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At least the rest of the team made it back to the ship.

The interference from the ionospheric storm had made it impossible to transport everyone at once, so they’d gone back one at a time, racing against the unpredictable swirls of energy that were threatening to block out the transporter signal completely. Bones had been the last to go, cussing and growling at Jim for being a self-sacrificing idiot who needed to get your sorry ass back to the ship, Jim!

Oh, Bones. Jim had ignored the ranting as he calmly flipped open his communicator and told the transporter room to lock onto Dr. McCoy’s signal and beam the irate Chief Medical Officer back to the ship. The glow of the transporter beam had faded out, and the last look on Bones’ face had been desperation and maybe a bit of heartbreak.

It was okay, because they’d get Jim out seconds later... but the beam-out never came.

“Kirk to Enterprise? How about that beam-out now?”

Enterprise to Captain Kirk? Do you read us?” That was Uhura’s voice, thick with static, but audible.

“I read you, Uhura. Where’s that beam-out? Has the ionosphere gotten too active? Do we still have a transporter window?”

A moment passed, and then Uhura’s voice came back. “Enterprise to Captain Kirk? Please signal us. The ionospheric activity has increased and we can’t get a lock.

Jim forced himself to take a calming breath. The storm could be short-lived. They’d get him out soon. “Lieutenant Uhura, how long until the next window for beam-out?”

Another long, tense moment. Then... “Captain Kirk, do you read us?” Uhura’s voice was more strained now.

Suddenly feel even more nervous, Jim dialed up the communicator to maximum output. “This is Captain Kirk. Enterprise, I read you. Please confirm.”

The silence over the comm was almost louder than the wind that whipped at him. “Captain Kirk, please respond. Enterprise to Captain Kirk, come in, over.

Jim’s heart fell through his stomach. They weren’t getting any audio signal from him, and that meant they wouldn’t be able to get a transporter lock either. He waited for a few minutes, hoping that they’d comm with more information - an estimate of time until a transporter window would open again, anticipated weather conditions, or even whether they might have found a way to get a shuttlecraft safely through the planet’s bizarre electromagnetic field - but the comm remained silent. If they couldn’t hear him, naturally, they’d assume that he couldn’t hear them.

Feeling more alone than he had in years, Jim flipped his comm shut and looked up at the sky. Somewhere, above the swirling, gray clouds, his crew was trying to find him. And his Chief Medical Officer was probably working himself into a frenzy over the things that might be happening down on the surface.

Jim sighed to himself. There was nothing he could do about that now. He had about four hours before darkness, and he needed to find shelter for the night.

*********


Enterprise to Captain Kirk, please respond. Enterprise to Captain Kirk, do you read? Over.

Jim flipped his comm open tiredly. “Kirk to Enterprise, I read you. How about that beam-out now? These ration bars suck and I’d really like a cup of hot coffee and a shower.”

Enterprise to Captain Kirk? Captain Kirk, do you read us?

Jim groaned in resignation and slumped back against the rock he’d been using as a back rest. “Yeah... didn’t fucking think so.”

He’d been on the planet’s surface for nearly 20 hours, eighteen of which had been alone, aside from hourly attempts from the ship to contact him. He’d hear the standard hail, followed by a couple of verbal attempts to communicate, and then the comm would go silent again. He could hear them, but they obviously couldn’t hear him, and they couldn’t beam him up.

He’d found shelter in the form of a small, dry cave, and had started a fire to keep warm overnight. There was a small stream nearby, and he’d been able to disinfect the water to drink. Aside from the hyperactive electromagnetic field around the planet, the place was quite survivable with comfortable temperatures, a fairly stable weather pattern, and no large animals. The wind was a bit annoying, but with shelter, Jim had been as comfortable as he could have been considering the situation.

But the ration bars really did suck. And he really wanted a cup of coffee. And fuck it all, he was getting lonely.

At one point in his life, Jim Kirk had claimed to be a loner. That was so much bullshit it was amazing that he hadn’t reeked of it. No, Jim was an extrovert and a highly social creature. He needed people. He needed social connections, conversation, and friends. He needed close friends. He needed human contact and people who were important to him and...

