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"Bones, get out that Romulan Ale I'm not supposed to know about; it's going to be a long night."

McCoy looks up from his work as Jim walks into his office; obviously uncaring that he was actually trying to be productive. "What's eating you?" he asks gruffly, giving up his work as a lost cause and clearing space for the bottle of blue liquid he pulls out of the bottom drawer of his desk a second later.

"If you don't mind, I'd prefer to get a couple of drinks in my system first," the blond sighs, grabbing tumblers from a nearby table - left out for precisely this purpose - and beginning to pour.

Bones watches his companion down his drink in one go and immediately pour another glass, frowning at Jim all the while. Since becoming Captain, Jim had been practically responsible with his drinking, but clearly this night is not going to follow the established pattern.

"All right, you've had your glass, now spill. What's driving you so steadily to the bottle?"

Jim sighs and takes a sip of his ale, not looking at his CMO rather purposefully. "It's - I'm probably over-reacting. This is probably nothing - I should just go before I get too drunk and do something really stupid."

As Jim stands to leave, drink still in hand, Bones reaches out and grabs his arm, forcing him to stay in the office. "Kid, I know you. You wouldn't come crawling to me for contraband alcohol over nothing. Now spill."

Jim's resolve falters, and he falls back into the chair in front of his friend's desk. "I just..." he trails off, "I don't know, any more, Bones. I used to be so sure that I could do anything, but now... No I'm at a dead end with no escape in sight." He lets out a huff of air and a self-depreciating laugh. “It’s a fucking no-win scenario, and I can’t just change the parameters this time.”

McCoy sighs and sips his own drink - lord knows he's going to need it if he wants to understand what his friend is trying to say.

"What are you talking about, Jim? I'd hate to bolster your ego, but you're doing a great job as Captain. Ask anyone on this deathtrap of a ship."

Jim averts his eyes at the praise, still uncomfortable with such frank compliments, even after so many months of it. "Look, Bones, it's nice of you to say that, and all, but where have you been all this time? Haven’t you noticed how many people are injured under my watch? Haven't you noticed that I lose a security officer on almost every away mission? Clearly I'm doing something wrong."

McCoy frowns, unused to seeing his friend express such pessimism. The typical James Kirk veneer of confidence and self-assuredness is nowhere in sight, and that alone has him more worried than he’ll ever admit. "Jim, those men and women signed up for their jobs knowing that they would inevitably be asked to lay down their lives for other members of the crew. They volunteered to put their lives on the line to keep yours going. Half the time, I think any of the people on this ship would do the same without a thought!"

Jim sighs and continues to drink for a moment before he speaks again, "They shouldn't want that, though. My life is worth no more than anyone else's. I'm not that special! Hell, if the Narada hadn't wiped out half the 'fleet, who knows if I would have ever become Captain, let alone right after our graduation. I mean, less than a year ago I was on academic suspension, one wrong word away from getting kicked out of the Academy all together!"

Bones watches as Jim swallows the rest of his drink in one go, frowning at the blond. "It's not any man that could take out a fully-armed ship from over a century in the future in a ship less than a quarter its size. If that didn't prove to you that you deserve this, what will?"

"I... I don't deserve all of this credit, though; I had help. What about you? Or Scotty? Or Spock? You don't see him captaining his own ship."

Bones snorts. "The way I hear it, they offered." From the way Jim's head snaps up, he's interested; this is news to him. Bones pauses, just to enjoy the look of sheer curiosity on his companion's face for a little longer. "Clearly, he declined. Told 'em he wasn't fit for 'Attending to the emotional obligations of being Captain.'"

Jim's expression morphs into one of complete incredulity in an instant.

His friend nods, "Sounds like a load of bullshit to me, too. But it wasn't my place to ask." The blonde’s face practically screams 'Like that's ever stopped you before,' so he adds with a conspiratorial grin, "I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to be able to hear them from out in the hall..."

It's Jim's turn to smirk. "You always were a nosy bastard.” His brow furrows and the smirk fades. “... But why would Spock turn down an opportunity like that? It had to have been the most logical choice to accept and take a ship for himself, right?"

"Hell if I know. From what I've heard, he had the admiralty on his back to take a ship of his own, plus those stuffy old pointy-eared bastards pressuring him to join their colonization efforts..." Bones takes another long sip, nearing the bottom of his glass. "Your guess is as good as mine why the hobgoblin ended up here."

If Jim hadn't witnessed the grudging friendship form between his CMO and First Officer over the past six months, he might have yelled at Bones for the slight. As it is, the term has morphed into something akin to a nickname, although neither of Jim's closest friends would ever admit it. As Jim finishes his second glass, he stands, muttering something Bones can’t quite discern, but which sounds vaguely like, "Maybe I'll go ask him myself," as he leaves the room.

