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The Most Beautiful, the Most Immediate Breath of Life

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Leonard gritted his teeth. Murphy always was a son of a bitch.

The Murphy’s Law, currently governing Leonard’s life, must read: The chance of Jim Kirk walking through that door was inversely proportional to the number of minutes Leonard had left to get something done.

In other words, Jim Kirk equaled the whole butter side down thing. So, he really shouldn’t have been surprised that with only a half hour left to get his paper done and submitted on time, Jim Kirk would walk through his damn door.

Ignoring him didn’t work. “C’mon, Bones! A bunch of the guys are celebrating the end of finals. We’re going out!”

If he actually had the time, he’d start beating his head on his desk.

Instead, Leonard kept his eyes firmly on the PADD in his hand and continued to work, attempting to ignore the body that came to stand beside him with long jean-clad legs, and what Leonard assumed would also be the ubiquitous t-shirt and leather jacket. Jim Kirk’s standard bar crawling outfit.

A hand descended onto the PADD in his hand. “A bunch of us are heading over to Mulligan’s. They’re having ‘Two-for-One’ night. All the better to get some thirsty cadets over there, happy to drown out their memories of finals. You plus me, Bones, equals two. Let’s go.”

A second hand slapped Leonard’s back as Jim attempted to pull the PADD out of his tighten grip. Looking up, Leonard growled and glared at his friend’s annoyingly smiling face. His frustration and irritation were met with amusement and cheerfulness.

Not being cowed, Jim gave him an even bigger shit-eating grin. “Put this down, Bones! Finals are over, man. You don’t have to impress anyone else. You’ve already left inferior med students crying in the hallways.”

Jim gave another tug on the PADD. Pursing his lips, Leonard tried to yank the PADD out of Jim’s hand, who was strangely strong for being so wiry.

“Damn it, Jim! Maybe for you, but not for me. I have less than a half hour to get this damn thing in to Salstrom, so just let me finish.”

Jim pulled on the PADD, tilting it just enough so that he could see what Leonard had been writing. His head jerked back as he frowned in confusion. “Bones, what the hell? You could have written this in your sleep. Why’cha leave it until now?”

Jim was right. He could’ve written this paper in his sleep, and he had been kicking himself all afternoon that he hadn’t gotten it done earlier. But with all the different classes he did have to study for, he had pushed doing this paper back until the end and got caught with his pants down when his schedule went to shit at the hospital.

It was only because his other class work had been exemplary and had proven he did have an emergency at Starfleet Medical, that he was able to even get a small, brief extension. He was still smarting from the sarcastic dressing-down he had gotten from the instructor, Salstrom, a man known to chew up cadets and spit them out just for the hell of it. He wasn’t going to add to it by turning in a half-done paper.

All he needed to do was finish the conclusion and proofread it, and that meant thirty minutes of quiet, something that Jim Kirk wasn’t familiar with. Leonard glared, jerking the PADD out of Jim’s hand, as his irritation and frustration found a target. Thirty minutes. Was that too fucking much to hope for?

He growled as his fingers flew over the keyboard, punching with greater force than needed. “Maybe because when I had planned to write this damn paper, I was stuck in emergency surgery, fixing some goddamned idiot who didn’t possess the common sense of an ameba, after he tried to blow off his whole goddamn arm.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jim throw up his hands in a typical “I’m innocent” gesture. “Hey, that wasn’t me,” Jim said, as he took a step back.

“Funny how you assume when I mention an idiot I’m talking about you.” Leonard grabbed his other PADD off from his desk to confirm the source of the journal article he needed to reference.

Brushing off the insult, Jim laughed as he patted Leonard on the back, finally giving Leonard some space as he turned to go sit on the bed. Obviously he hadn’t taken the hint and was planning to wait until Leonard was done.

“Hell, coming from you, I thought it was your term of endearment for me. Hey, you got a package,” Jim noted.

Leonard kept typing away furiously, trying to keep at least part of his mind on what he needed to write. “Strangely enough there are other idiots out there, other than you,” he muttered. He glanced at the chrono by his bed and pleaded with his friend. “Jim, I really need to get this done. Salstrom gave me until 17:00 to have this submitted.”

Was it too much to hope that Jim could just give him a twenty-five minute quiet reprieve?

Jim flopped onto Leonard’s bed, causing the package sitting on it to tilt towards him. Jim caught it as he said, “Sure, go ahead. I’ll just wait un – hey, you didn’t open this yet.” His voice became excited. “It’s from your mom!”

Leonard wondered if a brain could spontaneously combust. The clock ticking away in his head was starting to sound like the timing device on one of those old-fashioned bombs that were in those old movies Jim made them watch. He pinched the bridge of his nose as he watched Jim turning the large box from side to side, inspecting it from all angles.

Sighing in exasperation, Leonard asked, “If I let you open it, will you shut the fuck up so that I can get this done?”

Giving him a saucy smile, Jim held up his hand in the classic Boy Scout salute. “If your mother has sent you some of her cookies, I can guarantee that my mouth will have something better to do than talk.”

“Great. Fine. Have at it.” A gleeful look came over Jim’s face and he jumped on the package. “Wait!” Leonard’s sharp word halted Jim in mid-action. “Just leave me some.”

“No problem, Bones,” Jim replied as he pulled off the sealant, flipping open the top and diving into the box.

Shaking his head, Leonard turned back to his PADD, pulling up the chrono and placing it in the corner so that he could monitor the time – less than twenty-five minutes now – as he worked to finish the conclusion of his paper. The sounds of Jim making happy noises at the contents of the box faded to the background.

With two minutes to spare, Leonard pressed the send key after a hastily done proofread, praying that he made sense at the end. He didn’t need another lecture from Salstrom on top of everything. After setting the PADD on his desk, he leaned back in his chair, rubbing his hands over his forehead, trying to will his mind and body into believing he was finally done. No more papers or tests for the next three weeks.

Damn he was tired. Leonard sighed as he rubbed his fingers across his eyebrows and over to his temples. His fingers worked in small circles, trying to ease the tension he felt there. His brain felt like mush, yet every muscle in his body felt tight.

Leonard stretched out his legs, arching his back, and felt various vertebrae crack into place with the movement. He was so bone-tired, but yet, he still felt wired. His body still hadn’t gotten the message that it didn’t have to get up and do one more shift, one more exam, or one more fucking paper.

Maybe a few drinks with Jim would be the thing to do. He wouldn’t stay until last call, no matter how much Jim whined. He could come home early and crash for the night, waking up tomorrow only when his stomach demanded something to eat. It might just be the way to get his whole body out of the “push, push, and then push some more” cycle it had been in this whole week.

Taking a deep breath and letting out another long, tired sigh, Leonard twisted his head and glanced over to tell Jim he’d be going. He shook his head in resignation. He should have known.

The contents of the box were strewn all over the bed as if they had been the dirt that had covered a puppy’s favorite bone. Leonard’s eyes drifted up the mattress to the head of the bed and softly snorted. It looked like those hoped-for cookies had been in there because Jim was happily stuffing one into his mouth as he read a book, quiet and oblivious, propped up on the bed, a pillow folded under his head.

Leonard’s eyes widened in amazement as he watched Jim. Would wonders never cease? The kid could be quiet and sit still. No muttering, no jiggling, no foot bouncing like he normally did when he had to stay in one place for a time, and all it took was his mother’s cookies and a book.

Leonard laughed to himself. He wished he had discovered that sooner. He was going to have to ask for a monthly shipment if that was what it took. His mom’s ginger molasses cookies were his favorite, and it seemed like they were Jim’s too, if the sight of Jim eating a second cookie in the few moments since he had been watching his friend was any indication.

“You’d better have left me some this time,” Leonard growled as he pushed himself up off from his chair and made his way across the room and over to the bed. He needed something to raise his falling blood sugar right about now.

“M’yeah. She sent wots.” A little spray of cookie flew out of Jim’s mouth and he flicked it off the edge of the book.

“For God’s sake, Jim! Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Leonard barked as he stood by Jim’s side.

Jim exaggerated his chewing and swallowing before replying, “Then don’t ask me questions when I am eating.”

Leonard rolled his eyes as he snatched the cookie container off from the bed by Jim’s side and took a look inside it. “You’re damn lucky this is still three-fourths full, or there would have been hell to pay.” It was a large container, but it was probably completely full when she sent it, knowing Jim’s unhealthy love for anything sweet.

Jim just smiled around his cookie before taking a large bite from it.