McCoy to Kirk.

Jim sat upright so fast his neck twinged. Eyes watering, he scrambled for his comm. “Bones? Kirk to McCoy... Bones, do you hear me?”

There was a static-infused sigh over the comm. “They told me that the comm was dead... that if we can’t hear you, then you can’t hear us. Hell, I don’t know a damn thing about communications arrays and subspace channels and electro-whatever interference crap, so they’re probably right and all, but I know people. I know I’ve talked to patients when they’ve been in comas and when they came out of it, they said they heard me. I don’t like the idea of leavin’ a person by their lonesome... and Jim? I know you all too well. You’re probably right as rain, although I’ll guess you reek to high heaven and you need a damned shower. I’ll guess you got right to business as soon as you realized we couldn’t beam you up, and you’ve found yourself some shelter, built a fire, and strutted around all proud of yourself for using those old-fashioned survival skills you love. But kid? You’re lonely down there. So... even if you probably won’t hear a word of this, I’m gonna try anyway.

Jim’s breath was coming just a bit too fast and tight in his chest, and his eyes were warm and... yeah, maybe they were a little bit wet. “Bones?” he breathed to himself.

First, I know you’d want to know what’s goin’ on up here. Status report, Captain.” There was a soft chuckle. “First, the bad news. There’s no sign of a transport window opening anytime soon. That cycle they thought they calculated? Yeah... there was no cycle. From what we can tell now, it’s random.

Jim frowned. Well, that sucked. Still, it had to break eventually, and he had enough protein rations for a week if needed.

Bones’ voice continued. “They’re working on a way to crack through the ionosphere interference, but you knew that already. Spock hasn’t slept, but you knew that, too. Scotty is trying to re-wire the shielding systems in a shuttlecraft, and only because Spock ordered him off the transporters. Scotty fell asleep in the middle of tweakin’ something in the transporter and burned himself. So he’s probably gonna mess himself up down in the shuttlebay instead. I figured it wasn’t worth reporting him to Spock.

A slow smile was creeping across Jim’s face. He could picture all of it.

Uhura is working on modifying the comm system, trying to get through to you, too. Chekov has been helping her. Dear Lord, that kid is like a Labrador retriever. Determined as hell to get his Keptin back. I don’t know where he gets that much energy, but I swear, he’s gonna wear me out just watchin’ him." Bones chuckled, then cleared his throat. "And then... there’s me."

Jim heard the sudden shift in Bones tone of voice, and instinctively held the comm unit closer.

”Dammit, Jim... I know why you stayed behind, and yeah, it was probably the right decision. Out of anyone on the team, you’re the best equipped to survive down there. And your crew respects you because they know you put them first... even if you act like an arrogant asshole sometimes. I knew you couldn’t leave any of ‘em alone down there... including me. But Jim... Jesus, Jim... you have no idea what it does to me whenever you do shit like that, do you?"

Jim frowned, staring at his comm unit. Sure, Bones had berated him dozens of times for not taking better care of himself and stuff, but... there was something in the guy’s voice that had Jim curious. Maybe it was because Bones didn’t really think Jim could hear him.

“No idea, Bones,” Jim said lightly. “Why don’t you tell me?”

Anyway,” Bones continued, obviously not hearing a word Jim had said, “I’ll comm again later. I hope you’re okay down there, Jim. We’ll get through to you soon. Stay safe. McCoy out.

Jim stared at his comm unit for a long time after the signal went silent, not moving.

*********


McCoy to Kirk. Hey Jim, how are you doing down there?” Bones static-laced voice broke through the relative silence of Jim’s cave.

Jim smiled. Bones had begun calling him every few hours. Jim had to admit, he was grateful. The official hails from the bridge were depressing - a quick check in, only to confirm that they couldn’t hear him, and were still under the assumption that he couldn’t hear them either. Bones, on the other hand, was up there, sending his words into the abyss, just in case Jim could hear him. At one point, the guy must have woken up in the middle of delta shift to call. Jim was starting to suspect that the comm calls were as much for Bones’ sanity as it was for his own. That was fine by him.

