Actions

Work Header

A Wish in the Dark (for a bulletproof heart)

Work Text:

“I hate this.”

Leonard’s quiet words were not met with the usual response. This was hardly surprising, considering the fact that the man responsible for the answering phrase was currently lying comatose in a hospital bed.

It was a scene that was all too familiar: Jim, lying in a bed that wasn’t his own as he recovered from his latest bout of heroism. Leonard, sitting by his side, having done all he could and feeling like it wasn’t enough, left with nothing to do but wait. And eventually, long hours from now, Jim would wake up and give his friend a sheepish but unconcerned smile and Leonard would scold and hover and pretend like he hadn’t just been dragged through hell again.

Some of the details were different, of course. Instead of the familiar setting of the Enterprise’s medbay, the two of them were in a hospital in the capital city of the planet Sheykaa, where they were currently stranded until the Enterprise came back for them the next day. Instead of his usual blue-grey scrubs, Leonard was dressed in the pitch-black jumpsuit worn by the local physicians. And instead of being awake and complaining about being bedridden, Jim was still unconscious as his body continued to fight off the last of the toxins that had nearly claimed his life.

Leonard rubbed at his burning eyes, but it did nothing to dispel the images that were seared into them. Jim, crumpled on the ground with a tide of crimson rapidly staining his torn gold shirt. Jim, staring up at Leonard with eyes blown wide in pain and fear, eyes that soon grew unfocused and slipped shut. Jim, his chest cracked open under the harsh lights of a foreign operating room as Leonard worked furiously to stem the seemingly endless flow of blood from his injuries. Jim, ashen and motionless on a cold table while the piercing wail of a monitor reported the stopping of his heart.

Leonard shuddered and opened his eyes again to glance at Jim’s monitors for reassurance. After eight hours of surgery and a couple of miracles, he was well and truly stable. Leonard, on the other hand, was feeling distinctly unbalanced.

It wasn’t like this was the first time he’d had to pull Jim back from the brink. In fact, he had to do it so often, it might as well have been a part of his official job description. Leonard McCoy: Chief Medical Officer, Senior Resurrectionist. But every time he did it, every time he had to put Jim back together piece by piece, he couldn’t help but wonder if it would be the time he failed, the time he wasn’t enough. He’d gotten a taste of what that felt like, after the warp core nightmare, and he didn’t think he could survive it again.

“Is your friend going to be all right?”

Leonard was too exhausted to even be startled by the unexpected voice. He looked up, and got quickly to his feet. Despite his weariness and mild disdain of politics, he knew better than to remain seated when a king entered the room.

“Your Highness,” he said, offering a bow that he hoped was polite enough. He didn’t have the patience for such things on a good day, and it was not a good day.

King Ryland waved off the formality.

“Your friend,” he repeated, nodding at Jim. “He will recover fully?”

His friend. It was a tremendous thing, to be able to call Jim Kirk a friend. Leonard wasn’t entirely sure when it had stopped feeling like enough.

“This time,” he sighed. This time, Jim had survived jumping in front of the venomous, razor-clawed beast that had attacked their group. This time, Leonard had been able to save him.

But what about next time?

*****

Jim woke up, like he always did, and Leonard grouched and scolded, like he always did, and the two of them returned to the Enterprise when she came for them as if their nearly-disastrous away mission had been just another day at the office. Which, frankly, it had. That was the problem.

Things went back to as normal as they ever got aboard a starship on an exploratory mission, especially a starship with James T. Kirk in the captain’s chair.

One night, less than a week after their return from Sheykaa, Leonard jolted awake with a gasp, writhing under his sheets to reach for his foot before even registering the fact that he was conscious. Pain had exploded in his right pinky toe like a tiny supernova of agony, the kind that could only result from introducing said toe violently to the leg of a table or a doorjamb or something similarly hard and unyielding. Except Leonard couldn’t have stubbed his toe, because he was in his goddamn bed for crying out loud. Surely even his questionable luck wasn’t that bad.

“Lights, 60 percent,” he grunted, trying to sit up while cradling his still-throbbing foot.

He squinted at the digit under the light. It was an angry red color and the nail was cracked down to the bed, which was starting to slowly ooze blood.

“Sonuvabitch,” he muttered, poking at it gingerly.

He let out a hiss of pain and immediately ceased his poking. If it looked like a stubbed toe and it felt like a stubbed toe…Leonard glanced around. There was nothing out of the ordinary in his quarters. He hadn’t, for example, left a brick in his sheets and forgotten about it. Even if he tended to move in his sleep, which he didn’t, there was nothing for him to have stubbed his toe on.

“What in the hell?”

Leonard rubbed a hand over his tired eyes, glancing at his chronometer. It was almost 2 in the morning. He looked at his toe again. It still felt like someone was banging it with a hammer to the rhythm of his pulse, but it gave him no further clues as to the source of his torment.

Well, there wasn’t much he could do about it, short of going to medbay. And since he knew exactly what his reaction would be if someone came to him for a stubbed toe, no matter what they said about its origin, that was most decidedly not an option. He happened to value the respect of his staff, thanks.

So he commanded the lights back down and curled up under his blanket once more. He closed his eyes, but it felt like every nerve in his body had migrated to his injured toe, and they were all screaming at him. He knew that sleep would be a long time in returning.

“Fucking space,” he muttered, punching his pillow for good measure. It didn’t help.

*****

Because the Recreation Department was designed for the physical and emotional welfare of the ship’s crew, it ultimately fell under the umbrella of all things medical, and the Chief of Recreation reported directly to the Chief Medical Officer. This meant, to the never-ending amusement of one James T. Kirk, that Leonard was in charge of fun aboard the Enterprise.

This was of course a gross oversimplification of things, but the idea so delighted Jim that Leonard rarely bothered to argue with him about it. Besides, contrary to popular belief, he wasn't a total recluse and did actually enjoy the company of other living beings from time to time. Regardless, he liked to stop by the rec dec occasionally to make sure that everything was still running smoothly.

So one of his free shifts a few days after the mysterious stubbed toe incident found him on the main rec dec, surrounded by the sounds of the rest of the crew letting off a little steam. One corner held a lively game of modified squash (the modifications making it rather more combative than the original), an old holovid was projecting in another. And several crewmembers had gathered around the sparring ring, where Jim was facing off against Sulu.

The two officers had very different fighting styles, and their matches always promised to be interesting. Jim was a brawler, scrappy and effective in taking down his opponent by any means necessary. Sulu was more about the art of the fight, falling back on technique and traditional styles. They were of fairly equal skill however, and neither man ever gave up victory without making his opponent work for it.

Leonard didn’t pay much attention to the fight. It wasn’t because he disapproved, as Jim had often accused. In fact, he thought that sparring was a good way for Jim to work off some of the energy that always seemed to be simmering beneath his skin. It was the same energy that so often got them into trouble on away missions, so the more of it he could expend in harmless battles with a friend, the happier Leonard was. No, the reason he wasn’t watching was because the last time he’d tried, he’d found himself getting a little...distracted by the sight of Jim, eyes lit up with exhilaration but expression utterly focused, muscles bunching and stretching under the thin fabric of his Starfleet T-shirt, sweat gleaming on his skin and-

And Leonard was watching the fight again. He cleared his throat, face heating slightly, and glanced around to make sure that no one had noticed his ogling. Everyone in the immediate vicinity was also ogling, so it looked like he was safe. He returned his attention to what he’d been working on, reports from the latest round of physicals he’d conducted.

He’d done his own physical the week before. He still hadn’t gotten that stress ulcer he kept warning Jim about, but he had decided that he could benefit from a few more hours spent in the gym. Lately he’d had increasing amounts of his own excess energy, although he was fairly certain it didn’t come from the same place as Jim’s. Apparently he’d pushed himself a little harder than he thought, because every passing moment seemed to bring with it a new ache that he hadn't noticed before. He ignored the discomfort, focusing on his paperwork.

Blinding pain erupted in his face and he cried out, dropping his padd to clutch at his nose. He swore colorfully, looking around with watering eyes to see what very solid object had just slammed into his face, but there was nothing there.

No one in the rec room seemed to have noticed his predicament. The ones who weren’t involved in their own activities were all focused on the sparring ring, where Sulu was hovering over Jim.

“You’re sure you’re all right, Captain?” Leonard distantly heard him ask. “I really thought I got you there.”

“I thought you did too,” Jim replied wryly, rubbing at his nose. “Can’t feel a thing now though. I’m fine, Sulu.”

Blood was dribbling through Leonard’s fingers, dripping down his wrists and spattering his blue uniform. White-hot pain pulsed through his nose to the pounding beat of his heart. He barely felt it though, so distracted was he by the thought that had just occurred to him.

He got to his feet and bolted for the exit before anyone could notice him, hands still clamped over his face, mind racing. Fresh aches and stabs of pain hit him as he hurried to medbay, and he was starting to think less and less that they were from overdoing it in the gym.

“Good Lord, Leonard,” Geoff remarked when he finally stormed into medbay. “You look like you just lost a fight with a Klingon. What happened?”

“Rad idoo a door,” Leonard replied shortly, his voice thick. He called out to one of the nurses on duty for a coagulant hypo and an ice pack.

“You ran into a door. On a ship where all the doors open for you automatically.”

Someone pressed a towel into Leonard’s hands and he tilted his head over it, letting blood drip onto it rather than down his throat.

“Charmed life,” he grunted to Geoff. He could tell that his friend didn’t buy it for a second, but he didn’t press the issue.

“That looks broken,” he said when Leonard dropped the towel to accept the ice pack and hypo.

“Feels brokedth too.”

But the pain, intense though it was, was still registering distantly, overshadowed by its implications. Leonard let Geoff take care of setting his nose while he thought things through.

A stubbed toe that hadn’t been stubbed. Aches and pains that he’d done nothing to cause. And now, a nose that broke itself at the exact moment Jim took a hit to the face. That couldn’t be a coincidence. Not on this ship.

“You're gonna have a hell of a shiner for a few days,” Geoff said once he had finished repairing the structural damage to Leonard’s face.

“Delightf-” Leonard broke off with a wheezing gasp, doubling over. He felt like he'd just been kicked in the stomach.

“Leonard?”

Still breathless, Leonard leaned over to jab one of the comm units in the wall.

“McCoy to Captain Kirk,” he snapped. “Report to medbay at your earliest possible convenience.” His tone made it clear that it had better be convenient pretty damn soon.

“Uh oh,” said a passing Christine. “That's not a voice that bodes well for the captain.”

Apparently Jim thought so too, because it was a full ten minutes before he showed up, and when he did, it was with a look of utmost trepidation. It was just as well, as it gave Leonard the time to change out of his bloodstained top. Even so, Jim did a double take when he saw him.

“Bones, what happened to you?”

Leonard had almost forgotten that he still had a black eye. His entire body was aching, and he didn't even want to look at the rest of him to see if he was as bruised as he felt. He didn't answer Jim, just stood studying him for a moment. He looked...well, he looked damn near pristine. Sure, he was still ruffled from his bout of sparring, but his body was unmarked as far as Leonard could see.

