“I know not whether you came to me or I to you; nor whether it was reality or a dream, asleep or awake.”
—Neil Gaiman, “The Dream Hunters”
It’s sunrise when Jim reaches Riverside Shipyard.
He leans on the handlebars of his bike, staring up at the immense skeleton of the silver ship, dappled yellow and pink in the morning light like some obscenely expensive piece of abstract art, and tries to picture himself in one of those painful-to-watch recruitment holos, decked out in smart, crisp, obnoxious cadet red, saluting the camera with smarm and a smile.
Joining Starfleet, just like his parents.
Jim’s always been a reach-for-the-kitchen-stove-and-burn-yourself kind of guy. It’s not that he doesn’t ask if the element is hot beforehand, he just kind of—has a bad habit of asking while he’s touching it rather than waiting the few extra seconds it would take for someone to confirm that, “Jesus Christ, yes, yes that is very very hot, oh god, why is it so hot!” The scoff-worthy task of looking both ways before he crosses the road definitely isn’t in his daily manifesto, he doesn’t double-check whether lights are off or doors are locked (which, for the record, often leads to things burning down), he never gives into the maddening desire to over-think. Given the opportunity, he dives in, headlong, because what the fuck is the point, otherwise?
But right now, staring up at that stupid, amazing, ridiculous ship, imagining himself in space exploring anomalies and spreading peace and love and good will and what-the-fuck-ever, he’s distracted from the seductive thrill of adventure by something altogether unfamiliar and uneasy; there is something crippling and heavy in his gut, hot and dangerous and full of warning. It’s been there ever since his chat with Pike, hanging around him like a stubborn bout of chilli cheese dog-induced heartburn.
For the first time in his life, Jim ignores a dare, because fuck that shit, seriously.
He doesn’t look good in red anyway.
Jim’s sizeable boredom has always taken the form of directionless and meandering wanderlust. After he leaves the shipyard, he spends an embarrassing amount of time engaged in the intricate and ultimately fruitless task of convincing himself he’s not actually a coward. The end result is an exponential growth in his current status of self-loathing. By the time he’s finished sulking, he’s already gone westward to Des Moines and back without really noticing.
Not quite through for the day, Jim ends up travelling east on the 22, heading out of Riverside for the second time that day.
He’s only about three miles out when he spots the little farmhouse.
It’s a run-down shack of a building that he’s idly noticed about a bazillion times before, small and brown and dilapidated like most of the old creepy houses in this state, surrounded by a pitiful little copse of scrubby, wilting trees. Exactly the kind of sad little house that sullenly escapes any and all attempts to renovate it into submission because nobody gives enough of a shit to even bother trying. Frankly, the fact that it’s still standing and hasn’t been bulldozed out of existence long ago is amazing enough.
All the windows are wide open in the flat breeze, which is both intriguing and bizarre because Jim’s always entertained the admittedly fanciful notion that the house was likely condemned or populated by Cardassian drug-lords or haunted by angry spirits—just, you know, anything more interesting than the dull probability of it simply being a normal house, owned by a normal person.
It isn’t like there’s a pentagram scrawled on the door in blood, either, or Jim’s caught a glimpse of an illegal shuttle behind the trees. There are just some open windows, gaping into the breeze. But whatever the reason, the sight manipulates Jim’s innate, never-ending well of curiosity and conjures up a thread of nosy interest. The feeling is annoyingly persistent, but he’s shooting past the house before he can really decide he’d like to pull over.
The sun is hot and high, by now, spilling over endless fucking fields of corn, corn, more corn, and, you guessed it, more fucking corn, until all Jim can hear is the suddenly deafening rustle of the stalks over the hum of his engine. He makes a frustrated, split-second decision to keep going until he reaches Muscatine as the small, unassuming farmhouse disappears into his wing mirror.
The drive is disappointingly short, and Muscatine is just as disappointingly boring as it’s always had the misfortune of being.
Jim has a deeply questionable hotdog on the boardwalk and throws all the onions to the seagulls before they can swarm him like he’s in a Hitchcock film; there’s anxiety and restless energy boiling under his skin, of the sort that usually drives Jim in helpless circles until he snaps and goes out at night to find someone he can goad into a fight, but there are young happy couples and babies and small adorable children here, and he just eats his mystery-meat hotdog and sullenly keeps his emotions to himself. He wishes in vain, even though Jim never wishes for anything—no point getting your hopes up, or, worse, living in the past—that he’d gone to another damn bar last night and never met Captain Pike and Uhura-Is-My-Last-Name and especially not the ugly guy with a fist like a freight train and his three equally-ugly friends. His jaw aches like he’s been using his chin to hammer nails, and people give him funny looks as he walks up and down the pier, his face a decorative mirage of pastel blues and reds.
He buys a cloud of cotton candy from a vendor that gives him the side-eye and carefully inspects the credit chip Jim hands over, and thinks of the little farmhouse on the road.
Three hours later, and Jim’s pushing his bike down the highway, because his life has apparently decided to just give up on all pretence of caring about his well-being and just reject him entirely; it is now doing its level best to systematically fuck with his shit in the apparent hope that Jim will eventually just sink into despair and cease to exist.
His bike rolls on down the dusty shoulder, propelled by Jim’s calloused hands rather than its own engine, obnoxiously quiet.
Jim is dead inside. There is nothing left in his crumpled, dried-out heart but a black-hole pit of raging hatred.
There are a lot of things Jim would rather be doing right now. He’s made a pretty impressive list of them in his head and it entertains him very (very) briefly to compile it. The accompanying list of shit he’d rather not be doing is a lot shorter. In fact, it’s only got one relevant item on it: (1) spending one-and-a-half long, hot, sticky, soul-destroying hours walking his bike four miles in a sudden carpet of pressing humidity. Even having his teeth cleaned by his chipper over-zealous dentist or standing in line at the grocery store would be preferable to this, which, honestly, should be more than enough proof as to why it’s just an all-around shitty way to spend the rest of his all-around shitty day.
He’d been so distracted by the mess of unsettling thoughts and indistinct guilty feelings that he completely neglected to check the fuel gauge, but it’s also just his manner of luck. It’s not like his bike could possibly handle just eight more goddamn miles—no, it had to sputter and whine and lose power with a long, drawn-out wheeze of tortured fuel cells.
Jim is concentrating on filling the dead, disturbingly quiet air with a steady stream of colourful bitching when he realizes there’s a familiar house on the horizon.
Well, that’s just fucking creepy.
The light is dim, the last flare of sunshine disappearing down past the curve of the earth, when Jim shoves his bike up the driveway of the house.
Dust is clinging to Jim’s skin like itchy desperation. There are lights on, in the house, and from up close Jim can see that it’s not the complete dump he always figured it would be. It’s an older structure, small and compact and only two floors high. There’s a tree in the front yard, an ancient tire swing hanging down from a tired, rickety branch that looks a breath away from certain collapse.
Jim kicks the stand out from under his bike and leaves it under the tree, traipsing slowly up the path.
The first time he saw this house, sitting alone on the highway like a desiccated shell and staring out into the world with deep, dark, windowed eyes, he’d thought it looked lonely and abandoned—wistful. The kind of house that gathers ghost stories like attics attract herds of dust bunnies, a place automatically assumed to be haunted based upon mere principle. It doesn’t look nearly so intimidating, now, but that could be because he’s no longer eight years old and hiding behind his older brother, trying desperately to pretend he isn’t scared.
His knuckles scrape the synthetic wood of the door before he can stop himself, knocking so hard he can hear the echo throughout the bones of the house.
“Hello?” he yells, rapping on the door again. It’s not too late, just past six o’clock in the evening, and the inside is well-lit and almost—cheerful. “Hey! Unknown occupant of the creepiest little house of all time, you’ve got a person in dire need, out here. I’m totally not kidding, it’s a serious life or death situation. Do you want to be responsible for the consequences? ...Anyone home?”
There’s a strained moment of silence that feels like five minutes when weighed critically against Jim’s not inconsiderable impatience, but is probably more like only thirty seconds in real time, so he just knocks again, harder. “Hey, seriously? I’ll even take a ghost if you’re the modern, sassy variety of apparition that likes to stay on top of things and has a comm unit for me to use. I need to call for a tow. Please?”
Another small eternity passes. A glacial age comes and goes. The universe ends, and is reborn, and—
Then there’s an almighty crash from the inside of the house, followed by a ringing silence, which is then immediately sandwiched mercilessly by a creative explosion of snarled cursing. The door opens with significantly more force than is usually required.
“Who are you, and what the fuck do you want?” snaps the man suddenly looming with somewhat depressing solidity in the doorway. He’s tall, dark-haired, and spectacularly unshaven, stubble covering the bottom half of a round face and pointed chin that anyone less manly than Jim would call ‘heart-shaped’. Sleep-filled but surprisingly alert hazel eyes pierce right at Jim despite the man’s momentary difficulty with the act of focusing.
Jim can feel his eyebrows creeping up his forehead and tries to stop their slow ascent before they get too far and he never gets them back. It’s a definite challenge. “Uh—”
“You’ll catch flies, standing there like that with your mouth hanging open,” interrupts Tall, Hot, and Angry, pushing the door wide and gesturing impatiently for Jim to come inside. “I’m going to make the generous assumption that you woke me up for a damn good reason, kid, because my mama would spit in my eye and curse me six ways to Sunday if I don’t find it in my heart to be a good neighbour.”
Jim knows, from experience, that it’s a rant likely borne of exhaustion or hangover or potential insanity, and for a moment, the threshold and doorway feel a little like the yawning maw of a storybook monster. Hesitation grips him as he listens to the man’s footsteps recede into the house, and then he gets the fuck over himself and follows him inside, pulling the door shut as he goes.
His voice appears to have fled to a dusty corner of his mind in abject confusion. “I just need to use your comm,” Jim says eventually, when he’s managed to coax it out again.
The house, now that he’s in it and not just lurking outside like a stalker, smells strongly of beer. The hallway on either side of him is piled high with storage boxes, and Jim follows the footsteps and light into a small, low-ceilinged kitchen.
“Sorry I woke you,” he adds, bewildered. The man is rummaging through his cupboards, extracting mugs and spoons and sugar, so Jim stands in the doorway, watching him, unsure of what the hell to do with himself. He’s never been invited in by a crazy person before.
“Leonard McCoy,” says the man, to the coffeepot.
“What?” says Jim dumbly.
“I’m Leonard McCoy,” he repeats, glancing over his shoulder at Jim with an expression that says I can’t speak any slower than I already am, moron, so please try to keep up. “The usual response to an introduction is reciprocation. ‘Hello, Leonard, my name is—?’”
“Oh,” says Jim sheepishly. “Um. Jim. Jim Kirk.”
“Do you want some coffee, Jim?” asks McCoy, taking down a container of vacuum-packed, dehydrated coffee grounds and scooping some into the machine with careless imprecision.
“You always invite strangers into your kitchen?” demands Jim, taking in McCoy’s bare feet, worn jeans, and patchy red t-shirt. He’s got bad posture, leaning up against the counter as he intently dumps spoon after spoon of coffee into the machine, a tired bent to his spine. “How do you know I’m not an axe murderer?”
“You’d probably need an axe for that,” rumbles McCoy. “This house is a dump, so I doubt you’re robbing me. Let’s just say I’m endlessly optimistic about the potential kindness of strangers and leave it at that.”
Optimism seems somehow doubtful.
“How long have you been living here?” asks Jim, because while he didn’t exactly plan on breaking down right in the vicinity of this house, he’s here now, and that earlier tickle of curiosity comes back like a dangling thread demanding to be pulled.
McCoy turns around with two mugs of reconstituted coffee, eyebrow raised, and hands one to Jim. “Trying to figure out if anyone will notice if you kill me and bury me in the backyard?”
“Yeah,” says Jim, accepting the mug even though he’s pretty sure he didn’t tell McCoy he wanted it. “The perfect crime.”
McCoy snorts and takes a sip of coffee. There are dark circles under his eyes like he’s been punched in the face by insomnia. Finally, he answers with, “About six months.”
“This entire place smells like booze,” says Jim abruptly, looking around the kitchen. “Are you, like, a massive alcoholic? Should I be staging an intervention?”
“I bathe in it,” says McCoy, deadpan. “I like that gutter-fresh scent. No, smartass, I make beer. There’s a distillery in the basement. Is it my turn now for invasive personal questions? Okay, let’s see. Were you going to get all that shit on your face treated? Or are you some sort of psychotic escaped convict?”
“Huh?” says Jim, genuinely taken aback.
“Your shiner.” McCoy gestures at Jim’s face with long, graceful fingers. “And the laceration under your eye. Your nose looks painful, too. Were you going to get it set?”
Jim looks down at himself, and remembers he’s spent all day walking around with bloodstains on his shirt and scabby, visible bruises on his face, because that’s just how he rolls. “Oh. That,” he says dismissively. “Whatever, it’s fine.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” says McCoy. He shuffles out of the room, leaving Jim holding a mug of really, really good (nuclear-strength) coffee and wondering if he’s dreaming this whole encounter—because really, what part of breaking down outside the creepy little house that’s been empty all of Jim’s life and finding it occupied by a banging-hot kind of scruffy guy is remotely believable? McCoy returns holding a battered little medkit printed with a decal that says University of Mississippi Medical on it.
“I’m fine,” insists Jim. McCoy sets the kit on the counter, removing a dermal regenerator.
“And I’m calling bullshit.”
“Are you a doctor?” asks Jim apprehensively. All the gear in the kit is a bit beyond the standard bandages-and-analgesics combo that most people keep in their homes—Jim spots a laser scalpel and a portable osteo-regenerator, as well as an assortment of hyposprays and relevant cartridges. He hopes severely that he isn’t getting a shot today.
“No,” snaps McCoy, grasping Jim’s chin with surprisingly gentle fingers and squinting at him in a way that gives Jim no illusion about exactly how much of a hassle McCoy finds the process of dealing with him. “I just like playing pretend. Yes, I’m a damn doctor, kid. Now hold still.”
Half an hour later, Jim leaves the house with a case of homemade beer and distinct lack of cuts and bruises.
He sits on the shoulder of the highway, waiting for his tow, and when he glances back at the house, he catches McCoy watching him from the window before the curtain falls back into place.
“I met this weird guy yesterday,” announces Jim, entering the auto-shop with all of his usual accompanying chaos as he immediately trips over a carelessly-abandoned box of tools. He does a hop-skip and tries to shake it off with feigned casualness, then ends up with an old-fashioned tire-iron wrapped around his ankle. It’s just like any other day, he thinks cheerfully, except that just over twenty-four hours ago, he nearly dropped everything and ran away to join Starfleet. Intense.
“I thought we agreed not to talk about your sexual escapades at work, Jim,” says Amy. She’s crouched in front of the demolished engine of a vintage car, smeared with grease, her thin brown hair tied back in an ineffective ponytail.
“Be still my beating heart,” beams Jim, coming up beside the car to lean on the open door. “Anyone ever tell you that you wear oil stains like exotic body paint, Amelia?”
“Anyone ever tell you that you’ve got a fine mouth for bullshit?” snaps back Amy, scowling up at him through a pair of oversized goggles that make her brown eyes bug out. “You didn’t show up for work yesterday. That’s probably your—mmhmm, yup—seventh strike. One more time and you’re out on your ass, yadda yadda yadda.”
“You missed me,” says Jim. He bends over the door and points. “You need to cut and solder that wire or it’ll keep shorting out. It is shorting out, right?”
She glares. “For the record, I hate you. I hope you suffocate on your own tongue. And I knew that, thanks, which is why I’m wearing rubber gloves and holding a fucking soldering iron. Don’t try to charm me with your faux-genius premonitions. Now, what the fuck is this about a weird guy? And it better not be a one-night-stand story, Jim Kirk. I’ve been living vicariously through your tales-of-the-night-before for three months and I’ve had enough.”
“Remember, I have a coupon for that sex shop in Iowa City,” says Jim. “It could be yours for the low, low price of—”
“One more word, and this iron might just slip,” grumbles Amy.
“—you know that house on the highway?” segues Jim hurriedly, narrowly saving his balls. It’s stifling and sticky in the workroom, so he strips off his leather jacket and drapes it over the roof of the car.
“Why, yes, I know exactly which of the several hundred houses on the highway you’re referring to,” grumbles Amy, sitting back on the floor and scrubbing her fingers on her coveralls. “Because I’ve just gotten my PSI results back and I’m a certified telepath!”
“It’s on the 22,” clarifies Jim. “About three miles out from Riverside, it’s got a tree and a tire swing and it looks like the world forgot about it.”
“Oh, that house,” says Amy, wiping the back of her hand across her forehead and leaving behind a streak of soot. “Yeah, I know it.”
“There’s a guy in it,” says Jim, as if this is singularly the most amazing thing he’s ever fucking learned.
“Holy shit,” says Amy, with false excitement. “I’ll alert the media! Someone is living in a house!”
“You wound me,” says Jim, carefully rearranging his expression into something appropriately kicked-puppy-ish. “That house has been abandoned for years. And suddenly there’s some random, painfully attractive man living in it.”
“Yeah, I know,” replies Amy impatiently. “I bought his car for scrap.”
Jim immediately sits to attention. “What? When?”
“Five months ago? Six?” Amy shrugs, bending her head over as she carefully strips three sets of wires with graceful finesse. “Tall. Grumpy. Southern accent. Carried a pocket flask. He looked like hell. I gave him a handful of credits for the piece of shit he was driving, and he went away happy enough. Well, as happy as people like him get, anyway.”
“Where was I?” demands Jim, irrationally annoyed.
“I don’t know,” snaps Amy, not having any of it. “Drunk? Lying in a ditch? In the hospital?” Pick one, kid, they’re all just as likely. If you missed meeting the man of your dreams, then it’s your own fault for never showing up to work. Okay, story-time is over. There’s an ancient two-door in the back that needs its battery changed and charged, and a truck that needs new brakes and a paintjob. Detailing, too. Say goodbye, Jim.”
“‘Goodbye, Jim,’” he sighs, picking up his jacket and wandering to the back room.
That night, for the first time, Jim dreams of amorphous, sleek silver lines, the body of a ship gleaming against a backdrop of inky-black space and speckles of stars.
He wakes, heart pounding, and sits up in bed, the sheets tangled around his legs. There’s something cold and slick lodged in his chest, burning like bile, and it feels wrong and broken and unsettling to the nth degree, like shards of glass underfoot.
