Jim made his way back to sickbay, and when he arrived Nurse Chapel was already waiting for him just inside the main doors.
"So sure I'd be back so soon?"
"With that arm twisted so badly I know I would be. Your wrist could be sprained; we should take a look at it right away."
"Doctor's McCoy still back there?"
Chapel nodded. "Yes, sir." A shadow passed over her face, just for a moment. "But Mr. Spock is all right, right now."
"Good…all right, let's see to this arm then."
The damage was a bit worse than even Chapel had suspected, but it was still easily fixed. Jim supposed he should be grateful for modern medical technology, but today he wasn't in the mood. It was technology that was killing his first officer.
Jim was perched on the edge of a biobed in the main ward when Bones emerged, about the time the nurse was finished with the regenerator.
"Jim? How's the arm?"
The captain shrugged and carefully stretched out the asked-after appendage. He winced. "Fine, I guess. I'm sure it'll be sore for a day or two, but I'm fine."
"A sprain and a microfracture," Chapel filled in. "Both healed now, but yes, there may be some soreness for a few days."
"Wonderful." Jim slid off the bed and approached his friend, and realized immediately as he followed the doctor back to his office that something was wrong. "Bones? Are you all right? I think that little scene in there scared all of us…"
"Understatement," McCoy growled. "For a minute there I thought they were going to kill you. Now we know they're trying to kill Spock."
"I'm fine, Bones, and we're not going to let anyone…kill Spock, either." He'd hesitated. He'd almost said 'hurt' but he couldn't say that, now could he? Spock had already been hurt quite a bit and there was nothing he'd been able to do about it. He could do nothing about what might happen over the next two days, either. Before they reached their destination.
McCoy was shaking his head, sinking into his desk chair. "I know that." He didn't say anything else, and he looked miserable. Jim felt miserable, so he knew what that was like. But this seemed like something else.
"Bones, what is it?"
The doctor didn't answer at first, and Jim took the seat across from him and tried to look him in the eye. He avoided it.
Finally McCoy let out a breath, and his gaze came up enough that Jim realized his friend's eyes weren't entirely dry. "I spend all that time teasing him about being Vulcan…telling him he should learn how to be a little more human. I'm joking, but I'm not. I always figured it'd be better if he stopped fighting himself at least little. If he figured out it's all right to rely on someone every now and then…figured out he doesn't have to go through life cut off. But I—" He shook his head again and swallowed. "I never wanted it forced on him like this, Jim; this is cruel."
"None of us wanted this, Bones. It's not your fault. Is that it? You feel like it's your fault somehow?"
"All of this came down on him because he did one thing, Jim; he saved me. Now he's in there, flat on his back for days being put through levels of pain no living being should ever have to experience, probably dying, and all because of me. And there's not a damned thing I can do about it!"
"Would you listen to yourself? Do you even remember what you had to tell me on the planet? You're not doing nothing. You're doing everything you can. You've been supervising the science teams, you've done everything you can for him medically, and more than anything you've been in there with him just as much as I have."
McCoy made a face. "It still wouldn't have happened if he hadn't done what he did."
"That was his choice, Bones. I would've made the same choice if I could have; if it'd have done any good for me to do it."
"You were trying to do it, before Spock stopped you. If he hadn't done it you would have anyway even if you did know it was going to kill you. That's why you piss me off," the doctor muttered.
"Protecting my ship and my crew is my job."
"I said it pisses me off. I didn't say you and your heroic tendencies were a bad thing. But I'm your friend, Jim, and I'm a doctor; it's supposed to bother me that you'd be just fine with throwing your life away like that."
Jim smiled a little. "Giving it up to keep one or both of you or anyone else on this ship alive wouldn't be throwing it away."
Bones let out a breath, mostly defeated but unwilling to give up the argument because that was just his way. "It would be on me; I'm just the cranky old country doctor."
"Well apparently Spock thought you were worth it."
Maybe they were both thinking it, but McCoy glared at him for saying it and though the dampness had faded from his eyes it was back now. "Damnit, Jim—!" He deflated quickly and leaned back into his chair. "I'm sorry," he said. "I tell myself it's not getting to me and then it happens again…"
"I know." It didn't get any easier. His stomach still clenched painfully every time it happened; every time those damn things hurt Spock; every time he was helpless to do anything but be there.
But being there was not doing nothing, and they were not doing nothing now. They were on their way to the shore leave planet, and bringing Spock there had to do some good. It had to.
"Come on, Bones. Maybe we should both stay back there for a while."
The captain and the doctor came back to his room together, not long after McCoy had left. Spock knew better by then than to try to move, so he did not. As it was air was growing more difficult to come by even immobile.
