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In Having New Eyes

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The sun is at its apex, the shadows small and the air lank with humidity. Iowa summers can be miserable, and this one is; people and animals swing toward the shade like compass needles toward north, dull with inertia, trying to breathe shallow. The farmhouse at the end of Switch Road is equally still, its siding weather-beaten from cornmeal yellow to the color of sand. A dog lies on the front porch, tan coat almost blending in with the woodwork, barely an ear twitching when the stillness inside is torn by the sound of a comm unit ringing.

Winona levers herself up off the couch and slides into the seat before it has a chance to ring twice, hitting the button to accept the call, knowing who it’s going to be without even looking.

“Rob,” she says with a nod. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror on the far wall and is startled by how harried she looks. Her eyes are red-rimmed and her hair looks like shit, plastered sweaty to her neck and forehead; she hasn't had time to notice, or the energy to care if she had.

“Winona,” says the man on the screen. His appearance couldn’t be more different from hers: his uniform is crisp and perfect, creases sharp enough to cut, the stars on his collar laser-bright. He doesn’t comment on her bedraggled state; she looked the same when she called three days ago, begging for information, and he didn't say anything about it then either.

“Just tell me,” she says, feeling hollow.

“Turn on your news feed,” he says, and the careful calm in his voice arrests her. Of all of them, he was always the one she could read best, the one with his heart on his sleeve. The tonelessness is strange, and stabs her with hope she doesn’t want. But she does what he says anyway, drags her fingers across the screen to put him in the top right corner, taps twice to pull up her news feed, taps twice more to give it sound.

“..has returned to San Francisco today after a harrowing battle. The Enterprise will remain in orbital dock until sufficient repairs can be made to allow her to enter the atmosphere. In a shocking twist, sources in Starfleet announced the critical injury of the Enterprise’s captain, Christopher Pike, and the rise of a Starfleet cadet to take his place. Cadet James Kirk, son of the famous George Kirk, was raised to the position of first officer when Captain Pike went to negotiate with the Romulan attackers, and took the captain’s chair when..”

She’s stopped listening. The tips of her fingers are cold, and her breaths are short and sharp. On the screen, a far-away video with shitty resolution shows the shuttle docking, the door opening, and the crush of people pouring out. A tall black girl; an even taller Vulcan; a skinny tow-headed kid whose curls make him look like a teenager; a few more bodies milling around til she makes an impatient noise, get out of the way and let me see-- and there, last, after all his people have exited the shuttle, there.

Jim is covered in bruises and cuts, and looks like he hasn’t slept in a week. Roughly the same as she looks, actually; but his spine is straight and the square of his shoulders dares anyone to try him on for size. “Oh gods,” she whispers, one hand covering her mouth, the other pressed blindly to the screen, like she could reach out and touch him from here.

“Congratulations, Win,” Commodore April says softly. “Your son’s a hero.”

---

Robert April becomes Winona's favorite person less than five minutes after she learns his name. He's her student advisor-- what in normal colleges is called an RA and most of the 'Fleet first years refer to as hall monitors-- and apparently spends move-in day going door-to-door in the dorm rolling out the welcome mat. He hasn't been in Winona's room two minutes before he pauses in his recitation of the usual speech to glance at the book she's already got laid out next to her padd.

"You're in Engineering track?" he asks, and she nods with a grin.

"Been working on engines since I was a kid," she says. "Once I learned you could do that and be in space at the same time, well." She shrugs. That's all she wrote.

April grins back, knocks his knuckle against the book. "Carter's got some good theories on wormhole physics and deep space telemetry, but I've always preferred Borlu. He's crazy--"

"--but so fucking brilliant," Winona finishes, her grin now threatening to split her face. "He just sucks you in-- I swear by the time I finished Between Dimensions I believed every word of it."

"You're not the only one," he laughs. "Who's your prof for Navigation Physics?"

She hunts up her schedule on the padd. "Lezchin," she says, "I heard he's good?"

April shrugs. "Better than Barnard," he says, "but you won't get to the good bits til next term no matter who you have. They have to make sure you didn't just pass the entrance exams on luck," he teases.

"I didn't," Winona assures him smugly; she'd gotten a better score on the math and physics part of the exam than anyone she knew.

"I believe you," April says with a little roll of his eyes, grinning. "What other classes are you taking?"

She stands up to show him the padd. "I kind of centered everything around Intro Telemetry with Po Na Huang," she admits. "I'm kind of a fangirl of hers…"

They go through her schedule and the people teaching her classes, then move on to the good stuff; extra-curriculars. She already wanted to sign up for everything, and hearing about clubs and groups she hadn't even know existed only give her a longer list to choose from. Basically she thinks she's not going to sleep between now and the end of the term, and she likes it that way.

By this point they've been talking for an hour, and Winona's so hyperactive with excitement (she's actually here, she's fucking doing it, what she's been dreaming about for literally a decade) she knows she's in need of some sustenance before she has a hypoglycemia attack and passes out. "Food," she interrupts what April's about to say next, "where can I get some?"

"Mess hall's across the quad," he says, immediately starting for the door. "Come on, I'll show you."

By the time they're sitting down digging into their rice and vegetables (replicated, but what can you do) they've returned to Carter's book, which Winona isn't done with yet but now wants to ignore all her afternoon orientation events in favor of finishing.

"She was a bloody genius," April says firmly, shaking his head. "Without her we'd have taken decades longer to get outside our solar system, maybe even--"

"Maybe even centuries!" a new voice proclaims-- announces, really, with the tone of a sportscaster. "Come on, Rob, give up already. It's beyond pathetic to have the hots for a woman who's been dead for two hundred years." The speaker sits down next to Winona, ignores April's outraged spluttering protests, and turns to offer her a blinding grin, laugh lines crinkling around his eyes, startlingly blue. "Hi."

"Uh," says Winona, intelligently. "What?"

"Give the guy a break," says another newcomer, sitting down across from his buddy. He's thin where his friend is muscled, hair dark brown instead of the other guy's honey gold. "It's hard when you can only carry on interesting conversations with machines." He also gives Winona what he no doubt thinks is a charming smile, but comes across more as a smirk.

Between his two friends, April looks half embarrassed, half annoyed. And she knows he's three years older than her, and they've known each other all of an hour, but still, her back goes up and the words are out of her mouth before she's done thinking them through. "Actually, I'm the one with the crush," she says, turning a blandly innocent face first on Blondie, then on Smirky. "Carter's so brilliant I'd bone her six ways from Sunday, I don't care how long she's been dead."

Blondie snorts, rolling his eyes. "Perfect. Jon owes me twenty credits," he tells Smirky, "I bet him all the new kids would be idiots."

"Then you're an idiot," April finally says, "not that I needed your infantile bet with Archer to prove that. Winona Ford," he sighs, gesturing with his fork first to Smirky, then Blondie. "Meet my friends, Chris Pike and George Kirk."

"Hi," Kirk says again, turning that smile on her full force and holding out his hand.

She glances at it, then at his face, then turns back to April. "It's a good thing I already know you have good taste in books," she says dryly. She flicks a glance at Pike, who's giving Kirk a look she can't read.

(Later, much later, she'll be able to recognize it as the apprehensive Oh no not again face, the Why do you always do this face. It never gets Pike very far, but he hasn't figured that out yet, and by the time Winona does she won't be in the mood to explain it to him.)

Kirk tucks into his casserole with that unrepentant smile still pasted on, and April looks at Winona as if to gauge how quick she's about to abandon their table in favor of a less offensive one. But she's just made a new friend, and perversely refuses to give him up, even if these idiots had prior claim. So she takes another bite of her dinner and glances at Pike again. "So are you two juniors too?"

Pike nods at Kirk. "He is. I'm in my first year of postgrad."

"Fancy," she replies, one eyebrow quirked. "Studying what?" He doesn't look like science track; even reedy as he is, she can't picture him bent over a microscope.

"History of Starfleet, policy and diplomacy mostly," he says. When he bends his head a lock of dark hair falls in his eyes.

Kirk chimes in. "Our boy wants to be the youngest Admiral in the history of the 'Fleet," he says, and Winona can already tell he's got that voice, the kind that can turn everything into teasing, make everything sound like a joke. It's not her favorite quality in a person.

"Younger than Blackbeard? That'll take some doing," she says skeptically.

Pike raises his head and meets her eyes. "I think I'm up for the challenge," he says calmly, but the hint of steel beneath the words tells Winona his assessment of his own fortitude is probably spot on.

---

History of the Federation is a class all first-years have to take, just like Intro to Weapons and the one with the complicated title that everyone just refers to as Space Travel 101. The first session is all very grand-- you are the galaxy's best and brightest, embarking on a mission that will culminate in your taking your place among previous generations of blah, blah, blah. Winona sits sprawled in her seat (halfway back, next to the window) wondering when this is going to end.

It's not that she's indifferent to the ideas behind the class, or behind the Federation-- if she were, she'd hardly have enlisted in Starfleet. It's more that she's always seen the world simply, starkly, like an equation that has to balance before it can make sense. The professor of this class is showing them one side; she's more interested in the parts that aren't so inspirational, so she can pick them apart and try to fix them. Winona's an engineer-- she may not be working on engines til she dies, but she's never going to outgrow the impulse to analyze, to diagnose, to mend what's broken.

Her advisor is Captain Travers, who used to command the Defiant before she was decommissioned. The first time they meet, she stands outside his office door listening to him dissect another cadet's choice of classes. The cadet leaves looking like an avalanche fell on his head. Winona likes the man already.

As she enters the room, he has his back to her, and when he turns back around she sees he's got a teacup in his big hand. "And you are?" he prompts, settling back into his chair.

"Ford, sir. Winona Ford."

"And you are here to be advised, yes?" he sips at his tea and eyes her over the rim of the cup, which looks ludicrously small in his palm.

"Yes sir," she says, a bit wary. "I mean, unless you give all your cadets the same kind of advice you gave the kid who was just in here, in which case... can we just skip to the part where I leave? I'm in a pretty good mood and I have a lot of stuff to do before dinner."

Travers quirks an eyebrow, then snorts as if smothering a chuckle. "Points for bluntness. But no, I only yell at the cadets who deserve it, so as long as you don't act like a moron, I won't tell you you are one."

Winona grins. "Yes sir. I'm definitely not a moron."

"That remains to be seen," Travers says dryly. "Now, let's have your schedule." She transmits it to his padd and he scans it. "Engineering track. You have some experience already?"

"With the science of it, sir, not so much the practical applications. But it's been my-- well, my obsession, I guess, for years. I can recognize every class of Federation ship on sight and some from non-Federation planets too." She's a nerd and she knows it. But it's okay; two weeks on campus and already she's figured out almost everyone here is a nerd about something.

"Well, it'll be two more terms before you're in anything that's actually interesting. But you've managed to get yourself into the one section of Space Travel 101 where you might actually learn something, and your History of the Federation professor's not that bad either. Okay, you're done," he says, dropping his padd onto the desk with almost startling abruptness.

"Sir?" she asks, which in her head translates to What the hell does that mean?

"You're done," he repeats with a shrug. "You're obviously intelligent, you're going to be bored stiff in your introductory classes but that's the curse a smart cadet has to bear, hopefully with grace. Your job for the rest of the term is to stay busy and entertained-- not to get so bored you flunk out before we can put your smarts to work for us. Got it?"

"Yes sir," she says, getting to her feet. A thought strikes her on her way to the door and she turns back, the question out of her mouth before she can think about how it might sound. "Do they give you all the cadets they expect to be pains in the ass, sir, or did I just get lucky?"

Travers snorts, but there's a smile hinting at the edges of his eyes. "Beats the shit out of me. Now get out of my office." She gets.

He's right, as it turns out. She is bored stiff in most of her classes. By the end of the term it's nearly a regular occurrence for her to barge into Travers' office to rant about the idiocy of some of her fellow cadets, sometimes lumping a couple of the professors in with them. Travers isn't a gossip, so he doesn't fuel her fire by agreeing with her about anything other than the fact that she's smarter than at least half the people she's sitting in classes with. What he does do is listen. In turn, Winona listens back.

---

It takes her longer than it should (she'll tell herself later) to realize she's been marked.

She's in the cafeteria reading the news feed at breakfast a few days later when Pike and a guy she doesn't know take up residence across from her, mid-conversation about something, an election it sounds like, but she can't tell where just from listening. She glances up at Pike briefly, then returns to her coffee and reading.

When he stops for breath he motions between her and his friend and introduces Jon Archer, "the language nut".

"I'm a linguistics major," the other guy explains with a cutting look at Pike. "Just because some of us are interested in more academic fields--"

"Oh that's right, Jon, forget brains, they let me in here just because I'm so darn pretty," Pike says, rolling his eyes, and off they go again.

With other people Winona might feel like an audience, like they're trying to impress her with how funny they are. But they're obviously doing nothing of the sort; she suspects they do this (they, all four of them, all the time) whether there's anyone else around or not. And they are funny, she'll give them that.

So it's not something she plans or even intends, but as time goes on Winona finds herself spending more and more time with The Boys. That's how she starts to think of them-- The Boys, capitalized, the four of them inextricable-- because the times she sees one of them (any of them) without another just an arm's reach away are few and far between.

It's the end of October and she's at a bar in town, one of the dives all the cadets use as a second home and study hall, with her charm turned up to eleven for the benefit of Ensign Hardaway from Navigation. He's six and a half feet of deep-voiced broad-shouldered deliciousness, and she's hell bent on making sure that that redhead from Combat doesn't snake him out from under her-- metaphorically speaking, of course, because if he were under her already she wouldn't have to worry about him going anywhere.

"--and then Commander Tallek walked in," Hardaway finishes a story and drains the rest of his beer as Winona laughs. It's a bit of an affect, the story wasn't as funny as he thinks it was, but he's really pretty and she's not going to let a little thing like lame stories get in her way.

But then-- "I've heard better stories," she hears behind her, and fuck no, she thinks, what the fuck?

"I've been part of better stories," another voice agrees, and she refuses to turn her head, but Hardaway's looking from her to the spot over her shoulder in confusion, and she turns to give Pike and Kirk a killing glare.

"I've bailed you out after better stories," Pike is saying, nodding to Kirk like they're having their own conversation, like it's not about weaseling her away from Hardaway.

"Have not," Kirk accuses, and Pike snorts derisively.

"All I know is I pick up my comm at two a.m. and hear "You have a collect call from Coventry County Jail for 'Dude it was awesome! I'll tell you all about it when you come'--"

"The hell you did," Kirk disagrees, and Winona's actually interested to hear the end of this, and butts in, "This sounds like the time I accidentally took LSD."

Kirk and Pike both pause to look at her, then chorus, "Accidentally?"

So then she has to explain, and while she does Kirk orders her another drink, and she's too busy telling the story to notice when Hardaway vanishes with the redhead from Combat, and when she does notice she's mad, but despite herself, she's laughing.

Rob is the easiest to get alone, probably because he's a bit of a loner. He's definitely the nerdiest of the bunch, for which they all mock him mercilessly. Winona's happy to have a partner in her eggheadedness, though, and they spend a lot of time studying things that the others mostly can't understand why they bother with.

"Get the fuck out here right now, April," she hears Kirk outside, banging on Rob's dorm room door for the fifth time. "I don't give a fuck who's in there with you, pretty soon I'm going to start pulling wires and taking bets on how fast I can hack this lock. There is free beer at the Orchid tonight, and you know you don't want me to drink it all myself."

"Piss off," Rob calls out, "and do your worst." He turns back to the stretch of bed between them, him at the foot, her at the head, every inch between spread with padds showing different schematics and diagrams and equations. "We're fucked," he mutters, grabbing one at random. "He's actually not a bad hacker when he tries."

"Shh," Winona says, feverishly reading two padds at once and groping blindly for the Red Bull on the bedside table. "Read faster."

It's nice (more than nice; important) to have someone who understands the beauty of numbers, the solace she takes in physics and the rightness of knowing she's doing something that makes sense. She needs that constant in her life, craves it, and loves it when she gets it. Better than than Archer's ridiculous love of linguistics, which she never really understands but indulges him waffling on about because it makes him happy.

"It's fucking genius," Jon gushes, throwing up his hands and nearly careening, unseeing, into a stop sign and then another person. "She's a fucking genius, and she's barely older than we are! Can you fucking believe it--"

Following behind him, Kirk and Winona exchange glances. "Do you have any idea what he's talking about besides his massive boner for the Vulcan ambassador's wife?" Kirk mutters, and Winona shakes her head.

"She is pretty hot though," Kirk adds after another minute of Jon's effusiveness ("She's even promised to include Sulamid, and they don't even designate parts of speech!") washes over them unabsorbed.

"Totally," Winona agrees. "I love 'em rebellious."

At least that's an academic passion, which on principle is something she can understand. Not that she can't get behind Kirk's insane obsession with exploring the far reaches of space; that's just kind of wanting to be a pirate in the twenty-third century.

It's Pike's ambition to rise in the ranks that confuses her. It's all well and good to want to advance your career (is Winona's opinion) but what is he going to do with himself while he's doing it? Still, without him the group would be missing something, and Winona finds she likes them just fine the way they are. They may specialize in the obnoxiously ridiculous, but she can't say she's never been grateful to have them around.

"I'm really just here waiting for a friend," she tries for the fourth time to get Cadet Doesn't-Know-The-Meaning-Of-No away from her table so she can finish her beer and her Systems and Schematics reading in peace, but he won't be budged, and this is what she gets for leaving an empty chair across from her.

"I could be your friend," the other cadet promises, somehow managing to look solemn and sleazy at the same time.

"Yeah, I'm full up, thanks," she says, starting to get annoyed.

"What's the matter with you?" the guy retorts, the pull of his eyebrows conveying drunkenness verging on angry drunkenness. Gods, she did not want to start a bar fight when she came in here tonight, but if this is the way it's going to go--

"What's the matter with you?" comes Pike's voice from behind her, and she tries not to be stupidly relieved.

"Seriously man," says Kirk, materializing from nowhere with a chair in one hand, sliding it up to the table backwards and dropping onto it, the sprawl of his limbs nevertheless conveying he could be up again in a second if he had to.

"She said she was waiting on friends," Rob agrees, putting another beer down in front of her. "You calling her a liar?"

"I-- uh, no, definitely-- I'll just be--" he's gone so fast she can't even track which way he ran.

"I don't need to be rescued," she says, pointedly looking at Kirk, who's looking over her head at Pike.

"Who said anything about rescue?" asks Jon, walking up with a tray full of four more beers. "I told the bartender to put all this on your tab."

The thing is, though, it's not a perfect world. This isn't Hogwarts and they're not the Marauders, and when they get talking about important stuff (what she thinks of as important stuff, anyway) most of the time she finds Kirk and Pike to be kind of a disappointment. Winona's smart, and she can't stand being around people who don't have the same drive to use their brains that she does. Their way of doing it doesn't count-- using what they have as a stepping stone to getting up into space or geting more stripes on their sleeves-- that's not what Starfleet is for, not the kind of people it should be looking for, and she doesn't like the reminder that her friends aren't as invested in it as she is.

It's not like she has to tell any of them that's how she feels, anyway. She's too busy to have those kinds of conversations, even if any of the boys showed signs of interest in having them.

She isn't too busy to have a life, though, that she makes sure of. Winona's of the opinion that showing up for class is optional except when she'll flunk if she doesn't, which leaves her more than enough time for all the clubs, parties and extracurriculars she can squeeze into a twenty-four hour day. It seems to baffle most people, the way she manages to avoid catastrophes, expulsion or nervous breakdowns.

"Okay, how do you do it?" Pike demands one day, flopping down across from her in the library.

She looks up from a telemetry plot, eyebrows arched high. "What? Get my hair to keep this effortless overworked student chic every day? I've been dying for you to ask," she says, tossing her head for effect.

Pike rolls his eyes, grinning. "Please, I know bed-head when I see it, even on a girl. No, I meant this." He gestures obliquely in her direction, somehow indicating her entire body, the bag beside her and possibly the chair she's sitting in too. "This, you were out last night how late, four am?"

Winona's face scrunches up, 'cause that's weird, even for a micro-manager like Pike. "How do you know--"

He smirks. "I was up writing a paper and heard you singing as you walked by under our window. No one does "Take On Me" off key quite like you," he says, looking far too gratified at the flush she feels creeping over her neck as the memory comes flooding back.

"Oh," she says. "That. Well." She shrugs; Pike's not the first person to ask her this, and it's never any less awkward to explain. "My parents kind of raised a crew of freakish multitaskers. I'm pretty sure if my mom had a motto it'd be 'I'll sleep when I'm dead'. I don't know," she says, shrugging again. "I just feel like, I've waited my whole life to get here, I'm not going to waste a second of it now it's actually happening."

"And you avoid slipping into a sleep-deprivation coma how, exactly?" he replies, his face skeptical.

Now she grins. "What can I say, I'm lucky."

"You're something," he agrees, grinning back.

So as long as she doesn't let her career pursuits and her social life mix, she's golden. With a roommate who's quickly becoming her best friend, and a group of four guys hanging around whenever they need amusement, there's rarely a dull moment.

“You're such a wanker, Kirk, now get out,” Winona hears as she approaches the door. She knows that tone of Rob’s and half smiles, her hand halfway to hitting the hail button when the door slides open and George Kirk stumbles out like he’s been pushed. He looks disgruntled and his skin is faintly blue-- still, even after three days.

Winona can’t help a smirk. “Rough day?”

“Ugh,” he says, all disgruntled in that dopey way he has. “You could say that. Why," he says, freezing and giving her a wide, unnerved look, "planning to make it worse?” He looks almost panicked, and she throws her hands up in the air.

“Gods’ sakes, Kirk, will you give it a rest? After something that good, you think I'm going to go after you three days later? Give me some credit here."

“Look, shit like that leaves a lasting impression, and you never know with you.” He looks even more put-upon now, offended that she has the gall to be exasperated with him, and she rolls her eyes.

“I’m telling you how it is with me. If I decide to prank you again, rest assured you won’t see it coming.” She shoves her hands in her pockets and thinks, You dump Andorian blood pudding on a guy in the shower one time...

“That makes me feel so much better,” he says, totally deadpan, and she’s startled into a snort, because while it was sort of the expected response, it was actually kinda funny.

And maybe it’s just that she’s in a good mood, or maybe he’s startled her into being merciful, but the words are half out of her mouth before she even decides to say them. “Karaoke tonight-- you in?”

He looks as surprised as she feels, and narrows his eyes, examining her for signs of a hidden agenda. “At that bar on M Street?” he asks, and she nods. “Yeah, why not."

"I promise you'll have fun," she says with her sweetest smile, already mentally composing a list of songs with the word 'blue' in the title as she brushes past him into Rob's room.

...which, Winona has to admit, is pretty much exactly the way she likes it.

---

At Travers' recommendation, second term she signs up for Before First Contact, the class on the politics of the galaxy before Earth's entry into space and the forming of the Federation. It's interesting-- the reading is interesting, the professor is interesting, and gives her more to think about than she expected from a history class.

"It's just nice to have someone teaching history in a way that doesn't spontaneously induce narcolepsy," she says to Pike one night. The table between them is covered in Chinese food cartons and the remains of dinner, and they've been reading in silence for long enough that he starts when she talks.

"Well, yeah," he agrees, shrugging like it's obvious. "You can't expect people to care about history if you present it as a finished product. It's never finished, that's kind of the point of studying it."

"I just never thought about it like that before," she admits. "I didn't like it much in high school, but this... this is actually pretty cool."

He smiles like she's complimented him personally, and she remembers suddenly his undergrad major was political history. "I'm not changing my track or anything," she warns him, smiling back. "I'm just saying it's not as boring as I thought."

"Hey, I didn't say anything," he says innocently, pointing to the takeout box in front of her. "Any crab rangoons left?"