Eventually, his heart calms down, and he kicks all the pillows off his mattress, sprawls out on his stomach, and forces himself to go back to sleep.
He keeps dreaming of the ship.
It’s probably against his better judgement that he returns to the same bar as the Great Cadet Beat-Down of August ‘58, but it’s Jim’s usual haunt and the recruits are long gone, so Jim deems it safe enough to return. It’s not quite guilt that he feels about turning down Pike—he knows that Pike was trying to appeal to the risk-taking streak in him and that choosing not to go was perfectly valid, considering, but there’s a part of him that is appalled by the concept of declining. Jim never gives up or gives in; he never willingly avoids action and adventure.
The bar is not as crowded as it was three nights ago when it was filled to the brim with red-suited new cadets, which is just how Jim likes it. He’s getting up from the bar to take a piss when a body knocks into him from behind.
“Hey!” yells Jim, ending up with a lap full of Bud Classic. “Aw, dude, come on!”
“Sorry,” rumbles the culprit. Jim turns around just in time to catch the other man by the elbow as he stumbles again, hauling him upright.
“Oh hey,” says Jim, eyes widening. “It’s you.”
“It’s me,” mutters Leonard McCoy, leaning up warm and heavy against Jim. “Who’re you again?” His body is taut muscle and broad shoulders hidden beneath a button-up flannel shirt and jeans, and his head lolls forward a little as he groans. “I may throw up on you.”
Jim doesn’t wait for the inevitable mess of horror sure to follow this statement. He pulls McCoy away from the bar, dragging him to the bathroom accompanied by the soundtrack of indiscriminate fussing and complaining, because McCoy insists on bitching the entire way there while tugging irritably at Jim, his eyes shut tight against the presumably spinning room. They get to the toilets with precious seconds to spare, McCoy folding down on both knees, head practically in the bowl as he shudders and then vomits violently.
“That’s it,” says Jim, crouching down behind him and resting a hand on the small of McCoy’s back. He rubs vaguely, because he thinks that’s the sort of thing you do in situations like this. If McCoy had longer hair, Jim guesses appropriate protocol would be to hold it out of the way for him, but McCoy isn’t really in danger of getting puke in his, so Jim settles for stroking tentative circles into his back as McCoy clutches the bowl and spits and curses. Eventually he finishes ejecting his insides and slumps down to press his cheek to the floor.
“Might’ve overdone it,” mumbles McCoy into the tiles.
“No shit,” observes Jim cheerfully. He considers leaving him just like that, face mashed to the floor and ass in the air, but instead he manhandles a pliable, weak-limbed McCoy into a sitting position that takes him away from the cool press of floor tile. He catches sight of the mess in the toilet bowl and frowns, disgusted. “Is that blood?”
“No,” groans McCoy, reaching out with his foot to press the switch that triggers evacuation of the waste. “Cranberry juice.”
“Mm,” says Jim, sliding down the wall to sit next to McCoy. He lets their shoulders touch, and McCoy doesn’t pull away, though that could definitely be because he’s currently too weak to move. “Didn’t figure you for a mixed-drinks kind of guy.”
“I’m not,” says McCoy. He pulls his forearm over his eyes and breathes raggedly through his nose, shallow and rapid. Jim really hopes he isn’t about to throw up again.
“What the hell are you doing in Riverside?” Jim asks. He’s been wondering about it all day. It doesn’t make a single iota of sense. The pieces don’t fit. The pieces never fit for anybody, because Riverside is kind of a useless blot on the ass of the state, where nothing much happens other than sometimes people’s fathers get famous for dying out in space so they start building ships there, but it all makes even less sense for McCoy, for some reason.
“Aside from trying to die?” replies McCoy, pushing damp hair out of his bloodshot eyes and squinting speculatively at Jim. “Got nowhere else to go. Wife took pretty much everything but the car in the divorce, so I just drove till the damn thing croaked. Decided Iowa couldn’t possibly be the worst place to be.” He sighs. “Sold the car, so now I got nothing left but my bones.”
“And an entire home brewery,” points out Jim. “And a house. Full of stuff.”
McCoy makes a face. “Okay,” he drawls. “Let me amend. Now I got nothing left that matters. And the distillery don’t count. Ain’t mine. It was in the basement of the house when I moved in.”
“Jackpot,” remarks Jim.
“I made strawberry beer,” says McCoy, with a small sigh, as if this is a detail of great comfort to him. His forehead is damp and sticky, eyes standing out vivid against the bruises beneath them.
“You need help getting home?”
“No,” snorts McCoy. “I make it a personal point of interest not to get anywhere near machines like that deathtrap you ride. It’s called my ‘I’d prefer not to die screaming and on fire’ policy. I’ll get a cab.”
“That’s basically what I just said,” says Jim. “I’ve had, like, eleventy beers; no way I’m getting on my bike even without a passenger.”
“If you’re paying,” breathes McCoy, looking distinctly green again, “Then I wouldn’t exactly be adverse.”
Then he throws his arms around the toilet again, ducks his head into the bowl, and makes a noise like a dying animal.
Jim isn’t exactly sure why he didn’t just help McCoy into the cab and give it directions to his house; instead, he finds himself accompanying him all the way home, ending up with an arm wrapped around McCoy’s waist as they stumble up the long, dusty drive, the drunk leading the drunker.
McCoy hasn’t said anything since they got out of the cab, focused instead on the truly challenging task of putting one foot successfully in front of the other and not dragging Jim down with him into the dirt.
There’s a breeze kicking up, cool and refreshing. Jim readjusts his grip on McCoy and half-listens to the mumbled curses coming out of the man’s mouth as he tilts his head up to a deep, velvety, navy-blue sky that’s painted with a thick band of white-hot stars.
“Where are your keys?” asks Jim, turning his attention back to McCoy.
“Back pocket,” replies McCoy, wrapping cold, clammy fingers around Jim’s wrist and leaning on him heavily.
Jim hesitates for maybe a fraction of a second, mentally analysing the degree of McCoy’s inebriation, before reaching into his back jean pocket and extracting the key-card to McCoy’s house, doing his best not to grope him through his worn, well-fitting jeans.
Fortunately, McCoy doesn’t seem at all bothered. His face is pressed to Jim’s throat, one heavy arm slung over Jim’s back, and he’s clinging to him like Jim is the only thing keeping his feet on the ground.
The door opens, and Jim tries to take a step in over the threshold, only to be stopped by McCoy.
“What?” he asks, looking down at the other man.
“Don’t want to throw up in the house,” replies McCoy indistinctly.
“What?” repeats Jim. “Oh, dude, no—”
McCoy lets go of Jim, slides to his knees, and throws up all over Jim’s boots.
Jim wakes up drenched in sunlight.
For a long moment, he just lies still, soaking it in like a lazy golden cat, letting the sun spread over his skin thick and warm like honey. Awareness comes creeping in slowly, tickling at the edges of his brain; he’s lying on a couch, not a bed, and there’s a blanket over his legs. A steady, insistent, you-could-never-ignore-me-no-matter-how-hard-you-try thump between his temples clues him into the fact that he’s probably incredibly hung-over.
“Balls,” mutters Jim, smacking his lips and dragging a tongue that feels two sizes too big over his teeth. Judging by the texture of his teeth, his tongue also appears to be wrapped in a fuzzy sock.
This isn’t the first time he’s woken like this, confused and kind of maybe sort of sick, and if he’s being honest with himself, which is usually a bit of a drag, it’s probably not the last time he’ll wake up in such a disappointingly familiar state.
A shadow falls over him, cruelly blocking out the rejuvenating rays of sunlight.
Jim frowns, opens his eyes, and looks up into McCoy’s drawn, waxy-pale face. His eyes are huge and brown in his head, bloodshot and puffy.
It’s a narrow thing, but Jim keeps the startled yelp from exiting his throat, and doesn’t fall off the couch.
“You’re in my house,” says McCoy pointlessly. His voice is like chopped gravel, hoarse and painful.
Jim winces. “Yeah. Hey.”
Awkwardness flops down wetly between them like an oblivious family dog that’s been rolling in garbage.
“Why are you in my house?” tries McCoy gingerly. He presses long, shaky fingers to his temples. Making words and communicating them is clearly taking a toll.
“I’m not sure,” admits Jim, shrugging slightly, and sitting up with all the careful slowness of a man that isn’t entirely sure of the strength of his hangover and is unwilling to risk more dramatic movement. “I guess I decided it would be a good idea to sleep here?”
McCoy makes a noncommittal noise and ducks his head as he pinches the bridge of his nose. His hair is doing this thing where it’s standing on end in such artful disarray that Jim is immediately and irrationally jealous. People with morning bed-hair like the perpetual hot mess style McCoy is currently sporting tend to score a lot. Jim’s always kept his hair too short to really properly achieve that level of tousled sex appeal.
“Oh, hang on, I got you a cab,” remembers Jim, running his fingers through his own disappointing hair and trying not to ogle McCoy, who is standing there in faded blue plaid undershorts and a dingy t-shirt advertising an incomprehensible fast-food franchise that appears to have something vaguely to do with fried chicken. “And you threw up on my shoes right outside your door.”
McCoy’s expression mutates from suspicion into surprise and embarrassment. “Oh. Well, shit. So I did.”
“You also spilled a beer on me that you never replaced,” Jim points out, yawning. “In case you’d forgotten.”
McCoy’s eyebrows scrunch into an endearing little scowl. “Sorry. On both counts.”
Jim shrugs, eyes fixed on McCoy, taking in the tense hunch of his shoulders, the way his boxers hang off narrow, thin hips, the stubble cropping up on his jaw. Jesus. That’s one hell of a hangover. McCoy looks like shit. Jim balances it carefully against McCoy’s overall attractiveness and finds it’s not a deal-breaker. At all.
“It’s okay,” replies Jim. “Nobody has christened me with stomach acid in a while. You reminded me why it’s not something I engage in with any sort of regularity.”
McCoy hesitates, blinking at Jim’s patch of sunlight. Then he shrugs, dismissing the situation with perfunctory ease, turns around, and shuffles off down the corridor with what looks to Jim like painful slowness. “I’m takin’ a shower, kid,” he announces as he goes. “Help yourself to anything you can scrounge in the kitchen.”
He disappears from sight, leaving Jim with a roiling stomach and a steadily-building migraine. When Jim is sure he’s gone, he looks at the room around him. The couch, coffee table, and bookshelves scream “this is a living room”. There’s a decent-sized vidscreen on the wall opposite him, and Jim absently commands it on as he gets jelly legs under himself and totters to his feet.
Federation news floods into the room, images and sound-bites and text, and Jim sighs, feeling nominally more human already. He navigates his way slowly around the room, poking around in McCoy’s meagre belongings because, really, Jim is a nosy son-of-a-bitch at the best of times, and McCoy’s in the shower, which makes this the perfect opportunity to dig through his stuff and figure out how the chip on his shoulder got so big. Things are still in boxes, despite McCoy claiming to have lived here for nearly six months already, and Jim only reaches for the stuff that’s readily available—books, a stack of frames that end up being McCoy’s degrees and medical certification, plus something else that looks like a pretty prestigious award, a handful of holographic photo cubes that mostly contain pictures of McCoy and a strawberry-blonde woman, medical journals, PADDs, and ornamental knickknacks.
In a distant part of the house, the shower turns off.
Jim takes this as his cue, directing his nosiness into the kitchen, which hasn’t changed much from the last time he was here except for the kitchen table now sporting a fetching new arrangement of empty beer bottles. The malt smell is particularly strong in this part of the house, and Jim looks around and spots stairs by the back door, spiralling down into alcohol-filled depths.
“What kind of soulless heathen doesn’t make a damn pot of coffee when beating a hangover into submission?” demands McCoy, from directly behind him, and Jim jumps.
“Jesus!” he cries, turning around. “The kind of heathen that’s in a stranger’s kitchen and feels uncomfortable messing with his stuff.”
“I threw up on you. I’d say we’re definitely at least acquaintances now. And I told you to help yourself,” grumbles McCoy, padding barefoot over to the coffee maker in a definite déjà vu moment.
“In the Jim Kirk Book of Friendship, vomiting on someone actually immediately elevates them to BFF-status, especially if the injured party—in this case, me—takes the culprit—that’s you—home. Are you okay, man?” asks Jim, raising an eyebrow. McCoy has the dubious honour of being the only person to look even more like shit following a hot shower and a change of clothes. “How much did you drink?”
“Enough,” grunts McCoy, scooping coffee into the machine with single-minded determination.
“Enough for...what?” asks Jim. “A horse? An elephant? A tall, dark, handsome stranger from the South?”
“All of the above,” replies McCoy, pressing the button and eyeing the coffeepot fixedly, as if daring it to take longer than five seconds. Jim thinks the machine better know what’s good for it.
“Well,” says Jim brightly, ignoring the pounding in his skull. “That calls for a greasy breakfast, dude. If you’re dying with the same agonizing slowness that I am, then bacon will ease the process.”
McCoy snaps his gaze over to Jim, his expression searching and wary. He seems to find something different in Jim’s face than what he was expecting and abruptly softens. “If that’s subtle encouragement for me to make you breakfast, then you can kindly fuck right off, kid.”
“Oh snap,” declares Jim, clicking his fingers. “My cunning plan failed. No, jackass, I meant I’ll take you out for breakfast, and you can buy. You did puke on my shoes.”
McCoy winces again and then sighs in defeat. “I don’t have a car.”
“My bike’s still at the bar,” recalls Jim, frowning. “I could—”
“Before you ask, I’m still not getting on that thing,” scowls McCoy, looking unreasonably pissed off at the very idea.
“Cab it is,” says Jim decisively. “We can split it.”
McCoy hesitates, ready to decline, then he pauses, shrugs, and says, “Hey, why not. Ain’t gonna say no to bacon.”
“Don’t stop believin’,” says Jim solemnly. “Hold onto that feelin’.”
Jim puts away a stack of pancakes, five strips of bacon, and a mountain of cheese-covered home fries.
He watches McCoy down three cups of coffee and not much else—the sly bastard sneaks a couple of strips of bacon off Jim’s plate, and then orders an omelette that he demolishes on his plate in classic six-year-old fashion, making it appear like he’s eaten more than he actually has.
“That is one sad lookin’ breakfast,” he observes, gesturing at McCoy’s plate with a syrup-covered fork. “You’re completely destroying that entire omelette’s reason for existing, Bones. You’re tearing it apart with your fork, getting its hopes up that this is it, this is finally the moment of consumption, this is the moment it’s waited for its entire life, but then—you just push it around a bit and it stays there, languishing. Convalescing. But it’ll never be the same again.”
McCoy, who’s been growing quieter and quieter throughout the meal and subsequently forcing Jim to chatter on with even more relentless enthusiasm than he’s usually accustomed, raises bloodshot hazel eyes to Jim’s face, and stares at him like Jim’s transforming into a butterfly right before his very eyes.
“What?” he barks wildly. “Christ on a cracker, kid, are you talking again? Why do you insist on doing that? Just—stop. Stop making sounds with your mouth.”
“Are you going to finish that?” asks Jim, getting to the point.
McCoy shrugs and pushes the plate across to Jim, who coos, “Don’t worry, honey, you’ll have a home soon,” to it.
“Are you actually for real?” demands McCoy, watching him in not-quite disbelief and thoroughly repressed amusement. “I’m still not entirely convinced I’m not just hallucinating your existence.”
“Me neither,” replies Jim, from around a mouthful of egg. “You let this get cold. What kind of monster are you?”
McCoy makes a face that successfully conveys the abstract concept of ‘you are an ass’ in a demonstratively illustrative way. “The kind that thought he was hungry, then actually smelled food, and decided the whole concept of eating was a bad idea in general. Still too hung-over for anything but coffee, kid.”
Jim’s only response is to heave a gusty sigh. “Lame. It was a foolproof plan.”
“Right,” mumbles McCoy, rolling his eyes. Something in his pockets emits a high-pitched beep, and he sighs, getting to his feet. “Be right back,” he says vaguely, crossing the aisle towards the public restroom.
Jim watches him extract something that looks like a hypospray from his pocket, and disappear around the corner.
“Weird,” says Jim, pushing an entire roll into his mouth.
“So what do you want to do now?” asks Jim, as they exit out into the parking lot.
It’s another one of those perfect, clear, sunny days that gives Jim the urge to drive really fast and try to hit forever. For some reason, he’s reluctant to take McCoy home and leave him. There’s something off about him, something he’s noticed since they first met, but can’t for the life of him pin down. McCoy is standing with his hands in his pockets, shoulders folded up into that now-characteristic hunch, and his uncombed hair falls over his forehead.
“Go home?” suggests McCoy, raising an eyebrow pointedly. “By which I mean, I will go to my home, and you will go to yours. You do have a home, right? You don’t just wake up in strangers’ living rooms every day?”
“I could make an incredibly filthy reply to that, but I won’t,” says Jim magnanimously. “And yes, Bones, I do have a home.”
“What is that?”
“...What’s a home?”
“No, jackass,” snaps McCoy. “What you just called me, you called me ‘Bones’. You did that in the restaurant, too, but I was still under the impression I was imagining shit, in there. What is that?”
“Nothing,” shrugs Jim, smiling wide. The sun hits him right in the eyes, so he shields them with his hand, looking at McCoy backlit against the horizon. “I didn’t call you anything. You must be hearing things, Bones.”
McCoy’s face scrunches up, and then he rolls his eyes and sighs, looking out over the gently waving fields. “We could go see a movie,” he mumbles.
McCoy bitches through the first twenty minutes of the film, and then falls asleep.
Jim doesn’t actually notice right away, because the movie picks up and he’s actually starting to get into it. Eventually, though, he realizes the constant grumbled commentary has ceased, and when he looks over at McCoy, he’s got his arms crossed over his chest, he’s slumped down in his seat, and his head has lolled forward. The expression on his face is one of intense concentration; he’s frowning, forehead wrinkled, and his mouth is downturned. Usually people’s faces smooth out when they’re asleep, but McCoy looks incredibly concerned, like there’s a weight on his shoulders.
Well, the guy did say he was recently divorced. Living in a shithole farmhouse in Iowa without anyone or anything—it’s gotta be pretty rough.
McCoy snuffles quietly. Jim watches him for a moment longer, then shrugs and turns back to the film. If the guy needs sleep, then he needs sleep.
Though after all that coffee, Jim isn’t sure how the guy isn’t completely bouncing off the fucking ceiling.
He stays dead asleep all the way through the movie and into the credits, so Jim finally gives in and shakes his shoulder gently.
