“I’m not going to kill you,” the alien promises with a large smile. “I’m not even going to touch you. I’m just going to take you on a trip down memory lane, and revisit your worst memories.”
Her eyes automatically flick to Spock even as he starts forwards; God, to relive the genocide of his people a second time –
The alien laughs, and plunges them all into unnatural darkness.
The air is dry, drier than it ever was in the Mojave Desert or on Vulcan-that-was. Everything is parched and dusty and brown – dead shrubs and short, stumpy trees, withered patches of grass growing on the dry, cracked ground amid the jagged rocks.
They come tumbling down from the overhanging ledge in a tangle of limbs and spring apart as they roll to the ground.
They come together almost immediately, lunging at each other so fast he only catches flashes; the kid is short and dirty and wields his knife like he’s been doing it all his life and his snarl is something fierce and wild. The man is bigger and stronger and has the advantage of a longer reach, as well as a gun on his hip he hasn’t had the time or distance to draw yet. His green jacket has something emblazoned across the back.
He trips and his fate is sealed.
The kid takes him to the ground, hard and fast, and the knife punches right through his throat. The man gurgles and blood sprays, and the kid’s head snaps up, blond hair flying everywhere, as he gives the blade a final, savage, twist and pulls it free. He’d know those eyes anywhere. It’s Jim Kirk.
He runs like a wild thing, with the tireless determination of the prey that’s being hunted but refuses to give up. His old leather jacket is too big and so filthy the original color has faded into a dusty grey. His combat boots thump rhythmically on the ground and never slow.
He pulls the younger children up after him and hands them one by one to the older boy above him. Only when there are none left does he get up and start leading them up the mountain again.
“Higher,” he tells them. “Higher is safer.”
The smallest kid – Kevin, barely six – is lagging behind. Jim can hear Kodos’ men so close, so close, breathing down their neck. He stops and picks the kid up, swinging him onto his back. Later, Kevin will calculate the distance and realize thirteen-year-old Jim carried him sixteen miles on his back across hunted land.
They scrape for food – anything they can find. Small animals they eat raw, the juices dribbling down their chins as they swallow them whole, fur and bones and all. Bark and roots and grass they chew on. Berries which make him sick to his stomach, but he listens to them gorge as he throws up. They lap the water from the brown, dead leaves and from muddy riverbeds.
Nowhere is safe. They run farther and farther. They run until they have no place left to run.
The food is still down there, with the guards and the rifles and the columns of fires and the nightmare of death, raining bullets down on them.
They leave the smallest kids behind, and Jim goes first.
He gets good, very good at it, very fast.
Stealing is easy. It’s getting out alive that is the hardest part.
He gets very good at that too.
He takes the guard’s phaser rifle. The first time is always the hardest.
They pick up more strays, kids who have managed to hide and survive so far on their own. Jim round them up and they swell the ranks of his little pack – Tom with his burnt eye, Cara who escaped by hiding two days in a tree, Rob whose mother hid him under the floor and whom they found by following his soft crying, little Xera he lifts and holds to his chest, Paul, Lyra, Sch’nra, Li, Jolan, Manxx, Alexis, Aleto…
The girl is down but still fighting, clawing and biting as the guard forces her down, spreading her legs apart. Jim rams into him, tearing him off the girl, straddles him roughly and slits his throat from ear to ear in one swift, practiced move.
He’s not gentle as he grabs her hand and pulls her after him.
Her name is Nora and her leg breaks during a raid two days later.
Jim would carry her, but he can already hear Kodos’ men only a couple of hundred meters away.
He looks her in the eye and closes her fingers around the handle of his phaser.
She smiles at him and loads the only remaining round. She has the most beautiful green eyes, the same shade the fields of Tarsus IV used to be.
He hears the single blast as he tears away, bare feet scrabbling on the scorching dirt.
His jacket now serves as a blanket to Kevin and Xera; his boots are long gone to tatters and he runs barefoot; his feet are so calloused he hops on the sharp rocks without flinching. His t-shirt was used for a bandage for Tom’s eye; his jeans are so threadbare they’re virtually useless. He’s gaunt and filthy and harder than he ever thought he’d have to be.
They are thin and ragged and growing more exhausted and sickly by the day.
They’re running out of ground.
Jim never thought they could hold out forever.
It’s just… He thought they’d hold out longer than this.
He holds Xera as she dies. It takes her two days, her lips cracked and swollen and her skin radiating fever. He soothes her and kisses her brow when she finally sighs out her last breath.