“Bones?”

“How are you feeling, Jim?”

“How am I feeling? Fine. Why wouldn't I be?”

“Glad to hear it.”

Without warning, Leonard jabbed the hypo that he'd been concealing behind his back into Jim’s neck. Jim jumped and yelped, but Leonard had already flinched away, his own neck stinging.

“What was that for?” Jim demanded, indignant.

“Your potassium levels were low,” Leonard lied shortly.

“You dragged me up here because of my potassium levels?”

“Not just that. I want to give you another physical.”

“Why? Did you find something wrong on the last one?”

Jim had gone from indignant to concerned, and Leonard swore silently to himself. He couldn't just let Jim think that there was something wrong with him while he was trying to figure out his own condition.

“No, you're fine, Jim. It's just that...one of my instruments was on the fritz when I was examining you, and I want to make sure I've got a complete set of current readings on you. Never know when I'm going to need your baseline vitals for something.”

Naturally, once Jim was satisfied that he wasn't dying, he started whining. Leonard ignored his protests with the ease of long practice.

He wasn't quite sure why he wasn't just telling Jim the truth about his suspicions. After all, they would affect them both. But if he was wrong, then something very serious was wrong with him, and he didn't want Jim to worry about him needlessly. And if he was right...well, he needed some time to think through what it would mean if he was right.

Jim was in flawless condition. Not a bruise or scratch on him, not even a bug bite from their away mission the day before to a swampy planet that had Leonard itching in a dozen spots. For most other members of the crew, Leonard would have been satisfied with those results. But for Jim Kirk, they were downright unnatural. The man always had something; a half-healed bruise from sparring or a scabbed cut from an angry alien with a sword or a mysterious rash. Something like the marks Leonard was pretty sure he was going to find when he examined himself later.

After collecting as much information as he could to analyze later, Leonard turned Jim loose. Despite all the man’s kvetching though, he seemed reluctant to leave.

“Is everything okay, Bones?” he asked, his piercing gaze roving over Leonard’s face.

Leonard had always had a damn hard time lying to him, so he turned away under the guise of checking his equipment.

“Everything's fine, Jim,” he insisted. “You know me; I'll take any excuse to put you through a couple extra rounds of tests.”

There was a moment of silence, and Leonard could practically feel the weight of Jim’s scrutiny.

“Sadist.”

Leonard relaxed a fraction at the teasing note in Jim’s voice and finally deemed it safe to turn back to his friend.

“And don't you forget it, next time you're wondering whether or not you should go poke an alien bear with a stick. That'll earn you days of extra tests.”

“When have I ever poked an alien bear with a stick?”

“Never, if I can help it, but I'm sure you'll find a way.”

Jim grinned. He slid down from the biobed he’d been sitting on.

“You know me too well, Bones.”

As he was watching Jim leave, Leonard pinched the back of his own hand hard, digging his nails into his skin. Jim didn't so much as twitch. So, this wasn’t a two-way exchange.

Leonard spent the next two hours running test after test on himself. Aside from his now-healing nose, he had two cracked ribs, a sprained wrist, and more bruises than he knew what to do with. It was hardly surprising. If Jim wasn't feeling pain properly, he wouldn't think he was getting hurt. He would have no reason to take it easy.

What Leonard couldn't find though was any possible explanation for why he was suddenly experiencing all of his friend’s injuries. None of Jim’s scans had been abnormal, and aside from his borrowed injuries, Leonard’s were the same. There was no unusual neurological activity, no strange radiation, no chemical imbalances. Nothing that would make him think a single thing was wrong. So why had he suddenly become like some kind of reverse voodoo doll for Jim?

Leonard had no answers, and after running all the tests he could think of and doing his best to patch himself up, he was too tired to do anything besides go back to his quarters to sleep through the rest of his free shift.

*****

Thankfully, the Enterprise had an uneventful few days after the incident in the rec room. No dangerous away missions, no aliens trying to shoot them out of the sky, no engineering mishaps that threatened to blow the entire ship to pieces. No reason for Jim to be in even the slightest bit of danger. Of course, there was still the occasional bump and bruise, but nothing too rough.

Leonard continued to run tests as he thought of them, but he still couldn't find any physical evidence linking him to Jim. Of course, he might have made more progress if he had the other half of this bizarre equation to study, but something still held him back from telling Jim what was going on. He tried not to think too much about just what that something was.

It wasn’t as if he was doing himself any favors by not speaking up. Jim not knowing when he was getting hurt could only make him more reckless, put Leonard more at risk. But that risk just didn’t seem all that dire when it meant Jim had an extra buffer of protection from himself. For so long, Leonard had been wishing he could do more for Jim, help keep him out of medbay in the first place rather than just praying he could do enough to save him once he got there. And now he could. Placing his own body on the line seemed like a small price to pay for that.

Then, six days after the incident in the rec room, Jim led an away team down to the surface of the most recent planet the ship had come across. Supposedly uninhabited, a couple of the scientists had wanted a closer look at its geology. Nothing the captain’s presence was required for, but Jim tended to go stir crazy when cooped up on the ship for too long, so he'd decided to beam down with the three members of his crew.

Three hours after they left, Leonard was summoned to the transporter room for a medical emergency. It was the call that he dreaded every time Jim left the ship without him, and he forgot for the time that it took him and his team to arrive that he would know already if something had happened to Jim. And when they got to the transporter room, it was one of the geologists who was lying motionless on the floor.

Leonard knew at a glance that there was nothing he could do for her. Lieutenant Mattias’ head was visibly caved in, and her hair and uniform were soaked through with more blood than any human could survive losing.

Jim was kneeling beside her on the transporter pad, and he looked up as the medical team arrived. His expression was positively wrenching. He knew that she couldn’t be saved, but he was looking to Leonard for a miracle anyway.

But the Enterprise’s senior resurrectionist was fresh out of miracles that day. He ran his tricorder over the fallen officer to confirm what he already knew, and then pulled Jim aside gently so that his team could load her body onto an anti-grav stretcher for transport to medbay.

“There was nothing I could do,” Jim said as he watched, his voice hollow. “I was right there, and I couldn’t do a single damn thing.”

Leonard knew the feeling.

He knew that it wasn’t the first time Jim had lost a member of his crew, but usually it was in action, action that the captain was right in the middle of. The first time had been on the ill-fated mission to capture Khan, and Jim had died right along with his crew, died for them. Leonard knew it had helped to ease the burden of his guilt.

But by all indications, this had been some kind of accident. No bullet for Jim to jump in front of, no enemy’s attention to distract. Jim wasn’t good with tragedy that was just that - senseless, blameless, and unavoidable. It was an unwelcome reminder that sometimes there were, in fact, no-win scenarios.

“I’ll take care of her, Jim,” said Leonard. He knew it was the only comfort he could offer just then, small though it was. No one could forgive Jim but himself, and that would take time. “We’ll get her back to her family.”

Jim didn’t respond, so Leonard squeezed his shoulder and left to follow his team to medbay to perform his most difficult duty as Chief Medical Officer.

By the time he had finished the autopsy, report, and arrangements for the lieutenant’s body, Leonard’s shift was well past over. Instead of going back to his quarters for some much-needed rest though, he asked the computer to find Jim. It tried to deny him access to the information, and he had to use his medical override. It was for that reason that he entered the observation deck five minutes later with no small amount of caution.

Jim was sitting cross-legged in front of the massive window overlooking the vast infinity of space. Leonard took a deep breath and gritted his teeth. While he and space had reached something of an understanding over the years, they would never be friends. He could appreciate its beauty, the possibilities it represented, but he would never quite feel comfortable staring it in the face like this.

Jim didn’t look up when Leonard sat down beside him, but he did silently hold out the bottle of whiskey clutched loosely in his grip. Leonard peered at it, and sincerely hoped that it hadn’t been full when Jim had started drinking. He accepted it and took a sip, but knew that it would be his last for the night. Lowering his inhibitions around Jim would be a disastrous idea at the moment.

He hesitated briefly, but then passed the bottle back to Jim. It wasn’t as if it would be the first time one of them had to take care of the other after drinking too much.

He opened his mouth, but no words came out. What was there to say? ‘It wasn’t your fault’? Jim knew that but wouldn’t believe it until he was ready. ‘There was nothing you could have done’? Leonard knew from far too much personal experience that that one was spectacularly useless.

Jim made the struggle easier.

“I need you to not say anything, Bones.” His voice was quiet, calm, but Leonard could hear the barely-controlled undercurrent beneath it. “Please.”

Leonard’s heart squeezed painfully. He wished in that moment that he could take on this pain from Jim too, but apparently this bizarre new connection of theirs didn’t extend that far. So he just nodded and settled in a little closer to Jim, offering his support in the way that mattered most: by just being there.

The observation deck was dark, but the light from the stars and nebulae and distant galaxies was enough to illuminate Jim’s face. It gave his solemn features an almost ethereal quality, beautiful and untouchable. Wordless, soul-deep longing swelled within Leonard, and he had to avert his gaze, staring out into the depths of space instead.

Tonight, it felt safer to look at the stars.

*****

Leonard woke up feeling like there was an elephant sitting on his head. No, not sitting. Stomping. Repeatedly.

He let out a rather pathetic groan, cringing when even that was enough to hurt his ears. His stomach roiled in a way that felt very urgent, and he stumbled out of his bed, barely making it to the toilet before his entire digestive system turned itself inside out. The motion only exacerbated the pain in his head, which naturally made the nausea worse in a feedback loop from hell. He heaved until he was pretty sure he could see things he’d eaten when he was in med school.

When his stomach finally stopped trying to throw itself from his body, he could do nothing for a long moment besides brace himself against the toilet bowl and press his palms to his watering eyes while he waited for the world to stop whirling around him.

“Why?” he groaned. He didn't get an answer.

When he tried to stand up to track down a painkiller for his head, his stomach roiled again and he doubled over the toilet once more, gagging. He hadn't felt this shitty since his freshman year...of...college…

Oh, come on. Bruises and broken noses were one thing, but did he really need to be saving Jim from his hangovers too?

“McCoy to Scott.”

It took a moment, but Scotty’s far too cheerful voice answered over the comm, sounding like a bullhorn to Leonard's sensitive ears.

“Scotty here, Doc.”

“You in your quarters?”

“Aye. Do you need something?”

What Leonard needed was a new job and possibly some professional help, but he wasn't likely to get either of those from the Chief Engineer.

“Yeah, I need you to grab my medkit from my bedside table and bring it to me.”

“All right.” Scotty sounded vaguely puzzled. “Where do you want me to- oh.”

The other door to the bathroom had hissed open, and Scotty was peering down at Leonard with surprise. He wrinkled his nose.

“You look like I've felt after some of my more memorable shore leaves,” he said, his expression warring between amusement and sympathy. “Or less memorable, I suppose, when you think about it.”