With a tired stretch, neck popping from the uncomfortable position he’d slept in, Jim flipped open his comm and spoke casually, “Heya Bones, I’m doing just fine. It’s like camping, but it would be more fun if you were here.” Really, other than the unnerving electromagnetic swirls in the atmosphere, the horrible protein nibs, and the loneliness, it wasn’t so bad.

Of course, Bones didn’t hear him. “Hope you’re not getting too bored. You always get into more trouble when you’re bored. You start thinking too much, and then, there goes the neighborhood. Hell, knowing you, you’ve probably turned your makeshift shelter into a play fort and you’re having mock battles against imaginary Klingons.

Jim snickered. “They were Romulans.” He was almost fifty hours into his rustic planetside vacation, and he’d spent most of his time reinforcing his shelter. That was the first rule of survival anyway. The weather was warm enough, but it was pretty windy. Shelter was important, especially considering he didn’t know how long he’d be there. And... if it resembled a kid’s play fort, nobody was looking, right?

Things are still rolling along up here. I had to sedate Scotty to get him to stay off-duty. He’ll be pissed in the morning, but he’ll get over it. Damn fool hasn’t taken himself off-duty since we lost contact with you."

“Good old Scotty,” Jim mused with a laugh. “But what about you, Bones? Are you getting any sleep?”

We might be able to get a shuttlecraft through the atmosphere soon, if they can modify the shields well enough, but Spock keeps saying that we can’t risk more lives unless we’re certain. If nothing else, they’re gonna try to air-drop a package of supplies to your last-known location before you run out of protein nibs. They should have done that sooner, as far as I’m concerned. Sent you a better shelter, blankets, stuff like that. I know the weather down there isn’t too bad, but you do have a talent for catching colds.

“That’s my Bones,” Jim said affectionately. “Always looking out for me like a damned mother hen. Don’t suppose you’ll send me some cookies with the care package.”

And... yeah, I’ll smuggle some chocolate and maybe some some of those cookies you like into the container.

At that, Jim rolled onto his back, laughing. “Bones, you know me too well. How ‘bout some of Scotty’s hooch while you’re at it?”

Might not want to get too cozy with the junk food, though. When you get back, you know you’re getting a head-to-toe physical.

“No fair!”

No complaining, kid. Who knows what kind of bacteria and other crazy microbes got into your system down there. I’m sure you’re using your water tablets, but they’re not foolproof, and I’m sure you’ve picked up as many exotic bugs as you did the last time you were on Risa.

Jim snorted. “I had more fun getting the ones on Risa.”

Anyway, speaking of infections, Ensign Harris just came into sickbay, so I’d better go see what he’s done to himself in the microbiology lab this time.

“Why are you still on duty, Bones?” Jim mused softly, frowning. It was the middle of the night. Bones had been scheduled for alpha shift through the end of next week.

Take care of yourself, kid. McCoy out.

“Later, Bones,” Jim whispered.

He sat in the semi-darkness of the cave, looking at the communicator sitting silently in his hand, illuminated only by the low flames of his campfire. When Bones commed, it almost felt like the guy was right there with him. Even though Bones couldn’t hear him, they knew each other so well that Bones knew what he’d say, and that was good enough. But inevitably, Bones would have to end the call, and Jim was left alone with the wind, the cave, and his protein nibs.

It wasn’t so bad. They’d get him back soon.

Letting out a slow breath, Jim rolled over onto the pile of dry grasses he’d assembled into a sleeping pad. It was a bit itchy, but better than the ground. He was just falling asleep when his comm beeped again.

Enterprise to Captain Kirk, do you read us?

Dutifully, Jim flipped open the comm. “Kirk to Enterprise, I read you, over.”

Enterprise to Captain Kirk, please respond.

With a heavy sigh, Jim closed his comm. “I am.”

