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The Man Who Held Up Atlas

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5

It’s like the rain’s in Jim’s very cells. They say you get old, you get rheumy, you can feel it in your bones, but no, he feels it in everything. Sinews, fleshy bits, rough bits, old leathery bits, all bits whose names he hears Bones mumble in his sleep, even a million years after med school. Every piece of him aches when the thunderstorms are approaching.

He curses the land around him, the blue sky and the pleasant breezes, because he knows they’re just an illusion, a pre-show act for the meteorological headliner to come. He curses being an old man, because it feels like a sorry joke, to be saddled with this body that most mornings doesn’t feel like his. He curses retiring to a place with frequent low pressure cells that roll through careless as you please, because it reminds him without ceasing that it most certainly is his.

He rocks back in his chair—Jo had gotten a set for them when they retired, as a joke, she swore, and yet whenever the things’ve gotten broken or worn out, new ones have appeared, and he doesn’t want to think about how grumpy Bones would be if it were to stop—and tries to put his foot up on the railing, cursing yet again when his knee will not cooperate.

“Don’t try too hard, kid.” The hand on his shoulder is curled and stiff with pain, yet always kneads at Jim’s shoulders anyway. As if a backbroken 110 year old needs a massage from an arthritic 116 year old.

“Oh, buzz off, old man.” He reaches up and tucks the gnarled hand in his own, resting them both on his shoulder. “How’s the hound?”

“Peachy.” The chair next to his creaks as Bones deposits himself into it with far more grace than Jim’s body would let him achieve for the past decade, and Jim, not for the first or last time, wishes that they could trade old-man-ailments. “Doesn’t like his medicine.”

“I know how he feels.”

Bones looks at him sharply. “Did you—“

Jim waves a hand in Bones’ direction. “Yes, dear, I took them. Cross my heart.”

Bones eyes him for another couple seconds, then settles back in his chair with a sigh. “How long till the storm?”

Jim squints up past the porch roof. “Oh, probably two hours. Two-fifteen, tops.”

“We should put in the chickens.”

“Yeah.”

They sit there for a few minutes, which probably stretches into a few dozen minutes, but that’s the way it is when you’re near the end of your life and have a porch and a rocking chair and a person you’ve been with almost longer than you can remember.

Finally, Jim feels a twinge in his cells that re-warns him of the impending storm, and he gathers himself to stand.

Only, today, as more often than not lately, he does it too quickly for his back’s liking, and makes a grunt of pain as he pitches forward towards the porch railing. He clutches on for dear life.

“Dammit, Jim.” Bones is at his side, easing him back into the rocking chair. Jim doesn’t even try to hide the grimace on his face; Bones would know anyways. “Sit tight.”

“Yeah, because I have a whole lot of options,” Jim mutters as he listens to the new-fangled automatic screen door do its thing behind him. The kit is just inside, and Bones has the hypo nudging his skin way too soon. Jim sighs a long-suffering sigh, and tilts his chin up.

“It’s too late to tell you to grow up, isn’t it?” Bones’ wizened fingers pass carefully over the injection site, over the wrinkled and sagging skin, and Jim feels a twinge of emotions, a ripple of both guilt and love, overtake the fading pain in his back.

“I dunno, you’re never too old for optimism.” He gingerly, slowly, stands, thankful for Bones’ hand on his arm even though at this point it’s mostly just a gesture. He finds that the shot has worked enough, if only to a point, which is becoming more normal for him. There are some things, he thinks, cradling Bones’ hand in his, even science can’t fix. He straightens up fully—or at least pretends it’s fully—and throws a grin at the old man watching him warily. “It’s always worked for me.”

“Clearly. You alright?”

“Good as new.” He motions towards the yard with his thumb. “I’ll go take care of the ladies now.” Bones starts to follow, like he does every day, but Jim waves him off, like he does every day. “I’ll be fine. You fixed me.” He presses a dry kiss to Bones’ wrinkled cheek. “Like always.”

“Yeah, well, some of us never learn our lesson,” Bones grumbles as he folds himself back into his rocker. “Don’t dawdle so long you get stuck in the storm. I don’t want to have to treat your dumb ass for pneumonia, too.”

Bones is right, Jim thinks as he meanders over to the coop. The latch is complicated and the chickens get squirrely and Bones hasn’t had the strength in his hands to able to do this job for quite a while, so Jim does it, twice a day. And he doesn’t even like eggs.

But Bones does. And just as Jim always suspected, some lessons just don’t need to be learned.

