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as clean and sweet a tale

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1.

If his life were a trashy romance novel Christopher Pike would have fallen in love with Jim Kirk the night they met. But his life isn't a trashy romance novel and when he looked down at Jim's battered, punch-drunk face that night he didn't fall in love.

He didn't fall in love.

2.

A nameless bar with inadequate lighting and no bouncer. Chris likes its permanent cloud of wispy cigarette smoke, a rarity in the city, the dusty old juke box that constantly plays the same sinister, twangy blues and for the the clean burn of good liquor he has no qualms enjoying when he's safely away from the prying eyes of impressionable young cadets.

He's waiting for Number One when he realizes that the flash of blond hair at the far edge of his vision is Jim Kirk, with McCoy at his side.

Chris watches Jim take a shot glass from McCoy's fingers and down it in one slick movement. The kid smiles and there's a lazy promise in the tilt of his hips, a dangerous strip of skin bared just so by a threadbare t-shirt that rides up and a pair of battered blue jeans that hang low. Chris tracks the pale expanse of Jim's arm as he reaches to set the glass down on the table. Watches as Jim closes the space between them, lowering himself into McCoy's lap, whose hands come up to steady Jim, sure and easy as anything despite the scowl on his face.

When Jim presses his mouth to McCoy's Chris feels something low in his belly tighten. Jim didn't swallow the shot after all. It runs down his chin and neck as he opens his mouth over McCoy's. When the whiskey's gone, Jim licks his lips (Chris thinks clearly, stupidly, of Iowa and the way Jim licked his lips then, of his pink tongue and red blood) and goes back for more. He's stalled by McCoy's hands in his hair, and when he pulls Jim goes with it, spine curving, neck bared in the soft light of the bar.

McCoy leans down, noses Jim's throat, teeth skimming his Adam's apple and Chris thinks of wild things in the dark woods of stranger planets than this one, of sharp-toothed animals and the way they touch.

Jim's head turns, and he looks right at Chris.

It's a strange burn, Jim's eyes on his with another man's hands on his body.

They hold the stare for a long moment, and when McCoy licks a path down Jim's throat, Chris thinks of absolutely nothing (he didn't fall in love).

McCoy traces Jim's slack mouth with the pad of his thumb, drawing his eyes away.

Number One startles Chris with a sure hand at the nape of his neck. He turns and it's like it always is with them when she's been gone long enough for him to forget the sharp, handsome lines of her face. Her smile is a brief flash of wicked brightness, like the dangerous flicker of a butterfly blade.

She makes of a point of finishing his forgotten drink for him, swallows it with the kind of deliberation that answers any number of embarrassing questions without him having to ask.

3.

Chris fucks her against the door of the bathroom, the heels of her regulation boots digging into the small of his back as she sucks bruises into his neck, just low enough to hide beneath the grey collar of his uniform.

He comes with the taste of her sweat in his mouth and the memory of Jim's blue eyes.

4.

Jim Kirk is trouble. Chris knew he would be. That's not the problem. The problem is, people think they can fix Jim, that they can make him better if they just love him enough, or push him enough. There are dozens of them, beautiful sharp-eyed girls and sly fly-boys who think they'll be the one, the exception. They all crash and burn because they're too stupid or too willfully ignorant to know what Chris knows: Jim isn't going to get better.

It's easy to look at him in his smart cadet reds and see how brightly his potential burns, to be drawn into the promise of it. It's the easiest thing to see all the ways Jim could be shaped and tempered into something amazing, something worth time and effort. And that's good. Chris sees it too, and knows with bone deep certainty that it will happen. But that's not "better". That's not fixed.

Jim will always be Jim.

He might thrive in Starfleet, but he still fights, and he still fucks. He still pisses off the wrong people just because he can. He's arrogant and selfish.
If there's goodness in him, it's more like a pit George Kirk carved than a proverbial heart of gold. It's a great strength and an awful weakness, one that took his soul and knotted it up with ship-shaped desires until there was no room left in it to want. The best of Jim's possible futures will never be a house on a hill and a couple of admiral's bars on his chest after a decade or two of heroing across the stars. It's never going to be a dog and family on the other side of a distinguished career for him. It'll be something fast and violent, up in the black where he was born, out in the far flung light of long dead stars.

