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The Night Absolves

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Everything tastes of ash.

 

Jim doesn’t notice it until he’s back on Enterprise . Starfleet Medical isn’t exactly known for its food, and the meals Jim consumes there in the two weeks after he wakes up are plain and nondescript. The lack of taste doesn’t alarm him.

 

The ship’s cook makes him a meal in celebration of his first night back aboard the ship. They’re still in spacedock, preparing for the five-year mission that starts in two days, and Jim has been back on Enterprise for all of six hours. The ship looks better now than on the day she launched, and all of the crew replacements have already been on board for almost a week. Even so, the corridors feel empty and the ship seems too big, as though Jim can physically sense the gaping absence of the dozens of people who died under his watch.

 

And his food tastes of ash.

 

Leonard and Spock are dining with him in the privacy of his quarters. Spock tolerates the meal with his usual stoicism, even though Jim knows that he has a particular dislike of Earth food. He appreciates the gesture, nonetheless.

 

“Jim, I know you’re excited to eat real food again, but if you add any more spice to that you’re gonna sear your tongue right outta your mouth,” Leonard gripes when Jim reaches for the slew of spices that are sitting in the middle of the table. It’s the third time he’s tried to add flavor to his food. So far, nothing has worked.

 

He withdraws, giving Leonard a sheepish smile that he hopes doesn’t convey his internal alarm.

 

“Sorry, Bones, bad habit,” he says apologetically, and then before he can be questioned further, he turns to Spock and pointedly says, “Now, what were you saying about tomorrow’s duty roster?”

 

Jim can feel Leonard staring holes into the back of his head, but thankfully he doesn’t pursue his obvious concern.

 

----

 

Leonard is an impatient man who exhibits boundless, maddening tolerance at the worst of times.

 

He kept his distance while Jim was still at Starfleet Medical, watching over Jim but careful not to crowd him or hover, as Leonard was wont to do whenever Jim did something colossally stupid. And Jim would have figured that crawling into an antimatter chamber counts as so-stupid-I-should-have-left-you-dead-for-a-while-longer-so-you-can-think-about-what-you’ve-done in Leonard’s book, but Leonard didn’t make anything more than a half-hearted quip about it the first time Jim woke up.

 

“Well, you were only barely dead, anyway,” he’d said, and that was the last they’d spoken of it. But Leonard was markedly distant while still keeping watch at Jim’s bedside, giving him the occasional kiss on the forehead when no one was around but nothing more than that.

 

The careful distance remains when they all return to Enterprise . As the mission gets underway, he and Leonard don’t return to their routine of spending alternating nights in each other’s cabins. Leonard keeps to his own bed and Jim to his, and though they take meals together three times a week, that is about the extent of their contact. Occasionally, Jim slips down to the medical bay to discuss official ship’s business with Leonard, and in the past this would have led to a frantic make-out session against the back of Leonard’s office door. Nowadays it means little more than a quick discussion between patients and sometimes a brief kiss, but only when Jim initiates it.

 

He doesn’t initiate very often, and even then it is always chaste.

 

He’s terrified that Leonard will taste as ashen as everything else, and that is something Jim knows he wouldn’t be able to bear.

 

-----

 

Jim is cold all the time.

 

He’s never before been this uncomfortable on Enterprise . The environmental controls keep the ship at a temperature that’s consistent with clement California weather. For Jim, accustomed to harsh Iowa winters, that means it’s always just a shade too warm; for Leonard, a Georgia boy who hated the San Francisco weather, it’s unpleasantly cold--or so he leads them all to believe, with the amount of bitching he does about it.

 

But now Jim is the one who can’t get comfortable on the ship. His hands are always white, his nail beds blue, and he has to physically fight back shudders when he’s sitting on the bridge during his duty shift. Things are more tolerable when he’s moving around, keeping himself active and his mind busy, but the chill persists.

 

“Goddamn it, Jim, stay still!” Leonard hisses at him one day as he’s forced to practically chase a pacing Jim around the medical bay just to complete his scans. “And - here, would you just stop ? Hold on a second.”

 

He procures a blanket and slings it across Jim’s shoulders before Jim can register what he’s doing.

 

“I keep telling them they keep it too damn cold in this room, but will they listen to me?” Leonard mutters, shaking his head. His gaze is soon drawn back to his scanner, his eyebrows knitting together.

 

Jim momentarily considers refusing the blanket out of pride, but even his pride can’t overrule the fact that the warmth feels so damn good . His hands find the edges of the blanket and he tugs it tighter around him.

 

“Something wrong?” he asks.

 

Leonard shakes his head, but he’s still frowning. “No. Just some unusual readings. Does your chest hurt?”

 

“No,” Jim says, though of course then his heart starts hammering with worry, and that does feel uncomfortable.

