Leo packs them up, his hurts, his heart, locks them all behind a door he leaves charred and scarred in warning. He heads for the hills, and when they're not far enough he gathers his courage and reaches like hell for the stars. Theirs is a danger he's lived his whole life fearing, sure, but Leo's not so young as he once was. Leo's not so young as to let naivety eat at him like a cancer, blinding him to the glaringly obvious: that there's danger enough, heartbreak to spare, wherever he goddamn goes.
It's a sick sensation still, the one that swells in his stomach 'til his lunch comes up in a trashcan behind the recruitment station, the one that's got him keeping vigil the night before the shuttle goes. Leo's packed them up, his hurts and his heart, a duffel bag full of everything he could bring himself to fight for -- doesn't mean he's done it well. Doesn’t mean there aren't old anguishes rolling around in his chest, colliding with new ones on every careless breath and igniting on impact, and when he sights the shuttle they all come sliding loose. His fingers twitch, panic forcing his musculature to brief betrayal; he drops the duffel and hears a shattering sound inside. What's lost to sheared-off shards is a paperweight, cheap glass and the colors fading, that sat on his father's desk about a thousand years ago. Leo wants to gather up each piece and fit them back together, doesn’t quite trust his surgeon’s hands. Leo wants to fold up and cry.
Leo wants to run, which is the only reason he manages to get himself on the damn shuttle.
And wouldn't you know it, he's misery-drunk from Clarkesville to Riverside, sneaking off to the bathroom when nobody's looking to heave around the sick sensation that never got ‘round to letting up. He's misery-drunk and then he's actually drunk, a bar he finds at the Iowa stopover providing just enough cheap whiskey to get his ass back on the shuttle. There’s this beaten-raw kid in the seat next to him, playing at apathy and patronizing him through a fat lip until he leans back in his seat, shuts his fool mouth, abruptly passes out. Leo can't help doctoring, never could, not when his father begged him to let things alone and not when Jocelyn told him there was nothing left to fix; he might’ve packed up his hurts and his heart, but there was no putting that away, no point even trying. Out of habit, he checks to make sure the kid's still breathing, checks again, catches himself at it the third time and scowls. He tries to decide if it's worth waking him by “accident,” and decides better of it; easier to glare at his sleeping face like concussion'll be scared off if Leo just looks at it mean enough.
He'll think about it, later, about how funny it is: that the first time he sees Jim Kirk, really stops and looks at him, the bastard's fast asleep. It's the only time Leo'll see him immobile in what'll feel like forever, because Leo’ll come to find out that repose and Jim Kirk are antithetical, opposing poles on a whole world of dangerous. It'll suck Leo in so deep, that world, that he'll be following its laws of gravity before long, carrying his packed up hurts and heart and duffel full of things worth fighting for across its volatile surface. But that first day, Leo can't know that. That first day he stares at the kid's face and just bets he's the type to know he's beautiful under the bruising. That first day, he has no goddamn idea what he's in for.
Academy's not like undergrad and it's not like med school and it's not like Georgia, where things were worn in and familiar, where there were well-traveled paths everywhere Leo chose to look. It's not like he’d expected it to be, but then again, he mostly hadn’t expected anything. In the yawning blank space his future had become when all his bridges were burned, Leo hadn't taken the time to paint much of a mental picture. All he’d been able to imagine was unyielding darkness, and Academy's not like that, either.
Jim Kirk is like that, a little, just in that “unyielding” should be his middle goddamn name. He pops up when Leo least expects him, vanishes just as quickly, fucks and fights and flies his way through semesters and then comes to Leo, comes back to Leo, to bare the bones of his ills. Leo might as well have gone and gotten ordained, the way Jim stumbles and fumbles his way around confessions never quite mean anything at all. Leo offers up truths of his own in lopsided recompense, even though Jim, with all his big-eyed earnestness, hasn't really earned them. They’re either too big and too small, the pieces of himself Leo gives over, because Leo’s not like Jim. Leo doesn't know how to be a dozen people in the blink of an eye, how to fan even the humblest flame into a mighty conflagration. Leo has big heartbreaks and little annoyances, winding histories and pithy anecdotes; Jim has dramatic operettas that unfold around him wherever he goes, symphonies in spent cliches and petty sin.