“Hey,” he says, “Bones, wake up, old man.”
Jim isn’t quite sure what he’s expecting. McCoy to startle awake, maybe. Or wake up gradually, he supposes. Some people are heavy sleepers.
Shaking the fuck out of the man for close to a minute saying “Bones. Bones. Bones. Bones. BonesBonesBones. BONES,” into his ear definitely isn’t what Jim had envisioned. It’s like how he imagines waking a coma patient might be at that first exciting sign of returning brain activity; McCoy flops back and forth with every shake like a ragdoll, and then, finally, his head hits the back of the chair, he winces, and his eyelids lever open with an almost-audible creak.
“Whatthefuck,” he mumbles, all in one breath, slapping Jim’s hand away with far too much dexterity for a man that was, for all intents and purposes, unconscious a moment ago. “F’ck off. Jesus you’re worse than a mosquito.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” demands Jim, feeling unaccountably shaken.
McCoy gathers something from Jim’s tone, stiffening and straightening in his chair and then levelling a glare at him. “Hung-over,” he says defensively, knuckling at his eyes like a toddler. “Tired. I might be coming down with something, kid.”
“Yeah, a goddamn coma,” says Jim, incredulous. He sits back and crosses his arms, raising an eyebrow at McCoy. “If you don’t wake up tomorrow morning, I warned you. This is an omen.”
McCoy snorts, visibly gathering himself and slowly getting to his feet. Jim follows him down the aisle and out into the lobby, where the smell of synthetic butter substitute will forever linger in this building even five hundred years in the future.
“Do you have a car?” asks McCoy, abruptly, sliding his hands into his pockets.
Jim nods. “It’s a shitbox, but it runs. I prefer the bike to it, though. Why?”
“Would I be able to borrow it?” McCoy replies, answering Jim’s question in the most oblique way possible.
“Sure. Why?” he repeats.
“I need to go to Iowa City for an appointment,” says McCoy vaguely.
“What kind of appointment?” presses Jim.
McCoy scowls and shrugs. “The annoying and distinctly unpleasant legal variety. I’ve got some loose ends to tie up about the divorce.”
Jim knows with unequivocal certainty that McCoy is lying.
He doesn’t call him on it.
Jim isn’t too keen on using the network access at home. His mom is an internet ninja that has a penchant for compulsively checking search history five times a day, and she always manages to know exactly what Jim’s been doing even when he remembers to clear the cache and manually delete the temporary internet files because suddenly all her painstakingly-compiled search history is suspiciously absent as well. Since Jim’s got zero desire to explain why he’s essentially internet-stalking some guy, he decides he may as well check into things while at the auto-shop.
Besides, using a terminal to which he doesn’t actually have access and needs to hack is a hell of a lot more fun.
Amy isn’t in yet, so he sits in her office chair, breaks into the terminal after a pitifully short battle with her password protection, and then enters the public database.
‘Leonard McCoy’ brings up far too many results until he narrows down the search by occupation and location, and he finally finds a short, completely unhelpful article stub. It lists his name, a contact for the Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, and a small paragraph detailing his academic background. All the published journals require a university access code to download.
Jim hesitates. Hacking the Federation database is always a huge clusterfuck, but Jim comes out of it with Christopher Pike’s personal Academy intranet email address.
Captain Pike –
Starfleet should up the security on its personnel files. I’m hoping the fact that I managed to track this address down is reason enough for you to answer my question. I don’t know who else to ask.
Have you ever heard of Dr. Leonard H. McCoy? (The ‘H’ stands for Horatio. And I thought MY middle name was bad.) I was hoping you could send me some of his publications.
Sorry I didn’t show at the shuttle. Something came up.
Jim is about to lock up the terminal and slip out the back when the mail pings. He frowns, opening up the message.
McCoy’s the kind of guy we wish we could recruit. Here are three of his most recent articles. He’s talented. Too bad he fucked off out of Atlanta without a word to his colleagues. Nobody’s heard from him in a few months.
Hope this helps.
And don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again sooner or later.
That last line is a little heavier—more ominous—than Jim is willing to deal with right now, so he downloads the articles onto his PADD and wipes the emails from the terminal. He’s sneaking out of the back room, ready to disappear for a day of reading, when Amy shouts, “Hey! Jimmy T!” from across the room.
Jim winces, and turns slowly, looking appropriately abashed and sheepish. He rubs the back of his neck for good measure. “Amy. Dearest, darling Amy. I was just—”
“Save it, Jim,” she sighs, rolling her eyes. “Sorry, kid. You’re fired.”
“What?” asks Jim.
“Apparently my limit is, like, eighty bazillion strikes and you’re out,” she replies dryly. “Sorry Jim. I need someone that actually comes in for more than two out of every five shifts.”
Jim scratches the back of his head. “Well, you’ve got me there,” he admits.
Amy nods. “You’re cute, Jim, and you’re hella smart. Try not to end up in the gutter.”
Jim salutes her with as much smarm as he can muster, and gets the hell out.
McCoy returns his car three days later, just after 11 o’clock at night. Jim is lying on the roof of the porch, staring up at the thick expanse of silky darkness, watching shooting stars wink by, when the headlights turn up the drive and he hears the dying hum of the engine as the car pulls up to the house and sinks to the ground in a puff of dust. The lights go off and then the car door opens, and McCoy steps out.
Rolling onto his side, Jim turns his body around so that his head is hanging off the porch, and he looks down at McCoy.
“Bones!” he calls. “’Bout time you got back. I was worried you decided to steal my car and take a joyride across the country without me.”
McCoy’s head snaps up, and in the darkness, his eyes are hooded, expression hidden from view. “Jim,” he says, his voice tired and dry. “I should’ve known. This isn’t actually your house, you just squat on the roof.”
“You just get funnier and funnier,” says Jim. “How was the appointment?”
“Miserable,” announces McCoy promptly. That, at least, is the truth. “So, uh, you mind giving me a ride back to my place?”
Jim lifts his head. “Is that a request to ride on my bike?”
“Don’t get any funny ideas,” snaps McCoy. “But there are so many mystery lights pinging on in that car of yours that I don’t trust being in it another second.”
As Jim has come to realize, McCoy complains when he’s feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed (or angry or hungry or sick or any number of that category of emotion), and the cause of his bitching here seems to be a combination of all of the above. As soon as the motorcycle helmet goes on, the grumbling continues, but at a lower, more muffled volume, and then he climbs onto the bike behind Jim, wraps his arms around his waist like he’s a human parasite, and, Jim is almost certain of this even though he can’t see him, shuts his eyes tight.
He’s completely silent on the journey to McCoy’s house, and completely and utterly still. Jim can feel him, pressed up tight and nervous behind him.
There’s something hollow and fragile about the body leaning up against his back.
Jim thinks he’s imagining it, because McCoy is actually built a bit like a linebacker, or something, all strong shoulders and manly back, but there’s this niggling detail about him that Jim just can’t pin down. It troubles him like a splinter in the bottom of his foot for the entire duration of the ride, and he’s almost got it by the time he pulls into McCoy’s driveway.
It slips away the second he turns off the engine.
“Thanks, I guess,” mutters McCoy, getting off the bike shakily as he wrestles to get the helmet off, holding it out to Jim. “We didn’t die a deeply miserable, fiery death, so I suppose that’s my cue to keep any and all complaints I might’ve had about your drivin’ to myself.”
“Your faith in me is astounding,” replies Jim. “Keep that for now. I’ve got nowhere to put it on the ride back.”
“How about on your head?” demands McCoy acerbically. “It’s an idea.”
“It doesn’t fit me,” he shrugs. “I keep it around for passengers.”
McCoy raises an eyebrow. “I can’t possibly imagine why it doesn’t fit that ego-inflated skull of yours. Oh, wait, I totally can.”
“You’re a born comedian, Bones,” Jim says cheerfully. “There’s a club in Des Moines that would probably love to have you on stage on amateur comedy night.”
“Fuck you very much,” retorts McCoy and Jim swears up down and sideways that he almost gives in and smiles. Almost. There’s definitely a brief moment of not-quite good humour.
“You’re welcome to try,” says Jim.
McCoy looks startled for a moment, and then he smothers a genuine laugh in a huff, shaking his head. “Thanks for lending me the car, kid. I owe you a drink. See you around.”
Jim watches him walk up the drive, the bike helmet dangling from his fingers, and can’t think of anything to say that would let him invite himself in without sounding like a total creeper.
As a last-ditch effort, Jim cups his hands around his mouth and dramatically shouts “You complete me!” at McCoy’s retreating back.
“You lookin’ in a mirror, kid?” replies McCoy, stopping in the doorway of the house and turning back around, silhouetted neatly by the interior light. “I’m sure you’ve got a perfectly good hand to keep you company.”
Jim heaves a gusty sigh. “I’ll come back for you,” he promises solemnly, hand over his heart.
“It better be with a bottle of bourbon in hand or I ain’t opening the door.”
“For you, Bones, it’ll be the good stuff. It’ll burn your face right off.”
It is totally stupidly high-quality bourbon.
Jim thinks it probably passes muster, considering McCoy’s complete lack of snippy commentary when presented with the bottle. That, from McCoy, is almost certainly high praise.
The eyebrow raises—appreciatively, perhaps—and then he steps back from the door and waves Jim inside.
Jim trails after him, following McCoy into the living room, and McCoy heads straight for the shelf where he’s hoarding his glass tumblers and what appear to be a small liquor store with considerably more selection than the place in the town centre. “You havin’ some?” asks McCoy, glancing over his shoulder at Jim.
“Nah,” says Jim, flopping down on the couch. “Not really into whiskey. You got any of that weird beer you make?”
“Sure,” says McCoy, sounding inordinately pleased by Jim’s interest. He disappears into the hallway and Jim drifts off into a vague fugue-like state until he suddenly has McCoy standing over him holding an unlabelled bottle of reddish liquid in his face and barking, “—Jim! Jim, goddammit, take the bottle before I break it over your thick head.”
“That would be a waste of—” Jim takes the bottle, blinking at it, “—what is this, anyway?”
“Cherry malt,” grunts McCoy, shuffling back over to the shelf to open the bottle of bourbon. “Tell me if it’s worth keepin’, or if it tastes like cough suppressant.”
McCoy pours out a more-than-healthy tumbler of bourbon and retreats to his armchair, sinking down into it with a sigh. He’s the kind of guy that sits defensively, slid down in his seat, shoulders hunched like he’s warding people off, chin tucked against his chest. A comfortable silence unrolls between them, and Jim pops the top on his beer, taking a cautious sip.
It tastes—mostly like beer, with a pleasant, fruity effervescence that cuts the bitter hops-y aftertaste that Jim hates but has learned to ignore, especially when he’s getting the righteous deal of 24 bottles for 24 credits.
“Mmm,” he says, lifting his eyebrows. “Nice. I like this better than the strawberry.”
A tiny, pleased smile graces McCoy’s face, erasing the angry lines around his mouth for one brief, amazing second. “Well, guess I can’t fault your taste, kid. This bourbon is nice and smooth.”
Personally, Jim thinks no permutation of whiskey ever conceived could taste anything remotely like “smooth”; “angry and on fire”, maybe, or “paving the road to hell.” Any and all experiences he’s had with whiskey have been spectacularly bad ones, in which upon waking the next morning he couldn’t remember much of what happened after giving in and consuming the glorified fiery-death beverage beyond faded, fuzzy images.
McCoy, though, McCoy is going through the stuff a bit like it’s candy-flavoured water, and considering the state he was in when he vommed all over Jim’s shoes, he figures McCoy is one of those people that has built up a lifetime tolerance to alcohol somewhat akin to what it might be like to throw cotton balls at a concrete wall and hope they stick. He’s perversely curious about just how much he needs to drink to get as toasted as he was.
The answer turns out to be: three-quarters of a bottle of Kentucky bourbon.
“Don’t ever get married,” he barks at Jim, frowning. “Things will be good for about two weeks—you know when you go on a trip, and by the time your trip home rolls around, you’re sick to death of sleeping in a bed a million other questionable strangers have slept and fucked and jerked off in, and you want access to a fridge bigger than a small dog, and for people to stop replacin’ your damn towels every time you so much as turn your damn head to sneeze?”
“Dirty rotten towel-stealers,” Jim agrees blearily. The cherry beer is deceptively light. Seven bottles is probably a limit of some sort.
“Right,” snaps McCoy. “So after those first two weeks, you start to notice all the things you’d been blind to all the while that you were datin’—that you ain’t got nothin’ in common, that your friends and her friends all hate each other, that with you both workin’, findin’ time together is no longer a fun little game with sex during a lunchbreak, it’s just—the first thing that falls victim to the whole sad process. Because you miss each other so much you start getting pissed at each other, and then it becomes this silent, ongoing war, and all that love you built up starts getting strained.”
Jim’s blinks, finding his eyes suspiciously wet. “So that’s it? It just fell apart?”
McCoy is staring at Jim in a way that makes him think McCoy isn’t seeing him at all. “Throw in a lot more arguing, and yeah, that’s it. She gets the whole damn state of Georgia, and I get a box full of medical journals.”
“Why aren’t you practicing anymore? With your credentials, you’d get a job in Iowa City easy,” points out Jim. He’s lying on the couch, knees hooked over the arm, head turned toward McCoy.
“What do you know about my credentials?” asks McCoy, arching an eyebrow.
“Diplomas,” says Jim, gesturing towards one of the open boxes against the far wall. He doesn’t particularly want to have to admit that he totally googled Leonard McCoy.
McCoy grunts and falls silent. “What about you, kid?” he asks after a long moment. “What do you do?”
“I was recently let go from a position in a company that dealt with second-hand ownership of personal vehicles.”
It takes McCoy less time than Jim would’ve thought in his current state to parse that sentence. “You got fired from an auto-shop.”
“Your prize: another shot.”
“I’ll drink to your unemployment, sure.”
“You’ll find something else. Did you like it?”
“When I bothered to show up, sure.” McCoy barks a laugh, and Jim tries to contain that giddy feeling of rapturous glee that bubbles up in his chest when he successfully manages to evoke that sound in McCoy.
“I like machines. But it’s not what I really want to do, so it was always kind of meant to be a stop-gap,” continues Jim, shrugging. “I’ve taken all the aptitude tests, and there was a Starfleet recruitment shuttle passing through here a few weeks ago, but—both my parents were ‘Fleet, and hearing I’m running off to San Francisco in my brand new red uniform would probably kill my mom a second time over, so I’d rather fail her in a small, quiet way, you know?”
“And your daddy?” McCoy asks quietly.
“He’s dead.” Short, matter-of-fact, prompt. No details.
“Mine too,” replies McCoy, and leaves it at that.
The tension Jim hadn’t even realized he’d been courting all day in an intricate dance gives up and seeps out of him like a leaky balloon; he props up the back of his head with his hands and stares at the ceiling.
“Are we bonding?” asks Jim eventually.
“Over our dead fathers?”
“We could start the Gentleman’s Club for Daddy Issues.”
“I think you’re an idiot.”
“That’s probably because your deep-rooted daddy issues don’t allow your gnarled little heart to love.”
“I’m surprisingly okay with that.”
They sit there in silence for so long Jim thinks McCoy has passed out. He hasn’t, which Jim realizes when he gets up and tries to haul McCoy off his feet to drag him to bed and McCoy’s eyes snap open and he loudly protests that he’s not a damn invalid, he can fucking walk. Somehow they end up in McCoy’s bedroom, balanced tenuously against each other and indiscriminately shedding select articles of clothing. McCoy flops face-first into the pillows and Jim crawls after him onto the mattress and curls up on the foot of the bed.
Jim finds words for the thought that’s been percolating. “We should totally go on a trip.”
It's empty in the valley of your heart / The sun, it rises slowly as you walk / Away from all the fears / And all the faults you've left behind
—Mumford and Sons, “The Cave”
It’s one of those dreadful ideas that sound stunningly appealing to the ears of someone a hell of a lot more wasted than Jim, which is probably why McCoy agreed to it at all.
But considering Jim himself wakes up only partially dressed and sprawled, yet again, over a piece of furniture that definitely does not belong to him—and it’s not a couch, this time, it’s actually a bed—then it’s not like he was particularly sober, either. The idea must’ve marinated inside his brain for a while before emerging fully-formed from his skull like an unimpressive drunken god.
Jim has learned from previous experience to never try to move much after waking, so he lies patiently on the mattress with arms and legs akimbo, and tries to decipher where McCoy himself is currently located.
Analysis of the soft snuffles and occasional hiss of fabric shifting places him somewhere near the vicinity of Jim’s left knee.
If Jim could figure out where the fuck his knee is, then the whole situation would be drastically improved.
He un-sticks his tongue from his teeth, turns over, and blows a messy raspberry in what he discovers is McCoy’s lower back.
The response is pretty spectacular. McCoy snorts through his noise in surprise, startling awake and swinging an arm directly into Jim’s face.
And, ow, okay, probably not the best idea in the world. Jim yelps and checks for blood, but McCoy’s elbow doesn’t seem to have dislodged anything besides Jim’s dignity. “Motherfuckin’ ow,” he says, in muffled amazement.
“What in the good goddamn?” demands McCoy. He wrestles with the covers to sit up, and is just as partially-dressed as Jim happens to be.
“Holy fuck,” exclaims Jim, widening his eyes and looking McCoy up and down. He’s even skinnier without clothes on; lean and trim, those impressive shoulders folded inward. Once again, there’s something incredibly attractive about the current state of his hair, because it’s usually combed neatly, with a ubiquitous side-part that is probably ingrained in his skull by this point in his life, but that careful infrastructure gets ruthlessly massacred after a drunken night in bed. There are about five visible cowlicks, and the bit that he lets fall across his forehead is winging wildly backwards like it’s trying to escape the orbit of his head.
Jim can remember arriving in the bedroom, but everything else after that goes a little fuzzy. “Did we sleep together?”
“Oh my God,” croaks McCoy, dragging blunt nails through the thin layer of scruff on his chin and wiping a bit of drool away from the corner of his mouth. “Shit.” Except he pronounces it shee-it, like two separate words were forcibly dragged together in the early-morning remnants of adorably-accented inebriation.
“I’m pretty sure we didn’t,” tries Jim, straining his memory hard. It protests with a growing migraine and a whimper, and he drags a pillow over his eyes. The world stubbornly continues to exist. “What the fuck is up with that beer?”
“Your face,” mutters McCoy, toppling back onto the bed and curling into a ball. “All I wish for is death. That was good bourbon.”