Third term, she ends up in Expansion and Exploration, where they take apart the Prime Directive and the events that led to its implementation, and the ways it's been used to broker peace in the galaxy ever since. Somewhere in between the third and fourth weeks of class, listening to the professor explain how the ideals used to form the Federation just aren't practical in application today, the light bulb goes on over Winona's head.

That night she starts reading the text. Homework is just the first chapter, but by the time she realizes she's halfway through the book it's too late to stop. She reads until she's done, then sits back with a frown furrowing her eyebrows.

"Whoa," says Anna, coming out of the bathroom. "I don't like that face."

Too distracted to reply, Winona tosses the book aside and starts a message to Travers.

Finished the book for E&E. Kind of surprised the Federation even exists if this is really the way they go about expanding and exploring. Why does no one have any imagination? The whole reason for going into space isn't to stand aside and watch shit happen. The Prime Directive is important, sure, we can't go swaggering around the galaxy being the bringers of civilization to uncultured worlds, but there's something to be said for getting our hands dirty once in a while. We're here to make the world better, not sit back and study it going to pieces. Don't preach, I know my 20th/21st century American history, peacemaking doesn't mean invasion, yadda yadda. I'm just saying if people come to us wanting to advance themselves, wanting technology and science and math they just haven't gotten around to inventing yet, it doesn't seem fair to make them sign a blood oath not to use it against us first. Ideas don't belong to anyone, person or society or Federation.

I hate you for putting me in this class, I'm going to end up with a citation for saying something rude, I can just feel it.

In response, he sends her uploads to a dozen postgrad theses on various related subjects and a note saying It wouldn't be the first time you got a citation for sticking your big foot in your mouth.

She grins, and takes her padd outside to read.

---

Later, George will ask when she knew she was turning into one of those crazy people who think they're going to change the world, and she'll tell him it was then, that soft April afternoon, when she looked up from a decades-old thesis and realized she was smarter than her professor, not because it wasn't enough for her to just accept what she was told, but because she was willing to accept that everything she knew about the structure of her world was wrong.

"Too bad you couldn't have had the same epiphany about your ignorance where I was concerned," he'll snort. She'll punch him on the arm and he'll catch her hand in his, turning it over, linking their fingers. "You are crazy," he'll say softly, "but you're my kind of crazy."

"I'm right, though," she'll murmur, resting her head on his shoulder. "I am going to change the world."

And years after that, when her nine-year-old son asks her angrily why she has to go away again, she will think of George and Starfleet and her desperate driving need to prove she's not out of this fight yet, and she won't have a clue what to tell him.

---

It's not until first term of her second year at the Academy that Winona ends up in an actual class with Kirk. Ethics of the Prime Directive is a required class made up almost entirely of in-class debates on the assigned reading; people tend to either passionately love or passionately hate it. Why Kirk waited until his senior year to take a class most people get out of the way as quickly as possible is beyond her, but she doesn't bother asking him about it; he probably thought it'd be a nice break from his thesis work, or he forgot he needed it until now, or something equally mundane.

It's an early class, and she sees him right away when she comes in, returning his wave with a smile. But when he points to the empty seat next to his, a questioning look on his face, she shakes her head and sits up front. She's not sure how Kirk will act in the classroom, but if how he acts in bars and frat parties is anything to go by, she'll probably be better off staying on the other side of the room. The greater the distance between the two of them, the greater the likelihood that she'll reach the end of term actually having learned something.

Then the door opens and Winona gets another shock as Travers enters the room. He smiles at her and she lifts an eyebrow back. I thought Bheeg was teaching this, she thinks, a weird tight feeling in her stomach. Apprehension. She hasn't actually had Travers as a teacher yet. She doesn't expect he'll go easy on her because he likes her; quite the opposite, if anything. And she does want to impress him.

The hour goes by fast-- an overview of the class, the syllabus, attendance, et cetera-- and at the end Winona takes her time getting her stuff together so she can catch Travers and ask him why he didn't tell her he would be teaching a class she was in. But as she makes her way toward the desk, she sees Kirk's beaten her there.

"...mention you'd be teaching the section you recommended I switch into?" he's saying, and Winona looks at him in surprise to hear her own sentiment echoed out of his mouth. Wait... he's his advisor too?

Travers shrugs, his mouth tilted in amusement, glance taking in Winona too. "And ruin the fun of seeing your faces when I walked in? Nah. Besides," he goes on, scooping up his padd, "I've spent enough time speculating about what actually goes on inside your heads when professors are trying to mold your brains into younger semblances of their own. It's time I found out for myself."

He leaves, and the two of them stand there watching him go. "I hate him," Winona says finally.

"I know," Kirk says. "He's awesome."

---

"No, you're looking at it from the wrong angle," Winona says, swiveled around in her seat, her arm draped over the back of the chair. "You know that old saying about giving someone a fish versus teaching them to fish-- this is the same thing. You're not handing someone a phaser, you're handing them an equation that could, eventually, with the right resources and application, be used to make a phaser. The two are totally different."

"And when they use it to build a bigger and better phaser than yours?" John Finnegan replies, gesturing with his padd pen. "What then?"

"Then we say goddamn, why didn't we think of that first? Can we trade you the titanium to make fifty of these in exchange for the blueprints for how you made 'em?" She tosses up her hands and lets them fall back down to her lap. "It's not that complicated. Not everyone is a potential enemy, Finnegan, you can't treat the entire galaxy like they're hiding in an alley waiting to steal your wallet."

"He has a point, though." Kirk's voice is almost meditative. "Not that your mythical fisherman might want to steal your wallet. But how do you know-- presuming he's not a member of the Federation, I mean-- he's not going to turn around to the Romulans and say hey, those assholes gave me this equation and I can't do anything with it. Here, see what you make of it. Oh good, you figured out how to make a phaser with it, we'll give you a tenth of our fishing haul every month for every twenty phasers you give us."

"Well I hope Romulan weaponry costs more than a few pounds of salmon," Winona retorts acerbically. She hates feeling outnumbered in this class; it makes her defensive, which makes her suck at arguing because she literally just wants to grab people by the shoulders and shake them until their idiot brains fall out of their heads. Starfleet doesn't exist to police who has the biggest guns! she wants to shriek.

"No, come on, that's not what I mean," Kirk says, leaning forward all persuasive and sincere. "I really mean-- look, we're talking ethics here. There aren't any easy answers. You can look to classical literature and find as many versions of right and wrong as there were philosophers-- we're not going to come up with anything someone hasn't thought before." His condescension really makes her want to scream. "So what Finnegan's saying is, how do you sleep at night knowing your equation might be used to give the Romulans a sneak peek into how we build phasers?"

"I'd sleep like a baby if it meant the fisherman had a phaser in his hand when the Klingons come knocking on his door," she says, putting as much force into it as possible. "I'm not saying we have to be the great Salvation Army in the sky, handing out weapons schematics and ship blueprints willy-nilly. I am saying we shouldn't be so paranoid that everyone who doesn't want to join the Federation automatically wants to start singing 'Hail to the Chief' to the Romulan Emperor."

"You can't have it both ways," Kirk says, shaking his head. "Ethics are all well and good, but they're used to determine policy, and like it or not, Ford, Starfleet has to have policies and regs in place for how to deal with every situation, and that honestly means figuring out what the majority of people are going to do in the majority of circumstances. Experience shows that most planets who want to stay on friendly terms with the Federation end up joining it."

"So the fisherman doesn't get a phaser, and he doesn't get an equation, because some other asshole fisherman three systems over spat in Starfleet's eye by allying with the Romulans? That's totally a righteous way to operate," she says, starting to feel hot around the neck again.

"This isn't about what's righteous or fair," he says, interrupting someone else who tries to chime in. He's leaning forward even further, eyes locked on hers, and she finds she can't look away. "Starfleet's a humanitarian force, sure, but we've got some pretty big guns to use in keeping the peace. It's a compromise, a negotiation-- we extend our area of influence to include a system, that takes more people, more ships, more resources. In return we ask that the people we're protecting follow a few basic rules, like, you know, not teaming up with people who've tried to steal our guns and use them to shoot us in the past. You can't get something without giving something, and if your fisherman isn't willing to give us his word that he won't attack us, why should we give him our protection?"

"He's not my fisherman," she says sharply, because this is just getting ridiculous.

"And with that," Travers interrupts before anyone can say anything else, "our time is up. I will see you all next week, don't forget your reading and your response paper, and please don't have too much fun this weekend, Ford." She can't even do more than halfheartedly smirk at Travers as he books it out the door; she can't say why she's in such a lather over this, but she feels exhausted, and can't wait to go home and take a bath (a real one, with water, and fuck it if she gets another citation for overuse; a girl has needs, and baths are one of them).

She starts up the stairs to the door, still buzzing with annoyance. Big guns! He even mentioned the big guns! Gods, he's such a fucking moron, she seethes. Suddenly there's a hand on her elbow and she turns; Kirk is there, wearing an expression that isn't quite amused enough to be smug (thank gods or she'd punch him) but curious.

"You know I was fucking with you, right," he says calmly, watching her carefully.

"...What?"

"Your argument isn't bad, you just need some of the facts and precedents to back it up. Cite Bolarus IX or Gideon, planets that have great trade relationships with the Federation and have even tipped us off to attacks from outside our borders in the past. Or Camorr V, they actually acted as a neutral space for us to meet with a faction of Klingons in 2190 for peace talks. They didn't go so well," he adds with a grin that's almost impish, "but we're still friendly with the Camorrians and they still aren't part of the Federation.

"And also, you're right," he goes on, before she can formulate a response to that, "we shouldn't attach an ultimatum to people who want our help. That's not what Starfleet is about-- I don't think, anyway, or it shouldn't be. The goal shouldn't be to have the most kids in our clubhouse, it should be to make sure we're using our resources to help as many people as possible so long as they're willing to accept it. Righteous isn't the word for it, it's like... it's not just about what we can do, it's about what everyone can do, there's an entire galaxy full of people and God only knows what we can do if we actually work together. Sounds kinda cliche, but there's more to Starfleet than what they're letting it be, but the only way they'll realize it is if we get out there and make them see it. Anyway," he concludes, shrugging one shoulder, clearly a little embarrassed by how long he's just monologued at her. "I'm gonna be late. See you around."

He jogs up the stairs two at a time, leaving Winona practically gaping behind him. She doesn't know what to make of what just happened, but she knows one thing for sure: Kirk's been holding out on her. "He isn't a total moron," she says aloud to the empty room. "What the fuck?"

She's even more annoyed now than she was five minutes ago. Because now she's seen for herself that not only does Kirk have a brain in his head, but he knows how to use it, and she wants to run after him and keep talking, pick his brain and have more arguments, ask him what the fuck he's been doing pretending to be a frat boy when clearly he's a historian and, most surprisingly, something of a visionary.

He feels the same way I do about Starfleet, she thinks as she turns things over in her mind. That's sexier than it ought to be.

In retrospect, it kind of makes everything that comes afterward kind of inevitable.

---

If it had ever occurred to her to think about, Winona would've said that anyone wanting a slice of George Kirk's time would've had to go through Chris Pike to get it. But seeing how getting their attention (any of them, anytime) had never really been a problem for her, she's never had to think about it.

Years later, she'll be able to admit that in some ways she'd always known the real story. That it was there for her to see if she'd bothered to look-- but she'll have to admit then, after so much is already said and done, that she never wanted to.

She'll sort of wonder if it was the unspoken truth between the four of them, if she was the only one ignoring the elephant in the room. She'll acknowledge it was possible, even plausible; Rob is too careful of people's personal life, and Jon far too averse to awkwardness, for either of them to have thought of bringing it up. Not to her, at least, and definitely not to George.

About George, at least, she'll have no doubt. He knew Pike was in love with him, and had known since long before she appeared on the scene. Why he never did anything about it she won't know, and it will never even cross her mind to ask Pike about it. With George dead, it will seem water under the bridge, cruel to dredge up. It will be something best left alone, a truth they both know to exist, but which neither of them has any desire to discuss.

But even years later, she still won't be able to forget the moment the idea first occurred to her.

---

"Give me three Sam Adams, pints not bottles, a double Fellebian High-Rise, a Screaming Orgasm and two Catch-22s. And make it fast, Jack, it took me fifteen minutes to get up here and my buzz is starting to wear off," Winona finishes, tapping the bar firmly with a serious expression.

The bartender just shrugs expressively and turns away, unimpressed with her urgency. She leans her elbow on the bar, glancing down the line at all the people emptying their glasses, clamoring for refills; mostly cadets, the 'oh my god it's the end of midterms' crowd growing practically by the minute. It's a fucking zoo, and tonight she's not in the mood to elbow her way around. She just wants to sit in the corner with her friends and drink, and as soon as Jack returns with their tray she starts back toward the table to do just that.

It's a small favor (a small miracle, more like) that it's ended up being a girls' night out-- just Winona, Anna, Cole and a couple of girls from their dorm, some unspoken agreement between them that they didn't need the hassle. Especially, Winona thinks, not the type of hassle that Kirk and Company would have brought along. She's still conflicted about what he said last week, keeps turning it over in her mind (there's more to Starfleet than what they're letting it be, but the only way they'll realize it is if we get out there and make them) wishing she'd been better prepared. She hates being thrown for a loop, especially by people she thinks she's got figured out.

"What's eating you?" Cole asks, interrupting her thoughts. "I just made fun of Commander Styrr and you didn't even crack a smile."

Winona shrugs."Nothing, just... You know when you think you know someone, and then they prove you wrong?" Everyone nods, and she shrugs again. "I hate that." They don't ask who she's talking about; possibly another unspoken agreement not to prod sore spots tonight, but whatever the reason, she's grateful.

But as if mentioning the man summoned him, her head cocks instinctively toward the sound of Kirk's braying laugh from up by the bar. Goddammit, she thinks, and downs her second shot.

After that, even with the liquor, it's impossible to ignore them. It's just Kirk and Pike; April and Archer aren't done with their exams yet, but apparently the thrill of victory over combat simulations is too much to hold off until tomorrow. They're not cruising, thank gods for small favors, just tossing back drinks the way Winona and her friends are-- just the two of them on bar stools, laughing about whatever. Other people drift in and out of their vicinity, but always it comes back to the two of them, conversation dropping low and private; she's not sure she could hear it if she were standing right next to them.

It's the look on Pike's face that does it. Some girl is standing there (they may not be cruising, but no one said anything about getting cruised) and they're talking to her, neither of them looking very interested in the conversation. After a minute the girl leaves; then Pike says something that makes Kirk laugh and smack his cheek affectionately, his hand sliding down to Pike's neck for a second, pulling him in so he can say something in Pike's ear.

And Pike's face does this thing where he goes still as a statue except for his eyes, which widen, and then slowly drop closed, like the moment of having George's hand on his neck and George's mouth against his ear is stretching on and on and on, or maybe he just wishes it would. Then they snap open again, the moment's spell broken; George steps back and that stupid laugh of his crests over the sussurus of conversation, Pike laughing too, and Winona wonders if she imagined it all.

Years later, she'll know she didn't.

---

"Winona, you're going." Anna has that tone of absolute certainty in her voice, the one Winona recognizes as an indication that she is going to end up at Rich Barnett's birthday party tonight whether she wants to or not, and if she tries to dig her heels in it just means she won't have time to make herself look decent before she gets whisked out the door.

"Whatever you say," she mutters gracelessly, scrolling through the last of her Engineering reading on her padd. She loves her roommate, she really does, but sometimes she wishes Anna wasn't so good at pointing out the obvious; namely, that no one should be more excited about an article comparing the warp core systems on Klingon and Tellarite battleships than at the prospect of an honest-to-God party.

"With actual living breathing men, women and aliens, Winona, you can literally pick your poison. Just-- for God's sake, will you act like this is fun and not like I'm selling you to an Orion slave barge?"

"The way you'll want me to dress, how will I be able to tell?" she replies tartly, shutting down the padd with a sigh.

"You're so strange," Anna says with an odd look. "Nine days out of ten it's like you have to be threatened with expulsion just to get your ass in a classroom. Then day ten you dive into your books and not even the prospect of sex or illegal substances can draw you out."

"I get bored easy," Winona says with an absent wave of her hand, her eyes going back to the diagram on her padd, "but some things are actually important."

“Like not flunking out of the Academy,” Anna says skeptically. “Look, if you don’t come of your own volition I’ll have no choice but to call Rob to come convince you, and you know that won’t end well for you.”

The annoying thing is, she’s right. It won’t end well because April is the only one who can convince her-- and by "convince" she means "throw her over his shoulder if he feels it necessary", and she knows any resistance on her part will make it necessary on Rob’s.

“I hate you sometimes,” she says in resignation, getting to her feet and moving toward the shower. “If I don’t end up passing this class with flying colors I’m blaming you.”

“Blah, blah,” Anna calls, already digging through Winona’s drawers for the jeans she knows Winona will want to wear. “Get clean, please, and make it fast. I have a date with some cheap tequila and one of Jade Sarna’s infamous lap dances, and I don’t want to wait.”

They aren’t late; the party is really just getting started when they burst out of the cab they’d shared with a pair of Tellarite cadets who did nothing but stare at them the whole way there; distracted by Anna’s tattoos, maybe, she’s not fluent enough in Tellarite body language to really read the looks they were getting. She forgets them the second her feet hit the sidewalk-- the house is already lit up and half full of people, if the noise spilling out into the street is any indication.

George Kirk is sitting on the top step with a beer in one hand and a mini-padd in the other, and he looks up with a lazy grin as they get close. “Sweet,” he drawls, “now the party can really start.”

Winona rolls her eyes, grinning, and starts up the stairs. “You need new material, Kirk,” she says with a dismissive wave of her hand, passing him without waiting for him to move aside for her. His hand on her wrist stops her; she looks down with both eyebrows raised, quizzical. “Help you with something?” Under the leftover cool from the beer bottle, his skin is warm, almost hot. She pretends she's not noticing.

He uses his hold on her to lever himself to his feet, pocketing the mini padd and swigging down the last of the beer. “You just did,” he says, saluting her with the empty bottle before tossing it into the recycler.

“What a gentleman,” Anna says wryly, but she lets him hold the door for her and even smiles at him as she passes inside. Winona doesn’t look at him, but she does keep a little swagger in her step, aware of his eyes on her as he follows them down the hall.

Three hours and a lot of beer later, Winona’s in the middle of a crush of people all throwing themselves around the living room to the tune of some weird Orion fusion R&B. The song ends and she extracts herself, brushing by unfamiliar faces til she reaches the couch, and plops herself down between Pike and Archer, who are having what is no doubt a very stimulating discussion. “Boys,” she says, full of satisfaction and smugness. She smacks each of them affectionately on the knee. “Boys.”

“Very observant,” Pike says with a quirked-up eyebrow.

“Very drunk,” she corrects him, wagging a finger in his face. “Which you are not, Chrissy. Where the fuck is your beer?”

He looks embarrassed; she can always put that look on his face, and she still hasn’t figured out why. “Finished it,” he says. “Didn’t want to lose my seat to get another one.”

Winona uses her hands on their knees to push herself back into a standing position, and is sublimely proud of herself for not wobbling even a little. “I,” she announces, “will go get us some beers. So don’t move,” she says, looking meaningfully at both of them. “I will be back, and if you’re gone I’ll have to drink all three myself. And then it will be your fault if I fall asleep and miss the rest of the party.”

Archer looks up at her, his mouth pursed like he doesn’t want to openly laugh at her. “You got it, Win,” he says, trying for solemnity and achieving only a sort of constipated seriousness. A for effort, she thinks, tossing them both a grin as she turns and strides toward the back porch, and the beer.

When she gets to the cooler it’s to find-- who else-- George Kirk sitting on top of it. “You,” she greets, pointing, “need to get up.”

“I do?” he says, mouth twisting in a crooked smile that charges something inside her stomach, electric hot. She tries to ignore it like she's been ignoring it for the past few months. She always knew Kirk was attractive in an academic sort of way, but this, the way she feels her pulse start faster and finds herself wondering what his hair would feel like if she ran her fingers through it, is anything but. Lucky for her the spark of attraction is still strongly tempered by annoyance at the glimpse she got of a smarter Kirk, a version of him she's seen only a handful of times since.

So she stays cool and just says, "Yep," walking up and knocking her boot against the cooler. “Need to get in there.”

He tilts his head to the side, considering. “Really.”

“Yep,” she says again, slides her hands into her back pockets and waits. But instead of obliging her (she should’ve known better) he sprawls out, hangs his arms back over the railing behind him, and looks up at her with an insolent smirk that has no business heating her up like that.

“Sorry, did you say you needed to get in here?” He points down, and she snorts as she looks, realizes he's either pointing to the cooler or his pants.

“Kirk,” she says, impatient and attracted and, more importantly, too drunk to be smart. She moves closer (his foot and hers are almost touching) and knocks her boot on the cooler again. “Come on.”

He just keeps giving her that shit-eating grin, and she puts her foot on top of the cooler, pressing against the outside of his leg, and leans in close, almost nose to nose. Now she has his attention. “Kirk,” she says again, drawing it out, mimicking his own Midwestern smoothness. “Come on.”

His head tips back another inch and his eyes are locked on her, no outer sign he’s affected by her proximity, but even drunk, Winona’s not an idiot. She lets her own smug smile creep across her face. "Come on what?” he says, and she can feel the tension in him even from inches away; he's trying really hard to stay still, not to move against her, and the devil in her is enjoying the hell out of torturing him.

"Come on," she repeats, brushing his nose with hers.

"If you're fucking with me," he breathes, one hand suddenly closing tight around her wrist. The blue of his eyes is neon-bright as they lock on hers and she feeds it right back to him, the dangerous feel of wanting him, and the promise they'll both get what they want if he'll leap where she wants him to, without looking first. Her heart is humming sparrow-quick in her chest, and when she swallows hard she can see his eyes drop to her mouth. She cuts him off with a quick kiss, just a touch of her lips against his, but it's enough to shut him up.

"Of course I'm fucking with you," she says, low and forceful.

And somehow that's the right thing to say, because his hand around her wrist tightens, then tugs, and all of a sudden George Kirk has a lapful of Winona, whose brain has decided to absent itself from the entire situation, instead letting her body make all the decisions-- and with her hands on his shoulders, her knees pressing just outside his thighs, his mouth hot and demanding beneath hers, her body isn’t saying anything but yes, yes, yes.

---

George won't tell her until years later, a point at which he's decided it's no longer an issue. "I looked up and he was standing right there," he'll say, half amused, half rueful. "Decided you were taking too long with the beer, I guess. Came to get it himself; got an eyeful of us instead."

"He-- did he stay there?" she'll squawk, not embarrassed (has he met her?) but mad, angry that their moment, their first kiss, didn't just belong to them the way she'd always thought it had-- and worse, that she hadn't known it til now. She'd always assumed it was George that blabbed, since by the next time she saw the boys they'd all known without her telling them.

"No," George will say quickly, not meeting her eyes. "As soon as he realized I'd seen him he-- well I don't know where he went, but he went there pretty fast."

Her indignation will be funny to George, though he'll try to hide it behind a serious face. She'll roll onto her back, folding her hands over her swelling stomach, and grumble, "I just don't like knowing-- it was our first, you know. Ours, and no one else's."

"It's not like it meant a lot to you at the time," he'll say without rancor, not knowing that that's the part that stings the sharpest; that her first kiss with her future husband was less of an event to her than it was to Christopher Pike.

---

She can’t tell what wakes her, but abruptly she goes from asleep to awake, one eye slitted open against the late morning light, instantly aware of three things. One, her cheek and the pillowcase beneath it are wet from where she’s been drooling. Awesome. Two, everything hurts. Her muscles and eyes and ears and fuck, even her hair all ache, a battlefield for the forces of hangover versus the aftermath of really athletic sex. Three, even though her eye is only open a quarter of an inch, she can see that the face on the pillow across from her is unmistakably that of George Kirk.

