Title: Keep Your Distance
Warnings: brief (non-graphic) torture
Summary: In which Jim is lonely (and bored), Spock goes above and beyond the call of duty, and McCoy is going to have a heart attack before he's forty.
Notes: Written for this prompt
on the ST Kink Meme (anti-sex pollen makes it so Kirk and Spock can't be around each other), and somehow mutated into something with a plot. This would never have actually been finished if it weren't for hanjuuluver
, hand-holder extraordinaire, and colourofsaying
, who is awesome enough to beta from halfway around the world.
The away team has only been surface-side for an hour before McCoy’s communicator buzzes: the transporter tech has just received a distress signal from Lieutenant Sulu, and it’s his job, as always, to bring the stand-by med crew to deal with the injured when they beam back. And by injured, he thinks irritably, of course he means Jim, who doesn’t seem to have learned from his history books that it’s an officer’s job to stand back and let other people get shot.
The team is just materializing on the transporter pads when McCoy bursts into the room. Instinctively he turns first to Kirk, and he sees that he is right, once again, in expecting trouble. Kirk’s face is several shades paler than usual, his forehead is beaded with sweat, and as the floor goes solid beneath his feet he drops to his hands and knees, gagging and retching. When McCoy sweeps him with the tricorder, he finds that Kirk’s temperature is elevated and his heart is racing so fast it’s a minor miracle he’s still conscious, not that that will last long, by the look of him.
A small exhalation of pain catches McCoy’s attention, and when he turns he sees Spock, still standing but swaying on his feet and looking almost as wretched as the captain. And then it’s damn lucky that McCoy is used to working with a Vulcan, because the slight slump of his shoulders is just enough of a clue for McCoy to get an arm wrapped around Spock’s waist before his eyes roll back and he goes limp in the doctor’s arms.
While the medical team is loading the two of them onto the stretchers to be taken back to Sickbay, McCoy corners Sulu, who is fluttering around anxiously like he wants to help.
“What happened to them?” he demands. “Were you attacked?”
“It was some kind of plant,” Sulu answers. “When we arrived on the planet, the commander and the captain took point so they could scout ahead for our contact from the settlement. The rest of us were following about a hundred yards back taking readings with the tricorders. About half a mile from our original landing site I heard the captain shouting. When I reached them he and the commander were covered in what looked like plant pollen. He insisted the plant had sprayed them on purpose. They started having a toxic reaction a few minutes later, that’s when I sent the distress signal.”
McCoy sighs heavily. “At least tell me you brought me a sample of the damned flower, Lieutenant.”
Sulu, eyes wide and frightened, obediently fumbles in his pocket and hands the doctor a slightly wilted, slightly crushed red flower. He doesn’t recognize it at first glance, but that doesn’t mean much. The botanical unit is optional for Starfleet doctors, and as his ex-wife was fond of complaining, he’s never gotten the grasp of anything more complicated than red roses.
“They’re going to be okay, aren’t they?” Sulu asks, a note of uncertainty in his voice that even McCoy can pick up on.
“Of course they are, Lieutenant,” he says. “You know Lady Luck has a soft spot for the captain a mile wide. We just need to identify the toxin in that flower you gave me and they’ll be good as new. Now get moving, I want you and the rest of the away team in the Sickbay so I can make sure you aren’t going to keel over on me too.”
McCoy first realizes this isn’t going to be the usual Jim Kirk Medical Special in the corridor outside the transporter room. They’ve already left with Spock’s stretcher, but he’s sticking with Kirk, who is still semi-conscious even if he doesn’t seem aware of the commotion surrounding him and might be able to tell them a little more about what the plant did to him and Spock. That’s the theory at least. But when McCoy leans over him to check his pulse again (unnecessary, but it’s reassuring to do it the old-fashioned way even if it isn’t as accurate as the tricorder), Kirk’s eyes fly open and he sits up with a gasp.
“Where am I?” he asks, and then, looking around himself and apparently drawing his own conclusions, “Why am I on a stretcher? Bones, what are you doing here?”
McCoy puts a hand on Kirk’s shoulder, trying to ease him back on the stretcher again, but Kirk fights him, jaw set and stubborn. “You and Spock had a run-in with a flower on that plague-ridden cesspool of a planet. Sulu had you beamed back when you started reacting to something toxic in its pollen – that boy has more sense than you do, not that it’s hard. Damnit Jim, would you lie back down until we can get you to Sickbay?”
“I feel fine,” Jim says, pouting at him. “Maybe the pollen wore off.”