Taking a cookie for himself, Leonard set the container back on the bed, placing it well out of Jim’s immediate reach. Granted, his mother always sent extra cookies for Jim since she found out that he never had homemade cookies growing up, but damn it, they were his cookies, too.

Jim dived over, grabbing a handful, before giving Leonard a big grin. Short of wrestling them out of Jim’s hands – and Jim would fight for them, Leonard was certain about that – it would be easier just to let the man-child have them. Leonard raised his eyebrow and growled under his breath – he couldn’t let it seem like he condoned Jim’s cookie addiction – before he took a large bite out of his, looking over the contents of the box spread out over the narrow bed.

A warm feeling grew in his chest. Leonard loved getting these little care packages from his mother. Besides the cookies she always sent, his mother had been trying to do her part in making his dorm room more like home by sending personal items that she thought he might appreciate.

Jim must have been watching him. “She sent you some hardcover books,” Jim said, indicating with the book in his hand. “There’s also some really cute holos of Joanna and some PADDs with some old medical journals on them.”

Leonard rolled his eyes. He should have known that Jim would look at everything. Jim’s idea of personal boundaries was if it wasn’t locked up, then you must have wanted him to see it.

“Oh, and…” Leonard could hear the teasing tone in Jim’s voice. “She sent some more sweaters.”

Leonard looked to see a couple of hand-knitted sweaters that Jim had laid to the side, and he couldn’t help but smile at their sight, even though he knew he just opened himself up for more teasing. He had complained to his mother about the weather here. The cold and rainy winter had been hard to endure, and he had heard horror stories about the fog during the summer months. Leave it to his mother to do her part in keeping him warm.

“Guess she knew her little Southern flower was getting cold,” Jim said smirking.

Just to spite him, Leonard leaned over and grabbed another cookie, ignoring Jim’s muttered complaint not to eat them all.

Leonard glared briefly at Jim, before shooting back a response to his teasing. “Just because you grew up on the frozen tundra, walking uphill to school both ways through knee-high snow, doesn’t mean the rest of us did.” He took an extra large bite of his cookie, tearing it emphatically from his mouth.

To an outsider, it might sound like something different, but it was a familiar and friendly rant between the two of them, showing their growing friendship. Leonard would complain endlessly about the cold, damp weather of San Francisco, and Jim would tease him relentlessly about being a Southern flower. Leonard would dress in as many layers as he could, and Jim would run around in a t-shirt and that leather jacket in all kinds of weather, no matter what the temperature. It made Leonard feel colder just looking at Jim.

But, thanks to his mother, that might not happen as much. Finishing the last bite of his cookie, Leonard smiled as he took a closer look at the bed. He’d just bet the rest of the cookies that the blue sweater his mother sent was for the cookie monster himself…currently going for the damn cookie container again.

“Damn it, Jim!” Leonard swatted at his hand. “You’re gonna get sick if you eat any more of those.”

“Nah, I have a high tolerance for cookies,” Jim said, snatching two more cookies and putting them in the pocket of his jacket. “Oh, wait.” He sat up, placing the book carefully on the bed. “There was a letter in there, too. It’s here somewhere.” Leonard rolled his eyes as Jim dug through different items in the mess now known as Leonard’s bed, searching for it. “It was even on real paper. Do you see a cream-colored envelope anywhere?”

At the sound of those words, the world closed in, and everything in him – his good mood, his irritation at Jim, his thoughts, hell, even his breath – all fell into the black hole that had opened up inside of him. The only thing left, the only thing that escaped the gravitational pull, was the word “letter,” swirling around the inside of the cold husk of his body.

A small touch on his arm made him jerk and look up.

“Bones?” Jim was standing by his side, and from the look on his face, Jim had called his name more than once. Jim’s eyes swept over him and he watched as concern pinched his friend’s eyebrows together. “Are you okay?” Jim asked, holding on tighter to Leonard’s arm as if he was afraid that Leonard might fall without his support.

Leonard forced himself to glance down to Jim’s other hand and saw the familiar envelope. The small nugget of hope that it wasn’t what he feared was crushed to dust and sucked away. He didn’t need to see the front of it to know who it was from.

Jim was giving him a funny look as he waited for Leonard’s answer. Pulling the strength from fuck knew where, Leonard tugged his arm gently from Jim’s hand.

It took a couple of tries, but Leonard was able to force his dry throat to swallow before he answered Jim gruffly, his own familiar frown plastered on his brow. “Yeah, kid…I just remembered something that I should have put in my paper.”

He could see that Jim didn’t totally buy it. Skepticism was etched in the lines in his forehead, but for whatever reason, Leonard knew the moment that Jim decided not to push.

“Yeah, I hate when that happens.” He brought the letter up, holding it out to Leonard. “Here.”

With every cell in his body screaming “Don’t touch it,” Leonard forced his hand up. Steeling his hands not to shake or pull away – he was a surgeon, damn it, he knew how to control his hands – Leonard took the envelope. He made himself glance at it, hoping that he appeared indifferent. He took in his name, the black inked letters in that familiar scrawl, before he walked closer to his desk and tossed it to the surface. He refused to watch where it landed.

“Say, didn’t you mention something about two-for-one at Mulligan’s?” Leonard was impressed he was able to get words out of his constricted throat, let alone how normal they sounded.

Jim’s eyes darted to the desk and then back to Leonard’s face, a small scowl on his own face. “Yeah, bunch of the guys went over there. Are you sure you don’t want to read that?” he questioned, nodding his head to the letter. “It must be important if someone took the time to write it on paper.”

No. Way. In. Hell. Not now, not later and definitely not in front of Jim. That’s all he would need, Jim’s genius mind putting lots, little or nothing together and coming up with the stupid fucking answer about what it contained.

Leonard by nature wasn’t duplicitous. He believed in speaking the truth, plain and simple, but today he didn’t want the truth anywhere near his friend. He needed both of them, him and Jim, anywhere but here. Like right now.

Waving his hand dismissively as he walked to his closet, Leonard quickly started to strip out of his cadet reds. “Nah, just something my mom likes to do every once in a while. I’ll read it later,” he said, trying to infuse his voice with as casual of a tone as he could muster even though his heart was trying to beat its way out of his chest.

He pulled on the first pair of jeans he could get his hands on and grabbed the heather-brown sweater off the bed, pulling it quickly over his t-shirt. Leonard stole a glance at Jim who stood with his hands on his hips, a puzzled look on his face.

Fuck. He knew that look. It was forebear to the tenacious one that Jim got when he wasn’t going to let something go. He’d be like a hound dog who picked up a scent if Leonard didn’t provide something else to distract him, at least for the time being.

Leonard quickly grabbed the blue sweater and tossed it over to his friend, who easily snatched it out of the air before it could hit him in the face. “Here. I’m sure that one’s for you.”

“Hey, wow!” Jim said as he held the sweater up before his face. He pulled it away, watching as Leonard pulled on his boots. “Did your mom make this?”

The distraction worked, and Leonard felt a little bit of the tension in his chest loosen at his temporary reprieve.

“Yeah, she hates to sit. Likes to keep her hands busy, but obviously, she doesn’t understand that your Midwestern hide doesn’t get fuckin’ cold,” Leonard said, hurrying to finish getting ready before Jim caught on.

Bitching at him was usually a good way to keep control of the conversation, something that might fool his friend into thinking things were normal. If he got Jim out the door, he stood a better chance at keeping Jim’s mind off from that cursed thing on his desk.

Shooting a smirk at him, Jim took off his jacket and pulled the soft v-necked sweater on over his white t-shirt. “Wow! It fits great,” he said with a look of childlike amazement on his face, almost as if he had never gotten a present before. He smoothed his hands over the front of the sweater and down the sleeves, checking out their length. “Bones, this is…Tell her thanks the next time you talk to her.”

Even in the midst of his own pain, Leonard stopped and considered his friend. Jim never really talked about his childhood much, but Leonard had seen little bits here and there over the course of the months they had spent at the Academy. He slowly ascertained from the little Jim had said – and didn’t say – that Jim’s childhood rated at the very least, neglectful if not downright abusive, and for a moment, he forgot his own pain in face of what Jim must have gone through as a kid.

Something must have shown on his face. That or Jim must have realized he had let on more than he wanted because his face closed down for a moment, his eyes loosing the warmth they had in them just a moment ago. Jim grabbed his leather jacket from where it had fallen on the floor and the Jim Kirk he knew fell over back over his shoulders along with the jacket.

“That’s if I’m not here when she calls next time,” he said, the side of his mouth turned up in a cocky grin.