They walk for hours, following their barefoot, grim-faced leader who cradles the body of a two-year old to his bare chest. They don’t ask questions, but only trudge wearily after him. If there were anyone to see, it would make a powerful picture, this child warrior holding the body of one of his own.
“We can’t bury her,” he tells them, his face hard. “If they see the grave, they’ll know we were here.”
They raise a cairn, arrange it so it looks accidental, the product of rock fall.
When it’s finished, it’s pitifully small.
They are all dying – some quietly and some screaming; from weakness, from hunger, from sickness and from thirst; from the baking sun and from infected wounds from the reedy, razor-sharp grass they all run barefoot in; from the guards’ bullets, from their phaser fire and the blunt force trauma of the butt of their rifles.
Jim rounds up his eight remaining hollow-eyed survivors and leads them further into the wilderness.
It had to happen. They’re trapped in their cave, trembling as they hear the guards drawing closer and the dogs barking.
They back further and further, into the small cracks and tunnels. There’s a tiny opening above and if they can get through they can run again, live to fight another day.
Jim is small and skeletically thin, but he’s bigger than any of his kids. He hoists them through the opening one by one. They look at him, uncomprehending, and he smiles and shakes his head; they understand and run.
Jim crouches down and prepares to for his last stand.
He comes out screaming, kicking and biting like a rabid wolf; he mowed them down with his phaser rifle from his impregnable position, taking them down like lambs to the slaughter one by one until he runs out of ammunition and an arm snakes in and drags him out – he’s ridiculously light but his scrabbling hand closes on a jagged rock and as soon as he’s clear he swings around and bashes the guy’s brain in; then he drops the rock and starts fighting with the butt of his rifle. He gets two more and judging by the sound of that cracked skull, the second isn’t coming back up again.
He fights like the wild thing he is, tearing and gouging at anything in sight, until they’re pinning him to the ground and just beating him mercilessly –
He wakes up at the feet of the madman who started this genocide when they dump a bucket of water on him. His arms are tied behind his back but Kodos grips him by the chin and searches his face.
“Such a fierce little animal,” he says. “Now. Where are your filthy little comrades?”
Jim spits at him and doesn’t care that there is blood dribbling down Kodos’ face too.
He’s chained to a wall, his arms stretched out uncomfortably on either side of his head and they take it in turns trying to make him talk. The whip has barbed ends which tear at the sun-baked skin of his back; the salt which they pour over his wounds makes him howl with agony. When they apply the white-hot poker to his chest he mercifully passes out.
He screams and whimpers and moans – but he never says a word.
For days he’s been hanging limp and unresponsive from his chains. Kodos’ men prod at him, kick him and whip him a couple of times to elicit a reaction from him. One of them seizes his chin and forces it roughly up. Jim lunges and his teeth close on flesh. He bites down and tears as hard as he can.
The man howls with pain, and throws Jim back against the wall, scrabbling away from him with a hand clutched to the side of his face, cursing loudly.
Jim spits out the shell of the ear and laughs, an awful, hollow laugh.
Kodos comes to see him when he’s lying in a pool of blood and urine and filth.
“This is why the revolution is necessary, boy. Do you think any normal person would do what you did to that guard? You’re a beast, little more than an animal. The world would be a better place without the likes of you.”
They don’t even care if he answers anymore. They’re just here for the pain, for the savage glee it elicits in them. They jeer and laugh and Jim can’t bring himself to care that their words are raining down on him as much as their blows.
Traitor. Freak. Animal. Vulture. Carrion.
He still doesn’t speak.
The voices come to him from far away.
“There’s another room here! I think there’s someone inside!”
“Shit, it’s a kid!”
“Call the ship and tell them we need an emergency medical team right away! Go! Go!”
“I’m going to be sick…”
He doesn’t feel the hands that lower him from the chains.
They’re hurtling through corridors, fuzzy figures bending over him as he lies on a stretcher, frantic hands on his neck and his chest and manic beeping all around him.
“We need him in surgery now!”
“Clear the way!”
“Move! Move! Move!”
The moment they inject him he knows, distantly, clinically, disinterestedly, that they’ve fucked up. The tremors instantly turn into full-blown convulsions. They try to hold him down, but he’s seizing in earnest.
“Shit, what did you give him?”
“Just the anesthetic –”
“He’s crashing. Somebody get me a defibrillator!”