Leonard wasn't really in the mood to think about anything just then, not the least Scotty’s wilder vacations.

“Medkit, Scotty, I'm begging you.”

“Oh right, sorry.”

Scotty disappeared into Leonard's quarters and reappeared a moment later with the medkit in hand. He handed it over and watched as Leonard began rifling through it. He ran the tricorder over himself, confirming his suspicions. He was experiencing that delightful blend of dehydration, gastrointestinal inflammation, and toxin buildup that all added up to the mother of all hangovers.

Some of Scotty’s amusement seemed to fade as he watched.

“Suppose it was that awful business with Lieutenant Mattias,” he said solemnly.

Leonard paused, his gut lurching for an entirely different reason now. He’d stayed up with Jim for hours and hours the night before, until the bottle of whiskey was far too close to empty. Jim hadn’t said a single word after his initial plea for silence, but as the night wore on he’d leaned closer and closer to Leonard, until his head finally slumped against his shoulder and his eyes drifted shut. It had been with a vaguely guilty conscience that Leonard had wrapped an arm around him, just holding him for far longer than was strictly necessary before packing him off to his quarters for some proper rest.

He sighed.

“Yeah, Scotty. I suppose it was.”

A couple of hypos and the strongest pot of coffee he and Scotty could coax out of the replicator later, Leonard checked in with his team for the start of alpha shift and then left to make his way to the bridge. Jim swiveled to look at him as he entered, and although there was still a sad edge to his smile, the spark was back in his eyes. His indomitable Kirk spirit had returned, and Leonard was heartened to see it. It was worth the pain still pounding in his head, the cramping in his gut. It was worth the steadily growing ache in his heart.

*****

As two more weeks went by, Leonard started to get used to being Jim’s pain proxy. It was actually kind of reassuring. He'd never realized just how much of his time he’d spent worrying about Jim, until he didn't have to anymore. Well, he still worried, but at least now he always knew when those worries were valid. And if he returned from away missions with aches and scrapes for two, well, it still seemed like the less painful option.

“Today marks a truly momentous occasion.”

Leonard looked up, startled. Jim had just sat down across from him in the mess and was looking at him with an incredibly smug smile. Alarmed, Leonard wracked his brain, going over important dates and trying to figure out which one he'd missed.

“It's not anyone's birthday…” he said slowly. Jim's smug grin only widened.

“Nope! Today, Doctor McCoy, marks the one month anniversary of the last time I came to you for anything but a social visit.”

Leonard stared at his friend for a moment.

“I'll be damned.”

Jim laughed.

“You really didn’t think it was possible, did you?” he asked, popping a french fry into his mouth. Leonard was too distracted by the announcement to scold him about his choice of food. “I don’t know whether to be proud or insulted.”

Leonard fought to act casual. He was still very much avoiding telling Jim the real reason for his miraculous good health, despite it getting harder and harder to justify doing so.

“Can you blame me?” he asked. “Seven years, I’ve known you, and until now your record was two weeks.”

“It was three weeks.”

Leonard leveled Jim with an unimpressed look.

“Seventeen days,” he said flatly.

“Oh come on, you can’t count that thing with-”

“I can, and I do.”

Jim rolled his eyes but conceded the point.

The banter continued in the same fashion for a while. As their meal progressed however, Jim's cheerful attitude seemed to slip. He grew quiet, pensive even. He got the little frown that always appeared whenever he was mulling over something tough, the one that Leonard found unreasonably endearing.

“Penny for your thoughts, Jim?”

It took a second for Jim to even register the question. He shook himself and looked up, an easy grin settling back onto his features. Something about it was oddly unsettling.

“They’re not worth a penny,” he said with a careless shrug. “I was just wondering if I left the stove on.”

Leonard rolled his eyes, but let the matter drop. That would turn out to be a mistake.

*****

A few days later, Leonard was in the middle of examining a twisted knee when his palm stung sharply. He winced but ignored it, having grown somewhat used to surprise flashes of pain. But then another, more intense burn followed it.

“Doctor, I think you're bleeding.”

Leonard’s patient was staring in concern at the tricorder he’d just put down. Leonard followed his gaze to see that the handle of the small device was smeared with red. He lifted his left hand, and quickly discovered the source. A shallow cut crossed his palm, bleeding sluggishly. Even as he watched, the wound deepened slightly with a fresh slice of pain. He swore.

“It's nothing, Richardson,” he told his patient, curling his hand into a fist to hide the injury. “Must’ve- must’ve just cut my hand on one of my instruments and not noticed. I’ll go take care of it.”

He summoned one of his staff to finish taking care of Richardson’s knee, and locked himself in his office. He commanded the lights up to their full capacity and bent over his hand to study it more carefully.

The cut was still steadily oozing blood. It was thin, the edges suspiciously neat. Leonard stared at it, gut clenching. He winced as the cut deepened, the flow of blood speeding up. He grabbed a dermal regen, but he could barely focus as he worked to close the wound.

“Computer, locate Captain Kirk.”

“Captain Kirk is currently in his quarters.”

Leonard's chest tightened. There wasn’t much you could cut yourself on accidentally in Jim's quarters.

After finishing closing the wound and changing into a shirt that wasn’t speckled with blood, Leonard left medbay and headed for the captain’s quarters. Before he'd made it halfway there though, he ran into the man himself.

“Bones.”

He'd clearly surprised Jim; his friend stared at him for a moment, as if struggling with words he hadn't quite been prepared for. He was pale, his eyes almost haunted.

“Hey, Jim,” Leonard greeted carefully when Jim said nothing else. “Everything okay?”

“I- yeah. Why wouldn't it be?”

Now that was the question, wasn't it?

“No reason, I suppose.”

Still, Leonard couldn't help studying his friend. Jim shifted under the inspection. He took a deep breath.

“Bones, I-”

“Bridge to Captain Kirk. You're needed up here, sir.”

Leonard wanted to reach through the intercom and strangle the beta shift communications officer as Jim's expression shuttered again and he offered up a casual, apologetic grin.

“Duty calls,” he said, before turning on his heel and vanishing down the hallway without another word.

*****

Leonard didn’t see much of Jim for the next few days. He wouldn’t have thought too much of this - they were both busy men, after all - if not for the fact that it was accompanied by a rather dramatic uptick in the number of random minor injuries he picked up in any given day. Away missions were one thing, but Jim seemed to be collecting an inordinate amount of abuse without even setting foot off the ship.

Aside from the disturbing cuts on his palm, Leonard noticed random bursts of pain in his knuckles, as if Jim was punching things with increasing regularity, burns and scrapes that were usually reserved for engineers, a couple more stubbed toes. And one morning Leonard woke up unable to move without muscle soreness on a level he hadn’t felt since his first week of PT at the Academy, evidence of a night Jim must have spent pushing himself well past his limits in the gym.

He tried to talk to Jim without letting on how he knew something was wrong, but his friend brushed him off every time. He was still working out how best to approach the issue when the Enterprise stopped for shore leave at one of the Federation’s fringier planets.

While Leonard thoroughly approved of shore leave and had often prescribed it for his patients, he elected to forego the experience this time around in favor of focusing on a set of experiments that he’d been running all week. He was in the middle of scanning a row of petri dishes when his vision went abruptly white and then dark, pain exploding in his jaw. He dropped his tricorder with a clatter, but before he could clutch at his face, his breath was driven from his lungs with the force of a battering ram. The knuckles on his right hand ached sharply, and then he reeled with the fresh pain that shot through his cheek.

Leonard had been in enough bar fights to recognize the symptoms. He unleashed a string of expletives, wincing as another blow landed. He’d really thought that Jim was maturing out of this stage in his life, but evidently he’d been wrong.

He could have commed the bridge and had the communications officer patch him through to Jim’s communicator, but he was pretty sure that Uhura had passed on this shore leave as well, and if she was at her station, she might be able to tell that something was wrong. So Leonard strode from the lab to his office as quickly as he could, doing his level best to hide the fact that he felt like a human punching bag. Fortunately, many of his staff were on leave as well, so there were fewer potential witnesses to his pained, limping gait, his repeated flinching, the bruises blooming on his face. He felt his lip split and he clapped a hand to his mouth to cover the blood, ducking into his office at last.

His objective was the personal communicator that he kept in his desk, but before he could reach it, agony tore through his knee and he fell hard to the floor. He curled in on himself, retching as someone planted what felt like a very solid boot in Jim’s stomach. He braced his arms over his head in an instinctive but useless protective gesture. Before he could really start to panic though, the blows stopped abruptly.

The absence of new injuries made the existing ones that much more noticeable, and for several long moments he could do nothing but hold himself perfectly still, sucking in air in quick, painful gasps that raised some serious doubts about the structural integrity of his ribs. But then he gritted his teeth, braced himself, and hauled his battered body the last two feet it took to reach his desk. He coughed a dribble of blood onto his sleeve and commed Jim.

“Hope you’re not having too much fun down there,” he drawled when he got through.

“Don’t worry, Spock is taking care of that,” Jim replied, sounding almost sullen.

Leonard closed his eyes and offered up his second - and hopefully last - ever prayer of thanks for the Vulcan. He must have dragged Jim out of the fight.

“That walking computer is smarter than both of us combined,” Leonard said, swallowing his pride in the interest of keeping them both alive. “Listen to him.”

The only response he got was unintelligible grumbling.

*****

The next day, when Leonard had fixed the most visible of the damage from Jim’s fight and made sure that he could carry himself without any outward signs of pain, he tracked down his friend, filled with renewed determination. Something was off with Jim, something beyond their bizarre connection, and Leonard was going to figure it out and address it before the reckless idiot got them both killed.

He found the captain in one of the rec rooms, the same one in which Leonard had had his bloody little revelation. Jim wasn’t sparring this time though; instead he was sequestered in the quietest corner, hunched over a padd, frowning with concentration. Leonard crossed the room to join him.

“Talk to me, Jim,” he said without preamble.

Jim didn’t even look up from his padd.

“Paperwork was invented in hell but Satan sent it up here instead because he thought it was too cruel a punishment.”

Leonard raised an eyebrow. This was off to a less than promising start.

“Okay, talk to me about something I don’t already know.”

Jim finally lifted his head, considering.

“The first girl I ever kissed was named Monica Salsburg,” he said with a small, reminiscent smile. “We were six, and her friends dared her.”

“Nope, try again. You told me about your little childhood tryst in our second year.”

“Damn. And you remembered?”

Shit. Had he really been so far gone for Jim even back then, that the story of an innocent childhood kiss would stick in his brain?

“It was before I started tuning you out whenever you talked about girls.”

“Lies. You never tuned me out. You had to live vicariously through me because you never got any.”

Leonard rolled his eyes.

“Some of us actually studied at the Academy,” he said. “But that’s not the point.”

“There’s a point?”

“I haven’t seen much of you lately. I just wanted to make sure that nothing’s wrong.”