Leo's old enough to know better than to fall for this trick, for he who plays at being chaos incarnate. He’s reworked the insides of enough men to know that they're all just men, brains inside bodies doomed to fail; nobody's as invincible as Jim Kirk thinks he is. Nobody's as fever-bright as Jim Kirk always shines, and nobody's as slick-sharp as Jim Kirk working an angle, and nobody's triumphant the way Jim Kirk is, like he's brought the whole goddamn world around to dance to his tune. It's not right; the physiology doesn't add up. Leo knows that Jim's got lungs that are damn well collapsable, a heart that'll only pump for so long, skin that rips and tears and bleeds like anyone else's. And he knows Jim knows it, too--that's the worst part. People like Jim Kirk are never as stupid as they pretend to be, no matter how good they are at putting it on.
So, sure, Leo's old enough to know better, old enough have packed up his hurts and his heart; he’s not so old that he looks away from Jim, or that he can even bring himself to try. Jim meets Leo’s eyes across the mess and grins him a harbinger smile, tricks Leo into early mornings and late nights, drives Leo into mistakes he wouldn't have made ten years ago and steadfastly isn't sorry, won't let Leo be either. Jim fucks and fights and flies his way through semesters and strings Leo along beside him on a trail of false confessions and full-throated laughter, and Leo hates it, loves it, thinks it’s worth it. It has to be worth it; Leo can’t stop himself. And there’s something to be said for the raw moments, the way once in a blue moon Jim trips and falls into searing honesty, the kind that’d make even the most jaded of men sit up and take notice (and Leo, of all people, would know).
It keeps Leo curious, more than anything else. It keeps Leo wondering what else is inside this contradiction of a man, this whole world of dangerous Leo keeps finding himself orbiting. It makes him wonder what the hell Jim's had to pack up and put away, what things Jim thinks are worth fighting for.
And there's the other thing, at the Academy and after, following him onto the Enterprise like a plague -- because it is a plague, isn't it, the way everybody finds themselves lovesick for Jim Kirk. Leo hasn't been everybody even once, not ever, not in his whole life; he was born strange and grew up that way too, sharper and smarter, more solid than the people around him, always a cut above the rest. It’s not fair it gets to him, that Jim gets to him like he gets to everybody: a touch on his shoulder that lingers for days, or that frisson shuddering down Leo's back, just sometimes, when Jim looks at him.
It's asinine, is what it is. It's asinine and it's immature and it's something else, too, something that Leo'd call pathetic if he was talking about anyone else. Thing is, he locked pathetic away with his hurts and his heart, isn't gonna let it out for anyone. So what if Jim worries at the edge of his thumbnail during a meeting one Tuesday afternoon and Leo thinks about it for the rest of the week, the way Jim’s lush mouth enveloped a calloused fingertip that had been at Leo's neck, casual, just that morning? So what if whenever Jim stretches, cat-like, against the captain's chair, Leo's mouth goes desert dry? Nobody’s as universally wanted as Jim Kirk is; nobody’s as anything as Jim Kirk is. That's just who Jim is, how he is; this is the effect he has on people.
And yeah, sure, there's the other other thing, the one Leo can't bring himself to look in the face, thinks about in feints and dodges because it's the only way to stay afloat. It’s the way Jim chokes on trust until it gags him but bares his throat to Leo's healing hands without a second thought. It’s the the way Jim laughs longer and louder with him than he does with anyone else. It’s the way their eyes meet, before Jim runs off to fuck or fight or fly, and hold until Jim flushes, looks away; Leo might be a damn coward, but he isn’t stupid, isn’t blind. The truth is, if Leo's heart’s packed up behind a door he charred and scarred and melted shut, then Jim's is shriveled behind a mess of steel and ivy, cobwebbed with disuse and all but rusted through. Leo can hear it creaking in the slur of Jim’s tired late-night vowels, can see it in the determined cut of his hands through the air as he shepherds his crew through another hard call, and it's too much. It's too much, that this man is a contradiction and a hero and a tragedy and, beneath all of that, someone who slips cockamamie cards under the door on Leo's half-birthday and believes with sincerity that everyone he knows was meant to be exactly who they are. Someone who only looks away because Leo keeps on letting him.
