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I'll Fly Away

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In Montgomery, Georgia, every tree trunk boasts a truth that the town knows implicitly -- JTK loved LHM, etched in bark with deep conviction and devotion. They knew that while their small town could’ve dismissed the relationship as something ill-advised and sinful (despite the bounds of progress that had been made in the many years of the 21st century), Jim Kirk made it so that everyone looked up to him and admired his bravery. While his detractors let loose a dozen mud-slung words, there was a hint of respect that was grudgingly given, even if they couldn’t understand how Kirk and McCoy just kept going. 

Jim Kirk was expected to marry Leo McCoy and they were supposed to make it through the good times and the bad. The whispers rattled around town telling that if they weren’t in love, then the whole concept of love had something lacking. You just had to see the way the two of them looked at each other to know they had some kind of permanence. 

So that was why not a soul in town could explain it when Jim Kirk took off on his motorcycle three days after graduation, leaving a heartbroken LHM behind and a dozen tree trunks serving as painful reminder of what once was and wasn’t any longer.

Only Leo knew the real reason for Jim’s departure, but other than Gaila – best friend to both of the boys – he hadn’t shared the true nature of Jim’s disappearance from his life. Town rumors began, but Leo never found himself compelled to put the mystery to rest. 

“He said the whole world was waiting for him,” Leo explained as Gaila poured him a glass topped full of wine and pulled him closer. Leo didn’t seem depressed or crushed or angry or anything that might have suggested he was coping with Jim’s departure. He just looked numb. “He said there had to be something out there for him, something more than this small town.” 

Something more than me went unspoken. 

The whole town watched Leo McCoy deal with the disappearance. Leo would inevitably recover and head to UMiss to attend pre-med and become a doctor at the young age of twenty-five. He would make his parents and the town proud (the community as a whole had firmly and staunchly taken his side when his high school sweetheart left him in the all-too-literal dust). Leo McCoy went on with his life until he had a house to call his own, a degree that made him the town’s youngest doctor, and a handsome face that had the neighbors talking.

As far as they were concerned, Jim Kirk was a blip on the radar of everyone’s memories – a brilliant flash of a talented boy who could have gone far if he had just played the game right. It wasn’t like Leo was doing so badly for himself and he hadn’t burned every last bridge he had ever crossed in order to get there. Whatever world wonders might be lurking out there, none of them compared to their small town, as far as its citizens were concerned.

They made sure to tell Leo this every time they bumped into him at the supermarket or in the park. For years, all Leo had heard was every last evil word possible rained down on Jim’s head and how it’s just the way some men are. 

Leo tried to take it in stride and tried not to add fuel to their bitter fire. The truth was actually closer to the gossip than Leo would like. Deep down, he still wonders why Jim left him and he still loves him more than he thought possible to love an absent person in your life. He just wanted to be enough, but he wasn’t. He’d simply been a stepping stone on the path to Jim Kirk’s Real Life. 

Leo tells himself that he’ll make do. After all, he has Jocelyn Darnell to keep him warm at night and that’s all more than enough until just after LH McCoy turns twenty-six years old and Jim Kirk comes back to town.

*

Jim Kirk has done it all. He’s twenty-six years old and he’s dived off the Victoria Falls, he’s climbed Ayers Rock, he’s taken a trip to the Antarctic and watched icebergs plunging into the sea below. He skydived above the Himalayas and has climbed most of the fourteeners in Colorado, but for one (which he had heli-skiied down). He’s swam with sharks near the Great Barrier Reef and motorcycled his way through the Andes to discover ancient civilizations and has trekked alongside slow-moving lava flows to watch the way the Earth is made. He works odd jobs every time he’s in a new country, though the money his father left him when he died has been more than enough to keep him well-fed and with a roof above his head at night. He’s seen the world so many times over and has basked in the thrill of adrenaline it gives to him. 

Except that he’s always chasing a high that never lasts. He left the sleepy town that had given him a childhood in order to trade up for a more exciting adulthood in a chaotic world. He always gets the momentary rush and never the permanent one and so when he’s through exhausting what the world has to offer for him, he wonders if maybe he didn’t walk away from the one thing that would’ve given him a lifetime of ups and downs without needing to set foot on a roller coaster. 

He’s back in Montgomery with his duffel slung over his shoulder and he’s gone straight to the one place he would go to in his sleep. He returns to a place he’d drift to if he was dying and he needed to find a place to spend his last days. He doesn’t even know if this house belongs to the McCoys anymore, but Jim’s there to find out. He lingers on the sidewalk for a moment when he sees a pair of long denim-clad legs from behind the white pick-up truck. The hood’s open and something’s steaming and Jim smiles ruefully as he sets his bag down. 

No one in the McCoy family has ever been good with cars. Eleanor McCoy had all-too-often joked that it was a good thing Leo was dating someone who could distinguish between a car engine and the toaster – as she so eloquently put it. 

Eight years have passed and standing here on the driveway of his ex-boyfriends’ home, he feels like he’s eighteen all over again.

“Hey, let me give you a hand,” he offers, figuring that whoever David McCoy has hired to fix the truck (Ol’ Bess as Jim had named her one makeout session in the backseat) isn’t having much luck. 

Jim stops dead in his tracks when the mechanic pokes his head out from the hood of the truck, wiping his broad hands off with a spare towel lying around. He’s wearing a too-tight black t-shirt and ripped denim jeans that seem to go on forever and has got on a black baseball cap that makes dark hair stick out, frayed and in all directions at once. He’s got a good amount of stubble on his face and Jim is stuck staring at the broad shoulders that go with the broad chest and…

“Oh my god,” Jim exhales as his whole body seems to forget how to work. “Leo.”

Leo takes one long look at him as he slams the hood of the truck shut, wiping sweat from off his upper lip with the back of his still-greasy hand. “Jim,” he remarks without much civility. Then, of all things in the world that Leo could possibly say next, what he lets loose is a critical, “You lost your accent.”

“Yeah,” Jim says, mouth-dry and his heart beating too fast. “When you’re abroad and they hear the drawl, people tend to treat you like an idiot. Go figure.” Jim definitely feels like an idiot in this exact moment in the face of Leo’s honey-sweet drawl and doesn’t even want to retrieve those brain cells he’s just lost if he can just keep staring. “Look at you,” he says in amazement. “When did this happen?” he asks, gesturing to Leo. 

“I grew up,” Leo replies, turning his attention back to the truck as he opens the driver’s door and hauls himself up into the seat, giving Jim a small glimpse of a flexed bicep. “You know,” he goes on, tone bitter, “right around the time you left me.”

It’s the kind of attack that Leo had always been good at. Jim remembers a time when those acidic words were directed away from him. Leo had always fought for him, defended him, made sure to cut anyone down with words alone if they deserved it and stood up for them if they didn’t deserve whatever malice was being pushed their way.

Now, though, Jim is the one who deserves words like that. He watches Leo jam ancient keys into the ignition and manages to get the car running, though it’s shaky and anything but smooth. The truck shudders and shakes and coughs up smoke from under the bonnet and Jim is itching to help, but he stays where he is – frozen and uninvited. 

He knows that he ought to leave, but he can’t seem to move. His gaze drifts over to the house and he notices everything at once. The painting’s been done recently and there are curtains inside that look like a woman’s had her touch around. Jim’s not sure he wants to even think about anyone touching that house if not for Eleanor. When he’s done inspecting every gutter and window, he forces his feet to move. 

It gets him as far as the passenger window of the truck and he pokes his head inside to take a look at the interior, cataloguing everything that’s changed in eight years.

“Do you need some help?” Jim offers. “I mean, I haven’t touched Bess in...”

“Stop it,” Leo commands, his gaze flicking to the side and shooting Jim a warning look.

It’s with a great deal of pain that Jim realizes that he can’t recognize every twitch and flinch of Leo’s facial expressions. He can’t read him any longer by the way he smiles, the way his gaze turns aside. He used to be able to know Leo’s mood based on a split-second’s glance at his face and now all he sees is frustration directed at him. Jim takes a deep breath and reminds himself that he had known that this was going to be difficult to come back. 

It’s even more difficult because he’s not sure if he came back for the town or if he’s come back for Leo.

“Leo, unless you somehow got good at this...” Jim retorts back, unable to keep annoyance from his tone when he’s being spoken to in a way that implies he’s a good-for-nothing piece of shit. Which, again, maybe he’s earned. As he’s speaking, though, the rumble of the engine turns smooth and shuts up Jim’s offers to aid. “...ah.”

Leo presses his lips together and he gives Jim a tense smile, achieved by doing little more than extending the corners of his lips. He turns off the engine and uses his foot to kick the door open and hop back out of the truck, wiping his hands clean with the towel as he circles around the front of the truck and comes around to Jim’s side.

Whereas before, his heart couldn’t beat at all, now it won’t slow down. Every step Leo takes gets him closer and Jim doesn’t know whether he ought to be anticipating a punch or a kiss. He’s not sure why he’s even expecting the latter except that he’s dreamed about it, tried to use substitutes in wild places and always regretted it not being Leo.

Leo stops and hauls the hood of the car back down with a slam, leaning his elbow on the front end, prying off the baseball cap and setting it atop the machine. Jim studies his hair for all of a second before instinct kicks in and muscle memory long thought forgotten compels him to reach forward with a clean hand and push his hand through Leo’s mad mess of hair. 

Leo flinches, but doesn’t pull away. 

“You always used to keep this short,” Jim says, staring at a man and not the boy that he fell in love with the first week of tenth grade, transferred in from home schooling and all things shiny and new. “I like it,” he says, a lump developing in his throat as his thumb brushes against soft strands of hair. 

“So do I.”

Jim jumps and withdraws his hand like a shot’s been fired and he has to react fast before he gets hit. He turns in the direction of the voice and finds Jocelyn Darnell standing on the front porch of the house, her arms crossed and an indescribable look on her face. At least, Jim thinks it is at first, but when he looks closer, he knows exactly what that look is.

It’s worry and fear tainted with relief. As if she’s glad that Jim’s come back, but at the same time, she wants him to go back to the far reaches of the Earth. Jim and Jocelyn had always gotten along back in high school. She’d never made a pass at Leo like the rumors always made it seem like she did. She had always liked Jim and respected his relationship with Leo.

Or, Jim supposes, she had until he didn’t respond to one of her letters demanding that he come back home or she wouldn’t be accountable for what Leo did next.

Jim understands those vague words a little better at the moment. 

Jim gives her a guilty look of apology as he shoves both hands in his pockets and tries to let his body language do the reassuring for him. He’s not here to cause waves – not yet, at least, not until he figures out what he’s doing back. Jocelyn looks him over and comes down the front path to join Leo, pressing a kiss to his cheek.

She looks the same, but for new lines on her face. It’s nothing like the growing up that Leo’s done while he’s been away and Jim wonders if it’s because he left or in spite of it. Jim tries to ramp up his natural charm to a hundred as he greets her with a smile, trying to ignore the flickers of jealousy that strike when Jocelyn so easily slides her arm around Leo’s waist and he leans into her, like he’s been doing this for years.

-- come back, you idiot, or Leo’s going to do something you won’t like and I’m going to stop preventing it... makes so much more sense now and Jim forces an air of calm as he studies the both of them. 

“How long?” he asks, finally.

“Three years,” Leo answers, giving Jocelyn an apologetic look as he presses a kiss to her reddish-blonde hair, brighter than Jim remembers, but not unnatural. It’s probably the result of the sun, which just brings to mind thoughts of Leo in the sun without his shirt, stretched out on those sandy beaches that are only a ten minute drive away. “I’m a mess, Joce,” he murmurs. 

“You can go shower,” she assures. “I’ll talk to Jim.”

Leo takes one last look at Jim and Jim does as much looking back as he can afford, knowing that his goodwill in this situation is precariously low and he has to play by their rules. Jim rights his gaze when it descends to watch Leo’s ass as he goes inside to the pretty little decorated house, all because of Jocelyn. 

He turns his attention back to her and finds her with arms crossed, staring at him with more anger than was there before.

“Joce, before you say anything...”

It’s pointless to try and argue and Jim should know better. “How dare you?” she snaps. “How dare you, Jim? I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised considering that you always seemed to live life like you were in a bubble of your own, but this takes the cake.” She shakes her head and lets out a sound that’s equal parts amazed and shocked. “Do you know how long it took for us to get him out of his funk? Do you know how long Gaila had to sit with him before he’d even come out of his room? Nothing got through to him. Nothing. And you...” 

Jim closes his eyes momentarily, just long enough to brace for the next wave.

“You could have responded to a dozen letters. I sent you letters, Gaila sent you pictures, Scotty and Uhura tried to reason with you and I know, I know Hik made phone calls,” she accuses. “And now you just waltz back in with no prior notice? What’s the world like when you don’t have to answer to anyone?”

“Joce, listen, this wasn’t planned,” Jim tries to insist when she’s calm enough to interject. “I didn’t even know he was still here!”

“Jim, if you ever loved him at all, you would have found out and at least given him a warning,” she says quietly. “It took him years to accept that it wasn’t his fault that you left. And now you come back. I can’t run you out of town, much as I am thinking about it,” she warns. “But this is your warning. You hurt Leo McCoy again and we won’t be so kind in letting you off the hook. 

She’s never been shy about speaking her mind and she’s never been a liar. 

Jim stares her down for a good moment, as if somehow he’s going to get across his deepest of apologies through look alone. She doesn’t seem to be phased even the slightest of amounts and challenges him right back. 

“Look, Joce, this is my hometown too,” he finally says, letting loose a long sigh and trying to force some of the tension out of his shoulders. “I’m not here to try and make Leo miserable and I’m not exactly sure how long I’m staying...”

“Do you want him back?” she interrupts him to ask. 

She’s always been the blunt one, Jim recalls. Even back when he’d first met Leo, Joce had been the one to sidle up to him during third period and set her textbooks down beside him before demanding if he had his sights on the new boy and if she could have a run at him. Jim remembers his indignant reaction, insisting he didn’t like Leo McCoy that way.

