It's different, being in charge for real. After he conned Spock into giving up command – and it was a con, one last con, Jim and Callie know that if no one else quite gets it – there had been a job to do, a fight to win, and there's something clean and clear about moments like that. Fights aren't clean at all, of course, but the simplicity of purpose in the middle of a crisis, that is, somehow.
Now, it's something else.
Now, Jim is personally responsible for everyone on this ship, and there's so much –
Too many of his crew are as inexperienced as he is, or close enough. A good number of the officers are newly-graduated cadets, and the ones from the main campus, well, they're the ones who know him as an arrogant drunken playboy. Which is fine, because it's exactly what he'd wanted them to think for three years, if they were too stupid to wonder how someone like that didn't wash out, much less finish Academy in three years. But it's occasionally problematic now, when they need to trust him. Mostly things are fine – from Callie's wanderings at night, he knows that generally, the crew has decided he's an asshole who's good at his job, and they can live with that.
He'd like to know why they don't notice a coyote wandering the ship on her own, but Callie's very good at going unseen. Jim figures it's the witch blood; when your paternal grandmother and your mother's paternal grandmother are both witches, a few weird things crop up. Jim can go all but unnoticed too when he thinks a certain way, although he can't hold it too long without a migraine. Callie does it better, probably because daemons aren't, strictly speaking, physical beings in the same way as humans.
Her ability to go a good distance from Jim isn't directly witchy, though; they were inspired by witches but they stretched their bond themselves, bit by bit over the years, until they found a 'dead space' to do the job properly. When they are together and alone, or with only Bones and Beatrice to see them, Jim and Callie are never out of direct contact. The ability to separate comes with a price, and for them it's a sort of separation anxiety wrapped up in craving contact.
Curled up in his bunk, Jim pets Callie's fur. “So, we're pretty much down to only being despised by our first officer and our chief comms officer. At least we really earned that mess, right?”
“Badru likes me well enough. I think Katrana would too, if you ever let me talk to them.”
“You could at least let me give my real name. I'm tired of being Ista, and Liss, and Alist. Playing with my name was fun when we were small, but it isn't now. What are you so afraid of?
No one on the ship but Bones and Beatrice know that the coyote daemon at their captain's heels is really named Callisto – or have even heard Jim call his daemon Callie, the nickname they both like best. “We're tricksters, shouldn't you enjoy the game?” is his reply, and it's his usual one. She nips his hand.
“It's like saying we don't trust our people, Jamie. It isn't right. And with those two, you want them to like us. You've wanted Uhura and Badru to like us since we first saw them, and as for Spock and Katrana, the old ones – ”
“Stop it, Callie.” It's true, of course. Jim can still remember seeing the self-assured woman in red at the bar, as graceful as her caracal daemon, can still remember how he liked her all the more when she didn't buy his bullshit. Before the fight, it had been one of the bright moments in his year, someone more interested in snippy banter than flirting, a daemon that Callie actually wanted to see more of. And Spock, well...
He'd like to blame that on the old man and his sehlat daemon – he goes by Selek now, and the other Katrana calls herself Chaya – and their memories of a dark-eyed Jim Kirk and a Callie shaped like a white Samoyed, not a coyote. And maybe at first it had been a little. But his XO is, to use one of Spock's own favorite words, fascinating. Still waters, and all that.
And to watch them together, the shared looks and fleeting contact (and one astonishing kiss) between Spock and Uhura, both of them unfairly attractive in their own ways, the way their daemons curl together, it's captivating. But those are the kind of thoughts that get newly-minted captains in trouble, so he closes his eyes and rolls away from Callie. She's still pressed against his back, and the green fleece blanket he'd picked up in foster home two and never bothered to get rid of is tangled around his legs, so he can still sleep.
Even with his worries. Even with Callie's arguments, the ones he senses might be onto something. Even with a vague ache in his chest he can't put a name to.
Nyota joins the Enterprise, but she can’t say her opinion of Kirk has changed that much. He’s good at what he does and he’ll get better - she suspects that’s why Spock’s here, aside from his older self’s mysterious advice, the teacher’s instinct to shape talent - but he’s still an arrogant playboy. She fully expects to hear all about him sleeping his way through the crew, and gives him two weeks’ worth of self-control.
