Even before he gets to his floor in the dorm, Jim Kirk smells something akin to heaven on earth.
As he takes the stairs to the second-floor room, the divine aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg, mingled with orange and. . .something deep and delicious becomes stronger.
He throws open the door to corner suite and finds his roommate in the small kitchenette, stirring a pot. The room is suffused with the delightful smell of . . . Christmas.
"Please tell me that's something I can eat or drink and it's not some stupid thing like that stuff you put in the bathroom to cover up the fact it hasn't been cleaned in a month," Jim says rapidly.
Leonard turns towards him and grins. "Good evening to you, too," he drawls. "Smells good, huh?"
"Good? Fuck, Bones, it's like I've died, gone to heaven, and am being serviced by three beautiful Orion creatures." Jim comes to stand behind him and inhales deeply. The tang of citrus and cinnamon clears the cold and damp of the San Francisco winter from his head. Combined with the fresh scent of a recently showered Bones, well, Jim is about ready to pass out from the headiness and desire.
He shivers just a little. He's been nursing a serious jones for his rather grumpy doctor-roommate for months now. This smiling, almost relaxed version of the dark-haired, handsome Southerner is nearly as intoxicating as the liquid concoction he's caring for in the pot on the stove.
"You all right, Jim?" Leonard asks.
"Huh?" Jim blinks. "Oh, yeah. I'm just really enjoying the smell of Christmas." He inhales again. "What is that undertone I'm getting? Something deeper?"
"Ah, you have a good nose. It's cloves and dark German ale." Leonard nods appreciatively. "This is my grandmother's wassail. She sent the spice packet, along with some other things." He points to a large box on the small dining table.
Jim goes to look in it. "Oh, hey. Grandma sent you Christmas presents, and YUM! Are these homemade cookies? That's so nice of her. Can I have one?" Jim opens the bag.
Leonard joins Jim in the dining room. "No, you may not! Those are for later." He grabs the bag from Jim's hands and puts it back in the box.
"Aw, c'mon, Bones. I'm hungry," Jim whines. He sheds his coat and throws it on the sofa. "So does she do this often, send you care packages?"
"Well, not usually, but she thought I needed something special when I told her I have E.R. duty on Christmas, what with being a newbie on staff. When I was in college and med school, I went home, even if it was for only a few days. But we always had Christmas at her house, especially after. . ."
Leonard hesitates, then says, "My grandma is good people. She--she practically raised me after my mom died. Dad kinda . . . well, he was sort of a mess for a while after that, but he pulled it together." He stopped talking abruptly.
Jim doesn't know what to say, and fidgets. This is the largest chunk of information he's learned about his roommate in the four months they've been at the academy. He wants to say he knows what it's like to lose a parent, but in truth, he doesn't, since he never knew his father at all. His mother is still alive, but that's really all he can say about her.
"Anyway, Grandma took great care of me, loved me." He stops and laughs as he pulls a couple of the small, brightly wrapped presents out of the box. "She always gives me little things, like a crazy pair of socks or a box of sugary cereal that has no nutritional value at all to it but is just so damn good. She always said it was all right to eat something bad for you a few days a year."
"My grandma said the same thing," Jim offers, surprising himself with the admission. "My mom's mom."
For a few seconds both are silent as they digest important information about the other. "You never mentioned having a grandmother in your life before," Leonard says.
Jim inhales sharply, and looks down. "She died right after I left high school. Once she was gone--" He stops, thinking, and then says: "After that, I sort of lost direction, drifted around. You know the rest. The one thing I never stopped doing was reading. If there was anything she instilled in me, it was that reading, and being able to write, were the most important skills anyone could ever have in life."
Leonard nods in agreement. "Yep."
"Anyway," Jim says. "When's that wassail gonna be ready? Can we have some after I take a shower?"
"How about after dinner?" Leonard asks. "Let's go get some Chinese, my treat, and we'll drink it later. I don't have to work the E.R. until tomorrow night."
"Some Christmas vacation, huh?" Jim says as he moves off to the bathroom.
"Yeah, some Christmas," Leonard says softly, his eyes following the whirlwind that is Jim.
"So, tell me about Christmas, Georgia-style." Jim is practically bouncing during their walk back to campus from dinner.
"Remind me to check you for a food allergy when we get back. I thought those places didn't use MSG any more," Leonard grouses good-naturedly. "Slow down, Jim."
"Sorry. I was really hungry, but dinner has restored my energy." Jim tries to walk more normally, but still has a spring in his step. "So, Christmas?"