 

“Don’t look like that, Jim,” Leonard says gently. If they’d been alone, he would have said Jimmy . “Nothing like this has ever been done before.” And by this , Jim knows he means resurrecting you from the goddamn dead . “I don’t have any point of reference to work from. What appears unusual to me might be what’s normal for you now. A new normal. It’s going to be a learning experience for all of us.”

 

“Gotta tell you, Bones, I’m damn tired of feeling like a lab rat,” Jim says.

 

“Just be grateful you’re alive, Jim,” Leonard tells him. “And if that means that people are studying you for the rest of your life, it’s a small price to pay.”

 

Jim’s never felt loathing toward Leonard before. Anger, sure, on more occasions than he can count. But white-hot, searing hatred - that’s new, and so sudden that it shocks Jim. He can feel himself lose color in his face, and Leonard’s eyes widen.

 

“Jim, are you okay -”

 

“I’m fine,” Jim says quickly, tripping over his words in his haste to get them out. He pulls the blanket from around his shoulders and shoves it into Leonard’s hands. “I need to go.”

 

“But Jim -”

 

Leonard’s protest is cut off as the doors to the medical bay slide shut behind him.

 

Back in his cabin, Jim leans against the nearest wall and sinks to his knees. Leonard’s words are still echoing in his ears, so smug and satisfied and sure .

 

It’s a small price to pay.

 

He has to live with this for the rest of his life, and he didn’t even choose it. He never asked for this, never asked to live as half a person, a person who can’t even eat his meals without the cold taste of death in his mouth.

 

----

 

They haven’t had sex since before Jim’s death. Leonard hasn’t said a word about it, and his unending patience is infuriating. Jim almost wishes he would press the issue, wishes Leonard would do more than wait for Jim to kiss him, wishes Leonard would actually try to deepen the kiss when he does. But at the same time, Jim isn’t sure what he would do if that happens. He hasn’t even been able to get more than half-hard since his resurrection, but he sure as hell isn’t going to tell Leonard that.

 

Jim has a full physical done three times a week, which he would have flat-out refused to do prior to the accident. But recovering his motor skills in the wake of his resurrection has been a strange and fluctuating journey. He was able to walk within a week of waking up at Starfleet Medical, and he can manipulate his arms and hands in much the same way that he could before. His movements feel sluggish, as though it takes his joints a second to catch up with his brain’s instructions. Sometimes his movements fail altogether. Once, on the bridge, he went to sign off on a report and found that he couldn’t move the stylus with his fingers. Spock came to his rescue and took care of the report, and Jim found that his fingers came back under his control within a minute, but it was a terrifying experience.

 

“Tell me I’m not going to have to put up with this the rest of my life,” he’d growled to Leonard later that day in the medical bay.

 

“I can’t tell you that,” Leonard said honestly. He administered a hypo and took another scan of Jim’s hands, his face unreadable. “But I do think it’s too premature to be worrying about that. It’s been less than two months, Jim. Your body is still adjusting to -”

 

“ - to being alive again, yes, I know,” Jim had muttered, and he withstood the rest of the examination in brooding silence.

 

It happens again at various intervals. One morning Jim gets out of bed and finds that he can’t lift his right leg. He’s able to walk within thirty seconds, but he spends the entirety of his shift on the bridge worried that he won’t be able to get out of his chair when it’s over. On a different afternoon, he’s having lunch with Spock and is momentarily unable to lift his fork to his mouth. Spock notices, of course, but doesn’t say anything. Leonard does, however, later on that week, when Jim is trying to call up a starmap on the display on the arm of his chair and can’t push the button.

 

“How long has this been going on?” he growls into Jim’s ear, thankfully keeping his voice pitched low despite his irritation. “And when were you thinkin’ of telling me?”

 

“What the hell are you doing up here on the bridge  all the damn time, anyway?” Jim snaps in return. “Don’t you have a med bay to run?”

 

Leonard scowls and stalks off the bridge, but the next time Jim appears in the medical bay for a physical, he takes an extra hour with it out of spite.

 

-----

 

Jim wakes one morning three hours before the start of alpha shift, shivering.

 

It’s not the first time he’s shuddered out of sleep and it probably won’t be the last. The special thermal blanket he got from the ship’s quartermaster envelops him like a cocoon, but his feet and hands are still blocks of ice and he’s so damn tired of it all. He’s tired of the cold, and the ash, and the feeling that there’s a part of him that’s still dead.

 

He’s not supposed to be here. He was supposed to die in that chamber, he did die in that chamber, and everything that’s happening right now is a mistake. He’s a mistake, he is wrong, and there’s nothing he can do about it. Damn Leonard, and damn that infuriatingly big heart of his.

 

Jim’s apparently not the only one who can’t accept no-win scenarios.

 

He sits up and swings his legs over the side of his bed. He stands tentatively, as he does every morning, and momentarily relaxes when it appears that his limbs are cooperating with him today. He grabs his communicator and leaves his cabin, heading for deck four.

