"The reason birds can fly and we can't is simply that they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings." ~J.M. Barrie
"I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world." ~Sadako Sasaki
"Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down." ~Ray Bradbury
It began toward the end of alpha shift as a stiffening along his spine and upper back.
Seated in his chair on the bridge, having returned only a few hours earlier from a blissfully uneventful if rather sedentary away mission, James T. Kirk blamed his backache on the tension of the past few days. Four months into captaincy of the U.S.S. Enterprise, he was certainly becoming acclimated to the rigors and responsibilities of the job, but diplomacy and the balancing act it entailed still put him on edge. It was vital that he project the proper combination of respect, charm, intelligence, and arrogance to further the interests of the Federation, while still somehow managing to avoid any intergalactic incidents or getting his crew killed. So far he had done fairly well, collecting no more than a few bumps and bruises (shared among the crew), a concussion (his), and one case of anaphylactic shock (of course his). However, walking that line, reining in his temper or even just his natural exuberance—sometimes for days on end—left him feeling twitchy. Assuming that was at least part of his current problem, Jim resolved to work off the restless energy as soon as the shift ended. Meanwhile, he gave his shoulders a quick, unsatisfying roll, and attempted to focus on work.
Once he was officially off duty, Jim headed to his quarters to change into exercise gear. Lifting his arms to remove his uniform shirts, he felt his tight muscles pull down his back, just inside his shoulder blades. He tried to stretch out some of the stiffness but the taut sensation lingered. Not wanting to risk an injury, he decided to skip his normal weight-lifting routine and simply went for a run through the ship. Even that seemed a drain on his energies, though, and Jim was glad to return to his room and indulge in a real shower. The hot water soothed his aching back somewhat, and he settled at his desk to take a stab at the ever-present stack of reports awaiting his attention.
His effort lasted for all of an hour. The pain in his back worsened steadily until he finally gave up and crawled into bed, dropping on his stomach and burrowing his face into the pillows. The horizontal position was an immense relief, the cool sheets a pleasure against his overheated skin. Lying flat, Jim felt the tension that had been escalating all evening leech from his body. He sighed and ordered the lights off before slipping into oblivion.
Shooting pains brought Jim to full wakefulness in an instant. The dull ache in his back and shoulders that had built through the night, causing him to shift ever more restlessly in his sleep, had reached a crescendo, forcing him into consciousness. He gasped, hands fisting in the sheets as his back throbbed. His skin felt fiery all over, and his back muscles seemed to clench and knot as if they had a will of their own. Jim curled his legs under himself to support his weight, seeking any position that might lessen the pain. Gritting his teeth against the movement, he reached out and slapped at the console on his nightstand.
“Kirk to McCoy.”
It was late—some time during gamma shift, Jim had no doubt, though he couldn’t bear to roll enough to check the chrono. But if there was one surety in Jim Kirk’s universe, it was that if he needed Bones, Bones would come, no matter the time or the place.
“Damnit, Jim, why aren’t you sleepin’?”
Of course, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be grumpy about it. Not that Jim really noticed anymore. “Bones,” he groaned, teeth clenched, never doubting his friend would hear the pain in his voice.
“Jim?” All signs of sleep were washed from the doctor’s tone, replaced by a mix of urgency and concern. “Don’t move. I’m on my way.”
Jim had no intention of moving—wasn’t even sure if he could. The throbbing in his back continued, almost rhythmic in its increasing intensity. It felt as if his entire back was pulsing beneath the surface of his skin, flexing like a mammoth heartbeat.
A few moments later he heard the door to his quarters snick open and the doctor’s determined voice ordered the lights to seventy percent. Then his friend was hovering over him and he could hear his indrawn breath.
“Mother of God, Jim, what the hell did you do to yourself this time?” McCoy muttered.
“What’s happening to me, Bones?” Jim half-whimpered, teeth still clenched so tightly he thought his jaw might break. He heard the whirl of the tricorder moving over the length of his back and hips and thought he heard the doctor swear. “Bones?”
“Give me a minute.”
There was more rustling and the snapping sound Jim associated with sterile gloves. Gentle fingers probed along his spine. Jim flinched away, the sudden movement drawing a pained yelp from him.
“Okay, okay, I won’t touch it, I’m sorry,” McCoy assured, his voice hushed and soothing. “Easy now, I’ve got ya.”
Jim’s eyes stung as sweat dripped down his face, leaving his hair matted in clumps to his forehead. “Hurts,” he whispered. “Throbbing. Like something’s pushing on my spine.”
“I’ve gotta give you a hypo, Jim. Not going to be able to figure anything out until we reduce that pain. Any place not hurt?”
“Leg,” Jim gasped. “Do it.”
McCoy thumbed the dial on the device, setting the dosage and double checking, then carefully eased down one side of Jim’s sleep pants and pressed the hypo into his thigh. The familiar pop and hiss sounded and he pulled the device away.
Jim let out a long moan that faded as he released the air trapped in his lungs.
“Some,” he responded, voice drained. “Mostly. Still aches but the throbbing has stopped.” He relaxed slowly, carefully, letting himself shift flat until he was nearly melting into the mattress.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, Jim,” the doctor admitted quietly. “Your back is inflamed and raw looking, and welts are starting to rise over your shoulder blades. Your temperature’s elevated. Normally, knowing you, I’d say it was an allergic reaction to something, but that doesn’t explain the pain or the pulsating.”
“The what?” Jim asked, twisting to look at the doctor and wincing at the effort. He dropped back down onto his stomach. “Never mind,” he muttered tiredly. “Not moving.” His eyes drifted shut, exhaustion starting to take over now that the painkiller had kicked in more fully.
“Pulsating,” McCoy replied. “You said it felt like your back was throbbing, well, it was. I could actually see the muscles rippling under the skin, as if something was palpating them.” He leaned in. “Still can, for that matter.”
“Hmm. What’d do that?” He suspected he should be more upset, but he was too worn out to muster that level of anxiety.
“That’s what we’re going to find out. I’m going to need to run some tests, Jim. Come on, before you fall completely asleep. We’ll get you tucked in down in Sickbay. Can you walk or should I go get a stretcher?”
“Hell.” Jim paused, flexing his arms and giving an experimental push to see if he could even get upright. Pain, dulled but still potent, rippled along his back. “Um, stretcher, I think.”
The doctor didn’t say anything in response to that, nor did he move away from the bed. Jim finally opened his eyes and rolled very gingerly to one side so that he could see the man’s face. “Bones?”
“Sorry, Jim, it’s just…” He looked down and busied himself with removing his gloves, with packing away his tricorder and the hypospray in his medkit.
“Just you never heard me volunteer to ride when I could walk?” Jim mumbled, beginning to understand.
The truth was, he wasn’t used to being in pain for no apparent reason. In a fight, there was that adrenaline rush that enabled him to work past his injuries. On a mission, if he was hurt, he still had responsibilities that required his focus. But this? This had blindsided him, leaving him no resources to draw upon.
A warm hand brushed the sweaty hair off his brow. “I’ll be back in a minute, kid.”
Jim let his eyes slide closed again, floating on the near-peace of his drugged state, and tried not to think about what might be wrong with him.