 

4

“And here, I thought once I had your sorry backside in retirement, I wouldn’t have to keep fixing it,” McCoy gruffs as he pretends not to check the already perfect hospital corners on Jim’s bed. He can’t seem to stay still, even though his body would thank him to sit down and hush up.

“I like to stay unpredictable,” Jim replies blithely.

“Mm-hmm.”

“Bones.”

“Mm-hmm?”

“Quit being neurotic and come here.”

McCoy stops and stares at his hands for a second, flexes them once. He accepts the blooming awareness of pain, and pulls them away from the linens slowly. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Jim points to the chair beside the bed. “So do as I say and come here.”

McCoy does, looking like he wants to grouse about it all the while. “What d’you want?”

“Some sugar?” Jim does an attempt at a leer.

McCoy’s mouth twitches. “Nice try, buddy. You’re not going to be doing much of anything for a couple more days, let alone—mmhft.”

Jim has cupped the back of his neck in a surprisingly strong grip for someone on such good painkillers. McCoy isn’t really of the mind to complain, though. He doesn’t care that it’s a procedure that’s been done a hundred million times, or even one that he himself has performed a couple hundred times; routine procedures can still go tits up, especially on retired, beaten-up old men, and he hasn’t been able to relax in days, not since Jim had finally admitted that he couldn’t feel the bottom of his right foot and maybe that wasn’t quite right. Leonard could throttle the man sometimes… Except it’d lead to a lot of paperwork, and Lord but he’d had enough of that in his lifetime. Retirement had been worth that reduction alone, most days.

“That’s all I wanted,” Jim says simply once the kiss comes to a nice, lazy end. “I just had a lumbar disk gouged out—from where it had splooged all over some very important bits, I might add—and regenerated, Bones. I’m not up for a slap and tickle.” He grins. “Yet. You’ll check back tomorrow?”

McCoy harrumphs and cuffs him lightly upside the head. “Yes, but only because I’m contractually obligated.” The fingers around Jim’s hand absently, and almost clumsily, feel for the gold band around Jim’s fourth finger.

Jim grins. There are a lot of wrinkles. It’s somehow charming. “Bet you’re sorry you ever signed that paper.”

“Oh yeah, real sorry. Worst decision I ever made.” He leans down and kisses him on his ‘distinguished’—Jim’s word for ‘wrinkled’—forehead. “You ready for your next round of juice?”

Jim groans and shakes his head enthusiastically… which then brings on another groan as the newly-reformed flesh of his lower back mounts an objection. “Yes. Please.”

The hitch in his voice breaks Bones a little, and he calls for the nurse with perhaps a little more force than is necessary.

“Bones,” Jim manages with a chuckle, grabbing his hand and rubbing the palm lightly, careful to avoid the joints in his fingers, “Try not to piss off the staff too much. They kind of hold my life in their hands. Plus, I think Nurse Betty was flirting with me this morning.”

“Sure she was. But I highly doubt it was because of your dashing good looks, Jim. She probably wants an autograph for her kid.”

Jim makes a sort of coughing noise. “She did ask for one made out to ‘Meredith,’ so…yeah.” Then he looks up at McCoy with a pout that somehow still works despite the fact that they’re both past middle-age. Or maybe it only works on McCoy. Who knows. “Hey, wait, are you saying I’m not dashing?”

McCoy crosses his arms, one hand at his mouth, and pretends to consider him critically. His hair is graying—alright, mostly grayed, if he’s being completely honest in his assessment, and receding just the tiniest bit—not that he’d ever point it out, on fear of death—Jo is a smart one and has declared that there’s more forehead to smooch, and besides, she can run faster than Jim now—and he’s getting the old man jowls, admittedly, just a little. And he’s wrinkling up properly, like an eighty-seven year old man should. And it looks good on him, damn it. The lines between his brows from worrying about the ship, the lines around his mouth from grinning like a bastard, and, the lines McCoy likes best of all, the lines splaying out from his eyes from laughing and laughing and laughing. McCoy always said Jim Kirk managed his girlish figure by laughing so damn much. Well, that and all the sex, which, he’s happy to say, has not waned as they settle into retirement and back into each other. In fact, with all this free time… Creativity has not been lacking, is all he’ll say.

McCoy reaches out and traces the sunburst of lines on the cheek closest to him. “You’re dashing, all right.” He knows Jim can hear the roughness in his voice, but before he can tease McCoy about it, the nurse appears with the painkillers.

Jim’s face squinches up while it’s administered, like a baby eating a damn pickle, but he lets out an appreciative sigh as it kicks in.