Pain pain pain black darkness nothing
The lieutenant gazes at the boy’s still form, then closes the door and steps into the CMO’s office.
“How’s he doing, doc?”
“Like any boy who’s been starved and tortured for months,” she answers waspishly, then sighs. “Sorry – but right now it’s a miracle he’s still breathing. The privations should have killed him a while back. For all I can tell, he’s been living off pure force of will and sheer stubbornness for the last couple of weeks.”
“The kids we found identified him as their leader. They say he’s been keeping them alive since Kodos’ declaration, foraging and stealing food and defending them against Kodos’ goons.”
“Since the – Christ. And by defending, you mean –”
“According to the kids, he repeatedly killed guards to allow them to escape. That cave we found up in the mountain range? His last stand before he was captured.”
“Holy mother of God.”
The alarm screams to life, startling them both. They reflexively glance at the monitor – the kid’s room has been breached.
The CMO swears and rips the door of her office open, tearing down sickbay to the kid’s door, the lieutenant hot on her heels. She wrenches the door open and freezes where she stands.
“No sudden moves, doctor.”
There’s a man in medical scrubs bent over the kid’s immobile body. One hand is holding his IV steady. The other is holding a syringe over the port entrance. The lieutenant looks over her shoulder and breathes, “Kodos.”
She looks at the man. He’s nondescript – middle-aged, no outstanding features, dull brown hair and little brown eyes. He’s so plain-looking he’d be invisible in any crowd.
He murdered four thousand people.
“Any move – from either of you – and this goes in his bloodstream.”
She looks at the syringe. It’s half-empty already. The clear liquid she can see inside makes her stomach churn with dread possibilities.
“What do you want with him?” She asks, hoping against hope that security will have heard the alarm and will come to investigate.
“Jimmy here has to die.” His gaze flits from her to the watchful lieutenant at her shoulder. “Him and his little followers – they’re the only ones left. When they’re gone the revolution will be successful.”
She stares at him.
“You’re mad,” she says, her heart pounding. “What has Jim – what have any of them – ever done to you?”
There’s a crazed, fanatic look in Kodos’ eye, and he leans forward to address her.
“Jim is even worse than any of them. He’s an animal, unfit to live among people. He’s not human. He doesn’t deserve to live.”
The soft click of a phaser silences him.
All three of them look down.
Jim’s eyes are glassy and his hand trembles from exertion, but he holds Kodos’ stolen phaser up, pressing into the soft flesh of his jaw so hard that Kodos has to tilt his head back. But Jim’s other hand has come up and grabbed the front of Kodos’ uniform in an iron grip, holding him down. Kodos stares down at Jim from the corner of his eye.
“Jim-”, he says, “-please-”
Jim presses the trigger and Kodos’ head explodes like an overripe watermelon.
The lieutenant stumbles back, a hand over his mouth, clutching the doorframe. He’s about two seconds away from being sick. There’s blood and bone and bits of brain all over Jim, and his face is painted with gore.
Jim’s eyes roll up inside his head and his limp hand releases the phaser which clatters to the floor.
All of the monitors go crazy.
The CMO springs into action, cutting off the IV Kodos had been manipulating, stepping over the headless corpse with the practiced ease of someone in a crisis situation. She punches the emergency call button beside Jim’s bed.
“Get security!” She barks at the shell-shocked lieutenant. “And send in any doctor you can find on the way!”
Jim sleeps for a long time.
He wakes up sometimes and someone tries to talk to him, to ask him questions. He stares at them until they leave, or goes back to sleep. He obeys orders, but never speaks to anyone. They think he’s in shock.
They feed him nutrients via IV, let him walk around a bit, whisper behind his back as though any word might break him, try to engage him into conversation. He ignores them. He knows his silence and dead eyes scare them. He just doesn’t have the energy left to care.
He learns that they are heading back to Earth. That most of his kids have been reunited with their family. That they’re stopping over on Alpha Gamma VI.
“Did you hear?”
The two ensigns aren’t actually in his room, just outside, but they left the door open and they, like everyone else, assume he’s brain dead.
“The captain contacted the kid’s mother and she refused to come and collect him. She’s in space, not on Earth, so when we dock we’re supposed to transfer him to a Starfleet hospital and it looks like he’s going to be staying here indefinitely.”
“She couldn’t get away from her ship?”
“She said, and I quote, ‘just ship him back to Iowa. I can’t come and retrieve him every time he gets in trouble.’”
The second ensign whistles.