“I don’t care how you feel. Your heart was beating so fast you could have had a heart attack, and I want to know why before you have a relapse and die in your Captain’s chair.”
That seems to shock a little sense into Kirk; he insists on staying sitting up, but he stops trying to get off the stretcher, and he doesn’t fight McCoy the rest of the way to Sickbay, although he looks like he’s barely holding himself back when McCoy tells him how many tests he needs to run.
When he walks into Sickbay, one of the nurses pounces on him immediately.
“Doctor, Commander Spock regained consciousness a few minutes after we left the transporter room. All his vitals are within acceptable standards and he says he is no longer experiencing symptoms. He’s insisting that we can release him now.”
And then they bring Kirk in to transfer to the bed nearest his first officer, and several medical sensors start blaring alarms. He goes straight to Kirk’s side. The captain is doubled over on the stretcher, arms wrapped around his ribs like he’s trying to hold himself together, face screwed up in pain.
“Where does it hurt, Jim?” McCoy asks.
Kirk hisses sharply at the sound of McCoy’s voice. “Head – oh fuck – my head. Stomach. My – god- everywhere, Bones, this really fucking hurts.” There are tears pricking at the corners of his eyes, and his knuckles are white and bloodless where he’s clutching the edge of the stretcher. McCoy doesn’t know the last time he’s seen Kirk show pain – he whines, he plays up cuts and bruises for sympathy, but real pain he tries to hide under bluster and bravado. If that’s failing him…well, it isn’t good.
Kirk’s usual bed is on the other side of the room, but the sensors are already calibrated for him, unlike those on the bed next to Spock, and right now McCoy wants to be absolutely sure he knows what’s happening to the captain. But halfway there, the creases of pain in Kirk’s forehead start to ease, and he loses his death grip on the railing. By the time McCoy has helped lift him onto the bed, Kirk’s breathing normally again, and the alarms around Spock have turned themselves off again.
“Well that was weird,” Kirk says, and McCoy can’t help but agree. “Man, I can’t remember the last time I felt like all my bones were being splintered while I bounced around in zero-grav, that was fun.”
McCoy rolls his eyes. “I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jim. But some of us have to figure out while your symptoms keep coming and going like this, so we can actually fix whatever the hell is wrong with you. “
He picks up his tricorder again and scans Kirk. As the nurse had said of Spock, his vitals are all perfectly normal, and there is no sign that of the sickness that had struck him only moments before. It is, frankly, baffling, and McCoy has seen more than a few things on this ship the Mayo Clinic wouldn’t believe.
“Doctor, I believe that I have a theory.” Spock’s voice has a lingering trace of hoarseness which McCoy suspects is from attempting to stifle his cries of pain, but it is as calm and emotionless as ever. “The sudden onset of pain when the captain was brought into Sickbay, coupled with the cessation when he was moved to a greater distance, would suggest that our symptoms are linked in some way to our proximity to each other.”
McCoy shakes his head. “Don’t be ridiculous, Spock – this is a starship, not a pulp novel.”
“On the contrary, Doctor. While not something we have encountered before, this type of phenomenon is not atypical for the Enterprise, and I can conceive of several means by which the pollen we inhaled would be able to detect our proximity and release a toxin – ”
“Guys, guys!” Kirk is on his feet before the fight, a familiar one, can really get going. “I think we all know there’s only way to know for sure that this is caused by how close together we are.”
Ten feet from Spock’s bed, Kirk collapses, curling into a ball on the cold floor with his hands balled into fists and covering his face. McCoy swears under his breath as he picks him up and carries him back to his bed, where Kirk grins at him, albeit a bit shakily.
“Spock?” he asks.
“My symptoms returned at the same moment yours did, Captain.”
“Well, there’s your answer, Bones.”
Two hours later, that’s the only answer he has. He’s done every scan and blood test he knows how to do, and a few that are purely theoretical, and while he thinks he’s isolated an unfamiliar protein present in the blood of both the men, he can’t figure out what it is, or how it’s making them so sick – no chemical agents, no toxins, just that little protein showing up on his viewscreen. It’s enough to drive a doctor mad. And Kirk isn’t helping; while Spock is content to sit on his bed and let McCoy run tests on him, Kirk is put out that he isn’t being let back to the bridge to run his ship, and is making up for it by being extra-exasperating, even for him. McCoy is giving serious thought to strangling him.
Which is when Sulu comes in, running so fast he slams headlong into the doctor and knocks them both to the floor.
“This better be important, Lieutenant,” McCoy says, brushing dust off his pants.