“Eighty-seven year old toddler. Unbelievable.” His fingers ache from holding onto Jim’s, but he ignores it. Jim squints at him, as if he can hear his thoughts, and tries first to take away his hand, then when that fails, opens his mouth to protest. “Hush,” McCoy insists gruffly. “It’s time to sleep.” He tucks up the blankets with his other hand as best he can. “You’ll be right as rain tomorrow.”

Jim’s eyes are drifting lazily shut as he turns his head in towards McCoy and snuffles at his hand gently. “Thanks for fixing me, Bones.”

“Of course, you ninny.” He clears his throat. “Love you, kid.”

“You too, old man.”

 

3

Bones's eyes, the same hazel they were when Jim left him standing on that bridge months ago, are clear and bright the whole time they’re losing altitude. This would amaze Jim, if he had the time to be amazed, but he doesn't, really, because he's just about to crash-land a shuttle into rainforest-like environs and he can only focus on fifteen things at once, not five hundred. (Although how cool would that be? Maybe there are techniques he could learn. Would learn. If he weren’t about to die.)

At the last moment, though, he's focused on exactly two things: Getting the brunt of the impact on his side of the shuttle, and getting as much of his body as he can in between McCoy and the debris that's surely going to attempt to fling out at them.

This is the first mission they’ve been on together in months, the first time they’ve been civil to each other for longer than that, and if Starfleet has its way this will be Kirk’s last mission as Captain no matter how it ends - so Kirk doesn’t even think twice.

Thank God for modern medicine, is all he thinks, confident that McCoy will survive. Hell, if he's lucky, and he knows that he is, he'll even survive.

He takes a deep breath, drinks in Bones’ stupid, precious face, the face Jim Kirk has loved and lost, one more time, and reaches for his harness.

---

The second thing he notices when he wakes up is that Bones isn’t there at the side of his bed. The first is that he can’t feel his toes.

He’s unconscious before he can try to parse out which thing is more alarming.

---

His doctor, when he wakes up for real, is not human. This would be fascinating, but Dr Higuchi is also clearly studying for Amateur Dad Joke Hour because zhe cannot stop with the puns.

"You want the funny part?" zhe asks, finally, after getting through Kirk’s current vitals with merely two banana peels and one fish joke.

"…yes?"

"It wasn't the fall that killed ya."

“Wow,” Kirk manages.

“Yeah, I know. Pretty impressive.”

“No. I mean, yes, because I engineered the maneuver myself and I’m pretty impressive, but that’s not what I meant.”

“Oh?”

"I meant your bedside manner is ridiculous."

The doctor just shrugs. "I learned from the best."

Jim tilts a questioning look upwards.

“Dr McCoy was my mentor in residency,” zhe explains with a grin.

Jim grunts, but he’s nearly smiling. “Of course he was.”

Zir face takes on a sad tinge briefly. “Which is why this is so hard for me, too.”

Jim is actually kind of touched that zir devotion towards Bones extends to his spouse. Bones is a truly fucking inspiring guy.

He still can’t feel his toes, so he shores himself up for the bad news. “Give it to me straight. How broken am I?”

“Well…”

“I can take it.”

“Apparently, you can’t. You technically died out there, for one.”

“Not new.”

“And your spine was liquefied.”

“…okay, that’s new.”

“But you should be making a full recovery within a few months.”

Jim is impressed. “You got a magical spine-fixing wand back there?”

“No. We made you a new spine.”

“What, like a transplant?”

“Sort of. A Fusion. At the genetic level.”

“With whom?”

Zhe hesitates only a moment. “With the doctor who performed the initial transplant.”

Kirk’s brain whirs as he eyes zir, pushing down the nausea arising from his suspicions. “Let me guess.”

“Okay.”

“Doctor McCoy, after we crash-landed on an uninhabited planet, performed a surgery.”

“Yes.

“Took a little piece of his spine and put it into mine.”

“Yes.”

“And where is he?”

Zhe sighs, but turns and pulls back the curtain between ‘beds. McCoy is very pale, but he’s there, and the monitors are quiet, calm. Kirk feels as if all the air’s rushed back into his lungs. For the first time in months.

His eyes sting. Hard.

He blinks, clears his throat, and looks back at the doctor, but nothing is forthcoming. Zhe’s waiting for him to work through it. What a bastard. “So.”

“Yes.”

"So you re-grew me?"

"Essentially."

"With pieces from Bones?"

"They helped," zhe says, with sympathy but without pity, and Jim takes it back, he kind of wants to hug zir, if he wasn't so busy trying to figure out why the hell he's awake and Bones isn't.

"So—" And this time he gestures at the lump of CMO next to him. "What's up with that?"

"To be frank?"

"Please."

"He's not recovering."

