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until the word took shape and became a soul

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It's this thing they won't talk about, the thing that will keep eating them up from the inside out. The whisper of it is in every single one of Leonard's exhales, in every moment Jim catches him staring at the sea. It's a promise, an inescapable fact, a goddamn chain around their necks. I'm going to find it. And you're going to have so many goddamn regrets. Leonard punctuates it with a scowl, a glare, and it still ends with a kiss so hot that he can't breathe. He hates his human lungs. They can never hold in enough air. Not for Jim or the whole goddamn world but especially not for Jim.

"Hey," Jim whispers, forehead pressed to Leonard's shoulder, his fingers trailing through the sheen of sweat still beaded down his spine.

Leonard tightens his hand in Jim's hair. He knows it hurts. It has to hurt. He closes his eyes but doesn't let go. "Don't say it."

For once, Jim listens. Eventually, his breathing evens out, the listless drift of his hand finally ending on Leonard's hip. His whole face goes slack, his shoulders finally dropping. Leonard wants to move, get in the shower — the ocean — and clean himself up. The moment he shifts, Jim's hand tightens around him, eyes flying open, so wide and so blue and—Something else that Leonard wishes like hell he can unsee.

"Just going to get a washcloth," he murmurs, petting back Jim's hair and choking on the rest of his words. He knows, if he had a choice in any of this — a part of him does, but not really — that he wouldn't come back. It's just not who he is.

Jim flashes him a brilliant smile and then darts in. Quick, hot kiss—God, and Jim's tongue. Leonard hears himself moan, lips already parted because Jim's kisses are like storms. It's like getting tossed, like the whole world might end in a few minutes, seconds, and all Leonard can do is ride it like a wave. But this one's so much hotter, tugs him under with lips and teeth and tongue and hands. I know, Jim. I know, goddamn it. But there isn't enough time for any of those words, no time at all with Jim dragging Leonard into this moment where it's always just the two of them — rutting, pushing, shoving. Leonard bites Jim's bottom lip hard enough to make him jerk back on instinct. His mouth is wet with more than just spit. He stares up at Jim, who's probing at the cut in his lip with the tip of his tongue, gaze distant. Leonard wants to ask why, too. Why Jim pushes so goddamn hard for it because he can't—It won't work. It's not like a transmittable disease. And if Jim really thinks that, then ... .

Leonard needs to get the copper taste out of his mouth right now. Jim falls onto the bed with one hard push, and Leonard tries to ignore the shiver he feels on the inside of his wrist where maybe—Where maybe Jim tried to catch him. He flicks the switch and winces against the sharp prickle of light suddenly hitting his pupils. The sink is cold, gripped tight in both hands, and his own eyes are too wide. Too much in them. Caught. He touches the mirror first, but it doesn't make it easier when he finally touches his own skin, starting with the coarse stubble on his cheek. It's a sign. It's ... time, wrapping around Leonard's throat like the ropes of a net.

Jim comes out of nowhere, not anything Leonard sees so much as feels. Something too quiet to be understood. Jim's arms wrap around Leonard's waist, and they breathe out together, long and slow. It's several minutes before either one of 'em speaks.

"Want me to ... ?"

Finish a goddamn sentence, yes. "I'm not letting you put a straight razor to my throat, Jim."

The flash of Jim's smile through the mirror is bright. "You can't deny that it works." As proof, Jim starts rubbing his smooth cheek against Leonard's shoulder. The soft skin is quickly replaced with the warm, firm press of Jim's mouth and then the gentle scrape of his teeth.

"I also can't deny that you might slice a goddamn artery trying to show off."

Jim stops, and Leonard feels—He stands there, trying to parse the brief flicker of ... something in Jim's eyes, too hooded to see clearly in a mirror. Leonard doesn't even know why he keeps bothering to look. It's what's ... always gonna be there. Isn't it? his inner voice asks as insidious as ever. What's gonna keep them tense day after day.

It's several heartbeats before Jim finally speaks, enough time for Leonard to get dizzy from keeping his knees locked. "I wouldn't hurt you."

This hurts, Jim, Leonard doesn't say. It hasn't even been that goddamn long, but—Every day like this hurts. Jim stares into his eyes through the mirror, holds him, and Leonard has to — break free, run, no, swim, knowing that he'll never get far enough away, never get somewhere where he won't be reminded of the color of Jim's eyes. Leonard closes his own and breathes out again.

