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The Case of Leonard McCoy

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Prologue: The Case
investigative jargon for an assignment

There were many words to describe Leonard McCoy: Intelligent. Witty. Acerbic. A doctor. A friend. A man capable of great compassion and empathy, with a big heart hidden by a blunt exterior. All of these would in due course become obvious to a careful observer.

A careful observer would not be wrong.

But Jim Kirk was more than a careful observer, and he was convinced that this wasn’t the full story. There were many more layers to this particular man, and Jim was determined to unravel all of them. He just never realized how far down the wormhole this endeavor would take him.

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/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Part I: Surveillance
observing someone covertly

The first thing Jim noticed about McCoy, and what started him on this whole messy path, was that McCoy was just a little…off. It was a suspicion that strengthened over the course of their first shuttle ride together. While the self-proclaimed doctor behaved like a deranged drunk and blustered at the flight attendant about aviophobia, Jim watched keenly. He couldn't put his finger on it, but he'd learned long ago to trust his instincts, and they were perking up with interest. So when McCoy finished his diatribe against flying and space with, “All I got left is mah bones,” Jim accepted the offered canteen.

"Jim Kirk," he said.

"McCoy, Leonard McCoy," the man replied in that pointed way of his.

Awful name, Jim thought as he took a testing sip. Whiskey. Not just any whiskey, Kentucky bourbon. Top shelf, expensive, mismatched with the outdated container and McCoy's shabby clothing.

The shuttle took off just then, wobbling as it gained altitude. Jim expected McCoy's aviophobia to show, and was all prepared to tease him about it, just to see how he'd react. But McCoy didn’t grip his seat or close his eyes. He tensed a little bit, and his eyes darted around the room, but his gaze was calculating, not frightened. His breaths were even. And when the shuttle stabilized, he relaxed again without trouble.

Curiouser and curiouser. Eager to get the man talking so he could figure out this puzzle, Jim said, "I heard you say you're a doctor?"

"Yeah," McCoy answered.

When McCoy failed to elaborate, Jim prompted. "What's your specialty?"

"Neurosurgery," he drawled.

Jim whistled. "So you cut open people's heads? Sounds messy."

"Only if you're an idiot," McCoy retorted. "Which most doctors are," he added, punctuating this disparaging remark with another swig of whiskey.

Jim raised his eyebrows. A doctor who didn't trust doctors. "Are you one of the idiots?" Jim asked mock-seriously.

McCoy glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "Why, are you planning a stint on my table anytime soon?"

Jim had to repress the urge to turn that into an innuendo. Too soon to chance it. Instead, Jim said breezily, "Never hurts to know where to go. Just in case." When McCoy raised an elastic eyebrow, Jim smirked. "That's a no. No plans."

McCoy eyed his bedraggled, bloody appearance. "Mhm," he hummed doubtfully.

Jim held out his hand for the canteen again with a challenging look. "You seem pretty sure of yourself," he observed.

"I'm a damned good doctor," McCoy said. His tone was matter-of-fact, not arrogant.

He really believes it, Jim concluded, and snorted incredulously. "What makes you better than anyone else?"

"For one, I'm not handicapped by those damned machines. You wouldn't believe how many so-called professionals need a tricorder to tell a cardia from their own anus."

Jim almost inhaled the whiskey. While he choked on surprised laughter, McCoy smacked him soundly on the back. "Warn a guy," Jim said when his sinuses stopped trying to set him on fire.

"Wasn't tryin'a be funny."

Jim believed him. McCoy didn't sound like he was trying for anything but irritable. Jim settled back into his seat, returning the canteen, and changed the subject. "So, where you from?"

"Georgia."

"Never been to Georgia," Jim said conversationally. "What's it like?"

"Same as anywhere," McCoy grumbled.

Jim waited, but McCoy didn't volunteer anything else. "What brings you to the midwest?"

"Just finished my residency," he grunted.

"Where'd you go to med school?"

"Mississippi."

Strangely reserved, Jim thought, now that Jim was the one prompting him to share. Maybe McCoy was a tit-for-tat kinda guy, the type who needed the other person to open up first. It was worth a try, and Jim was an expert at saying a lot about nothing. "I bet you're wondering why I look like I was just on WWE."

McCoy raised an unwillingly interested eyebrow. Jim hid a victorious smile and started in on the story of his most recent bar crawl.

At the end of his telling, McCoy summarized it by saying, "So you were being an idiot."

"Hey, I was just flirting. The idiots were those other cadets."

"A horny idiot," McCoy said like he hadn't heard Jim.

"Psh. If you think that's bad, you should have been there in '51, when I pissed off a whole cheerleading squad. Those pom-poms are deadly."

The corners of McCoy's mouth reluctantly twitched up.

Just then, they hit some turbulence, the shuttle shaking and jerking. Once again, McCoy didn't exhibit the anticipated signs of fear. He glanced around the hold with that same calculating look, and this time Jim noticed where his gaze lingered: On Uhura, a group of teenagers, and a dark-skinned woman in the corner.

Needing more time to figure this out, and feeling secretly thrilled by the chase, Jim continued with stories of his misadventures. He'd gotten very good at seeming completely absorbed in his storytelling when, in reality, his focus was elsewhere.

McCoy rarely interjected, but when he did it was unfailingly caustic. The shuttle hit uneven air currents three more times, and Jim eventually picked up on a pattern to who McCoy looked at: young or delicate-looking cadets. The only one who didn't fit those criteria was the woman in the corner. She was tall and broad-shouldered with solid calves, clearly capable of taking care of herself.

After the latest shuddering of the hull, while McCoy was eyeing the woman with his eyebrows tilted in clear worry, Jim decided to try the direct approach. He nudged McCoy with an elbow. “You gonna ask her to coffee or something?” Jim asked quietly.

McCoy looked bemused. “What?”

“Hey, don’t look at me, I’m not the one who keeps staring at her.”

McCoy heaved a long-suffering sigh as he rubbed his eyes. “I’m not interested in her, you infant.” He hesitated. “She’s expecting, is all.”

Jim looked at the woman in surprise, this time eyeing her flat belly. “How do you know?”

“I’m a doctor. I can tell these things.”

“And you keep looking at a pregnant lady because…?”

“I’m just worried what this tin-can could do to her and the child. To everyone here.”

Jim watched his brooding face, a theory forming. “But not to you?” he asked shrewdly.

McCoy shot him a surprised look that confirmed Jim’s theory. McCoy was afraid, oh yes, but not for himself. He was afraid for the other passengers.

It was, Jim reflected, a very appropriate reaction for a doctor. It didn't mesh, though, not with McCoy's ode to the dangers of space. He obviously had a strong sense of self-preservation, and their conversation so far revealed that, if anything, McCoy had an over-inflated ego. Yet in contradiction to all this evidence of McCoy's self-worth, he seemed not to have a care for his own safety in the event of a crash.

They stared at one another, Jim's open curiosity meeting McCoy's sudden caginess. Before Jim could press the issue, the pilot’s voice came over the speakers. “Hey folks, we’ll be landing in about five minutes. Please make sure your seatbelts are fastened and all luggage is stored either in the overhead compartments or under your seats. Thank you.”

McCoy took an exaggeratedly long time doing his buckles back up, and then was aloof for the short remainder of the flight. When the shuttle landed and people began unbuckling to disembark, Jim looked over at McCoy.

“Need any help getting your luggage out?” Jim asked, trying to bridge whatever gap he had created with his forthrightness.

McCoy was already pulling down a small rucksack from a nearby storage unit. “Naw, don’t got much,” he said nonchalantly, avoiding eye contact.

Jim was intimately familiar with the signs of a man trying to distance himself. Don't think you can escape that easily, Jim thought. McCoy was the most interesting person he'd met in a long time, and Jim did so love a challenge.

Jim stuck to McCoy like glue as they fell in line with the cadets shuffling through the exit. “Bare-Bones McCoy,” Jim joked, and then paused thoughtfully. Leonard McCoy didn’t fit the scintillatingly sardonic man in front of him. In a musing tone, Jim repeated, “Bare-Bones McCoy. I kinda like it. How about just Bones for short? You know, they used to call surgeons sawbones…”

Bones—yes, much better—looked at Jim like he was crazy. “In the twentieth century, when they actually did use saws to cut off soldiers’ limbs.”

“Your point?”

Bones scowled. “My point is I’m a doctor, not a carpenter!”

Jim snorted, and was about to explain why Bones was a much better name than Leonard or McCoy, but at that moment they got their first sight of the campus.

They had landed on one of the shuttle bays just off the water. To the northeast, the Golden Gate bridge stretched across the strait, beyond which the Pacific Ocean gleamed blue in the morning light. To the north across the strait, Jim could just make out the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco, as well as the telltale disk-shaped buildings of Starfleet Headquarters.

On this side of the strait was Starfleet Academy. The campus buildings were arranged around an open central area covered with grass and dotted liberally with trees. Concrete pathways wound whimsically through the grounds, connecting the cylindrical buildings. There were many students and faculty out on the green grounds, enjoying the uncommonly sunny day. To the right, the tall barracks towered above the shuttle bay, casting long shadows. Jim could hear someone explaining that beyond the barracks were the classrooms and conference halls. On the other side of the grounds to the left were the administrative buildings and offices, as well as the rec rooms, mess hall, and hospital.

A long, slow sigh from Bones brought Jim back to himself. Bones was gazing over the campus, not with awe as Jim had been, but with…resignation? It seemed that the pristine campus had put an incongruously black cloud over Bones’ head. Jim eyed his tiny rucksack and felt a pang of empathy. Nowhere else to go, indeed.

“Hey, man,” Jim said, clapping Bones on the shoulder, “what say we go explore on our own? Skip the freshie tour.”

“Kid, I’ve still got to find my assigned room, meet the poor soul they stuck with me, register at the Academy hospital, and figure out how to work my shifts around my classes. And I’ve gotta do it all while surrounded by a bunch of bright-eyed, obnoxious children. God, I’m too old for this shit…”

“Oh, Bones,” Jim said in a cheerfully admonishing tone, “you’re exaggerating. You’re young and vibrant.” Jim ignored Bones’s disbelieving snort and caterpillar eyebrow. “I can’t believe you’re a day over 30, but then…you’re also a practicing doctor and that med school shit takes a long time…” Jim said leadingly, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye.

With the air of someone who had repeated this many times, Bones said, “I’m 28. Finished med school early.”

Jim glanced at him in interest. “That’s what I’m going to do here. Planning to graduate in three years instead of four.”

“Really?” Bones asked rhetorically, drawling the word out and managing to sound both incredibly bored and incredibly disbelieving. “Well, good luck with that.” And then he tried to make a break for it.

Jim kept pace with him, and Bones heaved out an aggrieved sigh and said, “Look, why don’t you go hang out with the other new recruits; I’ve got stuff to do.” He glanced Jim over briefly. “You should see a doctor about those contusions, too.”

“I’m looking at one,” Jim said, grinning.

Bones rolled his eyes. “I meant a general practitioner, not a surgeon.”

“I have a feeling you’re the better option.”

Bones grunted, but finally seemed to realize that he wasn’t going to shake Jim. “I need coffee,” he said, and allowed Jim to follow him to the mess hall. By the time they had ordered their coffees—black for Bones, a little too much sugar and cream for Jim—he didn’t even protest when Jim directed him to a table, and Jim knew he was in.

***

It turned out they were in neighboring barracks. The cadets on medical track were housed in the Stylus Barracks, closest to the shuttles that crossed the strait to Starfleet Headquarters and, more importantly, Starfleet Medical Hospital. Med cadets were the only ones to be homogeneously housed together because of their odd hours. The Stylus had some of the nicest quarters, more like small apartments. More space, separate bedrooms, and modern specs combined with a sleek design. Jim’s barracks, the Bridgestone, was brick and mortar, and was comprised of tiny studios. They all had doors with actual handles that opened in and out instead of sliding into the wall, and he even had a gas stove range! On the plus side, it meant that Jim could cook fresh meals. All Bones had was a warmer in his kitchen and a replicator in the building’s rec room.

Jim was roomed with a Science track cadet named Andrew Gylar. Andy was specializing in computer science, and could most often be found lazing about in bed on his PADD, working on code. Jim got along reasonably well with Andy, especially since Jim spent most of his time out and about. After settling into Starfleet, Jim had made a point to check out all the nearest bars—you know, just for fun times: celebrations, flirting and relaxing, hanging out with drinking buddies…. I need some of those, Jim lamented as he threw another shot back, steadily drinking himself into a happy stupor to farewell his civilian life and ring in his life as a Starfleet Officer. Cadet. Whatever.

The next morning he was suffering from the mother of all hangovers when he entered his first class, which started at 0700 sharp. He glanced around blearily for a seat and then grinned when he saw a familiar face. “Bones!” he greeted as he took the seat beside the man and looked him over.

Bones was clean-shaven and his hair was combed neatly to the side. If Jim hadn’t thought he looked college-age before, he would now. All spruced up and in the cadet reds, Bones managed to look like a very dignified man. The scowl kind of ruined it, though.

“Oh, it’s you.”

“Are you incapable of sounding anything but grouchy?" Jim asked. When Bones ignored him, he looked around the classroom. "I thought you were on the medical track? What’s history got to do with that?”

“You never heard of general credits?”

Oh, right. There were several courses that were required by all students. This class, History of Starfleet, was one. “Sorry, I’m a little hungover,” Jim excused himself with a grin.

Bones’s eyebrow twitched up. “It shows,” he said shortly.

Jim was about to protest that he looked as fresh as a daisy, but was distracted when Bones pulled out a pad of honest-to-god paper.

“You’re shitting me,” Jim said flatly, and then with barely-contained delight, “Is that an ink pen?”

“Shut your trap, Mister Blame-My-Idiocy-On-A-Hangover.”

“This is too good. I knew you were old-fashioned, but you seriously take hand-written notes?”

“Listen, kid, there’s this thing called ‘learning styles,’ you should look it up,” Bones said, tapping his pen against the paper.

“Kinesthetic intelligence, I get that,” Jim said. “But damn. Why not use a PADD?”

“I like the feel of paper,” was all Bones said.

The lecture began then, and Jim was forced to drop the conversation. But he soon grew bored of the history lesson—it didn’t help that the instructor, Ensign Takahashi, was a droner. To keep himself focused, Jim started inventing stories about the events she was lecturing on.

"Think Cochrane was high when he invented warp travel?" Jim muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

Bones ignored him.

This first lecture was an overview of everything they'd be covering in the syllabus, and they moved rapidly from the millennial wars to the unification of Terra's countries, the creation of the United Earth Military, and the eventual establishment of the Federation. Throughout, Jim came up with more and more outlandish tales, hoping to get a reaction from Bones that wasn't a frown.

While Takahashi was reeling off a list of Ambassadors at the Founding, Jim whispered, "And then Admiral Archer's secret Vulcan lover, Plutok, pulled him into a closet and ravished him."

For a split second, a smirk appeared on Bones's face. Jim felt unduly accomplished. I'll get you to laugh at one of my jokes yet, he silently vowed.

When class ended, Bones predictably tried to melt into the crowd. Jim trotted after him. “Hey Bones, maybe we can go out drinking some time.”

Bones shot him an exasperated look. “This isn’t Uni, kid. This is the military, and you need to get your head out of the bottle,” he said bluntly.

“Pretty big words from the guy who was drunk on the shuttle ride here," Jim countered, smirking. "And I’ve got a name, you know,” he added.

“Don’t change the subject.”

Jim switched tactics. “Everyone needs some R&R. We could go on weekends. There’s a group heading to Sullivan’s Tavern this Friday night, hosted by some Fourth Class Cadets to welcome us newbies.”

“As if I want to go to a meet-and-greet,” Bones scoffed.

“Why not? These are people you’ll be spending the next few years with. Don’t you think it would be good to get to know them?” Jim said, entirely reasonably, he thought.

Bones stopped walking abruptly and turned to Jim, his eyebrows pinching in a severe expression. “I’m not here to ‘get to know people,’ I’m here to become a Starfleet Officer. So you can keep your bar-crawls to yourself.”

“Why can’t you do both, Bones?”

Bones opened his mouth, closed it, frowned at Jim unhappily, and then snapped, “Stop calling me that.”

Jim grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll see you Friday at Sullivan’s.”

Bones made a noncommittal grumbling sound as Jim left to attend his next class, Starfleet Regulations. He didn’t recognize anyone in this class, so he took a seat towards the back and pulled out his PADD, waiting for the instructor to arrive.

“You wear the suit well, Cadet Kirk.”

Jim jumped and looked up at Captain Christopher Pike as he waltzed by Jim’s desk. Jim’s jaw dropped as Pike, looking extraordinarily smug, tapped the podium loudly.

This was just Jim’s luck.

“At attention,” Pike said without raising his voice. Everyone in the room stood, hands tucked to their sides. “Welcome to Starfleet Regulations,” Pike began, speaking slowly and clearly. “Some of you are on the science track; some of you are command and some operations.” Pike’s eyes swept the room. “You come from all corners of the galaxy, from different walks of life, different cultures, different beliefs and ideals. Despite these differences, you now stand before me as one community. All of you are Starfleet Cadets on your way to becoming Starfleet Officers. You. Are. Starfleet. And as you all know, we have the very best, and we will expect the best of you.” He paused. “But I guarantee, from personal experience,” Pike’s gaze landed directly on Jim, “that you won’t achieve success unless you also expect the best of yourself.”

Jim, never one to back down from a challenge, held Pike’s gaze unwaveringly. But in the back of his mind he suddenly felt not only hungover but also a little guilty for said hangover, which was a first in his book.

“At ease, Cadets,” Pike said, and the large conference room echoed with the scraping of chairs as people sat down. Once the noise had dimmed, Pike continued. “This class is designed to teach you how to handle different scenarios with the finesse and expertise expected of a Starfleet Officer. You will learn the approved methods for handling cases of battle, diplomacy, and exploration.” Pike held up a tiny remote and writing appeared on the electronic board in large black lettering.

“Our number one rule,” Pike said, “known as the Prime Directive, is to not interfere with the development of a pre-warp civilization for any reason, even if…”

Jim leaned back in his chair, slumping down. Pike's eyes swept over him and he frowned slightly but continued his lecture uninterrupted.

After he dismissed class, Pike called over the noise of footsteps and shifting chairs, “Cadet Kirk, a word.”

Jim gritted his teeth, but said, "Yes, sir" and waited for the room to clear. After the last student had egressed, Pike walked around his podium and stared at Jim with an assessing gaze. Jim glowered back, not about to be bullied into speaking first when Pike was the one who had called him.

After a tense, silent moment, Pike motioned to the doorway. “Walk with me.”

Jim followed him out the door. As they walked, cadets and instructors alike stepped aside and stood at attention. Pike nodded to each of them as he passed. Jim, under the growing annoyance at having his lunch hour cut into, wondered if that ever got tedious. He decided that, when he got his own ship, he was going to make it a rule that people wouldn’t have to attend every damn time they had to get out of his way.

Pike finally stopped before a door labeled ‘C. Pike, Captain,’ printed in gold lettering on a matte black sign. He unlocked it with a press of his thumb on the fingerprint scanner and a quickly entered code. Kirk followed him into the room and glanced around.

Pike’s office was formal. Kind of boring, Jim thought uncharitably. The walls were bare except for a few plaques memorializing Pike’s rank and honors. Front and center of those plaques was the commission for the Fleet’s flagship, the USS Enterprise, entrusted to Pike after her completion. The room had an interesting smell, and Jim found the likely culprit for it against the left wall, tucked into the corner: a large bookcase filled with real, paperbound books. In grade school, Jim had been on a field trip to one of the few libraries left in existence, and recognized the same musky scent. A window on the back wall overlooked the restless water of the bay. The floor they were on was high enough to break through the low fog, and natural light spilled through the windowpanes to rest on the chair and desk in front of it. The chair was black leather with padded armrests, and the desk was a dark cherrywood. When Jim ran his hand over it he could feel the subtle grains indicating that it was real rather than synthetic.

“It was my great-great-grandmother’s,” Pike said when he noticed Jim admiring the desk. 

Jim glanced up at him but remained silent. “Have a seat,” Pike said as he sat in his desk chair and motioned to one of the armless chairs on the opposite side of the desk.

Jim settled into it at a leisurely pace. The lack of armrests was likely intended to make one feel off-balance, uncertain where to place one’s arms, but Jim wasn’t about to be beaten by such a basic psychological trick. He folded his hands neatly in his lap, looking unharried even as he internally braced himself.

Pike turned back and forth in his swivel chair slowly, assessing Jim, resting his face against one propped up hand. “How are you settling in, Kirk?” he finally asked.

Jim, who was not expecting that question, blinked. “Uh, fine, sir.”

“What courses are you taking?”

“I figured you’d already know, sir,” Jim said, and when Pike only smiled slightly, he said, “Obviously Starfleet Regulations. Also History of Starfleet, Astrotheory 101, Command Ethics, Weights. I opted to take a couple additional classes, Beginning Navigation and Basic Warp Design.”

To his credit, Pike didn’t ask if he could handle such a heavy workload, as Jim’s ignoramus of an academic advisor had. “A good line-up. Enjoying classes so far?”

“So far, so good,” Jim said warily.

“I’m glad to hear that. I like to know that my students feel they are getting something back from Starfleet, since they put so much of their time and effort into it.”

Jim remained silent, feeling that twinge of guilt again, but this time accompanied by a hot shock of anger. He never liked being manipulated.

Pike pivoted his chair a little more. “I see you’re serious about getting done in three years.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I approve, and I’d like to see you succeed. But there’s more to being an Officer than passing classes.”

Jim waited. Pike seemed to realize he wasn’t going to respond, so he continued in a falsely casual tone. “I heard some interesting rumors this morning, in particular about a blond cadet who was seen near campus last night getting drunk off his ass.”

And there’s the other shoe, Jim thought. “I don’t think it’s Starfleet’s business what cadets do on their off-time. Sir.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Pike said, and the chair stopped spinning as he pinned Jim with a direct gaze. “You ever heard of the term Gunnery Sergeant? It’s outdated nowadays, but it used to be the term for the man in charge of his squad. He made sure they had food, clothes, equipment, and that they stayed in line. If a soldier was caught acting out of turn, it was the gunnery who took the heat. And that command didn’t stop when the soldiers went home. If a soldier was pulled over for a DUI in his civies, guess who got a call? That’s right: the gunnery. And you know what he would do? You bet your ass he would go and chew that soldier out until he was blue in the face.”

Pike paused. Jim kept his gaze on the desk, couldn’t meet Pike’s eyes. His anger had melted away as Pike spoke, every word like a gale to snuff out the flame of Jim’s temper, leaving nothing but smoldering shame.

Pike leaned forward until he caught Jim’s eyes. “Cadet Kirk,” Pike enunciated, “are we going to need to have this conversation again?”

Jim swallowed hard and then looked up, straightening his shoulders. “No, Captain Pike. We won’t.”

Pike searched his eyes, then nodded, satisfied. “Good. I look forward to seeing your progress through Starfleet.” Jim looked away uneasily. “I have high hopes for you, Kirk.” Like a magnet, Jim’s eyes snapped back to Pike, who was smiling again. Pike tipped his head to the door. “Now go enjoy your lunch, Cadet. Dismissed.”

Wrong-footed, Jim stood. “Thank you, sir.”

“Oh, and Kirk?”

Jim paused in the doorway and looked back at Pike questioningly.

“Come see me here after your last class. I’ve got a new chess set I need to break in.”

Jim's smile was slow but genuine. “Yes, sir.”

When the door slid shut behind him, he stood still in the crowded hallway. People jostled by, and for an instant he didn’t know where he was going. Then he took a deep breath and smiled at the next person to walk by, a pretty brunette with dark eyes. “Hey, how’s it going, gorgeous? You know where the mess hall is?”

“Up your ass, like your head,” she said, not even pausing to look at him.

Jim grinned and trotted after her to apologize for being an ass, introduce himself properly, ask for directions again, and also get her comm info if possible.

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(,  ’ \)

The second thing Jim noticed about Bones was his kindness. It was a difficult thing to pick out if you only looked at the gruff exterior. But if you cared to look a little deeper, it was as obvious as day.

After the initial bumpy beginning, Jim settled into Starfleet like a hand into a glove. He had taken Pike’s words—and those of Bones, to a lesser extent—to heart. He still went out to drink and never missed a party, but he was far more controlled at such events than he had been back in Bumfuck, Iowa. No more bar fights for Jim Kirk. And to help prevent him from falling back into old habits, Jim brought along a trusty source of sobriety: Bones. This had the secondary effect of getting Bones to interact with people, which Bones was reluctant to do for some reason. The divorce, perhaps, Jim thought.

As for Jim’s integration into Starfleet, it wasn’t all roses and dandelions. He’d already met several people who didn’t think he had earned his way into Starfleet, like Uhura, who he’d passed in the hall once (she'd turned her nose up at his greeting). He wasn’t sure how it had gotten out, but it was common knowledge that he a) had a rap sheet and b) had skipped the usual application and initiation process to enlist. Anyone else with his record wouldn’t have been allowed to set foot on campus, but Pike had apparently pulled some strings to get Jim in. Now Jim had to prove it wasn’t just his name that made them overlook his shortcomings; that he was worthwhile in his own right.

So he joined a few study groups, a couple clubs, and generally made friends with any man, woman or non-gendered being he met. He was respectful and polite with instructors, and he made sure to give every class, even his general credits, due and diligent attention. After a week of this good behavior, the instructors stopped eyeing him with suspicion, and the students stopped looking at him as though he might suddenly demand their lunch money. Jim knew he still had plenty of naysayers, but the loudest of them had been stifled.

There was a problem, however. The material wasn’t all that challenging. There were some new words, some fancy math equations, but in the end Jim was able to puzzle it out and was left wanting, as though it should have been harder than it was. He expressed this to Bones once and was met with a shrug and a reminder that, “These are only the basics, kid. It’ll get harder.”

“It’s Jim,” he reminded him.

Then Jim received his first grade on a Starfleet Regulations essay.

After the class had emptied and Pike was left collecting his things, Jim threw his paper copy onto the desk right in front of Pike.

“72 percent?” Jim demanded hotly.

Pike continued packing, unruffled. “You disagree with your grade, Cadet?” he asked mildly.

“Hell yeah, I fucking disagree.”

Pike’s eyes landed on him. Even though it was only to tell him off, Jim was glad he had at least gotten Pike’s full attention. “As a member of Starfleet, you will always speak in a respectful manner to your fellow officers,” Pike said sternly.

Jim stared back mutinously. “Yes, sir.”

Pike shot him a look that said he noticed the lack of apology, but didn’t call Jim on it. He zipped up his leather messenger bag and folded his hands atop it. “Your grade reflects the potential you tapped. The loss of credit reflects that which you did not muster.” The corners of his mouth quirked and he nodded at the paper. “You can do a lot better than that, Kirk. For your next assignment, I expect to see what you’re truly capable of, not what the other instructors here will deem ‘excelling’ when compared to averages. I know you’re above average; I expect you to surpass yourself, not the curve.” Pike shouldered his bag. "I look forward to your next paper. Good Day, Cadet Kirk."

And he left the room.

Jim stood there, staring at the closed door, and then at the paper with a red 72 circled on the front.

Eventually, he found his way to the mess hall. When he got there, he spotted Bones already at a table and bee-lined over. Jim sat down silently and set his paper on the bench so he could continue staring at it.

When the silence dragged on, Bones looked up questioningly. “Something wrong? Usually I can't get you to shut up.”

Jim felt a slow smile stretch across his face as a giddy feeling ran through him. “I got a 72 on my Fleet Regs paper.”

Bones eyed him warily, like he had some extremely contagious disease. “And you’re…happy?”

“Uh-huh,” Jim agreed, still smiling.

“God help us all,” Bones muttered. But then he slid his half-full tray over to Jim. “Eat,” he ordered.

Jim eagerly dug in to the steak and mashed potatoes. He wasn’t paying much attention to the food, though. His mind was racing through the details that he could have added to his paper, and the ones he would use in future. Pike was right: that paper had been half-assed at best. He had called Jim on his bullshit, and raised the bar for him. And Jim could, and would, meet that challenge.

***

Midterms had just completed. Jim figured it was a great time to celebrate, and even more so because Bones had been in a shitty mood lately. He arrived at the med student barracks just as Bones’s roommate, Kevin Casey, was leaving.

“Hey, Kevs,” Jim greeted.

“Oh, hi, Jim.” Kevin smiled tiredly as he shrugged on his white coat. The Philipino man was in his mid-thirties and already had salt-and-pepper hair. Jim had chatted with him before, and found that Kevin, like Bones, was also a recent divorcee—it was one of the reasons they were placed together, since rooms were assigned based on compatibility tests.

“Where you off to?” Jim asked, even though the answer was obvious from the coat.

“I’m on duty tonight,” Kevin said predictably.

“Well, go break a leg—or fix one, definitely fix one,” Jim said. Kevin laughed and waved as he walked away, and Jim slipped through the open doorway before the door slid shut. He rapped his knuckles against Bones's bedroom door and pushed it open. Bones was sitting at the foot of his bed, typing away on his PADD and looking focused and grim—well, more grim than usual.

“Hey, Bones.” Jim collapsed on Bones’s bed, bouncing slightly. “Want to come out for a drink?”

“I’m busy,” Bones said shortly.

Jim groaned and threw his hands over his face. “You just finished your last midterm this morning!”

“What are you, stalking me?”

Jim ignored the jibe. “What’s so important it can't wait?”

“Research.”

Jim tried to read the tiny print on the PADD from where he lay. “Hey, isn’t that the stuff we were just learning about in History? During the Eugenics Wars?”

Bones tilted the PADD so that Jim couldn’t see the screen and didn’t answer. 

Jim didn’t pursue it. Instead, he whined, “Come on, Bones, it’ll be fun.” Bones didn’t budge. “Drinks on me,” Jim wheedled.

“Jesus, you’re like a dog with a bone,” Bones grumbled without looking up from his PADD.

“Or a dog with Bo-onez.” Bones closed his eyes as though praying for strength. Jim grinned. God, Bones was fun to wind up. “Hey, you like bourbon, right? I’ll get you as much of the stuff as you can handle.”

At that, Bones looked at him with an almost amused glint in his eye, like he knew something Jim didn't, but it quickly devolved into frustration. “Why are you still bothering me, kid?” he asked.

Here again were those odd not-quite-self-esteem issues, like he had seen on that first shuttle ride. “That’s not a no,” Jim observed gleefully.

Bones heaved a sigh and—SCORE!—put his PADD down and stood up, grabbing his jacket. He stuck a finger in Jim’s face. “You’re buying.”

“I said I would, didn’t I?”

As Jim sat up, he snuck a look at the PADD on Bones’s bed. It looked like a news article—it was old enough that the calendar date, rather than the star date, was etched in the top corner. In the other corner, the top edge of an old digital holo was visible, and beside that was the bold title Eugenics Plot Exposed—UAC To Be Shut Down.

Bones was a strange guy, sometimes.

They wound up at Sullivan’s, the nearest bar and the most popular amongst cadets for its close proximity to the Academy. The dance music was loud enough to hear from the street, the bass rumbling into Jim’s body before they set foot in the doorway. The place was packed with cadets who, like Jim, wanted to unwind after midterms. The air inside was warm and humid from body heat, and smelled as bars usually did: of alcohol, food, and the sweat of too many bodies packed into one room. Jim grabbed drinks at the bar, and then spotted a group of cadets in the corner.

“Hey, I know them, let’s go!” Jim said, and grabbed Bones’s arm to drag him to the table. “Mind if we join?” Jim asked of the party of four in the corner booth.

Nadia Forester, another Cadet First Class who was taking Astrotheory, grinned at Jim drunkenly. “Look who it is! Come on in, Kirk.” She slid sideways in the booth to make room.

Jim pushed Bones into the booth first and then squeezed in behind him. “This is my friend, Doctor Leonard McCoy,” Jim said, and introductions were made all around. Bones gave Jim an annoyed look but greeted the other cadets graciously.

That was what Jim didn’t get. Bones was a complete curmudgeon right up until he was actually forced to interact with anyone. Then he was unfailingly polite, and even seemed to enjoy the company. He was like an extrovert trying to masquerade as an introvert, Jim mused. Maybe it was some kind of self-punishment, or perhaps fear of intimacy after his divorce? Whatever it was, Bones needed to get over it, and if Jim could help by forcing Bones to interact with people then that was a part he would gladly play.

It was a little hard to follow the drunkenly meandering conversation, as the other cadets were already pretty far gone into La-La Land, so Jim put effort into catching himself and Bones up in blood-alcohol level. Five shots of Jack later, Jim was definitely feeling tipsy, and Bones was well on his way to being truly sloshed, having been steadily making his way through the promised bourbon. Jim was just starting a story about how his roommate Andy had managed to crash both their PADDs at the same time from a computer terminal in the library (weird story) when something nearby crashed and a distressed, “Oh my god!” was shouted above the music.

From here, it looked like a young woman at the bar had drunkenly fallen off her seat. But she wasn’t moving, even with her friend shaking her shoulders and shouting at her. Through the haze of alcohol, Jim felt a sinking sense of foreboding.

Before Jim could even begin to stand, Bones had pushed by him out of the booth and was halfway there, ignoring the confused concern of Nadia and the other cadets. Jim made his excuses and followed. He watched as Bones moved with surprisingly steady hands to check the woman’s pulse and temperature, all the while barking pointed questions at her friend, who looked suspiciously young to be in a bar. Jim had a feeling if he checked their IDs, he might find some tell-tale signs of forgery.

“What has she had to drink? How much?” Jim couldn’t quite understand the girl’s babbles but Bones apparently did because the next thing he said was, “Good god, you let her drink that? What in hell were you thinking?”

The girl started crying as Bones dialed the hospital. “Hello, this is Doctor Leonard McCoy with Starfleet Academy Medical; I need an ambulance at Sullivan's Tavern—”

The next thing Jim knew, they were loading the woman into the back of the ambulance. Bones was giving instructions to the EMTs on duty while Jim stood by, feeling useless. While the EMTs loaded the woman into the van, Bones put a hand on the hysterical friend’s shoulder and caught her gaze. “Hey, look at me. Breathe with me, okay? Deep breath through your nose, that’s it, and now out through your mouth. And another, that’s it, you’re doing great. It’s gonna be alright. They’re gonna get her to the hospital and pump her stomach, give her a little something to clean that alien shit out, and she’ll be fine.” His lips pulled into a droll, sympathetic smile. “Maybe a little hungry.”

The girl sniffled and took another shuddering breath, but smiled weakly.

As the ambulance zoomed away, sirens blaring, Jim was feeling fairly sobered. He turned to look at Bones, who was staring pensively at the back of the retreating ambulance.

“Always the doctor, eh, Bones?”

Bones seemed to snap out of whatever he had been thinking and shook his head lightly. “Well, somebody’s gotta patch you young idiots back up.”

The night air was chilly with fog, and further helped to sober Jim. He wasn’t feeling terribly festive anymore, and by mutual unspoken agreement they decided to call it a night and began the walk back to campus along the shoreline.

Although Jim felt mentally sobered, his body was still obviously under the effects of alcohol. He stumbled and weaved his way on the sidewalk. After a block Bones heaved a great, put-upon sigh and slung Jim’s arm over his shoulder. “Bumbling moron,” Bones muttered.

“You walk a pretty shr—stai—sss-tah-raight line for a guy ‘hoos been drinkin’ all night.”

“What can I say, I hold my liquor well.”

“So that kinda ended on a lous’ee note,” Jim said, slurring helplessly, “but didja leas’ have fun before that?”

Bones looked uncomfortable, like he had been having fun but didn’t want to admit it. He’d looked like this before when Jim had dragged him out for socializing.

“I knew it!” Jim shouted triumphantly, grinning, and watched from a handbreadth away as Bones gave him a quelling stare. “We’ll hafta do it again soon,” Jim said.

By the time they got back to the Stylus, Bones was almost fully supporting Jim.

“You should stay here tonight,” Bones said as they crossed the threshold into his rooms. Jim stumbled into the bedroom and struggled to open the fold-out wall unit beside Bones’s bed. Finally, the latch came free, and a couch unfolded, which Jim collapsed gratefully onto. He had convinced Bones to get the wall unit installed since Jim stayed over so much. It was parallel to the bed so that when it was down, the edge of the couch just brushed the mattress. It was a tight fit, but they managed. As they settled down to sleep, Jim glanced over at the bundled lump on the bed, close enough to touch.

“Well, this didn’ end exac’ly how I want—ed it to,” Jim tried to joke.

Bones grunted.

“…Wha’z up with you lately, man?”

Bones turned his head slightly, like he had been about to look at Jim but thought better of it. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“You jus’ seem…preoccupied.” The word slurred oddly. “Not even givin’ me any lip. Whud’re you thinkin’ ‘bout?”

“It’s nothing, kid. I’m just stressed.”

“But we jus’ finished midterms!” Jim protested.

“It’s not that. I just…don’t like hearing about all that crazy shit that happened a long time ago.”

Jim was puzzled for an instant, and then he remembered that they had been studying the Eugenics Wars and World War III in History of Starfleet. Suddenly the article he’d glimpsed on Bones’s PADD made more sense. “Oh,” Jim said eloquently. 

Bones was too empathetic by half, to be so strongly affected by things that had happened centuries ago. But…well, Jim reflected, maybe the world needed more people like him.

Just as Jim was drifting off, his drunken mouth opened itself and said, “That was nice, what you did for that girl.”

“She might have died, kid,” Bones said. “I did take an Oath, you know.”

“Naw,” Jim said. “I mean whatcha did for her friend.”

Bones shifted. “What did I do?”

Jim shrugged, a trickle of unease just barely piercing his inebriated mind, whispering that actually, no, he didn't want to talk about this. “You know…you let her know what was goin’ on.” Bones didn’t say anything. Jim sensed doubt in the silence, so he added, “It’s a hellulova lot more’n most would do.” Before Bones could reply, Jim yawned theatrically. “G’night, Bones!”

Jim rolled over, facing the back of the couch. He thought Bones might have turned to stare at him, but he tried to ignore the feeling of eyes on the back of his head. He instead thought of the medical personnel who had come to take him away from Tarsus. For all the belated aid they had provided, none of them had sat Jim down and explained anything to him. They had only looked at him and seen a child, and immediately assumed that this meant they had to “protect” him from the truth. In the face of his inquiries about what had happened to the others, and what was going to happen to him, they had tried to coddle him. Not a one of them had sat him down and spoken plainly, as Bones had done with that girl at the bar. It was always Not now, Jimmy and Let us worry about that, Jimmy. As if he was too incompetent to help, or too stupid to understand.

But Jim hadn’t really needed them to explain. He understood well enough. He understood that people were dying all around him, naturally and by each other’s hands. He understood that humans, when stripped of their comforts, were at heart fearful and selfish and greedy. And he understood that when it came to his wellbeing, he was alone. No one cared while he was on Tarsus, and no one cared when he got off. They sent him on his way with a pat on the back and a pitying shake of the head. You’re safe now, they had said.

Don’t bother looking for help, he had heard.

***

“Hey, Farmboy.”

Shit.

Jim turned, his face carefully blank.

The mess hall was crowded during lunch hour, the large space echoing with the chatter and laughter of hundreds of cadets. Standing behind him was the dick from the bar in Riverside, along with a couple of his pals, all of whom Jim had been hoping he would never run into on campus. Jim wasn’t exactly proud of the fight he had instigated at the bar back in Iowa, and he was trying to leave those days behind him.

Despite his resolve to turn over a new leaf, Jim was never one to be pushed around. He let his lips stretch into his jackass smile. “Heya, Cupcake,” Jim greeted cheerfully. “How’s your back coming along? Heard that table was never the same.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Jim could just see Bones’s eyebrow tick upward. He must have recognized enough of the references to guess who this was.

Cupcake looked smug. “That’s Crewman Hanlon to you,” he said, and Jim felt his stomach drop. Double shit. “Well?” Cupcake went on when Jim sat there tensely. “At attention, Cadet,” he ordered, pronouncing Kirk’s lower rank with relish. Behind him, another of the cadets (or crewmen, whatever) was smirking. Jim would recognize that shovel face anywhere. He was the one who had been repeatedly introducing Jim’s nose to his fist when Pike interrupted.

Much as it galled Jim to follow these orders, he had no choice as a member of Starfleet. The authority of rank was sacred.

Before Jim could ease his clenched muscles enough to stand, Bones suddenly said, “At ease, Cadet Kirk.”

Jim looked at him in surprise as Bones stood smoothly and faced Hanlon. “Crewmen,” he barked, “atten—hut!” 

His voice wasn’t overly loud, but was so commanding that all three of their spines stiffened reflexively. Hanlon got over the shock first, looking embarrassed and annoyed. “You’re a cadet, we outrank you,” he snapped.

“I,” Bones countered, “am a doctor. That makes me an officer, not enlisted. My official rank as a medical officer is Lieutenant.”

“But-but you’re in reds,” shovel-face said, sounding confused.

“Well observed, Crewman,” he drawled in a tone that implied sarcasm without actually using it. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I elected to attend the Academy to get another medical degree.” There was a moment of flabberghasted silence from the three Crewmen. Jim just stared at Bones, slack-jawed. “So, Crewmen,” Bones said, not with superiority or enjoyment as Hanlon had when addressing Jim, but just as a simple order, “I’ll say this one more time before I put a disciplinary mark on all your records: At attention.”

This time the three men complied, though their movements were noticeably reluctant and their expressions poorly hid resentment.

“Name and rank,” Bones demanded.

The three exchanged uneasy glances. “Hanlon, Crewman One,” Cupcake said, and the other two, Davis and Zhao, echoed him.

Bones pulled out his PADD and began typing as he went on: “Crewmen Hanlon, Davis and Zhao, all three of you are to report to the Academy Hospital for medical assessment at your earliest convenience, and not longer than a week.”

Again, Jim found himself mirroring the expressions of the crewmen, who were all looking non-plussed now. “Yes, sir,” they responded uncertainly, and then hesitated to move away from Bones’s piercing stare.

“Dismissed,” Bones told them.

As though they had been hares released from a trap, Hanlon and his crew scampered away.

Bones sat back down and returned to eating. A minute later, he said, “Close your mouth, kid.”

Jim snapped his teeth together painfully. “Bones!” Jim hissed in a stage whisper as he threw an arm over Bones’s shoulders and shook him excitedly. “That was awesome!”

Bones rolled his eyes.

“I didn’t know you were a Lieutenant! Jesus, I’ve been keeping better company than I thought.” Jim ignored Bones’s sarcastic “Thanks” and continued: “What was that about sending them to medical?”

That was avoiding a catastrophe down the line, hopefully,” Bones responded.

“You know what I love about you, Bones, is how clear you are,” Jim said pointedly.

Bones turned to look at him. “Kid, if I’m not mistaken, those were the guys who beat you up back in Riverside.”

“Hey now, I wouldn’t say ‘beat up,’ I wasn’t just sitting there—”

“And just now,” Bones went on, ignoring Jim, “what did they try to do?”

Jim’s jaw clenched. “Pull rank on me. What dicks.”

“They were being dicks,” Bones agreed. “But they specifically came after you. Why?”

“Um, revenge?” The Duh was implied.

“Exactly! They wanted revenge against you,” Jim almost felt insulted, “a first year cadet who once made fun of them in a bar. While drunk.”

“And beat half of them in a four-on-one fight while drunk,” Jim said proudly, then frowned when Bones sent him a quelling look.

“You’re not getting it,” Bones said. “Why did they need to come over and put you down now, months later? What do they have to prove?”

Jim shrugged. “Some people don’t get over stuff like that.”

“Yeah,” Bones said darkly. “That’s what’s got me worried.”

Jim stared at him, starting to see the outline of what Bones was getting at. “You sent them to medical,” Jim said slowly, “because you think they’re emotionally unstable in some way.”

“Took you long enough,” Bones teased—actually teased, wow, he’d never done that before. “But yes,” he said more soberly. “That little dominance display suggests lingering feelings of inadequacy. Feeling inadequate for a short time is normal—but for it to persist for this long, and drive them to revenge….it all points to an unhealthy mindset.”

“Pulling rank on me was just a symptom of a larger psychological problem,” Jim clarified.

“Yep,” Bones said. “The healthy man does not torture others—generally, it is the tortured who turn into torturers.”

“Carl Jung,” Jim said, staring at him.

Bones eyed Jim out of the corner of his eye, but showed no other sign of surprise. “Jung seems to have gotten it generally right. It’s a sad truth of life that it’s often the bullies who need the most help, rather than the bullied.” A hint of humor stretched his mouth. “Though I might make an exception in this case. I don’t think you could ever qualify as the bullied, but the rule still applies.”

Bones returned to his plate and lapsed into his usual silence. Jim tried to eat, but found himself looking at Bones every few seconds.

Eventually Bones took umbrage. “What?” he snapped.

Jim pushed his food around with his fork and then looked up, squarely meeting Bones’s eyes. “Bones,” Jim said seriously, “you’re—” He wasn’t sure how to complete that sentence: a kind soul; an insightful and caring person; a far better man than Jim. Finally, Jim just said, “I’m glad I know you.”

Bones blinked at him, looking stunned. Jim smiled and bumped their shoulders together before finishing his lunch, ignoring the occasional wondering glance from Bones.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

The third thing Jim noticed about Bones was that he was incredibly intelligent. There was certainly no lack of intellect in Starfleet, but Bones wasn’t just smart in the classic sense of the word, and he wasn’t just well-educated. He was also emotionally perceptive, frightfully analytical, and capable of turning problems inside-out to generate creative solutions. This mental acuity wasn’t something Jim recognized in a single encounter: it was a build-up of little things that lead to one of those epiphanies that you realize a second later wasn’t all that surprising, and was actually downright obvious, how could you not have seen that before?