She’s wrong, and so is the betting pool. If Kirk is sleeping with anyone – and he has to be, this is Jim Kirk – he’s being quiet about it for the first time in his life. Or, well, really, now that she thinks about it, Kirk had never bragged about who he was sleeping with, never dropped names. Other people had taken care of that for him. Now, though, the rumor mill can't seem to dig up anything on him. So he's gotten better at hiding things, so what.
And she can't forget that Kirk's coyote daemon bit Spock's arm in her last moment of consciousness after Spock nerve-pinched Kirk during the Narada mess. Of course, Spock's Katrana is a sehlat, a considerably bigger form than a coyote, but even so. She's never seen a daemon attack a sentient being, except for other daemons. It's... It bothers her. More than she wants to admit.
So she doesn't see much to like about Jim Kirk, on a personal level. Kirk seems to know that, and gives her space even as he takes to chatting with Sulu about fencing and poker, and Chekov about wanting to take classes totally unrelated to your track because they just sounded interesting. She knows he and the engineer he brought back from Delta Vega, Scotty, are bonding in the off-hours, and even back at the Academy everyone knew Kirk and McCoy were all but inseparable. But Kirk leaves her alone – or maybe leaving her alone is something of a coincidence, because he gives Spock as wide a berth as he gives her.
Which is strange, given how hard he lobbied to get Spock back to the Enterprise. Spock, for various reasons that Nyota knows aren't just due to his struggle to decide if he was leaving or not, purposely waited until Kirk had given up before showing up asking for the job. But they both assumed that Kirk would try to win him over, especially since the old Spock claimed he and his world's Kirk were extremely close.
It's still one of the strangest things Nyota can imagine, having Spock here with her while knowing that on New Vulcan, an aged version of her boyfriend works to rebuild his race on a new homeworld. But if Kirk's affected by knowledge of another timeline, she can't see it. Or she thinks she can't. Occasionally, she catches him looking at Spock, or her and Spock, with something unreadable in his eyes. Meanwhile, his daemon watches everyone, distant and wary while her human is charming and friendly.
She can't tell which is the reality, the careful daemon or the careless human. She can't help but wonder if that's the idea. Daemonology is its own language, and actually Nyota took a couple of classes in it – it's supposed to be useful, reading cues from daemons or other forms of outer souls, before you're fluent in a language. Based on that, she'd have to conclude that the coyote's behavior is the truer one, the daemon who only seems to relax when she and her human are around Dr. McCoy and his raccoon daemon, Beatrice.
When she finally gets a clue as to what's behind the contradictions, it's nothing like what she would have expected.
The Enterprise is sent on an aid mission to Kelar Prime, where there's a Terran mining colony. One of the largest mining systems collapsed in the wake of one of the planet's vicious storms, and the Enterprise has been sent with much-needed supplies.
While there, it's expected that they visit the hospital where most of the survivors are being treated. What isn't expected is that during the walkthrough, their captain vanishes. Nyota only just keeps from rolling her eyes; of course he's bored with no chance for glory. “I'll find him,” she tells Spock when there's no answer to his comm call. He isn't any more impressed than she is. She knows one reason he stayed on the Enterprise was that he hadn't wanted to leave Admiral Pike’s ship to Kirk - Spock says that Kirk could be brilliant, the skill is there, but the attitude will have to change.
It isn't, clearly.
She finds the hospital director, who turns a warm smile on her. Huh. Earlier, Director Alix Nabry hadbeen brusque and dismissive, handing them off to her assistant for the tour. But now… “Lieutenant Uhura, yes?”
“Yes, Director. I was just…” It would serve Kirk right if she says he's missing and his bad behavior comes back on him, but they want to leave a good impression.
Nabry smiles. “Are you looking for Captain Kirk? Right this way.”
Oh no. What did he do? Maybe Nabry is actually susceptible to Kirk’s idea of charm and that's why she's smiling? It would be just like-
Nyota's train of thought comes to an abrupt halt when she realizes they're in the children's wing. When they'd walked through it had been subdued. Some of the children are still hurt, but others simply have nowhere to go yet. The parents and guardians they came with are dead or still patients, their guide had told them, and so far finding relatives has been hard with their communications so damaged. There's no child services on the mining colony, so in the hospital they stay.
