Leonard startled awake, disoriented until the hard bench beneath his side and the gray cinder-block wall in front of him reminded him he was in lockup. The hangover and the sticky taste in his mouth, though, those were plenty familiar. What had woken him?
Pale morning sunlight slanted away from his corner of the cell, the building held the quiet murmurs of a small office space, someone's warm thigh pressed against the top of his head, and his body grumbled a chorus of distant aches and pains; none of it should've pulled him from his comfortable stupor. Dull memories surfaced, of a fight the night before, and a discovery that his comm was missing, but like most of the last six months he couldn't remember much clearly.
"Captain Pike," someone said, strained and surprised. Jim, his sluggish brain supplied, though he couldn't remember when they'd been introduced. "I didn't know you were back planetside."
The thigh against the top of his head had tensed, which was probably what had woken him in the first place. Leonard squinted blearily at the grainy gray wall. Slivers of memory came out of the dark, just like the kid had at the bar: handsome reckless jock-type, maybe nineteen; pale angry eyes, dirty golden hair; a hard fist cocked back.
"What happened?" Brusque, clipped. A parent not wanting to let on that they were concerned. Good. So Jim did have someone, even if he didn't have a lick of sense. Also, Captain, so — his brain made unwanted deductions from facts he didn't know he'd collected — probably Starfleet with the Iowa shipyard so close. I'm in Iowa?
"That one started the fight," a fourth voice, this one female and blurred by a peace officer's faceless uniform, spoke up. Leonard curled further into himself, not wanting the attention. "Your boy finished it. Hurt the victim pretty badly."
Leonard stifled an angry snort.
"Yeah," Jim said, dropping the temperature in the cell ten degrees or so, "the victim. The one whose injuries you couldn't document, because he managed to slip away while you were arresting us? Let me know if he shows up to press charges. I have some apologizing to do."
"Jimmy." Heavy exasperation, with the hint of a sigh. Not the first time a display of temper had gotten the kid in trouble, then, most likely. Jim called the man "Captain Pike" without irony; he wasn't a relation, or he was a stepfather at best, but the diminutive nickname suggested he'd been part of Jim's life for a while, as did the stubborn "Jim" he got in response.
Listening to the family drama he was responsible for twisted a tight knot beneath Leonard's diaphragm. Even though he hadn't looked for or wanted the kid's help. He swallowed the thin taste of bile.
"Your mother's worried about you, Jim." Pike emphasized the name, and his tone was gentler this time. Leonard approved of the change in tack, though he was no longer touching Jim so he wasn't sure how well it was working. Be nice, kiddo. Be glad you got people.
Leonard heard the long, slow breath Jim took in and out through his nose before he spoke, and maybe reckless didn't always mean brat. "I know. I'm sorry. The brawl shouldn't have gotten out of hand like it did; I was trying to settle things quick and quiet. I'm sorry I got arrested, and I'm really sorry Mom got you involved."
"I'm not." Rich layers of affection, worry, maybe even guilt there. If this guy wasn't Jim's dad, he ought to have been; he'd sure taken on all the emotional crap that came with it.
"It won't happen again," Jim said contritely, though Leonard recognized the ambiguity of the promise: Jim wouldn't get arrested again, or he wouldn't let Pike or his mother find out about it, or he'd see to it that Pike wasn't involved again. As long as any of those conditions were met, Jim could say he'd kept his word.
And Pike knew, too, because wry amusement lightened his voice when he asked the officer, "Can we get him out of there?"
About damn time. Take that boy home and talk some sense into him. But no — there was somewhere else they needed to take Jim first. Something he'd snapped at Jim over, himself, last night. Only he couldn't quite dredge up what.
"Come on," Jim said, and it took Leonard a moment to realize that Jim was speaking to him.
He had to fish for his voice, like pulling up a rusty bucket from an old well.
"I told you, kid, no one's comin' up with bail for me. Go on, get."
The sound of his own voice made his head throb even worse, and he let his dry eyes drop shut again as Jim sent some sort of question towards Pike, got a sharp reply. Leonard about came out of his skin when Jim set a light hand on his shoulder.
"I'll be back," Jim said softly. Damn fool kid. You won't be back and I don't need your help anyway. Leonard listened to him stepping away, his gait just off enough to remind him where it was Jim needed to go.
"You'll want to get his ribs looked at, Captain," he said, hating the way his voice wavered. "The fifth and sixth are likely cracked on his left side."
"You're hurt?" The man's voice was sharp, angry. At Leonard, for getting his boy in trouble, probably. At Jim for being an idiot. At the asshole with the heavy fists and light fingers, Leonard hoped. And maybe at himself for not seeing it sooner. Captains were probably used to assessing damage, same as doctors. Ex-doctors.
"I got in a fight, of course I'm hurt. But it's nothing serious."
Leonard snorted, curled his fingers to pull his ratty old jacket imperceptibly tighter around him. Better than the urge to stand up and poke at Jim's ribs again. Moving much at all hurt. Standing was right out.
Pike sighed. "We'll let a medic be the judge of that. Let's go."
Leonard bit back a sharp comment and listened to their footsteps receding up the hallway. Remembering fragments despite himself: a hitched ride in a hover-thing that stank of manure. A dark sidewalk in front of a down-home little drinking hole, the kind without any glitz. A bar-top with a pebbly surface that caught the droplets that slid off his lowball glass. He'd lost an hour or so there, he thought, only to come back to himself with uninvited fingers high up on his thigh. A male voice murmuring coarse promises in his ear. The intimacy of the touch and the words had sunk slowly through his drunken gloom, but being manhandled without permission by a stranger had made his skin crawl and his hackles rise.
He'd reacted without thinking, taking a short sharp swing that had connected soundly with the creep's shoulder. Mostly through luck, he thought sourly, and not the good kind. If he'd missed, he wouldn't have pissed the guy off, wouldn't have gotten thumped in return, or figured out just how wobbly he was on his feet. And Jim wouldn't have felt the need to jump in, or taken that hit to the side of his head that had knocked him into the bar and cracked those ribs.
He hadn't even realized his comm was gone until the cops had asked for it so they could book the two of them. He'd rattled off his citizen ID number for them with a snarl, and of course they'd needed the blood sample for the drunk part of drunk and disorderly anyway. They'd figure out he was who he said he was soon enough, and if the victim didn't press charges he doubted the locals would either; but he was pretty sure they were going to make him wait out the hangover before they let him go.
The only thing of value in the comm had been the battered, fragile photo in the slender wallet compartment, something he'd carried since he went to Ole Miss. A real, two-dimensional color photograph, developed by hand from an antique film camera: his grandfather, smiling proudly on the golden steps of Starfleet Academy in his cadet reds. "For my sweetest Eleanor," he'd written on the back, by hand, in ink as old-fashioned as the photo. And his Gran had written underneath it, "Horatio Martin, age 22", and coated it somehow to protect photo and the ink, so she could keep the image with her every single day for the next seventy-seven years.
She'd pressed it into his hand with beautiful bird-thin fingers, on the morning she died. The rest of my grand-babies got their true loves now, or think they do. You can just carry mine with you while you keep lookin'.
Gone. Along with every other bit of hope he'd ever had. He closed his eyes tighter, ignoring the prickling in the corners, and started working his way through a relaxation breathing technique, hoping to sleep away as much of the hangover — and remaining daylight — as possible.
Leonard headed out of town as soon as he was able. Sheriff had gotten his comm replaced, for all the good it did him with no money in his accounts, but he'd been hungry before, and he'd always managed to find some way to get another meal and another drink, so moving on was his best option. Late afternoon found him passing the shipyard. He kept his eyes down, didn't look at the enormous half-built beast tied down there — he liked his feet on the ground, thank you, and even low-flying shuttles made him queasy. The big sky, and black empty space beyond, didn't bear thinking about.