Jim looked down at his padd, his expression going from warm and open to forced casual.

“I’m fine, Bones,” he said, too quickly. “Just busy. Seriously, no one tells you how much paperwork is involved in captaining a starship until they’ve already saddled you with your stripes.”

“Don’t complain to a doctor about paperwork,” Leonard advised. “It’s like complaining to a monk about not getting enough sex.”

Jim raised an eyebrow at him, smirking again.

“Still not getting any, huh?” he asked. “You know, you could’ve taken shore leave yesterday. There were plenty of women down there who would’ve taken pity on you.”

This was the opposite of where Leonard had wanted this conversation to go.

“I don’t need pity,” he said shortly, fighting down the rush of heat in his face. He floundered for a change of subject, gesturing down at Jim’s padd. “You could do this in your ready room.”

“I know.” Jim’s smile had vanished once more. “I just- I wanted…”

He glanced around the room, his eyes settling on various members of his crew as they laughed and relaxed. There was something troubled and melancholy in his features.

“I guess I just wanted a little company, that’s all.”

Leonard studied his friend carefully.

“Something on your mind, Jim?”

Jim kept staring out at the rec room for a moment, but then he seemed to shake himself. He gave Leonard an empty smile.

“About a thousand things,” he said. “But none of them are important. Like I said, I’m fine.”

Yeah, he had said that. Too bad Leonard didn’t believe it. Before he could call him out though, Jim went on the offensive.

“Is there something you wanted to talk about?”

Leonard stared at him.

I’ve been stealing your pain for weeks. I’m in love with you. I think it might kill me.

“Oh yeah,” he drawled. “You know how much I love to chat.”

Jim laughed and elbowed him companionably in the ribs, sending agony lancing through his still-healing body. Leonard bit his lip until he tasted blood, fighting not to give anything away.

*****

Most people knew better than to disrupt Leonard when he was working in his lab. Spock, sadly, was not one of them.

“What do you want, Spock?” Leonard demanded when the Vulcan had been standing just inside the doorway watching him work in silence for a solid minute.

Spock looked oddly ill at ease.

“Doctor…” he said, but then fell silent again.

“Either say what you came to or leave me alone,” Leonard growled, too worn out to deal with him.

“I am...concerned. About the captain.”

That got Leonard's attention. He stood.

“What've you noticed?”

Spock paused, collecting his words.

“Jim has always had a certain...cavalier attitude towards his own safety,” he began.

“He's a reckless idiot, Spock,” Leonard snorted. “Get on with it.”

Spock’s lips compressed slightly in his emotionally constipated version of a frown.

“I believe that Jim is starting to drift beyond mere recklessness. On recent away missions, he has gone out of his way to make sure that he is the one shouldering any risks, even when they are not strictly necessary. And I believe...I believe that he may have deliberately instigated a fight that he knew he would not win, and which served no purpose.”

Leonard couldn't help grimacing. He rubbed absently at his ribs, still sore from the fight in question.

“I have attempted to discuss the matter with him,” Spock went on.

Leonard snorted again, more bitterly this time.

“I imagine that went well.”

“He denies any change in his behavior.”

“Of course he does.” Leonard pinched the bridge of his nose. “What do you expect me to do about it?”

Spock was silent for a moment, studying Leonard.

“I thought that perhaps with your superior experience in human psychology, as well as your friendship with the captain, you might be more successful in addressing the problem.”

Leonard's gut twisted. Yes, he should have been the man for the job. He should have been the one Jim confided in, the one he trusted above anyone else. Even Spock took that as a given. And yet…

“Your concerns are noted, Spock. If and when I feel that the captain is a danger to himself, I'll be sure to take the necessary measures.”

But he hadn’t, had he? Because finally, finally it wasn’t himself that Jim was a danger to. And Leonard couldn’t bear to give that up.

*****

“Mister Spock, look at this! Have you ever seen a simple flower with a carpel modified like this?”

“Indeed I have not, Lieutenant. A most fascinating specimen.”

Leonard rolled his eyes at the helmsman and science officer. Usually Chekov was the one to nerd out with Spock, but whenever plants were involved, all bets were off.

Still, at least someone was having fun. Leonard couldn’t deny the medicinal value of studying alien flora, which was why he was on this exploratory away mission to an uninhabited class M-planet, but his idea of a good time was not floundering around sweltering alien rainforests getting dripped on by alien plants and eaten alive by alien insects, which were no less annoying than good old-fashioned earth insects.

“Forget about carpels,” Jim called from the other side of their small expedition, where he was bending over a massive, violently orange flower. “I’ve never seen a plant that smells like a cheeseburger before. Check this-”

The rest of his statement was cut off in a strangled yelp as Leonard yanked him away by the back of his shirt.

“For the love of god, Jim!” he scolded. “A man who’s allergic to as many things as you has no business sticking his entire goddamn head into some alien…”

Leonard had plenty more to say, but the words got stuck in his throat. He coughed, but it didn’t alleviate the sudden tingling tightness in his chest, the itching burn in his airway. His tongue felt suddenly too big for his mouth, threatening to choke him. He tried to breathe through his nose, but no air came through.

“Oh come on, Bones,” Jim said, oblivious to Leonard’s sudden plight. “I was sniffing a flower, not bathing in pollen. And you’ve got to admit that it smells like a cheeseburger.”

It did smell like a cheeseburger, but that was about the furthest thing from Leonard’s mind just then. His medical instincts were kicking in, cataloging his symptoms as they arose. His swelling airways, his burning lungs, the way his head was starting to spin as his blood pressure dropped; they were all textbook indications of anaphylaxis. It just figured. Pollen almost never caused allergic reactions this severe. Leave it to Jim fucking Kirk.

All of this processing was happening in one part of his brain. In another part, a more basic, human part, alarm was mounting. He did his best to fight down his body’s natural panicked response, but it wasn’t as if he could take deep, calming breaths. He raised his hands to his throat, tugging instinctively at the collar of his uniform. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t help. He choked and gasped, but only the barest trickle of air was making its way to his burning lungs now. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe.

“Bones?” Jim had evidently realized that something was amiss. His hands rose to grip Leonard’s shoulders, eyes sweeping his body in a rapid scan. “Bones, what’s wrong?”

Leonard couldn’t answer. His lungs had started to protest in earnest, demanding oxygen.

He shrugged Jim off and fumbled at his waist for his medkit. He blinked at the cartridges of medication within, the labels blurring in his watery vision. He vaguely registered the sound of Jim still talking to him, tone increasing in urgency, but it barely reached him, nearly drowned out by the pounding roar in his ears. He selected a cartridge by color, but his legs buckled beneath him before he could load it into the hypo.

A familiar pair of arms caught him, more or less. He and Jim sank gracelessly to the ground, Jim’s voice growing more panicked as he shouted for Spock. The muscles in Leonard’s chest were starting to spasm painfully, trying futilely to pull air into his lungs.

Cool fingers plucked the hypo from Leonard’s rapidly numbing hands and efficiently loaded the cartridge of steroids into it. Spock pressed the hypo to the thick muscle at the base of Leonard’s neck, and a faint hiss signaled the discharge of the drugs. Leonard forced himself to stay as calm as possible as he waited, knowing that it would take a few seconds for the medication to take effect and bring down the swelling in his throat.

But those few seconds went by, and then a few more, and still no air was getting to Leonard’s burning lungs. Had he not been the doctor and the patient, this was when he would have gone for an alternative airway. But skilled as he knew he was, even he wasn’t capable of performing a tracheotomy on himself.

But what if he wasn't the patient?

Fresh inspiration had Leonard scrabbling through his medkit again, blinking furiously. He’d gotten into the habit of marking all of the medications he knew to be safe for Jim with little stickers, so that he could identify them quickly in an emergency. The stickers used to be simple dots of color, but then Joanna had come to visit her Uncle Jim in the hospital after the San Francisco disaster. She was wholeheartedly behind her father’s initiative, but regarded his sticker choice with the utmost disdain. Before the Enterprise left for her five year voyage, Joanna had presented Leonard with two dozen sticker books and informed him that they were to be her contribution to the team effort of keeping Uncle Jim safe.

So the cartridge that Leonard reached for next was adorned with a kitten wearing a tiara, although it looked like a shapeless grey blob to him at that moment. Spock tried to take the hypo from him again, but he snatched his hand away weakly and jabbed downward, hitting Jim square in the thigh. Jim didn’t so much as flinch as kept his grip on Leonard, holding him upright against his chest. A corresponding sting flared in Leonard’s thigh, but he barely noticed it.

Someone must have called for an emergency beam-up, because the world dissolved around them in a swirl of golden light that Leonard could barely see. But it wouldn’t matter. Any emergency medical team would be treating the wrong patient, if they even got to him before he succumbed to his anaphylactic shock. His only chance was if he had just guessed right.

But nothing seemed to be happening, and Leonard wondered if he’d made a mistake. His brain felt foggy and sluggish, the darkness around his vision pressing in on him steadily, pulling him under. His eyes seemed to slip closed of their own accord, and Jim began to shout at him, to shake him. But he couldn’t bring himself to care, not even when Spock scooped him from Jim’s arms and took off running in what Leonard could only presume was the direction of medbay. He didn’t even bother with a token protest, just let his head loll against his friend’s chest as the world got further and further away. It would have been nice to have Jim’s arms around him at the very end, but he supposed this wasn’t so bad.

But then the vise around his throat loosened, and air began to pour into his lungs. Leonard was too dazed to do much, but his body knew what to do, pulling in the oxygen that he had been so desperately lacking in great, heaving gasps. He fisted a hand in Spock’s shirt and just breathed, the roaring in his ears louder than ever. Jim was still talking at him, but he couldn’t focus on the words, couldn’t string together a response.

The med team finally met them at a run, and Christine pressed an oxygen mask to his face while Spock lowered him onto a stretcher. Leonard’s mind and vision started to clear at last as M’Benga loomed over him with a tricorder, and he wanted to protest all the fuss. But his body felt like a limp noodle, and he suspected that trying to stand would end up with him on the floor again. That was unlikely to help his case.

“I’m fine,” he said anyway, because he knew what the problem had been and he’d fixed it; a trip to medbay would be pointless. For him, anyway. “My system must have reacted to something on the planet, but a dose of steroids should’ve cleared it right-”

“You’ll go to medbay, Doctor McCoy, and you’ll stay there, as a patient, until Doctor M’Benga tells me that it’s all right for you to leave.”

Startled at Jim’s tone, not to mention the use of his title, Leonard glanced over at his friend. Jim’s face was pale and set, but something was brewing behind his hard expression. Leonard bit back any further arguments he might have made, a feeling of dread gathering in his gut.

Jim walked beside the stretcher as Leonard was brought to medbay, but he said nothing. Leonard could see the wheels turning, that genius-level brain working through the evidence at hand. He had too much faith in his friend to hope that he would come to anything but relatively accurate conclusions.