That denial had lasted all of two days before he’d gone back to Jocelyn and begged to have a chance. His chance had lasted three years. It sounds like hers is lasting about the same time and so, on some level, they’re strangely even now. “Honestly, Joce? I don’t know,” Jim admits, trying to be just as honest so she can’t accuse him of being lying scum on top of the abandonment charges. “I don’t know anything. I just know I’m here and I’d like to be able to talk to him at some point without you hovering.”

“You might not get so lucky with that, especially as soon as everyone hears you’re back,” Jocelyn admits, her arms crossed over her torso. “Where are you staying?”

“I don’t know. Gaila’s place, maybe?” Jim says, shrugging his shoulders and trying to think of where he could stay without having to fork out money. His parents had moved out of Montgomery as soon as Jim had left, going back to Iowa in order to be closer to his mother’s parents.

There’s a long silence between them and something must happen in Jocelyn, because she softens, just so. Maybe she remembers that she had been Jim’s friend first before Leo had come along. Maybe she remembers some stupid joke they used to have or some idiotic thing they did together where they had fun. Maybe she just remembers that Jim isn’t actually an enemy. “Where were you? Before this? You stopped sending letters.”

“No one wanted to know about where I was,” Jim points out, his turn to be bitter. “Everyone just wanted to yank on a chain and bring me back here.” She raises a pointed brow, as if to point out that he has nothing to complain about, but also to serve as reminder that he hasn’t answered her question. “I was in the Galapagos. I caught a ferry over and spent a couple days trying to pick up residual trash from the oceans.”

She seems to process that and for the first time in their entire conversation, a smile hints around her lips as she steps forward and hugs Jim, out of nowhere. At first, he’s too shocked to actually react, but hugs her back, almost feeling like he’s going to be slapped the minute she pulls away. 

“I love him, you know,” she says quietly, with her arms tightly around Jim.

“Yeah,” Jim agrees, feeling heartsick and stomach-sick at about the same time. “So do I.”

“I know,” she agrees sadly, easing back and looking him in the eye. “And he loves you.” Like she already knows how this is going to go, even though she’s wanted the story to go a different way for all these years. 

“I didn’t say I wanted him back,” Jim reminds her, not sure he’s entitled to even ask for a chance, let alone sneak in and take one.

Jocelyn lets out an exasperated laugh and shakes her head. “Jim, I’ve known you since I was six and you sprinted into the sandbox and announced that you were King Jim, lord of all sand creatures. You don’t ever mean to be that way. You just...are. We all came to terms with having a leader like you to our merry band of brigands,” she says fondly. “We just never thought you were coming back.” She squeezes his shoulder lightly. “Don’t hurt him.”

“And you?”

“Some nights, I know that I’m just a placeholder for Leo,” she admits, staring to the side. “And I love him. Sometimes I’m his best friend, sometimes it’s more. Sometimes I pretend that I know he isn’t just waiting for something else. But I won’t let him be hurt again,” she warns. “You got it, Jim?”

“I got it,” he agrees, making his den and knowing he’s going to have to lie in it, no matter what he does now. He watches her go back inside the house and wishes that he could hear the conversation that they’re having. He wishes he could see Leo step out of the shower. He wishes – just some small part of him -- that he’d never left.

That wish dissipates quickly enough when he thinks about all the world wonders he’d have had to sacrifice in order for that to work. He leaves the McCoy driveway with heavy thoughts weighing on his mind and the hope that Gaila welcomes him back with at least the same amount of warmth that Jocelyn did.

As trapped as he’d always felt, he’d never felt unloved. And maybe he took that part for granted all this time.

*

“I heard a strange rumor just today at the grocery store,” Eleanor McCoy states as she sets down her world-famous sweet potato casserole on the table. Everyone in the family is in attendance. Leo’s come from the house, David’s home from work, Eleanor has put aside her latest quilting project, and Savannah has finished her homework. At twelve, she’s the baby of the family, though she’ll protest mightily if anyone dares call her that to her face. “Bev told me that she saw a young man talking to you today, said he looked awful familiar.”

Leo pokes away at the potatoes on his plate, already scowling heavily even though no one’s said anything accusatory just yet. “Of course he looked familiar, you only had him over for dinner nearly every night of my high school life,” he mutters. 

That earns silence from everyone around the table and even a fork clattering onto a plate. Leo stares up to see his sister looking at him with wide eyes (the girl’s had a crush on Jim Kirk since the day she was born), his father looking displeased, and his mother furious. 

“That boy ought to know better than to come back to this town,” she swears. “After what he did to you, I’ll garrotte him myself.”

“Ma!” Leo cuts her off sharply. “Leave it be. He helped with the car and Jocelyn scared him off when she came out to check on me.” He casts his gaze aside, spinning his fork on the plate, as if he’s trying to downplay the whole situation. “He looks good, not that you asked.” He turns his attention almost immediately to Savannah. “Not that you need to know anything about my ex-boyfriend.”

“Leo’s possessive,” Savvy sing-songs at him, smirking as she hides her giggle behind a glass of milk. 

“Shut up,” Leo breathes out with irritation. At twenty-six, he shouldn’t be dealing with irritating infant siblings trying to turn things into something they’re not. Not that he wants to see Jim with anyone else. It’s not even the same as him and Jocelyn because they’re still only casually dating and besides, Jim had been the one to leave, not Leo. If Jim moves on, it’s the final nail in the coffin that Jim had hauled out when he first left town. He turns to see his parents looking at him expectantly. “Oh for...my heart is not spontaneously about to break again just because Jim came back to town!”

“Leo, you know we worry,” Eleanor murmurs, pursing her lips. “And you don’t have to pretend for us. We know what happened when he left.”

“Then why the hell do you think it’s a good idea to bring it up again?”

“Language, Leo,” David scolds. “Your mother is worried. And so am I. You put Jim behind you and moved onto your career, but there’s been something missing. I know you’ve been trying to figure things out with Jocelyn and she’s a good girl, but she still doesn’t make you come alive like Jim did. We’re just afraid,” he says, glancing over at Eleanor as if to verify that they’re on the same page, which she assures they are with a nod, “that you’re going to open yourself up to him and get hurt. For the second time.”

Leo isn’t exactly sure that they’re so wrong, which is what he hates more than anything in the world. “Pass the peas,” is all he says quietly, not even thinking about indulging their fears for more than a half-second, because if he gives into a lecture about all the dangers that could come his way, he’s going to start believing them.

They finish dinner in a fair amount of silence and there’s some mercy to be found. They switch topics and discuss Savannah’s latest project, the gossip from the hairdressers, and what Leo’s writing about to submit to the medical journals. 

They don’t talk about Jim at all, even if Savannah opens her mouth at one point and Leo can swear he sees the name bubbling on her lips without a single vowel or syllable passing into sound. 

He excuses himself from dinner hours later after they’ve all enjoyed Eleanor’s peach cobbler and Leo can’t bear to leave just yet. 

Leo’s crawled up to the attic of the house after the disaster of a dinner is over, sitting on the bench-seat beneath the skylight. The sky’s fairly muted, stars peeking out from grey clouds here and there, but nothing to write home about. The thing he likes best about the attic, though, is how very old the stairs are.

This house used to belong to his grandparents, but when his Nana passed, his parents took over the house and he took over theirs. It’s just the circle of life. 

The old stairs creak like mad, giving away any intruders long before they can sneak up on him. Leo’s had more than enough time to turn and anticipate whoever’s come to give him yet another lecture. Turns out, maybe the universe has a couple of favors up its sleeve when it comes to him seeing as it’s the one person who’s probably glad that Jim’s back. He smiles and shifts, patting the sofa next to him. “C’mon in, squirt,” he coaxes Savvy. “Couldn’t just leave me alone, could you?”

“They want me to do dishes,” she complains, wriggling as she pokes at Leo’s chest and shoves him off her when he tries to wrap an arm around her shoulder. “So I might have broken one. They said I was too clumsy to do dishes.”

“How lucky,” he deadpans.

“I’m a lucky girl,” she agrees cheerfully, reclining back on the opposite side of the couch, pushing her feet against his arm. “Is Jim really back?”

“Back and more attractive than ever.”

“So you do still want him?” Savvy wonders, furrowing her brow. “Does Jocelyn know?”

Leo’s fairly sure that the entire town knows that he never really got over Jim, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable that he’s going to go running back into Jim’s arms. For one, Jim might not even want him, and for two, even if Jim does want him back, there’s no guaranteeing that Jim’s not about to do another runner the minute that Leo opens his heart and arms to a second chance.

“It’s not fair to Joce to talk about her like she doesn’t even matter,” is Leo’s opinion on the subject, not wanting someone he loves to get relegated to the sidelines because the town is just too invested in how an old fairytale is supposed to play out. “Look, Savvy, I...” he starts, stops, feels like he ought to know better than this, but he’s the stupidest intelligent man he’s ever known. “I don’t know. He left me and I’m not ready to forgive that so quickly.”

He plays around with her foot lightly, poking and prodding at ticklish toes, delighting in making Savannah laugh the way she does. 

“If you don’t want him anymore, does that mean I can have him?”

Leo lets out a growl. “Savannah!”

“What!”

“You’re a kid!”

“I’d wait until I was eighteen!”

“Go away.”

“But..!”

“Now,” Leo announces, cutting off whatever intricate argument Savannah is likely planning in her head, because knowing a McCoy, there’s always something stubborn lurking around the corner, waiting to make trouble. 

After she leaves, Leo turns his attention back to the window and the stars beyond. He’s been left to his own private thoughts and staring up at the constellations and the galaxies out there, he suddenly feels very small and uncertain. If he turns his thoughts to the future, he knows it will be assured to have some happiness because Jocelyn is reliable and he feels safe with her.

He’s just never felt as ecstatic and amazing as he did when he was with Jim. His happy past is lingering in his shadow and as much as he thinks he’s ready to shake it off his shoulders and move on with his life to bring on something new, he’s not entirely sure that it’ll be so easy to dismiss Jim when the man is responsible for some of the happiest days of Leo’s life. 

And that, he knows, is a certainty. Jim makes him happy and he knows that much. He keeps his gaze starwards and wonders if that’s enough to put his heart on the line when all signs point to that being a magnificently stupid idea. 

*

Three nights after Jim has returned to town, Leo sits at the dinner table with Jocelyn – halfway through a silent dinner – not sure which of them is more shaken up by the latest turn of events that have all the gossips in town in conniptions of joy. “He looks good,” Jocelyn finally speaks up, as if she already knows that they’re both thinking about Jim anyway and there’ll be no harm in talking about him. 

Leo flushes hard at the thought of Jim. The tips of his ears go pink and he wets his lips, trying not to think about how Jim has filled out. How what used to be a scrawny kid, too tall for his own good, too brave for his brain, has become this gorgeous man that Leo knows he loves through and through. He’s slightly terrified that Jocelyn is all-too-aware as well of those feelings. 

“Leo?”

Leo startles, his fork clanging against the plate as he finally looks up and catches Jocelyn looking pointedly at him. “What?”

“I said, Jim looks good, doesn’t he?”

Leo narrows his eyes, all but ready to grumble. “This is one of those women-traps, isn’t it?” he says suspiciously, as if he’s about to check for trap doors any moment now. “No answer is safe and then there’ll be poison darts coming out of the wall.”

“Don’t be silly,” Jocelyn replies sweetly. ...too sweetly. Leo’s going to have to check the paintings later for new grooves and holes. He may not have dated women all his life, but he’s trying to be a fast learner for Jocelyn’s sake, even if they still spend most of their nights as very close friends who like to make out and share a bed. They’re both trying, but there have been stumbling blocks and Leo’s lack of closure with Jim Kirk is like the Mount Everest of blocks. “I mean it. He looks good. But then, I think you looked good to him. He hasn’t seen you since...”

“...since the unfortunate teen years, yeah, I know,” Leo finishes her sentence, recalling too all vividly how skinny and awkward he had been. Really, he still thinks it’s a miracle that Jim ever decided that he wanted to take a single look at Leo, never mind a second, and never mind a relationship’s worth of looks. 

They pick at chicken and spinach and Leo tries to figure out where this terrifying conversation is going to lead. They shouldn’t be talking about this because they’re already hinting at dangerous territory. Jim and Joce go back further than Leo does with either of them and he’s not sure what sort of secrets they may have been exchanging with each other when his back had been turned. 

“Did he apologize?” asks Jocelyn, demurely. 

Leo shakes his head and tries to ignore how much it stings that no, Jim hadn’t. “Don’t think he really had the time to. He’s still in shock that people can grow up,” he sardonically notes, more than willing to unleash an acidic barb here and there about Jim. “No apology.” And hell, but that shouldn’t hurt so much. 

Jocelyn is the one who’s with him now. Jocelyn is the one who reaches over the table and lightly covers his hand with hers and smiles at him like she can make all the rain clouds go away. “I’m sorry, Leo,” she says, as if her apology will make up for Jim’s lack of one.

It doesn’t, but he’s grateful to her for trying. 

They progress through dinner in silence and it’s not until she brings out dessert in the form of apple pie that they broach the subject again. “He’s staying with Gaila,” she provides, as if he’s wanted to ask, but couldn’t find the courage. 

Leo arranges his features, making sure that he is the epitome of a man who doesn’t care at all, even if he’s secretly grateful for the information. “I’m not planning on visiting him,” he says. “I have work.” Besides that, Jim is the one who left for years and years. Leo thinks that avoiding him in turns for days to weeks is hardly a fair form of payback, but it’s the best one that he can muster up.

They return to their meals and the silence only grows awkward when they both finish the food on their plates and Leo knows that they have to talk about this.

“Did he say anything else to you?” Leo finally asks, indulging in his curiosity for the first time in days.

Jocelyn cradles her wine glass in her palm, relaxed in her chair and looking as if the situation isn’t strange and crazy to her at all. Leo knows that she must be feeling at odds and ends with Jim back because she and Jim go way back – they have a history that eclipses Leo and Jim’s, even if it’s not the same kind of history at all. “He’s confused,” she admits. “I don’t even think he knows why he’s back here. Though, and I’m sorry to tell you, Leo, I do think it’s partially for you.”