 

Leonard hasn’t changed the code on his door, which is heartening--it means that he doesn’t want to keep Jim away. He’s just come off shift, if the ship’s duty roster is to be trusted, and sure enough Jim finds him sprawled across his bed, somehow taking up the whole thing. Leonard sleeps restlessly, frantically, and it’s not uncommon for him to kick Jim in the middle of the night or to become so agitated that he rolls out of bed.

 

“Move over,” Jim mutters half-heartedly to his sleeping lover, giving his shoulder a shake, and Leonard, still asleep, rolls over. Jim stretches out on the narrow strip of bed available to him and pulls the fraction of the blanket not currently being hogged by Leonard over his shoulders.

 

Leonard, as though reacting to the dip in the mattress, rolls automatically towards Jim’s body. Jim closes his eyes, relishing the heat from Leonard’s body where it presses up against his back.

 

After a while, Leonard wraps an arm around Jim’s waist, pulling him closer, and he murmurs, “Mornin’,” in Jim’s ear.

 

“Hey,” Jim whispers. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”

 

“Yeah, y’did.” Leonard adjusts the blanket so that it’s covering both of them and then buries his face in the back of Jim’s shoulder, his arm going around Jim’s waist again. He slides their fingers together. “Jesus, Jim, you’re freezing. The hell have you been doin’?”

 

“Living,” Jim says dryly. Leonard sighs.

 

“Thought you were jus’ cold in the medical bay. Didn’ realize it was all the time.” He kisses the back of Jim’s neck, and a shiver goes down Jim’s spine at the unexpected, intimate touch. “We’ll look into that.”

 

Jim nods, and Leonard falls asleep again soon after. Jim doesn’t sleep again that night, and pulls himself from the bed with great reluctance less than two hours later so that he can be on the bridge by 0800.

 

-----

 

Jim knows it’s going to blow up in their faces. He’s still not expecting it to happen when it does, and barely realizes he’s been shouting until Leonard hisses through clenched teeth, “Shut up, will you, you’ll wake the whole goddamn deck!”

 

“Don’t you tell me what to do!” Jim snarls, but he drops his voice anyway. “You’ve got no damn right to order me around. I’ll shout if I like, and I’ll avoid your damn physicals if I like!”

 

He knows it sounds petulant, childish even, but Leonard’s insistence on dragging him to the med bay every time he feels so much as a chill or an odd tingle has finally gotten to be too much. Jim woke today with a headache, and Leonard refuses to go to his duty shift without Jim accompanying him to the med bay, which has thrown the day’s duty roster out of whack and only serves to make Jim want nothing more than to slap that smug look off his CMO’s face.

 

“And I’ll tell you something else, too,” he growls, closing the distance between them so he can jab a finger in Leonard’s chest. “I’ll damn well die when I like, and you’ve got no damned right to interfere with it!”

 

That’s more effective than a slap, as it turns out. Leonard’s face goes slack in astonishment, and he takes a step back as though Jim has physically struck him, arms unfolding and dropping to his sides.

 

“What?” he says blankly, stupidly.

 

“You heard me. I was dead, I was gone , and you brought me back!’ Jim snarls at him. “Who gave you the right to change that? Who gave you the right to play God?”

 

Leonard rallies in an instant, an angry red flush blooming up his neck and his eyes turning to stone.

 

“You did,” Leonard snaps, “the moment you made me your CMO! Dammit, Jim, what did you expect me to do?”

 

“I expect you to respect the decisions of your captain!” Jim hisses. “You don’t understand. My entire life - everything that I am, everything I’ve become - is because of them. Because of that damned other universe, and the other Spock. My entire existence was shaped around my father’s death, which never would have happened without them. They’re the reason I’m captain of this ship, the reason I met this crew, the reason why I’m here . And I’m so goddamn tired of having my life dictated according to their terms! So I made a decision for me , for you, for everyone on this ship, that didn’t have to do with anyone else but me. I made a decision , and you took it away from me!”

 

“Because it was a goddamn stupid choice,” Leonard snarls. “Every decision you make affects me , Jim, like it or not! And you know something? That other universe doesn’t have a damned thing to do with the fact that we met, okay? It doesn’t have a damned thing to do with the fact that you’re my best friend, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I’m stupidly in love with you, God only knows why.”

 

He takes a step closer to Jim, nostrils flaring in his anger, though he drops his voice.

 

“You made me your CMO for a reason, and presumably one that doesn’t have anything to do with the fact we’re screwing each other,” he says in a dangerously low voice. “You can die all you want on me, Jim, but don’t expect me to take that lyin’ down! If I have to drag your ass back here to the land of the living every single goddamn time, I will . And if that’s not what you want in a CMO, if you want someone who just gives up , then you’re just going to have to fucking replace me. Because I’m not leaving you.”