“That,” says Jim, groaning, “is why I hate whiskey, and why you’re stupid for drinking it. You judge how good it was by whether or not the next morning finds you feeling like a steel-toed monster shit-kicked you.”
“I’d be deeply disappointed in the quality of booze if I woke up the next day without any lingering evidence of all the drinking I engaged in the night before,” mumbles McCoy, turning his face into the pillow.
They’re both quiet for a moment.
“I ain’t goin’ on no trip,” grunts McCoy, his tone every definition of ‘irascibly Southern’ that Jim could ever conceivably come up with.
“Yes you are,” retorts Jim. Fragments of pillow-talk start rushing back. “We shook on it!”
“Which, by the way, Jim, you really didn’t have to spit into your damn hand,” growls McCoy. “Just as a reminder for next time we make some sort of ridiculous pact, because nobody is a fan of another person’s saliva.”
“Noted. Anyway, I’m pretty sure we booked transport on a shuttle about an hour before we passed out.”
McCoy doesn’t say anything, just makes a choked little noise like he just swallowed his own tongue.
“This is your bed, Bones, so it’s your own fault if you puke in it,” warns Jim.
“I don’t fly well,” explains McCoy, curling further into himself.
“Most people don’t,” shrugs Jim. “Due to the pretty glaring lack of wings.”
“Shuttles are deathtraps.”
“Your mom’s a deathtrap.”
It all sort of devolves from there.
For about a week, Jim isn’t really sure what the hell is going on because McCoy studiously avoids mentioning the trip they’re apparently taking soon. Jim can’t even get a refund on the tickets because he purchased them during some sort of strict sale window that was a capital ‘F’ version of ‘final’ and heartily stressed the sheer impossibility of getting his money back in several smug paragraphs of fine print.
He’s loitering around McCoy’s kitchen, though, four days after their ill-advised bender, when he realizes he can hear McCoy talking in the bedroom. Jim pretends to reorganize McCoy’s collection of canned goods for about three minutes before slinking down the hallway to the doorway of the bedroom.
“—I know I said I wasn’t coming back,” McCoy is saying, in a tone that translates to ‘I am doing my best to stay calm’ in Bonesish. “Ain’t no reason to call me ‘fickle’ or a damn ‘drama queen’. I’m not moving back, and I’ll only be in the vicinity a week or two. Time enough for me to wrap up some loose ends.”
“Where are you going to stay?” The voice must belong to McCoy’s ex-wife. She sounds tired, just like McCoy, and faintly concerned.
“My parents’ house is sittin’ empty,” replies McCoy quietly. “I figured I’d get it ready for putting up for sale.”
“Oh,” says the woman—Jocelyn—in evident surprise. “Leonard—you said you weren’t going to sell.”
“I know,” replies McCoy tightly. “But—Joce, listen, let’s just make a date to meet for coffee, okay? There’s some things we need to talk about.”
“All right,” replies Jocelyn. “Leonard, are you okay? You look terrible.”
“Got divorced a few months back,” McCoy says lightly, though his tone is not mean. “Takes a toll on a person, as I’m sure you well know, darlin’.” He pauses, ducking his head, clearly a little embarrassed. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Jim can’t see the screen from here, so he can’t see Jocelyn, but he hears the light, tentative humour in her voice, as well. “Just take care of yourself, Leonard. Comm me when you land, and we’ll fix up a coffee date. We can finish up paperwork, and talk.”
“Sounds good. ‘Night, Joce. Take care.”
The faint light illuminating the room winks out, and Jim realizes McCoy must be sitting in the dark, now. He slips into the doorway and looks at the curved line of his spine, mapping the bones in his body with his eyes. There’s a certain degree of delicacy to his bone structure; he’s solidly built, but the long, deft fingers on his hands betray the wiry nature of his body.
“Hey,” he says quietly.
“What, Jim? What the hell are you doing here?” McCoy turns in the dark and all Jim can see of his face are the faint reflections in his eyes.
“I brought you dinner,” replies Jim. “Chinese. So I guess the epic Georgia bro-cation is a go?”
“Don’t ever use that word again.”
“But we’re going?”
“May as well,” says McCoy. “Already got the tickets, right?”
“Gonna see the ex-wife?” He keeps his voice carefully neutral.
McCoy sighs, and even in the dark, Jim can see the slump of his shoulders. He covers his face with his hands in a universal ‘fuck me’ gesture. “Guess so, kid. Got some shit to straighten out. Should be quick, though.”
“Good,” replies Jim. “Because I expect some serious shenanigans to go down. This is going to be two weeks of fried chicken and humidity and heavy drinking.”
“That’s the South in a nutshell,” drawls McCoy. “Hell, it’s like you’ve been there already.”
Jim thought maybe McCoy had been exaggerating.
Plenty of people hate to fly. It’s instinctual and ingrained, the desire to stay on the ground, because human beings have legs and feet and are generally designed to stand or sit on solid ground and not pack themselves into metal boxes and climb into the sky. Jim can’t claim to have ever really understood or possessed any of that fear though he knows plenty of people who do, but he’s never seen anyone react so violently and viscerally to the whole process. It’s a full-out phobia for McCoy, characterized by the shakes, vomiting, anxiety attacks, and a distinct inclination to shout a lot at very high volume at anyone within a certain unfortunate radius.
By the time they arrive, and stumble down the causeway into sunshine and a wet blanket of oppressive heat, McCoy looks like he just spent a year in rehab.
“This was a shitty idea,” he growls, squinting accusingly at Jim.
Jim has an arm wrapped around his waist, guiding him, even though McCoy is stiff and robotic and trying his best to keep from leaning on him.
“It’s over,” Jim reminds him. “Look at that, we’re still alive.”
“How can you be sure?” snaps McCoy, swiping his ID through the scanner and pushing crossly through the arrivals doorway. “This might be some sort of purgatory. We died a fiery horrible death, and now we’re stuck in this shuttleport for the rest of eternity.”
“You had been up in a shuttle before, right?” asks Jim, swiping his own card and dogging along on McCoy’s slightly unsteady heels. “That wasn’t a new experience?”
“Kid, I’ve been in fucking space before,” scowls McCoy. “No, that wasn’t a new experience. Doesn’t make it any less worse than it always is.”
“Space?” echoes Jim. McCoy is about to wander into a women’s bathroom, so Jim snags him by the sleeve and starts to steer them toward baggage claim, navigating them both through the noisy shuffle of the ‘port.
McCoy grunts. “Uh huh. Spent time on Dramia II. I was there as a resident, as part of an inoculation program.”
“How did you make it there in the first place without having a stroke?”
“I locked myself in the bathroom and spent three straight hours throwing up my insides. Ain’t never gonna get me out in space again. I like keeping my feet on the ground, thanks.”
“You know, the first manned shuttles sent into space didn’t have artificial gravity,” says Jim cheerfully. “The astronauts were totally weightless, all the time. They strapped themselves down to sleep, so they wouldn’t float away.”
McCoy is stubbornly quiet.
“And they used to train them by sending everyone up into a special airplane,” continues Jim. “And then pulling the plane into a dive, so the astronauts would get about twenty-five seconds of that simulated weightlessness, repeated about forty times over a two-hour flight. It was nicknamed ‘The Vomit Comet.’”
“I think I just threw up in my mouth a little,” mutters McCoy.
“Basically, what I’m saying is, ‘it could be worse’, Bonesy. At least we figured out artificial gravity.”
“It’s still artificial,” mutters McCoy. “And damned unnatural.”
There’s a sticky, heavy wind kicking up when they arrive.
The McCoy family house is large and boxy, with an old-fashioned wrap-around porch, and tall front steps. The wood was once white, and while still in fairly good condition, it’s gone dingy and yellow, in desperate need of a fresh coat.
It sits on the edge of an expansive field, and Jim almost laughs at the small, white picket fence surrounding the entire property. Trees jut up on most sides, impressively tall, and the front of the house is covered in curling vines of ivy.
McCoy is quiet as he gets out of the hovercar they’ve rented.
He stands on the end of the driveway, staring up at the big house. There’s a tension to his shoulders, which are hitched up somewhere near his ears, and he’s so still Jim wonders if he’s still conscious. Finally, he shifts, and half-turns toward Jim.
“Well, c’mon then, kid,” he says, his voice deceptively light. “Ain’t got all day.”
Actually, Jim wants to tell him they do have all day; they have two whole fucking weeks to do whatever they want to do. But instead he gets their shit from the car and follows McCoy up the dusty path to the front door.
“Holy fucking shit!” yells Jim.
He’s quickly learned that the house is pretty much crammed to the brim with stuff; highly superfluous furniture (he’s never seen so many end tables in one place in his life), lamps—so many lamps!—and bowls, fucking doilies, he didn’t think people still kept doilies, knickknacks, tchotchkes, books, a genuine grandfather clock—Jim could go on and on.
It makes for one hell of an entertaining obstacle course, and he crashes through the back door, hurls himself over the back of a couch, lands in a crouch, rolls, and hits the far wall with a resounding thunk that echoes through the house and nearly shakes some frames to the floor.
“Jim?” calls McCoy from somewhere in the kitchen. He’s been ‘cleaning’ all day, which apparently involves rigorously drinking a finger of bourbon for every ten minutes he spends waffling about putting things in bags and boxes. “What the fuck are you doing? If you’re breaking shit, so help me—”
“Bones!” shouts Jim, bouncing to all fours like a cat and diving through the next corridor, coming to a rest at McCoy’s feet. “Bones, there are peach trees in your backyard.”
McCoy is staring down at him incredulously and his eyes are wide in a way that makes him look kind of manic. He’s coated in a fine layer of dust and he’s wearing sweatpants and a too-small t-shirt that does wonders for his biceps.
“Yes, thank you, Jim,” he says finally, backing down in the face of Jim’s patented blue-eyed stare of doom. “I was actually aware of that.”
“Peaches! You actually have peaches!” Jim says, leaping to his feet and throwing his arms up. “Georgia is the land of magic and dreams come true.”
McCoy looks like he’s about to say one thing but then he shakes his head and says another. “Pick a handful, and I’ll make a damn cobbler,” he mutters. “I swear you’re just like a child. Ain’t got a lick of sense in that big head of yours.”
“Grow up in a state that produces nothing but corn, and then come talk to me,” retorts Jim. “Fucking peaches! Nothing left but your bones, huh? You didn’t mention this.”
McCoy gives him a funny look, crumpled and pained, before quickly schooling his expression back to broad-spectrum annoyance. “This is my parents’ house. Not mine.”
“But they left it to you. It’s in your name now, right?”
McCoy is shaking his head. “It’s still theirs, Jim. It always will be.” His voice is soft and his eyes don’t meet Jim’s.
Jim wisely leaves him alone for the rest of the afternoon.
Somehow, Jim manages to get it all wrong.
He thinks he’s basically got it figured out, especially after three days pass them by and McCoy barely packs anything at all and doesn’t make any attempt to contact Jocelyn Darnell about whatever thing it was that he wanted to ‘wrap up’.
They’re mostly spending all their time on the porch, drinking out of the pretty epic liquor collection in the den and whiling away the time by having long, stupid conversations about what constitutes Real Bourbon and how crap a time they both had in high school. Afternoons are long and languid and on one such day Jim herds McCoy out of the house and they walk down to what turns out to be an overgrown swimming hole.
It’s choked with weeds, but the water inside is clear and green in the high noon sunlight.
McCoy sits on the edge, jeans rolled up and feet dangling in the cool water, while Jim strips down and hurls himself immediately off the nearest available surface, cannon-balling into the center of the pond.
“So you’re actually gonna sell this place?” asks Jim when he’s resurfaced and McCoy has shouted at him for splashing, paddling lazily over to the shore to float by McCoy’s knee. He keeps himself mostly submerged, looking up at McCoy through his lashes.
McCoy shrugs. “Well, I’m not gonna live in it. Neither is Joce. Not quite sure how I feel about selling it, but it seems a waste, sittin’ here empty. Someone could buy it. Raise kids in it.”
“Don’t you want to come back to it someday?” asks Jim shrewdly, narrowing his eyes at McCoy. He blinks droplets from his eyelashes, dragging his fingers through his hair. The water is the perfect temperature, the perfect pitch, sun-warm but cooled by a small overhang of trees. He hangs in the water, treading lazily, everything thick and slow around him like the lengthy afternoon. “Have your own family in it?”
“Don’t think I’ll be coming back,” says McCoy distantly. “To this house or to Georgia. This’ll be my last visit.”
“Why?” demands Jim.
“Too many bad memories,” shrugs McCoy. “Look, Jim, it’s just a house. I spent enough time in it as a kid, and now it’s empty. It ain’t like my mama and daddy are still around, and my marriage is over, so I won’t be bringing kids here. It’s a waste, is all. It’s never gone feel like it’s mine, anyway.”
“I just think you’ve gotta hang onto places like this,” says Jim stubbornly. He clutches a patch of wet grass overhanging the pond and sighs. There’s a low, prevalent buzz of cicadas rising up from the long grass all around them, and he can hear the soft tinkling drops of water rolling back into the pond from his hair and nose. The water is gemstone green; emerald and jade shot through with sparkling sunlight.
McCoy pulls up a long bit of wild grass and sticks it between his teeth, chewing pensively, while Jim swims laps around the tiny pool until the sun slips behind a wall of sudden clouds, boiling up a thick and angry and steel-grey.
“Best be getting back to the house, Jim,” murmurs McCoy, tilting his face up toward the darkening sky. “Storm’s coming.”
“Shit, son, I might get wet,” drawls Jim, spreading his arms and legs and floating up onto his back.
“Shit, son, you might get struck by lightning,” retorts McCoy, “And there won’t be a single benevolent soul around to haul your stupid skinny ass out of this pond, because I’ll be warm and dry in the house while you splash around like a child and then get toasted to a crisp.”
Jim is halfway out of the pond before McCoy is barely finished his wild monologue, crawling over the weeds and already shivering. “You are, like, one of those terrible ‘it could happen to you!’ commercials in human form,” he accuses, gathering up his clothes and dumping them in McCoy’s lap as he stands up and shakes himself like a dog. “You should go to high schools and teach sex education to terrified 14-year-olds. ‘Don’t have sex. Ever. If you do, you’ll get syphilis and die. Here is an assortment of photographs that will make your genitals shrivel up. Still want to fuck each other now?’”
“The thing that amuses me most is how you think you’re coming back into the house like that,” says McCoy pointedly, holding out the armful of Jim’s stuff as Jim struggles to force his wet body back into the dry clothes. He wriggles like a noodle, tugs his shirt over his head, and looks down at McCoy, who’s still sitting with his legs dangling in the pond.
A jolt goes through him as his eyes meet hazel ones, dark and intent and clearly having just looked Jim up and down. He swallows, then grins, and holds a hand out to McCoy just as fat, heavy drops beginning to tumble down, picking up in speed, a gentle pattering rhythm.
“C’mon, Bones,” he says, helping him to his feet. “Lightning, remember?”
The rain comes faster and faster, a deep, resonant staccato drumbeat against the lush ground as they run back barefoot through the thick, overgrown grass. They’re in the rain for maybe five minutes, the sky dense and thundering overhead, the air thick, but by the time they stumble through the old-fashioned screen door into the mud room, crashing into each other and laughing, they’re soaked, sopping rainwater onto the carpet.
“I’m not convinced I wouldn’t have been better off in the swimming hole,” says Jim accusingly, wrapping his arms around himself and shivering, listening to the low-grade rumble of thunder in the distance.
The dim house is lit vaguely by a flash of lightning.
McCoy raises an eyebrow at him. The lightning silhouettes him briefly, giving him a pale, otherworldly appearance, and then it fades and leaves him looking wan and curiously translucent. “You’re an idiot. I don’t think I can say that enough. Wait here, I’ll get some towels,” he commands, padding down the corridor in wet, muddy feet.
Jim watches him go, eyeing the line of his spine under the wet shirt, his slim hips and nearly visible ribs. He stands and shivers and then decides to strip down to his underwear.
When McCoy comes back, he falters only momentarily and then rolls his eyes. “A second excuse today to take off all your clothes.”
“Well,” says Jim, taking one of the towels and wrapping it around his shoulders, “Not all my clothes.” He grins, and gets a towel in his face for his trouble.
Then McCoy’s hands are on his head, gently massaging the towel into his dripping hair, rubbing it all over his scalp. Any tension Jim was carrying drops immediately out of his shoulders and he closes his eyes, mouth hanging open a bit.
“There,” says McCoy, in an unexpectedly hushed voice. He wraps the towel around Jim’s neck, and remains standing too close, his fingers holding the ends of the fabric. “A little better, right?”
McCoy’s got a towel draped over his own shoulders like a cape, and his hair is plastered down over his forehead, droplets snaking down his face to collect on the tips of his lashes. He looks unerringly into Jim’s eyes, a fragile moment hanging between them both.
“Listen, Jim,” he continues, a curious, unreadable expression making its way onto his face. “We need to talk. There’s something I need to tell you.”
Jim barely hears him over the sudden pounding of his own heart. If he was paying better attention, maybe he would have noticed the quiet desperation in McCoy’s eyes, the resolve and determination and fear and need lurking there. Instead, Jim moves without thinking, before he can check himself or question his actions, wrapping his hands over McCoy’s and using the towel to tug their bodies together, thumping chest to chest.
“Jim,” breathes McCoy, eyes flickering with—something, pain? regret?—and mouth twisting a bit, and then Jim leans in and kisses him before he can say anything else. He closes his eyes, tucking their damp bodies closer together, a curl of heat flashing through him. McCoy’s lips are cold, but they part easily to a warm, wet mouth that Jim sweeps his tongue through, the electric thrill of contact thrumming through him. For a long moment, McCoy is just a passive recipient, mouth opening, and lips moving hesitantly, and then he arches, bumping their hips so hard it hurts as he struggles to get closer.
Jim pulls back enough to nip at McCoy’s lower lip, full and red, and then initiates another kiss, deeper and more insistent than the first. He pushes and pushes and takes until he nudges McCoy up against the wall, pressing his thigh between his legs as he pins him there.
“Wait,” interrupts McCoy breathlessly, his eyes wide and lost and completely unsure as he catches Jim’s hands and stills his attempts to duck in for another go. “Jim, dammit, stop. Just stop. Please.”
“Bones,” protests Jim, “What? If you say something about how unhygienic I am right now from swimming in that pond, I will fucking knee you in the junk.”