"Well, Grandma and Grandpa would take me to the Presbyterian church on Christmas Eve. I always liked it because the church was decorated real pretty and was lit with lots of white candles. Liked the music, too. The sermon was always short, and I really liked that. Afterwards, there'd be a big reception in the fellowship hall. I knew some of the other kids, so it was tolerable. Man, the food was great: tons of homemade cookies of all varieties, a big Christmas cake, and a non-alcoholic version of the wassail."
Leonard smiles as he remembers. "Then, we'd come home, and Grandma's wassail would be simmering on the stove. God, I loved how the aroma filled the whole house. Anyway, we'd read or watch a vid or two whilst drinking her wassail. I always got just one cup. And then, she'd let me open one present before going to bed. She said it took the edge off the anticipation."
"Your grandma was a lot nicer than mine," Jim says, laughing. "She never got the memo about the one gift rule."
Leonard laughs with him. "Yeah, it put my grandma in a different realm with my friends too."
They arrive at the dorm and enter their room. "Wow, that is the most amazing smell," Jim says.
"Now this," Leonard says, shrugging out of his coat--Jim catches it and throws it on one of the beds in the bedroom, along with his--"is a German wassail."
He pulls the bag of cookies out of the box, and carries it to the kitchenette. "Everyone has their own variation. The English use red wine as the base. Southern Presbyterians, even though they drink like fish but won't admit to it in public, insist on using apple cider and orange juice as the base for theirs." He pulls a plate from the cabinet and hands it to Jim. "Here, make yourself useful and put the cookies on that."
"May have brought more people in, though," Jim says. "Why can't we just eat these out of the bag?"
"Because, you ass, we are not animals. Now, put them on the plate or I'll deny you." Leonard shakes his head as he heads back to the box.
He continues: "You can't be seen stumblin' around after church in Atlanta, Georgia. Too many Baptists around to criticize. Anyway, my grandma, despite marrying into the Brantleys, a very old and distinguished Georgia family with English roots, was from German stock. And the Germans use a dark ale as the base for their wassail."
He pulls a long, square package from the box. "Oh, my god. I can't believe she sent me one."
"One what? Whoa, what the hell is that, Bones?" Jim's eyes widen.
"This is one of the most disgusting features of a Georgia Christmas: a Claxton fruitcake." He hands it to Jim.
"Holy shit! It's heavy!"
"Loaded down with white flour, refined sugar and those gross candied fruit things, a recipe that hasn't changed for hundreds of years," Leonard says. "This has to be one of her jokes."
"You eat it?"
"Well, I'm not going to, but you should, just to experience the cultural novelty."
Jim tears open the wrapping on the fruitcake. "Hey, it doesn't smell bad. Kinda fruity."
"Believe me, any nutritional value that those chunks of fruit once had was destroyed by the shit-load of sugar used to make 'candy' of them."
"Yeah, but it's Christmas. Eating something bad for you once a year won't kill you. Right?" Jim's eyes are twinkling. "Wouldn't want to admit Grandma is wrong." He picks up a knife and starts to slice into the fruitcake. "Damn, I can barely get the knife through it."
"Her cookies are bad enough, though I know she used organic whole wheat flour and Turbinado sugar to make them. My favorite have dark chocolate and Georgia pecans in them."
Leonard ladles two cup-fulls of wassail and carries them to the sofa; Jim follows with the plate of cookies and fruitcake slices. They sit, the plate between them.
"Well," Leonard says, handing Jim a cup of wassail, "Merry Christmas, Jim."
"You're a few days early, but what the hell," Jim replies. "Merry Christmas, Bones."
They each take a sip of the hot drink and sigh in unison.
"God, that's sooo good," Jim says. In a few minutes, he's drunk the entire cup. "Care for some more, Bones?" He rises, and heads to the kitchen for more.
"I'm gonna savor this for a few," Leonard says, sitting back on the sofa, a cookie in hand.
"To Grandma Brantley." Jim clinks his mug to Leonard's and munches on a slice of the fruitcake. "Oh, wow, this is really good."
Leonard rolls his eyes. "Thought you'd end up liking it after my diatribe."
"No, really, this is good. I mean, I won't eat the whole thing. Give me some credit for self-control." Jim sips on the wassail, then eats the rest of the slice. "But on one day of the year, it's ok to indulge, right?"
They eat several more cookies, enjoying the comfortable quiet. Leonard watches Jim enjoy sampling more of the fruitcake. He's slowed down, is chewing slower now, Leonard notices. Each bite is smaller, taken in with a delicate swipe of his tongue across full, pink lips. Jim closes his eyes, and inhales as he carefully chews the sticky candied fruit. Watching him, he warms; his stomach clenches in that nervous, "oh god he's so fucking sexy" sort of way. Leonard takes a long sip on the wassail and tries to will it away.
