See, it starts like this:
Leonard McCoy is going to be a doctor. He decides it when he’s seven, and that’s that. His parents love him too much to try and change his mind, but he sees them when they think he isn’t looking and there’s a doubt there that makes his skin feel tight over his damn bones.
He’s a child, and he’s going to be a doctor. His hands twitch when he can see someone’s carotid pulse at their neck, the radial pulse at their wrists. He desperately wants to touch, and measure, and count in time with breathing because that’s how he can tell that someone is alive.
So he grows up slowly, and the twitching gets almost unbearable. It’s an itch he can’t scratch, not yet. He’s constantly reaching, wanting, needing. People’s life flows in rivers just under their paper skin and Leonard wants to cut them open and dip his hands in.
He can’t, he can’t. He’s a doctor, not a destroyer. He stays his hands the best he can, and he throws himself into his learning, because he is Leonard McCoy, and one day people are going to call him ‘Doctor’.
He does it. Of course he does. His hands don’t twitch as much, but his veins thrum with the knowledge of how to save a life. His breath quivers with the knowledge of how to take life away. It’s a balancing act, and it will always be a balancing act, but Leonard has never been very good at something like balance. He’s not a scale. He’s sharp and he’s crumbly, and he always just longs to touch someone’s skin and feel their life beat and beat and beat.
He hears about this boy, and the people who whisper call him James. Leonard hears about James’s father, and the greatness that shone from within that man. He’s dead of course, of course he’s dead, but Leonard finds himself wondering about the boy they call James, wondering if perhaps that same greatness can be found in the thump thump thump of a carotid pulse.
(He hears about James Kirk later and grimaces, because the boy is souring with age, becoming mangled and bitter and twisted, and Bones thinks that maybe if he touches that pulse, he won’t find greatness. He thinks he’ll just find decay and ruin.
It’s a crying shame, really. James Kirk could have been a great man too.)
Still. Leonard pushes and pushes through school, and he finishes and it still isn’t enough. His fingers tremble when he looks at people, when he notices their pulse. He thinks he could tell about someone’s soul by the state of that steady beat. He wonders if he’d be able to see the greatness of dead people simply by their lack of natural tempo.
He stops hearing about the James boy, which makes him unfairly relieved, because Leonard could never really stop himself from fixing living things.
He thinks he might’ve been able to fix James, once, before. Might’ve been able to press his fingers against that vein and count in time with the boy's heartbeat and he might’ve been able to flush away the darkness that will fill James Kirk until he is nothing but a black hole in human skin.
Once, before, Leonard McCoy might’ve been able to fill that void in James Kirk before the boy became hollow and fragile and nothing.
So yes, people stop whispering about James Kirk and Leonard stops wondering about what might have been and he enrolls in Starfleet Academy without looking back. He’s going to be a doctor dammit. He works and he strains and he pushes himself. He takes his own pulse and writes it down. He eats cereal for breakfast and drinks whiskey for dessert.
The year he meets Jocelyn is the same year he meets James Kirk.
Jocelyn is pretty and quiet and smart as a whip. She comes into his life gradually, without a whisper. She smiles at him, and Leonard smiles back and feels his heart rate stutter. He thinks, this might be love. Jocelyn has gentle edges but her lips are razor sharp. Sometimes, when she pulls them back into a smile, Leonard envisions fangs and blood, and suddenly she’s baring her teeth at him. There’s something distinctly dangerous about her. Leonard flinches away sometimes, but can never explain why.
Leonard watches her pulse with his eyes and they share notes in class and she doesn’t ask him about why his hands twitch sometimes. He wines and dines her, because that’s what you do in love. Leonard loves her.
Not that he tells her, of course. He loves Jocelyn like a dying man loves water. It’s obsessive and smothering, and Leonard loves her because the sight of her pulse doesn’t make his hands shake.
James Kirk crashes into his life like a goddamn fucking asteroid.
Leonard doesn’t ask for James to exist by him, but he doesn’t have a choice when James dumps his tray next to Leonard in the cafeteria and loudly declares that the next person who punches him is going to wake up with a broken appendage that is definitely not an arm or a leg.
Leonard scoffs and says, “If you break a bone you’ll get in trouble. If you knock out a few teeth, maybe steal their girlfriend, you’ll be just fine.”