"Are you quite all right, Doctor? You left in something of a rush."
"Am I all right? Why in blazes are you asking me if I'm all right? You're the one—"
"Bones," Jim admonished. Spock noticed quickly even from the somewhat awkward angle of lying on his back that Jim was still rubbing at his arm.
"Jim? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Spock—all fixed now." The captain smiled as if to reassure him, holding up the arm, but then he winced and brought it down. "Almost, anyway. Don't worry about it, Spock. It wasn't you."
He was quiet until Jim had perched on the edge of his bed and the doctor had taken the stool to sit on.
"But the machines within me that did harm you are as much a continued threat as they claim to be," Spock reminded the captain then.
"That doesn't mean I'm going to throw a sick man in the brig."
McCoy smirked weakly at that. "Told you."
"So you did…" He trailed off and blinked, trying once again in vain to clear his vision. His head ached. Everything ached, after the nanoprobes forcing his weak body into motion.
"And since you're not going anywhere, we thought we'd move the party here," Jim was saying.
"It's a joke, Spock," McCoy filled in.
"Ah. Of course. I did not see how any of this could be considered a 'party,' however…" He had to pause for a breath. "I am also extremely fatigued. My mental faculties are not what they could be." Jim and McCoy were smiling even though he knew they were worried. The situation was worse now than it had been yet, but they could do that.
As long as he had spent fighting emotions, suppressing them, locking them away—his entire lifetime—it sometimes amazed him how humans could overcome them. It seemed, at times, as if emotion itself in the positive was what allowed them to move past those that were negative. It wasn't at all logical—emotion as cure for emotion—but he saw it all too often in his friends. Though he complained about humans and their emotionalism sometimes, he had to admit that that particular quality he did not mind. Jim, especially, was forever trying to find the good in anything…to turn something horrible into something a little less so. It was something he admired.
It was helping now. By now he was also far too drained to fight much, against the emotions that threatened to run rampant with his controls all but taken from him. He did not mind that his friend's smiles and their jokes comforted him. He even ventured to imagine, for a moment, that it was any other day than the one it was.
"Are you smiling, Mr. Spock? If you're not it's a very close mockery of one; much closer than your usual renditions."
He had not realized that one corner of his mouth had curled up much farther than he usually allowed it to until Jim spoke. His eyebrows went up, and he let it settle back into the more common ghost of a smile he sometimes did allow himself. "I am not myself. I cannot be held accountable for my actions."
It seemed strange, now, that something so admittedly terrifying had taken place less than an hour before. For a moment it seemed strange that there might be—and likely was—worse to come.
"Of course not," McCoy answered. His smirk was no longer weak, and Jim glanced at the doctor and seemed glad that was so.
There was silence for a long moment, but not uncomfortable silence. Jim, still perched on the edge of the biobed, glanced back and forth between Spock and the doctor before he eventually spoke again.
"Why have we never played cards or something? We're always playing chess, and someone's left out. Three people can't play chess. We should do something three people can do. We really should."
And Spock supposed that if he really were to die, this would not be a poor last moment to remember.
Jim and Bones both stayed in sickbay that night, neither of them willing to leave. Even when the pain came again for Spock and the somewhat lighthearted mood they'd pulled from somewhere was shattered they couldn't bear to. Being there really was all they could do, after all.
Spock seemed to understand, too. He didn't question them about why they remained anymore. There was no more talk of logic or danger or the brig. Neither could they talk about the plan to save him, but Spock also seemed to have gotten the message that they were not going to give up, whatever they were planning.
Bones knew, though, and he approved of the idea even if only because it was the only one they had.
Two days. It would be two whole days before they reached the shore leave planet, and Jim didn't think either of them planned to leave that room again unless they had to. He checked in the bridge, occasionally, and sometimes went briefly to the mess hall to find something he could stand to choke down. Strangely enough it was Bones he had to make certain was eating, when usually it was the other way around. Not that either of them felt like it, but they had to keep their strength up.
Still, Jim felt guilty eating when Spock could scarcely keep anything down even when he tried to—which wasn't often. The Vulcan was tall and had always been thin, but now he was becoming unbearably so. It was unnerving; it had been barely two weeks since they'd first beamed down to the planet. It was frightening to think of what Spock had been through in that time.
They slept when they could, taking turns catching naps on the cot by the wall whenever Spock was able to rest. It wasn't often. The attacks came more often now, and Jim hated to think it was because of the argument he'd had with the nanoprobes but he couldn't change it. Because of it he spent as much time sitting in the biobed as bedside it. When the pain came Spock didn't care about the closeness, and it was probably safer for someone to be holding onto him somehow anyway.