It’s absolutely crazy, Leo thinks, that Jocelyn can sound so calm and sweet as she announces that she’s the sorry one, when she ought to be the one who gets the apologies. She and Leo have slowly moved from friends to this strange place where they have no proper description for what they are, but Leo knows enough to know that Jim’s return throws a wrench in the works. 

Though, trust a southern woman to deal with the situation with style, grace, and an ability to sound sweet even as she’s throwing around insults. 

“If he wanted me, he’d have stopped trotting the damn globe and come back,” Leo mutters, standing up to collect the plates and turn his frustrations elsewhere, to scrubbing the dishes so hard that he might edge away a layer of china. “And not this many years later. I’m a different man now. I’m a doctor, damn it, not just some little boy waiting for him to come home to me.” He knows he’s being stubborn, but he’s more than earned the right to be. “Besides, it’s Jim. He’ll just leave again when we get too boring for him,” he says, trying not to wallow in that sad state of affairs.

He lingers by the sink, hands grasping the counter as he tries to shake the maudlin thoughts from his mind. Even Jocelyn’s supportive hand on his shoulder does little to bring him around from it -- that troubling little fact that’s been in his mind for years.

The fact (and the supposed truth) that Leo McCoy hadn’t been enough to make Jim stay.

He doesn’t even want to chance giving life to the thought that Leo’s the one that Jim came back for. It’d be beyond depressing to find out that the truth is otherwise and Leo hasn’t got near enough faith that the universe would ever be so kind to him. 

*

It’s warmer at night than Jim remembers it being in Georgia and the heat’s been keeping him awake. He’s used to being in places warmer than this, but something is weighing on his mind and coupled with the weather, it’s stolen his ability to find any kind of rest. He’s told Gaila that he’s going out for a walk and she’d sleepily dismissed him. He doesn’t worry that she doesn’t care about him; it’s just that their town of maybe fifteen thousand isn’t the most dangerous place in the world.

In just a t-shirt and pair of jeans, he’s started walking around the town to see old sights and lets himself sink into old memories that he’s been ignoring while he experiences the world. He drops by the old high school and notices that aside from some vandalism and wear-and-tear, it hasn’t changed at all. Much the same is the downtown core and as he wanders out to the farms that line the road that leads into the city, he wonders if anything’s changed at all. New generations take over old jobs, if the McCoys are any indication, but nothing else varies at all.

Just Jim Kirk, that is. He gets out, he ruffles up the status quo. 

He stops when he arrives at the dusty path that goes out to Mrs. Lester’s place and Jim can’t help the rueful and mischievous grin that flickers over his face. This farm, this place, it’s someplace that ranks up there with Ayers Rock and the fjords in terms of conquests.

It’s the place that he convinced a seventeen-year-old Leo McCoy to have sex with him for the first time.

“Jim!” Leo is hissing, yanking on his long-sleeved quarterback’s jacket – given to him by the man in question. “Jim!” he worries, digging his heels into the path, making Jim laugh warmly and turn, just enough to catch Leo by both hands and tug him along, stealing kisses as he stumbles backwards, trusting that the path is steady and flat and he won’t go ass-over-teakettle. Though, even if he does, he’ll get Leo on top of him and he can’t really fault that potential outcome. “We’re going to get caught.”

“I know for a fact she’s out of town,” Jim promises, squeezing Leo’s palm. “You worry way too much.”

“And you’re reckless,” Leo accuses, but it’s clear that he’s fretting. It’s almost cute, Jim thinks, that he’s worrying so. He looks like the police are going to show up based on the fact they can pick up on Leo’s brainwaves or something. “Why are we even out here?” he hisses.

“Because I just came off a great baseball season and your medical experiment got published in a real magazine,” Jim insists. Celebration is the word of the night and they’ve already been to the fanciest restaurant in town for dinner. Underneath his jacket is the best shirt he has atop his nicest pair of pants. 

Leo kind of looks a little dorky. He’s wearing his Dad’s tie with a shirt that’s too big for his skinny frame and the pants are a bit too long, so he has to haul them up every couple of seconds. Still, Jim thinks that Leo’s never looked better and he wants to commemorate the night properly. He also thinks that this should be when they become real men instead of wallowing in being just boys. Jim’s had vivid dreams of this for months now and every morning he wakes up in a foul mood because they didn’t turn out to be reality. 

His mother has started to comment on his moods, but Jim just sulks and protests not being able to have Leo spend the night and even get a chance at turning the dreams into the real thing. 

Jim knows that there are a lot of traditions about prom, that there’s a lot to be said for waiting, but considering how good their lives are and how often they spend necking in the back of the truck, Jim doesn’t want to wait another day and definitely not the two months to get to prom. They reach the barn and Jim nudges the door open, not even flinching when it creaks. Mrs. Lester sleeps like the dead and Jim is feeling like he’s got all the luck in the world tonight. 

He goes first up the ladder, hauling Leo up the last two rungs while hay bristles at the back of his neck, making him shiver. In equal parts with the hay, the anticipation of what they’re about to do is making his hair stand on end. 

Jim’s body has often betrayed him by hurtling on faster than his genius mind can catch up with and now is one of those very awkward moments. He shifts, awkwardly pushing at his jeans until he can dig into the pocket and grasp a small bag that he’s shoved in there.

“Jim?”

“It’s condoms and lube,” Jim replies in a rush, as if getting it out faster will somehow make Leo more inclined. “I wanted to…well, I wanted us to…”

“I kind of get the idea,” Leo replies, his cheeks as red as a tomato. Jim knows that he’s pretty bad off because he doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything more adorable. “My mom’s gonna kill me, Jim.”

“I don’t think you should tell her,” says Jim, stripping off his shirt as his body starts to get ahead of him again. He just thinks that if nothing else, convincing Leo to have sex with him will be much easier if he’s naked. Though, he could also use the clothes to protect him from the hay, which is scratching at him and making him sneeze every now and again. 

So it’s not perfect. He doesn’t want perfect. He just wants it to happen already. 

He’s already working on sliding the zipper down on his pants when he looks up and sees the look of anxiety on Leo’s face. He’s even digging blunt nails into his palm and Jim has a sudden flash of worry, wondering what happens if Leo doesn’t want to do this with him. Jim is all nerves and bravado, but he’s suddenly terrified. “Leo?” he asks warily. “Don’t you want to...?”

“Yeah, well,” Leo says, blustering and looking flushed. “I don’t really know what to do, Jim,” he says and sounds gorgeously breathless. “I’ve never done this before.”

“You’re nervous?” Jim asks, even though he’s already making a bed of clothes for them to lie on, even though he’s got his thumbs hitched into his boxers. He’s never done this before either, but there’s nothing to Jim that suggests he’s nervous at all. He wants to do this, he wants to do this with Leo, ergo, there should be nothing to be nervous about because they’re both there and ready. 

Leo just glares at him, which makes Jim’s cock twitch with interest. Leo at his angriest is often Leo at his sexiest – not that Jim is going to say that aloud. “Of course I’m nervous, you...you...” He’s struggling, likely to find the best scathing insult to cast at Jim, but Jim doesn’t intend to give him the opportunity. 

He surges forward, grabbing Leo by the arms and hauling him in close to kiss him desperately, pressing their lips together like they have dozens of times before – but this time with a promise that more is going to come. Leo’s always been a good kisser ever since they started spending hours doing nothing but stealing kisses in private places – because Leo’s always been a little too much of a prude to actually want to be an exhibitionist. 

Jim thinks to himself that they could spend all their time kissing and he might be happy, but he knows that he wants tonight to be something more. Leo’s pushed him down to his back and Jim grasps and grapples for the condoms, breathing hard and heavy as he arches his hips up, trying to get more contact.

Leo is still completely clothed. This is just not right in the least.

Jim leans over and slides his fingers slowly up the tie, feeling like his heart is going to do something terrible and just leap right out of his chest if he gives it much more consideration. He slides smooth fingertips over the horrible plaid pattern of the tie and thinks to himself that Leo dressed up for him and no one’s ever done that before. 

He shouldn’t be putting so much hope in this. Jim’s heard horror stories about people’s first times and he doesn’t have any strange belief that he and Leo are going to be any different. His nose is already itchy from all the hay and he’s sneezed fourteen times since he started undressing, but he’s too stubborn to stop on this path.

“What are we supposed to do?” Jim finally blurts out, because Leo is the one on the fast-track to a pre-med degree, the one who spends his free time going over medical textbooks with actual interest instead of just looking at them as a way to pass the time or to get through a course. 

Somehow, giving Leo the control of the situation seems to settle him. He very calmly reaches up to undo his tie and sets it aside, sliding his hand under Jim’s knee and pushing his fingers splayed until he reaches his ass, lifting the thigh higher and hooking Jim’s ankle over Leo’s shoulder. “Well,” Leo says considerately, like he’s taking analysis of the situation. “I need a good angle.”

Jim’s heart is beating like a jackhammer against his chest, desperate and dying to get out. He’s watched porn, but never really thought about him in the passenger’s seat, being the one who goes along for the ride.

“Y-yeah? And?”

“And,” Leo says, closing his eyes so tightly as if that’s going to give him the answer, “and I need lube and to prepare you and I need to aim for the prostate.”

It shouldn’t actually be turning Jim on this much, but he’s shoving a hand down into his boxers to start jerking off to the sound of Leo’s hesitance. Jim is the one who fumbles to uncap the lube and to coat his hand with it, some of it sticking more than he ever expected. He’s not going to be able to get the almost-greasy feeling off and he lets out a slightly discomfited sound as his nose wrinkles up. 

Leo is laughing, most likely at him. “Oh, god, Jim.”

“What!”

“You look like you just smelled something rank.”

“It’s kind of gross,” Jim protests, because he hasn’t exactly ever picked up lube for the express purpose of playing with it before. “I feel,” he says, starting to laugh awkwardly himself, “I feel like I should be wearing gloves,” he gets out between laughs. “Oh my god,” he spits out, his stomach heaving with laughter as he slides his hand into his boxers and holds his breath, like that’ll help encourage him to keep going. He lets out a squeal of an unpleasant sound, scrunching his eyes closed tightly as he pushes his fingers inside him. “This feels weird.”

Leo is laughing hysterically now, like he’s just heard the world’s funniest joke.

“I hate you,” Jim complains through gritted teeth, wondering when enough is enough and he’s ready. It’s hardly a true insult and he can almost feel his body arching upwards, unspoken words filtering in the air between them to assure Leo that he’s loved, that Jim adores him, that he doesn’t want to do this with anyone else. 

He squirms slightly and shifts in order to push his boxers off, aware that this isn’t the first time that Leo’s seen him naked – they’ve gone skinny dipping one too many times in the creek for this to be monumental – but there’s something charged about this moment that has Jim on edge. 

“Don’t look,” he says, suddenly, overcome with the need for Leo to be looking elsewhere as Jim awkwardly prepares himself, trying to make this seem natural and good. According to all those porn-tapes he’s secretly snuck away to watch, this is supposed to be smooth and easy. Jim’s feeling like it’s one of the stupidest positions he’s ever been in and even though his ankle is draped over Leo’s shoulder and Leo is clearly not going anywhere, Jim’s worried that one misstep is going to send his boyfriend running. 

Leo abides and turns his head away, which sends Jim into a quick fit, trying to slick his fingers inside himself, hurrying and hissing slightly at the irritation it causes. God, he thinks, what is this going to feel like...

Jim steels himself, tells himself it’ll all be worth it, and when he’s ready, he clears his throat to give permission to Leo to glance his way one more time. They’re close now. There’s just a condom and a couple slides of skin on skin and then they’ll be doing something that brings them closer together and makes the relationship more serious. He’s not sure how, but he knows that everyone always talks about sex like it’s a game-changer. 

He always thought he and Leo were pretty steady, but he’ll never turn his head the other way if they can strengthen things by taking their relationship to the next level. 

It’s not like he’s not a teenage boy who doesn’t dream about sex at all waking hours of the day, though, so he’s willing to latch onto any excuse that he can in order to get this experience that everyone else raves about, regardless of whether it benefits the relationship or not. 

Jim is breathing hard and shaky by the time he’s wrapping the condom over Leo’s dick with both hands, trying to remember if he’s doing it the same way he did when it was just a banana and thinking that he’s so grateful to Sam for teaching him this, even if at the time – and he was twelve, it’s not his fault – he wanted to die of mortification. 

He gambles a glance up and looks right into Leo’s eyes. No matter how many people say Leo’s too thin or too dorky or that his hair is a mess or he’s too skinny, no one will ever be able to convince Jim that Leo doesn’t have the most beautiful eyes that anyone in Montgomery has ever seen. Jim reaches down, nose itching because of all the hay, swiping his sticky hand on his boxers just so that when he reaches his palm up to cup Leo’s cheek, it’s as clean as he can get it. “I really want this,” he assures Leo, who nods fervently and desperately. 

Leo bites his lower lip and grins at Jim. “Me too,” he confesses and sounds just as nervous as Jim feels. 

Somehow, that just makes Jim feel like everything is going to be just fine.



Jim lingers here, at the barn, and remembers how he had a rash on his body for days because of how their clothes slipped around and exposed his naked parts to the hay. He remembers how he couldn’t stop sneezing to the point that Winona thought that he’d secretly adopted a pet and was keeping it in his room. He remembers painful it had been at first and how Jim wondered if everyone who ever had sex was just a masochist before they kept at it until they had one brief three-minute-long maelstrom of pleasure and chaotic sex. 

Jim lingers for another moment on the dusty path that leads to his past and turns away from it with a heavy weight pressing against his chest – that steady reminder that he can’t go back and be that boy anymore.

He made his bed. Now it’s time to lie in it. 

*

When Jim was eighteen, his day consisted of a run around town, a stop-in at the diner, a quick visit to the McCoys before visiting his friends, then on to work at the local hardware store for a couple of hours before spending the night with Leo. It had been idyllic and charming in its own small-town sort of way, but that was before Jim found out that there’s a lot more to do out in the world than just idle around a town. 