Leonard schooled his face, erasing anything that might look like pity, before he did his classical eye roll, something that was familiar and safe for Jim. He watched as Jim fidgeted with a nervous energy that started to hum through him, his eyes darting at the door, impatient to leave the scene of the “crime” where he revealed more than he wanted.

Leonard felt a twinge of guilt. Did it make him a bad person that he was relieved that something had distracted Jim, even if it was most likely something painful from his childhood? Hell, it looked like both of them needed some good old-fashioned alcohol to forget the shit that happened in their pasts. And he knew exactly where they could find some.

“Kid, like you’re never not here. You talk to my own mother more than me.” Leonard pulled his comm out of his uniform pocket and slipped it into his jeans. “Now, let’s go get some two-for-ones before Mulligan grows a brain and figures out that he might be losing money with this deal.” Leonard walked to the door and turned. “First round’s on me.”

Jim bounded across the dorm floor, slapping Leonard on the arm as he passed. “C’mon, Bones. You know there’ll be more than just one round on you.”

~*~

He was crying. He was standing in an old cemetery with dead yew trees disperse between old, old grave stones. Everyone was gone, gone to wherever people go to shed the depressing blanket of misery following a funeral. Only he was left, and he was crying.

Grief shook and overwhelmed him. His knees could no longer hold him up, and Leonard felt himself crumble to the ground. His knees struck the base of the new headstone before him, and the pain briefly registered through his sorrow. From this position he could no longer avoid what he wanted to run away from; his vision was filled with the hard, true evidence he was forced to accept.

He could barely read the chiseled words in the front façade of the granite slab through his blur of tears, but he knew what it said.

David Leonard McCoy, June 4, 2190 – June 1, 2254. Loving husband, father and grandfather.

A sob tore its way out of his lips, and Leonard reached out to trace the letters, needing to have some kind of connection with the man that had been there his whole life, the one person who shaped the man he had become. His fingers slid along the only thing left to mark this gentle man’s life. A knifelike pain sliced through his quiet crying as the sharp edges of the letters cut into his fingertips, making even this need for connection a punishment that he deserved.

He watched as blood seeped out of the wounds, flowing as a rivulet of red down the grey, smooth stone before making a gravity-defying turn at the base of the loving tribute to the man. A caustic smell invaded his nose. He froze as more words slowly appeared; the letters, red and prominent, burnt forever into the granite stone by his blood.

Killed by his son’s own hands.

His stomach heaved at the damning words, and he no longer could hold back the bile churning in his stomach as he threw up over the base of the headstone. Waves of it made their way up his throat, and violence of his retching shook his body.

Suddenly, hands, horrible damning hands, rose up through the overturned Georgian soil beneath his knees, grabbing him around his waist. Terror tore through him, and Leonard slapped at the hands, trying to keep from being dragged down into the bowels of hell where he belonged.

“Bones!”

The familiar but worried voice made him stop, and the sound pulled him away from the terror of his dream.

Gentle hands held him across the chest, supporting his head as he vomited violently into the toilet. Minutes, hours later he finally finished, utterly drained down to his toes. He felt the hand leave his forehead, and he heard the sound of flushing. His knees hurt and he could barely hold up his head. More hands helped him lay his head against a cool, smooth surface. The sounds of water running filled the air before a cool, wet cloth wiped over his face, and he murmured with loving comfort of the gesture.

Something touched his lips. “Here, drink this.” His uncoordinated hand came up on its own and tried to slap it away. “Bones, drink!” the voice commanded.

Leonard felt a hand gently tip up his head, and he allowed a few sips of cool water to pass his lips until his stomach protested. He pulled away, gagging. Hands let him rest back down for a moment before coming up under his arms, pulling him up to stand.

“C’mon, Bones. Up.”

He struggled to get his legs underneath him, and they slowly made their way out of the bathroom to the blessed relief of a mattress beneath him. Hands pulled him up, and he groaned in protest before he felt them pull his clothes off over his head. No longer supported, he flopped back, his head landing on a pillow. He felt his shoes being tugged off his feet before he sunk down into the bliss of unconsciousness, no longer having to think or feel.

~*~

Leonard woke, and a nanosecond later, regretted that he had when pain pounded through every part of his head. Hell, he didn’t know hair follicles could throb like that. Even his teeth and jaw hurt. Oh shit. Leonard swallowed down a moan that wanted to crawl out of his throat, immediately regretting the action when the taste buds of his mouth woke up and voiced their displeasure with his last-night behavior.

Fuck. This was why he had avoided getting stinking drunk since he had gotten to the Academy, no matter how many times Jim had tried to talk him into “just one more, Bones” over his personal limit. Damn, he had almost forgotten how badly this hurt.

“Oh, god,” he muttered, letting it out this time and cringing with the added pain the movement and sound had elicited.

Don’t move. Don’t make a sound. Don’t fucking breathe. That’s what he was going to go with until this abated or his head fell off. Whatever came first.

“Tell me which hypo you need, and I’ll get it for you.” Jim’s voice was soft, coming from over his right shoulder, and Leonard barely, just barely, kept himself from jumping at the sound.

Jim was here? Leonard frowned and even that little bit of movement in his facial muscles increased the tempo of the beat drumming through his head. A brief memory of Mulligan’s wormed its way out of Leonard’s pounding brain. Of course Jim was here. They had gone out last night.

Speaking as quietly as he could through his teeth – fuck, don’t move the jaw – Leonard answered, “Purple ones. Medkit. Under sink.”

The mattress rocked as Jim rolled off it, and Leonard’s head mimicked the motion, his stomach protesting powerfully in return. Damn it, Jim. Leonard sucked down the complaint just in time along with whatever was trying to make its way up from his stomach.

Jim must have heard some kind of sound. “Sorry, Bones,” he whispered, before he heard Jim rummaging in the bathroom.

Footsteps padded back to him, and Leonard felt the blessed hypo pressed to his neck, dispensing the detox meds he kept on hand, which had been solely for Jim’s sake up to this point.

Relief flowed slowly through his body as the meds took effect, and Leonard automatically cataloged his body’s reaction. The pain in his head eased and with it, the tension he had been carrying through his neck and upper shoulders. The squall in his stomach settled down to shallow waves, and although that still was uncomfortable, it was at least within Leonard’s conscious control now. He ran his tongue over his dry lips, cringing with the aftertaste of vomit.

“Better?” Jim’s soft question broke through Leonard’s assessment.

“Yeah,” Leonard said, turning over onto his back before he slowly risked opening his eyes, flinching slightly with the bright light of the room as his eyes adjusted. From the angle of the sunlight through his window, it looked to be late morning. Great, he slept half the day away.

Taking a slow, deep breath, he stretched, feeling a pop in his back as his muscles ached with the motion. Carefully sitting up, Leonard slowly swung his aching legs over the side of the bed and sat on the edge, letting his body’s equilibrium adjust and the rocking motion in his brain to settle down. Despite his hangover meds, neither his brain nor stomach seemed to want any sudden movements.

He blew an exhale full of discomfort out of his pursed lips. He still felt like shit. Hell, even his knees were sore. What kind of crap had he let Jim talk him into last night?

Afterimages tried to poke through the cotton ball mess of his mind, and Leonard closed his eyes, passively letting them appear. Slamming a glass on the bar? That made sense because he and Jim had gone to a bar. That much he remembered. A ghost of another image flitted by: he and Jim tugging and fighting over a bottle…or was it a PADD?

Leonard frowned as he tried to concentrate and paid the price for it as his dull headache spiked with a shot of pain. Leonard quickly gave up trying to remember. Not worth it. Whatever it was, it was probably a safe bet their tug-of-war wasn’t a fun game between friends. Leonard had never been a happy drunk.

And he must have been pretty damn drunk. Like all good Southerners who enjoyed their bourbon, he knew how to hold his drink. Hell, drink for drink, he’d only have a good buzz going when others would be unconscious under the table. It had been a long time since he’d gotten this stinkin’ drunk. Not since his dad’s….

Oh, fuck. The letter.

The pain of his hangover was blown aside as the memories of yesterday and the many yesterdays of his past flooded his mind. Like water released from a crack in a dam, there was nothing to hold them back. Happy memories that held their own special pain were quickly washed away by excruciating ones. Leonard closed his eyes as grief like he knew but hoped he never had to feel again squeezed his heart, and he clenched his jaw as hard as he could to keep the sound of it from escaping his lips.

The sound of Jim shifting quickly brought Leonard back to the present, and his eyes shot open. Oh shit. Jim had seen the letter. His heart beat spiked as fear engulfed him, and it took every micron of strength to keep his eyes from looking to his desk to see if the envelope was still lying on its surface.

