"Well there was the vacation we took to Carlsbad Caverns when Leo was about seven years old. He got food poisoning bless his heart and had diarrhea while we were tourin' the caves."
I shrugged and tipped my beer bottle up to my mouth. It was already my third and it was to that halfway mark where it was starting to get warm. I was cutting myself off after this one, but damn I'd missed the taste of real beer. I leaned harder against the counter in my mama's kitchen as she continued story time.
"We had to walk all the way back to the car past hundreds of tourists. It must'a been awful," my dear mother said with a grin and a raised eyebrow
"Oh Bones no!" Jim said, his eyes practically glowing.
"I was sick. There was absolutely nothin' I coulda done to prevent it. I'm surprised it wasn't worse, really. Completely outta my control. I'm tellin' you this ain't gonna work," I said. My Mama shrugged and she and my traitor of a boyfriend exchanged a glance that said they were just getting started here.
"Stop that," I muttered. "I'm telling you I don't get embarrassed."
I threw them a bored look but I felt my chest flutter just a tiny bit.
I wasn't lying. I don't embarrass. Stupid things happen who cares. That's not what's causing my flutter. It's seeing two of the most important people in my world gang up against me with the same twinkle of mischief in their eyes. I swear to god it is the best feeling in the universe. I try and hide the grin that wants to explode across my face behind another swallow of beer but I fail kinda miserably.
They have been trying unsuccessfully now for almost an hour to come up with a story that will make me blush.
It's a futile attempt.
But I love them for trying.
We need this.
All of us.
This has been a really hard year.
And an even harder three weeks.
But since we arrived two days ago I've seen the weights that were bending the shoulders of the man I love lift slightly and even my mother who has her own stresses to deal with is looking years younger than she did. So I'll let em gang up against me all they want if this is the result.
"Ok how about that time you got caught playing doctor with your daddy's bosses little girl?"
"To be very clear we were both five so it wasn't anythin' weird," I clarify. "Healthy curiosity for that age of development is all that was and lo and behold I went and grew up and actually became a doctor so who knows, maybe that helped. What else ya got," I say as I hold my hands out dramatically in a gimme your best shot gesture.
"Your accents' getting stronger," Jim says with a grin as he pulls the blanket he's cozily sitting under up further around his shoulders. I roll my eyes.
"Yes thank you Darlin' I'm aware of that," I say as I lean against the counter again. I rest all of my weight on my forearms as I stretch across the counter and kiss him. I lean back in time to watch him close his eyes and sigh with a look of complete contentment and I drop back to my feet and take another drink from my beer. "So come on. What else ya got?"
My mother reaches over and rubs her hand across Jim's blanket covered shoulders and he sways with the movement more than is strictly necessary as his face melts into a grin.
Good lord he's tryin' a kill me.
"Jimmy sweetheart," my Mama says with a kiss of her own to his cheek. "I'm afraid we may have to admit defeat. I'm runnin' outta stories."
"You want some help?" I ask, taunting them with losing. "You wanna tell him about the time in junior high where I ripped the back out of my pants at the lunch tables in the cafeteria and didn't notice until that afternoon when I stood up in class to give my oral book report?"
"That doesn't embarrass you?" Jim asks.
"Didn't even embarrass me at the time it happened. What was I gonna do. It ripped. Life goes on," I say. I toss back the last of my beer and it gives me a larger swig than I was anticipating. I cringe around the liquid as it fights it's way down my throat and I gesture the empty bottle at them both. "Y'all want another one?" I ask.
"No thank you sweetheart," my mama says and Jim just shakes his head. I toss my empty bottle into the recycler with a clang and open the fridge. I pull out two bottles of water instead and I open them both before kicking the fridge door closed. I grab a familiar bottle off the counter as well and as hard as it is to maneuver with two water bottles in my hand I manage to shake a pill free and close it back up.
I walk back to the counter we are all lounging around and I set one bottle in front of Jim and nudge him with my shoulder as I set the pill on the counter and I kiss the back of his head. I pull one of the stools away from the counter and sit in it with a sigh.
