The Best Thing Since The Invention Of Interstellar Communication
Jim invented the Space Hug.
Leonard is sure he should never tell anybody in Starfleet Command about that, because he's not too sure Jim would keep his command after the psych evaluation that was bound to follow this particular revelation, but still Leonard has to admit that he's pretty damn grateful.
Joanna had a bad day.
Admittedly, it by far didn't match up to what would constitute a bad day in Leonard's book, but that was another matter entirely. And it's only good and right that in her eight year old world, a bad day implies nothing worse than some mean words on a school playground and the promise of a boring trip to visit her grandparents the upcoming weekend rather than going to Sarah Peters' birthday party. That's what a girl her age should have to deal with, not sickness, danger and death, so Leonard doesn't even think about telling her that she's being upset about nothing.
Besides, the reasons don't matter anyway. His little girl is upset, and that is more than enough to make Leonard forget about anything and everything else.
It's one of those times when he becomes painfully aware that there's hundreds of light-years between them, and words can do only so much. It breaks his heart to see Joanna's beautiful face looking so sad, her more green than really hazel eyes brimming with tears she refuses to let fall, and for a moment he's sorely tempted to storm the Bridge and force whoever's holding the conn to take the ship around and get him back to Earth ASAP, just so he can personally deal with playground bullies and grandparents who think their boring-as-hell tea parties are more important to a little girl than spending time with her friends.
Most of all though, he's seriously considering whether it will be worth the subsequent court martial just to be able to hold his little girl in his arms, to bury his face in her sweet-smelling hair while he holds her and gives her the feeling that Daddy is going to make it all better, a feeling which every little girl in the world should be entitled to. But he's too far away, and he can do nothing at all to help her feel better.
It's Jim who unexpectedly saves the day – and Bones from doing something stupid and potentially very embarrassing like trying to take command of the ship on his own.
Jim comes into their quarters just as Joanna is launching into a soft repetition of how unfair life is, the bouncy spring faltering from his steps as he catches sight of her sad face on the screen.
"Hey peanut! Why the sad face?"
Leonard had never understood the nickname. Just like with his own moniker, it was something Jim had come up with the first time he had met Joanna, back when he and Leonard had still been cadets at the Academy. Neither Jim nor Joanna had ever felt the need to explain it to him; instead they still treat its origin as a big secret between them that has to be protected at all costs. Normally, Jim calling her peanut never fails to make Joanna smile, but today not even that is enough to lighten her mood.
Jim immediately forgets whatever he had been about to do, all but pushing Leonard off his chair as he shifts to sit beside him. When Joanna only shrugs and mumbles something about how her life is unfair, Jim sees that as his call to do something against it.
"I know what you need."
Joanna's head comes up, a small glimmer of hope brightening her eyes. "What, Uncle Jim?"
Jo is not the only one with a special nickname in their relationship, and every time Joanna calls him that Jim's whole face lights up, just as if he still can't believe that Leonard's little girl would willingly want to include him in her family. But along with the smile comes a firm determination in his gaze, and he leans forward slightly, as if he's about to impart an important message to her.
"You need a hug, peanut."
Joanna falters a little at that. "Mommy gave me a hug earlier, and it didn't help."
Normally, Leonard wouldn't leave dealing with Jo's problems to Jim alone, but right now he's too curious to see what the man he loves is going to come up with in order to cheer her up. And judged by the twinkle in his eye, he's sure Jim has a plan.
"Oh, but I'm not talking about a mom-hug. Now, don't get me wrong, those are important. Very important. But there's some things only a real dad-hug can help you with."
"Daddy's in space." It's almost a whisper, and it breaks Leonard's heart all over again. But Jim is smiling, and God help him, if Jim doesn't have a plan for this he'd better get used to the idea of sleeping on the sofa for the foreseeable future. All this is bad enough without Jim driving home the thought that Leonard is too far away from his daughter to do something as simple and natural as take her into his arms when she's hurting.
"Yes, he is. Just like many other Moms and Dads are in space. They're all doing important work up here, but because Starfleet knows that their kids are missing them, they invented the Space Hug."
Joanna might only be an eight year old, but she's neither gullible nor stupid, and when Leonard sees her beautiful face pull into a disbelieving frown, he's already thinking up ways to make Jim pay for the harebrained idea of coming up with something as infantile as a space hug in the first place.
"You're making that up."
Leonard is insanely proud of his little girl for not getting roped in by Jim's dazzling smile and conspirative tone. But Jim only shakes his head as if he had expected that protest.
