McCoy pushed past Spock, invading his too-warm quarters and looking around. "Hey there, smiley. Where's your girlfriend?"

"Smi...my...?" Spock cleared his throat. "If you're speaking of Nyota, she is--"

"I'm not talking about Jim. Where's that famed Vulcan mind of yours, man? Answer the question!"

Spock gave him the tiniest arch of an eyebrow that was the equivalent of angry bristling from anyone else. "Perhaps you'd like to take a moment to calm down and get a hold of yourself, doctor."

"I'm not here as a doctor, you pointy-eared killjoy." McCoy wasn't sure, he hadn't peeked at any mirrors lately, but the grin he couldn't seem to wipe off his face had to be fairly ridiculous looking.

Spock regarded him, the eyebrow arch shifting from irritation to curiosity and over to amusement, all in the movement of a few millimeters.

McCoy really liked Spock a hell of a lot more once he'd learned how to read those eyebrows.

"Very well, Leonard. If you can contain yourself, I'll--"

"Doctor McCoy?"

McCoy turned instantly. "Hey, speak of the devil."

"And she appears?" Uhura completed with an amused smile. She slipped from the doorway to the bedroom and moved in, practically floating in a thin, brightly colored robe. Her hair was down, her eyes kind.

Lucky Vulcan bastard. But McCoy couldn't stop grinning long enough to feel jealous. "I need a favor."

She tilted her head, curious. "Name it."

He named it.

She'd be a hell of a classy, dignified woman some day, but she was still young enough now to squeal and throw herself across the room at him, seizing him in a hug that nearly knocked him over.

He caught Jim on his way into the mess that evening, and didn't even bother calling him to get his attention. He marched right through the door, grabbed him by the shoulder, and hauled him around.

Jim whirled fast, enough bar fights in his past to prepare him for the worst whenever he got grabbed. But he relaxed and grinned when he saw who it was. "Hey! Great, I wanted to talk to you about--"

McCoy grabbed him by the shoulders, hauled him in, and planted a kiss right on that big, gabby mouth of his. Nice and firm and solid.

Jim's words cut off a second too late, his voice becoming muffled sound against McCoy.

McCoy pulled back and took in Jim's gaping and blessedly silent mouth with a satisfied nod.

He sidestepped Jim, looking around and spotting curly brown hair. Pavel was watching McCoy – as was the entire mess hall after that kiss – with wide eyes.

McCoy reached the table, grabbed Pavel's glass of water, and dumped it all over his tray of half-eaten dinner. "You done? Good, let's go."

He didn't give Pavel a chance to answer, just grabbed his arm and hauled him up. "Later, kids."

Nyota and Hikaru both grinned back at him.

Jim was still standing there, a growing smile on his shell-shocked face, as McCoy led Pavel past him and out the door.

"Lucky bastard," he heard Jim mutter as they left, and he didn't know which one of them Jim was talking about, but. Yeah.

Pavel was patient enough, and amused enough, to stay silent through the lift ride up to deck five. He cast frequent looks over, but there couldn't have been much on McCoy's stupid grinning face that worried him.

Once the lift doors opened Pavel moved with McCoy, smiling curiously but content to walk beside him without question.

"So." The door to McCoy's room slid open and shut behind them, and McCoy thumbed the lock and faced Pavel. "When the hell is your birthday, anyway?"

Pavel blinked at that. "Next week. But--"

"Good." McCoy grinned, holding out his hand. "Don't take this the wrong way, kid, but it's going to be a hell of a lot easier thinking about this whole thing when I can say 'eighteen' in my head instead of 'seventeen'."

Pavel sighed, but he reached out and slipped his fingers through McCoy's – ever since that first moment when their hands had touched and he had gotten such a sweet, peaceful look on his face, he hadn't ever resisted the chance for holding hands.

"You didn't march me all the way here to tell me that, did you?"

"Nope." McCoy grinned, bringing their hands up, stroking his thumb down the back of Pavel's hand slowly. He didn't explain at once, taking a few moments to let things still around him. He'd felt this buzz around him since Sulu left his room earlier, and it was only now starting to fade back.

Pavel studied him, patient.

"I just thought you should get used to spending more time here," McCoy said finally.

"You could have called me to come up. You didn't have to destroy a perfectly good meal." But as he spoke Pavel's eyes caught the glow that he got so often these days, the awed spark that flared up in response to something McCoy would say or do.

