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The Theory of Change

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He jumped in front of Chekov about a second before the punch would have landed - which, in retrospect, was a really, really shitty bit of timing. Lieutenant Simmons blanched, eyes bulging in shock, but her arm was already swinging, and it ended up hitting Jim square in the jaw.

Gasps went up across the rec room. Behind him, Pavel yelped and spat out a rapid-fire barrage of Russian profanity - at least Jim assumed that’s what it was. “Keptin! Sir, we did not see you -”

“That’ll do, Mr. Chekov.” Jim straightened, trying not to spoil the effect by wincing. Okay, so that wasn’t the best strategy to try and break up a fight - or maybe it had been once, in some previous life where bar brawls were just another way to spend a Saturday evening and he hadn’t minded getting his ass handed to him on a regular basis, but on his own ship it was just stupid. No, if he was gonna spend the next five years in command, there were some reflexes he’ll have to learn to rein in… and not just him, apparently.

He glanced around, confirming his first impression. The rec room was filled to bursting, most of the seats occupied and more crewmen lining the walls: a pretty good turnout for the middle of graveyard shift. And nearly everyone was holding a glass; not the standard-issue ones the dispensers churned out, but the small, recyclable type reserved for banquets and crew parties. That, and the almost imperceptible slur to Chekov’s voice, told him everything he needed to know.

Jim let the silence stretch on for a couple of seconds, trying to decide on the best approach. The first time they’d put him in command, after Nero, he’d probably have brushed this off with a quip and a mild slap on the wrist. He’d been in his share of fights, after all, and after a few weeks of sharing a ship with the same few hundred people, not all of whom could be expected to get along, it was only natural for tempers to start fraying. But they weren’t a bunch of green cadets anymore. They were a Starfleet crew, the pride of the fleet, and if they couldn't start acting like it now, when would they ever?

“All right, people. Let’s have it.” Jim folded his arms in front of his chest. With some satisfaction, he watched Pavel and Simmons exchange a skittish look, then, as if by agreement, shuffle a little closer together. Good. Nothing like the prospect of getting chewed out by a senior officer to make a crew realize they were on the same side.

Unsurprisingly, Pavel answered first. “It’s nothing, sir, really. It vas… a friendly fight.”

Jim pressed his lips together. For a second, it was like looking through a window at his younger self, the memory hitting nearly as hard as Simmons’ right hook. That was a good fight, he’d told Captain Pike, just a couple of hours before his death - a conversation he still remembered word for word, and not just because it was the last proper talk they’d had. He’d have given everything to see the answering look on Pike’s face again, the one that said ‘you may think you’ve fooled everyone else, kid, but you’re not fooling me’. Of course Pavel wasn’t Jim, and Jim definitely wasn’t Pike, or even half the man that Pike had been… but the situation was similar enough that, just for a moment, the irony stopped him dead in his tracks.

“A friendly fight,” he repeated, struggling to keep his face impassive. "You’ll have to explain that to me, Mr. Chekov. We’ve got a gym for sparring matches, don’t we? You two got lost on the way there?”

“No, sir,” Pavel said, sheepish. He glanced up at Simmons, then back at Jim. “Ve didn’t mean to, Keptin. It’s just… she insulted my wodka, sir… and then… I insulted her mother... in Russian.” The last bit of that sentence was an embarrassed mumble.

“I see.” Jim turned to Simmons. She was a big woman, taller and half again as broad as him, although at the moment she was trying hard to look as small as she could. Security officer, and a good one; bit of a temper, sure, but that had never been a problem till now. “You got a Russian girlfriend, don’t you, Simmons? Took some Russian language classes on the side?”

Simmons nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“So, what Mr. Chekov here said about your mother…”

“I understood perfectly, sir. And it wasn’t pretty, but…” Long beat. “I’m sorry, Captain. I may have… overreacted.”

“No kidding.” Kirk probed at the rapidly swelling skin beneath his eye. Privately, he suspected she hadn’t really meant to hurt Pavel, or what felt like no more than a bad bruise might have been a splintered eye socket or worse. He glanced up, trying to get a good look at Simmons’ pupils. “Are you drunk, Lieutenant?”

“I… don’t know, sir.” She hesitated. “Maybe a little.”

“And you.” Jim turned to Pavel. “Don’t tell me you couldn’t find a way to defuse this before it turned ugly.”

“I’m… sorry, sir. But Keptin…” Chekov lifted his chin in a meek display of dignity. “Begging your pardon, but… some things are vorth getting beat up over.”