 

“Oh, don’t be so damn stubborn! Why would you want to stick around? I’m not the person I was, Len,” Jim says fiercely. “I’m not. Jim Kirk died in that antimatter chamber, he’s gone, and I’m just… lingering. I am wrong, and I’m reminded of this fact at every turn. This world is  - is unbearable .”

 

Leonard looks stricken. “Just give it time -”

 

“How long am I supposed to give it, then?” Jim roars. “It’s been months . How long before it doesn’t taste like I’ve swallowed death whenever I eat? How long before I feel warm again? How long before I can sleep a whole night through? How long before I can have sex with you again? Tell me how long I’m supposed to wait, Bones!

 

Silence descends on the cabin. Leonard puts his hands in his pockets, a movement Jim knows is him trying to conceal the fact that they are shaking. He doesn’t often get to the point where he wants to conceal what he’s feeling. Leonard rages and shouts and loves and laughs loudly , never making a secret of what he’s feeling. It’s not that he can’t, it’s just that he doesn’t care enough to. Except now, here, in front of Jim.

 

“In this galaxy,” he says quietly, his voice strained, “there's a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that... and perhaps more, only one of each of us. I just - I couldn’t let you destroy the one named Kirk.”

 

He lifts red-rimmed eyes to Jim, and for the first time since Pike’s death, Jim is able to see beyond his own pain. To see what has been in front of his eyes all along - the pools of lost sleep under Leonard’s eyes, the worry-pinch of his mouth, the way his uniform top is too loose on his frame.

 

“I’m sorry, Jim,” Leonard says while Jim is still working out how to form words again. “I’m sorry about Pike, and about Harrison, and about the god-awful situation you were forced into. You saved so many lives… including mine. The least I could do was try to save yours in return. I didn’t want to accept that it was over, just like that. There’s still so much left for you to do in this universe. I didn’t - I didn’t even think about what it would do to you -”

 

“No,” Jim says, finding his voice as Leonard loses his own. He crosses the room to Leonard, reaches out and puts his hands on Leonard’s shoulders. “No, Len, stop it. I’m just - I’m fucking scared, okay?”

 

“Don’t be,” Leonard whispers. He frames Jim’s face with his hands and presses their foreheads together. “I’ve got you, okay? I’m gonna take care of you. And I don’t care if you don’t want me to touch you ever again, or - or if you make your food so spicy a Klingon wouldn’t go near it. I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Jim closes his eyes against a sudden sting. He deflects clumsily, to keep from losing his composure completely. “You’re really shit at this, you know that?”

 

“Yeah, darlin’. I know.” He tilts his head and gives Jim a gentle kiss - chaste, still, but at long last it’s one that he initiates. “I just couldn’t stand the thought of losing you. Not this soon.”

 

“I know.” Jim realizes, in a moment of sudden clarity, that if their positions had been reversed and he had Leonard’s brilliance, he would have done the same thing. He draws back slightly. “So now what?”

 

Leonard settles his hands on Jim’s hips and regards him carefully. “Let’s give it a few more weeks. Long as you’re not in any pain, we’ll keep going as we have been. I’ll be watching for improvements, any improvements. Keeping warm, being able to taste your food, that kind of thing. I still have some of Khan’s blood in cold storage. Maybe the solution is dosing you with the serum again every couple of months. You felt pretty good those first couple of weeks after waking up. If none of that works…”

 

He trails off.

 

“Starfleet Medical?” Jim says in resignation.

 

“Yeah.” Leonard strokes a hand through Jim’s hair, cups the back of his neck. “They have more resources than I do on this ship. I’ll go with you, Jimmy, if it comes to that. Spock can handle Enterprise until you’re well again. But let’s not worry about that until we have to.”

 

He kisses Jim’s forehead. “I gotta go. You’ll be okay?”

 

“Yeah. I need to get to the bridge, anyway.” Leonard makes to leave, but Jim holds him back for a moment. “You know, I - I’m glad I’ve got you, Bones.”

 

“Love you, too, Jim.”

 

Jim finishes his shift before Leonard that evening. He eats a bland meal and goes to bed early, more to warm up than because he’s tired. But he falls asleep despite himself, and wakes up when a dip in the mattress signals Leonard’s arrival.

 

“Sorry I’m late. Had a round of food poisoning to deal with. Hope you didn’t eat in the galley tonight,” Leonard murmurs. “Go back to sleep.”

 

It’s Leonard who drops off first, though, wrapped around Jim with his face pressed into the back of Jim’s neck, as though he’s another pillow on the bed. Jim sinks back against him, lets Leonard’s heat and scent envelop him, and falls asleep again.


He can still feel Leonard’s phantom embrace hours later, long after Leonard has left the bed for his shift, and realizes that for the first time in two months, he’s actually warm.