"Look." He met Pavel's bright eyed gaze and cleared his throat, his smile diminishing a little. "I've got something to say, and it's going to sound really fucking dumb but you're not going to laugh at me, because you're a sweet kid and I've got a more delicate ego than people realize. Plus this little speech right here is meant to make you feel guilty."

"Alright." Pavel's fingers twined, lazy and comfortable, with McCoy's. "I'm ready whenever you are."

"You're not my patient."

Pavel didn't laugh.

McCoy went on, clumsy with his words at the best of times, but hell - if Pavel wanted eloquence he wouldn't have been there in the first place. "All this stuff I've been thinking, all the guilt and the hesitation and the overprotective crap you've called me on...I figured it was because you were so young, or because of what happened to you. Because I felt guilty."

Pavel definitely wasn't smiling then. The instant protest rose in his eyes, but he pressed his lips together and stayed silent.

McCoy relaxed a little. "But as young as you are, that wasn't ever the problem. And I knew before now that I wasn't with you in some misguided attempt to cure you of your problems, I just didn't go one step further. I didn't realize that the desire to cure you was still there, and it's exactly what I've been fighting against. If I fucked up with you, not only was I fucking up a relationship – which I'm good at, trust me – but I was fucking with the health of a patient. Which is unforgivable."

Pavel's eyes didn't clear. He didn't speak, but the awe was out of his eyes as he looked away.

"It took me a while to realize I was feeling all that. But now that I know it, I know it's bullshit." McCoy spoke firmly, since the next words were important: "You're not my patient, Pasha. I don't have to cure you, because there's nothing wrong with you."

Instantly the shadows growing behind Pavel's eyes cleared. Like the sun blasting through clouds, his eyes when he looked at McCoy.

McCoy smiled at him, holding their joined hands to his chest like the idiot romantic southern gentleman he thought he'd stopped being after the divorce. "You've been through some shit, yeah. A few sick little fuckers thinking with their dicks tried to victimize you. Some drunk girl with too much ego pitied you. But that doesn't make you a victim, and it doesn't make you pitiful."

He took in Pavel – the tangle of curls, the bright-eyed gaze, the long, pale fingers caught in McCoy's grip. "You're better than them, you know that? You're a fighter. You fought those bastards off every time, you fought me when I was being a stubborn idiot. You fight every person who tries to treat you like less than you are. I thought I wanted to fight that war for you, like I'd fight any other hurt I came across."

The grin he'd been flashing for hours now was gone, and it felt strange that he couldn't bring it back. He was happy. He was fucking happy, and it was like this unfamiliar weight pressing out from inside his chest. But no grin.

He just smiled, and it was so sincere he would've gotten self-conscious if he'd taken time to think about it.

"You know what I want, now that my head's on straight? Not to fight all this shit off for you, but to be here watching while you fight it yourself. To lend a hand if you ever want some help. Because it's the most amazing thing I've ever seen, watching you fight."


McCoy had more to say – paragraphs and poems more, really – but the one quiet word made his words jumble up in his head, like traincars slamming into each other after a sudden stop.

The expression on Pavel's face was...hard to read, really, but McCoy didn't for a moment get the feeling that he'd said anything wrong.

Pavel blinked after a moment, and looked down. He brought a hand up suddenly, rubbing at his face. His eyes. "If you keep talking about how strong I am, I'm going to cry. And that wouldn't do much to prove your point."

McCoy chuckled, but it stirred the deep, sharp overprotective urge in him to protect. He couldn't fight Pavel's battles for him, no, but that didn't mean he had to let him hurt alone. Not as a doctor, but as a lover.

He reached out, fingertips catching Pavel's chin and urging his face up. "Every fighter needs a safe corner to retreat to now and then. I'll be thatfor you in a heartbeat, if you'll have me."

"If I'll...if I..." Pavel shook his head, giving up after a moment's groping for words. He closed the short distance between them, grasping McCoy in a sudden, fierce hug and holding on tight. "Gospodi, bozhe moj...Len. Lyonya..."

McCoy shut his eyes, wrapping his arms around Pavel just as tightly. Sentimental old fool, but Pavel gave him a cue and he would damn well use it. "Ya tebya lyublyu, Pasha."

Pavel froze. His arms went slack around McCoy, his grip suddenly weak.

McCoy didn't let him go. He kept his eyes shut tight and curled his cheek into tangled curls. "If that means something dirty, blame Nyota."