But he cannot tear his gaze away from Jim. Leonard has always thought Jim is a beautiful man. He has long eyelashes, thick and lush, just a touch lighter than the hair on his head. His extraordinary good looks are enhanced when sunlight falls on him just so, or when Leonard catches him napping during the day and gets to examine him closely, his face unlined and worry-free. It gives him the look of an angel. Leonard shakes his head, berating himself for comparing Jim of all people to a celestial being.
At this moment, Jim looks happy--not in a jovial way, but content. It's a look that Leonard doesn't often see on his frenetic roommate's face, so he's enjoying it all the more. And growing more aroused.
"You ok there, Bones?" Jim asks.
"Oh," Leonard says, mentally cursing himself for being caught thinking about his angelic friend. "Yeah. Just calculating how many miles you'll have to run to work off the calories in all that fruitcake you're putting away." Leonard grins at him over the rim of his mug.
"Bah. Plenty of time for that."
Jim pours another round of wassail for them. He even cajoles Leonard into eating one small piece of fruitcake just to tell his grandmother he did. ("It's called a 'no-thank' you bite. That's how my grandma got me to eat peas," Jim instructs.)
"Whew, that was one too many cookies for me," Leonard says, standing and stretching. He ambles over to the kitchen table and peers inside Grandma's box again. "Oh, look here." He pulls out a bottle-shaped package. "'To Leonard and Jim--'"
"Wait, she put my name on that? How does she know about me?" Jim asked, curious.
Leonard gives Jim a long look. "Jim, you're not only my roommate but my best friend. Surely you know that."
"Wow. I mean. . . " Jim's face lights up brighter than a Christmas tree. "You've never told me that I'm your best friend.
"We're guys. We don't use words to communicate our feelings," Leonard says, rolling his eyes. "Besides, I talk to her twice a month, so what else am I going to tell her during those comms? How many phaser and gunshot wounds I treated at the ER? You're the most entertaining aspect of my life."
Jim laughs. "Entertaining, huh? As much as you bitch about my drinking, my slovenliness--"
"I care, therefore I bitch." Leonard gives a casual shrug.
"Aw, Bones. I love you, too." Jim gives him a one-armed hug. "So what else does Grandma say?"
Leonard notes that Jim doesn't remove his arm; standing this close, he feels Jim's incredible warmth. "Um, right. 'To Leonard and Jim: You may open this before Christmas, but only after classes are over. Love, G-ma'."
"Your gram is so awesome!" Jim says. "Open it, Bones."
Leonard opens the gaily wrapped bottle. "Oh, Grandma," he breathes with heart-felt appreciation, as he looks at it.
"A bottle of Booker's bourbon," Leonard says. "It's the high-end, small batch label of our friend, Jim Beam. This, Jim Kirk, is the good stuff. You don't drink it every day after work; and you sure as hell don't drink it to get stinking drunk. Oh, Grandma, you are a good woman."
"Well, hey, classes are over, and Christmas is two days away," Jim says, releasing Leonard and crossing the room to the kitchenette to retrieve two relatively clean glass tumblers. "Crack open that bottle and let's get busy."
Leonard huffs. "Didn't I just explain to you--"
"Yeah, yeah. Good stuff, not for every day. Whatever, Bones. It's just bourbon. Pour me some."
"Why do I even try?"
Leonard smiles as he opens the bottle and pours the rich, amber spirits into the two glasses. Jim hands one to Leonard.
Instead of giving one of his ridiculous toasts, Jim remains quiet and has the most amazing look on his face. He raises his glass. "To you, Bones," Jim says sincerely, his blue eyes glistening.
Leonard starts. Most of the time, Jim tosses back whatever form of alcohol he's holding at the time and then refills his glass faster than warp speed. But right now, Jim holds his gaze and Leonard sees there's something there . . .something.
It's been building between them all semester, Leonard realizes. Yes, they are good friends. Surprisingly so. With Jim, he's not just comfortable; he's downright . . .at ease. More himself, the self he was before the soul-sucking marriage and divorce. And yes, Jim sometimes drives him crazy; it's just because he's so bright, so energetic, so full of himself.
For four months he's been trying to parse out what it is he sees in Jim, or better yet, what Jim sees in him. And in this moment, this second, Leonard maybe, just maybe, gets it.
Standing before him, with Jim looking solemnly at him, on the edge of emotion, holding a glass of fine bourbon in front of him, Leonard realizes that Jim, for all his fucked-up-edness and brashness and sometimes coarse behavior, appreciates him, respects him, despite all his fucked-up-edness and grumpiness and sometimes downright terrible moods.