History of Starfleet had progressed through the Eugenics Wars, World War III, First Contact with the Vulcans, the founding of the Fleet, and inevitably to the various highlights of recent history, including the disaster on Tarsus IV. They devoted an entire day to it, in fact. Jim was jumpy and distracted the week leading up to it. Now, don’t get him wrong—he’d faced his demons years before, come to terms with what had happened, assimilated and moved on, blah de blah blah. But that didn’t mean he liked being reminded of it, or hearing it talked about so casually, like it was just another chapter in the history books. He heavily considered skipping, but when he got up the morning of the class at the crack of dawn and watched the sun rise, he decided he was going to face it.

The instructor had a slideshow, with holos. Jim glanced at the first one and then couldn’t look at them. He didn’t want to remember the gnawing hunger like a bottomless pit at his core; the way his entire being yearned for the taste of cool, fresh water; how even dirt became edible after a certain amount of time. How eventually, it didn’t even register as hunger anymore, just as a bone-deep ache that seemed irremovable, tied to his very being. Jim sat tensely the entire class session, his shoulders hitched up around his ears, staring at his desk. Over the sound of his own heartbeat, he only made out a few words of the lecture—MASSIVE CROP FAILURE; FAMINE; THOUSANDS EXECUTED; STARVATION; KODOS VANISHED.

It was that last phrase that sent fury through him. Jim was a firm believer in karmic kick-back: if someone did something evil, they should feel the consequences. And Kodos had not gotten his comeuppance, not as far as Jim was concerned.

When class ended, he packed all his things up with jerky movements and slung his pack over his shoulder carelessly. His blood pounded in his ears with adrenaline, his hands shook with it, and his brain buzzed. He cycled rapidly through several ideas—find the nearest bar and drown the memories out, maybe find a willing body to release some tension—rent a hovercycle, or hell, just steal the first one he saw, and race it along the cliff edge overlooking San Francisco Bay—find an underground boxing ring, he’d heard about the results of the illegal fights from Greg over in medical—

A heavy, strong hand landed on his shoulder just before he got to the door. Jim immediately tried to shake it off, but the grip was solid. He turned and got up in Bones’s face, his nostrils flaring angrily.

Bones didn’t even flinch in the face of Jim’s aggression. If anything, he looked bored. 

If Jim were in a better mood, he might admire that. 

“Let’s go to your room, order some pizza, watch a movie,” Bones suggested, his light tone belying the iron strength of his hand, still on Jim’s shoulder.

And Jim realized that he knew. Given only a few small clues, Bones had figured it out.

Jim froze, and they stood that way, staring at each other from a handful of centimeters apart, Bones nonchalant, Jim wary and furious. Other cadets shuffled past them out the door, some giving them confused or curious looks. The room quickly emptied, leaving only Jim and Bones, still stuck in a staring match.

“I don’t need your pity,” Jim said stiffly, his head tilted forward like a bull about to go in for the kill.

“Believe me, Jim, pity’s the farthest thing from my mind.”

Jim would have scoffed in disbelief, but he was distracted by the unexpected use of his given name. In the short months that they’d known each other, Bones had never once addressed him by his real name, preferring to call him “kid." Jim had figured it was some sort of payback for calling him “Bones,” and had given up on getting Bones to call him by his proper name. So to hear it now was shocking enough to make him pause and take a second look at Bones.

Bones was watching him with an air of assessment, and Jim realized that the glow in his eyes wasn’t pity—it was respect.

“What sort of movie?” Jim asked.

“Comedy,” Bones said. “Definitely comedy.”

They watched a vid from the turn of the millennium, a little French affair called Amélie, and it was so quirky and unusual that as the story progressed, Jim found himself laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of the plot and characters, even as he empathized with their sometimes unfortunate circumstances.

At the end of the vid, Jim smiled over at Bones, and as he saw his own reflection in Bones’s dark eyes, he realized that the lingering shadows of Tarsus had been put back in their boxes, at least for now.

***

Bones had this habit of being reserved, which was confusing because Jim saw the way he looked at people with an almost palpable longing for company. For the hundredth time, Jim wondered if he was punishing himself for some unfathomable reason, or was afraid of getting burned again after his divorce. Jim figured he just needed to be eased into social situations, so he did what he could to get Bones out and interacting with people.

It was nearing the end of the fall quarter, and Jim and Bones had just entered the mess hall, bustling with the lunch crowd, when Jim saw her.

“So then I was like—oh, heeey, Uhura.”

She was walking by with a tray of food, her long ponytail swishing gently. Without sparing a glance at Jim, she said politely, “Doctor McCoy.”

“Miss Uhura,” Bones returned to her retreating back.

Jim gaped at him. “How did you two meet??”

“Hm, how might two cadets meet, I wonder? There’s just so many possibilities.”

Jim pouted. “How come she likes you and won’t give me the time of day?”

Bones snorted. “Well I don't treat her like a slab of meat, for starters.”

“I’m just trying to say hi.” Bones watched him through his eyebrows, and Jim felt himself start to fidget. He turned away to grab a tray. “Jesus, whose side are you on?”

“In this case, the lady’s,” Bones said without a hint of hesitation.

Moving down the buffet line, Jim said, “Maybe you should go after her, you can bond over insulting me.” Then Jim actually thought about that, Bones and Uhura together. “Oooh, yeah, you should totally go for her, that’d be hot.”

“No, thanks,” Bones said, grabbing a bowl of peas.

Jim looked at him assessingly. “Not your type?” When Bones just shrugged, Jim said, “Come on, man, you’ve gotta get back in the game sometime.”

“You sound like a self-help book written by a pre-teen.”

“Really? I thought it was worthy of at least a teenager. Figured that would be right on your level, what with all the angst.”

“Leave it, Jim,” Bones said warningly.

Jim was about to retort when he spotted a couple cadets he recognized from Starfleet Regulations. This worked better than an argument, he thought, and with a sneaky grin he pulled Bones over to their table.

“Rachel, Bianca! Mind if we join you?”

“Go ahead,” Rachel Matheson said. She was a tall, pale redhead with a smattering of freckles over her cheekbones. Bianca Pasternak, by contrast, was petite and hyper with smoky blue eyes that stood out against her dun skin. Jim grinned at them as he and Bones sat.

“Ooh, and who is this, Jim?” Bianca asked, running an appreciative eye over Bones.

Jim smirked. “Ladies, this is my good friend Doctor Leonard McCoy. Bones, meet Rachel and Bianca.”

Bones shot Jim a look that said Really??, but shook hands with the two women and offered a clipped greeting before starting in on his roast beef sandwich. Both Jim and Bianca were a bit disappointed that Bones obviously wasn’t going to be putting any effort into further interactions, romantic or otherwise, but were soon immersed in a debate about the non-interference directive and when it might be imperative to abandon it.

“Never,” Rachel said without hesitation.

“That was a fast conclusion,” Jim said pointedly.

“It’s the only conclusion. It’s the primary rule, Kirk. The Prime Directive stands aside for no one.”

“Okay, you let me know how that works out for you when you’ve got to decide between letting people die—or revealing that they’re maybe not as alone in the universe as they thought.”

“The rules are there for a reason. I know you love breaking them, Kirk, but it’s been proven time and again that interference almost exclusively leads to worse situations. Don’t forget what happened with the plants on Xenon 4 in the gamma quadrant.”

“That’s a terrible example,” Jim argued, “because it was such a stupid idea to begin with. I mean, come on, it should have been obvious that trying to balance the chemical composition of the planet with an alien species was a crapshoot. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about when there’s a serious problem that might kill a population of pre-warp intelligent beings and we could do something to stop it. If they died, everything they could have become and all the contributions to the universe they could have made would die with them. Think about it, all that wasted potential! We should be encouraging life wherever we find it, not abandoning it. Not when their deaths are so easily prevented.”

“If that’s your endgame,” Bianca piped up, “then you have to consider the ramifications it might have on population size. We can’t sustain an exponentially growing population.”

Jim opened his mouth to argue, but was shocked into silence when Bones said, “Those are the same arguments that were made centuries ago when space travel wasn’t possible and people were concerned that the earth’s resources wouldn’t be able to handle its increasing population. Look how right they were,” Bones said acerbically.

“He speaks!” Bianca said excitedly. She laced her fingers together in the air and rested her chin on them, batting her eyelashes ridiculously. Jim muffled a laugh into his sleeve. “Go on, handsome, tell me all about the universe’s limitless resources.”

Bones stared at her. “I didn't think it was possible, but you might be worse than Jim.”

“Hey!” Jim and Bianca protested in stereo.

“She makes a good point, though,” Rachel said. “The universe does have finite resources. We can’t keep every potentially sentient species alive indefinitely.”

“Finite in what sense?” Bones countered. “We’re not exactly short on space, considering that the known universe is increasing in size exponentially and doesn’t look to be stopping anytime soon. As far as matter goes, we know that vacuum fluctuation energy is providing new matter. And it’s not like we have a shortage of empty planets in the habitable zone. Hell, worse comes to worst, there are plenty of species intelligent enough to voluntarily decrease their reproduction, and natural selection will take care of the rest.

“The problem is more on the opposite side, of getting life to survive when the whole damn universe is slated to destroy it.” Bones leaned forward, gesturing with his hands like this was a lecture.“There's been all kinds of statistics thrown around, but even the most conservative estimates agree that at least one percent of Milky Way planets should be habitable. That's roughly 500 million planets in the 10% of our galaxy that we’ve mapped. Of those, only five million have life. And guess how many of those have intelligent life?” Bianca and Rachel glanced at each other. “One hundred. Out of 5 million.” Bones let that sink in for a few seconds and then concluded, “I’d say Jim’s right: we’ve got to support intelligent life wherever we find it. And if any of that life needs a little nudge to stick around, well, I can only say as a doctor that lack of action in the face of certain death is the same as murder.”

There was a long silence in which Jim tried to pick his jaw up from the floor. He had never heard Bones say so much in one go. Bianca broke the silence by pointing her fork at Bones and saying in a lofty manner, “You, sir, are a fucking treasure.”

“Well argued, Doctor,” Rachel said, “but I think you'll agree that we usually have too limited an understanding of any given planet to decide accurately whether interference will be helpful or harmful in the long run, particularly in regard to the vagaries of evolution and the definition of ‘intelligent.’”

Bones tipped his head to her. “That, I will concede.”

Jim threw his head back and laughed. Bones went back to his sandwich.

***

Pike’s office was really starting to grow on Jim. At first he had thought it was impersonal, but as he spent more time in it, and with Captain Pike, he realized that the spartan layout was a reflection of Pike’s personality. Everything was neat, well-ordered, utilitarian. The only bit of excess that Pike seemed to allow himself was the 3D chess set that he and Jim were currently using.

“Captain,” Kirk said as, after 15 minutes of thought, he finally made his next move. “Can I ask about the grade on my final paper?”

“Of course, Kirk,” Pike responded. “I’m surprised it took you this long to ask, to be honest. Your solution to the hostage situation was innovative, but I knocked off 8% because you neglected to go into any detail about the ethical implications of what you were proposing.”

“Really? I figured it was because what I suggested broke several Starfleet regulations.” Jim glanced up just in time to see Pike’s mouth twitch. 

Pike looked at the board for a few seconds before asking casually, “Do you know which Starship I first served on?”

Kirk shook his head absently, most of his attention on the board.

“It was the USS Marigold. Oh, you laugh, but back then it was considered top of the line, a real beauty. I was just a cadet myself; got stationed there for the summer as part of my Third Year Practical.” Jim glanced up momentarily, intrigued. “Captain Ramirez was at the helm; I remember she walked by me once in the halls and I forgot to attend. I was so nervous, thought I’d get a demerit, but she didn’t even notice.” Pike chuckled and shook his head. “I had already chosen to specialize in engineering, so I was working on warp coils most of the trip. I still remember being down in the bowels of the ship. To be honest, it was kind of miserable work, dark and a bit lonely. It’s what made me decide to switch my specialty to Tactics. I couldn’t stomach another Jeffries tube.”

Jim wasn’t even paying attention to the board anymore.

“Anyway,” Pike went on, “during my time there, we had an incident with a newly discovered sentient species. We’d somehow managed to insult them, and they attacked our ship. It damaged some of the warp coils near the Jeffries tube where an ensign and I were working. The tube collapsed ahead of me, trapping the ensign on the other side. I could hear an officer shouting at my back, ordering me to evacuate. According to Starfleet, I had only one choice: to follow orders from a superior officer.”

Pike leaned forward and moved a pawn decisively. He kept his hand on it as he looked up at Jim and said, “I didn’t.” He sat back and folded his hands on his crossed knee. “Instead, I opened a panel into an adjacent Jeffries tube and got around the collapse to the other side where the ensign was trapped. We escaped just in time; the tube caved right after.

“When we got out, the officer was waiting. He was ready to fail me on my Practical for insubordination. You know what I told him?” Jim shook his head, mesmerized. “I told him, ‘Sorry, sir, I couldn’t hear you.’” Jim laughed, surprised. Pike smiled. “I thought you might like that. But my point, Kirk, is that I learned a valuable lesson that day: that the rules are there to help us, but they can sometimes be a noose rather than a benefit. If I had followed them that day, they would have been the noose for Ensign Hughes.”

Pike leaned forward. “I don’t consider bending the rules to be an automatic fail in anything, because exceptional circumstances, by their very nature, demand exceptions. However,” he said, holding up a severe finger, “that doesn’t mean you should go around breaking the rules willy-nilly. The key to being a good leader is being able to tell which situations need the rules and which don’t, and then acting accordingly.”

Jim stared at the board pensively, not seeing the pieces anymore. He thought of all the times that he had broken the rules, and wondered for the first time how many of those instances it had been necessary. “How do you distinguish, sir?” he asked pensively.

“Starfleet says it’s experience, and that’s why rank is earned by service.”

Jim gave him a shrewd look. “But you don’t believe that, do you, sir?”

Pike tilted his head ambivalently. “While I agree that experience is certainly part of it, I also think that every great Captain has a natural intuition for these things, and that’s why only certain individuals are suited for such command,” he admitted. “This intuition is what allows them to make snap decisions in unusual circumstances where others would falter—and to generally be right.”

Jim pondered this for a time. “Captain,” Jim said, meeting Pike’s eyes, “when was the first time you had to make a command decision like that?”

Pike’s mouth twisted into an expression that Jim couldn’t name, and then he looked at the chrono. “A story for another time, I think,” Pike said. “I’ve got a meeting at 1800.”

Disappointed, Jim said, “Of course, sir,” and grabbed his red jacket. “I’ll see you next month?”

“Sounds good, Kirk,” Pike said, moving to grab his own jacket and his PADD. They both stepped into the hallway and Jim set off down the hall in the opposite direction of Pike. “Oh, and Kirk?” Jim turned back. “Give Doctor McCoy my congratulations on his publication,” Pike said before he strode away.

“Uh, will do, Captain,” Jim said confusedly, not knowing what he was referring to. On the way to the mess hall, he pulled up scientific journal databases. He found an article in the journal Neurosurgical Techniques, published two days ago, entitled: A novel interspecies technique to generate white matter tracts between endogenous and grafted cerebral cortex tissue. The only author listed was McCoy, LH.

Jim started reading it while he grabbed food. It was heavy on medical jargon and he didn’t understand a lot of it, but he got the basic concept.

“Hey, Kirk, want to sit with us?”

It was Kevin Casey, Bones’s roommate, with several other cadets in blue medical scrubs. “Yeah, sure. Hey, have you heard about this paper?” he asked, holding up the title on his PADD.

Before Kevin could answer, one of the other cadets, a tall guy with purple highlights in his blond hair, said, “Who hasn’t?” When Jim just looked confused, he pointed at the title. “That technique is beyond complicated, and the bastard designed it all by himself! Do you realize how rare single-author papers are? And he’s only a cadet.”

When Jim looked to Kevin for confirmation, he smiled wryly. “Greg is right. It’s been making waves here at Starfleet, at least in the medical field. I get people coming up to me at work and asking me about McCoy just because I’m his roommate, wanting to see if I can arrange a meeting and whatnot. He’s practically a celebrity.”

“I heard he’s getting transferred across the bay,” Greg said, meaning Starfleet Medical. “Lucky bastard.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it. It was a beautiful paper,” said Caasi Srour, another medical cadet who Jim recognized as Bones and Kevin’s neighbor.

“I thought the best feature was the species conservation,” a fourth cadet said. Jim thought her name was Aurora. She had a sparkle of professional excitement in her eye as she continued, “Did you watch the supplementary videos? He performed it on that first human patient, and then when the Board saw how effective it was, they approved McCoy to do it on an andorian, a tellarite, and even a vulcan.”

“And they’re notoriously dismissive of human brain surgery techniques,” Caasi agreed.

“I just don’t know where McCoy finds the time,” Greg said. “I feel like I’m up to my eyeballs in classes and hospital shifts, but he still manages something like this.”

“He must have been working on it for years,” Caasi said.

Jim, who had been listening while he skimmed through the article and supplemental materials, said, “But the vids are all dated to within the last few months, since Bones joined Starfleet.”

“Bones?” Greg said, sounding confused, but Caasi had heard Jim use this moniker before and responded, “No one invents an entirely new neural grafting technique in a few months.”

Kevin made a non-committal sound.

Caasi’s azure eyes zeroed in on him like a hawk on a mouse. “What do you know, Kevin?” she demanded.

“Well, not much,” he demurred, pushing his food around his plate.

“Come on, McCoy’s practically a recluse, he's barely said two words about it,” Greg said, leaning forward eagerly. “Spill!

Kevin looked uncomfortable, but said, “Well, it’s just that I think maybe he…invented it during the surgery? No, no, hear me out. You remember how that first surgery was the talk of the hospital for a while?”

“Yeah,” Aurora said, all three of the med cadets hanging on Kevin’s every word. “Everyone said the surgery had been going downhill, and then McCoy turned it completely around.”

“Right, well, I was curious how he managed, so I asked McCoy about it afterwards, and he said that the patient wasn’t responding to standard neural regeneration techniques and their oligodendrocytes were rapidly degrading, and he just…saw a different way of doing it.”

They all stared at him incredulously.

“So he did,” Kevin finished lamely.

There was a brief, awe-struck silence, and then Caasi whistled and said, “Damn. Talk about raising the bar.”

The med cadets spent the rest of the meal discussing the procedure, exclaiming over its myriad applications. Jim listened silently as he ate. If this was such a big deal, why hadn’t Bones said anything? He didn’t strike Jim as the bragging sort, but this was going a little far, to not even mention it. Was this Bones’s weird not-esteem-issues issues?

The next day at lunch, Jim found Bones in the mess hall, alone as usual. “Hey, Bones!” Jim plunked onto the seat beside him and leaned an elbow on Bones’s shoulder, which wasn’t easy considering they were of a height. “Sooooo,” he said casually, “anything new going on lately?”

Bones shrugged, conveniently displacing Jim’s elbow in the process, and continued eating his casserole. Small wonder he was called a recluse.

Jim swirled his spaghetti around his fork tines. “Anything at all? No? Well, Captain Pike wanted to congratulate you.”

Bones quirked an eyebrow at him.

Jim hid a grin. “On your recent publication. Something about neural grafting, basal forebrain-cortex connections, groundbreaking medicine, ringing any bells?”

“Oh, that.”

Jim’s eyes widened incredulously. “Oh, that?”

Bones looked grumpy suddenly, like Jim had ruined his day by bringing it up. “Look, it’s no big deal. There was a patient who had a unique problem, and I found a fix.”

“Wait, wait,” Jim said, wanting to hear it from the proverbial horse’s mouth, “are you saying you not only invented a technique that puts anything in the same field to shame, but you also did it on the spot during brain surgery?”

“You’re making me blush,” Bones deadpanned. “Can we just shut up about it? It’s getting enough attention from the enamored masses, I don't need this from you, too.”

Jim stared at him. “Right. Sure.” Jim turned back to his food, taking a few bites of his spaghetti. Bones eyed him suspiciously, like Jim was a disobedient dog that would start barking again as soon as you turned away.

Jim waited until Bones had completely relaxed and gone back to his meal before saying, off-handedly, “It was a pretty cool technique.”

Bones tensed up a little. “Thanks for your expert opinion, I’ll be sure to cite it in my next article.”

Jim ignored him. “So what lead to your big breakthrough? What was your thought process during the surgery?”

“Why are you so interested?" Bones said snippily. "It’s not exactly your area.”

“No,” Jim agreed, “but you’re my friend.” He met Bones’s startled eyes when they flashed up to him. “And I like to know when my friends publish ‘groundbreaking techniques’ so I can take them out for a congratulatory drink, and then make sure they get drunk and make a fool of themselves so they don’t get a big head.” Bones snorted, as Jim hoped he would. “So, what do you say to this Friday?”

“Yeah, alright,” Bones agreed, more easily than he ever had before.

Jim grinned.

***

It was midway through winter break. While Jim usually preferred to use his free time to hit the bars, today he wasn’t feeling very sociable. It was the anniversary of the Kelvin, and Jim’s birthday.

So instead, Jim found himself a quiet corner of the grounds behind the Science Building, where people rarely came by, and settled down to read Pike’s dissertation on the Kelvin. This was part of his usual ritual, the only way he knew how to celebrate his birthday: look for new information on the mysterious circumstances surrounding the appearance of an unidentified ship, the easy destruction of a state-of-the-art Federation vessel, and the death of his father.

He was almost finished with the dissertation when the sound of footsteps on gravel caught his attention. Jim looked up as Bones, of all people, came around the corner of the building, and felt his heart sink.

He tried to put on a smile, though by the look on Bones’s face he was failing miserably. “Oh, hey, Bones. What’re you doing here?” he asked to buy time, trying to decide how to get away. 

Then his thoughts tripped a little and he wondered just what Bones was doing here. This was completely out of the way of the hospital.

Oh God, Jim realized, he must have been looking for me. And…yep, there was a package in his hands.

Jim hated getting gifts. He was more a giver than a receiver, didn’t like having to fake enthusiasm he didn’t feel. Also, getting presents on the day his dad had died in a desperate kamikaze-style attack was pretty shitty.

But then Bones surprised Jim by tucking the package against his side securely and saying, “I was just doing a favor for a classmate. He needed some equipment from the hospital for an experiment.”

Jim blinked, and then blinked again. “You’re…doing…well, uh, don’t let me hold you up.” And don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

“Yeah. Talk to you later. And for God’s sake, put this on before you freeze,” Bones added, and threw his red jacket at Jim as he walked by.

The jacket landed on Jim’s head, and by the time he sorted it out the door was sliding closed behind Bones. Jim shrugged the jacket on, insulating himself against the bite of a cold San Francisco winter evening and feeling the warmth from Bones’s body heat penetrate all the way through his chest.

Later, Jim realized that Bones could have just walked in the front entrance of the science building instead of going all the way around and using the back door. A spontaneous smile broke out on his face when he thought of that, and he decided to bring dinner and booze when he returned Bones’s jacket.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

The fourth thing that Jim noticed about Bones was that he disappeared at odd times, and no one knew where he went.

Naturally, Jim took this as a personal challenge to a game of cat and mouse.

He started studying Bones’s schedule. Bones had three main haunts: his classes, the hospital, and his room. In each case, there were plenty of witnesses to testify that he had been present—other cadets, nurses and doctors, and his roommate Kevin, respectively. But there were the odd times when Bones couldn’t be found at any of these three places, and no one knew where he had gone. In fact, they usually assumed he was at one of the other places.

It was the long winter break that exposed these disappearances to Jim, and made him realize that they occurred quite often. He had gone over to Bones’s room the night after Jim’s birthday, with the self-imposed promise of beer and Thai food. Instead of the scowling doctor, he had been met with Kevin, whose dark hair was rumpled as though he’d been sleeping.

“Sorry, man, didn’t mean to wake you.”

Kevin yawned and waved a hand to dismiss his apology, and Jim suddenly couldn’t understand why anyone would divorce such an amiable guy.

“He has clinic,” Kevin informed Jim, already knowing what he was there for. “Double shift, he said.”

Jim thanked Kevin and left disappointed. Then he shrugged, brightened, and decided that he would pay Bones a visit at the hospital. He had never seen him in his doctor get-up before, except when he was getting off a shift. It might prove amusing.

After dropping off the food and drinks in his room, Jim hopped a pod across the bridge to Starfleet Medical and asked to see Doctor Leonard McCoy. He was summarily informed by the harassed-looking front desk clerk that McCoy had gotten off shift two hours prior.

Jim frowned in confusion. “Did he say where he was going?”

“Not to me,” she snapped. “Next!”

Jim was hustled out of the way by the next person in line. He huffed and began walking the halls, asking various nurses and doctors if they were familiar with Doctor McCoy. He was finally directed to the surgical unit, and there he was informed by one of the interns that Bones had said he was going to the library.

Jim headed to the library in confusion. Classes were out, what was Bones doing there? And besides, Bones hated the library. Months ago, Jim had invited Bones to come study with him there. Bones had refused on the grounds that libraries had too many people trying to be quiet and failing miserably, and why would he want to be surrounded by other people while he was studying? It was distracting and pointless, he said. He conveniently didn’t mention that he and Jim frequently studied together. Jim pretended not to notice.

At the time, Jim had shrugged it off as one of those “Bones Things.” So why was Bones there now?

It ended up being a dead end. Bones was nowhere to be found at the library, and the librarian didn’t recognize his ID holo when Jim flashed it to him. Jim left the building feeling frustrated and confused, a combination he abhorred. He tried calling Bones, but his comm went unanswered.

Jim had to give up after that. He went back to his room and tried to enjoy a cold beer while he watched old reruns of some sitcom that was ten years old.

He woke with sunlight on his face, creeping through the middle of his curtains that never seemed to close all the way. His roommate was still asleep, curled up under his sheet with his pillow over his head. Jim stretched, his back popping, and then took a quick shower before surfing the interweb, reading up on a few of his many interests. There was a new warp engine design for the up and coming flagship, the Enterprise, and Jim immersed himself in the engineering layout of the nacelles. Not all of the specs he was looking at were strictly available to the public, but, well, when Jim was curious, he did whatever necessary to satisfy that itch.

Later that afternoon, his stomach protested loudly. He checked the chrono and then got up to get changed and freshen up. Perhaps he’d go check on Bones, see if he was back, ask where he’d been, and then talk him into pizza.

The walk to the medical barracks in the cool evening air was pleasant, especially after an entire day spent indoors. Jim waved to a few people he knew from classes, but didn’t stop to chat—his protesting stomach spurred him on.

His first knock on Bones’s door went unanswered, so he pounded on it, suddenly wondering if something had happened to Bones, maybe he’d been mugged on his way back from the hospital, or had a heart attack or something (the man was asking for it, really, with his constant bitching)—

But then Bones, in the flesh, answered the door, rubbing grit out of his eyes.

“Were you asleep?” Jim asked incredulously.

“Late night,” Bones said, voice scratchy with sleep as he stood aside for Jim to come in.

Jim let the door snick closed behind him and studied Bones. He was wearing a loose, long-sleeved shirt and gym shorts, and there were deep circles under his eyes. His normally well-kept hair was disheveled.

When Bones noticed his scrutiny, he turned away and walked back to his bedroom. Jim followed.

“So where were you last night?” Jim asked casually as he took the desk seat.

“Mmgh, hospital. Double shift.” Bones yawned and collapsed on his bed, flinging an arm over his eyes.

“That’s funny,” Jim said, “’cause when I checked at the hospital, they told me you left at six.”

Bones’s pause was momentary. “Yeah, that was the end of my double—then I went to the library.”

“I thought you hated the library.”

“I do, but,” Bones shrugged his shoulders against the sheets without moving his arm from his eyes, “needs must. The stacks are invaluable for research.”

Damn, Jim hadn’t checked the stacks. But Bones didn’t know that, and if he was lying…well, Jim enjoyed a well-planned gamble. “I checked the stacks and couldn’t find you there either,” Jim lied smoothly. “Where did you go, Bones?”

Another long silence, and then Bones turned his back to Jim and said, “You must have missed me.” Before Jim could retort, Bones said, “I’m tired. Why don’t you take off so I can get some shut-eye.”

Jim studied the lines of Bones’s back, the way faint trickles of light leaked through the closed blinds to cast a dappled pattern over Bones’s body, making it appear jagged and distorted like broken glass.

“Sure,” Jim said quietly, and got up to leave before noticing Bones’s PADD sitting on his desk. Casting a quick glance at Bones’s turned back, Jim touched the darkened screen. It lit up and Jim quickly scanned the page. He wasn’t an expert, but he was pretty sure that he was looking at a genetic sequence.

He tapped it twice to put it back in sleep mode before leaving. And if he closed the door a little harder than strictly necessary, Bones never mentioned it. In fact, by the next day, he was back to his usual self, grumpy and brooding and ready to complain about anything Jim brought up.

Jim eventually decided everybody needed a little space sometimes, and maybe Bones just valued his more than most. He stopped dwelling on the matter, but couldn’t put it out of his mind completely. It hung on the periphery of his memories, and crept back to the front any time Bones couldn’t be found where he said he was going to be.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

The fifth thing that Jim noticed about Bones was that he had an uncanny, almost sixth sense for recognizing danger. At first Jim didn’t notice it. It could have been isolated events of luck, like the time Bones’s innocent question about the food content had stopped Jim from eating an ingredient that he was particularly allergic to. Or it could have been good timing, like when Bones had hastily steered Jim away from a woman he’d been flirting with at the bar just before her mountain of a boyfriend returned from the bathroom. (What? How was he supposed to know?) 

So yes, Jim didn’t notice it at first—not until he lost his barracks at the tail end of his second quarter.

It was a high-stress day for everyone, finals right around the corner and all the major term projects due. Jim and Bones had just finished lunch and were heading over to Jim’s room to study, a practice that Bones didn’t even try to complain about anymore, as Jim was actually a good study partner, thank you very much.

As they were entering Jim’s room, Jim was telling Bones a funny story about one of his earliest bar crawls, back when he wasn’t yet of legal drinking age. He was just getting to the good part about the biker gang when he realized that Bones wasn’t paying attention. Bones was glancing around Jim’s room, his nostrils flaring as his brow furrowed.

Jim laughed as Bones’s nose wrinkled. “What’s with that face, man? My gym socks don’t smell that bad.”

“No, it’s—” Bones started to say, and then he suddenly froze, his whole body going taut, eyes wide. “Jim, get into the hallway,” he ordered, voice authoritative.

“What?”

“I said MOVE!” Bones suddenly barked as he slammed the door open.

Jim scrambled out into the hall, almost on tiptoe, startled by Bones’s sudden intensity. “Bones, what the hell—”

Bones completely ignored him and instead ran down the hall, flipped open the emergency cover by the stairwell, and pressed the red button. Then he ran back to Jim as an obnoxiously loud alarm began blaring, BEEEEEP, BEEEEEP, BEEEEEP, BEEEEEP. Doors up and down the hall were opening, disgruntled cadets poking their heads out into the hallway.

“What’re you waiting for?” Bones bellowed to the hallway at large. “Get the hell out of this building before it blows!”

That instigated movement. The hallway was suddenly flooded with people, exclamations of shock and confusion filling the short silences between the alarm claxons.

“Bones, WHAT is going on?” Jim yelled over the noise.

Bones set a hand in the middle of his back and pushed him toward the stairs. “Go, I’m right behind you! Get as far away from the building as possible!”

Jim was swept up in the crowd pushing and pulling in the stairwell, and lost sight of Bones. When he eventually stumbled outside, he extricated himself from the crowd and turned in every direction, trying to find Bones.

“Jim!” someone shouted. It was Bianca, who roomed two floors above him, just exiting the northwest stairwell amidst a flock of cadets.

“Bianca,” he said, running over to engulf her small frame in a hug and then rubbing her arms soothingly because she looked spooked. “Hey, you’re okay, you’re alright.”

She gripped his forearms, smoky blue eyes wide with fright. “Jim, is it really a gas leak?”

“Who said that?” Jim asked.

“Your hot friend, the doctor,” she said, and Jim felt his heart pound. “He’s knocking on doors, getting the students to leave faster, and I heard him on his comm, telling them to turn off the gas-lines to the building immediately.”

“Jesus,” Jim said, and looked up at the towering building. If it was a gas leak, and Bones was running around like a self-sacrificing idiot in there…

More people were streaming out of the building now, cadets Jim recognized from the uppermost floors. It was unusual to see a building cleared so fast, even in Starfleet. People tended to drag their feet, thinking it was a false alarm.

“Jim, I need to find Rachel,” Bianca said, and like that she disappeared into the throng of people now milling on the lawn in front of the building.

Just when Jim was getting ready to go in after Bones, the man himself appeared at the stairwell. Before Jim could snag his attention, Bones was shouting, “Everybody clear the area! Clear the area!”

Some of the cadets listened and moved across the grounds, but others were starting to look resentful at being ousted from their study sessions when finals were right around the corner, and just shuffled about the lawn like angry penguins. Bones pursed his lips at this, but set an example by jogging away from the Bridgestone at a quick pace. Jim immediately followed.

“Hey, Bones!”

“Jim!” Bones noticed him and slowed down for Jim to catch up. “You idiot, I told you to get out of here—Fuck!

Bones suddenly tackled him to the ground, landing on him heavily enough to push the breath out of Jim’s lungs, and covered Jim’s ears with his hands. Before Jim could register anything but the chill of the damp lawn, several things happened in the span of a second: a concussive force washed over them, followed rapidly by a wave of superheated air, raising a prickle of sweat over every inch of his skin. Jim’s entire body buzzed and it felt like someone was reaching inside him, grabbing and twisting his innards. Then it happened again, this time in the opposite direction, the air rushing back like the tide. Under Bones’s body, Jim was largely sheltered, but the rushing air still ripped at his hair and clothing like gale force winds. A belated, loud BOOM echoed across the campus, audible even through the protection of Bones’s hands.

His ears felt like a hollow cave with wind blowing through it, but Jim faintly heard, next to his ear, Bones coughing wetly and then spitting onto the ground. Jim turned his head and saw a shine of red against the green grass, and this broke him out of his stupor and sent him straight into panic. He struggled under Bones’s suffocating weight, only able to take small, desperate breaths, but Bones didn’t budge. Jim tried to look over his shoulder, and could just hear him shouting into his comm, “—send immediate emergency personnel, dammit!”

Then, still pressing him into the ground, Bones leaned down and murmured in Jim’s ear, “Shh, it’s okay, calm down, Jim. I want you to take small breaths through your mouth, that’s it, keep ‘em comin’, good. You’re experiencing a blast injury from the pressure wave, which will affect all your air-filled organs, make them prone to rupture. Now, I’m going to sit up, but I want you to stay down and keep taking slow breaths.” Bones's weight disappeared then, and Jim heard a tricorder humming above him. “Good, looks like I got the air out of your lungs quick enough to avoid a pressure buildup there, and your ears seem fine too, but your kidneys and intestines aren’t very happy. No hemorrhaging, at least. ” He sighed and pocketed the tricorder. “I can’t do anything more without supplies, but I need to go help the others.” His hand landed on Jim’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. “Wait here for the medical vans,” he ordered before he was up and running toward the Bridgestone.

Jim turned his head, body aching, and stared in dizzy shock and awe at the destruction. The explosion had blown a gaping hole, five stories wide, in the western-facing side of the building, and flames leaped and danced within. Crumbling masonry and brick fell away from the ragged edges of the hole, starting small fires where it landed. The windows were blown out, glass thrown dozens of meters across the Academy grounds, and thick black smoke billowed out of them. The bodies of cadets littered the lawn, some just beginning to stir, others forebodingly still. Bones was darting around the lawn checking the downed cadets. The air, already thick with dust from the destroyed building, was now filling with smoke as well.

Blood pounded in Jim’s ears, but it wasn’t like the thrill of getting into a bar fight, or skimming along a cliff-edge. He had no control over the situation unfolding, no ability to stop the raging fire. His lungs drew breath after breath—small, Bones had said, but it didn’t feel like enough, he couldn’t get enough air, and his chest was heaving now. It was like Tarsus all over again, except instead of slow starvation followed by a gruesome and unrelenting genocide, this was sudden, adrenaline-spiking, terrifying.

The thought of Tarsus, of all the people who had stood by and did nothing, knocked something loose in Jim. He closed his eyes and focused on getting his breathing under control. Mouth open, small breaths, just like Bones had said. Once he had control back, he opened his eyes and slowly lifted himself to his hands and knees, then to his feet. He teetered dangerously for an instant, and then gritted his teeth and locked his knees. At least he could do this, he thought, and found his center again.

He took in the entire situation laid out before him, the downed cadets strewn across the lawn around the burning building, the people pouring out of other buildings to stare at the fire. These last, Jim turned to, looking for a familiar face.

“Hey, Faisal!” A dark-haired man jumped and looked at him, his eyes wide and scared. Several other people turned to look also. “Come on, let’s get in there, they need help!”

This call to arms seemed to snap several people out of their trances, and a score of cadets flooded onto the lawn to help the injured, Jim at the lead. “Tell them to take small breaths,” he shouted to his band of helpers. “And don’t move them unless you have to! There could be internal damage, so wait for medical teams!”

After that it was a blur of soot and burned flesh and bodies, hands grabbing and people sobbing in pain and fear. At some point a fire truck roared around the corner, sirens blaring, and firefighters spewed out of it. They began spraying the building with fire-dousing chemicals. Before long, the fires were entirely put out, though smoke continued to rise into the sky.

By this time, several ambulances had arrived, and EMTs were rushing from body to body, triaging. Jim glanced around for Bones as he helped carefully move another cadet onto a stretcher, but Bones wasn’t on the lawn anywhere. Maybe he had boarded one of the ambulances and gone to the hospital to help with incoming patients.

Just then the front door of the building, which was relatively intact, crashed open and Bones stomped out, a limp body over his shoulders in a Fireman’s carry. Bones’s red jacket was stretched over the unconscious cadet’s back. Not only that, Jim realized as he ran over, but Bones was also dragging a long, flame-retardant blanket rolled up like a rug, and Jim could just see a foot poking out the trailing end of it.

“Bones! Jesus, let me help you,” Jim said as he arrived, and took the blanket from Bones.

“Jim!” Bones said thunderously, looking outraged. “You’re not supposed to be up! Do you want to start bleeding internally? Give me that!” He tried to wrestle the blanket back from Jim and only half-succeeded, and together they began pulling it quickly across the lawn, Bones still toting a cadet over his shoulders.

Jim was sweating and shaking by the time they got the blanket to an ambulance, and watched as Bones gently laid the body he’d been carrying on a gurney. Jim flipped open the blanket and was astonished to find not one but two cadets wrapped up like burritos, both with major burns. When one of the EMTs came over with an anti-fire chemical to work on the gurney cadet, Bones slapped his hand away.

“You moron, he’s a Denobulan! Put tricocedine anywhere near him and he’s liable to go into anaphylactic shock.”

The EMT gave Bones an affronted glare. He looked at the unconscious cadet—his face was cut up beyond recognition, probably from a blown out window. There was no way to tell if that was a ridge there or a bit of severed skin. “How do you know?” the EMT asked what Jim was wondering.

“Dammit man, because I’m a doctor!” Bones made a frustrated sound. “We don’t have time for this, he’s already going into shock. Check his heartbeat if you want proof, but you better get some good old-fashioned water on him before these burns become third degree! And he’s got a ruptured lung, get him on a ventilator.”

Bones turned back toward the building, a wild light in his eyes that Jim had never seen on him before, but that he recognized instinctually. It was the same look Jim himself must have worn for a good part of his life, the feeling like itching under his skin, like he couldn’t find peace. Before Bones could do something stupid, Jim gripped his forearm, digging his fingers in. “Bones,” he hissed, and stepped in front of him when that didn’t get his attention. “Bones, look at me!” he commanded.

Bones swung his fevered gaze on Jim, but he wasn’t seeing him—his focus was still on the burning building.

“You can’t go back in there,” Jim enunciated carefully.

“Jim, there are others in there. I can help them!”

“The building is about to come down!” Jim argued, planting his feet firmly in Bones’s path.

Bones turned his gaze back to the barracks, and frustration appeared on his face, deeply grooved into the lines around his mouth. After some kind of internal debate that Jim couldn’t fathom, he closed his eyes in resignation, his shoulders slumping. 

Jim released his arm carefully. Bones let it flop to his side, and he slowly turned his back on the condemned barracks, his head bowed as if in penance.

“Bones,” Jim said quietly, and hesitantly put his hands on Bones’s shoulders. He gently steered him to the two people wrapped in the flame-retardant blanket. “They still need your help.”

“Right,” Bones said, sounding lost, and then his shoulders squared and he repeated more strongly, “Right.” He knelt down and started checking the unconscious cadets over.

As Jim had predicted, the building chose that moment to destabilize, starting from the still-smoking top floors and collapsing inward. A shudder ran through the ground that Jim could feel in his bones, like a sonic boom, all the way across the grounds. Thankfully, it seemed the Bridgestone had at least been built to stand up to such quakes, and it didn’t topple. But one of the walls did collapse under the pressure, and the guts of the top and middle floors spilled out, some of it still aflame.

It hit Jim, then, that his room had been on one of those floors, and all his stuff was probably flattened to ash by now. His legs suddenly collapsed, folding him to his knees on the grass. He checked his pockets: all he had was his wallet and his PADD, which had most of his important information, thankfully. And Andy, what about Andy, had he been in the room? Oh god, what if he hadn’t gotten out?

Jim wasn’t sure how long he sat there. He came out of his daze to someone shaking him. “Jim? Jim, I need you to look at me, alright?” Bones shone a flashlight in his eyes, and Jim wondered where he had gotten it. Then he ran a tricorder over Jim. “By some miracle you haven’t started hemorrhaging, but you have pulled quite a few muscles. You feelin’ the burn yet?”

“No, not—“ Jim suddenly realized that he hurt, all over, like he’d just gone twelve rounds with Cupcake and his gang. “Urg, maybe a little.”

“That’s what I thought. Adrenaline dulls the pain, lets us pull off feats of strength we wouldn’t normally be able to, but at the cost of pushing the body past its natural capabilities. And you experienced some mild blast injuries before this.” Bones tucked his tricorder away and sat back on his heels, elbows on his spread knees. “I recommend a muscle relaxant, but no painkillers, at least not for the first week. If you start to experience any abdominal pain, or anything else unusual, don’t assume it’s benign, just go to Medical immediately. Stay active, but take it easy, nothing strenuous.” When Jim complained on reflex, Bones added, “You should count your lucky stars: I think all you’ll have to deal with is some residual pain and muscle spasms for the next week or so. Here,” he handed him a card. “It’s got my room’s passcode on it. You can crash at my place until they relocate you. I’ve got to get to the hospital.”

And then Jim was alone, EMTs and firefighters rushing about. Someone asked him if he needed help, and he waved them off and stumbled away, toward Bones’s barracks. The Stylus was predictably deserted, what with the need for all hands on deck, leaving the elevators free, which relieved Jim beyond words.

He collapsed on Bones’s bed face-first, too tired to fold the couch out, and was asleep instantly.

***

Jim woke because someone was shaking his shoulder. He groaned and batted the hand away. “One mo’min,” he mumbled, and buried his face in the pillow. He inhaled deeply, but the pleasant scent definitely wasn’t his ratty pillow. His eyes popped open.

“’Bout time, Sleeping Beauty,” Bones said. He had dark circles under his eyes and soot smeared across his cheek, and Jim hadn’t heard a reference to the Brothers Grimm since high school Literature. Bones was running a tricorder over Jim, and that’s when the memories hit.

Jim watched Bones quietly as he monitored the tricorder readings, thinking of how distraught he'd been earlier. “Bones,” he croaked, “you okay?”

Bones’s eyes flicked dismissively, two glints in the dark. “I’m fine, Jim.” He put the tricorder away, then, and said, “If you’re not getting up then at least scoot over.”

Feeling oddly grateful that Bones wasn’t kicking him to the couch, Jim rolled to the far end of the tiny bed. Bones slipped under the covers, pressing warmly up against Jim’s side, and settled back against the pillow with an exhausted sigh.

Jim stared at his face drowsily, feeling his eyes slowly shutting. “How’d ya know there was a gas leak?” Jim mumbled. “I couldn’ smell anythin’…”

Bones didn’t say anything, and Jim fell asleep before he could get a proper answer.

***

In the dead of the night, Jim suddenly flashed awake like a lightbulb, haunted by a sense memory of being pressed into the grass. He reached out in the dark, found Bones, and ran his hands over his body, not sure what he was looking for but his worry somewhat assuaged by touching.

“Wha’?” Bones grunted, the muscles under his skin jumping nervously as Jim skimmed over them.

“I just realized,” Jim said, “you were way more exposed to that blast than I was. Shit, Bones, are you okay?”

“I’m fine, you idiot,” Bones rumbled, batting at Jim’s hands and turning onto his side away from Jim. “Go back to sleep.”

“But you were bleeding, you—didn’t you spit blood out?” The memories were all so confused and jumbled.

“Bit my tongue,” Bones said shortly, snuggling up to his pillow. “’M fine now,” he repeated, slightly muffled, and then added crankily, “If you’re gonna be this annoying, you can sleep on the couch.”

Jim felt the tension in him release, comforted by Bones's familiar irritability. “Sorry,” Jim answered quietly. He slid back down under the sheets, his head turned to study the vague outline of Bones's body, hale and whole. Now that the adrenaline of his memories was leaving, the relief of finding Bones in good health was sinking in and lulling Jim back into sleep. Right before he dropped off again, he shifted over just enough that he could feel the heat of Bones’s presence against his side, reassuring in its solidity.