"Shower." A pat to his stomach and then a gentle stroke down to his hip. "And then maybe a shave?"

~*~

Leonard keeps the stubble, and the next morning, he doesn't follow Jim into the boat. They both know—He'll go in and drown trying to go too deep, too far. Human legs aren't good for anything but walking and they're piss poor at that, too. He keeps tripping over the rocks, stumbling over sand that should flow under him like a slide. His stubble itches, and the damn thing doesn't even have the grace to keep him warm while he stands out in the chill, the ocean reaching up and up but never getting past his ankles. The boots Jim got for him keep him from feeling the cold, silky embrace of her, stretched out so beautifully in front of him.

It was supposed to be one kiss, he tries to tell her. No point in speaking the words aloud, though, not when they can't understand each other's song anymore.

"Bones—" Leonard starts and blinks, rearing back when a hand lands on his shoulder. The sun's setting, dipping low and casting the ocean in a warm red-orange haze. "Come inside, okay?"

Leonard keeps his back to Jim, keeps his face to the ocean and turned into the snap of a cold wind. He can almost smell the salt, but maybe it's just the winter chill searing into his lungs. Leonard swallows it down and tries not to—

I have a little girl. He chokes on the words mid-turn, caught by the way Jim's watching him and the feel of Jim's hand sliding around to cup the back of his neck. Jim's fingers are stiff, probably from the cold, but they're not colder than Leonard's skin, where the only thing he can feel is the patterns that Jim unconsciously traces there.

"You want some cocoa?" Jim asks, half his mouth curled into a smile. "I bet you'll love it."

I want—Leonard shakes his head, eyes half closed and fixed on the ground. "In a minute."

He's not—He lifts his head and yanks Jim in hard enough for their teeth to clack together, until the only rush he hears in his ears is that of his own blood and not the whisper of the waves behind him.

~*~

Time ... shifts.

It's a strange awareness that goes beyond the simplicity of a rising and setting sun. And like a goddamn fool, Leonard keeps waiting for all of this to ... click. He's been here longer than he has a right to be, and the beard is too much, too unlike the feel of his pelt—warm and soft against his palms. He used to bury his human nose in it for the smell of the ocean and that slippery sort of scent of fish before he put it on. The beard's a harsh reminder of what he doesn't have.

He's still terrified that Jim's going to cut this skin off, too. It's not the same, of course; there wasn't actually any cutting involved the first time around, but this is the only skin Leonard has left and as stupid as it is, he wants to keep the goddamn thing.

"Relax, Bones." Jim's flirty smile doesn't put him at ease, not through the mirror and not when Jim tips his head back far enough that he can see the point of Jim's chin. "Trust me a little."

The lather makes Leonard's nose twitch, but the blade to his neck makes him suck in a sharp breath before he goes rigidly still. This is going to be a disaster. The first scrape has him ready to bolt out of the chair.

Jim rests a hand on Leonard's shoulder and squeezes with a short, soft laugh. "Will a blowjob help?"

Leonard bites the inside of his lip to keep from talking. It's unfair to put a straight edge razor to a man's throat before he can counter. Leonard has to settle for a solid glare even though Jim's too focused on the shave to notice it. He's got that look — intense, concentrated, clear-eyed — that makes Leonard's mouth dry out and his heart spike. It's the look that got him into this goddamn mess.

The blade vanishes in the space of seconds, and Leonard breathes, "Jim."

"Almost done."

The razor returns along with all the tension Leonard released in the exhale. He's hard and aching, but there's no room to fidget or shift. He feels like his goddamn pulse is going to get him nicked if it beats any harder, and Jim, the bastard, looks more amused by the minute.

"There," Jim finally says.

Leonard has to get out of the chair, has to—Push Jim to the wall. He groans at the feel of Jim's thigh against his palm, grinds closer when Jim hikes that leg around his waist. Jim's just as hard, just as hungry, lips parted to take the thrust of Leonard's tongue. Leonard smears the shaving lather on Jim's cheek when he drags his mouth down to bite and suck on Jim's throat.

"See—Oh, god, Bones."