Had he talked about it last night? Did Jim know what it contained? Leonard desperately searched his patchy memory and came up empty, cursing the empty swaths in his mind. Swallowing, he forced his eyes up to Jim, working not to let his distress show on his face, as he tried to glean the information from Jim’s.

Jim stood in front of him, leaning against the bathroom door frame with his arms crossed casually against his chest, making the muscles in his arms stand out. He watched Leonard intently, but his face didn’t reveal a thing. Leonard thought he saw something in Jim’s eyes, but with a blink it was gone, replaced by friendly concern.

“Still gotta headache?”Jim asked quietly.

“Yeah.” Might as well blame any facial expressions he had on that. Hopefully, Jim would buy it.

“Not surprising, Bones, after all you had to drink. I had to pry the damn bottle out of your hands when Mulligan wanted to close up,” Jim said, arching his eyebrows teasingly.

Guess it was a bottle they fought over. “Yeah, sorry about that, Jim,” Leonard said as a new emotion welled up. He coughed to clear the embarrassment from his throat. “Thanks…for getting me home. Sorry if I was a jackass about anything.”

Jim quickly waved off Leonard’s apology, smiling. “Nah, Bones. No problem. S’not like you haven’t had to drag my sorry ass home a bunch of times.”

Yawning, Jim straightened and arched his back as he stretched, and Leonard heard the resulting crack. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a cup of coffee myself.” He looked back at Leonard. “Feel like eatin’ yet?”

He couldn’t believe his luck. Leonard had to work to keep the relieved sigh from slipping out. It was perfect. He needed to get Jim out of the room so that he could dispose of that damn letter, and Jim was giving him the perfect opening. Now he just needed to make sure he had enough time to do it.

“Yeah, I could stand for a good breakfast,” Leonard said as he stood, mimicking his own full-body stretch at the protest of every muscle in his body. “But not that slop in the Mess. Don’t think my stomach could take it.” He paused as he pretended to think. “How about getting us something from Sophie’s Diner while I take a shower?” He motioned to his disheveled appearance. “Don’t think Sophie would appreciate me showing up and smelling this rank.”

Jim’s eyes twinkled. “Sure, but then you can’t bitch if I get a double order of bacon.”

Leonard’s stomach railed with the mention of the greasy food. He seriously doubted if he could even take a bite of food, but that might ping Jim’s sensors. The kid had personal experience with Leonard’s hangover meds so he’d know that Leonard’s queasiness was something more than what could be blamed on his drinking.

All he could hope for was that his stomach would be settled down by the time Jim got back with the food – after he disposed of what was really making his stomach churn. For now, he needed to play his part and get Jim the hell out that door. It would take Jim a good half hour to get there and back, giving Leonard enough time to get rid of the damn letter.

Rolling his eyes, Leonard answered his friend’s quip, “Don’t push it, kid.”

“Just for that, I’m gonna get some of her pastries, too.” Jim countered.

“Fine. Just get going. That food ain’t gonna get here any quicker with you standing there with your lips flappin’.”

“Bitch, bitch, bitch.” Jim teased.

Leonard bumped him gently aside as he made his way into his bathroom, hoping to speed Jim on his way. Locking the door mainly to give himself a perceived barrier of privacy, Leonard slumped against it. His body sagged, no longer having the energy to keep up the façade, and he had to lock his knees in order to keep from sliding down the door to the floor.

That fucking letter.

His heart pounded in his chest, and he clasped his hand over his chest as he took a gasping breath, allowing his head to fall back against the door as he looked up. Ragged exhales echoed loudly through the small room.

Oh god, why now? He had put that part of his life behind him. Hell, he fucking moved across the goddamn continent to get away from everything that had happened back there. He had something meaningful again: his classes, his rotations at Starfleet Medical. Hell, even his friendship with Jim. He had just started to make something worthwhile here, and now this shit happens.

He should have known it wouldn’t last. His life really was one big fucking Murphy’s Law.

“God damn, sonofabitch,” Leonard muttered to himself as frustration started to build inside of him. An urge to beat his fists against the door and scream his lungs out started to overwhelm him, and if he knew for sure that he was alone in his dorm room, he’d just might give into that primal impulse for once in his life. But, knowing his luck, Jim would still be here, and Leonard didn’t even want to think of how that would fuck up his escape plans.

He didn’t have the time for a pity party, no matter how much he wanted to give into it right now. Drawing a deep breath, Leonard steeled his shoulders and his embattled resolve along with it. He had a letter to get rid of and only so much time to do it. When it was finally gone, then he could get back some semblance of his life here, and once and for all, put that part of his life where it belonged: in the past.

Afterward, he could decide if he wanted to feel sorry for himself.

Now he just needed to get back into his room. Turning his ear to the door, Leonard listened intently for a moment before a frown quickly formed on his face. Was that whistling? What the hell? He held his breath so that he could listen more closely. He felt his jaw drop before pulling back from the door.

It was. Not only was Jim still here, but he was whistling as he went around Leonard’s room, making the bed and from what it sounded like, picking up the mess. Like some goddamn dwarf from that old fairy tale Joanna liked him to read to her.

Leonard gritted his teeth. He couldn’t fucking believe it. In the months that he had known Jim, not once had Jim ever cleaned up any of the messes he left in Leonard’s room, and he had made a whole hellava lot of them. Why of all days did Jim pick today to change his slovenly ways?

Leonard felt his frustration build to new levels. “Fuck Murphy and the horse he rode in on,” he spat out quietly.

The whistling stopped. Did that mean Jim was finally leaving? Leonard pressed his ear to the edge of the door to listen more closely when a fist suddenly knocked on it, startling him. The knock felt like it was right under his ear, making his head knell with the sound, and Leonard stumbled, hitting the door with a bang.

“Bones? Bones!” Jim’s loud, panicked voice came through the duranium that separated them. “Are you okay?”

Leonard clenched his teeth as he cursed silently before calling out, “Yeah, Jim. I just lost my footing when I took off my pants.”

Jim chuckled. “You gotta be more careful, old man. Don’t want to go breaking a hip or something during our semester break now.”

“Har. Har.” Leonard rubbed his eyebrows as his headache started to make itself more known. “Thought you were gonna go get us some food, ya dumb ass.”

“Thought you were gonna take a shower,” Jim shot back. Something like wariness colored Jim’s words, and Leonard felt the blood sluggishly coursing through his body freeze at the sound.

Shit. He knew he couldn’t give Jim a thread of suspicion or the goddamn genius would unravel the whole damn blanket of pretense that Leonard was trying to keep between them. And he knew if he didn’t do something quick, Jim would be in here, demanding to know what was wrong.

Leonard worked to make sure his voice held its normal bite. “I am, you damn pushy brat. Some of us don’t move so fast after a long night, unlike some people I know.” He could almost hear the thought waiting to pop out of Jim’s mouth in response. “And if you make some damn wisecrack about my age, I’ll make sure that my magic hangover meds come nowhere near your sorry ass the next time you get drunk.”

“Say, Bones –“ Leonard could almost see the leer on Jim’s face through the sound of his voice. “- if you want to see my cute little ass, I’d gladly let your hypospray near it.”

If it was any other time, he’d keep up this banter with Jim, if only not to let the kid get the last word, but that would only keep Jim here longer.

Instead, he barked, “Food, Jim. Now,” before walking over to the shower stall and turning on the water spray. If Jim heard the water running, maybe he’d think that Leonard was planning on taking a long shower and not a quick sonic one.

Look what he was being reduced to. He felt like some goddamn teenager trying to trick his parents into thinking that he was sleeping in his bed instead of out carousing around. He crept back to the door, shaking his head.

Another small knock on the door yanked the brakes on those thoughts. “Bones? Are you sure you’re in the shower?”

Of course, only fucking Jim Kirk would recognize the sounds of an empty shower stall. Probably pulled that particular trick on his own mother a time or two growing up.

Leonard pulled off his t-shirt. Fuck, now he had to get in the damn thing. Didn’t sound like Jim was going to let well enough alone until he did.

He stripped off the rest of his clothes and relieved himself before he stepped into the shower stall, hoping the warm spray would at least loosen the tension that was trying to take up permanent residence in his muscles. He groaned in relief as the heat from the water started to sink down through his skin.

Over the patter of the water, he heard Jim call loudly through the door. “I’m going now, Bones. Be careful. Don’t slip or anything like that, old man.” Leonard grabbed the extra bottle of shampoo that Jim used when he crashed at Leonard’s dorm and out of frustration, threw it over the shower stall, hearing it hit the door. “Ooo, touchy, Bones, touchy.”

