ship than yours, Pike; may I recommend that we go after the drill and stop whatever it is they're doing to Vulcan?"
"If you have the chance, certainly, but we have no idea how much of a distraction this is going to prove. Proceed with caution, Donovan."
"No problem, Chris."
The line died, and Pike sat up, steel written into the set of his spine.
Suddenly, Kirk understood Sulu's reputation as the best pilot under fifty in the fleet.
The line-up of ships darted forward as though they were minnows in a stream, fanning out as they approached the Romulan aggressor to provide smaller targets. The Enterprise and the Hua were the largest of the ships, and yet Sulu was handling her as though she were no bigger than the transport pods in the shuttle bay.
"Cling to your seats, everyone," he advised.
The Romulan fired; it looked like a heavier version of a photon torpedo, and shot towards the Laurence as its chosen target. A moment later, to Kirk's surprise, the Hua opened phaser fire and blew the torpedo out of space, shattering it before it hit its target.
"Keep up that tactic," Pike said, and then: "Sulu, fire everything."
Their readings were scrambled and ineffective; they had no idea what they were hitting, but they were hitting it. Sulu and Lieutenant Larsson ignored the phasers in favour of the heavier photon torpedoes, launching a string into the underbelly of the ship before veering away from Romulan fire and letting the Hua once again take out the enemy torpedoes with phaser fire. Whoever had the helm knew his shit, and the Federation ships fell into tactical manoeuvres as easily as if they had sat around the table and discussed them first.
The Laurence took the first direct hit, as she dropped to attack the drill that plummeted into Vulcan's thin atmosphere. A torpedo ploughed into their hull, tearing great plates from the dish and ripping through their shielding as if it was nothing - and yet the ship kept going, dropping down into the Vulcan atmosphere further than was strictly advisable, throwing their entire ammunitions supply at the drill plate.
"Sir, the Yaxley just dropped out of warp and is headed around the other side of Vulcan to assist in evacuation."
A moment later, the Brittannia also arrived - a warship even in Starfleet's terms, and usually assigned to patrolling the border of Cardassian space. She opened no communication, simply dropping into the battle without a murmur and shadowing the Hua as she began to launch heavy fire of her own torpedoes.
The battle was hardly one-sided; if it was a mining ship, it was an incredibly well-armed one, firing out torpedoes at every one of the Federation ships almost casually, and flowing their movements without actually moving. But they were slower; the torpedoes were targeted, but slow enough to be struck by well-aimed phaser fire and destroyed, and they apparently couldn't predict the movements of the Federation ships well enough to fire ahead of their positions.
The Enterprise took her first hit shortly after the Laurence, and cries of alarm went up over the communications array.
"Deck six!" Kirk said, and swore. "The supply units on Deck Six are compromised. Casualty reports already coming in."
She was hit again, and Choi went faintly green as the ship rattled like a child's plaything, and then plummeted as Sulu took her into a sharp dive to avoid follow-up fire. Kirk was clinging to his console for balance, shouting for medical teams to Deck Six and maintenance to prevent fire damage.
"Kirk, try and open a channel to the Romulan ship!"
"I'm trying, sir, but they're refusing our hails!"
Another torpedo tore into the plate of the ship, and the alarms went off as the emergency lighting came up.
"We've lost the secondary starboard thrusters," Choi said.
A dull thump echoed through the ship as another round of torpedoes was fired, and the bridge twisted violently again as Sulu began to bring her around. Kirk's list was beginning to fill with complaints from engineering about the rough handling of such a large ship - the Enterprise was not designed for these manoeuvres, after all - but he bypassed them, focussing instead on the reports coming in from the other ships. The Laurence was bearing the brunt of the attacks, still focussing on the drill as she was, and the Britannia's presence was apparently enough of a threat to warrant the rest of the Romulan fire on her.
The Hua, with whichever helmsman it was performing such good phaser technique on the Romulan torpedoes, and the Enterprise were both left relatively undamaged.