But now there's enough laughter to echo off the walls, and Jim Kirk on his knees, play-fighting two of the children with foam swords, with the tiniest child - she can't be more than two, and barely that - in one arm so she can ‘help’ by waving her little rag at them. Meanwhile, his coyote races about the room, playing with the kids' shifting daemons.
As they watch, Jim sets the toddler down so he can be ‘stabbed’ and topple over dramatically, at which point the kids tackle him en masse. “This is the most like children I've ever seen them,” Director Nabry says quietly, before nodding to Nyota and walking away. Badru pads away from her to peer around the open door so he can see for himself what's going on.
Nyota moves from the observation window to join him, trying to figure out how to interrupt. But the oldest boy, ten or so with flyaway curls and dark eyes, looks up and pokes Jim in the side. “Uh-oh Mr. Kirk, you're busted.”
Jim looks up and - the brightness in his eyes, a match to any of the kids, vanishes, his entire expression closing off where the kids won't see. As if being seen like this is some huge secret and she's not supposed to know it. “Yeah, looks like I am, Imry,” he says, reaching over to ruffle the boy’s hair. “Thanks for the warning.” He gets up, brushing off his pants and giving Nyota his usual smirk. “Come to fetch me, Lieutenant?”
“We didn’t know where you went, Captain,” she tells him, trying not to be unsettled by his reactions or how the coyote comes to his side and holds perfectly still, ears pricked as if listening for danger. This whole thing just feels surreal. “It’s almost time to go.”
“Yeah, of course. Sorry I left you and Commander Spock holding the bag.” He turns to the kids. “You guys be good, OK? We’re going to do everything we can to get ahold of your families, OK?” It makes sense that he’d say as much; one reason the Enterprise is here is to illustrate the Federation’s commitment to helping the survivors, and finding the families of kids whose parents are dead is one of the priorities.
“But what if you can’t?” one little girl asks, her daemon cradled in her arms in the form of a floppy-eared puppy.
Nyota would have told her that of course they can, and will, but she’s surprised again when Jim says, “If we can’t, then we’ll make sure to find people who will give you good homes, I promise.” There’s hugs, and the coyote fussing over little daemons, and then Jim’s meeting her at the door and striding past her into the hallway.
“I didn’t know you liked kids,” Nyota says as they walk down the hallway. He looks at her and it’s the old Kirk again, that annoying version of charm back in his eyes and smirk.
“Now, Lieutenant, if I’d known you liked the domestic type…”
But she’s not having that. Not when his behavior has been bothering her since they stepped onto the Enterprise, in other ways since the moment she met him. Nyota whirls on him, jabbing him in the chest with a finger. “Don’t even try it. You meant that, playing with them. It’s probably the only time I’ve ever seen you be a genuine person. Don’t go back to being a creep now.”
“Oh, and here I thought that was my natural state.”
Nyota scowls at him. “I don’t think you have a natural state,” she snaps, weeks of suspicion boiling over. “You’re a fraud, you’ve been conning everyone, haven’t you? Who the hell are you?”
His eyes glitter oddly and the smile on his face is strange, twisted somehow. “Like you said, I’m a con. Who do you want me to be, Uhura?”
“What is the problem here?” Both Nyota and Kirk jump; they hadn’t realized Spock had come to find them. Kirk is the first to respond, however.
“Nothing at all, Commander,” Kirk says, dismissively.
“You vanished without explanation. Where were you?”
“I stopped by the children’s ward. I like kids. Anything else?”
“You informed no one of where you were going. Such behavior is unacceptable in a captain.”
“So report me.” He starts to walk away, but Spock steps in front of him.
“I fail to understand why you cannot simply explain why you would do such a thing,” he says, with that line between his eyebrows that in a human would be the deepest of frowns. Nyota has a different question still on her mind, but she keeps quiet for the moment, waiting for a good opening to push the issue.
“Because I’ve been them, Commander! Or close enough to make no difference. I’ve been that kid without anyone, wondering what’s gonna happen to me, and they don’t - I got them to laugh. I was someone who paid attention for them, even if it was just for an hour. And yes, Lieutenant,” he adds, rounding on her. “I am a fraud. Call it a survival tactic. You don’t know me, you don’t get to judge me, and next time I’ll be a good little boy and tell you where I’m going. Are we done here?”