"Thanks doc. This is because I was shifting wasn't it," he says with a smirk.
Of course it was. I'd noticed him gradually growing restless over the last twenty minutes or so.
"You're in pain. It's time. Take one," I answer. "So y'all ready to concede yet?" I ask. I glance at Jim and I feel my eyes narrow as his do. He picks up the pain pill that is lying on the counter and slowly starts to grin at it as he holds it pinched between his fingers.
"Our tactic has been wrong," he says, still staring at the pill with narrow eyes.
"What's that now?" I ask.
Jim drops his head against my Mama's shoulder and reaches over to hug her arm.
"We were going about this wrong. Oh I got this now," he says as he shoots me an evil grin. "Did I ever tell you about when we were living together at the academy?"
I pause. Not quite sure where this is going.
"If this is going to be embarrassing sexual encounters let me just stop you and say not only has she probably already heard them but she has done far worse," I say which earns me a swat to my arm from my Mama but a conceding shrug.
"He's not wrong," she mutters to my boyfriend who turns a delightful shade of red.
"Well dammit, it's too bad you weren't the embarrassing goal that was just too easy," I snort.
"Oh my god. No. I just wasn't expecting that. But now I'm thrown. No!" Jim says as he squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head. "No this was our first year when we were barely friends. Jesus," he mutters. "There was this one professor I had in my second semester that took pride in how many people he could fail."
"Oh. Yeah I remember that asshole," I mutter folding my arms across my chest and leaning back against the stool. I can't imagine how this will embarrass me but now I'm intrigued.
"Yeah he was a jerk and I was not going to let him win. I stayed up for almost two days straight studying and freaking out for his final exam, remember that?" he says.
"You made yourself sick if I remember right," I grumble.
"Yes I did but oh. Your son. Your wonderful, amazing son who not only had his own finals to study for and who was taking just as heavy a class load as I was..."
"And who was ALSO volunteering at the clinic in the evenings. He volunteered in the clinic in the evenings did you know that?" Jim says in a soft tone as he turns to face my Mama. She smiles in her soft proud way that she has whenever I do...well...anything really and I sit up a little straighter. "Mmmm, that same son, this one. Right here, stopped everything he was doing to cook me dinner," Jim says.
"We both needed to eat," I say, narrowing my eyes, as I am starting to catch on.
"Yes. We did. But you didn't order in take out. You didn't replicate up something fast you cooked a full home cooked meal. My favorite meal actually. Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, broccoli, hell you made a salad! And oh my god was it good. But then, oh ho, then you helped me study. For hours. You had flash cards and you read me entire chapters out loud. You barely studied your own stuff which almost cost you by the way. And when I passed out from exhaustion you made sure I didn't sleep on my textbooks at the table. You tucked me in to bed."
"I didn't tuck you in to bed I just made sure you were..." I shrug one shoulder. "...in your bed and not hunched over oh shut up I know what you're trying to do and it's still not going to work," I grumble but I can already feel myself reacting. Dammit. Jim turns so that he's completely facing my Mama now and I realize I am probably going to lose this game.
"He took care of me. He didn't have to. None of that was necessary. You raised an amazing son," Jim says.
"Yes I sure did," my Mama says.
"I'm fine. See nothing," I say but I really hope that's true. It does feel warmer in here...
"Hmmm," Jim says. "Mama McCoy. Did he tell you about the little girl from Rivus III?"
"Why no dear I don't think so," my Mama says, leaning in closer to this traitorous asshole who may have just found my weakness. He knows I hate praise. This is bad. This is real bad. I'm already starting to sweat.
"The reason she was on our ship was awful, actually. She was with her father when her planet was invaded and he didn't make it. She had some minor burns and we were taking her to her mother that was working back on earth," Jim says.
"Oh the poor thing."
"Yeah. It was horrible. But this guy here who pretends to be completely crusted over in anger and scowls, I waltz in to medbay to find him telling her a story...with silly voices...and a puppet. Bones. Where did the puppet even come from?" he asks batting his eyes.