James grins. “I though teeth were bone?”
Leonard screws up his nose and pins this strange boy with a glare so sharp it could probably do surgery for him. “Teeth are made of calcium and nerves, but they don’t heal themselves. Ergo, they are not bones, and if you try and fight me on this, I’ll break a few of your bones.”
James laughs like a jackal, barking and harsh and completely feral. It makes Leonard go a little bit pale.
“You like your bones, don’t you McCoy?”
Leonard grunts and goes back to eating. James doesn’t introduce himself, doesn’t have to, and Leonard doesn't realise until that night that he hadn’t needed to introduce himself either. James had already known his name.
Jocelyn comments on it only once, and her lips are twisted with displeasure. She says things like “Jim Kirk is dangerous” and “He’ll rip your throat out if you aren’t careful”. To her credit, she seems to be motivated by genuine concern, but Leonard has always hated other people telling him what to do so he turns on his heel and he walks away from Jocelyn. He might love her, but the heart is a muscle and it can get confused.
Leonard can only ever rely on his bones.
To his credit, James leaves him alone for another week, but then he’s back. This time, Leonard doesn’t stop eating when the tray thumps onto the table next to him. “If we’re going to be friends then I’m going to call you Bones,” James, no Jim, announces. Leonard snorts.
“That’s a stupid thing to call someone.”
Jim’s smile is so bright and loving that it almost hurts to look at. “Maybe, but I’ve made up my mind.”
(Privately, Leonard wonders why Jocelyn can’t smile like that. Because Jim smiles like he’s trying to make the world a better place and if he can’t do that he’ll settle for making you okay. Jocelyn smiles like she’s just found your weak spot and she’s about to pounce.)
Jim keeps babbling, something about his dorm partner. Leonard listens listlessly because he’s trying so hard not to care, but Jim’s pulse is dancing and Leonard can’t not look. His hands twitch on the table, and he grits his teeth, because he thought after Jocelyn he was over that.
Jim keeps talking, and Leonard doesn’t notice the way that Jim’s ice blue eyes flick over his shaking hands with a calculating gleam. “It’s not fair to kick someone out just because they can’t stop their injuries from bleeding-”
And dammit, Leonard is a doctor, so he turns sharply and says, “Injuries?”
Jim blinks at him for a moment, those endless, ageless eyes searching his face for something. Leonard has a moment of stark clarity, because this is James Kirk, the same boy who could’ve been a great man. The same boy with the rotten veins and the wasted stardust inside him. The one with the dad who ruined his life.
This is James Kirk. Leonard should be running.
Instead, he forces himself to take a stand on the side of logic and he assesses Jim. He can see the bruises now, peeking out from under his sleeve and the necklines of his shirt. There’s one splattered across his jaw and tiny dried-blood specks flake across the bridge of his nose like a mockery of freckles.
Without thinking or caring, Leonard jabs at Jim’s face. Jim winces away with a sharp cry. “Ouch, Bones!” But it’s too late, Leonard has seen that Jim moves with the stiffness of someone whose bones are cracking and aching, but he holds his chin high with the air of someone who’s become used to it.
“Injuries,” Leonard says again, and he’s not asking this time. Let Jim be stubborn and proud and ruined, but Leonard likes to fix living things and despite what James Kirk could have been, there are wounds to be healed.
Jim stares for another moment and then he deflates and softens and that cold edge in his eyes goes away. “Nothing major,” he says easily. “Nothing broken. There’s no need to get over-excited with the medication.”
Leonard thinks he notices a little bit then, the little bit of defiance in Jim’s voice. It promises self-sacrifice, and for a moment, he can see it. He can imagine the way that Jim dies, because James Kirk could have been a great man, but Jim might just be a good one.
See, Leonard thinks he notices a little bit about how much Jim Kirk values his life. Because Jim Kirk doesn’t, not really. He bears the bruises with a grin and a laugh and a joke. He lets people craft an image of who they think he is and then he steps into that role with the ease of someone who doesn’t know who they are.
James Kirk is so very good at knowing what he’s supposed to be. Leonard thinks that maybe that’s the saddest part of all.
And despite the warnings that Jocelyn had crammed down his throat, and despite the rumours, and despite the fateful hollowness bubbling within Jim, Leonard grabs onto Jim’s arm and drags him up and away from the table. He’s heading for his own dorm, the one he shares with nobody but himself.