Jim jerks when Leonard bites him again before moving down to suck Jim's nipple through his shirt. He fights the tug of Jim's hand in his hair and drops to his knees, fumbling at the button and zip of Jim's jeans.

"Wai—"

The rest is garbled in a sharp cry when Leonard takes Jim's cock — hard, hot, heavy — down to the root where the wiry hairs are rough on Leonard's mouth. He rolls his tongue until Jim starts to buck, hands tightening in Leonard's hair until he's dragging Leonard into each slow thrust, until whatever they were gonna say gets wrapped up and demolished in the heat, in Jim, in need. Leonard wrestles with his pants — so stupid, wearing clothes — until he can get his own cock free, jacking it harder and faster than the rhythm Jim sets. He sucks the head of Jim's cock when Jim pulls back, falling against the wall, damn near out of breath, panting, skin flushed like the first time — like every time.

"Bones, I—"

Leonard bobs down and moans at the way Jim cries out, hands shaking as they fall to his shoulders. He doesn't let up, doesn't give Jim a chance to think past this. This is what you wanted, he wants to shout. This is why you—He smothers the thought with a hard squeeze and tug on his own cock, letting pleasure whip away anything remotely coherent. There's only the weight, the pulse and twitch, the way Jim quakes and rakes his nails over Leonard's scalp. Jim comes first, and Leonard follows seconds later.

For a moment, he forgets.

But only for a moment.

He opens his eyes as he slowly sinks back into his — this human skin, throat thick with ... everything. He rests his forehead against Jim's thigh and falls quiet to the gentle stroke of Jim's fingers through his hair. Jim's fingertips trail down Leonard's smooth, human cheek and rest calm and easy at Leonard's pulse, still drumming its own hard beat.

"See? Told you to trust me, Bones."

~*~

I have a wife, too, Leonard doesn't say one morning while watching Jim cook eggs and bacon because he think it'll be good and Leonard needs to eat. Jim swi—moves through the kitchen, whistling a tune to himself. He has a habit of shifting from one leg to the other depending on whether he's checking the bacon or the eggs. It's normal — human — but Leonard doesn't know what any of it means.

"Bon appetit."

He blinks and then looks down at the plate that Jim set in front of him. Jim's fingers sink into Leonard's hair and sweep back the stray strands that Leonard doesn't bother with.

"You seemed the scrambled egg type."

Leonard tries his damnedest not to shiver when the tips of Jim's fingers pet the back of his neck, gently circling the knob of bone at the top of his spine. It's not too hard because the food smells—Wrong. But one look at Jim, who's so hopeful, so—

"More the meat-eater type," Leonard mumbles.

Jim laughs and claps Leonard's shoulder. "Save that for later." Then he's gone, turned back to the stove for his own eggs.

Leonard's fingers twitch toward the plate, but he redirects them to the fork. He scoops up a helping of eggs and swallows. It's not terrible, just ... not right. Like everything else Jim has tried to throw at him. But food's never been the thing that strips Leonard down and brings him to the beach on two legs.

He tries the bacon next, tears off a piece, swallows, and gags on the crispy pieces. It won't go down whole. Not wet enough, not raw and fresh. He grips his neck and smacks a hand down on the table, but Jim is there. Arms circle his waist, squeeze—Leonard's eyes water, face too hot, throat too tight, vision hazy. Then he coughs and keeps coughing, slumping forward, a hand braced on the table to keep himself upright as he sucks in all the air he can get.

"You have to—" They sink down to the floor with Jim massaging Leonard's throat and rubbing the side of his neck with his nose. "You have to remember to chew."

And when are you going to remember, Jim, that I don't belong? Leonard's throat hurts too badly for those words, so he leans back and soaks up Jim's warmth, breathing in each steady breath until he and Jim are synced and the eggs on the stove start to burn and Leonard's tears no longer taste like salt water.

~*~

This is where he's supposed to be — diving, turning, twisting. It's not as elegant like this, though, not as effortless and fluid, but Leonard keeps reaching anyway because—because he doesn't have a goddamn choice in this.

He opens his eyes to a too-bright sky, to two bright blue eyes, the sea-salt taste of the ocean still thick as a sand bar on his tongue. He turns his head, spits, and winces at the burn in his sinuses. He's freezing even when Jim wraps him in a tight embrace, forehead pressed to the back of Leonard's neck.