"Supply closet. I'm not heartless what else was I supposed to do? She was scared."
"She was. No she was. But not with you. She spent the next week attached to his leg throughout every single one of his shifts and he stayed in his office each night to make sure she stayed in bed and actually slept. It took him almost a month of full force angry boss mode to re instill the level of fear his interns had in him from before. In fact he hade to make an ensign actually cry before he had his status back. That's how soft he was."
"Oh shut up," I say.
"His ears look pink," my mother whispers and that makes Jim's megawatt smile light up full force.
"Did he tell you he saved a whole planet?" Jim says.
"Dammit Jim it wasn't a whole planet, stop telling people that," I say.
"Oh I'm sorry Bones, no you're right. You technically saved a city of 1.3 billion people that happened to be on an otherwise uninhabited planet," he says in a flat voice.
My face feels like a hot plate and I frown.
"You saved a planet?" my Mama says.
"Alright you win!" I laugh "Enough. stop it. I'm embarrassed ok let it go!"
"He saved a whole planet," Jim says.
"I don't have to sit here for this. I'm doing dishes," I mutter.
"Thank you dear," my mama says as I walk past and kiss her cheek. "How did he save a whole planet?"
"It wasn't a whole planet," I yell over the water I'm running in the sink as I push up my sleeves.
"Really bad virus was sweeping through. They declared a state of emergency they had quarantines set up it was horrible. It wasn't even his case to take but he did. I didn't see him for almost a month and a half straight he was working to try and find a vaccine. Not only did he find a vaccine and a treatment he insisted to be part of the team to help distribute it planet side and after all that he refused credit in all official paperwork. Gave credit to his medical team as a whole instead. Left his own name out completely."
"Ok. Very nice. I'm uncomfortable now. Can we play a new game please?" I yell as I rinse off a plate. I shake off the extra water and I set it in the dishwasher.
"Oh. He saved a diplomats life on our ship with some crazy experimental heart surgery," Jim says. I rinse off another plate and drop it with a little less care than I should so the noise might drown them out. No such luck.
"He was an ambassador from Rister, they have two hearts, and he collapsed on a diplomatic transfer. I don't know the specifics of what he did. After all I'm a captain not a doctor," he says a little louder for my benefit. Ok I smile at that.
I rinse and drop another plate in the dishwasher with a loud clang though still hoping to drown him out.
Nope I can still hear him. And I'm rapidly running out of dishes.
"It was incredible. It's one thing to hear about his skills but something entirely different to see in action. I watched him perform the surgery. I've never seen anything like it. It was apparently a huge breakthrough what he tried. They gave him an award for it that was a really big deal which of course he tried to get out of accepting but couldn't for fear of starting an interstellar incident."
"Ok that's really enough," I say as I fish around in the sink for any remaining dishes. I find an errant bowl and it bangs against the sink as I scrub. But when he opens his mouth behind me to keep talking up my praise, his tone suddenly changes.
He's speaking so softly now I almost get my wish. I can barely hear him above the clink. But that change in tone makes me stop moving.
I want to hear what he's saying.
"He brought me back from the dead again," he says. I shut the water off and lean against the sink. I close my eyes. Dammit we were having fun.
"Jim..." I warn but I know it won't do any good.
"That's why we're here," he says.
"Oh James," my Mama says and I can hear her move to hug him.
He chuckles but the sound isn't right. It sounds sharp and angry. Nothing like his usual self.
"It's ok. I'm ok. It wasn't as bad this time. No ethical lines had to be blurred just good old fashioned medicine. But it's harder this time," he says.
"Jim..." I say.
"It's harder this time because he thinks it's his fault," he says. My jaw clenches and the fork I was holding slides down the side of the sink with a scrape and a plop as it falls back into the water. "Not that we're allowed to talk about it," he says.
This isn't fair. I know he's doing this now because my Mother is sitting here. He's trying to twist my arm. But I can't do this. I won't let him do this. I stand up and wipe my hands off on the dish towel that's folded neatly on the counter. I set it back carefully when I'm done and I walk directly to the sliding glass door.
