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Eventually soulmates meet, for they have the same hiding place.
- Robert Brault

*****

I think these things are pretty safe.

The words appear on Leonard McCoy’s arm when he is six years old. He falls out of the tree he’s climbing when he sees them, and it’s not until he’s older that he appreciates the irony. Because at that moment, he is so excited that he barely feels the pain of his fractured arm and various scratches. Stories of people with words on their skin have enraptured him all of his short life, and he knows what the appearance of his mark means.

His soulmate was just born.

His parents are as thrilled as he is. The words that bind David and Eleanora together did not lead them wrong, and they’re grateful that their son has the same guide. He’s very lucky, they tell him. Not everyone gets a soulmark. Not everyone gets to know when they’ve met the perfect person for them.

Leonard’s words are on his left forearm, and he finds himself gazing at them all the time, tracing his fingers over the shape of the letters, memorizing every dip and curl, every line that ties him to the person he belongs with. He spends hours daydreaming about what his soulmate will be like. He thinks it’s sweet that the first thing she’ll do is try to comfort him, although he knows that his mama is worried about what he’ll be doing in the first place. He doesn’t think it can be anything that dangerous; he learned his lesson with the tree.

But he can’t wait to find out. The words become a part of him, written on his heart as well as his skin. He thinks he would hear them in a screaming crowd, or sound asleep, or even in the vacuum of space. Every new person he encounters is another opportunity to hear them, and he comes to love meeting new people.

When he is nineteen and in his third year of college, his geology class takes a field trip to Ireland to visit the Cliffs of Moher. He shouldn’t even be in the damn class in the first place, but the school mixed up his schedule and then the professor turned out to be great, so he’d stayed. But when he is standing at the edge of a seemingly endless drop into raging surf, there’s not a professor in the galaxy good enough to make him want to be there.

Although he tries to hang back, he is pushed forward by the tide of his fellow classmates trying to get closer to the edge because apparently they all have severe brain damage or mental disorders that he will be happy to diagnose if he lives to make it through medical school. And when the interminable drop draws nearer, he panics and pushes back through the crowd, using elbows as needed. His classmates let him pass, all but one girl who doesn’t see him and gets bowled over as a result. Leonard tries and fails to catch her before she hits the ground, and they both go sprawling into the dirt.

“Sorry, sorry,” Leonard says, scrambling to his feet and reaching down to offer a helping hand to his accidental victim. His face flames as he takes in the fact that he just body-checked the beautiful girl that sits three rows down from him, the one he spends a great deal of class time trying not to ogle. She’s smiling though, and she takes his hand without hesitation. Her eyes are kind as she studies his face.

“I think these things are pretty safe,” she says, nodding at the nearby dropoff.

She’s probably talking about the force field in place to keep people from falling to exactly the kind of painful death Leonard had been afraid of, but he couldn’t care less at the moment. He’s entirely forgotten about the cliffs. Hell, he’s forgotten about breathing.

He knows that he’s staring, but he can’t believe his luck. He goes to reach out his hand, but then realizes that the young woman never let go of it. He squeezes, cheeks still on fire but heart lighter than he’s ever felt it.

“Leonard McCoy,” he blurts. Her smile widens.

“Jocelyn Darnell.”

*****

I may throw up on you.

It’s a hell of a thing to have written on the skin right over his heart. A romantic spot for the least romantic words in the history of the universe.

Jim thinks he’s grateful for it though. His words help him manage his expectations for his life from an early age. His mom can barely stand to look at him and spends most of her time off-planet? Of course she does, because that’s how Jim’s life works. His brother abandons him to their uncle’s mercy? No surprise, because the universe hates Jim Kirk. Frank enjoys telling Jim that he’s destined to end up with some drunken deadbeat, and Jim has no reason to believe that he’s wrong.

Until, that is, he’s seventeen and working at the local fair for some extra money. He’s been assigned to run the Tilt-a-Whirl, and it sucks about as much as you’d expect. Until it doesn’t.

“Hey, are you okay?” he asks the girl staggering toward the exit of the ride. She’s as green as an Orion, but Jim’s pretty sure that’s not her natural coloring.

“I may throw up on you,” she informs him, her throat working as she tries to avoid doing just that.

He can’t do much besides stare at her for a beat, because this close he can see the words hey, are you okay? scrawled along her collarbone and holy shit things this good do not happen to him and how could his alcoholic loser of a soulmate turn out to be a gorgeous girl with a questionable stomach?

It turns out that things that good do not, in fact, happen to him.

He spends one amazing year with Ruth, and he lets himself believe that his life may not have to suck after all. He lets himself fall head over heels in love with her, because he thinks that she’s the first person in his life who will never leave him.

But leave him she does, and she takes every ounce of his newfound optimism with her. He stops believing in the whole soulmate thing after that. He stops believing in a lot of things after that, really, himself included.

And since love is apparently not in the cards, why not spend his time enjoying lust? It’s not like he’s saving himself for anyone.

But even when he’s taking the most attractive person he can find on a given night to his bed, he can’t quite escape the shadow of the soulmate he doesn’t believe in or want. Because when things heat up and the clothes start to come off, his partners inevitably stare at his chest, and he knows for a fact that they’re not admiring what he considers to be a pretty fine view. Some laugh, some shake their heads, but the worst is when they actually look at him with pity. He knows they think he’s destined for that useless drunk that Frank always talked about, and it kills the mood pretty quick.

It doesn’t take long for him to get into the habit of hiding his words, leaving his shirt on even during sex. Jim Kirk gets used to hiding everything that matters about himself from the world. He grows so comfortable with the persona he dons like a second skin that he can barely distinguish it from himself anymore.

And then Christopher Pike comes along, and he scrapes Jim off the floor and sees through his bullshit and dares him to do better.

*****

As Leonard huddles in the grimy, windowless bathroom of the shuttle that will take him one step closer to a career in the freezing cesspool less-than-affectionately known as space, he abruptly remembers that he used to be an optimist. And why shouldn’t he have been? He’d found his soulmate when he was nineteen, graduated at the top of his class from med school two years younger than everyone else, fathered the most beautiful little girl in the galaxy. He’d been happier than he knew what to do with, happy enough to overlook the fact that Jocelyn’s neat lawyer’s handwriting did not match the messy scrawl on his arm, the fact that the apology written on her hip was in bold block letters that were nothing like his own, the fact that she’s two months younger than him, not six years. They’d convinced themselves that they fit together, had left no room for doubt. Which was why it felt like the end of the world when it all fell apart.

And now here he is, pretending that he’s not making another colossal mistake, pretending that his aviophobia really isn’t that bad, pretending that his life hasn’t gone directly to hell in the wake of his disastrous marriage.

Yeah, right. At least his mama would be pleased to know that her boy is still a terrible liar, even if it is just to himself.

He grinds out a rough, humorless laugh borne of bitterness and nerves. He flinches when the door to the head slides open, and then he is being dragged back to his seat by the scary lady whose tolerance for bullshit is apparently as low as his usually is. Leonard takes one look at the kid she sits him next to and realizes that he isn’t the only one on this godforsaken deathtrap whose life is shit. At least Leonard doesn’t have bloodstains on his shirt.

“I may throw up on you.” He feels it’s only fair to warn the guy. When life has clearly chewed you up and spit you back out, the last thing you need is to be caught unawares by a hungover aviophobe losing his breakfast all over you.

The guy’s eyes widen just a little, and he flinches back slightly. An understandable reaction, really. He also raises a hand to his chest like he’s about to have an attack of the vapors, which does seem to be a bit much, but Leonard doesn’t have the energy to give a shit. Instead, his warning delivered, he focuses on doing up his safety harness properly because with his luck the shuttle will take a dive halfway through the flight.

“I think these things are pretty safe.”

Leonard freezes, just for a heartbeat, because no. Hell no. He’s just gotten out of a soul-crushing clusterfuck of a relationship because of those damn words. He never wants to hear them again in his life, much less on this dank shuttle from a pretty stranger who’s clearly as much of a mess as he is.

True love and destiny are for other people. Leonard learned that the hard way. And he point-blank refuses to get sucked down the same devastating rabbit hole, especially when the metaphorical ink isn’t yet dry on the metaphorical papers of his really goddamn literal divorce. So instead of acknowledging the words on his arm and asking the guy if he has a complementary set, he launches into a rambling rant about space, letting his ire burst from him in a tide of words that leave the stranger next to him staring with bemusement.

“I hate to break this to you, but Starfleet operates in space,” he says, and something in Leonard’s chest relaxes because while the guy is still eyeing him with a mixture of wariness and incredulity, he is giving no indication that McCoy’s first words to him meant anything.

“Yeah, well,” Leonard mutters, pulling out his flask because dear god does he need a drink right now, “I’ve got nowhere else to go. My ex-wife took the whole damn planet in the divorce.” That’s what it feels like, anyway. Leonard had given everything he had to Jocelyn, body and soul, and she’d taken it all. Now- “all I’ve got left is my bones.”

He takes a swig, the burn of the whiskey chasing home the truth of his words. He chances another glance to his side, and the guy is still watching him. Something about his expression draws Leonard in, and he finds himself holding out his flask. Lord knows the kid looks like he could use it. If the ghost of a smile and nod of acknowledgement he gets are any indication, he’s right.

“Jim Kirk.”

Jim Kirk may look like something you’d find on life’s discount rack, but as Leonard holds that entrancing blue gaze, he’s hit with the feeling that the man underneath the battered exterior could be something remarkable. And maybe Leonard should be more worried about the words on his arm, but what the hell. It’s not like his life has anywhere to go but up.

“McCoy. Leonard McCoy.”

*****

Jim has no idea what to make of Leonard McCoy. The moment he heard the first words out of the scruffy, though undeniably handsome stranger’s mouth, he could’ve sworn he’d felt the words on his chest burn like an electric shock directly to the heart. He’d been prepared to panic and shut down, because those words could never mean anything but heartache for him. But the man looked miserable, and the reassurance fell from Jim’s lips before he even had the chance to think about it.

And when McCoy hadn’t reacted, Jim had allowed himself to relax. It’s one hell of a coincidence, and Jim would rather not think about what kind of life he leads, that those are two different people’s first words to him, but it’s not worth getting worked up over. Not when the stranger beside him is clearly worked up enough for the both of them, and offering up free booze to boot.

So he settles in for the shuttle ride, pushing thoughts of soulmates and destiny out of his head, and prods McCoy into another rant about space. Turns out the guy has a lot to say on the subject when he gets going. Jim refrains from pointing out again that the next chapter of his life is going to be extremely unpleasant if he doesn’t get over the attitude. Because as much as McCoy may loathe space, he also seems determined to go there, and Jim gets the feeling that he’s too stubborn to do anything but succeed.

McCoy has gotten so invested in his lecture on all the different ways they could die that he seems genuinely surprised when he’s cut off by their safe landing. Jim can’t help but laugh, especially when he notices the extremely relieved looks of all the cadets in their vicinity, a couple of whom had gone a bit pale during the doctor’s speech. McCoy just gives Jim a slightly rueful smile and offers him one last swig from his flask.

“Thanks for not throwing up on me,” Jim says brightly, and McCoy snorts.

“Yeah, well, I figured your shirt had already been through enough.”

Jim looks down at the blood- and booze-stained fabric and grimaces.

“I’m not…” he begins, looking up at McCoy again. But he’s not sure what exactly he’s trying to justify, or why, and McCoy just waves it off anyway.

“Seen and been worse, kid,” he says, and Jim believes him.

But then they are disembarking, and McCoy starts to walk away with only a nod of farewell, and Jim realizes abruptly that he doesn’t want to see him go. First words and unclear destinies entirely aside, he’d actually enjoyed the man’s company. And he’d been the only other person on that shuttle who seemed out of place, not quite in synch with the rest of the cadets and their reasons for being there.

But Starfleet is going to be his new beginning, and he’s not about to start it by pining after some guy he barely knows. So he shakes off the encounter and goes to find his dorm. The room itself is nice enough, but it takes all of five minutes in the company of his condescending, holier-than-thou asshole of a roommate for Jim to realize that the arrangement isn’t going to work.

He supposes it’s a bit of an inauspicious start, the fact that the first thing he does on the Academy’s campus is hack its computer system, but it’s a matter of survival. Jim doesn’t want to have to explain to Pike why he’s facing a murder charge in his first week. And as he’s trawling through the unassigned rooms, noticing that all the good ones are doubles, he finds his mind drifting back to the grumpy doctor with the crazed eyes and a voice like honey.

