It started with a promise and ended with a toast.
Once the Yorktown was patched up and all the reports submitted, the wounded crew seen to and condolence letters written, Jim found himself stuck in an endless series of comm conferences with Starfleet Command, suggesting and arguing and eventually pleading for a salvage mission. It made sense, he said. Altamid was pretty much undefended now. They had the key to destroying the swarm ships. Better to keep that technology out of unfriendly hands. Other prisoners from different species might still be there. If they weren't their ships would be and their people deserved to know what had happened. Large parts of the Enterprise was still intact, no point leaving them there and building a new ship from scratch.
The damage was extensive, they said. It would be more logical to collect the various components and melt down the raw materials to begin again. A new ship, perhaps another Columbia?
Jim had never begged before. Not like that.
In the end five ships had been sent; two well-armed starships escorting three cargo and salvage haulers, all broadcasting VHF constantly. (There had been some disagreement over the music. Jim fiercely defended classical as being a proven choice, but Captain Middleton had put her foot down.)
Jim stood on the bridge of the Bradbury, watching visuals of the wreckage roll across the screen. "Don't worry, sweetheart," he murmured. "I'm coming for you."
There hadn't been time, before, not even to put out the flames. Not that there was enough flame retardant left to put out the entire saucer section, but if there had, he couldn't have spared a moment while the crew was in danger. The Enterprise had been left to smoulder in her own pyre.
Now she was scrap. Scorch marks, punctures from the swarm ships, rips and tears from skidding over rocks: her gleaming white hull was a crusty grey dish, streaked with black and brown. It hurt to look at.
Jim climbed through the broken corridors with the salvage crew, first identifying and gathering the organic remains (Madeline, Chapin, Hannity, Handorff...), then any personal belongings that survived in crew quarters, bagging and tagging them to be returned to the Yorktown, or to parents. It was grisly; fire had gutted almost half the rooms and some of the bodies had to be scraped off walls. The upper decks were flooded by rainwater and there was a constant risk of electrical discharge, so all the work had to be done in suits, doubling the time and effort.
Then they started cutting.
The intact components came out first, then anything that could be repaired fairly easily. Most of the internal hull panelling was so badly damaged it wasn't worth trying to save, so they accessed the rest with torches. Slicing through his ship with fire wasn't something he'd ever get used to.
Scotty and most of his engineers were on site right beside him, with Chekov and Sulu and a handful of others. A lot of the crew had taken leave or transfers instead, and Jim could hardly blame them: they'd signed on to explore deep space, not sit around spacedock for a year. Or more.
Jim sighed, planted his feet on a steady piece of hull plating, and got back to work.
They recovered the nacelles first and, once the drive section was safely towed back to Yorktown, Scotty got to work stripping them down to start the repairs and reassembly. Jim stayed on Altamid. The saucer section was mostly a frame now, ready to be hauled skyward as soon as they could establish atmospheric shielding, but the terrain wasn't cooperative and it took a month longer than expected before they could lift it free. Two shuttles suffered severe stress fractures while towing and had to be thoroughly inspected and one refitted before being declared fit to work, delaying them another two weeks.
Every day at the end of his shift, Jim climbed down to the remains of the bridge, walked across her ceiling, and told her it wouldn't be long.
Once they were back on Yorktown things did, he grudgingly admitted, go faster. Manually hauling scraps to the antigrav units all day felt like harder work, but once the drydock staff had all the major pieces at the mercy of their cranes and workshops and gravity wasn't getting in the way, his ship started to come together instead of being pulled apart.
And Jim was redundant. Captains didn't get their hands dirty with the maintenance staff, apparently, no matter how useless they were without a ship. How useless he felt, Spock corrected him at one point, helpfully listing all the design upgrades and modifications that he was expected to oversee during the next ten months (or more). Then there was Starfleet Command: The Klingons were starting skirmishes with a few border patrols and they wanted his analysis of the situation, maybe to send him on a mission with the Bradbury as an ambassador. Jim would have bet his entire share in the relaunch date pool that Commodore Paris had put them up to it to get him out of her hair.
He made a mission of trying out every bar on Yorktown instead. Bones joined him after Bar #19: Joanna was coming to visit. Without her mother. "I'm the worst goddamn parent in the galaxy, Jim. I don't even know her favourite book anymore!" Jim suggested introducing her to the antigrav rec centre, the arboretum's swimming pool, and Demora Sulu. The girls got along like a house on fire and after a while Demora's fathers took pity on Bones and invited him along. Jim was left alone for Bars #27–41, but that was fine by him.
She wasn't going to be the same ship at all, and sometimes Jim wanted to cry. Sure, yeah, she was going to be 'better' in all measurable ways, but after years of being able to tell their warp speed by the hum of her deckplates, of learning exactly how far beyond spec every system could be pushed, Jim was getting lost in corridors that were being redirected to fit around some new lab or another, and he couldn't help feeling that his Enterprise was dead and gone already.
He confessed this to Scotty, one night at bar #30 (the clear winner, even if it meant a wobbly hike halfway round the station back to his quarters). A tiny part of him was seriously hoping they could somehow undo all the changes, restore her to exactly how she had been, but Scotty didn't jump up and spin a miraculous idea out of thin air. He gazed quietly at the bottom of his glass for a minute. "She'll love you no less once she's reborn, Jim. A ship like her, she's got a soul as real as yours or mine. Once she's back on her feet, you'll see. It'll be like coming home."