Whatever the Romulans had in mind for Vulcan, it was more important, apparently, than not being destroyed. The Einstein and the Rutherford were both entirely undamaged, and yet both wreaking havoc as they passed back and forth over the Romulan ship. They had lighter torpedoes than the Enterprise, but better phasers, and small plumes of light broke up from where they finally began to pierce the Romulan hull.
Then two things happened at once.
The Laurence exploded in a fireball of red and gold death in Vulcan's upper atmosphere; at the same time, the massive drill broke free from its chains and dropped down into the crater below it and out of sight. Without the drill, the Romulans were free to move; without the drill, Vulcan was a little safer.
Then something dropped from the ship, and Kirk's communicators went wild.
"This is Captain Wu of the Britannia! Retreat! I am ordering a full scale retreat! The Romulans have deployed a heavy-duty explosive; I am ordering a full-scale retreat!"
Captain Wu was quite possibly the most respected Captain in the fleet, and Pike didn't hesitate. "Sulu, get us out of here!" he barked.
The engines groan and the ship shuddered as Sulu peeled her away from the hull of the Romulan ship and flung them into retreat, achieving that shuddering stage between high impulse speed and low warp that no ship larger than a shuttlecraft liked. Kirk's readouts began to hiss under the strain as the message was bounced across all the ships, including the Vulcan rescue ships, and a mass retreat began. The Vulcans were declaring something else, and Kirk sounded the words out to himself before swearing.
"The Vulcans are saying something about an antimatter implosion!"
"Shit!" Choi swore. They all knew what that meant. Antimatter implosions, if big enough, could cause black holes.
Quite suddenly, the drill made sense.
There was an almost anticlimatic pause, in which every ship essentially fled the scene and the Romulan ship...did not. It simply said, surrounded by debris and chaos, calmly waiting for, waiting for...
Soundlessly, the engines began to shriek under some immense pressure, and Kirk watched in fixated horror as the surface of Vulcan began to ripple.
It was breaking up, breaking down, collapsing inward on itself like some macabre, poorly-done special effect in a movie, crumpling silently in on itself in the blackness of space, tearing itself into immeasurably small pieces, sucking that cloud of once-Starfleet debris and bodies and floating escape pods with it in a steady, streaking plume of grey, and the eventual shudder that ran through the damaged Romulan hull until it, too, began to lose shape and was pulled, torn asunder, into...
The engines screamed and the ship jumped forward as they crossed the event horizon.
"Dear sweet Jesus," Larsson breathed.
Where Vulcan had been, there was...nothing.
And Kirk's communications array went silent.
Pike appeared at his shoulder, speaking his name quietly in the hush of flurried activity that had fallen over the bridge. The mass retreat from Vulcan had caused more losses of life, and rescue efforts were hampered by the black hole lurking too close for anyone's comfort. Two of Vulcan's sister planets, including T'Kuht, had been sucked into the hole alongside the Romulan ship and billions of living people. Many of the ships carried evacuated Vulcans, but not enough, never enough, and the pods from the destroyed Federation ships...
They were gone.
Kirk hadn't left his console for thirteen hours.
"Kirk," Pike laid a hand on his shoulder. "Jim. You're off-duty. Let Lieutenant Williams take over."
"I need to stay here, sir," Kirk said firmly. "We're recruiting assistance from all of the Vulcan colonies; the Academy staff and cadets above second year have been mobilised into the new prototypes, and..."
"And you need to stand down," Pike said, equally firmly. "You've been on-shift for thirteen hours, Jim. You're headed for collapse. Stand down."
Kirk stiffened, eyes staring blankly at the menus before him. A growing list of the Starfleet missing hovered before him. Over two thousand names currently hovered in limbo.
"Stand down, Jim," Pike said. "Go back to your quarters and get some rest. We're going to need all hands on deck for the next God-knows-how-long, and I can't have my best communications officer in Sickbay from collapse."