*********


Jim was starting to understand why Scotty had been so pissed off after living on protein nibs for months on Delta Vega. It was day three, and already, Jim was pretty sure he could kill for a real sandwich. A quick geological and botanical survey, the mission had read. So much for that.

He’d spent the afternoon exploring the local area. He figured that while he was stuck there, he might as well continue the mission. Besides, he was bored to tears.

His hike had taken him down a small creek to a slightly larger stream. It reminded him of the river that his hometown had been named after... where he’d go swimming on hot summer days whenever he could get away with it. He didn’t have anywhere he needed to be today, either, so after only a moment’s hesitation, he’d pulled off his uniform and had done his best to rinse off three days of body funk without soap or sonics. It wasn’t great, but he definitely felt better afterwards.

Without a towel, he sprawled out on the riverbank to air dry. The ground was covered with a plant that was a bit like moss and a bit like soft grass, and the air was warm. The trees and riverbank sheltered him from the wind just enough. Aside from the unnerving swirls overhead in the atmosphere, it felt like a lazy summer day.

“Damn, Bones,” Jim mumbled to himself. “Wish you were down here.”

He was about to doze off when the comm beeped.

McCoy to Kirk. I’d ask you what you’re doing down there, but I can see just fine on the sensors. Found yourself the river, did ya?

Jim laughed and picked up the comm. “Kirk here. You betcha, Bones. Pretty good swimming hole. You’d love it.”

You’d better not pick up any weird alien water parasites in that godforsaken swamp.

“Come on, Bones, it’s not a swamp! The river is clear and the water is warm.”

Anyway, there’s still no sign of the ionosphere clearing up in the next 24 hours, so we’re going to make that supply drop pretty soon. I’m sure you’ve had more than enough of those protein nibs.

Jim grimaced to himself. “You can say that again.”

Besides,” Bones continued, “we’ll be able to put more than just food supplies in there. We’ll send down some other necessities. Stuff that should make you more comfortable. But... God, I’m sorry, Jim. We should have been able to bring you back by now.

Jim rolled over and propped himself up on his elbows, looking at the communicator in his hands. “It’s not your fault, Bones.”

We’re doing everything we can to try to break through the interference.

“I know that. I don’t blame you. I don’t blame any of you. Shit happens.”

If something happens to you down there... I know you’re probably fine, and the planet is pretty safe and all, but anything could happen. We’re going to send you medical supplies, some shelter equipment, and stuff like that. Just wish it was as easy to pull stuff up from the surface as it is to drop stuff down to it.

Jim smiled. “But where’s the challenge in that?”

Anyway, I’ve got some stuff to do, but I’ll comm you in a little while. We should be dropping that package pretty soon. Keep an eye to the sky, Jim. We’re still up here, and we’re coming to get you.

“I know you are, Bones.”

McCoy out.

Jim looked at the communicator for another minute before pushing himself upright and stretching. He was fully air-dried now, so he might as well put his uniform back on and get ready to track down the package.

*********


Jim was drying off his hair from a dip in the stream when his comm beeped.

McCoy to Kirk. How’re ya doing today, kid?

Jim dropped the towel and grabbed the comm. “Pretty good, Bones. How about you?”

We sent down that supply drop yesterday. I hope you managed to find it.

Jim grinned and picked up his towel again. “Yep. The soap and towel were a nice touch. I was starting to reek.” In fact, there had been a bunch of really useful things in the supply box, which he’d easily seen during its descent, and had found barely three hundred meters from his campsite. He was almost as happy about the sleeping pad as he was about the cookies. He’d actually managed to sleep decently for the first time in four days. Damn... it really had been four days already.

I stocked the first-aid kit myself. You make sure you use the sun-block ointment I put in there. The UV levels on the planet’s surface are stronger than you think, even with the cloud cover. The last thing I need is to treat you for sunburn when you get back up here.

“Sunbathing, Bones? Wouldn’t dream of it.” He was only a little bit toasted from his skinny-dipping yesterday.

Make sure you take those supplements I sent, too. And first sign of any infection, you use take that antibiotic I put in there. No argument."