The ambling stride he'd developed ate up the verge of the road at a steady clip. When he heard the whine of an engine behind him, he automatically stuck his thumb out, not really caring where the person was going, though he felt a little nervous when he saw a motorbike and not a car pulling off of the dusty road ahead, between him and the late golden sun.
"Jim? What the hell?" Baffled, Leonard squinted at the half-silhouetted kid and his bike.
"Where are you going?"
He gestured in the general direction of the road. "That way."
Which wasn't what Jim had meant, of course; he wanted to know why Leonard was leaving town. Probably remembering that foolish promise he'd made, to get Leonard's things back.
"No, I don't think so."
"That a fact?" Leonard folded his arms across his chest. "There some reason I should stay? Other than your strange belief that you can retrieve something that's long gone?"
"First, I don't make promises I don't intend to keep. Second, you're headed west, and that's a whole lot of nothin' until you hit Nebraska — odds are you'll be sleeping in a cornfield tonight. And third, I can provide steak, gravy, fresh veggies, and pie." He lifted an eyebrow. "So get on."
Leonard hesitated, his stomach practically lunging up his throat at the idea of a decent meal. "I've slept in worse places than a cornfield, kid," he said, approaching Jim and giving his vehicle a long, dubious look. "And I can't say I have the first idea how to ride this damn thing."
"Put one leg on either side, and don't fall off?" His grin was infectious, inviting. Therefore, Leonard had to glare at him before lifting an awkward leg over the saddle. He set his hands gingerly on Jim's hips, reluctant to get too close.
"You'll have to hang on tighter than that," Jim said, easing the bike into a slow roll onto the empty pavement, pushing it faster once Leonard settled his arms around Jim's waist.
Wind whipped into his eyes, until he finally ducked his face down against Jim's denim jacket. It smelled like sunshine and clean cotton and ever so faintly of machine oil. The bike, for all its magical invisible hover-axles, was throbbingly alive — the shape and texture of the road vibrated through the seat, and through Jim's muscular back as he smoothly shifted their center of gravity. Leonard thought hard about the sights and scents of an emergency room, Gross Anatomy class, anything but the warm body pressed along his.
In minutes, they'd chased their long shadows back over ground he'd spent two hours walking, then Jim suddenly slowed and slewed onto a long, straight dirt road. Or driveway. One of those weirdly tall eco-farmhouses loomed ahead, and Leonard started to push back away from Jim, who let the bike roll to an idling stop about a half kilometer from the house, glancing back over his shoulder. His eyes were a shining, indescribable blue.
"Oh no, no, I'm not starring in your Iowa version of 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner', you ass."
"Too late now," he said, insouciant grin back. The sun had ripened from yellow to orange on the horizon, and birds Leonard couldn't name called to each other in the fields to either side. Jim lifted the back of a hand up to rub wind-tears from the corner of his eye.
"No, Jim — your parents already hate me."
"My parent, singular, hasn't met you yet. And Pike's a good guy. A little snappy on the judgments sometimes. Not your fault he's only seen your bad side."
"I don't have a good side."
"Sure you do. Your left profile is really stunning, especially in this light."
"Right," Leonard said, rolling his eyes. "You can just take me back to the highway now."
"Not till we've had pie."
Leonard folded his arms.
Jim threw his weight forward to get the bike rolling again, and Leonard had half a second to decide whether to lurch off the saddle or grab on. He told himself it was the thought of walking back down the long driveway and the highway in the dark that made him weaken, not the steak, or the pie, or the guilty pleasure of touching another human being.
Jim made a gentle loop between the farmhouse and the barn, so smooth Leonard was sure he'd done it a thousand times before. The yard around the structures was tidy, with a wide fresh-mown sweep of grass in front of the house, and a bright strip of orange and gold flowers growing around the edges. The fields beyond were lush with late-summer wheat and corn. Leonard followed Jim up the back porch steps to an ample mudroom, where Jim paused with a hand on the washing machine to listen.
"...was hoping you'd get more time with him before orientation started, that's all. Are all your cadets in town?" Hers was one of those rare voices Leonard had encountered that immediately told you everything you needed to know about its owner: stern, smart, no-nonsense; not one to show affection easily.
"All but three; those should be coming in tonight. Doing pretty well this time around: only six hangovers and one tangle with the townies before the lectures begin..."
Jim nodded to himself, and gestured towards the stairs. Leonard sighed and went up, wishing his brain didn't puzzle over things like the sequence of school pictures on the wall: two smiling blue-eyed boys, alike as peas in a pod, growing from white-haired toddlers to tawny pre-teens. Which one was little Jimmy, and had he been just as willful then as he was now? An ancient lyric about "Iowa stubbornness" flitted through his head.
At the top, he quietly accepted the towels and clean clothes Jim pushed into his hands, and went into the bath. It was pointless to argue, and Lord knew it was a relief to slip out of his grubby clothing, though he flinched at how much weight he'd dropped when he glanced at his frame in the mirror. He was sallow and filthy and careworn, hard lines etched into his face, hair gone long and ragged. There were other signs of the harm he'd done himself, signs he might read too clearly if he allowed his doctor's eyes to come into focus. But he wasn't a doctor anymore, he was barely even a man he recognized. He turned away and stepped under the shower head with a bitter grimace.
There wasn't much to be done about the hair, other than comb it back smooth, but he borrowed some of Jim's depilating gel to get rid of the short scruff of beard before he hesitantly emerged from the bathroom, holding his dirty clothes. It was fully dark outside; the kid was working on his computer under a pin lamp, and looked up with a surprised, appreciative smile that made Leonard squirm. He tossed the padd aside.
"C'mon, food's ready. Let's drop those in the wash."
He followed, trying not to think too much about the pounding ache in his head that had only gotten worse under the water, or the craving to crawl back into a bottle and hide. His brain was working all too clearly now, after nearly a day without a drink, and he knew just how pitiful a state he'd worked himself into. And he acknowledged the unfairness of resenting Jim for pulling him out of it.
In the mudroom, he fished the new comm out of his pocket, and dropped the jacket and the rest of the filthy clothes into the washing machine Jim held open for him, sinkingly aware as he watched Jim punch buttons that he was committing to staying for a couple of hours.
The kitchen was warm and wide, and Jim's family looked up at them in surprise. His mother's face was a good match to her voice, but for some reason Leonard hadn't expected her to be blonde. And a certain edge of wariness clung to her, that he didn't think had anything to do with having a stranger in her house.
Pike, on the other hand, was tall and lean, much as Leonard had pictured him, wavy brown hair just beginning to gray at the hairline. He had an angry set to his jaw, something fierce and protective in the way his eyes shifted back and forth between Leonard and Jim, measuring. He wore faded blue jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, but there was no shedding the aura of command that he wore like a second skin.
"Hi," Jim said, sunny as though they weren't looking at Leonard as if he were a particularly noxious cottonmouth, "this' my friend Leonard McCoy, I invited him for dinner. Len, Captain Pike, and my mom, Winona."
"Ma'am. Captain." He ducked his head in a half-bow, remembering Gran's acerbic statement about manners being a necessary art of self-defense. Jim scraped out a chair for Leonard, next to Winona. He sat, awkward and uncomfortable, while Jim gathered an extra plate and flatware, and poured a tall glass of water for him.
"So, Leonard," the young man's mother said, groping for something pleasant to say. "You're the one who told us about Jimmy's ribs needing attention. Thank you."
"I did what I could. Tried to get him to call you in sooner, ma'am, but he wasn't having it." He lifted a perfectly seared steak onto his vine-decorated plate, then took a bowl of potatoes from Jim, served up a spoonful, and passed them along to Winona, hoping they couldn't hear the insistent rumbling of his stomach.
Her lips quirked as she served herself. "He can be a bit stubborn."
"You don't say." Leonard's eyebrow lifted of its own free will, as it always did when his voice went that dry.