Inside half an hour, Jim found himself in Sickbay, stretched out on his stomach on the biobed closest to the CMO’s office. The angle of the bed had been adjusted to allow his head and upper torso to rest lower than the remainder of his body so gravity would lessen the pressure on his spine. The privacy screen had been pulled to shield him somewhat, though the other biobeds were blessedly free of patients. Whatever sleepiness he had felt earlier vanished as McCoy began running a battery of tests, keying data into the bed controls and frowning at the resulting readouts. Even as he did so, he peppered Jim with questions regarding his symptoms, including when they had started, their severity, and why precisely he had waited so long to seek out medical attention.
“Come off it, Bones,” Jim grunted at the final inquiry. “Even you can’t tell me that waiting less than twelve hours from the first sign of a problem—which, I might add, was a frickin’ backache—can be considered avoiding your tender mercies.”
“Fine, I’ll give you that one.” He stared down at his PADD and shook his head. “That doesn’t make sense,” he muttered under his breath.
“None of it! Vitals aren’t coming up any different than you on a good day. You haven’t triggered any allergies, nothing different in your blood stream, all bodily functions operating per usual. Your heart rate is elevated, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. Nothing obvious to account for the pain or the overall condition of your back. Which is, for want of a better word, changing.” He let out an exasperated breath. “Are you sure nothing out of the ordinary happened on that damn planet?”
“I told you, Bones. I was with Uhura and Matthison and the security detail the entire three days. We all ate the same things, sat in the same rooms, met the same Anterians. And every night we beamed back up to sleep in our own beds. It was quite possibly the dullest away mission we’ve had to date. And what the hell do you mean, my back is changing?” he demanded.
“Changing. Altering. Morphing. Take your pick. The contours are realigning, Jim. I’d say it was simple inflammation, but it’s clearly beyond that. It’s as if the musculature and bone structure is shifting somehow, practically right in front of my eyes, but there’s no indication how, or what’s causing it.”
That sounded really bad. And also…weird. “So, you have no ideas at all?”
“Never saw anything like this in med school, or anywhere since. I’m going to need more time to research, Jim. Meanwhile, we better get Spock up here. No way are you going back on duty until we figure out what’s going on.”
Jim groaned. The thought had actually crossed his mind earlier when he was writhing on his bed in agony, but now that the pain had receded, it was more difficult to see the need. He was acutely aware that, despite having retained his rank following his field promotion during the Narada incident, he still had plenty of detractors who would love to see him fail. He could not afford to show weakness, and time off duty due to an unexplained illness—or whatever the hell this was—only months into his command, would not be in his best interests.
McCoy clearly interpreted his non-verbal complaint, however. “None of that. Do it, Jim. Don’t make me relieve you.”
Jim let his eyes drift shut and sighed heavily. “Fine. But Bones? You better work out what’s wrong with me fast.”
“Captain, I believe that Doctor McCoy’s hypothesis holds merit.”
“Spock, don’t tell me you’re actually agreeing with Bones about something,” Jim grumbled. “And sit down, would you? I can’t have a conversation with you hovering over me like that.” He turned his head slightly to the side and raised his torso a few inches to try to meet Spock’s eyes, barely managing to look above the first officer’s waist.
Spock sat in the seat beside the biobed with no comment regarding the first half of Jim’s statement. “Your symptoms as you have described them appear to have coincided with your return from Anterius. It is logical to assume that they were brought on by something that took place during the away mission.”
“But Spock, everyone else is fine. None of the others have shown up with back pain, or rearranging bones, or anything else for that matter,” Jim argued.
“That does not rule out the possibility that the away mission did in fact contribute to your current situation.”
“Not that I’m not all in a tizzy about you agreeing with me, Spock,” McCoy drawled, “but that doesn’t exactly narrow things down. I still don’t know what’s wrong with Jim, or how to stop it.”
“I propose that we go over the transcripts of the meetings with the Anterians in order to determine if anything will suggest a solution.”
“Right,” Jim mumbled. “Because trade agreements and talk of Federation access to Anterian air space are just filled with controversy. Everyone was perfectly friendly, happy to have us there. I think I’d have noticed if one of the representatives was playing with a Captain Kirk voodoo doll under the conference table.” He shifted, stopping abruptly when pain shot along his spine.
“Damnit, Jim, that painkiller should have lasted another two hours,” the doctor told him, staring up at the monitor over the bed. “How bad is it?”
“Not bad. Not like earlier.”
“That’s not sayin’ much.” McCoy loaded another hypo and set it on the tray to the side of the biobed.
“Okay, Spock,” Jim said. “Go ahead and talk to Uhura, check out the transcripts, whatever. I don’t think you’ll find anything but it can’t hurt. Just remember you have to fill in for me on the bridge for alpha shift.”
“I am aware of your schedule, Captain, as I made up the duty roster.”
“Right.” When his first officer rose to leave, Jim reached out, just enough to catch his attention without actually touching him. “Thanks, Spock.”
“It is my job, Captain.”
Jim let his hand drop.
McCoy gave Jim the second hypo half an hour after Spock had left Sickbay, his face a mask of concern as he took note of Jim’s vitals. “That help?”
“Yeah, thanks,” Jim murmured, eyes closed. The truth was that the painkillers, while lessening the throbbing in his back, were notably less effective than the first time around. He suspected McCoy knew that, but there wasn’t much point in discussing the fact.
An hour later, Jim was starting to squirm, the fire in his blood reignited, the throbbing in his back elevating rapidly. He could see McCoy glancing in his direction from where he sat at his desk, scouring computer files in an effort to find some rationale for Jim’s condition. The next hypo was already waiting on the bedside tray, loaded immediately after the last dose had been administered.
Though the pain was severe, Jim was still able to manage it, lying perfectly still and breathing slowly in a shallow, even rhythm, trying to minimize the rise and fall of his back. Then suddenly the skin and muscles began to actively pull and stretch, as if something wanted to claw its way out of his body. Whatever pain he had felt before paled in comparison to this fresh assault.
“Bones!” he hollered, grabbing onto the edges of the bed, knuckles white. He pressed his face into the mattress to keep from breathing, every centimeter of movement prompting a wave of agony.
McCoy sent his chair crashing over in his haste to reach the captain. He crossed the distance in half a dozen steps and reached for the hypo that awaited him. Stopping to check the dosage, he caught a good look at Jim’s back, and his fingers fumbled. “Jesus,” he breathed.
“Bones, please,” Jim begged, voice half-muffled by the bedding.
McCoy pulled himself together long enough to draw down the sheet and deliver the hypo. His eyes glued to the monitor, he watched data pour out as the machine attempted to keep pace with the bed’s sensors. Then he glanced down at the device still clutched in his hand, thumbed the dial, and administered a second, smaller dose. The tension slowly seeped out of Jim’s body, his hands loosening their death grip on the railing of the bed. The doctor eased the sheet back up to just hip level.
“Fuck,” Jim breathed out.
“Did you just give me two hypos?”
“Jim, listen to me.”
“Come on, Bones, I’m in enough pain without you sticking me twice.”
“Well, I’m sorry, Captain, that one dose didn’t seem to actually do anything this time,” McCoy snapped. “Right now hypos are the least of our worries.”
“Does that mean you have some idea of what’s going on?” Jim demanded, eyes snapping open.