McCoy doesn’t chuckle. He doesn’t even smile. Instead, he looks—almost crushed, like what he’s about to say is going to really, really hurt him. Jim’s heart, full to bursting, stutters, and he shrinks back defensively, his stomach sinking. That kind of expression never leads to anything good.
“Jim,” repeats McCoy, turning his head away and taking a deep, shaky breath. He gathers himself visibly, then turns back to Jim, mouth pursed. “I can’t do this, kid. I’m sorry.”
He places both hands on Jim’s upper arms and pushes gently, disengaging their bodies though his hands stay on Jim’s upper arms, fingertips pressing into his skin. “Bones,” says Jim, hollowly. “Why? Why can’t you? What the fuck, man.” And anger flares up, bright and hostile, and he steps back, leaving McCoy pressed to the wall, wet and small and bedraggled, his arms still reaching for Jim.
“I can’t,” repeats McCoy, his tone faltering, though he’s responding to Jim’s rapid change in mood and a scowl is building. McCoy often acts as a mirror to Jim, absorbing the rampant emotions from around him, gathering them, and then reflecting them back. “What the fuck about that is so hard to understand, kid? You think you can just insert yourself into whoever’s life you like, all charm and booze and road-trips, and expect it all turns out your way through sheer force of your fucking irresponsible, exhausting will? Well, fuck you, Jim Kirk. You have no idea. That’s not how things work. I say I can’t, then I damn well can’t! You wanna throw a fit about your failed little seduction, fine, be a baby, but don’t turn it around on me just because you hate not getting your way.”
Jim flinches back like he’s been slapped. “Oh, that’s rich, Bones,” he scoffs coldly. “You let me in. You let me in. And then you kissed me back. You kissed me back!” he cries, emotion coiled tight like a drum in his belly. He hasn’t felt this angry in years, real rage boiling up helplessly and simmering in every cell in his body. This is nothing like the false and empty fights he sets up for himself in nameless bars. “You know what you are, Bones?”
“What, Jim?” drawls McCoy acidly. “Enlighten me. Shower me with your newest wunderkind philosophy.”
“You’re a coward. Whatever drove you to Iowa, it doesn’t have to hang over your head like some cross to bear,” says Jim earnestly, desperately, because as angry as he is, he just wants McCoy to feel with him. “You’re not a martyr, Bones. Okay, you got divorced. So what? So do half the fucking people in the country. That doesn’t ruin you for the rest of time.”
McCoy stands, and looks at him, and Jim can’t figure out the emotions working themselves out over his face. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he finally manages thickly, forcing the words out with difficulty.
“I would, if you told me,” growls Jim, picking up his wet clothes off the floor and struggling into them again. The next two minutes are embarrassing and silent as McCoy stands with fists clenched and Jim tries to get dressed and still retain some measure of dignity. “Nice meeting you, Bones. Enjoy the rest of your miserable ‘vacation’.”
“Jim, please,” says McCoy, his voice hoarse and tired. “Just wait. Let’s talk—”
“I can’t,” spits Jim, grabbing the car keys from the bowl by the door and stalking back out into the rain.
Jim definitely gets it all kinds of wrong.
In some sort of misplaced defiance to McCoy’s warnings, Jim parks the rental on the edge of a field, climbs onto the roof, and lies on his back in the rain, closing his eyes as the drops sing down, soaking him again and again and flushing out the sweeping frustration in his body. It’s only mid-afternoon but the clouds overhead are black and apocalyptic, illuminated by the briefest flashes of lightning. He stays there until his fingers and nose are numb, until he’s shaking and stiff and climbing back down is a slow, painful, clumsy process.
The inside of the car is warm and dry. Jim feels like a childish jerk, which isn’t exactly what he wanted to come out of this feeling like, but it’s undeniable. He’d hoped, and thought he’d read things correctly, but McCoy is right—he can’t twist things around to bend to his will. He can’t control what McCoy wants. And as painful as it is to think Bones doesn’t actually want him like that, he can’t stay angry.
He also can’t steal the rental car, because it’s in McCoy’s name, and that would be a pretty big dick move.
Getting a towel would be nice, too. Or maybe a hot shower.
He starts the car with a sigh.
He takes the long way back—not because he gets lost, because he totally doesn’t—but because he hates this part, hates the awkward act of starting a conversation again after an exchange of sharp words and insults. He doesn’t even know McCoy all that well, a fact that keeps swirling around accusingly in the back of his mind. It’s only been a few weeks, most of their encounters fuelled by loneliness and mutual boredom and alcohol. Their friendship is still tenuous and early and new.
Jim wishes he could talk to his mom. She’d know how to approach this, because she’s savvy like that, knows how to address other people’s problems and offer potential next steps even though she never did quite figure out how to apply all her deft solutions to her own life.
The fucking rain isn’t letting up, but it’s not like Jim could get any wetter without turning into some sort of amphibian, so he walks slowly from the car to the front door when he reaches the old farmhouse. He ends up standing huddled under the overhang, one hand on the doorknob with his forehead pressed to the varnished wood, desperately hoping it’s unlocked, because he needs time to gather himself and he can’t do that if he’s immediately faced by Bones.
With an intake of breath, he turns the knob and pushes inside.
The foyer is dark and empty, and he slips a little on the wood floor, feet slick and bare. Distantly, he can hear water running, so he moves toward the bathroom, trying to ignore the cold feeling of dread settling into his stomach.
He walks to the bathroom like he’s caught in the throes of a dream, mired in an inescapable slow-motion crawl; no matter how much he pushes himself, he just can’t walk any faster. Jim scores absolutely next to nil in terms of empathic sensitivity on the PSI scale, but he’d swear there’s something wrong up in here. Feeling a bit like an intruder, he stalks and creeps his way down the long hallway, toward where he sees the bathroom door ajar, spilling light into the darkened interior of the rest of the house. He can definitely hear running water from the sink, not the shower, but other than that, the room is silent. McCoy is a noisy person in the bathroom, clattering things and closing and opening cupboards and usually keeping up a running grumbling commentary as he goes, but it’s dead silent, almost eerily so.
Forcing himself to round the corner and enter is hard, and the desire to run is lodged deep inside Jim, run, and he won’t have to know, run, and whatever McCoy said he needed to tell him won’t ever matter.
The first thing he notices, because it’s at his eye-line, is the blood splattered over the edge of the sink. Frozen in place, he follows the trail down, ignoring the running water, and there’s Bones, in a little heap in the middle of the bathroom floor.
Jim’s vision narrows and there’s a buzzing in his skull.
“Bones,” he says loudly, his voice too harsh in the sterile little room. “Bones, get up.”
McCoy is crumpled on his side, and blood is puddled under his head. From where he’s standing, Jim can’t tell whether it’s from some head wound, like maybe he slipped and fell and cracked his skull on the sink, and he’s so fucking still on the floor is he breathing is he fucking breathing make your damn legs work Jim make them—
“Bones,” he repeats, and suddenly he’s moving, crossing the threshold and going down onto his knees like they’ve been kicked out from under him. McCoy is warm and limp, and there’s a pulse beating sluggishly under Jim’s fingers as he hauls him up. Jim spreads his legs and sits down hard on his ass, pulling McCoy into his arms with his back to Jim’s chest. His head lolls, like the loose joint on a broken doll, and slots into the juncture of Jim’s neck and shoulder.
“Bones,” babbles Jim, “Bones, Bones, I’m sorry, wake up.” He runs his fingers through McCoy’s damp hair, wet from the shower, not the rain, and the warm weight of his head tips against Jim’s chin. He’s disturbingly pliable, slumped against him like a dead weight, body heavy. Something wet and sticky is dripping onto Jim’s wrist, giving him a minor heart attack, but then he looks down and realises it’s coming from McCoy’s nose, welling on his upper lip. He breathes a little more steadily, at that, splaying one hand out over the plane of McCoy’s chest to feel the reassuring beat of his heart and the shaky rise and fall of his chest. He’s struggling to breathe, and Jim’s own heart stutters in sympathy.
With his free hand, he reaches for the medkit, which he notices is sitting half-spilled on the floor under the sink. McCoy was opening it, dropped it, which means he was getting something from it before he passed out. Jim flicks it open and immediately spots a medical tricorder, tugging it out and turning it on. Passing it over McCoy’s head encourages it to spit out a rapidly-growing list of gibberish and Jim stares at it in mute panic, trying to decipher the important details. He needs Bones to tell him what the fuck is wrong, because this is like a whole other stupid language that Jim can only half-read, despite the fact that he’s pretty sure at least some of these words are in English.
He pats McCoy’s cheek and gives him a shake. McCoy’s forehead feels hot. “Wake up,” he begs. “Wake up wake up wake up.”
The rapid-fire scrolling stops, and the little device spits out a screen that shows a human figure. Blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, fuck, yes, this he understands. McCoy’s blood pressure is dangerously high, and his breathing is rapid and strained. He’s having trouble getting oxygen to his brain.
Jim’s about to stretch McCoy out in the recovery position when he stirs, coughing wetly. He startles when Jim’s arms come up to surround him, cradling him protectively, and Jim sees his eyelashes flutter against his cheeks as his eyes open.
“Jim,” he murmurs, so certain of his presence that Jim feels nothing but shame.
“Hey,” he whispers, tucking his chin against McCoy’s hair.
“You’re wet,” says McCoy, drawing his knees up defensively. “If you tell me you were out in the rain all that time, so help me, I will kill you myself. I’m a doctor; I know how to make it look like an accident.”
Jim blinks and then gurgles a pathetic laugh. “Because you’re totally in the condition to do that. What happened, Bones?”
“Nosebleed,” mutters McCoy, hissing. He wipes the back of one shaking hand across his oozing nose and smears blood across his cheek. “Got lightheaded. Must’ve slipped.”
“This isn’t all that much blood,” says Jim tightly, shaking his head. He holds the tricorder out in front of McCoy’s face, and points to the reading that doesn’t make any sense to him. “What does this mean? Your blood pressure is through the roof, by the way.”
McCoy looks down at the tricorder and sighs. “It’s my red blood cell count. Normal level is about 4.7 million.”
“So what you’re saying is this is ‘damn high,’” says Jim thinly. “What about the other one?”
“White blood cell count,” mumbles McCoy.
“Bones,” says Jim quietly. “What does this mean?”
“Means it’s hard for oxygen to make it to my cells because my red blood cells are in such a high proliferation that they just choke each other out,” replies McCoy promptly, clinically. “Means I suffer from exhaustion, dizziness, headaches, and the occasional nosebleed.”
“And it ain’t good, kid.”
Jim sets down the tricorder carefully. And then he helps McCoy to his feet, and leads him to the toilet, closing the lid and sitting him down on the edge. McCoy drops his head into his hands and just breathes. “There’s a hypospray in the kit,” he says eventually, pointing. “Yellow cartridge. Pass it to me, please.”
Jim obeys, the buzzing in his ears intensifying. McCoy checks the dosage through heavy-lidded eyes, flips it over, and doses himself in the neck with a long, relieved sigh.
Jim just watches and waits.
“It’s called Xenopolycythemia,” says McCoy after a few awkward moments, lifting his head. The gaze he fixes on Jim is so haggard, so tired, that Jim has to look away, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. “And it’s terminal.”
For a moment, Jim can’t breathe. The cold weight in his gut flips and tightens, and he swallows down bile. It’s the same feeling he gets after he wakes up from those fucking dreams, his body stretched thin and distant, his head all full of stars. He’s so dizzy he sits hard on the edge of the bathtub. “That’s why you can’t,” he says flatly. “You’re dying. How long?”
McCoy doesn’t reply. He keeps looking steadily at Jim.
“How fucking long?”
“I was given a year, at diagnosis,” replies McCoy. “It’s been nearly seven months. The specialist I’ve been seeing in Iowa City seemed fairly optimistic that quality of life wouldn’t begin to truly degrade until the last four or five months and the medication has stopped being particularly effective pretty much right on cue. I could continue steadily declining like projected or—” He cuts himself off suddenly, turning his head away.
“Or what?” snaps Jim.
“Or I might just go to sleep one night and not get up in the morning.”
There’s something howling in Jim’s skull. “You’re dying,” he repeats quietly. He can’t keep the brittle, flinty tone out of his voice. “You ran away to Iowa to die.”
“I’m sorry,” says McCoy softly. “I didn’t think we’d—I wasn’t expecting to get close, Jim. I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone at all. I couldn’t figure out how to tell you.”
Jim finds himself at the door, his back to McCoy, before he’s even really aware of standing. Everything is dreamlike and remote and false again. He has to leave, he has to leave right now, because there is no universe in which he can physically or emotionally process this level of honest-to-god suck; he’s just letting the words pass into his brain and summarily ejecting them out the other side. It’s impossible and horrifying and Bones is dying. He’s dying. When he was sitting behind Jim on his bike he was dying and when he was asleep in the cinema he was dying he was dying he was dying the whole fucking time, and Jim didn’t know. Jim didn’t know.
He was dying when Jim kissed him.
“I have to go,” Jim says thickly. He touches his lips and shudders. Oh god. He can’t he can’t he can’t look at Bones, he can’t—
“I have to go home. I’m sorry.”
“Jim,” says McCoy simply, an edge of pleading to it.
Jim stiffens. If he says it, if he asks him to stay, he’ll stay, please Bones don’t ask me to stay.
But McCoy doesn’t say anything else for a long time. When he speaks again, his voice is hard. “If you’re going to leave, then just leave, asshole. Kindly fuck off right outta my damn life as quick as you came into it and leave me the blessed hell alone.”
It’s exactly what Jim needs to hear, sending him stumbling out of the bathroom and into the hallway. His feet slip on the floor of the foyer again as he numbly searches for his shoes.
Jim was so wrong. He got it all so painfully and irrevocably wrong.
McCoy isn’t the coward. Jim is.
“Don’t let the door smack you in the ass on the way out!” yells McCoy, his raw voice echoing after Jim.
The weather in Iowa is calm and clear and sunny, like Jim has stepped into a postcard after leaving the stormy state of Georgia behind and landing at home a handful of hours later.
He lets the door slap shut behind him as he stomps into the house, shouting, “Mom? I’m back.” His bag emits a cloud of dust as he drops it on the floor.
“Jim?” Winona Kirk comes down the hallway, a bewildered expression on her face. She’s holding a PADD and wearing a blue cotton dress. Seeing her drives home just how much of a dick he is. He should’ve gone straight to the bar. “Jim, what are you doing here? You said you’d be gone two weeks.”
“Change of plans,” he says shortly, pushing past her gently and heading for the kitchen. He’s got his head in the fridge and is reaching for a beer before his hand falters. It’s that strawberry shit that Bones made. Jim’s been saving the last couple of bottles even though the cherry-flavoured batch was way better.
His knees hit the tile floor and it is impossible to breathe.
“Jim?” Winona is behind him, looking down at his prone form. “What are you doing?”
Jim slumps down in a heap, sprawling on the empty bottom shelf. “Freezing to death.”
There is a pause. “The freezer in the storage room would probably be a better idea if that’s what you’re after.”
“Seriously, Jimmy, what’s going on? You were supposed to be in Georgia another week and a half.”
“I cut it short,” says Jim. From this vantage point, he can see a jar of relish in the back that has turned an alarming shade of purple.
“Kiddo, I respect your desire to end your life in however way you wish, but I’m not paying for the energy bill if you keep that fridge door open a second longer,” says Winona firmly.
Jim sighs, retracts his head like a turtle, and pushes it closed. Sitting against the door, he looks up at his mother. “Do we have any cookie dough?” he asks.
“No, but we have a gallon of fudge crackle ice cream that I haven’t opened yet.”
Jim gestures at her to retrieve the ice cream. “Then go forth, mother, and fetch us a pair of spoons.”
“I’ll fetch you a smack on the head. You get the spoons; I’ll get the ice cream.”
They sit beside each other on the kitchen floor, ice cream between them, and Jim works through the fourteen-car pileup in his brain as he stabs at the tub with his spoon.
“Did I tell you?” Winona asks, after a stretch of companionable silence. “I got my funding.”
“Holy shit,” says Jim, forgetting the self-centred miasma of wallowing pity boogying down in his heart as he sits up and turns to her, eyes wide. “Mom—that’s fucking awesome. You get to go ahead with your research? Do you get minions?”
“You mean ‘research assistants’,” corrects Winona, digging out the lumps of fudge and leaving behind untouched vanilla ice cream. “And yes, I get a team. We’re starting in late autumn. I have to move my entire office from here to Iowa City—don’t make any plans on the weekend of the 23rd of October.”
Jim wrinkles his nose. “Using your beloved son as a pack-mule has to be breaking some sort of law.”
“But he’s so big and strong,” she says absently, “And he has a car.”
“My downfall,” says Jim feelingly. “So what else do you get? New lab? Unlimited materials?”
“New lab,” nods Winona. “And—get this—my own particle accelerator.”
“Mom,” whimpers Jim, catching her hands in his and clutching them tightly. “Remember, you can only use your powers for good. Getting your very own supercollider is, like, equivalent to getting a key to the city, except it’s a key to the entire universe. They trust you won’t blow up the world. Remember—you promised that if you open up a wormhole, I get to go back in time and save Mr. Wonky from his tragic, premature end.”
Winona gives him a look that says I thought we were past this. “You were eight,” she reminds him. Jim just stares. “Fine, pinky swear, etcetera. We’re mostly going to be smacking together tachyons, Jimmy, who knows what we’ll find.” She sounds ridiculously excited.
“I hope it’s Mr. Wonky,” says Jim with mock enthusiasm.
“He had such an adorable ear,” agrees Winona. She sighs, and sits back. “So. Your trip. Did your friend Leonard come back, too?” she asks, knowing exactly where to stick the knife.
Jim’s face crumples into a frown. “No. His grumpy ass is still back in Georgia.”
She raises an eyebrow and licks her spoon. “Falling out?”
“Sort of. He’s maybe dying a little bit. You know. In a terminal way.” Nope, making light of it doesn’t actually help. He feels a little sick.
Winona is putting a spoonful of ice cream into her mouth as he says this, and she makes the mistake of trying to say something before swallowing. The ice cream ejects past her lips and hits the floor with a splat. Jim starts a slow round of applause.
Jim nods slowly and the numb feeling spreads. “He looked rough all the time, you know? I figured he was just one of those guys that never got enough sleep, and drank too much, and basically lived in a state of perpetual hangover. But, we have this—this stupid fight, and when I come back, he’s—passed out on the floor of the bathroom, and—he tells me he’s not only sick, he’s got some—rare blood disease. He’s fucking terminal, mom, he’s got a finite amount of time left to live, and I couldn’t just—I mean, what the fuck do I do with that?” he demands. He reaches for the ice cream, and ignores his shaking hands.