***

The Bridgestone Barracks were completely destroyed, no question about it. Andy had been in the library at the time of the explosion, thank fuck, but some of the other cadets weren’t so lucky. Thanks to Bones’s quick actions, most of the cadets had gotten out of the building before it blew, but a few hadn’t heeded the fire alarm or the banging on their doors and were caught up in the explosion. There were a few dozen casualties, including four dead.

Someone was definitely in trouble for not having updated the alarm systems and for not heeding Bones’s call, but Jim could tell by the way the press coverage skittered around that facet of the story that someone high up in Starfleet had done a clean cover-up job. It made his blood boil to think that someone was being protected, and four people were dead because of them.

Bones was given a commendation of valor for his actions, which he tried vehemently to refuse. “I’m a doctor, not a hero,” he’d said point blank to the Starfleet Admirals when they offered a ceremony. 

He got out of the official ceremony, but they made him keep the medal.

“I still think it’s crazy that you knew, Bones,” Jim said when Bones reluctantly told him why he had been called out of class. “They took measurements, and the traces of gas in the air when you noticed were so low they thought only sensors could detect them. Maybe you’re some kinda super-smeller,” Jim joked.

“I was probably just near a concentrated patch,” Bones snapped. “There’s nothing super about me.”

Ignoring his attitude as usual, Jim continued thoughtfully, “We should get you a sign for your door. I’m thinking: Savior of the Shittiest Barracks on Campus.”

Bones grumbled something about immature idiots, but Jim could see his mouth twitching in amusement.

Jim was reassigned to a fallout shelter further across campus. It was only temporary until they could rebuild the Bridgestone Barracks, and the administration (read: the psychology department) felt it best to maintain all the current roommate assignments. The hardest thing about the whole ordeal was handling the people whose roommates had perished in the explosion. Jim heard they had to go through counseling, which was a given. He also heard that one of them had tried to commit suicide, which he wasn’t sure about. The only thing he was certain of was the empty look and guilt in their eyes. He recognized it well: survivor’s guilt.

“The human mind is a very fragile thing, Jim,” Pike explained when Jim brought it up during one of their usual meetings in the Captain’s office. “We have a natural drive to survive, even when others are in danger, and that drive sometimes competes with societal ethics of solidarity. When those two forces come into conflict, then you get things like survivor’s guilt.”

“They stick together now, the four of them,” Jim said, staring at the middle level of the 3D chess board moodily. “I see them around campus all the time.”

“They understand each other,” Pike said.

Oddly, Bones made a similar comment a week later when they spotted the four under a tree out on the grounds. “It’s probably for the best,” Bones said. “There’s something good for the soul to be with kindred spirits.”

Jim gave Bones an assessing look, and realized in a flash of insight that that was what he considered Bones: a kindred spirit. Jim, without boasting or self-pity, could honestly say that he had been through a lot in his life—more than most people ever did. And when he looked at Bones, even without the details of his past, he could tell that the man had also been through the ringer. It was in the wary and sometimes weary set of his eyes, in the pinched corners of his mouth and the way he shied away from human contact.

But the thing that really made them alike was that Jim and Bones were both striving forward regardless of the opposition. Jim had to struggle every day to prove himself to those instructors and students who didn’t think a repeat-offender had any place in Starfleet, or that he had rode in on his father’s legacy. And Bones…well, Jim wasn’t sure exactly what Bones was struggling against, but Jim would catch him sometimes with that look on his face, like he was silently bolstering himself for a battle.

Jim threw an arm over Bones’s shoulder. “We’ll both beat the odds, Bones,” he said.

Ignoring Bones's confused eyebrow, Jim smiled and tilted his head back to enjoy the rare early spring sunlight on his face.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

The sixth thing Jim noticed about Bones was that he was unusually ripped for someone who spent all his days in classrooms and hospitals.

The Bridgestone Barracks had been rebuilt by the end of the spring quarter and, since the name Bridgestone Boom had caught on a little too well and Starfleet didn’t want that unfortunate reminder, they decided to rechristen it. It was now named the Bullet Barracks, on account of the streamlined design that resembled a bullet from the age before phasers. The new building was equipped with electric instead of gas lines, and also had updated safety systems. 

Jim was back in his studio with Andy by the start of summer vacation. Or in Jim’s case, summer quarter, since he was on the fast track for graduation. Jim and Bones were taking the same Combat Training class. It had taken some doing, as Bones had been extremely reluctant to take the class with Jim.

“But why not, Bones? We’ve both got to take it; might as well take it together, and get it done in the accelerated summer session.”

“Look, Jim,” Bones said, “I’m gonna hate the class enough as it is. Maybe I’ll fail and they’ll kick me out on my ass—”

“I won’t let that happen.”

“—and taking it with someone would just make the whole experience worse. Especially you,” he added.

Me? What did I do?”

Bones sighed. “Jim, you’re a showoff,” he said bluntly. “You’ll probably get so wrapped up in impressing the first pretty girl you see that you’ll knock me flat.”

“Bones!” Jim said, grinning. “Are you that embarrassed of being bested in a fight?”

Bones made a face at him. “I’m just worried about the effect it’ll have on your ego,” he denied.

Jim leaned forward. “How about I promise not to spar with you?”

“Then I have to be with some idiot who might break my neck on accident.”

Jim preened under the implicit compliment. “I promise not to let any idiots near you. This guy Dawson down the hall from me is taking the class; he’s really good, he’ll know how to hit you without doing permanent damage.”

“That’s real comforting.”

A beat of silence, and then Jim said, “Come on, Bones. It’ll be fun.”

Bones let out a long sigh. “Is that all you can think about, kid?” he said, but it was half-hearted and Jim knew he had won.

So here they were at the first lesson, in the locker room off one of the smaller gymnasiums reserved for classes. Bones opted to change in the bathroom stall as opposed to the locker room proper. Jim teased him about it, but Bones just shrugged and closed the stall door. Not body shy in the slightest, Jim changed in front of his locker, putting on sweat shorts and a loose T-shirt. Bones emerged from the stall in the same attire, though he wore a long-sleeved shirt. Jim thought he would probably overheat, but didn’t mention it.

They found their class out on the mats. The instructor, Michael Solanski, was a toned middle-aged man without any sort of scarring on his face (which Jim was disappointed by), though he did have a nasty rippling scar along his shoulder. He told them it was from a spear wound sustained after a singularly hostile reception on a tribal-age planet.

Solanski stood with his hands behind his back, examining the cadets one by one as he spoke. “Welcome to Combat Training. As you know, cadets are expected to keep physically fit at all times. We will therefore skip conditioning. If anyone falls behind, I’ll know who to report to the Board for slacking. Our curriculum starts with hand techniques.”

His eyes slid over Jim, and Jim held his gaze with a cocky smirk. He had been in enough bar brawls to know a thing or two about hand-to-hand combat.

“From there,” Solanski continued, “we’ll move on to kicks, throws, and finally weapons. Everyone will learn to operate a phaser gun, and then you’ll have the option of continuing on in a specialized discipline.”

Solanski paused, his eyes on Bones. Bones was standing stiffly, his back ramrod straight and arms by his sides as he stared straight ahead at the wall. In place of the usual scowl he wore a determinedly serious expression.

When Solanski looked away, Jim nudged Bones with an elbow. “Cool it, Jason Bourne,” he joked, referencing a character from a recent remake of an old vid.

Bones rolled his shoulders back, as though just realizing he had been standing like a robot, and slouched a little. This effort was almost instantly undone when Solanski clapped his hands twice and said, “Everyone take a few minutes to stretch and warm up.”

The cadets spread out on the mats. Jim locked one arm around the other, stretching his biceps, and swung his head around a few times to pop his neck. Next to him, Bones was rotating his wrists and ankles and stretching the back of his knees.

“Hamstrings,” Bones reminded him, smacking Jim in the thigh as Bones leaned down to touch his toes.

Solanski’s voice rang through the room. “Alright, I want to get an idea of where everyone is, so pair up for a sparring match.”

Jim grinned and felt a rush of excitement run through him. “Sure you don’t want to partner, Bones?” Jim asked a little suggestively. He had fallen into this sort of teasing when he realized how unsettled it made Bones.

Predictably, Bones took a hasty step away. “Sure as rain, kid,” Bones answered as he paired up with a dark-haired woman. Jim faintly heard her introduce herself as June.

Jim looked about the room for a challenge. He met eyes with Tom Dawson, the guy who roomed down the hall from Jim. Dawson was a big guy, easily over six feet and broad through the shoulders. He grinned at Dawson and they took their places across from each other and waited.

Once everyone was situated, Solanski said, “Goal is to incapacitate your opponent. Anything goes. Ready,” Jim tensed, “BEGIN!”

Jim, not one to wait, lunged immediately and threw a punch at Dawson’s face. Dawson dodged to the side and in the same move threw a kick at Jim’s unprotected side. Jim rolled with the hit and tried to kick Dawson’s feet out from under him. He almost succeeded, but hadn’t swept his leg fully, and Dawson managed to stumble and keep his feet. They both took a step back and circled one another. Growing impatient, Jim jumped forward again, but this time he threw a feinting punch at Dawson’s clavicle. Dawson deflected with one arm, and when he brought the other up to knock Jim in the head, Jim swiftly crouched and rammed his knuckles into the side of Dawson's knee.

Dawson howled and kicked Jim in the face. Jim managed to partially block it with his free arm. He staggered to his feet, found his equilibrium again, and faced Dawson, who was limping now. Before they could continue, Solanski started yelling, “Okay, stop. STOP!”

The last couple fights broke up. Jim was amused to see that the two girls beside him had been engaged in a bout of furious hair-pulling. Jim grinned at Bones through what he knew was a bloody lip, but Bones wasn’t paying attention. He was checking on June and Jim could hear his mumbled apologies from here, as well as her “I’m fine, honestly, you didn’t hurt me” responses.

Jim turned back to the instructor just as Solanski was saying, “It looks like we’ll have to start VERY basic. You two,” Solanski motioned to the two hair-pulling girls beside Jim, “switch partners with them,” he motioned to Jim and Dawson. “You two switch pairs,” he said further down the line. “I want experienced fighters with non-experienced. Hm…you’ll have to count as ‘experienced’…”

Jim turned to look at his mandated partner, a dark-skinned woman about Jim's age, and favored her with a charming grin. She huffed and glanced down, embarrassed. “I’ve never been in a fight before,” she confessed. “I’ve been putting this class off for the last three years. I guess that makes you the experienced one.”

“Oh, I’m experienced in many ways,” Jim said with a cheesy eyebrow waggle, and she wrinkled her nose but also laughed and relaxed a little, as he’d wanted her to. “Jim Kirk,” he said, holding out a hand.

“Tiffany Summers,” she shook his hand, “I’m a rising fourth year in computer science. You?”

“Rising second year. Haven’t chosen a specialty yet, but I’m Command track,” Jim answered amiably, and then Solanski called another session.

Without a trained partner, Jim was a little bored by the class, but it was fun getting to put his hands all over Tiffany and showing her how to slip out of a stranglehold. Solanski thought it best to teach defensive moves and escapes first, not least, Jim suspected, because it would avoid a lot of injuries down the line. At the end of class Jim apologized for the minor bruising on Tiffany’s neck, but she just waved him off as she left for the women’s locker room.

When Jim got into the locker room, he saw that Bones was already squirreled away in a bathroom stall. Jim shrugged out of his sweaty shirt and jumped in the shower for a quick rinse. Jim was glad that the fad for sonic showers had died down shortly after they’d come out and consumers realized that, fast though they were, there was nothing quite like water to make you feel clean. Dawson took the nozzle next to him and they were soon immersed in a cost-benefit analysis of broad swords vs. short swords, just for the hell of it.

“Yeah, but you have more reach with a broad sword. One swing is all it takes,” Jim argued as they walked out of the locker room.

“Short swords give you speed, so it doesn’t matter if one swing will take them: you’ll never hit a fast-moving target,” Dawson said. “If you did, it would be sheer luck, not skill.”

“No, it would be superior tactical prediction.”

Tiffany, who had been waiting outside the women’s locker room, smirked and said, “I’ll bet my phaser could take both your swords.”

“Is that an invitation?” Jim asked.

“Why do I get the feeling that this is a thing with you?” Tiffany asked rhetorically and then waved Bones’s partner over. “Hey, June, come meet my partner. This is Jim Kirk.”

June was a pale woman with a sharp jawline and a severe expression to match. Her straight black hair fell in a curving bob around her face, accenting the angle of her eyes. She looked kind of familiar, now that Jim had a closer look.

“I know who he is,” June said. “We have Command Ethics together,” she specified when Jim only looked curious. She shook his hand briskly. “June Nguyen. Are you friends with that doctor, McCoy?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Jim said.

“Tell him he has a damn good blood choke. I couldn’t escape it, and believe me I tried, and I didn’t bruise at all.”

Jim’s eyes flashed down to her neck. Sure enough, June’s neck was clear of the light discoloration that Tiffany’s neck was showing from Jim’s stranglehold.

“Oh, sure,” Jim said, and June thanked him and then left with Tiffany. Jim stared after them, puzzled.

Dawson said, “It must be a doctor thing. He knows just how much pressure to use.”

“Yeah,” Jim said distractedly, “yeah, a doctor thing.”

Except that Jim knew for a fact that there was another doctor in their class, that guy Greg who had practically creamed himself over Bones’s publication and was a fully certified physician, and he had nearly twisted someone’s arm out of its socket today.

“Where is McCoy, anyway?” Dawson asked rhetorically before glancing at his chrono. “Shit, I gotta get across campus. Later, Kirk.”

“Later,” Jim said. He hesitated, and then turned around and walked quietly back into the locker room. The room was dark compared to the bright sunshine outside, humid with sweat and water condensation. The place was deserted except for a single running shower, which turned off as Jim navigated through the rows of lockers.

When Jim crept around the corner silently, Bones was pulling up his red pants, his back to Jim, wet hair plastered against his head.

Jim knew enough about locker room etiquette to know it was rude and invasive to watch another dude dressing. He knew. But he couldn’t help it, and not just for the usual reason.

Bones always wore clothing that didn’t accent his physique: his bulky cadet reds, the shapeless white doctor’s coat, or loose casuals. Now that Jim was seeing him for the first time without the shirt, it was obvious that Bones was…very fit. Extremely fit, even. He didn’t look like one of those body-builders who were the size of small trucks, but he had the body of a man who definitely worked out regularly.

This wouldn’t be a problem, except that Jim had asked Bones, dozens of times, to come work out with him, and Bones always said he had no interest. And now that Jim saw the obvious effort that Bones put into his body, he realized that Bones must have been blowing him off all those times. Maybe, Jim suddenly thought, Bones had been trying to blow Jim off from the start. Jim thought of Bones’s refusal to be Jim’s sparring partner, his attempt to avoid taking this class with Jim. And further back, his reluctance to join Jim for studying, his reticence about going out drinking with Jim, his generally taciturn behavior. Maybe all this time Bones had been trying to get Jim off his back, and Jim just hadn’t gotten the message.

Bones noticed him just then. He swiftly turned in profile, the arm closer to Jim coming up across his chest as though self-conscious. “Jim,” he said as he awkwardly shook out his shirt with his free hand. “I thought you were going to wait outside for me,” he said defensively.

“So, what gym do you use?” Jim asked, voice carefully blank.

Bones looked confused for a second. “I don’t—” He stopped and glanced down at his own well-maintained body.

“You know, if you didn’t want to hang out with me, you could have just said so; I’m a big boy.”

“Jim…” Bones said. “It’s not what you think.”

Anger flared through Jim like fire. “What is it, then?” Jim demanded heatedly. “You obviously go there pretty damn often. What, afraid I couldn’t keep up?”

“I don’t go to the gym,” Bones denied, and when Jim gave an incredulous “Hah!” he repeated, “I don’t.”

“Then why do you look like fucking Brian Mace, huh?”

“I can’t—” Bones closed his eyes, his arm still over his torso, fingers clenching where they gripped his defined deltoid, “I can’t answer that.”

“I see.”

“Jim…”

“Good day, Doctor McCoy,” Jim said coldly before turning on his heel and leaving the locker room. He walked blindly for a long time and didn’t realize he had made it to his next class, ten minutes late, until he was standing in front of the door.

He took a few deep, steadying breaths, his eyes closed. Then he opened the door and smiled sheepishly at Lieutenant Junior Barnes, who glared at him but continued lecturing, as he made his way quietly to his seat.

***

Jim didn’t see Bones until their next Combat class together. He had to grudgingly respect Bones’s ability to completely and utterly avoid him until it was impossible not to.

Jim was getting changed in front of his locker when a shadow fell across him. He knew it was Bones instantly, but kept his back turned as he pulled his shirt on.

Bones, obstinate as ever, grabbed his arm when Jim tried to walk away. Jim resisted, but all that muscle wasn’t just for show: Bones’s grip was unbreakable, and he inexorably pulled Jim to a more private corner of the locker room. It was mostly deserted anyway, as class was about to start.

As soon as Bones’s iron grip eased, Jim shook his hand off and got up in his face, his chest heaving angrily. They stood toe to toe, tense as angry cats, and Jim braced himself for the brawl he was certain was about to begin.

Then Bones unexpectedly backed down, releasing the rising tension between them by taking a small step back and sighing. “Look, Jim,” Bones said, “You’re the first friend I’ve had in…in a damn long time, and I know I owe you an explanation. But I can’t…” Bones pursed his lips, a frustrated furrow appearing between his brows. “There are things about me that I can’t tell you—that I can’t tell anyone. It has to do with my past, and believe me, you don’t want to know.”

Jim, slightly mollified, felt his adrenaline from the averted fight slowly dissipate as Bones spoke. Now, he frowned in confusion. “What?” he exclaimed. “What are you even talking about?” He paused. “Is it steroids?”

Bones’s usual scowl fell into place instantly. “No, it’s not steroids, you infant, it’s—it’s a condition, alright?”

Wow, that was a lame lie. “Wanna throw a little of that condition my way?” Jim said sarcastically.

Bones shook his head in frustration. “Just—trust me when I say that I didn’t screw you over. Okay?”

Jim weighed Bones’s earnest, imploring expression, then stepped close again and said in a fierce undertone, “Fine. But you owe me, Bones.”

“Drinks are on me next time,” Bones promised, and then preceded Jim out of the locker room.

No, thought Jim as he followed Bones to class and they made their apologies for their tardiness. No, I’ll want something more valuable than a drink. Some day, you’ll owe me answers. And I will make you pay that due.

***

For the next few days, things between Jim and Bones were stilted. By the weekend, they had found equilibrium again and returned to their usual contentious banter. On Saturday, the ubiquitous San Francisco fog had dissipated enough to let the summer sun through. In light of this (no pun intended), Jim and Bones had opted to eat their lunches out on the lawn. They were joined by what appeared to be the entirety of the student population, and even some faculty who were putting in extra hours on the weekend.

Bones was looking over a research paper of Jim’s, at his request. It was for Xenocultural Developments, which Jim had had to take on the accelerated summer quarter to be on target for graduation in three years. In return for reviewing his paper, Jim had paid for their lunches and agreed to meet Bones’s demand of adding an apple to his meal. (“You know the old saying.” “Apples are better than capsules?” “…my god, you really are young.”)

“Hello, Jim.”

Jim tipped his head back to look, upside down, at the cadet standing behind him. She smiled at him warmly, the black of her slightly-too-large irises standing out against her pale skin.

Jim smiled back and tried to get his thoughts out of the gutter. By her amused look, he was failing. “Xuwari, how are you today?”

“Quite well, thank you,” she said in the odd accent characteristic of Betazoids. “I haven’t seen you since last year, and have missed your errant thoughts interrupting my attempts to focus in class.”

Jim grinned sheepishly. “Well, can’t really help that. You drive me to distraction, beautiful.”

She released a tinkling, delighted little laugh, and then turned her dark gaze on Bones, who was still engrossed in reading. “And who is your companion?”

“This is my friend, Doctor Leonard McCoy,” Jim began just as Bones looked up from Jim’s paper.

And then Bones locked eyes with the Betazoid, and his pensive expression gave way to an instant of panic. Xuwari’s face reflected only surprise as Bones sprang nimbly to his feet in the grass, his fists clenched and posture defensive.

“Amazing,” Xuwari murmured.

Bones’s chest was heaving as though he’d run a marathon, his expression dark and distrustful. “You stay away from me,” he snarled, and Jim felt like he’d been slapped.

“What the hell, Bones!” he exclaimed, scandalized by his rudeness.

Without another word, Bones snatched his bag up and stomped away across the grass.

“I am so sorry,” Jim started to say, but Xuwari cut him off to ask, “What did you say his name was?” She was still gazing after Bones with a fascinated expression, not seeming to notice the tense atmosphere.

“Doctor McCoy. He’s probably just in a bad mood, I don’t think he meant to come across as, uh, that way.”

“What—oh,” Xuwari said, focusing on Jim again and literally reading his mind. Then, to Jim’s bewilderment, she laughed. “Oh, no. Your friend is not xenophobic.”

“He’s—he’s not? I mean, of course he’s not.”

“Indeed. Well, I should say that he was not rude to me for that purpose. Whether he is xenophobic or not, I cannot tell.”

“Couldn’t you read his mind?”

“That’s the wonder! I could not! I have never met a human who had the mental fortitude to block a reading before. To be honest, I had not thought humans had the capacity for such a skill. Not that I am denigrating your species, of course,” she added hastily. “It is a matter of a physical obstruction, not a reflection of your intelligence. But oh,” Xuwari sighed like a smitten teenager and said dreamily, “what I wouldn’t give to get a look at that human’s brain.”

Xuwari was a neuroscientist, with an MS in Comparative Xenoneurology, and was doing a PhD dissertation on the interface of mental processes and communication. Jim supposed this must be right up her alley.

“You couldn’t read his mind at all?” Jim confirmed.

“Only a few thoughts before he recognized my species, and then he somehow began to block me except for the very loud, very strong command to ‘get the hell out of his head.’ Incredible.”

“What was he thinking before he blocked you?” Jim asked curiously.

Xuwari looked at him sternly. “Jim, you know as well as I do that it’s unethical for me to betray someone’s privacy like that in this culture. I may not be able to stop hearing your thoughts, but I would never reveal them to others.”

“Sorry, sorry, I know,” Jim said, chagrined but still disappointed.

She hesitated and then said with a little smile, “He’s quite fond of you. I could sense that even under his irritation and fear directed toward me. He may be able to block his thoughts, but he is not so good at suppressing his emotions.”

Jim realized that his own thoughts had unconsciously trailed back to the cold feelings of rejection that he had experienced in the locker room a week ago. He smiled slightly. “Thanks, Xuwari.” He gathered his things and stood. “I better go check on him.”

She nodded understandingly, and Jim hurried across campus to the Stylus. When he got there, he found Bones sitting hunched on his bed, head in his hands.

Bones didn’t look up, so Jim plopped down on the bed next to him and said, “Can I get you anything?”

Bones grunted and motioned to his med kit tucked near the end of the bed by Jim’s foot. Jim handed it over, and Bones pulled out a hypospray and loaded it with what Jim recognized as a mild painkiller before injecting it into his own neck, his hand twisted at an odd angle for the self-injection.

“Headache?” Jim asked sympathetically.

Bones sighed and shifted to stretch out on the bed, arm thrown over his eyes against the evening sunlight pouring through the blinds. “Your Betazoid friend hate me now?”

“Actually, I think she might have the hots for you. Purely for professional reasons, of course,” Jim added with a grin when Bones looked at him disbelievingly.

“Hmph.” Bones threw his arm back over his eyes. “They usually don’t take well to anyone they can’t read.”

“Xuwari is on track to be a Linguist, and part of that includes cultural sensitivity. She told me once that it had taken her a while to get used to the notion of privacy, but that from feeling and reading humans, she’s come to understand it better, and ultimately to respect it.”

“Guess there’s a first time for everything,” Bones murmured.

Jim felt his curiosity pique at the oblique reference to Bones having met Betazoids before. He contemplated asking Bones where he had learned how to block telepaths, and had just decided that it was none of his business when Bones shocked him by explaining on his own, without prompting.

“It’s goddamn intrusive, their telepathy,” Bones grumbled. “I never liked the idea of someone reading my mind without my knowledge or permission. So I looked into ways of blocking that sort of thing. Found a class a few years back.” His mouth twisted wryly. “They wouldn’t let me in at first, said humans weren’t capable of that level of mental manipulation. But I was determined and willing to pay, so they finally agreed.” He snorted quietly. “Surprised everyone when I mastered the skill.”

Jim didn’t say anything for a while, then gripped Bones’s ankle firmly. “Thank you,” he said softly but vehemently.

“I’d rather this not become common knowledge,” Bones said, peeking at Jim from below his arm.

“Your secret is safe with me, Bones,” Jim vowed, and he meant it.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

The seventh thing Jim noticed about Bones was that he was hiding something—something big. He didn’t realize just how big until the lab fiasco.

It was only their third week of Combat Training and Solanski was getting frustrated with Bones. It was a puzzling development because, by Jim’s estimation, Bones was far from the worst student in class. If anything, he was just slightly below average when it came to fighting. Sure, he always won his fights, but he also always paired with women, and inexperienced ones at that. His accuracy with a phaser was poor, but then he was a doctor and not exactly expected to run around shooting people.

Jim couldn't understand Solanski’s frustration. The instructor was over there now, pushing at Bones little by little, goading him, trying purposefully to annoy him. Bones wasn’t the most patient person at the best of times, so the fact that he hadn’t slugged Solanski was nothing short of a miracle in Jim’s eyes.

“Why does he hate you so much?” Jim asked.

A muscle in Bones’s jaw tightened and he just shook his head.

Solanski was standing outside the locker rooms, arms folded behind him in his customary ready stance, nodding to the cadets as they left and saying things like, “Work on your left hook, Brown.” When Jim and Bones walked by, Solanski nodded to them. “Kirk.” His eyes landed on Bones. “Cadet McCoy, practice that footwork.”

Bones twitched just slightly, but otherwise kept walking as though he hadn’t heard. Jim glanced back at Solanski, who was watching them walk away, before looking back at Bones. Bones’s expression was stormy, the scowl pronounced.

“I’ve got some things to take care of,” Bones said suddenly. “Talk to you later,” he mumbled before walking off on his own.

“Yeah, later,” Jim said, and stood pensively for a while. It was Tuesday, so he had a free period next. Making up his mind, Jim turned around and walked back to the gymnasium.

As he walked into the temperature-controlled main room, he glanced around for Solanski. He found the instructor pummeling a punching bag in the corner and trotted over. “Lieutenant Solanski!” Jim called.

Solanski turned and lowered his gloved hands. He didn’t look surprised to see Jim. They had built a good working relationship in the last few weeks, and Jim had met with him a few times outside of class to spar. “Cadet Kirk. What can I do for you?”

“Well, sir, it’s about Bones—Cadet McCoy,” Jim started. “If you don't mind my asking, why are you…being so hard on him? He’s just a doctor, it’s not like he’ll need this much fighting experience. And he’s at least passing the class.”

Solanski stared at Jim for a moment before sighing and sitting down on a nearby bench, thumping the place beside him in invitation to Jim. As Jim sat, he said, “That’s not the problem with McCoy. The problem is that he knows what he’s doing, more than anyone else in that classroom—maybe more than me—and he’s trying to fake otherwise.”

“…What?” Jim laughed incredulously. “Bones is hopeless. He can barely shoot the target with a powered down phaser.”

But even as Jim said it, he thought back to Cadet June, how she hadn’t bruised at all.

“A ruse,” Solanski said shortly. “He puts on a good act, but I recognize trained footwork when I see it. It’s hard to fake incompetence once you’ve learned the correct way to do things, and especially if you’ve been doing it for a while.”

“So, wait…you’re saying that Bones has had combat training before?” Jim asked slowly.

“Or something like it. Whatever it was, I’m betting he was pretty damn good at it,” Solanski said, his lips pressed together. “This wouldn’t concern me normally. Plenty of students have other military experience before coming to Starfleet. What concerns me, firstly, is that his records don’t indicate any previous service, and secondly, that he’s trying to hide it. So where did he get the training, and why is he pretending he doesn’t have it? How does that benefit him?”

All good questions, thought Jim; all dangerous questions, too. If an instructor suspected his student for any reason, an inquiry would be all too easy to arrange. Starfleet was rigorously stringent in who it admitted, and if anything in Bones’s past indicated that he was unfit for the job, or if he had lied on his admissions material… And Bones himself had said that there was something in his past, something that no one could know about. Could this be it? Jim couldn’t see how since, as Solanski said, previous military postings wouldn’t disqualify you from Starfleet—not unless you’d been dishonorably discharged. Oh god, Jim thought, his stomach sinking—what if that was it?

This had been bothering Solanski for a while now, Jim could see that, and perhaps he was even considering taking his suspicions through official channels. Jim had to intervene immediately.

“Let me talk to him, sir. I’ve known him a while, maybe he’ll be more honest with me,” Jim suggested.

“You need to understand how serious this is, Kirk. If McCoy is a spy…”

Jim’s world tilted—a spy? Bones? “No way,” Jim said strongly, but then he remembered Bones’s mysterious disappearances and felt doubt creeping in. “No way,” he repeated less certainly. “He—no, he cares way too much about people to try to infiltrate a peace-keeping organization like Starfleet.”

“Then I don’t know how to explain this,” Solanski said. “Kirk, I’ll give you 24 hours. Find out what you can, or else I’m going to have to take this to the Board.”

Jim nodded and got up to leave immediately, but Solanski called to his back, “And Kirk?” Jim turned. “I know he’s your friend, but you’re part of Starfleet now. We handle all the interaction between this planet and the rest of the universe. I think you understand the gravity of the situation. You especially.”

It wasn’t the first time that someone at Starfleet had referenced his family history, but it was the first time that it had hit him so hard. He didn’t have any memories of the event—obviously not, he’d been too young to even begin to form memories, it was ridiculous that some people thought he remembered anything—but he had heard the audio logs and seen the retrograde virtual recreations of the event, and knew how dangerous space and its many other life forms could be.

“Understood, sir.”

***

Bones wasn’t in the Stylus. He wasn’t at the hospital either, but he had stopped by to grab some equipment. The nurse Jim talked to said Bones had taken a few sterilizers and syringes from the stock. Hypos had replaced syringes for injecting anything into the body, but withdrawing blood or other fluids still required the use of needles. When Jim asked what he was using them for, she looked at him as if he was stupid. “We don’t question doctors,” she said.

God, chain of command could be a bitch.

“Do you know where he went, then?” Jim asked, and then said, “Is he working on his research?”

She frowned. “Research? Doctor McCoy doesn’t have any open research grants at this time.”

That was…odd.

Jim left the hospital frustrated and without any sort of lead. He walked to Bones’s room and puttered around the hall for a while, trying to decide if he wanted to go with his next idea. It was wrong—it felt wrong on a level that getting into bar fights or breaking the law never had—but with Solanski’s suspicions, and Bones’s disappearing acts…

Jim made one of the hardest decisions of his life, then. Feeling like he was stomping all over the trust that Bones had slowly been building in him, he overrode the lock and broke into Bones’s apartment.

He closed the door behind him and made a beeline for Bones’s bedroom and the central console there. He sat and adjusted the screen, and then stared at the password protection. Could he really betray his friend’s trust like this? Jim tapped idly on the tabletop, considering another question: Could Bones, the one guy in Starfleet who seemed to understand Jim, be a spy for the Klingons, or whoever the fuck else?

Jim broke the password using a dictionary attacking program he had installed on his PADD. It took a while, but then he was in. He immediately began searching the data files, especially focusing on the encrypted ones. But no matter where he looked, he couldn’t find any evidence that Bones was doing anything illicit. The guy didn’t even have porn. Jim felt lighter with every normal file he checked, and at the same time more guilty. Here Jim was, riffling through Bones’s things as though he was a criminal while everything on this computer proved his innocence.

By the time Jim was done, it was dark and he had missed his Xenocultural Developments class. He sat back from the console and released a long, slow breath. Then he glanced around the room and grudgingly began picking through Bones’s things, checking under his bed, his side table, his closet. He meandered into the shared living area, half-heartedly checking the drawers. His search turned up nothing unusual, and relief lifted a weight from his shoulders as an equally heavy load of guilt settled on them.

He was just replacing the stack of medical journals under the coffee table when the front door slid open and Kevin entered. Jim stood up guiltily and then put on a casual smile. “Hey, Kevs, how’s it going, man?”

Kevin blinked at him as he swung his pack off. “Hey, Jim; what’re you doing here? Where’s McCoy?”

“Oh, I just forgot something last time I was here. Bones let me in before he went to clinic.”

“That’s weird,” Kevin’s eyebrows furrowed, “I thought he wasn’t on duty until tomorrow.”

Jim shrugged, internally panicking. “Maybe it was an emergency. He seemed in a hurry. Anyway, I couldn’t find it, but if you see a stellar map, could you let me know?” Before Kevin could say anything else, Jim slapped him on the arm in parting, called “Later!” over his shoulder, and rushed away.

Jim walked brusquely to the elevator, thinking. Bones’s rooms were clean, as was his console—but a real spy wouldn’t keep evidence lying around, especially not when he had a roommate.

As he walked across campus he played with an idea, a risky one, and decided that it was his best option. It kept things out of official circulation, and as long as he presented it correctly…

Jim went to his room in the Bullet and flashed a grin at his roommate, who as usual was tinkering on his PADD. “Hey, Andy! You ever find that proxy setting?”

Andrew Gylar grinned from his place sprawled out on the bed. “I am officially off the mainframe,” he said, raising his fists into the air in triumph.

Perfect, thought Jim, and then said, “Awesome! Hey, why don’t we test it out?”

“Hell yeah. But how?”

“Well, if you want to make sure your content can’t be tracked…you’ve got to do something against the rules,” Jim grinned.

Andy slowly returned the grin. “I like the way you think, Kirk. What did you have in mind?”

“Let’s see…we don’t want to do anything TOO incriminating, in case it didn’t work. How about you track someone’s PADD?”

“Good idea! I guess I could just do yours—”

“Let’s find Bones’s,” Jim interrupted hastily.

“Alright,” Andy said easily. Andy had heard Jim’s nickname enough that he knew who Jim was talking about.

Jim watched over his shoulder as Andy began typing away on the PADD. He tilted the screen for Jim to see better. “Alright, I’ve got the range entered—he’s on campus, right?—and now it’s just a matter of finding his PADD’s signature, they keep those on file at the registry…”

In seconds, Andy had pulled up a protected list of codes, and Jim watched as a little dot appeared on the campus map before zooming in on it. It was the science building, 17 floors of offices, classrooms and labs. The layout changed from a satellite map to the building schematics, and the top floors disappeared so they could see the basement levels. One of the rooms was flashing yellow, and Andy pointed to a little blue dot in it. “There it is,” Andy said proudly, “Room S-003. Wonder what he’s doing there so late…”

“Probably some research,” Jim said wryly. He memorized the room number and then grinned at Andy as he stood. “That’s awesome, man, congrats on getting the system working. Listen, I’ve got some stuff to take care of, was just dropping by for a coffee—I’m out of creds until Wednesday.”

Jim hurriedly poured a cup, said goodbye to a distracted Andy, and left. He dumped the coffee in the nearest trashcan and then sped over to the science building across campus. Most of the building was dark this late at night, with only a few offices lit up on the upper levels.

Jim found the stairs to the basement. He had never been down here before: he had no reason to visit the advanced biomedical labs. The lights were dimmed to 15% and the halls were deserted and silent, aside from the steady hum of incubators and other science equipment. Jim counted off the rooms until he found 003, and then he hesitated, his finger hovering over the button to open the door.

What might he find? The possibilities whirled through his mind, each more fantastical and deranged than the last. Any way he figured it, this looked suspicious.

There was nothing to do but enter and see for himself. Jim pressed the button, and the door slid open…just in time for Jim to see Bones fling a set of vials across the room. They shattered against the far wall, spraying glass shards everywhere, but Jim barely noticed. His attention was riveted on Bones, whose emotions were raw and unhindered in privacy. Bones’s features were etched with furious misery, his eyes clenched shut, lips curled back to expose his teeth in a helpless snarl. He slammed a fist on the bench top, which creaked alarmingly.

The sound of the breaking glass had covered Jim’s entrance, so Jim announced his presence by saying, “Is this a bad time?”

Bones’s head snapped up. “Jim?” he asked, looking utterly bewildered. Then he seemed to process the situation all at once. His gaze flicked around the lab—Jim’s followed, noting all the scientific instruments and lab equipment—before he met Jim’s eyes again. Bones straightened to his full height warily. “What the hell are you doing here, Jim?” he asked carefully, his voice low.

Jim walked over the threshold and heard the door swish shut behind him. He folded his arms over his chest casually. “I think I should be asking you that, Bones,” he said. “Is this the research you’ve mentioned? It’s funny, because the hospital was pretty sure that you weren’t doing any research.”

Bones wouldn’t meet his eyes. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said gruffly.

“I think,” Jim said clearly, “that neither should you.”

The only sound in the room was the soft hum and whir of electronics as they stared each other down, Jim affecting calm and Bones not hiding how tense he was. Jim had been planning on letting Bones be the one to break the silence, but Bones was apparently more patient than he was. Jim crossed his hands behind his back and started pacing slowly across the room, the lab bench between them.

“So, Bones,” he said, still playing casual, “tell me about your research. What’s so important you have to do it down here in the basement after everyone else has gone home?”

Bones opened and closed his mouth a few times, saying nothing. Finally, he rubbed a hand over his face as he sighed tiredly. “Jim, please, leave. Don’t pursue this—”

“Or what?” Jim asked challengingly, dropping the ruse. His fists tightened at his sides as he squared his shoulders. “Bones, I’m trying to understand this, okay? So explain it to me, because this? This looks pretty fucking bad.”

Bones leaned against the bench top with both arms, elbows locked and head bowed. “I knew this would happen, I knew it, why did I even try?” he mumbled to himself.

Keeping an eye on Bones, who was clearly ignoring him now, Jim took a closer look at the lab equipment. There were stacks of test tubes lined up along the counter and four centrifuges were whirling away, timers set on each of them. Three lidded bottles were labeled D4437, D4438, and D4439. Bones’s PADD was hooked up to the computer console, and the large screen flashed letters at him, a few of them highlighted in red. Thanks to his basic biology course last quarter, Jim knew enough about genetics to recognize gene sequence alignments.

When Jim took a step forward to get a better look, Bones’s eyes returned to him, and something about his expression made Jim freeze. “…So this is the way I see it,” Jim said. “You’ve been conducting,” his eyes lighted briefly on the computer screen, “unauthorized genetic experimentation with Starfleet equipment. You have also received advanced physical training that you have attempted to conceal—don’t try to deny it, I know about the footwork; Solanski recognizes your training, and he’s getting suspicious, suspicious enough to take this to the Board. So what, Bones? What is going on? And answer me honestly; I know how good a liar you are, too.”

Slowly, Bones shook his head, his gaze fixed on Jim like a magnet. “You’re too smart by half, Jim,” he whispered. He pursed his lips, obviously contemplating something.

The only warning Jim got was Bones’s eyes, quickly flicking to the closed door.

The next thing Jim knew, Bones was, impossibly, right next to him, and then Jim was being held in a stranglehold, his carotid nerve pinched expertly until his brain began to shut down. He scrabbled futilely at Bones’s forearms, digging his nails in.

“I’m sorry, Jim,” he thought he heard Bones say before his vision went black.

***

Jim jolted awake, and then looked around in confusion. He was in his bed, the curtains drawn shut against the light. His head ached something fierce, and the stale taste of alcohol was in his mouth.

“Urghph,” he said, and heard a quiet chuckle from across the room. Andy, his roommate, was reclining on his bed with his PADD.

“About time you came around,” Andy remarked. “You missed your morning class already.”

“I…what?” Jim mumbled, trying to piece together the night before. His memories were fairly clear about his talk with Solanski and his search of the campus for the AWOL Bones, but they went fuzzy after that. Something about a lab? But that couldn’t be right, he distinctly remembered being at a bar, making drunken passes at chicks while Bones sulked in the corner.

Jim groaned and rubbed his eyes. “Time ‘s’it?” he asked distractedly.

“Just passed 1200.”

Well after Solanski's deadline. Shit. “I gotta go,” Jim said, and stumbled up to splash some water on his face. Maybe Solanski hadn’t reported Bones yet.

An image of a lab passed through his mind, broken vials shining on the ground, a screen with gene sequences. Jim’s confusion deepened. A dream? 

He didn’t have time to piece it together, to get everything exactly straight. Bones’s position at Starfleet might be riding on this. Jim left as he was, still dressed in his clothes from yesterday, rumpled and creased, and made his way to the gymnasium. As he loped across campus, his mind buzzed with possible arguments, ways to prevent Solanski from taking his suspicions to the Board of Governors, to give Jim more time—

Jim burst through the doors and immediately bee-lined to Solanski’s office, but there was no response to his rata-tat-tat knocking. Heart pounding, Jim went to check Solanski’s usual training area. As he turned the corner, he was greeted by a bizarre sight.

Solanski was sitting on the mat while Bones—what was he doing here?—knelt next to him and ran a tricorder over his face. Jim could faintly hear Bones saying, “Sorry, sir, looks like I fractured your zygomatic bone. Give me a minute, I’ll set it to rights.”

Just then, Solanski spotted Jim. “Cadet Kirk!” he greeted, smiling at him through a black eye and busted cheek. Bones’s gaze immediately found Jim’s, his expression unusually blank. “I have to thank you,” Solanski continued, “for convincing Doctor McCoy to come see me so we could clear up this little misunderstanding.”

Jim blinked. “I did what now?” He rubbed his forehead, still pounding from a hangover. “I don’t remember…”

Bones said, “Not surprising; you nearly drank the bar dry.” When Jim just scratched his head, Bones rolled his eyes and turned on the osteoregenerator as he elaborated, “You were insistent that we go out drinking last night, and after I’d had a few you started in on me like the Spanish Inquisition. Eventually you told me that Lieutenant Solanski suspected I was hiding something inappropriately. I guess you were so relieved by the truth you decided a little celebration was in order. I had to drag you back to your room after you passed out.” Bones turned off his regenerator. “You’re all set, sir.”

“Wow,” Jim said. “I kind of remember the bar…”

Solanski laughed as Bones put his medical equipment away. “Well, however you accomplished it, I’m glad you did. The good Doctor here explained everything—his family’s strict military history, and how he wanted to leave that lifestyle behind when he took the Hippocratic Oath.” He turned to McCoy, patting him on the shoulder. “We’ll have to do that again sometime, Doctor.”

Bones smiled tightly but didn’t promise anything.

Jim still felt fuzzy and confused as Solanski wished them a good day and left for his office. Jim and Bones stood for a while in silence, Jim trying to remember the night before.

“Jim?” Bones said, his face set in cautious, questioning lines. “Do you feel up to going to your next class, or do you want to sleep some more?”

“I’ll, uh,” his head twinged sharply, and Jim winced. “—sleep, I think. Yeah…”

They walked across campus, and Jim allowed the hand Bones clapped on his shoulder in an unsubtle attempt to guide him. As they passed the science building, Jim reached up to his throat and glanced at Bones’s arms without knowing why. Bones had rolled his long sleeves up to the elbows so that his forearms were bared. The skin was perfectly unmarred. Jim looked away before Bones could catch him staring, feeling like he was missing something vital.

When they got back to Jim’s room at the Bullet, Jim keyed his access code in and then stood uncertainly in the open doorway.

“You should probably get some more rest,” Bones suggested, nudging him over the threshold.

“Yeah. Right. Guess I’ll...see you later,” Jim said, and waved stupidly as the door closed.

Bones gave him a small smile, something like relief in it, but Jim only registered this peripherally; his attention was suddenly focused on his own hand. As the dim hall light from outside cut off with the closing door, Jim brought his fingers close to his face.

“Lights, 100%,” he said, and stared at the blood under his nails.

—he was being held in a stranglehold, his carotid nerve pinched expertly until his mind began to shut down. He scrabbled futilely at Bones’s forearms, digging his nails in—

Jim didn’t even notice when Andy yelled, “Gah, my eyes!”

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Interlude:

Jim looked out over the water at the lights of downtown San Francisco, twinkling against the deep purple sky. Astronomical twilight, it was called, the period of minimal light just before true dark. His eyes rose to the deepest part of the sky where the stars were visible and Jim wondered wistfully what his life might have been if his father had never died out there in the black. But Jim had decided long ago that such thoughts were useless, and soon set them aside to focus on his real life. He looked down at his lap, where he held a tiny plastic bag. Jim held the bag up at eye level and shook it, studying the small flecks of dried blood that settled into the bottom corner.

He hadn’t been able to fully recover those memories lost to the alcohol, and probably never would based on previous experiences being black-out drunk. However, he was able to piece a few things together. He knew that Andy had helped him track Bones’s PADD to the Science building, room S-003. He had found Bones in a lab doing research, but the actual memory was fuzzy. He only had a vague feeling that the research was somehow biological, and also very non-sanctioned. And he knew that when he confronted Bones, he had been rendered unconscious by way of a stranglehold and then drowned in alcohol in an attempt to erase his memories of the night.

But Bones, whatever his endgame, neglected to take one crucial factor into account: Jim’s particular personality. For one thing, Jim was a very self-confident individual. Where others might doubt their own conclusions, might abandon them in the face of improbability or lack of evidence, Jim trusted his intuition. He was also extremely strong-willed, and indelibly driven to succeed at whatever he put his mind to. And now he had turned that considerable drive to demystifying Bones.