“I found the flower, Doctor!” Sulu exclaims. “It took me some digging, because it isn’t in Starfleet’s general catalog for dangerous plant life. But the botany lab has a private library left by a few of the scientists we’ve worked with. And Dr. Rupesh’s journal had a sketch of a flower that looked like the one I brought back, sir.”
“And did his journal happen to have any information on this plant we could actually use to treat the captain and Mr. Spock?”
“Well,” Sulu paused, suddenly blushing hotly and dropping his eyes. “He said it’s used as…um…birth control, sir.”
“Birth control?” McCoy asked flatly.
“According to Dr. Rupesh, the inhabitants of the native village he had contact with had some pretty strict social taboos concerning sex. They believed the pollen of the flower would only work on people who were in love, so the elders would give it to young couples to stop them from having sex before they got married, sir.” Sulu handed him his PADD. “I’ve got his research journal pulled up on here, sir. He didn’t run a lot of tests on the plant, though. I think he thought it was just superstition.”
McCoy waves a hand at the two officers, lying in beds a room apart. “Does this look like superstition to you, Lieutenant? No, don’t answer that. Thank you for the journal, it might help me figure out how this damned thing works.”
“What do you mean it only works on people in love?” Kirk interrupts, pushing himself back up on the bed.
“That’s what it says in Dr. Rupesh’s journal, Captain.” Sulu looks like he would rather be anywhere else, including outside the ship without a suit. “People exposed to the pollen suffer from intense pain whenever they get too close to the person they are, uh, interested in. Sir. But it’s probably just a folktale!”
“The lieutenant is correct, Captain,” Spock says. “It is more likely that the pollen works through compatible biochemistry, or even mere proximity to the afflicted, than such an ill-defined social construct as love. You need not fear that this bears any implications on your feelings toward me.”
“Right,” Kirk says, laughing. “Wouldn’t want to give the crew the wrong impression, would we, Mr. Spock? You know how much of a gossip mill this place is. Next thing you know they’ll think you’re pining away for me while I cry myself to sleep, wishing you returned my love.”
“I would, indeed, not wish to give the crew that impression, Captain.” Spock says, and that seems to be the end of it.
Bones keeps them both in the sickbay overnight, just so he can keep an eye on them he says, but when morning comes and neither of them have shown any more symptoms, Kirk convinces him that there’s no purpose served in keeping them any longer. They’re both fine, as long as they stay far enough apart, and Bones will get a lot more done if Kirk isn’t hanging over his shoulder asking questions every five minutes. Not to mention that Kirk is just itching to get back in his chair where he belongs; he never did like sickbay, but he likes it even less now that every second there he spends thinking about the responsibilities he isn’t living up to. He suspects Spock feels the same, if the relieved cast of his shoulders when Bones dismisses them is any clue, although for a Vulcan the difference is only a degree or two off level. He’s gotten good at reading his First Officer, even from across the room.
Unfortunately, getting back on the bridge is easier said than done. While Bones was sleeping, he’d convinced Spock of the necessity of testing the strength of the repellent force between them, and now Kirk can say with confidence that fifteen feet is as close as they can get. At fifteen the dizziness and the nausea starts, a low, bone-deep buzz of misery that sets his teeth on edge. At ten feet the pain hits, as abruptly as a hammer to the knees and just as agonizing. He couldn’t bring himself to try to get closer.
Fifteen feet isn’t that far, really, but it’s too far to have a conversation without raised voices, and it’s more than the distance between the captain’s station and the science station on the bridge. Even if it weren’t, he knows, it would be too much of a risk to have them on the bridge at the same time. One jarring blow sending the crew sprawling at the wrong moment and he’d be incapacitated just when he was needed most.
So they have to change the bridge shifts around so that he and Spock are never on together, which means the rest of the bridge crew has to be moved around to accommodate the fact that the main shift is lacking a senior officer, which means a lot of bruised feelings and bitter grumbling from crewmembers used to working as a team. They mostly try to do it out of Kirk’s earshot, but he still sees the wounded looks Chekov sends him when he finds out that he and Sulu will only be on the bridge together twice a week.
And it’s not just the bridge that poses a problem. They have to schedule when they leave and arrive for their shifts, to make sure they don’t pass each other in the hall. And when they are going to train in the gym. And when they are going to eat meals. And where they go in their free hours, because if some wet-behind-the-ears ensign sees the captain and the first officer keel over in the hallway and panics, there’s going to be trouble.