As McCoy watches his friend leave, he finishes off his glass, feeling just buzzed enough to decide that Jim is a lost cause for tonight, and get back to his paperwork.

The next time Jim corners McCoy in his office, two trays of lunch in his hands (for once being the responsible one and stopping for a break to eat), something is different about the Captain (aside from the fact that he’s initiating a meal, of course). As they dig in, Bones tries to brush it off and convince himself that he's being paranoid, that Jim is just as fine as he always is, but soon enough Jim has stopped eating, stopped talking, and is just staring off into the distance like maybe it has all of the answers he needs, but is being stubborn about sharing the information.

"All right," the doctor breaks the silence, "fess up. What's got you brooding worse than a fourteen year old girl?"

At the words, Jim starts, as though he had forgotten that Bones was even in the room with him. "What?" After a moment he registers the question and dismisses it, "Oh, it's nothing, really."

Bones doesn't say anything, merely raises an incredulous eyebrow in the way that both he and Spock have mastered, wordlessly calling bullshit on Jim's erroneous answer. (Jim has spent hours in front of his mirror, attempting the very same expression, to no avail. The one time he tried to turn the expression on the very friends who mastered it, even Spock was giving him one of his not-smiles.)

Almost out of nowhere, Jim asks, "Did you know that Spock and Uhura broke up months before this five-year mission even started?"

Bones nods absently, not sure where this is going, "Yeah, heard her talking about it with Gaila a while back... What's it to you?"

Jim tries to look uncaring, and maybe it would have worked, except he's talking to the man who was forced into rooming with him for three years at the academy; the man who knows more of him than he ever lets anyone see. For a moment, both pretend as though the façade worked, before Jim finally caves. "It's just... They broke up! Why would he want to work with his ex every day when he could have his own ship, or even leave for a whole other planet? It makes no sense! Surely there are far more ‘logical’ choices!"

Bones' eyebrow arches once more as he concludes, "I take it you had the balls to ask him why he chose to be your First Officer?"

Jim sighs in response. "Yeah, but that's all he would tell me! How the fuck am I supposed to figure out why he's on my ship if his only intimation is 'I am certain you have been made aware that Nyota and I terminated our romantic relationship approximately two-point-six months before this ship was scheduled to launch under your captaincy'?" Jim's impersonation of Spock is almost spot-on, and Bones barks out a laugh at the deadpan.

"You're Jim Kirk," he replies. "You'll figure it out eventually - and you'll be a damn pain in the ass until you do. That's just how you operate."

As they slip back into normal conversation, McCoy can't help but notice that Jim, while not halting the conversation, seems much more reserved than usual, more contemplative. He wonders if this is a warning sign for some looming disaster, or if it means that his friend is maturing, just a little.

As McCoy sits in the mess hall, listening absently to Jim's debate with Sulu over the most accurate sword fight in the holovids, he takes a moment to really look at his friend.

Jim is a far cry from the bruised, hung-over rebel he met on the shuttle, practically a responsible adult, now. He's got that look in his eye that says he knows all the dangers that are out there and is ready to face them, a look that never fails to make McCoy irate because, damn it, the kid is too young to know the horrors of the universe! He’s too goddamn young to be inviting in the horrors of the ‘verse, too young to be feeling that sort of pain. There's something in the way he carries himself, too. The way Jim has started sitting up straight, started moving with a lot less bravado and a lot more actual confidence has Bones unsure if he should be proud of his friend or worried for him.

When Bones looks away, unwilling to deal with the ramifications ( mainly, the inevitable teasing) of Jim catching on to his scrutiny, he notices something.

Further down the table, with Uhura talking to him about some article in the linguistics periodical that just came out, Spock is studying Jim with more intensity in his gaze than even Bones is willing to acknowledge.

The doctor takes note of the look, even if he isn't ready to classify it, and turns back to Jim, who has asked him a question and is waiting for an answer.

“Hell, I don’t know, Jim, you know it’s been years since I’ve gone to see one of those action ‘vids.”

The next time, it's Jim that Bones catches staring. His first thought is that Jim and Spock are playing some elaborate trick on him. Surely they can't both stare longingly at each other without it being some sort of conspiracy.

And yet, here they are in Med Bay, with the Captain staring at Spock as the Vulcan is treated by Christine, a look in his eyes that Bones pretends he doesn't recognize. He tries, a true exercise in futility, to convince himself that Jim isn't looking at his First Officer like he's seeing him - really seeing - for the first time.