"Now, now, I had my reasons," Jim said, some parody of virtue in his eyes. "One night with sore ribs wasn't going to kill me. And maybe I've learned a thing or two over the years about waking up the sleeping dragon...." Nineteen, maybe twenty, Leonard guessed, and he still stuck out his tongue at his mother as he said it.
"Charming," she said, but there was a galaxy's worth of affection hidden in the scold. She passed the salad down to Pike. Years of training tried to keep Leonard's eyes down on the knife cutting his steak, but he kept glancing up, trying to catch the unspoken communication flicking around the table along with the banter.
"You've had medical training, then, McCoy?" The captain's gaze was sharp. Leonard swallowed hastily to clear his mouth.
"Yes, sir," he answered, hoping the short form would be enough, but the blue-gray eyes were stern, waiting. He resisted the sigh. "Surgery, and forensic pathology."
"You're a surgeon." His eyes narrowed.
Leonard understood the man's doubts. "I was a surgeon," he allowed, but honesty drove him to finish, "at the moment, I'm not much of anything."
"You know—" Jim interjected, hitching forward in his chair, but Pike waved him to silence.
"How long did you practice? Where?"
"Chris, let him eat, for God's sake...." Winona said.
"It's all right, ma'am." Leonard looked Pike in the eye. "I practiced for four years in Peachtree, Georgia, Captain. My license was suspended six months ago, just about the same time my divorce went through."
Pike concentrated on his food for a few moments, and Leonard took the time to choke down another bite of steak. He still wasn't used to feeling ashamed, defensive like this. Jim shifted restlessly, and Leonard glanced over at him.
"Would you be interested in getting back to work?" The mild question yanked both his and Jim's attention back to Captain Pike, who regarded Leonard with steady interest.
Captain, Starfleet, the shipyard right here and the new flagship, your cadets ... oh, hell no. Not in space.
He couldn't speak at all around the sudden knot of fear in his throat, could barely take a breath. His head pounded in time with his heart.
But he wouldn't be afraid if he wasn't considering the idea.
"Chris." Winona spoke softly, but the warning in her tone was very final.
Something tense passed in the air between them, and Jim looked down at his plate, forgotten fork held tight in his fingers. There was some elephant in the room, something totally invisible to Leonard. The captain cleared his throat.
"Jim," he said, with forced lightness. "I understand you're talking about getting a job at the yard."
The kid looked at Pike, set the fork down quietly, summoned up a smile.
"Yes sir. Still working at the repair shop for now, waiting for the next certification test." Leonard smoothed the napkin in his lap, grateful for the opportunity to settle his heart rate. This time yesterday he'd been obliterating his brain in a bar he didn't know the name of; how the hell had he gotten here, considering the future? Much easier to nip off anything that felt like hope, sit back and sip his water, be a simple observer of the weird drama of Pike and his not-quite-kid.
"I thought you were doing that distance program from Princeton?"
"Oh, I am." Jim glanced at Winona, a faint arc of irritation in his eyebrows. "I'm finishing up my final paper."
"His dissertation, he means." Winona managed to look proud and exasperated at the same time.
"And you're going to use the degree to...what, weld deck plates?"
Jim shrugged. "Why not? I learn because I like to learn, I build things because I like to build things. I stay here because I like it here. Why should I need to run off out there somewhere to be fulfilled?"
"A degree in what?" Leonard asked, trying to head off a conversation that had all the earmarks of an old argument. That, and he was curious. Nineteen, maybe twenty, and finishing a dissertation?
"History of warfare." Jim rolled his shoulders. "I like history, I like tactics, I like figuring out why people make the decisions that they do, in times of crisis." Leonard caught the faint tightening around Winona's eyes, but she watched Jim patiently. "It's not like it's a degree I ever planned to use for anything practical." He grinned at Pike, who didn't look quite so patient.
"If you want practical," Leonard observed, "you want to pick up some of your mother's cooking skills. This is excellent, ma'am."
"I'm glad you like it," she said with a mild smile. He didn't know at what point in the conversation she had warmed to him. "Mind helping out with the dishes after? I think Jim and Chris have a little more talking to do."
He didn't mind, and he wasn't about to admit to himself what the hominess of the meal, and the room, and the chores, and even the flinty maternal presence was doing to his resolve to get moving on. The murmur of discussion in the next room was calm, never quite reaching argument pitch, though Leonard could still hear the disagreement in the rise and fall of their voices.
A half hour later, the dishes were done, and Winona was serving up slices of apple pie. Jim came back into the kitchen with a stretched smile. He kissed his mother on the cheek, picked up a plate, and said, "Hey, Len, let's take these out to the barn. Good stargazing out there."
"Ma'am," he said to Winona with an apologetic tilt of the head before following Jim's lead out across the yard. The crickets were busy, filling the air under the stars with music.
"Not that it's any of my business, Jim, but they're just trying to do right by you."
"I know it. And I'm not mad. Just...tired of it. I should have known she'd drag him into it as soon as he was dirtside." He kicked at a clump of earth, sounding as resentful as any kid ever did toward his dad. Leonard shook his head, still trying to work out the relationship.
"So, they're not...?"
"No — Mom and Pike? God no. They just...I don't know. They've been good friends for years. Even though he's out in space most of the time. I just don't think they have as much in common with anyone else."
"Your mom was 'Fleet, too, then?" The barn door loomed up in front of them.
Jim looked at him quizzically, then quirked a smile. "Hold this," he said, holding out his plate. Leonard took it, frowning back at him. Jim touched the lockplate, then heaved the sliding door open. "That way," he pointed towards the dark recesses, then turned to push the door closed again.
"Think I'll wait for your lead, if that's all right," Leonard grumbled. "Or a flashlight. Way my luck's been going, I'll impale myself on a pitchfork otherwise."
"Nah, we run a tight ship, here. No stray pitchforks. And lights'll kill your eyes for stargazing." Jim's hand made him start, feeling its way out of the dark, down his forearm, warm fingers brushing his as he took back his plate and fork. Leonard's breath caught and he tensed, shunting aside the thrill low in his stomach at the innocent touch.
"Then lay on, MacDuff. And don't think I haven't noticed you not answering my question." Leonard's straining eyes began to make out a rectangle of night sky up above, but Jim held his hand, leading him through the blackness.
"She's still 'Fleet, she just works at the yard now. Helped to design some bits of the Enterprise. Stairs here, step up." He pulled up gently, making sure Leonard was steady.
"So that's why you're looking to get certified for the yard, then?"
"Yep. I love to tinker, and that's the biggest tinkering there is." Genuine enthusiasm, but also something evasive, there. "I'm sure they'll avoid putting me under her direct eye, though."
"I'm pretty sure they'll have to. And when she goes off into space?" Jim's hand tightened suddenly. "The ship, I meant," Leonard soothed. "Not your mother."
Jim coughed, let go Leonard's hand to cover his mouth. The stairway leveled off onto a loft platform, clear enough in the faint wedge of starlight and moonlight now that his eyes were adjusting. A couch, tattered and overstuffed, faced a broad window open to the breezy sky; a big telescope slanted out one corner. In the shadows, Leonard picked out the dark edges of bookcases and trunks, boxes full of machinery and toys.
"Have a seat." Jim sprawled back with the pie on his lap, face turned up to the sparkling view. "They'll always make more ships. They're not going to let a pretty design like the Constitution class go to waste."
Leonard sat more gingerly, focusing on his plate rather than the view for the moment, not ready to face the question he knew he'd find lingering in the black. "So, if you don't mind me askin', why not follow in your mother's footsteps?"
"I can't join Starfleet." His voice was clipped, low and final. A lot like hers.
"Sorry," Leonard said, puzzled. He'd been wondering about engineering, rather than the 'Fleet, but this was clearly an old wound. Scabbed over, but never really healed for being picked at.
Jim stared out the window, then looked down and speared an apple slice out from between his pie crusts. "Might not be a bad choice for you, though."