Bones was definitely hiding something very serious, a secret as deep and dark as Jim’s time on Tarsus IV. Jim didn’t know what or why, but two things were certain: he was done passively noticing things about Bones, and he was done being left in the dark. Now he was ready to actively seek information on those things that didn’t add up, those mysteries—big or small—that had been left unanswered until now. And he was hell-bent on uncovering whatever secrets Bones was trying so hard to hide.

As Jim gazed out at the stars, he clutched the bag of dried blood and felt resolve settle in his chest, firm and welcome.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Chapter Text

Part II: Pretext
in the context of an investigation, a ruse or story used to gather information whilst disguising one’s true intentions

Over the final weeks of summer, Jim discreetly watched Bones whenever they hung out, trying to see if he was acting any differently. Bones, he was unsurprised to see, was often watching him with a guarded, searching expression. When Jim realized this, he made a point to act completely normal. It seemed to work: Bones eventually relaxed around Jim and continued his usual routine of classes, hospital rounds, and disappearances to who-knew-where for extended periods of time.

It was odd, being the only one who knew that something was off. It was like looking through a one-way glass, seeing someone when they couldn’t see you. Jim would often catch himself staring at Bones while he studied or ate or grumbled about this and that, and Jim would wonder to himself why he hadn’t reported Bones. If nothing else, Bones had assaulted and drugged a fellow Starfleet Cadet, which would probably be enough to get him arrested on top of being dishonorably discharged from the Fleet. And then there was the matter of his potentially illicit use of Starfleet premises. Yet Jim was still sitting on this knowledge, fuzzy though it was, instead of acting on it.

Then something happened that brought into stark clarity exactly why Jim was unwilling to betray Bones, even when he was keeping dangerous secrets for unknown reasons.

It was a fairly normal day in late summer. Jim had just submitted his final paper for Xenocultural Developments and then headed over to the Stylus. They were supposed to meet for drinks tonight, it being a Friday and one of Bones’s rare days off, but Jim’s knocks went unanswered.

Just as he was pulling out his comm, Caasi Srour rounded the far corner, looking so exhausted that Jim himself felt tired. Caasi blinked slowly at him in that way that people do when sleep deprived, and then said, “Oh, McCoy got called in to the hospital as an emergency consultant earlier today.”

“Oh,” Jim said, disappointed. “Thanks. I suppose he’s still working, then?”

“No,” she grunted as she rotated her shoulder, “they said he was free to leave about an hour ago, but I saw him in the coffee room on my way out. Don’t know why he’s hanging around, though. It’s not like he or anyone else can do anything now.”

Jim’s interest piqued. “What happened?”

Caasi sighed and, glancing unnecessarily around the empty hall, leaned in and said in an undertone, “Suicide case. Jumpers are the worst. Always a big mess.” She covered a yawn with the back of her hand. “Anyway, I’m beat. I’ll see you in Combat.” As she entered the code to her room, she raised one fist with the tired enthusiasm of someone finishing a long and grueling race. “Last class, wooh!”

“See you,” Jim said, and then, making up his mind, he went to the hospital. After charming the front desk clerk into giving him a visitor’s pass, he quickly navigated the halls until he found the break room. It was typical: several coffee and espresso machines lined up on the counter, far too many plastic cups in the trash bins, and pots with tall fake plants bookending ugly floral-print couches.

Bones was hunched over on the couch in the corner, elbows propped on his knees and the heels of his hands pressed against his eyelids. Jim dropped into the seat beside him. Despite his acting to the contrary, Jim still felt awkward around his friend since the lab imbroglio, not quite sure what to make of him anymore.

“Long day?” Jim finally queried.

Without looking up, Bones heaved an expansive sigh, as though he had known that Jim was there and been hoping he might leave. “Something like that, kid,” he muttered.

Jim kept his eye on one of the fake plants. “You know it’s not your fault.” It was a statement, not a question. More of a command, really.

Bones’s jaw tightened, and he dropped his hands and sat up straight, staring at the far wall. “Goddamn gossips,” he grumbled.

Jim examined his stony expression. “What’s got you so worked up about it? It’s not like you could have done anything—”

“But I could have,” Bones interrupted vehemently, “if he’d been diagnosed properly. If he’d gotten the help he needed early on. Mental illness has been treatable for almost a hundred years! We shouldn’t have cases like this, good people dying from treatable illnesses. But despite how far medicine has come, some people still fall through the cracks, and goddamn I hate it.” 

Jim didn’t know what to say, so they sat in tense silence for a moment. Then Bones heaved a long, weary sigh. “Forget it,” he mumbled, and grabbed his coffee off the table. “Sorry I’m late—we were heading to Sullivan’s tonight, right?”

Jim managed to nod and follow Bones out of the building, distracted by the warm feeling spreading inside him.

This was why he hadn’t turned Bones in the second he suspected foul play; this was why he had gone against good sense and every regulation; this was what his intuition was telling him, as clear as it had told him that what happened in the lab was real: Bones, for all his secrets, wasn’t out to hurt anyone. He valued life above anything else. Whatever his reasons, they were good. And that was enough to pacify Jim’s doubt.

It definitely wasn’t enough to satisfy his curiosity, though.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Tactic #1: PADD

Jim began planning. If he wanted to learn Bones’s secrets, then he needed to know more about him. His first goal was to examine Bones’s PADD and whatever he might have stored on it. He had noticed that Bones was a bit touchy about the thing sometimes, rarely letting anyone even see the screen let alone hold it, but he had always written it off as Bones just being a private guy. Now, however, what Jim had once viewed as privacy became secrecy, and Jim was convinced that reading the data on that PADD was the key to understanding Bones.

With his second year starting, Jim was now taking more advanced classes. Bones had been right all those months ago; these classes were significantly harder than the introductory classes. Added to that, Jim was still taking extra coursework so he would be on schedule to graduate early. It was therefore difficult to find time to devote to this mystery, but every now and then Jim had a spare moment. Trying the labs again was a long shot, Jim knew, but that was the first thing he did anyway; as expected, Bones was never anywhere to be found. When Jim switched to using Andy’s personalized tracking system, Bones was always in his room.

Then one day in the middle of the fall quarter, when Jim knew that Bones was sitting a midterm exam, Jim checked for the signature and was shocked to see the PADD still sitting innocently in Bones’s room, unguarded. Jim raced across campus, snuck into Bones’s room, and rooted around until he found the PADD tucked away under Bones’s bed.

As his hand closed over it, a burst of excitement filled Jim, and he quickly booted it up and began scanning the files and history.

His breath caught. Jim entered a code, a few more, checked and double-checked, but the data remained the same.

It had been wiped clean. A mega-wipe, irretrievable even by the most skilled tech specialist. Most people didn’t even know such a wipe existed, let alone how to initiate it.

Jim stared at the useless PADD in his hands, his heart sinking. Bones must have figured out how Jim had tracked him. Bones had transferred his information to an unregistered PADD, and then wiped the old one clean.

Jim leaned his head back against the bed and closed his eyes, thinking. Unless he could get his hands on Bones’s new PADD (which Jim somehow doubted), he would have to change his plans. The PADD was out. The lab was wiped clean. The only evidence Jim had was the bag of dried blood he’d scraped from under his nails, and the only lead Jim had was Bones himself. Although…Bones had said something about secrets in his past, that one time in the locker room.

Time to check the records, then.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Tactic #2: Background Check

“How’s it going, Bill?”

William Jones, better known as Bill, looked up from behind his computer desk and grinned. “Jim! Long time no see. You still on command track?”

“You bet your ass,” Jim said, leaning over the desk.

Bill shook his head. “I still say you would have made Chief Engineer had you switched your track. What are the odds of becoming the equivalent in command, huh?”

Jim grinned. “I’ll make Captain some day, you watch. Hey, this may sound kinda weird, but I have a favor to ask.”

Bill smiled. “Well, I do owe you for helping me in Warp 101. What can I do you for?”

“This is kind of embarrassing,” Jim said, scratching his head, “but I lost my records. Getting an official printout is like 50 creds. Think you might be able to…?”

Bill laughed. “Say no more. This’ll be easy as pie; they keep all the student records on the same server.”

I know, Jim thought. “Thanks, man,” he said as Bill began pounding away at the keyboard.

“Alright,” Bill said, “here we are: student files.”

From his position leaning over the desk, Jim could see the login screen faintly out of the corner of his eye.

“You still keep this damn thing?” Jim said as he reached over the desk to grab a heart-shaped stress ball, giving it a squeeze. It emitted a high-pitched smooching sound.

Bill blushed as he entered his username and pass code. “Well,” he mumbled, “it was a gift from Amanda.”

Jim laughed. “You are so whipped,” he said, setting the stress ball back down.

“Better watch it, Kirk,” Bill said jokingly as the printer whirred. “I’ve got access to your records.”

Jim held his hands up. “Whips, who said anything about whips?”

Bill smirked. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Here you go.” He handed over a sealed envelope with “Official Transcripts” printed on the seal.

“Thanks, man. See you around!”

When Jim got back to his deserted room (Andy was sitting an exam), he pulled out his PADD, used Andy’s proxy system to get his network off the mainframe, and then pulled up the secured login for student records. Then he withdrew a small recording device from his sleeve. He projected the vid it had recorded onto the wall next to his bed. It showed Bill’s keyboard in the student center at the moment when he was logging into the student records with his administrative override, as seen from the view of Jim’s sleeve when he’d reached for the heart-shaped stress ball. 

Jim copied the username and passcode for William Jones, and smirked triumphantly when the student records popped onto the screen. “Jackpot,” he whispered, and then searched McCoy, Leonard. Bones’s student file filled the screen, the standard holo of his face in the top corner.

Jim quickly transferred the information to an encrypted file on his PADD and logged out of the admin system. Then he studied the file as if it contained the secrets of the universe.

Let’s see, born in Atlanta, Georgia, 2227.177…University of Mississippi…Come on, where’s the good stuff? Give me something!

Jim checked Bones’s aptitude tests and his file notes, hoping to find something that stood out. While his grades and assessments were impressive, they were hardly surprising. As part of Bones’s application to Starfleet, there were a couple letters of reference from the University of Iowa Hospital, which was ironically not too far from where Jim had lived.

Jim sighed in frustration and flicked to the emergency contact information. There was an address listed but no comm number. Jim might have to check into that later, but for now he moved on. Bones’s transcript was uninteresting, as Jim already knew all his classes. He was registered at Starfleet Hospital as a senior medical doctor despite his young age, but the medical records were kept on a completely separate server that was regulated by the hospital, not Starfleet. The only thing on Starfleet’s records was Bones’s primary care physician, a Dr. Barry Gorns... Jim paused on the name. It looked kind of familiar.

Jim suddenly recalled where he’d seen it: in a comm from his mother. She and Jim exchanged short messages every few months, more obligatory than anything. She rarely visited planetside, which they both preferred, and was currently stationed on a remote Starbase. In her most recent comm, she had talked about a Dr. Gorns, who had just joined their research team. Jim quickly looked up Gorns, Barry and confirmed that he was currently stationed at Starbase 27 in Sector 4. His transfer date was shortly after Jim and Bones had started at the Academy. And yet he was still listed as Bones’s primary care physician, even a year after his transfer.

Jim commed the hospital and, when he finally got through the automated system to speak to a real person, was told “This call may be monitored for quality assurance” before he was greeted by an overly cheerful, “Hello, my name is Daniel, how may I help you today?”

“Hi, Daniel, I’m calling because my primary physician is listed as Doctor Barry Gorns, but he has been unavailable for the past few months and I need to have a check-up…”

“I’ll be glad to help you with that, sir!” Daniel enthused. “Let me look that up for you. …Our records indicate that Doctor Gorns is no longer stationed at this hospital. I apologize, you should have been transferred to a different doctor, but sometimes these things slip by. Let’s see…all of Doctor Gorns’s patients were transferred last year to a newly instated doctor named Leonard McCoy.”

Jim’s jaw dropped, then he smiled giddily. Oh, Bones is definitely hiding something. But what would he want to hide from a doctor?

The secretary was still speaking. “…set an appointment?”

Time to poke the sleeping dog. “Actually, my issue is that I am Leonard McCoy, and can’t also be my own doctor. I’m requesting a transfer to another doctor.”

“Oh!” Daniel said. “Oh, Doctor McCoy…yes, I see here your records were part of the batch transferred from Doctor Gorns. I’m terribly sorry, I don’t know how the system made an oversight like this.” I do, thought Jim. Daniel continued, “I’ll get you transferred to another doctor. Would you like to set up an appointment now?”

“I would.” Jim already knew Bones’s schedule like the back of his hand. He set an appointment for a regular check-up right after one of Bones’s usual hospital shifts the following week, and asked for a reminder to be sent fifteen minutes prior to the appointment.

Let’s see how you wiggle out of this one, Jim thought as he ended the comm. Or what you’ve got to hide.

On the day of the appointment, Jim went to an out-of-the-way bar and forced a fight. He came out of it with a split lip and a bruised side, but otherwise was fine. He went to Starfleet Medical and swaggered into the waiting room where Bones was doing his rounds, and when Bones came out Jim grinned bloodily at him. “I don’t suppose you could work me into your schedule last minute?”

Bones looked surprised for an instant, and then angry. “What in hell did you do to yourself this time?”

“Funny thing,” Jim said as Bones grabbed his arm and dragged him into one of the examination rooms. “There was a bar, and a really interesting drink from Nobula, and then there was a girl, and she was smokin’ hot, Bones—”

“And let me guess, this hot girl had a hot-headed boyfriend? It’s not even 1800 and you’re already getting in trouble. Don’t you have classes to be in or something?” As he griped, Bones pushed Jim onto the examination table and snapped on a pair of gloves.

“It’s Saturday. And actually it was a hot-headed girlfriend. Well, actually, I’m not sure her species has genders, but she looked like a chick—”

“Where does it hurt?” Bones asked as he palpated Jim’s face, checking for fractures. “What did she do, throw a brick at you?”

“It was more of a statue, you know, one of those little Orion ones that’ve been popular in the—”

“Shut up so I can heal that busted lip.”

“Your bedside manner is awe-inspiring.”

They fell silent as Bones ran the dermal regenerator over Jim’s split lip, closing the cut and evening out the skin. The steady hum of the regenerator was broken by a beep from Bones’s pocket.

“You’ve got a message,” Jim said helpfully.

“Stop talking or you’ll open the skin again.”

“I could practice my ventriloquism.”

“God help us all if you learn how to talk without your mouth.”

When Bones moved on to Jim’s side to heal the bruising, Jim reached into Bones’s coat pocket and slipped his PADD out.

“Jim—“ Bones said reprovingly, but Jim was already holding the screen up to his face. “It says you’ve got an appointment with a Doctor Calgary. Chop-chop, time to switch sides. Now you’ll get to see what it feels like to be poked and prodded.”

Bones scowled, confused, and snatched the PADD away. “What? Let me see that, I don’t have a—” As Jim watched, Bones’s face drained of color. “A routine check-up? But I shouldn’t—” His eyes flicked to Jim briefly, as though just remembering that he had an audience. “—I already had one last month.”

Liar, thought Jim. Good liar, but liar all the same.

Bones huffed a frustrated sigh and then pushed the regenerator at Jim. “Here, hold that on your bruise for another two minutes, then you’re set to go.” Bones left the room, typing away at his PADD. Jim hopped off the bio-bed and crept to the door, sliding it open manually to avoid the air pressure release.

Bones was standing a few feet away with his back partially turned, so Jim could just see the curve of his cheek. “Damn checksums,” Bones was muttering to himself, his head bowed over his PADD as he typed. Jim could just make out coding script scrolling across the screen of the PADD at a disconcerting rate. “That was faster than usual,” Bones continued to grumble, making adjustments to the code. “Starfleet systems must be pretty damn advanced. Guess that’s no surprise.” A few more taps on his PADD later, and then Bones said in a rare, smug tone, “There. That outta hold for a while.”

Jim hastily released the door so it would close and then leaped back onto the biobed, grabbed the regenerator, and opened the back panel.

The door slid open. Bones frowned at him. “What are you doing? Don’t take that apart!”

Jim shrugged. “It stopped working right after you left. I was trying to fix it.”

“Give me that!” Bones snatched it from Jim and looked into the open back panel, then fiddled with one of the nodules on the back that Jim had deliberately rearranged. The machine buzzed back to life. “There. Now hold still and let’s get this over with. I’ve got other patients to deal with, patients who actually made appointments.”

Jim just grinned.

A few minutes later, Jim was leaving and Bones was moving on to his next patient. As Jim left the hospital, he thought back to the three important things he had learned from this: 1. Bones knew his way around computer code and systems hacking better than Jim. Far better, if he’d been able to re-establish a loop in the system in that short an amount of time. 2. Bones had pulled this stunt before, and not just once but multiple times, enough times to have a feel for the average speed of automatic diagnostics. And 3. Bones really, really didn’t want to see a doctor, for reasons unknown but likely something to do with his physical and/or mental condition. Now Jim just needed to figure out what those reasons were.

***

Finals were grueling as usual, but Jim managed to trudge through them and complete his second year fall quarter with top marks. He was looking forward to the short reprieve of winter break. Not only would this give him time to relax, it would also give him time to pursue his extracurricular interests. He had reserved a few days after the New Year for a very specific sort of research.

Before booking his tickets, Jim had inquired into Bones’s plans for that week. Apparently, Bones was staying at Starfleet, which perfectly played into Jim’s plans: wouldn’t want Bones underfoot while Jim dug into his past, after all.

So it was that on his twenty-second birthday, Jim was carefully pulling a rental hovercar onto a snowy driveway in Tennessee. He set it down on the snow-packed concrete and double-checked the address: 175 Tulip Lane, the same address listed as the only emergency contact for Bones. Jim looked up at the small, quaint house with excitement. He wasn’t sure what he would find—perhaps Bones’s parents, or even his ex-wife?

The last thing he expected was to find a 30-something man wearing glasses, hospital scrubs, and a bushy mustache.

“Hi,” Jim said. “Uh, this may sound a little weird, but do you know a Doctor Leonard McCoy?”

“Leonard?” the man asked, his voice deep and slow and conveying surprise and confusion. “Yessir.”

“Well, he has you listed as his emergency contact…”

“Emergency conta—!” the man said, startled, and then seemed to realize what that implied and interrupted himself to ask, “Is he alright?”

“It’s nothing serious, but I wonder if we might speak in private?”

The man blinked. “Well! Where’re mah manners,” he said, southern accent even more pronounced than Bones’s. “Come righ’ on in. Ah don’t think Ah caught yer name?”

“Jim Kirk.”

“Magnus Reidburg, pleasure tah meetcha.” He shook Jim’s hand.

“Likewise.”

Doctor Reidburg led Jim into a sitting area off of the entryway. The front wall was lined with picture windows and was east-facing, probably getting a lot of sun in the summer. Now, only weak winter light made it through the windowpanes, illuminating the paintings of nature scenes on the opposite wall. An old-fashioned wood-burning fireplace was built into the back wall, the rusty red of the bricks a contrast to the light green walls. In it, a fire crackled away merrily, the heat reaching Jim as he sat on the suede couch and eyed the paintings.

“Please, have a seat, have a seat; lemme git some sweet tea.”

“It’s alright,” Jim tried to say.

“Nonsense! Need tah keep warm in this here weather.”

After he had brought out mugs and a steaming teapot, Reidburg took a seat in the dark lounge chair across from Jim.

“So, what’s all this abou’, then? You said somethin’ abou’ emergency contac’?”

“Yes,” Jim said. “Leonard has filed your address under his emergency contact information.”

“Well butter mah biscuit—Ah kin’t imagine why, Ah haven’ seen him since he graduated med school! What has ole’ Leonard been up tah all these years?”

Part of Jim was focused on the conversation: the other part was focused on the fact that Bones’s only emergency contact hadn’t had contact with him in years.

“He’s enlisted in Starfleet now. I’m a cadet there as well, it’s how we met.”

Doctor Reidburg looked shocked. “The military? That sweet boy?”

Jim’s eyebrows lifted. Bones wasn’t exactly what Jim would call “sweet.”

“Ah had no idea Leonard intended tah go intah the service,” Doctor Reidburg went on. “Thought he was rather averse tah the idea, tah tell yah the God’s truth.”

“That makes sense; he wanted to leave behind his military upbringing,” Jim said, remembering what Bones had told Solanski.

Doctor Reidburg squinted at Jim. “Military upbringing?”

Jim felt doubt creeping in. “Yeah. Wasn’t he raised in a military family?”

“Military fam’ly? By golly, no! Farmin’ fam’ly, more like; he grew up on one. Had these holos o’ the place, looked like somethin’ right outta the ole’ vids with that big, beautiful ole’ house. Dates back tah the pilgrims, he tole’ me! Long line, the McCoys,” he said with that community sense of southern pride. “Anyway, after he sorted out the fam’ly house in Georgia, he came tah Ole’ Miss tah get his MD. Accelerated program, yah know; that boy was one smart cookie. Did his rotations and classes concurrently, so he finished in two years insteada’ four. Ah was doin’ mah residency at the time we was roomin’ together. Last Ah saw him, he was leavin’ for his own residency at University of Iowa Hospital.”

Jim’s mind swirled with the new knowledge, and the excitement of it—this was more than he had found out from Bones himself in over a year. “Where are his parents?”

“Oh,” Reidburg said, suddenly more subdued, “s’far as Ah know, they died shortly ‘afore he left Georgia. Didn’t talk abou’ them much, did ole’ Leonard, but he went back tah the house ev’ry year tah visit the fam'ly grave.” Reidburg leaned closer to say, sotto voce, “Ah think they dyin’ was part o’ the reason he didn’ stay in Georgia.”

“I see,” Jim said, processing.

Reidburg clapped his hands on his knees. “But what’re yah doin’ here, then? Has ole’ Leonard gotten hisself intah some kinda trouble?”

“You could say that, Doctor Reidburg.”

“Please, call me Magnus. Ah like tah leave the title off when Ah’m not workin’.”

“Magnus, then. Recently Bo—Leonard has been acting a bit strangely,” Jim said, going with the made-up story he had invented earlier, “and I’m concerned for him. I got ahold of your information and decided to come out personally to talk to you.”

“Hm,” the man said, suddenly intent. He peered at Jim keenly. “…Yah must be good frien’s, tah do somethin’ like this for him.”

Jim smiled winningly and resisted the urge to laugh nervously. “I like to think so.”

“Well, Ah fer one am glad he’s got yah! Now, yah say he’s been actin’ strange? Strange how?”

“I can’t really put my finger on it, Magnus,” Jim hemmed. “I’m wondering if maybe the uh, breakup affected him more than…well, more than he lets on?”

Magnus squinted at Jim. “Breakup? He and Jocelyn?? Bless Patsy!” he exclaimed disbelievingly. “They were such a happy couple! Got married right ‘afore he left for his residency; like lovesick puppies, those two. What happened?”

“Uh,” Jim said, realizing that he had no idea. “All I know is they got divorced right before he joined Starfleet. Like I said, he doesn’t really talk about it.”

“That is jus’ a cryin’ shame,” Magnus opined firmly.

“Yeah,” Jim added intelligently, and cleared his throat. “I’ve been thinking that he just needs to relax, you know? Did he ever do anything back in med school for fun? Maybe if I knew what, I could try to arrange it to cheer him up a bit.”

“Lemme think…more’n anythin’, Leonard loved doin’ outdoors stuff, yah know; hikin’, rock climbin’, the like. He used tah work off stress that way, usually spent his vacations out campin’ or climbin’ some mountain. Think it maybe took him back tah his roots, yah know? A country boy through an’ through.”

Jim hid his incredulity. Bones hated rock climbing. When Jim had suggested just such an outing over the summer, Bones had quoted statistics about rockslide injuries and deaths much the same way he had done on the shuttle when they met. And there had been plenty of hiking and camping events organized by the Student Center, but when Jim expressed interest, Bones would just scowl and say something like, “I’ve had enough of that to last fifteen lifetimes.” So Jim stopped asking.

“I’ll…try that,” Jim said. “I’ve also thought that maybe it’s just the stress of coursework. How was he in med school? Did he handle it well?”

Magnus’s mouth pinched out in a thoughtful moue, and he began rhythmically stroking his mustache. “No worse’n the rest o’ us, Ah expect. Still managed tah maintain his usual cheerful demeanor, even when times was real stressful.”

“Cheerful? That…doesn’t sound like the Bo—Leonard I know. Actually, he’s pretty grumpy most of the time.”

Magnus looked surprised, then saddened. “Is he really? Well if he lost Joce…they were real close; I’m sorry yah never got tah see him with her. Lit up, he did, whenever she was around. Here, lemme show yah.” He leaned forward to reach the coffee table. On it was a holo projector, which Magnus activated. The files projected in midair over the table for him to sort through. “Here we are,” he said, and laid out several crisp holos. 

Jim leaned forward to study them. They were from a wedding. As per tradition in the south, the wedding was in a church, the inside of which Jim remembered from those few times he’d been dragged there as a child. The walls were decorated with figures and religious symbols, the ceilings high and arching. The bride was a lovely woman with olive skin, light brown hair and green eyes that popped out against her billowing white gown. The groom was dressed in a classic black suit with a white tie to match her dress. At first Jim didn’t recognize Bones because he had a huge smile on his face as he watched his bride being escorted down the aisle by a older man, presumably her father.

“See, that’s me there, on the groom’s side. It was mighty nice o’ him tah invite me, seeing as we was on’y roommates and the ceremony was small.”

Magnus reached over and pulled up a holovid from the pile, hitting play. Jim watched eagerly, intensely curious what Bones was like when he was actually enjoying himself wholeheartedly.

It started with the bride walking down the aisle. She had an air of elegance about her, even as she cried freely. But that wasn’t unexpected, people cried at weddings all the time. What was unexpected was Bones.

Jim watched carefully as the groom moved to take the arm of his soon-to-be wife. The Bones that Jim knew had a very upright carriage with his shoulders thrown back and his eyes held steady. He was very controlled, very economical in his movements. By contrast, the Bones in this vid had a very slight slouch to his posture, and would almost shyly look down every now and then. The camera was too far away to pick up more than the mumbles of the couple saying their vows, but while they did so Bones shuffled his feet and was generally almost twitchy. Is this what Bones looked like when he was bursting with nervous excitement? Jim wouldn’t know; he had no reference. It was certainly bizarre though, like watching Bones through a funhouse mirror.

“Magnus,” Jim said, “do you have any other holovids of Leonard? Not from the wedding?”

“Hm,” Magnus rubbed his mustache again, “lemme think…” He suddenly laughed. “Oh yeah, Ah’ve got one,” he said as he opened another folder and sorted through it. He pulled up another vid and hit play.

The scene was some kind of party, looked like it was taking place in someone’s house. The man who had just begun recording could be heard at the beginning of the tape: “-et me git this, it’s too funny.”

Another man that Jim recognized as a younger Magnus was standing facing the wall. Between him and the wall was a chair.

“Why’re yah recordin’ this?” the young Magnus complained.

“Fer posterity’s sake,” said the cameraman.

There were people gathered around Magnus egging him on, though to do what, Jim couldn’t tell. Young Magnus finally sighed and said, “Alrigh’, alrigh’, hold yer horses.” He leaned over at the waist until his head touched the wall, grabbed the chair with his hands, raised it to his chest, and then just stayed in that position for a long moment. The crowd around him burst into hysterical laughter.

Jim looked up confusedly at the current Magnus, who was wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. “There’s a little trick tah this,” Magnus explained. “Keep watchin’.”

The young Magnus had been replaced in front of the chair by a woman Jim didn’t recognize. She performed the same series of movements Magnus had, but instead of stopping with the chair lifted to her chest, she then straightened up neatly without bending her knees, and the surrounding crowd clapped and cheered.

“It’s somethin’ on’y women kin do, on accoun’ o’ they lower cen’er o’ gravity,” Magnus explained as more men approached the chair and vainly attempted to pick it up. “See, when a man leans over the chair and picks it up, he is holdin’ his cen’er o’ gravity over the chair instead o’ over his feet, and that overbalances him.” Jim winced as one of the men tried so hard to get up that he lifted an inch off the wall for a split second and then smacked his forehead into it on the swing down. “Whereas womenfolk have a lower cen’er o’ gravity, so even with the chair, most o’ they weight is still over they feet, so they kin balance alrigh’.” Magnus smiled nostalgically. “Someone at the party had heard abou’ this, so we decided tah test it out. Sounds like a great idea when mixed with alcohol, don’it?”

It was, Jim agreed, probably something he himself would attempt while drunk, but he couldn’t see Bones going along with the tomfoolery. And indeed, Bones hadn’t appeared in the vid yet.

The young Magnus suddenly appeared in front of the camera, reaching for it. “Go on, yer turn,” he said to the cameraman.

There was a confused moment while the camera changed hands, and then it was focused back on the chair and the new man standing in front of it. The man turned his face to grin at the camera cheekily, and Jim realized with a jolt that it was Bones—a little younger, but definitely Bones, although Bones never looked that relaxed and carefree, even when he was out drinking with Jim.

Bones opened his mouth. “Yer just wantin’ tah sei’ mei’ hit mah head like ole’ Billy did,” he accused Magnus, to the uproarious drunken laughter of the crowd.

Jim stared uncomprehendingly. It was definitely Bones who was speaking, and yet that voice didn’t match Bones at all. The pitch, tone and cadence were completely different. Even the accent was different, far more Appalachian than Bones’s mild drawl. It sounded like a stranger, and yet clearly he was Bones.

Bones tried to stand with the chair but, like the men before him, failed, and was soon back to holding the camera after shooting a wink at one of the ladies—actually, that looked like it might be his eventual bride. Jesus, it was weird to see him acting that way.

Jim stopped the vid and looked up at Magnus. “Magnus, as a doctor, can you tell me: is it possible for someone’s voice to change? An adult’s, I mean.”

Magnus, remarkably magnanimous about the sudden topic change, said, “Well, sure, they’re ways it kin happen—certain types o’ brain damage or damage tah the neck or vocal cords; jus’ time and maturity’ll do it too. Why do yah ask?”

“It’s just that Bone—Leonard’s voice in this vid…I don’t recognize it. I didn’t realize he was the cameraman until I saw him.”

Magnus looked down at the projection of the vid, considering. “He sounds just like Ah remember him. But, well, sometimes us southerners gotta play it down a bit, so’s folks kin understand us. And like Ah said, time kin do that tah a man, and this vid woulda been, oh, ‘bout six years ago now; and Ah haven’t seen him in five.”

“Yeah, sure,” Jim said doubtfully. “Do you mind if I get copies of these?”

“Don’ see why not,” Magnus agreed.

“And do you happen to know any of the people that he worked with in Iowa? So I can contact them?”

“Ah’m afraid Ah didn’ know anyone he worked with there person’ly, but Ah kin gitcha the comm for the director o' the medical residency program.”

“Thank you, I appreciate it,” Jim said. “One more thing. Was Leonard doing any kind of research while he was getting his degree?”

Magnus stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “Don’ think he had much time for anythin’ outside classes and rotations; it’s a wonder he found any time for Jocelyn.”

“Right,” Jim said. “Well, I think I better get going. Thank you for your time, Magnus, this has been very helpful.”

“Ah sure hope yah kin find a way tah help the poor boy; sounds like he’s had a rough time.”

“Yeah, me too,” Jim said.

As he navigated the snowy roads back to his motel, Jim pondered this strange younger version of Bones who was so unrecognizable in manner and speech. Could a man really change that much in six years? Had he, like Magnus said, had some sort of injury? Perhaps this was why he was so worried about a doctor examining him? Maybe he had some sort of injury that he didn’t want Starfleet to know about. Yes, that would make sense! An injury that, perhaps, would make him unsuitable for service. Maybe a brain injury, like Magnus had suggested.

But then Jim remembered the way Bones had talked when he was reinstating his loophole to get out of his mandatory medical exams. It had sounded like Starfleet wasn’t his first time manipulating a system in that manner. Jim supposed that Bones could have been avoiding medical exams while in med school also, but then his supposed injury wouldn’t explain his voice change, which brought Jim back to square one.

Another thing that Jim pondered on was the puzzling fact that Bones had apparently lied about having a military background. This now reopened a question that Jim had thought he had put to rest: the question of his military bearing as recognized by Solanski, their Combat Training instructor. Where had Bones gotten military training if not from his family? He’d been in medical school from age 21 to 23, graduated and gone to his residency, which Jim knew was another 5 years for general surgery, and then must have joined Starfleet right after he finished. Where was the time for the kind of military training that would allow him to best one of their instructors?

On top of all that, Bones’s parents were dead….Bones never said anything about his parents, or any of his family. Jim had assumed that Bones, like Jim himself, had good reasons for not bringing his family up. But Jim never suspected that those reasons were that they were all deceased; deaths were rare enough in general, but to have his entire family wiped out by the time he was Jim’s age? No wonder Bones was so grumpy.

According to Magnus, though, Bones hadn’t always been that way. He had been generally “cheerful” in medical school, despite the tragedies of his past. So what could have happened between his graduation and his move to Starfleet that made him so withdrawn and bitter? The divorce? It was the only possible explanation, and yet Jim didn’t get the feeling that it was weighing on Bones’s mind that heavily. Bones never brought it up aside from that first meeting, not even to complain, and Bones complained about everything. Though, that could be telling, that Bones would complain about everything except the things that really mattered.

At the motel, Jim composed a comm to the director of the medical residency program at University of Iowa Hospital, ostensibly as a records request. He specifically emphasized the request for Bones’s medical checkups, which were conducted on doctors every six months, just to double check that he hadn’t had any injuries that could explain the odd voice changes. The hospital Bones had done his residency in wasn’t far from the Starfleet base where Jim and Bones had both signed up, so Jim reasoned that Bones had probably finished his residency there and then continued on as a fully certified doctor until he joined Starfleet. That should mean that they’d have all his records prior to Starfleet.

Jim sent the comm using a false server that mimicked the Starfleet admin account, then sat back and debated about his next move. He’d been planning a visit to the McCoy residence in Georgia, hoping to speak with his family, but the dead tell no tales. And he’d really rather not go back to Iowa—had made a personal vow to never set foot in the godforsaken place again.

Jim had three days to kill now. Might as well make the most of them, he thought with a grin.

***

When Bones first saw Jim after his return to the Academy, his eyebrow shot up. “I thought you were going to Iowa, not Australia,” he said, eyeballing Jim’s tan.

“Hello to you too, Bones,” Jim said dryly as he stepped into Bones’s apartment. “Thanks for asking, I had a great vacation. What’s that? You spent the last week getting puked on by drunken revelers? Well, gee, that’s too bad.”

Bones snatched the bottle of scotch out of Jim’s hand. “Smartass,” he muttered as he went to get them glasses.

“Emphasis on smart, because I’m right,” Jim said cheekily as he sauntered over to the couch. He stretched out on it lengthwise with his arms folded behind his head, looking up at the ceiling. “So, anything interesting happen while I was gone?”

“Someone broke the replicator,” Bones threw a box of saltines onto Jim’s chest, “so it’s condiment crackers until they fix it.”

“Mmm, my favorite,” Jim said, smacking his lips obnoxiously as Bones set a glass on the table and pushed Jim’s legs off the couch so he could sit. Jim immediately lifted them back up, dropping them against Bones’s stomach with excessive force and stifling a laugh when he heard Bones get the wind knocked out of him.

“Why are you laying down when you’re the one who was just on vacation?” Bones grumbled, but didn’t push his legs away again.

“I’ll have you know,” Jim said, his eyes closed, “that vacationing is serious business. I need a break.”

Bones snorted a laugh. “You big baby,” he accused fondly, and Jim opened one eye to peek at him. Bones was looking down at him with a small smile on his face, and Jim realized that whatever circumstances had brought Bones to be here and exactly the man he was, Jim couldn’t regret them, not even if they included a serious brain injury.

Jim closed his eyes again, content.

***

“So, how have things been, Kirk?”

Jim was in Pike’s austere office playing the same game of chess they had started over a year ago. 

“They’re fine, Captain,” Jim answered, puzzling through his next move.

“What classes are you taking this quarter?” Pike asked, sipping at the Earl Grey he had brewed.

“Mm, Particle Physics, Principles of Xenolinguistics, Intermediate Survival Training, Shipboard Communications, Battle Tactics, Diplomatic Relations, and History of Space Exploration.”

“That’s certainly a mixed bag. I thought you’d be planning to narrow your focus more, since you said you wanted to graduate in three years.”

“I do, sir. And I will. However, I don’t feel it behooves a Captain to neglect any part of a ship’s operating process, so I’m taking a few extra classes.”

“On top of the condensed three-year program,” Pike clarified.

“Yeah.”

“That’s impressive, Kirk, and considering your record so far I have no doubt that you’ll manage it.”

Jim felt his cheeks heat and looked down at the board to hide his embarrassment. At the same time, he felt strangely satisfied by Pike’s easy confidence in him. He’d never had someone who had faith in his capabilities like that.

“Speaking of narrowing your field of study,” Pike went on when Jim was silent, “have you decided what your focus will be? Cadets usually choose by the end of their second year, but your situation is unique.”

Jim glanced up at Pike, then back to the board. He procrastinated answering for a minute by pretending to think about his next move while he discreetly wiped his sweaty palms on his pants. “I’ve decided on Diplomacy.” At Pike’s continued silence, Jim finally looked up to judge his expression.

Pike was looking at him with an odd expression that it took Jim a minute to place. It was something like pride, mixed with just a hint of exasperation. Pike set his teacup down and held Jim’s eyes as he said, “Took you long enough to realize that your personality profile matches Diplomacy.”

Jim’s jaw dropped. “You knew?” he blurted.

Pike laughed and shook his head. “Kirk, I knew from the first conversation we had that you’d make an excellent diplomat.” 

“But I don’t want to be a diplomat,” Jim protested.

“Never said you did,” Pike replied easily, and then one of his eyebrows quirked up knowingly. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed that diplomacy is one of the top priorities of Starship Captains out there in the black.”

“That’s true, sir, and I think it’s also true that I’ve got the right personality for it, as you said. But that’s not why I chose diplomacy.”

“Oh?”

“I chose diplomacy,” Jim said, “because I think it’s my greatest weakness.”

If Pike was surprised, he hid it well. “Explain, Cadet,” he invited.

“Do you remember when you first met me, sir?”

“How could I forget?” Pike asked dryly.

“Well, the thing is, I—” Jim paused out of chagrin, and then barreled on, “I didn’t throw the first punch, but I may have provoked Cup—I mean, Crewman Hanlon.” The corner of Pike’s mouth twitched at Jim’s slip, and Jim was suddenly certain that Pike had heard the entire story already, including Jim’s name calling. “I seem to have a knack for that, provoking people, getting into fights. But that’s not what Starfleet needs in an officer or in a captain, and that’s not…” Jim clenched his jaw. “That’s not the kind of person I want to be. Not anymore.”

Pike was watching him carefully. He set his glass down next to the board. “What brought this on, Kirk?”

Jim thought about the endless tedious days before Starfleet where anything sounded better than apathy, even breaking his jaw or someone else’s. He thought about the contrast of being a cadet, the driving focus and keen interest he had experienced every day since joining Starfleet. “I guess…I realized that our main priority is to promote peace and prosperity, and I can’t do that by throwing punches. I need to be able to get along with people from very different backgrounds and beliefs, and to do that I need to learn to communicate effectively, to compromise.” A memory flashed by, of Bones facing down three confrontational crewmen and returning their vengeful wrath with compassion. “I want to use my talents to create friendships instead of fights,” Jim finished.

“Hm,” Pike hummed, a slow smile pulling at his face. He leaned back in his chair, still smiling. “That’s very insightful, Cadet,” he praised. “I commend your choice of study, and your reasoning for it. I think it will be a benefit to you not just as an officer but as a person.”

Relief crashed into Jim, and he sagged just a little before catching himself. “Thank you, sir,” Jim said. “There was one other thing, sir. I was wondering if,” Jim hesitated, “if you would be my official thesis advisor.” Before Pike could say anything, Jim rushed on with his pre-planned arguments. “I know I’m not Tactical like you were, sir, but considering the varied nature of Command I don’t think it would be unfair to be advised by someone from a different focus—”

“Of course I’ll be your advisor, Kirk,” Pike interrupted.

“—and there’s plenty of precedent for—you will? I mean,” Jim tried to get his bearings back after Pike’s easy acceptance. He had thought it would take far more convincing to get someone of Pike’s standing to become his thesis advisor. “Thank you, sir, really. I’m honored.”

“None of that, Kirk. I’m happy to advise you.”

Jim couldn’t help the wide smile that spread across his face.

“Now, tell me about your classes,” Pike said, and Jim complied.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Well, looks like a serious injury is off the cards, Jim thought as he scanned through the file from University of Iowa Hospital. Bones’s health records checked out: everything perfectly normal for a healthy man in his twenties, no major injuries reported. Still didn’t rule out Bones tampering with their records, but there weren’t any long periods of absence reported aside from his honeymoon. If he’d had an injury of the type that he’d need to hide from Starfleet, surely he’d have been out of commission for a while.

For thoroughness, Jim looked through the rest of Bones’s records that had come along with the medical records: the dates of his exams, his scores on the standard assessments, publications and presentations on file, etc. Jim noticed that Bones had requested a leave of absence a few weeks before he’d taken the shuttle to Starfleet. That would have meant three weeks unaccounted for at either U of Iowa or Starfleet. Intrigued, Jim expanded the note. Bones had cited “Family Emergency” as his reason for the absence, and Jim realized with a pang of sympathy that this must have been when he’d gone through the divorce. The next form in his file was a letter of resignation, dated two weeks into his leave of absence, followed swiftly by a request for transcripts to be sent to Starfleet.

So Bones had gone on vacation when he’d gotten divorced, and somewhere along the way decided he’d rather not stay on earth. He’d quit at U of Iowa and joined Starfleet, and within a week was on the shuttle meeting Jim. It was funny how these things worked out, Jim mused. Bones had just lost everything that made his life stable—a marriage, a budding career—and traded it in for the uncertainty of military life. By contrast, Jim had been adrift, his behavior erratic, and joining Starfleet had been a stabilizing maneuver when he was spinning out of control. It was both odd and wonderful that their two very different paths would have still led to them walking the same road together.

Bureaucracy being what it was, it had taken over a month for the hospital to respond to Jim’s comm requesting Bones’s records. But Jim hadn’t been idle; he’d already begun planning his next move, and had all the ingredients he needed. He waited until Midterms were out of the way, and then set his plan in motion.

It was Friday night and Bones was on a shift at the hospital. Jim found him in the waiting room helping an elderly man across the room to the back. The man had a two-wheeled walking frame and his progress was glacial, but Bones seemed to have infinite patience and was chatting him up on their slow trek across the room.

The Gearlock was one of the best from the 22nd century,” Bones was saying as Jim came up behind them. He hadn’t noticed Jim yet. “They said it had been 50 years since the last successful movie that wasn’t a remake.”

“Finally,” the old man said in a wheezy voice, “a youth who knows his stuff. I wish my grandson was like you, but he’s more interested in the new vids. If it’s not Zeta quality, he wants nothing to do with it.”

“Kids these days,” Bones grumbled in agreement, keying open the door to the back halls.

“Hey, Bones,” Jim greeted, and Bones and the elderly man turned to him. Jim grinned at Bones sunnily.

Bones’s instant scowl said I’m-trying-to-do-my-job-and-you’re-bothering-me. “Jim,” he said, voice heavy with meaning, “I’m with a patient.”

“Don’t mind me,” the elderly man said jovially, his jowls quivering. “I’m in no rush.”

Bones sighed. “Mister Rother, please go in the first door on the left. I’ll be with you shortly to discuss your options.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Mr. Rother said pleasantly, pushing his walking frame through the doorway. Just before the door closed, he looked back at Bones and said in a chiding stage whisper, “Don’t let that one get away, young man.”

Bones blinked as the door slid shut. Jim coughed to cover up a laugh.

Bones turned to Jim, his cheeks faintly pink, and started blustering immediately. “What mess did you get yourself into this time?” he demanded, eyes darting over Jim as though looking for evidence of a tussle.

Jim slapped a hand over his heart and gasped dramatically, “Why, Bones, I’m not sure what you’re insinuating.” Ignoring Bones’s grumbled My ass, Jim continued with mock hurt, “I come all the way over the bridge to visit my friend, and this is the thanks I get?”

“I’ll thank you to leave until my shift is over.”

“Your shift is over.”

Bones did a double take on the chrono, and then harrumphed. “My shift is over once I’ve seen all my scheduled patients, and not a minute sooner.”

“I was planning a little post-Midterms celebration tonight, if you’re interested,” Jim suggested.

“I’ve already got plans after work.”

“To do what?”

“Never you mind. Just some research for the hospital.”

Still working on that illegal research, Jim thought. If he was going to get Bones to agree to hang out tonight, Jim would have to push a little. “How about I just come with you and wait,” Jim said, “maybe learn a little about medicine in the process? You never know when stuff like that will come in handy in the field.”

“Authorized personnel only,” Bones said shortly.

“I could be authorized. Why don’t I go talk to the hospital board, then? Maybe I can be instated as a technician or something, get a few extra credits.” Jim turned like he was going to leave and do just that. “What’s your research division?”

Bones took a slightly-too-hasty step toward him, his hand held up pacifyingly. “Nevermind, it can wait. I guess I’ll see you later.”

Jim smiled, all teeth. “Sounds good.” He clapped Bones on the shoulder and waved over his shoulder as he left. “I’ll meet you at yours.”

***

Jim was leaning against the wall, playing a game on his PADD when Bones finally came up the stairs to his room. He looked tired as he keyed in his code and explained, “Got hung up with my last patient. Are we staying in or going out?” he asked as he kicked his shoes off at the door and made his way to his bedroom.

“In is fine,” Jim said, and held up the bottle of bourbon he’d brought.