The doctor exhaled sharply and dropped down in the chair beside the bed. “Jim, the skin on your back appears to be perforating. Ridges have formed just inside your shoulder blades, and the skin there has started to split. It looks… it looks like something is growing out of your back.”
Jim stared at his best friend. “Like what? A tumor?”
“No, not a tumor. First of all, the ridges are mirroring each other—there’s two of ‘em. The way they’re contoured, and the way they continue down your back into the gluteus region, seems to suggest…” He trailed off, eyes boring into Jim’s.
“Bones, just spit it out.”
“If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say you’re growing wings.”
Jim blinked. “Wings?”
“Not sayin’ that’s what it is. Just that’s what it looks like.”
A follow-up set of scans proved that McCoy’s suspicions were correct, revealing the partially developed skeletal structure of a pair of wings that, if the past few hours were any indication, were in the midst of a rapid growth phase.
Jim lay prone on the biobed, trying to absorb this new information. Nothing in his Academy training or any of his experiences prior had prepared him for something like this.
Strong, familiar fingers gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “You okay, Jim?”
Drawn from his confused thoughts, Jim glanced up at the doctor. Bones had set aside the PADD with the damning test results and resumed his seat at Jim’s bedside.
“Yeah, Bones,” Jim murmured, forcing a faint smile. “That last hypo’s still working.”
“That’s not what I was asking and you know it. Don’t give me that stoic-captain crap. How are you holding up?”
“I’m growing wings, Bones. How the fuck am I supposed to hold up?” he shot back.
“Fair enough. I think it’s safe to say this has something to do with that away mission, though. Timing’s too convenient.”
“That doesn’t mean it makes any sense. Why wings of all things? And how? The Anterians were humanoid, not a wing among them. I don’t know that I even saw any birds while we were on the planet.”
“Maybe Spock’s figured something out by now. Should fill him in, either way.”
“Yeah. Go ahead and comm him,” Jim agreed.
McCoy stepped into his office and Jim heard his low voice as he quietly requested Spock’s presence in Sickbay. When he returned, he settled automatically into the chair next to Jim’s bed.
“How much longer, do you think?” Jim asked after a few moments. “Before the…wings…are fully developed.”
“Can’t say for certain. Not like I studied avian biology in med school. Not sure it would help if I had. But based on the rate of growth between the two scans, I reckon we’re looking at three, maybe four hours tops.”
“How big will the wings be? No way to tell. Human beings have solid skeletons—as opposed to a bird’s hollow frame—which is why we were never meant to fly; too much weight. But if you want to use historical renderings of angels and the like in art as an indicator, given your height, I’d say at least six feet, with a minimum nine- to twelve-foot wing span.”
“Nine to twelve…what the hell, Bones? How am I going to even maneuver through the ship?”
“That’s only full extended, Jim,” he replied, then paused and shook his head. “I cannot believe we are having this discussion.”
“You and me both.” Jim sighed. “Better add ‘fucked-up shit’ to your list of space attributes, right after disease and danger.”
The doctor did not bother to reply, merely gave the captain’s hand a consoling pat. They sat in silence, the only sounds coming from the quiet activity on the other side of the privacy screen, the peace of Sickbay serving as an incongruous backdrop to the two men’s shared tension.
Spock arrived with a PADD tucked under his arm. “We have set a return course to Anterius, Captain. My examination of the away-mission transcripts indicates that the Anterian high priest conveyed a blessing upon you shortly before you beamed back aboard the Enterprise. This is the only variance in behavior over the course of the meetings, as no other crew member experienced this honor. While there is no direct link to the pain that you have been suffering, I believe that we will find that the universal translator has been imprecise in defining the term used by the Anterians as a ‘blessing.’”
“Try plugging in ‘wings’ for ‘blessing,’ Mr. Spock, and you’ll be on the right page,” McCoy remarked.
Spock’s eyebrows rose, even as his gaze settled on the captain’s raw and reddened back. “Wings?”
“Yeah, Spock, seems I’m growing wings.”
“Not from where I’m sitting,” Jim grumbled. “So, any idea why the Anterians would have considered them a neat parting gift?”
“As I was not a member of the away team for this particular mission, and therefore have no direct experience with the Anterian race, it is illogical for me to offer a conjecture.”
“Try anyway, Spock,” Jim bit out.
“Very well, Captain. It is possible, given the overall success of the meetings and the welcoming demeanor of the delegation, that they did, indeed, believe that they were rewarding you in some way by presenting you with what they perceived to be an honor at the close of the final session.”
“But wings?” He knew he was starting to repeat himself, but really, the question begged repeating.
“Wings have historically been used as a positive metaphor in Terran culture,” Spock pointed out. “For instance, the phrase ‘stretch one’s wings’ refers to finding one’s independence and path in life, and ‘soaring’ is often used to suggest success. Perhaps the high priest wished to ensure your continued achievement.”
“Who cares what they thought as long as they can reverse it,” the doctor interjected. “How soon before we’re back in orbit?”
“Approximately seven point two five hours, ship’s time.”
“Terrific. I should be flying all over the place by then.” Jim shifted, trying to find a comfortable position, and winced at the echoing pain down his spine.
“That painkiller wearing off again?” McCoy demanded.
“Starting to,” he admitted.
“I can’t up the dosage on the current analgesic any more than I have, Jim. I’m going to have to switch to the other one next go around.”
“You mean the one with the sedative?” Jim groaned.
“Sorry, kid, but it’s probably for the best. Just knock you out for the duration.”
“Doctor McCoy is correct, Captain. One would assume that, if you are manifesting wings, there will come a point when their development is complete and you will cease to feel pain from the alteration to your physiology. It is only logical to remain unconscious during this period that is bringing you such discomfort.”
“So I just take a nap and wake up with wings?” Jim closed his eyes. “I can’t say I’m thrilled with that idea.”
“Neither am I, Jim, but there’s nothing we can do until we’re back dirtside and figure out what the Anterians did to you. And the pain’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
“For God’s sake, Spock,” he snapped, eyes flying open, “I’m lying here with wings sprouting out of my back, and I’m most definitely not on duty. Can’t you just call me Jim?”
“Of course. As I was about to say—Jim—it is illogical to suffer needlessly.”
“Right,” he huffed. “Bones, do what you have to. Not like I have much of a choice. Just…not until the last hypo’s worn off, okay?”
“Well of course not, Jim. I’m trying to ease your pain, not put you out of your misery for good.”
When Jim woke up, he was disoriented. All he knew was that he was lying on his stomach in a darkened room, arms and legs tied down, and he had the mother of all headaches pressing behind his eyes. He tensed, tried to shift with what limited movement he had been allowed, hoping he could figure out where he was—what had happened—but the instant he moved an alarm went off nearby.
He could hear footsteps, running. Panicked, he struggled against his bindings, panting at the effort. A shadow moved over him and he felt an odd rippling in his back muscles, but no pain, nothing like…
And recollection raced toward him, reminding Jim of everything he had experienced in the past twenty-four hours. He relaxed onto the biobed just as he heard the footsteps grow closer and McCoy’s quiet, soothing voice breaking the bubble of silence surrounding him.
“Jim, it’s all right, calm down. I’m going to remove the restraints, but I need you to relax for me. Can you do that, kid?”