An hour later, the door to his new room slides open and the handsome mess on the other side of it just looks at him, eyebrow creeping up his face. There is wariness in his demeanor, in the way that he holds himself as if bracing for life’s next blow. He eyes Jim suspiciously, clearly understanding that this is not a coincidence.

Jim just lifts his hands, powerless to explain what he doesn’t understand himself. But it’s not because of the mark on his chest. It can’t be, because those words are poison, and Jim wants nothing to do with them. It’s not McCoy’s fault that they’re there, that he said them unknowingly, and Jim won’t hold it against him.

All he knows is that McCoy was the first person since Ruth to make him feel like he’s not alone, and maybe it’s selfish of him to want to hold onto that, but judging from his first impressions of McCoy, he’s not the only one who could use a friend. So he holds his new roommate’s gaze and gives him a bright smile and a careless shrug.

“You were the one person I knew for sure I could stand,” he offers.

McCoy studies him wordlessly for another moment. Jim holds his breath, afraid that he’s going to turn around and walk right back out the door. But then he sighs, shrugs, and tosses his bag on one of the beds.

“You’d better not snore, kid,” is all he says, and while the wariness does not fade from his gaze entirely, Jim doesn’t think he’s imagining the glimmer of relief that joins it.

*****

Jim Kirk is a juvenile, cocky, disgustingly energetic conundrum of a man. He leaves his dirty socks on Leonard’s half of the room, he gets songs stuck in his head at the drop of a hat and then hums them for hours when Leonard is trying to study, he brings a dizzying array of people to the room at all hours for activities that Leonard would rather not think about and would really rather not see, and he wakes Leonard up in the middle of the night to ask him the kind of questions that belong in a teenage slumber party. He also does, in fact, snore.

He should annoy the hell out of Leonard. Rooming with him should be a goddamn nightmare. But he doesn’t and it isn’t.

Sure, there are some days when he wants to throttle Jim, or at the very least sedate him into next week. There are some days when Leonard rolls his eyes to the heavens and wishes for some kind of divine lightning bolt that will smite one or both of them. There are some days when he thinks very unkind thoughts about the woman on the shuttle who sat him next to Jim in the first place. But those days grow fewer and farther between the longer he knows Jim.

Because he was right that first day, when he guessed that Jim’s battered exterior masked something more. And the longer he spends around Jim, the greater his understanding of just how much more he is.

That juvenile spirit belongs to an old soul. Leonard first sees it when he watches him with actual children, school kids on a field trip to the Academy with whom Jim gets along like a house on fire but watches with a mixture of wistful sadness and determined protectiveness. Leonard understands then that while Jim may act like a kid at times, he probably never got to really be one. He sees it again when the two of them stumble upon a tiny old bookstore, one of the last of its kind, and Leonard watches the rest of the world fade away for Jim as he moves through the shelves like a man in a dream, brushing reverent fingers over spines bearing titles penned hundreds of years ago. He sees it in the faraway look Jim gets sometimes in the quiet moments, and he knows that Jim’s thoughts and dreams are too big for one person and one planet.

That cockiness covers a wealth of insecurities, a fear of letting others down, the living and the dead. Leonard sees it in the way Jim flinches from the whispers that follow him, the ghosts that people chain him to. He sees it in the bruised face and bloodied knuckles that he treats after Jim comes home from a fight with his former roommate, who told him that he was a disgrace to Starfleet and should never have been admitted to the Academy. He sees it when he comes home early from class one day to find Jim braced against the bathroom sink and studying himself intently in the mirror, his gaze critical and searching, his mouth set in a troubled frown before he notices Leonard’s presence and summons up his usual smile.

And that energy…well, it’s contagious, and on the days when Leonard can barely muster up the will to get out of bed, it sweeps him along and keeps him going. Jim’s boundless vitality should by all rights make him feel old and tired, but instead it buoys him up and helps him to shed the weight of what his years have done to him. Jim’s presence is just so…much that it doesn’t leave room for the baggage that Leonard has been carrying with him.

So no, living with Jim is not a nightmare. In fact, Leonard is pretty sure that it’s the only thing keeping him sane. Unfortunately, it’s also what threatens to give him an ulcer on a daily basis, so there’s that.

The thing is, while Leonard isn’t as standoffish and antisocial as he sometimes leads people to believe, he has never been all that good at making friends easily. So when Jim slips effortlessly into his life as if he has always been there, Leonard has trouble trusting it. His thoughts frequently drift to the mark on his arm, and the fear that Jim wears its match is a constant knot in his gut. Because if Jim is sticking around because he thinks Leonard is his soulmate, if he’s looking for something like that in him, then they are both destined for nothing but heartache.

Because somewhere along the line, Leonard has started to care about the idiot, and it would hurt to lose him now, to have to push him away. So he keeps his arm covered, something made easy by the long-sleeved fire engine red cadet uniforms that look good on no one but are surprisingly comfortable. He gets into the habit of wearing long sleeves in their room as well, and changing in the bathroom when Jim is home. He even wears a sweatband over his soulmark when the two of them work out together, because avoiding the destruction of another relationship is worth the relentless mocking. Leonard is a master of burying his problems so deep they will never see the light of day, and in this matter he is determined to put that skill to good use.

But then one day he and Jim are walking together from the building in which they both have their first class of the day when a sharp voice cuts through the air.

 “Jeez, watch where the fuck you’re going, cadet.”

Leonard looks up to see that two cadets have collided in passing on the steps. One young woman is on the ground, padds scattered around her. Another girl is glaring down at her, and Leonard switches direction automatically because the girl on the ground hasn’t made any move to get up, and if she’d twisted her ankle or something he wants to be able to help. But as he gets closer, he begins to realize that it’s shock, not pain keeping her down.

“I just knew you were going to be an asshole,” she says to the cadet still standing over her. “But god help me, I couldn’t care less right now.”

And the other woman’s entire demeanor shifts, from superior and irritated to stunned and joyful. And then they’re both on the ground, kneeling to face each other, and Leonard can tell that bombs could start going off around them right now and they wouldn’t notice.

“I don’t get it.”

Leonard jumps slightly, having forgotten that Jim is still beside him.

“Don’t get what?”

“How people can just accept it like that,” Jim elaborates, nodding at the girls. Leonard can’t for the life of him interpret his expression, but it holds traces of bitterness and a sadness so profound that it threatens to take his breath away. “Like their lives are going to be sunshine and fucking rainbows because of some birthmarks, like there’s some kind of power capable of finding each person’s perfect match and that cares enough to print clues on their skin.”

“Not a believer in soulmates then?” Leonard asks lightly, ignoring the tingling on the skin of his left arm.

“I believe that they exist.” Jim turns away from the two cadets who are still staring at each other in rapture. “It’s the universe’s way of helping us find the people most capable of hurting us. We should treat soulmarks like warning labels, not homing beacons.”

He strides off to his next class without another word, but he’s already said more than enough. Leonard tells himself that this is a relief, that it means that he and Jim are on the same page as far as the whole soulmate issue goes, so there is less chance of this all going to shit if he accidentally pushes his sleeves up while Jim is around. But there’s a cold pit in his gut for the rest of the day, and it’s not until he’s lying awake that night listening to the quiet snuffles of Jim’s snores that he identifies it as disappointment.

Leonard is quick to bury that too.

But then he worries that Jim sticks around out of pity. Leonard hadn’t expected to make good friends with anybody, much less someone who’d met him at pretty much his worst. He supposes it helps that he didn’t actually hurl on the kid, but that could only have gone so far. What he doesn’t get is why Jim sought him out after that, even when Leonard didn’t exactly go out of his way to be welcoming.

But after what is apparently one self-depreciating comment too many, Jim just shakes his head and gives Leonard one of those surprisingly piercing gazes of his.

“Give us both some credit, Bones,” he urges with a smile that has genuine kindness under the usual cocky façade. “I don’t waste my time on boring people, so guess what that says about you? Honestly, you’re downright refreshing.”

It’s so unexpected that it startles a laugh from Leonard, and he raises an eyebrow at Jim.

“No one has ever accused me of that before,” he says.

“Seriously, Bones. You’re one of the only people on campus that I can spend more than a couple of hours with without getting the urge to either start throwing punches or take a nap.”

Leonard still doesn’t really understand it, but he does start to believe it. And whatever the reason for Jim’s continuing presence in his life, he’s grateful for it. The kid may be a pain in the ass sometimes, but he’s also exactly what Leonard needed to pull him out of the pit that he’d been trapped in since the divorce. Jim learned quickly to read his moods, and he always seems to know when Leonard needs to be dragged out for an evening of fun, or just someone to drink with in silence. He sits with and distracts Leonard whenever they have to take a shuttle somewhere, and makes sure the doctor eats before collapsing into bed after a long shift at the Academy clinic. Leonard may complain about his infantile friend, but he knows that he would be miserable without him.

He tries to repay Jim any way he can. This can mean any number of things, from patching him up after bar brawls or getting dragged into them himself, to making sure the kid studies even when he doesn’t think he needs to, to just being there with a stiff drink and a sympathetic ear when Jim’s boundless spirit slips and his weariness and fears seep through. It doesn’t feel like enough sometimes, but apparently Jim disagrees.

They are two people who shouldn’t work, but do, and that’s enough.  

*****

“You’re sick, Jim.”

“No I’m not.”

But he is. He knows he is, dammit, has known it since he nearly fainted on his way to class and then had to bolt for the bathroom halfway through the period to say goodbye to his breakfast.

Bones’ silence speaks volumes. Jim groans and lifts his head from the toilet bowl to look at his friend, and sure enough he’s getting a Look.

“Okay, so I might not be feeling my best, but that doesn’t mean-” Another wave of nausea hits him.

“I’m sorry,” Bones says loudly over his retching. “I couldn’t hear you telling me how fine you are over the sound of you vomiting up your small intestine.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not possible,” Jim protests weakly, spitting.

“Which one of us is the doctor here?”

Jim glares at him.

“You know, I think I’m going to get a doctorate in something just so you can’t pull that card on me anymore.”

“What, the actual intelligence card? I think I’ll be able to keep using that one for a long while, Jim.”

Jim lets out another groan and buries his face in his arm, blocking out the painful light of their shared bathroom.

“Your bedside manner sucks.”

“I’m not at your bedside, because you refuse to seek actual medical attention.”

“I did seek medical attention. I came to you.”

“And I told you to go to the hospital! For the love of god, Jim, this isn’t something you can just sleep off and bounce back from in the morning! You’ve clearly got the Benessian flu that’s been going around, and if my word on how bad that is isn’t enough for you, just take stock of how you’re feeling right now.”

Like absolute shit, is how he’s feeling. He’s had the normal, garden-variety human flu before, but this is in a whole different league. His entire body is wracked with uncontrollable shivers even though his skin feels like it’s on fire, his head is spinning like he’s been breathing helium, muscles he didn’t even know he had are aching, and he can barely see Bones through the dark spots dancing across his vision. Oh, and his sinuses feel like he’s been snorting glue. Not the fumes, the actual glue.

 “You can’t even stand and you’ve probably lost a couple pints of fluid by now to sweat and vomit,” Bones presses relentlessly. “You need an IV, a cocktail of antivirals, and careful monitoring with more equipment than I’ve got in my medkit. This is serious, Jim. You can’t just will yourself to be better.”

“I can try,” Jim rasps stubbornly, even though he knows that Bones is right.

“This isn’t something you can charm your way out of, you idiot!” Jim flinches as Bones’ near-shout grates against his tender eardrums. The doctor scowls, but his voice is softer as he presses on. “I have seen people die from this, do you understand? And I’ve stood by while you’ve taken stupid chances, but not this time, Jim. Not with this. So if that means I have to hypo your ass and haul you to the hospital myself-”

“No!” Jim gasps, trying to struggle to his feet. His legs buckle beneath him and Bones catches him before he can crash to the floor. “Bones please- if you care about me at all, don’t do that to me.”

Why?” Bones demands, bewildered and frustrated. “Jim, what the hell is so terrible about going to the hospital that you would rather risk your life?”

Jim can see in his friend’s gaze that he has no prayer of getting out of this without an explanation. Bones is willing to let a lot of things go, but not when he’s in doctor mode. So Jim closes his eyes and steels himself, shrugging out of Bones’ grip and slumping against the wall.