When they got to medbay, Geoff graciously put Leonard in one of its private rooms. Jim didn't follow them in. Unsettling as his grim presence had been, his absence was even more disquieting.

“I suppose this means you'll finally be dealing with whatever's been going on with you for the past few weeks?” Geoff inquired casually as he ran a tricorder over Leonard.

“Good guess,” Leonard replied grimly. His voice rasped painfully in his raw throat.

Geoff left him after a few minutes, with stern orders for him to stay where he was. Leonard wasn't exactly afraid of his second in command, but Jim's warning echoed in his mind. He stayed put.

After a wait that dragged on for what felt like an eternity, Jim appeared in the doorway. He just looked at Leonard for a moment, his expression utterly unreadable. Leonard propped himself up on his elbows with a little effort, and he tried for a reassuring smile.

“How are you feeling?” Jim asked after a long beat of silence.

“I'm fine, Jim.”

“Really? Because you just had a pretty nasty allergic reaction, and those tend to leave you feeling like shit for a while. You see, I would know. I'm the one who's allergic to everything.”

Jim's tone was hard, pointed. He knew. Or at least, he’d guessed enough. Still, two months of keeping his secret had left certain habits ingrained in Leonard.

“Guess you got lucky this time.”

Jim's expression flickered, hurt flashing in his eyes for a moment before the hard mask replaced it once more.

“Don’t lie to me, Bones. And don’t treat me like an idiot.”

Leonard sank back against his pillows, suddenly exhausted.

“Sorry,” was all he said.

Jim reeled back a little, part of him obviously not having quite believed that his suspicions would be confirmed. Then he strode forward until he was right beside Leonard's bed.

“What the hell, Bones?”

Leonard didn't know how to answer. That obviously wasn't going to work for Jim.

Tell me what's happening to us,” he said, leaning over Leonard with his eyes blazing. “Consider that an order if that's what it takes.”

Leonard winced. He supposed he deserved that. He found that he couldn't look at Jim as he answered.

“I don't know, exactly.” He held up a hand to ward off Jim's inevitable protest. “All I know is that whenever you get hurt now, I feel it. More than feel it, really; it happens to me instead of you. And it doesn’t go both ways.”

Jim leaned back abruptly. Leonard chanced a look at him. He'd gone pale, his eyes wide and unfocused.

“How long?” he whispered. Leonard didn't answer. “I've been...feeling off,” Jim continued after a moment, his gaze still distant, as if he were talking to himself. “Like nothing can touch me. I keep taking hits that should knock the stuffing out of me, and they barely even sting.”

“Oh, they stung,” Leonard sighed.

Jim still didn't look at him.

“But that can't be right,” he said, his voice growing harder. “Because I've been feeling that way for weeks.”

His blank tone sent a shiver down Leonard's spine.

“Jim-”

Jim finally looked at him again. It wasn’t a comfort.

“Did you do this?” he demanded.

“No.” Leonard was glad he could be truthful in that answer. He didn't think he wanted to see what Jim's reaction would have been to an affirmative. “Even if I’d wanted to, I wouldn’t have the first idea how.”

“But you knew it was happening.”

“I figured it out, yeah.”

Jim leaned over him again, bracing himself on the rails of the biobed. Leonard felt oddly trapped.

“And when, exactly, did you figure it out?”

This time, Leonard forced himself to hold his friend’s gaze as he responded.

“Sulu should've broken your nose that day you were sparring with him on the rec deck.”

Jim was utterly still, his gaze frozen on Leonard's face. Leonard still couldn't read his expression. Several long seconds dragged by.

“That was two months ago.”

“I know.”

Two m-” Jim broke off and began pacing, practically vibrating with furious energy. He shot a fierce glare at Leonard. “I thought it was me,” he said. “I thought it was some kind of side effect from Khan’s blood, making me less vulnerable, making me heal faster. I thought I was turning into one of them, and I was too afraid to come to you because I didn’t want you feeling responsible, feeling guilty. Jesus, Bones, I tested it-” he jerked to a halt, rounding on Leonard. “I sliced my hand open, over and over, to see if it would heal.”

Despite everything, something inside Leonard relaxed. Of all the reasons Jim could have been deliberately cutting himself, that was one of the least alarming. But he had more pressing concerns now.

“I know,” he said again, because what else was there to say?

“You know.” Jim shook his head in disbelief, letting out a chuckle that lacked even the faintest trace of humor. “You know. Fucking hell, Bones.” He shook his head again. “How could you do this?”

“I told you, I didn’t-”

“I’m not talking about how it happened, I’m talking about how you’ve been letting me hurt you for two months without saying a word!” Jim was shouting now. “I could have killed you!”

“And before this happened, you could have killed yourself!” Leonard shouted back. “Hell, you have killed yourself, Jim! Why should things be any different now?”

Jim stared at him for a moment, evidently speechless. He took a breath.

“We’re going to undo this,” he said, his voice back to that hard, flat tone he usually reserved for when dealing with asshole diplomats. “I don’t care how. Consider yourself suspended from your other duties until you’ve figured out a way to disconnect us.”

Now Leonard was the one staring. He could understand why Jim would want to dissolve their link, but to take away his job while he tried to do the impossible?

“Jim, you can’t-”

“Yes. I can.”

Jim turned on his heel and strode out of the room. Leonard stared after him. The sharp ache in his chest was his own pain this time.

*****

Jim was as good as his word. An apologetic M’Benga sent Leonard straight to the lab when he tried to report in for his shift the next day. When he got there, he found an unapologetic Spock waiting for him.

“Oh good,” he grumbled. “I was just hoping this day would get worse.”

Spock didn’t rise to the bait. He simply studied Leonard, his dark eyes even more serious than usual.

“The captain wanted to make sure that you had every possible resource available for reversing your...condition,” he said.

“So he’s sidelined both of his top officers,” Leonard sighed. “Smart.”

Spock’s expression grew even more severe.

“It is not an unreasonable response,” he said. “Considering the circumstances.”

“I suppose you're mad at me too, then?”

“Anger is an emotion that I do not-”

“Bullshit. We both know I’ve seen you angry.”

Spock let out the faintest hint of a sigh.

“Yes,” he said. “However, that is not what you are seeing now. While I do not approve of you keeping your condition a secret, I cannot say that I fail to understand your motives. You must have known that Jim would do everything in his power to reverse whatever has been done to you. I do not believe that I am incorrect in assuming that this is not something you desire.”

“I’ve been trying, Spock,” Leonard deflected. “I’ve been running every test I can think of to try to figure out what happened. I just keep coming up empty.”

“I believe you, Doctor. But you have also avoided the question.”

“You didn’t ask a question.”

Spock just looked at him. Leonard broke first.

“I used to dread the sound of the medbay doors opening,” he said. “Because every time I heard it, I knew there was a chance that Jim was being brought to me too far gone for me to do anything but an autopsy. Every emergency page made me sick to my stomach, sure that it was for him and that I was being called too late. Again. Every moment, a part of me would be wondering if that day was the day my world fell apart again, and I couldn’t pull another miracle out of my ass to put the pieces back together. I don’t know if you can imagine what that was like, Spock. I’m sure worry like that is ten kinds of illogical, but it ate at me, every single day. Compared to that, a couple of broken bones and the occasional allergy attack seem pretty damn inconsequential.”

Spock was still looking at him, but something in his gaze had shifted. He looked almost startled.

“As I said, Doctor, I am not without understanding of your position,” he said after a moment. “However, the situation cannot stand. Jim’s pain is not yours to take, and if some permanent harm were to come to you in his stead, the psychological repercussions would be profound and devastating. He would never forgive himself. Nor, I believe, would he ever forgive you.”

Leonard had no argument for that. Well, actually he did, but he didn’t think that saying he’d rather have Jim alive and feeling guilty instead of dead again with a clear conscience would hold much water with Spock.

“We may have already crossed that last bridge,” he said grimly, remembering Jim’s fury the day before. “Pretty sure he’s not going to be feeling too forgiving any time soon.”

On that, Spock didn’t argue with him.

*****

By the third day, the two of them together had run into all of the same barriers that Leonard had on his own. The difference now though was that Spock wasn’t about to let that stop them.

“You know what we must do.”

“Yeah, but I really don’t get the feeling that he’s gonna want to deal with me. Surely you can handle it?”

“While your confidence in me is flattering, you are fully aware that I am not a medical professional. I am not qualified to collect the data we need from the captain.”

Leonard clenched his jaw. He hadn’t spoken to Jim since their confrontation in medbay. He hadn’t even seen his friend. But that silence told him just about all he needed to know. Jim was still furious. Leonard couldn’t deny that he had every right to be.

“And if he refuses to see me?” he asked Spock. The Vulcan gave him a level look.

“You know that he will not.”

The pointy-eared bastard was right. However furious Jim might be, he wouldn’t let it get in the way of disconnecting them. It was Leonard who risked that. Part of him wanted to give up, wanted to refuse Jim’s orders and take the court martial it would earn him. He could stand all of that and more, if it meant avoiding the one thing he knew he couldn’t bear, if it meant being one last buffer between Jim and another body bag.

But he also knew that it wasn’t his choice to make. He’d already done the unethical by not telling Jim about their link in the first place, but actively sabotaging efforts to disconnect them would go beyond that. It would be a betrayal of both his hippocratic oath and his best friend, and he knew he couldn’t do it.

“Call him down here,” he sighed to Spock.

After summoning the captain, Spock made himself scarce in a rather surprising display of tact. Leonard didn’t know whether to be grateful for it, or to wish for as much of a buffer between him and Jim as he could get.

He didn’t have much time to think about it before the doors to the lab were hissing open. He took a deep breath and looked up to see Jim standing in the doorway, his expression carefully blank. It hurt to see, but Leonard would take cold and professional over the wounded fury that had characterized their last conversation.

“Spock said you needed some samples from me, Doctor?” Jim asked.

Leonard took another breath, steeling himself. If Jim wanted to play this professionally, then he would do the same.

“Yeah, have a seat,” he said, gesturing to a chair.

He got to work, collecting all the samples and readings he and Spock could possibly need. Jim was perfectly compliant, but he maintained a stony silence that was only broken by terse, clipped answers to whatever questions Leonard asked. The tension between them grew steadily thicker and more brittle, and Leonard did his best to ignore it. He wasn’t very successful.

Jim had always been easy to be around. Leonard couldn’t say that for most people, who he found frustrating or irritating or just plain tiring. But not Jim, who should have been exhausting, what with his boundless spirit and enthusiasm. Somehow, being around him had felt comfortable to Leonard. Maybe it was because despite all of their surface differences, he'd seen a kindred spirit in the man he'd sat down next to in that Academy shuttle all those years ago. Maybe it was because he knew that Jim had already seen him at rock bottom, so he never had to pretend around him. Or maybe it was something else entirely, some quality that Jim just possessed like he did his startlingly blue eyes and his infectious smile. Whatever it was, Leonard had grown to treasure it, but he had also begun taking it for granted. It made the strain between them even more painful.