“No problem,” Jim said, pulling his shirt on. “You sent me pills instead of a hypospray. I don’t mind pills, and infections suck.”

I... hope you’re okay down there, kid,” Bones said, his voice suddenly thick, even through the static.

Jim froze at the change in his friend’s tone. “Bones?”

I didn’t say this before, because I didn’t want to think about it much... but the activity in the ionosphere got worse for a few hours. We lost your life signs on the sensor readings for a while."

Jim nodded to himself. That explained why there had been several hours overnight without any hails from the bridge. Of course, he was grateful for not being woken up every hour, but the hourly hails were protocol.

Spock kept telling me that the loss of sensor readings was due to the storm,” Bones continued, “but goddammit, Jim, I watched your life signs flicker out and... and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.”

Jim felt his breath get a bit tight in his throat. Maybe he’d been able to sleep through the night, but somehow, he suspected that Bones hadn’t. In fact, he was really starting to wonder how much Bones had slept during the four days he’d been stuck on this little nameless planet in the corner of nowhere. “Bones...” Jim whispered, feeling more lost than he had since Bones had vanished in the transporter beam.

Dammit, kid, I can’t take much more of this. I know we’ll get you back, and we’re not going to leave you, and you know that, but... I’m worried, Jim. No, screw that, I’m scared. Yeah, I just said that, and you’ll never hear it anyway, so it doesn’t matter, but I don’t care - I’m fuckin’ scared, Jim. You’re down there, and I can’t get you back. I don’t know when we’ll be able to crack through that damned electromagnetic interference, and you’re trapped down there until we can. You’re my best friend and my brother, but you’re neither of those things because when something happens to you, I get this sick feeling in my gut that a man doesn’t get for his buddy or his brother. I’ve never told you this, and I probably never will, but... I can’t... I don’t even know... I don’t know how to say this...

Bones’ voice was getting tighter and rougher with every passing second, and as Jim listened, completely stunned at the unexpected progression, he found it harder and harder to breathe.

“Say what, Bones?” Jim choked out. “Come on... don’t do this to me.”

Come home, Jim. Please, come home. Jim... I... I just can’t...” Bones’ voice choked off for a second, and then he cleared his throat harshly. “I’ll comm again later. McCoy out.

Slowly, Jim lowered the communicator, flipped it shut, and slid it into his belt. He forced himself to take a deep breath, then looked up at the sky. Somewhere, above the clouds, Bones was a wreck, and in that moment, all Jim knew was that he had to get up to his ship so he could fix that.

A raindrop splashed Jim’s cheek. Then another hit his forehead. It was a warm rain, but he shouldn’t let himself get soaked. He didn’t need to give Bones another reason to worry.

He slipped on his boots, gathered up his soap and towel, and made his way back to the campsite.

*********


The hails from the bridge continued hourly, but the afternoon passed into evening and then into night without another call from Bones. The radio silence from his best friend made Jim’s gut twist uncomfortably. Every time the comm chirped, Jim’s heart would jump a little bit until he heard Uhura’s, Spock’s, Chekov’s, or another bridge officer’s voice. It was never Bones. They didn’t converse. They didn’t tell him anything. They just checked to see if they could get a signal, and when they couldn’t, they ended the call.

Maybe Bones was finally getting some sleep. With that hopeful thought in his head, Jim tried to do the same.

The sound of rain falling outside the cave lulled Jim off to sleep. He might have slept through a couple of hails - he wasn’t sure. He replied sleepily to a few hails through the night, but it was obvious that they couldn’t hear him, and so he drifted back to sleep.

The comm chirped as the gray morning started to seep into the cave. Sleepily, Jim rolled over and grabbed it, waiting for the standard hailing message from the bridge.

McCoy to Kirk,” came the hesitant, rough voice through the comm.

Jim startled fully awake in an instant, but was too surprised to reply to the comm. Didn’t matter - his voice seemed to have suddenly left him anyway. Bones, he mouthed silently.