If he were let alone he might hurt himself further from thrashing, or fall out of the bed entirely. Bones told him in Spock's weakened state a fall like that wouldn't be a good thing at all.
"He's having enough trouble breathing already, and it's still getting worse. If he falls or cracks a rib moving too violently, sure, I can knit it, but not until he's still, and if it lasts too long and he can't get enough air…"
So Jim sat behind him and held him, upright against his shoulder and chest so it was easier for the Vulcan to breathe when it happened. Sometimes Bones did that. Jim wanted to be able to be there indefinitely, but he was only human. The other of them not behind Spock was on the edge of the bed in front of him. From two directions they managed to keep him still. They never would have been able to if he'd been at full strength, but now he scarcely had any. When he wasn't hurting, not moving involuntarily, he could barely move at all.
Even without any accidents or cracked or broken bones it became more terrifying, every time, as Spock's erratic respiratory function grew worse. He hadn't stopped breathing at any point yet, but it had come close. At least the probes seemed to realize that even if they were going to bring the attacks of pain more often, they needed to be shorter now to keep Spock alive and breathing. But they were starting to cut it close, and Jim wondered angrily why they didn't just stop interfering with his respiratory system at all.
Then he remembered the evening he'd found Spock on the floor in his quarters, the fear in his eyes, and he realized it wasn't all about the physical pain. They'd threatened to force the Vulcan to kill his friends, after all. Of course it wasn't. They were using the fear just as much as anything else.
That, of course, only made Jim angrier. Bones too, when he realized it. They didn't talk about it—they didn't want to—but they both knew it. They knew Spock knew it.
Then he did stop breathing, before halfway through the next night. Jim was relieved he was the one at the head of the biobed and Bones was the one standing, leaving the doctor free to run for hyposprays and call for help.
Spock was shuddering in his arms. The Vulcan's eyes were wide and he simply wasn't able to draw in any air.
"Spock, hang on…"
McCoy ignored the captain, focusing on the task at hand as he should anyway. He tried several things before Spock finally pulled in half a breath that looked painful…though that wasn't saying much in comparison to the pain he was in anyhow. Very soon whatever the doctor had done was not helping anymore.
"Bones!" Jim said again.
"Stop it!" the doctor shouted. He was not talking to Jim. He grabbed the Vulcan's face and shouted into it. "Stop it! He'll die, do you hear me! He can't breathe! You said you wanted him to live until sometime the day after tomorrow, so let him, damnit! Stop!"
Jim's stomach dropped, as he realized Bones was out of options.
And then Spock was limp against him, gasping painful breaths but no longer hurting otherwise. Jim held onto him as the Vulcan turned his face into his chest and worked to bring his breathing under control. Bones dropped on the edge of the bed, looking dead-tired and world weary. The doctor's hand rested on Spock's arm, but he didn't seem entirely aware of it or anything else at the moment.
Damnit, why couldn't that shore leave planet be closer? Scotty was already using warp 9 as often as he dared.
Jim was worrying over Bones when he noticed Spock was shivering again; not much, but he was.
But it wasn't pain. It took Jim a moment to realize he wasn't seeing or hearing things, but his first officer was crying. Not like the few tears shed over his determination that he should be killed, either. It was soft, but he was crying into Jim's shirt no differently than a human might. He was trying to hide it.
"I am sorry…no more control…I…"
"It's all right, Spock…"
Bones was paying attention now. His face softened and the hand on Spock's arm closed gently. "You've actually done pretty good not doing it before now. I don't think most humans would have made it this long."
They were both quiet after that; they said nothing else until the Vulcan calmed on his own. When he did Spock turned his face out a bit, enough at least to see them. "I…believed I would die. When I could not breathe. It seemed…inevitable, for a long few moments, and…I do not wish to die."
"You told me that much before," Jim reminded him.
The Vulcan shook his head. "You don't understand, Jim, I…I cannot die…not yet. I still…I have not…been able to tell my mother that I love her. My father does not know how much I respect him despite our…our disagreements. I have not told you or…or you, Doctor…I have not told either of you how I value your friendship."
"You just did," Jim pointed out, managing a small smile.
"I'm sure your mother knows how you feel, Spock," Bones added quietly. "If she's your mother, she knows you; she knows you're Vulcan, too. She knows Vulcans don't just say those things. And she knows you love her whether you say it or not."
Spock swallowed, and he still had to pause for breaths but overall it seemed to be growing much easier for him to breathe as the minutes passed. Maybe the nanoprobes had finally gotten the message.