“Like vodka,” Jim muttered, suppressing the temptation to pass a hand across his eyes. Was this how Pike used to feel back at the Academy, whenever Jim got into a fight? “I think I’ll decide if it was worth it, Mr. Chekov, seeing as I’m the one who took the punch.” He spun around, scanning the tables until he found the one with the smattering of bottles on top. “Self-brewn, I take it?”

“Yes, sir.” Pavel’s eyes lit up with unmistakable pride. “But, Keptin.” He wrinkled his nose in puzzlement. “You know… don’t you? Ve built a still, down in Engineering, the second veek after ve launched. Not exactly regulation, but… you never ordered us to stop, and today has been a month since ve left space dock, so…”

“So you thought, let’s get together and celebrate,” Jim finished, warily circling the bottle-strewn table. Christ, this was a mess. Regulation was pretty clear about alcohol consumption on starships: bringing a bottle or two for personal use might be tolerated, but an illegal distillery wasn’t crossing that line as much as obliterating it. Pavel was right, though. Jim had known, and allowed it, thinking it’d be good for morale. Stupid, stupid.

“Keptin?” Chekov gave him a hopeful look. “Ve’re wery sorry about the fight, sir. I promise, next time it von’t happen again…”

“It won’t happen again because there won’t be a next time,” Jim said, picking up two half-empty bottles and thrusting one at Pavel, the other one at Simmons. God, he felt like a hypocrite. How many times in the past had he bent the rules when it suited him, and dragged the crew along with him? But he’d been trying to make up for those times in the months after Pike’s death, and if this was how it played out, then it had to be done.

“But, sir…” Simmons began.

“This isn’t a debate, Simmons,” he snapped. “I’m letting you both off with a warning, this time. But I want that distillery dismantled by tomorrow 0800.” He raised his voice, making sure it carried. “Aside from that, everyone in possession of more than one bottle of alcohol, including what you brought with you when we left Earth, is to deposit it in cargo bay 3, where it’ll be put in storage until at least the next shore leave. There’ll be no more impromptu parties unless I authorize them, is that clear?”

There were some murmurs of acknowledgment, then silence. Pavel, wide-eyed, seemed about to protest, but Simmons stopped him with a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, Chekov.” Her shoulders slumped. “It’s my fault. If I’d been sober, I’d never have -”

Jim put up his hand. He was acutely aware of every crewman in the room hanging on his lips, waiting for whatever he was going to say next. For once, it wasn’t a good feeling. He’d never given an official reprimand before; in the past it had always been him who got reprimanded, probably because he’d deserved it most. And somehow he'd assumed his crew was beyond this kind of thing. But people were people, and even the best people screwed up… and no one would ever grow and mature unless they were allowed to learn from their mistakes. Pike had taught him that, too. He just hadn’t understood it until it was too late.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” Jim said. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn't expected better from you, and I do mean all of you.” He paused, partly for effect and partly to remind himself to come up for air; from one second to the next, his heart was racing. “But I’m in command here. It’s up to me to interpret the rules, and I let you bend this one because I didn't see the harm in it - except, clearly, I was wrong. And if anyone gets hurt because I made a bad call, then it’s my responsibility. So this might seem like it’s about punishment, but it’s not. This is me, giving an order I know you all think sucks, because I believe it’s the right call. And I need to know you’ll be able to follow it.”

He finished, slightly breathless, to a silence heavy enough to hear a pin drop. Simmons stood stock-still before him, her eyes fixed on some point beside his left ear. “Yes, sir,” she said. “But Captain… Begging your pardon, but it wasn’t even one of us who got hurt. It was you.”

“Cosmic justice, Lieutenant?” Jim said, shrugging. “I suppose I had it coming then.” He turned to Pavel. “Mr. Chekov, how about you?”

“I understand, sir.” Pavel had his hands behind his back, standing practically at attention. Somehow it made him look even younger than he was. “And you are the keptin, of course, but… ve are your crew, sir. And not any crew: the crew of the Enterprise! So vith all due respect, sir, I do not agree that it’s just your responsibility. It’s ours as vell.” He looked up, straight-backed and solemn; the sight filled Jim with a sudden, overwhelming sense of pride. “We von’t let you down again, sir. I promise.”

Jim’s throat closed up when he saw others nodding, a murmur of assent rippling across the room. "I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Chekov.” He fought a sudden compulsion to pat Pavel’s shoulder, but stopped himself and tugged down his shirt instead. “As you were.”