"Honorless son of a whore who enjoys being gangbanged by Ferengi," she says in Klingon. At least, she thinks that's what she said; she might've said 'Please pass the salad' for all she's paid attention to Archer's lessons (always delivered at the tail end of his fourth beer and therefore mostly useless) but it's really the only phrase that comes to mind that can adequately express her level of "What the fuck did I do last night?"

"Fnrrrrrgggghh," says Kirk, shifting onto his back, and Winona can't help but agree.

She spends five minutes quietly assessing how much time, money and effort it would take her to lay hands on a sedative hypospray that would knock him out for thirty-six hours, at the end of which she might safely be able to claim he dreamt that they slept together.

Except then she stands up, and certain parts of her body remind her charitably that the aftermath of really athletic sex can feel great. That tense spot between her shoulder blades is gone, and her ankle doesn't twinge when she stretches up on her toes, and if she weren't so hung over she can tell she'd be feeling the pleasantness of the stretch instead of the OH MY GOD WHAT DID YOU DO of her headache.

She looks down, and realizes she's wearing Kirk's Academy Softball t-shirt. She looks up again, and sees his eyes are open, and fixed on her with a smile that communicates equal parts "I am so hung over", "That was some champion fucking we participated in last night", and "How soon can we do it again?"

"Morning," he says fuzzily, half sitting up to stretch his arms out in front of him (which has the added bonus of showing off every well-defined muscle in his torso), then collapses back onto the pillow with a hazy grin that sends a flare of warmth straight through Winona, from her stomach right on up. Or down. She can't really tell.

"I need to throw up," she says, and stumbles toward the bathroom.

And goddamn if he doesn't follow her, and hold her hair back, and get her a glass of water. This is bad on so many levels, Winona thinks, trying to remember what it feels like to have a stomach.

Later that afternoon her comm chirps; she has a text.

2221.1013
Seemed inappropriate to say while I was holding it back as you puked, but your hair looked awesome last night.

"That isn't funny," she says aloud.

"Then why are you smiling?" Anna mutters, not looking up from her homework. Winona says nothing.

---

Winona eventually gives up on figuring out when the switch flipped-- the switch in her brain that controlled George Kirk is a dumbass with the personality of a wild turkey-- from ON to OFF, and stayed that way. She isn’t paying enough attention to notice it happening, but what's she supposed to do? It’s Kirk. She's found out more about him as time has gone on, but nothing about him has really changed the whole time she’s known him, and she can’t see it happening any time soon.

Even more disconcerting is the day she realizes she’s gone from not actively deriding him every chance she gets, to actually sort of being fond of him, or at least a lot more tolerant than she used to be.

The fact that this is at least six months after they start sleeping together doesn’t perturb her. The George Kirk is an enormous pain in my ass switch had gone dormant a long time ago, and she has eyes, doesn’t she? He’s perfectly acceptable company in bed as long as she keeps his mouth occupied, and she can think of plenty of ways to make that happen.

But then one afternoon she’s on top of him in his dorm room, his arms around her and his face in her neck; as he shudders and goes loose-limbed beneath her, his head tips back and he meets her eyes with a lazy grin, her name sighing off his lips, “God, Winona.” Something in her stomach twists sharply as that look burns through her and that’s it, wham bam thank you ma’am, her head tosses back and she’s gone.

Afterward she tries to quell the panic and remind herself she likes hearing her name in bed, there’s nothing special about it, really. But she’s never been good at lying to herself; once a revelation hits, she can’t put it back in the box again. No matter how much she’d like to forget the thought that had blazed through her as she came, I want this, all of it, always.

She goes out and gets drunk that night, stumbles home and writhes for an hour between two cadets whose names she can’t remember in the morning. She wakes up to an empty room and a note on her padd from George saying if she got her lazy ass out of bed before two, did she want to go to a ball game with him and Chris?

The smile that lodges itself on her face while she reads the note for the third time is a depressing sign that this isn’t going away anytime soon.

---

Wednesday 2221.1129 13:12
I’m more sore today than I was after my car accident. Take it as a compliment that you bang harder than a tricked-out hovercar.

Winona flips open her comm to a text from George and is surprised into a high bark of laughter. The Andorian at the next table glares at her; she puts up her index fingers like antennae and makes the only rude Andorian gesture she knows. Coloring periwinkle, the alien girl looks back at her books and Winona goes back to her comm to reply.

Wednesday 2221.1129 13:15
tell me about it. it was so good your neighbors were having a cigarette when i left.

She hears a choke of badly suppressed and easily recognizable laughter from the stacks to her left and whirls to her feet. He’s curled up in the window at the end of the row, and looks up, unapologetic shit-eating grin plastered on. “What?” she asks testily. “They were.”

“And it was,” he agrees serenely. “I mean, I knew what I was getting into, your competitive streak and all, but seriously, if I’d known kicking your ass at pool would get me that in response, Jesus, I’d’ve done it a long time ago.”

“My competitive streak?” she retorts, rolling her eyes. “You’re the one who suggested pool after losing six rounds of darts in a row. I was starting to wonder if your hand-eye coordination was something that only showed up when you--”

“Anyway,” he cuts her off before she can finish trying to embarrass him, “it was awesome, and you should come out with us again tonight. Cole got us into Prax’aj’s poker game-- it’s just students, but apparently it’s really cutthroat or something, he says we can come but we’ll lose all our money, yadda yadda. What do you say?” he asks, his grin dialing up to an intensity that makes her stomach dip pleasantly. “Wanna bring that competitive streak out to play for money?”

Winona’s mouth curves into a smirk. “What, you’re gonna take me on in something I might win at?”

“Let’s not get hasty,” he says smugly. “I’m pretty good at poker.”

“Oh really?” she says, leaning in, light of challenge in her eyes. “Want to put a wager on it?”

George snorts, rolling his eyes. “Wager for what? I won’t take your money,” he says, but she’s already waving the idea away.

“Please, like I’d suggest something that boring,” she scoffs. “No, I was thinking more creative terms.” Her mouth crooks into a smirk and she quirks one eyebrow, trailing her thumb along his collarbone. “Use your imagination, Kirk, come on. You game?”

The look he gives her-- eyes hot on hers, staring at her like he'll never get tired of this, of her-- is making it really hard for her not to climb on top of him right here in the library. It shouldn't be this easy to get him going, but it is, and when he gets that look it gets her going too; she knows he's got imagination and is probably using it right now, and suddenly she's half hoping he's understating how good he is at the game.

And that really isn’t helping her avoid a public indecency citation (make that another public indecency citation) so she straightens and forces herself to take a deep breath, pushing back the surge of hormones that seem to take over her brain every time she’s around him now.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she gets out, managing to make it sound at least sort of natural, and takes a step back.

“Yah, huh, yes,” he manages, flushing to the roots of his hair.

And now she's afraid it's written on her face how fucking adorable that is, so she keeps backing up, tips him a grin and says, “See you later,” fleeing the library in favor of the gym, where she goes toe to toe with T’Bora from Biomechanics and spars until her head’s clear again.

---

She and George text each other all the time now. All. the. time. And it’s fun-- awesome, even. Not just talking to him all the time, but the way it makes her feel like they have their own little club, just the two of them.

 

Monday 2221.1210 15:20
I just got sparklers from my secret santa. Drunken sledding just got to a whole new level of dangerous.

She’s rooting through her closet for her gloves and hat even as she’s texting back.

Monday 2221.1210 15:22
GET ROB, SEE YOU AT THE HILL IN TEN. BET I CAN HIT MORE HILLS AFTER FIVE SHOTS THAN YOU.

Everything he does, she does her damnedest to do better. It makes sense; they started with sex chicken, for gods’ sakes. She’s not the only one with a competitive streak, she doesn’t care what he says.

 

Saturday 2222.421 19:48
heyyyyy whatcha doing?

Winona takes the view that it’s never too early in the evening for alcohol or sexual harassment.

Saturday 2222.421 19:51
Why hello drunk Winona, it’s sober George. I’ll tell drunk George you booty-called; he’ll probably be around in a couple hours

She takes that as an invitation to leave the bar and show up at his dorm room, yank the padd from his hands and start taking his clothes off with a fervor that in retrospect, was probably a little intimidating.

 

Tuesday 2222.603 11:04
Passed a tour group on the way back from your room this morning. The tour guide actually said “And THAT, kids, is what’s known as the walk of shame.” Had to interrupt and explain he wouldn’t know because tour guides never have sex.

This elicits a failed attempt to abort a snort of laughter, and a simultaneous glare from nine-tenths of her Astrometrics class. She ignores them and spends the rest of the class battling a smug grin.

 

Thursday 2222.726 14:37
my hippie aunt just sent me some brownies with a note saying not to eat them under any circumstances until finals are over. excited!

He seems surprised and pleased to be the first (okay, second, but only because Anna was there when she opened the package) person to hear about their impending adventures in organically enhanced dessert. She fends off every attempt of Anna’s to convince her to get started on the brownies early, and doesn't even tell the boys about them until George is out of his Navigation practical.

 

The first clue that she’s in over her head doesn’t even come from him. She’d notice if he started acting weird-- if he treated her like a girl instead of like a friend with benefits-- really awesome, mind-blowing benefits. But what used to kind of bug her is now something she appreciates; that in the important ways he hasn’t changed, not even a little. It's just those little things, the things she doesn't notice right away; and once she does it's like an avalanche.

So it’s Pike, of all people, who makes her realize it's her that's changed; that incredibly, George was like this all along, and it's her own fault she was too blind to see it.

It's just her and George at lunch one day, when another cadet from Engineering track saunters by the table and winks. Winona doesn't wink back, because that's not the kind of rapport they have, and even if they did, George is sitting right there. She looks up from her pasta salad a second later to see Pike in the process of sitting down at the table, looking at her with a flat expression of disapproval stamped on his face.

"What?" she asks, eyebrows up, meaning Is there a problem?.

"Nothing," he says with a shrug. She's about to call him on it when George makes a noise, looking at his watch.

"Fuck, forgot I have a meeting with Travers now, fuck fuck, bye!" He gets up, tosses his stuff into his bag, and pauses to kiss Winona before running off.

And maybe it's the timing-- Pike having a stick up his ass, the other cadet winking at her, George being affectionate in public-- but it pisses her off. Really pisses her off, to the point where she can't even hold back an inarticulate noise of frustration.

It must show on her face, because Pike raises an eyebrow in her direction, now looking amused. "Something the matter?" he asks, smooth and snide.

"When did he start doing that?" she asks. "Kissing me in public."

His face goes annoyed and confused at the same time; he doesn't know what she means, but he knows he's not going to like it. "...What?" he asks.

"That, that thing he just did," she says, motioning between her and the space George was taking up a second ago. "Kissing me goodbye? When did he start that?" And why didn't I notice? Why didn't I tell him to stop? I'm not his fucking girlfriend. It feels defensive and silly even in her head, but the off-putting sense of panic is too real not to pay attention to.

Pike now just looks confused. "He's... he's always done it. Like, since right after the two of you first..." he lets it trail off helpfully, since there isn't a word for what she and George are, and no way to talk about it tactfully.

Well, lucky for Pike she has no interest in talking about it, tactfully or otherwise, at least not to him. She makes her excuses and spends the afternoon not paying attention to anything she's doing, too busy thinking.

When she and George started this friends-with-benefits thing, he hadn't been the only person she was seeing. Gradually over time, though, that changed. She stopped going home with other people, stopped hooking up with other people, and here she was now actually ignoring someone actively checking her out-- what, because George was sitting right there? What the fuck is that? The fact that she'd get in the face of anyone who checked George out in front of her is completely unimportant. The focus here is her, and the fact that she's losing her edge. Maybe she's already lost it, and she didn't notice. Didn't care, because she's been--

Well there's really no other word for it; she's been happy. Really happy, more than she ever has been before, more than she ever expected to be with anyone. She's not just sleeping with George anymore. She likes him. Honest to god eyelash-fluttering butterflies-in-the-stomach likes him. He smiles at her and it's like the world stops. And realizing that George has gone from orbiting far around her to just short of the center of her life scares the everlasting shit out of her.

It’s some sort of sick irony that when it comes to sex and casual dating, Winona’s nothing short of a pro, but being in the vicinity of admitting her own feelings for someone, she’s fucking clueless.

She tries to cool down, decides to dial it back a little, maybe try to go a couple days without-- okay, one day at this point would be a record, and she can’t even manage that. She doesn’t reply to a few texts, goes to a different cafe for lunch. But as she’s leaving Advanced Bioengineering Topics she hears her name and turns to see Kirk lounging against the wall.

“Hey,” she says, ignoring the jerk of her heart against her ribs.

“You forget your comm or something?” he asks lightly, a little smug, and suddenly she’s mad enough to spit. Like he knows me, she thinks furiously.

“Nope,” she says, turning back away to keep going-- wherever she was going, which she’s sure she’ll remember once she’s not standing in front of Kirk and his stupid dopey face anymore.

“Weelll, then what’s up?” he asks, dragging the word out as she hears him lever off the wall and start after her.

“Maybe I just don’t feel like dealing with you today,” she says shortly, not slowing down.

But his legs are four inches longer than hers; he keeps pace easily, and doesn’t get out of breath talking while he does it. “Dealing with-- okay, did I get some sort of space herpes overnight or something?” She doesn’t have to look at him to know the look on his face, part hurt, part confused, all infuriating for making her actually want to explain herself (for making her wish she knew her own emotional landscape well enough to explain it).

“If you did, I hope it was after you left my room,” she snaps back, shoving her hands in her pockets as she stalks on.

“Hey,” he says, a note of urgency creeping into his voice, and he turns suddenly, blocking her way, making her pull up short to avoid colliding with him. “Hey, Winona, Jesus, what did I do?”

“Nothing!” she snaps. “I just-- you’re annoying and you’re always there and you’re just, can I please go to my class now?”

Kirk steps in, lowers his voice. “Look, you don’t get to ignore me while I still have your handprint on my ass, okay? What the hell is the matter?”

She glares up at him, hot with anger. “Nothing,” she bites out, cold and flat and calm as she can possibly make it. “Not a goddamn thing.”

Something hard flickers across George’s face, and he backs away, the sudden space between them socking her in the gut like a fist. “Fine,” he says. “Cool. Have a good class.”

He turns on his heel and is gone before she can draw breath to take it back.

That night she’s at a bar, not the one the five of them frequent together, since she figures the boys will be out drowning George’s self-pity with darts and bad music. She’s listening to Havlicek from Combat wax poetic about the latest jet she got to take for a test drive when a hand lands on her shoulder, not heavy but insistent, and she turns, booze-heavy, to find Pike’s steely eyes on her.

“Got a minute?” he asks tightly, and much as she’d like to get up and punch him (Havlicek would do it, she knows, and curses whatever cosmic being denied her the drive to be a recklessly offensive fighter pilot instead of just a pain in everyone’s ass) she stands instead, nods to the table full of pilots and makes her excuses, follows Pike outside and belligerently lights a cigarette just because she knows he hates the smell.

“What do you want?” she asks around it, pocketing her lighter.

“I want you to stop being a coward,” he spits, fury carving lines on his face like she’s never seen them before.

“What the fuck?” she says, sputtering with sudden rage, shifting the smoke to her hand, stepping up into his space, demanding. “Who the fuck are you to--”

“His best friend,” Pike says, and fuck, are they really having this conversation?

“George doesn’t need you going to bat for him,” she says with a sneer. “How is what he and I do any of your business?”

“It has nothing to do with you,” he says derisively. “I couldn’t-- really, couldn’t care less who he goes to bed with, but it’s not just about that. You’re more than just a girl he goes home with sometimes, you’re a friend, our friend, and even more than that to him. I just-- I really thought better of you than to string him along.”

“So what, you came over here to-- nice bit of stalking, by the way-- to what, guilt trip me for being a bitch? Better men than you have tried,” she says, full of ire.

“No, for fuck’s sake, I came to-- to find out if-- look I just want to know, okay, I’m going to be the one cleaning up after you if you decide you’re done with him, and I want to prepare myself. If this is some sort of existential crisis, some freak-out that has nothing to do with him and you’ll be back to normal in a week, great. That means I have one job to do. But if you were never really in this for more than the sex, and you’re just now figuring out how much he-- what you--" He stops, breathes, tries again. "I just want to know how much heartbreak he’s in for so I know how to help him through it.”

It isn’t his words but the look on his face that gets her. His eyes are flat, no entreaty or expectation present; if anything, he looks like a guy who’s already found out the bad news and is just waiting on her confirmation to seal the deal. Like he knows she’s going to let George down, and just wishes she’d done them all a favor and not bothered in the first place.

“Fuck you,” she manages around the lump suddenly swelling in her throat. “Fuck you, Pike. You don’t-- how dare you? How fucking dare you?” She wants to say more; the words crowd her throat, things like I’m no good at this and I love him more than you do and I don’t need to prove anything to you, except they won’t come out because she’s not sure any of them are true, and he wouldn’t believe her even if they were.

His mouth flattens out even more, and he steps back, hands up in surrender. “Fine,” he says. “I figured that would be what you’d say, but I just thought-- if I could spare him a little, is all. Nevermind.” He moves to go, then turns on a dime to get back in her face and say, “And fuck you too, Winona, for making me want to think you weren’t exactly like everyone said you were.”

Watching him walk away, shoulders hunched against the wind, she bites her lip and thinks she might finally get it.

---

It's the last real, emotional and honest conversation Winona will have with Christopher Pike for over ten years.

She'll stay mad for a while, but not as long as he will.

(Actually, she'll never really know if he's still mad or simply decided she was too chaotic to get invested in. He still doesn't trust me not to break George's heart, she'll think, and get angry all over again.)

Even after all is said and done-- even by the time there's a ring on her finger and she's telling people it's Lieutenant Kirk now, actually-- she won't get any more out of him than cool smiles and polite laughter. He'll never seem awkward (too much a politician, she'll think with a mental eyeroll) and George, gods bless him, will barely notice a difference.

But Winona will notice. Pike may never have been her best friend, but he'd been a good one, one she trusted, and she'll never stop noticing the distance that's grown between them, a distance she feels even when (especially when) they're standing side by side.

By the time she graduates, she'll be fed up, sick of trying to make up with someone who's incapable of forgiving and forgetting. By the time she boards the Kelvin as an engineering officer, she'll be grateful not to endure his too-bright smiles and too-pleasant conversations more than once in a long, long while.

By the time she comes home a widow, she'll barely feel she knows him at all.

---

If this were a romantic comedy, it would be raining and she’d show up at George's dorm late at night, dripping wet. He’d open the door and she wouldn’t have to say anything; he’d read it on her face, pull her inside, strip her bare and warm her with his big familiar hands, with the touch of his skin on hers.

But this isn’t a goddamn movie and she’s begun to think her chances of muddling through this mess have all but vanished.

Winona leaves the bar, debates going home and getting into bed. But it's not even midnight and if she came home this early it wouldn't be five minutes until Anna would be taking her temperature, demanding to know what she ate and drank, and when, and did you see the bartender rinse the glass out first? By the time she's walked back to the dorm she's sober enough to remember her car keys jingling in her pocket, and decides to go for a drive.

It's a pretty night, and everything has that cool wet smell that reminds her of summer. She gets on the freeway heading north and turns up the radio, singing along at the top of her lungs, trying to drown out the anxious thudding of her heart, to quiet the incessant thoughts running through her mind. None of it works. She's so mad she's dizzy, her head spinning with frustrated discontent. She's mad at George for being George, madder at herself for being unable to change. She's furious at Pike for dressing her down, for being called out and called a coward.

She doesn't know what she's doing; she doesn't know how not to be selfish. But the more she thinks about it, the less sense that makes. If selfishness is taking what you want, then why is it so hard to say she wants George? The answer to that is complicated, which really means it contains things she doesn't want to admit. But she's always prided herself on not being stupid-- and this, right here, she has to admit, is pretty stupid.

The downside to taking the risk is not knowing what'll come of it. The uncertainty. She doesn't know what will happen two months from now, or ten months, or two years. There are no guarantees. And it dawns on Winona that as much as she'd like to pretend otherwise, she's gone out of her way to avoid putting herself in situations where she has anything to lose.

But I already have something to lose. The thought is startled out of her; she doesn't know where it comes from, but it sounds right. It feels true. And as that's settling in her stomach, she realizes something else: not only does she have something to lose, but she's already on the verge of losing it.

There's a line of grey at the horizon, the first touch of morning leaching away the night sky. She's been driving longer than she meant to, longer than she even realized. She checks the next road sign she passes; she's two hours from San Francisco and in a little over six hours she's supposed to be sitting down for her next Quantum Calculus quiz. She feels weightless, like the slowly creeping realization that she's in love with George has removed her from reality. It feels unreal, anyway; she's almost afraid of it, of saying it so plainly and letting it take up residence in her head. But she's spent months, now, avoiding the question. It hasn't worked, and she can't deny anymore that she knows the answer to the question.

She uses the cut-through marked 'official use only' to turn around and go south again, flips the radio to a station playing crappy peppy pop. It's perfect. She doesn't know any of the words, but she sings along anyway, loud as she can til her voice hurts. She wishes she had a cigarette, a pack of cigarettes, anything to make her fingers stop itching as the sky gets brighter and home gets closer.

It's not raining and she doesn't have a boom box, so she sits outside his dorm underneath a tree, ignoring the damp grass tickling her ankles, drumming her fingers on her thigh. He's got to come out of there sometime.

Finally he does. Cliche, sure, but it's no stretch to say her heart leaps at the sight of him; though it's just as accurate to say her stomach does a queasy flip. One arm struggling with his jacket, a padd tucked into the crook of the other, his hair wild, he looks like he's been awake for less than five minutes and isn't quite sure why he's not still in bed.

Her heart doesn't just leap. It tries to climb out of her chest. She's on her feet before she's directed her legs to lever her up, and all but jogs to fall into step beside him. It takes this, her being this close, for him to look up and notice her. His eyes soften, then turn guarded, and he stops walking, still giving her that wary, uncertain look.

"Hi," she says, grinning.

"Hi," he says back.

"How's it going?" She's awkward, and knows it, but can't help it. For once her glib confidence has deserted her.

"Fine." Small talk isn't getting her anywhere, she can tell. So she decides just to come right out with it.

"I was a jerk to you yesterday," she says, the grin dropping. "And I... I guess I realized some things that I... well I warned you I don't do this well. The emotional stuff, I mean. But I didn't mean to toss that all back on you." She smiles again, the best way she knows how, reaches for his hand and links it with hers, her thumb tracing soft over his knuckles. "Forgive me?"

If anyone had asked her to describe George's personality in five words or less, one of her first words would've been "easygoing". She expects him to relent. He should relent, forgive her, say he understands she's had her head up her ass, but as long as they're both on the same page it's all going to be fine.

He doesn't do any of those things. He looks at his feet and swallows, his mouth a little slant of unhappy concern. "I don't know how," he says simply. "It's not just that easy."

"Why the hell not?" she blurts, thunderstruck. "I mean this is it, right, you've been waiting for me to admit I was falling in love with you for like, months. And I finally get it, okay, you're right. I'm in love with you." She's said it now, twice more than she was actually intending on saying it out loud. It doesn't seem to be having the intended effect.

"I believe you mean it," he says, his voice going even quieter. "I just-- I don't want to need you more than you need me. I don't want to do this for a month or two and then lose it when it gets too hard for you. You really don't do the emotional stuff well," he says, meeting her eyes with a wry little smile that turns her inside out. "How do you know you're going to want me as long as I want you? 'Cause I'll warn you, I can't see myself ever swearing you off voluntarily. I was in love with you way before Barnett's birthday party," he admits, and now she really feels like she's on a roller coaster, because holy shit, how can you hang around someone for years and not notice something like that?