"Yes sir," Kirk breathed quietly.
He moved from the seat numbly. He didn't really register the journey to his quarters, every step reverberating up his legs and into his spine, shaking him out from the inside. By the time he reached his quarters, he was shaking, rattling down to the bone, and he kept going, walking on until he hit the sleeping section within, empty and silent and oh God, Spock...
He didn't cry. He was too raw, the adrenalin scraping him out and leaving him empty. His chest yawned, open wide and straining, for the man to come back and fill it again, to quirk an eyebrow and ask whether this was some strange new human way of coping with disaster and loss - his chest ached for Spock, his stomach turning and rebelling against the very thought, the very idea that...
But it was true. It was all true.
He was gone. He was gone; the Hellenica was gone, the escape pods were gone, he was gone, and even if Kirk didn't cry, everything inside from his hair to his toenails screamed at the loss. What now? Empty days without him, empty years, years left to live without him, without a single word, what had those last words been?
He had kept some of Spock's things when he'd left - snuck them out of the boxes and spirited them away to keep, and now he reached for the meditation robe that sat folded on a mat in the corner, still smelling of incense and spice, but cold, cold like he would be, always cold because he would never be warm again...
Kirk slept, exhausted, wrapped around a cold, empty meditation robe, his nose filled with the smell of old incense and his mind bleeding from the inside out.
He was gone.
Pike called an emergency command meeting the next morning.
Kirk was not the only one torn out from the inside and raw with agony. Choi looked half a step from a breakdown, and Larsson, whose wife had been on the Yorktown, had been excused entirely after collapsing in Sickbay. And none of them would hold a candle to any Vulcan survivors.
The thought did not make Kirk feel any better.
"Current estimates," Pike launched right in, "are that there are around thirty thousand Vulcans that evacuated in time, and another ten to twenty thousand off-world regardless. The Yaxley and the Rutherford both managed to rescue large numbers from the surface during their efforts. The Vulcans in turn took continuous readings of their attackers, and so have managed to give us excellent detail on what the hell that thing was supposed to be."
Choi spoke up, her voice hoarse but firm. "Do they confirm the dating issue?"
"Yes," Pike said flatly. "We don't know how, but the Vulcans got the same impression that you did, Commander. The Romulan ship was from the future, it seems. Regardless, it's gone and we have to concentrate on rescue and re-establishing the Vulcan survivors somewhere else. This system is obviously unfit for colonisation now, thanks to that black hole..."
"How did they know?" Kirk interrupted, still staring vacantly at the table. "How...?"
Pike almost smirked. "The Vulcans have apparently been keeping quiet about their own technology, probably in light of the negotiations with the Tellarites. They knew there was antimatter present, and worked out what it was for; they had ordered the retreat o the evacuation ships before they ever told us. That's how so many survived."
"But our own people..." Choi began.
"Are nothing compared to Vulcan," Kirk whispered. His throat hurt.
"Jim's right. They had their priorities, and we can't blame them for it. What we can do now is handle what we've been left with. The fleet is regrouping to count and log the survivors, and...record our own losses," he added delicately. "We have witnessed the decimation of an entire species, and a serious blow to the Federation, to Starfleet, and to ourselves."
Choi rose sharply and walked out. Pike let her go.
"Dismissed," he said quietly. "Kirk."
"Come here," Pike said, rising to his feet. When Kirk was in reach, he reached out and squeezed his shoulder hard. "You'll be getting a commendation for your conduct yesterday. You performed outstandingly; I could not, and I will not, ask for more."
"I guess any question of compromise is over, huh?" Kirk quipped, and felt the hot burn in his throat.
"I guess so," Pike agreed quietly. "Don't give up hope yet, Kirk. We haven't got a tally. Eighteen people were rescued from the Yorktown pods by the Yaxley. The Hellenica crew might not all be lost."
Kirk shook his head. "With all due respect, sir, shut up."