Leonard's pulse jumped again, and he set a forkful of pie back on his plate before he dropped it. "Shit, just the thought of flying does this to me, kid." He held out a shaking hand and laughed, unevenly. "I like dirt under my feet, and the sky over my head, not surrounding me. But you're right, and he's right — it'd be a chance to start over. It's not like I've got anything left here. The ex got everything in the divorce." He caught himself, shook his head. "You've got your own troubles, you don't need me waxing all maudlin. Would you go? If you could?"
"In a different universe. Maybe." He shrugged off the sadness in his eyes, looked curiously at Leonard. "Everyone's got troubles, and I think you spilled most of your story last night. Fleet's not the only option, of course. Was thinking maybe you could pick up around here, somehow. We've only got a couple of real docs in town, and they're both old; I guess Iowa City's close enough for most people. They need doctors at the yard, too."
"I'd still have to get licensed here, and that costs." Leonard picked up his forgotten bite of pie, finished it off and set the plate aside. Jim's interest in where he went next still made no damn sense. "And if the docs in town are so old, their patients aren't likely to take kindly to a youngster getting hired on, nor trying to set up his own shop."
"Obstacles," he said lightly. "Going to run into those wherever you decide to go. How do you do that with just the one eyebrow?" Jim's forehead wrinkled oddly; it took Leonard a minute to realize Jim was trying to mimic his expression. Making such a damned effort to make Leonard smile, to make friends. To talk about anything but himself.
"Careful, it'll freeze that way," he said, dryly. Two could play at that game. "So what's the obstacle for you with space? You tell me you can't join up, but Starfleet's good enough for your mom and Captain Pike. Not to mention that your mother was pissed at Pike for trying to recruit me there at the dinner table. What'm I missing?"
The crinkled expression faded, and Jim gazed at him with beautiful pale eyes, hurt pulling at his lips. "You really have no idea, do you?"
When Leonard frowned back in confusion, suddenly apprehensive, Jim stood and walked over to the window, letting his plate clatter onto a dormant computer drafting table along the way. He leaned straight-armed on the sill, elbows locked.
"If I did, I wouldn't be asking, now would I?" Leonard stayed on the couch, watching the tension bunch in Jim's back and shoulders where he blocked out the sky.
"My name is James Tiberius Kirk." His chin lifted towards something on the horizon, below Leonard's line of sight. "And that is the George Kirk Memorial Shipyard."
Oh. Oh. Well done, you ass. "I didn't have any idea, Jim. I'm sorry." He'd never done contrite well, no matter how much he was feeling it, and Jim was still looking away so he couldn't see the shamed flush rising up Leonard's face. The Kelvin, Winona Kirk, a promise, the promise that must have been made somewhere on this land, that her boy Jimmy would never be lost in space like the father that had sacrificed his life for them both...
He rose to his feet, the urge for a drink rushing over him like a crushing wave. "My clothes should be dry by now; I'll just get changed and be on my way. Thanks for dinner. And the pie."
Jim pivoted abruptly, turning his back on the lights. "Don't be an idiot."
"It's a little too late for that. In fact, I think I'm probably well over my quota of idiocy for the rest of the month." He put a hand on the railing at the top of the stairs.
"Don't go," Jim said, stepping back towards Leonard. He sounded plaintive. "Please."
Leonard hesitated at the wide-eyed, honest entreaty on Jim's face. "For God's sake, Jim, why would you want me to stay? I've been nothing but trouble to you."
"You're in trouble. You're attracting trouble. You need help, and I can... oh, hell." He sat heavily on the arm of the couch, running his palms hard down the thighs of his jeans.
"In the bar, you looked like you were half-dead, just at the end of your rope, and then that guy—" his teeth clenched before he inhaled again. "Then we were in the police car and you were just, just, alive again, trying to feel my ribs and peel my eyelids open even with the handcuffs on. And you talked and talked in the cell and you were just so alone, and that's — that's how I feel here, a lot of the time, and nothing that had happened to you was fair. Life isn't, it never is, but I knew I couldn't let you walk out of my life when I could fix it. At least a little of it."
Leonard shut his mouth with an audible clack and just stared at Jim, too bewildered for words. Trying to remember the last time someone had wanted to fix anything for him. Or when he'd decided he was beyond fixing, himself. He scrubbed his hand over his jaw.
"Jim, I — look, you're a good kid. But some things can't be fixed."
He looked up, eyes blazing. "You don't just give up like that. You don't. You lost your people, and your purpose, you're afraid to find new ones. Fine. Be afraid. Drink, if you have to. But don't just fucking give up."
Leonard's own temper flared, hot through his body. "At least I tried to find my place in the world before I got to this sorry state."
Jim's teeth flashed in a snarl. "Don't you start, don't you dare tell me I'm hiding in this town, not fulfilling my potential—"
"You've got parents for that. And you'd hear it from yourself, if you hadn't gone deaf from them telling you."
"I can do everything I need to do, right here! I'm making the most of everything I've got, and taking care of the people who need it. I'm not hiding, I'm not slumming, I'm doing what I was born to do. You're the one that's hiding!"
Leonard growled, gripping the rough railing hard, dodging the sting of truth. Harsh, challenging words kept coming, fueled by headache and heartache and the loving, crippling tension that ran through the Kirk household. "You were born to do more than keep your mother company, kiddo, and she'd—"
"You don't know anything!" he said hotly. "Everyone leaves her, everyone — and I'm never, never, never going to do that to her."
"You mean you're never, never, never going to let anyone do it to you."
"This isn't about me! You're the one that's shutting the world out, running from town to town, wrapping yourself in drink and stink, not letting anyone take care of you." Jim stepped towards him, finger jabbing in the air. "You're all full of lectures for the clean-cut kid with a nice house and a family and a job and an education, who's just looking for a little friendship and love in the world to make his life complete. You? You're ready to just walk yourself into the grave because you're alone, you think that's a good plan?"
Like flash paper, Leonard's anger suddenly crumbled and burned itself out. "I don't have a plan, Jim, and neither do you. We're done here." He turned to leave.
Jim appeared between Leonard and the stairs, angry eyes gleaming in the dark. A hard double-handed shove to Leonard's chest pushed him towards the couch, right over the arm and onto his back. A second later, a set of folded blankets landed hard on his chest, and then he heard Jim thumping down the stairs two at a time. By the time he got himself sitting up again, Jim's bike was humming past, headed down the driveway into the night.
He lay back on the couch, at war with himself over staying or going. He certainly wasn't going to catch Jim on the damned bike. Finally, he shook the blanket out over himself and curled on his side, staring out the window and still not seeing the stars.
Leonard wasn't surprised when the desire to get gone woke him well before dawn. He slid back across the dark dew-spotted grass to the unlocked mudroom, where his clothes and jacket lay folded on the dryer. He changed quickly, eased the door closed again, and ignored the empty spot where Jim had parked the bike the night before. When he reached the highway, the sun was just starting to streak over the horizon.
It would be nice, to walk all morning with the sun on his back, get well on his way to the next little farm town. The sooner he got started, the farther he'd get before it really got hot.
Running from town to town...you think that's a good plan?
Leonard stood, squinting against the rising sun, until he accepted that he wasn't going west, and turned his feet toward town. There must be some half-dignified way he could scrounge for breakfast.
He couldn't stay, that was for certain. There was no point in wondering whether Pike's orientation would be taking place at the shipyard, or somewhere else in town. No point at all in figuring out what the doctor situation was really like in Riverside.
Maybe, there was some point in getting the credits together to get re-licensed. Not in Georgia. And maybe not in Iowa. But maybe somewhere.
He found a restaurant owner who was willing to feed him and pay him for a day of bussing tables and washing dishes. It was mindless and invisible and gave him too much time to think. One end of his mind kept twisting around the idea of taking his pay and finding a bottle at the end of the day, curling back into some comfortable dark corner; the other gnawed on what being a military doctor might be like. Hard work, but that didn't frighten him. More bureaucratic bullshit than he'd ever had the patience for, more wrecked nerves. And more challenges, more camaraderie. A team. A purpose. A home, a place that wouldn't require his heart on a spit as down payment.