“Bones?” he rasped out, mouth dry, lips cracked and painful.
“Yeah, it’s me, Jim. I got ya. Just hang in there a minute and I’ll get you some water. Take a deep breath for me and let it out slow, okay?”
Jim did as he was instructed. Through half-lidded eyes, he watched as the room gradually brightened. He felt a light blanket come to rest over him, gentle and comforting, and let his eyes droop the rest of the way shut. The well-known scents and sounds of Sickbay wrapped around him, now that he wasn’t overwhelmed by panic.
“Tired, Bones,” he whispered. “Just woke up. How can I be tired?”
“I’m not surprised that you’re tired, Jim. You’ve had a hell of a day.”
The doctor made short work of releasing the restraints that held Jim’s arms and legs bound to the sides of the bed. “Sorry about these,” McCoy murmured, rubbing the circulation back into one of Jim’s wrists. “You were thrashing around pretty badly for a while there. Didn’t have much choice.”
Jim hummed lightly, then stopped, eyes snapping open as the doctor’s words sunk in and he realized exactly why he must have been so restless. “Is it…over?”
McCoy sighed. “I don’t know about over, but if you mean do you have wings yet? Yeah, it’s over.”
Glancing around from his limited vantage point, Jim realized that his surroundings had changed somewhat. The privacy screen that separated his bed from the next had been opened, while the next screen over had been deployed, widening the space considerably. The small table normally situated next to the biobed had also been removed. Bones was forced to walk around the second bed in order to fetch him a glass of water from the far table.
Slowly, Jim pulled his arms in beneath him and pressed up onto his hands and knees. There was a rustling sound and the sensation of lifting, and suddenly the shadow that had unnerved him a few moments before had returned, blocking out the lights in the ceiling above. He felt an extraordinary extending of his back muscles, as if they were reaching for the edges of the room.
“Careful there,” Bones murmured.
Jim nodded automatically, eyes glued to the broad expanse of wing stretching out to his left. He could see the upper arch, a strong line covered by a mix of rich brown and golden feathers with a coppery iridescent sheen. The underside of the wing was a lighter gold, fading to butter yellow where the feathers were smaller and more downy. Even as he stared, he felt a shifting in his back and the wing began to descend and furl. Jim gradually lowered his hips so he was sitting on his heels, chest canted forward as his wings pulled back over his body and closed.
“Did you do that on purpose?” McCoy asked. He had moved around to the top of the biobed, well clear of Jim’s wings.
Jim turned and looked at him, accepting the water glass when McCoy held it out. He drank down a few gulps and ran his tongue over his lips, then took another sip before clearing his throat.
“Yeah,” he said, voice sounding more normal. “I, um, I’m pretty sure I did.” His gaze rested somewhere in the middle of the doctor’s chest, but he lifted it now, met his friend’s eyes. “Bones, I really have wings.”
“I know, Jim. We’re about an hour out of Anterius. We’ll find a way to fix this.” His dark eyes grew more focused, honing in on Jim’s expression. “How are you feeling? Any residual pain?”
“No, I’m fine. Well, except for the obvious,” he added, grin sheepish.
“You want to take a look at them? You can use the head in my office. I think the mirror in there’s big enough for you to get a decent view.”
Jim eased himself backward toward the edge of the bed and sat upright, allowing the bottom of his wings to hang down the side. They were surprisingly light and self-supporting, but it was still an odd sensation to have something so large attached to his back, and sitting up made it all the more obvious. The feeling bore no resemblance to carrying a pack, which was really the only experience he had for comparison.
He pushed himself a little straighter, sighing as his shoulders and hips popped at the movement after so many hours lying flat. “Honestly? I’m not sure I want a decent view,” he admitted. “I’m not even sure I can walk around with these things.”
“You’re going to need to try, Jim. At the very least, you’ll have to get down to the transporter room. I’m assuming you’re going to want to go down to Anterius to get answers.”
“Damn right, I am.” He looked down at his legs, clad in scrub pants Bones had given him somewhere over the course of the day. They rode low in the back to allow for where the wings emerged from the upper part of his hips.
“So, what exactly does a person wear when they’re sporting wings?” he grumbled.
By the time the Enterprise had reached orbit around Anterius, McCoy had assisted Jim in cutting two long slits in one of his regulation black shirts and a gold command tunic, each running from the back bottom hem to nearly the neckline of the garments. When he put the shirts on, the newly formed flaps fell to either side and between his wings, enabling the captain to appear clothed in his usual fashion. Unfortunately, the fitted black pants that comprised the remainder of his uniform would not adapt easily to such treatment, and so Jim had settled for pulling on a pair of loose black workout pants with a drawstring waist that allowed them to ride low on his hips and buttocks beneath his wings. The makeshift arrangement was both comfortable and presentable, but, as he carefully paced beside his biobed in an attempt to adjust to his new center of gravity, Jim sincerely hoped it was temporary.
With the change in course, Spock had been forced to notify Starfleet regarding the circumstances that prompted their return to Anterius, though following a discussion with both the captain and Dr. McCoy, he had edited the details of the situation, omitting any direct reference to the captain’s altered physiology. Needless to say, Command had been less than understanding about the vague report, but an off-the-record discussion between Spock and Admiral Pike had bought them a brief window to operate at their own discretion.
“What exactly did you tell them, Commander?” Jim asked, when Spock appeared in Sickbay to report.
“I intimated that a parting gift from the Anterians proved less innocent than was initially apparent and that we wished to ascertain whether their intentions toward the Federation were as well-meaning as they claimed during your meetings.”
“Yeah, I’m sure that put their panties in a twist,” McCoy remarked.
“What did Pike say?” Jim asked.
“That he expects a complete report once we’ve solved whatever mess you have gotten yourself into, Captain,” Spock replied, his tone leaving no doubt in either of the other men’s minds that he was quoting their superior.
Jim snorted. “Yeah, well, let’s hope we can all laugh about it then. So, I’m guessing we’re ready to beam down?”
“Affirmative, Captain. The away team is awaiting our presence in the transporter room. The Anterians have been apprised of our wish to meet with them and have arranged for the high priest to meet us at the arrival point.”
“Who exactly has been briefed on the reason for our return to Anterius, Spock?”
“The senior command team, Captain, and the security detail assigned to accompany us down to the planet. Beyond that, I am aware of only Nurse Chapel.” His gaze darted toward McCoy.
“ I had to fill her in, Jim,” the doctor added. “She’s been keeping the rest of the med staff out of the way for me.”
“It’s fine, Bones. You know I trust Chapel.” Jim watched as his friend gave him a distracted nod, occupied as he was with double-checking and restocking the contents of his medkit. The doctor had dark circles under his eyes, and the captain realized he had most likely remained on duty since Jim had commed him during gamma shift. They were now well into beta, and McCoy had taken on the slightly frayed appearance that indicated he was resorting to stimulants in order to maintain his edge. It occurred to Jim to suggest McCoy stay behind, but he knew better than to actually voice the idea.
“Captain. Jim,” Spock corrected, his tone somehow conveying a level of sympathy and understanding that the captain knew he would never admit to feeling. “I have taken the liberty of clearing the decks between Sickbay and the transporter room. You will be able to travel there at this time without drawing any undue attention.”
