Disclaimer: I do not own Star Trek or any of its characters. I'm simply writing this for fun, not profit.
Having the living shit kicked out of him isn't new. It happens at least twice a week on Bones' watch. When Bones isn't around, he likes to think that he toes the line a little better, that he watches his steps and leaves a slightly less chaotic mess in his wake (he doesn't always succeed, but Bones understands, now, the inert drive that he has which inevitably propels him into the heart of any dangerous situation).
No. He's used to that. He'd gladly accept a good beating in return for a hostage. It's worth it to save an innocent life, to spare a family and spare a person from the ordeal of dying. Pike always accused him of being reckless and incompetent, not fully understanding the human lives that he was 'toying' with. To hell with that. His father went to his grave defending human life, risking his own to spare those of his crew, and if there was anything Jim could do to stop bloodshed, he would.
It was worth it. Families are grateful. Fathers and mothers alike look at him with this - air of respect, he likes to think of it, an innate knowing and relief at what has almost been lost. He has preserved the living. It is a mighty task but he also likes to believe that he is a warrior in some regards, largely equipped and adequately trained to deal with such scenarios.
It doesn't come easily to him, sometimes, dealing with families. Even the grateful, the living don't often know what to say when he hands them their son or daughter with a smile and a nod and a promise to look after his ship a little better. The dead are worse, though. The dead are always worse.
Because if the living are quiet, the dead are silent.
He can feel the silence now, the harsh rattle of his own breath echoing in the airtight chamber. Soon, he knows, he'll run out of oxygen: those harsh, barely there breaths will disappear once all his magnificent organs eat up the remaining oxygen and convert it into unusable toxins. He doesn't want to think about his lungs ceasing to function, his heart stopping. It's such a morbid concept, that the clinging, the living, the eternally, unequivocably fragile among them can be so easily snuffed out. He's not a candle. He's got to have at least nine lives on him.
He has to.
With each laboring breath he draws in, fire singes his lungs. It isn't real fire - Bones would probably applaud him for coming up with a first-grade level metaphor and actually deducting its metaphorical value - but it's close. It burns and it aches and it stings, and he can almost feel the tissues desperately attempt to quench the flames, breathing deeply where no air exists and less harshly as he exhales and the ashes sear.
He wonders if this is what it feels like to be inside a bombshell. The initial blast was certainly strong enough to knock him off his feet, the concussive force of it leaving his ears ringing. He tries to focus long enough on the hot (searing, scorching, lethal) steel in front of him to crawl out of the main chamber. He's never aspired to become a kebab, contrary to Pike's constant threats that if he didn't learn to actually captain his bloody ship he'd end up one, like it or not (God he misses Pike, the lovable bastard).
It takes him - a while, he thinks, but he can't actually know because his ears are still ringing and time is elusive in this chamber of silence, time is like a fabric that he can quite keep a grip on as it slips between his fingers (Aren't you proud, Bones, I'm finally using metaphors, someone get a camera). It's there and it's real and it's passing, but he can't hold or mark its passage, so he lets it, lets it slip away slowly, softly, dreading the end of the rope.
Don't be stupid, he tells himself, because it's easier to be brave than scared sometimes. Spock'll get you out, hard-headed bastard that he is.
Spock always has a solution. He's Vulcan, Vulcans live, breathe, and meditate every Goddamn solution to the universe's problems. Jim just so happens to be a universal anomaly, capable of tilting the balance astronomically against his favor on a regular basis (which, consequently, means he wins big a lot more than most people, too; logic, Spock, I thought you liked that stuff?).
His own breath mists in front of him. He takes a moment to collect himself, remind himself that it's just your eyes, it's just your eyes, Jim, you're dying of radiation poisoning, there is no Goddamn smoke.
One moment he's alone and quiet and terrified, his own life wheezing out of him, and the next - footsteps, frantic, sharp, terrified, his fingers flexing feebly in a fist. Spock. Thank God.
He doesn't know if he actually believes in God anymore. It's a consoling thought to think God has deemed him worthy enough to send a rescuer to.
Spock'll sort this out, everything will - everything will be fine.