He'd made it through the door and halfway down the corridor before a familiar voice rang out to him. “Jim, hang on!”

Jim didn’t look back, but he slowed just enough to let Bones catch up with him before he turned the next corner, his thoughts churning. What the hell had their CMO been doing in the rec room? “I hadn’t seen you in there, Bones. Don’t tell me you got invited.”

“Invite me? To an illegal party?” Bones rolled his eyes. “In a pig’s eye. I gotta hand it to Chekov; I didn’t think that boy could keep his mouth shut about anything, but it seems he’s less of an open book than I’d thought.” He stuck a tricorder into Jim’s face, then lowered it, fiddling with the settings as they walked. “Then again, can’t blame them for not inviting me to something I’d have been morally obligated to veto. They only called me in after Simmons decked you.”

Jim sputtered. “She didn't deck me!”

The hand that wasn’t waving a tricorder in front of his nose gave him a ‘sure, whatever’ gesture. When Jim didn’t volunteer any more details, Bones frowned and looked up from his screen. “That was a nice speech you gave in there,” he said, in a drawl so pronounced Jim could tell he was piling it on to distract from the seriousness of the question. “You okay?”

“Yeah, fine.” Jim shrugged. “She didn't hit me that hard.”

“You could use some time with a dermal regenerator, but that’s not what I meant,” Bones said, his tone entering that ever-shifting territory between friendly concern and bedside manner. “You looked a little freaked out at having to put your foot down.”

“That obvious, huh?” Jim slowed when they reached the turbolift, relieved to find it already there. He went in without checking if Bones was following, punched the controls and then slumped against the wall. His head was throbbing, and yet he felt strangely distant, like this was all happening to someone else. There hadn’t even been a real crisis, for fuck's sake. Just a kerfuffle about regulations that got acknowledged and dealt with, nothing worth brooding over. So why did he feel so wrung out?

“It wasn’t obvious to them, I think. But I know you, and you looked pretty uncomfortable to me.” Bones ambled over next to him, propping one shoulder against the panel in a way that looked deceptively casual. “Don’t tell me. You were thinking about Pike.”

Jim sucked in a breath, which ended up getting stuck halfway down his throat. He rubbed at his midriff, trying to get rid of the knot that had settled there. It didn’t help. “How long has it been since I last picked a fight, Bones?” He laughed mirthlessly. “A year? Six months? Probably less.”

Bones narrowed his eyes. “Well, you’ve still got a knack for getting caught up in other people’s fights, I’ll hand you that, but I think it’s been a while since you actually started one. I’d say that’s progress, wouldn’t you?”

“Maybe.” Jim gulped. You weren’t really supposed to feel the lift moving - the inertial dampeners ought to take care of that - but he could swear his stomach jumped up into his throat as they started their drop towards the lower decks. He winced and wrapped his arms around himself, not really caring if Bones noticed. Or maybe he wanted Bones to notice; he wasn’t sure. “Pike was right, though. I used to believe regulations were for other people. That I… couldn’t lose. Or even if I lost, that I’d just find a way to bend the rules and set things straight again. I wasn’t ready for command, and yet - back then, I never second-guessed myself. It was like nothing could touch me. Now…” He gritted his teeth. “How did I get to be the one to club people over the head with regulations, Bones? They took the Enterprise away from me ‘cause I couldn’t be trusted to play by the rules.”

“And then gave her back to you. For five whole years, Jim. That’s a pretty big vote of confidence, wouldn’t you say?”

Jim shrugged. “I suppose.” Damn, this was getting to him; his palms were sweaty, and something about his breathing didn’t feel right. Had they actually spent a whole month cruising through deep space, only for him to have an existential crisis over something as easily dealt with as an illegal booze party? “Don’t get me wrong, Bones. I’m grateful I got her back. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me in my life, but -”

“Oh? And here I was, thinking that was me,” Bones interrupted, a well-placed joke at exactly the right time to break up the momentum of Jim’s bout of self-pity. It was so typical that Jim almost smiled.

“Sorry, Bones,” he muttered. “You know no one can compete with the Enterprise. It’s just… I couldn't bear to lose her again. I used to not give a damn what people thought about me, but with this crew, this mission -”

“Suddenly it matters, right?” Bones gave him a sidelong look. “I don’t buy the ‘I used not to care’ crap, sorry - but yeah, you always had that streak of needing to defy authority. Except out here, you’re the highest authority around, so obviously it’s you that the crew are gonna be defying.”

