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The cure for anything is salt water

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McCoy's never been very good with funerals. As a doctor he'll stay with a patient right up until that final breath, fight tooth and nail if need be; once a person has crossed over he's pretty much useless. He cried through his mother's funeral and drank through his father's, which is probably why his memories of the former are sharper for all that he was just a kid. For the scant handful of other funerals he has attended in life, he's mostly kept to himself rather than indulge a short fuse for sentimental bullshit.

So he decides to sit out the first official function - a memorial service for the crew of the USS Farragut. Jim puts on his dress uniform, gives the still-livid bruises in the mirror one final glance, and leaves him alone in the room with a data padd and a bottle. Several hours, two glasses, a novella and three articles later McCoy has succumbed to a doze. He snorts himself awake as the door opens.

Jim barely looks at him. Dropping down on the couch, he gulps the last of the bourbon. McCoy watches as he swallows, noting that the liquor does nothing to ease the lines of tension in his neck. Still without saying a word, Jim slumps sideways and rests his head on McCoy’s shoulder. They sit like that for a few minutes. McCoy rolls the empty bottle in his hands until Jim clears his throat and stands. Normally McCoy would gripe at him about falling asleep in his clothes, but tonight he just undresses as quietly as he can and crawls into his own bed.

It's Hood the next morning. McCoy tells Jim he's going because he knew the CMO and half her medical staff; while that's true enough, he's also kind of lying through his teeth.

If he'd thought it might be easier with all the debris of death sucked into the black hole where Vulcan used to be, he is quickly disabused of the notion. Rows upon rows of empty seats are just as bone-chilling as caskets. He's restless and sweaty throughout the whole formal mess, but at least he's able to bully Jim into actually eating something afterwards. They both sleep better, that night – it’s the first time he’s caught more than four consecutive hours since the Narada and Vulcan, and that pointless fucking test.

Jim remains bound and determined to attend all the Starfleet-organized memorial events. This would have surprised McCoy a month earlier; it certainly seems to throw the Admiralty for a loop, which is amusing enough to break through the continuous, numbing tide of loss. When they're not assembled to speechify at the remaining students, they're holding closed-door meetings and "no comment"-ing the press. No one talks about what will happen with Enterprise after she gets out of dry-dock.

Six days after their return, the city of San Francisco holds a candlelight vigil for Vulcan. Jim and McCoy join the throng of cadets and officers crossing the grounds of the Academy, marching through the Presidio and out into the older districts. It's a clear night for once, allowing the flames to shine out in the gathering dark. When they pick up their own little candles from a volunteer, McCoy holds his tongue against a harangue on fire safety. A corner of Jim's mouth quirks like he knows exactly what McCoy is thinking.

The crowd of humans and aliens woven through the streets is a sobering sight if ever there was one. McCoy's been spending his days with fellow officers and avoiding the newsvids at night, so this is his first chance to witness public mourning for the planet that looms largest in Earth's history as well as the Federation. If he possessed the least bit of psi-sensitivity, he imagines he'd be losing his damn mind right about now. As it is, he's grateful for the solid press of Jim's arm against his ribs.

Before they've gone more than a couple of kilometers, McCoy hears a heavily accented shout of "Captain!" Chekov's curls bounce absurdly as he jumps up to be seen over a group of Andorians singing a quiet tune in their own language (McCoy's already threatened to bail if he's forced to participate in any fucking singing). As the kid threads his way through the sea of uniforms and civilians, Sulu becomes visible at his heels. McCoy's glimpsed them all at a couple of the memorials, but this is the first time he's seen any of the bridge crew up close since they landed. Sulu's Romulan-battered face is nearly back to normal. Chekov's fair skin makes the dark circles beneath his eyes stand out like bruises, but otherwise he seems fine. McCoy's so surprised to feel a flood of warm relief that he nearly lets his scowl turn into a smile.

"Gentlemen." Jim claps Sulu on the arm and nods to Chekov. They’re the ones who flew his ship home. He’ll never forget that. When the motion of the crowd carries them all forward, Chekov and Sulu fall back to let Jim lead the way, McCoy remaining at his side.

He has to let out a short laugh when Scotty's "Oi!" echoes over their heads not ten minutes later. The Scotsman has whiskey on his breath, though he seems sober enough and the flask in McCoy’s own pocket keeps him from pointing a finger at anyone else’s coping strategies.

"So where's the pointy-eared bastard, huh?" he says out of the side of his mouth.

Jim tips his chin to the raised platform ahead. "Up there."

McCoy blinks, having failed to notice that they've covered so much ground. He supposes it was easier to move in a wedge formation rather than just a pair. There's the mayor, several admirals including the president of Starfleet Academy - making a lemon-sucking face as usual - and a small delegation of Vulcans. Spock and Sarek have never looked so much alike as they do now, stiff-armed and solemn, regarding the assembled masses with impassive dark eyes.

He feels a light touch on his arm and this time he's entirely unsurprised. Spock is with his people, so Uhura has come to hers.

The six of them stand, shoulder to shoulder, as first the ambassador and then his son give brief addresses. Their words are carefully modulated, but God damn him if he isn't able to read the sincerity beneath the stilted speech. The crowd, too, accepts them as they are - whether it's due to sympathy and shared grief, the familiarity of Sarek in his long-held post or the fact that Spock's name is becoming as ubiquitous as James T. Kirk's, McCoy couldn’t say.

"He's nervous," Uhura murmurs, her eyes never leaving Spock's serene face.

"How can you possibly tell?" The muttered retort is a reflex, reliably grumpy as per his reputation, and he guesses that's why she smiles.