He sought refuge in his professional persona, the one he donned to keep himself sane when faced with the unbearable, like treating the shell-shocked survivors of Vulcan or victims of planetary plague. It helped a little, but so focused was he on maintaining it that he slipped a little too far into his automatic processes.

“This may sting,” he said as he pressed the device used for collecting blood to the skin of Jim’s forearm. Jim snorted bitterly.

“So why are you warning me?” he asked. “I don’t get to feel my own pain anymore, remember? But I didn’t get a warning about that.”

Leonard stilled. He barely noticed the brief pinch of the collector. He forced himself to look up at his friend, but Jim was glowering at a spot on the opposite wall.

“I'm sorry you thought that you were becoming like one of Khan’s people.”

Jim glanced at him for a moment and shook his head, his mouth twisting.

“If you really think that's why I'm so pissed…” He looked down at his hands. Leonard waited, but when no further words were immediately forthcoming, he went back to his work.

“I don’t know if I can apologize for trying to keep you safe,” he managed eventually, knowing he was risking invoking another round of shouting, but unable to stand the silence.

Jim tensed, but he didn’t raise his head.

“No, I guess you wouldn’t.”

His tone effectively stopped Leonard from saying anything else. The rest of the tests were conducted in silence.

*****

“Doctor, I am beginning to suspect that we are pursuing the wrong avenues of investigation.”

Leonard pinched the bridge of his nose, which did nothing to dispel the headache he could feel brewing behind his eyes.

“You don’t say?” he grumbled.

He and Spock were on their ninth day of research, and they’d gotten approximately nowhere. Even with the data from Jim, they were no closer to figuring out how and why the connection had formed, and they still didn’t have the first idea how to go about breaking it.

“We have been looking at physical evidence for what may actually be a more spiritual phenomenon.”

“Spiritual?” Leonard opened his eyes to stare at his companion. “That hardly sounds scientific, Science Officer Spock.”

“Perhaps not science in the limited human understanding of it, but very real nonetheless. Neither you nor the captain profess to remember any physical procedure or experience that could have caused these symptoms. And as I have said on previous occasions, once the impossible has been eliminated-”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember. But surely there’s a difference between the improbable and…” Leonard waved a hand vaguely, unsure how to describe what Spock was getting at. “Whatever cockamamie theory you have in mind.”

Spock raised an eyebrow, but let that one slide.

“I believe that I could learn more about your condition, including potential ways of reversing it, if I were to perform a meld with the two of you.”

There were so many reasons that didn’t sound appealing. Leonard was already leery of mind melds on principle - he always seemed to be the one who got his brain screwed with on away missions - but that wasn’t even his biggest issue this time.

“With both of us?” he asked. “At the same time?”

Spock’s eyebrow twitched again. For a moment, Leonard would have described his expression as knowing.

“If you are concerned about the captain discovering-”

“Spock to the bridge.”

There was a controlled but clear note of urgency in Uhura’s voice over the comm. Spock stood immediately and strode from the room. Leonard was out of his seat and halfway to the door behind him before he remembered that he was basically on house arrest. He knew Jim wouldn’t hesitate to kick him off the bridge if he showed up with Spock.

His throat burned, and he returned to his work, more determined than ever to find a solution. Spock was unlikely to let his mind meld theory go now that he’d thought of it, and if he suggested it to Jim, it was game over. From what he understood of those melds, they completely lowered mental barriers. And what Leonard had behind his mental barriers would ruin whatever slim chance he had left of ever salvaging his friendship with Jim. He had to make a meld unnecessary.

Ten minutes later though, the comm was activated again.

“Doctor McCoy to the transporter room.”

Leonard blinked at the ceiling for a moment, disbelieving. Transporter room meant an away mission. And if Jim wanted Leonard on an away team, then the situation had to be pretty damn dire.

He took off for the transporter room at a run. Jim, Spock, two security officers, and one of Leonard’s senior nurses were already there when he arrived. The nurse handed him a medkit, and a security officer handed him a phaser. He looked at both, and then at Jim.

“A Starfleet vessel carrying two Federation representatives crashed on Tandin II,” Jim reported tersely. “It could have been an accident, but their mayday suggests a possibility of foul play, and we know next to nothing about the inhabitants of this planet. We’re still getting a distress signal from the ship’s emergency beacon, so we’re beaming down to look for survivors and provide what aid we can. The locals seem to have a body chemistry that our sensors have trouble detecting as life signs, so we’re not sure what exactly we’re heading into. Prepare for a potentially hostile greeting.”

Leonard nodded tightly and joined the rest of the away team as they gathered on the transporter pad. He slung his medkit over his shoulder, but the phaser he kept in his hand. He wasn’t a big fan of violence, but he’d also been on the receiving end of enough “hostile greetings” to feel more comfortable with a weapon in his hand than without.

They beamed down without incident to find the smashed and smouldering wreckage of a fairly small Federation ship. When they were not immediately attacked, Leonard headed straight for the wreck, trusting the others to take care of any threats. His job was to save whatever lives he could.

Unfortunately, the crash had not been a kind one. The pilot and both diplomats were dead, broken bodies still strapped into their seats. The copilot had a weak pulse though. Leonard quickly administered a couple of hypos for controlling blood loss and shock, and slid a stabilizing collar around the woman’s neck.

“I need to get her to sickbay, now!” he called over his shoulder as he worked, scanning with his medical tricorder to locate the worst of the damage.

He expected to hear the sound of someone barking a transport command into a communicator, but there was silence. Suspicious silence. Frowning, Leonard poked his head through the shattered front window of the ship.

He froze. The two security officers were lying facedown on the ground, pools of blood slowly spreading around them. Jim, Spock, and Nurse S’Rya were standing with their hands in the air, each of them surrounded by half a dozen humanoid aliens heavily armed with what looked like the local version of phasers. The local version must also have been the silent version, for Leonard to have missed the sound of the action that had taken place.

Two of the aliens came to grab him by the arms, and he tried to shrug them off.

“This woman is my patient, and she needs medical-” he flinched as one of the aliens aimed a phaser at the injured woman and pulled the trigger without hesitation. Horrified anger surged through him, and he rounded on the shooter, snarling. “You murderous-”

Something stung his wrist hard, distracting him from his brewing rant. He glanced down at the red spot that had appeared on his skin, and then over at Jim, who was pinching his own wrist and giving Leonard a warning look. Leonard clenched his jaw but subsided, allowing the aliens to haul him none too gently from the wrecked ship.

“So what’s the plan here?” Jim asked, tone deadly calm.

“The plan?” One of the aliens drew closer to Jim, the others making way for him. “Oh, there is no plan. Your arrival ensured that…” he glanced at Jim’s sleeves, and bared his teeth, “Captain.”

“So you shot down a ship and murdered six people for what, exactly?” Leonard demanded, caution forgotten in a fresh surge of anger. “Kicks?”

His wrist stung again, more sharply this time, and he grimaced but shut his mouth. But the apparent leader had already rounded on him, that creepy grimacing smile still firmly in place.

“Not only,” he said. “For profit as well.”

Leonard’s stomach sank.

“You’re pirates,” said Jim.

“And you are a problem,” the leader replied, turning back to him. “We’ve gotten a good look at that ship of yours, and it’s too big for our weapons to bring down.”

“Well, I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience,” said Jim. “But I’d be more than happy to accept your surrender.”

The leader waved a hand at one of Jim’s guards, who promptly slammed a fist into his stomach. Leonard managed to keep himself from doubling over in agony and retching up his breakfast, but he couldn’t suppress the grunt of pain that escaped past his gritted teeth. The aliens didn’t seem to notice, but Jim had gone rigid, and his eyes blazed as they locked on the leader.

“Okay,” he said, his tone forcedly polite in spite of its undercurrent of anger. “So what is it that you want?”

“I want your ship gone,” the pirate replied, advancing on him. “I want my crew safe to continue its work without worrying about more like you coming for us.”

“Right,” said Jim. “Well then, if you’ll just return our communicators to us, we’ll call for transport and get right out of your-”

He broke off, blanching, as the pirate leader pressed a phaser to the underside of his chin.

“How foolish do you think I am, Captain?”

Leonard grimaced. If ever there was an opening for a smartass retort...He braced himself for whatever abuse Jim was about to earn them.

But Jim didn’t say a word.

“The second you retreat to your ship, you will fire on us,” the alien continued. “That is not an end I am interested in.”

“Then what is it that you would suggest?” The question came from Spock this time. “If we do not communicate with our ship soon, they will take action. I doubt you would prefer the ending of that scenario either.”

“You’re right. Which is why you’ll be returning to your ship and instructing your crew to stand down.”

“But you indicated-”

You will be returning to the ship,” the pirate told Spock. “You and these other two.”

He waved a careless hand at Leonard and S’Rya. And then he refocused on Jim.

“But the captain stays with me.”

There was a second of absolute silence. Jim was utterly still, staring at his captor.

“That is unacceptable,” Spock said, his voice hard and flat.

“I don’t really give a damn what you find acceptable.”

The pirate used the hand that wasn’t holding a phaser on Jim to fish something out of his pocket and toss it at Spock. It turned out to be a Starfleet communicator, evidently confiscated earlier. In the same motion, he grabbed an unresisting Jim and yanked him close, wrapping an arm around his throat, phaser digging into his chin hard enough for Leonard to feel it. It was a position that would render the transporter unable to beam Jim up without his murderous shadow.

“On my command, you will contact your ship and request a transport without your captain,” the pirate ordered Spock. “Once aboard, you will leave this system, without taking action of any kind against us or notifying any authorities. If you fire on us, you kill your captain too. If you return with reinforcements, the first shot fired goes into his brain. If you don’t leave, he loses an extremity for every hour you remain.”

Leonard suppressed a shudder, fingers curling instinctively into fists.

“And what happens to him if I do follow your instructions?” Spock asked.

The pirate smirked.

“Once my crew has made a clean getaway, and I’m satisfied you’re not following us, we’ll drop him at the nearest spaceport,” he said.

It was utter bullshit, and every single one of them knew it. The moment the Enterprise cleared the system, her CMO would have a smoldering hole in his head and the pirates would have a lot of questions and a still-living prisoner.

“This isn’t necessary,” Jim said, and Leonard could hear traces of fear in his voice for the first time. “Just let us-”

“I believe I already reminded you that I’m not a fool,” the pirate interrupted. “I won’t do it again.”

“I will remain behind instead,” Spock said, beating Leonard to the offer. He took a step forward despite the thicket of armed pirates surrounding him. “As First Officer of the Enterprise, I am also a valuable hostage.”

“Spock-” Jim began, and Leonard could see the denial forming on his lips. But then he froze, his gaze flickering to Leonard. His expression was tortured.

“Your nobility is sickeningly predictable and completely useless,” the pirate leader told Spock. “Now do as I said.”

There was a bite of dangerous impatience in his tone, but Spock still hesitated, looking to Jim.

“Please.”