"Breathe, Bones, just—Just breathe."

We do that the same, Leonard doesn't say, something wild and unfettered bubbling up in his chest. It's the same numbing terror that comes with getting sighted by a predator, all sharp teeth and speed. The rivulets from his hair sting into his eyes until he has the sense to close them. Jim rocks him and rubs his back and presses kisses to Leonard's throat and jaw and ear. He tries to haul Leonard to his feet, but Leonard's too tired to walk on these legs. He's supposed to drag himself over the sands, up to ... the house. Except Leonard's eyes keep drifting to the right, to the ocean, the briny taste of her still burning in his throat and nostrils.

"Come on. We have to get you warm."

Jim pulls and pulls, and Leonard sways. Another cough tickles his throat.

Once inside, Jim gets him settled on the couch and strips him out of his wet clothes. He looks at Leonard like—Leonard averts his eyes before he can glimpse what's there. The shivering has set in and he can't stop his teeth from chattering.

"Want—"

"Yeah, Bones, I know. I'll get you warm."

No, goddamn it. I want—Leonard shakes his head. Words are as useless as his legs, so he leans back, closes his eyes, and tries to hold himself against the chill.

~*~

The wind is cold and bitter, biting into Leonard's pink human skin until he can't feel his face. It's the wrong face anyhow so he doesn't give a good goddamn what it feels like. Yesterday, day before yesterday — every day he tries and fails — he didn't get far enough, but he still stares at the ocean like she'll know that's where he belongs and give him a new skin. Or his old skin back. However that's supposed to work. There's a miracle in there, somewhere, that Leonard can't find.

All he knows is that the skin he has is cracked and bleeding, and his lungs feel as wet as the snot that keeps dripping from his nose. The sleeve of the wool coat is rough against his face — and he won't be able to scrub the damn thing hard enough or long enough to get it clean — but while it keeps him warm, it's not enough to push out the bone-deep chill that's nestled in.

The wind kicks up, carrying Leonard's hair with it and pushing the strands straight into his eyes. He sweeps it back, his vision already blurring out the view in front of him. He hunches in on himself and draws his legs up to his chest, burying his face against his knees until the cold dies down and everything settles. It's never going to settle quite right and the only warm thing—All he's got left is Jim and what Jim shows him.

Leonard lifts his face to stare out at all that blue, the water dark and choppy, but the waves don't crest high enough to get the traction needed to reach him on the shore. His eyes sting and his cheeks sting and every part of him stings. His little girl is in that deep blue ocean somewhere. His wife. His life. A part of his life—

"Here, Bones."

Leonard's expecting another mug of the hot cocoa or the bottle of scotch, another thing that he can't hold down, but when he looks up—

A part of him damn near sings, the pelt already snatched up and shoved against his face as he's blinking and trying to figure out the how and the why. He can't stop stroking it, clutching it, inhaling the salty musk of the goddamn thing. He needs to put it on right now and bolts to his feet, shedding the bulky coat that fits in all the wrong ways, but Jim—Jim looks wrecked, hair mussed and clothes rumpled and his cheeks just as bright and pink as Leonard's must be. He looks—Like he's waiting.

Leonard reaches out a hand before he realizes it and grips Jim's shoulder. It feels too impersonal, especially when he's felt the heat of Jim's skin, has kissed it and soaked in it and burned in it. He fumbles higher until his fingers catch the warm pulse in Jim's throat and anchor at his jaw.

"Jim, I'll—"

Jim covers Leonard's hand, holds on too tightly, and smiles. It's ... still as brilliant as ever, still makes Leonard's heart race because he doesn't know. Jim could so easily—If Jim does—

But all Jim does is plant a kiss to the inside of Leonard's wrist, rub his cheek against Leonard's dry palm and then lets him go. "Don't say it."

The pelt starts slipping from his fingers when he takes that step forward, the one he doesn't know he's going to take until he does. Until he's pressed against Jim, full-body, and takes Jim's mouth in a kiss that's—It makes Leonard smile as he sucks Jim's bottom lip, burrows a hand into Jim's coat and holds him — keeps him — right here.

It's a bittersweet ache—

I told you, Jim.

—and exactly like the world ending.