“Why the hell are you mad that I saw you being a decent person?” Nyota wants to know, trying not to be thrown by the assertion that Kirk identifies with children who survived a natural disaster, which doesn’t make the least bit of sense. When he shrugs and doesn’t answer, she presses, “What do you think, that we’re going to use this to hurt you somehow?”
There’s still no response, but the silence now is heavier, tenser, and Nyota realizes in a rush that is exactly it. “What is wrong with you? When have either of us ever given any impression that we’re that kind of awful and manipulative? If anyone pulls that kind of thing, it’s you, or have you forgotten what you did to get that captain’s chair?”
“Nyota, I have made my peace with -”
“I don’t care, Spock. This isn’t just about that. This is about the fact that Kirk is our captain, we have to trust him, and apparently he thinks we’re going to stab him in the back!”
“Actually, it’s more that I wouldn’t be surprised by it from anyone but Bones, Pike, and maybe Scotty, it’s not really anything personal,” Kirk says, and that honestly makes it worse. So much worse that she doesn’t have anything to say.
“A captain must trust his officers,” Spock says, watching Kirk carefully.
“I trust you to do your jobs, that’s a different kind of trust, Spock,” Kirk tells him quietly. “And Uhura’s right, I’m more likely to be a manipulative little shit than either of you. I just… I’m not good at this. I’m not good at trusting people on a personal level.”
“Being a decent person isn’t usually something you need to trust someone for,” Nyota says, some of her anger fading in the face of what seems almost like defeat in Kirk’s voice. “You might find people more willing to stand by you if you acted less like a horndog and a creep. Ever think about that?”
Kirk blinks at her. “I - it's safer to be underestimated.”
“That is not true for a captain,” Spock tells him. “And I must point out that you are the youngest captain in Starfleet history. Behaving badly is not a tactic that will allow you to surprise with the truth now; it only reflects poorly on you, because your capabilities are known. You are still acting like a field-promoted cadet. It is unnecessary and damaging.”
Kirk half-turns from them, fingers curling in his daemon's ruff. She leans against his leg, clearly offering comfort. It occurs to Nyota suddenly that she doesn't know the coyote's name, when she knows the names of every other daemon on alpha shift bridge crew, among others. “Understood, Commander. I will work to amend my behavior,” Kirk says, in a flat voice entirely unlike himself. “And, Lieutenant, I apologize for being an asshole. Again. If you'll excuse me.”
He brushes past them as he walks away, shoulders tense like he's expecting a phaser shot to the back.
Vulcans require less sleep than humans, although Spock's typical requirements are higher than the Vulcan average due to his mixed genetics. As such, he often finds himself awake when only those on gamma shift ought to be going about their duties, and everyone else is asleep. Typically, he uses his time to complete more work, unless Nyota is sharing his bed that night, in which case he meditates in bed rather than disturb her.
Occasionally, though, Katrana wishes to wander the ship. She is his daemon, the human part of his katra, but he is given to understand that daemons do exhibit certain traits of the animal whose form they take. As such, Katrana's need to prowl the ship and prove to herself that no danger awaits in this place she guards is understandable. And so Spock indulges her, and on such nights they walk the ship together.
While they have occasionally considered attempting to stretch their bond such as Terran witches do, there is little information on how the procedure is undertaken, and so for the moment they remain as closely tied as ever. They could, of course, ask the captain; on their nocturnal walks Spock and Katrana have seen Kirk's coyote walking the ship alone on multiple occasions. She greets them but says little else when their paths cross, and Kirk is never anywhere to be found. Clearly, they have gained the ability to stretch their link.
However, given the captain's choice to avoid them – as well as Nyota and Badru – when off duty, Spock considers asking him to be unwise. He finds himself thinking of his alternate self, the friendship he'd spoken of. Spock had been unable to decide if it was truly something he wanted, but he had been... curious, and it had been something of a convenient rationale. His own older self thought he should stay with the Enterprise, and so he would. But it does seem as though one thing will be different; even if he wishes to be friends with Kirk, and he is still uncertain if he does, he evidently will not be afforded the opportunity. But being here gives him many advantages, not least the chance to stay with Nyota. He knew he would have had to lose her, had he gone to New Vulcan, and it...
He had almost asked her to come with him, but remembering what his mother had been through on Vulcan, what his peers had called her – he could not do it. He would have let her go rather than trap her, but now they have a chance to discover the true depths of their affection as they discover the galaxy for Starfleet. He can remain in the one place where he has felt both accepted and useful, where he knows he is making a meaningful contribution that is welcomed, not tolerated in spite of distaste.
