Written for the "Ghosts" square of my AU_bingo card.
The first time he sees a Jim that can't be there, he's sure he's dreaming.
He's lying across a bed, watching stars bleed into lines through the window stretching across the ceiling. There's a gentle, simulated breeze running across his damp, sweat slick skin and the lights are bright enough to see by, but too dim to do anything but lie there and watch. There are little touches around the room making it seem lived in, a pair of pants lying on the floor, left where they dropped, piles of books balanced precariously on every surface. Real books, not PADDs, books with paper and ink and a scent and memories buried in the pages. If he turns his head to the left, he can make out a table in the gloom, a bottle of scotch and a glass sitting on top of a notepad filled with blank pages of empty words. Turning to the right, he can see a picture frame, wobbling on top of a stack of books, and he knows where he are. Because this isn't his room, not really, but it's full of his things. His things and Jim's things. Except now they're his things. He takes a swig of scotch, straight from the bottle, then another, then another until the liquor is running down his throat in an almost continuous stream, the burn cleansing his soul from the inside out. Or just numbing it.
Because there is no Jim. Not any more. Not since Delta Vega.
Safe planet my ass. The words he'd uttered after a scan of the planet proved fruitless, three weeks after Jim's disappearance roll around in his head like the bottle of scotch rolling out of his hand.
He blinks bleary eyes, but the Jim ghost still stands there, large as life, the same cocky smirk painted on his lips as the real Jim always had, and he thinks it's just a dream. Because if it's not a dream, then he must be crazy, but with Jim standing in front of him, real enough to touch, to hold, to kiss, McCoy just can't bring himself to care about consequences, insane or not.
So he just blinks again, his eyes gritty and unfocusing, and when his vision clears, Jim is kneeling between his legs, azure eyes gazing into McCoy's own hazel ones. Their lips are millimetres apart and he can feel Jim's breath hot on his tacky skin. He can feel it. That's the moment he decides he doesn't care if it's a dream, any chance to be with Jim as he was is worth the pain he'll feel when he wakes up (because he will wake up. He has to wake up.) 'Bones...' The word is breathed across his lips as a lifetime's worth of feelings is reflected in the eyes of a ghost.
Fingertips dance across his jaw, down his neck, pausing at the place where his pulse is thundering in the hollow between his neck and shoulder. A thumb brushes across the sensitive spot just under McCoy's collarbone, and he closes his eyes, remembering things he thought he'd trained himself to forget.
Lips meet, chaste at first as Jim pulls away and whispers McCoy's name again, like prayer. McCoy replies by sliding a hand up Jim's chest, resting on his neck and curling his fingers to brush the short strands of hair at the nape of his neck and pulling him in for another kiss.
Jim tastes of rain and chocolate. McCoy licks his way inside the younger man's mouth, claiming him as Jim used to claim the doctor, long ago. Jim tugs on his bottom lip, pulling at it with perfectly even white teeth as their limbs entwine, and McCoy thinks that this could be forever.
The shirt Jim's wearing is midnight blue and butter soft, silky folds ruffling as McCoy slides a hand underneath it, pushing it out of the way to run fingers over lean muscles and smooth skin. They have to part for McCoy to tug the shirt off his head, removing his own as well as Jim pushes him and they fall onto the bed, Jim placing soft, open mouthed kisses along McCoy's jaw, moving down his neck and kitten-licking his way along to first one nipple, sucking and swirling his tongue around it until McCoy's gasping, back arching slightly. He then moves to the other nub, scraping his teeth over it, paying it just as much attention as he did the other one. McCoy hisses, hands fisting in the covers by his side and curling even tighter around the nape of Jim's neck.
When he moves on from McCoy's nipples, he moves further south, tongue dancing round his belly button and mouth moving further still, the dark hairs trailing into the doctor's pants tickling Jim's nose. Jim opens his eyes and stares up at McCoy, pupils blown, lust darkened eyes gazing from heavy lids, and McCoy can feel himself hardening from the look alone. He bucks his hips, grinding up into Jim, who holds him down with a hand slung over slender hips as he slowly unbuttons and slides pants and underwear down, inch by inch until McCoy's cock springs free, curving hot and dark upwards, bobbing against taut stomach muscles. Jim licks up the shaft almost painfully slowly, and a sound erupts from McCoy that he's not proud of, but he's with Jim, so nothing matters much anymore.