“You found out he’s dying, and you left him,” says Winona, with deliberately blunt slowness. Jim can feel her lasers-of-death mom stare, and doesn’t dare raise his head. The shame he feels without the accompaniment of her emanating rays of disapproval is already enough for three, maybe even four, self-loathing people. His eyes are fixed on the floor when her hand swings out of nowhere and smacks him soundly on the back of the head.
“Ow!” protests Jim, rubbing his skull and staring at Winona with wide eyes.
“Answer the question, Jim,” she says flatly.
“Okay, Jesus. Yes, yes,” Jim snaps. “You didn’t actually ask a question, you know.”
“Why?” demands Winona, ignoring him. “Why did you run, kiddo?” Her spoon is waving under Jim’s nose.
“I got scared,” admits Jim. “Okay? He’s—mom, I let myself—” He stops, pained. “I kind of really like him,” he mumbles sullenly, sinking down against the fridge. “A lot a lot.”
Winona makes a noise like she’s just had an epiphany. “Right. A lot a lot. Which in Jim-speak means you love him. You do know that this isn’t over, right?”
“He probably doesn’t want to see me again,” hedges Jim. “I was a massive dick. He trusts me enough to tell me, and I run.” He covers his face with his hands. “You raised a stupid son.”
“Yeah, well, he persisted in having a mind of his own,” says Winona, flicking him in the ear. “Don’t shift blame, JT, it’s bitchy.”
“Sorry,” says Jim, stabbing his spoon into the ice cream and leaving it there, standing upright like a flag pole. “I’m just about to admit to myself that I made a mistake, so I’m making a last-ditch effort to drag down the nearest victim with me.”
“Well guess what? I just rolled a twenty, so I’m using my jetpack to escape your whirlpool of despair,” replies Winona. She wraps an arm around Jim, kisses him on the top of the head, and pats his arm. “Just go back, Jim. He needs you. You can’t charm people and then back off when things get too heavy. Not for the rest of your life. You’re smarter and better than that, you can handle real, solid, mutual relationships.”
Curse her. Curse her cool, motherly logic. “I shake my fist at you,” says Jim, making a face. “You know me too well. It’s creepy.”
“It’s not at all like you came out of my vagina or anything,” she says with mock surprise.
“Oh my God,” says Jim, closing his eyes and jamming his fingers into his ears. “Don’t say ‘vagina’. Just don’t. Why are you not like other moms?”
“Vagina,” repeats Winona, with truly unwarranted vindictive flair.
Jim flops around on the floor theatrically, and emits a pathetic little groan. “You’re a cruel woman,” he says accusingly.
“A cruel woman that still makes you pigs in a blanket when you’re sick or hung-over,” she points out, raising an eyebrow.
“Mm,” sighs Jim happily. “Flaky and delicious.”
“Am I going to have to carry you back to Georgia myself?” she demands. “Because you eclipsed me in height when you were twelve, munchkin.”
“No,” sighs Jim, flinging an arm over his eyes. “I’m going. I promise.”
“Good,” says Winona, getting to her feet and brushing off her skirt. “Because I’m overseeing preliminary testing of the Enterprise’s brand new warp core, so there’s a good chance the entire state of Iowa will be reduced to a lightly smoking pile of rubble in the next two days. Get out while you can.”
McCoy is asleep on the couch when Jim gets back to Georgia the next day.
There are two things he needs to do. First, he needs to tell him that he loves him. Then, he needs to bitch him out for leaving the fucking door unlocked again, because if Jim’s standing in the living room staring at McCoy passed out on the couch, any freakish weirdo could be doing the same thing while armed with a wide assortment of weapons and bad intentions.
While he’s pondering word choice, Jim makes notes of how the world’s biggest ball of elastic bands appears to have replaced his internal organs. He could honestly just fucking hurl right now and never stop. Apparently he’s been short-changed in the emotional intelligence department of things and ended up completely unequipped to deal with this sort of thing; he’s so much better at turning around and going in the opposite direction of functional relationships. So much more in control of the outcome.
For what feels like an eternity, Jim just stands in the center of the room, listening to McCoy breathe and watching the shallow but steady rise and fall of his chest.
“Bones,” he finally hisses. He mans up and takes a step closer, then pokes him directly in the middle of the forehead.
McCoy snorts, his eyelids flickering as he jerks awake. He opens his eyes slowly, and Jim says, “I love you.”
McCoy yelps, “Jesus fuck!” Then he tries to sit up and run away simultaneously and falls right off the couch.
It’s probably not the most auspicious way to start the conversation.
“Oh, snap, Bones, that was a pretty righteous somersault,” says Jim. He reaches out to help him back up and McCoy slaps his hands away, evidently trying to repress the instinct to start hyperventilating.
“Jim, what the fuck?” he demands, stumbling upright without Jim’s help.
“You look really tense,” says Jim brightly. He lands both hands on McCoy’s shoulders and manoeuvres him backwards until his knees hit the edge of the couch and he is abruptly forced to sit down.
“Jim—” says McCoy warningly. He trails off when Jim throws a leg over his hip and crawls into his lap.
“I’m sorry,” says Jim quietly. McCoy looks ready to protest, so Jim cups his face in his hands and kisses him until McCoy sighs, melting back against the couch like the hard-crunchy-shell-on-the-outside-but-smooshy-centred-on-the-inside goober that he really is. “I’m sorry,” he repeats, planting a kiss on each closed eyelid, then on his forehead. McCoy’s fingers wrap around Jim’s forearms. He’s trembling.
“Don’t be stupid,” says McCoy in a thin voice. “I get it. You think I haven’t realized you cart around just as much baggage as the rest of us plebes?”
“It was a shitty thing to do,” says Jim. He takes a deep breath. “Because that shouldn’t be an excuse, you know? I shouldn’t shit my pants over the idea of you leaving me because none of this is fair, it’s basically the cosmic definition of ‘grievously unreasonable’ that you’re in this situation at all, and what did I do? I made it about me and my issues. I lost my mind for a brief, key moment, Bones, and I bolted, because I’m a turd. I’m an asshat. I left you because I thought it would be better than you eventually leaving me, but it isn’t. It would never be better, missing out on time I could’ve spent with you. I don’t want you to leave. I don’t want this. But I won’t continue to be so emotionally stunted I can’t admit the reason I left is because I’m terrified and because I kind of think you’re awesome and I love you a little bit.”
“You love me a little bit,” repeats McCoy, after a long moment of silence that Jim generously leaves him to formulate an appropriate response to his super-mature and refreshingly honest confession of real emotion.
“I totally do.”
“I appreciate the thought,” McCoy huffs, lingering incredulity staining his expression. His eyes are still vulnerably wide, though the cynical, cheeky twist to his mouth has returned. “But your delivery could use a little work. Seven out of ten.”
“Jesus Christ. Everyone’s a critic!”
“Well, the fucking heart attack you gave me before your declaration of sort-of-maybe-love kind of over-shadows the warm fuzzy sentiment, douchebag.”
“You’ll tell our children about this day, Bones, don’t even front.”
“I hate you a little bit.”
“More or less than you love me back?”
“I’m emotionally stunted too, Jim.”
“Yeah. And you’re not so bad yourself. I think maybe I’m a little in love with you, too. But don’t tell Jim.”
Something is beeping.
Jim rises from sleep like a lazy frog surfacing in a pond, shaking off the drifting smoke of his dream. For the first time in a while, the ship filled his vision again, expansive and gleaming.
Something is beeping in a really annoying way.
He stirs, remembers that he’s got McCoy’s head cradled on his chest, and very quickly devises a way to move him without waking him, which, considering the fact that McCoy apparently enters a semi-comatose state when he’s sleeping, really isn’t all that hard. Shifting him doesn’t even make him grumble; he slides onto the mattress as Jim wriggles out from under him and remains sprawled in the same position he landed in.
Jim looks at him for a moment, running his fingers through his hair, and then blinks blearily and glances around the room searching for the source of the noise.
After a bewildered moment staring at the wall and wondering if the noise is coming from inside it, he realizes it’s the comm unit, and slaps the ‘receive call’ button.
The frequency of the call and coordinates flash briefly, and then a woman’s confused face resolves on the screen.
“Hello?” she says. “I’m sorry, did I enter the wrong frequency?”
Southern accent like Bones when he’s not watching his mouth, reddish-blonde hair, round face, green eyes. Pretty. Jim is suddenly over-conscious of the fact that he’s half-dressed and scratching his belly with sleepy intent. He drops his hand.
“Jocelyn Darnell?” he asks, because he can place that voice.
“Yes,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “Is Leonard in?”
Jim glances back at the bed, where Bones has actually moved position, and is now taking up the entirety of the mattress, stretched out on his stomach. Then he checks the wall clock, and realizes it’s mid-afternoon. They’ve slept half the day away.
“He’s asleep,” he answers, turning back toward the screen. “Sorry, it’s been a rough couple of days. Oh, um, I’m Jim. Jim Kirk. Leonard’s friend. I came with him to Georgia.”
The tiny, carefully veiled parade of emotions that march across Jocelyn’s expressive face is kind of hilarious to witness—bemused confusion is overriding, followed by a healthy dose of curiosity and annoyance. Eventually, after a brief internal struggle, she clears her throat. “Well, Jim, I’m calling because Len was supposed to meet me for coffee this morning, and he didn’t show. He arranged the whole thing real last minute yesterday afternoon and sounded urgent about it, so I was just checking in, seeing if anything was wrong.”
“He’s—” Jim pauses, and realizes like a punch to the gut that the whole reason Bones wanted to meet with his ex-wife was to explain his illness, and potentially get will-related paperwork sorted out. Shit. “He’s been—a little under the weather. And then I screwed up his plans, it’s my fault, Ms. Darnell, I promise. I’m pretty sure he still wants to meet up. He totally didn’t mean to stand you up.”
Her smile is tiny and amused. “Could you please tell him to send me a message when he’s awake, Jim?”
“I’d be delighted,” he replies, cranking the charm up to eleven. “Nice to meet you.”
She gives him a little wave, and the signal cuts out.
Jim sits, and stares at the black screen and the little message that flashes the length of the call at him.
It might be mid-afternoon according to reality, but the weather hasn’t improved one iota, and the sky outside the window is deep and dark and ominous still. There are half-hearted rumbles of thunder filling the sky intermittently, and when Jim trails a finger over McCoy’s naked back, a spark jumps from skin to Jim’s fingernail.
Even that isn’t enough to wake him.
Swallowing thickly, Jim carefully lowers his body over McCoy’s, skin to skin, over-warm from the humidity. Their bodies slot together comfortably, Jim rearranging their limbs so that McCoy’s elbow isn’t lodged in his belly and then tucking his chin over his shoulder, wrapping an arm up over the slope of his neck, cupping McCoy’s skull protectively in the palm of his hand. He strokes his forehead, plants a kiss at his temple, and huffs a breath.
In the still, stifling quiet of the room, Jim curls his fingers into McCoy’s hair and whispers, “Don’t leave me.”
“The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite inter-relationships, of the awesome machinery of nature.”
—Carl Sagan, “Cosmos”
“You’ve lost weight,” says Jocelyn, in that tone of voice people adopt when they’re trying not to sound as blatantly shocked as they actually are. She hesitates, and they both make an awkward move toward each other. Then her face relaxes, and she pulls McCoy into a gentle hug. “You’ve really lost weight,” she says again, letting the concern bleed through. She pats McCoy on the back and releases him.
“Probably haven’t been taking care of myself like I should be,” McCoy replies evasively, ducking his head and sliding his hands into his pockets. “Don’t—worry about it for now. Um, Joce, Jim Kirk, Jim, Jocelyn McC—uh, Darnell.”
If Jocelyn is bothered by the slip, she doesn’t let it on at all. She smiles at Jim, shakes his hand, and says, “We met, Len, sort of. When he answered the comm in his underwear.”
“To be fair, it’s plenty normal to sleep in your underwear,” Jim protests, as McCoy shoots him a glare.
“Usually people try to put clothes on before they answer a call, though,” points out Jocelyn, gesturing for them to come inside.
Her home is much more modern than McCoy’s farmhouse; there’s no hint of real wood or creaky doors in sight. It’s high-ceilinged, spacious, and bright, and Jocelyn has spent time creating a minimalist but well-matched colour scheme. She doesn’t favour clutter, like McCoy does, and keeps select things on the walls.
Jim is here for moral support, or something.
He had suggested it was a bad idea he come, because he knew so little about the current push-pull of McCoy and Jocelyn’s relationship that he didn’t want to add any sort of new strain to an already fragile set-up. But McCoy had insisted, in a roundabout sort of way, that he’d prefer Jim there, or else he’d probably excuse himself to go to the bathroom and then climb out the window and flee into the countryside.
“I’ve got some sandwiches, boys, and sweet tea,” Jocelyn says, clasping her hands in a profoundly nervous way, even though she directs a sweet, genuine smile at them both. Jim is momentarily struck dumb by how pretty she is when she smiles. The two of them would’ve made an absolutely smokin’ hot couple.
“You didn’t have to,” replies McCoy, sounding almost pained. “Joce—I’m sorry I stood you up yesterday. Now I’m putting you out.”
“A plate of sandwiches isn’t—Leonard, I haven’t spent the day slaving over a hot oven, or something. Get your head out of your ass and stop looking for reasons to guilt yourself,” she says tartly.
This sounds like well-treaded ground. He watches McCoy tense, his shoulders hitching, and before he can force out a snippy remark, Jim jumps in with, “These look great, ma’am.”
“Dear lord, Jim, make me feel like my mother, why don’t you?” laughs Jocelyn. The moment is broken. McCoy subsides, still frowning, but he slides onto the couch and picks up a triangle of chicken salad sandwich Jim knows from which he might take one bite. In the bright, natural light of the pretty little house, McCoy does look worse—thin and pale. His normally thick, shiny hair is lank, and he hasn’t combed it today. It’s hanging into his eyes as he holds the sandwich gingerly and stares into his lap.
“Totally not my intention, Ms. Darnell,” he replies smoothly, casually slinging an arm over the back of the couch. He doesn’t touch Bones at all, but he can almost feel him relax with the gesture.
“Jim is still getting the hang of polite forms of address,” jumps in McCoy dryly.
“He just needs a little more practice, Len,” suggests Jocelyn, pouring out three tall, sweating glasses of sweet tea with mint and then picking up an egg salad sandwich for herself. “Maybe some flashcards would help.”
“Or a lobotomy,” corrects McCoy, shaking his head.
“I am actually sitting right here,” Jim protests, raising both hands defensively. “People from the South are surprisingly charming in their insults.”
“Bless his heart,” Jocelyn says, delighted, to McCoy, who—honest to god—chuckles a laugh, flashing laugh lines Jim rarely sees.
“That sounded like an insult in tone if not in content,” accuses Jim.
McCoy lands a broad palm on Jim’s shoulder and pats him vaguely. “We’ll work on it, Jim.”
Jim heaves a put-upon sigh and gets to his feet. “I think that’s my cue to go cry in the bathroom.”
He gets two completely opposite reactions from McCoy and Jocelyn; McCoy hits him with a knee-jerk expression that is so betrayed and lost Jim almost feels like he’s just been punched in the gut, while Jocelyn smiles and says, “It’s down the hall, second door on the left, Jim.” The look on McCoy’s face closes off as quickly as it appeared, replaced by something small and lonely.
“Thanks,” says Jim to Jocelyn, swallowing past the sudden lump in his throat. As he slides his arm off the couch he drops a hand heavily on McCoy’s shoulder, squeezing, and then he gets to his feet.
When he rounds the corner out of the room, he stops by an end table occupied by a small clusters of framed holos.
The conversation in the living room continues awkwardly, down the path of small-talk and pretend catching-up; McCoy is asking Jocelyn all about her veterinary practice and how things are going with her new boyfriend and are her parents well and Jim kind of promptly tunes out because it’s turning into pleasant chatter that isn’t really meant for him. Jim picks up one of the photos, looking at it absently as he strains to hear them when they both lower their voices. When he realizes the photo is of McCoy and Jocelyn on their wedding day, he fumbles so badly he nearly drops it on the floor. The Leonard McCoy in the photo is tanned and fit and smiling, healthy and whole. Jim finally understands what Jocelyn meant by how McCoy has lost weight. Physically, he’s half the man now than he was in this photo.
The voices from the sitting room are still soft, in that unconscious way that people adopt in self-conscious situations, but he starts paying attention again, putting the holo back, shaken by his discovery.
“It’s okay if you’re seeing him, Leonard,” Jocelyn is saying quietly. “You don’t have to look so nervous. You got every right to start over, we both do.”
“Seeing—Jim?” says McCoy. “Well, we aren’t, not as such, but—”
“Leonard,” interjects Jocelyn. “You can’t expect me to believe that he came all the way here just—”
“Now, hold on,” snaps McCoy. “Before you start meddling, Joce, just listen. I didn’t want to meet to talk about Jim. That ain’t why I’m here.”
“Then quit beatin’ around the bush and get to the point,” says Jocelyn, sounding a little more exasperated. “You keep sayin’ there’s something you want to tell me and then you don’t actually follow through on the crucial concept of, you know, speaking to me. You shipped out of here soon as we signed the papers and didn’t give anyone a forwarding address. I ain’t heard from you in months. What the hell is going on?”
“I know. I’m sorry. But it’s not as easy as all that,” McCoy says guiltily. “I’ve been keeping something from you since before the divorce. Like an idiot, I wanted to deal with it myself, which meant not dealing with it at all, and I didn’t want it to weigh on all the things already between us.”
“I’m sick,” he spits out hurriedly. Jim’s fingers feel cold, and he presses his back up against the wall, closing his eyes. “I’m sick, Joce, I contracted a terminal disease called Xenopolycythemia, and I’m winding down on the window of time I have left. I wanted your help figuring out what would be fair of me to leave you in the will. It ain’t much, but I gotta sort it out.”
There’s cold, dead silence. Jim’s heart is pounding somewhere in the vicinity of his throat, and he clenches his clammy hands into nervous fists.
“Terminal?” echoes Jocelyn, her voice thin and strained.
“I’ve got maybe five months left, give or take a couple of weeks,” he says gruffly.
The next swathe of silence is even deadlier than the last.