"Nyota taught you..." Pavel sounded distant, faint.

McCoy nodded. "I asked her to. I was going to save it, to wait until later. Planned to whisper it in your ear right before I made you come, so you'd be able to remember those words instead of some of the dark things you probably keep remembering. But maybe this is better, since sex makes some people say those words when they don't mean them. This way there's no room for doubt."

"Perhaps you could say it then as well." Pavel's fingers dug into his back, his grip still weak like he was stunned from some blow. "Ya tebya lyublyu."

McCoy smiled into his hair. "Pronunciation lesson? I figured I'd do it wrong, no matter how many times I made her repeat it."

"Not a lesson, Len. A reply."

McCoy's smile faded.

It was fucking bizarre, really. Some element of human physiology – or maybe human psychology, therefore out of McCoy's range of expertise – that caused a person an inability to smile when they had a moment of complete fucking happiness.

The thought that might've come to him a week ago – that Pavel was too damned young to understand love the way McCoy did – never stirred. He never for a second thought that this kid who knew himself so damned well didn't know this one thing.

He breathed in and his grip tightened. He brought his hand up, stroking through ragged curls gently. "Pasha."

"It must be fate, I think," Pavel said in answer. He curled into McCoy's chest for another hug, without the desperate edge. "That someone should see me as more than a child, and...and love me. And it should be the one person whose touch has made me feel like more of myself instead of less."

McCoy smiled at that, finally regaining the ability. "Spock says there's no such thing as fate. He hasn't taught you that particular lesson yet?"

Pavel laughed softly. "He indulges me a few human idiosyncrasies. He's very polite that way." He drew in a deep breath and pulled back again, regarding McCoy with a bright-eyed, shadowless gaze. "You will let me touch you now," he instructed firmly. "You won't stop me anymore."

"No." McCoy grinned, a little watery. "And you'll never know how hard it was to turn down that kind of offer."

"You are a stronger man than you realize," Pavel answered easily. He looked more speculative suddenly. "You are a better man than you realize. You're the best man I have ever known, Len."

McCoy's smile went crooked and he laughed. "You're proba--"

"And I will fight you on this as I fought you on everything else. I will fight you until you believe it." Pavel smiled, looking pleased with the idea. "I will learn enough, in time, to help you fight your own battles as you helped me. I won't be happy until the shadow of that...that idiot woman is cleared away from you, the way you cleared Irina and the others from me."

McCoy drew in a breath, his grin fading.

Pavel met his eye, as open a book as usual. "I am a fighter, and you have helped me win my fights. But you are mine now, because you love me, and that means we fight yours next."

He laughed, but it wasn't much more than a weak snort. "In my experience that's not how this thing works."

Pavel raised his eyebrows. "In all your experiences with the many young Russian geniuses who have adored you?"

McCoy's throat worked, but his smile returned. "Sorry, I forgot I was breaking new ground here."

Pavel pulled him in, kissing him easily. "I'll have to keep reminding you of that, then."

"Yeah. You do that."

He thought about telling Pavel not to worry. That Jocelyn was history and he was over it. But it would've been a dumb thing to lie about, as smart as Pavel was.

Her shadow was still there, yeah. Not as dark as it had been, and McCoy was just starting to learn that the darkness that followed him like a cloud was actually that shadow, and not something that came from inside of him.

He was a good man, sometimes. He was flawed and jaded and a little bitter now and then, a little gruff. But he had done his best for the kid in front of him, and his best had been exactly good enough.

So he was a good man with Pavel, for Pavel. And that was a start, maybe. A little bit of sun starting to burn through the clouds casting shadows over him.

Funny. He was a better man for being part of this thing he had thought was so selfish and bad. He was a worse man when he lost himself in his wife-and-child, home-and-dog past, the life that was supposed to be so natural and right and clean.

He didn't know if there was a term for that – irony, maybe, in some way. Or fate, as Pavel said. Or love, or lyublu, or Envy, or Fury. There had to be some word for it.

He'd ask Pavel sometime, maybe. Pavel knew every damned thing in the world. Or hell, maybe he'd just let it go. Maybe this whole thing, how easy it was and how right it felt, maybe it would just have to go into that huge category of things he didn't understand.

He didn't understand Pavel, after all this time. He didn't understand Spock, or quantum physics, or a hundred weird races on a hundred different planets. He didn't have to understand them, because he'd always been content to accept them on their own terms.

Looked like happiness was just one more thing to add to that list.