Leonard waited under the shower, listening for any further comments from the other room. Only the sound of the water and his rhythmic breathing could be heard. Was Jim finally gone?

He pulled back his hand that had unconsciously reached for the shower controls. A good part of him wanted to end this façade and go and get the damn letter right now and be done with it. But the rest of him, the part that knew Jim Kirk the best, was telling him to wait, to just finish the stupid shower and make sure the dumb kid had really left. Just a few minutes could make all the difference in the world and get Jim, already suspicious enough, out the damn door.

Besides, he really did need the shower, and the warm water felt good on his aching body.

With that decided, Leonard dipped his head under the shower, allowing the warm spray to flow down his head and shoulders. God, he needed to think. He needed to assess the situation and do some damage control. He stood under the water, trying to will up some plan, some solution to fix the mess that he was in, only to have nothing appear.

Frustrated with himself, he stood back and angrily squeegeed the excess water from his hair with his hands. Granted, he wasn’t the tactician that Jim was, but damn it, he was diagnostician and he knew how to identify problems and come up with treatment plans. And right now, he needed a plan.

Grabbing his own bottle of shampoo, he poured a generous amount into his hand and started to roughly scrub his hair. Maybe the familiar motion would help his brain start thinking. Or at least get the blood flowing to the sluggish organ.

What did he know? He ticked off things in his mind. One, Jim had seen the letter and his initial shock at seeing it. His cover about forgetting something in his paper might have held, but after last night’s drunken episode, Leonard seriously doubted Jim could be that gullible.

Two, he didn’t know if he said anything about the letter to Jim last night. Leonard stuck his head back under the water, feeling the water sluice the shampoo off his head and down his body. God, he hoped he didn’t. In all the months of his drunken past he never once talked about it to anyone, even though many had tried. And that bit of knowledge gave him a small spark of hope.

Finishing up with his hair, he stuck his hand under the soap dispenser before rubbing the soap over his legs. He needed a plan that covered both possible alternatives, whether Jim suspected something or not.

A quiet settled over his mind as the solution finally solidified, and he paused in mid-motion. Jim had only seen the envelope. He could destroy the letter and Jim wouldn’t know. All he had to do was write something on a piece of paper, stick it in the envelope and pass it off as the original letter. He could open the damn thing right in front of Jim and pretend it was a letter from his mom like he said.

He worked quickly to wash the rest of his body before turning the shower to sonics. The waves pulsating around him dried the moisture from his body, and he opened his mouth, letting them remove the bitter taste from it, before he turned off the shower and stepped out of the stall.

Shit! He hadn’t thought to bring in clean clothes in with him, and he already spent more time in here than he wanted to. If luck was with him, Jim would be on his breakfast run. Mentally crossing his fingers, Leonard grabbed a towel from the rack and wrapped it around his waist, before poking his head out of the bathroom.

And luck was finally on his side. There was no sign of Jim in his room. Leonard quickly made his way over to his desk, pushing aside the various PADDs, books and miscellaneous stuff littering the top.

What the fuck? There was more crap on it than he had there yesterday.

“Where the hell did all this come from?” he groused in the quiet room, before the reason dawned on him. Jim must have moved the contents of his mother’s box over here when they got back from the bar last night. At least one mystery was solved, but not the one he was most concerned about.

Still seeing no sign of the letter, Leonard flung his arms out in frustration while his eyes quickly ran over the surface again. “Where is the goddamn letter?” he muttered.

He stood back, his eyes darting back and forth, before scanning again at a different angle to see if he had missed it. Ducking his head down, he looked under the desk. Did it fall on the floor when Jim had put the stuff there last night?

Shit. Could Jim have picked it up? A feeling of panic tore through his stomach. Leonard tried to stifle the reaction, knowing that wouldn’t help him in his search. He shouldn’t jump to conclusions. It might have just fallen somewhere in the area. The way that Jim took care of things, it could be anywhere.

Leonard circled the desk, looking around the floor, and his head whipped back and forth as the panic started to build further. No letter. He stood back once again, his hand coming up to grip his forehead, as he tried to keep himself calm even as his stomach started to churn in fear this time.

He could have sworn he threw it on the desk, but after last night, his memory wasn’t as sharp as it normally was.

The bed.

Moving quickly over to that side of the dorm room, Leonard dropped to his knees, looking underneath the bed. Not there. He stood, catching the ends of his towel that had come undone, tying them securely, before he grabbed the pillow, shaking it out of its case. Nothing. Leonard yanked the covers off the bed, stripping each layer off in turn, shaking each blanket and sheet roughly, hoping against hope that it had somehow ended up caught in one of them.

Fuck. Where the hell was it? He quickly rummaged through the drawers in the night stand, coming up with nothing.

He needed to find it. Leonard glanced at the chrono. He still had lots of time before Jim returned with their food, but now he had to clean up the mess he was making before Jim got back. Leonard rubbed his forehead. He just needed to think.

Turning in circles, he visibly searched the rest of the room. The cream-colored envelope was nowhere to be seen. Shit. It had to be here.

Taking the two long strides back to the desk, he tore through the drawers. Nothing. He grabbed the PADDs and the empty box on the desktop, tossing them to the floor before grabbing one of his books, thumbing through the pages and then holding it by its spine and quickly shaking it, hoping to dislodge the missing envelope. Maybe it had somehow ended up in one of the books.

The hiss of the door opening made him jump, and Leonard accidently banged the book against the hard edge of the desk. His eyes shot up to see Jim standing in the doorway, gripping a large sack and coffee carrier from Sophie’s Diner. Jim’s eyes swept over the living space, taking in the carnage.

“Whoa, Bones. Don’t hurt your books,” Jim said, letting the door close behind him as he made his way over to the corner of Bones’ dorm room that held his mini frig and a small table, placing the coffee and food on its empty surface. The smells emanating from the sack made Bones’ stomach protest.

Gauging the chaos of the room in a measured way, Jim turned and gave Leonard a questioning look. “Whatcha looking for, Bones?” he asked.

Leonard was standing there, wrapped only in his towel, evidence of his mad quest to find the damn letter all over the desk and floor. Of course there was no way in hell Jim would ignore the mess in Leonard’s normally fastidious room, so he did the only thing that he could quickly think of.

He lied.

“Lookin’ for more of those cookies before you could get to them,” Leonard said, hardening his jaw, daring Jim not to call him on his bullshit, even though he was cringing inside. There was another reason why Leonard usually spoke the plain, blunt truth most of the time; more often than not, he was a spectacularly awful liar under pressure.

Jim stood still, those cool, blue eyes taking in everything that Leonard was trying with all his might not to reveal. Leonard’s chin came up in defiance, and Jim sighed softly in return. Walking over to the desk, Jim pulled off the cover of the container, miraculously and visibly sitting on the corner, revealing the remainder of the cookies inside.

“Wanna tell me what you’re really looking for?” Jim asked quietly.

Leonard swallowed nervously, but refused to answer.

Jim waited patiently, allowing the seconds, minutes to stretch out between them before finally, a resigned look came over him as he put the cover back on the cookie container.

“Could it be something like this?” Jim asked, reaching inside his leather jacket and pulling out the cream-colored envelope from his pocket.

Leonard’s heart stopped beating, terror flowing through his blood vessels, as he looked at the letter. Oh fuck, Jim had taken his letter because he had known there was more to it.

Wait. Jim had taken the letter. Jim had taken his letter.

The last thought ignited a fiery anger through him, and he welcomed and embraced the more familiar feeling.

“You had no fuckin’ right to touch my mail!”

Jim didn’t even blink in the raging storm. “I had every fuckin’ right. Ever since you got this, you’ve been acting strange.”

“That’s good, coming from you, kid.”

“Ever since you’ve got this letter, Bones, you’ve been hurting. What the hell’s in this letter, Bones?” He jerked his hand away, as Leonard leaped forward to grab it out of Jim’s fingers.

“I told you, it’s from my mom, and it’s none of your goddamn business!”

“Bullshit!” Jim said as he maneuvered quickly around Leonard’s dorm room, keeping the table and desk between them as they went on a cat and mouse chase.

Leonard stubbed his toe on the leg of a chair going by the table, and he let out a scream as he hopped on one foot. This was fuckin’ ridiculous. He wasn’t going to play this stupid game.

“Goddamn it, Jim. Give me my letter!”

Jim stopped, holding the letter aloft behind his head, well away from Leonard’s reach on the other side of the table. A calculated look came over his face. “I’ll give it to you if you answer one question.”