“You couldn’t tell me?” she finally demands, an edge of raw anger and pain to her voice. “We were married six years, Len, and you couldn’t tell me this? You just—kept it to yourself? Didn’t respect me enough to let me in on the minor detail that you’re, oh, dying? That you apparently shut me out in those last few weeks because that’s what Leonard McCoy does, he suffers through life like a goddamn martyr!”
“Joce,” says McCoy weakly. “I’m sorry.”
There’s the unmistakable, sharp sound of the palm of her hand connecting with McCoy’s cheek, and Jim expends an unholy amount of energy restraining himself from running back into the room right in that second.
“I deserved that,” whispers McCoy. “I deserve as many of those are you want to give me.”
And then Jim can hear Jocelyn crying, soft, muffled sobs and sniffles.
“I’m sorry,” says McCoy again helplessly.
“Me too,” says Jocelyn.
There’s a red handprint on McCoy’s cheek when Jim finally forces himself to come back into the sitting room. McCoy and Jocelyn aren’t looking at each other, and there’s a palpable discomfort in the room that lingers like loss and guilt of the variety Jim hasn’t experienced since the last time he was at a family reunion.
McCoy looks like he wants to crawl into a bottle and stay there.
They don’t stay for very long after that.
Jim is getting tired of this endless, all-consuming, relentless humidity, isn’t used to the pressure of it, the overbearing shove of all that moisture clinging to every cell of his body. He’s desperate for more rain to wash it all away for even just a brief time, and the thunder rumbles overhead as they walk, silently, from the car back to the house.
It’s storming again by the time they’re standing in the foyer.
The house is dark, dimmed by the press of dark, roiling clouds, and in a moment of déjà vu all Jim can clearly see of McCoy’s expression is his eyes, a silvery gleam in the square of faint light from the front door’s window. Jim meets his gaze, questioning, can feel the heat of it without either of them saying a word.
They stand silently, frozen, and then McCoy grips the hem of Jim’s shirt with both hands, and they’re both kick-started back into motion. Suddenly it’s a race to help each other shed their clothing and their shoes, dropping t-shirts and jeans and socks and, finally, underwear onto the floor.
Jim places both hands on McCoy’s narrow hips, walking him backwards into the living room. Going up the stairs into the bedroom is too much effort, too much delay, and McCoy is here, now, hot and alive under his hands, twisting his body to tug Jim against him. They stumble, limbs tangling, and Jim thinks this is it, this is the moment. There’s an itch under his skin, a pin-prick burn of need and want that’s expanding like a new star and he’s never wanted anything this damn much before in his life; this level of desperation is raw and fresh and terrifying.
“Jim,” rasps McCoy, his voice breaking. His hands slide down Jim’s arms, fingers circling his wrists.
It’s the gentle pressure of his fingertips against Jim’s pulse that telegraphs his message to Jim, not his words or his tone. He’s asking with his body and Jim responds in kind, dropping to his knees, pushing McCoy gently onto the couch and dragging his tongue in a hot wet line up the inside of his thigh.
McCoy shudders and widens his legs, Jim slotting in between them easily.
He doesn’t bother with finesse. He takes McCoy in as deep as he can, steadying his juddering hips with his hands and giving him the messiest, most urgent blowjob he’s given anyone in years. McCoy is burning up under him, jerking with every swipe of Jim’s tongue, his head tipped back over the edge of the couch so that the long line of his throat is bared, his pulse jumping visibly.
McCoy comes with a jagged little moan, his hips flinching, and when Jim moves his hands he leaves behind finger-shaped bruises sprinkled over his thighs and pelvis. Jim kisses each one of them as McCoy pants and sobs his way through the tail-end of his orgasm, and then he presses him further into the cushions as he climbs onto the couch. They accommodate each other without speaking, McCoy hooking his knees around Jim’s waist, neither of them gentle as they tangle together and cling, gripping and pulling, their mouths crashing together in a kiss that tastes like sparks and ozone as the rain hammers down on the roof.
“Bones,” murmurs Jim, mouthing the nickname into his skin like a brand as he buries two fingers inside him, working him open with a background litany of soft, hitching gasps. The body around him feels too warm to be dying, and Jim’s anger washes over him abruptly, flaring up and splintering into anguish. McCoy’s fingers grip his hair, so tight that his scalp throbs, and when Jim slides into him it’s not careful and tender; it’s rough and demanding, Jim wanting more of that heat, angling deep and hard until McCoy lets out a startled cry and crosses his ankles behind Jim’s back.
“Sorry,” hisses Jim, wrapping his arms around McCoy and burying his face against his shoulder. “Sorry sorry sorry, Bones, I’m so sorry.”
McCoy doesn’t reply, just nudges him with his ankles, wordlessly begging Jim to move his hips, to thrust even deeper. With McCoy held tight in his arms he rocks his hips, eyes shut, moving into him, registering every single shift of muscle and joint as the other man breathes and squirms into the ruthless snap of Jim’s hips.
The tight coil of heat in his gut is insistent, ready, his cock thrumming, but Jim wraps a palm around McCoy’s half-hard erection and wrings another orgasm out of him first, holding his own off until McCoy is scrabbling in his arms, his breathing ragged and thick, hips jerking in time with Jim’s, thrusting back into that perfect angle, that drag of blooming pleasure over his prostate.
His cock is full and heavy, throbbing, in Jim’s hand, and he whines when he comes again, low and strained. Jim’s own climax is a relief, tumbling out of him in a rush and leaving him exhausted and broken. He chokes back a moan and settles, his forehead pressed to the sticky hollow of McCoy’s collarbone, their bodies tucked together like puzzle pieces.
McCoy is breathing against the shell of his ear, soft little huffs as he calms down. “I’d like to stay in Georgia,” he murmurs. His lips shift, pressing a kiss to Jim’s temple.
Jim fidgets, unsure. McCoy has this habit of omitting his intentions from what he says, leaving Jim on edge and waiting. It’s not something he does to be infuriating—even though it definitely fucking is—but rather something that betrays his lurking insecurity. If he can get away with saying only half of what’s on his mind, it means he’s that much safer.
“The peaches are a definite draw,” replies Jim, shifting his hips so that his cock slides out of McCoy’s body. “But the weather is kind of awful.”
“I’d make all the cobbler you can eat,” says McCoy. His fingers trail, ghost-like, through Jim’s hair. “And the weather isn’t always like this. You know. If you wanted to stay.”
Jim’s heart squeezes and he punches McCoy lightly in the shoulder. “If I wanted to stay. Do you want me to stay?”
It’s a little mean, making him say it, but Bones is so open and honest in everything else that he does.
For a moment, all Jim can hear is the storm.
Then, McCoy curls his fingers around the nape of Jim’s neck, kissing him full on the mouth. When they part, he knocks their foreheads together. “Yeah, you idiot, I want you to stay.”
Jim can sense the ‘please’ hovering unsaid at the end of that sentence.
“If you absolutely insist, then I’m pretty sure I can clear my schedule.”
McCoy snorts against his jaw. “If it ain’t too much trouble and all.”
It’s not exactly how Jim planned on spending the autumn.
The days settle into a pattern. The only thing that’s changing is McCoy, who, much as Jim denies it by doing his absolute hard-headed best to treat McCoy like nothing is wrong, is growing steadily weaker. He’d be able to deal with the weight loss and dizziness and swollen veins and gushing nosebleeds and inability to go up the stairs anymore without help, sure, that’s all stuff he can tuck away into the corner of his brain that is basically letting out a near-constant wail of sadness and despair, but it’s the way he sleeps that troubles him most.
It’s like that outing to the movie theatre on repeat, several times a day. McCoy falls asleep on every surface, in every position imaginable. Jim wakes him up continually, torn between the desire to let him rest and the bone-melting terror over whether this is the moment he’ll try to shake him awake and find that he won’t come to. He sleeps often and deeply, and when he isn’t sleeping, he’s curled on the couch, reading books he never manages to get past more than four pages of at a time. Jim makes fun of him when it happens, calls him ‘old man’ in an obnoxious tone, and hopes that the smiles he dredges out of McCoy won’t keep getting smaller and smaller.
In the back of his mind, Jim has managed to convince himself that this is wrong, this is the—the wrongest thing that could ever happen, and if McCoy dies this way, worn and emaciated and more tired than any man his age has a right to be, then something deeply appalling will have occurred. And because it’s so wrong, because it’s so monumentally fucked up that Jim can’t even acknowledge it even in the face of all the tests McCoy does every day and the uncomfortable hyposprays he injects himself with and the way his eyes dull a bit when he takes his red blood cell count—then he refuses to believe it’s actually going to happen. McCoy is not going to die. He won’t succumb. He can’t.
Sometimes he’s legitimately worried he’s lost his mind, because there’s no way McCoy is recovering from this, Jim isn’t delusional, but other times there’s a feeling of certainty so strong in him that he wonders why it’s a secret to which only he is privy.
This can’t be the way things have been written. He dreams more and more often of that fucking starship, once, twice, three times a week, always waking up sick and uneasy. He knows, now, that it’s the same ship he saw being built in Riverside in the middle of August, can visualize it in his mind down to the smallest, perfect, gleaming detail.
Jim is sitting lengthwise on the couch, knees parted, with McCoy sprawled in his lap, when he wakes from the most vivid version of that dream yet. He’d been on the bridge, looking through the viewscreen at Alpha Centauri, and the shirt he’d been wearing had been gold.
He shifts, cracking a yawn, and realizes McCoy is asleep in his arms, his head tipped awkwardly to the side. Jim snakes his fingers onto his forehead, simultaneously moving his head to a more comfortable angle and feeling for a temperature, then winds his other arm protectively over McCoy’s waist in a snug cuddle. Still caught in that half-realized fragment of dreaming, Jim lets his leaden eyelids slip shut and drag him back down into sleep.
“It’s a massive fracture, Bones.”
The voice—his own voice—is coming from somewhere deep and distant and profound. Jim’s so tired—he’s sinking fast and steady like an anchor thrown overboard and he kind of wants to know who the fuck is talking because it sure as fuck isn’t him. At the same time, he’s tired and wants desperately to sleep, and he can’t be bothered to open his eyes again to pinpoint the location of the voice.
“I know,” replies someone that sounds like McCoy. Whether he wants it to or not, the conversation is drifting inexorably closer to Jim the faster he falls into the warm well of sleep. “Okay? You drew me that stupid picture with all the arrows and angry faces and I’ve already agreed to your boneheaded plan but no matter how you sugar-coat it, it’s still meddling, plain and simple.”
Annoyed, Jim opens his eyes and realises in a rush that he’s dreaming.
In front of him are stars.
Billions upon billions of stars, dawning in his vision like a sunrise, a galaxy-rise, clustered thick and shining. Jim lifts a hand and reaches out tentatively. His fingertips meet cool, impersonal glass. Swallowing, he turns around.
He’s on the ship for the second time that night, but there’s something different—something intangible and significant about this visit, this glimpse. He’s not on the bridge anymore; this is some sort of observation deck, and across the wide, darkened room, two figures stand silhouetted in the doorway.
“—so we’ve already been meddled with,” the stranger with Jim’s voice is in the middle of retorting, his shadow gesturing wildly. “Giant freakish tentacle ship? Angry bald dude called Nero?”
“It’s not the fucking transitive property, Jim,” replies the man standing opposite him, the man who sounds and carries himself like Bones. “Being meddled with in our universe doesn’t equal the right to meddle in another one. We don’t need to pass it along, please and thank you. Congratulations, you’ve turned into my grandmother, bless her soul.”
“You heard old Spock! This wasn’t meant to happen.”
“Yes, I heard Ambassador Spock, I ain’t hard of hearing—but what makes him the one true font of all knowledge? What makes his universe the right one? Maybe his is the exception. Maybe all the rest are meant to be this fucking screwy. Maybe in this other one, I die.”
“No,” both Jims say together.
There’s a long, awkward pause.
“That was weird,” says the other Kirk. Neither of the two men look over at Jim. “Did you hear that echo?”
“Jim in stereo,” rumbles McCoy, shrugging his shoulders. “Anyway, Jim, you can’t take personal offense just because it’s me—”
“It’s wrong,” cuts in Kirk vehemently, making a contained, implosive little gesture with his hands. “And we’re going to fix it for them. That’s not the only fucked up thing, Bones; other-me didn’t even go to Starfleet. You haven’t been having the same dreams as me, living fragments of a life I was never supposed to have, a life where I stayed in Riverside. And did you miss the part where other-you is dying?” He pauses, evidently letting this sink in. “These temporal aftershocks from the black holes are echoing through space-time and opening cracks, new wormholes—”
“Goddammit, Jim, I was at the same briefing!”
“Then why are you being so stubborn about this?”
“I’m not—I’m, look, I’m just being careful. What gives us the right to ‘fix’ things? You have no idea what your little god-complex could do to that universe. What if the act of curing me—him, whatthefuckever—is the butterfly flapping its wings that triggers the deadly tsunami on the other side of the world? You never know which events will lead to the collapse of others.”
“What if your death did the same thing? Every universe needs its Leonard McCoy, Bones.”
“The hell you say! Now you’re just being stupid.”
“Because nothing would ever hinge just on me! If anything, it’s you. You’re the one that saved Earth.”
“In our universe. Their future—the future of their reality—is totally unwritten. And other-me hasn’t even gone to Starfleet.”
“I know, kid, I heard you the first time. Clean your ears every once in a while. What are you gonna do, transport in there and recruit him yourself?”
“I don’t know, Bones.” Kirk sounds exasperated. “Starfleet is the least of their worries. Who cares what they do with their lives? Their lives, Bones. That means your counterpart deserves the chance to live out his life. We created another wormhole when we destroyed the Narada and sent it crashing from our universe straight into theirs—it changed things for them in a way we’ll never understand and they’ll never even know. Even if we can’t do anything else, we at least have the opportunity to save two people an awful lot of grief. Give them a future. Ambassador Spock gave us the treatment from his timeline and I’m going to use it on that one before their lives collapse into a clusterfuck of truly epic sorrow, which is what I believe will happen if that Leonard McCoy dies this senselessly.”
Jim wakes with a start, cotton-mouthed, his vision focusing on the vidscreen where some sort of space opera is playing out. Two men in elaborate uniforms are arguing on the deck of a starship.
“What the shit,” says Jim. He wrenches a numb, tingling hand out from under McCoy, and accidentally slaps himself in the face with it in an attempt to wipe away the drool at the corner of his mouth.
He watches the figures on the vidscreen suspiciously, and then realizes he can’t feel his lower half.
Manoeuvring a semi-comatose McCoy off his body is an exercise in making impossible schemes come alive. McCoy eventually regains some form of consciousness right about when Jim has managed to pull one leg free. Sleepily and with colossal expenditure of effort, McCoy sits up and simultaneously elbows Jim in the stomach.
“Oh Jesus. I am Jim’s crying diaphragm,” croaks Jim.
“I am Leonard’s inability to care,” says McCoy gruffly, pulling his knees up and tipping his forehead against them.
“I’m calling the authorities,” threatens Jim, tumbling off the couch into a lazy crouch. He straightens up and starts jumping up and down on the spot. His blood stages a protest and only starts to circulate again with sluggish enthusiasm, while his feet erupt in a symphony of screaming pain.
“Yeah, you tell ‘em a dying man beat you up,” mutters McCoy, his mouth curving into a hint of a smile. “See which one of us ends up in lock-up for the night.”
“You play dirty, old man,” says Jim, grabbing the blanket and tucking it around McCoy’s shoulders. “I’m going to go forage for food, like a man. You want anything?”
“Women were the gatherers,” mumbles McCoy, into his knees. “Men hunted wild animals with pointy sticks.”
“Then I’m going to go track down a dehydrated dinner,” continues Jim, undeterred. “Following my successful hunt, I’m going to stick it in the synthesizer in a very masculine way, and then terrorize it with my fork. At the risk of sounding like I have short-term memory loss: you want anything?”
“A woolly mammoth flank steak.”
“Right. Oatmeal for Bones.”
“It better be meat-flavoured.”
“The gentleman has discerning taste buds. I’ll see what I can do.”
They’ve been neglecting the shopping lately, and the little pile of dehydrated dinners in the cupboard is dwindling down to a pathetic, meagre supply. He finds oatmeal in abundance, though, because it’s about the only thing McCoy can stand to eat lately. Jim’s bought it in multiple flavours, including the kind that turns pink and has little dinosaurs in it, which despite being for kids is probably the bowl of mush that tastes the best. McCoy eats it just as reluctantly as he eats everything else, but at least he usually manages to finish it.
When he goes back to the living room, he doesn’t even manage to get a step into the room before he stops short.
McCoy is asleep again. He’s shifted position, head tipped back at an angle that screams ‘broken neck’, and he’s got his arms around himself. Jim knows he’s sleeping and not just dozing because his mouth is half open and he’s snoring gently.
That’s not what stops him short. Jim has seen more of McCoy sleeping in the past few weeks than he can feasibly calculate.
No, what makes him freeze on the spot like he’s just been tagged during a schoolyard game is the fact that there is someone sitting next to McCoy on the couch, and said person looks exactly the fuck like Jim.
“What the hell is going on?” he demands loudly.
The Kirk on the couch raises his head and shoots him a startled glance. Jim takes a step forward, because the fucking imposter is holding a hypospray, and the way he’s tipping McCoy’s head to the side shows fucking obvious intent, if you ask him.
“Hey, stop!” he says, dropping the bowl of oatmeal on the floor. It doesn’t break, just bounces and belches a wave of sticky brown mush onto McCoy’s carpet. “Stop! Whatever you’re giving him, stop!”
“Bones,” says the other Kirk warningly, the depth of his gaze indicating he’s not looking at Jim anymore, but past him instead.
It’s a familiar body that he senses behind him, and he manages to half-turn as a solid arm winds around his chest and stops him from completing it.
“Easy, Jim,” murmurs McCoy’s voice in his ear. Jesus Christ, this is all shades of fucked up. He’s looking at McCoy, asleep on the couch, but it’s also McCoy holding him tight against his body and then pressing a hypospray to his throat with a barely-perceptible little hiss. Across the room, McCoy moans, squirming in the other Kirk’s arms.
“You motherfuckers,” he slurs, struggling weakly in the surprisingly strong grip. His McCoy doesn’t have this kind of upper body strength. “Go back to your fucking soap opera—”
Talking is suddenly impossible, the words thick and dead in his mouth as his mind spins away into unconsciousness, and his last impression of the whole fiasco is McCoy’s arms tightening around him, and the voice next to his ear whispering, “It’ll be okay, kid. Everything is gonna be just fine.”