“She does know her kid survived a genocide?”
“Don’t know, but I can’t blame her. That kid is a psychopath. Did you see what he did to Kodos? I was one of those who had to retrieve the body and it wasn’t pretty. The kid fucking blasted his head off!”
“The lieutenant who saw it was pretty shaken up,” the other ensign agrees. “Apparently he woke up from his coma or whatever, saw Kodos standing over him, stole his phaser, upped it beyond all safety levels, and blew Kodos’ head clean off his shoulders. And he did it all without changing expression. I mean, Jesus Christ there is something wrong with him!”
“And have you seen his eyes? It’s like he’s dead inside. He’s not a kid, he’s a machine. No wonder Kodos decided he was on the kill list.”
Their voices fade away, but Jim has heard enough. He knows he’s got to go.
He jumps ship at Alpha Gamma VI, and takes three successive ships that take him deeper into the galaxy, muddling his trail. Not that he thinks anyone will care.
He pays his passage with stolen credits. No one looks twice at the sickly teenager who doesn’t talk to anyone.
He zigzags across the galaxy, stowing away or working as an engineering hand. If there’s one thing Jim is, it’s a quick learner. He plunges into it, eager to try anything which will make his mind stop and erase the images from Tarsus IV. He learns to dabble with circuits and tweak warp coils. He learns to cook Andorian meat. He learns to speak Klingon.
He hops from world to world, sometimes stopping for a while and sometimes rushing on as soon as he lands. He takes work, any kind of work, just to get away. He steals and hacks credits from various people he’s met and despised over the years. He learns to gulp Orion whiskey as though it’s going down his throat smooth as velvet, fools around with a girl or fifty, spends two months in a Cardassian prison for taking some official’s vehicle for a joyride.
Some people think he’s an easy target because he’s young and small. But Jim fights like a rabid animal, like he’s willing to sacrifice a limb or two or even four just to keep his adversary from getting up again.
Those people never try twice.
He’s fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, growing up across the universe the way some people grow up over the years. He’s lean and fierce-eyed and he’s got a smile which says “don’t fuck with me”. He knows how to fix a warp core, how to fly a hoverbike, how to set a bone, how to knife someone with the least possible effort.
He’s nineteen and desperate. He’s run out of ground again, because even in this distant, lawless corner of the quadrant, Starfleet is catching up with him. He’s been following (hacking) their servers regularly and he knows that Jim Kirk is officially listed MIA from Tarsus IV. There’s a ship due in three days and Jim needs to be off this hellhole of a planetoid before it gets here because even when he’s dead, George Kirk is still fucking his son over from the grave with his looks and his ice blue eyes.
There’s a ship he can hop but he needs hard cash for that.
So he steps into the ring.
He’s done this before, but always with humans or humanoids he was fairly certain he had a chance of beating. The Cromlechian has been the reigning champion here ever since it came in, and the only ones to give it a close call were a couple of Klingons.
No human has ever dared to face it.
The crowd goes nuts when he steps in, jeering and booing, fired up by his imminent death – he’s toast in two seconds flat is the popular bet. He’s young and slim and handsome and the Cromlechian is going to eat him alive.
They quiet as Jim removes his shoes and shirt. The scars across his chest and back are pretty impressive and even the Cromlechian contemplates them for an instant.
It’s eight feet high and composed almost entirely of grey-green cartilage, down to its beady black eye and its insect-like head. And it is also, as Jim discovers as the bell rings, very, very fast.
It explodes towards him and Jim spins on the spot, letting fly a kick which connects with its trunk and knocks it sideways a couple of paces.
It becomes very quickly clear that Jim is outmatched. The Cromlechian pummels him, smashing his cheekbone and cracking a couple of his ribs as well as some of his toes. Jim breaks his hand on its thorax. At this point, it’s not even sport, it’s a massacre plain and simple.
But the crowd is receding, growing confused, and the Cromlechian itself is wary, backing away, because Jim is rising like a colossal tide and it’s a thing of beauty and awe, but terrible, terrible awe; because no matter who many times the Cromlechian pounds him into the ground Jim gets back up and smiles like a barbarian with blood in his mouth and an eye so swollen he can’t see. His bones break and his joints crack and his skin bruises and still Jim gets back up and fights fiercer, better, more savage than ever.