“The last time I was in the hospital as a patient, I was fourteen years old,” he recites flatly, staring at a crack in one of the floor tiles by Bones’ foot. “I was there for six weeks, being treated for heart problems, anemia, severe muscle deficiency, hypothermia, and a whole slew of digestive issues.”

There’s a moment of silence while Bones processes that.

“Those are the symptoms of starvation,” he says quietly.

“Yeah.” Jim doesn’t take his eyes from the cracked tile.

“Your uncle?” Bones’ low voice holds a bizarre mix of gentleness and anger, and it’s all Jim can do to shake his head.

“He was a bastard, but he wouldn’t…” He takes a deep breath, fighting down another surge of nausea. He forces himself to meet Bones’ gaze. “What do you know about the Tarsus IV disaster?”

It’s doesn’t even take a second for understanding to dawn.

“Oh.” Jim looks quickly away from the pain that seeps into Bones’ eyes. “Oh, Jim.”

Jim clenches his fists and shudders through a couple of dry heaves, spitting more bile into the toilet. The silence presses in on him and he can’t stand it.

“If you check me into a hospital right now,” he says, staring up at Bones, “You’ll be sending me back to the blackest period of my life, to the kind of helplessness I swore to myself I would never feel again.”

Bones looks at him. And looks at him. And looks at him. Jim braces himself, waiting for the horrified pity, the awkward condolences that could never be anything but empty. But then Bones just sighs and kneels, sticking his hand into Jim’s pocket.

“Hey, you could at least buy me dinner first,” Jim protests, floundering for familiar ground with a weak facsimile of his usual humor.

“You wouldn’t keep it down,” Bones snorts. He withdraws his hand and opens the communicator that he’s just retrieved. He fiddles with the dial and then sets it down on the back of the toilet. “If you stop talking for more than thirty seconds, I’m calling an ambulance whether you like it or not.”

“What?”

Bones stands and pulls out his own communicator.

“I don’t have what you need here with me, so I have to go to the clinic to get it. And if you’re not coming with me, then this is the best I can do to keep an eye on you till I get back.”

Now Jim is the one staring, but he can’t quite believe this. Bones doesn’t just give in like this, not without at least grumbling about it. Bones sees his incomprehension, and sighs.

“The good doctors know that psychological issues are just as real as physiological ones,” he explains. “I wouldn’t be much of a doctor or a friend if I forced you to go through an unnecessary traumatic experience.”

Jim stares at him for another beat, relief and gratitude threatening to choke him.

“Thank you,” he whispers.

Bones just puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes. Then he stands and begins to back out of the bathroom, waving his communicator.

“I mean it, Jim. Thirty seconds of silence, and emergency services come calling. Deal?”

Jim nods, watching as Bones turns to head for the door.

“I don’t hear you talking.”

“Bones, you’re still in the room. I can literally see you from here.”

“And in five, four, three, two, now-” Bones walks out the door, and Jim tries and fails to suppress a shiver as it closes and leaves him alone, “you won’t be able to. So chat away, Typhoid Mary.”

“You know, usually you nag at me to stop talking.”

“Yeah well, usually your talking isn’t the only way I know you’re still conscious. Seriously Jim, work with me here. I will listen to literally anything. Hell, tell me about the last girl you slept with, I don’t care. Free pass to over-share.”

“What about the first girl I slept with?” Jim blinks, not sure why that came out. He never talks about that, never even thinks about it when he can avoid it. Maybe it’s the fever addling his brain, but more likely it’s the way Bones’ low southern drawl has always put him at ease and drawn him in, intoxicating him until he’s revealing more than he ever intended.

“That’ll work too.”

Well, he’s already trusted Bones with one painful secret from his past today; may as well go for broke. At least if he drops dead from this stupid flu, someone else will know his story.

“Her name was Ruth.” The name is bitter in his mouth, but it doesn’t come with the same bite that it used to. “Remember those warning labels I was telling you about? The universe tried to warn me about her, but I didn’t listen.”

“Your soulmate.”

Jim can hear the sounds of the city in the background, but Bones’ voice is quiet, intimate, as if they are the only two people in the world.

“My bespoke hell. She was…she was the whole package, Bones. Smart, funny, sweet, gorgeous. She had this laugh that would make everyone around her smile. And I thought she was mine. I got that feeling when I was around her, that sense of completeness they talk about in all those songs and movies.”

His stomach roils, and he pauses to heave up some more bile.

“I didn’t hold anything back,” he admits to the empty bathroom, not looking at the communicator so that he can pretend he isn’t baring his goddamn soul for no apparent reason. “Love at first sight, and all that. And for a while, it was…it was like nothing I could have ever dreamed of. We fixed up a pair of old motorcycles together and would race them around our town, and we got to pretend that nothing could ever catch us. We found this little hidden spot on the roof of one of my uncle’s barns where we could hide from everything and see nothing but stars, and we would spend hours up there, talking or saying nothing at all. That’s where she told me she loved me.”

Jim slumps down and rests his head on the towel that is bunched up on the floor. He lets ten seconds go by, twenty.

“That’s where I said it back,” he murmurs. “I meant it, more than I’d ever meant anything in my life. But she must not have, because the day she turned eighteen, she packed her bags and left.”

The pain of that moment, of realizing just what he’d lost, still aches in Jim’s chest.

“I would’ve followed her anywhere, is the thing. I would’ve gone with her in a heartbeat. But she never gave me the chance. I just went to her house that day and her mom gave me a letter and this pitying look. Ruth was already long gone. She told me that she still loved me, in a way, but that I would never be enough, that she always felt like something was missing.”

Jim shudders with fever and reaches for the communicator, gripping it like a lifeline.

“Bones?”

“Still here, Jim,” Bones promises, sounding out of breath. “That blows.”

Jim snorts.

“Yeah. Well, I hope she found whatever she was missing. Seems like one of us should. You know that old quote: ‘it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?’”

“Yeah.”

“It’s bullshit. I had a pretty shitty life before I loved Ruth, but at least I felt like a whole person. After I lost her though…”

Jim groans and hauls himself upright to crouch over the toilet bowl again as his stomach does its level best to turn itself inside out.

“Maybe that’s why I can’t get behind the idea of soulmates,” he muses when he can speak again. “Because if we’re all just waiting around to meet our other half, what does that make us, if we can’t find them, or lose them? Can’t we just be our own people? Or are we just doomed to spend the rest of our lives feeling broken and empty?”

His voice cracks on the last word, and he squeezes his eyes shut, grateful that Bones isn’t in the room with him. These aren’t the kind of fears he could express face-to-face.

“What’s the point if your soulmate leaves you just like everyone else?”

“I wish I knew, kid,” Bones sighs. “The whole thing seems like a cruel joke to me.”

“I’m not laughing.”

“Me neither, Jim. Me neither.”

Jim blathers on about nothing in particular after that, having exhausted his heart now along with his body. It’s not long until Bones gets back, flushed and sweating, clutching his communicator in one hand and an unusually bulky medkit in the other. And Jim’s tired heart lurches with the knowledge that Bones must have sprinted all the way across campus and back for him, so that he wasn’t alone a second longer than he had to be.

Bones doesn’t say anything at all as he kneels beside Jim and begins to administer the various medications that he’s brought with him. But later, once Jim is settled in his bed with a bucket on the floor beside him and an IV in his arm, Bones sits on the end of the mattress, hugging his knees to his chest. Jim tucks his feet under Bones’ thighs – to keep them warm, not because Bones has beautiful thighs, really – and waits.

“Her name was Jocelyn,” he says gruffly, and it startles Jim that he didn’t know this, for as many times as Bones has mentioned his ex-wife. Maybe he’s been hoarding her name the same way Jim had been hoarding Ruth’s, burying it deep where it shouldn’t be able to hurt him but still does. “And boy, did I ignore that warning label.”

It’s a painful night for both of them. But it’s a cathartic kind of pain, as if talking about their old hurts is purging the festering wounds, leaving them ready to heal. And beyond that, it forges empathy between them that is worth dredging up the misery. Because most of all, it makes Jim realize that he finally has someone he trusts, and who trusts him in kind.

But even as his chest flares with warmth over his discovery, the tingling of his soulmark reminds him that there is still one thing he hasn’t trusted Bones with yet. The one secret that he must keep above all others is the one with the potential to destroy this friendship that he has grown to treasure so.

*****

Jim doesn’t realize just how much he’s dreading the Christmas break until it’s looming just a week away. The entire campus is getting into the spirit, talking about their plans to travel or see their families. But the holidays hold no pleasant memories for Jim, and what little family he has is scattered to the winds. He’s got nowhere to go and no one to go to, and it puts a serious dent in his usual upbeat attitude.

But he tries to keep up his bright veneer for Bones, who has finally started to come out of his miserable, alcohol-scented shell. It takes more effort than he was expecting, feels wrong and exhausting, and it makes him realize how much he’s gotten used to not having to pretend around Bones. His friend has a way of stripping away the bullshit from people just by being around them, and Jim didn’t even notice that he’d been dropping his usual fronts with Bones until it’s a struggle to don them again. Still, Bones deserves better than a mopey brat, so he keeps it up.

“You gonna be okay on the shuttle?” he asks his friend on the last day of the semester.

Bones looks at him like he’s just asked him when he’ll be giving birth.

“What shuttle?” he demands.

“Aren’t you going home for break?”

Bones’ expression closes off as understanding dawns, familiar pain seeping into his dark eyes.

“No point,” he mutters. “I didn’t get Jo this Christmas, and my mama…well, I’m not ready to see her yet.”

Jim knows better than to push for an explanation. He feels a stab of guilt for being relieved that Bones has nowhere to go either, but the knowledge that he’s not going to be alone is like a Christmas gift in itself. He no longer has to force his cheer as he slips an arm through Bones’ and drags him out of their room, intent on finding something suitably distracting for them to do.

Someone has programmed holographic snow to fall in the hallway of their dorm, and for the first time, the sight brings a smile to Jim’s face. He runs a hand through the air, watching the little points of light dance across his skin.

“Is real snow really that puffy looking?” Bones asks, eyeballing the flakes drifting past his nose.

Jim stops dead, and Bones staggers.

“Bones,” he says, ignoring his friend’s indignant complaints. “Do you mean to tell me that you’ve never seen real snow before?”

“I grew up in Georgia, Jim.”

Two hours later they are in a rented hovercar, zooming out of the city and up the coast. Bones is at the wheel, his condition for agreeing to come along on this ‘harebrained fool misguided trip,’ and neither of them know where they’re headed, other than north.

Jim spends twenty minutes fiddling with the radio, but all that’s playing is shitty Christmas music and using the songs already stored in the car’s memory feels like cheating, so they drive in silence. There’s usually never a silence that Jim can’t fill, but he loves the fact that this one doesn’t need filling, so he lets it be. Every once in a while he steals glances at Bones, who relaxes by degrees as they go and sometimes even has a small, fragile smile playing around his lips.

They drive well into the night because neither of them feels like stopping. There’s a bite of cold in the air but no snow on the ground or clouds in the sky when Bones finally declares that he’s too tired to keep his eyes open, so Jim takes over the wheel while his friend naps in the passenger seat. Eventually the pale pink of dawn creeps into the cab and stains Bones’ peaceful face with a healthy glow. The sight is so entrancing that Jim nearly crashes the car.

They’re in Canada by the time Jim finds a suitable place. It’s nothing much, just a few rundown cabins scattered over several acres of open fields spotted with towering pines. But there are several inches of snow on the ground with more on the way judging by the clouds, and the old lady in the management cottage gives him a very reasonable rental price, so he grabs their bags from the car and digs around until he finds the hot chocolate packets.

He wakes Bones by sticking the chipped mug under his nose. Bones sniffs it suspiciously and glares blearily up at Jim.

“That’s not coffee,” he accuses.

“First thing you need to know about snow, Bones,” Jim declares brightly. “It’s ten times better when experienced with hot chocolate in hand.”

That’s when Bones seems to finally register where they are, and his eyes soften as he takes in the flakes of snow that have begun to drift to the ground around them. He slides out of the car, looking down when his feet crunch against the snow. There’s wonder on his face when he looks up again, and Jim feels a smile spread across his own cheeks.

They sit together on the hood of the hovercar, wrapped in a scratchy but warm wool blanket that Jim found in one of the closets, sipping their hot chocolate and watching the flurries of snow swirl through the crisp air.

“What do you think?” Jim asks eventually.