"I'm not. Scout's honor. Well, I've never been a Boy Scout, but still. I promise. I'd even pinkie-swear on it. Remember that my mom was in Starfleet? How else would I know about Space Hugs?"
Leonard's interest perks up at those words. Jim is not lying about his mother being in Starfleet for most part of Jim's youth, but he also knows a little of what that was like for Jim and his brother. He's pretty damn sure that space hugs of any kind were never part of their family communications.
The frown was still on Jo's face, but Leonard can see the small sparkle of interest in her eyes.
"What do I have to do?"
Jim points towards the screen, at something on her bed in the background.
"Is that your biggest stuffed animal?"
Jo turns around, pointing at the big grey thing on her bed. "Mr. Waffles? Yes, he is. He's a hippopotamus. Mommy got it for me when we went to the zoo."
"Then go and get Mr. Waffles, peanut."
There is a bit of a spring to her step as she does exactly that, the kind of contained excitement that maybe this day won't turn out as bad as she thought it was going to be. Mr. Waffles is indeed a big specimen, reaching up nearly to her shoulders as she drags him back towards the screen with wide eyes.
Jim smiles at her, the soft and tender smile that does something funny to Leonard's stomach every time he sees it.
"Do you remember what it feels like when your Dad hugs you?"
"Of course!" There is genuine indignation in Joanna's voice, and not a moment of hesitation before her answer.
"So what's it feel like?"
Joanna thinks for a moment, and Leonard can understand that it has to be hard putting words to something as elusive as the feeling of a father's embrace.
"It's warm. And Daddy's really strong, and it always feels really safe when he's hugging me. And he smells good."
Leonard nearly laughs, but there's a strange pressure behind his eyes and he has to swallow against the sudden lump in his throat at his daughter's words. Jim squeezes his leg, under the table and out of sight from Joanna, but his eyes never once leave the screen.
"He does, doesn't he? That's good, peanut. I want you to think very hard about that when you hug Mr. Waffles."
"You want me to hug Mr. Waffles?"
Jim leaned back with a huge smile on his face. "That's what a Space Hug is all about. I want you to hug Mr. Waffles as tightly as you can, and think really hard about what it feels like to hug your Dad. And I promise you, it'll be nearly as good as hugging him for real. Only nearly, but I promise you it works."
Joanna still doesn't seem convinced.
"And that's all?"
Jim shakes his head. "No peanut, that's only half of it. Your Dad is going to do exactly the same thing, which is why Space Hugs are so awesome – it doesn't matter where in the whole entire universe you are, you can always get a Space Hug if you're only thinking about the person you want to hug."
"So who's Daddy going to hug? He doesn't have a Mr. Waffles."
Leonard knows that impish smile on Jim's face, and he's fairly sure that this question was part of the plan all along.
"No, he doesn't have that. But he's got me. So if you hug Mr. Waffles, and your Dad hugs me, and you both think really hard about hugging each other, then it'll be nearly as if you were hugging each other. Do you think that'll work?"
Joanna seems to give that question some serious thought, but eventually she nods solemnly.
"But you gotta get up. You can't hug right if you're sitting down."
Nobody asked Leonard for his opinion about the whole thing, but it's not as if his answer isn't obvious, anyway. It's common knowledge that he'd do pretty much anything to make Joanna happy, and hugging Jim seems like a small sacrifice for that cause. He'd hug a Klingon for her if that's what it took.
They get up from behind the console, and if Leonard feels a little embarrassed at the prospect of what they're going to do, he doesn't let it on. He watches as Joanna mimics their movement, standing in front of her desk with the stuffed hippo held out in front of her.
Joanna nods her head, eyes fixed on the stuffed animal in her hands as if she had to focus very hard on the task at hand. Leonard feels Jim's hands come up against his arms, but he doesn't take his eyes off his daughter.
"Okay, then get ready. Think really hard about what you said it feels like when your Dad hugs you. Ready?"
"Good, then give Mr. Waffles a big hug now."
Leonard sees how Joanna pulls the big hippo into her arms, eyes screwed shut tightly as she presses her face into the furry fabric. He wants to keep watching, but then Jim pulls him in tight, and his face ends up pressed against the other man's shoulder.