Leonard crossed his arms over his bare chest. “What?” he snapped.

“Why do you think you murdered someone?”

Leonard’s resolve was cut like a string, and if there hadn’t been a chair right there to fall onto, Leonard wouldn’t have been surprised if he had landed on the floor. “Uh…uh,” he stammered. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Jim took the opposite chair and laid the envelope in front of him, keeping his hand over it. Leonard knew diving for it wouldn’t work. Not with as quick as Jim was, plus the added obstacles of the food sack and the coffee on the table top.

“Bones, I’ve known you for fifteen weeks, and not once in all that time have you ever gotten this drunk. Bones, you cried.” Jim delivered that last bit of news in a soft voice.

That took the rest of the wind out of his sails. There was no fucking way he could bullshit his way out of this. He didn’t possess that particular talent either, not like Jim did. Besides, Jim’s bullshit detector was just as good if not better than Leonard’s.

Hanging his head, Leonard asked solemnly, “What did I say?”

He could feel Jim’s eyes on him. “You talked about your dad getting sick, and how you were spending lots of time at the hospital. You said something about Jocelyn cheatin’ on you while your dad was dying and how you found out about it at the funeral. Then you said something about murdering someone.”

Jim paused, and Leonard heard the slight teasing tone in Jim’s voice as he asked, “You didn’t end up murdering one of the guys Jocelyn had an affair with did you?” Leonard’s head snapped up and he met Jim’s earnest eyes. “If you did, I’ll help make sure that no one ever finds the body.”

“What!? No! God, Jim. She only screwed around with Clay, and he is welcomed to her,” Leonard growled emphatically. A small, encouraging smile came over Jim’s face, and Leonard knew he had been played by his friend in order to get him to look up at Jim.

Leonard chewed on his lip. Oh, hell. It was worse than he thought. Whether he was drunk or not, he had told Jim more in one evening than anyone else in the past year and a half. Was it because of the letter, or was he just plain tired of lying to everyone?

Fuck. Leonard released a resigned sigh as he gave up trying to hide anything. “All of that’s basically true, Jim.”

Leonard swallowed, resolving to finish, to finally tell someone what he had done. His mother knew. Jocelyn knew, but someone else had told them. He had been too much like a fucking coward to ever admit what he had done. Maybe all that needed to change.

Leonard gathered his courage. “But there’s something else I didn’t tell you. The reason that I was spending so much time at the hospital was because I was trying to find the cure for what was k…killing my dad.”

Leonard looked down, licking his lips, breathing through the tidal wave of emotions and memories those words set loose in his mind. Pushing them back no longer worked, and they flooded him with the panic and impending dread he had been feeling back then. He swallowed a couple of times, hoping to be able to finish his story without crying again, when he felt something being pushed into his hands that were clenched tightly on the table.

“Here,” Jim said, further pushing the large cup of coffee into Leonard’s now open hands.

Opening the top with shaking fingers, Leonard brought the cup to his lips and took a large drink of the hot liquid. The coffee felt good going down, giving moisture to his dry throat, and giving him something to do with his hands.

Leonard took a deep breath. “I failed, Jim. I promised him that I would find the cure, I didn’t find it in time.”

“Your dad died.”

It wasn’t a question, but Jim had it wrong. For once, Leonard didn’t want to let people’s assumptions to passively absolve him of what he had done.

Leonard shook his head, pursing his lips as he swallowed down the guilt that was always so close at hand when he even thought about those times. “No, Jim. You don’t understand. My dad was dying from the disease, but that’s not what killed him.”

He looked up and finally met Jim’s blue and earnest eyes. He had been such a coward before. For once he was going to look into someone’s face and tell them the truth and see the reaction that he rightly deserved.

“I killed him.”

Jim’s eyes softened, but Leonard didn’t see the rejection that he had feared.

“What happened, Bones?”

The compassion in Jim’s eyes and voice were like the keys to the floodgates, and Leonard wouldn’t have been able to stop surge of words even if he had wanted to.

“God, Jim. He was in so much...pain,” Leonard said, his voice hitching. “I tried to encourage him to hang on just a little bit longer…” Leonard closed his eyes, rubbing his fingers over his brow, as the memories of that evening came surging back, bring with them the emotions that still felt like razor blades to his heart. “He begged me, Jim. He begged me to let him go.”

Nothing was said as Leonard fought to control himself. After his breathing no longer sounded so ragged, Leonard felt Jim’s hand on his arm, giving him a tiny squeeze.

“So you did. You let him go,” Jim said, and Leonard was eternally grateful that Jim somehow knew how hard those words would have been to say. Leonard looked up with his eyes full of unshed tears and nodded his head. “That’s not killing him, Bones. That was allowing him to die on his own terms.”

“You don’t understand, Jim.” And now the tears that he hadn’t shed since he was alone at his father’s grave the day of his funeral started to fall. “Someone else, someone better than me found…the fucking cure.” He could barely get the words out through the layers of pain lining his throat. “The fucking cure, Jim. Five weeks later. Five fucking weeks later!”

He pulled back his arm to sweep the containers off the table, but Jim grabbed him, and held on tight, pulling him up as Jim came around the table to pull him into a hug.

The feel of Jim’s arms broke him. His own hands that a second ago wanted to destroy something with the overwhelming anger and pain inside of him now gripped the back of Jim’s jacket, and he laid his head on Jim’s broad shoulder and allowed it all to pour out of him.

Leonard lost track of time. The next thing that he noticed was one of Jim’s hands softly holding his head while the other made soft comforting circles on his back.

“You didn’t kill ‘em, Bones. You gave him the opportunity to die with dignity.” The softly uttered words were like a balm to his tortured heart.

A part of him didn’t want to leave the safe confines of Jim’s arms. It had been years since he had felt this kind of comfort, but he was standing here, basically naked if not for his towel, his nose running, and tears on his face and probably all over Jim’s jacket. He didn’t know if he had the energy to feel embarrassed or not. One thing for sure, a graceful exit was probably a stretch at this point.

He pulled away gently, allowing Jim to release him, and he used his hand to wipe briefly under his nose. Jim leaned over the table, pulling a number of napkins out of the food bag and handed them to Leonard.

Leonard wiped his eyes before giving his nose the need blow. The tingle of embarrassment was starting to grow, and he started to scowl.

“Bones, you’re covered in goose bumps. Why don’t you go get dressed and I’ll set out our breakfast.” Jim said as he glanced away, kindly giving Bones the visual space that he needed right now. This compassionate and understanding Jim was something he didn’t expect.

Glad for the brief reprieve, Leonard walked into the bedroom area, listening to Jim pulling things out of the sack from the diner, and pulled on sweatpants and a t-shirt. His arms and legs felt sluggish, and he fumbled as he put on his shoes.

God, he felt drained. He hadn’t realized the shit he had been carrying around for over a year, and he felt almost empty inside. But in a good way, like he could finally start over. Not actually absolved of what he had done, but for the first time since he had heard those horrible words of diagnosis from his father’s mouth, he left like he might be able to start letting go.

He returned to the kitchen area just as Jim was sitting down to eat his breakfast. Leonard could see a covered food container in the place across from Jim. He watched as Jim took a slice of bacon off the heaping pile that covered a small plate in the middle of the table.

Leonard frowned at the sight. “Damn it, Jim! Just how much bacon did you get?”

Jim jumped slightly before a big smirk grew across his face. “Hey, you can’t complain,” he commanded, using the slice of bacon to point in Leonard’s direction. “I had to go get the food, so I told you I was going to get a double order.”

Even though he barked at Jim, he was secretly glad to have the familiar rant to ease the tension of facing Jim again.

Leonard sat on his chair and glanced down on the offending food item. “You said a double order. That is a whole lot more than a double order.”

Jim took a big bite out of his bacon. “Sophie felt sorry for you, so she sent more along for you.” Jim nodded at the covered container on Leonard’s plate. “She also sent some cheesy grits for you. Said it would help calm your stomach.”

The same stomach growled at the thought, and Leonard lifted the cover, breathing in the wonderful aroma.

“How the hell did you get back so early if she sent these?” Leonard asked as he grabbed a spoon and stirred it through the grits before loading up. The first mouthful was like heaven, and Leonard thought he might have hummed in satisfaction.

“I sent in our order when you went into the bathroom. Thought it would save me some time,” Jim answered with a smile as he watched Leonard devour the food. He grabbed the plate with the bacon and slid several slices onto Leonard’s plate. “Then when I got to the diner, Gary was there, and he gave me a ride back.”