"I don't understand."

"His body is not healing itself, no matter what we shoot into it. He's not getting any worse, per se, but… He might never wake up, and if he does, he certainly may not walk ever again."

"I refuse to believe that," Kirk answers. "He's my age. He's fit. He's healthy. He—" He was supposed to be the one to survive.

“Mostly correct."

"Pardon?"

"It’s the arthritis medicines, sir.”

Kirk is too shocked to even raise an eyebrow. “It’s the what now?” He's never spoken with so many question marks in his effing life, but he has no idea how to deal with this.

“He was diagnosed with fast-progressing degenerative arthritis nearly six months ago. He’s been on heavy immunosuppressors since. Did he not inform you of this, sir?”

Jim feels his head shake slowly, his brain sliding around like sludgy water. “No. I—We’ve been— apart. We’ve been apart.” His voice cracks. “We… needed some time— I needed… Oh, Jesus…” Then it dissolves fully because suddenly he can’t breathe.

His ‘bed bleeps fitfully. And as if he can sense it, McCoy's does too. Dr Higuchi takes the two steps and presses the two buttons to make it stop, then stands there, looking down at Bones, and Jim has to look away from zir face.

He wants to curl up on himself, but his legs are as stubborn as the rest of him.

“Wait,” he says suddenly. “You said I’d recover.”

“Yes.”

“This is a typical procedure?”

“Typical?” If zhe had eyebrows, one would be up.

He waves a hand. “Known. Done.”

“Done enough, in extreme situations. He’s not going to get a Nobel prize for it, if that’s—“

"And he's not dumb."

"Beg pardon?" zhe requests calmly. Zhe’s very good at zir job, Kirk notes absently. It’s very annoying.

"He knew this would happen. That he wouldn’t be—“ He stops.

Zir voice is quiet. "He knew there was a high probability of his own death, yes."

Kirk wants to punch something. His hands still work well enough for that, at least— And now he thinks of Bones’s hands, how Bones wouldn’t have told him if they were sometimes not what they used to be, not until he absolutely had to, because Bones’ hand were his career, and passion, and life, and their failure would drive Bones right to—

To the same place that the thought of being phased out of active mission duty had driven Jim. To an impossible but easy choice in a small shuttle.

Kirk would lose his lunch, but his stomach’s empty. Instead there’s just stupid fucking feelings roiling around in there, annoyance and affection and fear and regret and love and it’s just too much. "God damn him."

Then he sees Dr Higuchi get closer, the sadness back on zir face, and then it’s blackness.

---

Kirk gets better quickly. He may be fifty-six years old but he’s healthy as a fucking horse, and he knows it.

Bones struggles in his stead. Jim pulls all his remaining strings to get to stay by his side, then belatedly realizes he doesn’t at all have to. This is what Starfleet wants, for Jim to settle, teach, stay in one damn spot for a while. He’s going to give it to them, at least for a little bit while he waits for McCoy to catch up with him.

Then he’ll give them the finger.

He waits. He sits, first in his own ‘bed then beside McCoy’s. He talks a little, then a lot, then only a little again, as the hours and days stretch. McCoy’s health is ticking upwards, the ‘bed tells him, but at a frustratingly snail-like, stubborn-ass pace and Jim is sick of it.

“I’m so over this shit.”

And he realizes, as the words resonate around the chamber during month two, as he’s got a PADD with a forgotten novel or fifty on it (they won’t let him have dusty paper in the med unit, the bastards) sitting in his lap, that he really is. He’s tired of it. Tired of hospitals, and blood, and the way adrenaline coats the back of his throat, choking him. Tired of the way he just hurts every single morning when he gets out of bed.

Tired of planning his death, and that of everyone around him, as if it’s going to happen in the next five minutes.

Just tired.

“Maybe that’s the point Starfleet was trying to make,” comes a voice, roughly, from the ‘bed.

“Bones.” Jim is on his feet like a shot, hunching close over McCoy’s prone form despite the fact that his back positively screams at him for it. “Bones.”

Then there are giant, wracking coughs from the ‘bed, and Jim wants to yell at the doctors to make it better. He probably does yell at them, he’s not sure. He stops listening. He wants – he wants to yell at McCoy for pulling such a dumb-ass stunt in the first place— He’s got the lecture memorized, after all, from being on the receiving end of it so many times.

“Can you feel your toes?” is instead the first thing out of his mouth. It seems, suddenly, more important.

McCoy’s eyes blink at him, and Kirk knows he’s trying to test out his body to answer the question. But nothing moves. Kirk doesn’t let the panic show on his face. “That’s okay,” he says quietly. “Mine took a while to wake up, too.”