“See you finally picked up some sense,” Bones said approvingly. “I’ll be right out. There’s beer in the fridge if you want, but pour me a glass of that,” Bones said before closing his bedroom door to change out of his scrubs.

Jim got a beer out for himself, and then hesitated before he poured a glass of the bourbon for Bones. Was he really going to do this?

Well, Bones had already drugged him. It was time to return the favor.

Tactic #3: Drunken [Drugged] Revelation

The drug was tasteless and odorless, coming from a little planet around Rigel VII, and actually not dangerous when used at the proper levels. It worked the same way as alcohol: to relax the body and lower inhibitions, but was far more potent.

Jim poured Bones a healthy amount just in time to hear Bones coming out of the bedroom, now dressed in his customary long-sleeved shirt and a pair of old sweatpants. 

As Jim handed him the tumbler of bourbon, he said, “I heard about this new mystery-humor vid. It’s supposed to be good; you wanna watch?”

Bones’s face soured as he sipped the bourbon, and for a moment Jim thought he could somehow taste the drug, but then Bones said, “Not sure I’m up for a show tonight.”

Jim took a long swallow of his beer, as much to calm his heart rate as to give him time to think. “Hm…What’s The Gearlock about?”

Bones raised his eyebrow. “Eavesdropping on my conversations, are you?”

Not yet, Jim thought, and grinned unrepentantly. “If you like it, then it must be at least half-way decent. Why don’t we watch that?”

Bones gave the living room wall where the screen would project a considering look. “…Ahhh, what the hell. At least you’ll be exposed to a classy video, not the bullshit they dress up in fancy graphics and try to pass off these days.”

They both hunkered down on the sofa. Jim watched Bones out of the corner of his eye, waiting for the muscle hypotonia that was the first symptom of the drug. It was supposed to be fast-acting, but fifteen minutes after Bones had emptied his glass and he wasn’t behaving any differently. Puzzled, Jim gave it another fifteen minutes before he topped off Bones’s glass. Jim had been very careful about the dose, but doses couldn’t account for individual variation. Maybe Bones just had a high tolerance.

Another fifteen minutes went by and Jim began to wonder if he’d grabbed the wrong bottle. The drug should have caused Bones to list to the side, to fumble his drink; it should have decreased his muscle tension until he was molded to the sofa. Instead, Bones was sitting as usual, with one leg crossed over the other at the ankle and an arm thrown over the back of the sofa as he sipped at his bourbon. No languor, no effect on his reflexes or balance.

Well, if it was a dud, it wouldn’t hurt to add more, Jim reasoned. So he made sure to keep Bones’s glass full throughout the vid. Bones was so enraptured by the story that he didn’t appear to notice. When Jim himself paid attention to the vid, he was surprised to find that it was an action/adventure plot. But then—Jim stole a glance at Bones out of the corner of his eye, and the memory of his stranglehold resurfaced briefly—perhaps it wasn’t surprising at all.

By the time the holovid was done, Bones had gone through almost half the bottle of spiked whiskey. Shockingly, he didn’t appear to be intoxicated at all. Even if the drug itself wasn’t working properly, the bourbon should have had some effect. But Bones wasn’t even a little tipsy, as Jim had seen him on countless occasions when they went out drinking.

Bones was also talking quite animatedly about the vid, which was a side of him that Jim hadn’t often seen.

“It was the first movie Rochester starred in, set his career flying,” Bones said as the credits rolled. “Some people thought Yellow Fighter was his best movie, but this one will always be my favorite. It made a lot of headway in getting rid of xenophobia, which was rampant at the time. People were rioting in the streets, worried about the ‘alien menace.’ The Vulcans didn’t help anything by saying their fears were ‘illogical,’ the smarmy bastards.”

“I didn’t know you were such a History of Theater fanatic, Bones,” Jim said, sipping at his third beer. “You even call them ‘movies,’ like they did back when vids were still played in digital. I’d had you pegged as a Fine Arts kinda guy.”

Bones blinked at him, and something in his expression shifted, turned off, like shutters flickering closed. Instead of answering, he just grunted and looked down at his tumbler, then at the half-empty bottle of whiskey on the table.

His eyes darted quickly to Jim, who met his gaze calmly as he sipped his beer. “You hold your liquor a lot better than I thought, Bones. Been going easy on me?”

Bones abruptly stood. “Bathroom,” he said gruffly. He quickly retreated—and make no mistake, it was definitely a retreat. Jim had Bones on the defensive again.

Yes, Jim thought as he sipped his beer, it made sense. This wasn’t just a puzzle to solve, the pieces sitting docilely, waiting to be arranged in the proper order. This was a chase, with the prey attempting to elude discovery and capture. Bones was willing to go to great lengths to keep his secrets, meaning Jim would have to try that much harder to expose them. And he had to be very careful about it. Bones was more than capable of defending his secrets, Jim thought, his fingers absently stroking his neck.

When Bones exited the bathroom, he had a strange look on his face and was watching Jim closely. He picked up the bottle from the table, stared at the label for a moment, and then held it out to Jim. “I think I’ve had enough,” he said, and Jim accepted it back, trying to read his face and failing.

“I gotta get to bed,” Bones said, and a minute later Jim found himself in the hallway, blinking at the unceremonious end to the evening. He shot one look at the closed door and then walked back to the Bullet.

“Hey, Andy,” Jim greeted when he came through the door to his room.

Andy was laying on the bed on his stomach, looking like he hadn’t moved since Jim left this morning. He gave Jim an absent greeting, eyes riveted to the glowing screen of his PADD.

Jim set the half-empty bottle of bourbon on the table. He tapped the table a couple times and then eyed Andy speculatively.

“I’ve got some extra whiskey, want some?” Jim asked, already pouring a shot.

“Um,” Andy said, not really paying attention.

Jim sauntered over to the bed and shoved it under Andy’s nose. “It’s the good stuff,” he promised.

Andy took it, still watching his PADD, and threw it back.

Five minutes later, Andy was laying on his back staring at the ceiling and giggling. “That is the good stuff,” he said.

Jim stared at the bottle sitting innocently on the table and felt like a shuttle lost in deep space. It seemed like every time he tried to get answers, he only found more questions. Bones was like one of those Chinese nesting dolls, where picking apart the layers didn’t reveal anything new—just the same unreadable face staring back at you. Jim could only hope that the analogy would hold true as he neared the heart of the mystery, and he had a feeling he was getting close. He just needed that last bit of information to springboard him. 

And he’d bet the last of his credits that the information he needed had to come from the source.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Tactic #4: Back to Tactic #1

Bones never mentioned that night. In fact, he was acting like it never happened, and seemed to expect Jim to do the same. Jim was only too happy to oblige, eager to remain an unseen observer.

As winter trudged on, Jim familiarized himself with the way that Bones treated his PADD. Bones had it on him all the time. In fact, the only time he didn’t have it either in his pocket or in his hand was when he was showering, and even then he brought it in the bathroom with him.

But Jim’s aptitude tests didn’t put him well into the “genius” range for nothing. What he needed, he knew, was a distraction. Jim also knew that the best distraction for Bones was someone in imminent danger. Jim didn’t need to actually put anyone in danger, and he wouldn’t anyway, but he did need Bones to believe there was a threat, just for long enough. Which is how Jim came up with this plan. It took him a few weeks to get everything he needed, because shipping from that part of the galaxy was slow, but he was ready toward the end of winter quarter and then just had to wait.

He didn’t have to wait long. The Stylus had been built when sonic showers were at their peak of popularity, and all the rooms were equipped with them. Bones, like many people, preferred a water shower, and would sometimes ask to use Jim’s. He did so on a Thursday evening in the middle of finals week, when he and Jim were planning to study in Jim’s room. Andy was pulling one of his all-night study sessions in the library, so they were alone, making it the perfect opportunity.

“Mind if I use your shower, Jim?” Bones asked after they had set down their things.

Jim perked up and tried not to appear too eager. “Yeah, go ahead,” he said.

Jim waited until he heard the sound of the shower curtain swishing open and closed, then he went immediately to his kitchen and put a frying pan on the stove. He poured oil into the pan and added a small clipping from a plant called a beliko, from the planet Risa. Then he pulled out a lighter and lit the contents of the pan on fire.

The oil immediately went up in tall flames, catching on the leaves of the beliko. As the plant blackened and curled up, purple smoke began pouring off of it, rising up in a thick cloud.

Jim’s post-Boom, state-of-the-art smoke alarm shrieked to life, and there was a distant thump from the bathroom before the door slid open. Jim turned to see Bones rushing out of the bathroom, soaking wet and barely gripping a towel around his trim hips.

“What the hell, Jim!?” Bones yelled when he saw the state of the kitchen, filling steadily with purple smoke while Jim stood by, coughing. Bones trotted over and grabbed the pan off the stove before dumping it into the sink and running water over it to put out the fire—exactly as Jim predicted he would.

As soon as the water hit them, the blackened leaves of the beliko turned a bright red, puffed up like an angry tribble and then kind of…sneezed, dusting the immediate vicinity in red particulate. The unfortunate thing about the spores was that they smelled like the hind end of a pig, or maybe the inside of a sewer, Jim thought, clapping a hand to his nose and gagging. He’d known to expect this, but words couldn’t quite describe how abominably it smelled.

“Oh god,” he moaned (maybe a tiny bit theatrically), “I think I’m gonna throw up,” he finished as he ran to the bathroom and locked the door, ignoring Bones’s nauseous-sounding call of, “Dammit, Jim, don’t leave me to clean this up!”

As it was, Jim actually did have to make use of the toilet; the beliko spores were stronger than he’d anticipated. Still, he thought as he washed his mouth at the sink, it gave credence to his story. Plausible deniability.

After he’d washed the taste of sick away, Jim turned to the pile of Bones’s clothes on the counter. He riffled through them, searching frantically for Bones’s unregistered PADD, the sound muffled by the still-running shower. He found it in the side pocket of Bones’s pants and turned it on. 

It was password protected.

Of course it was, Jim thought agitatedly. This couldn’t be easy or anything.

The password hint said DOB, but when Jim punched in 06262227 it didn’t accept it. Paranoid bastard, Jim thought, ignoring the fact that Jim’s very presence justified paranoia. He tried another couple variations, 26062227, 2227.177, and then the kitchen alarm went silent.

He didn’t have time to try every possible permutation of Bones’s birthday, and he didn’t want to risk a hacking program when Bones might have protections against such invasions that would alert him to the attempts. Instead, Jim found a backdoor in the programming and gained extremely limited access to the PADD. It didn’t extend to the files, encrypted or otherwise, but he was able to access the applications, including the interweb.

Quickly, he synchronized it with his own PADD and uploaded the interweb browsing history. Then he flushed the toilet, put everything back to the way it had been and exited the bathroom.

Bones had opened all the windows to air out the room, and retrieved the vacuum. He was still lightly dusted in the red spores, which were thankfully rather sticky so at least they weren’t floating all over the room. And he’d disabled the alarm, which was a huge plus for Jim’s abused ears. Jim gave him a sheepish grin when Bones scowled at him and held out the vacuum handle. “Your mess, you clean it up,” he ordered snippily.

“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting that,” Jim said as he accepted the vacuum.

“What in the hell were you using a beliko for, anyway?” Bones grumbled, and Jim would have dwelled on the fact that Bones knew exactly what the obscure alien plant was, except that he’d just caught sight of Bones’s left deltoid, which had avoided the worst of the spore blast.

It was inked. Bones actually had a tattoo. It was drawn in simple black, and it was small, probably not even bigger than Jim’s hand—or Bones’s hand, Jim realized, thinking back to that time in the gym last year when he’d seen Bones half-naked in the locker room. Bones, Jim recalled, had turned half away from Jim and raised his arm across his chest. Jim had thought he’d been trying to cover himself out of some bizarre sense of modesty, but now he realized that Bones had been gripping his left shoulder, covering the tattoo.

Making full use of this opportunity, Jim studied it intently, trying to imprint the image in his memory. Front and center of the tattoo was a thin horizontal banner, the edges folding back elegantly, with the characters R.R.T.S.6 printed across it. The bold, stylized script curved gently with the arch of the fabric. Behind the banner, two long objects were crossed to form an X shape. One was a scythe, the wicked curve of its blade wrapping around the leading edge of the banner. The other was a caduceus, the medical symbol of two snakes twining around a winged staff. The left wing of the staff was absent while the right wing was curled around the trailing edge of the banner, mirroring the blade of the scythe.

Bones noticed the avid attention. His hand snapped up reflexively to cover the tattoo. 

Jim quirked an eyebrow curiously. “Nice tat,” he said. “Kind of morbid for a doctor, but appropriate with the whole life-and-death-in-your-hands thing. What’s RRTS?”

Bones turned to go back to the bathroom. “Misspent youth,” was all he said.

Well, Jim wasn’t going to let him leave it at that. Jim vacuumed up the red spores while Bones finished his shower. By the time Bones emerged from the bathroom, the kitchen was as clean as it ever got and Jim was seated at the table, leafing through a Particle Physics book on his PADD.

“Ready to study?” Jim asked, because with Bones you could never dive right into something or he’d back off faster than a cat in water.

Bones seemed a bit leery, as though he’d been expecting an interrogation, but he took his place in the other chair and pulled out his Cardiovascular Pathology course book. Bones preferred to study using actual textbooks, which Jim hadn’t even been aware were printed.

After they’d been studying for about an hour, Jim stretched and got up to get snacks. “Want anything?” he asked Bones.

“What do you have, beer? Yeah, I’ll take that.” Bones immediately took a sip of the bottle Jim handed him. “Don’t know how you can drink this horse piss.”

“You seem to be managing just fine,” Jim retorted as he threw a bag of chips on the table and retook his seat. “So,” he said as he munched through a couple chips and carefully kept his eyes on his PADD, “when did you get the tattoo?”

Bones sighed quietly, like he had hoped but never really believed that Jim had forgotten. “Long time ago, kid.”

Damn, Bones hadn’t called him that in months. Whatever the story behind this tattoo was, it probably wasn’t happy. Bones only used that moniker when he was trying to distance himself. Jim glanced up at Bones and then looked back at his PADD. “You wanna talk about it?” Jim asked, the question serious.

Instead of answering immediately in the negative, as Jim had thought he would, Bones was silent for almost a full minute. Jim carefully did not look up.

Finally, Bones said, “I think it’s best left in the past.”

At that, Jim tried to catch Bones’s eye, but Bones had already refocused on his books, his expression pinched.

Jim couldn’t concentrate well for the rest of their study session, distracted by the unexpected revelation of the tattoo, the lingering thrill of a plan executed successfully, and the excitement of getting a look at what he’d downloaded from Bones’s PADD. Bones noticed his unrest and called an end to the night prematurely, claiming he had an early shift.

After Bones left, Jim immediately opened the interweb history he had copied from Bones’s PADD and began skimming through the recent links. A lot of them were medical journals or online textbooks, research for class assignments, a few maps of San Francisco and various establishments around town. It wasn’t until Jim started digging further back in the history that he found something worth noting. It was an old newspaper article. Although the upload was relatively new, from 15 years ago, the article itself was old, really old, from the middle of the 21st century. It looked a little familiar, and when Jim read the headline, Eugenics Plot Exposed—UAC to be Shut Down, he suddenly recognized it: he had seen it briefly on Bones’s PADD around the time they were studying the Eugenics Wars their first quarter.

Jim would have moved on were it not for something strange: the holo beneath the article headline, which had been present (though mostly off-screen) when Jim last saw it, was gone now, a small unavailable in the middle of the large blank space left by the missing holo. Frowning, he tried to find an original link, but it seemed the data was corrupted.

Intensely curious now, Jim read the article, but was disappointed. As far as Jim could tell, it was just another failed attempt to create the “perfect” human being. There had been dozens of attempts during World War III, after the Augments were overthrown from their rule of the earth, and each had been exposed and systematically shut down. Nowadays, research and therapy for the human genome were strictly regulated, and genetic engineering of humans was absolutely forbidden.

The caption below the missing holo read: Twins John and Samantha Grimm outside the courthouse where they presented evidence prosecuting the UAC’s secret Eugenics experiments.

Jim couldn’t find anything further of interest in the article, so he returned to Bones’s PADD history and continued searching for anything weird. It didn’t take long—the next link was an official transcript of the UAC court case. And then the next few were newspaper articles detailing the fallout of the United Aerospace Corporation—how the government had ordered a complete vaporization of the Mars facility via a plasma bomb (which was a little odd, but they cited something about a potential virus leak), and how the assets of UAC were dispersed or dissolved. Jim skimmed these bemusedly. Why was Bones so interested in this court case? 

One article stood out to Jim because it didn’t have anything to do with the UAC directly. Intrigued, Jim read: 

February 13, 2050—In a shocking twist of fate, Samantha Grimm, age 29, passed away last Wednesday, February 9, just weeks after her victory in the Grimm v. UAC court case. While foul play was initially suspected due to the proximity of the court ruling, the county coroner has officially ruled the death as a suicide. This tragedy is compounded by the fact that, given another month to the day, Samantha would have celebrated her 30th birthday with her twin brother, John Grimm, who is reported to have found the body and notified authorities.

The article continued on to commemorate and summarize Samantha Grimm’s life, detailing the untimely demise of the Grimm parents and the achievements of the young forensic archaeologist. The brother, who was a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Marines, was unavailable for comment since he had been re-deployed directly after his sister’s funeral.

There were three holos with this article. The first was a generic picture of Samantha Grimm, possibly her ID photo for the quality. The next was supposed to be the brother at the funeral, but in the empty space where the image would be was a small unavailable, just like the UAC article. The final holo showed the entire Grimm family when the twins were children, shortly before the parents died. Jim examined the young faces smiling at the camera. They were a study in contrasts, the girl fair-haired and pale while the boy had dark hair and a swarthier complexion. This dichotomy was mirrored in the parents, a dark woman with a light man, and Jim's eyes caught and held on their faces. There was something familiar there, but he couldn't place it. Growing bored with the lack of relevance, he moved on.

Aside from a few more news articles on the UAC and WWIII, there was also a link to a decade-old thesis dissertation. This wouldn’t have been interesting to Jim, except that the abstract claimed to examine the potential link between the shutdown of UAC in 2050 and the end of WWIII three years later. The introduction noted that while there were already many research articles examining the complex political, economic and social events that lead to the end of WWIII, this particular publication provided a new outlook because much of the information about the UAC had been redacted at the time of its original release and had only recently been published without edits. That explained why the links on those first articles were so new, thought Jim: 15 years ago must have been the first release of the unobscured information.

The second figure caption read: The official shutdown of UAC is announced to the public. (A) The redacted newspaper release from 2050. (B) The unabridged original article, re-released 2242. But…the figure itself was missing, a little red X in the corner denoting a corrupted holo file.

Jim was beginning to notice a pattern here, and while it wasn’t unusual to find missing links in older articles, the dissertation was too recent. He skipped back to the title page and found the corresponding author, a Dr. Emilia Johnson, who was a Professor at the University of Copenhagen.

Jim sent her a short comm expressing interest in her paper and noting the corruption in the file. Then Jim finished skimming Bones’s PADD history, but didn’t find anything else of interest. It was now almost 0200, so he got ready for bed.

As he lay trying to sleep, Jim thought about everything he knew so far, and how it fit together. The main concern that Jim had was that Bones was trying to hide so many things: some kind of research, probably biological; where, when and why he had received military combat training; and possibly an injury that would automatically disqualify him from Starfleet service and also change his speech patterns. This injury would be detectable in a medical exam.

Jim paused at that thought, feeling around it. There was something there. A medical exam…an examination of one’s physiological and mental condition…a potential injury that affected speech, suggesting brain damage…biological research…

Jim sat up suddenly. Bones was performing biological research, and wanted it kept from Starfleet. He was also avoiding medical examinations and had gone through the trouble of altering his records in order to keep them from Starfleet. So what if the two were linked—what if the biological research he was doing was on himself

Jim could feel his heart pounding against his ribcage. Jesus, it all fit. Some of the weird stuff about Bones was physical, like how Bones was ripped like a middle-weight boxing champion but apparently didn’t work out. A condition, he’d called it. A condition. Jim had forgotten Bones had said that until just now, had written it off as bullshit at the time, but maybe that was a side-effect of the injury, too!

Although, Jim thought haltingly, what injury would lead to an improvement in one’s capabilities? So okay, maybe not an injury then, Jim revised his theory. A condition, just a condition, not a side effect of anything else. Bones had some sort of condition, and it had several effects on his body: increased musculature, alterations in speech, resistance to mind-altering substances like alcohol and drugs—maybe even an enhanced mental ability, Jim realized, such that a human would be capable of learning how to block telepathy.

Jim’s PADD suddenly blinged in his slack hand, making him jump. He glanced down confusedly to see he had received a comm with a file attached. Who in hell was messaging him at this time? He looked at the sender information. E. Johnson, sent 11:43am CET. Jim almost stubbed his finger stabbing at the PADD screen to open the message, elated that she had returned his comm so quickly.

Doctor Johnson thanked him for his interest and for pointing out the file corruption to her. She had included an original copy of her dissertation as an attachment. Jim immediately downloaded it and then scrolled through the intro to the missing figure. His heart jumped into his throat when he saw the large lettering at the top declaring Eugenics Plot Exposed.

Both the original redacted holo and the recent unedited version were displayed side by side. The only difference between them was that the faces of the people in the redacted version were blacked out. The holo had been taken across the street from a courthouse, which rose tall and imposing in the background, the sun glistening off its white marble face. A legion of reporters surrounded a light-haired, attractive young woman—Samantha Grimm. She appeared to be explaining something, her hands frozen mid-gesture. And standing beside her, looking stern and tense, was—

Bones?

Jim stared at the holo, his eyebrow raised disbelievingly. He tilted his head and squinted. The picture was grainy, but the resemblance was uncanny. John Grimm even had Bones’s propensity to frown with his whole face, and the set of the shoulders was similar with that military-like posture. Was Grimm a relative of Bones’s?

Maybe it was that Jim had had all these odd things about Bones rattling around in his head for months. Maybe it was the fact that Jim had just been thinking about Bones having some sort of enhanced abilities. Maybe it was that at that precise moment, his eyes landed on the large, bold-faced Eugenics.

Whatever it was, Jim suddenly fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. But instead of triumph, he felt his blood run cold.

Holy shit.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Oh my fucking god, Jim thought, my best friend is descended from Augments. Even though it all fit, Jim still couldn’t bring himself to believe it. It was just so, so ludicrous! Small town Georgia boy Bones, a superhuman?

Jim went back through all the things he knew about Bones, trying to find something to tell him he was being ridiculous, but…Bones’s inexplicable resistance to the drugged whiskey; his “condition” which made him fit even when he lived a largely laidback lifestyle; his avoidance of medical checkups and telepaths—all of it pointed toward Jim being correct. Hell, even his advanced programming knowledge made sense. His family must have been hiding this for generations, all the way back to the original Augment, Jim thought as his eyes tracked over the familiar face in the 200-year-old newspaper holo. Grimm must have learned ways to hide what he was so he could live a normal life, and then passed those teachings on to his children, who then passed it on to their children, and so on, right down to Bones. That must be how Bones had such a masterful grasp of hacking, a necessary skill for Augments trying to pass under the radar.

Jesus Fucking Christ. If it was true, then no wonder Bones was trying to remove the physical evidence of his ancestor's existence, especially with such a strong family resemblance. This sort of human genome manipulation had been illegal since the Eugenics Wars. If anyone found out, he’d possibly be banned from earth, or maybe even locked up as a safety precaution. Or, Jim thought darkly, if the wrong people found him, they might even want to know the secrets of how he was augmented. Kodos wasn’t the only sick person alive, after all. Jim was suddenly fiercely glad for Bones’s caution.

Could this also be where Bones’s military training came from? Could he have been telling Solanski the truth, that his family had a strong military background? Maybe Jim had it backwards, and Bones hadn’t lied to Solanski but to his old medical colleagues like Magnus. After all, it would make sense for Grimm to have trained his children to be able to defend themselves, and for this training to be kept secret. Or perhaps the fighting skills were genetically encoded; plenty of the Augments had been designed specifically for combat. The only question this didn’t answer was the nature of Bones’s research.

Wait wait wait, Jim was getting ahead of himself. He had a suspicion, he told himself firmly, but didn’t actually have any proof. Besides, it still didn’t explain his change in demeanor and speech, though if augmentation was on the table then Jim was wading into completely uncharted territory. For all Jim knew, random changes in speech might be completely normal for Augments. Anything might be possible. So, proof first, Jim thought, latching onto this basic protocol for some semblance of control.

There was a fairly quick way to check, but he would have to call in a favor again.

Jim slept uneasily, having strange dreams about moving through a thick substance that was a bizarre hybrid of fog and hanging reams of satin, which stiffened at odd moments to impede his forward momentum. Frustrated, he pressed on faster and faster, and suddenly walked right into open air and was falling. Jim jolted awake, his heart hammering, covered in a cold sweat. The chrono read 05:03. Jim groaned, but gave up on sleep. He rose blearily to shower and find some caffeine.

His final exams were more grueling than usual but, like college goers everywhere, Jim had gotten used to functioning on minimal sleep. During lunch, Jim went to the mess and filled a tray with food. When he spotted Bones, already at a table, his steps faltered. Bones sat eating a salad, his shoulders set evenly. His chosen seat included a buffer of space between himself and the other cadets.

Jim stopped a few feet away, studying the solitary figure in red for a moment. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but when Bones did nothing more interesting than scratch the back of his neck, Jim shook himself and walked over.

“Bones!” Jim greeted, pasting on a smile as he took the seat next to him.

Bones’s eyebrow shot up incredulously when he caught sight of Jim’s face. “What’s got you so chipper?”

Maybe his grin was a little more manic than Jim had meant it to be, and he hastily toned it down a notch, but still said, “What, I can’t be happy? Come on, Bones. The sun is shining—”

“It’s 45 degrees out.”

“—it’s the last day of finals—”

“Maybe for you.”

And I might have finally figured out your secret, Jim thought but did not say. Instead, he said, “—and I’ll actually get to take spring break off this year.”

“Woo-hah for you,” Bones said dryly. “Some of us have clinic.”

“You need a vacation, Bones,” Jim said.

“I’ll take that under advisement.” Bones was just finishing his meal, and glanced at his chrono. “I gotta go take an exam, Jim.”

“Alright, see you later,” Jim called. He watched Bones walk away, then stood and moved with his tray to another group of cadets, focused on one in particular.

“Hey, Kalu,” Jim said as he slipped onto the bench next to her.

“Oh, hey, ummmm….”

“Jim Kirk,” he reminded her.

Celia Kalu was a native of Ethiopia, with skin like burnished bronze and curly black hair that she cropped short. She was Jim’s age but a year ahead of him in the Academy, and she already had a PhD and was here doing post-doctoral research.

“How are your finals going?” Jim inquired.

“Fine, I finished my last one this morning.” She stared off into the distance as she continued, mostly talking to herself. “Not sure about that question on biophysical properties of energy. Maybe I should have talked more about the frequencies associated with non-physical life forms.”

Jim cleared his throat a tiny bit to catch Kalu’s wavering attention. 

She didn’t notice. “Or perhaps she wanted more on which frequencies are used in medical applications like regenerators.” She tsked at herself. “You’re slipping, Cici.”

Jim had forgotten that Kalu was the most absent-minded person he'd ever met. “Kalu.”

She turned surprised eyes on him, as though she’d forgotten he was there. “Oh, sorry. How are your finals? Done yet?”

“Still got one more this afternoon.”

“I hate the afternoon ones, ‘cause then I can never decide if I should sleep in or—” 

“Hey,” Jim interrupted before she could really get rolling, “I was wondering if I could ask you for a favor, if you’re not busy. It shouldn’t take long, it’s just a genome analysis.”

These seemed to be the magic words: Kalu’s eyes lit up. “Sure, I do still owe you for helping me into my room.” That was how Jim had met her—she’d been locked out of her room on the first floor of the Bullet, unable to remember her code, and Jim had been passing by and noticed. He’d helped her by overriding the system the same way he had done to Bones’s door that one time Jim had broken in. “Do you have the data?” she asked next.

“Well,” Jim hedged, “thing is, I just have a blood sample.” Jim pulled out the tiny plastic bag of Bones’s blood that he’d scraped out from under his nails last summer.

She gave him a significant look, and for a second Jim sweated, wondering if she was going to question the odd circumstances. But then she said pointedly, “So you need genomic extraction and deep sequencing and then analysis.”

Jim bit his lip. “I’ll take you out to dinner?” he offered feebly.

Kalu smiled like she’d gotten exactly what she wanted. “As long as it’s somewhere nice. There’s a seafood place in Downtown that I’ve been wanting to try.”

Jim smiled in relief. “It’s a date!”

An almost comically alarmed expression crossed Kalu’s face. “Oh no, Kirk, I know your reputation. It’s not a date; it’s payment,” she said firmly.

“Wait, what do you mean my ‘reputation’?”

Kalu gave Jim a knowing look. “Jordan Syla; Tiffany Summers; Marisa Inada.”

“You remember all their names but not mine?” Jim pouted.

“Henry Reuter,” she went on as if he hadn’t spoken, “Antoinette Knowles.”

“Alright, alright! Jesus, people talk way too much around here.”

“That is far from a denial, Jim Kirk, and precisely why this will not be a date.”

Jim held up his hands in surrender. “Okay. Dinner out in exchange for the genetic stuff. Deal?”

“Deal,” Kalu said, shaking his hand firmly. “Now,” she said, that sparkle of enthusiasm back in her eye, “how do you need it analyzed?”

“I need a comparison to a human sample—any healthy male sample should be fine—”

“If you want an accurate comparison, it should be compared to a pool of samples,” Kalu said, her chin in her hand as she thought. “Healthy is relative, and there’s no such thing as a perfect control group for humans. Is the standard 30x coverage enough?”

“Sounds great. But Kalu…” Here was the risky part. Jim lowered his voice. “I need this information to be completely confidential. Not even you should read the analysis, and it definitely shouldn’t go into any logs or entries. I just want you to give it to me on a data stick and then delete it.”

Kalu looked confused as she eyed the bag. “Who or what is it from?”

Jim braced himself. “I can’t say. It’s a personal matter.”

Kalu started to look suspicious. “What kind of personal matter involves genome analysis? Of,” she looked down at the plastic baggie, “blood?”

Jim leaned closer, keeping his voice low. “Look, I can’t explain, I really can’t, but. I’m asking you because I trust your skills, and your discretion. You don’t seem the type to start rumors, or the type to impose on confidential information.” When she continued to look uncertain, Jim said beseechingly, “I really need this analysis, Kalu, and I promise you it is for a good reason and I won’t abuse the information.”

Kalu stared at him searchingly, her brown eyes sharp and uncharacteristically attentive. Finally, she gave him a tentative nod. “Alright, Kirk,” she said. “I’ll give you the analysis once it’s complete.”

“And then delete it all and destroy the samples?”

“Yes. But!” She stuck a sharp-nailed finger in his face. He went cross-eyed trying to see it. “If I find out you’re lying, you’ll be in a world of trouble.”

Jim gulped. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, not doubting it for a second.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Theory confirmed, Jim thought weakly as he read the analysis that Kalu had given him earlier that day. And he had been having such a good spring break, too.

Jesus Fuck, it was far more extensive than Jim had anticipated, even in his wildest imaginings. The comparison of Bones’s DNA to human DNA showed many similarities, but there were a significant number of deviations. In fact, there were so many that the analysis software didn’t recognize Bones as human. When run through the database of known species, it came back as “Unknown Humanoid” with Homo Sapiens as the nearest relative. 

Kalu had asked the program to isolate the disparities in Bones’s genome and then guess at the potential function of these differences by extrapolating from known sequences. There were some graphs about level of significance, but Jim was more interested in the list of differences it had returned. He skimmed down it:

11p15.5, HBB: A135G; protein product K45E; speculated increase in oxygen-binding capacity of Hemoglobin Beta. 

7q35-q36, EZH2: T64C, T1034A, G1035T; protein product S21A, T345Y; speculated decrease in speed of self-methylation or de-methylation.

9a31-q21, TMC1: G2188C; protein product C729K; conformational change to pore-forming subunit leading to alterations in channel conductance.

And on and on it went, listing hundreds of thousands of alterations to the genome. The most obvious change was the addition of an entire extra chromosome pair, but some were extremely subtle like a single nucleotide change. Jim didn’t know enough about genetics or genomics to understand the details, and the analysis software could only tell him so much, but it didn’t matter: he could guess that they somehow made Bones’s body function more efficiently than a regular human’s. Unfortunately, the software was unable to predict the overall physical effects of this many mutations; that kind of system-wide biochemical extrapolation was beyond it. Which was kind of odd since the original iteration of this genome had been engineered centuries ago and couldn’t be very advanced compared to today’s technology, but Jim suspected such software limitations were purposeful, probably designed to discourage further eugenics attempts. If Jim wanted a better idea of what it all meant, he’d have to talk to an expert, and he wasn’t willing to risk exposing Bones. Jim had to keep this under wraps.

Which brought up a sticky question. Should Jim tell Bones that he knew?

Jim threw this idea out almost instantly. Bones was already flighty, and willing to go to great lengths to protect his secrets, including illegal activity such as hacking Starfleet systems and drugging another cadet. There was no telling what he would do if Jim revealed that he knew about Bones’s “condition,” though Jim firmly believed that it wouldn’t be violent or dangerous. No, Bones’s goodwill had been proven to Jim enough times that he couldn’t even contemplate Bones actually doing any harm. But Jim suspected that Bones would have an easy time disappearing.

Still, Jim wanted to know exactly what Bones could do. After all, Jim told himself, a leader should always know their people’s capabilities so they could properly delegate. Yes, Jim just wanted to know so he’d be a better Captain some day, with Bones of course on his crew, ideally as his Chief Medical Officer. Bones was at the Academy to get a pathology degree, since they were required of all senior medical officers, and this degree would be the last he’d need to qualify for CMO. (Jim conveniently neglected to acknowledge the fact that Bones had already clearly expressed a desire to be posted on a well-equipped starbase rather than a ship.)

Jim spent some time scouring his room for a real pencil and paper, so that he didn’t have any electronic records. Then he listed the things he knew about Bones:

Resistance to intoxicating substances
Physical fitness
Advanced fighting skills
Expert medical knowledge and techniques
Neurosurgery
Advanced programming knowledge

Jim hesitated, and then added a few things that he didn’t have good evidence for but that he strongly suspected:

Genetics knowledge, molecular techniques
Altered mental faculties
Increased strength
Enhanced sense of smell

Jim paused on this last one, his brow furrowed as he wondered if it was fair to put down. On the one hand, Bones had been able to smell the gas leak in the Bridgestone below the usual detection levels. On the other hand, he hadn’t reacted to the beliko as strongly as Jim had, and that was when Bones was the one who’d gotten a face-full of the spores. Feeling uncertain, Jim scratched it out. He made another few edits, bringing the final list to:

                                         mind-altering?
Resistance to intoxicating^substances
Physical fitness (regardless of exercise schedule)
Advanced fighting skills/military training (?)
Expert medical knowledge and techniques
Neurosurgery
Advanced programming knowledge
Genetics knowledge, molecular techniques
Altered mental faculties—can block telepaths
Increased strength
Enhanced sense of smell
Unknown Brain Injury?—alteration of speech, mannerisms

There, that covered everything that Jim was aware of. Jim leaned back against the wall behind his bed, staring at the last addition to the list. An injury was still the best explanation for Bones’s drastic alteration in speech and manner, but this theory had previously been supported by the notion that Bones was trying to hide said injury, thus explaining his avoidance of medical checkups. Now, Jim was pretty damn certain that the Augment thing was why Bones was hiding his medical records, and he felt less certain about the brain injury.

He rubbed his forehead and set that conundrum aside for now; he could ponder it later. At the moment, Jim wanted to flesh out his list, discover everything that Bones was capable of. But how would Jim do this? There was no way he could set up tests since Jim had no idea what he would be testing for, no clue how these genetic alterations might manifest. Plus, Bones would notice, as he had with the drugged whiskey. No, Jim would just have to continue observing and make note of anything that might indicate a superhuman ability. In short, he would have to be patient.

Not his strongest suit, Jim thought, but when you need the shoe to fit, you make it.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Interlude:

“You seem distracted today.”

“Hm?” Jim blinked and looked away from the window where he had been staring at the grounds of the Academy, and in particular at the tip of the Stylus that was jutting out of the fog. Jim focused on Pike sheepishly. “Sorry, sir. I guess I am distracted.”

“What’s on your mind?”

Jim pondered how to phrase this without revealing anything. “Sir…have you ever found out something about someone that they were trying to keep—private?”

“I take it you don’t mean catching someone picking their nose,” Pike said.

Jim choked out a surprised laugh. “Uh, no, not that kind of thing,” Jim said. “More like a secret that they’re keeping. A deep secret.”

“I think finding out secrets happens to everyone at some point in their lives."

“Do you think it’s better to tell them? That you discovered their secret?”

The corner of Pike’s mouth pitted. “That depends on the situation, but… I’d say that if it’s something that needs to be acknowledged aloud, then you won’t need to tell them; it will eventually come out on its own.”

“But what if finding out changes the way you see them.” Jim stared at the board unseeingly. “What if it changes practically everything you knew about them.”

Pike watched Jim seriously. “Is this secret something bad?”

Jim blinked, caught off guard by the question. “Uh…no. No, I don’t think so. It’s just. Different.”

“Then let me ask you something: why is it changing the way you see them?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, if it’s not something bad then why would you see them any differently? Has this secret changed who they are today, or your relationship with them?”

“No,” Jim said slowly.

“No,” Pike agreed. “The only difference is that you now know something about them that you didn’t know before.”

“But they’re still the same person,” Jim finished, catching on.

Pike nodded, eyes still on Jim.

Jim ducked his head, suddenly ashamed at his own thoughts. Pike was right; it didn’t matter that Bones had been hiding his “condition.” Jim still knew Bones the man: cynical student, talented and compassionate doctor, sardonic but loyal friend, and eminently good person—human in all but genetic blueprint, and an upstanding example of one.

Jim looked up when Pike reached forward to move one of his bishops. Damn, Pike had certainly earned that tactical expertise. Three of Jim’s ploys had just been foiled by that one move, and set Pike up for a clean win in six moves if Jim wasn’t careful. 

Still feeling a bit shamed, Jim cautiously met Pike’s eyes, expecting to see condemnation. But Pike was smiling just slightly. He leaned back in his chair, wrists dangling off the ends of the armrests. “So Kirk, this will be your last summer before graduation. Do you know where you’re going to request your off-world training mission?”

Jim sat up straighter. “Yes. That was actually why I requested to meet with you today. I heard that you’ll be going on a diplomatic mission, and I was wondering—I’d like to formally request assignment to your ship.”

Satisfaction curled Pike's mouth. “I was hoping you’d ask; I think this mission is right up your alley.” Pike checked his chrono and stood. “Turn in the request forms, Kirk. I’ll make sure you get a spot.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jim said as he stood to follow Pike out of his office. “For everything,” he added.

Pike gripped his shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “Anytime, Cadet—or should I say, Midshipman. I’ll see you on the Centaurus.” Pike started to leave for his next appointment, then paused. “Oh, and Kirk? Bring that doctor of yours, too.”

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Chapter Text

Part III: Heated
when the subject of an investigation suspects they are being surveilled but is unaware of your true intentions

“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Bones grumbled. 

It was the beginning of summer, the low stratus cloud cover giving way by degrees to the sun. Rays broke through in patches, columns of light shining onto the earth and sea. Bones and Jim were strolling across campus through the crisp early morning air, decked out in blue and gold for their chosen tracks. They were on their way to the Starfleet spacedock located in orbit, and from there would report for duty aboard the Centaurus.

“Come on, Bones, it’ll be fun.”

“There’s that word again. I think maybe you’re cursed; the more you say something, the less true it becomes.”

“Don’t even try it, Bones. No matter what you say, I know you had fun when we went to that magic show. No, don’t give me that look; I saw you trying to figure out the card trick.”

“Simple,” Bones scoffed. “She obviously had a double.”

Ahah! I knew I saw you practicing it later!”

“I did not!” Bones exclaimed indignantly, and Jim thought there was a faint blush tinting his cheeks, but then Bones huffed a laugh. “Jesus, you’re a pain in the ass.”

“Takes one,” Jim countered, grinning. “And hey, at least you’ll have Lieutenant status in sickbay. I’m stuck as a Midshipman. May as well have Gimme-Your-Grunt-Work tacked on my shirt.”

“Notice my river of tears,” Bones deadpanned.

Jim tried to stifle the butterflies in his stomach as they made it to the Centaurus and were ordered to their stations. He sent Bones a mock salute as they went their separate ways and then reported to his station on Deck 21, in the ass-end of the ship. With a focus in diplomacy, Jim had been assigned to summarize the important cultural aspects of the world they would be visiting on this mission, which was called Axanar. His reports would go to Captain Pike and the other diplomats, and this mission hoped to result in a peace treaty with the Axanar people, thus ending a long conflict between them and the Federation.

The reading was dry, but Jim was determined to give a good show on his first mission, so he buckled down and got to work.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Jim collapsed on the bed with a groan and buried his head under the pillow. “I never want to look at another word again.”

“Long day?” Bones asked sardonically from his desk, where he was reading medical journals on his PADD.

“Why do you get a single while I have to sleep in a quad?” Jim mumbled into the mattress.

“Two words: rank privilege,” Bones answered succinctly.

“Two words: fuck rank,” Jim grunted, rolling over. “It’s been the same thing every day for a month,” he said, switching back to the original topic. “Can’t they give me something else to do besides writing reports?”

“Hate to break it to you, sunshine, but we all got reports. Someone so much as sneezes and they want me to write a goddamn novel. God forbid anyone develop an actual disease on this tin can full of recycled air, otherwise we’ll all be screwed.”

“Would give you guys in sickbay something interesting to do,” Jim said lightly, closing his eyes drowsily.

“Don’t expect me to wipe your nose for you.” Bones set his PADD aside and then came over to push at Jim’s shoulder. “Scoot over, you damn bed stealer. I’ve had a long day too.”

Jim grumbled but acquiesced, shuffling closer to the wall. Bones rolled onto the bed beside him, sitting against the headboard.

“So what are the natives like?” Bones asked Jim. “Anything I should know before beaming down?”

Jim sighed and sat up, knowing that Bones wasn’t going to let him fall asleep in his bed. “Well, first of all, we won’t be beaming,” Jim said as he turned to press his back to the wall, sitting perpendicular to Bones, legs crossed so that his toes pressed against Bones’s leg. “The Axanar don’t exactly trust the Federation, so for the duration of the negotiations they’ve required that the Federation not use any technology for which they do not have a rough equivalent. That throws transporters right out the window.”

“Figures,” Bones muttered.

“You should be happy, I thought you hated transporters.”

“I do hate transporters,” Bones said.

“Right,” Jim said, realizing that Bones was just bitching as usual, “well, the Axanar have hinted that they could be persuaded to open trade relations. They’ve tempted us by revealing that they might be willing to trade some of their unprocessed dilithium crystals. I think it’s my only chance to get onto the planet, so I’ve applied to be on one of the surveying teams.”

Bones’s head whipped around to stare at Jim. “You’re going down to the planet?”

“If I get accepted, which is a pretty done deal since I already talked to Captain Pike about it. What? You’re going down, too.”

“I’m going as a doctor to tour their medical facilities, not gallivant around in the middle of nowhere looking at a bunch of rocks!”

“What’s the big deal?” Jim asked, nonplussed.

“Jim, this is the same planet that almost started a war a couple decades back!”

“And now they’ve agreed to peace negotiations,” Jim countered.

“Stop being flippant. Just because they say they want peace doesn’t mean they actually do, or that everyone on that planet is suddenly your friend.”

“I never said they were.”

“Jim, you’re not taking this seriously enough.”

Jim could tell that Bones was building up to a good rant, and as fun as it usually was to watch this process, he was too tired to be the focus of that ire. “Look, Bones,” Jim started to placate. “I understand the risks. I know I’m going onto an alien planet that once started a battle over something as small as a translation error.”

“You don’t know shit!” Bones snapped, and then pursed his lips and averted his gaze like he’d said something he hadn’t meant to.

“What? What does that mean?” Jim pressed. When Bones didn’t answer, Jim asked, “Why do you have such a grudge against the Axanar? And don’t try to say it’s not personal; I’ve heard from several people about how you call them ‘junkless old dinosaurs.’ Anyone but me would think you were xenophobic. So what is it, really?”

“I don’t—Jesus,” Bones sighed. “People talk too damn much.” Bones was silent for a moment, and then turned to look Jim in the eye. “I don’t trust them.”

“Why?”

“Their animosity toward us isn’t enough?”

“Not for you,” Jim said in perfect honesty.

Bones looked surprised for an instant before he turned, hiding his face. When he turned back, his expression was schooled again and he said, “It’s because they’re the xenophobes. They don’t trust any outsiders, and they’ve done everything they can to stand in the way of the Federation because we’re all about encouraging interspecies relations. That’s why we started fighting with them in the first place.”

Jim frowned. “I thought it was because of a miscommunication. That Captain Garth of Izar was here to meet peacefully and there was some kind of translator malfunction, and it upset everyone and led to the Battle of Axanar.”

Bones waved a hand through the air dismissively. “That’s what the history books say, but I…knew someone who was there.”

“You knew someone who was in the battle?” Jim asked, intrigued. “Who?”

“He wasn’t in the battle. He was just drifting through when the fighting started, and got caught up in the scuffle. He’s dead now,” Bones said with almost shameful apathy, “but he told me that the Axanar started the battle on purpose when they found out that the Federation was a coalition of planets. They didn’t like the idea of different species cooperating peacefully. Went against their beliefs.”