The only benefit Bones receives from the blonde’s stupor is that he manages to drag the distracted man into his office before he rushes over to harass the nurses - lord knows they're stressed enough already from the mission gone wrong, no need to add the Captain’s obvious concern for his First Officer into the mix.

When he's planted Jim in a seat, Bones pulls out a PADD to get some work done, not expecting Jim to be ready to talk for another half an hour, at least.

"I can't believe I let that happen."

McCoy's head jerks up in surprise at the dejected sigh. When the words sink in, a fierce glare overcomes his face.

"Don't you dare try to tell me that you think this is somehow your fault!"

"But they were aiming at m-"

"I said don't."

McCoy's tone leaves no room for argument, so Jim closes his mouth and resorts to sulking petulantly, convinced that everything that happened really was the fault of him and him alone.

"Look," the sudden softness in his friend's voice causes Jim to look up, trying not to look as interested as he really is - one of them has to keep up appearances, right? "Jim, this was not your fault. Those bastards may have been aiming for you, but they missed. Not only were they crap shots, you also have one of the most dedicated crews in the 'fleet. Any one of them would lay down their life for yours, and not a one would ever regret it."

"But Spock -"

"Got shot in the arm. That's hardly life-threatening. I'm pretty sure you got more severely hurt in bar brawls back at the Academy."

McCoy succeeds in distracting Jim for another few minutes before the blond goes to check on the injured Vulcan. The look in his eyes as he rushes out of the office is not surprising to the CMO, even if it is somewhat unsettling.

"In the future, I would ask you to refrain from putting your life in jeopardy, as you did today."

"What? Spock, if you hadn't noticed, I'm the Captain-"

"And that is precisely why it would be prudent for you to grasp the concept of self-preservation. Further incidents such as today's are unacceptable and entirely illogical."

McCoy watches as Spock turns and heads down the corridor, aware that the Vulcan would probably be smirking in triumph if he were human. He turns to Jim and freezes when he sees the younger man's face.

What McCoy sees in his friend's eyes is unguarded; startlingly so. Those shockingly blue eyes look down the empty corridor with an expression that McCoy can't define, but he is certain of one thing. This is no simple matter. Because that isn't lust on the Captain's face. It's something far more dangerous.

Sure, he has a thought of what it might be, has for a while, but he doesn't dare think the word. Not when Jim is still in denial and Spock is still Vulcan and he'll still have to clean up the inevitable mess.

Maybe later, when he's nice and drunk, and he's alone in his office, he'll allow himself to think of the word and what it means for his best friend, but not now. Not now, though, when Jim is still staring into the distance like it holds the secrets he's been spending his life looking for, the very secrets he went all the way out into space in attempts to uncover.

McCoy has been waiting for the day Jim figures it out. He's been waiting for at least three months, ever since that day in the corridor; since the first night in his office, if he's really honest with himself.

He keeps an eye on them in the mess hall, on the bridge, and in the corridors, notes how Jim always perks up at the mention of his First Officer, how both of them seem almost excited about their more and more frequent chess games. He watches how the two seem to almost communicate without words, how Spock stops tensing up every time Jim touches him, yet remains frigid to the rest of the crew.

He keeps watching as the two wind up in sickbay time and again, one always there for trying to protect the other. Most of the time Jim's the patient, but that's only because Spock's reflexes usually allow him to get them both out of harm's way.

He's pretty sure that Spock has already figured it out; that they're all just waiting for Jim to pull his head out of his ass and see the truth.

Half of the senior staff has bets placed on how long this will take, and the only reason he hasn't joined in is because someone has to pretend to be responsible. (It has nothing at all to do with Scotty's insistence that he knows Jim too well for his joining in to be fair, or Christine’s claims that he would cheat and push the two together only at a time when it suited him.)

The day it finally happens, no one is expecting it.

There were no life-or-death situations, no dramatic declarations, no hints at all to the fact that everyone reporting for Alpha Shift was about to walk in on the two highest ranking officers making out like each brush of their lips provided vital oxygen.

When the pair notices the crowd, Jim is too busy trying to brush off his embarrassment, and Spock watching Jim, to notice the exasperated looks directed at Pavel, or the way the man in question is grinning like he won the lottery.

Of course, Bones pesters him until he gets the full story, and while Jim half-expects disapproval from the older man, all he gets is a clap on the shoulder and a grin as McCoy walks away to fulfill his obligation and threaten mortal peril on Spock if he dares hurt Jim. Even Bones knows it's unnecessary, but who is he to break from tradition?