Nowadays, he still heads out for a run in the morning, but he’s barely acknowledged when he gets to the diner for breakfast. Warm hellos from the past are icy grunts now and he could swear someone’s been spitting in his coffee. No one takes his calls anymore, even if he apologized to Hik and Uhura and all the rest, the McCoys won’t even let him into the house, and he’s ‘too good’ for the hardware store.

He ends his days now in a defeated heap at the end of Gaila’s bed.

“Why is everyone so pissed at me?” Jim mumbles dejectedly against the duvet, forehead pressed firmly against flowers and butterflies. “Didn’t you tell Uhura that I’m sorry? Hasn’t Jocelyn told the rest of them that I’m not here to ruin things?”

“Seven years of blaming you doesn’t go away easily, Jimmy,” Gaila points out. She’s never bothered to get rid of her drawl. She says it does things for her that even the sexiest piece of lingerie could never do. Apparently, men go for the sticky-honey-drawl thing like bees to a flower.

He can’t exactly argue. He’s just always had his eye fixed on Leo that he never bothered to notice anything else.

“I miss my friends,” Jim complains. “What’s the point of staying in this town and getting loathed if I can’t even have my friends back?”

Gaila studies him, perching on the edge of the bed as she rubs a hand idly over his back. “If it makes you feel any better, none of them really stayed. Me and Joce, we did. The rest of them all have lives elsewhere. You weren’t the only one to leave, Jim, just the first.”

He feels something like guilt at that, like maybe if he had waited long enough, they would have all followed in turn. Then, there’s also the danger that no one would have followed and he would have been stuck in town forever because that’s just what’s expected of them. Jim lets out a heavy sigh and finally turns over to his back. Maybe he needs to put aside his bitterness and be the bigger man in this situation, because otherwise, he’s going to lose all the friends he once thought would follow him through life.

“Did Chekov ever get to go to Moscow and fulfill that dream of buying everyone in the bar a shot of vodka?” Jim asks, taking a tentative step in the right direction.

Gaila grins, a bright and beautiful thing that Jim could look at all day. “He did. He’s still there. The last time he called, he had this ridiculous little accent. All his v’s are loosening. He’s spending too much time around the natives.” Jim sits closer, draping his arm loosely around Gaila’s waist and pretending that he’s a young kid again and they’re just gossiping about what their friends have done during the day.

“Sulu?” Jim asks. “His Mom’s still in town, I know that.”

“He’s a pilot,” Gaila announces proudly. “He flies back into town once a month or so, but he’s out there working for the commercial airlines. Last gossip heard, he’d just taken off time to go to St. Petersburg,” she says with a coy grin. “He says it’s to straighten out Chekov’s accent, but I think he was just looking for an excuse to visit. Plus, he made sure to stop by for flowers. We all know better.”

Jim feels a familiar ache in his chest because he doesn’t. It’s been so long and the last time he saw either Chekov or Sulu, they each had their own girlfriends. He wonders what else he’s missed out on.

As if she’s somehow gained the ability to read his mind, Gaila continues to ramble on. “Nyota finally made a move on that college boy, Spock? They’ve been dating for about two years, just nearby, in Atlanta. They’ve been a bit busy to come back, even if Nyota’s mother keeps harping on her. Apparently she’s never met the boyfriend. Leo has. Says he’s got a meter-long stick up his ass that’s keeping him too serious, but...well, you know Leo,” Gaila gently remarks.

Jim snorts at that. “Take everything with a grain of salt, I remember Leo,” he concurs fondly. “I remember his father always used to talk about how no one would ever like Leo if he didn’t act like he could at least tolerate the world.”

“He liked putting on a show, but you always made him so happy,” Gaila reminisces fondly, stroking her fingers slowly through Jim’s hair. “He’s been a little more subdued since you left,” she has to admit quietly. “Anyway! Did you hear about Scotty? He got himself a contract doing special effects in Hollywood. He’s recreating some ice planet for his latest project and he said I could come visit when they finished it up!” 

Jim bows his head into her touch and thinks about all the paths that their friends have taken, all their successes, and thinks that he hasn’t actually done anything with his career or his personal life. He just took his father’s money and started finding every last adventure he could in the world.

“Gaila...?”

“Hm?”

“Do you think that I haven’t grown up yet?” Jim asks, not sure he wants to hear the answer. If everyone else has come so far in the last few years and he’s been left behind because of his childish desire to have adventures, he doesn’t want to know that, except that for the part of his desperate curiosity, he does.

Gaila is at least giving him the kindness of consideration. She doesn’t give an immediate yes or no and her forehead scrunches up the way it does when she’s focused on something. 

“I think you just took a different path, Jim,” she finally says when it seems like she’s settled on an answer. “Maybe,” she adds, sympathetic and apologetic by the look on her face, “Maybe you were more selfish than the rest of us would be with your decisions, but you’re just as much an adult as the rest of us.”

“Do you think I should have asked Leo if he wanted to come?”

“Did it even cross your mind?” She’s not being accusatory. Jim knows this much from being friends with her – and having known her since they were both four. She’s being genuine and sweetly blunt, posing a question that Jim has been putting out of his mind for ages. “Jim,” she says kindly, ruffling his hair. “Admit it. Half the reason you bolted was because you got scared. Because you and Leo were talking about forever and that scared you.”

“It scared me to think of it here, in this place, never leaving,” Jim protests defensively, knowing that he could be a little hot-headed about this, but he wants that clear. It’s not that Leo made him run, it’d been the prospect of never leaving. “But yeah. I mean, sure, I guess I was scared. And I couldn’t convince him to go, not when he loves it here and his life is here. Leaving him was just a by-product of getting out of Montgomery. Leaving you and the rest of my friends,” he adds, because while Leo had always been the most important, it’s not like he ever just forgot the rest. He exhales and presses his face against the bedspread before surfacing inevitably for air. “I should have asked him to come.”

“Hindsight is twenty-twenty,” she agrees. “I mean, I shouldn’t have dyed my hair green when I was fourteen. We all learn as we grow.”

“I liked the green hair,” Jim sighs fondly, turning his cheek to peer up at her. “Although, maybe not so much when you started wearing that red leather jacket everywhere you went. I mean, there’s only so much you can pull off.”

He’s feeling slightly better. There’s still an ache in his chest that reminds him that he’s lost so much of what he once took pride in – all the close friendships that he used to possess have dwindled away into shadows and echoes now – but it’s not the end of the world. 

He looks up, suddenly, when another thought occurs to him, almost blinding him with a kick in the stomach, winding him. “Do you wish I’d asked you to come with me?”

This time, Jim doesn’t think the lack of response is her thinking about it, not with the way she averts her eyes and seems to want to do anything but meet Jim’s gaze. Guilt, maybe? A silent admission that he’s been an asshole all along and should have asked. He takes the leap and guesses that maybe that’s the case.

“Shit, Gaila,” he exhales. “I should have, shouldn’t I?”

“Hindsight,” she brightly remarks, bubbly and forced – all at once. “You came back. That’s the important thing. You didn’t have to do that.”

Jim takes a deep breath and tries to settle any of his nerves, any of the lingering guilt and anger that he feels for being an idiot and leaving when he should have just thought ahead. Still, Gaila is letting him live under her roof, Leo doesn’t actually look like he hates him, and even Jocelyn has tentatively accepted him back into her life.

Maybe it’s a start. All he’s ever really needed was the foot in the door so he could slowly pry his way all the way in. Maybe it’s just time for new routines. 

*

Jim can feel a dozen stares on the back of his neck as he leans forward on the grocery cart, ignoring the fact that he’s probably starting rumors just by going out in public. Well, no. The rumors are because he is out in public in a pair of too-loose jeans, a wrinkled t-shirt, and Leo McCoy literally on his arm. He’s threaded his elbow with Jim as they wander down the aisles of the grocery store and Jim tries to chase away the strange sensation that this might have been his life all along if he just hadn’t left. 

It turns out that while the town may hate him for what he did to Leo, the man himself isn’t actually so upset. Well, sure, he’s upset, but whatever feelings he has for Jim win out at the end of the day. 

Jim had been ready to be alone for the night, but then Leo had called asking him to help with the shopping. Jim’s no idiot. Even if he’s not sure whether or not he wants Leo back, he’s missed just hanging around him doing the simplest, silliest tasks. The things that are so mundane yet they’re the kind that stick in your mind for years to come.

“You need honey,” Jim says decisively, plucking it and dropping it in, only for Leo to take it out and replace it on the shelf. “Leo,” he complains.

“It’s pure sugar,” he mutters, picking up a box of tea instead and setting it in the cart. “Don’t think I don’t still have my sugar-and-sweets lecture from grade eleven stuffed away. Jim, you eat too much crap and it’s going to catch up with you one day,” he warns. Jim sighs and all but crashes his body into Leo’s as heavy protest, as if his lethargy is somehow going to win him the honey back. “Infant,” Leo mutters, but it sounds fond.

“If I can’t have honey, can I at least get chocolate covered almonds?” Jim wheedles. “It’s not like you’re living with me, you can’t possibly monitor every single second of my day,” he protests. “…unless…”

He looks at Leo carefully to assess how devious he looks.

“You paid Gaila to monitor my diet, didn’t you?”

“Paid is such an ugly word.” Leo smirks and then stops the cart so he can look properly at Jim. “I told her if she watched what you ate, she could do my hair in whatever style she likes the next time I drop by her salon.”

“Am I allowed to be there for that?” Jim asks tentatively, trying to quash down the over-eager voice in his mind that is begging to be there for that. Gaila’s a good hairstylist and Leo’s had the same hairstyle since he was four. Jim would kill to see how he comes out of that chair, but he knows better than to ask for too much.

Leo seems to consider this over a box of cereal. “Maybe.”

Maybe is much more than Jim expected to get, so he’s going to take that as a minor victory. 

They meander down aisles and Jim feels almost like he’s stepped into the pages of a storybook where the couple is happy together. It feels like they’ve been doing this for years. Even though things with Leo were always interesting, they always felt comfortable, like they just knew how to work with each other. 

This is just a glimpse into the life that might have been. Jim stands there debating between brands of milk – something he’s never really ever had to do in his life because food was food – and begins to feel a gnawing ache in his chest, like he’s facing a more important decision than skim or two-percent.

He must have been there for a long while because Leo has to come fetch him and places a solid hand on Jim’s shoulder. He leans in and Jim swears Leo is radiating warmth because he feels it all over his back where Leo presses in. “Hey,” Leo murmurs. “It’s not that big a decision.”

Jim swallows a lump in his throat and reaches out tentatively, clasping whatever’s in front of him as he refuses to make a conscious decision about this. He’s been standing in front of the fridge for at least ten minutes and is feeling chilled for it. He sets the milk in the cart, turning into Leo’s warmth and flashing an apologetic smile. “Sorry,” he manages, trying to push aside the subconscious desire to just take an extra step forward and slide his arms around Leo’s waist to try and leech some of the warmth from him. “Guess I just drifted off there.”

Leo drifts away and Jim swears it’s like ice down his spine, reminding him that he’s not exactly allowed to do those things right now. 

“Hey,” Jim blurts out suddenly, words born out of a desire to suppress an awkward moment. “Come have dinner at my place. Just, you know, dinner. We haven’t exactly sat around and caught up properly. I’ll even cook.”

Leo is eyeing him dubiously and Jim wants to take it as a good sign that he can practically read Leo’s mind, still.

“Yes, I know how.”

“Because the last time you cooked for me, we had a fire,” Leo reminds him.

“I remember.”

“And my mother banned you from the house for a week because you ruined her best frying pan.”

“Yes,” Jim concurs sharply. “I know.” He fidgets and to avoid getting questioned about why he’s so anxious, he starts wandering down the aisles and picking up random pieces of food – almonds, baking soda, a pie crust – and tries to avoid Leo’s non-answer.

He makes it to the end of the aisle, about to turn a literal corner, when Leo calls after him.

“What?” Jim asks, turning back, not sure what Leo just said – though maybe it’s truer that he’s just not entirely convinced he isn’t making things up and hearing what he wants to.

Leo takes long strides down the aisle, smiling politely at the one little old lady he passes and the young child who beams away at him – being the town doctor means that you know everyone and everyone respects and admires you. “I said yes,” he says, when he’s close enough that he doesn’t have to shout. 

He wanders around the corner in order to keep shopping and now Jim is left to worry about the dinner more than before. Now he actually has to figure out how to straddle the line between romantic and friendly, to find some way to show Leo that he still cares, but isn’t suddenly trying to steal him away from Jocelyn with dinner alone.

He fumbles with his phone as he tries to get Gaila on the line. 

He’s only one man and he’s going to need help. 

*

It’s stupid to obsess over something like a light switch, but for hours, Jim’s been unable to do anything but slide a switch up and down through the various degrees of lightness and dark. All because he’s not sure what mood he’s supposed to be setting with Leo coming over for a dinner, just the two of them, when the bigger issue lurking around him is the fact that Leo has Jocelyn in his life in a romantic fashion and unless Jim is willing to be a complete asshole, that’s going to take a lot of work to convince Leo to change.

They had planned this dinner a week ago and that particular elephant has been in the room ever since then.

Jim is still waging his war with the lightswitch. “Honest to fuck, Jim, you think he cares about the lighting?” he mutters to himself when the frustration of too-light, too-dark, too-romantic seizes at him and leaves him almost paralyzed. Over a lightswitch.

It’s not like he and Leo are doing anything more than friends do. It’s just dinner. If this is just dinner between friends, then too dim a setting is going to make things very awkward, very quickly. He slams the lights up to full brightness in a fit of pique and decides that it’s just going to have to do, because he’s incredibly tired of all the back and forth. 

He leaves the lights as is, leaves the dinner on the table – he’s just fried up steak and mushrooms – and deliberately makes sure that he doesn’t change into anything too suggestive or too nice. He doesn’t want Leo getting the wrong idea, even if Jim wants to be giving that idea on some level. He’s not here to start a turf war with Jocelyn over their mutual friend – mutual boyfriend sounds awkward and technically Leo is Jim’s ex, so that doesn’t work when it comes to describing him. 

