Well, here it is! Thank you all so much for your kind words and alerts on this story. This part was a lot tougher to write, for multiple reasons, but I think everything that I wanted to say was said.
The same warnings apply to this chapter-prepare for some heavy angst!
Jim said it even before opening his eyes. The world materialized and his mind sharpened as the sedative slipped quietly away. When he finally managed to crack his eyelids open, Bones was bustling about at the bedside monitors. It was an eerily similar sight to what Jim had woken up to the first time since dying; except now, he realized, the wheel was rolling backward.
Bones didn't even look up from his work. "What was that?"
"You heard me," Jim said. "It's sort unfair, the advantage you wield with those things."
The doctor turned back and pressed an instrument to Jim's chest. "If you're referring to the sedative I gave you, it was damn well necessary. You're gonna kill yourself with those panic attacks." A vacuum opened the moment the words came out of his mouth, but there was no taking them back. Bones paused in his movements briefly, every muscle perfectly still, then turned sharply to the side and away. The silence stretched out tightly—an awkward that had never existed between the two. Jim swallowed.
"Is there anything you can do?" he asked finally.
Bones' next words were careful, heavy. "I tried a few things while you were out. Tests, theories…" He arranged some instruments on a side table methodically, compulsively. "I couldn't find…anything."
The defeat and utter helplessness in his voice scared Jim most of all.
"Khan's blood?" Jim offered. He wondered briefly what that would be like: living his life month by month on vials of another man's blood.
The doctor shook his head. "No chance. You're immune to it now. Like…having chicken pox." He paused. "I'll keep trying, though, Jim. You know I will. I won't give up on you."
Something in Jim's heart knew, though, that it was a false hope. He licked his too-dry lips. Had it only been a few hours ago that he'd been reading peacefully in the afternoon sun?
"You're…you're sure that this is happening? It's not just some fluke?"
Bones kept his back turned. His voice was low, harsh. "You saw the tribble."
Jim quieted. "I'm better than a tribble, though, aren't I? Bones?"
At long last Bones turned around, and his eyes were heavier than Jim had ever seen them. He attempted a smile, running a hand once playfully through Jim's hair. "Of course, kid."
But, coupled with the sadness in the doctor's eyes, the words felt hollow.
Uhura, surprisingly, was the first to visit. Of course, most of the bridge crew—Jim's friends—had stopped by at least briefly during his recovery. But now, in light of recent developments, he was sharply aware of the new atmosphere. There might as well have been a ticking bomb in the center of his room, a tangible force that repelled people from the terrifying descent of failing health.
So, naturally, Jim was surprised to see someone other than Bones or Spock walk through the doors one afternoon. Uhura's ponytail swung left to right as she stepped into the room, and Jim smiled at the bit of familiarity amidst the crumbling world.
"Hey, stranger," he said, flashing one of his trademark smiles that always annoyed Bones so much. Uhura responded with a hesitant smile of her own.
"Hey," she said. She looked around the room, swallowing. "Where's Doctor McCoy?"
Flapping his hand in front of his face, Jim made an impassive noise. "You know him, always running around doing more than he should. He's off doing tests or something." He looked at the ceiling with a wry smile. "It was actually kind of nice having him off of my back for once."
Being alone was not a new concept to Jim Kirk; but he knew, in a part of him he refused to address at the moment, that very soon he would never be alone. Very soon, he knew, Bones—and perhaps Spock as well—would not be leaving his side for an instant.
He pushed that thought away again.
"What's that?" he asked, eager for once to draw attention from himself.
Still at the door, Uhura looked down at the bundle in her arms and shifted it awkwardly. "Oh. You know; I was just doing some baking at my apartment, and I thought…I thought you might want a little something."
Glancing once more at Jim, she pulled up Spock's usual chair and unwrapped the bundle. Immediately the smell hit Jim. After so long breathing in the stale scent of disinfectant, the sweetness made his mouth water immediately.
"Cookies?" he asked eagerly, sitting up in bed. "And not from a replicator?"
Finally a true smile broke across Uhura's features. "I knew you'd be reduced to a small child as soon as you saw them."
"You know me too well," he said. He reached out and grabbed one of the cookies without another word and began devouring it as Uhura shifted in her seat.
Finally, after Jim had finished one cookie and was reaching for a second, the Lieutenant spoke hesitantly. "How are you feeling?"
Ah, the dreaded question.
"Cheeky," Jim replied with a wink.