Jim says, “You should buy me dinner first.” It’s a feeble joke. Leonard may or may not accidentally push him into the wall at two different points of the walk.
It takes all of Leonard’s patience and willpower to get Jim to take his shirt off, but when he does, Leonard is immediately taken aback. There are bruises, old and new, and a plethora of scars that even the most hardened Starfleet captain would wince at.
Jim doesn’t say anything, but he watches Leonard with bright, curious eyes as Leonard gently touches and learns and assesses. Leonard doesn’t say anything when he feels Jim press into the soft touches. He knows what it means, knows what neither of them are saying, and it makes him wonder what he’ll find if he touches that ominous thump thump thump-
He sits the kid down and jabs him with a hypo and when Jim has an allergic reaction bad enough to nearly kill him, Leonard just keeps two fingers pressed to that pulse point and nurses him through it with the confidence of a doctor.
(Jim scowls and snarls at the small, bruised spot where the hypo went in for days before Bones threatens to jab him with another one. Jim shuts up after that.)
James Tiberius Kirk grows up angry.
He hisses and snarls and fights like he expects to die. His birthdays are shadowed in misery, and so he begins to loathe them; he hates the way he grows older, grows into a man that looks like George Kirk but doesn’t share his glory.
His brother tells him to let it go, to calm down, and James tells him ‘no’ like that’s actually his choice. Sam shakes his head and gives him miserable looks. Jim bares sharp teeth at him until Sam walks away from him and then doesn’t ever come back. Jim waits and waits and waits, and so does his mother, but Sam is gone now. Gone like Dad.
His mother moves on soon enough. She makes the whole situation into a math equation. ‘If I subtract Sam and then add Frank, solve for Happy Families.’
Jim doesn’t like Frank. It’s fair, because Frank doesn’t like Jim either.
“James,” he calls him, like he’s calling a damn dog. “James Tiberius.”
Jim ignores him and putters around the kitchen, trying to put together something to take to the cemetery with him. It’s his Day, and he’s going to go see his Dad, and he always brings some kind of food. George Kirk can’t eat it, but Jim doesn’t care. It’s his Day, and he’s going to do it right.
“James,” Frank thunders. His hand comes down on the back of Jim’s neck, gripping tight. “Don’t be insolent with me, boy. You’re nowhere close to eighteen, so you live by my rules, you hear?”
Jim mutters something that isn’t suitable for young children and Frank reels back, the grip on Jim's neck forcing the boy to follow him across the room. It’s wrong to antagonise Frank, it’s wrong and his mother always hates him for it, but Jim reckons that she can’t do shit if she’s not on planet Earth.
She’s been gone for two years now, up in space. Jim is left alone with Frank. Sam doesn’t visit. It’s his Day.
He wants to do it right.
Frank doesn’t like that, of course he doesn’t like that, but Jim doesn’t want to be alive if he looks like George Kirk so for the first time in a long time he fucking fights back. Frank isn’t expecting it, which is why, when Jim twists under his arm and kicks out the backs out his knees to bring him down and then fucking books it, Frank doesn’t grab his taser in time to use it.
Jim steals the car and nearly drives it off the nearest cliff. When the police officers ask him why he didn’t stop, Jim doesn’t give them an answer. When the psychologist they send in asks why Jim jumped out when it was clear he wanted to go over too, Jim doesn’t give her an answer.
He thinks it’s because he doesn’t know either.
When his mother comes home and finds Frank pinning Jim to the wall, easily ignoring Jim spitting and hissing and scratching like a damn cat, she bypasses the both of them and just goes out the back door.
She doesn’t return for hours. By the time she makes her way back, Frank is sitting in the kitchen and Jim has packed his shit and gone. She doesn’t cry for him. Frank makes her dinner.
Jim goes and nobody comes after him. Jim has no more Days.
When he enrolls into the Starfleet Academy simply because Pike dared him too, he thinks that this is it. This when he becomes friends with the stars and this is when space whispers to him secrets about how to be great.
(Because Jim is not his father, but they’re made of the same space dust, so Jim can be great too and if someone says otherwise he’s going to shoot them in the fucking face.)