He’s in the middle of an argument about whether the napkins say something he doesn’t mean to say when the doorbell rings. Jim glances to Gaila’s door, glad that she’s vacated for the evening. All he needs is for things to be perfectly normal and chaste and for Gaila to take things the wrong way because she happens to walk in at the wrong moment. The last thing he needs is for a rumor to start that he’s started to woo Leo back – even if maybe he is, subconsciously. 

Jim takes a deep breath and heads to the front hall, smoothing his palms over his jeans, staining them with sweat and the remnants of mushroom oils. He pulls open the door and tries to calm himself down, but this feels like a date and he’s been trying to turn it into something casual in his mind. 

The fact that it hasn’t worked should be worrisome, because it means that Jim is failing fast and hard when it comes to putting Leo in his rear-view mirror. 

“Hey, you’re early,” Jim says, trying to keep things loose and light.

Leo is carrying a bottle of wine with him, which he extends to Jim with an awkward-seeming smile. “You know my parents. If you’re going to be late, you might as well not even bother showing up. Side-effect of growing up with a debutante mother,” he says, even if Jim already knows how much manners rules the McCoy home. “I’m still grateful she never did follow through on that threat to send me to finishing school.”

Jim grins as he takes the bottle of wine, leaning in as if he’s about to steal a kiss before he thinks better of it, clutching the bottle to his stomach. “I still would’ve paid good money to see you balancing books on your head.”

“Not well. I was clumsy until I grew into my frame,” Leo says, gesturing to his body. Jim swallows hard, trying to ignore the invitation to leer and gape at all the amazing aspects Leo has to offer now that he’s grown up and into that body of his. 

Jim remembers once more to breathe and gestures inside. “You remember Gaila’s place, I’m sure,” he says, because according to Gaila, Leo and the whole crew – the whole stupid ignoring crew – have been around for dinners on a monthly basis. “I’m just finishing up with the potatoes. We’ll be eating soon enough.”

Leo starts to wander around the place, touching things that he’s more than familiar with, Jim is sure. Jim tries not to watch him too much, but he finds his attention drifts back every once in a while against his better judgment. Leo looks incredible and Jim isn’t sure if he’s supposed to say as much aloud. Jim finishes with the plates and brings Leo to the table with little more than a nod in the direction of the area.

“So,” Jim finally speaks after they’re finished tucking into appetizers and he has time to garner up the courage to ask a question that he’s been wondering about since he got back into town (if dreading has become wondering). “You and Joce. Engaged?” 

Leo glances up from his steak and stares at Jim for a long moment, almost like he’s drawing it out to the point that this is all unbearable. “No,” he finally replies, tapping his fork against the plate slowly and carefully. Just when Jim thinks he’s in the clear, Leo opens his mouth and says, “Not yet, at least.”

And there it is, like an iron gate closing out the last rays of light that Jim could see. He stares at Leo and tries to discern whether or not that’s meant to push him away or whether it’s just something to hurt Jim after Jim put in so many years of hurt himself by simply not coming back to town. 

He takes a deep breath and buries back any comments he might make while he focuses on the wine glass at hand, counting to a hundred so he doesn’t keep asking questions and trying to find a ray of hope for himself. 

He really didn’t expect news that he’s already suspected to hurt so much. Except that maybe he harbored the slightest of hopes that Leo still carries a torch for him that burns brightly enough to make him want to give things a second shot. 

Jim takes a deep and steadying breath and forces himself to put on his best smile, an utter lie, but if Leo’s happy, then he has to be happy. It’s worked like that since they were fifteen and Jim’s not about to stop. 

“Well, when it happens,” he forces each word out, even though they feel terrible to speak, like he’s choking on them, “tell Joce I make an excellent maid of honor. Mauve and taupe suit me.” This is all said with a winsome smile and instead of cheering Leo, it just seems to make him more concerned.

Suddenly, Jim wants to take it all back and beg for Leo to think it over, to think about him, but that’s too selfish considering Jim left without thinking of anyone but himself. 

“So,” Jim finally continues when he can’t stop feeling like crap and Leo won’t stop looking at him like he’s about to explode. “Dessert?”

Maybe if they just focus on the moments at hand, Jim won’t have to stare into the future and think about what will happen if Leo walks down that aisle to meet Jocelyn and Jim loses him for good. 

*

Jim isn’t sure why he’s here. 

He’d received the folded note slipped under Gaila’s door without a postmark on it. It’s clearly feminine writing and it’s clearly not an adult and it’s asking him to ‘Please attend Miss Savannah McCoy’s concert at seven PM sharp. Or else she will stick a trombone in a very unlikely and painful place’. Jim had smiled ruefully and finds it a relief to know that even if everyone in town hates him, it’s good to know that Savvy still harbors a bit of a thing for him. He debates going, he thinks about avoiding it, but in the end he knows that he’s got precious few bridges left to this town and he doesn’t want to burn this one.

He makes time to buy a bouquet of daisies from the local florist and smiles politely as he informs Mrs. Sulu that no, the flowers are not for Leo McCoy, and as an after-thought Jim all-but-begs her to tell Hikaru to call him, please.

With the daisies in hand, he’s ready to go to the concert being held at the auditorium of his old elementary school. At least this place has no memories of Leo. He hadn’t met Leo until the tenth grade because Eleanor McCoy had seen fit to homeschool him until the years of higher education. Leo’s arrival to the high school had been the biggest gossip the town had in years.

It was only replaced when Jim got together with Leo and together they began to take Montgomery by storm. 

Sometimes, Jim regrets that he let them become more of a myth than an actual couple. Sometimes he thinks that’s partially why he felt so pressed in and trapped in his life. Maybe because of the thought that everyone was watching, he thought that he had to escape even more – sort of like a strange life-version of a Chinese finger-trap.

Still, if anyone ever asks him if he regrets a single moment, he knows that his instant answer is going to be: never, no, not one minute.

He stands in front of the mirror in Gaila’s front hall and adjusts his tie, feeling like he’s being choked. You don’t need ties to travel the world and Jim hadn’t even brought one with him on the road, but Gaila had forced it into his hands the minute he told her about the concert.

“How do you even own ties?” he had shouted at her as he changed, because there have been no gentleman callers since he’s been back. Apparently, according to what she shouts back, it’s a fashion thing and Jim wouldn’t understand since he’s turned to muddy boots and khakis as his way of fashion choice. 

He barely remembers how to do up the tie except that there’s a tree and a rabbit is supposed to run somewhere close to it. He gives a frustrated huff and that seems to get Gaila coming out from her room, book in hand, and glasses on her face. 

“Jim,” she chides and sets the book down on the table – Dostoevsky, apparently, which is a bit more of a headache than Jim really likes out of his reading material, but he figures good for Gaila for giving it a whirl. “Honestly, why do I ever let you out.”

“Because if you don’t, you’ll have an angry young girl at your door?” Jim suggests. “I mean, Leo always had a temper, but nothing like that kid sister of his,” he scoffs, standing still as he can as Gaila fixes the tie for him – only choking him a little more – but at least he strikes a pretty picture in the mirror. “It’s just a concert,” he says, as if he’s psyching himself up for this. “It’s just a concert. I can do this.”

Gaila purses her lips, as if she’s keeping a secret to herself that she doesn’t want to share.

“Gaila,” Jim coaxes. “What?”

“It’s not just a concert, Jim,” she says as she rolls her eyes, like she can’t believe how dense Jim is being. “It’s a McCoy concert. It doesn’t matter how much control you think you have over this situation. This can go very badly.” She smoothes her hand out over the tie, as if she can somehow convince him to stay home with gentleness alone. “You’ll call if you get in trouble?”

“Define trouble.”

“You can’t keep your hands to yourself and Leo is right there. Jocelyn is my friend too, you know,” she reminds him sharply. “And undefined or not, you are not going to make a mess of things, James Tiberius Kirk. Got it?”

“I never should have told you my middle name,” he complains, swatting her hands away as she tries to adjust his tie one more time. “Leave it alone, Gaila, it’s good as it’s getting.”

She takes a step back, just far enough to give him a pointed look. “I mean it, Jim. I want you to text me if things start getting out of control.” She already looks as if she knows that isn’t going to happen, because Jim has a habit of rebelling against what people tell him to do. He tries to tell himself he’ll listen to her, but now he’s almost more inclined to turn his phone off and not look at it all night. 

Jim agrees, even though he’s not sure that he’s going to have the strength to be able to call Gaila in the event of a Leo-spurred emergency. He does put Gaila on speed-dial number one before he leaves with his suit and the flowers and readies himself for tonight. 

He’s not sure whether a part of him is hoping against hope that something will happen or if he’s praying that it won’t. He sets the worry aside and tells himself what will come, will come and that there’s no point obsessing over it. 

*

Where Leo was always good with maths and sciences, questions of the heart and sharp incisions into a body, Savannah McCoy is one for the arts. She shines in her theatre program, sings like an angel every Sunday in church, and plays the trombone with grace. Leo would never miss one of her concerts, not for the world.

He’s standing in the lobby of the school with his suit on, waiting for his parents to bring around the car when he realizes that he’s not the only one who received a personal invitation to attend tonight’s events.

“Jim,” he scoffs, shaking his head. With that one word and Jim Kirk pushing through the audience of parents, Leo’s sure that the entire town has already started to gossip about this evening, not to mention make up falsities about how Leo looks like he’s happy to see Jim – he is blatantly not, not even a little bit, not even a tiny bit because why would he be happy to see Jim when he looks so damn good? 

Jim’s even put on a tie. Leo didn’t even think Jim owned a tie. 

Suddenly, he wishes more than anything that Joce didn’t have to go out of town to sit for her sister’s kids. He needs some moral support right now and he’s pretty sure his parents are going to be another ten minutes parking the damn car. 

Jim is fidgeting with the damn tie, which only calls more attention to it. Leo would like to strangle him by the thing as much as he wants to fondle him using it as a handy tool for pulling him closer. “Savvy said I had to come,” Jim says apologetically. “She threatened...well, I’m sure you can imagine.”

“I’m sure I can,” Leo agrees ruefully, because he knows his sister, all right. Even if things are starting to become civil between him and Jim, it doesn’t stop him peeking at the double-door entryway to see if his parents can’t get there a little faster. “You bring a date?”

“I think she’d have my head if I did,” Jim says, bluntly. “Her and the entire rest of the town. I’m trying to earn forgiveness, here, not trying to give them confirmation that I really am the asshole they all think I am.” He shrugs his shoulders and edges his hands into his pockets. Hell, he almost looks sheepish. “I came alone.”

Which is good for Jim’s reputation, but is very bad news for Leo. This doesn’t bode well for the night. 

Leo opens his mouth to speak, but the clanging of a bell interrupts whatever it is he’s thinking of saying. He looks at the crowd as they begin to shuffle and migrate and knows that if they don’t move with them, they’re going to be solid forces in the way of a moving mass. He wants to say something about how Jim came alone, but before he can, Jim speaks.

“Anywhere, where’s Joce?”

Leo smiles ruefully and should have known that question was coming. “Savannah sent the invitations. Jocelyn took that as reason to find other plans for the evening.”

“She and Jocelyn not get along?”

“Not like you and her do,” Leo says, absolutely honest, even though he probably could have lied. He feels like that’d be betraying someone (though he’s not sure which party). Leo reaches over and presses a tentative hand to Jim’s back, coaxing him along. “C’mon, the performance is about to start.”

Jim inevitably gets put between Leo and Mr. McCoy and for the first bit of the performance, everyone is focused on Savannah’s solo. She stands and is moved to the front and she absolutely shines in her confidence in the piece. 

The trouble comes later when the rest of the students are playing and rather than concentrating, Leo rests his hand down on the seat beside him before realizing that this puts his fingers smack-dab in Jim’s territory. He awkwardly realizes that when Jim’s hands slide atop his and then Leo is frozen, a lump in his chest, unable to move away or even speak.

It’s suddenly too hot. That, and he feels endlessly sick. He’s sure that he’s flushed and that he must look like a mess, but he can’t seem to drive away thoughts of Jim and Jim’s hands on him and around him and everywhere. He can’t stop thinking about kissing him and losing full hours while wrapped up in his body. 

He can’t breathe. He needs to get out of there. 

“I...” is all he manages to croak out, shot out of his seat in a single second before he nearly runs to the washroom. 

The band is playing a Bach piece when Leo runs and escapes from Jim’s hand over his, from his family’s expectant looks and rushes straight to the men’s room to splash water on his face, like that’ll ground him back in reality and stop making him think that he’s still eighteen and he’s allowed to have everything and anything at once.

His back stiffens when he hears the door swing open and his shoulders tighten when he sees Jim over his shoulder in the reflection of the mirror.

“Hey,” Jim says quietly, anxiously. “Your Dad sent me to check on you.”

Leo feels his whole body go tense. He’s been controlling himself so admirably lately in the face of long-buried emotions coming up again like they’ve just been waiting to surface. He’s been doing so well, but when he looks at Jim in the dim light and remembers the feel of their hands pressed together, all he can think about is the whirlwind of loving Jim and how much he never wanted it to end and how he still thinks about their second chance that he’s never officially said he wants.

Leo stares at his reflection in the mirror, cupping water in his palms and splashing his face with it, as if that’s going to somehow calm him. “Savvy will be glad you came.”

“Yeah,” Jim murmurs. “Well.”

“Well?”

“I only partially came for her.” Jim looks apologetic when Leo looks up and catches Jim over his shoulder in the glass of the mirror. “I mean, she sent me the note and I could never have missed this, but I knew that you were going to be here and…”

Leo holds his breath, turning and pressing the small of his back against the sink. “And?” he coaxes, not sure he wants to hear where this is going at the same time that he wants nothing more than to find out what Jim is going to say. 

“And I’m a little drawn to you. Always have been.” Jim eases in slowly, tentatively, reaching up to press a hand to Leo’s cheek. Leo can feel his cheeks flush as if they’re on fire and he focuses on steady breaths. He’s not a teenager anymore. He’s a grown man and a doctor, damn it. He can deal with this. 