Jim nodded. He hadn’t thought of it like that, but put that way, it did make sense. “I'm fine with being in command. And I don't mind making gut decisions in the heat of the moment… but my gut alone won’t cut it this time, will it? I’m gonna have to become… reliable. Steady. An example to the crew.”

Bones shrugged. “So you’ll have to learn, like every other starship captain before you. Hell, impulsiveness is practically a part of the job description. You don’t think Pike was ever like that? Or your dad, for that matter?”

Jim laughed, but it tasted like acid. “Yeah, see, Bones, that’s not much of a confidence booster. My father gave his life to save his crew. And Pike…”

“… believed in you. And you believed in him, for Christ’s sake! Why is it so hard to accept his faith in you may have been justified?” Bones threw up his hands, then lowered them again slowly. “Look… you took a punch for Chekov, didn’t you? Even though it was one he probably deserved? I won’t say it was a smart move, but that’s who you are. You let bad stuff happen to you, so that it won’t happen to the crew instead. In my book, that goes a long way towards making you a good captain.”

Jim averted his face. “That’s not nearly the same, Bones. Taking a punch for someone… For me, that’s actually the easy way out.” It was playing diplomat that scared him, which might explain why he felt so out of his depth - but he couldn’t let the crew see that, could he?

The hand that grabbed his shoulder, bodily turning him around, wasn’t even close to gentle. Neither was the expression on Bones’ face. “Then how about dying - not almost dying, actually dying - to save the Enterprise from that bastard Khan? I thought that would’ve been enough of a sacrifice to have gotten that self-destructive streak out of your system.” A flicker of pain crossed Bones’ face, quickly replaced by frustration, then a weariness deep enough to match Jim’s own. “Jim, let’s not start judging a person’s worth by how often they make martyrs of themselves, all right? It’s obvious why you’d think that way, but…”

Jim blinked. “Why do I think that way, Bones?”

“Jim…”

“No, why ?” he insisted, almost grateful for the excuse to lash out. At least anger he knew how to deal with. “If it’s that simple, I want to know.”

Bones was staring at his feet, lips pressed together as if caught in some inner debate. “Because…” He looked up, his face a mask. “Because you still feel guilty about being alive when some others aren’t. And you wonder if, just maybe… there’s a chance you deserve it less than them.”

Jim sagged back, taking in Bones’ hollow expression and the thin, angry slash of his mouth. No, not angry; more like afraid.

“I’m…” Jim swallowed. “Bones, I’m not suicidal. You know I’m not.”

“I know,” Bones said, his voice only slightly rough. “God help me, if I thought you were, I’d have ordered you put through every psych test we had before we even left space dock. But there’s a huge grey area between not being suicidal and being okay, and you’re far from the latter.”

“That probably describes half the people on this ship, Bones.” Jim straightened from his slouch as the turbolift slowed. “All the more reason for me to keep it together, right?” The grin he tried to give Bones felt more like a grimace, but it was the best he could do right now.

The doors opened on the stretch of corridor outside the officer’s quarters, Bones’ expression souring at the sight - probably realizing he should have overridden Jim’s command and sent them to straight to the medbay instead. “Jim, I want you in for a checkup first. You could have a hairline fracture, and a handheld scanner wouldn’t pick it up.”

“Rain check, Bones.” Jim shrugged him off. Bad enough that Bones got to see him having a meltdown, without the rest of the medical staff picking up on it too. “It’s not even hurting much anymore.”

Bones looked tempted to argue, then heaved a sigh and gestured at him to step out. It only took a second, but Jim didn’t doubt he’d run through all the pros and cons in his head before deciding it wasn’t worth trying to bodily drag his captain to the medbay. “Fine. We’ll see what I can do with just my medical kit. I’ll walk you to your quarters, then.”

To Jim’s relief, they made it there without running into any crew; probably most of them were still in the rec room, sharing in the collective hangover of Pavel’s vodka party. Once inside, Bones planted himself on the couch and crossed his arms waiting for Jim to sit down.

The dermal regen unit always made him drowsy. Bones kept insisting there was no medical reason for it, so maybe it was just the monotonous whirring noise, combined with the fact he wasn’t supposed to move as long as Bones was working on him. There wasn’t a lot he could do except lean back against the headrest, trying to focus on his breathing and the press of Bones’ fingers against his jaw. The touch was matter-of-fact but gentle, and Jim had to fight the impulse to lean into it, his body craving the contact even as his brain was telling him to get a grip.