Jim smiled warmly at his first officer. It was moments like these when he saw a glimmer of the friendship they might one day enjoy. “Thanks, Spock. Well, gentlemen, let’s get this show on the road.”
The size of their landing party necessitated their beaming down in two groups. Spock had gone first, taking with him two of the three security officers. After they had vanished from the transporter pad, Jim had stepped into place, along with the doctor, Uhura, and the final security officer. Standing next to Uhura, Jim had been conscious of her sneaking glances in his direction, but he did his level best to ignore her curiosity. It’s not like he blamed her, really. It wasn’t every day you saw a man with wings.
Upon arriving planetside, Jim found himself standing in the courtyard of the government building where he had previously met with the Anterians. The high priest, a being called Danu, stood nearby with Spock and the security officers, as well as with two additional Anterians who looked vaguely familiar, but whose names Jim could not recall. Humanoid in appearance, the Anterians they had met—both male and female—all shared the same whippet-thin physiques, short dark hair, and the bronzed skin common in many naturally warm climates around the galaxy. The similarities in both physique and clothing made it difficult for Jim to remember whom he’d met. Only the high priest’s ceremonial garb, consisting of a white robe trimmed in royal blue and a heavy gold medallion hung from a matching chain around his neck, helped Jim to identify the leader.
With Uhura, McCoy, and Ensign Jeffries close behind him, the captain approached Danu, conscious of maintaining his balance in relation to the slight drag of his wings as he moved.
“Captain Kirk,” Danu began with a nod, “we welcome you back to our world.”
“Thank you, Danu,” Jim responded with a matching nod at the high priest. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”
“Captain,” Spock interjected. “I believe there may have been a misunderstanding regarding the blessing that the Anterians wished to convey upon you.”
No shit, Jim thought, struggling to school his expression so as not to give away his sarcastic train of thought.
Spock, however, merely raised his eyebrows, as if he knew precisely what Jim wished he could say. “The Anterians are telepaths, Captain,” he remarked, and suddenly Jim understood why Danu appeared amused at the conversation.
“Telepaths,” he repeated. “As in, able to read our minds.”
“That is correct,” Spock replied. “As a touch telepath, my own abilities are far less advanced, yet still sufficient to have detected the mental presence of Danu immediately upon our beaming down.”
“Why didn’t any of us notice this last time?” Jim asked.
Spock tilted his head in what might have been apology. “Captain, neither you nor any of the members of the initial away team tested positively for psy abilities at Starfleet. It is reasonable to assume that you failed to notice because you are psy null.”
Jim’s gaze fell on the high priest. “Was there a reason you chose not to share this information regarding your abilities during our meetings?” It was a struggle to stay calm and keep his growing anger under control, even as he realized Danu would be aware of his underlying emotions.
“I apologize if this decision has been interpreted in a negative light,” Danu stated. His expression had grown more serious, any previous amusement faded. “We immediately realized that none of your party had telepathic ability, and so we assumed our own abilities would be of no interest as we would be communicating in the more traditional manner during our deliberations. Our abilities as telepaths had no bearing on the situation.”
“And yet,” Spock interjected, “your abilities provided you with an advantage as you were able to determine the thoughts and intentions of our delegation without their knowledge.”
The high priest nodded. “This is true. However, you have my word that beyond gaining an understanding of your own good will in coming here, we did not abuse our abilities, nor your trust in our intention to become contributing members of the Federation community.”
Jim regarded Danu as he made his heartfelt declaration. Something about the high priest’s earnest expression, combined with the glimmer in his dark eyes, nagged at him.
“Danu,” he began, weighing his words, aware of the need for diplomacy. He could hardly call the man a liar outright, particularly as he suspected the high priest was merely leaving out a few pertinent details. “While I believe in your good and honest intentions, and your desire for your planet to join the Federation, I feel it is important to impress upon you that not all Federation planets would agree with your stance regarding your telepathic abilities. Some might question your reluctance to share your abilities, suggesting you look upon them as a potential advantage over other Federation member planets. I strongly suggest you take this into consideration in your future dealings with the Federation.
“I also suspect that your reading of us went somewhat beyond determining our own good intentions during our previous visit,” Jim concluded.
Danu nodded toward the captain, as if acknowledging his suspicion as fact. “Captain Kirk, you continue to prove yourself a wise and able leader for your crew,” the high priest declared. With a quick gesture, he dismissed his own two assistants, and looked toward Spock. “Commander, perhaps you and your crew members would appreciate some refreshment. I believe your captain and I need to discuss this next matter privately.”
Spock stood straighter, as if to plant himself in place. “I believe that would be unwise.”
Jim, however, stared into the high priest’s calm gaze and gave a brief nod. “No, Spock, it’s okay. Almost unconsciously, he shifted his back muscles, causing his wings to ruffle gently and rise a few inches above their normal resting position, though he kept them tightly furled.
“Captain, regulations state—”
“I know what they state, Commander. I take full responsibility.”
Spock’s eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline, but he simply nodded and turned to leave.
McCoy side-stepped toward Jim. “Captain, are you out of your cotton-pickin’ mind?” he demanded in low tones. “Haven’t they done enough to you?”
“It’s okay, Bones,” Jim murmured, giving his friend’s arm a quick squeeze. “It’ll be fine. I don’t think this was supposed to be a bad thing.”
“Right. Wings. Jolly good time. Everyone should get a set,” the doctor grumbled under his breath.
“Bones, just go with the others,” Jim told him, nodding toward where Uhura and the security team had somewhat reluctantly gathered with Spock near the entrance to the building. “I’ll see you in a while.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” McCoy added as a parting shot, then walked off, shaking his head.
As soon as they were alone, Jim turned to Danu. “So. I’m assuming these wings were part of that blessing you mentioned. Commander Spock indicated there was some sort of misunderstanding. Perhaps you could explain?”
The high priest nodded. “Let us walk, Captain, and I will attempt to make our intentions clear on this subject.”
“I’m afraid I don’t move too quickly,” Jim warned as they turned and began to traverse the path that led around the building toward the public gardens. “These things have wrecked havoc with my balance.”
“My apologies that you have found this transition difficult,” Danu said. “Have you attempted to use them yet?”
“You mean fly?” Jim asked, somewhat startled. “Don’t you know the answer to that?” he continued, feeling a bit resentful at the idea that the high priest had a window into his thoughts and actions.
“Ah, Captain, I spoke truly when I told you that we would not delve randomly into your thoughts. We fully comprehend that non-telepathic individuals would consider this to be an invasion of privacy. While some thoughts are difficult to avoid—strongly felt emotions, primarily, which often come to us unbidden—most require a concentrated effort on our part to discern. I have no sense as to whether you have attempted to fly. I know only that you are…disturbed by our gift, and concerned that the wings will have an adverse effect on your life. That was not our aim. A blessing should always be of benefit, even if those results are not always apparent at first.”
Jim walked slowly as he absorbed the high priest’s words. He was tempted to demand answers to his questions and never mind what the intentions behind the so-called blessing had been, but Danu’s tone was almost pleading and Jim somehow sensed how important the circumstances were to the Anterian.