Although, maybe he’s not entirely capable of being calm about this, Leo reasons, because Jim is watching the way Leo grips at the low sinks of the washroom, elbows twisted slightly and presenting strained forearms to Jim like a hawk. He watches Leo like he’s a predator. Leo doesn’t feel hunted so much as he feels wanted, that electricity and adrenaline coursing together to create a singularly unique sensation in Leo’s body. 

Like he’s alive and he never really understood how good it could feel until Jim looks at him like that. 

Leo swallows a lump in his throat and leans back, which only presses the cold surface of the sink hard against the small of his back. His shirt slips up and he gasps at the shock of temperature greeting him. It serves to go against how flush his skin has grown in staring at Jim and wondering just what the hell they’re doing there. 

“Jim, I...” he ekes out, and the words are thick with his drawl, one of the clearest indicators that he’s out of sorts. “We oughta be getting back.”

“Yeah,” Jim agrees roughly, but rather than stepping away, he presses forward until his hips are inches from Leo’s and his hand is on Leo’s cheek. He seems dazed, almost as bad as Leo himself. Neither of them is in any kind of sane place at the moment, which should make what comes next obvious, but Jim still possesses the ability to shock the hell out of him. 

It’s why when Jim leans forward and kisses Leo for the first time in seven years, Leo is actually and honestly shocked. 

It’s also why he falls back in time – or so his brain tells him to do – and kisses Jim back, raising a hand to cup his cheek and pull him close. It’s like he’s trying to make up for lost time. It’s like he’s trying to desperately coax Jim back home with a kiss. 

It’s like he’s being a cheating asshole, is the thought that comes after that. It’s also the thought that has him pulling backwards in a hurry. 

He swallows rapidly, his whole body turning on him and telling him that he needs to ignore rationality and logic and just kiss Jim again before he can do anything like come to his senses. He’s been missing those lips for too many years and they are, at this moment, right there and it would be so easy to just lean forward and demand Jim kiss him again.

He really doesn’t figure he’ll get much argument.

Still, they’re both smart men. He knows better than being a total idiot and making out with his ex-boyfriend in the school auditorium of his sister’s concert – and how’s that for a mouthful. He swallows the lump in his throat, takes every thread of desire and forces it to check out at the door, and then (and only then) when he feels he’s found composure again, does he meet Jim’s gaze.

“We can’t do this,” he says sharply. 

He doesn’t even wait for Jim to reply before he brushes past the man and heads back into the auditorium, fidgeting with his collar as if he can’t breathe. He whispers to his mother that he’s going home and he’ll walk, but he just needs to get out of there.

God bless her, she doesn’t ask any questions of him. He’s not sure he could even begin to explain what’s going on in his mind at that moment. 

*

Jim shouldn’t be there. 

There’s a summer-storm closing in and the thunder is rumbling on the horizon, giving Jim very little time to actually do this. He’s only come to pick up his duffel bag from McCoy’s truck that Gaila had brought over the other night, needing it for the weekend away that he’s planning. He can only take so much of the town treating him like the lowest of dirt before he needs to get away and remind himself that the world exists beyond this town.

The world has so much more for him than this. He doesn’t understand why none of them can see how trapped they are in the confines of their crappy little town, closed in, imprisoned, never able to get out because they’re all too scared. And Leo’s one of them, Leo is one of them and he’s never going to leave. Jim’s never going to be able to get him out. That is something that hurts him more than he thought it would. He’s been back all of a couple of weeks and he already knows that he doesn’t want to leave this town again without Leo with him.

Except that Leo has his happy home with Jocelyn and how on earth is Jim supposed to contend with that? He doesn’t even bother to knock at the door. Jim sinks his hands into his pockets and waits for Leo to notice him.

He would be insane to think that even after all these years, there’s a kind of current running through their skin, electrically charged and sparking when the other is near. Jim used to think they were electric, back when they were idiot kids. Now he knows better. They were just buzzed on the spark of sex and first-love. How is a kid, a fifteen-year-old kid, supposed to differentiate between that and something real?

He leans, here, against Leo’s truck and takes deep breathes. The curtains draw away from the window, but behind the fabric and the panes, he only sees Jocelyn. He waves, anxious and wary, and knows that he shouldn’t be here. 

The storm behind him rumbles as it approaches and he hears the sudden crack of another object nearby – in the sudden way that Leo wrenches the front door open and slams it behind him. The jolt of the sound makes Jim jump to attention, posture straightening up. He knows that what they’re doing is risky. They’re playing with fire and Jim kissing Leo in the dark bathroom of an auditorium just isn’t right, but...but he can’t just let go. 

“Leo,” Jim starts apologetically. “Listen, I just came for some things. I don’t want to talk about the other night and I’m not here to make a machismo show in front of Joce or anything,” he hurries to insist, as if he can somehow make this better. 

Leo is still glaring and when Jim takes the chance to look past him, he sees Jocelyn watching from the bottom corner of the window. 

His life has been reduced to a cheap show, watched by current girlfriends. 

“Jim, you don’t know what kind of game you’re playing here,” Leo warns, stepping to his left to cut off Jim’s view of Jocelyn, as if he knows that she’s sitting there watching this – as if he doesn’t want Jocelyn to see this fight. “You can’t just go ‘round kissing folk in dark places and reminding ‘em of what they lost,” he accuses and Jim feels his heart clench.

Leo’s accent never sounds that thick unless he’s really and truly angry or absolutely torn to pieces. Judging by that look in his eyes, that’s not anger. Jim’s seen Leo angry. He’s seen Leo furious and ready to kick the ass of their small town. What Jim is seeing in Leo’s eyes right now is so far from anger that he hates himself. Leo looks heartbroken and if Jim had just stayed away, maybe Leo would never have to look this way again. 

“You can’t just turn up in town again and think that just because you know what to do with your life, that the rest of us are so sure,” he says, digging his blunt nails into his palm. Jim is focused there, his eyes stuck. He looks at the lines on Leo’s hand and remembers tracing them, donning a fake psychic’s voice and predicting all the long years of Leo’s life. “Not everyone knows how to navigate the world like you do,” he accuses. 

Somehow, for some reason, in a moment when anything could set him off, it’s those words that make Jim snap. The storm is right above them and spitting water down, but Jim is holding his ground and he doesn’t think he could be dragged away by a dozen wild horses at this rate. “You think I know what to do?” He’s furious, absolutely god-damned furious. “I’ll tell you what I know, Leo. I know what sweethearts in this town do, the ones that have been together longer than us, I know what they do. They settle down, plant roots, make a family, and never leave. Do you know how that sounds?” He’s stepping forward, the warm rain almost an instigator against his skin and oh, does he ever know what Southern stubborn men are like, because Leo is holding his ground just as firmly in front of him.

“Sounds like stability to me, you idiot,” Leo curses him out, spitting out the words like they’re choking him and he just needs to push them out before they kill him. 

“Like torture!” Jim retorts, well aware that his accent is slipping, that he’s regressing into the little boy that grew up in Montgomery, the one that thought the best he could do was a hardware store on the main strip and a pretty house and family, never to see anything the world had to offer except the same sun and moon for years and years. “So yes. Yes. I left. I left Montgomery and I left my family and friends and yes, I left you. Am I sorry? I am, but I couldn’t just stay! Not until I saw the world, so what do I know? I know I don’t regret what I did and I know that I love you. And that’s about all I do know.” His drawl is back in full force and it’s tinged with shame and regret and fury. The rain is pouring now, soaking his clothes to his skin and doing the same for Leo’s white t-shirt and jeans. 

They’re not exactly being quiet and Jim’s sure that Jocelyn must have heard every word, every last pathetic word, and Jim keeps thinking of prison bars in the form of a town and he just needs to go

“God...dammit,” Leo hisses, and before Jim can stop him or realize what’s happening, Leo’s fist connects with Jim’s jaw. 

He’s only been punched once by Leo before, even though he has cathartic dreams about it all the time, as if Leo will forgive him and come after him if only he can get his anger out. Jim lets out a sharp sound of pain, clutching at his jaw with both hands as he stares at Leo. He’s staggered back against the truck, a dull sound emitting as he hits it, and he lets out a sharp groan that is equal parts pain and arousal.

Maybe some of those dreams have fucked him up more than he wants to admit – maybe he’s just spent too much time fantasizing in far-off places about Leo deciding that he needs to find Jim. 

Jocelyn had asked if he wanted Leo back – if that was what this is about. Jim hadn’t known then and he supposes he still doesn’t know now, but with that punch given and with a kiss stolen in the dark halls of a school, Jim is slowly beginning to realize what he’s been trying to ignore for so long.

He misses Leo. Plain and simple, he wants him back in his life, regardless of what role he’s playing. The sun rises and sets, the world keeps turning, but Jim feels as if he’s missing out on what makes life worth it when he’s alone in all the most beautiful places in the world. Maybe if he’d never met Leo, maybe if he had always been an adventurer in solitude, he wouldn’t feel this way.

He’s loved, he forced the loss, and now he’s paying for it. 

Jim keeps his hand stubbornly at his jaw, aware it’s going to bruise, but knowing that it’s a punch that’s been years coming. “You done yelling?” he asks with his voice barely audible above the rain at this point. “Because I am.”

Jim chances a look at Leo, which is probably not the best idea, because as soon as he sees how unsure and worried and upset Leo looks, all that Jim wants to do is take back everything that he’s said because he wants to reiterate what he does know. He knows how much he loves Leo, which should say something, at least. 

At the same time, he left so many years ago and that’s when he forfeited his claim to making Leo feel better. Jim knows if he looks to the window, he’s sure that Jocelyn will be there and there’s just a small part of Jim that wonders if she’s upset that Leo’s hit him. 

“I’ve wanted to punch you for years,” says Leo, voice subdued as the storm gets worse. All hope for their clothes is gone as the fabric clings to skin and mats hair down. “Thought it’d make me feel better.”

“Did it?”

“No.”

Jim doesn’t feel much better either and the rain mixed with the wind is making him feel chilled to the bone. All that and he’s still more preoccupied with the fact that Jocelyn is probably inside and must think the lowest of low of Jim. Somehow, that’s the thought that brings him back to reality fastest of all. He swallows hard, glancing up warily at Leo. 

“I still need my bag,” he admits quietly.

Leo nods -- a heavy lift and fall of his head. “I’ll get it. Wait here,” he commands. 

Jim does think about leaving and running off, but he feels like in the end that’s only going to make things more awkward between them – and since he’s not planning on leaving town, there will inevitably be a future meeting that he’d like to avoid awkwardness during. So he waits because Leo told him to and because still, years later, Jim will do anything that Leo asks of him. 

Jim is breathing hard and it finally sinks in that he’s soaked from the rain. Head to toe, there isn’t an inch of fabric that hasn’t been utterly ruined. 

It takes five minutes for Leo to come back outside with the duffel bag clenched so tightly in his hand that his knuckles turn white and even through the din of rain and steam, Jim can still see that. It takes an awful lot for Jim to stop noticing everything about Leo and one fight and a punch isn’t going to stop that.

“There,” Leo says, curt and snappish. “There’s your stuff. Now, go, Jim.” It’s not a question, not even a polite enforced demand. It’s an order and one that Jim is willing to obey. He takes the bag from Leo, his fingers brushing against Leo’s knuckles for the briefest of moments. It makes Jim’s throat go dry and he’s pushing his luck.

He feels like if he stays much longer, Leo’s going to punch him again and Jim’s not sure how easily they can come back from that. 

He gives Leo a stiff nod of his head, as if communicating that he’ll do what he says, but only because he doesn’t want this to be the end. When he goes, he doesn’t check back over his shoulder once – not to look at Leo, not to see if Jocelyn is still watching, and not to see whether or not Leo is still watching him go.

It might just break him to know that Leo isn’t, so he keeps walking. 

*

Gaila’s out of town for the weekend and Jim had been meant to go with her. She had taken one look at the bruise on his face, made a thoughtful noise, and then asked if it had been Leo or Jocelyn. Jim’s even-keeled response of “Leo” just earned him another little thoughtful noise, which makes Jim wonder if everyone had been expecting this. When she started packing up, she’d just looked at him to ask if he was still going with her and Jim was as surprised as anyone to discover that he just wanted to stay in, for once.

Now she’s gone and the apartment feels slightly bereft without her. He pokes around and watches television until he’s bored of that, reads until he finishes a slim novella, and inevitably ends up tidying up the living room. 

His dusting is interrupted by a curt knock at the door. Jim almost hopes that it’s someone trying to sell him something. At this point, anything to take his mind off the fight with Leo would be welcome. 

He tugs open the door just a crack, in the event that Montgomery has suddenly developed a criminal population and someone is here to rob them. He keeps the door opened only slightly further ajar when he sees Leo standing there. 

“There’s a bruise on my face that says I shouldn’t let you in,” Jim says, even if Jim had forgiven Leo for the punch mere seconds after it happened. Truthfully, he’s a little terrified to even face Leo right now. It’s easier to hate someone if you didn’t know about their still-strong feelings and their terrifying talent for loyalty.

Leo’s always been a loyal bastard, willing to be with you right there until the end. Jim loves that, but at this moment, he’s wondering who Leo is being loyal to – Jocelyn or Jim or someone else entirely. 

Leo looks awkward, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans and he’s looking everywhere except at Jim. “Can I come in?”

“Are you going to punch me again?”

“God, no, Jim,” he breathes out the words, as if he’s absolutely shocked that Jim’s even suggested it. “Never,” he adds, firmly. 

That’s all that Jim needs to open the door the rest of the way and gesture inside to give an indication that Leo’s welcome into a home that’s not even his. Gaila’s been good about letting him borrow her space and he knows that he needs to eventually find his own place in town or just go. 

With things not going so well with anything or anyone, he’s starting to linger more on the idea of leaving. Except that every once in a while, he thinks about Leo and he starts having second thoughts. 

Jim shoves his hands in his pockets and wanders the room, pacing familiar tracks and keeping his gaze down on the floor. “So,” he draws out that one word, like it’s the right thing to say. “What brings you to these parts?”

Leo opens his mouth to speak and then closes it. He seems unsure and Jim is starting to feel anxious himself, feeding off that energy. For a terrible moment, Jim wonders if something terrible has happened and that’s why Leo is here – just to give the news. 