“Huh,” Jim said, and craned his head back against the wall, staring at the ceiling. “Think they’ve changed their minds?”

“In 20 years? I suppose it’s not impossible that the majority opinion has shifted, but I’m betting it’s still a contentious social issue. Entire cultures don’t change that quickly, especially this one, what with people regularly living into their 400s. Jim,” Bones grabbed Jim’s ankle and gave it a squeeze, drawing Jim’s eyes back to him, “you need to be careful down there.”

“Always am, Bones,” Jim grinned. “It’ll be fine.”

Somehow, Bones didn’t look convinced.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

A few days later, they were in orbit around Axanar and the peace negotiations had begun. They were holding the first meetings on the Centaurus in deference to the fact that the conferences leading to the Battle of Axanar had been held on the planet surface.

Jim reported to the shuttle bay in the early hours of the Axanar day, bursting with energy and excitement. As he had suspected, Pike had chosen him for one of the away teams to check out the dilithium deposits. When he walked through the shuttle bay doors, he was greeted by a tall, broad man in his late thirties wearing a red shirt.

“Midshipman Kirk, I presume?” the man asked in a deep but soft voice, and at Jim’s nod said, “Excellent. I’m Lieutenant Gunnarsen. This,” he motioned to a young woman in blue beside him, “is Ensign Ahia. We’re still waiting for one more, and then we’ll be on our way. Ah, this must be him now.”

Jim turned to the opening door and then did a double take. “Bones!?”

“Jim,” Bones greeted, and then said to Lieutenant Gunnarsen, “Sorry I’m late, sir, but I got puked on and had to go through decontam. Twice. Doctor McCoy, reporting for duty.”

“At ease,” Gunnarsen said. “Alright, that’s the full away team. Let’s get on the shuttle and off the ship.”

There were a few other shuttles preparing to depart to different areas of the planet and thus plenty of noise in the bay, so as they walked up the gangplank onto the shuttle, Jim surreptitiously hissed at Bones, “You didn’t tell me you were assigned to this away team!”

“Must have slipped my mind,” Bones drawled.

“When did you request this placement?” Jim demanded as they buckled into their seatbelts.

“Shush, Jim, we need to focus on the mission.”

Jim opened his mouth to argue, but just then Gunnarsen asked him to copilot the shuttle. He reluctantly moved up to the front seat and was soon distracted by the piloting procedures and then the view of the blue planet. He had already done his shuttle flight demonstrations on Luna, but breaking an atmosphere was another experience entirely, and it was exhilarating. As the tan and blue planet came closer and closer, the continents sinking into distinguishable land features and then the familiar networks of a city, he realized that this was what he was here for. This was why he had joined Starfleet. By the time they landed in one of the aircraft stations on Axanar, he had forgotten about being mad at Bones and was instead ready for an adventure.

Later, he would remember these feelings with irony.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

“Alright, Officers, line up,” Gunnarsen said. “Before we disembark, I want to remind each of you of your role here. The main goal of this mission is to perform a preliminary scan of the dilithium deposits in order to determine their accessibility, abundance, purity, and distribution. I will be leading the party and also providing security detail. Ensign Ahia, as our geology expert you will be taking the readings when we get to the deposits and sending them back to the ship for analysis. Midshipman Kirk, as our expert on Axanar tradition you are here as a cultural attaché. You will be in charge of non-military interactions with the Axanar peoples, and are also to use this opportunity to learn more about the culture and its people to report later. Doctor McCoy, since we have to travel to areas without medical assistance or easy transportation, you are here to act as medic should such a need arise.”

“Yes, sir,” they each intoned by turns.

“Remember that you are representing the Federation while here, and should conduct yourselves in an appropriate manner in your carriage, actions and words. Believe me, the Axanar people will be watching.” Gunnarsen turned to open the hatch on the shuttle, and then paused. “Oh, and I should warn you,” he said over his shoulder, “Axanar is classed as an M-2 planet because its atmosphere has high levels of methane.”

“What does that mean?” Ensign Ahia asked.

“It means,” Bones drawled cheekily as the doors opened and Jim and Ahia clapped their hands over their noses, “that it smells like shit.”

Jesus Christ, did it smell like shit. Jim felt like he was passing through one of the few cow farms still left in rural Iowa, only about a thousand times worse.

“You’ll get used to it,” Gunnarsen said. Jim didn’t feel reassured. “Fall in, Officers.”

The four of them marched down the ramp to the white pavement. A line of uniformed people were waiting for them, and Jim got his first look at an Axanar in person.

They were…well, kind of ugly, to put it bluntly. “Junkless old dinosaur” wasn’t far off. The Axanar were humanoid, but their skin had a greenish hue with symmetrical ridges on the forehead, cheeks and neck. They were bald and androgynous in appearance, though Jim knew from his reading that they went through a seasonal metamorphosis to reproduce sexually. Their uniforms were dark and smooth like leather and they carried phasers. This was not very comforting because their expressions looked kind of predatory, but that might have just been the pointed teeth.

“You are Starfleet Lieutenant Gunnarsen?” one of the Axanar asked in a middle-toned, genderless voice that sounded strange to Jim’s ears.

“Yes, and this is my team,” Gunnarsen answered, making a sweeping gesture to Jim, Bones and Ahia and introducing each of them in turn. “We’re pleased to be welcomed to your planet.”

The Axanar smiled sharkishly. “The pleasure is ours. I am Ehondar, Chief of Security for the city of Traelon. We will escort you through the city.”

Jim and the others entered the aircraft station surrounded by Axanar guards. People turned to stare and murmur as they walked by, and Jim got to see a wider range of Axanar peoples here in the public. There were tall and short, old and young, dark and light skinned—very similar to human variability, in fact, although Jim couldn’t really tell any of them apart except the most obvious. The children were easy to place and also rather cute, as they hadn’t yet gone through their first metamorphosis and thus didn’t have the face and head ridges characteristic of sexually mature Axanar. They looked pretty much like bald human children, and Jim couldn’t help but grin at them. They watched the group pass with wide eyes.

Soon, they approached a bottleneck area with several large machines. There was a sign above it in an unreadable, alien text because the universal translators didn’t work on written language.

“Oh great,” Jim heard Bones grumble right before the attendant at the scanner said, “Please empty your pockets into the buckets. Also remove your shoes and bags. Then please step onto the pad one at a time to be scanned.”

“What are we being scanned for?” Gunnarsen asked, his tone a little sharp.

“We have had to implement such security measures to prevent terrorist efforts to sabotage our aircraft. As you can see,” Ehondar gestured to the line of people waiting on the opposite side of the machines, “this is standard procedure for all our citizens embarking on a flight.”

“But we are clearly not your terrorists, and we are also not taking a flight from here,” Gunnarsen said. “Our equipment was cleared by your officials before we flew down.”

Ehondar wouldn’t budge. “The safety of our people comes first, Starfleet. While you are on our planet, you will follow our procedures.”

Gunnarsen and Ehondar glared at each other for a moment before Gunnarsen stepped forward. “I’ll go first.”

When he stepped onto the padded floor, they told him to raise his arms above his head and remain still. The screen for the scanner was facing this side of the machine and lit up with a gray scale image of Gunnarsen, the soft tissues surrounding his bones appearing hollowed out. The security guard eyed it closely and then motioned for him to pass, seeming almost disappointed that it was clean. Gunnarsen stepped through the archway to the other side.

They made a fuss about Gunnarsen’s phaser, even though it had already been approved prior to the away mission. They seemed nervous about letting him keep it. Bones muttered about stupid wastes of time as he stepped through the scanner next, followed by Ahia and finally Jim. Not wanting to give the Axanar a reason to dislike them, Jim followed their instructions to the letter, stepping forward when they asked, raising his arms when they asked. He was soon collecting his things and putting his boots back on. Gunnarsen was still arguing with airport security over the phaser, and showing them the forms for it while their “welcoming party” stood by, looking superior.

Fucking dicks.

Finally, they made it into the station proper and were led to the outdoor parking area. The air outside was cool and dry, the primary sun having just risen over the peak of the horizon. The Axanar led them to a large wheeled vehicle parked on the street that looked similar to the automobiles out of Earth’s history.

“This will be your transport,” Ehondar said. “It is all-terrain. Kelohnbar will drive you.”

One of the Axanar guards, presumably Kelohnbar, climbed into the driver’s seat of the mountainous vehicle. The others got into two sleek black cars parked directly behind and in front of it.

Bones got into the backseat bench without any fanfare. Jim went to join him but stopped in the doorway and looked back at Ahia and Gunnarsen, who hadn’t moved from the sidewalk.

“How does this thing run?” Gunnarsen asked Ehondar, looking a little uncertain.

“It is powered by an internal combustion engine, which runs on gasoline.”

Gunnarsen looked, if anything, more upset by this news, but must have realized there was nothing he could do about it. “Thank you,” he said tightly before he climbed into the passenger seat. Ahia squeezed into the middle seat in the back and Jim followed her, slamming the door closed.

“We will escort you to the city borders,” Ehondar said through the driver’s side front window.

“This is going to be a long drive, so we’ll need supplies,” Gunnarsen said, leaning over the middle console in the front seat to be heard.

Ehondar looked unhappy, and said reluctantly, “We will stop at the central market.”

Kelohnbar pulled away from the curb carefully and navigated into traffic, following one of the sleek black cars. The other Axanar car followed behind them like a shadow.

“So, Kelohnbar,” Gunnarsen said with a friendly tone, “how long have you lived in Traelon?”

“Long time,” Kelohnbar said shortly.

“It looks like a great city to call home,” Gunnarsen said, undeterred by the Axanar’s laconic response. When the compliment didn’t elicit a reply, he continued, “I grew up in a similar city, near one of the largest deserts on Terra, the Gobi. Autumn was my favorite season because the daytime heat was bearable, but the earth was still warmed by the long summer so the nights weren’t too cold.”

Kelohnbar said nothing.

Gunnarsen gave up.

“Real friendly, these Axanar,” Ahia muttered quietly so that Kelohnbar wouldn’t hear.

“At least they’re helping us,” Jim murmured back, squinting out the window at the passing buildings. It looked like the top stories were mostly homes, with long clothes lines stretching from window to window high above the street level. Jim had seen similar cities in historic areas on Earth, where traditionalists still hung their clothes to dry.

Kelohnbar parked on a side street and had to walk several blocks to the main market. It was in a central square lined with tall buildings that cast long shadows over the square. Tents were lined up in rows, with merchants setting up their wares on makeshift shelves. Civilians in long flowing garbs bustled about, trying to complete their shopping before the primary sun of Axanar rose too high.

“Alright, Midshipman,” Gunnarsen said to Jim. “Time to test your knowledge of Axanar customs.”

Grinning and practically bouncing with energy at this opportunity, Jim led the way into the market. It was like parting the red sea: Axanar civilians immediately noticed their unusual faces and stepped back as though they were plagued. On the upside, this opened a neat path for them to traverse the crowded marketplace.

“We’ll need some food, and a few head covers wouldn’t go amiss,” Gunnarsen said to Jim.

Most of the Axanar merchants seemed reluctant to even talk to an off-worlder. By the third merchant to refuse service, Jim was feeling frustrated and discouraged. The drive to the dilithium site was around three hours one way, so they needed to get out there as soon as possible.

Jim eventually had to stop being nice and resort to being obnoxious so that they would sell him what he wanted just to get him to go away.

“So much for improving interspecies relations,” Jim said sourly, put out by the Axanars’ aversive attitudes.

Bones didn’t comment, but his expression had an air of Told you so.

The head covers were easy to come by, and Jim grabbed a few simple ones in a drab beige color. Food was a little harder, since Jim had to make sure it was edible by humans, portable and would keep until lunchtime. He also stopped to get several bottles of water.

Bones raised an eyebrow when he caught Jim eyeing a line of liquor bottles on display.

Jim grinned and winked at him. “Can’t really say you’ve experienced a new world until you try their booze.”

Bones, instead of rolling his eyes as Jim expected, grabbed one of the bottles and handed it to him. It was filled with a light green liquid.

“Try this one,” was all Bones said when Jim looked at him questioningly.

Jim shrugged, bought the bottle and slipped it into the cloth satchel he’d bought to carry their supplies.

Soon they were back on the road heading to the edge of the city. Instead of like the cities on Earth, with the buildings slowly being replaced by fields, the Axanar city was instead surrounded by tall walls, like a castle keep. The stones were stacked almost a hundred meters high, dwarfing the nearest buildings. The two black cars pulled off the road while Kelohnbar joined the line of cars heading out of the city gates.

“Why do you surround your cities?” Gunnarsen asked as they passed through the gates.

“The Geezra winds,” Kelohnbar answered.

“They get really bad sand storms,” Jim expounded when Kelohnbar didn’t say anything further. “The walls keep the worst of it out.”

Beyond the walls, a flat and dry land stretched out before them. Sun-bleached grasses sprouted in patches from the dirt, and stunted trees were scattered around. It reminded Jim of safari landscapes.

They followed a paved road for the first hour, but eventually had to pull off and drive off-road. By the second hour, hunger was making them all irritable, so Jim pulled out the food supplies and he, Ahia and Bones made sandwiches to pass around.

“What is this?” Kelohnbar said, eyeing the sandwich Jim was offering. One of his—her—their cheek ridges was twitching, which Jim knew suggested distaste.

“It’s a mixture of glarkfoo, festra, yentara root, and some cenda for flavor.”

“Why is it in this, this—form?” they asked, not moving to touch the food.

“We call it a sandwich. It makes it easier to eat several foods together.”

“This is not the Axanar way.”

“Why don’t you try it, and let me know what you think?” Jim wheedled.

Still looking dubious, Kelohnbar took the sandwich in one hand, keeping the other on the wheel. They sniffed it first and then bit into it hesitantly.

“It is…different,” Kelohnbar finally judged, but they finished the sandwich without complaint. “This is common on your world?”

“It’s pretty popular.”

“Terrans are very strange,” Kelohnbar concluded, and then lapsed into silence again.

Jim widened his eyes at Bones in exasperation. Bones just smirked smugly.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

The rest of the drive was as boring as the first part, but finally, finally something new appeared on the horizon.

“What’s that?” Jim asked.

“The crater,” Kelohnbar said.

It was a crater, a massive one that stretched out like a gaping maw in the middle of the safari. Kelohnbar pulled under a tree near the rim of the crater and shut off the engine.

“Can’t we go into the crater itself?” Ahia asked.

“Too dangerous to drive,” Kelohnbar replied.

“I guess we’re hoofing it,” Gunnarsen said, actually sounding happy about this, and they all got out of the car. “Will you be joining us, Kelohnbar?”

“I will wait here.”

“See you in a few hours, then.”

They approached the rim of the crater and looked down. Beyond the ledge, the wall of the crater sloped down toward the center, about fifty meters down. It wasn’t too steep to walk if they were careful, though trying to take a vehicle would indeed have been very dangerous. While Gunnarsen was busy finding the safest path down, Jim looked out over the expanse of the crater bed. Jutting out of the flat, packed dirt in a randomly distributed pattern were boulders and large crystalline structures. Some of the boulders had small crystals embedded in the rock, just barely poking out in places.

“The dilithium crystals were originally underground,” Ahia said as she pulled her long hair into a high ponytail. “A recent—well, recent in geologic time—large meteorite removed the top soil, and then erosion did the rest.”

Before they started down the incline, Jim handed around the head covers to keep the sun off their faces. It was almost at its zenith, and was beating down mercilessly on them. Jim could already feel himself sweating, though the specially designed Starfleet uniforms wicked the moisture away quickly.

Once they all reached the bottom, Gunnarsen turned to Ahia. “Ensign, it’s your ballgame now.”

Ahia pulled out her tricorder and scanned the immediate area. “This entire region is high in dilithium,” she concluded.“Even the rocks contain a bit, though the largest deposits are definitely the crystals. I’ll need to get readings from different areas of the crater to improve estimates of total abundance and purity.”

The next hour was as tedious as the drive. They followed Ahia as she wandered through the crater taking readings from boulders and crystals.

Jim was beginning to regret having signed up for this trip. He’d wanted to have a chance to interact with Axanar people and learn more about their culture. Also, he’d had this half-formed idea that he could somehow show them that off-worlders weren’t so bad. Instead, he had been rebuffed during his only interactions with them, and the rest of the trip he was going to be out in the middle of nowhere. And as the icing on this rotting cake, the entire planet smelled like one giant fart.

“Are we really going to have to drive all the way back?” Jim did not whine, kicking at a rock and squinting at the sun directly overhead. “Why couldn’t we just take a shuttlecraft?”

“Much as I hate flying, I have to agree,” Bones said. “No way is that part of the negotiations agreement; the Axanar use all kinds of aircraft.”

“There’s some kind of magnetic interference out here,” Ahia answered absently as she crouched down and scanned one of the crystals. “Tends to bring their shuttles down, so it’s a no fly zone.”

They had crossed back out of the crater center and arrived at a different point on the crater edge, where the wall was almost vertical. Gunnarsen leaned against it with his arms crossed, looking bored. Bones was squinting back the way they had come, a strange expression on his face.

“What’s up, Bones?” Jim asked him quietly.

His eyebrows drew together. “I thought I heard…”

Jim jumped as something pinged off the sheer rock face beside him, accompanied by several loud popping sounds.

“Down!” Bones shouted and bodily dragged Jim behind a large group of boulders while Jim was still registering that they were under attack.

Ahia scrambled to join them. She’d been crouched down, out of the line of fire, but Gunnarsen wasn’t so lucky. He crumpled to the ground like a folding chair, blood covering one side of his head. Bones reached out and yanked him to safety between the rocks and the crater wall.

A loud genderless voice spoke from the direction of the crater center: “Surrender and we will spare your lives! Resist and you will die.”

“Identify yourselves!” Jim shouted back, his heart pounding.

They ignored Jim. “Come quietly, Starfleet, and this need not become deadly!”

“It’s the terrorists,” Bones grunted from where he was examining Gunnarsen’s head. Jim’s eyes snapped to him and Bones met his gaze, eyes peering out of his hood grimly. Jim felt a chill run down his spine, the ominous feeling only increasing when Bones added, “They want hostages to buy their way onto the negotiations table.”

“How can you tell?” Ahia asked, but Jim knew that Bones wouldn’t throw out bullshit claims like that without solid evidence. However he knew, Jim believed him.

Jim focused back on the terrorists. “To attack Starfleet Officers is to declare yourself an enemy of the Federation!” he shouted over the rocks. “Starfleet doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, but we do listen to friendly parties. Stand down, and we can work with you to hear your side of the story.”

Silence. Jim peeked over the top of the boulder and then ducked back quickly. The rocks above him, where his head had just been, exploded into dust as a barrage of bullets cut into them.

“Fuck, they’re moving in,” Jim panted, shielding his eyes from the falling dust. “Ahia,” Jim grabbed Gunnarsen’s phaser off his belt and tossed it to her, “stop them from getting closer.”

Ahia, maintaining an impressive aplomb for a geologist suddenly thrust into the role of security officer, crouched low to the side of the rock outcropping they were hiding behind. When there was a lull in the firing, she leaned out quickly to return their bullets with phaser fire, then leaned back when the terrorists started up again. Moving to a different part of the rock, she returned fire again.

“Call the Centaurus, get them to beam us out!” Bones shouted over the rattle of gunfire and rumble of crumbling rock.

Jim shook his head, wiping sweat out of his eyes as the unforgiving Axanar sun beat down on them. “The Axanar requested no transporter technology! It might ruin the negotiations!”

“Goddammit, Jim, this is a medical emergency and not your decision to make! Gunnarsen can’t wait!”

The entire left side of Gunnarsen’s head was a mass of skin, hair and blood. Jim thought he saw the white flash of bone in the mess.

He flipped open his communicator. “Kirk to Centaurus!”

Centaurus here,” came the immediate response, a cool feminine voice, and Jim felt relief flood him.

“Away team Delta, requesting emergency beam out!”

“Acknowledged. One moment.” Jim shook the communicator in frustration while he waited, counting the seconds. He peeped over the rocks while Ahia was firing: the terrorists were copying them, taking cover behind the rocks and crystals that littered the crater floor. His communicator beeped and said, “I’m patching you through to the Bridge.”

Pike’s voice came through then, sounding irate. “This is Captain Pike. We’re in the middle of negotiations. Explain yourself, Midshipman,” he demanded.

“Captain,” Jim said, “we’re under fire and have one severely injured. We need a beam out!”

Jim could hear Pike speaking to someone else. “Attacking my officers? What is the meaning of this?”

“I assure you it wasn’t sanctioned by us,” someone, probably the Axanar diplomat, responded.

“That remains to be seen,” Pike said plainly, and then to Jim, “Kirk, do you know who your attackers are?”

Jim met Bones’s eyes briefly, knowing that a wrong answer could have major repercussions on the negotiations. “Yes, sir, it’s one of the terrorist sects,” Jim answered.

“Can you beam them out?” Kirk heard Pike ask someone. The diplomat was in the background arguing about the terms of negotiation, but Pike shut them down by saying, “My people are being attacked on your planet after you promised safe passage; I’d say that leaves some leeway on our end of the negotiations.” To Jim, he said, “Kirk, we can’t get a lock on your signal.” Despair threatened to close Jim’s throat up. “Report, Midshipman. What is your situation?”

Jim took a deep breath, falling back on protocol to hold the panic at bay. “We were surveying the dilithium deposits, and they snuck up on us. We’re trapped in a crater approximately thirty kilometers in diameter and they’ve pushed us into a wall. They’re using high velocity projectile weapons and we’ve only got one phaser. Lieutenant Gunnarsen’s been hit in the head; he’s unconscious, still alive but it’s pretty bad. Ensign Ahia and Doctor McCoy are also with me.”

“Is your vehicle nearby?”

“Negative, it’s a kilometer away and likely compromised by the terrorists if they followed us here.” With a jolt, Jim remembered who they had left at the car. “Is Kelohnbar okay?”

“The Axanar have already tried to contact him, but he hasn’t answered.”

Shit, Kelohnbar was probably already dead then. The terrorists wouldn’t need a measly chauffeur as a bargaining chip if they had Starfleet officers.

Pike went on: “There appears to be a localized suppression field for several hundred kilometers around your coordinates; it’s scrambling our transporter signal. We can’t beam you out or anyone else in.”

Fuck, Jim thought vehemently, and met Bones’s eyes grimly over Gunnersen’s unconscious body.

They were on their own.

“Can you stabilize him?” Jim asked Bones.

Bones gave a frustrated huff, running his tricorder over Gunnersen’s head wound, which he had already expertly wrapped. “I’ve stabilized his vascular system and reduced the chances for infection, but I can’t do more without the proper equipment and a sterile field.”

Jim’s mind raced through the possibilities. He activated the communicator again. “Captain, you said the suppression field is localized. Is it caused by the dilithium?”

Pike ordered someone to check, and an agonizingly long minute later said, “Negative. It’s showing some fluctuations that indicate it may be artificially generated.”

“Can you pinpoint where it’s being generated?”

“We’ll try, Kirk. I’ll let you know if we find anything. In the meantime, go to stealth mode and stay alive. Reinforcements are on the way, ETA two hours.”

Too long, Jim thought as they all followed orders, activating the earbud attachments for their communicators and the chameleon mode for their uniforms. Jim’s shirt, pants, and boots rippled like disturbed water and changed color to desert camouflage to match their surroundings.

Ahia suddenly gasped from where she had just leaned out from behind the rocks to return fire. She turned, collapsing back against the rocks and clutching her shoulder.

“Ahia!” Jim started to move toward her, but was stopped by Bones’s hand on his shoulder.

“You just get us the hell out of here,” Bones said right next to Jim’s ear to be heard over the renewed gunfire. “I’ll hold them off.” True to his word, Bones picked up Gunnarsen’s phaser and began exchanging fire with the terrorists. And if he moved just a little too fast, Jim pretended not to notice.

“They’ve split into two groups,” Ahia gasped. She dug her heels into the ground and gritted her teeth against the pain. “Trying to surround us,” she ground out.

“Keep pressure on that shoulder, Ensign,” Bones replied, and between rounds of firing at the terrorists he pulled out a roll of gauze and two portable regenerator units from his med kit.

Jim, still waiting for the response from the Centaurus, scooted over to Ahia so Bones could focus on returning fire. He snapped his fingers in front of Ahia’s bloodless face to get her attention. “Hey, Ahia!” Her glazed eyes sharpened and focused on him. “Just relax, we’re going to get you out of here. You’ll be fine, you just rest for a bit.”

She nodded and closed her eyes, jaw clenched.

Jim bandaged her shoulder first, wrapping the gauze over her shirt, strapping the dermal and muscle regenerators in place. Even with the regens, the cloth was staining red at a worrying rate. Jim carefully moved Ahia so he could see around her shoulder and cursed mentally: the hit was a through-and-through, and the regenerators could only patch up the damage to one side at a time. She was bleeding out from the exit wound while the entrance wound slowly closed.

Bones was glancing over at them between phaser blasts, and ordered, “Move the regens to the exit wound, it'll be larger so get that closed first. Good, now get her horizontal, prop her legs up, she’s lost enough blood as it—ERG,” Bones suddenly contorted in a disturbing, full-body flinch.

“Bones!” Jim called frantically, turning to look, but Bones shook his head.

“I’m fine,” Bones panted. “Rock hit me in the back, nothing to worry about. You just help Ahia.”

Jim gave him a skeptical look as he lifted Ahia’s feet onto his knees, but was distracted by his communicator beeping in his ear.

Centaurus to Kirk,” Pike said.

“Kirk here!”

“We can’t pinpoint the exact location of the generator since it appears to be within the suppression field, but we’ve narrowed it down. Transmitting coordinates now.”

Jim looked at the map and sighed in relief. The signal had been localized to an area 50 meters in diameter toward the center of the crater. If they could just get over and disable it, then the Centaurus could beam them to safety. The only problem was, Jim realized, the signal was coming from the same direction as the terrorist bullets.

Bastards must be carrying it with them, Jim thought. But it had to be large if it could generate a signal powerful enough to block the Centaurus, too large and heavy to carry on foot. It must be on a mobile unit, which would be unwieldy and awkward to maneuver through all these rocks. The terrorists had probably gotten as close as they could, activated the generator, and then attacked them thinking they would roll over without a fight.

Jim took a brief survey of the enemy location the next time Bones returned fire: the terrorists had continued branching out to either side, trying to pin them against the crater wall, but Ahia and Bones had prevented them from getting close enough to truly box them in. And, Jim realized, the further they spread out, the fewer of them were left defending the generator.

A plan began forming in Jim’s mind. He did a quick inventory; they had Gunnarsen’s phaser, Bones’s medical tricorder and basic field kit; Ahia’s geology tricorder; all of their communicators; two remaining water bottles; and the bottle of Axanar liquor that Jim had bought earlier.

Jim immediately pulled out the water bottles and drank half of one in a single pull, handing the other to Ahia and encouraging her to drink as much as she could.

“What are you doing?” Bones asked when Jim pulled his med kit off his hip, but Jim didn’t have time to answer. He pulled out a dermal regenerator and quickly rewired the circuits controlling the laser output, narrowing it to a long-range beam, decreasing the power, and adding a small delay. When he was done with that, Jim pulled Gunnarsen’s communicator out of the unconscious man’s pocket. Then he grabbed Bones’s tricorder, ripped the back panel off, and carefully pulled out the wires. He ran one of the wires into the communicator control panel and connected the other to the modified dermal regenerator, twisting the wires and circuits of the different instruments together to form new conduits.

As he was finishing up, Jim asked Bones, “How quickly can you move if you’re carrying Gunnarsen?”

“As fast as you need,” Bones assured him, and Jim knew that he wasn’t exaggerating.

Jim turned to check on Ahia. A little color had come back to her face, and the red spot on the bandage had stopped spreading. Looked like the regenerators had done their job on the exit wound. Jim quickly switched them back to the entrance wound and then put his hand on Ahia’s good arm. “Ahia, can you move on your own?”

She sat up carefully, favoring her injured shoulder. “I’ll manage,” she said, and Jim gripped her arm a little tighter in encouragement.

“Okay, here’s the plan,” Jim said as he wedged his modified three-instrument ensemble into a divot in the boulders, aiming the medical tricorder outward. “I’ve got this rigged to shoot imitation phaser fire at bio signals in response to an incoming communicator signal. Ahia, you’ll be in charge of sending the comm signals. You can use the sound of their guns to time when you should ‘return fire.’ Let’s give this a test run first to see if it’ll work.”

“Got it,” she said, pulling out her own communicator and setting it to Gunnarsen’s frequency.

When Ahia gave Jim the ready signal, Jim said, “Bones, get down here.”

Bones fired twice more before crouching down with Jim and Ahia, and Jim held his breath as Ahia activated the communicator. Gunnarsen’s comm unit beeped, the medical tricorder activated and detected the terrorists’ life signs, and the regenerator sent out a series of lasers at them, one by one. By the lack of terrorists suddenly piling onto them, the modified laser resembled phaser blasts closely enough to convince the terrorists that they were still being fired upon. Hopefully they weren’t accurate enough to actually hit any of the terrorists, or the jig was up.

Jim breathed out a slow breath of relief. “Okay, part one successful.” Jim handed Bones his half-full water bottle, which he finished off without needing to be told. “Our next move is to get the fuck out of here. I’m going to make a distraction to the right and then we’re going to run left on my signal. Once we’ve broken their line, we’ll scatter in an Alpha-Mu pattern. Bones, you’ll be carrying Gunnarsen. I want you and Ahia on the Mu path, heading to the other side of the crater. Put as much distance between you and them as possible.”

“But Jim,” Bones protested, “the Alpha path will take you directly to them.”

“That’s the idea,” Jim agreed grimly. “I’m going to try to disable the suppression field generator so we can get beamed the hell out of here.”

Bones looked like he was going to argue, but Ahia said, “It’s a good plan, Kirk.”

“It’s a damn fool plan,” Bones growled.

“What other options do we have, McCoy?” she snapped back.

Bones opened his mouth, then pressed his lips together unhappily and shoved the phaser into Jim’s hands. “Fine, but if you’re going alone then you’re taking the weapon.”

Jim resisted, but Bones grabbed the back of his neck and forced Jim to look at him. The look in his eyes jogged a forgotten memory loose, and Jim suddenly had an image of Bones in a lab with that exact expression of desperation and pleading.

Jim breathed out slowly. “Fine,” he echoed Bones, “but you can at least have a fake phaser in case they catch up to you.” Jim pulled out the last regenerator from Bones’s med kit to modify the laser output. As he worked, Bones hoisted Gunnarsen over his shoulders in a Fireman’s carry, keeping low to the ground so Gunnarsen wasn’t above the rocks.

Jim handed the modified regenerator to Ahia, who was looking quickly back and forth between Jim and Bones like she had just figured something out. Whatever it was, she didn’t comment. “Kirk,” she said, “what’s your distraction?”

Jim grinned and wordlessly held up his bottle of liquor and a strip of gauze.

Ahia looked confused, but Bones let out a bark of laughter. Jim popped the cap off with his thumb and then plugged it with the gauze so that one end stuck out the lip, the other quickly soaking up the green liquid.

“On my mark,” Jim said and, staying behind cover, took aim with the phaser at a large dilithium crystal to the right, where the terrorists had come closer to boxing them in. When the gunfire started, Jim fired at the highest power setting, holding the trigger down. The dilithium absorbed the energy, crystal rapidly turning a deep pink as it heated under the particle beam. Jim then pointed the phaser at the end of the gauze sticking out of the bottle, lit the tip on fire with a brief low-level blast, and then chucked the entire thing at the superheated crystal.

The bottle shattered upon impact, igniting the alcohol within. The burning liquid spread over the surface of the crystal, and the entire thing went up like dry tinder, a pink jewel wreathed in blue flames.

Shouts of surprise and fear rose up from the terrorists. When the initial heat blast receded, Jim hissed, “Now!”

They all rushed to the left across the exposed expanse of land to the next group of boulders. Jim checked to make sure they hadn’t been spotted. The terrorists were still regrouping, trying to decide what to do about the burning dilithium crystal, and didn’t appear to have spotted their escape. Perfect.

They darted to the next group of boulders, and then the next, quickly making a circuit around the terrorist ranks. As they ran, the terrorist guns began going off again, and Ahia responded by sending comm signals to Gunnarsen’s abandoned communicator whenever there were breaks in the gunfire, activating the fake phaser blasts. 

Once they had completely cleared the terrorist ranks, Jim nodded to Bones and Ahia and they separated, Bones sending him a significant look that Jim translated as Don’t die, you moron. Jim ran from boulder to boulder, keeping low to the ground as he bee-lined to the heart of the terrorist camp. When he started hearing voices, he slowed and peered around the rocks.

There were two automobiles that resembled pre-hovercar pickup trucks. The cargo beds in the back had high side rails that rose above the front cabin. Tarps were draped over the rails, turning the cargo bed into a bulky rectangular enclosure. On one truck, the tarps were rolled up and secured by ropes, revealing an empty cargo area. The suppression field generator must be in the other one, thought Jim, while the empty one was used to carry their operatives.

There were four Axanar total: a driver at each wheel, and two guards circling the perimeter with large guns strapped over their chests. The guards looked a little bored and like they weren’t paying much attention, since Jim’s fake phaser had the terrorists convinced that he and the others were still backed against the crater wall. Maybe Jim could use that to his advantage.

Jim needed to get a better look at the generator to figure out how to disable it, but it was unlikely that he would be able to take out four operatives on his own, especially not before one of them alerted the rest of the terrorists. No, Jim would have to remain covert, give Bones and Ahia more time to get away in case he couldn’t disable the generator.

Sneaking around to the side closest to the covered truck bed, he studied the movement of the guards. No, the area was too small and their patterns too regular; there was no opening for Jim to move in without one of the guards spotting him.

Trying to decide what to do, Jim at first didn’t notice that the distant gunfire had ceased. He was startled by a beeping sound, and watched as one of the guards lifted up a device and began speaking into it too quietly to overhear.

Jim’s charade had been discovered. Shit, they’d start searching the area soon, and with their numbers they’d be able to find Bones and Ahia faster. Jim needed to disable that generator, now.

Jim’s heart jumped into his throat when he realized that the guards were both looking away, distracted by the news of their target’s escape. Without thinking, Jim leaped out from behind the rocks and ran as quietly as possible to the bed of the truck. He scrambled under the tarp and was enclosed in dark, hot air. He listened anxiously, trying to silence his rapid breaths, but there were no shouts or guns suddenly pointed at him; he’d made it unseen.

His heart still pounding, Jim held up his communicator and turned on a wide-beam dim light. A large, hulking metal shape came into focus. It was definitely a generator of some sort, and was barely small enough to fit under the tarp, taking up most of the bed of the truck. The control panel was right next to Jim, easily accessed from the opening of the tarp.

Jim slid over and tapped at the buttons. The screen lit up, and Jim stared at the alien symbols in confusion. Fuck, it was just like at the security checkpoint; his universal translator was useless.

Jim stared at the massive generator, trying to figure out how to disable it. A sound like rumbling thunder broke his concentration, and the entire truck jolted and began vibrating.

The engine was on.

The truck lurched backwards and then forwards, turning around. Jim banged his knee into the generator before he got hold of the side railings to brace himself. He couldn’t risk speaking in case they heard him. Instead, he typed a message on his comm unit to the Centaurus: k to c.

Pike’s voice immediately spoke into his ear. “Kirk, what is your status?”

at genrratpr, Jim typed clumsily, need trsnlatir to disabel

“Give us a visual,” Pike ordered, and Jim turned on the live holovid recording and aimed the lens at the control panel, trying to keep his hands steady against the bumping of the truck.

A woman’s voice came over his earbud: “This is Lieutenant Igris. Click the lowest square on the left.” Jim hovered his finger over it. “Yes,” she said, and he pressed it. The screen changed, though if Jim hadn’t been watching he probably wouldn’t have been able to tell. “Give me a minute…okay, now click the square middle left.” A distinctly different screen popped up, with a large blank space that was blinking, and Jim didn’t need her cussing to know what it was. “It’s password protected,” she confirmed Jim’s fears.

Rage and despair gripped Jim and he almost shouted in frustration, but covered his mouth at the last moment and just breathed raggedly against his palm. He had been so close, fuck, so close! Every minute that went by was another minute that Bones, Ahia and Gunnarsen might be found, and ground reinforcements were still at least an hour and a half away.

Through the rushing in his ears, Jim barely heard Pike’s voice come back over the comm. “Kirk,” he said, “I’ve got an idea. That generator disables our transporter, but it doesn’t affect our communicators. We can pinpoint your comm signals easily. Leave your communicator on the generator and get out of there, and we’ll destroy the generator from here and beam you out.”

Jim shook his head to clear it, glad that he wasn’t expected to speak; he didn’t think his throat would cooperate if he tried. He squinted through a gap in the tarp to judge how fast they were going, but it wasn’t very fast since they had to dodge all the boulders; Jim could jump with minimal damage. The problem was that the other truck was following right behind them, and they’d spot him immediately. He typed to Pike, No clean escape. Standby.

Then Jim looked up at the cab of the truck and realized in an instant what he’d have to do. He crawled around the generator and found a small window at the back of the cab. Through the glass, he could see two Axanar sitting in the truck, the driver and one of the guards.

In quick succession, Jim slammed the window open and stunned the guard. The Axanar had barely turned a surprised face to Jim before falling against the passenger side window, limp.

The driver cursed and the truck veered to the side for a second, but Jim turned the phaser on them and said in his most threatening voice, “Keep driving, nice and steady.”

The driver’s communicator crackled to life. “Truck One, everything alright? Over.”

Jim pressed the phaser to the terrorist’s neck and saw them gulp. Apparently the Axanar were unaware of the stun setting. “Tell them everything is fine, it was just a pothole.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” they parroted into the communicator, “just a pothole, over.”

“The generator alright? Over.”

“Generator’s fine, over,” they answered under Jim’s phaser.

“Good; we can’t let those Federation invaders recover their people. We need them. Let me know if you see any of them. Over and out.”

Jim thought frantically. “Tell them it would be better to split up so you can cover more ground,” Jim ordered.

The terrorist eyed him sideways, but repeated his order into the communicator. There was nothing but static for a moment, and then a laugh. “Good idea, R’tolvor; you’re really getting the hang of this. Comm me if you need anything. Ghetten out.”

Jim watched in triumph as the truck behind them veered off and disappeared behind the rocks and crystals.

“Hand over your communicator and theirs,” Jim said, motioning to the unconscious guard, and put the devices in his satchel. “Now stop the vehicle,” Jim ordered.

R’tolvor started to bring the truck to a slow stop, then abruptly slammed on the brakes. Jim tried to brace himself, but ended up falling half into the cabin of the truck. His hip slammed into the divider and the pain stunned him momentarily. While he was distracted, R’tolvor grabbed his arm and wrenched it, trying to get the phaser. Jim squeezed it tightly.

The phaser discharged, and the electronics at the front of the cabin went haywire. The radio flipped on and dialed rapidly through all the frequencies in a burst of sound; the headlights flickered on and off like a strobe light; the air conditioning blasted on and turned from cold to hot to cold; and then the engine died abruptly. The barrage was enough to startle R’tolvor, and Jim elbowed the Axanar in the face but accidentally pressed his injured hip against the edge of the back window. The distraction allowed R’tolvor to awkwardly flail an arm back far enough to slam Jim’s head into the divider. Black spots danced across his vision and something in his head cracked. Jim blindly reached out and grabbed R’tolvor around the throat, managing to free his other arm from R’tolvor and get the phaser aimed at them again. “If you want to live,” he panted, “follow my directions.”

R’tolvor subsided, keeping their hands in view on the wheel. Jim crawled into the crowded cab and then followed R’tolvor out the driver’s side door.

“Get them out,” Jim said, motioning to the unconscious guard.

R’tolvor looked both angry and confused by this request, but did as they were bid. When they first put their arms around the guard, they exclaimed in surprise, “They’re alive!”

“They won’t be if they stay here,” Jim assured him, “and I can’t carry both of you, so pick them up.”

R’tolvor still looked confused, eyeing Jim like they didn’t know what to make of him, but slung the guard’s arm over their shoulder and lifted them awkwardly.

“Captain,” Jim said, and held a hand up to the earpiece when he didn’t receive a reply. “Captain?” Jim pulled it out and found it cracked clean in half. He threw it aside in disgust and pulled out his handheld. “Captain,” he said into it, “I can move away from the generator now.”

“Good,” Pike responded. “Since you’ll be leaving your communicator there and we won’t know when you’ve cleared the area, we’ll give you a prearranged time before we destroy the generator. Is five minutes enough?”

“Wait!” R’tolvor said suddenly. “You’re going to destroy the generator?”

Jim ignored the outburst. “Five minutes should be fine,” he told Pike.

The terrorist was looking increasingly agitated. “You can’t destroy the generator, you’ll kill us all!”

“What do you mean?” Jim asked the Axanar, hearing the question echoed from Pike.

“The generator is powered by nuclear energy. If you try to destroy it, there will be an atomic explosion,” R’tolvor said hurriedly, and with such stricken terror that Jim believed them instantly.

“Can they disable the generator?” Pike asked.

“R’tolvor, do you know the password for the generator?” Jim asked.

R’tolvor immediately became tight-lipped. “All you aliens, only looking out for yourselves. Coming here, pretending to be friendly, when really you just want our valuables. You think I’m just going to sit by while you rape my planet? These are our resources and should be for our people, so you can go crawling home like the vermin you are!”

Jim didn’t have time for this. He powered up the phaser and aimed it at the Axanar. “You can give me the password or you can die now.”

R’tolvor eyed him tensely and then looked at the guard they were carrying. “You’re not going to kill me, Starfleet,” they called Jim’s bluff.

“You’re right, R’tolvor,” Jim said, “I’m not going to kill you. Starfleet operates on a higher moral code than that.” A smug smile started to sneak its way onto R’tolvor’s face, but Jim’s next words erased it. “But I will stun your ass and leave you here while I use your vehicle to escape. Then your terrorist buddies can deal with you. I doubt they’ll be happy that you lost the generator—that is, if your government doesn’t find you first.”

R’tolvor scowled. “Go fuck yourself, Starfleet scum.”

“Captain?” Jim asked.

“I don’t see any other options. Do it,” Pike ordered. 

Jim pulled the trigger, and the two Axanar went down. He snagged the keys from R’tolvor and climbed into the truck, tearing off his head cover so his peripheral vision wasn’t impeded.

“Are you sure you can drive that thing, Midshipman?” Pike asked.

Jim oriented himself in the cabin: manual transmission, gearshift, brakes, accelerator, clutch—everything was similar to the classic car Jim had once driven off a cliff, even if the pedals were arranged differently on Axanar. Jim pressed the clutch and twisted the key. The engine roared to life. “Like riding a bike, sir,” he responded, then shifted to first gear and took off, leaving the unconscious Axanar terrorists in the dust. “Captain, you said you can track our comm signals. Can you guide me to the others?”

“You read my mind,” Pike said. “Transmitting their location now.” Two blips appeared on Jim’s comm screen where he had propped it on the dashboard, and Jim turned the truck in that direction. “We’ve been following Doctor McCoy and Ensign Ahia since you split from them. They’ve been moving in a random pattern to avoid the terrorist squads. Good news is the terrorists aren’t very organized. If you pass any of them, hide your face.”

But Jim’s erratic luck held out: he didn’t see any of the terrorist squads as he approached the blinking comm signals. When he was still a good distance away, the two blips paused and then started moving directly toward him. He pulled around a group of boulders, and there they were: Bones, still carrying Gunnarsen over his shoulders, and Ahia, sweating and harried but miraculously fine.

“I’ve got them, Captain,” Jim said.

“Excellent. Keep me informed. Pike out.”

Jim put the truck in park. Without needing to be told, Ahia got into the bed of the truck while Bones quickly slid Gunnarsen into the cabin beside Jim. Bones then joined Ahia in the back while Jim buckled Gunnarsen in. They both appeared at the back window as Jim began driving again, the entire stop taking less than twenty seconds.

“Jim, you stubborn, lucky bastard!” Bones reached through the back window to grip him hard by the shoulder. Without thinking about it, Jim reached up and clutched at his hand, fiercely glad that Bones was safe.

“You’re one to talk,” Jim retorted, grinning at Bones in the rearview mirror as Bones turned to check on Gunnarsen.

“Touching as this reunion is,” Ahia interrupted, “we’re still in enemy territory. What’s the plan?”

“Uh, get the hell out of here?” Jim said.

“Oh, you think they’re just going to let us drive their massive generator right out?”

“Someone’s grouchy,” Jim muttered.

“She’s right, Jim; they’re going to wonder where this truck is, probably sooner rather than later. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

“If we can get out of the crater,” Jim said, “we should be able to outpace them and rendezvous with ground reinforcements.”

“How are we going to scale the crater wall?” Bones asked.

Ahia, finally able to apply knowledge from her primary specialty, answered, “With a crater this old, there’s bound to be some areas that have eroded the walls into more of a ramp.”

Jim added, “If they got these things in here, we can get them out. We’ll go to the perimeter of the crater and then follow it until we find a way out.”

“If there’s only so many of these erosions,” Bones said tightly, “then they could easily monitor them.”

They were all silent, contemplating the possibility of an ambush waiting for them just as they exited the crater.

“Well,” Jim said, “they’ll only be waiting for us if they think we have a vehicle. Let’s not give them a reason to think that.”

As if these words were darkly prophetic, one of the terrorist communicators in Jim’s satchel suddenly crackled, and the same voice from earlier, Ghetten, said, “Truck One, this is Truck Two. What is your position? Over.”

