The guard doesn’t bother with knocking. Though technically deserving of reprimand, disrespecting the officers’ quarters in such a manner, the hurried slap-slap of his boots on the stones as he runs down the hall serves double purpose – a herald of his approach, and the forgiveness of urgency. “Captain Pike!” he calls before the door has been fully opened. “You’re needed!”
He sighs and brushes a hand over his eyes – the difficulty with which he now finds such tasks as reading and writing, or any done in low lighting, taunts him. He has reached the age of indecision, too old to be of use at his station but not yet old enough to be without use. The King has been hinting that it’s past time to be assigning a replacement – before rising from his desk. “Tell me, Germano.”
The young guard springs to attention. “Brawl in the back yard,” he reports, sparing Pike the extraneous embellishments of story-telling. Germano would have made an excellent knight, Pike thinks for not the first time – observant, obedient, reserved – had only he been of noble birth. “Between five of your knights and one of the scullions.”
In any other case, Pike thinks, these would have been actions unbecoming on the side of his knights – five on one was rarely, if ever, a fair battle between adults, and the oldest of the scullions was only fourteen. But instead he only stomps forward with a heavy sigh of knowing. “I’ve told him,” he says more to himself than Germano, who politely ignores the words as he falls into step behind the captain. “I’ve told him time and again—” He storms through the kitchens in a flurry of servants leaping from his path, slamming the door to the back yard open with equal force; the sound interrupts the fight beyond. One knight is already on the ground, clutching a shoulder that hangs suspiciously broken to one side, and two others have retreated to the side. The final two freeze in place, one holding a dirty young blond by the arms as the other attempts to wrench a broom from his grasp. “James!” he barks, and the knights flinch at the commanding tone in his voice.
“Chris!” the blond smiles around the effects of a bloody nose, tongue poking out to lick at a split lip. He tugs free of the grip at his elbows, and a second jerk has the broom returned to him as well; the motion catches the largest of the knights across the jaw, and he surges toward the boy. The two friends to the sides rush forward to restrain him. “They started it!”
Pike waves the crowds away. “Return to the barracks,” he snaps at the knights, and there is a second of time where the thinks he might not be obeyed before the third joins to drag their friend away. The knight on the ground makes it to his feet, shakily. “Germano, take Sir Ross to the medic. You,” and this is back at the boy James, who has already turned to leave. “You stay.”
The yard clears out quickly; while the promise of a fight draws a crowd of eager watchers the promise of a beating does not, and a few of the cooks offer sad looks in James’ direction before shutting the door tight. James drops to the ground, scooping a handful of straw to press against his oozing nose. “Your thugs started it,” he mutters again, spitting dirt and blood to the floor.
Pike sighs. “I somehow doubt that.” It’s not that he knows his men better than that – though sworn to follow the code of chivalry, his knights are only human. He knows better than any the failings than men are capable of – but he does know James. The boy has been angry since birth, and he’s proven to be too good a fighter to have had that anger beaten out of him – James starts fights, but he also wins them. In a few hours, when the news has died down and the castle gone to bed, Pike will congratulate him on today’s five-on-one victory. For now, though, he has a separate role to play. “You’re better than this, Jim.”
All at once, the smile drops away into a sneer and the boy looks years older. Harder. His eyes go flinty and he snarls at Pike like he’s already chosen his next battle. “You going to tell me I should join the Guard again? Tell me how my kingdom needs me?”
Pike had made that mistake once, when James was young; ten years old and he’d thought he could soften him up with a hot meal, but James had reacted like a feral creature. After the screeching subsided (“A higher calling?” and that was when Pike realized his error, presenting it as an obligation. “To throw away my life for a crown that doesn’t give a damn? You always tell me to be more like my father, to uphold his name – that same crown threw me out into the gutter because I carried his name but not his titles. I owe this kingdom nothing.”) James had fled in anger, stolen a horse and disappeared to the woods. He’d been found two months later, half-starved, but had still needed to be dragged back to the castle kicking and screaming. “Do you really like scrubbing down the kitchens?” Pike’s anger flares in response, as it always does.
“Maybe I love it,” James taunts him, and spits another mouthful of grit and gore, rolling his neck so he can meet the older knight’s stare head-on; Pike glares, but James doesn’t look away.
James wields his defiance like a weapon, but his survival this long proves skill with more than just blades (or brooms, or stones, or fists). Sometimes, Pike thinks that’s the hardest part in his dealings with the boy – the ferocity of potential. “I want you to go for the shield,” he says instead, and he makes the slow (his knee had healed, but would never be the same) motion to sit beside James, uncaring of the grime on his clothes or the upset to his station.
Blue eyes snap to his in a gesture so violently quick it looks painful. “What?”
“I want you to go for the shield,” Pike repeats, wiping at James’ lip with a rag from his pocket. “What you lack in training you more than make up for in ability, you can try for it like the others in four years.”
James doesn’t blink at the praise; he and Pike have been through too much together for that to come as a shock. But he does blink slowly, drawing away from the hand at his mouth like he doesn’t trust it. “They don’t take my kind,” he says, but instead of anger there’s a heavy weariness to his words. “You know that.”
He does. “James...” and it doesn’t sound right, not with the conversation they’re about to have. “Jim. You have your father’s name, and you’ve been wearing my colors since you were three.” The adoption had never been formal. In the eyes of the courts James was his ward, taken in out of respect to his father’s heroism and nothing more, but somewhere along the way the relationship had stopped feeling like merely a responsibility. Neither of them were given over to emotions, but admitting that went as far as admitting there were emotions to give over to. “Candidates for the shield require descent from two noble lines. You’re a Pike as much as you are a Kirk, and that should be enough.”
James doesn’t respond. He breaks eye contact only to scrub the back of a dirty hand across his face, and his cheeks are marginally cleaner after as if they’d been wet. “Four years, huh?” and he kicks the handful of bloodied straw behind a pile of sacks; his nose is swollen, but not broken, and once again Pike marvels at the boy who held his own against five trained knights with only a stick and sheer determination in his defense. If he manages a rein on his attitude, the boy could be the greatest force of reckoning in the Royal Guard. James smirks. “I’ll do it in three.”
Exactly three summers after he enters the Guard’s training camp, James Kirk wins his shield.
Exactly three summers and one day after he enters the Guard’s training camp, the Romulans return.