“Eh,” Bones sniffs. “Not bad.”

But Jim can see the smile he’s hiding behind his mug, and it warms him more than hot chocolate ever could.

He thinks it’s very restrained of him to wait until Bones has finished drinking before running for a strategic position and scraping together the first snowball. In the war that follows, he discovers two things. One: Bones has unfairly good aim for someone who’s never lobbed a snowball before in his life. Two: Bones may claim to be a southern gentleman, but boy does he fight dirty. It’s not long before Jim finds himself wrestled to the ground, snow sliding down his back as he squirms.

He’s laughing too hard to put up a good fight, but it’s okay because soon Bones is laughing too hard to hold him down properly. And then Jim finds himself staring at his friend, because he has never seen Bones this lighthearted and…joyful for the sake of it.

“Holy shit,” he breathes.

“What?” Bones demands, breathless and beaming.

“You have dimples.”

Said dimples disappear from flushed cheeks as Bones rolls his eyes. But those eyes are still sparkling, and Jim can’t look away. How has he never noticed before that Bones is beautiful? He’s appreciated the man’s attractiveness plenty of times, sure, but this…this goes beyond his perfect features and muscles way too toned to belong to a doctor. This is the beauty that people talk about, the kind that shines from a person’s very soul.

His soulmark prickles on his chest, and he realizes abruptly that Bones is still straddling him long after they’ve both given up their wrestling match. He sobers quickly as reality rushes back in. Bones’ soul is none of his business, and Jim’s soulmark may not belong to him, but it can still serve as a warning.

Jim doesn’t do romantic relationships, not meaningful ones. He can’t, apparently. And Bones is strong in so many ways, but he’s also fragile in places that Jim isn’t. If Jim acts on the overwhelming urge to kiss Bones right now, his friend will only be hurt by what follows. Jim refuses to be responsible for breaking this man further, for giving him one more wound.

So he grabs a handful of snow and drops it down the back of Bones’ shirt, using the distraction to shove his spluttering friend off of him so that he can make a beeline for the cabin, calling dibs on the first shower.

They stay at the cabin for the whole break. Neither of them has enough warm clothes, the beds squeak like an army of possessed mice, the water is brown, and there’s nobody but the old caretaker for miles around. But Bones smiles more in those two weeks than Jim has seen in an entire semester, and he can’t imagine a better way to spend a vacation.

*****

While Jim often takes Leonard with him when he heads for the bars, it’s not unusual for him to go out on his own, especially if he’s looking for a hookup. He usually stumbles in late, or ungodly early, sometimes drunk off his ass or radiating smug satisfaction or decked out in blood and bruises or, on the really memorable occasions, all three. Leonard patches him up or tosses him in bed as needed, and that’s usually that. But what’s not usual is Leonard getting commed at two in the morning by a bartender using Jim’s communicator.

“Listen, I’m not usually one to interfere with a guy and his alcohol, but your buddy’s in a bad way,” the bartender tells Leonard, her voice serious. “I’m worried that if I kick him out, he’ll wind up facedown in a gutter. Your code is the first saved in his communicator, so I figured you’d be the one to call.”

Leonard wracks his brains as he throws on the nearest clothes and hurries out of the dorm. He can’t think of what might have set Jim off, what would have turned someone who usually only drinks for fun into a guy that made a bartender worried. When he gets to the bar, his own worry ratchets up several notches, because he can see what the bartender was talking about. Never in his life has he seen a man so drunkenly miserable as Jim is at that moment, and since he has looked in a mirror, that’s saying something.

“Jim,” he breathes, crossing to the corner where his friend is huddled, clutching an empty glass to his chest and staring with glassy eyes at nothing in particular. Leonard isn’t sure exactly what he’d been drinking, but from the smell, he’s wearing half of it. “What the hell did you do to yourself, kid?”

Jim doesn’t acknowledge his presence with so much as a blink, and Leonard pulls out the tricorder that he’d hastily stuck in his pocket. His check reveals that Jim hasn’t been drugged, and while that’s reassuring, it means that there’s a much deeper problem in play here. But it’s not Leonard’s most pressing concern right now.

He shoves his tricorder back into his pocket and hauls one of Jim’s arms around his shoulders.

“’dently tr’pped wait’ss.”

Leonard pauses at the slurred, nearly unintelligible words.

“What?”

“S’what h’ppned,” Jim explains, twitching his hand in a feeble wave that encompasses his ruined clothes.

It takes Leonard’s tired, stressed brain a moment to piece together the fact that Jim just explained why there is nearly as much alcohol on him as in him. He just shakes his head.

“Well, you can apologize to her tomorrow. Right now, it’s time to get you home.” He lifts Jim to his feet. It takes way more effort than he was expecting, and his friend hangs at his side like a bag of wet sand. “Come on, kid, work with me here,” he grunts, swaying under the weight.

“Bones?” Jim murmurs, his eyes still unfocused.

“That’s me,” Leonard huffs. “Now if you could use your legs, that’d be great.”

“Bones…” Jim sighs again, his eyes drooping. “Shouldn’t be here.”

That stings, but Leonard can’t deal with it right now. Regardless of whether or not Jim wants him there, he’s not about to leave him in this condition. Even if Jim weren’t his best friend, simple ethics would compel him to continue hauling the man out of the bar.

He’s thankful that Jim seems to have gone for convenience rather than quality in his selection of bars, because it’s only a short walk back to their dorm. He manages to wrestle 160 pounds of virtually unresponsive cadet up to their room, where he dumps Jim rather unceremoniously onto his bed. Jim goes without complaint, and curls up on top of his sheets. The gesture makes him look younger and more vulnerable than Leonard has ever seen him, and it tugs hard at something in his chest.

But one thing at a time. He has to deal with any physical issues before he can address whatever emotional crap has left Jim in this state. He pulls out his tricorder and does a more thorough scan. It turns up no injuries, just an ungodly high blood alcohol level.

Muttering about dumbass young cadets who think it’s a good idea to try to drink their body weight in liquor, Leonard goes to his medkit and fishes out a hypo. He’s usually less than tender when he administers them to Kirk, his way of scolding his friend for getting himself into whatever mess he needs patched up from this time, but he knows the lesson would be lost on the man right now, so it’s with gentle hands that he injects Jim with a drug that will keep him from dying of alcohol poisoning and hopefully lessen the effects of what’s sure to be an impressive hangover.

Jim barely moves, and Leonard knows that he could leave him like that, just let him sleep it off. But he’s covered in booze and sweat and palpably radiating misery, and Leonard can’t find it in himself to turn away.

“God help me,” he mutters, before leaning in and shaking Jim’s shoulder. “All right, sunshine, time for a shower. No way am I letting you stink this place up.”

Jim opens bleary eyes and stares up at him like he has just suggested the satanic sacrifice of several puppies rather than a simple attempt at hygiene. Leonard rolls his eyes and hoists his friend up again.

“Boooooones,” Jim complains in a whine that would put a tantruming Joanna to shame. It actually makes Leonard feel a little bit better, because it’s the first glimpse of Jim that he’s seen tonight. He ignores it though, hauling the man-child to their shared bathroom and depositing him on the toilet so that he can get the shower running.

Jim got them assigned to one of the few rooms with a water shower, so Leonard sticks his hand under the spray until the temperature is acceptable and then turns back to his friend. Jim is slouched forward, head in his hands and elbows on his knees, and doesn’t look like he’s feeling particularly cooperative. Well, Leonard does have experience with reluctant bathers, and just because he never thought he’d have to use his parenting skills at the Academy doesn’t mean he can’t.

He kneels and tugs off Jim’s boots and socks. Setting those aside, he goes for the jacket next, peeling it off with an unpleasant wet squelching sound. He grimaces at the mess Jim’s made of his shirt, but reaches for the hem anyway. Cold hands wrap around his wrists, and he freezes. He looks up, and is startled to see Jim staring at him with something that looks like fear.

“Don’t,” Jim mumbles.

He looks so damn worried about it that Leonard just lets it be. But he’s not about to let Jim escape the shower itself, not when it looks like he’s got half the bar’s bottom shelf stuck to his skin.

“Come on, Jim,” he orders softly, grabbing his friend by the shoulders. “Up. This’ll help.”

Jim seems content enough to step out of his pants when directed and let his friend guide him into the shower, but the second Leonard lets him go, his knees buckle. Cursing a blue streak, Leonard lunges forward and grabs him under the armpits to slow his descent to the tiled floor of the cubicle, getting thoroughly soaked in the process. Jim closes his eyes and lifts his face to the warm spray, but makes no move to further his cleanliness.

“You’re not gonna make this easy for me, are you kid?” Leonard sighs.

Jim looks at him, but his eyes are still glazed and empty and Leonard makes a vow to himself right then and there that he will never let his friend get this drunk again, not if he can help it. This is the kind of drunk that leaves you far more miserable than you were when you picked up the bottle. Leonard knows this from personal experience, and he can’t leave Jim to suffer through it alone.

“Dammit,” he mutters.

He pulls off his own shoes and climbs into the shower, which is barely big enough for one adult, let alone two. Since standing doesn’t seem to be in the cards, he adjusts the shower nozzle so that the water is hitting Jim’s body, washing away the sticky mess of alcohol and sweat that is clinging to his skin and clothing. Jim barely seems to notice the water, but his eyes are a little clearer when Leonard crouches down in front of him again.

“Bones,” he whispers, and he grabs Leonard’s arm. His grip is weak, but his fingers are wrapped around the words on Leonard’s wrist, only a thin layer of damp fabric separating skin from soulmark, and Leonard imagines that he can feel the words burning, setting his nerves alight. He sucks in a sharp breath, because this is so many levels of wrong. “Shouldn’t be here.”

There it is again. It still hurts, much as he tries not to let it. At least Jim’s words aren’t as slurred as before. But then-

“I shouldn’t be here,” Jim’s grip tightens as he says it, and sparks shoot up Leonard’s arm. “I shouldn’t be here.”

He’s staring at McCoy with so much earnest intensity as he says it, and Leonard can’t handle this, can’t stand this kind of exposure. His skin feels too tight and his entire arm is tingling and his blood is humming with everything that he has been suppressing for so long. Fear pools in his gut as the stifled suspicion that has been nagging him all year rears up again, stronger than it’s ever been.

“Yeah well, I shouldn’t either, but here we are,” he grunts.

Desperate now to get this over with, he disengages his arm from Jim’s grip and goes for his shirt again. This time Jim lets him pull it up and over his head, and Leonard’s entire world narrows, his vision tunneling until all he can see are the six simple words written on his best friend’s skin in a handwriting that he cannot fail to recognize.

“Fuck,” he whispers, his voice hollow as he stares at the tidy black print. “Fuck.”

This is everything he has been trying so hard to ignore, to convince himself doesn’t exist. This is the warning label from the universe that Jim was so vehement about. This is proof that Leonard and Jim are capable of destroying each other so thoroughly that there will be nothing left of either of them.

It’s the end of the best thing that’s happened to Leonard in so long, the end of the only good thing left in his life. Because how can things ever be the same, now that he knows about this? How can he and Jim stand to be around one another when each is the other’s kryptonite?

“Gotten lots of reactions from people.” Jim’s voice is flat, dull, but when Leonard looks up at his face, his stare is piercing. “You’re the first to start crying.”

Confused, Leonard swipes his hands over his cheeks. They come away soaked, and he stares for a moment before remembering that he’s still in the damn shower. But he knows, just like Jim clearly does, that there is saltwater in the mix. Because the inevitable impending heartache is already rising up to overwhelm him.

And then the full impact of Jim’s words hits him, and he chokes on a sound that is the bastardization of a laugh and a sob. Christ, he’d started hurting Jim from the day he was born. Giving him a soulmark like that – small wonder the kid has issues. On top of that, he realizes that he’s responsible for the disaster with Ruth too, the one that left Jim so devastated.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, and the words feel so small and useless in the face of all he has to apologize for.

Something in Jim’s eyes goes dead, and he looks away. The pain that emanates from him steals Leonard’s breath, and he reaches for his friend on instinct. He’s not sure what exactly he was going for, but his fingers seek out Jim’s soulmark as if of their own accord.

The instant he touches black words on warm skin, he is hit in the gut with a wave of something powerful, indescribable. It blows him apart, rearranging the pieces and putting new ones in, and something settles into place in his chest. He understands for the first time what it is to be whole. All of the hollow places that he didn’t even know he had are filled in, and it feels like his heart is expanding, beating properly for the first time in his life.