Leo packed them up once, his hurts and his heart, and he doesn't want to let them free now. He doesn't want to unbind himself for Jim Kirk, who trusts him too much and not enough, who thinks he’s cock of the walk but risks his own life like it's valueless, who plays games with everything except what's important and smiles sometimes with a bitter, brazen fury he picked up watching whole worlds die. Leo can't unbind himself for this because there'll be no going back, no locking it all up again when everything falls apart, because Jim Kirk is a liar and a king and the best friend Leo's ever had, and Leo knows a wrecking ball when he sees one. He knows that if he lets go, takes that last breath-stealing risk, that Jim'll crash through him with all the force he can bring to bear. That Jim's ragged heart, like the indefatigable rest of him, will flame out wide with wild brilliance, forge Leo into someone else.
It's a shore leave that gets him, gets them, in the end. Jim’s chafing to go back to Riverside with a hunger he’s never shown, and Leo can't understand it, is, as always, compelled to follow. They end up in a middle-of-nowhere sort of town, a shipyard in the distance and a whole lotta nothing up close. Jim wears a brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes from the moment the shuttle lands, doesn’t flirt with anyone, frowns up into the sunshine when he steps outside and then can’t seem to stop.
"You're acting strange," Leo tries pointing out. "Even for you."
Jim slants him a lopsided smile, says, "Thanks for coming with me, Bones."
Leo's expecting a funeral, honestly, some hidden anguish that's been shifting around in Jim's chest in these last few weeks, because it’s not just today. Jim’s been acting strange, been slipping away from his baseline for ages now, and Leo's got his hang-ups and his heartbreaks, sure, but they're only important when Jim is alright. Times like these -- when Jim’s withered, wounded core makes itself so obvious that Leo's chest aches -- always disarm the parts of him that think of Jim in feints and dodges. It’s easier, Leo thinks, to avoid seeing him when he’s not making himself so painfully visible. When Jim’s on, the masks he wears are built for everyone, and Leo can let himself play the coward, can hide in the shadow of Jim’s lies. It’s when Jim’s off like this that it’s harder. His hardscrabble heart peeks out through the chinks in his armor, harder done by than Leo’s and still braver by a long shot; looking away would be sacrilege, for all Leo’s fears beg him to close his eyes.
But there's no funeral in Riverside, or anywhere on the long stretch of highway they end up driving. Leo clings to Jim's back on their rented motorcycle and keeps his head bowed against the wind; he won’t mention, just now, that he can ride one of these things too, and better than Jim’s managing it to boot. He holds on, both of them bare-headed in an act of stupidity Leo surely wouldn't have allowed if Jim hadn't seemed so… something. Hell-bent, maybe. Wound up. Better to be stupid with him, Leo figures, than to let him be stupid alone.
They pull off onto a dirt road eventually, whipping through cornstalks until those fade away to dry, tired dirt, the sort that rises in clouds behind them. Jim drives them all the way up to the edge of a cliff before he twists the handlebars and skids them to a stop three feet from oblivion; Leo cuffs him gently enough on the back of the head, a light touch that'd be a caress if it were a half-step slower, and doesn't miss the way Jim barks out a laugh like he's trying too hard.
Leaving the bike, they walk side-by-by along the edge of the cliff. Jim kicks rocks over the edge as they go, sweeping them sideways with the instep of his sneaker, and Leo’s hand drifts to hovers a few inches away from the small of Jim’s back, ready to reach out if Jim should start to fall. They don’t talk, which doesn’t surprise Leo much. Whatever they’re doing here, they’ll do when Jim’s good and ready; that’s how it always goes.
They sit, eventually, on the edge of the cliff, about a half-mile down from the bike. Jim's legs are kicking out at nothing, and Leo’s folded his own up underneath him when Jim says, "I drove a Corvette off this cliff, once."
Leo blinks. "You... what?"