He looks down at his hands, already blotchy, and feels the gentle, tremulous rise and fall of his chest, and knows, abruptly, the truth.
Spock can't fix this.
Spock isn't God, either.
Spock crouches next to him - he doesn't know why he knows it but he knows, even before he's mustered the strength in his weakening muscles to tilt his head and look at him.
And for the first time in James Tiberius Kirk's life, Spock looks terrified.
God, Spock, it's okay, he wants to say, because there's just - it's wrong for Spock to be afraid, it's wrong for him to be upset because Spock's never upset, Spock doesn't even flinch when the statistical failure of a mission exceeds the likelihood of success ten million to one. Spock's logical. Spock makes rational, calculated decisions without even quirking one of his Goddamn eyebrows.
But Spock is looking at him now, and he can almost hear that bloody Vulcan brain whirring, calculating, calculating, re-calculating. Each injury is analyzed - got a cracked rib for you, Spock, clocked that bastard in the face with a stun gun and he kicked the shit out of me just like your improbable calculations said he wouldn't - each possibility documented.
And when at last it all coalesces - barely a second later, a breath, a heart beat - he sees it.
Despair, Spock. That's what you're feeling. It's an emotion reserved for humans during times of intense and unbearable grief. It's an emotion we use when we don't know how to cope with our losses. It's something that we can't hide from and lock away in a neat little box like you Vulcans do, Spock, we can't compartmentalize our emotions. It's a combination of fear, pain, and loss.
He wonders what it must be like to grow up not knowing how to even process emotions as emotions. Not a fancy philosophical understanding and analysis of the fluctuation of chemicals based on irrational situations. Real, hard, painful emotions. Emotions you can't escape and can't hide from, emotions that exceed rationality and inexplicably control it.
We live because we fear death, Spock. We fight because we love, we seek because we are curious. That's all there is to it.
Spock doesn't speak for a long time. He doesn't, either, because he can't, because his stupid, weak, fragile body isn't dying in a blaze of glory at all. He's dying bathed in radioactive chemicals, burning up slowly from the inside out, suffocating and crackling and roasting.
It's less painful to experience it as a whole, to accept it as a whole, than it is to try and evaluate each death. Thousands of little deaths around his body as his organs fight, fight so hard for life, even knowing that it will slip away, slowly, so slowly, so gently.
He swallows and his throat clicks, unable to ignore the intense, sudden, uncontrollable urge not to be alone.
I don't want to die alone, he thinks, quietly, because even coherent thoughts are - difficult. He listens to Spock, he does, and he … he's comforted by it. It's not enough, it's not nearly enough, because Spock, I'm dying, please, please help me, Spock, don't leave me alone to die here, I don't want to die.
"You want to know why I went after you?" he rasps, and he can feel it, now, he can feel the silence creeping in, his own panting, huffing breath thinning. Don't be afraid, he tells himself, because he can barely see and he doesn't want to die like this, he never wanted to die but here he is.
"Because you're my friend," Spock says in his wavering, soft, logical tone, tears coursing down his cheeks.
He holds up his hand, then, because he doesn't know how much longer he'll have the strength to do so and it's no less terrifying but somehow more inevitable that he's dying, and inevitability makes the young wise. Even as his heart slowly, quietly dies, he can't help but press his fingers to the glass (burned fingers, raw fingers, and in that minuscule sensitive portion of his mind he's screaming) and stare as Spock's own hand appears on the opposite side.
It's a human presence, then, a tentative light in the dark, a promise, a consolation. I cannot save you. But I will be with you.
Then, fingers shifting and forming into two smooth, unbroken lines: Live long and prosper.
Jim mirrors it, his slow, painful fingers cooperating one last time. You, too, Spock. You, too.
Then his fingers curl, just the slightest twitch, and Spock's curl in response.
I need you, he thinks, breathes, as his breath turns to deeper wheezes, inaudible and heavy, weighing down on him, crushing thelife out of him.
And as Spock stares at him, stares and cries, he can feel the I've got you.
And when his last, shuddering breath slips out of him -
Jim doesn't die alone.