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You Just Can't Win

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“Damn it, Jim."

It was only eight o'clock in the evening, but the red light above McCoy's dorm room was on, signifying that the room's occupants did not wish to be disturbed.

Only James Tiberius Kirk would have the gall to exile his roommate the night before final exams. It had happened like this every semester without fail, and apparently it had been too much to hope that by their final year, Jim would have finally developed some control over his hormones.

McCoy groaned and dropped his satchel to the floor. He stood with his back against the wall next to his door and ran his hands through his hair, trying to decide what to do next. He briefly considered finding a picnic table outside, but the blustering wind and the setting sun made that option unfeasible. The library came to mind, but he had just returned from there and didn't feel like hiking all the way back across the quad, evicting a freshman and re-staking his claim at a table.

He slid down the wall and sat in the hallway for a moment before reaching into his bag. His copy of Deep Space Exploration and its Effect on the Human Psyche was the first book he touched and he figured it was as good a place to start as any. Coming into the Academy already having a doctorate in xenomedicine with a specialty in human biology, McCoy had fulfilled his Starfleet requirements quickly and now was required only to take medical refreshers, but otherwise was free to take classes as he pleased.

The words on the paper started to blur together after a page and a half of reading and he was forced to reach back into his bag for his glasses. After another twenty pages, he began to go cross-eyed. Lately, he required his texts in the antiquated codex format if he wanted to read for any prolonged period of time. It was bulky and inconvenient, but he was older now and no longer had the same young eyes that got him through medical school. In fact, he suspected that all the time he spent poring over a brightly backlit P.A.D.D. was the source of his eye problems in the first place.

He placed the book in his lap, leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, the burning sensation behind his eyelids subsiding as he allowed them to recover. He was only thirty-one years old, which was young in the grand scheme of things, but compared to these Academy brats, he felt positively ancient. He was often closer in age to his professors than to his classmates, and was frequently stuck back in the same limbo he had occupied as a teenager--too old for the young’ns but not yet accepted by the adults.

"Sexiled, Doctor McCoy?"

McCoy cracked open his eyes to find Cadet Uhura looking kindly down at him, a P.A.D.D. clutched to her chest and a sympathetic smile on her lips.

"Is it that obvious?"

"My roommate is Orion," Uhura explained as the smile reached her eyes. "Even if you weren't sitting pathetically outside your obviously locked dorm room, I'd know that look in your eyes anywhere."

McCoy chuckled, Gaila was notoriously the female equivalent of Kirk, but it had just never occurred to him her roommate would suffer the same predicament as he. A moment passed and they stared at each other awkwardly. The two of them bonded occasionally over shallow subjects like exam stress and Kirk-mocking, but they were hardly friends and neither was sure exactly how to proceed. McCoy was used to uncomfortable silence, hell, he'd based an entire marriage on it, but Uhura clearly wasn't as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other and back again.

“Damn, girl. Relax,” McCoy said, returning the smile that was in the process of sliding off her face. Tense silence was one thing, but her nervousness was something he didn’t want to bear. “Do you want to grab coffee? You have a long night ahead of you,” McCoy offered. She looked at him, a question in her eyes--what was he planning? “Studying,” McCoy amended.

“Coffee makes me antsy. How about a real drink?”

“You’re not worried about finals tomorrow?”

“It’s Advanced Conversational Romulan,” Uhura waved her hand as if swatting it away. McCoy raised an eyebrow--that sounded like a positively brutal final. “I’ve been practicing with Commander Spock, and if I don’t know it by now, I’m not going to know it by tomorrow morning.”

“Well, in that case,” McCoy pushed himself up from the floor and swung his bag over his shoulder. “I might even be less inclined to kill Jim for locking me out if I have a beer in me.”

“Perfect, just let me put my P.A.D.D. away.”

--

Uhura’s dorm was two stories above his and Jim’s and though it seemed to be much larger, it was probably just better kept. He managed to keep his own messes fairly contained and short-lived, but Jim might as well have been a hurricane, and damn it, he wasn’t a housekeeper. All McCoy could do was request that Jim refrain from conducting any sexual conquests on his bed and hope to God that his friend obeyed.

Uhura tossed her P.A.D.D. down on her desk and started rummaging through papers and--oh Christ. McCoy averted his eyes politely. He never thought himself capable of being thankful a woman wasn’t wearing her uniform, but when she leaned over her desk, her skirt surely would have ridden up obscenely high. Given the reason for being locked out of his room, McCoy was embarrassed to admit a lack of confidence in his ability to handle a skirt-hiking situation without... side effects.