So he whines and keens, low in his throat as Jim presses a soft kiss on the head of his cock before smiling and swallowing it down until his nose bumps against McCoy's belly. 'Fuck, Jim,' he chokes out, and vibrations run down his cock as Jim chuckles, a rumble of laughter almost enough to send him soaring over the edge.
There's warmth pooling in his belly before Jim even starts, moving up and down McCoy's dick, kiss-red lips stretched obscenely tight around the erection, and when just the tip is in his mouth, he suckles at it once, twice, three times, and his eyes fly open again, the blue stabbing McCoy in the heart and he tumbles over the edge, freefalling, flying...
He wakes alone in his own room, own bed; come drying on his belly and sheets. There's an empty bottle on the floor, less than half an inch of amber liquor left in the bottom.
He drinks it anyway, letting the taste of warm alcohol burn its signature into his taste buds. It doesn't change a thing.
Jim is still a ghost, living in his dreams.
The second time he sees Jim, he knows he's awake.
He knows because there's the burning aftertaste of vomit in his throat, and he can feel the cold porcelain of the toilet against his cheek, and he can hear the buzz of the comm. Left abandoned on a tottering pile of books, he hasn't answered in a week and with Pike incapacited back on earth and 'Captain' Spock's ignorance of human behaviour and reluctance to disturb the famously (notoriously, he mumbles drunkenly to himself) grumpy CMO, no one has either the information or the inclination to use the master codes on his quarters.
Jim would've. Fuck protocol, fuck McCoy's temper, he would have got the codes (somehow. He always does, concerning Bones) and burst into the room, babbling about some irrelevant thing or another, inane words bubbling over until he caught a glimpse of a smile somewhere on McCoy's face, and his own face would light up, glowing with the childish grin he always blinded Bones with when McCoy bestowed a shred of attention upon him.
Just like he was doing now, face split wide, lips curved up and teeth gleaming as he smiled at McCoy. Bones blinked (and when did he start referring to himself by that stupid name? Oh right. Because it's what Jim called him...) 'You're not here,' he slurs, the cheek pressing against the cold (and unhygienic, he remembers, making an effort to sit up, face away from the germs) toilet seat.
'How do you know?' the Jim-ghost retorts back. 'You're so drunk you can't see straight.'
'You died,' McCoy mumbles, the words that he can't utter sober pouring from his lips like water. Words like dead and I love you and I miss you spilling out of his mouth and he can't stop them, no matter how much each syllable feels like a fist to the solar plexus, leaving him gasping for breath and fighting tears.
Ghost-Jim crouches next to him, tilting his head and lifting McCoy's chin with two fingers. There's a childlike innocence on his face, naked and somehow vulnerable, and it makes McCoy (Bones) want to look away, because he knows that that look is not Jim. Not his Jim. 'You think death'll stop me preventing you from drinking yourself into a coma?' he asks softly, pressing gentle lips to Bones' forehead. Bones closes his eyes, heavy eyelids drooping as the drink takes over and the world goes grey.
'I miss you,' he says, so quietly he wonders if he imagined saying the words.
'I know. I'm sorry...'
The third, fourth and fifth time he sees Jim, it's just glimpses. When he walks into a room, he sees flickers of what it could have been. He walks into the mess hall late at night and watches a snapshot move in slow motion, Jim with one arm around that Russian whizkid from the bridge and another around a stranger, with close cropped hair and the red jumper of an engineer, bottles of some green liquid in their hands. He blinks, and it's an almost empty room, two Ensigns drinking together quietly. He turns and leaves, going to his quarters, hitting the code on autopilot, another flash of the past, or what might've been filling his vision. Jim's curled up in bed, eyelashes brushing his cheeks. He looks all of eighteen years old in his sleep, the world weariness in his eyes hidden by closed lids. He has one arm curled loosely around himself, the other under his head as a pillow, and draped across his hip is McCoy's arm, asleep flat on his stomach, nose buried slightly in Jim's copper coloured hair as they sleep peacefully, together.
McCoy scrubs at his eyes with the back of his hand and it's an empty room again, the bed made and the lights dim.
He doesn't sleep that night.
It's the morning after, and he's stepping into Spock's office to give an account of the activity in the sickbay over the past week, like he does every week, and he sees Jim again, sitting opposite Spock as they talk over a 3D chess set, glasses of good scotch on the table beside them. There's none of the animosity between them that there was, they look like friends. Good friends.
McCoy pretends he doesn't see the glint of a gold band on Jim's ring finger.