"Yeah.” Jim rubs a thumb, nail bitten down to nub, against the dirt; his grin is almost fond. "My stepdad's. That’s the maddest I’ve ever seen anybody get -- totally worth it, too. You haven’t heard a crash ‘til you’ve heard an antique luxury car hit the bottom of a ravine, trust me." He stares out into the middle distance for awhile, then shakes his head. "It's weird. I sort of thought this would look smaller now that I'm older. Things usually do, y'know? But it doesn't. It's still just a big fucking hole in the ground."
"Is that what we're doing here?" Leo drawls, when he's waited long enough to conclude that nothing else is forthcoming. "Mourning the antics of years past, sort of thing? Because I gotta tell you, kid, I appreciate your setting the scene and all, but you could've told me that story on the goddamn ship."
Jim laughs, head thrown back, exposing the lithe line of his throat; Leo shields his eyes against the sun for the privilege of watching him, raw and unguarded in the late afternoon light. "No, Bones," Jim says. "We're here because I thought… well. It doesn't matter, I guess. When I was a kid, this was sort of -- this was where nothing could beat me, after I did that. The place I could go to throw my…" He stops, shakes his head sharply, and gets to his feet, offering Leo a hand up and an unconvincing smile. "Never mind. Guess I grew up. Surprise of the century, right?"
"If you say so," Leo says. He watches Jim as they walk back to the bike, the way he kicks up whole clouds of dirt and keeps his shoulders hunched, and wonders what he was like as a kid, what he would have wanted to throw over the edge of a cliff. Doubt, maybe, or nightmares, or…
Fear, Leo thinks, in a voice that sounds far too much like one that introduced itself from between a split lip all those years ago. C'mon, Bonesy, you know this one.
It's a half-second's decision after half a decade of dodge; Leo grabs Jim's wrist and spins him around, reads the surprise in Jim's eyes and the want underneath before he leans in. They kiss sharp and fast and desert dry, and then slower, softer, a dangerous, fluttering honesty caught between their brushing tongues. There's a rushing in Leo's ears and a weightlessness suffusing his limbs, the charred, scarred door behind which he hid his hurts and his heart bursting open with an ecstatic thrill he's long forgotten, and this, Leo realizes, is why people love. This is why people take the crazy, hell-bent risk of it, why they plunge forward knowing it could leave wreckage behind: because of this feeling, the breathtaking landscape of having beyond the ugly patina of doubt.
"You took a hint," Jim says, marveling, when they stop for breath. "You took a hint, Bones, I thought that was impossible. I thought you only spoke Bonesian, which is a language comprised entirely of bluntness and swearing, with bourbon for vowels--"
"So this is how it's going to be, then," Bones muses. He's smiling into the complaint, thumb pressed and holding at the divot in Jim's chin like he has to keep him from running off; hell, maybe he does. It wouldn't surprise him, the creaking of Jim's rusted heartsprings faintly audible even now, but then again, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter, because it's too late, now, for Bones to keep his heart and his hurts packed away -- from here, there's nothing left to do but keep trying. It's an oddly gleeful thought. "A moment of peace, and then you’re flapping your trap again. You trying to win a land speed record or something? Shortest amount of time between kissing a man and insulting him?"
"You kissed me," Jim says, and then darts forward, pressing a smacking, overdone kiss to the corner of Leo's mouth before he says, "Asshole. There. If that's not the land speed record, then I've gotta to learn to talk faster. You think Uhura would help? I'd have to tell her it was for a different reason, I think she'd almost definitely classify this as 'trivial,' but still."
"There's something so wrong with you, Jim, I swear to god," Bones says, laughing on it, and Jim grins.
"Aww," he says, "good try, Bones, but I already won it. You can have second place."
It devolves -- evolves -- whatever, after that, until they're necking like goddamned teenagers somewhere outside Riverside, the bike and the ship and the five years between them forgotten. They'll be back with a vengeance soon enough, old needs cropping up and new ones inventing themselves, disasters to dodge and manage and cause, but not today. Today, Leo takes Jim's hips in his hands in the late afternoon sunshine; today Leo unpacks it all, his hurts and his heart, and decides to stay awhile.