"Alright," Pike agreed quietly. "You're off-duty for the next twenty-four hours. I want you to take that time for yourself, Jim. You've earned it, and you deserve it. And if you need anything, you know where to find me."
"Thank you," Kirk breathed, digging the heel of his hand into his eye. "I just...I need some time. I need some time."
"Then you've got it."
Only time, when he returned to those lonely, lonely quarters, was the last thing he wanted. Time to feel the emptiness pressing in from all sides, and the weight of loss and grief and anger, anger at whoever on Romulus - past or present or future - had ordered that, and sorrow. It ate into his brain and lungs and heart and even his stomach, clutching at everything and twisting them up and leaving him sick with emotion, sick with horror, sick and alone.
McCoy came by that evening, with sedatives and that warm hug that even smelled warm, the warmth that fathers seemed to give off, and the stability of a man used to treating torture. He didn't say much - or at least, nothing of value. He murmured nothings into Kirk's hair, and held him through the shaking, and let him finally, finally cry into his medical blues, sobbing until he thought his throat would explode out of his neck and kill him, and wouldn't that be merciful?
"You just let it all out, kid," McCoy said at once point, holding him tight and close and secure, and Kirk wanted to cry harder at needing that comfort in the first place. "Just let go. Let go. It'll be alright. It'll be alright in the end. I got you, kid, I got you."
"He's gone. He's gone, he's gone, he's gone!" Kirk's voice rose into a wail, and then he was screaming into McCoy's shirt, screaming and screaming and screaming until his lungs ached and his throat howled and his eyes burned. Even his face hurt, from the angry hiss of his sinuses about his nose and eyes, to the ache in his jaw from endless, endless motion.
McCoy didn't hush him once.
When he had screamed himself hoarse, and sank into boneless exhaustion, McCoy gave him a light sedative and walked him through getting ready for bed, undressing him like a sick child and tucking him in as though Kirk were his small daughter. When Kirk woke again, very briefly to the sound of someone crying far away, McCoy was gone, but the smell of toast and peaches and Georgia summers lingered in the air like a tangible comfort.
He cried again then, silent heaves into a pillow that was too light from the weight of only one head, and wished, for the first time since he was about four, for someone just to come and hold him.
Kirk was torn from an uneasy, restless doze when his communicator chimed, and he groped for it blindly, not bothering to open his eyes or call up the lights. He was tired, too tired to handle more ship's business, exhausted down to the core with the shaky failure that spoke of coming down off an impressive adrenalin spike.
"Jim, get your ass down to the Sickbay," it was Pike. "The Yaxley picked up some escape pods from the Hellenica."
Kirk shot bolt upright, his weariness forgotten in a moment. The faint edges of the sedative peeled away one by one, and he was suddenly alert. "Lights, thirty percent. Is Spock...?"
"They just beamed him over, and we need you. Get down to Sickbay. Now."
Kirk arrived in Sickbay in sweatpants and a thrown-on t-shirt, ruffled and exhausted and somehow wide awake. He'd never run so fast in his entire life, not even during track in high school, and he burst into a chaotic Sickbay filled with voices and arguments and people - people in medical blues washing back and forth like a human sea around other people, some in ash-smeared, half-burned Starfleet uniforms, but mostly Vulcan people, and...
Kirk hadn't met all that many Vulcans, really - while Vulcan was wholly centralised to the Federation, with their contributions to the diplomatic corps and their ongoing scientific and mathematical genius, they were not remotely interested in Starfleet itself. They were pacifists, and Starfleet was not a pacifistic organisation, no matter how many times it espoused the Prime Directive. It was quite common for officers to go entire careers without ever meeting a Vulcan face-to-face.
But Kirk had met enough Vulcans to know that this wasn't normal.