A ghost of a smile crossed Uhura's features, but Jim knew instantly that he wouldn't be getting off so easily. Knowing what was coming, he set his cookie sadly to the side.
"You're not…hurting, are you?" The question was hesitant, uncomfortable, a tone of not knowing quite what to ask a sick person.
Jim swallowed. In truth, it was coming back—the headaches, the body pain, the weakness—and his stomach tightened with fear whenever he felt the symptoms returning.
Instead of answering, he stared straight at the ceiling.
"Sorry," Uhura said, backtracking quickly. "I know you probably don't want to talk about all of this."
Jim considered this. Bones had been slowly upping his morphine, despite his protests, and the drug seemed to make all of his thoughts sticky. Jumbled.
Finally he asked the only question he could think of. "How's Spock doing?"
He didn't look at Uhura as she spoke, but he could sense the sudden tension in her body. "We haven't talked much, to be honest," she admitted. "He's withdrawn. If he's not working, he's here. Or in meditation."
Pause. "Make sure he takes care of himself, okay?"
"I'll do my best."
Gaze focused ahead, Jim nodded sharply. "He'll be a great Captain. You have no reason to worry."
"Worry?" Uhura said sharply. Jim turned his head and met Uhura's flustered, disbelieving expression. "Jim, you do understand that this isn't about the Enterprise? This is about our family. Don't you realize how much it's killing all of us, having to sit here and watch you deteriorate before our eyes? Me and Spock and Scotty—we've seen it already." She shook her head. "Don't you realize that everyone around you is affected by you dying?"
"I already did once," he snapped. "Why's this any different?"
"Because we had hope," Uhura retorted. "We thought we had you back. Now…we just have to watch."
Jim pushed past the fiery knot that had suddenly sprung up in his throat to speak. "It's okay to be scared, Uhura."
Then, without provocation, Uhura did something he could never have expected: she rose from her chair, bent closer, and kissed him softly on the cheek.
"I know," she said, "and I hope you do too."
As it turned out, Uhura's cookies did not bode well for his compromised system.
Bones was there within seconds after the retching began, despite the late hour. He helped clean up the half-asleep Captain and adjusted a few of the monitors wordlessly, grumbling to himself as usual. The prick of an IV in Jim's arm elicited an indignant yelp.
"No more solid foods for you," was all Bones said.
Jim looked sideways at the plate of remaining cookies dolefully. It was irrational, he supposed, but he wished silently that he could have tasted them one more time.
There was no denying it now; Jim was deteriorating quickly.
The days passed dizzyingly to Bones, like a continuous bad dream that fluttered through terrors one by one with increasing potency. In times like these, he cursed his medical license. He envied Spock, who sat at Jim's bedside and played chess, picking up the pieces as the Captain's arm became weaker and weaker.
Bones envied him, because those chess games were the last of the Vulcan's responsibilities to Jim. They were the only thing left that could be given.
Bones, on the other hand, felt the weight of Jim's condition with such force that it crushed the breath from him. He monitored the vitals, upped the morphine levels bit by bit, cleaned up the messes, but he couldn't shake the nagging feeling that he should be doing something. He was a doctor, dammit—what was the point of his training if he could do nothing but watch his friend die?
And what was the point of the universe allowing him to bring back his friend at all, if he would be tormented now by the weight of this new failure?
"I've let you down, Jim," he confessed quietly one night, grasping a sleeping Jim's hand gently. "God, I'm so sorry."
There was a part of him, a part of him that was so selfish he would never acknowledge it, that wished Jim Kirk had stayed dead.
Jim dreamed of the beach.
Growing up in Iowa, surrounded by golden corn and an infinite sky, he'd never actually been to a beach. He'd read about them, sure, in some of his school reading material, but visiting one had never seemed important. Or feasible, for that matter.
But he saw the beach now, clear as a photograph.
The sun was setting, and the waves lapped slowly. He trod barefoot on the still-warm sand and felt his feet sink softly with each step. He made it through the velvet dry sand and kept walking until he hit the water line, where he paused to take in the sight.
This, too, was infinite. Yet, he felt that if he just reached far enough, perhaps the horizon was not so far away after all.
As he stood, a wave rolled up to meet him with the gentle shhh of the sea. It swelled up, curling fresh and bright around his toes, the light sparkling and the coolness of it seeping through his skin; then, just as the water crested, it faded away.
A week and a half into the Captain's decline, Bones rose from his sleepless state at a muffled sound from the other room. Every noise, however small, was now cause for investigation.