These are great advantages, and yet...
He wants what is not available to him. He has done so before, and will adjust.
Three weeks after the incident on Kelar Prime, Spock and Katrana come across the coyote on the observation deck. Katrana, as usual, offers a quiet greeting, and then they turn to leave. “I wanted to apologize,” the coyote says in her low, warm voice, and they both stop.
“Apologize for what?” Katrana asks.
“For Jamie's behavior at the hospital. That was uncalled for. We just... weren't expecting anyone to see us like that. Unguarded.”
“The captain appeared to be insulted by being seen in a positive light. This is illogical,” Katrana says, she and Spock trying to follow what they have observed is proper etiquette – daemons may speak to humans, but it is far more common for daemons to interact with each other. The coyote huffs, her ears twitching.
“It isn't, not if you've grown up like we did,” she tells them. “But it is true that it's damaging now. We're working on being less paranoid, but it doesn't come easily. And we know that you don't like us, so we -”
“Why do you say that?” Katrana interrupts. “On the contrary, we find that you both have a great deal of potential which you are beginning to grow into.”
“We didn't exactly start out well, and Uhura and Badru have plenty of reason not to like us – not that Jim ever tries to lessen any of it,” the coyote adds with an irritated edge in her voice. “Obviously the two of you have no reason to like us, which is why we've been polite and stayed away off shift. Jim just kind of... lost his temper, getting caught like that when we know how much you don't like u-”
“You don't know anything,” Katrana contradicts her. “We are aware why you said the things that you did to us, we know it was a ploy and suspect you didn't mean it.”
“We didn't, I promise.”
“We know this,” Spock cuts in, ignoring the niceties for a moment. “What we do not know is why our captain acts like a skittish animal trying to avoid being kicked, and not someone who is well on his way to earning the respect of his entire crew.”
The coyote's ears and tail droop, and she says, “You wouldn't understand,” but hers isn't the only voice speaking. Kirk stands in the doorway to the observation deck, looking tired. He's out of uniform, in soft grey pants and a worn blue t-shirt – sleepwear, clearly, and leans against the doorframe rather than coming closer. The coyote trots over to him and he strokes her head, eyeing Spock and Katrana warily.
“If you have so little trust in me, why did you repeatedly ask me to be your First Officer?” Spock asks, his own fingers curling in Katrana's fur.
Kirk shrugs. “I wanted... it's nothing in particular,” he murmurs. “I do trust you – we worked together amazingly well once we stopped fighting. I knew we'd make a hell of a team, after that. It's just that I... I don't know. It's embarrassing, that I got caught out and said things I didn't intend to.” He looks down at his daemon, as if searching for words. “You're right, of course. The way I act isn't helping me, and I need to work on it. And I shouldn't have snuck off at the hospital.”
“No,” Spock agrees. “And yet from what Nyota has said, you gave the children a brief respite from tragedy, which speaks well of you. I would simply ask that next time, you alert someone before slipping away.”
Kirk smiles faintly. “I think I can manage that,” he agrees softly.
“That is good to hear,” Spock tells him. “And now, the two of you should rest, Captain.”
“As a Vulcan, I require less sleep than you. I will be sufficiently rested tomorrow without more sleep, but you will not.”
Silence, and then Kirk smiles faintly, shaking his head. “Well, I can't say you're wrong, Commander. I'll see you in the morning,” he says with a lopsided salute. Then he's walking away, his coyote loping along beside him. Spock strokes Katrana's head again, feeling illogically unsatisfied.
The good thing about being held captive with the captain is, it increases the odds of rescue, or that's what Nyota tells herself at any rate. It's also nice that they're not prisoners, exactly, so they're being held in what amounts to guest quarters, except that there's barred windows and guards on the doors. They're hostages, in the medieval sense of keeping a hostage to ensure your own safety, during peace talks and the like.
The only real problem is that, based on their initial read on the Agnevin culture, they'd concluded that it was best if she and Kirk pretended to be married for the away mission, especially since Spock wasn't going and they were the ranking officers present. Which means that now, they have married couple quarters.