But he doesn’t fit in at the Academy. Because he’s smart and he’s handsome and people like him on a shallow level. He can sleep with anybody he wants and passes every class without paying any attention, but it’s such a hollow popularity that it's not really popularity at all.
Jim is so close to being great, but great men aren’t idolized until they’re dead.
“You slept with my girlfriend, you fucking whore,” Klive snarls nastily and then punches Jim hard enough that Jim actually stumbles a step. He cups a hand to his jaw, smooths his finger over the skin, and then grins.
“Come now,” he croons, shaking his head slightly. “Your girlfriend was the one who slept with me. And she didn’t mention having a boyfriend. Are you sure you aren’t just her dirty little secret?”
He gets exactly two seconds before Klive leaps for him with a shout. It’s one second too long, because Jim is already moving. Klive’s fist strikes at air. Jim’s fist hits Klive low in the gut, not enough to wind him but enough that he’s thrown off balance and Jim can get another hit in.
It’s elegant, too easy, and over in between blinks.
Klive limps away with broken bones. Jim barely even bruises.
He hears about it later, how Klive was treated by Starfleet’s very own Leonard McCoy, the angry doctor with the twitchy hands who could probably figure out how to bring someone back from the dead without magic. If there’s anyone who can go toe-to-toe with God and win, it’s McCoy.
Jim hates him, just a little bit.
The problem with beating Klive up is that Klive is his roommate, so when Jim goes back to his dorm for some sleep, he gets ambushed. It’s not like he isn’t expecting it, but for once in his life he doesn’t fight back. There’s no point in fighting back, now that there’s nobody here to see it.
Klive laughs and laughs and laughs until his laughs turn into choked off wheezes - Jim must’ve fucked up one of his ribs in their earlier fight. Jim bares his teeth in a sharp grin and says, “Did Mama McCoy not fix you properly, sweetheart?”
Klive punches him in the face. Jim cackles.
“Shut up,” Klive snaps almost desperately and hits him again. “You’re not better than me. You’re not better than any of us.”
Jim’s laugh is unhinged. “Think what you want, Klive, but you just gotta remember that it took you and your buddies to hold me down for this.”
Klive howls and punches him again and again and again. Jim takes the hits and laughs and then keeps taking the hits and keeps laughing, because this is all that Frank used to do and Jim stopped being afraid of Frank two days after the bastard started dating his mom. He’s not afraid of fists or fighting. He’s not afraid of Klive or his boys.
Klvie looks like he’s about to cry. “You’re not your dad and you’re never gonna be!” He shouts with a cracking voice and then he punches Jim hard enough to loosen one of his teeth.
And oh, that’s what Jim’s afraid of.
No, Jim decides instead as he’s dropped to the ground and Klive takes his buddies away, he’s wrong. It’s not fear. He just doesn’t think his dad was a great man anymore, doesn’t think his dad was ever a great man he just thinks his dad was good and someone mistook it for greatness.
(Question: what sort of great man leaves behind his family?
Answer: The type of great man that isn’t really great at all.)
So he peels himself off the floor, goes to have a shower, and then tracks down Leonard McCoy, because if there’s one person who might be able to tell between a good man and a great one, it’ll be him.
Jim doesn’t really hate him.
He doesn’t think he ever really did.
Jim has seamlessly knitted himself into Leonard’s life with a bright grin and a kind smile and a troubling habit of giving and giving and giving to anybody who will take from him. The only thing Jim takes for himself is a damn beating. He’s good at taking those.
Leonard kind of hates it, a little bit.
He hates it enough that he helps smuggle Jim into space because leaving James Kirk on campus on his own is a surefire way to destroy any sort of light inside him and Leonard will actually fight someone if he lets that happen. So he smuggles Jim into space and when Jim has an allergic reaction to everything under the fucking sun, Leonard keeps a finger on his pulse and counts.
“Bones,” Jim rasps in his sleep, and he’s not scared, not angry. He just sounds young and miserable. “Mom.”
Leonard doesn’t know what that means, what Jim’s dreaming about, but he can guess. “Jim,” he says quietly in response, because James Kirk is a fucking tragedy but Jim is his best and only friend. Leonard won’t walk away from him. Not like everyone else.
(See, Jim isn’t the only one with a little bit of goodness in him. But Leonard also has a little bit of greatness, which might end up being a fucking problem, because when God gives people greatness, they do terrible, terrible things.)