He wasn't expecting what he found.
Curled in on himself in the dark, Jim was shaking. One arm was stuck out awkwardly to accommodate the IV, the pale skin mottled now by bruises, while the other was wrapped loosely around his stomach. After a moment, Bones realized what the sound had been.
Jim was crying. In that instant, his body trembled violently once more—a hollow, deep sob that rose up from his stomach.
Bones' face crumpled, and he bridged the distance between the door and the bed in less than a second.
"What hurts?" he said, placing a hand on each of Jim's shoulders. "What hurts?"
Jim didn't say anything. He didn't have to. Bones knew, and he understood.
The Captain lay prone—he was no longer capable of sitting upright for long periods of time—and stared up at the ceiling. His eyes were glazed, unfocused, a result of the gas pumping through his system. Spock eyed the plastic piece that covered Jim's mouth and nose. Of course, he knew theoretically the effects of the crude administration of nitrous oxide: the feeling of lightness through the body, a tingling sensation, disjointedness, muted pain and anxiety. However, despite all of his scientific background knowledge, he still felt an unsettling disconnect from the man lying a few feet from him.
Bones emptied the contents of a final hypospray into Jim's arm, then swiped the mask from the Captain's face. "Well, that's enough of that. Your head should start to clear up in a few seconds."
Jim blinked a few times, the dazed look in his eyes slowly fading. "Jeez, Bones, I never thought I'd convince you to let me do drugs under your supervision."
The doctor scoffed. "Maybe if you hadn't insisted on bringing down your morphine levels, I wouldn't have needed to calm you down so fast."
"Right," Jim said. Spock could tell by the slight tightening of Jim's muscles that the drug was already almost out of his system. "I think you just wanted to see me high."
With an exaggerated exhale, Bones turned away to put away his equipment.
Two weeks since the initial decline. Spock had counted each hour of each day with extreme precision, unable to turn off the part of his brain that projected the probable remaining life of his Captain. Things had, undeniably, taken a turn for the worse. Jim, fed up with a constant state of drowsiness, had managed to wheedle Bones into lowering his morphine. However, the radiation poisoning was now back with a vengeance. Pain levels spiked unpredictably, twice now eliciting the beginnings of panic attacks from the ever-defiant Jim.
This one had happened in the middle of a chess game.
"C'mon, Spock. One more game."
Jim reached a hand out feebly, but Spock continued to pack up the rest of the pieces. "I must insist, Captain," he said. "You are not well."
"He's right, you know," Bones said. "You need to rest." The doctor looked up at Spock. "I need to pick up a few things. You alright staying here for a bit?"
The question, Spock thought, was illogical. He and the doctor had kept a constant vigil in Jim's room for three days now, only pausing for brief periods of rest. Bones now looked just as haggard, or more so, as he had in the days following Khan's transfusion.
By now, Bones could practically read the Vulcan's thoughts. He nodded. "I won't be gone long." The truth in his statement was painfully obvious.
As Bones vacated the room, Jim frowned at Spock. "You know, you're going to be no fun when you're Captain."
Spock paused briefly in his clean-up of the chess game, but it was clear that the jibe was not rooted in hostility.
Here he was, finally beginning to understand the nuances of human sarcasm, just as the one who had taught him to be human was slipping away.
And suddenly he was hit with such a tidal wave of emotion that his hands began to shake.
All he could think of was the sheer number of chess games that would go un-played.
"Spock? I was kidding, you know."
The Vulcan looked up to meet Jim's gaze, blinking furiously in an attempt to put his emotional walls back up.
"I'm sorry, Jim," he said quietly.
"For what?" Jim retorted. "For being human? Spock, promise me something; promise me you'll never apologize for actually feeling something."
"I will consider it," Spock said dryly, relishing Jim's smirk. "But I am also sorry...on your behalf." He softened. "Nobody deserves this less than you, Jim."
At this, Jim heaved a sigh. As he turned his head, Spock could see the droplets of sweat on his forehead, and with a twinge the Vulcan realized just how hard his friend was fighting—on their behalf. "I'm sorry, too," the Captain said, "but there's nothing more to be done. I'm through, Spock. Giving my life to save others? Not the worst way to go." He turned now to meet Spock's eyes again. "But this isn't about me anymore. That's why...I'm sorry. That I couldn't do more."
The Vulcan swallowed. "You've done more than enough. Though I do find myself...unsure of how to proceed."