Jim poured another finger and hoped like hell he was right.
The day the warp core came back online felt like a sign. The nacelles, naked frames though they were, glowed as the power test cycled through, and a cheer went up from the crews in the windows of the observation deck. Jim held his breath, not knowing what he was expecting. He wasn't expecting something to go wrong, but somehow, when it worked, he was surprised.
Then he laughed.
It wasn't a big deal in the scheme of things, no more of a milestone than finishing the turbolift shafts or installing the sewage system, but it was visible, and somehow that helped. Jim took a dozen pictures and sent them all to his mother.
The external hull plating was meant to be one of the last stages of reconstruction; until the interior was pressurised, it wasn't necessary, and unlike main power it didn't help finish anything else faster. But it felt good, seeing her skin sewn back together piece by piece, so where he could, Jim quietly reshuffled the task list.
Every day as he walked past the viewing windows, Jim silently counted the number of decks clad in white again. Deck 21, deck 20, deck 19... It stalled for a long time around deck 15 while Engineering was perfected under Scotty's dogged scrutiny, but that had always been expected to take a while, and Jim was happy to wait if it meant the core wouldn't be able to misalign again.
Uhura took a short-term assignment with the Potemkin and rolled her eyes when Jim promised her daily updates on their progress. She only replied to one in twenty, but when he fell straight into bed after one horrible day and blearily decided it could wait a few hours (missed breakfast, a delayed parts shipment, a failed life-support systems test, Bones jabbing him in the name of science, a useless three-hour meeting with the brass and the return of Keenser's cold all over his now ex-boots), he woke up to a long, accusing, angry, unprofessional, and definitely worried comm call. He lorded it over her for two months.
The day the outer hull was sealed and they began pressure tests on the handful of completed internal systems, a missive came in from Starfleet opening discussion on their replacement flagship's name.
Three weeks, four hundred messages and seven hours of long-distance arguing later, Jim fell into his usual chair at at bar #30 (the Terran's Dive. Good name) and ordered a double. Bones gestured 'on me' to the barbot and carefully asked, "So... what's the verdict?"
"Enterprise," Jim said fervently, glaring at the filling glass. "She's always going to be the Enterprise. Goddamn waste of time."
Slumping with a relief way deeper than he'd ever admit to, Bones snorted. "Bureaucrats. And you really wanted to be a vice-admiral?" he scoffed.
Jim knocked back a shot. It burned like victory, right until it trickled down to the fist-sized hole in his chest. "Can't understand how I ever wanted to leave her," he muttered.
"Us," Bones corrected pointedly. "How you ever wanted to leave us."
"That's what I said."
Spock literally got a spring in his step the closer it got to the day Uhura was due back. Chekhov would be with her, hitching a ride from visiting his parents on Earth, so Jim really wasn't surprised when he got to the Potemkin's docking port to find all the rest of his senior staff had beat him to it. Sulu was on leave and dressed to match, Demora riding on his shoulders, but besides that it could have been the end of any away mission. When the hatch opened and their friends came out grinning, Jim felt something slot into place.
Being finished is never as simple as the last weld or the last window seal. Once the physical hardware was in place and someone unlucky got to start polishing, software installation began and test schedules buried Jim's desk. It was up to him to arrange them as he saw fit, and once an idea took root in his head, he started tweaking them, delaying this one and rearranging those so the final checks were made and boxes ticked when he wanted them.
The crew were mostly back, helping where they could or finishing up their leave on the Yorktown. He had the perfect excuse to get them all together.
"Everyone!" he called across the room, tapping his glass for attention. "Can I have your attention?"
It took a minute for them all to wander over, glasses in hand and relaxed and happy and home, and Jim's smile ached in his cheeks as much as in his gut for those who were missing.
Too many were missing.
"It's been more than a year since Altamid," he said softly, "and I don't know where I'd be without all of you. You're my family," he said, and his eyes drifted to Bones, to Spock– "and my friends." Uhura, Scotty, Sulu, Chekhov, Keenser... "The next two years of this mission wouldn't be the same without you, and we want you to know how much you mean to us."
"What, it's the royal 'We' now? How many birthdays do you want today?" Bones muttered loudly. Jim grinned.
"Bingo, Bones," he said, and stepped to the side, turning to the huge dark window overlooking the drydock and discreetly tapping a padd. The lights came on, one at a time, pooling on the gleaming white dish and illuminating the registry newly painted on it. "Guess who else's birthday it is?"
As one the crew surged forward, happy gasps and excited whispers. Sulu's eyes gleamed and Spock visibly perked up. Chekhov may or may not have wiped away a tear or two as he looked down at her. Jim may or may not have done the same in his office an hour ago (there were a lot more than two).
Bones blinked. "What, it's done?" he demanded, craning his neck to see.
"Last tests came back clean this morning," Jim replied, grinning. "'Course, they were the second set. Had to make sure, you know."
"Aaaand you wanted to share your birthday with her," Bones finished dryly. Jim shrugged.
"Everyone!" he called again, raising his glass. "I give you the starship Enterprise, NCC1701...A."