Jim wakes up, eventually, leaves Leonard behind, like always, and then tries to save the whole damn crew like his daddy had done before him.
And Leonard kind of loves him, just a little.
It goes wrong quickly, like these things always do, and then suddenly Jim Kirk becomes James Kirk becomes Geroge fucking Kirk himself, because captaincy comes as easily to Jim as breathing does. He does a damn fine job too, even though he can’t save Vulcan, even though he can’t save Spock’s mother, even though he plummets straight off a fucking laser drill.
Leonard’s going to have a heart attack before the age of 50, and it’s going to be solely because of Jim. Which is kind of okay, if he thinks about it, because it means he’s survived in space to the age of 50, which is a sight better than he’s always expected.
Spock renders Jim unconscious and kicks him off the ship.
Leonard is going to have some fucking words.
“Delta Vega?” He snarls, and Spock’s stupid eyebrows twitch and Bones-
Leonard knows that this isn’t his place, just like he knows that all this bitching and moaning won’t change Spock’s mind, but Leonard doesn’t care. Because Jim is his friend, and Jim has had everyone he cares about abandon him, and Leonard won’t abandon him too. He's not like that.
(Jim needs to know that there’s someone who’ll stay.)
And besides, they don’t need to go and find Jim, because Jim finds them first. Leonard doesn’t know why he’s surprised - Jim Kirk is the master of the impossible. It’s a quirk. You know what else is a quirk? Jim’s tendency to get into life threatening situations even in the safest of places.
The bastard gets Spock, a super strong Vulcan, so angry that he chokes Jim out.
Leonard doesn’t know what to do. Does he go to Jim? Trying to interfere will probably only result in Leonard himself getting hurt. Besides, he has just enough faith in Spock to trust that the damn troll won’t kill his best friend. Realistically, he only has that faith because Jim has that faith, but hey. Nobody’s perfect.
Once Spock has declared himself emotionally compromised and Jim entertains captaincy without competition, Leonard allows himself a second to fuss. Only a second, because he’s not Jim’s damn mother, not that the woman ever did much for her son anyway, but he stabs Jim with a few hypos he isn’t allergic to and takes a recording of his vitals.
His hands twitch by his side when he notes that Jim’s heart rate is a little high.
(Of course it’s high - he’s nearly died several times already. But damn it, Leonard thought he was over this, because being around Jim had driven away that stupid need but now it’s back and Leonard just wants to touch, touch, touch until someone dies at his hands and the thump, thump, thump becomes nothing, nothing, nothing.)
(Leonard has a touch of greatness and he will do terrible, terrible things.)
When Jim finally pushes him away, he’s a lot more gentle than he has any right to be.
Jim has always been able to see through Leonard like the doctor’s made of glass.
Leonard isn’t there when it happens.
He thinks he feels it though, his mundane record-taking interrupted by a shiver and twitch of his fingers as some sort of humming in his chest falls silent. He doesn’t know what it means - he runs some tests on himself and takes his own pulse and writes it all down.
And then Spock comes in and there’s Jim and Jim’s not breathing-
Leonard remembers shouting and CPR and hearing something about radiation-
And damn it Jim-
Jim Kirk dies and Leonard McCoy spends ten minutes holding his wrist and substituting the silence for his own whispered thump, thump, thump.
Spock leaves him, Nyota leaves him, they all leave him with his dead best friend and the stifling silence and the dead fucking Tribble on the table that had been part of some experiment only to be forgotten about when the Enterprise lost her damn captain.
When the Enterprise lost her captain twice over, because Pike is dead too, now.
(The Tribble fucking moves.)
Leonard McCoy, at seven years old, decided that he would be a doctor. Leonard McCoy, with his shaky hands and a longing for more, decides right now that he is going to revive his best friend because Death doesn’t deserve him and God owes him so much more.
Leonard McCoy is a great man and he is going to do a terrible thing.
He radios Spock and tells him to get Khan’s blood.
And then he brings Jim back.
And he brings James back as a great man.
(Secretly, Bones knows that Jim is a good man too, but James died to save his ship, just like his father, and that makes him a great man because people only worship someone when they’re fucking dead.)
(Bones has literally just stared Death in the face and fucking laughed.)