“No, I haven’t tried to fly,” he said. “There’s not exactly room aboard the Enterprise. And even if there were, I’m not sure it would have occurred to me. When the wings began to manifest, I had no idea what was happening,” he explained. “All I knew was that my back hurt, quite badly. Once my chief medical officer determined that I was actually growing wings, I was…shocked,” he continued. “There was the pain, but also confusion and…dismay,” he agreed with a nod to Danu’s earlier assessment. “I wasn’t thinking about what to do with wings—but what to do about them.”
They had reached the rear of the gardens, a broad expanse of desert-like plantings that stretched to a low stone wall running along the border of the landscaping. Below them lay the edge of the city, a rocky expanse that fell away beneath their feet to a broad, sand-covered plateau reaching as far as the eye could see. The heat of the Anterian sun, an older and more developed star than Earth’s, beat down on the planet, causing the air to shimmer and ripple.
“I am sure as one in command of so many people, you understand that there are often different ways of looking at a given situation,” Danu mused, staring into the distance. “On occasion, it is necessary to look at a problem from another point of view.” He smiled and turned to Jim. “If I were to tell you that your wings are temporary—that we never intended them to be a permanent alteration to your anatomy, or any sort of burden—would that change your perspective, Captain?”
Jim felt all the air rush out of his body, relief taking over all thought in that split second. “Thank you,” he murmured. “Yes,” he added. “That makes things easier.”
Danu indicated the wide open landscape before them. “Perhaps now you would like to go for a short flight,” he suggested. “I assure you, you are quite capable of doing so.”
“Really? I can really fly with these things?” he asked, suddenly feeling a spark of curiosity and anticipation.
Danu simply stepped back, head bowed, hand extended toward the desert beyond them.
Never one to back down on a dare, even an unspoken one, Jim stared out into the distance for a moment, then took a cautious step up onto the low wall. He stood with his arms at his sides, hands clenched into nervous fists, and tried to feel the muscles that controlled his wings. Almost instantly, the wings rose and extend behind him, arcing up to each side, broad and powerful. A gentle breeze ruffled his feathers before catching up under the wings themselves, lifting, encouraging, making Jim feel almost weightless. He took a deep breath and flexed his back. He felt his wings press down against the air currents, felt the ground fall away beneath his feet. With another flex, he soared up into the sky.
As soon as he was airborne, Jim let out a gasp of delight. Instinct had him pulling his legs up into his body as he flew, making for a tight, more aerodynamic line as he cut through the air. From there he experimented with flapping his wings, then gliding as he became more in tune with the shifts in the air around him. He used his body as a rudder, leaning to one side or the other in order to change direction. Gaining control, he turned to sweep over the gardens where he and Danu had walked, swooping down low so he could see the high priest where he still stood, watching him, then pulling up high to clear the building before he took off over the small capital city. As he passed over the building, however, Jim realized the roof was covered with a highly polished material that reflected his image like a mirror. For the first time, he could see his wings, spread wide and strong to either side, brown and golden feathers catching the sunlight until they glowed like burnished metal. They were breathtaking.
Though he was tempted to sweep back over the building for a second look, Jim continued on. He wove back and forth, taking in the narrow streets and low, broad buildings from overhead, watching the occasional cluster of Anterians as they went about their business.
It was an incredibly liberating sensation. Jim had never felt quite so in control of his own destiny, or quite so free. Flying under his own power took his love of speed and danger to an entirely new level.
Finally he turned back, making his way out to the city’s border and flying along it until he saw the gardens where he had begun his flight. Then he turned upwards and soared straight into the air, beating his wings, climbing higher and higher until the land was no more than a speck beneath him and his lungs felt tight in the thinner atmosphere. He hovered for a moment until the need for breathable air forced him to turn and dive. The ground rushed at him, much as it did in a space dive, only now there was no parachute, just his own wings and strength to save him. For an instant he wondered if he could do it—if he was equal to the task. Unwilling to risk crashing, he pulled up well before there was any danger, then flew in a spiral pattern over the garden until he came to rest on his own two feet once more. He laughed again, a joyous sound, even as he sucked in great gulps of air. He felt out of breath and utterly rejuvenated all at the same time.
Danu walked up to meet him, a smile gracing his smooth, even features.
Jim grinned at the high priest. “Thank you,” he said, and this time, his thanks were for an entirely different reason.
“I told you we do not delve into minds without permission, but you were correct to suspect that was not entirely accurate,” Danu told him. “We wished to gift you with an experience that would hold special meaning, and so I looked into your mind and your heart with this singular purpose. It was my goal to find your one, true desire, that which you needed most.”
“And you saw wings?” Jim questioned. “Or…you saw that I wanted to fly?” Despite his sheer pleasure at the experience, he was puzzled by the high priest’s conclusions.
Danu simply continued to smile. “Remember, Captain, that not every experience is what one expects it to be,” he said. “Those we anticipate with great joy can bring hardship, while those we dread can bring gifts we might never have known otherwise. Rarely is an experience merely one thing or the other.”
Jim frowned, still unsure of the high priest’s meaning. “Regardless of your intention, Danu, I do appreciate this experience,” he assured him. “But, you did say the wings were temporary,” he added carefully.
“Yes. They will wither as they grew, over a period of a day and night,” Danu assured him. “I regret that this will bring you some pain, but little worth having in life comes without some small price.”
“I understand,” Jim said, and he did. If there was anything he was familiar with, it was suffering for the greater good, whatever it may be.
They spent a little while longer on the planet, so that McCoy could discuss any medical concerns with Danu. Then they all drank a toast with the bitter ale favored by the Anterians to a fruitful relationship between their planet and the Federation, and the Enterprise landing party took their leave.
By the time they reached the ship, Jim’s wings were beginning to droop, feathers molting along the corridors on the way to Sickbay. McCoy grumbled about needing to chase after Jim with a broom but said little else about it. He settled the captain on his biobed behind the privacy screen and began organizing the hyposprays he would need to manage the pain that was certain to start again soon.
Jim met with Spock to discuss an interim report to the admiralty. While he would only remain out of commission for a short while longer, he was painfully aware of how even his brief need to relinquish command would appear to the brass. He wished he had been able to keep the entire incident with the Anterians under wraps until the situation had been resolved, particularly given the fact that he had barely missed two shifts when all was said and done. He would speak with Pike himself, once he was back to normal, and he could only hope that his mentor could help him put a positive—or at least neutral—spin on the whole bizarre debacle.
Of course, it would be advantageous if Jim could furnish a concrete reason for the Anterians’ unusual gift. Unfortunately, despite their time on the planet and his discussion with Danu, Jim felt unprepared to do so. He knew the high priest intended to help him in some way by blessing him with wings—he had said as much—but Jim was still sifting the Anterian’s words and implications, trying to come up with a clear picture.
“How you doing there?” McCoy asked, his question cutting through Jim’s confused thoughts.
Glancing up, he realized he must have been shifting unconsciously as the pain began to build in his back. His spine ached again, and his wings felt heavy against his shoulder blades, as if too weak to hold their own weight. He could sense the strain it was causing him to keep them furled in the way the muscles pulled taut across his lower back and shoulders.
“Yeah, starting to feel it,” he admitted quietly. He had his hands up under his pillow and he pressed one cheek against the soft surface, allowing himself a deep breath that caused his wings to rustle and sent a shower of feathers silently to the floor around him.