They were a dignified, reserved, quiet species - but the Vulcans in Sickbay were silent. They were almost immobile; Kirk heard them occasionally respond to direct questions from the nurses, but some didn't even do that. They were eerily silent, most of them apparently non-functional. One or two were up and moving, speaking quietly to the doctors and each other, but even they were quiet in a way that suggested not reservations or dignity or simply having nothing to say, but shock and trauma and pain. Pain.
A hand landed on his elbow, and he jumped when he turned to find Uhura - dirty, smudged, exhausted, but alive - peering up at him.
"Oh Jim," she said, and hugged him, shockingly hard. She was warm. She was alive. "You have to go to him."
"He's alive," she said firmly. "But he's not good, Jim. You have to go to him. Come with me."
The nurses - even the doctors - were too preoccupied to notice them, and Uhura drew him across the bay to Dr. McCoy's office. When the doors hissed open, she stopped at the threshold and pushed him forward - and then Jim forget all about her.
"Spock," he breathed.
He was across the office in half a moment, flying from the door to the chair in a breathless motion and flinging his arms around the man that half-rose to greet him. The embrace was returned hard, harder than Spock had ever held him, and neither cared about the bruises as they clung to each other. Spock was breathing, his chest rising and falling in Kirk's arms, the ribs pushing against him with life, life, he was alive...
"Spock," he whispered again, and sagged, tucking his face into the side of Spock's neck and taking a long, shaking breath of his own. "Oh Spock. Oh God, thank God, you're here..."
His world was shaking - and realigning itself to familiar, safe patterns. He was not alone. Spock was not dead; Spock was not even gone. Spock was here - bruised and reeking of smoke and shaking from head to foot and silent - but he was alive, and Kirk's universe folded itself back around that fact, happy with it.
Kirk took another breath: deep and steady, and dragged up his steel from wherever it had sunk in those lost, lonely hours spent in grief.
He attempted then to ease back, to look at Spock's face, to talk to him, but Spock refused to give an inch, refused to part from Kirk an inch.
"Spock?" Kirk whispered, dragging one hand through that dark hair. It came away dark with ashes. "Spock, sweetheart, say something. Talk to me."
The Vulcan took a breath - a shallow, fast one - but he said nothing, only tightening his grip and burrowing his face into Kirk's neck.
"I'm here," Kirk said. "I'm here, I'm right here. I've got you, sweetheart, and I'm not going anywhere, I promise."
He reached back to fumble on the desk for the console, and hit the number for McCoy's pager, before returning both arms to wrap around Spock's upper body and cling to him - as much for his own comfort as Spock's. He was struggling to believe it - the grief, the agonising pain and grief, had been meaningless. He had not lost him. He had not...
"What the...ah," McCoy stepped into the room.
"He won't talk to me," Kirk said in a low voice.
"He's in severe telepathic shock," McCoy replied flatly. "They all are. Most of them aren't talking."
"What can I do?" Kirk whispered, rubbing both hands up Spock's back rhythmically, as though trying to warm him. He became faintly aware that he was rocking them on the spot.
"Just that, for the moment," McCoy said, rummaging in his desk for a tricorder before locating one and waving it over Spock almost idly. "I took some readings when they first brought him in...at least he recognises you; it's a good sign."
"Spock?" Kirk tried again, twisting his head just far enough to kiss Spock's neck. It was difficult when they were forced so tightly together. "Sweetheart, can you talk to me? Please, baby, you're worrying me now. Just say something, okay? Anything is fine."
The grip around his back shifted again, but nothing else.
"His readings are looking better," McCoy still looked grim. "Not much, but better. They're all in severe shock, Jim. They're ranging from completely unresponsive to functioning about as well as a man at his own child's funeral."
Kirk swallowed hard and began that rubbing motion with his hands again.
"Are you actually bonded?"
"Damn it," McCoy swore, and shook his head. "This is largely a telepathic problem, Jim. Vulcans are all connected telepathically - however lightly - to every other telepath they've ever met. To lose one stranger means nothing in the grand scheme of things. To lose eight or nine billion, including close family and friends..."
He shrugged helplessly.