I... I’m sorry ‘bout yesterday, kid. I’m so damned sorry. I haven’t been sleepin’ right the past few days... and it got the best of me.

Jim swallowed tightly. Bones hadn’t meant it, and that was something he had to accept.

I gave myself a sedative last night. Finally slept more than three hours for the first night since you got stuck down there. See what you do to me, kid? You get under my skin like nobody else."

Jim frowned, cocking his head. What was that supposed to mean?

Listen, Jim... I never should have said anything like that in the first place... but I did. And... the thing of it is... after a solid nine hours of sleep, in the light of day... goddammit, Jim, I’m not gonna pretend otherwise anymore. I meant every word of it... and what’s getting to me is that I never even said what I meant anyway. But I’m a damned fool - emotionally stunted, romantically damaged, messed up in the head... whatever you want to call it... but screw it all because I’m gonna say this anyway. Jim... dammit, I love you, kid. I love ya in a way I’ve never loved anyone, and Lord above, I miss you. Come home, kid. Please... just come home.

Jim swore he wasn’t breathing. This was unbelievable. Completely incomprehensible. But... at the same time... he’d never heard anything that felt more right in his life. Stunned to the core, and unable to think of anything else he could possibly say or do, he raised his comm to his mouth and thumbed the transmitter. “Kirk to McCoy... I love you, too, Bones.”

For a moment, the line was silent.

Then...

Jim?” Bones’ voice was almost breaking. “You... you heard that?

“Bones?” Suddenly, Jim’s heart was in his throat. “Bones, are you receiving this? Are you getting my transmission?”

Dammmit, Jim, yes, I’m getting your goddamned transmission! Oh shit... oh... god... shit... shit... the storm must have changed. We need to get you beamed up before the window closes. I’m going to contact the transporter room before it’s too late.

“But Bones... what you said... talk to me, Bones...”

The transmission cut off, but seconds later, his comm chirped again. “Enterprise to Captain Kirk, do yeh copy?” Scotty’s thick brogue came in loud and clear over the comm.

“This is Kirk,” Jim replied quickly, his heart thudding heavily in his chest as he scrambled to his feet. “Yes, I read you, Scotty. Get me out of here.”

Aye, with pleasure, Captain! Transporter room, locking onto your signal... stand by... energizing!

The campsite dissolved away around him, and a second later, he was standing in Transporter Room One, looking at Scotty’s relieved face. “Captain, it’s good to have yeh back aboard, sir!”

Jim smiled and took a look around as he started to walk off the transporter platform on shaking legs. “It’s good to be back, Scotty. Glad you got me before the window closed again. I was getting bored down there -”

“JIM!”

Jim’s heart jumped and he spun towards the door as Bones raced into the transporter room, practically skidding as he turned the corner through the doorway.

“Bones! I... it’s good to -” Then Jim froze, looking at the wide-eyed expression of... something on Bones’ face. It looked like a bit of hope, maybe some desperation, a touch of terror, but when it all came together, it looked like the face of a man in the desert who’d finally found his oasis. “Bones?”

Bones raised his medical tricorder. “I... I need to take you to sickbay, Captain. Check you over. It’s protocol in a situation like this. I know you’re probably tired, so I’ll make it quick, and -”

Never in Jim’s life had he seen Bones tongue-tied, or stumbling over his words like this. For some reason, it solidified a response in Jim’s head, and there was no way he was backing down from it. One foot in front of the other, he crossed the room until he was standing firmly in Bones’ personal space, noses barely inches apart. He could see the pulse fluttering rapidly in Bones’ neck, and the way the man was shaking just slightly.

“Bones... I know you couldn’t hear my transmissions... but I got all of yours.”

“You got... what?” Bones’ voice was pitched much higher than usual.

“All of your transmissions... every day. I could hear every transmission from the ship, but it was pretty obvious you guys couldn’t hear me. I heard everything you said. You... kept me from being lonely down there.”

“Every... every transmission?” Bones breathed.

Jim nodded.