Kirk’s life hasn’t been this regimented since he was a cadet, and even then he managed to sneak off campus every evening to hit the bars in San Francisco. It grates against his nerves, makes him feel stifled and trapped, hating the feeling that someone is telling him what to do, even if the someone in this case is his own common sense. And he can’t even sneak off, because while he doesn’t much care if he does something stupid to himself, hell if he’s going to put Spock through the kind of pain he felt in the sickbay when they got too near each other, just because he’s finding it hard to sit still and do as he’s told.
It takes about a week of being settled into his new, over-scheduled, Vulcan-free life to realize that he misses Spock.
Apparently some time between Spock trying to kill him and getting covered in evil birth control pollen – and however many times he thinks about that it doesn’t get any less gross – he and Spock have become friends. Which, okay, he mostly knew already, because it’s not like they don’t spend all of their working time and a good chunk of their free time together, what with the eating together and the standing evening chess match and the sarcastic Vulcan sense of humor Kirk is coming to deeply appreciate because no one could feed him such perfect straight lines if they couldn’t guess the innuendo-laden jokes he was going to make.
But Kirk’s had friends before, and he’s never missed them all that much when they went away. That was what friends did – they stuck around for awhile and laughed at your jokes and let you buy them beer, and then they left and you found new, more entertaining friends to replace them with. One appreciative audience is much the same as another, and Kirk’s never bothered to get all that attached. Except to Bones, but then Bones, who rubs his back when he pukes and yells at him when gets STDs from one night stands and looks really grim and disapproving when he lets the bad guys shoot him, is different.
And so, it seems, is Spock.
It’s worst on the bridge, where he is accustomed to having Spock always at his right hand. He no longer has anyone to direct dry asides and lascivious remarks towards; Uhura has no patience for that sort of thing when she’s working, Sulu mostly ignores him, and watching Chekov turn pink, while amusing, doesn’t hold the same competitive appeal as studying Spock’s face for the betraying flick of a brow that means he’s scored another point in the game of getting Spock to react to him. The skinny, spectacled young officer who has replaced Spock at the science station is adept enough, but she has none of Spock’s insight, and after three days Kirk can make her burst into tears just by glaring at her. He’s never made Spock cry, and he’s pretty sure he couldn’t, even if Vulcans did have tear ducts.
He muddles through ten days without Spock, but he’s off-kilter and he knows it shows. He’s twitchy, snappy, he nearly bites Chekov’s head off when the kid has the nerve to correct his flight plans in front of everyone on the bridge, and he thinks Sulu is going to challenge him to a duel right then and there. The unshakeable certainty he used to have in his decisions is gone; he knows he’s making the right choices, he feels it, but without Spock there to challenge his logic and call him an impulsive Neanderthal he finds threads of doubt creeping in.
At least a dozen times a day he turns instinctively to ask Spock a question, and finds the words have left his mouth before it has registered in his head that there is no one there. The rest of the crew has started giving him odd looks, like they don’t quite trust his mind, and he’s heard a few of the more naïve ensigns talking to each other, asking why McCoy let him out of Sickbay when he obviously still belongs there.
He’s in his quarters when he finally snaps. He can’t sleep – he’s a restless sleeper at the best of times, and the last ten days he’s been a positive insomniac – he has too much nervous energy to read, and the stack of requisition forms on his desk don’t bear thinking about. What he really wants to do is play a decent game of chess, but Spock’s the only one he can get to play with him: McCoy doesn’t have the patience, Uhura prefers Double Cranko, and everyone else on the ship gets too nervous if they think they might beat the captain. Spock is the best chess opponent he’s ever had, but that doesn’t matter now, when they can’t get close enough to sit across a table and play.
So he’s pacing his quarters, hating his life and hating that damned planet and that double-damned plant that started this whole mess and wishing he had something he could throw at the wall that Starfleet wouldn’t make him pay for, when he realizes that he still has his communicator clipped to his belt.
“Commander Spock, this is Captain Kirk, do you read?”
The Federation scientists have never quite managed to eliminate the faint crackle coloring the voices transmitted over the communicators; Kirk suspects them of leaving it on purpose, to make it sound more authentic. Regardless, the voice that replies is still unmistakably Spock’s, and Kirk feels a shiver of relief go down his spine.
“This is Spock, Captain. Are you in need of my assistance?”
Kirk settles into his desk chair, and he can feel the tension he’s been carrying for days draining out of his shoulders and back. “Nah, Spock, I just wanted to check up on you. See how you’re handling the bridge without my esteemed presence to provide inspiration and guidance.” He hopes Spock can hear the friendly smirk in his voice.