Which explained why Leonard didn’t get the needed half hour to look for the letter. Leonard sighed softly. Maybe it worked out for the best anyway.

The two of them sat in comfortable silence while they ate. Leonard was just finishing up, using his last bit of toast to soak up the yolk and grease left on his plate when Jim pushed the envelope that started it all across the table. Leonard stared at it for a few seconds before popping the bite of toast in his mouth, chewing as he watched Jim.

Jim nodded at the envelope. “If you want to tell me about it…” He left it at that, allowing Leonard to decide.

And the thing of it was, Leonard did want to tell Jim about it. Jim deserved to know what it was all about. Leonard reached for his cup of coffee and brought it to his mouth to take a comforting swallow.

He put the cup down, pushing the empty food container away, and Jim grabbed it and his, putting them both back into the diner sack and setting it on the floor. Now the only thing on the table was the empty plate, bacon long gone, their two cups and the letter. Leonard looked the envelope, playing with the cup between his two hands.

“My dad used to write me letters, on real paper, for all the highlights and milestones of my life. He said writing it on paper made it more of a personal way to celebrate one’s life and that he wanted to give that to me. He used the same stationery and this antique fountain pen for all of them.”

Leonard took another sip from his cup, buying himself time to gather his thoughts before continuing. “He started it the day that he found out my mother was pregnant with me, and he did it all throughout my childhood. Well, my life. When I walked the first time. When I had my first day of school. When I was admitted to med school. When I developed the neuro-grafting technique. When I got married. ” The last part he said softly, with only a hint of bitterness.

Leonard smiled. “He didn’t give me some of them right away. I had to be old enough to appreciate what he had written. Like the first one and the one he wrote after I was born. I didn’t get them until Jocelyn was pregnant with Joanna and when Joanna was born. I got two letters on those days; one about his thoughts of being a parent and one about being a grandparent. But, every other milestone and achievement of my life wasn’t real until I got a letter from my dad, telling me how proud he was.”

“It sounds like he was a great dad,” Jim said.

“He was.” Leonard paused for a moment or two. “I used to look forward to getting them.” He stared at the newest letter; the irony of his reaction was not lost on him.

“But not this one,” Jim said, leaving the why not unsaid.

Leonard released a slow, soft breath before he agreed, “Not this one.” He raised his eyes up to the blue ones patiently waiting for him to explain, and he realized that he finally wanted to explain that, too. “I’m afraid of what it’s gonna say.”

Jim frowned, confusion written in the soft lines of his face. “What do you think it’ll say?”

And here it was. He kept his eyes on Jim, swallowing before he answered softly, “That he knows that I will find the cure. I don’t think I can handle reading that, Jim.” He swallowed as pain started to squeeze his heart. “Maybe I should just destroy it.”

Jim looked at him, giving him a soft, understanding smile. “You could, but then won’t you always wonder?” He let Leonard think about that for a moment. “I listened to ‘The Tape.’”

He could hear the significance of those words in how Jim said them, almost as if they had capital letters. He frowned in confusion at Jim for a few seconds before he realized what Jim meant.

The Kelvin tape.

His eyes widened with a pang of remorse. God, here he was going on about a letter from his dad, and Jim never even had an opportunity to know what his dad was even like. Jim must have seen the regret on his face, and he shook his head, brushing aside Leonard’s concern.

“You did? When?” Leonard asked, still feeling embarrassment at his lack of tact for his friend’s situation.

Rolling his own coffee cup between his fingers, it was Jim’s turn to look uncomfortable. “About a month ago.”

Leonard thought back. A month ago? He closed his eyes as he recalled. Oh, yeah. It was the last time Jim had needed his hangover meds and a long session under his dermal regenerator.

Feeling even worse, he looked back at Jim, who smiled sheepishly. “I didn’t know,” Leonard said softly.

“I know. But, the thing of it is, Bones, I always imagined it was worse than it was.”

Leonard raised his eyebrow. If that wasn’t as worse as Jim imagined, and he still went out, got drunk off his ass and fought two Andorians with knives, he’d have hated to see what Jim had done if had it been worse.

Leonard was curious to know what Jim had found out, but he wouldn’t push Jim to tell him. Not with something that personal.

“But it wasn’t,” Leonard said, making sure that there was no hint for Jim to confide anything more than what he was comfortable with.

“No. It was still hard to hear.” That was probably the biggest understatement he ever heard from Jim. “But, I’m glad I did it.” Jim paused as a memory flashed behind his eyes before continuing with a slight smile. “Gotta hear them name me.”

God, how the hell did Jim have the courage to listen to that? Leonard looked at the brave man sitting across from him, watching as Jim was caught up in the memories.

Jim smiled wistfully before he gathered himself. “You could tear that letter up right now and never have to know. But the thing of it is, Bones, it sounds like your dad wrote the things he knew you needed to hear. What makes you think that he would do anything different with this one?”

Jim let him ponder on that before he said, “Someone once said, ‘Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.’ They also said, ‘…and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others.’”

“You think I should read it,” Leonard said.

“I think you’ll regret it someday if you destroy it.”

Leonard stared at the envelope for a few seconds before sighing. Jim was right. He’ll never have another letter from his dad ever again. This was the last connection he had with his father, and no matter what it said, his father thought it was important enough to put it in a letter. This was something that his dad had wanted him to know, even if it made the guilt that was a constant shadow in Leonard’s life worse.

Besides, how would it look if Jim could listen to his father’s last words and Leonard couldn’t even read a letter from the man that had loved him the most?

Leonard reached over and picked up the letter. Before he could slide his finger under the flap, Jim pushed his chair back and motioned his thumb towards the door. “You probably want some privacy. I’ll just go…”

“You just keep your ass here.” Leonard slipped his finger under the envelop flap and opened it up. “Besides, you already seen me bawl like a damn baby. Not much more you could see after that.” A thought popped up in Leonard’s mind. Maybe Jim had enough of dealing with the maelstrom of Leonard’s past. “Unless you wanna go?”

Jim was shaking his head no even before Leonard finished talking. “No, I’ll stick around, Bones, in case you need me,” Jim said knowingly with a soft voice. “But, I’m gonna give you some space.”

Leaving several napkins on the table, he picked up the diner sack and the empty plate, throwing both into the recycler, before turning back to Leonard and informing him, “I’ll just go remake your bed again since someone decided that I didn’t do a good job the first time.” Jim clapped his hand down on Leonard’s shoulder, and Leonard couldn’t help but appreciate the comfort being conveyed through the gesture.

Leonard pulled out the three sheets of stationary from the envelope. The sounds of Jim cleaning up the mess he made of his dorm room gave him the courage he needed to unfold it, knowing that Jim was right here, waiting to help if needed. He swallowed and took a deep breath at the sight of the familiar script before reading.

 

Dear Leonard,

You know, I’ve lost track of the number of times I‘ve written to you over the years. Did I ever tell you that I got the idea from my mother? She wrote me a letter when she found out that she was pregnant with me. She wanted to be able to tell me someday about all the things she felt, about how I was going to be a part of the family. I kind of liked reading it when I was older, so I decided right there and then if I was ever blessed with a son or daughter, I was going to do the same with them. I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading my letters. I know I have enjoyed writing them to you.

But, I have to say, Son, this one’s harder to write than the rest were. Not because of my eminent death. I’ve come to terms with that. I worry it might be hard for you to read. And if it is, I am sorry, Son. But, I have some things I need to say, and I think that you have some things you need to know.

I want you to know that I have no regrets, and to me, that is one of the best things a man can say looking at the end of his life. I’ve lived a good life. I’ve seen a lot of things, done a lot more, and I can go out thinking that maybe I’ve had a good impact on other people.

And I can say that I have loved and been loved. Your mama has been my soul mate and best friend, and we had a lot of good years with each other.

We couldn’t have had a better son. You have been a source of joy in our lives. I think back to the day you were born and how I held you in my arms, rocking you right there in the hospital, and I wondered what kind of person you’d be. I imagined all these things about you. What you’d be like? Who’d you take after? Would you be more outgoing like your mama, or would you be more quiet like me? Would you have the McCoy stubbornness or the Steward tenacity?

But, the funny thing about children is they just decide to be who they’re supposed to be. You’ve always been your own person, Son. You’re strong, stronger than anyone else I know. You have a moral core that guides everything you do. You have such a strong sense of what is right and what isn’t. Gabriel himself couldn’t change your mind if you didn’t think something was right. It’s what makes you a good man and a great doctor.