“I figured,” McCoy said with a nod. “No sense letting it get too bad, seeing as how we know it’s short term.” He picked up the loaded hypo beside the bed and glanced at the dosage. “Here you go.”
Jim felt the firm press to his neck, heard the pop and hiss of the device as it unloaded into his system. He let out a sigh, already feeling himself relax. Then a wide yawn overtook him and he glared up at the doctor.
“Bones,” he admonished, trying for angry betrayal, but aware his tone held more whine than anything else.
“Sorry, kid, but it’s just for a while. Better than watching you squirm through all that pain for no reason. A little extra rest won’t hurt ya. God knows you normally run on a deficit.”
“Not the point,” Jim murmured, sleep overtaking him. He felt a warm, gentle hand card through his hair, and then everything was darkness.
This time when Jim woke, there was no sense of disorientation, nor any lingering pain. He lay on the biobed with the sheet pulled up to his shoulders. His hands and feet were free; if there had been any need for restrains, they had already been removed. Turning over slowly, Jim felt nothing out of the ordinary—no stiffness or sense of imbalance—to indicate that just a few hours earlier there had been wings sprouting from his back.
He sat up, still moving with caution, knowing McCoy could charge in at any time, hypo in hand, to scold him for making light of his condition. But he felt…fine. One hundred percent, actually, which seemed a little odd given what he had experienced. Jim was used to professing he was in tip-top shape in order to escape the confines of Sickbay at the earliest possible moment; it wasn’t typical for him to actually feel that way when the doctor let him go.
“Mornin’, Sleeping Beauty.”
And there he is, Jim thought, turning to find McCoy propped in the doorway to his office. “I’m still pissed at you,” he responded, feeling the need to get the jab in while he could, knowing he would let the doctor off the hook almost immediately.
McCoy arched an eyebrow. “What, because I knocked you out? CMO’s privilege,” he stated. “How you feeling?” He pushed off the wall and came over to check the monitor over the bed.
“Surprisingly good, actually,” Jim told him. He glanced up, trying to read his vitals despite the poor angle.
“Yeah, well, surprisingly, you’re right. All your stats are normal, scans show everything is back where it should be.” McCoy let out a low whistle. “I can’t say I understand how they did it, but those bastards left you pretty much as they found you. I ran a dermal regenerator over your back once the wings were actually gone, just to speed along the healing, but I’m willing to bet you’d have been fine even if I hadn’t.” Walking around the bed, he lay one palm against the center of Jim’s chest for support, then used the other hand to gently prod at the muscles down the length of his back, humming when his patient failed to so much as flinch.
Stepping back, McCoy pinned Jim with an assessing gaze and waved a hand at him. “Give a shrug, twist—move around some and make sure everything’s workin’ right.”
Jim followed his instructions, twisting from side to side, raising his arms, and in general forced the muscles in his back to stretch in various directions. “Not even a twinge,” he remarked. “So, Bones? I’m thinking there’s a shift about to start with my name on it,” he said with a grin.
“Yeah, yeah,” McCoy grumbled, but the corner of his mouth quirked upward. “Clothes are there. Just make sure you stop and get some breakfast before you hit the bridge. And I don’t mean just coffee,” he warned. “Real food. Your body’s gone through its paces, even if you slept through it. Need to refuel.”
Jim was already hopping up and reaching for the fresh uniform that lay folded neatly on the chair beside the bed. “Will do,” he promised, then headed for the decon showers.
Alpha shift bled into beta and gamma was on the horizon by the time Jim Kirk finally slowed down. He’d resumed his normal duties but spent the latter part of the day in his ready room, catching up on reports that had been generated while he was in Sickbay and going over the transcripts of Spock’s reports to the admiralty in particular. At the second shift change, he put in a call to Admiral Pike and suffered through the anticipated ribbing after he explained all the details left out of the official report.
“Kirk, you do seem to find yourself in the most unusual situations,” the Admiral told him. “I guess it’s a good thing you’re equally adept at extricating yourself.”
“How bad does this look, really, Admiral?” Jim asked. “For me to be forced to hand over command so early in the mission—”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Pike interrupted him. “You know where you stand with the rest of the admiralty. You’ve got your detractors, sure, and they’re going to try to use any little thing you do against you. But you’ve got supporters, too, Jim. Just remember that. As for relinquishing command, you handed the ship over to your first officer for a little over two days because of extenuating circumstances resulting from a successful diplomatic meeting. You weren’t compromised; you didn’t act irrationally or do something to endanger your crew. You did exactly as you should have done. You let Spock take over, and you returned to Anterius to find out what the hell was going on.”
“If you’re certain, sir.”
“Jim, this isn’t the worst thing that’s going to happen while you’re out there. Not by a long shot.”
“But this should have been a simple, straightforward mission,” Jim protested. “Heck, it was downright boring until we got half a day out of orbit.”
“Not everything’s going to have potential catastrophe written across the top of the mission briefing in big red letters. You know that better than anyone. Vulcan started out as a response to a simple distress call.”
Jim exhaled harshly. “You don’t need to remind me.”
“Kirk, trust that I’ll tell you when you’ve fucked up. And when you need to watch your back.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jim acknowledged with a nod.
“No problem. You should have your next mission brief by now. Let me know if you have any questions.”
“Now go eat something. You look like hell. Pike out.”
Jim fought the urge to chuckle at how much Pike could sound like McCoy some days. Mother hens, the both of them.
He ignored the admiral’s suggestion and turned his attention back to his work, plowing through file after file on his PADD and signing off where necessary. And if his mind wandered occasionally, turning over his conversation with Danu or recalling what it felt like to fly over Anterius, well, he supposed it was only natural.
“So you still have no real idea why they thought to give you wings?” McCoy asked.
They were four days out from Anterius, bound for Starbase 17 to pick up supplies and a medical team bound for the colony on Gault. Jim had spent most of the time since his release from Sickbay either nose-deep in so-called paperwork or mingling with the crew, attempting to make up for his absence by proving he was healthy and catching up on ship-board gossip. So it wasn’t much of a surprise with McCoy had commed him to come by Sickbay after shift so he could check him out.
The doctor had given him a clean bill of healthy fairly quickly—also unsurprising. Then he’d ushered Jim into his office, nodded him toward his usual chair, and pulled out the bottle of good bourbon. Jim suspected this little exercise had been the real reason behind his summons.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Jim said. “About why it could be wings, specifically.” He took a sip of his drink. “I grew up fascinated by flying, but it was always about going into space like my parents, so that can’t be it. Then I remembered something.”
“The summer I was four, Sam went off to sleep-away camp for the first time, and my mom went back into the black. She wasn’t gone long—maybe a month, something about keeping her certs active—but she sent me to stay with my Kirk grandparents on their farm. I was too little to do much to help yet. I know my grandma had me feed the chickens with her every morning, and I set the table for dinner, little stuff like that, but most of the day I was kind of on my own. I was supposed to stay in the house or the yard, but you know me—had to go exploring. So, one afternoon I was out in the barn, and I got it into my head that I could fly.”
“Oh, jeez, I can see where this is heading,” McCoy grunted.
“You want to hear it or not?”
“Fine, go ahead.”