And then Jim surges up and elbows the Cromlechian hard right into the neck just as he hooks his foot around the Cromlechian’s, bringing him down and smashing his elbow right through the soft cartilage and clear through its breathing pipe. The Cromlechian gurgles and spasms, its arms flinging out; Jim grabs one and wrenches it the wrong way. The chitin cracks and the arm is almost torn clean out of its socket. The Cromlechian screams, and slaps the ground in the universal sign of surrender.
Jim stands, covered in blood, and collects his prize money. No one stops him as he crosses the room.
“No human can beat a Cromlechian. That’s impossible.”
He spends the next three days recovering on a planet two parsecs away, in the clinic of a tiny shriveled doctor who almost kills him with the wrong painkiller. He shakes with pain and even the fact that he’s the first human (is he?) ever to beat a Cromlechian seems like poor consolation.
He’s twenty-two and his ship is headed for Earth.
He really shouldn’t. But Jim has always had poor impulse control, and there are some things you can’t resist.
He detours by Riverside, Iowa.
Most of all, it’s the fact that Pike, though he knows who Jim Kirk is, does not seem to know he’s been missing for nine years that endears him to Jim.
The rest, as they say, is history.
For all that he’s been fleeing Starfleet since he was fourteen, he finds it relatively easy to slip inside – after all, he knows their codes and protocols on the back of his hand.
He almost laughs when he sees they have a course on survival training. For the shit of it, he signs up.
Pike’s face when some wheezing admiral finally catches on to the fact they’ve got George Kirk’s missing son on campus and immediately calls for Jim to stand before an extraordinary meeting of admirals during which Pike is debriefed is hilarious. That alone is entirely worth the hassle. The fact that it took them six days to spot him is just a bonus.
Where have you been, they ask. Why did you never contact your mother. What happened on Tarsus. Why did you leave. Why. Why. Why.
Jim crosses his arm and squares his jaw. He’s been told it throws his resemblance with his father in stark light and judging from the way a couple of them inhale suddenly, it’s true.
None of your business where I’ve been, he says. Why I left? Oh, I don’t know, Tarsus wasn’t an entirely pleasing experience and I didn’t want anything to do with the fucking morons who let it happen in the first place. Oh, and let the murdering madman responsible for it all sneak into a kid’s room. Can’t trust them to do anything right, I had to finish him off myself.
There’s a collective flinch from them. Looks like they all read the report on the brain-blowing incident. Serve them right. Pike looks like he wants to throw up. Jim refuses to lower his gaze.
What about your mother? The rest of your family? Why did you never contact them?
“You mean the woman who couldn’t be arsed to talk for even two minutes over vid-comm to her son who’d just spent seven months being hunted like a rabid animal and tortured, not to mention come and take him home? Yeah, no, I’ll pass.”
They thought they were guilting him, hurting him by bringing up his mother.
They were wrong.
What’s not human can’t bleed.
The admirals squirm. Komack looks like he wants to run out and be sick, but Archer eyes him gravely.
“You do realize we’ll have to contact her now, to inform her you’re alive and in Starfleet?”
This is what Jim has been waiting for.
Archer’s eyebrow rises.
“I’m a legal adult. Even if a parent is part of Starfleet, there is absolutely no requirement for them to be informed if their child has joined up, as long as that child is above the legal age on their planet. In fact, there is no requirement whatsoever for Starfleet to release information to anyone who is not the recruit’s declared next of kin.”
“Considering the circumstances –”
“Let me take a wild guess, Admiral. In the nine years since Tarsus IV, Lieutenant Kirk has never joined Starfleet’s search for her missing son. She has never gone back to Iowa to put up an empty grave beside her husband’s. She has never taken a vacation or even shore leave on Earth. She has never expressed any interest in any of the Tarsus survivors, has never tried to talk to any of them, and has never even considered traveling to Tarsus to know more.”
The silence is absolute. It feels like a graveyard in here, and Jim would know, he grew up in one.
Barnett comes to Archer’s rescue.
“Surely you realize that the way Tarsus happened was a great shock, and that in the present circumstances she would certainly be delighted –”
“The only circumstances relevant here are the facts that my father was a decent officer who, if he had lived, would be a good but unremarkable captain among so many others, and that I was born just as he crashed his ship into another, thus earning him the twelve minutes of fame which would be the only thing anyone would ever remember him for. If I were any other Tarsus IV survivor, I wouldn’t be standing here before you because I would never be the cause of such interest.”
Jim’s known since he was thirteen how to make a kill shot.
Going for the jugular is messy but always effective.