Nyota and Badru are expecting the usual sly flirtation, or excessive but corny politeness along the lines of making a dividing line down the bed with a spare, rolled up blanket or something. She goes to bed before Kirk is ready to in order to avoid it, leaving him pacing the sitting room area – it's more of a dining room, given that there's only a table and wooden chairs, the only padded spot a window seat. She isn't expecting to wake up the next morning to find her captain curled up in the window seat with the other pillow from the bed and the spare blanket she'd thought he'd use as a dividing line, clearly kind of squished because he's too tall to fit properly. His coyote is sleeping on the floor below him.
He looks younger asleep, and it makes her realize how much of his studied casualness really is just that – studied, and far from relaxed. Maybe it should soften her, but somehow all it does is irritate her. It's another reminder of how much he's been playing them all, except for McCoy, a reminder of how long he's been conning people.
“Why are we taking this so personally?” Badru asks her quietly.
“He's always gotten under our skin, I guess,” Nyota mutters, exasperated with herself as much as Kirk really. She turns away, wondering if they're going to be fed or given any kind of update on the negotiations – Spock is leading them now, that much she does know – and trying to see if there's any sign of a communicator or equivalent.
“Mornin',” Kirk says behind her, voice rough from sleep. She turns back as he's getting to his feet, rolling his neck and shoulders, stretching his arms above his head. His coyote is stretching too, then shaking her head as if to clear it.
“Showing off?” Nyota asks archly before she can stop herself. Kirk stills, eyes narrowing.
“Not at all. Why do you ask?”
She shrugs, then pulls her hair up into its usual ponytail. “I don't know. Habit, I guess. Given I once caught you in your underwear under my roommate's bed and you used to hit on me every time I saw you, can you blame me?”
Kirk actually laughs, softly. “Can I make a confession, Lieutenant?”
“Can't stop you, can I?”
“Well, you could but I'm guessing you won't. I was trying to piss you off. Bickering is more fun than flirting with some people, and you're definitely one. I knew you'd turn me down, but you'd fight with me instead, and it was fun.”
Nyota tilts her head, considering him. “You're a brat,” she says at last, but the comment is more amused than anything else, and Kirk laughs, for a moment looking as young as he had while sleeping.
“Yes, yes I am, but I can be fun at least?” he says with a little smile. “So, you think Spock's gonna get us out of here any time soon? Or, that they'll at least feed us?”
“Well, they don't want us dead, so I assume they'll have to give us food at some point,” Nyota says, although she'd just been wondering that herself. “But yes, I do think Spock is going to get us out soon. And so do you.”
“True enough.” Then, at a nudge from his daemon, Kirk clears his throat. “I don't know if Spock told you, I already apologized to him but I should apologize to you too. That whole incident on Kelar Prime, I was an asshole and there wasn't any reason for it. I get defensive, that's all. But there's no excuse for it, and I'm trying to do better.”
Nyota eyes him. “Yet when I caught you staring at me under my roommate's bed, you were all cheeky smiles. Most people would have more trouble being caught creeping than being caught making kids laugh.”
Kirk settles on the window seat again, his coyote's head resting on his thigh. After a moment, Nyota sits on the other end of it, Badru curling up in her lap. They don't have much else to do but talk, unless they want to brood on their situation. “I said that I used to be like them. My family history's kinda fucked, Uhura, and a few things all happened at once that got Social Services looking into things. So, ended up in the system, moved around and left hanging like those kids are now. It's why I insisted on not lying to them, too. It's worse to have your hopes up and then lose that, you know?”
She isn't sure that she does, really. Sure, like anyone else Nyota's hoped for things and been let down, but Kirk isn't talking about something like that. The kind of lost hopes he's talking about are something she's lucky enough to have avoided so far in her life. She's still looking for something to say when he continues, “That's the whole con thing. Times like that, you... become who you need to be. So you don't get handed off again.”
“You do understand that what we need now is what you showed during the Nero mess, or with those kids, right?” Nyota feels on firm ground again, because it's like suddenly she understands. Kirk is playing the laidback, cheery captain while watching them all because he's trying to figure out what will work best to keep what he has. What he can't trust is that he will keep it, because he's never had anything last. “We need this guy, right here. You're actually being honest for once, no games, no pretense. That's what we need.”
Kirk blinks at her. Then he laughs, soft and warm in a way she's only heard once, when he was in the corner of the rec room with McCoy one day, the two of them with their heads together like schoolboys. “I'll have to think about that. Truth is, I'm not sure I even know how to be real, not all the time.”