It's different than hugging Joanna. Of course it is, and Jim is an infant for thinking that Leonard could pretend in any way that he's hugging his daughter when he's not. Where Joanna is small, soft, and almost fragile in his arms, but always clinging to him with a fierceness he would never expect from a child her size, Jim is tall, all muscle and hard lines. But nevertheless Leonard cannot help but pull Jim in closer, holding him just as tight as he would Joanna if only he could. Jim is pliant against him. He's holding on to Leonard, but he's leaving all the hugging and clinging to him. It feels a little as if he's really serious about his whole idea that he is just acting as a stand-in for Joanna right now. And while Leonard really doesn't know what he's supposed to think about that whole thing, he still holds on just a little more tightly.
"I love you, Daddy."
Joanna's voice is muffled by Mr. Waffles' fur, but still clearly audible in the stillness of the room.
"I love you, too," he replies, his own face still pressed against Jim's shoulder.
It's Jim who eventually breaks the embrace, Jim who has been watching Joanna on the monitor the whole time and sees the moment she lets go of Mr. Waffles. Leonard still feels a little embarrassed, though he can't quite say why. This is Jim, and they're doing far more intimate things than just hugging when they're alone. Joanna knows about them, too, and there is no reason for him to feel in any way embarrassed about what they just did. But even if the premise of pretending to hug each other even when they're light-years away is one he's not entirely comfortable with, the moment Leonard sees the smile on his daughter's face he knows he'd do it all over again for her. That, and so much more.
"Are you feeling a little better now, peanut?"
Joanna nods, and Jim's cocky smile is back in full force.
"See? And the best thing about Space Hugs is that you can have them at any time. Of course it works best when your Dad is doing it as well, but whenever you miss him really bad, all you have to do is hug Mr. Waffles real tight and it's going to be the next best thing to a real hug from your Dad."
Joanna's smile is less shaky now, and she seems a lot more relaxed.
"Thanks Uncle Jim."
"You're perfectly welcome."
And finally Leonard finds his voice again, even if he knows that their allotted time is nearly over.
"We'll have to hang up soon, sweetheart."
He hates the sadness that comes to her face whenever he's forced to say the words, but this time it isn't enough to overshadow her excitement entirely.
"I know. We have to do this every time we talk now, Daddy. It really felt a little like hugging you, even if you're not as squishy as Mr. Waffles, and not as furry either. But I closed my eyes real tight and pretended it was you, and it made me feel better."
Leonard can't help the smile that tugs the corners of his mouth upwards. "I know, sweetheart. It was a very good idea. Now, be good for your Mom, okay?"
Joanna nods solemnly. "I will. Be safe, Daddy. Goodbye, Uncle Jim!"
"Bye, peanut!" Jim waves at Joanna, and she turns towards Leonard once more.
"Love you, Daddy."
And no matter how often she says it, those are the words he'll never tire of hearing.
"And I love you. More than anything in the whole universe. Goodbye, Jo!"
She waves one more time, then Leonard cuts the connection and the screen goes dark. Leonard leans back into his chair with a sigh, Jim's presence beside him for once calm and not bouncing with restless energy.
Jim just smiles and pats his shoulder. "Anytime, Bones. Can't have the peanut being all sad when there's a way to make it all better."
Leonard slowly turns towards the man he could sometimes swear knows him better than Leonard himself does.
"Seriously though, Jim. Space hugs?"
"Hey, it worked for Joanna, didn't it?"
Leonard shakes his head and leans over to press a gentle kiss to Jim's lips.
"You made that up just now, didn't you?"
Jim shrugs wordlessly as if it's no big deal, even though to Leonard it is.
"No space hugs from your Mom?"
Another shrug, but Leonard can see how Jim is trying to withdraw, putting up shields he's taken to perfection over the past decades.
"It's not like she called as often as you call Jo. And I managed. I had Sam, Bones."
Leonard doesn't point out that Jim only had Sam until Sam finally had enough of their life and ran away, or that having a brother isn't the same thing as knowing that your mother or father cares about you even if their work takes them far away. And Jim wouldn't listen if he tried, so Leonard is not wasting his breath. Jim always understood things best if he was shown them instead of told, anyway.
So Leonard does the only thing he can think of and leans in again, pulling Jim tightly against his side and pressing a kiss against his temple.
"And now you got me."
"Yeah." Jim leans into him with a smile, nuzzling his face against Leonard's cheek. "Now I got you."
And just like hugging Jim can never substitute the feeling of holding Joanna in his arms, Leonard knows that he can never replace all the things Jim missed out on in his life. But that's okay, because what they have is something new and unique, and not the replacement for anything else.
Which is just fine with him, Leonard thinks as Jim settles more comfortably against him with a small sigh. For as long as he gets to have this, he won't complain about anything.
Not even about Space Hugs.