McCoy nods, swallowing, closing his eyes, frown line deep between them. “How long have I been here?”

“Long enough,” Jim answers absently, watching where McCoy’s hand is laying against the white surface. The fingers keep twitching, as if wanting to clench. Jim finally reaches out, touches them hesitantly with his own.

After a moment, McCoy’s palm turns over, and Jim exhales.

There’s a while where they don’t talk. He doesn’t know how to prioritize the jumbled mess of words in his brain, and for once, once in his god damn life, he knows he has to. Bones is just so pale.

“You never took it off,” Kirk finally says, figuring at least it McCoy would appreciate just getting down to business. He means, of course, the ring McCoy still has around his fourth finger, the ring Kirk is currently worrying gently with his own hand. His own hand, bare of ring.

McCoy finally looks at him, and his expression is resigned, too tired to be embarrassed but only just. “Look, kid, I—“

“No. Don’t explain that. I understand that.”

“Great,” he mutters. “Then what?”

“Explain why we did it in the first place.”

McCoy stares at him. He’d be hurt, Jim thinks, but they’re past that. Finally, he says wryly, “For the gifts?”

Jim can’t help the quirk of his lips. “I knew you were only after me for my fame.”

“Shut it.”

He doesn’t continue with the banter, though. “But I meant -- why did we stop.”

This stops McCoy short. Then he shrugs, and maybe it’s not that they’re past the hurt. It’s just that Jim was all wrong about who was actually hurt. “I figured you needed to go and have your own mid-life crisis.”

It’s Jim’s turn to stop short. “I what?”

McCoy looks at him like he’s an idiot. “You didn’t know shit until you were twenty-six and signed up with Pike, Jim. Then you spent twenty-five years doing the thing you loved, the thing it turned out you’d been born to do. And you’re just getting really good at it, too, when the brass try and get you to step out of active duty? Lucrative promotion or no, that’s a recipe for trouble. And you couldn’t exactly get a sports car, now, could you? You already had the filthiest drag racing space ship in the ‘fleet.”

Kirk’s almost following along. “So, women and booze, then.”

McCoy does look a little pained, then, but mostly, if Kirk still knows him at all (and he likes to think he does) because he’s not been along for the ride. “If you say so; I didn’t have time to keep track.”

And he’s telling the truth, Kirk knows; McCoy had not stopped working for one spare second. Neither of them had. Kirk had just had more fun with it. Because he’s an asshole.

McCoy can still predict his thoughts, apparently, because he says, “Now, don’t go thinking you’re special, kid. We all have ‘em.”

“Was yours—“ Kirk hadn’t considered it.

“Done years ago. I was a practicing pediatrician at age 22, remember? On the road to ruin long before you were.”

“Did you… with the women and booze?”

McCoy snorts, then looks at Jim. Really meets his eyes. And what’s there slays Jim on the spot.

"You were my mid-life crisis, kid."

At that moment, Jim knows beyond a doubt that McCoy still loves him. Bones is still, somehow, miraculously, his.

“And now?” he says anyway. He’s impatient to hear it, even though he knows it’s coming.

McCoy looks down at their hands pointedly. “I don’t break promises, that’s now and that’s forever.”

“So you’ll have me back?”

McCoy looks at him, affection sneaking into his gaze. “I suppose.”

Jim’s quiet for a moment, heart pounding in relief. “You’re still emotionally stunted,” he says casually.

McCoy’s lips press together. “You still take your job more seriously than your life.”

“You still drink too much,” Jim points out helpfully.

McCoy’s lips quirk, finally. “You’re still terrible at talking about anything but yourself.”

Kirk feels like his chest is expanding. “You’re still terrible at birthdays.”

“You still want to have sex at the stupidest damn times.”

And Jim can’t help but laugh, and soon it’s pouring out of him. McCoy’s chuckle is tired, and slightly wet, but there.

“We’re fucking idiots, aren’t we?”

“Nah,” McCoy says, his body shifting—slowly—towards Jim. Jim sends a ‘fuck you’ to his back and drops to his knees at the head of the bed, one hand in McCoy’s and one on McCoy’s face. “Just for each other.”

Kirk grins. His throat is tight. “You should be writing greeting cards.”

“I’ll write one for you,” McCoy mumbles, his hand making a feeble attempt at clutching onto Jim’s. “It’ll say ‘bite me.’”

“Catchy, but I was thinking more along the lines of ‘Congratulations on your retirement.’”

He holds his breath, and McCoy’s gaze, as Bones's eyes widen, then narrow.

“You funnin’ me?”