Jim is Jim and he isn't going to get better.

It doesn't mean a thing that Chris might love him for it.

5.

Winter Break is wet and foggy.

Leonard McCoy left on one of the first shuttles out, sober enough to stumble his way on to what he still considers a death trap, and drunk enough not to care. By all rights Chris shouldn't know that. But he's developed a habit of keeping tabs and there are more people willing to be his eyes at the Academy than he's entirely comfortable with, but that's Starfleet for you and Chris is not so noble that he won't take advantage.

He's had Jim's information pulled on his computer screen for a while, eying the balance on the kid's food credit allocation, having a quiet argument with himself about caloric intake and how the care and proper feeding of one Jim Kirk is not his problem.

McCoy's been gone two and a half days and Jim's account shows inactivity since he left. Chris gets in one good hour of busy work before grabbing his comm and texting Jim, 'Go eat something.'

6.

Twenty minutes later the computer alerts him to a charge on Jim's account (two turkey sandwiches, an apple and milk) and Chris is absolutely certain that somewhere, Number One is laughing at him.

7.

The following day Chris finds Jim in the cafeteria. More accurately, he finds a crowd in the cafeteria, cheering over the familiar sounds of 3-D Battle Ship with Jim in the middle, a duel-screen console set up in front of him and a taking-on-all-comers smirk.

A jerry-rigged menu sign reads Kirk vs. Mitchel in flashing letters and a timer. They've been playing for over an hour. Chris settles in, watching the match. They play with smiles aimed at each other like loaded guns, moves peppered with sly compliments and lazy flirtations, slipping in and out of Orion Prime as the mood takes them.

When they shake hands after, Mitchel holds Jim's a beat longer than necessary, promising a rematch in a way that manages to be both casual and vaguely threatening. Chris watches him leave as people in the crowd exchange credits with varying degrees of discretion.

Jim asks, "Who's next ?" his eyes on Chris. The dare hanging between them makes him think of bar fights and long faded bruises.

When he slides into the vacated chair Jim's audience erupts into excited murmurs and the rapid clicks of furious texting. As the game resets someone speaks into their comm, "Get down here quick, Kirk's playing Pike."

Chris smiles.

8.

They play through the afternoon, and by the evening their corner of the cafeteria is packed. Word makes it to the officer's quarters and soon Chris finds himself with half a dozen instructors at his back cheering and cursing in turn.

In terms of technical skill Chris plays more efficiently than Jim, seeking out his fleet with precision that looks even sharper in the face of Jim's seemingly random attack patterns and near incomprehensible search grid. But time and again Chris finds himself pulled into Jim's little traps, fascinated by how that mind works, curious to the detriment of his dwindling fleet to see what Jim will do next.

When dawn breaks they're alone save Admiral Novak and Captain Wesley of the USS Lexington.

Jim is sprawled in his chair, hair mussed from running the occasional hand through it, cadet's jacket long since abandoned, the sleeves of his undershirt rolled up. He looks rakish, humming with tired energy and when Chris finally takes out Jim's last remaining battle cruiser he just laughs.

Captain Wesley passes Novak fifty credits and claps Jim on the shoulder before ambling away.

After a moment of silence Jim leans forward. "How'd you win?"

Chris shrugs. "Cheated."

"So did I."

In truth they started cheating outrageously around 0300. Christopher tips his head at Jim, feeling a familiar smile tug at the corners of his mouth. "I'm better at it."

Jim smiles back, lips curving with all kinds of dirty promises, and Chris thinks again of bars, bruises and the wicked flicker of Jim's pink tongue. "Oh, I'll bet. Sir."

9.

He's thought about it, the things that might be in his head if they ever fucked. Chris has wondered how much of himself would be helplessly wrapped up in GeorgeGeorgeGeorge while Jim panted ohohoh beneath him and whether or not he'd be a decent enough man to feel ashamed of himself.

10.

Remembrance Day comes the way it always does and for once Chris isn't thinking of (only) George.