Jim smiled slightly, remembering the day in question. It had been so hot and he’d been so incredibly bored and restless, no one to play with, his grandma off doing chores and his grandfather overseeing the farm hands. “Anyway,” he continued, “I climbed up into the hayloft and stood up on the edge and jumped. I’d been watching the birds from my bedroom window nights—crows, owls, whatever was around. I thought all I needed to do was to keep my body horizontal to the ground and I’d just glide along.”
“Hah,” the doctor huffed out. “Advanced physics for a four year old.”
“Yeah, well, whatever. I was sure it would work. So I tried, and of course all that happened was I fell like a rock. Busted my arm. I’m not sure which was the worse shock, the broken bone or the fact that my plan didn’t work.”
“Poor little Jim,” McCoy murmured, his voice actually injected with sympathy. “You were just a bored little kid. Someone should have been watching you.”
Jim shrugged. “They did after that. My grandfather Tiberius set me up in his study with a pile of books to read. Told me to stay out of trouble. I didn’t mind so much. I loved books, and he hadn’t trusted me in his study before then.”
“That was it? He sat you down with some books and ignored ya?”
“Nah, Bones, it wasn’t like that. He’d come in each afternoon from the fields, all hot and sweaty. He’d wash up and get two glasses of lemonade from the kitchen, and he’d come sit with me. He had a loveseat in the study, just right for the two of us, and we’d drink the lemonade and he’d ask me about what I was reading. Then if there was time before dinner, he’d read me something. The first thing was the story of Icarus. You know that one?”
McCoy’s brow furrowed. “Greek myth, right? Kid whose father makes them wings so they can escape whatever island they’ve been imprisoned on—”
“Crete,” Jim interjected.
“Right. Only Icarus flies too close to the sun and the wax holding all the feathers on the wings melts, and he ends up falling into the ocean and drowning.” He chuckled quietly. “I guess I can see why your grandpa picked that one.”
Jim laughed. “Yeah, me too. At the time I was pretty embarrassed. I already felt like an idiot for thinking I could really fly. But the story stuck with me. Jumping out of that hayloft wasn’t the last dumb stunt I pulled—”
“You can say that again.”
“Thanks, Bones. Still, it was the last time I leaped without being sure I could land. Might have been a long shot, but it was still always possible.”
“And you think that’s why the Anterians gave you wings? Because that Danu guy looked into your memories and saw you trying to fly out of the barn?”
Jim frowned. “I honestly don’t know.”
“Still can’t believe you let him talk you into flying. Actually flying, goddamnit, like you were a bird and not a starship captain.”
“Come on, Bones. What’s the point in having wings for a day if you’re not going to put them to good use?”
McCoy shook his head. “Infant. Born with a brain, but that don’t mean you use it all that often.”
Jim laughed. “You’re just jealous.”
“Right. Because flying around in a tin can isn’t bad enough, I want to do it with absolutely nothing between me and a painful crash landing.” McCoy stared at him a minute, then reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a small box. “Here,” he said, passing it over to Jim.
Jim arched his brows questioningly and accepted the box from the doctor. “Do I want to know?”
He shrugged. “Thought you might like a souvenir.”
Jim pried open the lid and inhaled sharply. Inside the box were dozens of feathers—gold, brown, copper, yellow, cream. He reached in and sifted them gently, marveling at how they caught even the dim florescent lighting in the CMO’s office. “Thanks, Bones,” he said quietly.
“Well, they were too pretty to throw out,” the doctor said gruffly. “Leave it to you to look good even with wings.”
Jim let out a bark of laughter, relieved at the break in the odd tension that had filled the room.
McCoy signed and looked the captain in the eye. “So, what was it like up there?”
“Awesome,” he replied without a second’s hesitation. “Maybe the most awesome thing I’ve ever done.” He took another sip of his bourbon, using the pause to remember. “I was completely in control. Felt like I could do anything I tried. And it was just me up there, no one relying on me not to fuck up, you know?”
McCoy stared at him. “We were relying on you, Jim. We were relying on you not to get yourself killed—to come back to us in one piece.”
Jim felt his warm reminiscence falter in the face of his friend’s admonishment. “I—I know that, Bones. I just mean…I felt free up there.”
A painful silence stretched out between the two men. Jim almost wished McCoy would say something else, even to scold, but his one brief statement burned into his brain nonetheless. He thought about what it felt like to be out there in the sky, flying under his own power. It had been wonderful, and he had felt free, but it was more than that. He understood that, in some sense, what he felt was the sensation he had always associated with his dreams of going into space. The feeling of having no boundaries, of being able to simply go and go and go, never hitting a wall, never being forced to turn back and accept someone else’s definition of enough.
As a child, restless in a world filled with rules and confinement, he’d dreamed of that kind of freedom, and as a man he had been sure that joining Starfleet was the answer. He had taken Chris Pike’s dare because he truly believed there was no such thing as a no-win scenario, that limits were something human beings imposed upon themselves. If he just worked hard enough, was smart enough and strong enough, he could surpass those preconceived notions, those man-made barriers, and win in the face of any ridiculous odds.
Reality had been somewhat different. As a starship captain, he had come to acknowledge that, while it might be possible to find an answer no matter what the situation, he had a responsibility to his ship and his crew, and not all answers were going to be acceptable ones. Whatever freedom he had imagined enjoying as the youngest captain in Starfleet history had come with a price that even he—reckless and daring and willing to put it all on the line—was not always prepared to pay.
Jim thought about the past few months since the start of his official captaincy. The truth was, he had been second guessing himself. Being captain of the Enterprise, day in and day out, was not the same as leading the crew through a single hair-raising emergency situation. The diplomacy, the need to earn his place as leader of the crew, his own doubts regarding his ability to hold his temper and act like an adult—these were aspects of the job he had not thought through ahead of time. Given his own personal history, it was perhaps understandable that he would focus on the hard decisions the job entailed and forget about the little things, the bread-and-butter of being in charge. But sometimes being a starship captain was about those other things—the boredom of days in the black between missions, miles of Starfleet red tape, or grouchy admirals convinced they could pull his strings. And just because he had not considered them before, didn’t mean he could not master them now.
Danu’s words came floating back to him. “…not every experience is what one expects it to be…” Jim considered what it had been like to have wings for a day—the pain required to attain them, the fear he felt at their manifestation, and then the absolute thrill of flying over Anterius completely on his own power. And suddenly he suspected he was beginning to understand the Anterian’s purpose in his blessing.
“Do you miss them? The wings?” McCoy asked.
Jim chuckled. “No, I don’t miss them.”
McCoy’s gaze honed in on his. “You’ve got that look on your face. The one that says you know at fifty paces when a girl’s gonna go home with you, even before you buy her a drink.”
“I think I just figured some stuff out, that’s all.”
“Feel like sharing?”
“It was never really about the wings,” Jim murmured. He picked up one of the feathers and ran his finger along the edge, watching the color shift from bronze to gold with the movement.
“Well, what then?”
“I think it was about remembering that not everything is going to turn out exactly the way you imagine,” Jim replied, his voice quiet. “And that sometimes it can be even better, even if it’s more difficult than you anticipated. But the important thing is to have faith.”
“Faith?” McCoy echoed softly. “Jim, faith in what?”
“Faith that even as you’re falling, you already know how to fly.”