He didn't want to go into space.
He didn't twist his head every time someone blond came in, or walked by the window.
He did blink, when the first group of kids in cadet reds came into the restaurant and sat chattering at the counter. The uniform hadn't changed much from the time Horatio had stood on the Academy steps... the loss of Gran's photo hit him again.
He glanced at the clock, realized he'd been working a little over ten hours. He asked for his pay, ate a meal in the back, and got out before the red uniforms made him more maudlin or snappish.
You're the one that's shutting the world out.
Well, he'd made a royal mess slamming the door on this little world. Better luck next time, he sneered at himself.
The orange sun led the way for Leonard to pass the same dusty verge where he'd gotten turned around yesterday. He kept moving, kept one foot in front of the other, determined to get to the next town before dawn. He didn't listen for the bike.
He saw the neon kilometers away, heard the music before he could even make out the building clearly. He crossed the road to the other side, avoiding the bar's traffic, wanting no part of the raucous shipyard crowd augmented by exotic aliens and youngsters in red.
And he wasn't going to do anything about the sudden outbreak of shrieks and breaking glass, either. Not until he recognized the bike parked at the corner of the lot.
Goddamn it, Jim. He bolted across the street without checking for cars.
Bright swirling lights and pounding music overwhelmed Leonard's senses when he pushed open the swinging doors and ducked through the people pressed around the perimeter of the bar. He was just in time to see Jim stagger out of one cadet's grip into the path of another's fist. Leonard had a vague impression of big, red, and dangerous before he recognized the tousled curls and the sneer, and a flush of hot anger swept through his system; it was the thief who had groped him, all cleaned up and wearing reds.
Leonard could see two other burly cadets groaning on the floor near the bar stools, but four to one was bad, bad odds and Jim was in trouble. He took a hard blow to the jaw and went face-down to the floor, eyes glazed and blood and saliva dripping from his chin. Leonard bellowed and shoved against the front rank of the crowd, ready to charge in as the creep hauled the kid off the floor, before his attention was riveted by the veins standing out on Jim's neck.
"Stop!" Leonard pushed forward, the urge to fight forgotten. His cry was swallowed up by the shouts and groans of the spectators. Jim's tormentor threw him onto a small square table and landed another punch, and another, across his unprotesting jaw.
A piercing whistle silenced the room in an instant, pulling everyone up to rigid attention. "Outside. All of you. Now!" Captain Pike bristled in his black uniform, glaring at the room.
Leonard reached the table and seized Jim's wrist, seeing the confusion and pain in his eyes. Pike stepped forward, letting the murmuring redshirts swirl around him towards the door. "Are you all right, son?" he said urgently.
"No sir, he's not. I need a medkit, now."
Pike frowned in alarm, and began snapping orders; Leonard let that part of the problem go. With a demanding gesture he ordered an extraterrestrial with a long face and gentle, lumpy hands to help him set the patient flat on the floor. Jim's battered face rolled toward him, lips twitching towards speech and not quite making it.
"Hey, there, Jim," he said, fingers tight on his wrist, feeling the pulse flutter thinly there. "Keep those baby blues on me, okay?" He cupped Jim's cheek with his other hand, used his thumb to pull an eyelid back. Jim whimpered.
"Yeah, kiddo, I know it hurts. But you hang on to that, you hang on to that pain and you keep your eyes on me, okay?" Leonard glanced at Jim's neck, dark venous blood backing up the jugulars because his heart was drowning in its own chamber.
He pushed the blood-spotted t-shirt up, saw the livid bruising around the solar plexus, the ghastly dent at the base of the sternum where Jim's xiphoid process had been pushed up and back. His breathing was fast and ragged, and Leonard ran a soothing hand over Jim's upper ribcage, leaned down to press his ear against Jim's chest. His heartbeat was muffled, muddy. They didn't have much time left.
Leonard did his best to keep his expression neutral, but Jim's hand came up to grip his shirtsleeve; his fingers were chill and clammy. It wasn't panic that glassed his eyes, it was cold, wakeful fear.
"I know, Jim. Stay with me. Keep breathing, nice and slow."
He glanced up, pitched his voice to carry to Pike where he was talking intently with the bartender. "I really need that kit, Captain, or the sharpest, cleanest knife he's got." Barbarism, he was about to be reduced to barbarism but he had to get the pressure down before the kid went into cardiac arrest.
Pike hurried to him with a long, thin knife, the kind used to make stupid fancy garnishes; it would have to do.
"He just flashed it through his sterilizer, kit'll be here in a minute. What do I do?"
"Hold him still for me." Pike knelt behind Jim's head, pinned his upper chest and collarbones down hard, and Leonard straddled Jim's waist, using his knees and his weight to immobilize Jim's torso as much as possible. Put one leg on either side, and don't fall off.
Jim's haunted eyes were fixed on Leonard's face, and he was struggling to inhale evenly like he'd been told. Leonard took a deep breath, let his fingers ghost over the site just enough to help him visualize the path the fragment of bone had taken, where it had lacerated the pericardium, how it was preventing the blood from flowing out into the chest cavity. But there was no knowing how deep it had gone, whether it was touching the heart muscle, or had penetrated it.
Stupid, absolutely insane, to do this blind, without even a tricorder to guide him, but beneath the crusting blood Jim's lips were going chalky white, the heart unable to pump effectively anymore.
Leonard pressed his free hand down firmly on the center of Jim's chest, stared at his bruised skin for ten more seconds, then eased the knife up under his sternum in one smooth motion, and out again.
Jim howled, and some part of Leonard's mind howled too, terrified that he'd missed, gone too deep. Blood poured from the wound, and Jim's heart quivered under the breastbone beneath his palm, then thumped, and kept thumping, hard and fast and scared. He'd opened up the pericardium, just enough to let the pressure out so the heart had room to beat again. It was brutal and horrible: too much pain, and the blood would be pooling around Jim's lungs now, but he would live to get to surgery.
He looked up at Pike's ashen face, down at the hands that were now cradling Jim's head instead of holding him down. "Where the hell is that kit, Captain? And did anyone think to call a God-damned ambulance?"
Pike barked an order, but the bartender was already scrambling out of the back room with the white case in his hands, stripping crackling plastic off of the box.
"Medics arriving in ninety seconds, sir," someone in a uniform said.
Leonard seized the brand new kit, yanked the hand scanner out, and checked that his rough surgery hadn't done more damage than it had fixed. He exhaled hard, lowered shaking hands, then slotted a heavy-duty sedative, an antibiotic and a vasoconstrictor into the hypo, and slapped it against Jim's neck. As if he and Jim were connected, they both sagged in relief. Jim's eyes rolled back and then closed.
"What happened?" Pike asked softly. He was all parent now, and not asking about the big picture.
"Hit to the solar plexus, drove a piece of bone into the lining of his heart cavity. Blood pooled where it wasn't supposed to, tried to crush his heart," Leonard answered, automatically translating cardiac tamponade into waiting-room-speak, while his hands went back to the tricorder to look at the heart more carefully, and then inspect the rest of the damage. His fingers itched to pick up the regenerator, but with the immediate crisis past he knew he had to wait for someone else, someone licensed, to take over. "He'd have been dead in another two minutes if you hadn't stopped the fight."
"He'd have been dead if you hadn't been here." Pike's voice was hollow with conviction.
Leonard couldn't have stopped the shudder that ran through him. "Yes, sir."
"God, oh God. We owe you so much." He stroked Jim's hair, fingers trembling.
The building whine of a transporter beam, bringing in a team of Starfleet medics, gave Leonard goose bumps.
"Pay me back by sendin' someone else with your cadets, Chris. He's going to need you, and so's she."
The man's gaze lifted, understanding and then understanding. "I think he's going to need you too."