“As much as I’d love to be, just to hear you say that again, I am not. I’ve given Starfleet my notice.” He tries his best crooked, charming grin, hoping the wrinkles work for him like people are so fond of saying they do. “What do you say, Bones? Wanna run away to a desert island planet with me?”

McCoy takes his sweet time answering, his dry lips nearly forming words he doesn’t vocalize. “Hell no,” he finally says. “I don’t do drinks with umbrellas in them.”

Jim has to kiss him, then. Wretched breath and all. “No island, got it,” he says against McCoy’s mouth, before resting their foreheads together and just breathing in until he’s full, then doing it all over again, as many times as possible. “Just home.”

 

2

“Doctor McCoy.”

“Yeah? What is it?” The shower in his room doesn’t have any hot water, the complimentary breakfast sucked, and now the Academy Hospital is calling him in even while he’s a) not technically on their staff and b) not technically on duty, period. His morning isn’t turning out so well. If his voice is a little gruff, well, that’s just tough luck.

“We have a patient here we need you to work on. Severe neurological damage in the lower spinal column.”

Despite himself, he perks up. He loves this sort of work, delicate and breathtaking.

“I’ll be there in a jiffy.” He reaches towards the comm button.

“Good, sir. Just come into the Neurosurgery Wing and ask for the Consulting for patient Kirk.”

His hand freezes, but the connection is already severed.

He doesn’t remember getting there, just knows that somehow he’s in scrubs and in the Zone as he watches the faceless spider webs of neurons dance under his ministrations. The Zone is tinged red this time, he’ll admit later, but still, it’s there and he’s there and he’s Saving Someone and it isn’t until directly after it’s over, when he vomits spectacularly in the ready-room sink then collapses onto his knees with a strangled howl, that somebody besides McCoy realizes it’s that Kirk, and realizes exactly how compromised this surgeon just was.

When he comes to several hours later, McCoy is wrapped up in a blanket in a chair next to Jim’s bed. He kicks off the cover to check the kid’s stats, and grumbles to no one about him not having high enough hemoglobin levels. Then he just stares. He sits in his chair and he watches the chest rise and fall, the eyelashes lay quietly against the cheek.

But he can’t touch. He won’t. He just—no.

Too fragile.

‘Bones?’

The word isn’t actually spoken, but the well-mapped lips move in the familiar shape and McCoy doesn’t want to hear it anyways. “Hush, Jim.”

“You... fixed?” Jim manages to sound the words this time, at least sort of.

McCoy almost smiles. Blinks hard. “Yeah, I fixed you. Now hush, before I find a hypo to stab you with.”

The eyes flutter closed with a tiny hum. ‘Love you,’ the lips tell him.

McCoy’s throat is too tight to respond.

They replay that scene any number of ways over the next 36 hours, as Kirk wakes then falls back under, his body having just gone through a major traumatic event and clearly reluctant to let down its shields.

Then they evolve into full sentences. “It wasn’t even my fault,” Jim mumbles, his eyes closed but his hand finally gripping at McCoy’s. “That’s the—“ He licks his lips, trying to get some moisture back into them. “The rub. I was even going the speed limit.”

The blue eyes finally crack open, blinking crustily at McCoy. He doesn’t quite meet their gaze. “That’s what the police said. Hence the lack of handcuffs.” He has a hot cloth in his hand, leans over Jim and dabs at his face. “Guess you can’t be lucky all the time. Can you move your feet?”

There’s a moment of silence as Kirk feels it out. “Yeah. You did good, Doc.”

McCoy grunts and swipes Jim behind one of his ears. Then there’s a hand on his wrist, stopping his motions, and Jim isn’t kidding around. “Bones.”

McCoy stills. “Yeah.”

“Talk to me.”

McCoy gently twists his wrist out of Jim’s grip and sits back down, staring at the cloth in his hands. “It was stupid for me to be the one doing the surgery.”

“You’re the best.”

McCoy shakes his head. “No, I’m not, and even if I was, I had no damn business being in that OR. I know better. But—“ He folds and unfolds the cloth.

Then he levels his gaze at Jim. “I was told once that I’m stubborn as a mountain, but once I change my mind I come down like an avalanche.” He wills his voice to not shake. “Well, either get out of the way or accept it, kid. I am not going to be in this position again. They’re either going to call me as your spouse and next of kin, or they’re not going to call me.”

Jim breathes in, clearly startled. “Bones, I—“

“No. This is the way it has to work. We’ve done it your way for a while now, and it almost killed both of us here.” His voice roughens and his eyes grow impossibly large and bright. “You’re it for me.”