She was pretty--he wasn’t blind--but he hadn’t come to Starfleet to get ass. When half of your energy is spent trying not to throw up after every flight simulation and the other half is wasted on babysitting Jim Kirk, there isn’t much left for wooing women. Sure, at Jim’s prompting he had tried to jump back into the metaphorical post-divorce saddle during his first year at Starfleet, but his “older man” appeal soon fizzled when young cadets realized his temperament was usually surly at best. Jim Kirk was a better match for all the giggling young girls they seemed to encounter, and McCoy only played the “I’m a doctor” card when wing-manning (or incredibly desperate), and always did so with a certain distaste.

Ultimately, he wasn’t particularly afraid of how she’d react if he made a move. She wouldn’t have been the first girl to push him away. He knew how to handle rejection with grace better than he cared to admit. McCoy’s reservations were rooted with Jim, and what he would think if he found out--and he would because Jim was stealthy like that. Stealing a girl out from under your best friend was a major violation of the Bro Code, even if the bro in question just locked him out of his room the night before finals and aforementioned girl wasn’t the one currently under said best friend. Sometimes McCoy absolutely hated having a conscience.

Ahem!

McCoy tensed, surprised by the sudden voice behind him. Commander Spock stood rigid in the doorway, his arms held stiffly behind his back and his face tight and controlled. Typical.

“Commander,” McCoy snapped to attention. The commander’s eyes locked on him, and though there was no outwardly detectable change in Spock’s demeanor, McCoy swore a chill came over the room.

“Spock!” Uhura’s eyes snapped up from her search, “Did you need something... sir?” If McCoy had been paying attention, he might have noticed that the formal address had been hastily tacked on as if nearly forgotten, or that Uhura hadn’t bothered to stand at attention, but he was too distracted by the black hole that had opened in his stomach. Spock’s eyes snapped to her, and McCoy thanked the gods because he suspected the Vulcan’s gaze had been just about to break him. He could only wonder how she managed to keep her cool.

“Cadet Uhura,” his tone was formal to the best of McCoy’s reckoning, but it was hard to tell. Not only did everything Spock said sound formal, he had continued speaking in some harsh God-awful language McCoy had never heard before in his life and hoped never to again.

“I’ve gotten through the essays, but only two-thirds of the tests,” Uhura responded in English, presumably for McCoy’s benefit. “Do you need them by tomorrow?”

“No,” Spock replied tersely, “I was merely assessing your progress. Good night Nyota.” He turned to McCoy and nodded briskly, “Cadet.”

“Sir!”

As McCoy watched Spock’s retreating form down the hallway, he could have sworn the Vulcan had added a note of disdain to his rank, but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what voice inflection gave him that idea or what reason he could have given Spock for doing so.

“I can’t believe he’d give you papers to grade this close to finals.”

“It’s not that bad,” Uhura rationalized, turning back to her desk and continuing to rummage through papers. “In fact, correcting other people’s work is as good as any study method I could devise for myself, so--shit. Where is my wallet?”

“Don’t worry, drinks are on me.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Uhura said over her shoulder as she extracted a leather fold wallet from under a stack of papers.

“Of course I do.” Uhura tried to protest, but McCoy cut her off, “It’s simple, really. I offered to go out. I’m paying.”

--

McCoy ordered the weakest, shittiest beer on tap, not because he particularly liked it, but that was the point. Kirk liked to joke that McCoy couldn’t hold his liquor, but they both knew he held it a little too well. He wouldn’t drink as much poison if it tasted horrible and couldn’t even be tossed back to any effect. Uhura wrinkled her nose at the piss-pale draught when their drinks arrived, obviously displeased with his taste. In front of her sat a tall glass of ale, beautiful deep red-amber in color and looking positively smooth and delicious.

“It’s just funny that you would choose that stuff,” Uhura mused, and McCoy raised an eyebrow at her to continue as he took a sip. “I always associated it with Cadet Kirk--flat, cheap and distasteful.”

McCoy nearly choked on his drink. “For someone in communications and linguistics, you may want to work on a more diplomatic way to insult my choice of drink and my choice of company in one fell swoop.”

“No, no!” Uhura protested, biting her lip. “I didn’t mean--shit.”

McCoy waved aside her apologies and took another swig, pausing thoughtfully before responding. “No, you’re right. I almost hate this stuff. It’s bitter, unpleasant, and almost insufferable, but it helps me keep my head and stay afloat when anything else would drown me.”

Uhura was silent for a moment, her mouth hanging open and eyes wide. She hadn’t expected him to run with her somewhat insulting metaphor. “Did you just compare your best friend to cheap beer?” she asked, her face passing from shock to unsure amusement.

“Yeah,” McCoy chuckled, “I guess I did. Anyway, it’s not so bad once you get used to it.”

“Jim, or the beer?”

“The beer, but either way, the analogy works. Anyway, if you want to talk about enduring insufferable people, let’s talk about Commander Spock. How could you possibly want to spend time with that green-blooded troll?”