Which was how, four hours later, Leonard found himself sitting alone in a waiting room at a Starfleet hospital. Chris and Winona, pale with relief, had followed Jim's doctor through the swinging doors, into the room where Jim would make the first part of his recovery. Leonard figured they'd be sending Jim home quick enough; he'd heal up better there and the bulk of what he'd need post-surgery would be rest, and sunshine, and family.
What the hell was he doing here?
"Leonard?" The captain's voice, quiet as suited the environment, but Leonard's head jerked up just the same.
"He's asking for you. Come on."
Leonard stood and followed Chris back into the white antiseptic hallways, down two doors past the nurses' station to a hospital room, bigger than he expected. Apparently, being 'Fleet had its perks.
Jim and Winona were talking intently, though they fell silent the moment the two men walked in.
Leonard had been watching her somber and pinched face all night, but it had finally relaxed into a simple, soft smile. Chris set his hand gently on her shoulder.
"Len," Jim said with a smile he didn't quite look to be feeling. "Thank you. I have something for you."
Winona moved whip-fast to put her hand on his shoulder, preventing his motion out of the bed.
"Jim." Leonard said, and his tone was firm enough that Jim stopped moving and even the captain looked at him. "You're supposed to be worrying about getting better, kid, not about me. Whatever it is, it's going to keep. Now you just lie back and stop fussing your mother."
Jim rolled his eyes. "Just get in the pocket of my jacket."
Chris tilted his head, retrieved the jacket from the hook on the door, and fished a battered old comm out of the pocket. Leonard's lips parted, and he reached out slowly to take it. Most comms didn't even have a wallet compartment; everything most people needed was digital anymore. He held his breath as he pried the latch up with a fingernail.
The photo was still there, and he lifted it out with trembling fingers. Horatio, the golden buildings, the clear blue San Francisco sky, all as vivid as they'd ever been.
He looked up into Jim's eager smile.
"See? Some things can be fixed."
He took a careful breath. "Maybe...maybe so."
Chris looked bemused, cleared his throat. Jim said, "The photo's all he has left of his family. It was stolen the night we got thrown in jail, and I promised to get it back. So I did. Only I found out the thief was one of your recruits, and..."
"And instead of calling me, you went after him in a bar...?"
"Um...technically, I was already in the bar. But...."
"But he walked in, you lost your temper, nearly got yourself killed taking on someone with hand-to-hand combat training and half a weight class on you." Maybe it was just the light in the pale room, but Leonard could swear Chris had added a few more gray hairs since they'd met yesterday. "Who's now under arrest, by the way," he added, for Leonard's benefit.
Jim's lips tightened; still trying to shrug off the shadows of his own mortality. "I'd have been okay if he hadn't had friends."
Leonard shook his head. "It was an unlucky shot, Jim. He could just as easily have killed you with that one blow if he'd been alone." And precious as this is, kid, it isn't worth your life.
Something must have shown on his face, because Jim's eyebrows lifted and he gave a tight, stubborn shrug. I disagree.
"You know that instinct to leap without looking?" Leonard growled. "It's gonna get in the way of you making the most of what you've got." And taking care of the people who need it.
Chris and Winona shot puzzled glances at each other, but Jim's head sank slowly back onto the white pillow, the memory of last night's argument clouding his pale eyes, getting through to him where his parents hadn't. He looked drained, now, uncertain, and very, very young.
"Jim...?" Leonard said, stepping up to lay a hand on his wrist. He hadn't meant to kick the props out from underneath him so thoroughly. But Jim turned his hand in Leonard's grip, hooked fingers with his.
"Have you got a plan yet?" he said, soft and quiet.
"Not yet, Jim." Leonard's mouth quirked, as he let his thumb give a hint of a hug to the fingers he held. "But I figure it's never too late to make one."
They kept Jim overnight, much to his annoyance. Leonard stayed with him, after managing to convince Chris and Winona to go home and get some sleep. By morning Chris had pulled some incredible Starfleet magic and brought Leonard a padd to sign so he could serve as Jim's personal physician for a month. It felt churlish, but Leonard still took the time to read the fine print on the agreement. He wasn't worried about Chris, but he didn't want to accidentally sign his life away to the Fleet. Too much had happened in the last couple of days; he needed more time to consider his options.
Jim's smile was sunny and bright when they showed up to collect him, and he kept up a stream of happy chatter as Winona drove them home under the endless sky, but Leonard wasn't fooled and he doubted she was either. They chivvied Jim up the stairs into bed, and Leonard sat nearby, idly reading Jim's dissertation on the history of interstellar combat, starting with the Enterprise NX-01.
Leonard made sure to think up some neutral questions about the analysis, expecting that Jim would need conversation and distraction to keep him in bed for the rest of the day, but though the kid bantered lightly enough over lunch, he curled back into the blankets and his own thoughts for the rest of the afternoon.
When Leonard went downstairs, Winona was sitting alone in the silent, curtain-dimmed living room, her gaze focused on some point outside the house.
"He's awake," Leonard said, "if you want to go talk to him."
"He needs to rest. He'll come to me when he's ready," she said, never turning her head to look at him.
Leonard let her be with a sigh. He spent the quiet afternoon with a borrowed padd, checking up on where exactly he stood after nearly six months of being incommunicado — with the medical board, with his bone-dry finances, with his remaining obligations to the ex-wife. He looked up, ready to help, when Winona started preparing dinner, but the set of her shoulders hadn't gotten any more welcoming.
Chris drove up as the sun finished setting, carrying his uniform in a suit bag that he hung in the mudroom. Winona took a plate up to Jim, but soon returned, and over the meal she and Chris and Leonard shared cheerful, unpointed stories about three very different rural childhoods. She let Chris and Leonard take care of the dishes while she put the food away.
As the night cooled, Leonard took a mug of tea out to the cushioned bench on the front porch, looking out at the whispering moon-grey corn. The door opened, let a brief wedge of warm light spill across the boards. Leonard peered up at Chris, easing the door silently closed again.
"Not talking to you, either?" he asked.
Chris shrugged, and leaned forward against the whitewashed railing. "She can only take so much hand-holding when she's upset. I've learned the hard way — she'll come to me when she's ready."
Leonard sipped at his tea and listened to the crickets, thinking how alike they were. Wondering how long they were all willing to wait.
"He is going to be all right?" Chris asked.
Leonard glanced up, caught the worried frown on Chris' face.
"He's fine. All he's doing up there is regaining the energy the healing process used up," he said, ready to leave it at that, but Chris cocked his head expectantly. "He had a close call. Wouldn't surprise me if he's having a hard think about his priorities right now."
Chris looked back out at the moonlit lawn. "That's not something I can give him advice on."
Leonard huffed, exasperated. "You could, you know."
"She has to believe his decision — whatever it is — comes from him."
"If she doesn't trust you, then what the hell are you doing here?"
"The kid looks up to me — too much, sometimes."
"The kid isn't a kid anymore. And he does look up to you, because you love him, and you do the right things — not because you wear that uniform."
Leonard finished the last swallow of his tea. His voice low when he spoke, gruff with annoyance he couldn't completely suppress. "I sure am glad I'm only guesting for a bit — y'all'd drive me crazy."
Chris turned, smiled, and held out a hand for the mug. "She made up Sam's old room for you, right across from Jim's."
"Sam?" The other towheaded kid in the pictures on the stairs. Leonard yawned behind his hand. "Where's he at?"
"Deneva. Xenobiology research." Offplanet? The terse answer suggested another sore point, brought back Jim ranting about everyone leaving her. Reinforced Leonard's instinctive realization that Jim didn't want anyone else leaving him.
"It's safe enough. And he was never happy here." Chris leaned back against the porch's roof support, his back to the fields now, face half-veiled in the darkness.
"Jim...has the capacity to make himself happy, whatever he's doing. Sam didn't have that kind of resilience." More shadows in his voice, something that curbed the pull of Leonard's waiting bed.
"What happened to this family, Chris?"
The captain's expression stiffened. "Besides the black ship, you mean?"