They know they’ve lost because his words are pure and simple truth. They let him go, after hours more questions which he either answers or refuses to acknowledge, his face hard.
Archer is the one to ask the last question.
“Do you regret it?”
“My kids lived. Anything I did was worth it.”
He walks out with his head high and his gaze fixed straight ahead, sweeps past Bones whose mouth is twisted in something that could be annoyance, worry perhaps, and who immediately catches up to him and wants to talk about what’s wrong, what did they want, how could Jim get called up in six days, even though he’s a little dipshit -
Normally he thinks Bones is hilarious, for all that he’s know him for less than a week, but today he snarls at him and storms off.
Everyone’s got their eye on him, from the admirals to the teachers to the other students who all whisper about how he’s George Kirk’s son, how he got called up before an entire panel of admirals, how he looks just edible –
He’ll show them all.
He takes apart and puts together a miniature warp core in their first class. He pilots his shuttle smoothly across an asteroid field the first time they let him up. He gains his Orion professor’s approval by insulting him systematically in all six dialects of the language with both fluency and creativity when he puts Jim’s capacities in doubt. He coasts clear over his strategy classes.
His aptitudes tests results are public knowledge by now. The other cadets watch him warily, hungrily, jealously, disbelievingly when they realize he’s going to fit four years inside of three.
I can’t believe that guy, they say. He’s not normal.
The only one to catch on is his combat teacher. In their first class, she watches him as they pair off and Jim spars with one of his human classmates. Strike, parry, block – this is more like dancing than fighting.
“With me, Kirk!”
His classmates snicker, thinking he’s about to get called out and have his ass kicked. She’s Andorian, blue-skinned, a head shorter than him and two to three times as strong as he is. They circle each other warily.
Jim lunges first, a chest-level open-hand strike disguised as a punch. She twists aside and uses her momentum to kick him in the back of the knee. He rolls with it rather than buckle, rolling diagonally across his back and hauling himself up on one hand to scissor her at the knees. He catches her by surprise but she seizes his arm even as she falls and flips him over. They’re both on their feet in an instant.
Jim’s used to fighting adversaries stronger, taller, heavier than he is, but that also means he knows how the little guy fights. He draws in closer until they’re only inches apart, hitting in a flurry of blows, no defending but only offence, offence, attacking until something gives.
She slams him down, her arm locked with all her weight behind it on his throat, and the world dissolves around him.
It’s not a game anymore, Jim can feel her hand on his throat and suddenly he flips a switch.
He throws his entire body backwards, and his legs come and wrap around her, one around the arm on his throat, the other snaking around her back and front and locking behind her knee, and he bodily throws her over his shoulder, rolling with the movement so he lands on top of her. She reflexively tries to throw him off by arching her body, but he twists her arm and flips her onto her stomach, one arm trapped beneath her weight and his, the other twisted and pinned as he kneels on her back, his own arm at her neck, thumb hovering over her carotid artery.
He’s panting and she’s frozen and gradually they realize that the room is silent.
She makes him her teaching assistant – rare for a first year, unheard of after a first lesson.
And his reputation spreads.
Everyone, it seems, has something to say about Jim Kirk, about his classes, about his scores, about how many girls he sees. He’s gone from being an anonymous nobody at the end of the galaxy to the new hot topic.
And he likes to pretend that the whispers of how does he do it? Is he for real? I can’t believe him and that guy isn’t human don’t bother him but sometimes it just gets his blood boiling and no matter how much Bones protests he just goes out and looks for a fight.
Jim likes fighting. It releases something in him, and he’s very good at it. And if none of the cadets he fights in drunken brawls are on the level of the Cromlechian, well. He’ll take what he can.
He grins at Bones with his mouth full of blood and alcohol pumping through his veins and Bones shakes his head and sighs and takes him back to his room.
He takes the survival course and scoffs through all of it. The instructor hates him.
The end of semester exam is a week of survival training which includes being dropped somewhere inhospitable with the barest bones of equipment and finding their way to a rendezvous point within a week.
Jim does it in two days.
They watch him come up to the base with slack jaws, as he strides with long, easy steps, barely winded.
And so his legend grows.
They’re running the obstacle course when the instructor gets pissed at Jim for something which seems utterly trivial but which the guy has got totally wrong and which will get people killed (Jim knows, he’s seen it). Jim argues back vehemently and it devolves into a shouting match, which culminates in the apoplectic instructor yelling at him to go run laps, and not to stop running until he drops.