"I hope that that is true. But I am…half human, as you so enjoy reminding me. Perhaps that means I should have told her in the past…or that I should have said something to the two of you before now. I…if I am to die I wish for you know that I have been grateful for your companionship."
"Mine included, hmm?" McCoy teased lightly.
One of those almost smiles, though it wavered. "Yes, Doctor. Including yours. It is comforting, in its own grating way."
Bones snorted, but he was still smiling. Or trying to.
Jim wanted to tell him he wasn't going to die, but he didn't say it. He wanted to, but Spock had been right the first time he'd said it: He couldn't know that. He wished he could.
It was the last conversation they really had. By midmorning the next day Spock had lapsed into remaining unconscious the lion's share of the time. Now that the probes were allowing him to breathe almost normally and he didn't have to fight for it, it was easier for him to simply pass out when the pain became too great.
"His fever's coming up too. It'll be dangerous soon. The toxin's still working," Bones told him.
"Your medical lab teams don't have anything on it?" Jim asked.
"Nothing…it's too foreign. We're just not coming up with anything."
But sometime late that night—more in the extremely early morning, really—they would arrive at the shore leave planet, just hours short of the time the nanoprobes had announced that Spock would be dead. As the day wore on, their pronouncement seemed more and more real. The Vulcan was burning with fever, often shaking with pain but never fully conscious, and always moving closer to a state in which his body would simply cease to function from the strain.
Jim spent more time pacing than anything, then. Bones was the one who was still able to sit still for any length of time, so he was the one at the bedside when the captain was not. They held the Vulcans hand, his shoulder, anything…just hoping that he was still aware they were there and that it might help.
What if we really do lose him? But he shut that thought down immediately.
They planned it meticulously.
There would be no discussion of what they were doing within Spock's earshot. When they arrived at the shore leave planet Bones and a medical team silently brought a gurney into the Vulcan's room to get him to the transporter room. Jim walked with them there, not saying a word either.
Only he and Bones beamed down with Spock, and in minutes, they were on the planet's surface.
It was as beautiful as Jim remembered. The grass and trees and the lake and the rest of it were just as they had been. The sky was perfectly blue, and the temperature perfect with only the barest hint of a breeze enough to stabilize it. The sun was bright, and jarring coming from ship's night.
"Bones? How is he?"
The doctor was already scowling at his tricorder. "His heart, his lungs, other organs…everything's far too stressed…starting to shut down. He's slipping away, Jim. If those damned machines meant to be as accurate as they sounded I don't know how he's supposed to make it through the last few hours they said they'd give him."
Jim swore. "Think about what we want," he said, trying not to be too specific. Bones knew what he meant. The planet's production facilities operated by reading the minds of those on the surface, which also seemed to be how the Caretaker became aware of their presence and wishes…or problems.
Nothing happened. They were alone, under the trees by the lake.
"We told you of what could happen if you attempted to interfere again, Captain."
Jim looked down at the gurney in alarm. Spock's eyes were open, but as it had happened more than two days ago now, it was not Spock behind them. The captain forced himself to remain calm.
"Who says we're interfering?" he answered casually.
"That much is clear." Not-Spock glanced about their surroundings. "We are not on the Enterprise. We detected the transporter beam. You would not have brought your friend, near death, anywhere at all unless you had planned some attempt to save him."
"You can't know that for certain," the captain retorted. "We're doing nothing but standing here, after all."
"We can make a reasonable assumption. You were warned, Captain."
That was when Not-Spock sprung from the gurney, reaching for Jim's throat. The captain jumped back, going for his phaser. It was precisely for this reason that they'd brought them, set to stun. Spock dropped in the grass before he could bring his weapon to bear, and he realized Bones had fired. The doctor didn't look happy about it.
"Damnit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a security officer!"
"It's not my fault! We've done this as carefully as we could."
Jim went to his knees at his Vulcan friend's side, and the doctor came with his tricorder. He was shaking his head again.
"I sure hope the stun keeps him under long enough; sedatives don't phase these things' control, and I don't think we can stun him again. He's too far gone as it is. Another stun might kill him." Bones let out a frustrated breath and looked around, as if to say If these people are supposed to help us, where the hell are they?
Jim didn't know what hit him, except that it hit him in the face—and hard. One moment he was on his knees leaning over Spock, willing him to hold on long enough for help to come, and the next his head exploded. He was flung onto his back from the impact, and rolled away instinctively. He tried to come up on his knees but ended up with his face in the dirt. He'd been hit too hard to recover that quickly.