And that was another thing. In the past, sex had always been something he took for granted. He’d actually sought out Gaila a few days after they’d launched - walked up to her quarters one night on sheer impulse, only to turn back before he’d even made it to the door. He was the captain, she was a crewman; sure, she was a consenting adult, and knowing her, she probably would have said yes, but he still couldn’t shake the feeling that it would have been wrong. So sex was off the table, at least until he could figure that one out. What he hadn’t counted on was missing the physical contact, almost as much as the act itself… but then, he’d always grounded himself through touch. With both sex and good bar fight being off-limits, Bones patching him up suddenly felt weirdly intimate; not that Jim was about to tell him that.

“There.” Bones tilted Jim’s head up to inspect his handiwork, probing the skin below his cheekbone. It still felt tender, but the sting was gone. “That should do it. I’ll run a scan in the morning to be sure. But Jim - if you ever need to break up a fight again, just order them to stop, instead of volunteering as a punching bag, all right? Those stripes on your sleeves are there for a reason.”

Jim grimaced. “Yeah… I may have to re-wire some of my instincts for that, Bones, but I’ll try.”

“You’d better,” Bones said, with a scowl that looked only half feigned. He gave Jim’s cheek a tap before he let go, then focused on putting away his instruments. Jim sat watching him for a couple of seconds, fighting to keep his eyes from closing themselves. He started when Bones slapped his medkit shut. “You're right about one thing, Jim. Things are gonna change. You’ve got a fine crew, but they’ll need someone to look up to, someone willing to put his foot down when stuff gets ugly. Someone they can think of as being bigger than themselves. I hate to play Devil's advocate here, but to be these people’s commanding officer… at some point you might have to stop being their friend.”

Jim straightened abruptly, too surprised to do anything but bark out a laugh. “Trying to tell me something, Bones? If you don’t like me anymore, it’s fine to come out and say it.”

“Have I ever said I liked you?” Bones snorted. “Doesn’t mean I’m not your friend anyway. As CMO I can still pull rank on you, kid, so I’m not worried about breaking the chain of command.” He reached out as if to muss up Jim’s hair - a habit from back at the Academy, born for no reason except that Jim hated it - but stopped himself before his hand made contact. In an impulse, Jim moved and caught his wrist.

For a second, when he saw Bones stiffen, he was afraid he’d crossed the line. Then Bones let out a breath and relaxed slowly, fingers burrowing into Jim’s sleeve.

“I need you, Bones.” Something like relief washed over him at the sight of their clasped forearms. “I know a lot’s gonna change during this mission, but I don’t think that is.”

“Well, you've got me. I don’t plan on going anywhere for the next five years.” Bones’ hand tightened on his wrist, his eyes not quite meeting Jim’s. That figured. For all the soul-baring conversations they’d had over the years, they weren’t exactly used to having them sober. As a rule, by this point, either one or both of them would be cracking jokes, or Bones would’ve gotten them another drink or tried to mess with Jim’s hair again, and that would be the end of it. That, or - given they were drunk enough - Jim wrapping Bones into a bear hug over his shouts of protest. But they were long past that now: a captain and his chief surgeon, not a hot-headed cadet and his irritable older friend.

Jim broke the moment before Bones could, if only to keep Bones from having to be the one to let go. Suddenly that felt important, not that he could have said why. “I know.” He gave Bones’ hand a last squeeze before he released it. “I just… Captain or not, I don’t think I can do this alone.”

“Oh, you’d manage without me,” Bones muttered, his tone sandpaper-rough despite the twinkle in his eyes. “And you’re hardly alone. They gave you a crew, so I wouldn’t count them out. Best of the fleet, remember? We’re part of something bigger now.”

“Maybe that’s what scares me. At least before Starfleet, the only life I could screw up was my own.” Jim worked up a grin, but he knew Bones could tell he wasn’t entirely kidding. This life might be infinitely better than his old one, but in some ways it was bound to be harder too. It wasn’t just the triumphs you shared with your crew; it was all the little moments leading up to it, good and bad. And this time, they’d be no second chances, no one to drag their asses out of the fire if he got them burned again. No gain without pain - wasn't that how the saying went?

Jim blinked up at the ceiling, then out towards the viewport where the stars were streaming by. What he’d just gained was everything. If that also meant he had everything to lose… he was just going to have to learn to live with that.