Jim is wordlessly furious and sticky with blood that isn't his when he arrives at Chris's door, all fists, bright eyes and biting kisses. Remembrance Day comes the way it always does and this time, Chris isn't alone. George is dead and Christopher is alive and when he shoves Jim roughly against the doorway of his bedroom he knows that the only reason he gets to have this is because Leonard McCoy is at the hospital, elbows deep in the chest cavity of a second year cadet who swerved left when he should have gone right. And Jim – broken, amazing Jim who fights so hard in so many directions at once Chris almost can't stand to watch – is still Jim and he needs.

So Chris gives.

11.

The second time he fails the Kobayashi Maru Jim disappears for a week. McCoy invites himself over on day three dressed in civvies and carrying a bottle of Tennessee whiskey in blatant disregard for Starfleet protocol.

They sit in front of Chris's bay windows, staring out at the tightly packed sprawl of San Fransisco, wondering which point of light in the distance is closest to Jim.

"I know you're fucking him."

Chris turns to look at him, takes in the easy slouch and weary set of his mouth – a mouth Chris is familiar with because it likes to leave marks on all the parts of Jim he likes to touch – and tries to decide if McCoy came for a fight and what exactly Chris is going to do about it if he has.

"I should care more, or at least differently than I do. But." He trails off, eyes skittering away.

Quietly. "Not enough people love that kid."

I didn't fall in love he thinks and doesn't get any further than that because McCoy is up out of his chair in one graceful movement and reaches out to cup the back of Chris's neck, drawing himself in like it's the most natural thing in the world. And maybe it is.

It's not a kiss, but it's not nothing.

Chris breathes McCoy's breath, not quite searching for Jim's familiar taste over the bite of whiskey. Their noses brush and McCoy's cool surgeon's fingers trace that spot at the corner of his jaw that Jim likes so much and it's not nothing.

12.

Down in the dark gnarled pit of the Narada Pike listens to the sound of improperly maintained moisture units and the slosh of coolant lapping against the walls of the ship that killed George Kirk. He thinks about love and the best of all possible futures.

13.

When he wakes up it's to the soft hisses and metal clicks of sick-bay.

There's the raw, bitter edge of panic when he can't move his legs. He feels the sheet catch on the dry skin of his right toe and the bunched sweat-damp wrinkle of the hospital gown against the vulnerable patch of skin under his knee. He feels the desperate bite of his own finger nails digging into the meat of his thigh. He feels, but he cannot fucking move his legs.

14.

When Number One asks him why he's so ready to hand the Enterprise over Chris just says, "The kid deserves to go home."

It's not a lie, it just isn't the whole truth.

15.

Maybe he didn't fall in love with Jim Kirk, and maybe he did.

In any case it's a deeply meaningless distinction considering how Jim inched his way irrevocably into Chris's life.

When he finds himself back on the Enterprise, once again trying to out run the death throes of yet another planet, Chris finds that the distinction between in love and not-in-love matters even less when it comes to Jim Kirk.

George is still dead and Kahn is newly dead, the wreckage of his rage written across the stars with a vengeful hand. The Kelvin, and Vulcan and Gensis are all still gone. None of those things change depending on the direction of Christopher Pike's wayward heart.

16.

McCoy is in a crumpled heap on the floor and Jim is leaning against the glass on the wrong side of the containment chamber. When Chris gets to the wall Jim looks up at him, face bloody and burned and he licks his ruined lips before asking.

"The ship?" His voice is awful.

"Out of danger."

"The crew?"

Chris reaches down without looking and brushes his fingers across McCoy's slack face, the harsh rasp of Jim's labored breathing thundering over the comm. "Safe."

"S'good," Jim slurs, shoulder sliding down the barrier separating them, eyes glassy as his legs give out. Chris follows, kneeling in time. They stare at each other for a long, hard moment, and it's the same moment it was back in the bar, so achingly goddamn familiar that Chris thinks maybe if they want it enough they can push back time, and make it real. Go back.

"Have to do it, Christopher." Jim raps his knuckles against the glass, leaving behind a red smear of blood. "Relieve me."

17.

This is what he didn't tell Number One.

It wasn't a kiss but it wasn't nothing. McCoy pulled away, hand still tracing Jim-shaped secrets into Chris's skin and said, "He watched them build that ship, you know. It's not really yours. And he'll never love us the way he loves it, but it's enough that he'll let you have it for a while."

18.

"I relieve you."

"I am relieved.