It takes her a second to get it together, stop gaping and remember what the question was. "I don't," she says simply. "I don't know. That's what scares the fuck out of me, too. So if you're looking for some sure sign, you're not gonna get it." It feels shitty, saying it so baldly, but what the hell did she just spend four hours driving around northern California for if not to figure that out?

"Yeah," says George, eyes dropping, deflating in a way that wrenches her heart all over again. "That's kinda what I thought." He puts a hand to her face; warm and familiar, it's all she can do not to close her eyes, lean into the touch. Then he lets go of her hand and backs away, and this time, too exhausted to argue, she lets him go.

---

After that Winona hardly notices the time passing. It's two weeks from the end of term, and she's got more than enough to keep her busy. Exams, papers, getting ready for a bit of a break before junior year starts off with a bang. She's spending the summer interning with Zareene Glair, who was chief engineer on the USS Nelson Mandela and is now the director of a research facility that's actually more like a glorified mechanic's garage. She gets to spend two months playing with engines from every kind of ship the galaxy has to offer, and she gets class credit for it.

It would be an exaggeration to say she's miserable. Gearing up for the internship, the apartment she and Anna are going to have next year, the week-long trip they're taking to Rigel II-- it's not like she's not busy. But it's not the same. She's not the same. After a few times considering what happened she figures it was just too little, too late. And now she's got to figure out how to reassemble her daily life without George Kirk in it.

She's not holding her breath waiting for that to get easy. It's anything but. But she really doesn't see how she has any other choice.

She's grateful that at least Rob and Jon aren't ignoring her too. She sees them less, of course; bros before hoes, or whatever the fuck. But at least she didn't lose them completely.

Pike, when he sees her in public, acts like she's not even there.

If she were a little less rational, she'd be angry-- furious, even-- that she let someone ruffle her composure like that, let George get under her skin and into her heart and then didn't even have the good graces to date her when she said she was in love with him. But she can't blame him for trying to be sensible-- in his place, she can't even say she'd have done anything different.

The day everyone leaves campus she sees him briefly, from a distance, leaving his dorm with a duffle over his shoulder, loading a car with what she assumes are his parents trying to help. His father is tall, stocky, sporting a truly ridiculous straw hat. His mother is all smiles, red flowers on her dress, expansive hand gestures as she watches her husband crowd George into the car.

George looks up as he closes the trunk, and though she's standing fifty yards away, she knows he sees her. She should go, she knows, should stop tormenting herself and just leave. But she raises a hand with a soft little smile curling her lips, and tries hard not to feel so hopeful when he waves back.

---

Summer's over before it feels like it's even begun. Her internship, vacation, everything goes by so fast, come August she's back in San Francisco feeling like she never left. It's enough to send her into the funk she's been putting off for two months, especially when one of the first things she sees out of her new apartment window is George and Pike on their way somewhere, companionable as ever.

For two weeks she's miserable. Even Travers asks her what the hell's the matter, and if anyone might've had a prayer of getting it out of her, it'd be him. But she feels silly talking about her personal life to him (that'll change, but not for months) so she keeps it in.

Anna knows, of course. She's known about Winona and George since the beginning, almost, and after two weeks of watching Winona mope (it's what she's doing, they both know it) she loses her patience.

"You have got to do something about this," she says without preamble, dropping a stack of padds on their kitchen table one afternoon and putting her hands on her hips, glaring down at Winona with all her mustered attitude. "You are a fucking sad sack, and you're turning this into a manic depressive den of patheticness. You're the depressive half, in case you were wondering."

"I wasn't," Winona retorts, drawing herself up defensively. "The hell do you want me to do?"

"Go talk to him, for Pete's sake. He's had two months to stew, and if he's got half a brain in his head he's realized that you're both stupid for each other and should just go off and have a dozen babies already."

"First of all, ew," she says, ticking off points on her fingers. "Second of all, he's the one who rejected me. Third of all, I just need a little time to get over him. Space, you know?"

"You had space," Anna says firmly. "You had time. Now we're doing things my way. Take a fucking shower, and go talk to him. Before I hack into your padd and steal all your Bioweapons notes."

"You wouldn't," Winona says, horrified.

Anna points toward the bathroom. "Shower. Now."

Winona goes. Half an hour later she's been ushered out the door, with boots and earrings on and everything. She's scared to death, and pissed, and has no idea what she's going to say to him when she finds him.

"He's the one who said no," she mutters to herself. "He's the one who said he needed a sure thing. Like there are any sure things, ever, anywhere. Like one or both of us couldn't drop dead any minute, anytime we go into space, or walking down the fucking street with a trolley coming the other way. Stupid, stupid ass."

She keeps muttering to herself as she stomps toward his and Rob's apartment, getting more incensed on the way. By the time she gets to his door she's worked herself up into a steaming rage, and bangs on the door three times, harder than was maybe strictly necessary.

It's Rob who opens up. "Hi," he says, clearly stumped beyond belief.

"Is he here?" she asks, and he moves aside so she can see George sitting on the couch, looking just as bewildered as Rob, and cautious. "Hi," he says slowly.

"So this is the thing," she says. She doesn't care that Rob's here for this; actually it might be better, so someone besides George can tell Pike later on that she means business. "You said you couldn't take the risk that it would get too hard for me, that I'd leave because I'd get spooked, or whatever. You said you needed to know for sure. But that's bullshit, George, it's so much bullshit you don't even realize you're wading in it. I don't do emotional shit well because no one's ever made me want to do it well. I've screwed around because I had nothing better to do, because it was that or be bored and lonely all the time, and I can handle bored but no one wants to be lonely."

She's on a roll now, everything she'd thought about saying is melting under what's pouring out of her, and she doesn't care if it makes sense or not, because she's never meant anything more in her life. Also she's on a roll now, and doesn't know if she could stop if she wanted to. She takes a quick breath and goes on.

"And yeah, when we first started there wasn't much more to it but that changed, how do you not see that? It changed so fast even I didn't realize it had until it was way too late to go back. You said you were in love with me way before Barnett's party, and whatever, I can't say the same. But it's been a long fucking time, even if I didn't know it for what it was. And I've just spent almost three months fucking miserable because I can't text you or call you or even talk to you anymore, and it's making me lose my goddamn mind. I miss you, I've already said like eighty-seven times that I'm in love with you, so can you just stop being a stubborn dick and date me already?"

Her words run out at the same time as her breath, and she stands there practically panting, her pulse drumming hard and fast in her ears, her eyes locked on his. He's starting to flush, his mouth half open like he's thinking about saying something.

The silence drags on for almost a minute until behind her, Rob mutters, "Jesus George, will you just fucking say yes already? This is getting really awkward watching the two of you stare at each other."

George turns crimson from the neck up, and swallows. A slight smile curls up the corners of his mouth, and Winona's body abruptly stops feeding her the panic adrenaline and switches to giddy adrenaline instead. "Yeah," he says, and she feels herself smile so wide she thinks her face is splitting. "I was... kind of an idiot. I mean, not that anyone who's willing to date you isn't automatically... Anyway. So uh. Yes?" He looks like he doesn't know what to do next, but Winona knows if she takes even one step towards him she's going to embarrass the hell out of him in front of Rob, and besides, she doesn't really want an audience for the rest of what she has to say (and do) to him.

"Awesome," she says, still grinning like a loon. "So take me out tonight. Dinner. Pick me up at eight?"

"Yeah, okay," says George, his grin matching hers. She can almost hear Rob's eyes rolling around in his head. "See you then."

"Cool. Bye. Bye Rob," she says as she turns, and yeah, he looks like he's undergone the galaxy's shortest session of Tyrellian white-noise torture ever. She can't really bring herself to give a shit. She can't believe that just happened, actually; already she's forgotten half of what she blurted out in the heat of the moment, but she knows it must've been good since she got the result she was after.

She's buzzing with so much energy she's halfway home, grinning and practically bouncing, before a coherent thought makes its way through her mind.

George Kirk is my gods damned boyfriend, she thinks, and has to bite her tongue to keep from cheering out loud in the middle of the street.

---

That night he comes to her apartment at eight. "Dinner?" he says when she answers the door in a dress. But she's been waiting hours already, and restraint isn't her strong suit. She grabs him by the front of the shirt and pulls him inside.

They end up getting a pizza delivered instead.

---

By the end of Winona's senior year, Captain Travers’ office door is programmed to let her in when she rings, so she doesn’t have to wait for him to come back from wherever he is, just sits down on the sofa beneath the wide window and waits, scrolling through her news feed as she taps her foot against the floor.

When the door hushes open to admit him, she drops the padd and leaps to her feet with a sloppy salute and grin. “Sir,” she greets him, “happy Friday.”

“If you say so,” Travers huffs, all but falling into his desk chair. “What brings you down here, Winnie? Shouldn’t you be out partying?” He grins; he knows her habits.

“Well sir, I wanted to ask you about my postgraduate assignment.”

“What about it?” The list isn’t meant to go up for another three days, but Winona’s never been patient, and she’d rather see if she can wheedle it out of Travers than get someone to hack the database for her.

“Do you-- could you tell me-- have they told you?” It almost hurts, the fierce flutter of excitement in her chest that won’t quit; already she’s looking forward to telling George about this (to going home, to their place, their apartment, how fucking weird and awesome and batshit nuts is that?) and her mouth is dry with anticipation and hope.

“About you?” Travers asks, eyebrow quirking. “Or about you and someone else?”

She can feel she’s flushing to the roots of her hair. “The latter, sir. I just-- Kirk and I were hoping to-- to celebrate this weekend, if we-- well. If we can.”

“You should celebrate anyway,” Travers says dryly. “You graduated, you’re off to serve the universe, to boldly go and other split infinitives.” But he’s reaching for his padd, taps it a few times while Winona fidgets, suddenly on the edge of panic.

Travers purses his lips, then presses them together hard. When he lifts his eyes to her, her stomach sinks. “I’m sorry,” he says gently. “Kirk’s been assigned to the Kelvin, you're shipping off on the Sarcozy."

Disappointment wars with You knew this could happen in her head, and she feels her shoulders sag. She takes a deep breath and nods. "Okay. Thank you, sir. I appreciate your uh, creative use of Starfleet resources to warn me ahead of time."

He eyes her speculatively. "You gonna be okay? Not gonna ruin all your plans, is it?"

Winona shakes her head. "Nah. We kind of expected... anyway, we'll get over it." She surprises herself by grinning as she adds, "At least now we won't be flouting regs."

"Like that ever would've stopped you," Travers replies with a lifted eyebrow.

"Touche, sir," she says with a nod. She jerks her thumb over her shoulder and says, "I should go tell him. But thanks again." She raises one hand in a lame sort of wave and goes, trying not to droop again until she's out of his office.

When she gets home George is on the couch reading something on his padd, the television on soft in the background. He leaps up when she comes in, his face alive with excitement, and any other day it would be funny, the way his expression comically deflates when he sees her face. "Shit," he says, flopping back down on the couch, his forearms on his knees as he looks up at her.

She sinks down next to him, resting her cheek on his shoulder, absurdly comforted by his arm going around her waist. "Yeah. You're going on the Kelvin, I'm on the gods-damned Sarcozy." The fact that the Sarcozy is one of the few ships in the fleet running an engine with dual dilithium cylinders is not something she cares about right now.

"Shit," he says again. "Well. Goddammit." She smushes her cheek further against him, just enough that she can see his face is flaming red. Embarrassment isn't one of the reactions she'd expected from this outcome, and she pulls back, her head tilted to the side.

"What is it?" she asks. He blushes more and she knows something's up; she pulls one knee up and turns to sit sideways, facing him. "What, come on, it's written all over your face!"

"It's just-- I shouldn't have banked on it, is all. But I..." Impossibly, he turns a brighter red and sticks his hands in his pockets. "I've wanted to do this for a while," he says, and when he pulls his hands free he's got a ring held delicately between his thumb and forefinger. It's his mother's; she noticed it a dozen times on Celeste's finger, assumed Tiberius had kept it after she died, but here he's holding it out to her with such a look of unguarded hope that Winona almost wants to cry.

"I thought it would be-- I don't know, appropriate, or something. Plus we'd get better quarters if we-- I don't know, it's all messed up now, and--"

"You idiot," she interrupts him, when she's pushed past the shock to be able to form words. "Would you just shut up and ask me already?" She hooks her hair behind her ears, idiotically wishing she wasn't in her uniform.

He's still tomato red from the neck up, but his grin is as wide and silly as hers when he says, "I love you. I want to marry you. Will you?"

She holds out her hand and waits for him to slide the ring onto her finger before flinging herself at him, arranging herself in his lap with her arms around his neck, forehead pressed to his. "Yes," she murmurs, kissing every inch of his face she can reach. "Yes, yes, yes."

---

Her eight months on the Sarcozy will seem to fly, and to take forever. Planning a wedding isn't exactly a walk in the park, but at least it'll keep her busy. She'll like her ship, her captain, her crew, but a part of her heart will already live on the Kelvin, and though she won't have seen it yet, she'll already sort of feel she loves it.

Their shore leaves won't coincide much, but they'll talk and email constantly, reminding Winona of the way they used to text when they first hooked up. At the end of their missions, they'll spend three days in San Francisco getting reacquainted ("Rechristening the entire apartment, you mean," Rob will say, "and remind me never to touch a surface in that place again.") before boarding the shuttle for Iowa.

The next time Winona goes into space, it'll be with a different last name and a gold band on her finger. The minute she steps off the transporter pad and into the hallways of the USS Kelvin, she'll grin wide and fierce, looking around her wide-eyed as a kid.

"What?" George will ask beside her, linking his fingers with hers and squeezing.

"Nothing," she'll say, squeezing back. "It's good to be home."

Chapter Text

She can see the burning ship through the window of the shuttle.

"Relax now. The hard part is over," the nurse murmurs, tucking the blanket around her. She doesn't seem to realize how ludicrous a statement that is, but Winona can't summon another ounce of energy to tell the woman so. Spent, exhausted and empty, she turns on her side, curling protectively around the baby (her baby, their baby) and swallows hard.

She tips her head back, blinking against the tears, and that's when she really sees it-- parabolas of black steel, a thorny flower burning from within, debris floating in a corona around it. It could be beautiful. The part of her brain that takes apart ships' schematics as naturally as breathing itches to dissect its alien architecture, to know how it was built, how it works. Mostly, though, she wants to watch it burn until there's nothing left but dust.

She aches everywhere, body still throbbing with the after-effects of giving birth, heart and mind overwhelmed with all she's lost-- a ship that was her home, a captain who was her friend, and George, gods, George--

Beside her, Jim stirs, pulling her out of her wallowing, waving his tiny fists with an irritated mumble. Looking down, she sees a disgruntled expression on his face so familiar that it robs her of her ability to breathe. "Goddamn deep space telemetry," George would mutter, collapsing on their bed and sending a stack of padds cascading to the floor, and Winona would laugh at the furrow between his brows, trace it with her finger and tease, "Better figure it out soon, you're gonna have to give me some reason to keep you around when you're old and wrinkly."

Another wave of agony looms, crashes into her (there won't be any old and wrinkly for them, not for George and gods, how the fuck is she supposed to do this alone) and threatens to drag her down in its undertow, and finally she forces a breath in through her nose, out through her mouth, then does it again, like she hadn't just spent however the fuck long it was being coached and egged on through exactly the same thing.

When she's calm she looks down at Jim again, and presses a kiss to his forehead. He's a marvel-- beautiful, she'd said, but perfect is more like it-- and for all she's done this once before it feels so new, so huge and terrifying, that she curls in close around him again. "Hey, Jimmy boy," she whispers, tucking her finger into the coil of his grip, staring awestruck at the sweep of his blond eyelashes. "Welcome to the world. It kinda sucks right now," she says with a breathless little hiccup, almost a laugh, not quite a sob, "but you're here, which means... means it's getting better already. I don't usually say trite shit like that," she adds with a rueful little smile, brushing another kiss to the crown of his head. "But in this case I think it might actually be true." Jim snuffles agreeably against her, and despite her grim determination to stay awake until they're rescued, she feels exhaustion slipping over her, seeping into her skin and pulling her down.

Who does Nurse Whatshername think she's kidding, Winona wonders as she sinks into sleep. The hard part hasn't even begun.

---

They spend two days on shuttle 37 before it's rescued.

Starfleet didn't waste any time sending the Lincoln and the H. R. Clinton to pick them up, fifty shuttles' worth of people, eight hundred surivors. Winona tries not to be angry that there was no help for the Kelvin when she needed it, reminds herself there are limits to space travel (she'd know, having spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to bend them) and raging at things she can't change won't do her any good.

She gets her own cabin on the trip home, and doesn't leave it once the entire time.

She spends most of her time lying on the bed, Jim cradled in her arms. Torn between watching the first days of Jim's life as they happen, and sleeping as often as she can in an effort to forget what's happened, hours pass where she floats somewhere between the two, lost and unaware of the passage of time. She tries, every now and then, to convince herself to comm home to Earth. But as much as she wants to see her older son's face, she can't bring herself to do it.

Selfishly, she doesn't want to be the one to tell Tiberius he's lost his son, to tell Sam his father's dead. She doesn't know that she can make herself say it aloud, yet.

Being back on Earth is hell. Pure, unmitigated hell and half the time she wishes she'd gone down with her ship (with her husband and their ship) because then, at least, she'd be spared the unflagging obsessive attention the entire planet has focused on her like a laser-- on her, and on Jim. She's a war widow now, and everyone wants a piece of her. She's done a damn good job so far of holding her head up. In front of people she's calm, fierce, not afraid to snap at a general who thinks he knows what it's like to stand in her shoes, or a reporter who doesn't know and wants to.

In private she's been okay-- keeping it together, at least, grateful for Jon's quiet support and Rob's protective instincts (and even Pike's stoic presence) though she doesn't tell them that. She won't, can't let herself lean on them the way they want her to. She's not used to wanting it, and realizing she does scares the shit out of her. Now more than ever, she has to take care of herself. Now more than ever, she's an island, and a lonely one at that.

It only takes two inquisitive reporters having their recorders jammed up their asses (metaphorically, though God, if she hadn't been nursing) for the press to figure out Winona isn't going to oblige anyone with an exclusive. The paparazzi are more tenacious, but even they can be persuaded to back off when Jon uses his newly-elevated rank to assign her a security detail of two Vulcans. Both tower over her by nine inches, and look to be carved of marble.

She protests the assignment at first, but after Tokas neck-pinches a photographer who tries to grab her sleeve on her way out of the apartment building, she stays quiet and lets them do their thing.

It takes her a month to realize she only leaves the house when she has to. Another two weeks for someone else (first Pike, then Rob) to say something. I haven't seen you since the memorial, and When am I going to get some quality time with my godson? She doesn't know how to answer them, doesn't know how to find a sane explanation for taking Jim's bassinette into the bathroom with her so he's never out of her sight, for spending hours each night standing red-eyed in the door to Sam's room watching him sleep.

It's Anna-- once Anna Dresden, now Anna Mitchell-- who sends her over the edge.

She's avoided the others-- the eight hundred others George gave himself up to save. She's afraid she won't be able to handle it, that she'll see the families still whole and safe because her husband is dead and end up saying some of the things she thinks at three a.m. when the bed is far too big and she can't breathe for the ache in her chest. Mostly, though, she fears the way they'll dote on Jim-- she'd have to be an idiot not to get the symbolism of it, the child born as the Kelvin died, herald of a frantic new era in interstellar politics, constant reminder of the dangers of discovery, proof that even in the shadow of attack and destruction there is still a light of blah blah blah.

Winona's a selfish woman; she doesn't want her son to be anyone's touchstone.

But this is something she can't fend off-- Anna's round face and sparkling eyes, Gary on her hip not much older than Jim, trying her best to make conversation while Winona sits sullen on the couch opposite her, Jim asleep in the crook of her arm. She's had her defenses up for so long now-- nine weeks, three days, a few hours, and she wonders how long it'll be before she doesn't know the number-- she wouldn't begin to know how to take them down.

She discovers her mistake was in thinking she had some control over herself, over the urge to give in to the familiarity of Anna's soft smiles and the quirk of her mouth when she wants to reach out and close the distance between them with a hug, but doesn't. It just figures; Anna knows better than to make small talk, but she doesn't harp on the obvious either. She doesn't want to cave, but somewhere between the brave smile Winona opens the door wearing, and Anna saying, "I couldn't endure this like you've been doing, Win, you've always been the strongest of all of us," she finds herself shaking.

Then Anna does what she hasn't yet, and tucks herself into the small space between Winona and the arm of the sofa, her head resting lightly on Winona's shoulder, hand small and comforting on Winona's arm. "I'm so sorry," she whispers, and like that, Winona's gone, dissolving in a bout of tears the likes of which she hasn't indulged in since before she walked off the USS Lincoln into the barrage of lights and noise and questions.

Anna's not fazed by her tears-- not for nothing is she a primary school teacher-- just plucks Jim out of her arms and sets him in his bassinette, puts on the kettle for tea and is back to pull Winona into the circle of her arm before she can even attempt to get her hideous, gasping sobs under control. "It's okay," Anna says, and she's the first person to say it that doesn't at least partly mean You'll be okay eventually; she means It's okay that you feel like you'll never be okay again.

Winona believes her, and cries into her shoulder until she tires herself out.

---

The next morning she wakes up on the sofa feeling heavy and not unpleasantly hollow, to see a blinking light on her comm indicating she has a message waiting from Tiberius Kirk. He didn't call, just recorded the message and sent it; unsurprising, she's always guessed George's aversion to vid calls was paternally bequeathed. His wide face fills the screen, creased with lines from the sun and from laughter, and she can see he has a new tan line on his forehead from his hat, and he needs a haircut.

"Hi, Winnie," he says with an awkward little wave that makes her smile. "And Sam if you're listening. Winnie, I know this is a bit out of the blue, but I had a mind to ask you something, a favor, but I don't want you to feel like you have to say yes. Which, since I'm even saying this, means there's a likelihood you will, but anyway. It's been brought to my attention that I'm not doing as good a job taking care of this place as I did when I wasn't the only one living here. And I figured you might be wanting a little change of scenery, maybe, a vacation? So anyway, I've got enough spare rooms here you could stay as long as you liked, or for good, if you were of a mind. Be nice not to have to go all the way to that God-awful city to see my grandsons..."

He says more, but Winona's still replaying the last thing she heard, stay as long as you liked, or for good, and pressing her hand to her mouth. She's not an idiot; this is no more a favor to Tiberius than their visit yesterday was a favor to Anna. But he's giving her an out, a reason, a story that won't hurt her pride no matter who she tells it to.

And just like that, she knows she wants it. She had liked Iowa when George took her there-- twice before they were married, a couple of times since-- and now, sitting in an apartment that had been too small for four and was now far too large for three, she wants it, wants to say yes, yes to all of it. Wants the sky and the flat expanses, the warmth to bake this damp chill from her bones, to dry her tears the way she hasn't been able to do herself.

For the rest of her life she'll never be able to say if it was the right decision or not. But in the moment, there's only one choice. She messages Tiberius back; records and sends it instead of calling, just like he did, because she doesn't trust herself not to cry again if they talk in real time.

She tells him yes, and gets to her feet, and starts to pack their suitcases.

---

They show up at four-thirty in the afternoon on a Tuesday, the cab driver ignoring Winona's protests that no really, she can manage the bassinette and her two suitcases and Sam's duffle bag and backpack all on her own. Tiberius opens the front door like he's been sitting there waiting, and comes down the porch steps with his arms wide for Sam to throw himself into, holding him tight for a minute before swinging him up onto his hip.