"Leo," my Mama calls out and that's enough to make me pause.
"I'm not mad," I clarify. Because I'm not I'm just... "I'm not mad. I just can't...ok?" I open the door and step out onto the porch as I slide the door closed behind me.
I walk to the edge and lean against the railing. I don't relax, not yet. I can't be sure they won't jump up after me and if they do I'm gonna need to keep moving but luckily it stays quiet behind me and I close my eyes and sigh.
There is a good chance that I am overreacting. It probably wasn't the best timing on his part to rile me up emotionally and then jab me in the side but I know that wasn't intentional. It just came out because it's been all he's been thinking about since it happened. I know him. I know it's true.
He's tried to get me to talk about what happened since the second he woke up but I won't let him. I wanted to just let it be and move on.
And I thought I was being pretty successful.
"Goddammit," I mutter as I sink down to sit in one of the patio chairs.
This is why I can't talk about it. Every time I start to it sends my brain on a projection loop of watching him collapse at my side.
I drop my head in my hands as I lean against my knees. I tug against my hair just until it's painful enough to be a distraction and I hold my emotions in check.
But he's wrong. I don't just think it was my fault.
I was the idiot who wasn't thinking about the situation. I was the one who jumped without thinking.
I was the one to dive into an active fire fight without a weapon. Just a medkit and stupid luck.
Stupid luck that ran out.
If he hadn't been there.
If he hadn't lunged.
The sliding glass door sends me flying to my feet and I am ready to bolt out of here but my Mama stops me with her hand on my arm.
"Baby it's just me relax," she says. "I won't make you talk." I let out a sigh and I let her hug me without thinking.
"We were doing so good. We were having fun. Right? I wasn't imagining that?" I say as I hug my Mama back and rest my cheek against hers.
"We were," she says. "It's alright."
And I can almost believe her.
She has that mom skill down to a science.
If anyone could make things ok by just uttering the words 'it's alright' it would be her.
But I know she's not quite that magic.
"Here. Sit," she says. I do. I sit on the edge of the lounge chair by my side and she joins me on its long faded cushion. "Leo why are you here," she asks. I frown.
"Should I not be?" I ask with a bit more prickle to my tone than I should. She lets out a huff of breath and shakes her head with a sad smile.
"That's not what I meant. That's not what I asked. You're always welcome here you know that. I asked you why you came." I sigh.
"I wanted to see you. So did Jim. He loves you almost as much as I do," I say as I reach out to hold her hand.
"But why are you here?" She asks again.
"So that he can recover. He isn't getting any better. I was desperate," I say. Which is the absolute truth.
His progress has been shit.
It has been three weeks and his skin still looks grey to me, his eyes still carry dark wells of insomnia under them and he has no energy at all.
It wasn't like him.
I was scared.
I am scared.
"I'm scared," I admit out loud.
"It's alright," she says again. And again I feel myself relax. We sit in silence for a bit. I can hear movement inside and I glance to see Jim as he disappears into another room. I close my eyes. And sigh.
"Now Leo I'm no doctor," my Mama says and I chuckle.
"You should be. Between me and Daddy you've probably absorbed more information than some actual doctors have," I say and I notice the soft smile that floods her face. It's the look she always gets when I bring up my dad. Sad and wistful but warm. And I smile back.
"I think his lack of recovery has less to do with injuries. And more to do with guilt," she says.
"Guilt!" I laugh. "What on earth does HE have to feel guilty about."
"Leo I don't want to tell you what to do. I've never wanted to tell you what to do. You are a beautiful soul. And I love you more than anything else in the world. And I know you'll always do what's right. But sweetheart. You can't ignore this and hope that it goes away." I sigh. "That might work for you. But that's not working for him."
I close my eyes.
I know she's right.
Dammit why is she always right.
"We were having fun," I say. And she smiles as she stands. She bends to give me one last hug and kisses the side of my head.
"Yes we were. And we will tomorrow too. But it's not going to do what you're hoping it will. You're going to have to open up this wound and clean it out. Otherwise it'll never heal."
Damn her and her medical analogies.