Leonard started. That wasn’t a word he was used to hearing from Jim Kirk, not in situations like these. Even the pirate looked surprised, turning his head to stare at the side of Jim’s face.

“Please,” Jim said again, voice strained. “Just let us all go. We won’t come after you, I swear. You don’t need to keep me here.”

The pirate raised an eyebrow, lip curling.

“You expect me to believe that?” he asked.

“I give you my word,” Jim insisted. “You let us go, and we’ll let you go. I’ll do whatever you ask.”

The pirate surveyed him with a mix of curiosity and disgust.

“Are all Federation captains such cowards?”

Jim flinched, gaze dropping to the ground.

“Some of us have more to fear than others,” he said, quiet and rough. “Please.”

It was in that moment, watching James T. Kirk beg for his life, that Leonard finally began to understand.

*****

They eventually managed to finagle their way out of the situation with the usual winning combination of smarts, charm, and sheer dumb luck. When they beamed back to the ship, they left two dozen unconscious alien pirates and a Federation patrol ship behind them.

Jim didn’t look at Leonard as he stepped off the transporter pad. Leonard could see the tension in his shoulders, the anger in his step. He sighed, knowing that he couldn’t keep his suspicions to himself. Not after that little episode.

“Captain, wait,” he called, guessing that Jim would respond better to his title than his name just then.

Jim jerked to a halt. It took a moment, but he turned to look at Leonard, his expression cold and blank.

“Why are you so pissed?” Leonard asked him.

“Excuse me?”

“A few days ago, when I apologized for letting you think you were like Khan, you said that wasn’t why you were so pissed. So what’s the reason?”

Jim stared at him in angry incredulity for a beat, and then another. His jaw clenched. The transporter room emptied of people faster than a classroom after the bell rings.

“I keep going over the last few months in my head,” Jim said eventually, still holding Leonard’s gaze. “Thinking about all of the times I should have been hurting but wasn't. It seems like every other minute I think of something new. Still.”

Leonard grimaced.

“Jim-” he tried, but his friend was on a roll now.

“Because you see, when I thought I was invulnerable, I thought I didn't have much to lose. I thought there was no harm in me being the one to take all the risks. I thought I could reduce the chances of any more of my crew ending up like Lieutenant Mattias. And then...hell, maybe I just wanted to make sure I could still feel something. And now, to know that every time I was doing that, every time I took a hit that didn’t even feel like it touched me, you were paying the price...it's worse than any punch I've ever taken, believe me. And now I can barely do my job and protect my crew, because I spend every moment terrified of what might happen to you.”

It was along the lines of what Leonard had been expecting, but it still took him off guard. He didn’t know quite what to say to that. Not that Jim gave him the chance.

“You made me responsible for hurting you.” Jim didn’t shout the words, but that didn’t diminish the force of the emotion behind them. His eyes bore into Leonard’s. “I get that you worry sometimes that you won’t be able to save me, and that you blame yourself for not always being able to do enough, and I’m sure that must suck. But never once have you hurt me, Bones. The idea’s probably pretty unthinkable to you, isn’t it?”

Jim actually seemed to be waiting for a response, but Leonard’s throat had closed up. He managed a nod.

“Well that goes both ways,” Jim said. “I would never hurt you. But I did. I’ve been hurting you for months. And then I almost killed you. Twice now, actually.”

“You didn’t know.”

“Exactly.” Jim clenched his hands and finally looked away. “I didn’t know.”

The accusation and betrayal were clear in his tone, and Leonard had to take a couple of deep breaths before he could speak.

“I think I know how this happened,” he said in a rush. Then he grimaced and amended, “well, maybe not exactly how, but when and where.”

Jim froze for a second, and then yanked his communicator from his belt.

“Spock, get back in here.”

Seconds later, the door hissed open and Spock entered. Leonard felt oddly relieved. Still, he forced himself to look back at Jim.

“About three months ago, we went on that away mission to Sheykaa, do you remember it?” Jim nodded tightly. “The king’s son had a nasty autoimmune disease, something beyond the help of local medicine. I was able to synthesize a treatment for him.”

“I remember,” said Jim. “You saved the kid’s life. What does that have to do with anything?”

“His parents were so grateful, they made us their honored guests. It’s how we wound up on that tour of their prized nature preserve, the one where we got attacked by that nasty bear-thing with the venomous fangs.”

“I remember that, too,” Jim said, the impatience in his voice growing. “Get to the-”

“When you ended up in the hospital after charging that monstrosity instead of letting the trained guides take care of it, the king came to visit. He asked me how you were doing, expressed his regrets about what had happened, all that. But then he brought this other guy in, introduced him as a “trusted advisor.” Makar, I think his name was. The king told me he wanted to repay me for what I’d done, and that this guy could give me anything I asked for. Of course I told him that he didn’t owe me anything, that I was just doing my job. But he insisted.” Leonard sighed. “You were lying right there, looking like death warmed over, and I was stressed and exhausted and frankly just wanted him to leave-”

“What did you ask for?”

“You have to understand that I didn’t think anything would come of it. I thought if I asked for something impossible he’d just say he’d do his best and nothing would actually happen and that would be the end of-”

Bones.”

“I said I wished that you would be more careful, that you would stop taking unnecessary risks with your life.”

The silence that descended in the wake of this rushed announcement was deafening. Spock was the first to break it.

“I do not understand. What correlation-”

“I didn’t get it either, until I watched you begging that thug to let you go.” Leonard could see from Jim’s expression that he understood, but he kept explaining for Spock’s benefit. “Once Jim realized it was my life on the line instead of his own, he stopped risking it.”

“I see.”

Jim flipped open his communicator again.

“Captain Kirk to bridge. Sulu, I want us at the planet Sheykaa as soon as this ship can safely get us there.”

There was a brief pause, but Sulu didn’t question the order.

“Aye, sir.”

A moment later, there was the barely-perceptible shudder of the ship jumping to warp speed.

“We don’t know that the Sheykaarans can reverse this,” Leonard felt compelled to point out. “Or that they’re even the ones that caused it.”

“I’m sure they’ll find a way,” Jim said, and there was a dangerous note in his voice. “And unless you or Spock come up with another explanation, I’m going to operate under the assumption that it’s their fault.”

He left the transporter room without another word. That left Leonard alone with Spock, who was watching him with that damn knowing look in his eye.

“Not a word, Spock,” Leonard growled. “Not a goddamn word.”

*****

The trip to Sheykaa took a little less than two days, but it felt like two weeks. With the mystery of their condition tentatively solved, Jim let Leonard and Spock return to their normal duties, but he still wasn’t speaking to Leonard outside of an official capacity. It was probably for the best - Leonard’s nerves were raw and strained, and he wasn’t sure how many conversations with Jim he could handle. He felt stripped bare, like he had given away one too many secrets. But during the entire trip, he didn’t get so much as a papercut that he wasn’t responsible for himself.

When they finally arrived, King Ryland of Sheykaa was more than happy to welcome Leonard and Jim back into his palace, and to be introduced to Spock. When Jim explained to him in a tone like chipped ice why they were there however, he was dismayed. He sent at once for his advisor, Makar, who didn’t seem in the least surprised.

“You’ve endangered the man I sought to honor,” Ryland accused him.

“I have given him what he asked for.” Makar caught Leonard’s gaze. “It worked, no?”

Leonard swallowed hard, but nodded. Jim stepped between them, his posture stiff.

“Can you reverse it?” he demanded, leaning into the alien’s space.

“I can,” Makar replied calmly, meeting his eyes without flinching. “But I will not, unless he asks it of me.” He pointed over Jim’s shoulder at Leonard. “It was a gift given to him, and only he may return it.”

“A gift?” Jim repeated, and Leonard couldn’t see his face but he could hear the anger in his voice. “Your gift nearly killed him.”

Makar just crossed his arms and looked at Leonard. Jim rounded on him as well.

“Fine,” he snapped. “Just tell him to fix it, Bones.”

Leonard opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

As unpleasant as parts of these last few months had been, they’d also contained a peace of mind he hadn’t known how desperately he’d been missing. They’d allowed him to protect once more the heart he’d given away without noticing. He didn’t know how to give that up. Surely he’d already thrown away whatever prayer he’d had of fixing things with Jim; could he really make things any worse by continuing to keep him safe?

Jim’s expression changed, going from angry and impatient to shocked and something Leonard couldn’t interpret.

“Bones,” he said, and it was half an order, half a plea.

Leonard shut his eyes for just a moment, taking a deep breath. Then he looked to Makar.

“Do it.”

Makar nodded and turned to Jim, raising his hands.

“If you would hold still, Captain.”

Jim took half a step back.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. He waved a hand at Leonard. “He’s the one getting hurt.”

Makar raised an eyebrow.

“The spell is on you, not Doctor McCoy,” he informed Jim. “I did not even know that he would be the other one to be affected. Now if you wish me to reverse my work, you must let me touch you.”

A few seconds of tense silence ticked by as Jim and Leonard both stared at Makar. Jim looked stricken and vaguely ill, but he nodded once and stepped forward. Makar touched both hands to his face. The tips of his fingers were disproportionately large, and seemed to be gleaming with some kind of oil that left a slick residue on Jim’s skin. Makar bowed his head and closed his eyes, and a moment later Jim went rigid, his eyes blowing wide and his pupils shrinking until they were nearly swallowed by blue.

Leonard took an automatic step toward him, reaching for his medkit, but Spock caught him by the arm and held him back.

“Jim is not in danger,” he murmured quietly, his attention focused on the motionless duo. Leonard supposed he trusted the Vulcan’s senses, but he still wasn’t particularly happy about it.

“Commander Spock is correct, Doctor,” King Ryland assured him. “Makar is the most skilled of the mages on my planet. He will not allow your captain to come to harm.”

“If he’s so spectacular, why couldn’t he just heal your son in the first place?” Leonard asked with a touch of bitterness. It was mostly a rhetorical question - the damage had already been done, anyway - but Ryland still answered.

“My son is still a child; his body and mind are not yet fully developed. The magic of my people works on quite a delicate balance, and that balance is not available in children.”

Leonard wasn’t sure that made much sense to him, but then again, it was said that magic is just science that isn’t understood yet.

The three of them watched Jim and Makar in silence. A minute dragged slowly by. Leonard started to feel...different. It was nothing he could quantify, nothing tangible like the pain he’d been exposed to over the last few months. It was more like the loss of something he hadn’t realized he’d had, and it left him feeling empty, drained. He wrapped his arms around himself, as if that could help hold him together.

After another long minute, Jim gasped and Makar dropped his hands. Jim stumbled a few steps back, shaking his head.

“Are you all right?” Leonard asked him.

Jim blinked and focused on him. Then he pinched the back of his hand.

“Did you feel that?” he asked.

Leonard glanced down at his own hand and shook his head, stomach tightening. Jim let out a breath, tension draining from his posture.

“Then yes,” he said. “I’m doing just great.”

Well, that made one of them.