“Bones—“

McCoy holds up a hand. “And you’ve made good your promise. They’ve been the best eleven years of my fucking life, despite the giant vacuum of space thing. But this—“ He shakes his head. “This is where the roads diverge.”

Jim is quiet for a moment. McCoy feels it like—like waiting for a tsunami. The earthquake has happened, far out past shore, but something bigger is comin for you.

Then, as can happen, it all goes a completely different direction than expected. Jim just nods and says. “No, it isn’t. Where do I sign?”

---

McCoy will never, ever admit to how much he cried that day. And Jim will never tell.

 

1

McCoy has a keen sense of déjà vu as Jim stumbles into his suite on a Saturday night – Sunday morning, really – his face a mess and his eyes overly bright.

“Hey, Bones.”

“Don’t call me that,” McCoy grouses immediately, voice rough with sleep, swinging his legs out of the small bed and onto the floor. “Computer, lights at sixty percent.” Kirk’s face is worse than he’d thought. “Eighty percent. What the hell happened to you?”

“Just a dude brawl, don’t worry about it,” Jim says blithely as he steps into the head and rifles around in the cabinets. “I just need some of your supplies—Ah,” he says as he finds whatever it was he was looking for. “And then I’ll be out of your hair.”

McCoy watches him for a minute—‘suite’ is more a metaphor than a reality— as he starts dabbing at his eyebrow. But he’s hunched over, like the real damage was not to his cheekbones. McCoy rubs a hand across his face, considering, for about a second and a half, then forgoes putting a shirt on for just standing up and getting this over and done with. Having Kirk in his quarters drunk and disorderly hits a little too close to home. “C’mere,” he finally says, resigned.

Jim turns to him, surprise then pain flickering across his face, both tamped down by a forced grin. “You wanna play doctor?”

McCoy rolls his eyes. “Just get over here,” he replies, stepping over to the small table cum desk, stacking his PADDs aside and clearing a space for Jim to set the kit. “And take that damn jacket off before you do.” He’s always thought the leather jacket looked a little ridiculous, like Jim’s trying a little too hard. Jim clearly adores it, though. McCoy wonders briefly if it was his father’s, then shakes his head. “Shirt, too,” he adds.

Jim throws the jacket onto a chair, but shakes his head. “I said I’m fine.”

McCoy inhales and looks heavenward for a moment. Then he reaches out, gets ahold of Kirk’s left arm, and yanks him into working space. Kirk is so surprised he lets it happen, but his face is wary. So McCoy gets straight to the point. “You’ve got lacerations over your left cheekbone and left eye, which I’m guessing is your weak side. You’ve got a bruised rib or two, probably—“ He looks Kirk up and down with a critical eye. “—left side again, you gotta work on watching that if you’re gonna keep getting into scraps. And let me guess – kidney punch? Right side? So your back hurts like a son of a bitch?”

Jim stares at him, eyes narrow, like he’s considering arguing. Then he seems to deflate, which makes him wince. And McCoy is so annoyed with him he can’t stand it to not be touching him. He drops the hand that’s on Kirk before it can clutch traitorously. “So do you need my help or not, kid?”

Jim’s answer is to reach down and pull off his shirt. The bruising isn’t much yet, but it’ll be spectacular if left unattended, and the movement is stilted. He meets McCoy’s eyes briefly, looks away for longer, then looks back, his jaw hard but his eyes bright. “Fix it, Bones.”

McCoy’s already reaching for the kit. “Don’t call me that.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s dumb?” he tries, fingers moving equipment over skin.

But Kirk is having none of it. “It’s from when we met, remember?”

“I barely remember your name.”

Kirk grins, then grimaces as McCoy pokes at a sore spot. “Ow. Fixing, Bones, I thought you were fixing.”

“Shut your mouth and I will,” McCoy grumbles, but he’s already halfway done, and his hands never stray from gentle and sure. He could do this in his sleep. Probably has.

Ten minutes later, he slaps Jim on the shoulder. “Good as new. Well, don’t do any gymnastics today, but otherwise…”

“Yeah, I’ll try not to,” Jim says with a quirk of his lips. “Thanks, man.”

“Anytime. Clearly,” McCoy answers with a pointed glance at the chrono. “But try not to be so stupid next time you run into drunken frat boys, all right?”

Jim’s jaw tightens again, and McCoy for not the first time wonders if there’s more to this kid’s story. The whole world is hoping there is, that’s for damn sure. Pike thought there was. As for McCoy, well, he’s not sold yet. He’s not even sure if he wants to ask.