Jim released another sigh, this time less tightly, and blinked heavily. Spock noted, now, how remarkably weary he looked.
"All I ask is that you continue performing admirably," Jim said.
Spock nodded minutely at the excruciatingly-familiar words. "Yes, Captain." After a moment, he added, "Are you feeling well?"
The other man sagged into his pillows. "Just…tired." His head lolled to the side in exhaustion, and he stretched one arm out toward Spock. The Vulcan hesitated a moment, then extended his own hand to take Jim's. Jim squeezed his fingers weakly.
They remained that way, Jim's tremor-filled hand grasping Spock's fingers, until the Captain ultimately drifted to sleep; and Spock, engulfed in the murmurs of the hospital equipment, kept his hold long after that.
Bones knew the time had come even before the medical readouts gave an indication. He knew his best friend too well.
His heart broke as a cough ripped through Jim's body.
"Bones," he croaked.
"I know, kid," Bones said, clutching the other man's warm hand. He looked up at Spock. This is it.
Jim blinked rapidly a few times, seemingly unable to focus. "Can we go outside?"
"What?" The request startled Bones at first, but then he realized: Jim had felt fresh air in more than a month. "I can't—"
"Yeah, I know you can't keep me hooked up to all this anymore," Jim said with a limp hand gesture. "Screw it. Don't want my last memory to be a hospital room." He paused, eventually managing a shadow of his trademark quirked smile. "Come on, Bonesy. Be a rebel."
Bones considered this for a few moments. Jim would fade faster if he was taken off of the machines, but the doctor knew, in the recesses of his heart, that it would be a selfish act to keep the Captain there.
Finally, shaking his head, he stood and began disengaging the machines. "You little shit. Breaking the rules until the end." As he slid the IV from Jim's arm, he looked up at Spock. "Get me a hoverchair, will you?"
Spock complied instantly, disappearing into a back room. As Bones finished his work, Jim caught his wrist. "Thank you, Bones." The sincerity in those blue eyes caught Bones off guard. It was a simple phrase, but the layers of meaning were not lost.
He softened. "Always, Jim."
A few seconds later Spock returned with the hoverchair, and between the three of them they managed to maneuver Jim into the seat. Thankfully, it was the middle of the night, and there were hardly any people in the hallways as they proceeded. The few nurses that they did pass nodded respectfully, and Jim did his best to nod back.
At last they reached their destination—the terrace on the roof of the hospital. The night was chill, but not overtly so. Once they reached the edge of the terrace, Bones fondly tucked a blanket around Jim's shoulders. It was perhaps an unnecessary gesture, as the Captain was now burning up, but the protective instinct was not yet lost.
"It's a great view," Jim said. "You did good."
Again, the double meaning lingered in the night air. Bones ruffled Jim's sweaty hair as he used to in their Academy days. "I do what I can." His hand fell to Jim's shoulder, and he saw that, opposite, Spock's hand now rested on the arm of the chair. It would have made a fine picture, Bones thought.
"Look at it," Jim said. His voice was growing alarmingly faint. "The stars."
Bones looked up, too, and for the first time saw what Jim was seeing. Above them, the galaxies spread out infinitely, each star just one token in the glittering canvas. Bones glanced down at Jim. The Captain was mesmerized, the limitless lights reflected in his eyes. Bones looked back up again.
He didn't know when he started to cry. The tears came silently.
"You both have so many stories to live out there," Jim said warmly. "So many." He closed his eyes. "Take care of her." The Enterprise. Of course. "And take care of each other."
After a brief, heavy quiet, Spock cleared his throat. "It will be an honor, Jim, as it was an honor caring for you."
A minute of silence.
Perhaps the universe had provided Jim one last great mirage, a hallucination or delusion in a sick man's mind—he sat in his chair with his friends on either side, and the stars pressed around them, and the soft trilling of midnight life could almost echo the sounds of a great starship. His voice was thin with his illusion, but he spoke once more, at peace.
"Steady as she goes."
Is it safe to come out and face you all?
Sorry for the bucketful of angst, but in my mind the end was always going to be sad. If you'd like, you can imagine that Jim miraculously recovered from this point, but this is the story I wanted to tell.
Above all, I hope the story turned out alright! Please let me know what you thought, and maybe anything you'd like to see next! I'm not sure what I'll be working on.
Bonus points if you can identify the two lines from classic Trek (one is fairly obvious, the other more obscure) or where the title comes from!
Till next time, loves,