“We can try, though,” the coyote says, and her voice is as warm as her human's laughter. Badru's ears prick up in a way they usually only do when he's listening to Katrana, a habit that far predated any romance between her and Spock. Later, maybe, Nyota will wonder what that means. But right now, she no longer has any time, because the door is opening and Spock's gotten them out of this.
No time for wondering just what is going on here.
The shift happens in the middle of an otherwise uneventful day – the Enterprise is en route to Genosha's capital of Alixira for shore leave, and the humans on the bridge are in overly cheerful moods at the thought of a break. Not, Spock notes, that they show it themselves. Although most of these officers, like so many on the ship, are fresh from the Academy, they have all grown into their roles. If he were not Vulcan, the teacher in him would be proud of them.
Katrana has nothing of Vulcan to her save the form she settled in, and she is proud for him. But that is their arrangement, after all; she feels where he chooses not to, and so balance is kept.
So the humans at their stations perform their duties with their usual focus, but their daemons... Like Spock's own, the crew's daemons have decided to express what their humans do not. Play scuffles have broken out among some of them, while other daemons cuddle – Badru is currently perched on Katrana's back, in fact, so that he has a better view of some of the goings-on. Spock had glanced at Nyota, trying to convey that she should call Badru back, but she had only grinned at him, eyes dancing.
In such a mood, further hints would only result in Badru trying to actually get Katrana to join in.
The only daemon on the bridge anywhere near Katrana in size – especially since she is smaller than a true sehlat, closer to the size of a Terran bear – is Ensign Chekov's Sofya, who is a black bear. Currently, she is pretending to swat at Sulu's Akiko, a falcon swooping just out of reach, to perch on a coyote's back.
Kirk's coyote yips and circles as if trying to reach back and shake the falcon loose, and her human leans over the arm of his chair enough to say, “I think you can be a falcon perch for a minute or two, Callisto.” He looks over at Spock as he speaks, and then Nyota – Nyota flashes him a quick smile while Spock only tilts his head in acknowledgement of the look that so clearly says 'See? I'm listening.'
There is a brief pause – Kirk has called his daemon various nicknames, but it only takes a moment to process that they are all clearly taken from this name, one that had very deliberately been obscured until now. Slowly, everyone goes back to what they were doing, but the change lingers in how the coyote – Callisto – is more playful now, even chasing Badru in a circle around Katrana just before they reach the starbase.
It is their second day of leave, and Spock has his lute with him. He and Nyota have taken a room in a hotel with multiple courtyard gardens, and they've settled in one of them, him playing his lute while Nyota sings along. Music is what first turned their association from that of a teaching assistant and the brightest student in the class to friends, and later to lovers, in fact. Nyota had been studying the Vulcan language and asked him about Vulcan music, because she used learning songs as a way to practice her vocabulary in any language she learned. And thus it had begun, sharing music of both their worlds and cultures.
Terran songs played on a Vulcan lute never fails to amuse Nyota and Badru – or Katrana for that matter. He learned many of the ones he knows without any sheet music, simply picking out the notes after listening to Nyota sing them. It's a game for them. She sings one – a classical Terran song but he fumbles the melody partway through – a few of the notes are non-standard on a Vulcan lute and it will take a few tries to figure out how to produce them. But through the hedge wall comes the very notes, played on – a Terran guitar, he is certain.
“Hope you don't mind the interruption,” Kirk's voice comes from behind the leaves.
“Kirk?” Nyota says, as Badru goes from reclining at her side to sitting at attention. Katrana's ears twitch but she otherwise stays at ease.
Kirk huffs a laugh. “Oh, hell, didn't realize it was you two, I'll just go mind my own business now?”
“Get over here, farm boy.”
“Captain Farm Boy, if you prefer. Come on,” Nyota amends mockingly, rolling her eyes. Spock's lips twitch in what would be a smile on a human. Kirk comes around the corner with Callisto at his side, guitar slung over his shoulder and an antique paper book in his free hand. He manages a sheepish smile as he settles on the bench perpendicular to the one where Spock and Nyota sit.
“Hey, sorry, I was tuning this thing and heard you playing, when you paused I couldn't help myself.”