“Leo?” Jim asks, breathing harder now. “Is everything okay? Is everyone okay? Gaila, your family...?”

“It’s Jocelyn.”

“What about her?” Oh shit, thinks Jim. He can’t even breathe as he thinks about the myriad of ways that something might have gone wrong. It’s not like he’d ever been serious as he lay awake at night and thought about ways that Jocelyn might get hurt or have to leave, giving him another shot at Leo. He hadn’t been serious and now he’s feeling guilty. “Leo, is she okay?”

“Jim, she’s breathing,” Leo assures and all at once Jim exhales all the stress that he’s been holding in. “She’s just doing it somewhere else. Packed up her bags, left me a note saying that she’s not stupid enough to stay when my eyes are straying elsewhere, even if neither of us has a hope in hell of understanding what the hell is going on between us.” Leo looks defeated, his shoulders slumped and a tired look in his eyes. “She left. She saw that fight, told me that she didn’t know what to do with me, and then when I came back from my run, she was gone.”

Jim purses his lips together and he knows that there’s more to this story. He knows that Jocelyn doesn’t deserve Leo’s distracted attentions and Jim knows that he’s at fault for this because he’s the reason the attention is so distracted.

“Were you really going to marry her?” Jim finally asks.

The silence between them answers the question before Leo even quietly adds, “I don’t know. Half the time, we were just roommates who sometimes slept together. We sort of bypassed dating to just live together. We got on so well, it just seemed comfortable.” Leo fidgets slightly and Jim feels sudden guilt at bringing up the topic at all. “I don’t know, Jim,” he says again, like there’s an answer locked away in those words and Leo’s picking at the lock to try to get them out. “I loved her. I did, but god help me, I never stopped loving you like the insane fool I am.” He sighs heavily and pinches the bridge of his nose. “She wants all her stuff ready for her tomorrow. I need help,” he admits, staring just to the side of Jim, like he desperately doesn’t want to admit this.

Jim takes in deep breaths, trying to figure out if he really ought to be saying yes to this. It seems like a patently bad idea, but he’s already saying, ‘yes, of course’ before his brain can catch up with him, promising Leo anything he wants in this moment. 

He feels a knot in his chest and knows that he wants to get it loose, to just tell Leo he can’t, but he’s never been able to say no to Leo and he doesn’t foresee starting now. 

“Do we need to stop anywhere and get boxes?” is what Jim asks instead of telling Leo it’s probably a bad idea for the two of them to be alone together anytime soon. 

Leo seems distracted and Jim gravitates closer to slide his hand to Leo’s back, pressing it warmly there to try and support him. Instead of doing much to calm him down, though, it brings him worryingly close to Leo and makes him think about the way he smells or the curve of his neck, or the way Jim can remember what Leo’s hands on his body feels like.

Leo just turns his head into Jim and offers a brief and tired smile. “No, I’ve got some bags. Are you sure you want to help, Jim? I know this is a bit awkward.”

“Leo,” Jim exhales. “I’d do anything for you.” It’s hard to say those words and not have his whole life stop so they can evaluate what they mean, but Leo doesn’t seem to focus too much on the heavy gravity of such a confession and Jim is just glad that they’re going to keep going as if Jim hasn’t said it. He means it, but he’s not sure he’s ready to talk about it.

Especially not when Jocelyn is just barely out of the picture and he has more respect than people give him credit for, especially when she’s been as good a friend to him as Leo has. 

He stays close to Leo’s side all night and they pack away her things while Leo tells stories and Jim matches them with things he remembers about Jocelyn from childhood. They finish at two in the morning and just in time, because Jim can barely keep from yawning every few seconds.

Leo catches him in the middle of one of his epic yawns and takes hold of Jim’s shoulders, steering him in the direction of the guest room. “Stay,” is all he says, his voice soft and teasing as his breath ghosts over Jim’s earlobe. 

Jim doesn’t need much more convincing than that. 

*

It’s early in the morning when Jim wakes to the sound of roosters crowing their announcement of a new day. Birds chirp and the morning light spills harshly into the room at an angle he’s wholly unprepared for. This isn’t his room, it's not his bed, and it's absolutely not his house. It’s not even Leo’s bedroom. It’s his guest room, but given the fact that things are mending so tentatively between them, Jim doesn’t want to give in to the worry that one push too many will bring the whole relationship crashing down and sharing a bed overnight is definitely a push of that nature. 

He shifts the heavy duvet and groans, pressing the heel of his hand to his eye and brushing away at the sleep there, trying to make his decision. Stay or go. Stay and face the music or just go and take the safe route.

He opts for the middle ground and stumbles to his feet. The wood planks of the floor beneath him creak – the old McCoy house isn’t exactly new -- and he heads over to the dresser to search for a t-shirt to wear. The first drawer yields nothing and neither does the second, but the third gives him something that he’s not entirely sure he’s ready to see.

He could have left well enough alone. He could have just knocked on Leo’s door and asked for a change of spare clothes.

Instead, he let his damn curiosity get the better of him and so he’s snooping around rooms that he shouldn’t be and looking in hypothetical Pandora’s Boxes. He shouldn’t be so surprised to find something that he doesn’t want to. That’s usually what happens when you go poking your nose in places that should remain closed and out of sight and touch. In the third drawer, there are no t-shirts. 

There is, however, a blue velvet box staring up at him.

Logic tells Jim ten things at once. That this belongs to Jocelyn, that this is none of his business, that he’s not supposed to be looking through these things -- that maybe if he had stayed, he would have some kind of right to be looking in these drawers, but he didn’t.

He hasn’t lived his life shying away from anything, though. Blue velvet boxes aren’t suddenly going to make him start. He pries it from the drawer and balances it carefully in his hands. Carefully, he checks over his shoulder to make sure Leo hasn’t woken up and has decided that the lack of noise coming from Jim means that the situation needs investigating.

His mind, fond of telling him all the things that could be in that blue box, isn’t ready for what it actually is.

He knows all about Pandora’s Box. Filled with all the terrible things in the world, unleashed by the curiosity of humanity. When Jim opens the box, he doesn’t find anything terrible at all, but his curiosity does give way to a black hole forming in his stomach, gnawing away and threatening destruction of all things good.

It’s a class ring from eight years ago from good ol’ Montgomery High and under the gold band is a clear etching: 

buckle up – JTK

He barely even remembers ordering the ring. Back in their senior year, it had been his idea and they were supposed to pick them up after graduation. They were supposed to go out for dinner that night and talk about the things to come in their future. They were supposed to celebrate being done high school and maybe sneak back to the loft where they had sex the first time. They were supposed to wear the rings with the pride and accomplishment that came of leaving the place that first brought them together.

Jim couldn’t pick his up. The day he was supposed to, he’d been landing in Madagascar because he’d met a group of guys while in Amsterdam who told him about the incredible experience a person could have in the jungle there. 

He hadn’t been there to pick up his ring because he was terrified of commemorating the past when it meant that it could close the doors to his future.

And now, here it is. Here’s the ring that was supposed to mean so much to him and Leo and it’s been in this drawer in Leo’s house for eight years. It isn’t burned or damaged to indicate Leo’s taken his anger out on the ring. It looks like it’s in perfect condition. 

It even shines, like Leo’s been taking extra care of it.

Jim feels almost like he can’t breathe and he closes the box, the snap of it deafening to his ears. He tucks it away in his pocket and yanks open the next drawer, finding the shirts he’s been looking for. By now, he’s on a mission and is pulling on all his clothes, writing a note to Leo to thank him for the bed. He pins it to the back of the front door as he bolts from the house and heads straight for Gaila, barely able to breathe the whole time and not sure how he even makes it without collapsing in a miasma of bad decisions and regret.

It’s the very first flickering he’s had the feeling since he came back. It’s the first time he’s started to wonder if he’s done the right thing.

“Gaila,” he gets out when she opens the door to their place. She doesn’t look very pleased with him and he doesn’t blame her. It’s an early hour of the morning, she’s just barely back from her trip, and he probably looks like a panicked idiot right then, but in his own opinion, he’s got more than enough cause. He fumbles with his pocket, digging out the box and shoving it open under her nose. “I found this.”

Gaila takes the ring from him gingerly and then stares at him –she’s not wearing makeup, and her hair is twice its usual size and yet the most frightening thing about her is the icy glare she’s giving him. “It’s five thirty in the morning, Jim,” she says sharply.

“I got woken up.”

“You didn’t have to wake me up, too.”

“Gaila!” Jim snaps. “Bigger issues.”

“It’s your class ring, how is that a bigger issue?” she complains right back and Jim should have maybe waited. Gaila’s never been a morning person. Leo hasn’t ever been either, but Jim has the feeling that he’s going to be avoiding Leo for a little while. The man makes his head a murky place at the best of times and this ring has automatically made things far from easy and uncomplicated.

Jim tries to put all this into words to figure out what is the issue, but he keeps coming up short. It should actually be something promising, that Leo actually still cares – that Leo doesn’t actually hate him with all his being. 

“It’s a bigger issue because...” he trails off. “Because I kissed him and Joce left and now I found it and he doesn’t hate me.”

“He might,” Gaila says and there’s that blunt quality she can occasionally show that Jim loves so much. “I mean, he might have put that ring away years ago and let his dislike for you fester in the...”

“You’re not helping!” Jim interrupts her sharply, which apparently tells him that he actually does want for Leo to still care. “These were a big deal to us. He wears his on his ring finger like it means something and he kept mine. Yes. Yes, maybe he loathes me on some level, but he still kept it,” he says, clinging to these vestiges of hope like they’re going to keep some long-buried desire going. 

“Do you not want him to love you still?” she asks curiously. “I thought that was part of why you came back. Now you know he at least holds some kind of torch for you, that should be good news, Jim. Right?” She cups his cheek worriedly and tries to find some kind of answer on his face.

The problem is that he’s not sure he has an answer.

He sighs and doesn’t know what to do. Yes, he wants Leo, but he doesn’t want the guilt that goes with it, because he’s entirely sure that it was his presence and his kisses that drove Jocelyn away, which means that he can’t deal with Leo loving him without feeling guilty for feeling it.

“I’ll be in bed,” is what he inevitably decides. He’s never seen a problem so terrible that a couple hours locked away hasn’t solved. He closes the ring-box and clasps it tightly in his palm before sliding it away. He doesn’t intend to let it out of his sight. 

Who knows? It might prove to be some strange Rosetta ring that will give him a guide to understanding his feelings and Leo’s, too. 

“Don’t you sulk too long,” Gaila warns, sliding forward to kiss Jim on his forehead, pulling away and cupping his cheek just once more before giving him a pat on the ass and sending him off to bed. 

That’s how Jim begins his day of moping. He spends the day in bed staring at the ring that holds all the memories of a past he gave away willingly. It’s not until the afternoon when he hears the knock at the door. “Gaila!” he shouts, shifting in bed and not wanting to get up. He’s been in his moping sweats and has been lamenting the fact that he ever left the town. In this pity-fuelled moment, it doesn’t matter that he wouldn’t trade his adventures for anything. All he cares about is the fact that he gave up an incredible person for the world. 

And right now, the world isn’t exactly keeping him warm. 

Neither is Leo, of course, but Jim is feeling too sorry for himself to really be too preoccupied with the details. The knocking doesn’t stop and Gaila doesn’t seem to be nearby. “Gaila!” Jim tries haplessly one more time before resigning himself to the fact that he’s going to have to get up and get the door. He groans and barks out his frustration in a series of short curses of profanity, pushing himself out of bed to deal with whatever boyfriend of the week has come sniffing around trying to make Gaila an honest woman – which is a fairly common problem with her by rumor, but something he hasn’t actually seen in practice.

Jim pulls open the door and his whole body goes as still as if someone’s thrown ice on him. 

“Leo,” he says, not sure if he’s happy to see the other man or if he suddenly wants to throw the door shut and run as fast as he can. Gaila’s apartment is only two stories up, he could probably make the jump from the window to the ground without damaging anything too badly. 

Leo looks about as indecisive and unsure as Jim feels. 

“Jim,” he says, but doesn’t flinch away. Leo’s never flinched, not when it mattered. At the very least, Jim can take solace in knowing that at least he matters. That’s something. “You left, this morning.”

“Gaila was expecting me,” he lies, not sure he’s ready to burden Leo with the truth – that Jim is so chickenshit scared and confused that he no longer knows up from down. “I meant to come back, but I’ve been feeling...” He doesn’t even know how to say it.

“Look, Jim,” Leo interrupts when Jim can’t find a word to sum up what he is feeling. “I spent the day roaming around and thinking about what I wanted to say to you, but the truth is I haven’t got a clue in hell. I know things are a mess and I know that you and I have both mucked it up, even if you did get a little bit more of a mess on your hands.”

Hell, Jim can’t even disagree.

“And,” Leo continues with a sharp intake of breath. “And, well, the truth is that Jocelyn saw it before I did. She refused to be a third wheel when you still had me wound around those gorgeous fingers of yours. I stayed home for more hours than I should have because I felt guilty, but the both of us understood that I never got over you.” Leo looks pained as he tries to speak and Jim wants to help him, so he steps forward, sliding his hand around Leo’s waist as if that’ll encourage him onwards. “Jim, I’ve loved you since that moment back in high school that you looked at me and just smiled like I was suddenly the sun you wanted to revolve around.” He exhales and leans back into Jim’s touch, brushing back a lanky strand of hair from Jim’s forehead. “I know it’s been a lot of years and I know we’re different people, but do you think that maybe you and I could...”

“Yes,” Jim cuts in, interrupting him and knowing the answer. “I don’t even care how far back at the start we have to go, Leo, yes.” He feels secure and safe and with Leo in his arms, he feels that things are actually right for the first time in a long while.

Leo looks pretty damn assured, himself. “Think you can manage to love an old country doctor?”

“Are you kidding?” Jim scoffs, grinning broadly. “Mom’s gonna be so happy, you have no idea.”