“Now who’s insulting?”

--

It was much later in the night when McCoy excused himself to use the restroom. He gave one of a million excuses not mentioning his actual destination, but it really didn’t matter where he went. Either way, he had left the table and in his absence, another Starfleet cadet had taken to hovering over the very place he had just vacated. When he returned, Uhura caught his eyes and he recognized the pleading stare she shot to him—she had been waiting for him. It was the same panicked flash of the eyes he had seen girls shoot around the bar before Jim laid on the charm. Evidently she had tried to get rid of the guy on her own and he was too drunk, or too much of a pig to take the hint. McCoy inhaled deeply and approached the table.

“...show you a better time than that old geezer could.”

McCoy curled his hand into a fist when he overheard, knowing full well that he shouldn’t throw the right hook that was itching to come out and play. At the end of the day, he was a surgeon and needed his hands to remain un-mangled. Instead, he wrapped his hand around the guy’s arm and shoved him to the side.

“Pardon me,” he spat, “this is my seat.”

“No, old man, excuse me,” the guy pushed him away. McCoy stumbled back a few steps before regaining his balance. Uhura’s eyes widened with concern and she shook her head no, no fighting, but McCoy simply raised an eyebrow. The guy was bulky and strong, there was no way around it and no doubt he could bench-press two of McCoy, but for how long? It was self-assured, impractical muscle that turned quickly to jelly, and it would eventually give in to his tireless doctor’s strength. It was McCoy’s favorite fact about hotshot young men like this--they were cocky and lacked stamina.

“You’re excused,” McCoy shot back, taking steps to close the gap between them. “Now leave.”

He almost didn’t see the fist coming at his face, but by the time he did it was too late. McCoy reeled back, not quite knocked off his feet, vaguely aware that Uhura was being quite vocal about not wanting him to fight back. Hell no, all he had ever gotten for playing the pacifist was a nasty divorce, a daughter who wouldn’t know him except through photographs, and a moderately severe drinking problem. Buckled over, he dragged the back of his hand over his mouth and flicked off the blood he had wiped up. He scoffed up at his attacker, eyes scornful and flashing with hatred. He hadn’t done this since high school, it should be fun. He shot his right foot out as if to kick out knees but instead planted it on the ground behind his attacker’s feet, widening his stance. Taking advantage of his opponent’s confusion, McCoy sunk, planted the palm of his hand firmly at the larger man’s solar plexus and twisted at his core.

His victim unceremoniously flipped over his knee and landed with a definite thud that quieted the entire establishment. Everyone stared in wide-eyed wonder at McCoy, who was breathing heavily and bleeding profusely out his nose. The guy on the ground’s eyes whipped around wildly as if to determine out where he was, because it couldn’t possibly have been the same place he had been ten seconds ago. Across the restaurant, the bartender’s eyes flashed with rage.

McCoy glanced around at all the eyes warily watching him. They were people he had seen in class before, people to whom he had never paid much attention and who had never paid attention to him. He figured he’d probably be notorious by morning. Quietly, Uhura took his arm in hers and pulled him toward the door. He turned back to get his bag but noticed she had it slung over her shoulder—that was thoughtful. With an apologetic glance back to the barkeep, he allowed himself to be dragged away.

--

The adrenaline wore off a few blocks from the bar and the pain started to set in. Every breath he took made his head throb and every gust of wind that hit his cheek threatened to split his face in two. Thankfully the bleeding had stopped. McCoy remembered a story he told to all his patients who had come in after a fight. As a resident at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, he once treated a young boy who couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old. The kid had taken a beating to the head and ended up with a broken jaw, nose, a split cheek and two black eyes. By the time McCoy had finished stitching him up, it was clear the boy would never see out his right eye again. These were the real-life consequences of brawling. Trust a doctor not to take his own advice. He winced.

Uhura heard the sudden intake of breath and recognized it even though he’d tried to pass it off as a sneeze. She stopped him under a streetlight to look at him and took both his arms in her hands so he had no choice but to face her. She inhaled sharply through her teeth.

“This seems a silly question to ask a doctor, but do you carry a first aid kit?”

“I’m fine,” McCoy protested, but his nose chose precisely that moment to spring forth and betray him. It occurred to him that the force of the feigned sneeze had probably opened up the not-so-metaphorical floodgates and that if he hadn’t tried to be macho in the first place--well, he got what he deserved. He tilted his head forward and held his hand over his face, both to hide the blood and to stop it from staining his shirt. She shot him a look and suddenly he didn’t feel like messing with her. “In my bag.”

“Sit,” Uhura ordered. They were only a few blocks away from the dorms and McCoy would have been perfectly happy gutting it out until he could fix himself up in his own mirror. Uhura had other plans. She shoved him back onto a bench and set his bag down on the ground.