I push to my feet with a soul deep sigh and I groan.
"And here I was hoping to get a good nights sleep," I mutter. She gives me a smile that's full of sympathy and love and I return it as she slides the door open and steps inside. I follow her in and close the door behind me. She kisses me goodnight and I nod. I close my eyes and start to wonder which room he's disappeared to but he doesn't give me a chance to wonder for long. He walks back into the kitchen, his blanket he was under now long gone, and he walks toward me like he is on a very specific mission.
"I'm sorry, Bones, I shouldn't have pushed," he says as he grabs me in a hug with more energy than he's shown in weeks.
"S'ok," I mumble into his shoulder as I try my best to hug him back.
"Lets just try and get some sleep," he says as he give me one last squeeze and steps back.
"No hang on. You're right. We should..." I grab a hold of his wrist but I can't get the rest of that thought out. I sit at the table behind us and I try not to think about how I can't even say the words "let's talk". How on earth are we actually going to talk about this if I can't even do that. But he lets me push a chair toward him and we sit knee to knee.
And I close my eyes and shake my head.
"God this is hell," I mutter.
"Yeah," he agrees. And I sigh.
"I'm sorry," I say and he nods.
I frown up at him and I feel my lips twitching into a smile.
"What on earth are you sorry for?" I ask.
"For dying," he says with painfully sharp conviction. "I promised I'd be more careful." And that makes me actually laugh.
"You died saving my stupid ass," I say as my laugh fades into actual anger.
"But you wouldn't have been out there at all if it hadn't been for me," he says. I frown.
"I absolutely would have," I say. And he frowns back at me.
"No you wouldn't have," he argues and I lift one of my eyebrows in what I hope is a scathing look but he keeps his stoic face and holds his ground.
"People were hurt. You think I'd just ignore that?" I ask.
"We would have beamed them back. If I had stayed put like I should have you would have stayed put too. We would have both been safe."
He's wrong. But I'm too tired to keep going round and round like this. Besides it has dawned on me exactly what I need to say.
"Jim...do you know how many times you've stupidly dived into a situation without thinking and got yourself hurt or worse?"
"Bones I don..."
"Rough guess how many." He closes his mouth and shrugs.
"I don't know. 50? 1000? I don't know..."
"37. Well give or take. That's including even minor scrapes and bruises and that's just since becoming captain and that's just the ones I know 'bout. I'm not naive enough to think you don't keep some things hidden. But for arguments sake. 37. Now you wanna take a guess as to how many times I've dived in to a situation that has gotten either myself or someone ELSE hurt?" I ask.
"I dunno. 2?"
"34. Give or take. Again my math is fuzzy at best," I say. He frowns.
"34?" He says.
"Here's my point. We're both stupid. Arguably brave maybe. Definitely handsome. But stupid," I say and that earns me a small grin.
"I'm slightly stupider," he mutters.
"Well not really. You've had more opportunities than I have to actually BE stupid too so really if we break down those numbers I'm probably worse than you are."
"Ooh, ouch," he cringes. "That hurt you to say that didn't it," he says as he rubs my arm in sympathy. I shake my head and grab his hand as I run my fingers along the back of it. I stare at it in silence and think.
"I think the good news is we're getting better. The numbers drop year after year. And the better news is we have each other. And a hell of a crew. So far we've been alright," I say. He nods. "Shit happens. I could die tomorrow in a freak bathtub accident, split my head on the tile," I say.
"Jesus Bones," he shudders.
"Well I could. But look, as terrifying as it was and as easy as it is to push blame, you getting hurt wasn't really my fault. But it sure as hell saved my life. And I'm so grateful for that. And maybe that's the point of us. Maybe we dive in. We save the day. And we have each other's back. And that's enough," I say.
"And maybe it wouldn't kill either one of us to be just a teensy bit more careful," he adds. I look at him for that and I smile.
"That too," I add.
"34 huh," he says and I shrug.
"At least the ones I've told you about. I have secrets too you know," I say.
"Secrets huh," he says as he narrows one of his eyes. "Any that would make you blush?"