If there had been any doubt left in Leonard’s mind that Jocelyn had never been his soulmate, it’s gone now. Because he knows without question that he never had this with her, never experienced this rapture of his soul finding the one other that belongs with it, completes it. He can feel Jim in his core, in his very bones, and nothing in his life has ever felt so right.

Every part of him aches for Jim, with the need to be close to him. Before he can think, he is taking Jim’s face in the hand that’s not still pressed to his chest and pulling him in for a desperate, needy kiss. Jim’s lips are frozen against his for a split second, before he lets out a low moan and responds in kind. He tangles his hands in Leonard’s hair and tugs with surprising strength, and McCoy pitches forward so that he lands against Jim’s chest, legs sliding out from under him on the slippery tile of the shower. The extra contact pulses through his heightened senses, and it’s his turn to moan as he presses himself even closer to the man kissing him as if his life depends on it.

Leonard has shared a lot of kisses in his life, but he’s never experienced one like this. Never felt it like this, his whole body humming with pleasure at the contact. Every touch makes him crave more, and the need for closeness burns in his chest. As if sensing this, Jim wraps a leg around him, pinning their bodies together. The added friction draws a gasp from McCoy, and Jim’s fingers tighten in his hair.

Leonard breaks away from Jim’s mouth to press hungry kisses along his jaw, down his throat. His lips trail down wet skin, exploring the dip of Jim’s collarbone, the smooth expanse of his pectorals. But then he gets to the soulmark, and the sight of the words stops him cold, hits him with the reminder of everything that he forgot in the fevered, euphoric rush of discovering his soulmate.

It can’t be like this. Jim is drunker than Leonard has ever seen him, but when he’s sober he will be horrified by the idea of having another soulmate. He has made it perfectly clear that he wants nothing to do with the whole institution, and Leonard understands his reasons because he shares them. Because while properly uniting with his soulmate has felt unbelievably amazing, that feeling will sour, and quickly. They are both too broken, and this would destroy them utterly.

And that is not an option. Because Leonard knows now, understands to the root of his being, that he can’t lose Jim. Best friend, soulmate, whatever, Jim is an integral part of him now, and he would take something vital with him if he left. So if preventing that means they can only be friends, then Leonard will put his heart on lockdown and keep his damn hands to himself.

“I’m sorry, Jim,” he repeats, disengaging himself so that he can stand up and shut off the water.

Jim stares up at him, crystalline blue eyes wide and sad.

“Why?” he whispers, and Leonard isn’t sure either of them know just what it is he’s really asking.

“I don’t know,” Leonard admits softly, because no matter the question, that’s the answer.

Jim just keeps staring at him for a moment, disappointment but not surprise in his expression. Then he closes his eyes and leans his head back against the shower wall.

“’ll just sleep here,” he mutters, and Leonard sighs.

It’s somewhat comforting to slip back into his role of caretaker, even though self-disgust and shame churn in Leonard’s stomach as he coaxes Jim out of the shower and into dry clothes. He can’t believe he was close to having sex with someone who is obviously well past the point of being able to give consent. Even the memory of the kiss makes him feel dirty, and he hates that it also fills him with warmth and longing.

He can barely look at Jim as he deposits the younger man in his bed.

“Sleep tight, Jim,” he mutters, and goes to turn away. He freezes when a warm hand wraps around his left wrist, sending a jolt through him.

“Bones.” Leonard can’t look back at Jim, can’t risk getting sucked back into his orbit, can’t handle the sight of him touching the soulmark that has always belonged to him. “Don’t leave me.”

Leonard closes his eyes, letting out a harsh breath as he fights back a sudden wave of tears. This night has been too much, much too much, and he feels weary and drained and defeated in so many ways.

“I won’t,” he vows, still not looking at Jim. “I can’t.”

And then he tugs his wrist out of Jim’s grip and gives the command to kill the lights. He strips out of his wet clothes in utter darkness, grateful for the shadows that hide the words on his skin. But he cannot forget about them, and he imagines that he can still feel them burning, demanding his attention, demanding to know why he’s resolutely ignoring what they’ve been trying to tell him.

He is scared of what the morning will bring, of what Jim will think of all this when he’s sober. Because Leonard can make all the resolutions he wants, but they’ll mean nothing if Jim decides to bolt rather than risk…whatever the hell this is. He can only hope that Jim will fail to put two and two together, and just laugh the kiss off as a drunken misstep. But he knows Jim isn’t that stupid.

It’s a long time before he manages to fall asleep.

*****

Jim wakes up feeling different. It’s not the hangover – he’s had plenty of those before and this is far from his worst. No, it’s something he can’t pin down, some warm feeling in his chest that has no business being there. It’s like a bone-deep…contentment. Which is odd, because Jim has never woken up feeling content on his birthday. Especially not one that he stayed up to greet alone in a bar.

Which brings Jim to the realization that he is not still in a bar, or in an alley, or in a drunk tank. He’s in his own bed, in his own clothes, which aren’t the clothes that he went out in. Which means that he’s either gotten a lot better at looking after himself while blackout drunk, or…

He glances across the room, and smiles. Bones is curled up in his own bed, facing Jim. There’s a medkit open on the floor beside him, and one hand dangles down next to it, as if the doctor was expecting to have to roll out of bed with a hypo at a moment’s notice. The sight makes the warm feeling in Jim’s chest intensify. He should’ve known that Bones would be there for him, even when he didn’t ask.

That thought gives him pause though, and his heart starts to pound. He looks down at himself again, noting the soft sleep shirt that he is wearing instead of the tee and jacket he’d worn out last night. Jim’s memory is fuzzy after his fifth drink, and it’s gone entirely after his ninth, but he knows that he could not have been in any state to change his own clothes. Which means that Bones has seen…

His hand flies to his chest, instinctively trying to cover his traitorous soulmark. There’s no way Bones didn’t see it. But how had he reacted?

Jim has never resented a blackout more in his life. He would give just about anything to know if the sight of his soulmark had meant anything to Bones, or if he'd laughed it off as a weird coincidence because his own mark doesn’t match.

He can’t stand not knowing, and patience has never been his strong suit. So as adorable as the sight of Bones sleeping might be, there’s nothing else for it.

Bones doesn’t even open his eyes when the pillow hits him in the face.

“You’re an asshole,” he growls, hugging the pillow to his chest and rolling over.

Jim raises an eyebrow but is not deterred. He throws a shoe next, and it bounces off his friend’s shoulder. Bones growls again but sits up this time, glowering at Jim with sleep-bleary eyes. But then he blinks, and his expression shuts down in a heartbeat. Jim’s stomach drops.

“I’m, uh, sorry for anything that I might have done last night,” he says, trying to get out in front of whatever shitshow may be in the works. Apologies aren’t usually his style, but he has no idea where he stands with Bones right now and if there’s a chance that he and his soulmark haven’t ruined the relationship he values the most, then he’s determined to tread carefully.

At his words, Bones’ wary, closed-off expression shifts. He raises an eyebrow, looking oddly…hopeful?

“Drinking half the bar’s inventory scramble your brains a little?” he asks.

Jim scratches at the back of his neck and forces a rueful smile. It’s apparently answer enough, because Bones just snorts and rolls his eyes. But Jim can’t help noticing how relieved he looks, and he knows that something must have happened, something Bones is glad he’s forgotten. Whatever it was, it was probably his own fault.

God, what if he’d kissed Bones? He’s certainly thought about it; he’d have to be blind not to notice how hot the man is, and he likes Bones, likes him more than he remembers liking anyone in a very long time. But it’s because he likes him so much that he’s refrained from pursuing something physical; nothing ruins friendship like sex when one of those friends is Jim Kirk.

“Just do me a favor, Jim? Next time you feel like going out and drinking alone, try to comm me before you’re practically catatonic.”

Jim flinches and looks away. Whatever inexplicable warm feelings he woke up with are gone, swallowed by the usual tangle of painful crap that hits him on this day.

“I’m sorry you had to deal with…” Jim waves a vague hand at himself. “This.”

He’d been going to change. Starfleet was supposed to be about making something of his life, of his father’s sacrifice. But here he is, on the anniversary of that sacrifice, waking up from another night he doesn’t remember but that he’s pretty sure involved disappointing someone else he cares about.

He starts when he feels the mattress dip beside him. Bones doesn’t look at him, but he does lean in until their shoulders are brushing, offering silent comfort.

“Wasn’t a burden, kid,” Bones sighs, and Jim wishes he could believe him. “Everyone needs looking after once in a while.”

Jim thinks about the times that he’s come back to the room to find Bones far too deep in a bottle of his own, and supposes that’s true. They both have chips on their shoulders and pain in their pasts. Jim has his demons, but so does Bones. And maybe their demons get along as well as they do. So maybe it’s time to introduce Bones to another one, to let him see another rough-edged piece of the puzzle that is Jim Kirk.

“It’s my birthday.”

He loves Bones for not saying ‘happy birthday,’ or anything else stupid like that. He loves Bones for not saying anything at all for a long moment, just sighing and wrapping an arm around Jim’s shoulders. He loves Bones for understanding everything that today means without him having to say another word.

“Yeah, I would’ve drunk to that too, kid.”

Jim thinks in that moment that maybe he just loves Bones. And damned if that isn’t the scariest thought he’s had in a while.

*****

Things are oddly strained between them for a while after that. Something has shifted in their dynamic, and Jim knows it has something to do with the night that he can’t remember, but since he, you know, can’t remember it, he can’t put a finger on what it is. It’s strange, because he feels better than he has in a long time, more at peace, but at the same time things with Bones are just weird.

He can tell that his friend is trying to act normal, but he’s oddly jumpy, and Jim feels like he’s being kept at arm’s length. But at the same time, Bones seems to care about him more than ever, in his gruff way, nagging at him to eat right and dragging him out of bars before he can get too sloppy.

It unsettles Jim, but he decides to wait it out. He’s not sure when exactly he became so attuned to McCoy, but somehow he knows that his friend just needs time, that pressing him will turn into a disaster. It’s not until the academic year is over and they are well into the summer that he’s proven right.

“This is fucking idiotic.”

“So you’ve said.”

“I hate these things.”

“So you’ve also said, but congratulations on toning down the expletives.”

McCoy shoots a glare at Jim that does nothing to distract from the frankly alarming shade of pasty green that the doctor has turned. Jim sighs.

“Bones, it’s gonna be fine. They let sixteen-year-olds fly these things.” He gestures expansively at the cramped cockpit of the shuttle that they’re sitting in.

Well, Bones is sitting. That’s kind of the problem. He’s sitting in the pilot’s seat.

“If that was supposed to make me feel better, it failed,” Bones grumbles, eyeing the controls with a wariness that is creeping toward panic. “I’m a doctor, not one of you reckless yahoos on the command track. Why the hell do I need to know how to pilot a shuttle?”

It’s a question that Bones has been asking in one form or another since Jim encouraged him to enroll in the eight-week summer piloting course with him, in addition to his internship at Starfleet Medical. Despite the grumbling, he’s made it through the class with respectable grades – but grades mean nothing unless you pass the practical exam in the actual shuttle, not just one of the sims. Jim has already passed his with ease, but he’s always known that Bones’ is going to be…an event.

So here they are, Jim literally holding Bones down by the shoulders so that he can’t vacate the pilot’s seat, while the rather impatient instructor waits outside for him to leave so they can start the test. Jim leans over the back of the seat and twists so that he can look Bones in the eye.

“Because you’re going to be my CMO, and all senior starship officers need to be able to pilot a shuttle in case of an emergency.”

It’s not the first time that Jim has mentioned wanting Bones with him out in the black, but it is the first time he’s not scoffed off. Instead, Bones stares at him with an intensity that makes him want to squirm.

“You’re really serious about that, aren’t you?” he asks quietly.

Jim blinks.

“Of course I’m serious, Bones.” His friend has been an integral part of his grand plan for a while now.

Huh. Come to think of it, he’s not quite sure when that happened. Maybe after his bout of Benessian flu, when he’d come to the realization that he was comfortable being treated by Bones, when any other doctor would have had him in a cold sweat. Maybe it was when Jim woke the day after his birthday to find a beautiful old copy of the collected works of Ray Bradbury sitting on his bedside table, with the simple words ‘I’m glad you’re here’ written inside the front cover. Or hell, maybe it was the even moment Jim saw Leonard on that Academy shuttle and realized that he was looking at a kindred spirit.