“Shit,” McCoy swore, realizing that he had forgotten to take his bag back from Uhura after they left the bar. His father would have had something to say about his failing to be a gentleman, but not until after a sharp smack upside the head. “It’s heavy, I should have...”

“Not at all,” Uhura pulled on some gloves and handed him a pack of tissues. As far as medicine had come in the past centuries, the basics never changed--there was no cure for the common cold and doctoring nosebleeds could still be messy as hell. To McCoy’s surprise and Uhura’s credit, she didn’t flinch at the almost disconcerting amounts of blood pouring from his nose. She just held out a bag for him to put his used tissues and patiently said nothing when he turned to spit out a mouthful or two of blood.

“At least it doesn’t feel broken. Cold pack,” McCoy said, more like a suggestion than a command. “It should be under the bandages.” Uhura found it quickly and cracked the barrier so he wouldn’t have to let go of his nose to start the chemical reaction. He placed it gingerly against his cheek, hissing at the cold. “Do you have a watch? I have to do this for ten minutes or so.”

Uhura checked her watch and nodded before rummaging once again through the kit. He looked at her, trying to imagine what she could be doing. He cracked a pained half smile when she pulled out a pack of gauze and dutifully started cleaning him up, working carefully around his icepack and being gentle around the bruise that he could feel forming around his eye.

“Shit,” McCoy said again, remembering. “I didn’t pay for drinks.”

“No, but I did.”

“Jesus Christ, first the fight, then the bag, now the drinks. I feel like a real dick.”

“Please don't," she smiled warmly at him in a way that alleviated all his guilt. "I went behind your back and paid while you were in the restroom."

“Damn, girl,” McCoy raised an eyebrow at her, "you're sneaky."

“Not sneaky enough,” Uhura patted at a spot under his eye. “That’s when your friend spotted me.” She sealed up the bag of gauze, satisfied that he was as mopped up as he was going to get on a street bench with rudimentary medical wipes. She slung his bag across her chest, and stood up to study him from a distance. “Can you walk?”

--

A crowd had gathered outside the dormitories and at eleven o’clock the night before finals, it could only mean that some asshole had burned a bag of popcorn in the microwave. Satisfied that his nose was no longer a geyser, McCoy tossed his ice pack in a trash bin and stared up at the building in dismay. Not only was he not able to wash his face and study at his desk, God only knows how long he’d have to wait until Starfleet would let them back in. He just couldn’t win. He glanced over at Uhura, who had clenched her teeth and was scanning the crowd urgently.

“I wouldn’t worry. It looks like a false alarm.”

“I know, but Gaila is deathly afraid of fire—it doesn’t matter to her if it’s real or not.”

McCoy took his bag from her and nodded toward the crowd. Uhura smiled a quick thanks and dashed off. It took a while for McCoy to find his roommate as well, especially since he was expecting to find Kirk huddling for warmth next to a girl who looked barely legal, both of them in nothing but underwear. So when he spotted Jim sitting on the curb, fully dressed and face lit up by a P.A.D.D. screen, McCoy knit his brows together in confusion.

“Jim?”

Kirk looked up and a smile split his face from ear to ear.

“Bones!” His greeting carried over the white noise from the crowd. “I was just reading up for tomorrow.”

“You were studying?” McCoy raged, suddenly uncontrollably annoyed.

“Well, yeah,” Kirk answered as if McCoy had asked the dumbest question he had ever heard. “Do you think I’m naturally this amazing?”

“I think you’re full of shit. Why the hell did you lock me out?”

“You know me, whenever I see something that moves, I...”

“Try to screw it?”

“I was going to say ‘get distracted.’ I’m not that bad!” Kirk protested, “I haven’t tried to screw you yet.”

“Not sober,” McCoy mumbled, teeth clenched, but whether Kirk didn’t hear or chose to ignore him, he couldn’t tell.

“You really want to know?”

“Yes!”

“You talk to yourself when you study, Bones,” Kirk snapped. “It drives me crazy.”

“You’re already crazy.”

“Perhaps, but I’m not the one who talks to himself, smells of cheap booze and has a fresh shiner the night before finals. I...” Kirk puffed up his chest, “stayed home and studied.” He raised his hands in mock surrender. “Just saying!”

McCoy clenched his jaw, hoping that if he focused on the soreness in his face he would want to kill Kirk less. It wasn’t going all that well until his phone buzzed in his pocket.

Sorry to run off on you. Gaila is fine. I had fun tonight. Good luck tomorrow. - Nyota

“Who is it?” Jim asked, scrambling to his feet to look at the screen.

“Nyota,” McCoy responded off-handedly, sending a quick response.

“Who the hell is that?”

“Just a girl,” McCoy responded with a smile and pocketed his phone.