“Yeah, sure,” is all Kirk says before moving out of the room, then he turns back in the doorway and drops a salute. “G’night, Bones.”

McCoy is left harrumphing at an empty room.

---

McCoy will never know what possesses him, except, maybe, at this point in his life, he understands a few things about cowardice, and won’t stand for it, not when it’s so ridiculously unnecessary.

All he knows is that the minute he finishes reading his morning news feed, he finds himself at the door to Jim’s dorm room, using his override and storming in on a swath of curse words.

“What the hell are you messing around with, kid?”

Jim looks up from where he’s sat on his tiny regulation bed with a pile of PADDs, one eyebrow up. “Hello to you, too, old man.”

“Shut up. And answer my damn question.”

“I can’t do both of those at—“

McCoy explodes at him. “You just gonna make a vigilante outta yourself till you’re dead? Figure then maybe you’ll have paid off your debts?”

Kirk is actually struck silent. The room is buzzing and McCoy’s heart is pounding and he hates it, he doesn’t know why he’s here but he is and he’s damn well going to see it through.

And suddenly, Kirk is standing in front of him. “Bones.”

But McCoy is nowhere near done. “You thought I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out? That fucking jacket, it’s a god damn antique, people remember that shit. Going off half-cocked in the middle of the night, saving random cadets from themselves and possibly from an armed robber or two—“ He points an accusatory finger. Kirk is close enough that it actually hits him in the chest. “You’re transparent as a sheet of glass, my friend.”

“Bones—“

“You think I’m just gonna keep patching you up? What if it’s not just a bruised rib but a broken one next time? You know how easily those go through lungs? Like butter. Butter. And there is some shit I just can’t fix, and I’ll be damned if I have to watch my only friend on this god forsaken planet go and die on me like—“

The words die in McCoy’s throat as Jim’s lips rush to meet his.

---

He can’t say he’s never thought about it. He’s pretty sure everyone that’s laid eyes on Jim Kirk has thought about it. But Leonard is damaged goods, and single-minded, and kind of a bastard, and really, really bad at remembering birthdays. And has a job to do.

But when Jim pulls him close that first time, in broad daylight in between morning classes on a not-so-special day, McCoy thinks, to hell with it. This might just do just fine.

---

And when he’s got Jim naked and shuddering above him, he’s pretty sure he just made the best—and worst—decision in his whole damn life.

---

“I can’t promise to always be smart.”

The words come into the dark, because Jim had had enough wherewithal to dim the environmentals for post-coital drop down.

McCoy snorts into Jim’s hair. “I wouldn’t dare dream of it.”

“I can’t always promise to be with you. I’m not… This lifestyle isn’t…” He trails off, and McCoy is suddenly shamelessly angry at this kid’s mother, even though he knows in his head she did the best she could.

So he does the best he can. He inhales, then rolls until Kirk is under him again, and close enough that they can feel each other’s heartbeats.

“All you’ve got to promise, kid, is to think. Think about who you’re picking a fight with, who you’re taking home. Tell me the truth about all of the above, even if you tell nobody else. Just try. For me. To think.”

Jim is somber for a minute, then grins. “Like you’re my Jiminy Cricket?”

McCoy groans, and drops his head into the crook of Jim’s neck. “Shut it.” He’s suddenly very, very tired. And terrified—which feels awfully like exhilaration—down to his bones—to think of what he’s just gone and volunteered himself for.

It’s going to be a hell of a ride.

 

0

As beginnings go, it’s not very auspicious. A polite threat of vomit is hardly a meet-cute.

“Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence,” McCoy ends up over-explaining. Jim is very transparently not amused, though perhaps a little intrigued.

“Well,” he can’t not point out, “I hate to break it to you, but Starfleet operates in space.”

McCoy plays right into his hands.“Yeah, well, got nowhere else to go. The ex-wife took the whole damn planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.” And he offers up a flask.

Kirk regards him for a moment longer. A long moment longer. Then he figures, what the hell. New beginnings. And he reaches out. “Jim Kirk.”

“McCoy. Leonard McCoy.”

McCoy takes one more swig, grimacing. “So who’d you piss off last night?”

“Besides my mother by getting into a barfight?”

McCoy chuckles, and even in the midst of clear personal crisis, takes the hint. “Right. Well. I am a doctor. You need lookin’ at? Fixin’?”

Jim thinks about it. Wonders what the good doctor’s hands are like. Remembers that he’s supposed to be starting a whole new life here. Thinks, maybe, on second thought, he can find a place for this man in it, like a grown-up, after tomorrow.

His smile, when it curves onto his face, is bright, genuine, and promising.

“Maybe later.”

fin