"So, what? We just have to wait this out?"
"For the moment, yes," McCoy said flatly. "Look, try and get him down onto the bench. I'll bring you some blankets and water, and I'll pop back in every ten minutes or so until we start to get some kind of response out of him that isn't just blindly clinging to you. Try and get him talking; we can't let him retreat into his own head until he's able to understand what's happened. We've lost five to comas by letting them retreat."
"Jesus," Kirk breathed, his knees shivering for a moment before he straightened, shoring up Spock's greater weight. "Alright. Spock? Come on, sweetheart, come with me. We're going to sit down, okay? Come on."
For all that he wasn't speaking, he followed when Kirk began to walk backwards towards the low bench that ran along one wall of the office. It usually served for the ship's counsellor and his patients on the weekly sessions, but now Kirk managed, with some difficulty, to get them both seated. He propped himself up against the wall and shifted Spock until he was almost in Kirk's lap, still clinging to his upper body. When McCoy return with blankets, Kirk was whispering nothings into the dark hair against one shoulder, and paid the doctor no mind as he tucked heavy blankets around the pair of them and set a plastic cup of water on the filing cabinet at Jim's elbow.
"I'll be back in a while," McCoy murmured, and was gone before Kirk could respond.
The door hissed shut, and he turned his full attention to the (warm, alive, breathing, oh my God he's breathing) Vulcan in his arms, rubbing soothingly at the muscles of his back and arms. He attempted one to touch Spock's psi points, but left them alone after he flinched, and kept himself busy by breathing in the faint smell of burning and a warm underlay of incense from Spock's hair and attempting to rub comfort into his skin.
He edged his hands under Spock's tunic and began to rub at his bare back, and quite suddenly the tension in those powerful muscles eased. After a moment, he shifted and squirmed until he could drag his own shirt up a little and tuck Spock's hands under it to cling to his bare skin - and then he was clinging, curling into Kirk and drawing his legs up until he was curling, a heavy weight, in Kirk's lap without shame or caring.
"Jim..." he whispered, his voice cracked and broken, and Kirk's heart broke. Violently.
"I'm here," he breathed shakily. "I'm here, baby, I'm right here."
"They are...they are gone..."
"I know, sweetheart, I know, but I'm here," he whispered, beginning that odd rocking with his upper body again. "I'm right here, sweetheart, I've got you. You didn't lose me; I didn't lose you," his voice cracked then, but he kept going. "I've got you, baby, and I'm not letting you go. I'm never letting you go."
Spock shifted again, his nose finding the crook of Kirk's neck, where he buried his face and momentarily stilled, before a faint shaking began to course its way through his limbs, and a low, faint keening was torn in a long, agonised note from his throat.
"I've got you," Kirk whispered. "I've got you, I've got you, I've got you sweetheart, I've got you..."
He didn't hush him once.
The chime of the communications console pierced the light doze Kirk had let himself slip into, and he glanced at Spock's sleeping - still tense, but sleeping - face before easing free and ghosting across his quarters to answer. He had coaxed him back to his quarters after almost four hours in Sickbay, and had spent another three hours just holding onto him in the narrow bunk in Kirk's quarters, feeling him shake and whispering meaningless comforts to him, desperately trying to stabilise him.
Now he slept, but Kirk didn't know for how long.
"Jim," Pike's face flickered into being. He was, judging by the background, still in Sickbay, and he looked as tired as Kirk felt. "We have a serious problem. You need to keep an eye on Spock at all times. I'm not kidding - don't even let him go to the head unattended, you got me?"
"Why?" Kirk's spine snapped into an uncomfortably straight posture as the alarm spiked along his nerves. "What's going on?"
Pike sighed heavily. He looked suddenly old, the lines heavy in his face. "The reports are starting to creep in, and we've just had two ourselves. The Vulcan survivors are cracking under the impact. They're a telepathic race; you must know that they're all linked on a very basic level, even when they're not in contact?"