"Took you long enough," he says slyly, somehow paying the cabbie and hooking his arm through the handle of the bassinette and passing Sam's backpack up to him all at once.

"Yeah, yeah," she grins, rolling her eyes. "If they had a goddamn transporter station here..."

"Don't hold your breath," he grins back. "A shipyard's one thing, Winnie, but we're never gonna be a transport hub."

"Thank gods for small favors," she mutters, following Tiberius into the house.

It's low and cool inside, golden wood and silent hum of air conditioning, and Sam runs for the den and the box of toys there. It smells old; not musty or moldy, but dry like a library. Comforting. Tiberius is a rumble of noise, rebounding from kitchen to living room to den while Winona stands in the entryway, bags at her feet, looking up the stairs and suddenly feeling too tired to move, or even breathe.

Tiberius has a hand on her elbow, steering her up the stairs before she can protest. "Jim--"

"I'll watch him," he says firmly. "Raised four kids, Winnie, I know what to do with a screaming four-month-old. But you're no good to him dead on your feet, and frankly, you look like shit."

"And you're poised to win Miss Iowa by a landslide," she says, but that uses up all her energy and she plummets into the bed he pushes her toward, curling around the pillows and half-asleep before he's even out of the room.

When she wakes up the next morning, the sun is bright in the window next to the bed, and she can hear Sam's voice downstairs mingling with Tiberius and the TV. Home, she thinks. Yeah. We can make this home.

---

"Winona." Pike looks surprised to be hearing from her, and she guesses in his position she'd be surprised too.

"Asshole," she spits. "You asshole." His eyebrows go up higher, mouth going slack and wide with shock, confusion, panic. "You, oh gods, you-- how fucking dare you?"

"Winona," he says again, and she forces herself over the fence she's been straddling between tears and fury.

"Don't-- do not." She breathes, twice, and forms a complete sentence. "I got a message from Maryse Robau today, and can you imagine my surprise-- ohh, yes, I think you can," she seethes as his expression washes blank with realization.

"Winona," he tries for a third time, and her hands are flailing but she stills them with two abrupt slashes downward, cutting him off.

"No. No. I cannot believe you. Your fucking dissertation, Pike? Really? The third anniversary was two months ago, which means you've been working on this what, since barely a year afterward?" She heaves another breath in through her nose and bends in close to the screen. "I stood next to you at that funeral, Pike. I held your fucking hand while they lit the flame for George's memory. I told you everything-- things I didn't even tell the Admiralty-- and now to find it's all just fodder for your career? That you wanted to know so you could make him-- make us a chapter in your goddamn thesis?" Her voice rises sharply and she knows she's not making much sense, but-- "I might be able to forgive you if you'd warned me," she grits out, "but no, you fucking knew this would happen, so you tried keep it from me. I moved to Iowa, Pike, not the Delta Quadrant!"

His mouth is half open and she thinks it's probably good they're not in the same room. She may be four years away from her last hand-to-hand certification, but she's pretty sure she could still kick his ass. "I... I don't know what to say," he says quietly. "I didn't set out to hurt you-- I didn't-- there's only good things about George in--"

"As if I give a shit about that," she dismisses. "No, what I give a shit about is you, this-- there are hundreds of people who could've written about what happened, and would have, and will. But it had to be you, because you knew it would get people's attention, get them saying your name. And that's the fucking rub-- that's all you've ever cared about. You got offered a post on the Kelvin and passed it on waiting for something better-- waiting for something to bump you up in the ranks. Well it turns out the Kelvin was your ticket all along," she says, now actively battling the surge of tears behind her eyes, slammed in the solar plexus by homesickness for her ship, their ship, their quarters that had been home, the dreams they'd shared that led them into the stars and sent her home with an empty heart and the taste of ashes in her mouth.

"You used us," she says bitterly. "I guess you expected I'd never find out, or that by the time I did it'd be water under the bridge, well. I'm not just a grieving widow and I never was, though you've certainly been waiting long enough for an excuse never to see me again--"

And that, finally, seems to rouse a response from him. "That is not what this is about," he hisses, now leaning close to his own terminal, tight mouth and wild eyes. "That is just not-- Winona, for Christ's sake--"

"No," she says, "for George's sake, I really thought you knew better. Don't try and contact me again," she says, and since she's making a scene decides to add for good measure, "That goes for Archer and April too. Fuck the lot of you-- I'm done."

She hangs up on him, goes to the liquor cabinet and swigs Tiberius's whiskey straight from the bottle, puts it back, and goes upstairs to cry herself to sleep in peace.

---

At 2050 hours on the night of Jim's fourth birthday, Winona is cleaning strawberry shortcake off the kitchen ceiling when the house comm unit rings. "Son of a bitch," she mutters. They've had a dozen calls already, five times as many messages. She stopped reading them after the first few; crying in front of her kids isn't something she enjoys, and this is the fourth year this has happened.

She remembers not wanting Jim to be a symbol to the crew of the Kelvin; now, she has the wisdom to realize he would never be anything else. It's her job to figure out how to handle it, to teach him to handle it, and so she screens everything before having Jim come sit on her lap while she reads him the messages, while they talk to someone he's never met, someone she's selfishly glad she only has to speak to once a year.

She hates that she's avoiding them. She hopes in the future she'll be less gun-shy. But it's only been four years, and it still rouses her grief to hear from them, to see the hope in their eyes when they look at Jim, to feel it in the way they write to him.

She's not crazy enough to try and stop it from happening; she's just hoping, praying, this isn't going to be another call like that. Scraping her hair into a ponytail and checking in the mirror that she doesn't have whipped cream on her face, she sits down to answer it. It's from San Francisco, and she almost decides to ignore it, but at the last second she hits 'accept' and is greeted by one of the last faces she expects.

"Oh," she says, shock like a bucket of water over her head, the chill slipping down her spine. "Hi."

"Winona," says Pike, sounding guarded and looking embarrassed. As well he should, she thinks with a mental sneer. It took him a year to figure out how to bridge the gap between them? They stare at each other in silence for a long moment, then both talk at once.

"So to what do I owe--"

"It's been a while and I just--"

"I noticed," she cuts in dryly. "Have you been off planet or under cover with SID, or did it just take you this long to locate your balls?"

He winces; she knows the expression too well, the one that means he's restraining a facepalm. "The latter," he admits. "But... better late than never?" Hopeful, like he thinks she might actually have the energy to still be angry with him. She wants to tell him to belt up, but it occurs to her he already sort of has; and, annoyingly, George's voice echoes in her head, He's not a coward, Win, he's just not a category 5 hurricane like you.

She sighs, running a hand over her hair and yanking on her ponytail. "So what's up?"

"I just," he hesitates, and her gut lurches.

"Happy anniversary?" she challenges, and from the way he flinches she probably looks like she's about to hit something.

"No," he says quickly. "I mean, at least, that's not why I called."

"Oh really?" She can't say why she likes baiting him so much. Maybe the lack of available targets here; maybe because he never fails to bite the hooks she puts out.

"Yeah-- yes, come on, Winona, give me some credit. You did a pretty great job reminding me never to treat you like a victim last time we spoke."

"Glad it sunk in," she says, rolling her eyes, but she sits back in her chair and gestures for him to continue. He hesitates again, and this time she doesn't prod him, just waits for him to continue.

"I'm shipping out on the Adamant," he says. "Next month-- I'm first officer."

"Congratulations," she says, because it's polite, the easiest thing to say when she doesn't know if she's happy for him or still wants to rip all his scheming ambitious hair out. "Who's the captain?"

"Sarah Havlicek," he says, a flash of rue like lightning on his face.

"You're second in command to a former fighter pilot?" she laughs, forgetting to be wary. "Wow. That should be fun for you."

"Yeah, they claim they gave her a psych eval, I'm not so sure," he mutters, scrubbing a hand through his hair in a gesture so familiar (he would do it when George would mock him, get up in his personal space and mess with him, and Pike would flush dark and tug on his hair, step away and turn to the bar for another shot) for a second she's unbalanced by déjà vu.

"What's that got to do with me?" she asks, sharp, to cover the stab of nostalgia.

"You should come with us," he blurts. "Luo Hong is head of Engineering and he needs a second. It's a short mission, four months tops, and you can bring the boys--" he stops as she makes a wordless sound, frozen in place for a second; then she realizes her hand is trembling and shakes her head violently, clenching a fist.

"I can't," she says, fiercely adamant. "That's-- how can you ask me to do that? Today of all days, Pike, Jesus fucking Christ, you--" she stops, presses her lips together, and shakes her head again. "It's only been four years," she whispers tightly.

"I know that," he replies, his own voice strained almost to breaking. "Don't you think-- Winona, I've counted every day that's passed since then and you damn well know it. It's not about that-- it's about Starfleet, about going back out there because you love it and you're good, you're so good at what you do and you're wasting--"

"Wasting time with my kids? With George's sons, Chris?" She's too tired to summon ire, but she can make sure he knows how much of an asshole he's being. "I spent tonight watching my four-year-old start a food fight and then go off to do his seven-year-old brother's math homework for him. Tomorrow Jim and I will go grocery shopping and try to get him a new pair of shoes because he lost one of his last pair swimming in the river. This is my life," she says, loathing him for forcing her to defend it to him. "And fuck you if you think it isn't worthy."

"That's not what I meant," he says softly, and she can see she's broken him again. Why do you make it so easy, she thinks, despising him even more for the way he makes her despise herself.

"Well maybe next time we talk you'll have learned to think before you open your mouth," she says, flat and toneless. She can see he wants to ask when that's going to be, that next time, but she's thrown him a bone and isn't feeling generous enough to throw him two. "I'll tell Jim you said happy birthday," she says, and switches off the comm before he can say anything else.

---

It's ironic given what happens later, but it's Tiberius's fault she meets Tommy in the first place. He wakes up one morning with a case of the summer flu, and though it hurts his pride something fierce, he asks Winona to call the MacAllisters, tell them their tractor's ready, and be here when their son comes by to get it. Winona's happy to. The kid she talks to on the phone sounds like a teenager, his voice not entirely settled yet, and she grins at the mental image of this kid driving that big tractor back to the farm.

So she couldn't be more surprised an hour later when the good-looking man ambling up their street turns in at their drive, walks up to the porch with his hands in his pockets, and says, "I'm Tommy MacAllister, here to pick up my tractor."

"Oh," she says, shading her eyes with her hand, trying not to be too obvious about giving him the once-over. "Sure thing. This way." She hops off the steps and leads him around to the barn where his tractor's sitting pretty, good as new. She starts explaining what was wrong with it; it takes her a minute to realize she's rambling and he's grinning.

"What?" she asks, interrupting herself, hands on her hips, eyes narrow.

His grin gets wider. "Nothing. It's just-- Dad said you'd be like this."

"Like what?" she demands, now piqued and curious.

He laughs then, and she'd be mad except for how there's clearly no malice in it. The sun lights him from behind, sweep of dark hair and generous mouth, eyes crinkled, and Winona can't help the grin that flashes in answer. "When you're done having a laugh at my expense," she prompts, which only makes him laugh harder.

In hours, days and weeks to come there will be flirtation, teasing, dinner, dating, kissing, sex and more. Winona will fall for Tommy because he's free and easy in liking her and artless in telling her so; she'll fall for him simply because he makes it more difficult for her not to. And when she thinks about how it happened it'll come back to this-- standing outside Tiberius's barn with a tractor at her back, being laughed at and finding to her surprise that she likes it.

---

For the rest of her life Winona will wish she'd told the boys first.

She comes home from dinner exhilarated, flushed with happiness, Tommy's ring heavy on her hand. It's not the most impulsive thing she's ever said yes to, but it comes close. She never intended to get married again; she never intended any of this, she only knows she wants it. Tommy's meandering smile, the roots he has in Riverside, the chance he's offering her that she never thought she'd get: to have a family, a whole piece instead of three broken ones.

She's whistling as she comes in the front door, and Tiberius's voice carries in from the kitchen. "Keep your good mood to yourself, Winnie," he calls good-naturedly. "Some of us had to clean up a food fight tonight."

"Who says I didn't?" she replies, something of a sashay about her step as she swans into the room still warm from dinner.

"That grin says you didn't," Tiberius shoots back, tossing back the rest of his glass of wine and levering himself up from the table. He goes to the sink to rinse out his glass, the round slope of his shoulders and tousled hair making him look more tired than usual; Winona feels slightly guilty for leaving him with the boys for the third night this week, but it passes when she remembers her good news. Soon she's not going to have to lean on him anymore.

"Am I that transparent?" She knows she is. She leans on the kitchen island, hands splayed so the ring catches the light. Tiberius must have a sixth sense; when he turns toward her his eyes lock right on it, and his face changes.

"What's that?" he asks, mouth gone flat.

"It's a ring," she answers, her own eyebrows drawing together. Confusion and concern toy with her stomach. Tiberius just stares at her until she says, "Tommy proposed," like he needed her to spell it out.

"And you said yes?" He leans his hands on the island, mimicking her pose in mirror image. "What the hell made you do that?"

Stupid, Winona chides herself immediately. Stupid, stupid, you didn't think. She hadn't imagined his reaction at all, hadn't even considered the possibility it might be a negative one. She should've known better. "Because I wanted to," she says, refusing to raise her voice. "Because I couldn't think of a reason not to."

"Sam and Jim weren't reason enough?" he snaps, bushy eyebrows drawing low over his eyes.

"Sam and Jim were the main reason I said yes!" So much for self control; her voice goes up a few octaves.

"Bullshit." Tiberius's open palm smacks hard against the countertop. Winona refuses to flinch.

"I love him," she says. Her voice quavers treacherously. Too much to hope the old badger didn't hear it.

He snorts, rolling his eyes. "You don't love him," he says, dismissing Tommy and all of Winona's stomach butterflies and pathetic yearning with a wave of his callused hand. "You love the idea of being with him. You love the idea of being able to say my husband and have it mean someone who's still walking around breathing. Not that I blame you for wanting the boys to have a father, but for Christ's sake, Winona, what do you think I asked you to come live with me for? It sure wasn't to have your help weeding the garden."

Having his charity thrown back in her face when she's never asked for it (hell, she's spent the last eight years trying to make sure she deserves it) makes her nauseous with fury. She smacks her own palms flat on the counter and leans over, giving back as good as she's getting. "And I didn't say yes because I was just dying to give someone the right to tell me how to live my life," she snarls.

"It isn't your life anymore, you selfish girl," he shouts. "It stopped being yours the day you got pregnant with Sam. That's what being a parent means, and the fact you don't know that means you aren't fit to be one."

She feels the blood drain from her face, senses the straightening of her spine as if it's happening to someone else, and remembers too clearly saying I can't do this without you, her eyes glued to the window of the shuttle as the Kelvin's engines glowed to life for the last time. She feels hollow-- hurt, both by the wound reopened and by this, what feels a betrayal by someone she'd come to rely on more than her own family. Someone who is her family, if she's being honest.

"I am a parent," she says, her voice quiet and dry as dust. "I'm their mother. And anyone who tries to tell me what's okay and not okay for my boys can go to hell. So go to hell, Tiberius." She steps backward, her hands dropping to her sides. "We're not talking about this again," she says.

"Like hell we're--" he begins, but she cuts him off.

"We're not. I'm marrying Tommy, so you can either get used to the idea or stay mad. Your choice. Now, I'm going to bed. Goodnight." She goes upstairs feeling like her feet are made of lead, unable to recapture the happiness she'd floated in with, angry and hurt and worst of all, wondering if he's right. He'll get over it, she tells herself as she gets ready for bed. A couple weeks, a month, he'll come around.

Looking back years later, she'll realize she should have known better than to think it would work out that easily.

---

The house comm line rings and Winona answers it before it has a chance to ring twice.

"Hey, you lose something?" The grizzled old voice has a hint of laughter in it, like always, but Winona's too distracted right now to bother examining if she's the one being laughed at.

"Oh god, is he there?" she breathes, actually pressing her hand to her heart like a vintage scream queen.

"Yeah, I got him. Picked him up on the side of the road halfway between your place and mine. Shoulda been the first place you looked, Winnie." He is laughing at her, she realizes with a wince, gritting her teeth. Asshole.

"Can I talk to him? Please?" She hates the wheedling tone in her voice, but she's not the one with all the cards in her hand right now.

There's a muffled sound, the microphone getting covered by a large callused hand, and soft voices conferring. Then Jim's voice sounds clear but distant, like he's standing a few feet away. "What's up?"

"What's up," she repeats, voice flat with disbelief.

"Yeah, Mom, what's up? You know, what's happening, how's it hanging, what's the word?" There's a snort from the old man that theatrically becomes a cough, and Winona tries to beat back the wave of fury that comes with being thought a fool.

"What's up is I've had half the town looking for you for the past three hours," she says evenly. "The school said you stormed out of fourth period--"

"Yep," he cuts in. "Mr. Allwarden is an idiot."

"Whether he is or isn't, Jimmy, that's not the point. You have to go to school."

"Why? I'm not learning anything-- in fact I'm pretty sure I'm getting dumber." She can envision the shrug, the way he'll glance at the old man and they'll share a moment at her expense, She doesn't understand.

"I understand you're too smart for most schools on this planet," she snaps, "but this is where we live, this is the best there is, and all I ask is that you not scare the living shit out of me when you decide to take an unannounced field trip." She knows the emotion's showing in her voice now, and it's giving away what few chips she has left, but she can't help it. "And you, you old bastard, you should know better. At least let me know, at least fucking tell me where my own goddamn kid is--"

"Hey, there's no call for that kind of language," he interrupts, and she's shaking, and in no mood to listen to him pretend they're being civil.

"Fuck you, Tiberius. Bring Jim home when he's ready for bed or I'll send the cops over to pick him up," she bites out, and smacks the hangup button so hard her palm stings.

"You wouldn't really do that, would you?" says Tommy from behind her. He sounds apprehensive, and in that moment she hates him for caring more about what town gossip would say about Winona making a police cruiser drive to the Kirk homestead to pick up her wayward son than about how she feels. She hates him and Tiberius and this stupid little town with its gossip and politics and petty taste for scandal, and most of all she hates George for leaving her to wade through all of it without him.

"No," she says softly, finally, "but Tiberius doesn't know that." She folds her arms on the console and drops her head onto them. She hears Tommy come up closer and knows he's going to try to comfort her, a hand on her neck and soft words of reassurance, and she wants none of it. "Can you just leave me for a little bit?" she asks. "Just-- I need a minute."

She hears the hand drop; he'd already been reaching to touch her. "Sure," he says, and she tries not to be angry at how disappointed he sounds. I want to shoot something, she thinks distantly. She misses the Kelvin's shooting gallery, and the range at the Academy, misses the kickback of a firing weapon in her hands and the rush that came with doing something, even if it was only aiming for bullseyes on a firing screen.

Tommy closes the door as he leaves, and Winona picks up her head and dials a number on the comm unit. It rings, then rings again, and she almost hangs up but then it switches over to video and she has to paste on a smile. "Hey, Chris, how's it going," she says with a little wave.

"Winona," Pike says, surprised and doing a bad job hiding it. "Hey-- how are you?"

"Eh," she says with a shrug. "Not bad. Could be worse, I guess. It's just." She blinks, she will not get upset about this in front of him. "George's father hates me and so does Jim and they're basically making my life miserable. Which is possibly the most melodramatic thing I've ever said, and if you're recording this to laugh with Rob about later I will hunt you down," she adds, eyes narrow.

"Whoa," he says, and he is laughing but it's the good kind, the kind that tugs a smile out of her. "George's father does not hate you, first of all."

"You don't know him," she says, shaking her head. "Seriously, the man is like, five hundred years old and lives to make my life hell. I really think he sits around dreaming up new ways to drive me to an early grave."

Chris's eyebrows go up, but he doesn't say anything. Already Winona's wondering why she called him, stomping very firmly on the little voice in the back of her head that says she knows exactly why. "Want to start from the beginning?" he suggests.

So she tells him the story; Jim leaving school, her frantic attempts to locate him, Tiberius's attitude, Tommy's passive aggressiveness. "And I just-- it's not even Jim, though gods know I could kill him four days out of five, especially when he pulls shit like this that he knows, I mean this is payback because I wouldn't let him go out with those stupid boys from up the road the other night, like if I won't sanction him doing something reckless in one way he'll find a way to do something reckless another.

"But this place, Chris," she concludes helplessly. "This stupid podunk town that thinks it's so special and so great, where the cops fucking laughed when I told them Jim had gone missing, because one of them's married to his fourth-grade teacher and the other one owns the pasture where Jim's been joy-riding his dirt bike since he was six, and they think they know him so well, they just see him as this punk who's going to grow up to be a punk they can arrest, so if he's missing it must be because he doesn't want to be found and not because something's wrong."

She heaves a breath and shakes her hair back out of her eyes. "The fact that they were right this time doesn't mean anything. Someday something's going to happen to him and if those stupid cops are the cause I'll kill them. I just can't stand it. Nothing ever changes here, and I feel like I'm losing my goddamn mind every time I turn around."

Pike looks taken aback, and she realizes he doesn't know what she wants, what he should do. And how should he, she thinks. This has got to be the first time (the first time in fifteen years, anyway) that she's ever talked to him like this, the way she'd go to a friend with a problem.

Are we friends again, now? she wonders, and can almost see him thinking the same thing.

"Just tell me I'm not losing my mind," she says, sort of a prompt. "Tell me small towns suck and there's no avoiding any of it, but I brought my family here for a reason and I can handle one grumpy old farmer if it means my kids are safe and happy."

Pike's mouth twitches, but to his credit, he repeats what she said, and even manages to make it sound like it came out of his own head. Five minutes later she's laughing at a story about Jon and a hapless mistake at a conference where the Universal Translator broke down and he had to try and remember enough Corellian to make conversation with.

"...and he didn't know how to explain he'd just gotten the vowels mixed up. Needless to say, he won't be going back to that city ever again," Pike concludes, chuckling, his eyes cool and assessing on hers; she thinks he's trying to gauge whether or not he's made her feel better. (He has, but she's not going to come right out and say it.)

"Oh gods, that's great. Poor Jon, he must've wanted to sink into the floor," she laughs, wiping the corner of her eye. "Give him and Rob a hug for me, will you? I-- I miss you guys," she admits, a little sheepish about it. "I'm not great about keeping in touch, but... just tell them I miss them, okay?"

Pike's face looks like it wants to soften, but he keeps his expression calm. "Sure thing. Hey, I gotta go, meeting in five. But-- have a good night, okay?"

"You too," she says, and switches off.

Me and Pike as friends, she thinks skeptically. She's not sure she buys it; she can't see herself ever not being annoyed by some of the things he does, some of the ways he just is without even trying.

But still-- he'd picked up her call, he'd listened to her vent, he'd distracted her until she felt better. If that didn't make him a friend, she wasn't really sure what would.

---

In terms of nasty surprises, having your husband tell you out of the blue one day I want a divorce is probably one of the nastier ones Winona can imagine receiving, especially an hour before she's supposed to go watch her son wipe the floor with kids twice his age at the school science fair.

To be honest, it isn't the necessity of the divorce that surprises her (she's been putting off the inevitable for a few months already) it's that he was the first one to break the silence and talk about it. And naturally (because this is how things happen for Winona) it's at the most inopportune moment possible. Needless to say, she isn't handling it well. "You're telling me this now?" she says, feeling her face redden with anger. "Now, Tommy, really?"

"I can't take this anymore," he says defensively. Snidely, she wonders if he's going to apologize for this like he does for everything else that makes her mad. "I can't keep waiting for things to go back to the way they used to be. They never will, and I'm sorry but I'm not going to spend the rest of my life like this."

"Like what," she challenges, "as a husband and father? I thought you wanted--"

"I am not their father," he snarls, bitterness showing on his face for the first time.