“As you’re so frequently telling me, I need someone looking out for my fool ass, especially when I’m off gallivanting about the galaxy.”

“Starfleet has plenty of competent doctors, Jim,” Bones presses, ignoring the teasing. “You really want a grumpy old aviophobe?”

A pit starts to form in Jim’s stomach as it occurs to him for the first time that Bones might really not be willing to venture into space. He doesn’t have to, that’s the thing. He’s brilliant and skilled, and can get any posting he wants, including a permanent one at Starfleet Medical here on Earth. Jim does his best to keep the fear off his face and the lightness in his tone.

“Well first of all, you’re thirty, Bones; don’t go checking yourself into the Museum of Natural History just yet. Second, we’re working on your aviophobia, and I have every confidence that you’ll be able to get on a starship without tossing your lunch by the time I have my own ship. As for the grumpiness, it’s part of your charm. I don’t think I’d know what to do with a doctor who was actually nice to me.” He smirks, but lets it drop quickly. He tightens his grip on McCoy’s shoulders and holds his gaze earnestly. “I want you with me, Bones. I need you with me.”

He may not know exactly when that became so true, but he’s certain that it is. Bones stares at him for a long moment, his dark eyes unreadable. And then he sighs.

“Guess I’d better take this damn tin can for a spin then.”

Jim’s face splits into a broad grin, and he claps Bones on the shoulders. The tension that had been building in his chest loosens.

“You’re gonna do great,” he promises. “I’ll be right here when you land.”

“You’d better be,” McCoy grumbles, finally entering commands for the shuttle’s startup sequence. “You’re buying me a drink or ten for this.”

Bones does not, as it turns out, do great. The instructor’s knees actually buckle when he gets off the shuttle at the end, and Jim winces as the sounds of retching reach him. When the guy reaches for his padd with a grim expression though, Jim slings an arm around his shoulders and reminds him conspiratorially that he’ll have to give Bones the test again if he fails him this time. Fifteen seconds later, Jim cheerfully boards the shuttle to pry his friend out of the pilot’s seat and tell him the good news.

Things go back to normal between them after that. Whether it’s because Bones has finally realized that Jim will always want him around, or because he’s simply gotten over whatever happened that night Jim still can’t remember, he doesn’t know. But he’s glad.

The two of them move into an apartment for their second year, and Jim is surprised by how much he misses having just one room. Not because he liked the cramped conditions, but because it had meant that he’d gotten to sleep in the same room as Bones. He’d gotten used to his friend’s comforting presence just feet from him, the soft sounds of his breathing soothing on the nights he had trouble sleeping. He feels oddly bereft without it, and the number of people invited to his bed increases rather significantly.

It’s not the same.

Still, aside from what Jim stubbornly refuses to acknowledge as pining, his second year at the Academy goes quite well. He handles his ambitious schedule with ease, and starts to actually believe that he can come through on his boast to Pike. This is the first thing in Jim’s life that has given him a true purpose that he really believes in, and he’s going to make it happen.

The eagerness to get to space becomes something of a constant itch under his skin. So when he hears about the ten-week summer training mission on the USS Endeavor for command track cadets, he signs up the second he has access to a computer terminal. Some of the enthusiasm is tempered by the realization that he’s going to have to go those ten weeks without seeing his best friend, but the pull of space is too strong to let him worry about that.

“Make sure the doctor knows about all of your allergies when he treats you,” Bones says to Jim as they stand outside the shuttle that will take him to the Endeavor.

“Treats me for what?”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

Jim rolls his eyes. Bones has been pontificating about the dread dangers of space more often than usual since learning about the mission. Jim knows that it’s his way of showing he cares, and he appreciates it, even if he really didn’t need some of the visuals that Bones has put in his head.

“You know, I did manage to stay alive for twenty-two years before I met you.”

“Lord knows how,” Bones mutters. But then he sighs and shakes his head. He musters up a genuine smile for Jim and grasps his hand. “Good luck, Jim. Be safe.”

It’s surprisingly hard to walk away from Bones and board the shuttle, but then Jim is on the Endeavor and the thrill of being in space makes everything else fade into the background. He may be at the bottom of the ship’s totem pole with the rest of the cadets, but it doesn’t detract from his childlike excitement. He knows more than ever that he belongs on a starship, and he works hard to stand out, to keep himself on track for getting a ship of his own.

One day about a month into the training mission though, Jim starts to feel…off. It’s not something definite, just a pit in his stomach and tightness in his chest. It’s the feeling that something’s wrong without anything to substantiate it.

He wonders if it’s his subconscious telling him that he’s made a mistake, so he triple checks his work. He’s done everything correctly, but that feeling still won’t go away. It leaves him off-balance and unsettled, and he retreats to his quarters as soon as he’s off duty instead of going to the rec deck like he usually does.

He places a video call to Bones, because talking to his friend is always a surefire way to make himself feel better. But Bones doesn’t answer.

Jim frowns at his console, the feeling of wrongness intensifying in his gut. But he’s being ridiculous; Bones is a busy guy, and he can’t always be around to answer a comm. This certainly isn’t the first time he’s failed to respond to a video request. But it is the first time that it’s made Jim feel like his stomach is trying to turn itself inside out.

He tries Bones’ communicator next, because that thing is always attached to the doctor’s hip. He resolutely tries to ignore the ice that begins to creep through his veins when Bones doesn’t answer that either.

He types up a quick message asking his friend to comm him when he’s free, and then signs off his console and goes to bed, even though the dread gnawing at him holds sleep at bay for a long time.

When he finally does sleep, his dreams are a chaotic mess, fevered flashes of crimson and stark white, his surroundings whirling sickeningly as his racing pulse pounds in his ears. He wakes feeling even worse than he did when he went to bed, and wonders if he’s coming down with something. Figures.

He checks his console for messages, and his gut lurches when he sees nothing. But all he can do is try to shrug it off, because it’s probably nothing, and he has duties to attend to. He can’t afford to slack off for even a moment, not if he wants to come through on his promise to Pike.

But as he’s changing into his uniform, he sees something that drives all thoughts of promises and duty from his mind in an instant. His shirt slips from numb fingers as he stares down at his chest, at the soulmark that has faded from its usual bold black to a grey so light that he can barely read the words he knows by heart.

“No,” he whispers, uncomprehending.

Soulmarks only fade when the person who spoke them dies. But that can’t be the case here, because Jim’s soulmate…his soulmate…

He stumbles back to his console on shaky legs and punches in Bones’ comm code again. Nothing. He tries again, even though he knows it’s irrational, but his hands shake so hard that he can’t even hit the right buttons. He clenches them into fists and closes his eyes, willing himself to calm down. He doesn’t know exactly when he became so sure that Bones is his soulmate, but he doesn’t have a shred of doubt now. And he’s never been so scared in his life.

But he is James T. Kirk, and he doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, and he refuses to accept that Bones is just gone. So he sucks in a deep breath, and while he doesn’t quite achieve calm, he does manage to clear his head a little. He punches in a new code.

“Kirk, do you have any idea what time it is?”

“Uhura!” Jim has never been so relieved to see the feisty xenolinguist. He hadn’t been sure she’d answer either. “Look, I’m sorry if I woke you up, but I need your help.”

“I’m thousands of light years away; how could I possibly help you with anything?” She’s clearly annoyed, and looks to be seconds away from hanging up on him.

“I need you to check on Bones. I think something’s wrong with him.”

That gets her attention. She may value Jim about as much as gum on the bottom of her shoe, but she and Bones are friends. Jim has always found that a little unfair, but right now he’s just glad that someone who cares about Bones is still on the same planet as him. Because Jim is clinging to denial with everything he has, needing desperately to believe that something can still be done.

“Kirk-” Uhura seems skeptical, and Jim doesn’t have time for it.

Please, Uhura,” he begs, meeting her gaze imploringly through the vidscreen. “I know how you feel about me, and that’s fine, but I need you to take me seriously right now because I think Leonard’s life is on the line here. And if I’m wrong about that, and you waste a few minutes checking up on him, then I’ll apologize profusely and promise to leave you alone for the rest of our time at the Academy, but if I’m right, then you could be his only chance.”

Uhura studies him for just a moment longer, but just as he’s about to explode again, she nods.

“Okay,” she says quietly. “Okay, Kirk. I’m on my way.”

The screen goes dark, and Jim stares at it for a moment before the unsteadiness of his legs forces him to sit down on the edge of his bed. The room spins around him, and he drops his head into his hands, trying to breathe through the panic threatening to overload his system.

How has he not acknowledged it before, what Bones means to him? How can he have failed to recognize that the connection he and his friend share goes so far beyond the parameters of normal?

There’s an aching, terrifying emptiness yawning inside of him, in a place he now realizes has been filled by Bones these past two years. Where once Jim had a sense of peace, a steadying anchor, now there is nothing. The warmth that has nurtured him, supported him and kept him safe, has been replaced by shards of ice that threaten to tear him apart from the inside.

He hacks the computer system and takes himself off of this shift’s roster. It’s a serious offense, if he’s caught, but that won’t happen. And even he is capable of acknowledging that he’s not even in the same quadrant as fit for duty right now.

So he just sits with his head in his hands, staring down at his soulmark, watching for any change in shade. He convinces himself that it’s not quite as light as the one that sits on his mother’s knee, but no amount of staring and wishing can make it grow darker again either.

26.4 minutes after his call to Uhura, his fellow cadet comms him back. He’s across the room and accepting the transmission before he even registers that he’s standing.

“You were right.”

Jim’s heart flies into his throat and lodges there, choking him. Uhura looks shaken, and that alone is enough to tell him that things are bad.

“Please- please tell me he’s not-”

“He’s alive. But it’s...” Uhura shakes her head, her eyes wide and haunted. “I found him unconscious on your bathroom floor, barely breathing, blood everywhere.” She sucks in a deep, shaky breath. Jim is pretty sure he’s not breathing at all. “The doctors think it’s Deneurian fever. Apparently he treated a patient with it last week. He was inoculated against it, but the vaccine is ineffective in 0.02 percent of cases. The incubation period is about a week, but the onset of the symptoms is extremely sudden.”

“And the symptoms are…?”

“High fever, bleeding from the nose and ears, seizures…it’s fatal, if left untreated.”

Jim’s fists are clenched so tightly he knows he’s going to have bloody marks on his palms. His whole life he has been taken with space, but now every fiber of his being is aching to be back on Earth, with the man who became the center of his universe without him even noticing.

“Did you get to him in time?” he asks Uhura, surprised at how steady his voice comes out. Falling apart has to wait until he knows.

“The doctors don’t know yet.” Uhura bites her lip, her own worry written across her face. “But I’m going to stay here with him, for as long as it takes. I’ve got him, Jim.”

He’s surprised by how big a relief that is. Whatever she might think, he respects Uhura, and he trusts her to do right by Bones more than he would with anyone else.

“Thank you,” he tells her, pouring every ounce of sincerity that he can into the words.

She just nods.

“I’ll keep you updated,” she promises, and signs off.

Jim feels like he’s suffocating in the silence in her wake. All he can think about is Bones, suffering and dying alone while Jim is thousands of light years away.

He curls up in a chair and resumes his vigil, staring at his soulmark until the words begin to blur before his eyes. But he just keeps watching, searching, hoping for the presence that has grown to be a part of him to return. His only distractions are the messages that Uhura sends him every twenty minutes, telling him that there’s been no change.

He does his best not to think, not to contemplate what he’ll do if his mark fades entirely. He has lost so much in his short and shitty life, but something tells him that this is the one loss he would not be able to come back from.

He is so lost in his daze that it takes him a moment to realize that the lines on his skin have grown darker. He shoots to his feet and sprints to his mirror, commanding the lights up to full intensity. His eyes drink in the sight of that horrible grey turning slowly black again.

His console chirps with an incoming call, and he barely pauses to pull on a shirt before Uhura’s face fills the small screen.

“He’s going to pull through,” she says without preamble, her eyes shining with relief.

Jim braces himself against his desk, head bowed, as the wave of relief that hits him threatens to bring him to his knees. He reaches, and he can feel Bones again, and he wonders again how he failed to recognize that he was there in the first place.

“Thank you,” he says when he can speak, raising his head to meet Uhura’s gaze. “Thank you.”

She shakes her head.

“This one’s on you, Kirk,” she says. “If you hadn’t commed me when you did, no one would’ve found him in time.”