“I have in fact held the bridge in your absence before, Captain. But your concern is acknowledged and appreciated.”
“I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time, Spock,” he says, as it belatedly occurs to him that though the night shift is generally quieter than the main shift, Spock has never been one to sit idly by when he might be able to find a pile of work to do.
“On the contrary, Captain, the diagnostics I am running will not require my attention for another 68 minutes.” There is a momentary pause, the briefest of hesitations that Kirk wouldn’t have caught if he weren’t straining to hear it. “I must admit I am glad to have the opportunity to converse with you. I had grown somewhat accustomed to your companionship, and its lack was noticeable in the last week. And I have been unable to find another chess partner of comparable skill.”
Kirk laughs, for the first time in days. “I knew it, Mr. Spock! You’re only keeping me around because I’m the only one on this ship who can beat you at chess. Well, that and my charm and good looks, I presume.”
Spock lets the joke slip by without comment, and from there the conversation turns practical; he trusts Spock to know what is happening on the ship, to be prepared for their next mission, but that trust doesn’t take the place of sitting down and arguing it out with him until they can reach an agreement, or at least until Spock has given up on changing his mind. He is surprised, a little, by how easy it to slip back into the banter and the gentle teasing he is used to, winding Spock up even as he’s asking him about the results on the experiments Engineering is doing to improve the efficiency of the weapons system. But at the end of the hour, when Kirk reluctantly ends the conversation so Spock can give his full attention to the bridge, he feels more himself than he has in days.
After that he starts buzzing Spock a half dozen times a day – from the mess, from his room, even from the bridge if it’s a slow shift – never for as long a conversation as that first day, just long enough to ask him a question about a crewmember, or tell him about the sector they would be through that day, or pass on a joke Kirk knew would baffle him. It isn’t the same as having Spock at his side as he should be, but it’s better than nothing, and he gets through another whole week that way.
When McCoy comes to his room on Saturday evening, Kirk is on his third glass of brandy and just starting to slur his words.
“Jesus Christ, Jim,” McCoy swears when he walks in and sees the bottle on the table, but Kirk ignores him and pours them both another glass with a broad and sloppy grin, and McCoy doesn’t complain about that.
“I hope you remember that you have a bridge inspection to do in the morning,” McCoy says, sipping slowly from his glass. It’s good liquor, Kirk knows, the best a captain’s salary can buy, which is pretty damn good, but if McCoy doesn’t want to enjoy it that’s his problem.
“Screw the inspection, Bones,” Kirk says. The brandy burns his throat a bit as he tips his glass back, but it leaves behind a warm numbness he rather likes. “Spock’s the only one who will care if I show up hungover. One of the benefits of being the captain of this fine vessel.” He hiccups slightly on the last word, and his own voice sounds so strange to his ears he starts laughing. When he looks up again McCoy is glowering at him with his arms folded over his chest.
“I know you’re not this much of a damn fool,” McCoy growls. “So will you please tell me this isn’t your way of begging for attention from that green-blooded bastard?”
McCoy is wrong, wrong, wronger than a cadet doing his first navigational charts, and Kirk needs to make him see that. “Don’t want attention,” he mutters. “Just miss him is all. I touch him all the time, did you know that? I didn’t know that. But I do.”
It’s true. Kirk hadn’t realized it until this week, but when they are around each other he touches Spock all the time. He bumps his shoulder, pats his back, slings a companionable arm around him. When he leans over Spock’s shoulder to study his console he brushes his ears and the back of his neck with his fingertips, when they play chess their hands touch every move. He is always touching Spock and he’s never even noticed, and now he misses it, desperately.
“I just want things to go back to normal,” Kirk says. He pours himself another glass. “You’re supposed to fix things, Bones. Tell me you’re going to fix this.”
McCoy takes the glass out of his hands and puts it back on the table. “Why don’t you just ask me to walk on water next time? It would probably be easier than synthesizing an antidote for an unknown toxin based on luck and guesswork.” He sighs, and Kirk knows McCoy is older than he is, but he doesn’t usually look it. “I’m getting close, though. A few more days, maybe. We’ll figure it out, Jim.”
McCoy stands and Kirk follows, lets himself be led back into his bedroom and his bed by McCoy’s reassuringly heavy hand on his shoulder, and falls asleep before his head hits his pillow. When he wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t remember most of the night before, but he does remember McCoy telling him he’d only have to last a few more days, and that was the important thing, anyway.
Two days later, Kirk is kidnapped.