The evening after that meeting, where he pretends he's fine, and Spock pretends he doesn't see that McCoy's in the same rumpled uniform as yesterday, he turns up with a bottle of scotch and a chess set and a speech in his head that never gets said. Spock opens the door, takes one look and invites him inside.
'Doctor McCoy. I'm not unappreciative of the gesture, but forgive me, I'm unsure what the purpose of it is?' Spock asks as he sets the game up, McCoy pouring generous measures of liquor into two glasses and handing one over.
'I know you like to play, and a captain can't be captain twenty four-seven,' McCoy answers, taking a sip from his glass.
Spock eyes the drink, eyebrow lifting a fraction. 'And the alcohol?'
'We both need a drink,' he says simply.
And so the chess becomes a monthly, then a fortnightly, then a weekly occurrence as the Captain and the doctor learn to unwind around each other. Spock revels in having someone of almost equal intelligence to verbally spar with, and McCoy discovers that the 'pointy eared bastard' wasn't as abrasive and inhuman as he first thought. He even, (and he doesn't want to admit it, but he does) starts to see him as a friend, as more than just a chess opponent and a drinking buddy of sorts. And every so often, McCoy gets a little closer to beating Spock at chess.
They move from topics of conversation like the ship, and the crew, to other, more personal things. (Not Jim though. Never Jim.) He learns that Spock enjoys human music, and on occasion, human books. Strictly for the purposes of sating his curiosity, he tells Bones, who smiles and nods (but doesn't believe a word). Beethoven and Bach, Spock says, and some old, mostly forgotten artist called The Beatles from the mid-late twentieth century. He talks about Shakespeare, and Dickens, and in return McCoy introduces him to books like The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice.
Weeks pass like this, comfortable conversation between two friends, and it's with something of a jolt, three or four months later, that he realises he hasn't thought about Jim for the whole evening.
Of course, now that he thinks that, Jim remains in his head for the rest of the gathering, and a half hour after it hits him, he downs the rest of his drink and mutters an excuse, leaving without meeting Spock's confused gaze.
The guilt consumes him in waves. Hits him, like a tide buffeting cliffs somewhere far away, back on earth, knocking him off balance and making him feel like he's underwater, he's drowning. He walks through the ship on autopilot, only turning when he hits a wall, because really, he can do this with his eyes closed, he knows the ship better than anyone, even Spock (he spent enough time wandering the halls, waiting, always waiting, for Jim's return. It never came. Not really.)
Eventually, he makes it back to the mess hall. It's completely empty, the lights at fifteen percent and he sits in a corner, alone in the gloom and tries not to think.
But however blank he has to keep his mind, he can't help it. His thoughts drift back to Jim. How do you measure grief? The length of time you knew the person? How closely related you were? The strength you loved them with?
'Who'd you lose?'
McCoy flinches, swivelling in his seat to eye the person who had apparently snuck up on him. He un-tenses slightly when he sees its Sulu, the pilot. He likes Sulu. He's quiet, and respectful, and he hardly ever lands himself in sick bay.
'How do you know?'
'You have that look. You ooze grief.'
'Um.' McCoy says, because what does anyone say to that?
'You still miss Kirk, huh?'
He frowns, and asks 'Jim?' because as far as he knows, no one knows, and no one knew about him and Jim.
'Oh please.' Sulu takes the seat opposite him, swinging his legs up onto the table. 'I'm not blind, I saw the way you looked at him, and the way he looked at you. And I can also see the look on your face whenever someone mentions his name. It's painful. Plus, I free fell three miles with him. Our bond was transcendent.' He grins slightly, before shifting in his seat, his booted feet landing on the floor with twin thuds. 'It hurts, doesn't it?'
McCoy nods. 'Will it stop?'
'Not really,' Sulu shrugs, leaning forward. 'But eventually, you become accustomed to the pain, you know you're stronger than it. And you can push it away. It just takes time.' He smiles again, softer, before getting up to leave.
McCoy's eyes follow him to the door. 'What about you?' he asks. Sulu stops and turns, frowning. 'Who did you lose?' McCoy clarifies.
Something in the pilot's eyes go liquid. 'Her name was Nathalie.'
He leaves. McCoy lets him.
He smiles now, when he's on the bridge and Sulu's on shift, and Sulu smiles back. Turns out the Korean was right. It does get better.
McCoy thinks Jim might be gone forever now. And it hurts, it hurts like hell, but he knows that it won't always hurt. And he sees through the pain, that losing Jim will never be as painful as loving a ghost.