Bones blinked, then stared at Jim, wide-eyed. “Jim... I -”

“Bones,” Jim said, interrupting him firmly before moving in just a couple of inches closer. Practically nose to nose now, Jim looked Bones square in the eyes. “I said... I said I love you, too.” And before he could talk himself out of it, he moved in for the kill. Wrapping one hand firmly around the back of Bones’ head, he pulled his best friend in for a kiss. Decisive and firm, as if he’d known for years that he should have done this.

At first, Bones seemed too shocked to move, but then, he was kissing him back. A small, choked sound squeaked in Bones’ chest, and Jim felt something in his own chest get warm and tight. How had he never seen this before? So stupid... but it didn’t matter, because he was kissing his best friend - he was kissing Bones - and it was amazing, and -

Someone in the room conspicuously cleared his throat. Bones jumped back from Jim like he’d been shocked, and Jim was more than a little amused to find Spock standing in the doorway of the transporter room.

With a raised eyebrow and a measured incline of his head, Spock merely said, “Captain, welcome aboard.”

Jim grinned, ignoring the heat in his cheeks. “Thank you, Mr. Spock. How has everything been up here while I’ve been taking my little vacation?”

“The ship has been functioning within normal parameters of efficiency, despite the unexpected change in our mission plans.” If Spock was perturbed by seeing his captain thoroughly kissing the ship’s chief medical officer, it didn’t show.

“Good to know,” Jim said happily as he started to walk out of the transporter room. “Thank you for the beam-out, Scotty!” he called back over his shoulder.

“Aye, Captain,” came Scotty’s somewhat stilted reply.

“Spock, you still have the bridge,” Jim said conversationally. “I have to go follow some required protocols. Isn’t that right, Bones?” He stopped and turned in place to see Bones still standing in the transporter room, looking stunned. “Bones?”

“Jim... I...”

“Doctor McCoy,” Spock interjected, “I believe that standard protocols require that any away team member who has been on the surface of a planet for more than 48 hours must receive, at minimum, a full physical in addition to tests for microbiological and chemical contamination. These tests must be conducted within thirty minutes of return to the ship, barring extreme circumstances such as battle conditions or other threats to life and limb.”

Bones stared between Spock and Jim. Jim was trying not to laugh, but at the same time, he felt warm and breathless at once, and he was praying to whatever god might be listening that maybe, just maybe, what just happened was real and that Bones had really meant it.

“In other words, Doctor,” Spock continued, “go take care of the captain.”

Jim smiled as an expression of hope slowly dawned across Bones face. Nodding slowly, he finally moved towards the door.

“This way, Jim,” Bones said, passing by the other two officers and turning towards the turbolift.

Jim fell into step alongside Bones, nodding to Spock as his First Officer turned towards the Bridge. They were silent until they were aboard the turbolift. Bones quietly said, “Sickbay,” but as the doors closed, Jim spoke.

“Computer, halt turbolift.”

“Jim, you heard the hobgoblin... protocols and all that... we need to get you to sickbay. Besides, who knows what you could have been exposed to, and you obviously haven’t been using the sunblock I sent you because you’ve got UV damage to your skin and I should repair it as soon as possible and -”

Bones.” Jim stepped into Bones’ personal space again, and the doctor’s tirade withered.

“Jim.” The name was spoken in a tone that Jim had never heard from Bones before, but he liked it.

“Did you mean it?”

Slowly, Bones nodded.

“How long?” Jim knew he didn’t need to elaborate more than that.

Bones swallowed tightly. “I think I only really understood over the past few days... but... years, Jim. Hell, maybe since I first met you. And I’ll be damned if I ever understand why.” He raised an eyebrow. “You?”

Jim shrugged. “The same, I think. And Bones?”

“Yeah?”

“Never stop talking to me. I’ll always be listening.”

A slow smile worked its way across Bones’ face, and before Jim could say anything else, Bones was kissing him thoroughly.

Okay, so maybe Bones could stop talking to him long enough for this.

The turbolift computer chimed. “Please state your destination.

Jim ignored it.

*********