Jim's fingertips brush the back of his hand, callused skin warm in the cool coastal night. McCoy spills candlewax over his knuckles. He bites back a curse but turns his palm over to lace their fingers together. Doesn't think about it, doesn't question what it means, doesn't look at Uhura as she glances down at their joined hands - just holds on until they turn for home.

They make a late night of it at one of the campus bars, sharing pitchers of beer and stories of homes and old friends. If McCoy squints a little, he can see them gathered like this around a shipboard mess table, in a conference room, at a temple on a new world. Hell, he doesn't even resent Spock's presence and that's a sure sign he's going soft. After they've split the tab Jim and McCoy make their way back to the dorm, hanging off of each other as they have so many times before.

There's a moment after McCoy's scrubbed the taste of bad pizza and worse microbrew out of his mouth, when Jim's tossed his uniform over a chair and stands without a trace of self-consciousness in his black briefs. McCoy wants to kick himself for thinking of it as such – a fucking moment, like they’re in some insipid drama – but that’s what it feels like. Separate and distinct from all the minutes ticking by before and after, a fulcrum on which the fate of their three-year friendship spins like a top.

Jim touches the mild burn from the wax and a shudder runs down McCoy's spine. Staring at him in the thin slice of light from beyond the bathroom door, hardly daring to breathe, he's bereft of speech and movement. If Jim lifts that hand to his face, presses his lips to the mark, takes a step back toward the bed - only then will McCoy have the slightest idea what he intends to do next.

And then Jim lets go.

McCoy knows exactly what to do, as it turns out. He grumbles about archaic customs, rubs some antiseptic cream over his burnt hand, and buries his head under his pillow.

The morning’s mostly gone by the time he wakes up. Jim’s puttering around the room, dressed in jeans and a navy button-down shirt. McCoy presses the heel of his hand to his forehead.

“I can’t do it today, Jim,” he says quietly. “I can’t sit with a bunch of sad-eyed kids and listen to some windbag lament a lost future.”

Jim glances over at him and shrugs. “Okay. I’m off to visit Pike. You want to take a drive down to the beach later?”

He doesn’t have much patience left for mixed signals, either, but he sighs and agrees.

It’s getting on toward evening by the time they stuff some sandwiches and a six-pack in the panniers on Jim’s bike. McCoy insists on adding a blanket, as he still remembers how long it took his pants to recover from their last beach trip. Accordingly, he refuses to go anywhere near the water no matter what Jim says.

“I won’t dunk you, Bones, I swear. Jesus, that was one time.”

McCoy raises an eyebrow to indicate what he thinks of such protestations of innocence. Jim pouts as he finishes digging a furrow in the sand to keep the rest of the beer cool. It doesn’t much matter since the sun’s creeping toward the horizon and it’s getting downright chilly, but Jim has his little rituals when it comes to the beach (McCoy blames this, along a whole slew of other personality tics, on Iowa).

He doesn’t need to open his eyes to confirm that Jim’s padding down to the surf now, jeans rolled up to his knees, to begin the laborious process of getting his feet wet. The temperature always comes as a shock. McCoy shades his face from the glare of the sinking sun and grins to himself, waiting for the yelp.

“Fuck! It’s fucking freezing!”

It’ll do no good to suggest he get the fuck out then, as McCoy knows only too well. He’ll tiptoe up to the edge and leap back, then forward again, muttering about how cold it is and yelling when a wavelet surges farther than he was expecting. Eventually he’ll wade in until the water covers his calves, hugging himself in perfect contentment despite his numb feet; it just takes him a while to get acclimated.

Today it takes long enough for McCoy to finish the last sandwich and put away another beer. He props himself up on his elbows, tracking Jim’s slow strides across the wet sand. His head’s down because he likes to watch his footprints disappear but every now and then he looks up at the Bridge, as if to reassure himself it’s still there.

McCoy stops staring and tips his head back for the heavy, golden warmth of the dying day, defying the chill in the air. Naturally this is Jim’s cue to wander back and shake drops of water all over him. He swears because it is goddamn cold, Jim snickers because McCoy’s ire never fails to amuse him, and just like that Jim’s kissing him. His lips are as full and warm as they’ve always looked, his mouth hotter still when McCoy follows the taste of salt and licks inside.

It’s the easiest thing in the world, drawing Jim down beside him. There’s sand on the blanket, tickling his feet, but he doesn’t care because Jim’s arms tighten around him and Jim’s tongue swipes at his lower lip and Jim is murmuring against his neck.

“Finally, finally, finally.”

McCoy pulls back to look at him, framing his face with one hand. “What the hell were you waiting for?” His voice is rough but Jim's never paid that any mind.

“The sunset.”

He answers quick, then ducks his head - though not before McCoy sees the same wistful-sweet expression he couldn’t leave behind on that hangar deck. He thinks he might never be able to leave it. Which scares the hell out of him, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s the only way to heal – old scars and new, tiny hairline fractures and the breaks that threaten to tear a man's soul apart.

Jim looks up, past the red sun bleeding into the water and up to the darkening sky. McCoy has seen him dreaming like this before but now his gaze is steady, fixed on a point. Jim will tell him later, probably make a big production out of it, and McCoy will have to feign surprise because he realizes he already knows: that point is Enterprise. There’s a promise burning in his eyes, for McCoy or for his ship – for both. Hope wells deep in his chest and for the first time in a long time he lets it stay, keeps it close, listens to it beat in time with Jim’s heart.

They kiss until all the stars come out.