Jim is livid as he turns and hurtles off. It’s not just what the guy said about rock climbing without equipment, though it is a serious issue and it will get people killed. It’s a culmination of everything he’s seen, everything he’s been through at the Academy, and everyone thinking they know him and thinking they know better than him when they’ve never even set foot on a hostile world –
The track loops around the entire obstacle course and is roughly two miles long. He can see his classmates going through the course as he races around it. He runs hard, in a way he hasn’t run since he was thirteen and running barefoot in razor-sharp dry grass with bullets and phaser fire behind him and other gaunt children at his side. He knows it’s stupid, that it’s Starfleet he’s angry with and he’s just punishing himself, not them, but the pain feels good, and he embraces it.
His classmates first notice when he’s on his fourth lap. He sees a couple of them look intently at him, and by the time he’s completed a couple more all of them are looking and calculating on their padd. They’ve figured out he’s going fast, blazing up the trail except that’s twelve miles already and he’s not slowing.
He blocks them out, and focuses on the pounding of his feet and the rhythm of his breathing – nothing exists except this moment.
Jim’s always been good at running.
It’s only a matter of hours before word gets out to the entire Academy and they start showing up, lining the sides of the track, watching, whispering, goggling because he’s on his seventeenth lap and that’s longer than a marathon, and he’s been running faster than a marathon runner would.
Even the brass trail in, his teachers and Pike and Admiral Archer and Admiral Nogura who watch him with dark silent eyes, but Jim doesn’t have a fuck to give. As far he’s concerned, none of them exist – it’s only him and the track and his burning, blazing anger. He’s not even trying to make a point, he’s just running because he’s angry and it’s the only way he knows to express this other than ramming a knife through the side of someone’s neck.
He’s sweating and his muscles burn yet he knows he can go on because he’s angry and last time he had to run this much he didn’t even have the anger to fuel him, and yet he still ran much longer than this. His pace quickens.
The mood has changed to restless and worried as he pounds around his twenty-first lap and starts in on his twenty-second. They don’t understand, can’t see how he’s still standing. Even the instructor, face twisted with apprehension, watches him with dread. On the next lap he steps onto the track and looks, really looks at Jim.
“That’s enough, Kirk, you can stop now.”
Jim swerves around him and laughs.
“I haven’t dropped yet!” he says over his shoulder, still laughing, and runs on.
Except that on the next lap, it’s Bones who is waiting for him in the middle of the track, his arms crossed. He just got there, somehow Jim can tell, and he’s scowling at all of the cadets and teachers milling around – yet he’s looking straight at Jim and his scowl isn’t meant for him, Jim knows.
Jim doesn’t stop, but he slows, because Bones is smack in the middle of the track, and if Jim wants to bypass him he’ll have to bump into him at the very least, run over him maybe.
And Bones looks at him and says,
“Time to go, Jim.”
And Jim has a split-second to decide, and somehow his feet are slowing of their own accord, until he’s walking the last few steps to stand in front of Bones, breathing as evenly as he can, arms hanging loosely by his sides.
Bones grabs his arm and drags him off, glaring at everyone, opening a passage in the crowd, which watches them leave in silence.
He can feel everyone staring at him the next day, even more so than usual, but he pretends his legs aren’t burning and his feet aren’t sore and walks with his head high and looks the instructor dead in the eye when next he sees him.
The legend goes wild. He’s crazy; he’s been trained specifically by a warrior race; he can run for days on end; he’s got strength to match his endurance.
They all agree on one point.
It’s not human to do what he has done.
Bones patches him up in their dorm room after another bar fight, his face tight with anger and worry.
“You can’t just keep doing this, Jim! One day you’re going to find someone who just won’t take no for an answer and who will rip you apart! I know you’re ridiculously good at this stuff, but you’re only human!”
Slowly, Jim looks up. His hand is still held upright, being bandaged by Bones, but Jim only has eyes for Bones’ face.
“What did you say?” he asks, his voice half-strangled.
Bones looks confused.
“I know you’re ridiculously good at this stuff, but you’re only human?”
Jim exhales slowly, and a choked laugh breaks free from his throat. Bones looks suitably alarmed.
“Jim, what’s wrong?” he asks, tricorder back out. “Is there-?”
Jim leans forwards and drops his head onto Bones’ shoulder, resting his forehead against it.
Bones’ arms hesitantly come around him and they stand for a long while in silence as Jim shakes with restrained sobs.