A cold sweat broke out on Jim’s neck as he realized he couldn’t even pretend to be R’tolvor or the guard because he couldn’t speak the Axanar language. Since his voice would be passing through the terrorist communicator unit, his universal translator wouldn’t be able to function: his voice would come through their end in English.

“Give it to me!” Bones suddenly demanded, and about ripped the satchel trying to get the terrorist comm unit out. Jim felt a thrill of alarm when he saw Bones hit the button to respond.

“Truck One to Truck Two,” Bones said, but his voice was different, higher-pitched but also kind of blunted and thick, like he was speaking through a mouthful of syrup. “We’re checking along the wall, over.” 

And amazingly, impossibly, the terrorist responded. “Is that you, Y’balvor? You sound a little off, over.”

“The Starfleet scum are making me sick, over,” Bones said.

“You and me both. Anyway, good idea about checking the perimeter, keep on it. We’ll find them; no way they can leave the crater without our scouts noticing. Over and out.”

Jim and Ahia both stared at Bones as he responded, “Over and out.”

Bones turned off the alien communicator and returned it to the satchel. Then he noticed their strange looks. He shrugged uncomfortably. “I’ve been studying Axanarian a bit.”

A bit, he says,” Jim said, a shocked laugh leaping out of his throat.

“So, you were just speaking the Axanar language?” Ahia clarified. “Sounded like English to me.”

“That’s the universal translator at work,” Bones reminded her.

An embarrassed flush came over her cheeks. “Oh, right.”

“However the hell you did it, Bones, that was badass.”

Bones rolled his eyes. “Let’s just hope it bought us some extra time to get out of here. Now, Ensign, let me check that shoulder.”

“It’s not bad, I think the regenerator’s fixed most of it,” she said, but let Bones pull her bandage open to check. “What do you suppose they meant by ‘scouts’?”

“My guess,” Jim answered, “is they’ve got some teams stationed on the crater lip or right outside the crater who could see anyone coming out. When we get out, they’re going to spot us immediately. We won’t have much of a lead, but we’ll at least be able to take them by surprise.”

The cabin fell silent as Bones tended to Ahia’s wound, moving the regenerators back to the exit wound, and then leaned through the window to check on Gunnarsen’s head again.

“How is he doing?” Jim asked quietly.

Bones frowned deeply. “Let’s just get out of here as fast as possible.”

Jim gripped the steering wheel a little tighter, frustrated at their slow progress. As they neared the wall, the rock formations and crystals became sparser. When they finally found the sheer face of the crater wall, Jim turned the truck to follow it and sped up.

Less than ten minutes later, the slope of the wall changed, widening outward at its apex. Jim brought the car to a stop and they all appraised the incline.

“Ahia?” Jim said.

“It’s pretty steep, but it looks like our only option unless we want to keep going.”

Jim shook his head immediately. “No, let’s just get out of here. Kirk to Centaurus,” he said into his communicator.

“Go ahead, Kirk,” Pike responded.

“We’ve found a way out of the crater, but we have reason to believe that there are look-outs waiting.”

“Then you come tearing out of there like the hounds of hell are on your heels, you hear me?”

“Affirmative, Captain. Kirk out.” Jim met eyes with Bones and Ahia in the rearview mirror, then threw the truck into low gear and pulled onto the steep incline. 

As the truck came to a sharp angle, the generator slid along the bed of the truck, groaning as it scraped metal to metal. It snagged against the numerous buckles strapping it down. Jim heard Ahia mutter, “Jesus.”

They continued the ascent, the workload putting strain on the engine. Jim switched between gears to prevent overheating or backsliding. The top of the incline slowly drew closer and closer.

“Hold on,” Jim warned, and saw Bones yank the seatbelt into locking over Gunnarsen before gripping under his jaw to hold his head steady.

Jim accelerated as they neared the lip of the crater, and then they were flying over it. The wheels left the ground for an instant before slamming back down, jolting all of them. The generator creaked forward and Ahia gave a shout of dismay; if it moved forward, Jim realized belatedly, she and Bones could be crushed. Out of the corner of his eye, Jim saw Bones shift, keeping his hand on Gunnarsen’s jaw but doing something with his legs. The generator settled with a groan.

Jim barely had time for the unbelievable thought of Holy shit did Bones just stop a half-ton of metal with his foot?? before he saw that they weren’t alone. There were three vehicles parked barely a hundred meters away, the safari-like landscape spread out behind them. The terrorists had already spotted them and were piling into their vehicles.

Jim slammed on the accelerator, aiming the truck toward the comm signal from the ground reinforcements. The truck lurched into the grassline, and the terrorists gave pursuit.

“I’m going to try to slow them down!” Bones shouted, and disappeared around the generator with the phaser.

Jim watched through the side-mirrors as two well-aimed phaser shots blew out a tire on one of the terrorist vehicles, bringing it to a grinding halt in the dust. The other two spread out to either side, but kept their distance.

“Why aren’t they shooting at us?” Ahia asked, clutching the window frame as the truck rattled through the brush.

“Because they don’t want to damage the generator,” Jim realized.

The vehicles following them began to slow and fall back. “Hah!” Jim laughed in delight as he watched them come to a complete stop and turn around. “They’re giving up!”

“After all that?” Ahia asked skeptically.

“What other option do they have?” Jim said as Bones joined Ahia. “If they shoot at us, they risk nuclear death; they aren’t catching up out here, we got too much of a head start on them; and they must know we’ve got reinforcements on the way, leaving them a limited window to escape.”

“Jim’s right,” Bones said. “They’re done.”

As though all she needed was a majority opinion, Ahia let out an explosive breath. “Thank fuck,” she whispered, sagging against the divider.

Jim checked his headings to make sure they were going the right way and then updated Pike on their progress. “We’ll meet the ground reinforcements in 20 minutes,” he concluded.

“I’ll see you when you get back to the city.”

Jim’s stomach swooped. “Wait, won’t you just beam us out once we leave the suppression field?”

Pike’s voice was tight with anger. “The Axanar diplomats believe that, with the four of you out of immediate danger, it would be fairest to follow the original negotiation terms. No transports between the ship and planet.”

“Captain!” Bones interrupted. “Gunnarsen is still in critical condition. He needs the Centaurus’s medical attention as soon as possible.”

“I agree with you completely, Doctor McCoy,” Pike replied. “But I’m afraid my hands are tied. Do what you can. I’ll see you all at the checkpoint station. Pike out.”

Jim and Bones exchanged enraged expressions, but knew there was nothing either of them could do. This was above their heads.

They met the ground reinforcements right on schedule. There was a medical vehicle with them and two Axanar medics, who jumped out and tried to start treating them.

Bones reared up like an offended bear. “Hey, you ever even had a human patient before?” he demanded, and at their startled expressions said, “I didn’t think so! I won’t have inexperienced idiots trying to treat my people. You just get our Lieutenant into the back for me and then stay out of my way. And be careful with his head!”

Needless to say, the medics retreated to the front of the vehicle as soon as possible. Bones was quick to hustle the away team into the back of the medical van, Jim included. When Jim tried to protest, Bones wordlessly brushed a hand over his hip, right over where he had slammed it into the divider with R’tolvor. Even that light touch reignited the wound, and Jim hissed and batted his hand away, but conceded the point.

“Here, don’t damage your knee any more than it already is,” Bones said, helping Jim with the high step into the back of the van.

Jim gave a strained laugh as he took the seat beside Ahia. “Nothing gets by you, Bones.”

Just like with the Bridgestone Boom, now that the adrenaline had worn off Jim was really starting to feel all his various aches and pains. Jim sagged, letting the buckle keep him upright. Ahia had already passed out, leaning her good shoulder on the wall. Gunnarsen was laid out on a stretcher, still unconscious. Bones was delicately fixing a neck brace on him and then strapping him down. After administering a couple hypos and setting up an ancient saline drip with impressive expertise, he knelt in front of Jim and began checking him over.

“You certainly don’t do anything by half-measures,” Bones grumbled. “You’ve got a torn ligament in your knee, a sub-periosteal hematoma on your hip, a bump to the head that I’m frankly surprised didn’t result in a concussion, a laceration to the gastrocnemius, and too many cuts and bruises to count.”

“Huh,” Jim said intelligently, realizing that his eyes were closed. He dragged them open and stared at Bones’s steady hands carefully putting him back together. His thoughts were foggy and slow, so it took him a while to wonder about Bones’s condition. “How’re you doing, Bones?” he asked belatedly.

“I’m fine, you idiot; I’m not the one who was joyriding with stolen alien trucks.” Bones finished the regenerator treatment on Jim’s calf and moved on to his torn knee ligaments.

“Good, good,” Jim slurred, going to pat Bones’s shoulder and getting his head instead. His hair was soft and thick and Jim instinctually threaded his fingers through it, his palm cupping the back of Bones’s skull.

Bones’s hands continued to work, but there was a sudden stillness to his body. Jim blinked down at him and found Bones looking up at him through his eyelashes. “Jim…” he said, voice hushed.

His face was close, mouth twisted uncertainly. Jim felt a swell of affection rise in him at the sight of Bones’s familiar frown, that particular tilt to his eyebrows over changeable hazel eyes and the sweep of dark hair over his forehead and—and…

Well, fuck, Jim thought, staring back at Bones, feeling how wide his own eyes had become.

Something about Jim’s expression seemed to answer an unvoiced question for Bones. He broke eye contact, finished tending Jim’s knee and other ailments, and then buckled into a seat on the opposite side of the van.

Jim was glad for the breathing space, his mind still reeling with the revelation of this thing between them. How did I not notice? Jim and Bones had always had a certain rapport, but Jim hadn’t noticed it evolving into this. At least, not while it was happening. But now that Jim looked back, he could see how their interactions had become comfortable, even intimate; suddenly, the looks from people like Ahia made a lot more sense. They had all clearly seen what Jim had missed. It was incredibly ironic, Jim thought, considering how closely he had been monitoring Bones this entire time. He’d been so focused on the mystery of Bones that he’d failed to take note of his own changing feelings.

At the same time, it was very appropriate. After all, Bones had a knack for surprising Jim.

Not sure exactly what he wanted, but knowing that he didn’t like the distance Bones was blatantly trying to put between them, Jim stretched his leg across the van and nudged Bones’s foot. When Bones looked over at him, a wary and strangely vulnerable expression on his face, Jim smirked at him until Bones’s eyebrow hitched up and he rolled his eyes. Only then did Jim let himself close his eyes and rest.

The next thing Jim knew, he was being gently shaken.

“Jim, wake up,” Bones said. “We’re here.”

“Joy,” Jim managed to say, and saw the sardonic look Bones sent him before he moved to wake up Ahia. The Axanar medics pulled Gunnarsen’s stretcher out of the van, eyeing Bones leerily like he might chew them out again. Jim stepped out, carefully putting weight on his bad knee and finding it capable of supporting him with only the ghost of an ache. Bones’s medical care was practically magic.

The primary sun of Axanar was setting, painting the sky in warm pinks and oranges. The medics pushed Gunnarsen’s stretcher into the station and Jim, Bones and Ahia followed. As they approached the checkpoint and saw the long line, Jim heard Bones sigh in frustration.

Really?” Bones bitched at the medics.

“It’s a necessary precaution against terrorists,” one of the medics said, sounding like they were reading out of a pamphlet.

“Don’t give me that bullshit,” Bones snapped. “We’re the ones who just played a round of hide-and-seek with your terrorists! This is all just political posturing from the assholes who claim to want peaceful relations while delaying the medical needs of our officers!”

Bones’s harshness actually seemed to break through the professional detachment. “I’m sorry, sir,” the medic responded, and sounded genuinely apologetic. “We have a priority pass to the front of the line; you’ll be on your shuttle soon.”

People in the station were already whispering to each other as they passed, eyeing Gunnarsen’s unconscious body on the stretcher, Ahia’s bloody shoulder patch and the generally bedraggled appearance of their group. Ahia looked about as uncomfortable with the attention as Jim felt. Bones was walking with a straight-shouldered march, face forward and expressionless, but his hands were clenching restlessly by his sides as if he wanted something to grip.

The security guard at the front of the line was waiting for them. “Please empty your pockets and step through the scanner one at a time.”

Gunnarsen was pulled around the side and subjected to a hand-search. While Jim stepped onto the pad to be scanned, he could hear Bones admonishing security not to remove the regenerator strapped to Gunnarsen’s head. Jim tried not to think about how it was likely the only thing keeping him from bleeding into his brain.

When Jim got through the checkpoint, Pike was waiting for him. Jim gripped his hand perhaps a little tighter than he’d meant to, but Pike seemed to understand and didn’t flinch from Jim’s clutching fingers. If anything, he squeezed back just as hard. “Good to have you back, Kirk,” he said.

“Good to be back, Captain.”

“I wish I could say you can rest now, but I’m afraid we’ll need to debrief you immediately.”

Before Jim could respond, an Axanar behind Pike stepped forward and said in a soft voice, “I am R’kelban, First Diplomat of Axanar. I assure you, this has been very upsetting for us all, and we don’t wish to lay any more hardship on your shoulders.” He looked at both Jim and Ahia, who had just arrived. “However, we’ve never been so close to the terrorists before; we need to know everything you can tell us about them. We appreciate your cooperation in this matter and I must say, what we already know of the incident has impressed us. On behalf of the Axanar government, I want to thank you and your fellow Starfleet officers for your efforts today.”

Jim was just opening his mouth to accept the gratitude when the scanner behind him made a low, ominous beeping sound. He turned to see Bones standing on the pad, scowling in confusion.

“Please make sure your pockets are empty,” the attendant was saying.

“They are empty,” Bones snapped.

Jim said something placating to R’kelban, most of his attention still on Bones.

“I’m telling you,” Bones continued, “I haven’t got anything metal on—oh.”

Bones looked like he’d just had a revelation. His hand went to the front of his shirt and fingered a hole in the fabric that Jim hadn’t noticed before. Bones’s skin was almost the same tan color as his desert camo shirt, disguising the hole.

Looking at the torn fabric, a crazy idea occurred to Jim. He looked up at the scan showing Bones’s body and there, over his chest, was a small white cylinder.

A bullet, Jim realized numbly. Holy shit, Bones had been hit out there! And somehow, the wound had closed with the bullet still inside. Had Bones had time to get a dermal regenerator on himself? No, he only had a single one in his kit and Ahia had been using it, plus it still would have bled a lot before the skin healed. This was something else—something Augment-related, Jim was sure. And that made it very dangerous for the security of Bones’s secrets.

The attendant was starting to look suspicious, and Bones was looking more and more like a cornered, feral animal. Jim had to do something.

The diplomat was saying something, but Jim held up a hand and said hastily, “I’m very sorry, please excuse me” before walking back to the checkpoint. “Is there a problem?” Jim asked the attendant, keeping his voice low to avoid drawing attention.

“Sir,” they replied, holding up a hand, “please remove yourself from the security area.”

“Maybe the scanner is malfunctioning,” Jim persisted.

“It’s just been serviced,” the attendant disagreed, still looking at Bones with hard, mistrustful eyes.

“I understand that,” Jim said calmly, “but Doctor McCoy was in close proximity to a nuclear-powered machine today while being attacked by terrorists. Perhaps it’s doing something to your scanners.” This seemed to make the attendant uncertain, so Jim went on: “Would a physical search suffice as replacement, as you did with our injured officer?”

“Well, yes,” the attendant said reluctantly, looking like they didn’t want to be anywhere near a possibly radioactive Terran. “You do have the right to request that option,” they admitted, and then grudgingly said to Bones, “Please step around the scanner and stand on the white X.”

Bones’s eyes were fixed on Jim as he stepped around the scanner and submitted to a pat-down, his gaze never wavering. Jim met his eyes steadily, and an awareness and acknowledgement passed silently between them. Then Jim nodded to Bones and returned to Pike and R’kelban. Jim and Bones would have an interesting conversation, but later; for now, as tired as he was, Jim had a job to finish. And hey, he was finally getting a chance to stretch his diplomacy legs and also interact with the Axanar as he had wanted. Two birds with one stone, if a day like this could be called a stone.

Jim smiled charmingly at the Axanar diplomat, trying to smooth over his abrupt departure. “I apologize for the interruption, First Diplomat, but the wellbeing of my officers comes first. To address your earlier comments, I’m glad we could be of service to the Axanar government, and hope this incident will not adversely affect negotiations.”

R’kelban looked pleasantly surprised. “I think, if anything, this will strengthen them. The Captain tells me you are still a Cadet?”

Jim held up his hand and made the traditional Axanar greeting sign to which R’kelban looked, if possible, even more impressed. “James T. Kirk, Cadet Second Class.”

“Third Class, I’d say,” Pike interjected. “Although we refer to deployed Cadets as Midshipmen. Kirk is on an accelerated program to graduate from our Academy a year ahead of schedule. He’ll be starting his final year when we return to Terra.”

“Very good,” R’kelban praised. “I look forward to seeing you at the negotiations table, Midshipman James T. Kirk.” Jim, startled, shot Pike a quick look and received a small nod. Jim schooled his expression into polite acceptance as R’kelban said, “Please, right this way to the debriefing room.”

Bones had just made it through the checkpoint. Jim expected him to try to shepherd them to the shuttle, but instead Bones just said, “Captain, permission to return with Gunnarsen as the most qualified neurosurgeon on the ship.”

“Granted, Doctor McCoy,” Pike said. “I’ll debrief you later.”

Bones shot Jim one last unreadable look before he left to join the shuttle crew headed back to the ship. Ahia, Jim and Pike followed R’kelban.

There was another person waiting for them in the debriefing room, an older Axanar with severe wrinkles around their mouth. Their dark uniform had several pins and badges on the front.

“Thank you, First Diplomat,” they said to R’kelban. “I’ll take it from here.” The diplomat bowed and exited the room. “My name is General Ghanaden, and I am responsible for patrol of the outlands. I’ve been working to neutralize the various terrorist sects for over 15 years. I’ll need to know everything you can tell me about your attackers, starting with how you were able to determine their identity.”

Pike held his hand up. “General Ghanaden, with all due respect, there are things that Starfleet needs to know about this incident as well. I suggest we use the debriefing methods that my officers will be accustomed to, and you may ask further questions as needed. Is that amenable to you?”

“As you wish, Captain Pike, as long as I can speak to both of them at once.” Normally debriefings were performed individually to avoid biasing either officer’s viewpoints with the memories of the other, but Pike agreed.

“Before we start, General,” Jim said, and their eyes locked on him. “I wanted to ask about our driver, Kelohnbar.” Ghanaden blinked at him in astonishment. “Did they get out okay?”

“I’m afraid not,” they replied, watching Jim now with some puzzlement. “Kelohnbar’s body was found by the extraction team.”

Jim closed his eyes, anger and regret coursing through him. Kelohnbar had been undeniably curt, but the Axanar had still helped them and hadn’t deserved to die. “I’m sorry,” was all Jim could think to say.

Ghanaden was still watching Jim closely, but now with a keen intrigue. “If that is all, let us proceed with the debriefing.”

Jim and Ahia began tripping through the entire story. Jim was surprised to find how many little things he had forgotten until Ahia said something to remind him. Most of the time, Pike and Ghanaden let them speak, but on certain points they stopped to ask probing questions.

“Why did you take command, Kirk? You’re the lowest rank on this team.”

“I think it was good that Kirk took command,” Ahia interjected before he could answer, and Jim felt unexpectedly touched.

“Be that as it may, Ensign,” Pike said, “it doesn’t change the fact that he broke rank, and I need to know why.” He looked back at Jim. “Midshipman?”

In truth, Jim hadn’t really thought about it. It had been instinct. Jim raised his chin. “I made a snap judgment, sir. With Lieutenant Gunnarsen down and only the three of us left in a combat situation, I determined that I was the best qualified to command based on skillset, not rank.”

“Continue,” Pike said without commenting further, his expression neutral.

“I fell back on Starfleet protocol 349, governing the response to unknown threatening entities.” For the General’s benefit, Jim added, “I started by asking who they were, but they just kept making threats and telling us to surrender.”

“But McCoy already knew,” Ahia said, and General Ghanaden perked up. “He told us they were terrorists and they were trying to take us hostage. Said they wanted to be part of the negotiations.”

“Where did he get this information?” General Ghanaden asked, eyes alert.

“I’m not sure,” Ahia admitted. Jim didn’t say anything, also not sure how Bones had known, though he could take a few guesses, none that he could repeat. Best to keep his mouth shut. Bones had practice in coming up with believable lies; he’d think of something on his own.

“Why did you believe him, Midshipman?” Pike asked next, his eyes scrutinizing.

“Doctor McCoy has never led me wrong before,” Jim said. “I didn’t know how he knew, but I believed him.”

“Without question?” General Ghanaden asked.

“It was hardly a time for questions, General.”

“No, the time for questions is now.”

“I believe,” Pike intervened, “this one will have to wait for Doctor McCoy’s debriefing.”

The General subsided with a scowl.

When it got to the point where Ahia was shot in the shoulder, Jim had to take over the explanation. He was careful to skip the part about Bones being shot, and went on to explain how he had rigged the tricorder-communicator-regenerator ensemble.

“And it worked?” Ghanaden asked, sounding almost incredulous.

“Seemed real enough to the terrorists,” Jim said, trying not to feel insulted. Pike still had that carefully neutral expression on his face, and Jim was becoming increasingly anxious to know what he was thinking.

When they got to the split on the Alpha-Mu tactic, Ahia said, “Doctor McCoy and I spent the next 30 minutes trying to avoid the terrorists. I felt like a rat in a maze.”

“We watched from the Centaurus,” Pike said, and then added leadingly, “Your movements were erratic, and you came close to a few of the scouting parties, but you never crossed paths with them, not once.”

“Doctor McCoy was the one leading us; I think he could hear the terrorists coming, and would avoid them that way.”

“You think?” General Ghanaden said.

“Well, I couldn’t hear anything,” Ahia admitted, “but he kept telling me to be quiet and tilting his head and whatnot.”

“Midshipman, what about you?”

Jim explained how he’d found the two trucks and the events leading to his confiscation of the generator. Here, General Ghanaden wanted to know everything he could remember about the terrorists: their clothes, their equipment, the type of guns they used, the way they walked, any identifying features on their faces. Jim answered as best he could, and then reached into his satchel.

“I forgot I had these—they’re the terrorists’ communicators.”

General Ghanaden seized and examined them quickly, then stood abruptly. “I need to make a comm; I will be back shortly.”

When the door closed, Jim looked at Pike. “Captain, I know it’s not been long, but is there any word on Gunnarsen?”

Pike glanced at his comm. “There’s been no word, good or ill, since Doctor McCoy took him into surgery an hour ago.”

Jim sighed, and then straightened as the door opened again and General Ghanaden returned.

“Apologies for my hasty departure, but I recognized that model,” they explained. “They’re favored by the Yedrian clan.” At their blank looks, they said, “They’re one of the oldest terrorist sects, and the most successful. Now that we have their communicators, we’ll know what frequencies they’ve been using. At the very least, they’ll have to change all their current comm frequencies, which should disrupt their operations for at least a month. At the best, my people will be able to listen in and possibly track and detain some of them. Please continue,” the General invited, looking a little more agreeable now that they’d gotten something solid to work with.

The rest of the tale was just wrap-up. The General seemed uneasy that Bones knew the Axanar language, but let it pass without comment. When they finished, the General thanked them and left the room, but Pike hadn’t dismissed them yet so Jim and Ahia remained at attention.

Pike stood, crossing his arms behind his back and looking at them both steadily.

“Ensign Ahia, Midshipman Kirk, both of you have done a remarkable job today, and I mean that. You managed to maintain your calm in a highly stressful situation, and upheld the principles and standards expected of Starfleet Officers. You took a bad situation and turned it to your advantage, not only avoiding capture but also appropriating a dangerous weapon from the terrorists. Because of your actions today, you’ve improved our relations with the Axanar, increased our chances for a successful negotiation, and set a terrorist organization back a step. You may have even aided in the capture of some of them.”

Well, when you put it that way, it did sound like a lot. At the time, Jim hadn’t felt he was doing much more than running away and making crazy, on-the-fly decisions that were more likely to get him and his team killed than to succeed.

Pike smiled at their stunned expressions. “Let’s get you both back to the Centaurus.”

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Ensign Ahia immediately had to report to sickbay for surgery. Regens could close a wound, but fixing all the details of the musculature still required a deft hand. Jim accompanied her there with a vague plan to check on Bones.

On the way, Ahia said, “You really were amazing out there, Kirk. I can’t believe you’re only a second year cadet.”

“Third, according to Pike,” Jim joked. “And don’t sell yourself short. I’m not the one who took a bullet.” The only one who didn’t, Jim did not say.

Ahia gave a small huff in place of a laugh. She was quiet for a moment, and then said, “You don’t suppose they suspect Doctor McCoy of working with the terrorists, do you?”

Jim glanced at her, startled. “Why would you think that?”

“It’s just the way the General was so keen on how he knew who they were right away, like he knew they’d be coming. And then later, we never ran into any of them, like he knew exactly where they were. And he even knew how to speak Axanar fluently!”

Now that Ahia was saying it, Jim could see her point: it would be easy for an outsider to suspect Bones of conspiring with the terrorists. Jim himself couldn’t explain everything Bones had known.

Still, suspicion from an alien species was one thing, but within Starfleet it could spell the kind of disaster that Bones had barely avoided with Solanski. “You don’t think that, Ahia, do you?”

“Me? God, no! If he was working with them, he’d have shot us in the back as soon as you gave him the phaser.”

“That’s true,” Jim encouraged.

“It’s strange that he knew exactly who they were, though.”

Jim had no answer, and he was really getting sick of it. If he was going to keep Bones’s secrets, he needed to be able to not only come up with believable lies, but also make sure his story and Bones’s matched. And he couldn’t do that if Bones was still hiding from everyone, including Jim. Though with the way Bones had looked at Jim at the security checkpoint, he must be aware that Jim knew something.

Jim just wasn’t sure. For now, he’d have to play it by ear, like he did best.

When they got to sickbay, Ahia went to have her shoulder rebuilt and Jim went to find Bones. He was still in surgery with Gunnarsen. Jim watched from the above observation deck for a few minutes, mesmerized by the dexterous, precise movements of Bones’s hands. Bones didn’t notice at first, such was his intent devotion to his patient, but at some point his hands stopped moving, and Jim looked up to find himself being scrutinized by dark, suspicious eyes.

And the watcher becomes the watched, Jim thought with a little smile. He nodded to Bones and then stepped back out of view and left the observation deck.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Interlude:

Jim didn’t see Bones much during the weeks of negotiations. In his free time, Jim was consumed with reading various Axanar texts on the political and social climate of the last 20 years. On shift, Jim was busy with a new duty.

Thanks to R’kelban’s invitation, Jim was ordered to be present during the negotiations meetings. While this was a huge honor, Jim felt discouragingly like his only purpose was as an expensive centerpiece, to brighten the room and also remind the Axanar of the goodwill of the Federation, who had graciously forgiven their lapse in security. Jim was expected to make nice with the Axanar diplomats between meetings and then be silent during the actual negotiations. But it was still a step up from reports, and he was learning a lot about diplomatic techniques, so he played his part without complaint.

General Ghanaden’s predictions turned out to be true: they were able to track and apprehend one of the Yedrian terrorist cells, and use their information to capture a few more. The Axanar hadn’t had a victory like this in years. But while everyone else was busy celebrating, Jim was pensively considering the staggering number of terrorist sects. There were no records of them in the Starfleet data on Axanar, which meant that they had sprung up just in the 20 years since last contact.

Negotiations had been going for two weeks by now, and were stalled. Neither side was completely satisfied, and Jim could tell that the Admiralty was still reticent about making any sort of agreement with the Axanar, let alone inviting them to join the Federation. Jim thought it might be because of the presence of the terrorists. When Jim finally expressed his suspicions to the captain, as well as his concerns about the numerous terrorists, Pike pulled him aside to speak privately in his ready room.

“You’ve just summarized the situation perfectly, Kirk,” Pike said, turning to stare out the window at the tan and blue world below. “The presence of the terrorists is one of the main reasons that Starfleet hasn’t already signed a peace agreement with the Axanar. The existence of terrorists often indicates some kind of repressive regime that has driven its people to extremist rebellion, and Starfleet doesn’t work with repressive regimes.” Pike turned to Jim, crossing his arms and leaning back against the window. “Any suggestions, Midshipman?”

Jim felt like he was being tested, but he was used to such a sensation. He had felt like he was being tested in every step of his life since his birth on an escaping shuttle. So Jim squared his shoulders and plowed right into it. “I’ve given it a lot of thought, Captain, and I think that we should do what I first said down there on the planet. I think we should invite the terrorists to the negotiations table, on the condition that they agree to the terms of negotiations, which would of course include non-aggression.”

Instead of accusing Jim of conspiracy, or even insanity, Pike gave him a considering look. “Why would you suggest such a thing?”

“I have it on good authority that the original Battle of Axanar was fought because of the interspecies nature of the Federation.” Pike went still when Jim said this, and Jim realized he was treading dangerous waters. He went on carefully. “I’ve been studying Axanar texts from the last 20 years, and I think that the terrorist groups have arisen as a response to the government’s radical change in policy regarding off-worlders. A new leader rose to power in the aftermath of the Battle, and was convinced that their lack of outreach to other worlds would make them vulnerable to the galaxy’s worst. They began pushing for interplanetary cooperation, and that’s when the civil unrest increased and the terrorist groups began forming.”

“Insightful, Midshipman,” Pike said. “And you’ve obviously got some friends in high places if you know classified information about the Battle of Axanar.” Jim very carefully did not show his surprise that Starfleet had deliberately covered up such information. “But if what the terrorists want is to get us off their planet, then wouldn’t bringing them in on the negotiations only make our attempts fall apart faster?”

Jim shook his head. “I don’t think so, sir. I don’t think the Axanar ever feared interspecies interaction itself.” He thought of the hatred in R’tolvor’s eyes as he remonstrated Jim for trying to steal Axanar resources. “I think they believe outsiders are only interested in their own. In short, I think they fear off-worlders because they don’t really know us, they only know the negative image they have of us. Historically, the best way to respond to fear of the unknown is education, not force. Ergo, we should confront their fears by showing them our best. If we invite them to participate in negotiations, then we can open a dialogue with them, show them that we mean well and are not a threat. That we could instead be an asset. Perhaps that can undo some of the damage that this recent atmosphere of fear and discontent has created.”

After a moment of silence, Pike gave a soft snort of laughter. “I’ll give you this, Kirk: when you go in, you go all.” Pike sighed and took a sip of his drink. “I actually don’t see many other alternatives,” he admitted. “We can’t in good conscience make an agreement with a planet that is dominated by civil unrest, and the terrorists are just the most obvious manifestation of that. I’m sure you experienced for yourself the general discontent and mistrust that the Axanar public has with outsiders and with their own leaders.” Jim nodded. “Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to going through with this is the Axanar government itself, who want nothing to do with the terrorists if it doesn’t involve imprisonment.”

“But we do have leverage,” Jim argued. “They obviously want to be on good terms with the Federation. Captain, I think if we insist on reaching out to the terrorist groups for a peaceful meeting, they’ll have to cave.”

Pike tilted his head in neither affirmation nor negation and sipped at his drink. “Thank you for your input, Midshipman. I need to do some thinking. Dismissed.”

As Jim left the Captain’s ready room, an officer waiting outside slipped in the doorway. Just before the door slid shut, Jim heard Pike say, “Lieutenant Krüger, have you made those contacts on Axanar that we discussed?” Then the door slid shut and Jim had to leave the bridge and go back to his shitty cubicle.

The next day was a shitstorm. Not only had the Axanar diplomats reacted predictably to Pike’s desire to invite the terrorists’ perspectives, but the Axanar media was having a field-day airing the new negotiation terms from Starfleet, which had somehow been leaked. (Pike just smiled blandly when they were informed of the news.) It created a huge stir on the planet, but Jim was unsurprised to see that terrorist sympathies were high and the people of Axanar were not overly upset by the news that the sects might join negotiations. Many outright encouraged it, and after a night of deliberations, the Axanar delegates agreed to the invitation on the condition that the terrorist sects that responded had to reveal all their active members as a show of good faith. The Federation agreed, and the invitation with its terms were aired publicly on Axanar.

Jim was surprised when he received a summons to the Captain’s ready room and found himself looking at a familiar face on the screen.

“R’tolvor?” Jim said incredulously.

The terrorist truck driver that had been Jim’s one-time captive stared back at him. “Starfleet,” they greeted warily.

Jim looked at Pike questioningly.

Pike raised his eyebrows and gestured at the screen. “The Yedrian sect contacted us about our invitation to join negotiations. They said they’d only deal with you.”

Jim’s throat suddenly felt a little dry, but he also felt a stir of excitement. Maybe he could actually contribute something more to the negotiations than entertainment for the Axanar delegates. He turned back to the computer screen. “R’tolvor, my name is James T. Kirk. I understand that you and your—associates wish to participate in negotiations over the peace treaty?”

“We have wanted a voice in politics for years, but the government did not want to hear us,” R’tolvor said.

“Well, this is your chance,” Jim responded.

“What guarantee do I have that we won’t be arrested as soon as we show our faces?”

“It’s part of the terms of diplomacy,” Jim explained. “Each side makes requirements, and all sides must agree to the terms before negotiations can begin.”

“You will promise me this? Safe passage if we join your negotiations?”

“Yes, you have my word, R’tolvor,” Jim answered firmly. “I wasn’t kidding when I said Starfleet has a moral code. We keep our promises.”

R’tolvor watched him closely. “I know this already. You could have killed me when we last met, but you did not. For that, you have my gratitude. But my fellow freedom fighters are not so convinced. Captain,” they addressed Pike, “I cannot promise all the names of our members, as this could put them and their families in danger. But of those who volunteer to participate in negotiations, you will know our identities.”

“Are these your only conditions?” Pike asked. “Amnesty for those participating, and anonymity for those not?”

“If James T. Kirk promises this, then yes,” R’tolvor said, and Jim felt that weight settle on his shoulders. It was a little nerve-wracking, but also exhilarating.

Pike said, “I’ll have to confer with the Axanar government to see if they’ll agree to changing their condition of getting names, but I think this will work. We’ll contact you when we have an answer.”

The screen went dark and Pike turned to Jim with a satisfied expression. “This is better than I’d hoped, Kirk. The Yedrians aren’t the only ones to come forward, but they were the most unexpected, since they’ve been the least cooperative in the past. You must have really made an impression on them.”

Two days later, the Axanar government had agreed to the terms, and several of the terrorist leaders traveled to the Centaurus aboard Starfleet shuttles. Jim met them in the hangar, looking over the tense and nervous group. When he spotted R’tolvor, he stepped forward and made the Axanar greeting sign, a circular motion with two fingers, and then held out his hand. When R’tolvor gave it an odd look, Jim explained, “This is a gesture of greeting for my people, and conveys peaceful intentions.” He showed R’tolvor how to shake hands and smiled at them. “Welcome aboard the Federation starship Centaurus,” he said to the group at large. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to your rooms.”

Jim deliberately took a circuitous route through the ship, showing the terrorists—er, delegates—the highlights, including the hydroponics bay, the mess hall, the science labs, and sickbay. He explained the exploratory nature of Starfleet, its medical endeavors, and its goals of peaceful coexistence in a diverse galaxy. When he left them at their rooms, he was pleased to notice that several of them were looking thoughtful or whispering furiously to one another.

Negotiations with the new delegates were tense at first, with the various terrorist leaders clumping together and watching the rest of them like hunted animals. But the informal meals and breaks helped to break down barriers, and by the end of the week a few of them were becoming curious enough to ask questions about Starfleet’s expeditions into space, and requesting more detailed tours of the ship. The negotiations actually began going somewhere as the terrorists became less reluctant to engage with the other delegates, and vice-versa.

It was promising progress, and by the time a trade agreement was settled upon, Jim wasn’t surprised at all. He’d seen it all happen, the slow growth of trust from the terrorists, the dissolution of their fear of outsiders and oppression. But apparently, this was a bigger deal than he’d realized, as he found out one night in a private meeting Pike had requested.

“I’m what?” Jim asked blankly.

“You’re getting a commendation for your work here, Kirk,” Pike repeated, stepping closer and pulling a pin out of his pocket. “If it hadn’t been for your actions on the planet, and your help during negotiations, I doubt we would have come to an agreement with the Axanar.” Pike fiddled with the front of Kirk’s shirt, attaching the pin. “You’ve also helped to start the Axanar on a path of peaceful interaction with their own and with the rest of the galaxy. That’s nothing to sneeze at, Midshipman.”

Jim looked down at the golden badge pinned to his shirt, speechless.

“You’ll get an official ceremony back home, but for now it’s my privilege to present you with the Palm Leaf of Axanar Peace Mission,” Pike said with clear pride in his voice. “Congratulations, Midshipman.”

Jim had to clear his throat. “Thank you, sir.”

Pike gripped his shoulder. “You deserve it, Kirk.”

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Chapter Text

Part IV: Rough Shadowing
continuing to surveil despite the subject being aware of the investigator’s presence

Jim had known Bones long enough to be familiar with his intimate habits. When most of the officers were busy at holovid night, Jim went to Bones’s quarters and knocked twice firmly. 

The door slid open.

Bones took one look at Jim’s face and then stepped aside wordlessly.

Once the negotiations had finally wrapped up, resulting in a peace agreement between the Federation, the Axanar government, and the participating Axanar terrorist sects, the Centaurus had begun her long journey back to earth. Without the stress of the negotations and the incessant need to research everything he could about Axanar, Jim suddenly found his free time restored. Instead of relaxing, he felt anticipation buzzing under his skin as he turned his attention to a different matter.

In the weeks since their near-capture by the terrorists, during the rare moments they were in the mess hall at the same time or passed each other in the corridors, Jim and Bones had barely spoken except to exchange polite, almost professional small talk. But underneath the veneer of casualness, Jim could sense a growing tension. He would sometimes catch Bones watching him with a strange intensity, almost like Jim was the puzzle that needed solving.

Now the reckoning had finally come.

Jim stepped over the threshold into Bones’s room and instantly felt the heavy weight of commitment settle on him like chains. The door slid shut with finality, and they were alone.

They stood a meter apart, assessing each other. After a long moment, Jim smiled and held up a familiar green bottle. “Looks like we have time to try that Axanar drink you suggested.”

Bones’s eyebrow twitched up, but he finally broke eye contact to grab two glasses and sit in the nook. Jim mimicked him, and they stared at each other over the tiny table, the bottle of feldra and glasses set out but untouched.

“Heard about your commendation,” Bones said in a falsely light tone. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Jim said, waiting for a cue. When Bones didn’t say anything more, Jim continued, “Glad to hear Gunnarsen’s being released from sickbay. How is he feeling?”

“Disappointed that he missed all the action.” Bones shifted the tiniest bit, his expression settling in what Jim had come to recognize as his game face. “I never got to thank you for helping me get through that ridiculous shake-down on the way back.”

Ah, so that was how they were going to play this. Bones wasn’t sure what Jim knew, so he was trying to suss it out. “What are commanding officers for?” Jim responded, not yet willing to give ground.

Bones snorted at Jim’s boldness. “‘Commanding officer’ or not,” he said sardonically, “you didn’t have to stick your neck out for me, I could have gotten through on my own. I probably just had some shrapnel stuck in my shirt, would have found it eventually.”

There it was, the first lie that sounded so reasonable but that Bones would use to weave an intricate web of deception, almost impossible to unravel. Jim knew better, and he decided that he was ready to take the game to the next level. “Some shrapnel, yes, stuck somewhere. Perhaps stuck in your heart?” Jim suggested.

Bones stilled, and his gaze became focused, almost intimidating. “I don’t know what you mean. Is that some kind of insinuation about my ability to empathize?”

“Who said I was speaking figuratively?” Jim said and met his eyes unwaveringly.

The muscles in Bones’s forearms clenched where they rested on the table, Bones’s fingers curling into fists. After a long moment, Bones leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, the defensive gesture at odds with the way he said, “Alright, you got me.”

Jim blinked, wrong-footed. “I do?”

“Yeah,” Bones said, and shrugged. “I don’t like to talk about it, but I was born with a congenital defect. Had to have an implant put in to keep my heart rhythm normal.”

“That sounds pretty extreme,” Jim said neutrally.

“Standard procedure for this condition,” Bones said, and Jim suspected that if he pursued details, Bones would have a solid story—that there did exist some rare congenital heart disease that required something as primitive as an implant for treatment. Bones was too good at coming up with believable lies, and too good a doctor, for anything less.

He wasn’t going to get off that easily, though. “Hm,” Jim hummed noncommittally. “That’s funny, it didn’t register when we got scanned on the way there.”

“It’s not actually made of metal,” Bones claimed now. “But the instrumentation is sensitive to radiation, particularly x-rays like the Axanar use in their scanners. Sometimes it can reflect the radiation the same way metal would.”

Jim had to hand it to Bones, he certainly had a damn watertight explanation, at least on the surface. Anyone else would have been fooled into leaving it alone, and Bones knew it, thrived on that credulity. Jim needed something to tip the scales, show Bones that his screen of bullshit wasn’t working, rattle his calm veneer a bit.

“I’d believe you,” Jim said, “except that according to your medical records, you don’t have any birth defects.”

This seemed to do the trick: Bones’s eyes widened in genuine affront. “And why,” he said with a new and dark tinge to his voice, “would you know what my medical records say?”

Jim just tilted his head and smiled, close-lipped. Let Bones chew over how much Jim knew about him now, how much Jim might have unearthed if he was going through Bones’s sealed records.

At Jim’s refusal to answer his question, Bones’s lips tightened and he looked at the bottle of feldra. “You gonna pour that?” he asked gruffly.

Jim did, sliding Bones’s glass over to him, still smiling.

Bones picked it up and swirled the liquid right below his nose, but did not drink. “I hope this one’s not poisoned,” he said, as casually as if he were remarking on the weather.

Jim felt a thrill of pleasant surprise run down his spine and laughed in delight. He hadn’t realized that Bones was fully aware of the contents of his drink that night, so many months ago, and he certainly hadn’t expected that Bones would be this direct about it. Up until now, Bones had been subtle and secret. But, Jim realized, that was when he had something to hide. If Bones now believed Jim to be on to him, then it was only natural that his innate personality would come to the fore, and Bones was about as subtle as a hypo to the jugular.

“‘Poisoned’ is a strong word,” Jim said after he stopped guffawing. “I’d prefer the term ‘drugged.’”

“Poisoned, drugged, it’s all the same to a doctor. Luckily for you, and me, I’m an MD. Comes in handy when dealing with foreign substances that affect the body.”

Hah! So Bones was trying to pretend he’d done something totally normal to detox. Still not admitting anything.

“If it were tampered with,” Jim said, nodding to his full glass as he picked it up, “that would only be hurting myself. And I do mean only.” Jim deliberately took a long swallow. The feldra burned like whiskey, and this wasn’t a surprise. Bones was a man of habit, so it figured he’d favor an alien drink that was reminiscent of his favorite Terran one.

Bones waited until Jim swallowed, and only then sipped at his own glass. “You wouldn’t have to worry. I’d make sure to treat you, too, even if you were the one trying to drug me in the first place.”

“That’s sweet. But I think the better question is, would you help me if you were the one doing the drugging?”

“Har har.”

“I’m serious.”

Bones’s eyes narrowed. “That’s rich, coming from you.”

“It was quid pro quo,” Jim said significantly.

That shut Bones up. He studied Jim, trying to figure out whether he was blowing smoke or not. Time to call checkmate, convince him to completely drop the charade.

Jim leaned forward and held Bones’s eyes steadily. “That night last summer, in the basement level of the Science building?” Bones’s features sharpened predatorily. “Yeah,” Jim said. “I remember.”

It was partly a bluff, since Jim didn’t actually remember much from that night, and the fuzzy memories had only gotten fuzzier over time. But if he could convince Bones that he knew everything, then maybe he could get Bones to talk about the things that Jim didn’t know yet.

“So.” Jim leaned back in his chair. “Bones. Now that we’re on the same page,” Jim motioned to Bones’s chest with his glass, “where’s the bullet?”

Bones took another sip of feldra and stared at Jim steadily over the rim of his glass, letting the liquor settle on his tongue. Finally, he set the glass down and broke eye contact. “How did you figure it out?”

Success! Jim thought gleefully, and just to be an asshole he said, “You kind of told me yourself.”

“Did I?” Bones asked quietly. His voice was calm, carried just a hint of interest as if Jim was telling him some obscure but engaging factoid. Bones was taking the revelation of Jim’s knowledge surprisingly well.

“A condition, you called it.” Jim chuckled at himself. “Didn’t believe you then, but it makes sense now.” Jim studied the way Bones’s dark eyelashes swept down over his cheeks. “I think I always knew there was something different about you. A lot of little things.” Bones tilted his head, expression inscrutable, staring at the cupboard. “I looked into your past, but that wasn’t very useful. Then I had to get…creative. I uh,” Jim scratched his ear and said with a bit of chagrin, “I downloaded your PADD’s interweb history. Found the articles about what happened with the UAC, and it all just…fell into place. Confirmed it with a DNA analysis.”

Bones set his glass down on the table and blinked at it slowly. “Which sequencing company did you use?” he asked, tone a little distant, disconnected, as though his mind was elsewhere.

“Oh please, give me some credit here,” Jim said, watching Bones closely, trying to figure out what he was thinking. “I got it done in house, no records.”

Bones’s Adam’s apple bobbed and he stared down into his cup like he could find answers there. Then, his eyebrows casting shadows over his face so that his eyes glinted at Jim out of the dark, he looked up and said resignedly, “What do you want?”