Son of a bitch.
"And to you, Jim," Leonard says, never breaking Jim's gaze.
They each take a sip. And as they swallow, they take a step towards each other and hug.
In the few minutes they stand wrapped in the others' arms, Leonard feels the rapid heartbeat in the chest pressed so tightly to his, matching the racing pace of his own heart. Suddenly, Jim turns his head and buries it under Leonard's chin.
"Don't know how I'd've made it without you," he hears Jim whisper.
"Me, too, kid." Leonard rubs his free hand through Jim's soft hair. "Me, too."
For a moment, time stands still. Only the shallow breathing of the other assures them that life has not stopped; it has only stopped for them.
Then, slowly, Jim raises his head to look at Leonard. His eyes are as bright as a cloudless Georgia morning; his face, inscrutable. And then, as his eyes close, Jim presses his lips to his.
The kiss is slow, careful, considerate. Leonard's body loses all feeling except in his lips, where Jim's touch his. Jim shifts, never breaking contact, and as he does, Leonard parts his lips, just a smidge. He tastes the bourbon on Jim, mellow and warm, with a hint of sweetness. As he does, the tip of Jim's tongue dips in, and then, without thought or hesitation, Leonard welcomes him in fully.
For a minute, for an hour, for a lifetime, it doesn't matter how long it goes on, the fact that this kiss is happening amazes Leonard. This doesn't happen to bitter divorced men. Bright, handsome young men do not do this to me. And yet it is, and he is, and Leonard never wants this feeling to end.
Slowly, Jim ends the kiss, just as softly and carefully as he began it. For a nano-second Leonard thinks he sees confusion flash across Jim's face, but it's gone, replaced by affection and satisfaction.
"Been wanting to do that for a long time now," Jim says, a finger tracing Leonard's jaw line.
Leonard tosses back the rest of the Booker's. He's at a loss for words. "Jim--"
But Jim places two fingers on his lips, shaking his head as he swallows the bourbon in his glass. He's silent for a moment, then says, "Look at us. Waste of good sipping bourbon."
"The things you do to me," Leonard say without a trace of ire.
Jim laughs quietly. "No, the things you do to me."
They stand in the middle of the room, holding empty glasses, having just kissed each other. Leonard thinks he should feel uncomfortable, but he doesn't; in fact, he feels whole, complete. Himself. He reaches for the bottle and pours another splash into each glass.
He raises his. "To our grandmothers, who raised fine grandsons."
Jim clinks their glasses. "God's honest truth there."
With abandon, they toss down the bourbon. "I have to comm my grandma," Leonard says. "But damn, it's after midnight now."
"Let's record one, and send it in the morning," Jim says.
Jim refreshes their cups of wassail and carries the plate of cookies to Leonard's desk. They bring up the recording software and begin their thank-you message to Grandma Brantley, who is slumbering peacefully in her home in Atlanta.
. . ."And thank you for the gifts, Grandma Lillian," Jim says, holding up two small wrapped lumps. "Bones assures me they'll be practical and useful."
"I did not say that," Leonard protests, grinning. "But I did say you give them with affection."
"Yeah, he did say that." Jim loops his arm across Leonard's chest and rests his head on his shoulder. "This is turning out to be the best Christmas in a really long time."
Leonard pats the hand on his chest. "Well, Gram, you can see Jim is all tuckered out. It's about...2340 here, so it's definitely time we turned in for the night. I'll comm you on Christmas day at a decent hour. Love you. Bye."
He sets the comm to transmit their message at 0500, just in time for his grandmother to receive it as she's having her morning tea. He sighs and nudges Jim. "Hey. You ready to turn in?"
They put everything away, set cups to soak in the sink, and the wassail to cool in the communal fridge down the hall. When Leonard returns, Jim is waiting for him.
Their fourth--or is it the fifth?--kiss is neither careful nor hesitant. It's rich and full; Jim pushes Leonard against the wall, his hands sliding up under Leonard's shirt. Once again, Leonard feels the world around him bleed away, all his senses focused on Jim's lips, Jim's hands, Jim's erection pressing into his hip. But this time, he does not doubt anything, not the reasons for Jim's passion or his own.
"Let's go to bed," he whispers roughly in Jim's ear.
"I'm not tired anymore." Jim gives him a coy smile.
"Well, neither am I."
Lillian Brantley sips the fragrant tea, delighting in the digital message from her beloved grandson. For once, he looks happy and relaxed, almost joyful. And there is absolutely no doubt in her mind that the cause of his happiness is the young man with bright blue eyes seated beside him. "Bless you, Jim Kirk," she breathes.