*

He’s been back in town for far too long and avoiding the inevitable. Jim knows that he has to finally do what he’s been avoiding, especially now that things have started to tilt in the vague direction of his favor. He’s seen the McCoys and things have been civil, but it’s like they were playing at a game of ignoring the large elephant in the center of the room – dancing and gesturing very clearly to Leo. 

He needs to talk to them. He needs to apologize to them. And the worst of all, he needs to ask them for permission to do something that he fucked up the first time around. He’d just rather leave town again than face this moment, even if it makes him a god-awful coward. 

He’s on their doorstep right now and he keeps thinking of turning around and leaving, but some insane part of him drives him forward to push the doorbell.

“Mom!” he hears Savannah inside the house. “Door!”

“Well, get it, Savannah McCoy. My god, did I raise a heathen?”

“I don’t know! Do you want me to call Leo and ask?” is Savvy’s bored reply before she pulls the door open. It’s almost enough to relax Jim, but there is nothing in the world that could relax him at this moment except for maybe a good stiff drink and Leo right beside him. So he settles for being slightly relieved and extremely pleased when Savvy lights up. “Jim!” she cries out with glee. “Hi!”

“Hey, Savvy,” Jim breathes out, wishing that he could just ask her for Leo’s hand – or permission to woo him, rather. Or, hell, if he’s honest, permission to take Leo out of this town and show him the world while kissing apologies down his spine, like he ought to have done years and years ago. “Your Dad home too, or is Ellie just raining down etiquette from on high?”

“I hear you, Jim Kirk!” comes the warning shout. 

Maybe Jim shouldn’t be pushing her so much when he’s essentially come to ask for permission to romance Leo, but there are some habits that die hard and his push-and-pull teasing relationship with Leo’s mother is something that he never wants to lose. “I love your etiquette, Mrs. McCoy. How else would my posture be the way it is?”

She slowly descends the Scarlett O’Hara staircase and studies him, shaking her head in sheer disapproval of him. It’s not the first time they’ve seen each other since Jim’s been back, but it’s the first time that there weren’t witnesses -- Savvy doesn’t count because Jim suspects she’ll pick family over him, even if she does love him. 

“Jim Kirk, I’ve been waiting for you to turn up on my doorstep,” she says, softly. 

“Better late than never?” Jim flashes the most charming smile he’s ever possessed and it does absolutely nothing. Almost-mothers-in-law (hopeful ones) are always immune to that sort of thing. Jim should have known. “Is David in?”

“He’s out back reading,” Eleanor confirms. “Should I be calling him inside for any good reason?”

“I think that I have a pretty good reason,” Jim replies with a sureness that comes out of going over this plan a dozen times in his head and only feeling warmth and fondness for the idea of having Leo by his side, forever and always, no matter what. “I want to do this properly and I think that requires both Leo’s parents in one place.”

He shouldn’t be half as thrilled with the excited look on Eleanor’s face as he is, but he’s waited a long time to do this properly. He needs to take small successes where he can.

“David!” Eleanor shouts. “We’ve got a visitor.”

“If it’s one of those salesmen...”

“It’s Jim Kirk,” she shouts back before David can get too deep into one of his rants.

That seems to do the trick nicely. Before Jim can say ‘I want to woo your son’, the sliding door to the back is pulled open and David joins into the metaphorical fray, standing at Eleanor’s side and sizing up Jim like it’s the first time they’re meeting and Jim intends to take Leo to the ball. 

It’s not that far off, but Jim and David have gone golfing before and once upon a time, used to be close as anything. 

Though, leaving town does hinder a relationship, as he’s grown to learn. 

Jim takes a deep breath and tries to keep perspective on the situation. He’s here to talk and that’s all. He just doesn’t like that it seems as though he’s facing a firing squad lined up of three McCoys in a row staring at him like he has something to prove.

“Could we sit down, maybe?” he asks, not feeling entirely comfortable being stared at with so much attention. “Please?” he asks again when Eleanor looks like she’s expecting something else of him.

That seems to do the trick. He’s led into the living room and takes the main chair, feeling as though the massive cushions are about to swallow him whole. He clears his throat and begins to rifle his memory to try and recall the speech he has prepared for this. “Mr and Mrs McCoy, in all the years...”

“Oh great,” Savannah says, rolling her eyes. 

Eleanor simply looks bemused. “Did you have this on index cards, Jim? Would you like to bring them out just in case you forget what comes next?” Jim feels like making a snappy and sarcastic retort, but he’s supposed to be on his best behaviour and he doubts that being curt with Mrs. McCoy will do him much good.

“Look, Jim, we all know why you’re here,” David notes. “Let’s cut to the chase. We’ve known this was coming since Joce picked up and headed to the city to live with Nyota.”

“Which means,” Eleanor continues for him, “that you’re either here to beg apology for driving her away.”

“Or you want Mom and Dad’s permission to get all swoony and gross about Leo,” Savannah finishes, sticking out her tongue. “Which, incidentally, is so gross the way you get all lovelorn about him.” 

Jim figures he should just be glad that Leo isn’t here to make this trio a quartet of questioning, because Leo’s the bluntest of them all and Jim’s not sure he can take that much stress. He looks at each of them in turn, trying to make them see that he isn’t just joking around. “I want to offer him what I should have all those years ago,” he admits, figuring that honesty is the best call in this case. “I want to leave town again and I want him to come with me. I want to be honorable and do what I should have done the first time.” He takes a deep breath and readies himself in the event that a rejection is coming. “Please,” is all he thinks that he has left to say. “Please give me a second chance.”

“In the end,” Eleanor sighs and looks to David, reaching over to clasp his hand and look at him like she understands about second chances and love and Jim wonders if there’s a part of the story between Leo’s parents that he missed out on, “it’s going to be Leo’s choice, but I appreciate you coming to talk to us.”

Jim feels like he’s just heard something good, but he’s still mired in too much disbelief to actually process it.

“So, I just need to convince Leo?”

“It’ll be your hardest mountain to climb,” David agrees wryly. “And we wish you luck, son. Consider this your second and last chance.”

“I swear,” Jim says insistently, already on his feet and ready to go, “I won’t need more than one.”

*

Jim has never expected to have anything like parental approval tucked away in his back pocket like a secret weapon, but with David and Eleanor’s begrudging agreement, he actually is showing up on Leo’s doorstep feeling something like confidence. He’s wearing his class ring on his pinkie-finger, something he never thought he’d do once he left Montgomery, but he feels like he needs it in order to prove to Leo that he’s serious about not abandoning his past in order to cut a path for his future. 

He just has the most important task left before him. 

Jim’s been able to find a place to rest his head in every place in the world regardless of what language they spoke. He’s been to the most challenging places and dared to experience things that no one else believed he could do. Facing down the prospect of trying to convince Leo to come away from their childhood home and experience a life of adventure with him is still the scariest thing he’s ever had to contemplate and he includes swimming with great whites on that list. 

He’s fiddling with the class ring on his finger when Leo gets in from work, draping his labcoat over the hooks in the front hall of the McCoy house. He wanders through the hallway and starts slightly when he finds Jim just sitting there in the living room.

Hand to his heart, Leo looks about two seconds away from reaming Jim out. “Christ, Jim...”

“Before you even start,” Jim says, getting to his feet and pushing in close to Leo, not stopping until he’s pressed up against him and their chests are as aligned as they get. He cups Leo’s cheeks with his hands and leans in for a slow and tentative kiss, trying to make it less rushed than the kiss in the auditorium and to make up for so many years of waiting. 

It seems to do the trick. Leo softens right into his grasp and stares at him with something like wonder cast across his features. “Do you know how many nights I lied awake trying to remember exactly what a kiss from you felt like?” he asks quietly.

“Probably the same number of nights I lay there remembering how you were the best furnace in the world to curl into at night,” Jim replies ruefully. “Leo, I need to talk to you and I need you to hear me out,” he says, reminding himself that if he stays relaxed and calm, then they might just stand a chance at opening a door of communication that Jim should have nudged open a long time ago.

Leo sits, but he looks wary and Jim doesn’t blame him. We need to talk has never been a good opening line in any conversation, but Jim doesn’t know how else to start it. “Okay,” Leo drawls. “We’re talking. What is it, Jim?”

Jim perches on the arm of the chair and takes a deep breath. “I just got back from your parents place,” he says, his foot tapping rapidly against the floor. “And uh, I had a question to ask them, to ask you.”

Leo raises both his brows and Jim thinks that he’s still in tune with Leo because he can practically read his mind.

“Oh, god no,” he insists. “No, I’m not proposing,” he hurries to reassure. “Jesus, Leo, no, I just want to talk to you about the possibility of getting out of town for a while,” he says, very slowly, trying to gauge Leo’s reaction as he speaks.

He doesn’t look disgusted or angry, so Jim’s taking that as a positive for now.

“I should have asked you all those years ago,” he admits, feeling like there’s a heavy weight pressing down against his chest and he isn’t sure if getting an answer will make that go away. “I should have and I didn’t because I was a terrified idiot of a kid, but this is my attempt to make things right. I want to head out to California and surf the waves and discover the culture along the highways and I want you there with me. I know you have your practice, but I’m sure you deserve a vacation and your Dad’s already said that he can cover patients a while. We could live here, I just want you to be there with me when I explore the world.”

“So we’re a we again?” Leo asks, bemused. 

Jim shrugs, feeling light of head and heart and he figures he has everything to lose and nothing at the same time, so he might as well try. “I want us to be. Do you have any objections?”

Leo seems to consider, pressing both his thumbs to his lower lip. “California, huh.”

“Just for a few weeks. Then we can maybe look at that old farm when we get back? Mrs. Lester has been trying to sell it for ages and if you’re gonna be that old country doctor you keep grumbling about, you need a proper house and Savvy’s gonna need somewhere to live soon enough. She can take this place,” Jim says, feeling like he’s flying as he speaks, unable to refrain from sounding half as giddy as he feels. 

He chances another look at Leo, now, and he doesn’t look so averse to the idea.

“So uh, you willing to maybe do something we should have done ages ago?” Jim asks. “I don’t care where we go, Leo. Just tell me that you’ll stay at my side and make it worth it.”

“I think we can figure something out,” Leo promises, reaching across the space between them and resting his hand lightly on top of Jim’s. Jim remembers, only then, how to breathe when relief floods him and takes away the heavy weight of anxiety on his chest.

*

Seven Years Later

“I am going to kill you.”

Jim dangles from far above in the sky, blotting out the bright sun’s rays. Coming to Arizona in July may not have been the brightest idea in the world – actually, it’s literally the brightest, it’s just not the smartest – but here they are. Jim is dangling from his carabineers and sighs heavily, rappelling a good hundred feet lower in order to get back to where Leo is clutching at the rocks with a white-knuckled grip. “Leo,” Jim coaxes gently.

“Damn it, Jim, I’m a doctor, not the next cautionary tale for rock climbers,” he snaps, pushing at Jim. Physics doesn’t help, sending Leo in one direction while Jim gets propelled in the other and if it weren’t for the panicky look on Leo’s face, Jim would have laughed. Instead, he goes after Leo, hands sturdy on rock formations as he navigates his way over red rock to get to Leo’s side without scrambling up their lines. “Damn it, Jim, I...I...”

“Hey,” Jim coaxes, sitting back in his harness as he reaches one hand off of the face of the rock and presses it to Leo’s face to brush his thumb there lightly in slow circles. “Calm down, Leo. You’re okay. I wouldn’t let you be not okay,” he assures, wrapping his hand around Leo’s back, supporting his weight with just the one arm – which has begun to shiver and shake with the duress. “God, now I’m glad I didn’t let you climb up Everest with me.”

“I am still divorcing you for that,” Leo promises, but he seems to be settling down slightly, gripping the rock-face before him. “You don’t just leave a man at base camp and then go climb a death mountain.”

“I thought we were okay!”

“You screwed me silly in our hotel miles away and bound my wrists with ropes and carabineers, you basically bribed me with sex,” Leo argues heatedly, but he’s starting his ascent again. An angry Leo McCoy can perform any task in the world and Jim knows all his buttons. “God knows you’re lucky that by the time we reached base camp, I was in a good enough mood to let you go,” he mutters. 

“Leo,” Jim sighs, already several feet above him, having been concentrating on climbing instead of complaining. That, with the added fact that he’s a damn good climber who has done Everest twice and this is just a simple baby-climb up a rock in Arizona. “Just because you had to use oxygen daily for panic attacks...”

“Jim, I will cut that rope and let you fall,” Leo interrupts. “If you even think to finish that sentence.”

Jim smartly keeps quiet as he tips his face forward to stare at all the inviting sky above him, trying to coax him to climb higher and faster. He paces himself, aware that it’s not going anywhere. There’s no bars coming to trap him in and more importantly, he’s got Leo beside him to keep going. 

He makes it to the top of the ledge and perches there, crossing his legs as he arranges his ropes, untangling them carefully. He perches there on the edge of the world and waits for Leo to join him. It might take him longer, but he always gets there in the end. 

He sits right beside Jim, panting furiously and heavily, and they both look out on a place that’s not Montgomery, devoid of all the people they once thought the most important in the world. Jim’s shown Leo that the world exists and Leo’s taught Jim how not to be lonely while they’re out here in the wilderness. 

Jim shifts his hand just slightly left, caulked with red dust, clay, and a vibrant mud that forms as sweat rolls down his forearm. He brushes his fingers over Leo’s, tips finding his knuckles and resting there, just atop. He doesn’t need to be clutched or hand-held. He just wants the quiet reassurance that they both made it. 

“You good?” Jim asks, looking to the side to make sure that he isn’t just projecting his own happiness onto the situation. Leo looks happy. He looks settled and relaxed, like he hadn’t just been ready to strangle Jim on the way up. 

Leo turns to look at him, moving his hand just enough to give a reassuring stroke to Jim’s fingers, a calm and assuring ‘still here’ before he smiles and all the years and worries seem to melt away, like they were never there. “I’ve got the world at our feet. I’m good, Jim,” he promises.

Leo begins his descent first. 

Jim will follow soon after, but not before he can take out his Swiss army knife and carve something into the rocks to make their mark. 

JTK ♥ LHM