Even in the midst of chaos and death, Jim can spare a moment to hate the Vulcan. He’s fought so hard to be human, to be recognized as human, where does the Vulcan get off just deciding to drop that part of himself?
The Romulan strangles him, holding him off the ground, jeering and sneering at his “human” weakness.
Jim manages to crack a half-smile as he drags the phaser out of its holder.
He’s never let that hold him back.
Uhura jerks awake with a gasp, rolls onto her side and retches uncontrollably. She can hear noise around her but for a couple of minutes all she can process is the urge to throw up everything in her stomach because Jim – oh Jim –
She looks up.
Spock is stumbling upright, clearly shaken; Sulu is still on his hands and knees. And McCoy –
McCoy is crawling over to Jim’s limp form, shaking him and calling out to him, but Jim just lies on his side unconscious. McCoy slaps him hard, and his head just rolls a little. Spock starts looking around for an issue, but the urgency in McCoy’s face makes Uhura crawl over to him. He looks at her despairingly.
“He’s not waking up! He’s still trapped in whatever that was-”
The door creaks open and Spock springs back warily as the alien sweeps it and opens its stupid, gloating mouth –
Sulu rises from behind and with a single fluid movement, withdraws the sword he’s just plunged through its body. The instant it hits the floor, Jim bolts upright, a choked scream on his lips.
“Jim! Jim, it’s alright. It’s over. You’re okay.”
Jim’s head swivels and he takes in McCoy, then the rest of them, the cell, the alien’s body. He’s breathing fast and harsh, and McCoy takes his arm and makes him put his head between his knees and rubs his back as he tells him, “Deep breaths, come on Jim, it’s okay, it’s over, come on kid, breathe-”
Jim gives himself a little less than a minute before he nods, pulls himself up, only slightly wobbly, and gestures them all up.
“C’mon, we can’t stay here. Let’s get the hell out of this place.”
They sneak out the corridors of the strange, underground base, all of them keeping an anxious eye on Jim. It goes smoothly until the last door, which opens on another alien’s startled – as far as they can tell – expression. Before any of them can move, Jim explodes into motion, elbowing it right in the gut and taking him down with an open-hand blow to the side of the face.
The alien goes down without a sound, but Jim pales and stumbles a step back, gazing at his hands in incomprehension and fear, trembling all over. Uhura starts forwards, but McCoy gets there first, and wraps an arm around Jim’s shoulders, pulling him away and onwards.
They don’t say a word until the extraction point.
It’s five hours later, and they’re all grouped in the Captain’s ready room. He’s restless and fidgety and they – well, they don’t exactly know how to broach so hey, you’re a genocide survivor and you spent most of your formative years on the run from the law.
“So,” he says, not looking at any of them, “that happened.” He stops, wets his lips. “Is there any chance - can we – can we please forget any of this happened?”
“Captain,” says Sulu, stepping forwards, as though he can’t help it, “what we saw – what you did –”
Jim cuts him off with a shake of his head – and this is when Uhura realizes that he is Jim now, not Captain, not Kirk, but Jim, because she knows him, hurt and broken but kind and so resilient.
“So for a few years I thought I wasn’t human because people kept talking shit about me. Not a fucking big deal.”
He’s backing away, not meeting any of their gazes.
“Jim,” McCoy says, his eyes filled with sorrow and gruff affection, “you know it’s all a load of crap, that they abused you and took advantage of you, that you never deserved any of this –”
“Captain-” Spock interjects, with an aborted movement towards Jim he retracts when Jim flinches, “The fault was never yours, but that of the people around you, of the adults who were entrusted with your care and your guidance and who failed you again and again. The trials you experienced, the sufferings you faced – you deserved none of these, and you must not believe their aspersions on your character, for you have proven –”
But Jim keeps backing away, shaking his head, and Uhura has had enough.
He freezes when she puts her arms around him.
“You’re human,” she tells him, her head on his chest, listening to his fluttering heartbeat, “you’re human, and you’re so much more. I’m so proud of you, so proud of what you’ve done, and I’m sorry you had to suffer through all that, sorrier than you’ll ever know, but I’m so grateful you endured it all, so grateful you survived long enough to allow us to meet you. I’m so grateful you’re here, Jim Kirk. It’s okay to let go, now. It’s okay to let go.”
He hesitates, then melts into her embrace, burying his face into her hair, his arms coming around her, clinging to her like a drowning man. She can hear the others around them, but mostly she can hear his voice, repeating “thank you” over and over again.
For now, it is enough.