"Don't I know it," Winona bites out, nostrils flaring as she fights for control over her adrenaline. She wants to scream, and throw plates at him, and be the histrionic crazy person she knows he thinks, deep down, that she is. But she also wants to go see Jim present his project, and she wants to be able to do it without drawing stares from the other parents with red eyes and disheveled hair.

"This has been a long time coming, Winona," Tommy says quietly. He's not even looking at her, but at the floor. "I'm going to go spend a few nights at my parents'. Their lawyer will contact you." So they already knew it was happening; he was right, this had been happening for a long time before today. "I want you to have the house--"

She cuts him off with a bark of laughter. "Sorry, no thanks. We don't need it." She'd lived off someone else's kindness before, and gods dammit, she wasn't going to do it again.

Tommy's mouth twists, the bitterness sparking in his eyes again. Her heart twinges; she made this happen, wrought this change in him. Not unexpected; she's seen this coming. She just thought she'd have more time before it parked itself at her feet.

She leaves the house in chilly silence, the cogs in her mind spinning as she drives towards the school. This is what I get for trying to have a normal life, she thinks. What's hard about this isn't losing Tommy (she's made her peace with that eventuality long since) but the sour realization that as far as she can see, she's always going to have to fight for the things she wants out of life. And maybe-- maybe, she thinks-- she might actually be able to admit what those things actually are.

Gods dammit, George, she thinks, shaking her head. Her eyes are wet, and she scrubs at them with the back of her hand.

That night as she's leaving the science fair, Jim and Sam tucked happily one under each of her arms, she looks up into the starry sky and loses her breath. It's one of those clear country nights where everything is visible, a great dome of pinpricked black stretching from horizon to horizon. That, a voice inside her head sings out, that's what I want.

Much later, after she's explained why Tommy's not at the house, and studiously ignored both the regret and concern on Sam's face and the badly disguised relief on Jim's, she sits down at the comm and dials.

Captain Travers is Commodore Travers now, but his face is still the same wry conglomerate of eyebrows and teeth and broken nose as ever, and the way he looks surprised to see her face when he picks up the call reminds her, with a twinge of regret, that she doesn't call him nearly enough. Nevertheless, he's the only person she trusts to answer her very important question, and more importantly, not to ask her why.

"So," she says when he picks up, banishing meaningless pleasantries and how-do-you-dos with a wave of her hand. "What's a girl gotta do to get herself shipped out into space these days?"

His face goes slack with surprise for the second time in sixty seconds, then breaks into a grin. It sends a rush of relief flooding through Winona, a giddy heat in her chest and head, and she finds herself grinning stupidly back.

---

Winona's first mission on the USS Mombasa she takes Sam. Sam, but not Jim, who's torn between soul-searing anger at being left behind and utter delight at the prospect of staying with his grandfather for five months straight. And it's such a cliche, but it's everything she ever hoped it would be. Not only the chance to get back into space again, but something she wouldn't trade for anything...

"Oh my god Mom, look at this!" Sam cries, dragging her over to the far side of the observation deck as the ship comes out of warp over the second moon orbiting Antares II. The red dust from the comet that passed through a week ago swirls below them, hazing their view of the moon with whorls and patterns in varying shades of red.

"That is just gorgeous," she breathes, pressing her forehead to the glass, her fingers threaded tight through her son's. She realizes he's squeezing hers just as hard, and they share a look full of wonder.

...is the joy Sam takes in everything, in discovering space for the first time. She's selfishly glad she gets to see it happen; he's startlingly mature for his age, his father's namesake, full of the sobering intellect that George pulled out only when he felt like it, when he had someone's pretensions to toss back in their face. Seeing Sam run around the Mombasa like a kid Jim's age, Winona can't help but smile. It's something she does more often than not, these days.

Which isn't to say she doesn't miss home, and Jim, as much as she loves where she is. She calls every day at first, steeling herself for the necessary exchange with Tiberius, plowing through his snark to get to the part...

"Hey Mom," he says, grinning sheepishly. "I finished Dune today. You were right, it's totally awesome."

"See, told you I have good taste," she says companionably, ignoring the loud snort she hears from Jim's side, offscreen. "What's next on the list?"

"Neuromancer," he says. "I'm excited about evil computers."

"I know you are," she says, nodding with a smile. "The song from Portal still pops up on my music feed every so often, despite the fact I keep deleting it. Must be GLaDOS."

"Must be," he agrees, barely suppressing a laugh, and it's so good to see him so happy but she can't help wondering, a little, why he never looks like that when she's at home.

...where she gets to see Jim's face, his grin. When things on the Mombasa get busy, she can't always call every day. Every other, and when she can't even do that she has Sam call instead, and feels like crap about it. But she's busy, she's working and she's in space, she's using her brains and her training and she's loving every second of it.

What she doesn't love is the distance between her and home. Much as she hates to admit it, Iowa's become home and she's grown not just to like it but to love it. It doesn't escape her that she's waking up every morning wishing for the sun, when she's just spent every day for nine years unconsciously yearning for the stars. But as much as she misses it, she knows...

"But when are you coming home?" Jim demands, and she reminds him again that it's been three and a half months, another six weeks won't kill him, but it doesn't placate him. When he goes off in a flounce she nearly hangs up, knowing what's coming next, but she's no coward and she won't hang up on Tiberius like this even when he makes her want to scream.

"Kids," he says expansively as he sits down in front of the screen. "What can you do."

"How is he really?" she asks. "I know he puts on a brave face--"

"He's blissfully happy, Winnie," the old man says, his mouth a hard line. "Don't you worry."

"I'm not worried," she starts, but apparently he has no compunction about hanging up on her, no matter how large the distance is between them.

...if she went back, she'd miss this more.

---

The problem with her son-- if it can truly be narrowed down that far-- is that no one ever bothered to tell him that the world won't just rearrange itself to his liking.

Not at an age young enough for it to sink in, anyway. Living with his grandfather for the first few years of his life was bad enough-- anyone who says that particular brand of bullheaded tenacity isn't hereditary has clearly never met old man Tiberius-- but when he was old enough to start hearing stories about his father it only got worse.

Winona would've been the first to say her husband was a stubborn ass when the mood struck him, but take a nine year old who's already too smart for anyone's good and mix in some glamorous stories about his dead father's heroics, and you get--

Well, you get what you signed up for, Winona thinks as she swipes irritably at a lock of hair tickling her ear. There are three people between her and the overworked ER nurse who'll tell her where Jim is, and she's in no mood to wait. She shifts her weight from foot to foot, recrossing her arms, resisting the urge to drum her heel on the floor.

Finally she gets to the front of the line, and interrupts the nurse's speech before it even starts. "I'm the mother of the idiot child who threw himself off the hill above the quarry. Winona Kirk-- he's Jim-- James Kirk. His brother's with him."

The nurse's expression does something funny, like she's trying to hold back a wince or maybe a smile, and doesn't need to be told that neither is appropriate right now. Or maybe she sees the look in Winona's eye, the little glint of steel saying Come on, make my day. Whatever the case, she doesn't lecture as she brings Winona in to where her sons are waiting.

She can hear them from a few feet off. "--the stupid idiot who had to give him the satisfaction, you can't keep letting him--"

"--can't talk to me like that, he can't talk to either of us like that, he's the idiot--"

"--who's not the one in a cast right now--"

"Wow, you two," Winona says from the door, somewhat gratified that both faces wipe clean from anger to guilt as they turn toward her.

"Mom, it wasn't my--" Jim begins, and Sam sputters at the same time as she chops through air with her hand, cutting them both off.

"Just, I don't want to hear it, okay?" She digs her fingertips into her eyelids and blows out a quick breath before dropping her hands. "I'm going to talk to the doctor and then we're going home. You are both grounded-- I said I don't want to hear it, Sam! Jim, you did something stupid, but Sam, you let him, and you don't have a broken arm to--"

"Like I could've stopped him!" Sam explodes, face purple with rage, small fists clenched at his sides. "Jesus Christ, Mom, you know what he's like!"

"I'm right here," says Jim, loud and indignant.

Winona ignores him. "Language," she says automatically to Sam, not because she cares, but because she doesn't want the nurses to hear her kid sass her like that and get away with it. "In fact, shut your mouth, and please go find me the doctor." Sam goes; she can read the furious resentment in every line of his posture, but she resists the urge to knuckle her eyes again and takes a chair by Jim's bed instead.

"You worry me," she says, and it's too late to rephrase, but she can see she's got his attention at least. "I don't mean the usual bullshit mom worry, Jim, I mean like I wonder what you're not telling me, if there's something going on, something wrong, and I just don't know about it and I've done something to make you not trust me enough to tell me."

He looks uneasy, and her stomach lurches. "It's not like it's one thing," he mutters, not meeting her eyes. "It's just-- everyone here sucks."

Winona swallows a wild laugh that threatens to tear free, and thinks, Didn't take him long to figure out, did it? Aloud she says, "I don't suck. And neither does Sam-- don't roll your eyes at me, kiddo, your brother's on your side and you know it. It's not his fault he just gets along with people. He's like your dad that way."

Jim's face does something funny, and she recognizes it as an attempt to hide his curiosity. "It's okay to ask me about him, you know," she says softly. She hasn't said that enough.

"What, now that Tommy's out of the picture?" he replies, and she'd like to reprimand him, but she knows exactly where he got his smart mouth from and it doesn't seem fair.

"It was always okay to ask," she says instead, pretending it didn't bother her. "If you didn't ask because you were too nervous, that's fine, but don't go blaming Tom for things that he had nothing to do with."

"Yeah, he did enough on his own," Jim mutters, low and sullen as he picks at a loose thread in the blanket.

The only thing he did was not be George, Winona thinks, and we all blamed him for that. I'd have divorced us too.

---

The next time she goes into space, she'll go alone.

---

Winona's one of five kids. She and her siblings love each other dearly, but she knows well the power of playing one off against the other. Tiberius and his older son are close, but in the way you're close to family you live near because you can't avoid it, not because you crave it. So when Winona asks Frank if he'd mind taking the boys for the four months she'll be off-planet on the Mombasa's next mission, she's well aware of what she's doing.

She doesn't know why Frank says yes. She doesn't care. He's her brother in law, and while they've never suffered from an abundance of affection for one another, he gets that it's important for the kids to stay in Riverside. He gets that Tiberius is a lot to handle, and understands (or understands that he doesn't need to understand) that Winona needs to do things her way.

Sam and Jim, on the other hand, are a little less forgiving.

"Why can't I go again?" Sam asks, clearly disappointed beyond his ability to be polite.

"I don't want to separate you two anymore," she says. "You need each other."

"Then take both of us!" Jim argues, blue eyes ablaze.

"No. Absolutely not," she says, ignoring the outcry from both of them. "Jim, you're too young," she adds, when what she really means is Jim, I'm not ready.

She doesn't like that they're here again already. When she went back into active duty she bargained for one mission a year, and the time's been eaten up far too quickly for her liking. She doesn't want to navigate this territory again, but she's adamant: she's not ready to take Jim into space yet. Stupid maternal instinct, but she can't shake it. She's afraid of it, of showing him the wider world when he already has so much trouble keeping his feet on the ground. She's afraid of losing him somehow.

She's well aware how irrational it is, feeling so ill prepared to watch him fall in love with space when if she thought about it logically, it's all she's ever really been able to imagine him doing. I know he was born for this, she thinks. He's so smart Starfleet's going to have to fight half the schools and think tanks in the galaxy for him. But she can't kick the feeling of dread that accompanies the idea of taking Jim into space. And, as she's learned to be comfortable with doing, rather than think more about it she pushes it away. She's always preferred focusing on what to do and how to do it rather than why it needs to be done.

"That's it, there's no discussion," she says, banishing her internal conversation with a shake of her head.

Jim immediately assesses her adamance and changes tacks. "Then why can't we just stay with Grandpa?" he asks, furious. If he were younger, Winona thinks he'd be banging his fists on the floor and wailing.

"Because I want you to stay with Uncle Frank," she says. Sam gives her a skeptical look, and she reconsiders. She forgets, still, that her kids (especially Jim) are smarter than kids have a right to be. "Because Grandpa and I don't get along. That's not a galloping shock to anyone in this room. And it's not that I want to deprive you of time with him. It's that I'll worry less about you if you stay with Frank."

To herself she thinks, This is going over like a lead balloon.

The next day, Jim gets caught stealing a hoverbike registered to one of Riverside's finest. The cop who calls her is Tommy's brother's wife. She takes what Winona thinks is an unreasonable amount of glee in explaining the situation when Winona shows up at the police station, and everything about her smug smile and snub nose says Thank god he got out while he still could.

She's mad, of course. She's furious. But she can barely bring herself to punish Jim for what he did. She already feels like she's punishing him enough by leaving-- and anyway, it's not like she's going to be there to enforce grounding him. The Mombasa's embarking in three days, and to Winona that's barely enough time to say goodbye, let alone to have it be on a note like that.

She can see in Jim's face that he knows she's upset, and she thinks she can tell he's not proud of doing it either. But he doesn't apologize, and she doesn't ask him why, and the silence between them starts to grow.

---

The shuttle that takes her up to the USS Taft is bigger than the ones she's used to flying in. She gets a window seat with no trouble and watches the ground fall away below her, resting her head against the triple-plated glass, wishing she didn't feel so much like a traitor.

She loves her kids-- both of them equally, there's not a question in her mind or heart about that. She looks at Sam and feels so proud; fourteen years old and she can see the man he'll become, the inquisitive mind that's hers and the quiet strength that was George's.

She looks at Jim and vacillates between the same fierce pride and a stab of gut-wrenching fear. The world doesn't know what to do with people like him, who read everything around them and understand it with intuition too quick to follow, who feel everything so deeply it rocks them to the core. He's only eleven; he doesn't know how to control himself, and God, if she were still as bored as he is with Iowa (she has to actively remind herself, sometimes, that she isn't) she'd be crawling out of her skin too.

Whatever the reason, Jim doesn't believe she understands. Kids don't like to think their parents actually get where they're coming from; Winona was a rebellious teenager once too, unlike George, his parents' perfect son. He'd never understood why she smoked like a chimney and swore like a sailor, and did it all twice as hard and twice as often when her folks were around. She loved her parents, but she'd never really gotten over being fifteen and wanting to do anything that would make it clear that she wasn't going to turn out like them.

She supposes they'd laugh now to be reminded of that, would look at her trying to balance her work among the stars and her two boys hurtling through adolescence, and poke gentle fun at her for having thought she'd have a life that didn't include a family, however crazy or unorthodox it might be.

The captain of the Taft greets her with respect that's half for her and half for George, and she wonders if she'll ever be done resenting the spectre of her late husband that hangs over her like a mask. George Kirk's widow, you know, her husband was the one who stayed behind so they all could get away. She knows her boys are going to have to deal with the same shadow dogging them the rest of their lives, and she thinks sometimes she's a bad person for not resenting that more than she resents the implications to her. She wonders if anyone will ever look at her and just see Winona again. But then she's been wondering that for eleven years now, and it doesn't show signs of stopping yet.

Still, it's not this captain's fault she witlessly married a man with heroism in his blood. It's not like she had any warning ahead of time.

She's in her guest quarters before she realizes it, with only a vague sense of what people have said to her along the way. She flops back onto Starfleet-issue sheets and closes her eyes against a wave of feeling she has no desire to acknowledge. She takes dinner alone there, weary like she has no business being after two short shuttle rides, and falls asleep before 9:30 Iowa time.

Two days later, the Taft comes out of warp above Tarsus IV, and Winona beams down directly to the school. She'll wonder later if the taste of bile at the back of her throat was a forerunner, a warning of what was to come. But that day she doesn't notice the vague indigestion beyond a sense of dread. This will be good for Jim, she's sure of that. But he'll see it as betrayal and Tiberius-- God, she can't even let herself think what the old man will say when they tell him she's sending his precious baby offworld for the next four years.

---

The school is perfect. She lays down the credits to reserve his place, downloads the forms onto her padd and spends half the journey back filling them out. She doesn't know if she wants to do this, can do this, can give up the right to see her son every day for months at a time, trust him to the care of other people when she barely trusts herself to raise him right. But this place seems made for Jim, for his mind that's always grown by leaps and bounds, and what the hell kind of mother would she be if she denied him that for the selfish pleasure of keeping him close?

He's only eleven, but already his eyes are on the horizon, wondering what's next. Winona wonders too, what the world could possibly have in store for him. She knows better than to encourage him to plan, though. Dreams and ideas are the way to go; once you start planning for your future, she thinks, that's right when the universe decides to throw you a curve ball.

---

The Taft enters geosynchronous orbit right on schedule, and the shuttle down to the shipyard is fast. Winona's fingers itch to be home, to run through Sam's hair and squeeze Jim on the shoulder. She misses her boys; she even misses Frank a little bit.

When she gets home to an empty house, checks her padd and finds seventeen messages from her terrified older son, furious brother-in-law and near-apoplectic father-in-law, finds the garage empty of both Frank's hoverbike and his pretty vintage car, has to call a cab to the farmhouse, and finally finds out why? She almost wishes she'd stayed in space.

"I'm sorry. He did what?" she asks, jet-lagged brain still not computing that when Frank says drove it off a cliff he means it literally.

"He's not staying in my house another day!" Frank says, almost snarling, but Winona brushes him off like a gnat.

"I need to see him," she says, taking a step toward the stairs.

"He's sleeping," Tiberius says, standing defiant at the foot of the stairs like a 300-pound Rottweiler blocking her way. Sam's sitting hunched over on a stair behind him, looking out over their heads like they're all not there. Frank is to Winona's right, arms crossed as he leans against the doorframe, looking pissed and satisfied; at least if he doesn't get to shoot Winona down, someone does. She wonders not for the first time how she got involved with this family of hotheads masquerading as normal people.

"He's my son," Winona says hotly, "I don't care if he's asleep or communing with the spirit of Jimmy Hoffa, get your ass out of my way."

"Winnie, I really don't think it's such a good idea for you to--" he begins, condescension dropping away in the face of his care for Jim, and she can read it on his face, enough to make her soften. This can't have been easy on him either.

She takes a breath and says calmly, "Tiberius, I appreciate you getting Jim out of the hospital and keeping your lunatic son from letting the cops take him away. But I need to see my son, and if you don't get out of my way I will knock you down." Tiberius stands still for a second, then nods and moves aside. Winona ignores Frank's tirade of swear words starting up (again) and lays a hand on the old man's arm as she moves by him. "Thank you," she says, then goes up the stairs with Sam close behind her.

Once she's gotten the full story from Sam (who's possibly the most coherent person in the house right now, and how messed up is that) she figures she has it pretty well sorted out; Frank had been an ass to both of the boys, and Jim had retaliated the most creative way he knew how. Tiberius thinks Jim should still be in the hospital, and Frank thinks Jim should be in jail.

Upstairs in Jim's room the lights are out except for a warmly glowing night-light on the bedside table, but she can tell by the sound of his breathing that he's not asleep.

"Hey kid," she says, sitting on the end of the bed. He's faking it, but not very well, and after a minute he squints one eye open and sighs, squirming to sit up. He has a few band-aids visible, but looks more tired than anything else.

"Hey," he says back. She waits. He looks uncomfortable, but doesn't avoid her eyes.

"If you want me to say sorry," he starts, and a snort startles its way out of her before she can hold it back.

"I never expected you would," she says with a shrug. "Though it would be nice if you did. To me, at least, for having to come home to this."

He pulls his hands out from under the covers and looks down at them, and she sees they're covered in clear liquid bandage, the scrapes beneath too deep to be healed by a regenerator. "I'm sorry you had to come home to this," he says, dutiful but not insincere. "I just... he was awful, Mom. He made Sam so mad he took off and left, and Sam doesn't do that." It goes unspoken, I'm the one that runs away. "So I kind of couldn't help myself."

"What did he say?" she asks. He just shakes his head, and her stomach twists, full of bitterness that they were brought to this. If I'd rejoined the 'fleet sooner we'd never have needed anyone's charity, she thinks for the thousandth time. But I couldn't make myself do it. And now this is what happens; my kids bearing the brunt of my dickhead brother-in-law's mean streak. Well done. She had only a little sympathy for Frank and his crashed car to begin with; now she has almost none. She's still furious at everyone in the house except Sam, but now she feels drained of the ability to act on any of it.

"Look, Jim," she says, her voice quiet. "I know this hasn't been easy on you... that it's been harder for you than for Sam. And I... I'm sorry we haven't been able to be together more often. I know that would make a lot of things better." She knows she can't explain her need to work, to do something with her mind and her hands, to a twelve year old.

"I just hope you don't think I'm running away," she says finally, aware of how weak and stupid it sounds, how fucked up it is she's looking for assurance from her kid when it should be the other way around. Maybe he was right, she thinks, defeated and flattened. Maybe I'm not fit for this.

"I figured I had to get it from somewhere," Jim says wryly, and she looks up, startled. His eyes are locked on her face with a hopeful expression, the hint of a smile underneath all that chagrin.

And it doesn't erase her doubts, exactly, or even make her forget Tiberius's vitriol and anger. But she finds herself smiling, then giggling, and Jim is too, and she's so dumbfounded and grateful for him that for a moment all she feels is the lines drawn between them, the ways they're the same and the way she feels it in her gut, in her bones. This is my son, and nothing can ever change that. She wraps her hands around Jim's and bows her head over them, shaking with relief.

By the time they calm down Sam's standing in the doorway looking at them like they're nuts. "Grandpa went to bed and Frank went home," he reports, and Winona tries not to be childishly relieved. "He said you can stay here tonight if you want." She's not sure which "he" Sam is referring to, but she doesn't care. She wouldn't leave this house right now unless she was dragged. But she is exhausted, and she's grateful she doesn't have to put up a fight to stay put.

"You need to rest," she tells Jim, standing up. "But we have some things to talk about in the morning."

"About the school," he says, not meeting her eyes. She can't tell if he's trying to hide excitement or trepidation or both.

"Yeah, about that." She hesitates; she had wanted to save this for later. "Do you want to go, Jimmy?"

Jim heaves a little sigh, then looks up at her and shrugs. "I don't know. I think so. I know I don't really want to be here anymore... at least not for school."

Winona nods back, feeling like there's a lump in her throat for no reason she can fathom. "We'll talk about it tomorrow," she promises. She feels sort of like a traitor for not telling him she's already decided, that if she hadn't entirely made up her mind before, coming home to this pushed her over the edge. He needs to get out of Iowa before it chokes him, she thinks, bending to kiss to his forehead, smiling when he doesn't squirm away. "Sleep tight," she says quietly.

"You too," he says, already sliding back down beneath the covers.

Outside, she pulls Sam into a tight hug, kissing his cheek. "You're a good brother," she murmurs, "and a good son. You know that, right?"

She lets him go and sees his expression mirroring her own, lips tight and flat, holding back more emotions than he knows what to do with. "I know," he says hoarsely. "I just... feel sometimes like it's not enough."

"Enough for what?" she asks, startled.

"To fix us," he admits, looking at the wall behind her shoulder. "I just want us all to be happy and safe and we never are, there's always something wrong, and I don't know how to make it better."

She pulls him close again, smoothing his hair with her hand, knowing soon she'll have to reach up to do it. "You can't fix that," she says softly. "That's my job and I've been doing a shitty job of it." The lump in her throat swells, and her voice sounds strained even to her own ears. "I never expected to do this alone, you know. I'm-- I'm not a great mom. But I love you and Jim more than anything, and someday I'm going to figure out how--"

He cuts her off by pulling back, grabbing her shoulders and saying fiercely, "Shut up. You're a great mom, and don't let Grandpa ever make you think you're not. Ever."