She lifts one eyebrow and stares at him meaningfully, and Jim knows what she’s asking.

“I just got worried when I couldn’t get ahold of him,” he says, and it’s not even a lie, even if it’s not the full truth. Uhura looks skeptical. “He’s a doctor. He makes a point of never being unreachable.”

He’s not sure if he’s convinced her, but she doesn’t push him.

“I’ll have him comm you when he’s feeling up to it,” is all she says. She seems to realize how much it’s eating at him that he can’t be there, because she’s looking at him with more compassion than he has ever seen from her.

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. I still don’t like you.”

A smile touches Jim’s face for the first time since this nightmare began.

“Duly noted...Leslie?” he says, smile widening when she rolls her eyes at the usual pitiful attempt to guess her first name. “Kirk out.”

He ends the transmission, and his smile fades quickly. He barely makes it to his bed before he collapses, entire body shaking with the release of tension that has gripped him for the last few hours. He tugs off his shirt again and stares for a moment at the soulmark that is still darkening steadily. He brushes his fingers over it almost reverently, and closes his eyes when he feels it warm in response.

He is so fucked.

Bones doesn’t want this. He knows that now, more than ever before, because McCoy has known for at least a year that they’re soulmates, and he hasn’t said a word. He still keeps his soulmark covered, like it’s…like it’s something to be ashamed of.

Well, Jim supposes he deserves that. He wouldn’t want to be soulmates with someone like him either. He should really just be grateful that Bones is willing to be friends with him at all. After all, the fact that he knows that Jim is his soulmate and hasn’t run for the hills is pretty monumental, given the man’s romantic history.

And now that Jim knows, keeping Bones from running has become critical. After Ruth, Jim had thought that at least he didn’t have much left to lose. He’d already been through the pain of having his soulmate turn her back on him, and what could be worse than that, right? But now he knows that Ruth wasn’t his soulmate, and if that was what it was like to lose her, then what would losing Bones be like?

He can’t imagine it, but he knows it would be unbearable. And maybe it’s cowardly of him, but he’s not willing to open himself up to that kind of agony. What he and Bones have works, and if not talking about the fact that the universe seems to think they’re perfect for each other is what it takes to keep it working, then so be it.

*****

Leonard must have scared the holy hell out of Jim, because his friend calls him every single day after he wakes up in the hospital. He can tell that Jim is trying to be casual about the whole ordeal, but the sheer relief in his eyes every time Leonard answers the comm gives him away.

He does his best to ignore the looks that Nyota shoots him when these calls correspond with her visits, but the woman is a master of nonverbal communication. Leonard has been friends with her since she dragged her roommate in for treatment for a rather embarrassing STD in their first year, and he knows that he scared her too, so he tries not to grouch too much. Still, it’s a relief when he’s released from the hospital so that he can convalesce away from the alarmingly perceptive watch of his fellow cadet.

The summer weeks drag on, and the day that Jim is scheduled to arrive back on Earth, Leonard gets to the shuttle port half an hour early. Even so, he’s unprepared for the strength of the emotion that hits him when he spots Jim climbing off the shuttle. He’s missed the idiot, more than he’d realized it was possible to miss someone, and seeing him again is like being able to breathe for the first time when he hadn’t even realized he’d been suffocating.

Jim must feel something similar, because he stops dead the moment he sees Leonard, and the bond that he would swear has grown stronger in the wake of his near death experience pulses with joy and relief. And then Jim is barreling towards him, and he only has a second to brace himself before his friend slams into him and gloms on like an octopus.

“Good to see you too, Jim,” Leonard laughs, patting him on the back. God, it feels good to have his soulmate in his arms again.

Jim hangs on for a moment longer, but it still feels like too soon when he pulls away. Then he’s eyeing the doctor critically, and he frowns.

“Come on,” he says, looping his arm through Leonard’s and beginning to tug him out of the shuttle bay. “I’m taking you to dinner. You look like you need to be eating at least five square meals a day.”

“It’s a good thing you want to be a captain, and not a nutritionist,” Leonard says, but it’s mostly to distract himself from the thought that this is definitely not a date, but so much of him wishes that it could be.

And so begins their third year at the Academy.

*****

It’s different, after the revelations of the summer. Not dramatically, but noticeably, at least to Jim. He feels more attuned to Bones, can sense his moods without even being in the same room. He knows when to have a drink waiting for his friend after a difficult shift, knows when he can unleash the full brunt of his personality without annoying him.

It’s immeasurably comforting, to be able to reach for Bones and feel him there, the faint but steady presence that is always with him. When he is frustrated or hurting, he finds peace in the bond. When his confidence is flagging and he’s questioning himself, he draws strength from Bones.

But for all the fulfillment he gets from his bond with Bones, it never stops him from wanting more. It’s like a constant pull in his chest, trying to draw him towards the man. But the harder it gets to ignore his feelings for his friend, the more convinced he is that he needs to. It scares him, how invested he is, how deeply woven into his very being Bones has become. Jim is just barely managing to hold onto a balance, and if he loses that, if he lets himself get drawn in that last bit, he fears he will lose himself. Or worse, he’ll lose Bones.

So he continues to increase the frequency with which he sees to his physical needs. This endeavor is helped tremendously by the beginning of his relationship with Gaila, who is not only smart, funny, and sexy as hell, but who also understands exactly what Jim is and is not offering her, and is completely fine with it. She knows that she will never have his heart, but in accepting that, gains his friendship, which seems to mean a great deal more to her.

And best of all, Orions don’t have soulmarks. They think the whole institution of soulmates is frankly bizarre, and they don’t have the frustrating blind faith in it that most humans do. So Gaila doesn’t ask Jim any questions about his soulmate, and when he finally grows comfortable enough with her to take off his shirt during sex, she doesn’t say a word about the mark on his chest. She also never touches the words, for which Jim is grateful without quite knowing why.

It’s not a perfect system, but Jim makes it work. He has to.

*****

Even though Leonard has never been anywhere near the command track, and will never be at the helm of a starship unless literally everyone else on board is either dead or incapacitated, he agrees when Jim asks him to be on his crew for his Kobayashi Maru exam. He tells himself that it’s good practice to be familiar with more aspects of the ship’s operation than just its medical facilities, so that he doesn’t feel like he’s that wrapped around Jim’s little finger. But the truth is, he’s been willing to do almost anything Jim could ask of him for a long time now, even if he puts up the usual grumbling front while he’s doing it.

But because he’s on Jim’s crew, he gets a front row seat to the train wreck that the Kobayashi Maru inevitably is. He can feel Jim’s usual cocky confidence slip into frustrated worry as every action he takes is met by some new crisis, and then into restrained panic as systems start failing.

Leonard’s console blows up in his face and he slides to the floor amid a lightshow of harmless sparks, a casualty of the simulation. A horror that is not his own stabs him in the gut as more and more crewmembers tag out around him, but Jim’s terse orders just keep coming steadily until there is no one left to respond to them and the lights shut down, signaling the destruction of the ship itself.

There is utter silence for a moment, and Leonard can feel the roiling chaos of Jim’s emotions pressing into him. His friend is scared, and angry because he’s scared, and defensive because he’s angry, and he is burning with shame over his perceived failure. But when Leonard rolls over and opens his eyes to look, Jim is staring straight ahead with an utterly blank expression. He stands silently and leaves without a word.

Cursing mentally, Leonard scrambles up and hurries after him, dodging around the other cadets who are picking themselves up and dusting themselves off. He catches up with Jim just outside of the simulation center, grabbing his shoulder to bring him to a stop. Jim doesn’t even look at him.

“Jim-”

“Don’t, Bones,” Jim says coldly, and even though Leonard knows that the anger isn’t directed at him, it still stings. “There’s nothing you can say.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Leonard insists anyway. “This happens to everyone.”

Jim finally looks at him then, and his gaze is pained as he takes in his sooty cheeks and disheveled hair. One hand reaches up to smooth an errant lock back into place. Leonard holds his breath as the touch turns into a hesitant caress, Jim’s hand sliding down to cup his cheek.

“I have to be better than everyone,” he says softly. “When I’m responsible for you.”

He turns and walks away, and Leonard can’t remember how to move in time to follow him.

*****

Jim fights hard not to let on to Bones how nervous he is for his third Kobayashi Maru. He knows that his soulmate felt his devastation the first time, and his sheer frustrated fury the second, and he doesn’t want him to worry more than he already is about the next test. But in truth, watching Bones die under his command twice, even in a simulation, was twice more than he could handle, and he doesn’t think he can stand watching that again. It was so bad, in fact, that he almost didn’t ask Bones to be on his crew for the third test.

But he really is confident in his plan, and he wants his friend to witness his triumph after all of that failure. He also wants to prove to himself that he can keep Bones safe out there in the black.

And he will, he’s sure of it. But right now, he’s also got a stomach full of butterflies doing some pretty fancy acrobatics. So he turns to one of his favorite methods of distraction, and Gaila is more than happy to help him out. Until, of course, her roommate comes back.

From his reluctant vantage point underneath Gaila’s bed, Jim can see the soulmark curving over Uhura’s ribs, spanning almost her entire torso. He recognizes the language as Vulcan, but can’t even begin to translate it. The dark script is oddly beautiful though, and Jim doesn’t know why he’s surprised to see it. Even people as fiercely independent and, frankly, prickly as Uhura can have a soulmate.

Jim almost forgets about his own soulmark as he stands in indignation when Uhura calls him a mouthbreather. By the time he remembers just how exposed he is, it’s too late to hide anything.

He knows the second she registers his soulmark, because her eyes narrow. He tenses automatically, waiting for the inevitable disparaging remark. But she just shakes her head.

“I knew it,” she mutters.

“What?”

Talk to him, you idiot,” Uhura commands, thrusting his clothes at him. “Jesus, you really do belong together.”

She shuts the door in his face before he can ask her what she means. And then it hits him. Uhura was on the shuttle that brought Jim and Bones to the Academy. She must have heard their first words to each other.

“It’s complicated!” he yells through the door.

Life’s complicated!” he hears from within, and he can practically see Uhura throwing up her hands in exasperation. “Grow a pair and deal with it!”

You deal with it!”

Admittedly, it’s not his best comeback, and he gets no response, except for a side-eye from a passing cadet. Although that’s probably more due to the fact that he’s standing in the hallway in nothing but his underwear than the fact that he was shouting like a two-year-old through a closed door.

Christ. Maybe he does need to talk to Bones.

When he gets back to their room though, Bones isn’t there. Which makes sense, considering the fact that he was probably expecting Jim to be out for a while longer. So Jim is left with a bad case of blue-balls and no best friend to distract him. Still, he knows that Bones will be there tomorrow, no matter how much he might grouch about it.

And he is. And despite the eye rolling and grumbling, Jim can feel Bones’ pride when he successfully beats the test at last. In that moment, Jim has never felt more invincible.

But it turns out that no one is truly invincible, and the only thing that keeps Jim standing with a straight spine and his head held high at his hearing is knowing that Bones is at his back, supporting him. But even that is torn away from him when Bones is assigned to the Enterprise and Jim is pinned to the ground.

When Jim shakes Bones’ hand in farewell, it is the hardest thing he’s ever done to let go, to watch without a word as his soulmate turns away from him to head into the unknown, into potential danger, alone. Nothing has ever felt so utterly wrong, and Jim has to fight to hold himself together as it feels like something vital inside of him is tearing itself apart.

*****

Leonard’s heart is heavy as he walks away from Jim, unable to get the image of that devastated, kicked-puppy look out of his head. It feels so backwards, to be the one headed off to space while Jim is quite literally grounded. He’s always imagined that Jim will be right there with him when he sets out for that terrifying vastness. It’s the only thing that’s gotten him this far.

The mark on his arm stings, and his bond with Jim pulses with misery. He stops, sighs. Who is he trying to kid?

He turns to stride back the way he came, and grabs the other half of his soul by the arm.

“Come with me.”

*****

Jim has known terror and dread and grief, but never has he dealt with them all on the scale that he is confronted with during the encounter with Nero. It’s sheer urgency and adrenaline that keep him going through his death-defying dive onto the drill platform with Sulu, through the incomprehensible destruction of Vulcan, through being marooned and meeting an unsettling remnant of a future he will never have, through nearly dying a dozen times over on the Narada, through their white-knuckled escape from the black hole.