"Well, those links are gone. The trauma is immense, they're in excruciating physical pain, never mind the emotional pain they're denying..."
"Suicides, Jim," he said flatly, and Kirk's gut turned to lead, pooling heavy and horrific in his stomach. "There's been ten suicides in the last half hour across the entire rescue fleet. We thought at first that it was just those who'd lost bondmates, but the last three were unbonded. And we're losing several who've lost bondmates as well; the shock and the trauma is killing them without any need to take suicidal action."
"Oh my God," Kirk's eyes flew back to the sleeping form on the bed.
"I felt you needed to be warned," Pike said gently. "Look, Jim, the medical staff across all the rescue ships have been exchanging information, and Spock's not in the perfect demographic for it. He's got you, for a start. He's getting some emotional support; you might not be bonded, but McCoy's convinced that'll go a long way towards halting anything."
"I'm not leaving him alone," Kirk choked, still staring avidly at the bed. "H-how...how did...?"
"Mostly phaser wounds or bladed weapons," Pike said quietly, and Kirk closed his eyes, thinking of the weaponry that had once adorned the walls of Spock's quarters. They were just decorations, just artifacts...and still sharp and deadly and useful...and he didn't know if Spock had left any with the possessions that he had entrusted to Kirk before leaving for the Hellenica.
If he had...
"Thank you for warning me," Kirk croaked. "I...I have to go."
"Alright, Jim. Try and get some rest yourself. You're off-duty for the next forty-eight hours. In fact, you don't report to shift at all before talking to me."
"Thank you, sir."
Kirk cut the connection and crept back to bed, wrapping himself around the pale body there like a living blanket, curling into the sharp angles of Spock's body and burrowing into miles of skin as though he could take up residence there. He curled himself around him tightly, winding them together like strands of a frayed rope; he knew very little about how Vulcan telepathy really worked, but he hoped that the sustained contact would let Spock feel him, sense him, even in sleep - would keep him grounded and there, would remind him that he wasn't alone, that he hadn't lost everything...
If absolutely nothing else, Kirk would know if he woke up, and be woken by any attempt to leave the bed.
Kirk woke sharply when the mattress shifted, and he tightened his grip when Spock moved.
Then he blinked into dark, pained - but aware, really there - eyes and let out a long breath.
"How...how are you...?"
"I am...better than I was," Spock said quietly, not going so far as to say that he was fine. It would be an outright lie, and they both knew it.
Kirk reached for him, sinking them together and kissing him, feeling life when they connected, and the last of that coiled, terrifying fear that had hit him when the distress signal came through dissipated. "I love you," he whispered. "I thought I'd lost you; I thought you were gone. And I couldn't remember what I had last said to you."
"You said," Spock said, his fingers tracing the light layer of stubble on Kirk's jaw as though hypnotised, "that you loved me, when you signed off on our last communication."
"And I do," Kirk confirmed, pushing a kiss into his cheek. "God, I love you. And I don't care how long or what it takes, but I am sticking to you like fucking glue through this. I'm not leaving your side for a moment."
Spock began to wind his long body around Kirk's again, but not so tightly - or so desperately.
"I will..." he started, then paused.
"You will what?" Kirk coaxed, peppering the bare shoulder before him with kisses. "What?"
"I will...need you," Spock whispered, as if confessing some deep, dark secret - and Kirk hid a smile in that pale skin.
"Then I'll be right here," Kirk murmured. "Even when you don't need me anymore, I'll be right here."
Spock nodded, pushing Kirk flat almost forcefully and moving to rest his head over the deep thump of his heart.
"Remember when I said you were my world?" Kirk whispered, stroking one hand over the exposed, upswept ear. It was still smudged with ash; eventually, he mused, they would have to get themselves to a shower.
"Still my world," Kirk murmured. "No matter what. Still my world."
And his world was breathing. It was not alright - perhaps it would never be truly alright again.
But it was enough.