Winona's struck dumb. Shocked, speechless for one rare moment, she gapes at Sam like a fish. When the moment breaks she'll be able to think He's saying that to make me feel better, and He's still a kid, he still wants to defend me, and In five years he'll be old enough to know better. But for that stretch of seconds lasting almost into a minute, she can only be amazed, and think If this is what he's like at fifteen, when most parents want to tear their hair out and ship their teenagers off to boarding school, maybe I didn't fuck it up as badly as I thought.

---

After she says goodnight to Sam, Winona goes downstairs and collapses on the couch with a beer in her hand and another leaving a ring on the table next to her. She gets her padd out of her bag and pulls up the forms from the Academy on Tarsus IV. She reads them over again and signs them, consigns Jim to the care of the Academy and Governor Kodos, and sends them off feeling relieved, and also a bit like Judas.

It makes Chris's call later that night almost eerie. She transfers it to the house comm and picks up. "You always know when to call," she says, slumping exhausted in the chair and holding her glass to her cheek. She left beer behind a couple drinks ago; she's playing fast and loose with her metabolism, hoping like hell it's still good enough to beat a whiskey hangover around the block before she can get out of bed tomorrow. "How do you always know?"

Pike shrugs, running a hand through his hair. She wonders when those threads of silver started in at his temples. She hasn't found any of her own yet, but most days she doesn't go looking. "Your belief in my omniscience, while flattering, is a little far-fetched," he says with a wry face. "I just thought-- it's been a while."

"Yup. More than time for Jim to make a couple teachers cry, have me called to the police station a few times, and oh, this is a bonus, drive my brother-in-law's prize vintage car off the lip of the canyon. He's fine," she adds, before Pike can panic. "I mean, he's a fucking idiot, but he's alive. Not a scratch on him, and after all the tests Tiberius had them do on him at the hospital, I think we can say safely our boy's gonna live forever, as long as he doesn't kill himself first."

Pike is speechless for a second, then shakes his head, half despairing, half laughing. "Jesus. Jesus, Winona. What are you going to do with him?" She knows, instinctively, that he doesn't mean here and now, he means in general, for the next eight years, forever. It's a question she asks herself on almost a daily basis.

"I'm sending him to the school on Tarsus IV," she admits. It feels strange to say aloud; she still can't make herself shape the words I'm sending him off-planet, or He's going into space without me. It terrifies her, the entire thing, even though she feels in her gut that it's the right thing to do.

To his credit, Pike doesn't get personal about why there, why now, why anything. His eyebrows peak and he leans forward, chin on his hand. "That's going to be an incredible opportunity for him," he says. "There's so many sides to what they're doing on Tarsus-- climate control, crop adaptation and grafting, ecostructural analysis, not to mention the aftermath of terraforming, all the statistics and physics, population and demographics-- he's going to be up to his eyes in science," Pike says, grinning. "Hope he knows there won't be much time for dirt biking or extreme drag racing while he's there."

"Trust me," Winona says, "I think we're both looking forward to him being too busy to want any of that shit."

---

When Tiberius dies, Winona's almost too preoccupied to notice.

It would have to happen now, of course. As if she needs one more thing to deal with. The settlement on Tarsus IV has been silent for six weeks, and while official Starfleet word is that the ion storms are still obscuring transmissions and they're doing everything they can to appropriate a ship to get out there to help with repairs ASAP, she's not an idiot. She doesn't need the Universal Translator to know that means it's a small colony, there are ion storms out there all the time, it's probably nothing and we'll send a ship when we get around to it.

Which isn't really an excuse, but she's a worried mother with too much time on her hands, and by the time she notices that the old badger hasn't driven by to ogle his grandson's new car and make snide comments about her parenting in almost three days, she's already picking up the phone to a woman from the hospital asking if there's a Sam Kirk in residence. She explains that Sam is sixteen and she's his mother, and then the nurse says next of kin and Tiberius Kirk, and Winona slumps into a chair wondering if this can possibly actually be happening.

Two hours later she and Sam are in the farmhouse. She looks around the kitchen like she's never seen it before, feeling vaguely nauseous. She can't shake the furtive feeling; she hasn't been here in five years and she never thought this would be the reason she came back. Tiberius's keys are still tossed on the counter, and one of the dogs is sprawled inelegantly on the back porch, looking mournful. The whole house is waiting for him to come home.

"Why didn't he have the hospital call me sooner?" she murmurs, knowing there isn't really an answer to that. The better question is, of course, that even if he had, what would she have done? He was sick. He didn't tell anyone. Now he's dead, and she can't say what she would or could have done because he didn't give her the chance.

Sam comes to stand next to her, close enough to touch. She turns and sees he's got his mouth pressed hard in a line, struggling with himself, and she turns to wrap her arms around him. He's as tall as she is now. She can't help remembering the first day they came here, how easily Tiberius had lifted him up, what a relief it had been to feel safe, to think they could have a home somewhere, even without George.

"I'm sorry," Winona says, her eyes hot with unspilled tears. "I'm so sorry, Sam."

"What for," he says, sounding exhausted. "It's not your fault. He was just as stubborn as you. It was a stupid fight but you both kept it up."

"Which makes it half each of our faults," she says. "I'm still sorry."

Sam puts his arms around her then; it feels like a measure of tension goes out of him, and she realizes a moment later that he's given up trying not to cry. "I just-- I mean I'm sad, it sucks, I'm going to miss him like, I mean I already miss him. But Jim, Mom, what about Jim? He's gone and when Jim comes back how are we gonna-- if Jim's even okay--"

"Don't say that," Winona says sharply, sounding more like a plea than a command. She realizes Sam isn't just upset about his grandfather; he's terrified for his brother too, and can't keep being the strong and silent type about it. He shouldn't be thinking he has to, she thinks fiercely, hugging him tighter. "Jim's fine, he's going to be fine, Sam. You're right to be scared, I'm scared too, but I'm a control freak and I hate not knowing everything that's going to happen before it does. I have a little faith, at least. He's going to be fine."

"You can't just say that because you want to believe it," Sam murmurs against her shoulder. She pretends she doesn't hear him.

---

When the lawyer comes to the apartment to invite her to the reading of the will, Winona agrees grudgingly. She knows Sam and Jim are going to make out well, and she's not disappointed. The farm has always done well; Tiberius was a smart man, and he made enough to leave both her boys enough to pay for college or travel or anything else they might want to do.

When her name is read out, she thinks it's a joke at first, until the lawyer hands her a letter. She didn't expect anything from him, didn't want it even if he wanted to give it. (Deep down she knows that really, the only thing she wanted from him isn't a thing you can leave someone in a will if you're not willing to give it to them face to face.)

When she opens the envelope, the first page has a few paragraphs of Tiberius's cramped scrawl. She reads the first line, Winnie-- If you've got this in your hand that means I'm gone to be with Celeste and George, and her throat hitches over a sob she hadn't known was in her. The second page is stiffer parchment, different than the top sheet, and she shifts it on top of the first, staring blankly at it for a long minute like she doesn't understand what it says, until her eyes blur with tears and she doesn't resist when Sam takes the pages from her hands, reading.

"Holy shit, Mom," he says, looking up with his face full of awe. "He gave you the house."

---

It's well past midnight. Outside the window the city's still a buzz of sound and light, but here, sixteen floors up inside Starfleet Medical, it's quiet.

Winona's sitting on a cushioned bench, absently biting her fingernails as she watches the news feeds give the reports again and again. How many dead on the planet; how many dead of malnutrition after they were rescued; how many in critical care. It's taken all her pull with everyone she knows-- April, Archer, Pike, Travers, the Mitchells-- to keep the name Jim Kirk from being mentioned. They're doing it well, she'll give them that; Starfleet's learned how to take care of its own, or at least how to take care of her. No reporters, no bodyguards, nothing. Just her and Sam in a stale-smelling room waiting to hear if they get to take Jim home yet.

It's the following morning before he's finally released. The doctor comes in, startling them both awake by calling her Mrs. Kirk, which Winona supposes is preferable to Mrs. MacAllister, but still, no one's called her Mrs. anything in so long she almost doesn't know who the doctor's talking to at first. She's too tired to tell her It's Lieutenant Kirk, too scared and hopeful to care about anything other than He's going to make it, thank gods, he's going to be okay.

They get a private car to the on-planet air hub to catch their shuttle home. They walk through the terminal at a steady pace; Winona has her aviators on, praying no one recognizes her, but she can't bring herself to let go of Jim's hand. Thankfully he doesn't seem inclined to let go either, and Sam stands on his other side, slouching but clearly alert, only the tension in his neck and the way his forearms flex as he clenches and unclenches his fists telling her how charged with protective fury he is.

SFM had mostly finished what the doctors on the medical transport had started; they'd brought Jim back from malnourishment, cured the fever and the scurvy and healed all his cuts and bruises, gotten him eating solid food again. He still looks like a wraith, though; pale and too thin, his skin nearly transparent, hair limp, eyes dull. At least he talks, thank gods, so she knows it's still him, that the Jim she knows isn't lost completely.

Underneath their small talk Winona tries, and fails, not to spend every second waiting for Jim to mention Tiberius. She sees the worried looks Sam tosses her now and then, and ignores them; she has to think. She still wonders how to tell him, how the fuck she's supposed to do this now. Telling your kid his grandfather died would be hard enough under the best circumstances-- and this right here, is about as far from the best circumstances as you can get.

She still has to remind herself that it happened at all.

"San Francisco's cool," he says as they walk through the spaceport, heading for the bay where the shuttle to take them to Riverside awaits.

"Cooler than Iowa?" she asks, all mock disbelief and a light smile, while inside her stomach twists. Maybe if they'd stayed in California he wouldn't have gone-- would've found what he needed right there in the city-- but No, she tells herself, can't think like that. Don't you dare.

"Way cooler than Iowa," he agrees without rancor. "Though Iowa's got way more space, obviously. And, you know, Grandpa would never move out of the farmhouse, so--"

The end of his sentence is lost in the rush of blood in her ears; in all the panic, she'd thought herself incapable of more adrenaline, thought her body had reached the limit of stress it could put on her nerves. She was, apparently, wrong. It must show on her face, because his eyes narrow, and she detours abruptly into the nearest windowed alcove, sitting her sons on a bench, Sam strategically at his back for when he turns (he will, she's sure) to flee.

This is something Pike will never have (it's mean and out of nowhere, why is she thinking of him now, and why does it matter) something he'll never understand; it's pain, but pain borne of love, the fierce desire to spare Jim this grief no matter what the cost to herself. She takes a breath and holds out her hands for him to put his into, and he does so with a meekness that unnerves her, unfamiliar on Jim's usually charged face.

"Something happened while you were gone," she says softly, folding her fingers lightly around Jim's. "I know this isn't-- you've been through hell, Jim, and I'd do anything not to have to tell you this right now. But I know I could only spare you for so long, so..." She breathes again, shallow, her heart taking up too much room in her chest to let much more air in. "Tiberius-- Grandpa-- he died. While you were away."

And before, she would've thought she'd be grateful not to have a scene, not to be faced with the wave of Jim's grief, with the well of hurt she couldn't hope to heal. But the blankness that drops over Jim's face like a mask hits her like a fist to the gut, and he looks away with a dull nod that makes her chest feel like it's cracking open. "Oh."

"It was a heart attack," she says desperately, hearing her voice hoarse and almost hysterical with the sudden threat of tears, and where did that come from? She'd almost been glad to see the end of the bastard, had been relieved not to have him making her life hell anymore. But-- Not like this, she thinks, pressing her lips together.

"No one knew," Sam says from behind Jim, his shoulders slumped, looking down at his hands folded in his lap. "He didn't tell anyone he was sick until--"

"Okay," says Jim.

"Okay?" says Sam in disbelief. "Okay?" He stares at her uncomprehending, needing confirmation that this is actually the real Jim in front of him, and she doesn't know what to tell him, since part of her is wondering the same thing.

---

They get home, and Winona's heart tries not to break at how surprised Jim is to go to the farmhouse, the way he relaxes visibly as soon as he steps inside. They're all exhausted-- Winona hasn't seen a bed in four days, Sam looks like a zombie and Jim looks worse than both of them put together.

"Okay," she says, "get your pajamas on. Who wants tea before bed?" She counts it a victory that Jim only hesitates a little before nodding that he does. She feels the roiling fury in her stomach again, that her son, her baby, was under the care of someone who starved him, deprived him, terrorized him, put him through an ordeal most adults couldn't handle. She hopes wherever Kodos is, he's rotting in the worst hell anyone could think of.

After they're both in bed, Winona feels so frayed she's sure she's going to fall apart if she doesn't do something to anchor herself. She goes and gets a beer from the fridger and sits down in front of the comm, thinking of calling Pike. No, not him, she thinks, then amends, not him first. She needs guidance, not compassion, and there's only one person she can think of to get it from.

"Winnie," Commodore Travers greets her, immediately asking, "How is he?"

"Hi," she says, hearing how miserable she sounds. "We're at home. I'm so glad you picked up."

"As am I. God's sake, you look like hell," he says, but it sounds sympathetic instead of teasing.

"I feel like it," she says, raking her fingers through her hair to get it off her face. "I don't even know what to do with myself right now. Beyond take care of Jim, I mean, but I just... I feel lost, Gabriel, I don't know how to handle this. I'm so... I'm so fucking angry at them!" she bursts out, surprising herself and Travers too, by the look of it.

"At Kodos?" he asks, but she shakes her head right away.

"No-- I mean yes, obviously, I hope they slather him in bacon grease and leave him to be eaten very slowly by carnivorous mice-- but no, I, I mean the Federation, the Admiralty, gods-- that they didn't know enough about what was happening to stop it until it was too late."

"I am in no way arguing with you," Travers says slowly. "You know I abhor sticking to the party line, and idiocy, and willful ignorance. But in this case I'm not sure there was anything that could be done."

"When you start with your thumb up your ass, everything's an improvement," she retorts. "The lines they kept feeding me, gods-- it's like they forgot that we're the gods-damned Federation. Like they had to tiptoe around-- you know what this is," she says, realization dawning on her in horror. "This is that fucking textbook all over again. That class you made me take, what the fuck was it."

"Expansion and Exploration," he says dryly. "I remember it well. Your reaction to it, anyway."

"That's what this is," she fumes, barely listening, "the same assholes who sat in that class and ate it up with a spoon are now running things and they're fucking it up big time. Expand and explore, my ass-- more like keep calm and bury your head in the sand." She swigs the rest of her bottle of beer and smacks it down on the table beside the screen, leveling a fierce look at Travers. "We're more than that, better than that, it's what I've been saying for years. We should do more, reach farther. What the hell are we doing out there if it's not to prevent this?"

Travers looks bemused, but interested. "Starfleet brass knows they did wrong by not putting more checks on Kodos," he says. "What more do you want from them? They're not omniscient."

"More checks? How about a psych screening before they put him in charge of a settlement that housed not only fifty families but an interstellar school for gifted children?" Winona shoots back.

"That too," he agrees wryly. "Look, they know they did wrong. They apologized, made reparations to the families--"

"They did all that for the Kelvin," she snaps. "You think I need to get another 'I'm sorry now please take your tragic story away so we don't have to think about it anymore' check in the mail every month? I want to see them do things differently, Gabriel. I don't want them to have to trip over six apologies for every one useful proactive thing they do. I want them to do good, not come by it as a sidebar to covering their asses."

There's a stretch of quiet while she reaches for the other beer bottle and flips off the cap. "Winnie," Travers says, mingled regret, sorrow and anxiety in his voice, "you can't get in their faces about this. You know it won't end well. I know you're pissed-- hell, I'm pissed too. But... much as I've always encouraged you to be the voice in the wilderness, you can't change the world all by yourself."

She doesn't need him to tell her that; she's been angry at that little fact of life for years. "If not me, then who?" she asks, feeling the weight of exhaustion settle around her again. She drops her head into her hands, pressing the heels against her eyes to keep back the prickly heat she feels starting at the corners.

It was going to be George, she thinks. It was going to be both of us together.

"Oh Winona, I know," he says, his voice full of infinite concern and understanding, and she realizes abruptly that she did actually say that out loud. She looks up and offers a weak smile.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I really didn't mean to-- to unload on you like this."

"Apologies?" he replies, one eyebrow quirked. "When have you ever known me to want an apology for speaking your mind?"

"Well never, but--"

"Then stop. Like I said-- you've been through hell, my dear. I just don't want to see you making things harder on yourself by raging against something that's too big to be taken on alone. You need a few more people in your engine before you try and take on that Goliath."

"Thank you, sir," she says, a sudden halfhearted smile starting across her face. "You really... you made me feel a lot better." She's surprised to find that it's true, too.

After she hangs up with Travers she goes and gets another beer from the fridger. She's gonna need it for the one call she has left to make.

Pike picks up on the last ring, like maybe he wasn't sure if he was going to pick up at all. "I didn't expect to hear from you," he says softly. He looks like he's barely slept, and that he's been tugging on his hair again.

"I didn't expect to call," she says, shrugging. "Guess you heard they sent him home."

Pike nods. "Yeah." Guess I should be happy he's quit pretending he doesn't keep tabs on us, she thinks. "How is he?"

"Well he just narrowly escaped mass murder by a depraved lunatic, only to come home and find out his grandfather is dead. How would you be?" she says, eyes narrow.

Pike's face does something complicated, and his shoulders shift like he started to reach out a hand before he remembered it's useless; she's too far away. "I'm sorry," he says. "Is there--"

She's already shaking her head. "No. He left us his goddamn house, Pike," she says, suddenly feeling broken and old. "We've been fighting each other for the last ten years, but Jim worshipped him, like if God and Elvis and Einstein were rolled up into one person they might possibly be as cool as that cantankerous old bastard." She shakes her head. "Can't even tell you the number of times I wished for him to die in creative ways. Now I regret every single one. Sort of."

Pike smiles wryly. "If wishes were that simple we'd both have met a few creative ends by now. Really though," he says, even quieter. "You can't blame yourself. I know you don't really, but-- if he was a jerk to you, so what? He loved the boys and thought you were taking them away from him. They were all he had left of George... and you know as well as I do that we all do irrational things out of love for George."

"Hah," she barks a hoarse laugh, pressing her hands to her face briefly before dropping them and shaking her head at him. "Ha! Wow. I never thought-- really, all these years, I never thought you'd actually admit it."

He rolls his eyes. "You're not the only one who's four beers down, Winona. Besides, it's not like you didn't know already."

She waves a hand. "Of course I knew. You think I'm an idiot?"

"Never," he says solemnly. He looks off to the side, his eyes going far-off for a second before snapping back to her. "I know you don't want help, and about Jim I really can't do anything. I wish I could, but that... only time will fix that. But seriously, Winona. Tiberius has got to have left a pile of money to the boys in addition to the house, and if anyone steps up and tries to argue-- I'm just saying, you're still an active member of Starfleet, I can get someone from Legal on a shuttle to Iowa in five minutes."

Too tired to argue, or to be annoyed that she's grateful, she nods. "Thanks, Pike. I know I haven't made your life easy either, but... I know you've got our backs."

"Finally," says Pike with a wry smile. "Really, all these years, I never thought you'd actually admit it."

That surprises another laugh from her, and she buries her face in her hands again, palms and cheeks wet with tears.

---

After Tarsus, life in the Kirk household goes quiet. Slowly, infinitesmally, things return to normal. By the time Sam goes off to CalTech, Jim's growing like a weed and eating everything in sight. It still gives Winona an absurd amount of satisfaction to watch him put away a full plate of food and go back for more. The farm runs itself just like Tiberius set it up to do, and when she needs help she gets Rich Evans from up the road to give her a hand. He's got a wife and baby girl, and doesn't talk to her like she's an idiot.

Sam's still the mellow one, Jim still the troublemaker. On good days Winona reflects that a little rebellion never hurt anyone; on bad days she wonders why she doesn't have more relatives she can make him go stay with to give her a weekend's peace and quiet. But mostly she's stopped fighting it. The first time he gets arrested (four months from his fifteenth birthday, for four-wheeling in the MacAllisters' pasture) she bails him out, and is not entirely successful at hiding her amusement at the prank. The next day, though, she makes him get a job so he can pay her back and pay his own damned bail next time.

There is a next time. There's always a next time.

She still works, but now she works from home. The shipyard is never where she thought she'd find herself, but she did spend her teens and twenties salivating over the technology that's standard in most engines these days. She helps design, something she also never thought she'd do, and heads repair teams for the smaller ships that come into Riverside to get patched up, consults on crews for the larger class ships that stay in spacedock when they need fixing. She's never away from home for more than a few weeks at a time, and she realizes pretty fast that it's more than enough to keep her happy.

With Sam gone it's just the two of them in the farmhouse, and she finds it's not as strange or hollow as she'd expected. When Sam comes home for weekends or holidays it feels like a party, or like Christmas-- when he goes again, it's quiet. Most of the time. Things in their house go back and forth like a ping pong match-- weeks will pass when they're thick as thieves, staying up past midnight playing poker or phase ten, Saturday afternoons spent watching the Hawkeyes wipe the astroturf with Oregon over beer and pretzels. Then like a switch flicking off, he goes distant, gets in trouble again, starts fighting with her about the littlest stupidest things he can think of.

(Before she met Tiberius, Winona thought she was the most pigheaded stubborn person she'd ever met. Now, watching Jim grow up with both her genes and Tiberius's ticking away inside him, she knows he can put both of them to shame.)

Winona never confronts him about why he pulls away. She's got a theory-- she wasn't a psych student but she's got a brain, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess that in some way he blames her for Tarsus-- for what happened there, for his grandfather dying while he was gone-- and sure, he's had therapy (the one thing she's ever forced him to do besides stay in school, put her foot down and dragged him there week after week, sat outside the door to make sure he didn't leave midway through, until the therapist told her they were actually making progress) but some things you don't let go of in two years, or five, or nine. Some things stick with you forever.

---

On the fifteenth anniversary of the death of the Kelvin she and Jim don't see each other. They were having an off week anyway, but from when she wakes up to when she goes to bed she doesn't hear a peep from him.

(Pike calls at night. Of course. "You're getting predictable," she warns.

He laughs, more warmth in it than she's used to. "Me, boring? But Winona, I thought I already was.")

Jim comes home in the middle of the next morning, looking and smelling like he spent the night mud wrestling. "Have a good time?" she asks with a cheeky grin as he stomps up the porch steps toward her. "By the way, try and go in the house like that and I'll tackle you to the ground myself."

"Great time," he says, sounding hoarse (from too much yelling and smoking; her throat burns sympathetically in memory). "By the way," he adds, waggling his eyebrows to make it clear he's mimicking her on purpose, "if Mr. Benson asks you about a mud pit where his turnips used to be, just say you don't know anything and I was home all night, okay?"

Winona weighs the voice telling her not to encourage her son to be a juvenile delinquent against her dislike of Benson, who's an ass to her in public because his daughter's married to Tommy's cousin, and nods. "You got it." She points around the side of the house. "Hose is that way, buddy."

Jim grins, and goes, and Winona waits til he's out of sight before grinning back.

---

A few months before the twentieth anniversary Winona gets an invitation. Printed on paper, sent through the mail, arriving on her doorstep in a creamy square envelope addressed to Lieutenant Winona Kirk.

She knows what it is before she even opens it. She almost doesn't. Something in her deeply dreads reading it, knows that once she does she won't be able to say no.

She opens it anyway.

You are cordially invited, it starts, and she winces, skimming the rest. guest of honor... ceremony commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the destruction of the USS Kelvin... Stardate 2253.04, Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco, CA...

Vice Admiral Richard Barnett's signature is at the bottom, with a post-it stuck on in the same handwriting. Winona, I hope you'll come. It's been too long. He's signed it Rich, like the familiarity will convince her, will soothe the rolling tension in her shoulders. It doesn't do either of those things.