"I'm guessin' there's more goin' on here than old grief, yes."
He exhaled. "Winona did try, once, to go offplanet again. To face her fears, to find the woman she had been, before George, before Sam and Jim, before the ship."
Leonard watched his face, closely, waiting.
"She ended up calling me frantically from space, begging me to get to Riverside and find out why Jimmy was in jail. I beamed straight here, and it turns out he drove a car off the edge of a quarry — came just a hair's breadth from going down with it — and neither his Uncle Frank nor Sam was anywhere to be found."
"Frank was abusing them?" The disgust and anger in Chris' tone was easy to read, and the things that set off Jim's fierce, protective temper made a lot more sense now.
"Sam took the worst of it, and finally ran away. Frank made all sorts of nasty threats — and instead of running, or calling his mother, or anyone else, Jimmy gets it in his head to punish the guy by destroying the Corvette."
Leonard winced. "And himself?"
"He was desperate, and angry, but I don't think he had any intention of killing himself. He just — leaped."
They both sighed. Chris shifted his weight, making the porch moan beneath his feet.
"His father was like that too — bold enough to be reckless now and then, brave enough to take a necessary risk. It's something that Starfleet has lost, in our paranoid recoil from the Romulan threat. I wish to God we had ten more like him."
"But you won't ask Jim."
"It took Jimmy and I a week to track Sam down, hitchhiking his way toward the coast. And Winona arrived in a whirlwind of terror and guilt before the boys could even begin to trust me. I stayed here in Riverside for a year, trying to stitch the family back together, and part of that was promising her I'd never try to take them out in the black."
"And Jim made a promise to himself, never to leave her." Never, never, never. "How old was he?"
"Twelve," Chris said, rough and sad. "And just trying to figure out how to step into a man's shoes."
"Still is, I guess."
"Aren't we all?" A tired smile brought his laugh lines into relief. He pushed off the post, rubbed at the back of his neck, turned back toward the door. "No, it doesn't stop at nineteen. Or twenty-whatever, either."
Leonard's lips twisted, caught somewhere between a grimace and a smile, and he rose stiffly to his feet. Nor fifty-something?
He followed the captain into the dark living room, said goodnight, took the stairs while Chris went into the kitchen to rinse the mug. Jim's room was quiet and dark, and Leonard hoped he was getting a good night's sleep. Getting arrested, battered, and then stabbed by his doctor was hard enough, but now he had some clue what an ordeal just sitting in that jail — and having Pike come get him — must have been for Jim. Crazy kid, putting himself through that for someone he'd barely met.
Leonard swallowed, changing into the sweatpants and t-shirt that had been left on the bed for him. Jim was healing up fine. Nothing to do now but wait, try to reach some decision about what was going to be best for him. Go to space, stay here or move on to some other town and settle down there. Staying here sounded the most appealing, he supposed, provided that was the decision Jim settled on; not much point otherwise.
He guessed he'd be useful if he enlisted in the 'Fleet; more so if he took the time to stop in San Francisco, attend the Academy. Exhibit some ambition. And not every 'Fleet posting meant going out in the black.
It wasn't until he was stretched out under the sheets, staring up at the ceiling, that he found himself wondering just how long Chris had been waiting for Winona.
Leonard woke before dawn, again, though this time it wasn't the restless sensation that he needed to be on the road that roused him. The sour physical desire to dig for a flask was still there, but not quite so urgent; and the drinking had always been less about physical cravings for the alcohol than about shutting down the first-thing-in-the-morning recollection of his burnt-out life.
He sat up, tuning out birdsong and rattling insect noises to listen to the quiet house around him, trying to decide if anyone else was awake. He padded out into the hall; Jim's door was open, and his bed was empty. Leonard hesitated, then retrieved his shoes and jacket before heading down the back stairs.
The sun was just over the horizon, casting dark and chilly shadows on the west-facing back of the house. He stepped out of the mudroom, searching. The bike was missing, which made his pulse quicken for a moment, until he reminded himself no one had retrieved it from the parking lot at the bar. The barn door was closed, and he cocked his head at a soft scuffing sound from the front of the house.
He followed the foundation around to the east, into the radiant dawn light that spilled over Jim where he knelt on a plank at the edge of the grass, doing some kind of work in the flowerbed. He was bundled up in warm layers, and his movements were calm and sure, so Leonard eased up quietly onto the porch to watch, though the tilt of Jim's head made it clear he'd been heard.
It was hard to tell if he was weeding, or thinning, or just turning the soil over, and Leonard guessed it didn't matter much — Jim was trying to find a way to bring order back to his corner of the world.
Leonard blinked a couple times, thrust his hands deeper into his pockets, and made himself lift his eyes from the bent figure. Jim's world was so damn vivid — the vibrant green of the cornstalks beyond the yard, the compact fire of the marigolds, the bleached pink in the east, the steely indigo in the west. Somehow, those impossible blue eyes made sense here; it was hard to imagine Jim among the grays of a city, or a spaceship. His strength, his sunny confidence, his stubbornly good heart — maybe they required a place like this to thrive.
Or maybe, just maybe, Jim was trapped in this tidy little paradise. Could be he needed a little nudge to get free.
The world stood still for a moment. He watched Jim dig in the dirt with his hands, realizing with a tense frisson of irritation and fear that he wouldn't be making a decision about his future until he knew what Jim wanted to do. Whatever conclusion Jim was struggling for, whatever answers he might find in the loam next to the worms, Leonard had to know before any of the nebulous possibilities ahead of him could take their proper shape. His heart ached, and he told himself sternly: you never do learn.
The sun lifted in the sky, chasing the dew from the grass; Jim worked his way down the edge of the flowerbed. The ashes of Leonard's marriage mocked him. Jim might be looking for a little friendship and love but Leonard didn't share his faith in their simplicity. Not anymore. He stared off down the driveway, suddenly near-overwhelmed by the itch to get moving again, to leave the complexities and complications of being with other people behind.
He'd thought Jocelyn loved him, and she'd known him for four years when they married. He and Jim had barely known each other four days, and part of those had been the adrenaline-fueled rush of not one but two fights; one of them nearly fatal. Gran, bless her, might have believed in "true love" for her children and grandchildren, but Leonard was pretty damn sure he didn't. Something else Jocelyn had taken in the divorce.
Maybe he just didn't have enough strength to believe.
Winona announced her presence in the kitchen with the clatter of baking sheets, and Leonard watched Jim look up at the porch, wiping his hands on a rag. Then Jim stripped off his sweatshirt and turned back to the flowers, picking up his trowel again.
He'll come to me when he's ready.
Leonard shook his head, and headed inside to help Winona set the table. Jim stayed outside and worked, went straight from the dirt to the shower.
After they'd all gotten cleaned up, Jim sweet-talked his folks into letting him go pick up the bike. Chris agreed, but only on the condition that Leonard ride back with him; he drove them out to the bar and waited in the parking lot until Jim assured all three of them that the bike was still in good working order.
Jim climbed on, and Leonard snugged up behind him again, pressed his cheek against Jim's back, breathed in sun-warmed cotton and fresh-mown grass and that faintest bitter tang of machine oil. The ache in his chest redoubled, feeling the tension thrumming through Jim in his arms.
You'll have to hang on tighter than that.
They rode back to the farm slow and easy, compared to the first time. Didn't take much to know Jim wanted to open up the throttle and fly.
Instead, they turned into the sun-baked driveway, and Jim made his smooth hardwired loop between the buildings, parked the bike, and wiped sweat off his forehead. Dismounting, he glanced up at a top-floor window; Leonard knew enough of the house now to know he was looking toward Winona's room.
Enough. He'd had enough of tension and waiting.
"Let's go to the barn," he said.
Jim glanced at him, nodded, led the way across the yard, into the dim and stuffy building. Leonard followed up the creaky boards of the stairs, settled on the couch, and waited while Jim turned on a fan and fetched them a couple of bottles of cold pop.