He rides the relief and the heady rush of triumph for a few hours while the damaged and warp core-less Enterprise limps slowly back towards Earth on impulse. But the thrill of successfully captaining the ship, saving his mentor, and avenging his father, can only carry him so long. He has witnessed a genocide, has watched billions of innocent people get sucked into a black hole along with the wreckage of starships containing his fellow cadets, his friends, senselessly murdered in one Romulan’s quest for vengeance. He came so close to watching Earth suffer the same fate, to being helpless to stop the destruction of his home.

 He grips tightly to the arms of the Captain’s chair, doing his best to ground himself. For years he has been so focused on earning this seat, but he didn’t want it like this. He’s worried about the chair’s previous occupant; Pike had been in bad shape when Jim passed him off into Bones’ care. But he’s in the best possible hands now, and all Jim can do is wait. Something he’s never been all that good at even in the best of circumstances.

He asks for periodic status reports to keep his mind occupied, but worry and weariness continue to gain on him. And then he is hit with a wave of exhaustion so powerful he knows it’s not his alone. And suddenly he can’t stay where he is, can’t keep holding off the tide that he knows is about to slam into him. He passes the conn off to Spock and makes his way off the bridge, his feet carrying him where he needs to go without any instruction from him.

Sickbay is still in shambles when he gets there, but some of the earlier chaos has died down. Nearly every bed is filled, either with an injured crewmember or a survivor of Vulcan. None of the euphoria of beating the Romulans and escaping the singularity caused by the red matter has made its way down here, and Jim feels more exhausted than ever as he sees the evidence of so much suffering.

But he is here for one person, and it takes him no time at all to find Bones, dressed in his surgical scrubs and leaning back against the wall beside the door to the main operating suite. Sheer exhaustion is written in every line of the form that Jim knows so well, and for a moment his stomach lurches with fear. But then, perhaps sensing his presence, Bones looks up and musters up what is nowhere near a smile but is enough to reassure Jim.

“He’s going to be all right,” the doctor says, pushing away from the wall. Jim doesn’t fail to notice the way he stumbles slightly. “That was some of the trickiest spinal work I’ve ever had to do, but I managed.”

“Thank you,” Jim says, but Bones waves it off.

“I owe him a lot too, Jim,” he says.

He looks at Jim a little more carefully, and pain joins the weariness on his face. He raises his hand to Jim’s neck and ghosts his fingers over the bruises there, the evidence of Spock’s wild assault, and guilt prickles through their bond.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispers. “I just stood by. Both times, while he-”

“You had just become the CMO, Bones,” Jim interrupts, unable to bear the shame and regret that Bones is broadcasting. “Under the worst possible conditions. You had a responsibility to every single person on this ship, and to the guy in command of it, and that wasn’t me. You were needed, and you mutinying along with me would’ve meant abandoning hundreds of others. And don’t think I didn’t see your hand in your pocket when Spock was beating the crap out of me. I know you were about five seconds away from hypoing him.”

“And I knew there had to be a reason you were being so awful to him, but that doesn’t change the fact that he could have killed you while I just stood there and watched.”

“Hey.” Jim grips Bones by the shoulder, hoping that the touch will reinforce his words. “You risked everything to get me on board this ship. If you think I’m anything but grateful, think again.”

Bones shakes his head but doesn’t argue. He just looks around him, presumably for an empty biobed, and it’s Jim’s turn to shake his head.

“Please, Bones, can we not stay here?” he pleads. “I know you haven’t technically been on duty for hours, and I need…I need…”

He doesn’t know how to put into words what he needs, not after all this time. But Bones just nods and grabs a medkit and leads Jim from the crowded sickbay and down a hallway that is deserted but for them. Since Bones was actually assigned to the ship and therefore has quarters on it, that’s where they go, even though neither of them has actually been in them before.

Bones pushes Jim gently towards the bed and opens the medkit. And even though Jim is hurting all over, he takes the tricorder from Bones’ hands and sets it aside when his friend tries to go into doctor mode.

“I don’t need you to patch up me up this time,” he says softly.

Bones looks like he wants to argue, but then he just sighs.

“Then what do you need, Jim?” The words are soft, pleading, and so many of Bones’ usual barriers are gone from his dark eyes, stripped away by the magnitude of his heartache and weariness.

Jim reaches for him, taking hold of his sleeve.

“I think…I think I just need to hold and be held, Bones.”

His soulmate is silent and still for a moment. But then another barrier drops, and he nods. Jim kicks off his boots and scoots further up the bed, and Bones lies down beside him. And then he is enveloped in Bones’ embrace, and he clings tightly to his friend as he finally allows the events of the last twenty-four hours catch up to him.

So many people, gone. Good friends and total strangers, all equally lost to the nothingness. And so many more that could have been, had Jim made one misstep, one wrong decision. He gambled with billions of lives today, and the magnitude of that threatens to swallow him.

Neither of them makes a sound, but Bones strokes a hand through Jim’s hair as he shakes, and Jim does his best to just keep breathing, grounding himself in the comfort of his soulmate. He doesn’t even notice where his own hand has gone until he feels Bones’ breathing hitch.

“Jim…”

That’s when he realizes that his hand has crept up Bones’ sleeve, that his fingers are wrapped around the mark that he has never seen but knows is there, his body seeking out the comfort of its match of its own accord. And Jim finds that he is incapable of pretending any longer.

“Just this once, Bones,” he pleads. “I know you don’t want me like this, but I think you are literally the only thing holding me together right now. I swear that tomorrow I’ll go back to pretending that my universe doesn’t revolve around you, but-”

He is cut off by the gentle press of lips against his own. It’s just the briefest second of a kiss, but it chases the breath from his lungs and sends warmth coursing through his body. He stares up at Bones, who is staring back at him with panicked surprise that doesn’t quite manage to hide the pain underneath.

“Of course I want you like this, you idiot,” Bones says, his entire body tense against Jim’s. “You don’t think you’re the center of my universe too? But this…” He touches the tips of his fingers to the back of Jim’s hand, which is still curled possessively around his soulmark. “Warning label, remember? Handle with caution: contents toxic.”

Jim is still buzzing with the kiss, but Bones’ words sober him quickly. He shifts back a little and pushes up his friend’s sleeve, exposing the soulmark for the first time. His breath catches in his chest, because even though seeing those untidy black words is not a surprise, it still sends an indescribable feeling shooting through him. He traces a finger over the mark, drawing a shiver from Bones. He taps the last word.

“Safe,” he reads. He meets Bones’ wary gaze and gives him a small, earnest smile. “That’s what you are to me, Bones. You’re safety, and shelter, and care, and support. You’re the one person I trust, more than anyone else, more than myself. You’re the home I’ve never had. So if you want this…” He takes a deep breath, hardly daring to let himself hope, but wanting so badly. He’s had enough of fear today, and he won’t let it paralyze him any longer. “If you want me, then don’t hold back because you think I don’t want anything and everything you’re willing to give me.”

Bones is silent for a moment, but his hands come up to cup Jim’s face. They stare at each other, and Jim can feel the hope and longing through their bond, but it is tinged with fear and uncertainty.

“It’s going to hurt,” Bones whispers. “We’re going to hurt each other, Jim.”

“Probably,” Jim concedes, reaching up to cover Bones’ hands with his own. He laces their fingers together and holds on tight. “Sometimes. But we’ll also be there to soothe those hurts. I know you, Bones. I know all of your dark places, and I love you for them. You never have to worry about pushing me away, because there’s nothing you could do to make me want to leave you. And if you can say the same for me…well, I don’t think this is something we should waste.”

Bones watches him for another moment, but then he surges forward and kisses Jim again. This one is deeper, more passionate, and Jim’s heart begins to slam against his ribs as he kisses back, pressing himself against Bones. Every part of him rejoices at the closeness and wants more.

“I can say the same,” Bones gasps when the break apart. He presses his forehead to Jim’s, holding his gaze with those entrancing hazel eyes that still have conflict warring in their depths. “I’d follow you anywhere, Jim. But you don’t believe in soulmates.”

“I didn’t,” Jim concedes breathlessly. “Maybe I still don’t, not for everyone. But I didn’t fall in love with you because you’re my soulmate, Bones. I fell in love with you because you’re you.”

That’s what finally does it. Jim can feel the wave of emotion that crashes through Bones at the words, as he finally accepts that this is what they both want, that they can have what they’ve been denying themselves for so very long. He smiles, but then his lips are occupied again.

This kiss is sweeter, more tender, but no less full of the passion that has been building for so long. Jim gives himself over to it, letting the heat of Bones’ touch seep through him, erasing his weariness and easing the weight that has been threatening to crush him. He presses himself still closer, and he can feel his heart tugging him toward its match.

Then Bones gasps and squirms, and Jim pulls back a fraction of an inch to look at him. Bones just shakes his head wordlessly and nods at his arm, where Jim had been running his fingers over his soulmark without realizing.

“Let me show you.”

Bones disengages his hands and leans back to take hold of the hem of Jim’s shirt. He tenses automatically, but Bones just waits patiently for him to relax again, which doesn’t take long, because he hadn’t been kidding about trust. And then Bones tugs the shirt off gently and tosses it aside, and he gazes at Jim’s soulmark for a moment. A hint of a flush creeps into his cheeks.

“I’m, uh, sorry about-”

“Don’t be,” Jim interrupts, shaking his head with a small smile. “The way we met…I wouldn’t change it for anything. It brought us here.”

“Yeah.”

Jim has never seen such a tender expression on Bones’ face, and knowing that it’s directed at him nearly overwhelms him. He initiates the kiss this time, but it only lasts for a moment before he gasps, flooded with a sensation that is both entirely new and yet deeply familiar. It’s like being bathed in sunlight after spending so long underground that he’s forgotten what the sky looks like. It’s a strengthening of the bond that he has cherished for years, filling him with the love that Bones feels for him. It’s humbling and scary and wonderful.

“Oh,” he says, looking down at where Bones’ hand is resting on his chest, over his soulmark. His soulmate favors him with a wry smile. “Did you feel…?”

“Yeah.” Bones shifts his hand so that he can lean forward and press his lips to the mark instead, and Jim’s eyes slide shut of their own accord. It’s almost overwhelming, the tide of feelings that threatens to sweep him away, but he wouldn’t trade it for anything. And if this is what simple touch does…

“Bones?” he gasps.

It’s all he can manage, but Bones knows what he’s asking. He pulls back to look at Jim, his eyes wide and dark.

“You sure?” he asks softly.

Jim snakes his hands under Bones’ shirt and tugs it over his head. It’s unfair, really, that in three years of living with the man, he’s never gotten to see him shirtless. He’s been missing out on a hell of a view.

He runs his hand over Bones’ torso, coming to rest over the heart that Jim can feel beating in tandem with his own. He leans in close, pressing his lips to the soft skin below Bones’ ear.

“I’m really sure,” he murmurs.

It’s apparently all Bones needs, because suddenly they’re both shedding their remaining clothes and coming together with renewed urgency. Jim runs his hands over every inch of skin he can reach, still hardly believing that this is all his now, that Bones is his, after wanting for so long. Never in his life has he experienced need like this, and he lets out an involuntary whine of displeasure when Bones rolls away from him to lean over the side of the bed. But then there’s the snap of a medkit opening and when Bones tucks himself back against Jim there’s a small bottle in his hand.

Bones peppers Jim’s flushed skin with kisses as he works him open, lips almost reverential in their work. He lavishes attention on the soulmark on his chest, and it’s all Jim can do to remember to keep breathing through the unrelenting tide of sensation. It hovers just on the edge of too much but never crosses it, because they know exactly where each other’s limits lie. So instead of being overwhelmed, Jim just wants more.

And Bones provides. Just when Jim thinks he might explode with need, Bones eases into him. They both gasp, unprepared for the explosion that rocks through them as their bond flares to life with a fierceness that surpasses anything they’ve felt up to this point. Bones tucks his face into Jim’s neck as they breathe through the rush and settle into each other.

The last of the barriers that Jim has spent his life carefully constructing crumble as he and Bones move in tandem, and part of him thinks that he should be terrified. Every instinct should be screaming at him to run, to protect himself from the vulnerability of needing someone so much, of loving someone so fiercely and wholly.

But Bones keeps up a steady stream of murmured promises in his ear, and Jim has never felt safer. Because he knows down to his shared soul that Bones loves him just as totally. And when they are swept away as one by a climax that redefines the word, the thought of running could not be further from Jim’s mind.