So all that said, when the time is right, I am going to ask you to do something for me. Something hard. I’m going to ask you to release me. To let me go on my terms and not have to wait for my body to give out and die slowly. I’m going to ask you and not your mama because I think you’ll understand, being a man and the doctor that you are. I’m sorry I have to burden you with this. But, man to man, I don’t want to put Ellie through that. I hope that you can understand that and forgive me.

Now that has been taken care of, I need to talk to you about that promise you made to me about finding the cure. At the time I should have stopped you, I should have made you realize that you’d have never make a promise like that to one of your patients. But, I saw it for what it was: a son’s wish to keep his daddy from dying, so I kept my mouth shut. But, I have to say, it’s been hard seeing you work both day and night trying to find something that just isn’t meant to be found, Son. I know that you need to feel like you are doing something, that you need some place to channel all those feelings, so I won’t say anything just yet.

Just know, Son, if a cure isn’t found, that’s okay. That’s the way that it’s supposed to be. But enough of this maudlin stuff.

I want you to continue on with your life, Leonard. Don’t hold back. Continue to be the man that you are meant to be. All fathers have a tendency to think that their children are the best, but that really holds true in your case. You are an amazing doctor and a wonderful family man. Keep working to balance those two roles in your life. It won’t be easy, but it will be well worth the effort.

Cherish your wife, and don’t neglect her. I suspect that you have some work to do to make up for the time you have spent at that lab. Make her the center of your life again. Make her know how much you love her, and remember that a good marriage takes work from both sides to make it stronger.

Enjoy that wonderful and beautiful granddaughter of mine. What a joy she has brought to all of our lives! She has her father’s and grandfather’s stubbornness, the tenacity of her grandmother, and the grace of her mother. She is going to turn a few heads in her day, Son. Just you wait and see. You’re going to have your hands full then. (And just so you know, my shotgun is in the back of the hall closet in case you need to scare off a few of those beaus.) Tell that precious granddaughter of mine about her grampa. Let her know that I will always love her, even when I am not there to tell her.

And take care of your mama. She’s a strong woman, but she’ll need some help from time to time. Be there for her when you can.

Lastly, I love you, Son. More than I could have ever expected back all those years when Ellie first told me she was pregnant. It has been a privilege and an honor to be your father, and I couldn’t be prouder of the man you have made yourself into. Remember that.

I’m going to direct my attorneys to give you this after I have passed. I love you, Son. Take care of yourself.

Love,

Dad

 

Leonard wiped the tears that had fallen from his eyes as he tucked the first two pages behind the last. The script on this one was not as firm as the other pages, and Leonard felt a pang in his heart, knowing that his dad must have written this later, when the pain was getting harder to control. He must have made a noise because suddenly Jim was back by his side.

“Bones?” Jim asked tentatively. “Are you okay?” Leonard just nodded his head and silently handed the first two pages to Jim. He watched Jim hesitate to grab it. “You want me to read this?”

“Yeah.”

Jim took the letter and settled down on the chair across from him. Jim quietly read as Leonard watched. He knew when Jim got to the part about Jocelyn because he looked up and gave Leonard a pained smile. Leonard shook his head, hoping to convey that it was okay, and Jim went back to reading.

A smile grew on Jim’s face before he let out a laugh. “He’s right, you know. You’ll probably have to use that shotgun in just a few more years.”

“Don’t remind me,” Leonard growled before Jim continued reading.

Jim looked up when he was finished, and he pushed the sheets back to Leonard. “Your dad was a great man, and he didn’t want you to feel guilty.”

Leonard took a deep breath before he answered, “I know.”

Jim nodded at the remaining page in Leonard’s hand. “What’s that?”

Leonard kept his eyes on Jim, refusing to look at the rest of the letter. “It’s an addition he wrote later. It looks like he wrote it after he was in a lot of pain.”

Jim’s eyes filled with understanding, and he glanced briefly down to Leonard’s shaking hand before he asked, “Do you need me to read it first?”

He couldn’t believe the relief that flooded his body at the words, and he felt a wave of shame that reaction brought him. “I’m such a damn coward.”

Jim grabbed the hand holding the letter. “No, you’re not.” He pulled gently on the paper gripped in Leonard’s hand. “Let me do this for you, Bones.”

Leonard opened his hand, and Jim pulled the page up his eyes to read. He watched as Jim quickly scanned the lines, trying to ascertain the contents from Jim’s face.

Jim reached the end and gave a soft sigh before looking up. “It’s about him planning to ask you to let him go. Do you want me to read it to you?”

Oh god. Leonard hung his head. He felt a touch on his hand. “It’ll be okay, Bones,” Jim said reassuringly before he started to read the rest of the letter to Leonard.

Jim’s voice somehow made it easier to hear the words than it would have been to see the pain in each and every letter on that page.

It’s time, Son. I’m going to ask you to do what I said. I hope that you will forgive me for placing this all on your shoulders, but this kind of life isn’t what I want. I want to die with some dignity left, knowing that you and your mother no longer have to suffer right along with me.

I’ve already told the attorneys to hold off on getting this letter to you. I want to give you a little time to get your life back before I drop all this on you again.

Thank you, Son, for all of this. Give that granddaughter a big kiss from her grampa. I love you.

 

Dad

 

Jim’s voice faded away, and both of them sat quietly, Leonard with his thoughts and Jim letting him have the time. Leonard knew that Jim was watching him when a napkin was pushed into his free hand, and he used it to wipe the tears from his cheeks and wipe at his nose.

“God, in a way it feels like a million years ago.”

“But it hurts like yesterday,” finished Jim.

Leonard looked up, and an understanding passed between them. The soft chime of Leonard’s dorm comm unit sounded.

Jim indicated with his head. “You want me to get that?”

Leonard nodded and gathered the pages of the letter together as Jim got up and walked over to Leonard’s desk.

“It’s your mom,” Jim said softly. Leonard waved with his hand, indicating for Jim to answer it. He stuffed the letter back into its envelope before grabbing another napkin to wipe his eyes again and quietly blow his nose.

“Hi, Mrs. McCoy.”

“Jim.” Leonard could hear the mild scolding tone in his mother’s voice. “What have I asked you to call me?”

Jim laughed. “Ellie. How are you?”

“I’m fine. How about you?”

“I’m great. Say, thank you for that sweater you sent me. It fits perfectly. You really didn’t have to,” Jim said. Leonard could hear how touched Jim was for the gift.

“Of course I had to.” In his mind, Leonard could see his mother waving her hand through the air as if she were whisking away Jim’s words. “Couldn’t have you getting cold out there in all that rain now, could I?”

“Guess not,” Jim said, laughingly.

“Did you get some of the cookies?” she asked.

Leonard called out before Jim could answer. “Yeah, too many.” He walked over to his desk, coming in view of the comm. “Hi, Mom.”

“Leonard.” His mom gave him a smile, but he could still see the sadness that lurked behind it.

“Well, I think I’ll let you two talk.” Jim stood up from the chair. “Thanks, Ellie, for the sweater and the cookies. I’ll talk to you again sometime.” Jim clapped his hand on Leonard’s shoulder before moving around to head out the door.

“Jim, wait up. I know I’m gonna regret this, but here…” Leonard handed him the book he had been reading along with the cookie container and pointed to his bed. “Don’t eat all of them.”

He heard his mother laugh, and he rolled his eyes before sitting down in front of his comm. “Hi, Mom,” he said again.

“I hear you got your package. Oh, Leonard, I’m sorry I didn’t call you before you opened it.” Leonard could see the regret in her eyes. “I wanted to be able to comm you yesterday, but your Great-Aunt Susan had one of her ‘attacks,’ and I ended up spending the whole day over there.”

“You mean she was bored and was demanding attention again,” Leonard said.

Eleanora laughed quietly. “Well, there’s that, too. But seriously, Sweetie, I had planned to call you before you opened it so that I could prepare you for it. The attorneys stipulated that I had to send it to you right away. I had thought of calling you earlier, but I knew that you had finals this week, and I didn’t want to make that any harder for you.” He could see the guilt weighing her down.

He rushed to reassure her. “Mom, it’s okay. I read it, and everything’s okay.” And strangely enough, for the first time in almost two years, he wasn’t lying when he said that. A small smile slipped out at the thought.

Eleanora gave him a regretful little smile. “Still, I just wish I could have been there for you when you read it.”

Leonard looked over to the bed, his eyes connecting with Jim’s, who was listening to the exchange, not even attempting to pretend he wasn’t, and Leonard felt something warm and tentative bloom in his chest.

He looked back over to his mother’s image on the comm and smiled reassuringly. “It’s okay, Mom. I wasn’t alone. I had Jim.”

The End