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Jim has catalogued them all: McCoy’s frowns.

McCoy has dozens of them: like the sour one he makes anytime he has to get in a shuttle or the one when Jim’s trying to convince him to do something fun, where his lips curl down but his eyes sparkle, and Jim knows Bones will go along with him eventually -- he’s just going to get a lecture first.

This one is different, though. It’s new, Jim has only seen it for the last few months, and he hasn’t figured out what it means.

Bones is making it now, across the table from him in the mess at breakfast. Jim’s been talking McCoy’s ear off about the unique magnetic fields they encountered in the star system they just surveyed. And he’s sure McCoy must be bored because he knows from experience that it’s not an area that interests him. But Jim can’t seem to help himself -- it was an interesting discovery and he’s a little jealous of the crew of the survey ship that’s going to be sent back for more in-depth research. So, yeah, he must be practically putting McCoy back to sleep. But McCoy isn’t making his bored frown or his exasperated frown, or even his I-want-to-choke-you-Jim frown. Or any other of the subtle and not-so-subtle variations of facial expressions that Jim’s so familiar with from long experience. It’s more — contemplative. Just what he’s contemplating though...

Jim only realizes he’s stopped talking and that he’s been frowning back when McCoy’s expression shifts to something more familiar — the frown he gets when he’s a little embarrassed about something.

“What?” McCoy says, in that put-upon voice he gets sometimes when Jim’s annoying him, but in a minor way, like a fly buzzing around at a picnic. “Do I have something on my face?” He swipes at his check with a hand. 

Jim just shakes his head no, and wishes McCoy would go back to making the earlier frown so he could study it more. 

McCoy rolls his eyes. “Well, I should get going. I understand it was Ensign Xonnol’s birthday yesterday, so I’m expecting a lot of visits from engineering ensigns this morning with symptoms that definitely aren’t consist with hangovers.” 

“See you at dinner?” Jim asks, and McCoy just raises his hand in acknowledgment as he’s walking away. 

Turns out, Jim doesn’t have to wait until dinner. McCoy comes up to the bridge mid-afternoon. Jim’s not really clear why McCoy is there, but he’s not complaining. McCoy has a standing invitation, so long as Medbay is slow, he doesn’t need a reason. After trading barbs with Spock for the first few minutes, McCoy’s just been standing off to Jim’s left for the better part of a half hour, offering the occasional observation. All and all, it’s a typical day.  That is, until Jim glances up and sees McCoy looking back at him with that odd frown.

“Everything okay, Bones?”

“Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?” McCoy says.

“Nothing, it’s just--” Jim trails off. They’re on the bridge and this seems like a more private conversation, somehow. “Nothing.”

Jim gets a raised eyebrow in return and it shouldn’t send a warmth coursing through him, but it does. He’s about to try again, to say something -- he’s not sure what, he hasn’t planned that far ahead yet -- when Chekov interjects with a question about a course correction, and by the time it’s sorted out, McCoy’s gone back to Medbay, and Jim’s left, once again, without answers.

*

A few more weeks go by and Jim is still no closer to a solution. It’s like he has a word stuck on the top of his tongue, like he’s so close to figuring it out but he just can’t get there. Jim’s never seen that particular frown directed to anyone else, but as much time as they spend together, McCoy still spends the bulk of his day elsewhere. He fleetingly thinks about asking Chapel if she’s seen it too, but then Jim thinks about the look Chapel might give him if he tried -- the one she saves for when she thinks he’s being particularly insane -- and decides better of it. Besides, how would he even describe it? Hey, Chapel, does Dr. McCoy ever sort of purse his lips and get this faraway look in his eye, but somehow it’s also really intense and focused? Any idea what that’s about?

So he’s on his own.

*

It’s late, well into Gamma shift, and Jim’s in his ready room, dealing with an administrative disaster involving work schedules, supply chains, and mounds of paperwork. Jim’s sent the quartermaster and senior operations officers away to get some sleep so they can approach things with a clear head in the morning. Spock has the conn, asserting that keeping his mind busy rather than sleeping will help keep him churning at the myriad of problems in the back of his mind. And McCoy, well, McCoy shouldn’t even be here, actually --  the schedules and supplies and paperwork at issue are significantly outside his realm of responsibilities. But he came up after his shift was over to bring Jim his dinner and -- determined frown firmly in place -- to watch him to make sure he ate the replicated salad and not just the replicated apple pie.  He had stayed ever since, acting as a sounding board to help Jim work through the galaxy of problems. 

Eventually, right around the time Alpha’s almost set to start again, with help of the steady presence of McCoy and the occassional comm out to Spock on the bridge, Jim has untangled the worst of the mess and figures the operations officers should be able to manage the rest.

Jim stretches, cracks his back, yawns. He surveys his empty dinner plate and the cups of coffee scattered over the table. His stomach rumbles. When he looks up, McCoy’s leaning back in his chair, watching him, that mystery frown on his face. And there’s a distinct quality of fondness in it that’s always been there, but somehow Jim never noticed. And that might be the missing piece.

Jim takes a deep breath, opens his mouth, says, “Oh,” very softly, and then McCoy’s leaning into Jim’s personal space to capture his lips in his own. It’s soft and it’s sweet, and it’s a good thing Jim just took that deep breath, because it leaves him a little breathless.

McCoy is warm and solid and Jim just wants to pull him closer closer closer.

When McCoy eventually pulls back, Jim reels him right back in, deeper this time. The angle is awful -- the arm of his chair digging into his ribs as he twists to meet McCoy. But he never, ever, wants this to stop.

The ready room, though, maybe isn’t the best place. So he shoves gently at McCoy’s shoulder, pulls him up with him, and walks him towards the door.

“You should have said something, Bones.” 

McCoy smiles this time. “Thought I did.”