*****

It was Leonard who fled the transporter room upon arrival this time, unable to face Jim. He made a clean getaway to medbay, and foolishly thought that meant he was safe. But then he made the mistake of returning to his quarters after his shift.

“Of all the things you could have asked for, that was it?”

“Jesus, Jim!” Leonard yelped, clapping a hand to his chest. He hadn’t seen the captain lurking on the couch in his darkened room. “Are you trying to kill me?”

He cringed the moment the words passed his lips. Jim raised an eyebrow and stood.

“I’ve been trying very hard not to, actually,” he said, his voice drier than Leonard’s mouth was feeling right about then. He crossed his arms. “Which brings us back to my original question.”

“I didn’t think anything was actually going to happen!” Leonard deflected, sending up a prayer for some urgent comm to summon either of them away. It went decidedly unanswered.

“Then why not ask for something else? Anything else?” Jim took a step forward, and Leonard had to work hard not to back away. “Why not ask for a cure for the common cold or galactic peace or the chance to see Jo again? Why would you blow your wish on me?”

Leonard looked away, crossing his arms over his chest as if that would protect him from where this conversation was headed.

“It doesn’t matter why,” he muttered.

“Humor me.” Jim’s tone brooked no argument, and normally, Leonard wouldn’t have tried. But this was the one order he couldn’t follow.

“I’ll resign,” he said quietly, staring at the floor.

The words burned him on their way out, but he meant them. They’d been heading this way for a while now. Jim would figure out the answer to his question on his own eventually, and Leonard wouldn’t be able to stand the inevitable tension, the awkward pity, the discomfort that would characterize their every encounter afterward. He’d had such a good thing going with Jim once, but there was no getting it back, and he couldn’t put himself through the pain of pretending.

“I’m guilty of about a dozen ethics violations, and probably a whole slew of broken Starfleet regulations,” he went on. “There’s probably grounds for a court martial, but-”

“I don’t want you to quit, Bones!” Jim half shouted. “I don’t want you hauled before some review board or Starfleet court! I want to know why you did all of this!”

Leonard couldn’t help scoffing bitterly. Genius he may be, but dear Lord could Jim be dense sometimes. Leonard didn’t think he’d exactly been subtle while he was ruining the best thing that ever happened to him. Did Jim really understand so little how much he mattered to him?

“I want to know why you lied to me and let me get you beaten up and asphyxiated and nearly shot!” Jim continued, his voice rising steadily in volume, each word striking with painful force. “I want to know how you could put all of that on me!” He grabbed Leonard by the shoulders. “And I want to know why you damn near didn’t let that stupid mage fix us!”

Jim was too close, too intense, too...much. And Leonard was too tired, suddenly, unbearably so. He didn’t have this fight in him.

“Because I love you,” he said wearily, his quiet voice sounding small after Jim’s vehemence. “And I just wanted- I needed you to be safe.”

Jim had frozen, his grip tightening on Leonard’s shoulders. His touch seemed to burn even through layers of standard-issue Starfleet material. Leonard’s heart skipped painfully, and he was seized by the brief, desperate urge to take it back, to begin damage control immediately. But it was too late, and he knew it. And he was exhausted of hiding, of useless secrets.

“God, Jim, how else could I do it?” he said, defeated and resigned. “I- fuck, I went against my oath and your trust, and I did it without blinking. You think I could’ve done that if you weren’t- if you didn’t mean more to me than damn near anything? I’ve been in love with you so long I can’t remember what it feels like not to be. Which, incidentally, is as long as I’ve really been getting hurt every time you do.”

Jim was staring at him, eyes wide, mouth open slightly.

“Oh.”

That single word sent the reality of what Leonard had just done thundering down on him. His heart twisted and dropped like an icy rock into his gut. He felt like he’d torn himself open and exposed the rawest parts of his soul, and he didn’t have the first idea how to pull himself back together. He tried to shrug Jim off, desperate to escape, but he wouldn’t let him go.

And then Jim's hands were on his face and Jim's mouth was on his and Jim was kissing him with a wild, breathtaking urgency.

This was such an unexpected turn of events that Leonard’s brain shut down again momentarily and his body took over, grabbing Jim and yanking him closer to return the kiss. For a moment, there was nothing but the feel of Jim’s lips against his, the sense of rightness despite the surprised and clumsily urgent nature of the kiss. A warm hand curled around the back of his neck and held on tight, and he shut his eyes with a soft groan.

But then reality descended on him again, hitting him harder than any of the blows he’d taken while under that spell.

“Don’t,” he gasped, wrenching out of Jim’s grasp and retreating a few steps. “Don’t. I get it if you want to hurt me back, but not- not like this. You’re better than this.”

Jim gaped at him speechlessly for a moment. His hair was ruffled slightly, his skin flushed. He looked devastatingly beautiful.

“You think I did that to hurt you?” he demanded. “Jesus, Bones, don’t you think I’ve hurt you enough for one lifetime?”

“But you-” Leonard was thoroughly rattled now, lost and floundering for reason. “I mean you can’t-”

“Can’t what? Love you back?”

Leonard said nothing. It was answer enough for Jim. He shook his head, expression twisting.

“I had no idea,” he said, advancing on Leonard. “No idea, Bones, that you might feel the same way. I never- I mean I always thought I could see through you so well. I was never fooled by that grumpy shell you work so hard on. I could see how you cared so much and wished you didn’t sometimes, how kind you were when you hoped no one was looking, how you just got people and they never even noticed. I thought I’d figured you out, and if I ended up completely fucking gone for you in the process...well, it was worth it.”

Leonard stared at him. Jim’s words felt like they were bouncing off of some kind of armor around his heart, some last, desperate shield to protect him from the most devastating weapon of all: hope. It was armor made up of memories, of all the years he’d spent believing that someone like Jim could never see someone like him as more than a friend. It was armor that was rapidly cracking.

“I thought that big kind heart of yours would insist on letting me down gently if you found out how I felt.” Jim took another few steps forward. Leonard couldn’t have moved if he’d wanted to. “I thought you’d feel obligated to stop spending time around me, to spare my feelings. I couldn’t risk that.”

Jim halted, watching Leonard intently. His expression was open in a way it hadn’t been lately, and the earnestness it held, the hope and the fear, were damn near overwhelming.

“Why do you think that spell worked, Bones?” he asked when Leonard still couldn’t say anything. “It transferred my pain to the person I cared about most, to the person I couldn’t bear hurting in my place. You heard Makar; he didn’t pick you. I did.”

Leonard closed his eyes as that one hit him, shattering whatever was left of his pitiful armor.

“Say you believe me,” Jim whispered.

Leonard did him one better. He closed the distance between them and took Jim’s face in his hands, leaning in for another, proper kiss. This one was somehow both sweeter and more heated than their first. Perhaps because there was no fear in it, no sense of impending heartbreak. Jim was returning the kiss like it was the most important thing he’d ever done, and Leonard let himself go at last, let himself believe that what had for so long been so painfully out of reach was finally, incredibly his.

Jim’s touch was a heady thing, stealing Leonard’s breath and making his heart race. But he was pressed so close that Leonard could feel the beat of his heart too, could feel how it was pounding just as fast as his own. It was a hell of a thing, to know Jim wanted this as much as he did.

When they finally broke apart, neither of them could seem to find the will to pull away. Jim rested his forehead against Leonard’s, hands settling possessively on his hips.

“I’m still pissed at you, you know,” he remarked once his breathing had slowed a little. “I’m still very much pissed.”

Leonard grimaced but didn’t reply. He’d earned that.

“But...I get it now,” Jim went on, startling him. “I really do. The way I felt when I realized what was happening to you…” His sigh whispered through the air between them, and shadows flickered in his eyes. “I’d’ve done just about anything not to feel that way, and if that’s what you were going through on a regular basis…” He shook his head. “At first I thought you were just being your usual self-sacrificing ass of a self with all this.”

Leonard sputtered incredulously, smacking their foreheads together.

“Did you just call me a self-sacrificing ass?” he demanded, leaning back. “You?”

Jim raised an eyebrow. He lifted a hand and curled it into a fist.

“Let your ex-wife take everything but the clothes off your back in the divorce, even though she was the one that cheated on you and you could have afforded a better lawyer,” he said, raising a finger. “Spent half your time at the Academy volunteering at the clinic even though you didn’t get credit for it because you already had your medical degree and it meant you got about four hours of sleep per night.” He put up another finger. “Risked your career, your medical license, and your freedom to sneak me aboard the Enterprise because you knew how much it meant to me.” Another point, another finger.

“Okay,” Leonard muttered, his face heating slightly. “All of that is hardly the same as-”

“Tested an experimental drug on yourself before you would give it to anyone else,” Jim pressed on, undaunted, ticking off another finger. “Worked yourself until you honest to god fainted when we were called on to assist with disaster relief after that earthquake on Trexis VI.”

“I did not-”

“Exposed yourself to quarantined patients after their original doctor was infected,” Jim raised his voice over Leonard’s protests, switching hands. “Let’s not forget Minara II, that one was a fucking doozy. Ran into a firefight armed with nothing but a medkit and righteousness to take care of people who were still getting shot at. Willingly engaged in conversation with Spock’s father when you could tell he was headed for me.”

That last one surprised a laugh out of Leonard, but Jim wasn’t done.

Demanded that I take away the only person standing between you and a violent death by torpedo.” The smug expression that had crept across Jim’s face during the first part of this speech was gone, replaced by unusual solemnity. “I hope you’re seeing the pattern here, Bones, because I’m running out of fingers.”

Well, shit.

Leonard’s face was definitely warm now. He cleared his throat. But he had nothing.

“Well when you put it like that,” he muttered.

Jim smiled faintly and let his hands drop.

“I value my life, Bones,” he promised. “I do. And I will try to be more careful. But you can’t tell me you don’t understand why I do some of the things that upset you, because you’d do the exact same things in my place.”

He was right, damn him. And he knew it, too. He was watching Leonard with eyes that sparkled with teasing warmth, but there was understanding there as well. Finally.

“You may have a point,” Leonard conceded with a sigh, gathering Jim close again.

May have a point?”

“Don’t push it.” He shook his head ruefully. “Christ, we deserve each other, don’t we?”

Something unreadable flickered over Jim’s expression. He cupped Leonard’s face in his hands and pressed the gentlest of kisses to his lips.

“I promise I’ll never stop trying to,” he said.

Leonard’s throat tightened, and he had to clear it again before he could speak.

“I’m looking forward to holding you to that.”

Jim smiled, bright and content, and for a moment Leonard could only look at him, marveling. And then he kissed him again, because he wanted to and finally could. Something settled within him, that emptiness that had tugged at him since their second return from Sheykaa vanishing at last, replaced by a lightness of heart he’d always thought was beyond him.

He slid a hand down to Jim’s ass and pinched, grinning at the startled squeak and jump it caused. He met Jim’s accusatory glance with an innocent shrug.

“Just checking.”