He waited some more, and Jim retreated to lean his hips on the blank, inactive drafting table, took a sip of his pop, gazing at or through some spot on the floor. Sun caught in the dust and pollen shifting in the man-made breeze, winking in and out like sprinkles of starlight.
Leonard considered Jim, the downcast eyes, the way he was hunched in on himself, and finally cleared his throat.
"You been doin' a lot of thinkin'," he said.
The fan hummed louder and softer as it oscillated back and forth in the corner.
"You intend to participate in this conversation, or should I go talk to myself somewhere else?"
Jim picked at the label on his bottle.
"What are you gonna do, Leonard?"
Leonard sighed. Jim would ask first.
"Don't know, yet. I had a lot of heartbreak to leave behind, and it ain't gone yet." Leonard stood, walked idly towards the summer-bright window, came to rest not far from Jim's drinking elbow. "But I think maybe you were right, when you said I gave up too soon."
Jim didn't answer, staring out at a point far beyond the horizon. Leonard let the stillness settle, aware he wasn't going anywhere, that they had time. He thought he could see the towers of the shipyard and the Enterprise on the horizon, but under the midday sun they were faint and smudgy, little more than a mirage.
Jim took a long drink, lobbed the empty bottle easily into the recycler. "You were right, too. When you said I didn't have a plan."
"I think you've had a fine plan for getting on with what you have. But it's not enough. You said so yourself."
The barn door rattled open below, and Jim started guiltily. They turned in unison; Winona climbed the stairs and carried a cloth-covered tray over to the table, air swirling around her with appetizing odors.
"Time to eat," she said, no nonsense in her tone — not about to let Jim skip a second meal, ignoring the way he straightened his posture and his expression. She pulled the light towel off the tray and tucked it in her waistband, revealing sandwiches piled with thin-sliced roast beef and a plate of cookies, chocolate chips still shining liquidly in the warm light.
Jim grinned at her, grabbing a sandwich. "Thanks, mom. You're the best."
She shrugged, stepped back so Leonard could get at the tray. Started to turn away, then paused.
"Oh, Jim — did you want me to do a final look-over on your paper?"
He kept chewing, eyes round, then swallowed. "Actually, I sent it in last night."
Her eyebrows pulled together. Leonard retreated with his sandwich to lean against the rail, out of the way of the unspoken things passing between them. Jim watched every shift of her expression.
"It was done, mom — you did a great job helping me polish it. I just finished tidying up the citations and...." Jim's turn to shrug bleakly. Acknowledging, a little too late, that her help and her approval weren't really something he needed anymore.
Winona dropped her gaze, letting the message sink in to her stoic skin. She nodded. "Let me know when you hear back from them, then."
She tilted her head, held Leonard's eye for a moment, then gave him a slow nod and headed back down the stairs. Unsure whether to read gratitude or something else into her expression, Leonard pivoted to watch her over the rail: descending regal as a queen to the barn floor, then pushing open the door and vanishing into the dazzling light.
Leonard shook his head, took another bite of his sandwich, and turned back to Jim.
"Just in case you have any illusions," Jim said around a mouthful of chocolate chips, "I think this is maybe the dozenth time in my life she's made cookies for me."
"Maybe she feels like she's gotta fall back on the universal language of motherhood right now."
Jim gazed at his feet; Leonard wondered what language Winona did speak to her children, what language Jim expected to hear. He thought about the close-clipped grass, and the richly tended flowerbeds, and Jim's tidy, tight ship of a barn.
"It's a vicious circle, you know," he said.
Leonard snorted. "No, idiot. You stay for her, so she stays for you, so you stay for her, and round and round you go, the two of you tearing at each other like..." he struggled for a metaphor Jim might understand, "like twin stars."
"What am I supposed to do, Len?"
He pushed off the railing, came back over to Jim's elbow. "Live your own life. You said yourself, she doesn't want you tied down in Riverside."
"No. But she doesn't want me up there, either."
"She didn't stop Sam."
Jim glared at him, jaw hardening. "I'm not like Sam. He didn't even ask her first, just told her he was going."
"He was a man grown, with a job he wanted to pursue. And she knew it. Why should he ask permission?"
"Because he had to know it would hurt her!"
"I'm sure he did. And that probably hurt him, some, too, but kids leave home, Jim. He knew she'd get over it. If she was scared while he was travelling, she survived, and his ship got there safe and sound. Like starships almost always do. Even ships of the line, not just the passenger cruisers."
Jim sighed, snagging a napkin from the tray to smear the chocolate off his hands. "I don't know what to do anymore. It always seemed like there was plenty of time."
Leonard snorted again. "You can't sit around waiting for her not to need you anymore, Jim. She's in great health, and tough as nails besides. She could easily live another hundred years. You're not planning on waiting that long to follow your dreams, are you? Do you think she wants to stay here the rest of her life? She had the stars once, too, remember."
Jim pondered that, chewing his lip. "She's never said anything about leaving."
"Because she knew you needed the stability. And that's what parents do. But as much as she loves you, I'm damn certain she doesn't intend to give her whole life over to looking after you, either."
"C'mon, Jim, you know what you want. You wouldn't be torturing yourself if you didn't."
"Of course I do." He shrugged, made a dramatic fist, like he was quoting something. "'I want to come with you to the Academy, become an officer like my father.' But there's a thousand other things I could do, here on Earth. Or even out there somewhere, in civilian life."
Leonard tried to quiet the hope fluttering in the back of his mind. "But you've studied the history of the Fleet, you know it's important, the whole peacekeeping and humanitarian armada thing. And you want to be a part of that."
"It's not — it's — maybe this will sound stupid, Len, but...I think I'd be good at it. I think I could stay cool in a crisis. I think I could save lives."
"It doesn't sound stupid. Pike agrees with you, though he's not allowed to say so. But I don't know about staying cool in a crisis — you'd have to not start fights with guys twice your size." He felt his eyebrow creeping upward again, hoped Jim recognized the dry tease for what it was. "I think there's a lot of things in this universe you'd be good at if you tried your hand at them. But its not your hands that decide what matters to you. You've got to follow your heart."
Jim looked down, touched two fingers to his sternum, smiled wryly. "You sure about that? It seems to have caused a lot of unrest lately."
Leonard laid his hand on the center of Jim's chest, not ready to let Jim dodge and laugh this off.
"It's a good heart Jim, it wants to help people, even crazy strangers who are nothing but trouble." He took a deep breath. "The question is — is it a strong heart? Strong enough to leave behind what's sure and comfortable? Strong enough for you to go become something better, something special?"
Jim's eyes lifted slowly from Leonard's hand on his chest, looked into his eyes. Bright, brilliant, impossibly blue, shining like the Earth from space.
"I will if you will."
Heart back in his throat, Leonard held Jim's gaze and accepted the dare.
Leonard sits hunched over in the tiny cubicle, holding his head in his hands, when Jim's cheerful voice comes through the door. "Do you need a doctor, Len?"
He seethes. "I don't need a doctor, damn it, I am a doctor!"
"C'mon, we need to get back to our seats..."
"I've got a seat, Jim." He braces his hands against the walls. "In the bathroom with no windows. You know what aviaphobia is? It's fear of DYING in something that flies!"
"They're about to come drag you out of there and make you sit down."
Leonard closes his eyes, does his best not to hyperventilate, unable to decide if being dragged out of the head whimpering is more or less humiliating than turning green and passing out in front of the whole cadet bloc.
"This is Captain Pike, we've been cleared for take-off."
Out of time. He swallows hard, forces himself to stand, and opens the door.
"I may throw up on you," he says to Jim, viciously, following him to the two remaining vacant seats.
"I think these things are pretty safe," Jim has the nerve to reply, pulling the buckles of his seat belt together, a secret smile shining in those indescribable eyes.
And Leonard can't help but smile in return. "Swear to God, Jim," he says softly. "you are just asking for trouble."