“I was unaware that you played an instrument, Captain,” Spock says, studying Kirk's guitar as he shifts it to a playing position. It's clearly an old instrument, and he suspects that Kirk is not its first owner. “You have never joined in the impromptu 'jam sessions', I believe is the vernacular the crew members use for it.”
“Yeah, well, we both know why that is.” Kirk pats the guitar. “This is just one of various ways I used to earn credits back before Academy. I'd play in bars, that kind of thing, unless they wanted me to bartend. Better tips there, so usually more money.”
“Counting cards was even better,” Callisto adds, flopping onto the grass on her stomach. “And pool hustling.”
Spock is expecting the sly grin that spreads over Nyota's face – he has seen her play pool before, on occasion. “Bet you can't hustle me, even if you did do it for a living. There's a pool table in the hotel. I say, after the music session, we test the theory, what do you think?”
“Sure, why not? And, hey, if you can kick my ass at pool and chess, I'll give you a commendation.”
Now she turns that sly smile at Spock, raising her eyebrows. He raises one in return, although he's already in full agreement with what he knows she's about to suggest. So far he has made his way through the entire Academy chess club, and no one from that group who happens to be on the Enterprise will play him anymore. “I believe that will be my task, Captain.”
“Sounds great. And we're on leave, Spock. I'm Jim. And – she's Callie,” Jim says, nodding toward his daemon, who bares her teeth in a canine grin.
“About time you told them my name,” she says with fond exasperation.
“Yeah, yeah, Cal, you're always right, I know.”
“That is true of all daemons,” Badru chimes in, startling Nyota and surprising Spock – Badru almost never speaks in public. The caracal blinks unconcernedly at them, then proceeds to wash himself just as any other cat would. Katrana's laughter is a low rumble as she bats playfully at Callisto's muzzle.
“When they're right, they're right. You three ought to just accept it,” she says, and Spock narrows his eyes at his daemon. Really, some days she is just too human for both of them.
“We'll have much more fun if we do, and we've only got two more days before we ship out again,” Nyota says thoughtfully. “What's the next mission on our docket?”
“Cultural observation, seriously pre-warp – almost pre-tech society,” Jim says, absently strumming his guitar as Spock begins to re-tune his lyre. “Can't remember the name of the place – Spock, you know it?”
“Of course. The planet is known as Nibiru, as are the natives.”
“Nibiru, that's it! Right on the tip of my tongue,” Jim says, laughing when Nyota rolls her eyes. “Hey, I totally could have sold that.”
“Yeah, well, you better be done selling us anything at all,” Nyota tells him.
“I am, promise.”
Spock is in complete agreement with Nyota on this matter.
“I'm sorry,” Jim says, and he means it for everyone on this ship. Those on the bridge who can hear him, every crewer in every corridor and room. And Bones – his best friend who almost got blown up by a torpedo, and now he's just gonna get blown up with the rest of them. “Don't patronize me, kid,” he'd said the day Jim met him, and fuck, Bones had been right that day, hadn't he? Space was gonna kill them all, space and Marcus and Jim's own blind craving for revenge, his own stupid recklessness.
Pike had been right too, he thinks, as the apology falls from his lips, his fingers curling in Callie's ruff as the only thing keeping him sane.
He means the apology for everyone, and yet it's Spock and Nyota he can't look away from. Nyota who really had kicked his ass at pool and Spock who he's neck and neck with for chess wins. He thinks about melodies played on a lyre, words sung in Nyota's gorgeous voice. Thinks about the two of them knocking sense into him these last months, as he notices their clasped hands, the way Katrana curls protectively around Badru.
He realizes something then, in that moment when he can't look away from them. But then Scotty's on the comm and they're alive after all, and there's no time to consider it. There will never be time again, as Jim finds out soon enough, climbing into the warp core and kicking back online.
“Do you know why I went back for you?” he asks Spock, and he's relieved when Spock guesses wrong, relieved that he doesn't have the energy or the breath to say the truth.
Glass separates him from Spock, but nothing separates him from Callie, sprawled over Jim's legs as broken as he is. She's shedding Dust as he strains to talk to Spock, and the golden shimmer as it floats up is the last clear thing he sees, that and Spock's dark eyes, as the true answer spins through his fading mind.
Because I couldn't watch you die. Because I couldn't look Nyota in the eye if you did. I couldn't bear your loss or her pain, I couldn't do that, I think I love you both and now it doesn't mat-