It’s the oatmeal that clinches it.
Also the sex, but mostly the oatmeal.
Well, actually, the hyposprays in the bathroom are probably the most substantial evidence Jim has in building the case that he hasn’t completely lost his mind, but that’s neither here nor there because he doesn’t see those until later. Whatever.
It’s the first thing he notices when he wakes up, aside from the throbby, skull-crushing headache. Instead of a mess on the carpet—which he’s fully expecting because he’s not an idiot, nor has he conveniently forgotten the sudden obnoxious appearance of their Starfleet doppelgangers—what he finds is a new bowl of oatmeal sitting innocently on the coffee table.
It’s even the pink dinosaur variety.
The whole essence of the bowl of oatmeal boils down to one simmering point of rage in Jim’s brain—it’s a small, ridiculous, totally unnecessary collection of matter that, were it sentient, would probably elbow him in the ribs and wink meaningfully. It elevates Jim’s blood pressure and makes the normally dormant vein in his forehead start to twitch, because it’s not like they even bothered to give him anything that would alter his memory.
They just left him with a new bowl of oatmeal and a suspiciously clean carpet, like maybe they were sheepishly hoping he’d pretend it was just a dream.
Well, Jim’s not an idiot. He knows. He remembers getting sedated.
At least, he supposes, they cleaned up the damn mess.
Aside from the oatmeal, which Jim is trying hard not to think about before he suffers some sort of infarction, he finds himself propped up on the couch next to McCoy, leaning against each other like a pair of drunken frat-boys waking up on the front steps after a successful weekend bender.
Except Jim doesn’t feel hung-over. He feels like punching himself in the face and then laughing until he’s sick. He settles for clawing at his own eyes for a moment.
Then McCoy grunts and shifts beside him, and Jim remembers.
“Bones,” he says loudly. “Wake up.” Pulling away from McCoy means the other man immediately pitches forward, so Jim ends up with an armful of McCoy and brown hair pressed to his nose. Lately, he always smells like medication and shampoo, and, occasionally, oatmeal. Jim tips him gently back against the couch and then pats his cheek. “Bones! I’m going to pour pomegranate into your latest batch of fruity girl beer and destroy all those floral notes you worked so hard to—”
McCoy slaps a palm over Jim’s mouth.
Jim flails at him ineffectually, because McCoy is an invalid and Jim is not actually as big a dick as he’d usually like people to believe. He wriggles out from under McCoy’s tentacle grip and, taking a deep breath, he grabs McCoy by both shoulders and shakes him sharply.
McCoy makes a noise like “urk” and startles awake, his eyes popping open, scanning the room rapidly and then settling with sulky reluctance on Jim.
“I thought we agreed you weren’t going to wake me like that anymore,” he says, scowling.
“And I thought we agreed you’d stop taking on that distinct pallor of death,” snaps Jim, unreasonably pissed at McCoy, because, Jesus, it’s hardly the other man’s fault.
The way they’re sitting now, Jim can see the little red pinprick from the hypospray rather vividly against the pale skin of McCoy’s throat, and he frowns, thumbing it tenderly.
“Stop molesting me,” says McCoy, slapping his hand. “That tickles.”
“And how are you feeling today, crankypants?” says Jim.
“A little less like shit than usual,” says McCoy, blinking at Jim owlishly through squinty bloodshot eyes. His hair is pointing in all manner of directions, some of which might be in the fourth dimension. “But that’s not saying a lot. I hurt.”
“Well, you look like an Escher print,” Jim says, sitting back and deepening his frown for good measure. “When’s your next monthly?”
“Monthly what?” drawls McCoy with sticky-sweet sass suddenly dripping from all syllables, rubbing his fingers speculatively into his stubbly chin. “Cycle? Insurance payment? Dance lesson? Tune-up?”
“Medical appointment,” snaps Jim. “The one that narrows down just how much time I have left to enjoy your unique brand of Southern charm.”
The thing that had bothered Jim most about learning that McCoy was slowly but surely wearing out and running thin had been the fact that he had no fucking clue how to deal with the looming concept of mortality. Jim didn’t generally consider mortality. He had metaphorical mortality blinders on, because otherwise he’d probably curl up in a ball under his bed and cry until his mother dragged him out and smacked some sense into him. It was his biggest weak-spot, the thing he would shy away from without fail until it—ha—killed him. No matter how often Winona had tried to sit him down as a kid and explain that death wasn’t the worst thing in the world, Jim couldn’t force himself to hang around and listen, to ignore just how much he didn’t want to deal with it.
He’s been successfully not-dealing with it for nearly 23 years now, and isn’t about to give it up any time soon.
On the other hand, McCoy is a doctor. He had faced mortality of some kind down every single day of his life with an expression of haughty disdain and fuck-this-shit, and had absolutely no qualms about bluntly coming to terms with the impending eventuality of his own death. The utter bald-faced clash of their respective philosophies had resulted in a half-ignored decline of sarcasm-cloaked panic and terror and concern. Jim made light of things because it hurt to do otherwise, and McCoy played along because he understood.
“Oh,” says McCoy, rolling his eyes. “Well, it was last week. Must’ve slipped my mind.”
“Make another one,” demands Jim. “As soon as you can.”
“I wasn’t actually planning on going to anymore of them,” says McCoy dismissively. “I’d have to go back to Iowa City.”
“Just make one here,” says Jim. “We can drive into Savannah. Get a referral. Something. You must know someone that can pull some strings.”
McCoy stops and stares at him, a little bit like Jim’s mother always used to stare at him when she would give him a book of differential equations to solve and he’d return it to her in the afternoon, fully filled out and completed.
“You’ve completely lost your damn marbles,” says McCoy flatly. “Why the hell should I?”
“Just humour me,” pleads Jim.
“Humouring crazies was not in the plan for today,” protests McCoy. “I ain’t goin’. I’m tired of getting poked and prodded and sedated and taking my damn clothes off in front of strangers so they can marvel at how much weight I’ve lost. I can die without the faux-concern of big city doctors who don’t know how to stop this any better than I do. I can die without a fucking countdown, Jim.”
What the fuck can Jim say to that?
In the end, Jim subsides and waits for McCoy to fall asleep again. He finds the tricorder in the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the sink. And sitting right next to it is a matte grey case that was definitely not there before.
There’s a note on top, scrawled with honest-to-god ink on honest-to-god paper. In Jim’s honest-to-godhandwriting. He picks it up with fingers that are most definitely not trembling. Nope. No way.
One dose, twice a day, for eight days. Don’t miss any. They’re a little uncomfortable. Try to give them to him when he’s sleeping. Sorry about knocking you out.
Take care of each other.
It’s not signed. Jim’s eyes blur with tears. It occurs to him belatedly that maybe their badass futuristic alternate reality counterparts didn’t actually want him to forget anything about what happened. Maybe they were just cleaning up after themselves. Mopping up a mess so that Jim wouldn’t have to.
Jim’s legs go out up from under him and he sits down hard on the floor, cradling his head in his hands.
If his heart insists on lodging itself in his esophagus like that for much longer, Jim is going to have to make the doctor’s appointment for himself.
The oatmeal and the medication are overwhelmingly undeniable, but the sex is—well, unexpected.
Not at all unwelcome, but definitely surprising.
It’s extra surprising because McCoy is the one to wake Jim.
Opening his eyes six days later and finding McCoy curled around his pelvis like possessive dog with a bone makes his dick jump with embarrassing readiness. Jim almost expects him to growl.
McCoy’s lips close around his cock, Jim wheezes out “holy shit!” and then concentrates on dividing blood-flow between his erection and the rest of all his crucial functioning parts. The first time McCoy tried to suck his cock he kind of fell asleep in the middle so getting to finish is like discovering a prize in the bottom of his cereal box. Getting shoved over onto his belly, having his legs kicked apart, and a tongue applied to his ass is even more of a treat. He’s white-knuckling the sheets and cursing imaginatively in Andorian when McCoy replaces his hot tongue with cool, lube-slick fingers, and then, throw a fucking party because Jim could weep with joy, replaces his fingers with his cock.
“Bones,” he grates out, shredding his voice through the cheese-grater his throat has apparently become. “Not to interrupt, because I am totally down with you rearranging my body to whatever twisted, tantric, sexual origami your brain can come up with, but—”
“Sweet Jesus, Jim, stick it in your fuckin’ ear. You talk too goddamn much,” grunts McCoy, digging strong fingers into Jim’s hips and jerking him back onto his cock.
Jim’s next sentence becomes a sob somewhere on the journey from his brain to his mouth.
Yeah, the sex is definitely surprising.
“I think you’re right,” says McCoy. His mouth is right next to Jim’s ear but he’s speaking in a hush that sends a shudder down Jim’s spine.
“Of course I am,” says Jim. “...What specifically am I right about?”
“I should make an appointment,” replies McCoy, too fucked out to make a bitchy comment about Jim’s megalomania.
“Because I think I’m recovering.”
“Well, fuck. Cock-tease. I was really counting on getting that distillery machine in the will.”
“I left that to Jocelyn,” says McCoy smartly. “You suck at making beer. Can we please reminisce about your one and only attempt at raspberry and honey lager?”
“Let’s not,” says Jim hurriedly.
McCoy allows the silence to stretch out for maybe a minute. “I’m serious,” he says quietly. “I’ve been taking readings. All my blood counts are steadily dropping back to normal levels, numbers I haven’t seen for months. I don’t know what to think.”
Jim doesn’t know how to explain to McCoy that there’s a significant chance that they’ve just witnessed a major dimensional shift and subsequent life-changing experience and that McCoy is probably on the road to recovery because of it. He can’t, Jim just can’t even try to articulate it, not yet, partly because he’d sound like a fucking psychopath in the process and partly because he doesn’t yet trust that it’s not too good to be true.
How in the fuck does he explain the sudden appearance of a batch of previously unknown treatment for a supposedly incurable disease?
Jim’s counterpart had included an extra vial of the treatment in the box. As if figuring out how to tell Bones isn’t hard enough, Jim eventually has to pull some sort of believable excuse for possessing what amounts to a universal medical breakthrough out of his ass and hand the cure over to Starfleet Medical so they can synthesize the formula.
He can’t fucking wait for that hot mess of an encounter to go down.
Despite everything, though, something in Jim has settled. That lingering sense of wrong wrong wrong that has been loitering like acid in the pit of his stomach has quieted.
Instead of replying, because speaking right now would mean McCoy would hear the tears in his voice, Jim rearranges them to suit himself, pulling McCoy against his chest, curling an arm around his shoulders and tucking his chin over the top of his head.
McCoy buries his face against Jim’s shirt, wraps both arms around his waist, and squeezes.
They don’t let Jim into the testing room, nor is he allowed to sit in with McCoy and the doctor to discuss the results.
He’s left pacing the corridors, strategically attempting to avoid mowing down doctors and nurses as they pass. Thirty minutes later, he turns around, ready to start another circuit, and there’s McCoy, standing in the middle of the hallway.
It’s Bones, in ragged jeans and one of the several thousand short-sleeved button-up plaid shirts he wears for no reason Jim can yet decipher, other than the fact that maybe he’s colour-blind. He’s standing, and watching Jim, and the expression on his face is totally unreadable. For one short, panicked second, Jim thinks that out of all the moments in the world, all the moments scattered throughout time and space, this might be the one where he could just disappear—Jim might blink and then Bones wouldn’t be there, and maybe this was all just a split-second flash of neurons in Jim’s mind and he’s still at Riverside Shipyard, trying to justify his decision to stay in Iowa rather than go to San Francisco.
But then he does blink, and McCoy is still there.
“Bones,” he says. He stops there, licking his lips.
Jim finds himself holding his breath like an idiot as McCoy makes his way over to him. The closer he gets, the more Jim can see the tension he’s carrying in his body; Jim wants to smooth his hands over his shoulders and hold him until he can breathe easily again.
McCoy stops directly in front of him, and Jim, at a loss, just opens his arms wide. That gesture seems to trigger structural collapse, and McCoy goes completely boneless, deflating like a balloon. He does it so quickly and abruptly that Jim has to lock his arms around him to keep his balance, and even then he still sits down hard instead of just falling over. McCoy goes right down with him in a heap, his knees buckling. He ends up facedown in Jim’s lap, trembling. Jim holds him tight, pressing his lips to McCoy’s hair, and closes his eyes.
It takes about ten minutes, during which Jim wards off several well-meaning hospital staff members with wide-eyed, warning glares, but McCoy stops shuddering, stops the hiccupping sobs shaking their way out of his body.
His fingers tangle in Jim’s pants, and he exhales, once, and says, “I’m in remission.”
It takes McCoy a couple of weeks to work up the nerve to talk to Jocelyn, and even then, he needs a shove from Jim to actually go see her.
Despite everything between them, of which Jim’s only seen the tip of the iceberg and none of what’s lurking beneath the surface, the thing that’s stopping McCoy most of all is guilt. Guilt at waiting so long to tell her in the first place, at shocking her and upsetting her, and, now, taking it all back. Jim catches him composing an awkward email to her no less than three times, and in each instance he manhandles McCoy out of the chair, pins him to the floor, and commands the computer to delete the message. He disconnects the network, knowing full well McCoy won’t know how to turn it on again, and endures his sulking for half a day.
“What was wrong with that message?” demands McCoy. It’s the first thing he’s said to Jim for nearly six hours.
“‘Dear Jocelyn’,” recites Jim flatly. “‘Turns out I’m not dying anymore. Sorry for the fuss. Sincerely, Leonard.’ It’s a dick move, Bones. You may as well send her one of those cans of worms that explode in your face and a recording of you laughing at her.”
“I’m not trying to mock her!” snaps McCoy.
“Yeah, well, it’s going to go over that way whether you intended it or not. Do you want to come with me to the store? We need bread.”
McCoy eyes him suspiciously, then shrugs, his shoulders hitching up and then down like a sullen teenager. “Yeah, okay.”
Jim drives him to Jocelyn’s, instead. McCoy really should have seen it coming. Jim isn’t exactly an evil mastermind.
“Guess I got lost,” says Jim guilelessly. The look McCoy is aiming at him from across the car is one carefully-crafted of daggers and hatred and the overwhelming knowledge that Jim is definitely going to suffer for this indiscretion. He keeps it up for a good forty seconds, until Jim can feel his soul shrivelling and smoking under the direct heat of McCoy’s expert stare, and then McCoy heaves an enormous sigh, noisily gets out of the car, and stomps up to the door.
Jim can see their shadows in the large front-door window after Jocelyn lets McCoy in, McCoy clearly not allowing himself to get invited in past the foyer and probably using Jim waiting in the car as an excuse. He’s not quite sure how long he’s in there; McCoy emerges sometime later, backing out the door and standing on the porch with Jocelyn. They talk, heads down, still at a brittle stage where eye contact is difficult, and then Jocelyn puts her hand on McCoy’s arm, squeezes gently, and heads back into the house.
McCoy hesitates, watching her go just for a second, and then he’s getting back into the car.
“Well,” says Jim, “You didn’t get slapped, right?”
McCoy snorts derisively to ineptly cover up a laugh. “No, Jim. I didn’t get slapped. Got cursed at a bit, though.” He pauses, eyes distant, then adds, “We should invite Joce over for dinner before we go. I’ll cook.”
Jim nods slowly. “Before we go?”
McCoy keeps his eyes on the house, even though Jim can tell he’s not really looking at it. “Uh huh. Back to Iowa.”
“Iowa,” echoes Jim.
“Jim’s an idiot.”
“Jim’s an—hey! That’s a cheap shot, Bones,” protests Jim. Nobody’s caught him up like that since he was a kid. Stupid Bones and his stupid brain. “We’re going back to Iowa?”
McCoy fixes him with a look that questions Jim intelligence on a profound level. “Well, smartass, aren’t you going to introduce me to your mother? You’ve met my goddamn ex-wife. You met her with your pants off. Don’t I get to meet the woman that’s endured having you in her life for over two decades? ”
“Nobody’s ever asked before,” says Jim dumbly.
He looks at McCoy—looks at his clean-shaven face, filled out a little and already brown from the sun (while Jim’s sporting a pathetic farmer’s tan that’s really more of a burn) and reaches out to tangle his fingers in his thick dark hair. McCoy comes in for a kiss with relaxed ease, his eyes closing automatically, eyelashes fanning out over his cheeks. His lips are slightly chapped, warm, plush—Jim makes it a chaste kiss, no tongue, and then pulls back, tracing the curve of his cheek with his thumb, pausing to dot the lines between a smattering of freckles.
McCoy smiles simply, honest and warm. “Well, I’m askin’.”
The first thing Winona says to McCoy as she grasps his hand and gives him a sunny smile that makes him double-take between her and Jim is, “You look pretty healthy for a guy that was reputed to be dying, Leonard McCoy.”
Jim is mildly jealous that it’s his mom can immediately make Bones laugh like that, but he tells himself it’s the same Kirk-family charm, and leaves things at that.
It’s the middle of November when the email pings unassumingly into Jim’s inbox.
Just so you know, the Academy has a late start date in January. Here’s the link, with more information. You’d make up the fall courses during summer.
Let me know what you think.
Jim stares at it. He stares at the pithy little message and waits for the now-familiar, tell-tale flip of his stomach, for the sick, dizzying feeling that used to accompany thoughts of Starfleet.
Jim feels free and clear and unburdened as he thinks of Pike’s smirk and his casual, effortless, exhilarating dare. The quiet confidence he’d had in Jim resonated in the very core of his being, rippling through his head and heart and settling deep in his soul. It fed and cultivated all the normally-inert but precious desires for adventure and exploration and escape that Jim treasures possessively even when he inadvertently gets himself stuck in a rut on the same old stretch of rundown dirt road. He’s not confined by fear anymore; something in him has shifted and eased. Everything feels right.
He knows with clarity what it is he wants to do.
“Hey, Bones,” he calls.
McCoy is on the couch, feet up, reading. He grunts vaguely, without looking up at Jim. His bangs have fallen into his eyes and he’s leaning on the arm of the couch, cheek propped up in his hand.
Jim takes a moment to drink him in. “How would you feel about being a doctor again?”
And he knows, most of all, who he needs beside him.
The next and final time Jim dreams of the ship, it is vast and silver and all-encompassing, and there are more stars than he has ever seen in his life spiralling out a gleaming path with a million and one different forks in the road.
He can feel McCoy’s hand in his, presence steady at his side, the two of them standing together on the precipice of the universe.
It’s Bones who takes the first step.
And without a second thought, Jim follows.