He heard scuffling, and Bones swearing, blows landed, and what had happened was clear. The effects of the stun had been overcome quickly by the nanoprobes and Not-Spock was up again and trying to cause damage.
Now if he could just get up. He waited until he was certain he could do it, faking unconsciousness until then. When he knew he wouldn't falter he jumped up and pulled his phaser free, spinning in the direction of the noise just as he heard McCoy shout.
Not-Spock had him pinned to the ground, with his hands around the doctor's throat and a knee in his chest. The doctor had a blackening eye and Jim was sure he was sporting a good bruise over his own left cheekbone by now, but it seemed Bones had not gone down without a fight. Spock's bottom lip was split and seeping green blood.
"Get off of him. Now," Jim demanded.
"We could break his neck or crush his chest, among other things. Perhaps you would prefer to choose the method yourself."
"I said get off of him!"
Not-Spock looked up then, and saw the phaser trained on him. "That will not help you, Captain. Even if this body were dead we could force it into action."
"Why would you want to do that? He wouldn't be alive to know what you were forcing him to do."
"Our purpose is as punishment for all three of you, through this one. Even if he is dead, it would be punishment enough for one of you to see the other die at his hand."
"You can't do anything if his body's reduced to atoms," Jim threatened, and with a thumb he changed the setting. His stomach twisted as he did it.
"But you do not wish to do that."
"I don't, but I will before I let you kill my chief medical officer."
Spock's hands were around the doctor's throat, but they weren't squeezing enough to prevent him from speaking. "Jim, don't! They might still come. You can save him. Don't—!" Then the hands squeezed enough to silence him and he garbled.
"Let him go," Jim said again. "Or I'll fire."
"I do not believe you will."
"Then fire. Certainly killing your companion yourself is also a harsh enough reality."
"That would destroy you."
"We have no sense of self-preservation. That is not important." And then Not-Spock was ignoring him, the probes focused on McCoy. Now they really began to strangle him, and the knee in the doctor's chest pressed in all at once.
"Stop!" Jim thought he heard something snap, even from several feet anyway. All he knew for certain was Bones let out a garbled cry and tried to cough, but he couldn't really do either with his throat being squeezed.
"Stop!" Jim tried again. He felt sick. His aim wasn't steady because his arm was beginning to shake.
He didn't want to kill Spock. God, he didn't. How could he?
But if he didn't the nanoprobes were going to kill Bones, and he knew Spock would never forgive him if somehow he survived and McCoy did not. Jim didn't want anything to happen to Bones, either.
McCoy was in pain. That much was clear. Something had to be broken, and he was choking. "Sp—" he tried to plead, and failed. Jim finished for him.
"Damnit, Spock, if you're in there and you can do something, do something!"
There was no response, and now Bones's eyelids were fluttering and he was turning colors.
"Spock," Jim pleaded.
Not-Spock did not answer; did not even acknowledge him. The probes began to press the Vulcan's knee down into McCoy's chest again and the doctor spasmed weakly in pain and then began to fade again. That was when Jim knew he had no choice. Bones was going die.
Spock, I'm sorry…
His vision blurred, and he was almost afraid he'd miss his target.
But he fired.
Or he thought he had. He didn't realize he'd closed his eyes, either, until he opened them again when the phaser was abruptly gone. It was just gone, and Not-Spock was falling back into the grass, unmoving.
"That will be quite enough."
The voice came from behind him, and Jim twisted to find the Caretaker approaching from behind the trees.
"What took you so long!"
"I apologize for the delay, Captain, but just as you are bound by rules such as your Prime Directive, I am bound by our laws. No one was injured on our soil until now. I could not interfere until that occurred."
On the ground Bones was gagging, struggling for air, and Jim forgot the Caretaker for now and went to him. He tried to pull the tricorder from under him. It didn't look good at all, and the captain had the feeling he'd have to send him straight back to the ship to a waiting emergency medical team.
"Bones! What's broken? I heard—"
McCoy gripped his wrist and dragged in a short breath that was wet and labored. "Ribs. L-lung punctured. Jim—" He cut off in a gasp of pain.
Jim hurriedly opened his communicator, but then the Caretaker spoke again.
"Do not worry, Captain. We will take them both below the surface to be repaired. Certainly Doctor McCoy's treatment will be much quicker and less painful if we see to it."
Bones was coughing up blood by now, face twisted in a grimace, and Jim nearly couldn't breathe himself. He was trying to hold his friend's head and the communicator at the same time, and finally he left the communicator on his waistband and caught the doctor's hand.
"You'll take them now?" Jim asked urgently.
Then instead of an answer, he was alone.