She leaves the envelope on the table and goes through the rest of her day like normal. One of the guys working on her crew at the shipyard did something to the engine of his bike (filled the oil well with Red Bull is her guess, from the state of it) and she's promised to fix it if he makes her a pot of that Andorian sausage stew he's been bragging about for two weeks. That takes her through the afternoon, and by the time dinner rolls around she's ravenous, and pleasantly tired.

She grills a burger and sits outside eating it in the lowering light, ignoring the room behind her, the mail still on the table.

It's still gnawing at her even after she flips through the channels, watches the news for a while, so she goes to the comm and dithers for a moment before calling Pike. He's out on a mission (like he is more and more lately; they're not letting any ships or officers stay planetside longer than necessary these days) with the USS Siri, but she gathers it's not a busy one when Starfleet patches her through without a wait.

"Hey," he says, grinning, "give me just a sec." He looks up, over the screen to (she assumes) where there's someone standing, and she watches him listen to the end of a very boring report about water use on the ship. Finally he relaxes back into the chair, not the Captain anymore, just Chris Pike, someone as familiar to her as she is to herself.

Abruptly, like a slap to the face, she realizes he's become not only a friend again, but somehow, that he's the best one she has.

It's weird, and she stammers a little before she gets out a hello, earning her a wry smile. "What's eating you?" he asks, motioning toward her with one hand. "I don't think I've ever seen you stutter before, not since your wedding day anyway."

"Shut up," she says, rolling her eyes and grinning. "I just needed to vent, I guess. I got an invitation today, to some commemorative thing for the Kelvin. And I don't want to go, but I know I should." Should, not just because Starfleet expects it, but because the other survivors do.

It's easy thinking about saying no to Barnett. Saying no to Ensign Callaway, who she used to spar with on off hours; or Lieutenant Grozny, who always knew when to say 'that's what she said'; or Eeilar By, who made sure the kitchen never made anything with cilantro while she was pregnant-- that's harder. Maybe impossible. These are the people who send her holiday cards every year, who email her out of the blue to ask how she is (who keep doing it even when she doesn't reply), who've made sure that no matter how shitty she feels on the fourth of April, Jim's birthday never goes unnoticed.

She can't turn them down-- can't let them down-- because they're kind of her family.

"I get the feeling you're having most of this conversation with yourself," Pike says, and when she looks up, startled, he's smirking at her.

"What, sorry, yeah, I guess... I don't know. I guess it's dumb not to go just to piss off Rich Barnett, huh."

He snorts. "Much as I appreciate the sentiment, yeah, probably a little dumb."

She nods. "Okay. Then... I guess I'm going."

Pike nods back. "Okay. Then I guess I'll see you there."

---

She gets to San Francisco the night before the commemoration. Starfleet puts her up in a high-rise hotel, a place she's walked by and looked at and always wistfully assumed she'd never see the inside of.

Before she's even gotten to her room, she's seen six people from the Kelvin and gotten hugged and had her hand shaken more times than she can count. By the time she hits the elevator her hands are shaking, and once inside her room she flops down on the enormous bed, fighting back tears.

"Why the hell am I here," she murmurs, rolling over onto her back and tucking her hands behind her head. "Fuck."

The next morning she puts on a dress and eyeliner, in defiance of how much crying she's probably going to do this afternoon. When she steps off the elevator on her way down, the lobby is empty except for a man in Starfleet dress greys, his back to her as he looks up at the news feed on the wall. He's tall and slim, and as her heels click on the marble floor he half turns, and--

"Holy shit," she says, stopped dead in her tracks. She laughs, and puts her hand over her mouth, and closes the distance between her and Pike as quick as she can, throwing her arms around his neck. "Hi," she says against his shoulder, "oh my gods, hi." She's unprepared for this, the physical reality of him when for twenty years he's existed only as a face on a screen, a voice at the other end of the line. She's relieved (even when she hadn't known she was worried) that it feels as natural, as comfortable as it had once.

(She remembers a night she spent watching a movie curled up on someone's sofa, her feet under his thigh; and the way they'd roughhoused, all of them; and standing shoulder to shoulder with him at Academy assemblies, his presence always firm and solid, here I am; it was easy then, and she's glad to discover that some things can stay the same.)

He hugs back, then lets her go, grinning as foolishly as she is (maybe more). "Hi yourself," he says. "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?"

"I got pressganged into coming by this jerk I know," she says, lifting an eyebrow at him.

"Oh really," he says, putting on a mock interested expression. "Do tell."

"Yeah, I don't know, he started harassing me a few years back and I just haven't had the time to get a restraining order." They both laugh harder than they should at that, and then he surprises her by holding out his arm.

"Come on," he says, "I have a car waiting. Unless you were going to go alone," he adds, his expression making it clear what a dumb idea he thinks that is.

She pauses, tamping down on a flash of panic (I don't want to do this I don't want to go why am I here) then loops her arm through his. "Nah. Sounds great. That way if anyone tries to bother me I can hide behind you."

"Wouldn't have it any other way," he says, smiling.

He sticks by her when they get to the ceremony, no matter how many people try to drag him away (she listens with interest as he avoids questions of his next assignment, hints that the flagship they're starting to build in her shipyard might someday be his to command, and reminds herself to ask him about it later) patient every time she's recognized, called to, shouted for, until finally they're in their seats.

"You're handling this... very well," he says quietly as the proceedings begin.

(Later on, as she's crying and trying to be silent about it, he'll take her hand, gently, giving her room to pull away if she wants. She'll wrap her fingers around his and squeeze harder.)

"It can only go downhill from here," she murmurs back.

---

Jim's lived on his own for a few years now. She doesn't know where he's been spending his free time; not with her, not often enough, anyway. Add another irony to the long list that makes up her life; now she's grateful for the incestuous town gossip she used to loathe so passionately, because it lets her keep tabs on her kid without him ever knowing it. Or maybe he does know it; she wouldn't put that past him either.

So it's rare for someone who doesn't live in Riverside to be the one giving her the dish on her son. Rare enough that when she gets a comm from Pike one morning, chagrin written all over his face, the very last thing she expects him to say after they dispense with the pleasantries is, "So I may have accidentally kidnapped your son last night."

"You-- what?" she asks, caught between laughing at the ridiculousness of it and a sudden stab of flailing panic.

"Yeah, about that," Pike says, rubbing the back of his neck. "Look, my cadets were in that bar, that shitty bar and I can't believe it's been thirty years and it's still the only one in walking distance of the shipyard-- but seriously, what was I supposed to do when the crazy person wiping the floor with four of my security-track cadets turns out to be your son?"

"Only four?" Winona murmurs. "Slow night." She scrubs her hands down her face, resisting the urge to dig her knuckles into her eyes. Then she drops her hands into her lap and reminds herself to stay calm. "What did you do?" she asks-- demands, really.

"About that," Pike says again, and suddenly she knows-- knows if she calls the repair shop where Jim usually manages to show up for work, she'll find he hasn't been seen since Friday-- knows if she goes looking, she'll find his bike sitting lonely in front of his apartment, and if she calls his comm he won't pick up.

"I'm going to kill you," she says firmly, and right away his eyebrows ratchet up into that familiar expression, and it might be funny how they've done this dance so often before, except for the sharp slice of fear she's trying valiantly to suppress.

"I didn't exactly think about it, Winona," he says, like he's going to get anywhere reasoning with her, "I just saw him in the bar and what was I supposed to do, pretend I didn't know who he was? We started talking and he's just-- you saying he's brilliant didn't do him justice, and could he be more rebellious, God, not like you raised him or anything." He rolls his eyes and goes on without seeming to breathe in between. "Anyway, kidnapping is kind of exaggerating, don't you think? I didn't take him anywhere against his will, I just--"

"Got him to enlist in Starfleet on a whim after twenty-two years of me trying like hell not to push him into it?" Winona finishes for him, eyebrows up, jaw clenched. Beneath her amped-up adrenaline-fueled anxiety she can acknowledge there's no reason to be so crazy about this (this thing she's become convinced is a pipe dream; Jim joining Starfleet, for fuck's sake, when has she ever wanted anything else for him?) except for the speed with which it snuck up on her and knocked her senseless.

"Well... basically, yes." Pike heaves a sigh and rubs his palm over his face. "I looked up his file, Winona, you-- don't look at me like that, I never had before, really-- why didn't you ever tell me he was turning into an honest-to-god delinquent?"

Now it's her turn to look chagrined; she won't acknowledge she tried to hide it, but she can tell part of the truth, at least. "I-- I don't-- I guess I figured he'd grow out of it," she admits. "It sounds stupid but I really-- he's not cut out for a life of crime, for gods' sakes, I figured at some point he'd get tired of waking up in the drunk tank and just--" she gestures wordlessly with one hand, lets it flop back down to her lap, defeated.

"Shape up?" Pike finishes for her. She nods, and he hesitates for a second before going on, barely half a second, but she knows he's choosing his words carefully, and wonders what he's choosing not to say. "I'm not trying-- it isn't your-- sometimes it just takes some outside motivation," he settles finally, "and I think you'll agree I'm no slouch at manipulation when I want to be," he adds with a wry smile she can't help returning.

Because he's right, really, and that's what stings, even though it is a little funny. She's never taken kindly to others doing for her boys what she figured she could do herself, and that's never been more true than in her selfish wish, her fierce hope that she could give them the stars, her love of them, of space and all it holds. She got to do it for Sam, and that's something she'll cherish forever. But this is Jim she's talking about, and he's never trusted the easy answer, never taken anything at face value, and it doesn't surprise her that he needed to forge his own road to admitting he wanted to follow the path his parents took. She can't hate Pike for leading Jim to what Winona considers no less than his birthright; the important thing is that he got there. And if she's jealous that someone who's a stranger to Jim could do what she couldn't, she reminds herself not to be a dick, and shoves it down somewhere she can examine it later.

A grin breaks through her contemplation, and Pike's eyebrows draw together, quizzical. "They're going to hate him," she says almost gleefully. "They're-- gods, Chris, they're going to want to tear him apart." Her eager eyes and the snap in her voice say the rest without words; And I can't wait to see them try.

Pike grins back at her, still sheepish. "I know. I told him he could be an officer in four years-- he said he'd do it in three-- and God, Winona, I believe him." He shakes his head, the light of anticipation in his eyes mirroring her own. "He's going to knock them all on their asses."

"I sure as hell hope so," she agrees, then gives a small explosive snort of laughter. "Jesus, Komack is going to have an aneurysm the first time he tries disciplining him." Jim was eight the first time he dismantled one of her attempts to ground him with a defense any prosecutor would've envied. "Barnett, too... at least he'll have an idea what he's signing up for."

Pike's grin widens and he shakes his head again. "He might think he does," he says, "but I think he's going to find out he's wrong."

Winona snickers, the curve of her smirk conspiratorial as she turns the idea over in her mind; what her son can do, will do, immersed in the Academy and the life he was born to, even if he hasn't grown up living it. The possibilities are endless. "Actually," she says thoughtfully, "I think you all are."

---

She dials the number off the Google search with her lips pressed together, urging herself to slow, calm breaths. The recording picks up on the second ring, a cool female voice, You have reached the main switchboard for Starfleet Medical-- She dials the room number before the robot voice finishes its sentence.

Two rings... three... she wonders if this will end like her three previous calls; in another tinny prompt to leave a message, and her finger on the end call button.

To leave a message she'd have to know what to say, and she doesn't, yet. The fact that she's going to have to decide sooner or later-- that at some point someone's going to pick up when she calls-- is immaterial. She's got time yet--

"Hello?" The voice is soft and muzzy from sleep (no, sedatives, she thinks) but it's familiar as her own.

"Chris," she says softly. "Sorry-- I didn't mean to--"

"Win," he says, and Jesus, it wrenches her heart way too easily; it's been twenty-five years since he called her that. "So you heard."

"Yeah," she says, her hand clenching into a fist, then releasing, clenching and releasing. "Yeah, I uh. Kind of harassed Jon nonstop for three days until he had something to tell me." She swallows hard. "Since you're at least semi-lucid enough to be carrying on a conversation, I'm going to assume the surgery went well?"

His chuckle sounds like broken glass, but it reassures her anyway. "Yeah. Total success, at least as far as getting the shit out of my brain is concerned. Full mental recovery."

She parses what he's not saying in less time than it takes to repeat it inside her head. "Mental, but what-- what about the rest of you?"

The pause is awkward; she thinks they're probably both glad this is audio only. "They're not sure yet. About-- about my legs." Winona's eyes close and everything in her deflates a little. Gods, fuck, no. It's a prayer, a curse, maybe both. He clears his throat and goes on. "McCoy's the best there is-- if there's something to be done, he'll do it. But for now..."

"Yeah," she says, because she's superstitious sometimes, and doesn't want either of them to say it out loud. That pause happens again, lengthening, as she listens to Pike breathe slow and deep, half a continent away. "I had to say thank you," she blurts out then, before she realizes she's planning on talking.

"Thank you?" he asks, sounding like he's smiling.

"Thank you," she repeats. "For-- for keeping Jim safe."

He makes a sound that's almost a snort. "I didn't really do that," he says gently. "The press probably hasn't told you much that's true, but I-- I got taken hostage pretty soon into things. All I did was--" there's a soft thump, like he raised a hand and let it drop against the blankets again-- "I left Spock in charge, made Jim first officer. It was..." he pauses again, and she hears unspoken, the least I could do, but he settles on, "It was the only choice," and maybe that's true too. "After that, it was all him. And Spock. They seem to have tried to kill each other and saved each other's lives about ten times apiece in the past two weeks," he says, sounding tired. Sounding like she had every day of raising two kids all by herself; fond, exasperated, bemused.

"Whatever," she says, awkward in the face of not knowing what the right thing to say is. "Thanks anyway."

"You're welcome," he says, voice gone soft again. "You should call back when I'm not drugged to the gills. I'd like to have a coherent conversation with you that I'll actually remember."

She laughs, and takes the graceful exit he's giving her. "Yeah, I'll do that. And hey, Chris--" she pauses, not sure she wants to say what's scalding the tip of her tongue, not even sure how to say it. How to smooth over thirty years of cutting words and veiled resentment, of a friendship warped by tension on an invisible battleground. How to say she's sorry for things that weren't her fault or even in her power to change. But she's never been good at recognizing her own limits; it's only now she can see that half the reason this stupid push-pull made her so furious was wanting just to fix things, to arrange the world so everyone that mattered to her was happy, or close enough to it.

"Yeah?" he prompts, and now she can't say any of it. She chickens out, and could laugh at herself for finally learning what it's like to choose self-preservation over the truth.

"Tell Jim to call me when he can," she says quietly, her throat tight, hating herself a little.

"Already done," he says, "but I'll do it again. Win... thanks for calling."

"Yeah," she says, throat suddenly tight. "I'll talk to you soon." She hangs up and breathes for a moment before scrubbing resentfully at her eyes, and reminds herself it's dry and dusty as hell in this old deathtrap, and she's allergic to mold.

---

She wakes with the first stirring of the farm around her, the birds in the trees and the window paling with dawn. She stays in bed with her eyes open, not moving, not thinking. She feels fragile, like if she breathes too hard something will crack, something beyond repair.

The feeling passes as the sun comes pouring Technicolor-bright into her bedroom, and when her alarm goes off she swings herself out of bed still lost in a fog of feeling.

She calls the shipyard and tells them she's not coming before she's even realized why. "I have something I need to do," she says. "Something I should've done a long time ago."

---

The library in Riverside is old, the inside an odd juxtaposition of stone arches and faintly humming computer terminals. She doesn't know why she's come here to do this; she could just as easily have sat on her couch or gone out to the hammock in the yard. But there's a tension thrumming through her veins that drove her out, away from home and into the silent air she's been conditioned to find comforting, and she feels her shoulders relax as she contemplates where to sit.

The main reading room is empty at ten o'clock on a Thursday, and she settles into one of the armchairs with her padd on her lap, her feet up on an ottoman. She's not sure she's ready for this, but-- "Now or never," she murmurs to herself, and pulls up the file.

More Things in Heaven and Earth : A Critical Analysis of the Destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin and Its Effects on Federation and Starfleet Policy, by Christopher Pike.

It's almost three hundred pages; she's read novels shorter than this. She doesn't know why she feels so intimidated suddenly, but it feels like there's a line before her, and once she crosses it she can't turn back. If Pike's thesis were a real book, her hand would be shaking as she turned the page.

Her fingers flick across the screen, scrolling down, crossing the line. She reads.

---

Riverside to San Francisco by shuttle takes about three hours. Not long enough to qualify for a red-eye, but it's late when she steps off the loading dock, after ten for sure. She goes to the hospital anyway; this can't wait.

Her fingertips still feel numb and buzzing like they had when she'd finished reading-- hell, like they'd been the entire time she was reading. She still can't believe it-- can't believe he wrote what he did, that he still had a career afterward, that it's taken her this long to realize what an idiot she's been.

He was on my side the whole time, she thinks, and is glad she can't remember most of the things she said to him when she first heard what the subject of his dissertation was. She's done a good enough job chastising herself for lashing out before she had all the details (she thinks of George telling her you need the facts to back it up and rubs her hands hard over her face in chagrin) if she remembered her exact words she'd probably have to cry.

She knows this is crazy-- coming here the way she did, unannounced and unexpected-- but doesn't care. As soon as she'd finished reading she'd gone home, distracted and feeling like she was on the edge of crying. Her mind had been ablaze with everything Pike had written, putting pieces together and making connections, and it wasn't until she'd been back in the house for fifteen minutes that she dropped whatever she was holding and said aloud, "He wrote a gods damned tribute to George. Oh my gods."

It made so much sense-- that George would've talked about his grand ideas to his best friend. That he would've shared with Pike his vision, his dreams of changing the way Starfleet operates, of going out into space and showing everyone from the Admiralty down to the newest cadet how brilliant they could be. That Pike would've loved him for it, the same as Winona had. How could he help it? She certainly hadn't been able to.

And that when faced with the chance to put on paper the ideas that George would never get to defend for himself, Pike couldn't resist... Winona can't help sympathizing with that too. Hell, if the five years after the Kelvin hadn't been soundly occupied by her kids, she might've written the damn thing herself.

The elegance of it though... it's so well-written, she's pretty sure it didn't even occur to the Admiralty to be offended when they read it. He doesn't come right out and say any of the incendiary stuff-- the stuff that would get Barnett's back up in a heartbeat-- he couches it in turns of phrase, context you'd have to pick apart to realize that underneath the points he's making are other points, ideas you won't even really know you have in your head until later. No slouch at manipulation, he'd said to her, and gods, his dissertation is a prize-winning example of it.

She'd spent so long dismissing him, laying him out for his ambition, his drive to rise in the ranks. She thought that was all that mattered to him-- more stripes on his sleeves, more prestige, more people saying his name. Now, after hours spent looking through a window into his soul, she knows how wrong she is. Pike knows-- he knows the rules and policies better than any of them ever did-- he'd know that if you want to change things it helps to have someone on the inside. Someone with influence who can call in favors. And that's what he's been doing all this time, she thinks. He wants more influence so he can start knocking heads together. She almost laughs aloud.

"He wants it as much as I do. Maybe more," she murmurs to herself, looking up to realize she's at the door to Starfleet Medical.

Her battered Starfleet ID gets her in-- of course it does-- she's still famous, or famous again, not sure which is more accurate or more offensive. A younger version of her in her head is annoyed that her notoriety comes from the men in her life and not from herself. Her own voice reminds her she never wanted anyone to know her name anyway.

She wrestles Pike's room number out of an orderly with little effort. She could've just commed McCoy, she supposes; she and Jim's best friend have a strong rapport for having met in person only three times, but having heard enough about each other to fill in the rest. But this she wants to do on her own. She's not even sure she wants Jim to know she's been here. This is just for her and Chris.

He looks asleep when she goes in. The TV's off, his eyes are closed, but as she sits in the chair by the bed they open, the same cool grey-blue as ever. He tries to speak, but like before, his voice won't obey him. His eyes telegraph confusion clearly even without it.

"More Things in Heaven and Earth?" she asks, her own throat tight. She watches his eyes widen, his mouth drop open, and she offers an unsteady smile. "Why didn't you just call it A Treatise on Changing the World?"

He closes his mouth and swallows hard. "Had to make it as pretentious as possible," he rasps.

His voice trembles a little; it tears a slightly hysterical sound from her, and she scoots the chair forward, grabbing onto his hand with both of hers. "You ass," she says fervently. "I'd ask why you didn't just tell me yourself, but I remember what I was like."

He smiles, lifting an eyebrow. "Was?"

She narrows her eyes. "I am trying to have a moment here," she scolds in her best Mom voice. "You think you're ever going to get this kind of conciliatory mood out of me again, think again."

"Oh, come on," he pouts, "take pity on the poor crippled war hero."

He obviously means it as a joke, but it's not funny at all, and suddenly her eyes are overflowing. She bows her head over their hands, pressing his knuckles against her forehead, trying to breathe and not to dissolve into those awful honking sobs she's so prone to when she really gets going. It's all wrong, she thinks, and (dammit) cries even harder when she feels his hand on the top of her head.

"Winona," he says, pleading and broken, "come on, it was--"

"It's not funny," she gasps, sitting up with her face still wet, the tears still coming. "It's not funny at all, how is it funny that you're in a wheelchair, I'm a widow in an empty farmhouse and George is dead when we should've been ruling the world? We were meant for so many things, Chris, and it just-- none of it happened."

"How can you say that?" Pike asks, genuinely confused. "We're past our prime, Win. It's Jim's world now. And God, if there's anyone who was meant to rule it, it's him. You raised him, I got him into Starfleet, that's more than enough. The rest is up to Jim. It's not okay that George is dead," he says, and now she can see he's choked up too, his hand still gripping hers tight. "It'll never be okay, for either of us. But he left the best parts of himself behind in that kid, and if I died tonight I'd die happy just knowing I helped put him where he is."

His voice is hard and fervent, and it slays her, because he's right. Because as much as she's always wanted to see things change, the Kelvin took away the momentum she'd had to do it herself. She could've gone back, she knows; let Tiberius raise Sam and Jim on his own, gone back to Starfleet and made a nuisance of herself until they paid attention. But she didn't. She devoted herself-- all of herself-- to her boys, to seeing them grow up and making sure she was more than a face on a vidscreen at birthdays and Christmas.

She lost George and lost the will to live alone the life they'd planned to have together, and this is what's come of it: her son a hero, come into his legacy on his own terms, full of energy and the drive to shape the world into a better place than it was when he found it. And I'm disappointed in what, exactly? she asks herself.

After a minute Winona takes a breath and says, "I don't think you've ever rendered me speechless before. Congratulations."

His smile reappears, tentative but visible. "I've been saving it up." He sighs and shifts, wincing, his hand releasing hers a little.

Her eyes widen and she blurts, "Oh gods, I haven't even asked you if you're in pain."

That gets her a laugh, honestly tickles his funny bone so he's holding his side, practically wheezing. "I'm okay, Nurse Nightingale, I promise. I got this button to press if I need the painkillers again."

"Oh, laugh it up," she says caustically, wiping her eyes and giving him a sullen look somewhat marred by the fact that she's kind of smirking, too.

"I'm going to be fine, Win," he says, catching her hand. "I don't love the idea of not being in the field anymore... Really not crazy about having to hang around making small talk with Komack and watching Jon pretend to laugh at Barnett's jokes. But I'm alive." He shrugs, and gives her the softest smile she's ever seen on his face. "And Jim's alive, which means there's hope for all of us yet."

"Either that or we're all going to hell in a handbasket," she says, deadpan.

"Well, he's a Kirk," Pike says with a shrug. "Whatever he does, you can bet he'll find a new way of doing it."

"Yeah," says Winona, a real smile surfacing on her face for the first time since she came in. "Yeah, he definitely will."