Jim felt confused for a split second, and then his heart stuttered as he realized that he and Bones were nowhere near on the same page, fuck, Bones wasn’t even reading the same book! He thought Jim was dangling this knowledge over him as a threat, as extortion.

Without thinking about how it would look, Jim leaped to his feet. Bones did the same, his nostrils flaring in surprise and fright, like a horse faced with a rabid dog. And then Jim was around the table and yanking Bones into a hard hug, and Bones went stiff as a board.

“You idiot,” Jim said vehemently.

Bones was all shivering tension, breath shallow and choked beside Jim’s ear. Then slowly, like he was pushing through molasses, his arms came up to circle Jim’s back, and they tightened and tightened until he was clutching Jim to him desperately, burying his face in Jim’s neck. Jim felt Bones’s nose tickling the hair behind his ear, his stubble scraping against the side of Jim’s neck as he grumbled, “That’s my line.” He was trying to sound unaffected, but his voice was rough.

“Yeah, well, you deserve it,” Jim said, squeezing him one more time before moving back so he could see him, shifting one hand to the side of Bones’s neck, thumb at the hinge of his jaw. Bones looked flayed, his expression truly open for the first time. His eyes were wide and dark, equal parts uncertainty and fear and hope. “You’re my friend, Bones,” Jim whispered fiercely. “Did you really think a little Augment blood was going to change that?”

Bones’s eyes fell shut and his lips parted in a shaky sigh. It sounded like absolution. “I’ve never told anyone,” Bones confessed, voice raw. “I couldn’t chance it getting out, or…worse.”

Jim moved his hand to Bones’s shoulder and squeezed. “I told you once before, and I’ll say it again: your secrets are safe with me.” Jim smiled, trying to lighten the mood. “Not that you need my help with that. You’ve been doing a pretty good job so far, covering your ass.”

Bones let out a huffing laugh that only sounded a little choked. His gaze became fond as it swept over Jim’s face. “Well,” Bones said, eyebrow raised, “I’ve had a lot of practice.” His tone was familiar, carrying a hint of irony, and Jim suddenly recognized it. Bones had sounded this way countless times before when he’d made offhand comments like this, almost like he was making a private joke.

And now Jim was in on the joke.

Jim grinned and patted Bones’s shoulder, and they both returned to their seats, now considerably more relaxed. Jim raised his glass to Bones and took a drink.

“How long have you known?” Bones asked.

“A few months.”

Bones paused thoughtfully. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Bones,” Jim leaned forward to give Bones a pointed look, “you are the most secretive person I’ve ever met, and you don’t like when people fuck with that. Case in point: my ‘blackout drunk’ night. I wasn’t going to risk,” losing you, he almost said, and hastily amended, “running you off.”

Bones smirked self-deprecatingly. “Can’t argue with that.”

“One thing I still don’t know is what your research is about,” Jim said leadingly.

Bones almost laughed. “You do know what they say about curiosity and cats, don’t you?”

“Good thing I’m not a cat.”

Bones let out a long breath and tapped his finger against the side of his glass. “God, this is weird,” he muttered to himself, and then said to Jim, “I’m uh, trying to cure it.”

Jim felt confused. “Cure it?”

“Yeah,” Bones answered, and took a sip of his drink. “I don’t want to be like this.”

“But—why not? I mean, you’ve got—shit, Bones, you have some kind of resistance to injury, even a fucking bullet wound; you can’t be drugged; you’re probably stronger, faster, smarter, all those things they advertised about the Augments. And there must be more I don’t know—and we will talk about those too, just to warn you—but all of that sounds pretty good to me, so…why would you want to change it?”

Bones gave a sad laugh. “You’ve no idea,” he said. “No idea what it's like to be like this, to constantly have to hide. To watch everyone around you living their lives and know you can never be a part of it until you get this thing out of you.” He ran a hand agitatedly through his hair. “Jim, no one can find out. No one. And that means I can’t get close to anyone, just in case they notice something. Like what happened with you.”

“What about your ex-wife?”

Bones’s eyebrows drew together. “Ex-wife? What’re you—” And suddenly Bones’s eyes widened like he’d just realized something, and then his face went blank. “Right, yeah,” he said mechanically. “She couldn’t know either.”

Jim squinted at Bones, trying to figure out what had just happened. “You’re lying,” he said slowly. “Why are you lying? What are you lying about?” When Bones wouldn’t meet his eyes, Jim felt a realization dawning clear as the sun after a rainstorm, and recalled a quote from a long-dead physicist: The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. Leaning forward, Jim said, “There’s more. More I don’t know.” He felt a smile creeping across his face when Bones confirmed it by looking up too quickly. “Tell me. Bones, you can trust me,” he urged.

Bones let out a short sigh, all the tension from earlier returned. “Thinking you already knew everything made it easier. If you don’t, then…Jesus, I don’t know how to explain it. It’s all so fucked up.”

Jim nodded slowly. “Alright. Then…don’t.” Bones looked up in surprise, and Jim smiled. “I’ll figure it out on my own.” When Bones continued to stare at him, Jim kicked his feet up on the table and leaned back, taking another sip of feldra. “I’ve spent the last two years trying to work out this mystery, and the only time I was truly angry was when I thought you’d lied to me about why you’re so physically fit.” Their eyes met and held. “I don’t like being lied to,” Jim continued quietly, and then smiled mischievously, “but it wouldn’t be a lie if we both knew what was going on.”

Bones’s eyebrows slipped up his forehead incredulously. Then he started to laugh, quietly at first and then louder and louder until he was full-on belly laughing, head thrown back. “Jesus, Jim,” he gasped, catching his breath as he wound down, still smiling. “You—you always surprise me.”

Jim stared. Joyful was a good look on Bones. A really good look. Laughter smoothed the stress lines on his face and put a sparkle in his eyes. “Right,” Jim said a little breathlessly, “because I’m the mysterious one.”

Bones’s smile dimmed.

“What?” Jim asked.

Bones looked uncomfortable. “I’m not sure I like the idea of you snooping around.” Bones glanced away. “Some things should stay buried. Can’t you just leave it alone?” Bones immediately shook his head at himself and muttered, “What am I saying? Look who I’m talking to.”

“Bones.” Jim leaned across the table and put his hand over Bones’s wrist to catch his attention. Bones went very still and Jim heard his breathing stop. Jim held his wrist lightly to show that he wasn’t trying to cage him. “I don’t just want to know because I’m curious. I want to know because it’s an important part of you. The real you.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking, kid,” Bones whispered, staring at Jim with haunted eyes.

“I want to know,” Jim insisted.

Bones stared at Jim’s hand reaching across the space between them, trying to connect. When his eyes rose again to meet Jim’s, he still looked conflicted, but there was also more than a hint of yearning in his expression. When he spoke, his voice was rough again. “It’s been a long time since anyone knew me.”

Yeah, probably not since his parents died. At least one of them, the Augment parent, had to have known and taught him about how to stay hidden. That must have been a huge pressure, hiding for so many years, all his life really, and it must be an equally enormous relief to think that he could let that go and allow someone to know the truth. Still, Jim could understand how Bones, a consummate liar by necessity, would be uncomfortable with the idea of someone digging into his private life. Jim thought for a minute, and then said, “How about this? I’ll continue as I have been, trying to figure out what else you’ve got hidden. The only difference will be that you’ll know I’m doing it, and if there’s something you feel you should tell me yourself, then you can do that.” Jim paused, and then said reluctantly, “Or if there’s something you really don’t want me to know…you can tell me to back off.”

“You’re really not going to let this go, are you?” Bones said, resignation and something like wonder in his voice. Bones shook his head, eyes roving over Jim’s face. “I should have known it would be you,” he whispered. He looked at Jim’s hand still clasping his wrist, and slowly but surely returned the gesture, hand turning palm-up so he could curl his fingers around Jim’s wrist. His eyes found Jim’s again as he said, “I knew you were trouble from day one, but damned if I could keep you away then, and damned if I can keep you away now.”

Jim grinned. “No one stops Jim Kirk,” he said, only half kidding. He gave Bones’s wrist a squeeze and then let go, his own wrist feeling cold afterwards, and grabbed the bottle of feldra to top off their glasses. “Shall we seal the deal?”

“What am I agreeing to again?” Bones asked tiredly.

“I snoop, you monitor said snooping and referee when necessary, we’re both aware of the situation,” Jim summarized. “And no lying to each other,” he added.

Bones gave it a moment’s thought, and then nodded. “I guess that’s fair,” he said, and they clinked their glasses together and drank.

“Man,” Jim whined, “drinking with you is no fair, now.”

“Sorry my enzymes metabolize alcohol too quickly for it to absorb.”

“I love it when you talk science to me, Bones.”

“Shut up, Jim.”

“No, no, do the one about how we’re all going to die from artificial sweeteners—”

“Shut up, Jim.”

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Jim avoided the topic of Augments for the rest of the evening, as he could tell that he had already pushed Bones enough for one night. But he didn’t stop thinking about it, and by the next day he was already getting antsy, the curiosity festering.

“So,” Jim said, trying to sound casual and knowing that he was failing, “how does the healing work?”

They were in Bones’s private quarters again, sitting on the couch talking about a vid they had just watched. Bones eyed him sideways, as though deciding whether he was going to answer.

Jim held his breath and tried to look nonchalant.

Finally, Bones leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees. “Someone once explained it to me as cells dividing faster.” Jim guessed it must have been an Augment relative, a parent or uncle or someone—holy shit, did Bones have cousins or anything?

“Bones,” Jim interrupted whatever Bones was about to say next with this much more important question, “I’ve just thought—are there any others?”

A shadow passed over Bones’s face. “No, Jim,” he said quietly, “there’s no one else like me.”

Jim hastily steered the conversation back to less turbulent waters. “So, cells dividing faster, huh?”

Bones shook his head as though to clear it of dark thoughts. “Faster, yes, but that’s only a small part of it. It’s also faster clearance of damaged cells and debris, reorganization of the extracellular matrix to properly integrate the new cells in the surrounding tissue, and altered DNA polymerases, and chromatin remodelers, and tumor suppressor genes, and oncogenes, and telomerases, to reduce mutation rate in the dividing cells. Plus about a thousand other enzymatic alterations that smooth the entire process, and then presto—injuries healed in a fraction of the usual time, with no cancer or shortening of the cell population lifespan.”

“Shit,” Jim said eloquently.

“You’re not kidding.” Bones pulled something small out of his pocket and placed it in Jim’s hand. It was cold and cylindrical: a metal bullet, sans shell, with the tip dented. “Makes removing anything a bitch.”

Jim winced, imagining Bones cutting into himself to remove the bullet and having to fight his own body as it tried to heal around the knife. “Jesus, Bones, I never even thought of that.”

“The unanticipated downsides of instant healing,” Bones said wryly.

Jim stared at the bullet in his hand. “Bones, if something like this happens again and you need help, uh, cleaning up…” Jim wasn’t sure how to finish that macabre sentence, and left it hanging.

“Thanks, Jim,” Bones said, patting Jim’s thigh in a conciliatory and slightly condescending way, “but I don’t plan on confronting any alien terrorists again anytime soon.”

Jim snorted and smacked at his hand.

Now that the ice had been broken, Jim interspersed their conversations with random questions about Bones’s abilities. There was the time they were in the mess hall and Jim looked thoughtfully at the food. “Bones, do you smell things differently?”

Bones raised an eyebrow.

“It’s just, when I first figured it out, I started wondering what you could do, and I remembered about you being able to smell the gas leak in the Bridgestone. Pretty sure that was you, uh, being you, but at the same time you don’t seem bothered by strong smells. So what gives?”

“I’ll say this, Jim, you’re far more observant than most people give you credit for.” Jim grinned. “It’s more that my olfactory receptors readily adapt themselves to stimulus level, enhancing weak scents so they’re above detection level and reducing strong scents so they’re bearable.”

“And I’m guessing all your other senses can do that, too,” Jim said, thinking back to how Bones had avoided the terrorist cells in the crater.

“More or less,” Bones agreed.

“So in the crater…”

“I could hear the search parties from a good distance. They weren’t what I would call stealthy.”

“Huh,” Jim said. “Handy.”

Then there was that time when a Betazoid passed them in the halls, and Bones’s expression became pinched. The man gave Bones a puzzled look, and then seemed to recognize him. “Doctor McCoy,” he greeted neutrally, and then walked away.

Jim turned to Bones, who was scowling. “Who was that?” Jim asked.

“Damned if I know. Apparently, your Betazoid friend—Xuwari?—got overly excited by finding a human who could block her telepathy. Now all the damn Betazoids in Starfleet seem to know who I am.”

Jim laughed. “At least they’re respecting your desire to ‘stay the hell out of my head,’” he said, imitating Bones’s gruff tones. Ignoring the baleful look Bones threw him, Jim said, “Hey, can you only do that because of the…?”

“Probably,” Bones said shortly, and looked away. “Hurts like a motherfucker, but I can do it. I guess my brain doesn’t work the same as…as a human’s.”

Jim gripped his shoulder. “You’re human, Bones,” he said confidently. When Bones looked like he’d protest, Jim shook him a little. “I don’t give a damn what the genetics say. You’re human in all the ways that matter.”

Bones’s mouth twisted. “Not quite all,” he said cryptically, and then, “Come on, I was supposed to be on duty five minutes ago.”

Or their first visit to the gym since their talk, when Bones surprised Jim by not retreating to a private stall to change. Then he pulled off his shirt, and Jim saw a flash of black on his deltoid: the crossed scythe and caduceus behind a banner reading R.R.T.S.6. He hadn’t thought about it in a while, but seeing it again brought up a question.

“Bones, how’d you get the tattoo to stick?” Jim asked in an undertone. “Shouldn’t it have just healed?”

“Bio-ink,” Bones explained.

“Ah.” Bio-ink was a really old invention, from the turn of the millennium, but still popular for tattoos. It was far more expensive than regular ink or even the mobile ink used to create animated tattoos, but it had a lifetime guarantee, since it was derived from the recipient’s stem cells and thus recognized by the body as part of itself. Even if it was scraped off, the skin would grow back with the tattoo in place.

“Still not going to tell me what RRTS stands for?” Jim asked, surreptitiously watching Bones’s abdominal muscles flex as he pulled on a loose workout shirt.

“You’re the one who wanted to make this into a game,” Bones grumbled, “you figure it out.”

Jim raised his eyebrows, intrigued at the hint that this tattoo was part of whatever else Bones was hiding. He’d just thought it was a kickass tattoo that Bones was self-conscious about or embarrassed by.

When they got into the gym proper, Bones wanted to run the treadmills, but Jim wanted to lift weights, so Bones came over to spot him first.

As Jim put the weights on the ends of the bar, he looked at Bones’s broad shoulders contemplatively.

“How much can you bench press?”

“More than you,” Bones said flatly, and then refused to demonstrate—which was fair, since the gym was packed as usual. Limited extracurricular options on a Starship, and all that.

While it was great to finally be able to get some answers about Bones’s augments, Jim was still trying to figure out what else Bones might be hiding and where he should start looking. It wasn’t his Augment status directly, since that was pretty straightforward and Bones was generally forthcoming with Jim’s questions about his capabilities. No, this was indirectly related, and Bones had gotten weird about it when Jim had mentioned his ex-wife.

Jim would have to see about contacting her when they got back to Earth.

At the end of the summer, as they strapped themselves into the shuttle that would carry them back to solid ground, Jim turned to study Bones out of habit. He looked about the same as he always did on an aircraft, a little tense and wary.

“Your aviophobia seems to have gotten better,” Jim said, somewhat leadingly. He just wanted to see whether Bones would willingly fess up.

Bones hesitated, and then cleared his throat and said, “Uh, about that. I don’t have aviophobia,” he admitted.

Jim grinned, pleased that Bones was following the honesty rule of their agreement. “I know, Bones,” he said, and almost laughed at the surprised expression on Bones’s face. “Wasn’t that hard to figure out. But I also know that you do feel anxious about something while flying. What is it?”

Bones’s expression shuttered and he looked out the window and said quietly, “I could walk away from a crash,” his lips pursed, “but no one else would.”

“Good thing these things are pretty safe,” Jim said with a hint of irony.

Bones rolled his eyes, recognizing the reference. “You can add all the safety controls you like, all it takes is one mistake. I wasn’t lying about hating space. But hell, I guess I better get used to it.” He looked out the window at the endless black. “I’m probably going to end up on a ship anyway.”

Jim almost gave himself whiplash, he turned so fast to look at him. “What?

“What, what?”

“Bones, you’ve spent the last two years insisting that you’ll be on solid ground and nowhere else, or you’ll stage a friggin’ coup. You’ve never, ever seemed interested in being stationed on a starship.”

“Things change,” Bones said shortly.

“What things?” Jim asked, genuinely curious.

Bones didn’t say anything, but his eyes did dart to Jim and then away quickly. Jim felt a strange sensation hit him hard behind the ribcage, a combination of pleased surprise and tenderness. Aware of the other occupants in the crowded shuttle, and still conflicted about his own feelings, Jim settled for tucking his foot up against Bones’s. Bones didn’t acknowledge it, but he didn’t move away either, and they spent the rest of the ride back to the Academy in companionable silence.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Pike was right: Jim did get that award ceremony for the Palm Leaf of Axanar Peace Mission. He also got a very long and arduous debriefing from the Admiralty, who wanted to know every detail of his time on the planet and during negotiations.

“This is such bullshit,” Bones grumbled, having also been called to defend his actions on Axanar. “We were already debriefed by Captain Pike.”

“Don’t worry, Bones,” Jim said, having a feeling that Bones’s unease was more from being in the limelight and potentially at risk for exposure. “Just stick with your story and you’ll be fine. They’re just surprised that a couple cadets and an ensign were leading that mission.”

You were leading that mission,” Bones said, giving Jim one of his rare, genuine smiles.

Jim felt his cheeks heat in embarrassed pleasure and looked away to hide it, but he couldn’t deny that it felt really great to stand in front of the assembly and be recognized by Starfleet. Having that Palm Leaf pinned to his chest felt like a shield against his naysayers, and as the weeks wore on it even seemed to work that way. People didn’t scoff at Jim the way they used to.

Jim had been wearing the badge since he’d received it, and one day Bones commented on it. “When are you going to stop toting that thing around like a new engagement ring?”

Jim covered it with a hand protectively.

“And now you’re clutching it like it’s your grandmother’s pearls.”

“Lay off, Bones, people respect the shine.”

“People already respected you.”

“No they didn’t,” Jim scoffed.

Bones’s eyebrow jumped up. “Give me one example,” he challenged.

“Uhura,” he said immediately.

Bones snorted. “Uhura doesn’t count, she thinks you’re a womanizer.”

“I’m not a—” Jim paused. “I’m not—No, not like that—” Bones started to laugh. “—I just mean,” Jim went on doggedly, “the chicks dig me.”

“Not that chick,” Bones said honestly, and Jim stewed silently, not even sure why he didn’t want Bones to think this of him. Bones continued, “But she’s a special case. Anyone else you can name?”

Jim paused, thought back over the last couple years. He definitely remembered people sneering at him when he first started in Starfleet. It had happened a lot. But what about recently?

Jim realized, to his shock, that he couldn’t think of the last time someone had looked down on him, or underestimated him, or jeered at him. Jim looked around and caught the eye of a few cadets he knew from various classes, who all smiled or waved or nodded to him. 

“You see?” Bones said to Jim’s silence. “You were just too busy overachieving to see that your hard work had already earned you respect long before you got that medal.”

He stopped wearing the badge after that.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Classes had already begun by the time they returned, the Axanar peace mission having dragged on longer than was previously expected. As this would be Jim’s final year, his classes were a mix of third and fourth year courses, and that included a lot of the simulations prevalent in the upper years. After what had happened on Axanar, Jim figured sims would be a cakewalk, and was proven right: he did well in his combat and diplomacy sims, and even in command sims on the bridge.

All but one.

“The fuckin’ Maru,” Jim slurred, slamming his drink down on the bar. 

Failing the Kobayashi Maru burned like liquid nitrogen. He hadn’t failed a single class, simulation, or training module since joining Starfleet. It didn’t matter that everyone failed it; Jim was supposed to be different, he was supposed to see through the looking glass and figure out how to do the impossible. And he had fucking failed. He and Bones were out at Sullivan’s so that they (Jim) could get smashed after that spectacular clusterfuck. 

“And Uhura!” Jim continued. “She waz laughin’ the entire time.”

“Pretty sure she wasn’t,” Bones said, sipping at his whiskey slowly. Bones didn’t try to pretend that he was getting drunk anymore; he just savored the flavor.

“On the inshide.” He could still picture her smug face. “She waz…laughin’ it up.”

“At least she’s talking to you now.”

“I don’t think ‘I knew you couldn’t beat it’ countsh,” Jim muttered.

“She also said ‘No one can.’”

“An’ she sheemed pretty proud of that,” Jim said darkly. “I think she’s in cahootsh with the programmer.”

“It’s over, Jim. Let it go,” Bones said dismissively, unconcerned with Jim’s angst.

Was it over? It didn’t feel like it was over, Jim thought as the room spun slowly. “Nah, I’ma kick that tesht in the ash. I’ma…show it a thin’ or two.” The lights in the room were blurring together, streaks of brightness against the walls and ceiling. Jim went to take another drink, and moaned in dismay as he realized his cup was empty. He stared at it sadly.

“Alright, I think you’ve had enough,” Bones said, waving for the check. A strong hand clamped onto Jim’s shoulder and pulled him off his stool. “Come on, Jim-boy, time to go.”

“Booooooonez,” Jim complained as he was frog-marched out the door and into the foggy night. “I wazn’ finished.” He lifted his foot to go back to the bar, and pitched sideways.

Bones smoothly grabbed his arm to keep him upright. “I don’t think the tequila is finished with you, either.”

“The Maru!” Jim exclaimed, suddenly remembering. “Bonez, I hafta take it again.”

“Sure you do,” Bones said, beginning to tug him along the pier toward campus.

“No, I’m sherioush,” Jim said, because it was important that Bones believe him. “No lyin’, ‘member? We hafta be honesh wif’ each uh’ver.” Jim’s stupid feet weren’t listening to him, trying to stomp all over each other and trip him, so he leaned on Bones for support, stretching an arm across his shoulders. Bones was like a mobile rock, solid and dependable. “Mm, you shmell good,” Jim said into Bones's neck, and felt Bones’s throat jump as he tried to stifle a laugh. “Bonez,” Jim continued, “if I axed what your uh’ver she-crit iz, wouldja tell me?”

Bones was silent.

“Boooooonez.”

“This isn’t a conversation we should have while you’re drunk.”

“BOOOooOOOoooOOOOooo—”

“I don’t know, okay?” Bones stopped walking, bringing them both to a stuttering halt on the pavement. Bones turned his head to gaze at the fog settled like a glowing nimbus across the strait, lit from inside by the lights of downtown San Francisco. “I don’t know if I ever want anyone to know,” Bones said quietly, and then sighed gustily, a sound filled with all the weariness of an old man, pushed out of lungs with all the strength of a young man.

“I felt that way after Tarshush,” Jim said matter-of-factly, the long-held secret, the shame, coming out easily with the aid of alcohol and trusted company. “An’ then you found out, juz’ like that,” Jim failed to snap his fingers and almost tipped over, saved only by the grace of Bones’s arm around his waist. “An’ it wazn’ sho bad,” he finished against Bones’s shoulder.

Bones huffed a laugh and pulled him closer, and Jim felt his stubbly cheek press against his temple. “How do you manage to say just the right thing even when you’re drunk out of your mind?”

“Iz a gift.”

When Jim woke the next morning with a hangover, he found a hypo on his bedside, already filled with the appropriate prescription. As he injected it near his jugular, he tried to recall the night before. He didn’t remember much: a long walk along the pier with the chill of oncoming autumn, a band of warmth pressed along one side, and a scent that brought to mind the comforting home he never had.

He also woke with a new resolve to dig deeper into the mystery of Bones. After he felt his headache waning, he downed two full glasses of water and grabbed his PADD. A quick search of public records revealed the name of Bones’s ex: Jocelyn Darnell. Jim looked up the name in less public records and found, to his surprise, that she had only used her maiden name for a few months after the divorce. Then she’d officially changed her name to Jocelyn Treadway, which allowed Jim to easily dig up the marriage certificate. She’d gotten remarried a shocking three months after her divorce, and Jim began to suspect why the divorce had occurred in the first place.

As much as he really didn’t want to meet the former Missus now, he needed to figure out why mentioning her had made Bones clam up.

Jim sent a comm.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

“Mrs. Treadway?”

The woman at the table looked up from her communicator. “Yes, are you James Kirk?” she asked, her voice only carrying the barest hint of a soft southern accent.

“Yes, ma’am.” Jim held out his hand to shake. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”

Jim took a seat across the tiny circular table. They were in a coffee shop in New York near where Jocelyn worked as a product design manager. Following the artist stereotype to a T, she was dressed in a fashionable silver suit. Her chestnut curls were pulled into an elaborate up-do and studded with twinkling rhinestones. White lace-up boots ran up her calves, the bottoms of her pants tucked neatly in, and she clutched a matching white hand purse.

“You’re welcome, Mister Kirk, but you were rather vague in your message. This is something to do with my ex-husband?”

“Yes, it is,” Jim said, and put on a charming smile. “But before we get into that, would you like something to drink? My treat.”

The stress lines on Jocelyn’s face eased a little.

A few minutes later, Jim had paid for both their orders and set the steaming cups on the table. Joceyln wrapped her hands around the hot mug, letting them absorb the warmth. “It’s been frightful cold this year,” she said. “This much snow already, and it’s only October!” She looked up at Jim. “Of course, it must be different in California.”

“Very different,” Jim said, eyeing the white world on the other side of the windowpane. “Never any snow, just a lot of rain and fog.”

“It sounds dreadful. I’ve always hated the wet, Lord knows I get enough of it here.” Jocelyn took a sip of her drink and then set it down squarely on the table. “Now, Mister Kirk, what is this about?”

Jim had to hand it to her, she didn’t beat around the bush. He folded his hands on the table. “As I mentioned in the comm, I’m a friend of Bo—ah, Leonard’s—and I’ve been trying to help him with a problem he’s had lately. I haven’t known him as long as you have, and I was hoping you might have some insight.”

Jocelyn looked puzzled by his request. “Insight?” she said, sounding just slightly incredulous. “I haven’t spoken to the man since the divorce. I didn’t even know he’d joined Starfleet, of all places. No offense,” she added quickly, “it just doesn’t seem like Leonard. But then,” she said, a note of sorrow creeping into her voice, “we’d been having communication problems for years. To tell you the truth, I don’t think we ever talked enough.” Her eyes unfocused as she gazed out the window at the falling snow. “He was always so busy.”

So you decided to cheat on him? Jim thought angrily, and then pushed the anger back down. That was history, and it wouldn’t help a thing to start throwing blame around two years too late.

“How is Leonard?” she asked suddenly, her tone slightly wistful.

Jim faltered, surprised. “He’s, uh.” Jim thought about Bones, how he seemed less withdrawn than when Jim had first met him. He wasn’t exactly the life of the party, but at least he went to parties now and then, if Jim really insisted. More frequently, he went out for drinks. And in both his work and personal life, he interacted with others more and obviously enjoyed it. “He’s been really good. Here, see for yourself.” He pulled up a holo on his comm and slid it across the table for Jocelyn to see.

It was a candid that Jim had gotten from Kevin. Since they had been on the Centaurus during Bones’s 30th birthday, Jim had put together a little surprise party when they’d returned, inviting all the cadets from Bones’s hall and a few of the medical personnel that he worked with frequently. In the holo, Bones was sitting in a booth at Sullivan’s with a platter of cupcakes in front of him, one of which had a lit candle stuck in it. Kevin had managed to covertly snap a shot just when Bones was gearing up to laugh, his lips curving up, tongue visible through his parted teeth. Jim was in the holo too, squeezed into the booth beside him with an elbow resting on his nearest shoulder. Jim remembered the moment, himself making some crack and grinning when it made Bones laugh.

Now, Jocelyn picked up his comm and studied the holo with a little smile. “He looks happy,” she said. “I haven’t seen him like that in ages. He was always so stressed with his workload.”

“Really?” Jim said, surprised. He’d never gotten the impression that Bones felt truly overworked. “I thought he was stressed more about his condition.”

Jocelyn’s slim eyebrows puckered. “What condition?”

Doubt suddenly filled Jim. Was she just playing dumb, for the sake of keeping the secret? Back on the Centaurus, when Bones said that his ex-wife couldn’t know about his condition, Jim had heard the lie in his voice, so Jim had assumed that Jocelyn knew about the augments. Backpeddling quickly, and more wary about his wording, Jim asked, “Did he ever tell you about his research, Mrs. Treadway?”

She shook her head, but then said, “Leonard wasn’t involved in any research, not when I knew him.” 

Jim frowned. “Are you sure?”

“I’m positive. He never had time for anything outside the hospital.” There was an edge to her voice that might once have been bitterness but was now soured into resignation. “We barely managed to spend holidays with my family in South Carolina.”

Jim took a swallow of his coffee so he could think. Jocelyn and Magnus, who had been arguably the closest people to Bones after his parents died, were both convinced that he didn’t have enough hours in the day to manage rigorous laboratory research. And while Jim could see a roommate being misled by lies, he couldn’t see it working with a wife. She would know his work schedule, would probably even be able to contact the hospital for it if she thought his hours were suspiciously high. And here she was, convinced that Bones had spent all his free time doctoring.

So maybe, Jim thought, maybe Bones hadn’t been conducting this research as long as Jim had assumed. Maybe he’d only started after he’d joined Starfleet! And considering the timing, maybe it had been instigated by the divorce—maybe something about it had made Bones feel that he couldn’t have a normal life unless he got rid of his augmentations. But if he hadn’t started researching a cure yet, then how could Jim ask Jocelyn if she knew without actually coming out and saying it? What if Jim had read Bones wrong, and she didn’t know, and Jim blew the lid off the whole thing?

“Oh God,” Jocelyn suddenly said, interrupting his thoughts. She was looking at the holo again, and then up at Jim beseechingly. “Is he sick? Is that why you’re here?”

Jim blinked. “Sick? What’re you—”

“Is it cancer?” she interrupted urgently.

Jim leaned back in astonishment, caught completely off guard. “No! No, wait, what are you talking about? Why do you think he has cancer?”

“You said he has a condition, and I just noticed,” Jocelyn turned the comm around and pointed at Bones’s face, “he never had that.”

Jim squinted at the screen, and barely made out a raised beauty mark above Bones’s eyebrow. It was just another part of Bones’s face, Jim hadn’t given it any thought before. 

“Oh God, is it melanoma? Is it malignant?” There was genuine horror in Jocelyn’s voice.

“Mrs. Treadway, please, calm down. That’s not what I meant by a condition. He doesn’t have cancer.” Jim frowned down at the picture. “He’s had that as long as I’ve known him. Sometimes these things just happen, right? People can grow new moles.”

“I suppose,” Jocelyn said doubtfully, but she seemed slightly mollified. She studied the holo. “He’s a doctor,” she continued, “and he’s surrounded by other doctors all day. Someone would have noticed if it was malignant.” She nodded decisively, seeming to have convinced herself.

Jim wasn’t so convinced: with Bones avoiding any and all in-depth medical checkups, he wouldn’t be able to see a doctor about unusual bumps. Not that he’d ever need to see a doctor, Jim realized a second later. With his healing abilities, he didn’t have to worry about cancer, right? So the mole couldn’t be malignant; it had to be benign or it wouldn’t have grown. And if Jocelyn knew, she wouldn’t have jumped to such a conclusion.

She didn’t know about the augments. Bones had been lying about something else.

“He definitely doesn’t have cancer,” Jim said, at least certain about that. “I would have noticed.”

She glanced at the holo again and then gave Jim a small, coy smile. “Yes, I suspect you would.” Jim felt a blush creeping up his neck. “So if he’s not sick, then what condition are you referring to?” she asked.

Ah, shit, Jim was really regretting making assumptions. He raised his cup to his lips, thinking furiously, and then realized he could take advantage of this. “This condition is different. It’s a bit strange, seems to affect his voice and mannerisms. Did you ever notice a change in the way he talks?”

“How do you mean?”

“It would be really obvious, you’d know exactly what I was talking about.”

“Then no. He sounded the same the entire time I knew him.”

“What about his mannerisms, did you notice a change in those? The way he carries himself, gestures, that sort of thing.”

“No,” she said slowly, bemused by this line of questioning, “he was the same old Leonard.”

“I see,” Jim said, tapping the table in thought. “One more question, Mrs. Treadway. Do you know what RRTS is?” When Jocelyn looked at him blankly, he pointed to his shoulder. “You know, his tattoo?”

Jocelyn let out a startled laugh. “A tattoo? Leonard? My word, that man really has changed. He always said he hated the things.”

Of course he did, Jim thought sourly. The universe was definitely mocking him. “So RRTS doesn’t mean anything to you?”

Jocelyn looked thoughtful. “Is that the Roswell Ropers Team Senior division? He was part of it as a boy, a mighty good horse rider.”

“Uh,” Jim said, trying to picture Bones voluntarily getting on the back of a horse, “sure, that could be it.” But he knew immediately that this couldn’t be right—Bones’s comment about “misspent youth” would fit, but the scythe and caduceus had nothing to do with cattle roping. Jim smiled sadly at her. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Treadway. I know these must seem like strange questions to you. I’m just concerned for Leonard.”

Jocelyn eyed him critically over her coffee, and then returned the smile. “I’m glad he’s got you to look out for him,” she said, unintentionally complementing Magnus’s statement from the year before.

Jim nodded. “Thank you again for agreeing to meet with me. I won’t take up any more of your time.”

“I hope it was some help,” Jocelyn said, and stood to collect her things. Before leaving, she placed her hand on his arm and looked at him seriously. “You take good care of him, you hear? Leonard and I may not have been right for each other, but that don’t mean I want to see him suffer.”

Jim, surprised once again, just nodded. Jocelyn Treadway gave him one last smile before she donned her light grey coat and stepped into the cold, the tiny bell above the door tinkling. Jim watched her walk away, boots leaving neat prints in the snow, and wondered if she ever regretted leaving Bones.

At the end of the street, Jocelyn glanced back over her shoulder, the red of her lipstick standing out against the colorless winter. Then she was around the corner, and gone.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

On the shuttle back to San Francisco, Jim stewed pensively over the meeting. 

Bones’s own wife hadn’t known about his augments. He wasn’t kidding when he said he’d never told anyone. It was weird that Bones felt he couldn’t tell his wife—after all, one of his parents must have been a regular human who had been let in on the secret. Hell, his entire family had been doing it for generations, and yet Bones was the only one who had put his personal life on indefinite hold to search for a cure.

Jim also now knew that Bones must have started researching a cure around the time he’d joined Starfleet. And that whatever had happened to change his voice and body language must have happened in those few weeks between the divorce and Bones meeting Jim on the shuttle. And he’d probably gotten that awesome tattoo then. Those missing weeks were starting to look more and more interesting. 

But Jim still couldn’t fathom what kind of injury could actually affect Bones enough to leave him with altered voice and mannerisms. For there to be effects on such diffuse systems, Magnus’s suggestion of brain damage seemed the only possible conclusion. In regular humans, the central nervous system had very little regenerative capabilities. Maybe, Jim thought, Bones also couldn’t heal well from brain damage.

Or maybe…maybe Jim was looking at this wrong. He kept thinking that the research and the changes were separate events, but what if they were related? What if the speech and behavior alteration wasn’t separate from his research, but was a direct result of it: Bones’s initial, fumbling attempts to cure himself, fresh out of his divorce and not thinking straight? What if, in his zealous haste to find a cure, he had designed something toxic and this was the result? It might even be behind the sudden appearance of the mole above his eyebrow, and it would make so much sense—some kind of gene therapy would be able to work around his healing abilities by targeting their source, the alterations in his genome.

Jim hadn’t really considered it before, but if Bones was trying to cure himself, then he would at some point have to dose himself with an untested product. And Jim also realized how fucking dangerous that was. Was this why Bones had shunned close human connection after committing himself to finding a cure? Did he think he would succeed and have a normal life, free of the augments—or die trying?

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

“Bones.”

The man in question looked up from the computer screen, his eyebrows shooting up. He was in a different lab this time, where he’d moved his research after Jim found him the first time, as he had readily told Jim when he’d asked.

“Jim,” he greeted. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

There were several screens arrayed by Bones, displaying charts and OMIM numbers and genetic sequences, and an incubator humming nearby. Bones was composing a long string of computer code on an open terminal.

Jim sat on one of the spare lab stools across the bench from Bones. “How goes the research?”

Bones frowned in that way that meant he was genuinely upset, not just being grumpy, and didn’t answer. Jim peeked into the biohazard disposal under the countertop. A dozen petri dishes had been thrown haphazardly inside, the liquid media leaking out the sides and pooling at the bottom. The unpleasant stench of death rose from the bin.

Jim turned to watch the lines of computer code spooling out effortlessly under Bones’s fingers. “Hey, I’ve been thinking…if you’re trying to remove the augments, how are you going to test the stuff you make? I’m guessing you can’t just use lab rats or whatever.”

“I test prospective treatments on my own cultured cells,” Bones said, nodding to the disposal bin.

Jim studied the raised mole above his eyebrow, more obvious now that he was paying attention. “Have you ever tried any treatments on yourself?”

“Not yet.” 

Jim tapped the benchtop idly. “Surely you can’t just go from cell cultures to yourself, though. There’s got to be something better to test things on.”

“I haven’t seen promising enough results to move beyond cell cultures, but I plan to eventually use cultured organs.”

“Organs…from you?”

“From me,” Bones agreed, and smirked at Jim’s grimace. “Don’t be such an infant. They’ll grow back.”

That was a disturbing thought. Wanting to move the conversation away from such morbid subjects, Jim instead asked, “Hey, Bones, what kind of injuries would actually damage you?”

Bones shrugged. “I’ve never tested it, obviously, but if you wanted to kill me,” Jim’s head jerked back in alarm, but Bones didn’t notice and continued blithely, “I would guess complete severance of the spinal cord above the neck would do it. Surgical removal of eminently essential organs, like the heart or lungs or brainstem. Any kind of vaporizing blast, like a plasma bomb. Then there’s those obvious ones like suffocation or freezing or starvation, where faster healing won’t mean a damn.”

“Jesus, Bones,” Jim finally choked out, cutting him off, “that is not what I meant.” Jim rubbed his mouth, wondering why Bones had automatically assumed he wanted to know how to kill him. Hearing Bones list all the ways he could die as casually as reading off the game scores left a pit in Jim’s stomach. “I meant what kind of injuries would be disabling, not deadly.”

“Oh,” Bones said, sounding so genuinely confused that Jim wanted to punch something. Bones’s eyebrows pinched as he thought. “Not sure. As long as there’s some tissue remaining, my body seems able to repair.”

“Even your brain?”

“Definitely.”

Jim’s eyes narrowed, momentarily diverted by the quick and decisive answer. “Bones,” he said warningly.

“Something you want to ask, Jimmy?” Bones said, not even pausing in his typing.

“Don’t call me that,” he said, voice reflexively harsh. Bones shot him a short, knowing look, and Jim realized that Bones was deliberately trying to get a rise out of him, perhaps as retribution for all of Jim’s admittedly invasive questions. Jim took a deep, calming breath and, even though he had a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer, asked, “Have you ever sustained brain damage before?”

“I think you know the answer to that. And I’m fine, as you can see, so quit your motherhenning.”

“It didn’t cause lasting damage? Or lasting changes?”

“No,” Bones said easily. 

It was amazing how one word could make everything even more confusing.

Jim stewed over this new knowledge for a moment, but didn’t know what to make of it. An insistent tug that felt suspiciously like worry drew him back to his original line of questioning. “What else can affect you? Diseases? Autoimmune?” and just to double-check, “Cancer?”

“Never.”

Jim hesitated, and then asked quietly, “What about messing with your genome?”

Bones stopped typing. He stared at the screen for several long seconds, unmoving, the fluorescent light making his face appear pale and drawn. Then he turned and looked Jim directly in the eye. “Jim,” he said solemnly, “I figure I’ve got one shot at this. If it doesn’t completely remove the augments, then my proteome will be unstable, and, well…” Bones gave a significant look to the discarded cultures in the bin.

It was as bad as Jim thought. When Bones finally decided to do this, it was all or nothing. “Why can’t you just leave it?” Jim blurted, frustration edging his voice. “I mean, what is so bad about it? Why can’t you just live with the augments, like your family has been doing all this time?”

Bones’s jaw went tight and he turned back to the screen, not answering.

Jim persisted, standing up now and leaning over the narrow lab bench, his voice rising. “What’s so important that you can’t follow their example, and just be, as you are?”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Bones said tightly.

“Then explain it to me,” Jim demanded, studying the side of his face. His voice dropped again as he asked, “What happened after your divorce, Bones?”

“Do you really want to know?” he asked the screen, voice low with contained emotion, and then turned to pin Jim with an intense gaze. He planted his hands on the bench, leaning over so his face was only a foot from Jim’s. “I could tell you everything, right here, right now, Jim. No more secrets; all your questions would be answered.”

Jim’s eyes flicked back and forth between Bones’s and saw that he wasn’t lying. If Jim asked, Bones would acquiesce and, just like that, the mystery that Jim had been working on for over two years would be gone.

“Do you really want me to tell you?” Bones repeated, watching Jim.

“No,” Jim answered, quietly but surely. “I want to figure this out myself.”

Bones nodded and started to lean back, but Jim grabbed his collar before he could pull away. “Your ex-wife didn’t know,” Jim accused.

Bones’s eyebrow jumped up. “That woman never knew me at all,” he said frankly.

“But I will,” Jim said, and saw uncertainty creep into Bones’s eyes. “I do,” he said, softer. “I know you better than anyone, Bones. So could you just,” Jim’s jaw tightened, “take a little more care with your life?”

Bones’s features softened. He reached up to grip Jim’s hand on his collar, reassuringly tight. “Jim, why do you think I’m here? I’m taking my time, making sure I get this right, because I want to succeed. I want to have a life, a real life.”

Unbidden, Jim’s eyes dropped to Bones’s mouth. “Why wait?” he said. Ever since Axanar, he’d been trying to avoid thinking about that moment in the medical van, about them, but his mind kept circling back to it. Maybe that was telling, Jim thought. He leaned closer and breathed, “Bones, I…”

Bones’s expression closed off and he leaned back, out of Jim’s reach. “I can’t, Jim,” he said regretfully, and carefully pulled Jim’s hand from his collar to slip away entirely.

“Why not?” Jim demanded, wondering why Bones would go for Jocelyn and not Jim. If it was a simple lack of interest in men, or in Jim specifically, Bones would have just said so. No, Jim was good enough at reading people to know when they were interested, but Bones wasn’t allowing himself to act on it.

Bones shook his head. “Once you figure it out, you’ll know,” he said, and then returned to the computer terminal and started typing again.

Jim slowly sat back down, narrowing his eyes at Bones calculatingly. Pushing him on this now wouldn’t solve anything, Jim decided, and backed off. “Anything I can do to help?” Jim asked.

Bones gave him an assessing look. “You know how to separate cells by centrifugation?”

“I’m a fast learner,” Jim offered.

The corner of Bones’s mouth lifted. “I’ll just bet you are,” he said, and set Jim to work.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Jim stared at the chess set.

The chess set…well, it didn’t stare back, but it still felt like it was mocking him.

A lot of things felt like they were mocking him right now. He’d been stuck in a rut since meeting with Jocelyn, unable to find more information on Bones’s past. He knew where he needed to look—namely, Bones’s leave of absence after his divorce—but it was like hitting a wall. There was nothing to go on; Jim couldn’t figure out what Bones had been doing in that time, where he’d gone, who he’d seen. And without some hint of where he’d been, Jim had no witnesses to question, nothing to go on to figure things out. He also couldn’t imagine what could happen in three weeks that Bones would be so afraid to share—what did Bones have to hide besides being an Augment, and how did this new secret make him want to get rid of the augments? Even more puzzling, how was his tattoo involved?

Jim had become so desperate that he’d asked Bones for a hint, but all Bones had said (far too dramatically, in Jim’s humble opinion) was, “You have everything you need to figure it out.” So Jim had gone over the info he had again, and again. He’d made charts and diagrams and even done one of those wall-to-wall collages with threads connecting relevant information, like in the vids, but Bones made him take it down when he saw it, reprimanding Jim for leaving such things lying around cavalierly.

After beating his head against the wall for a time, Jim finally came to his senses and set that problem aside to focus on his classes, and on studying the shit out of the Kobayashi Maru sim so he could pass it his second try. They only let you test once a 30-day period, though as far as Jim could tell he was the first cadet to make a second attempt. He’d thought he was ready in November, having studied every battle tactic, flight maneuver, and diplomatic solution he could get his hands on. Only that hadn’t gone to plan either. After the screens went dark with simulated destruction, Jim had sat numbly in the Captain’s chair, not even noticing the dead silence on the bridge. He only heard the rushing in his ears, like the ocean tides, drowning everything.

That was yesterday. Today, Jim had gone to meet with Pike, hoping that this would take his mind off things. Their two-year-plus chess game was drawing to an end, the board sparse, many of the remaining pieces locked. And now he’d been sitting here for an hour and didn’t have the faintest idea what move to make next.

Fuck everything. Just—fuck 3D chess, fuck the Kobayashi Maru and all its programmers, fuck Bones and his secrets and his stupid, stupid insistence on trying to kill himself—

“Bad day?” Pike asked neutrally, looking at Jim from over the top of his reading glasses. He had pulled a dog-eared book off the shelf in the first fifteen minutes of Jim’s turn, and had been reading it since then.

Jim let out a frustrated sigh. “Bad life,” he grumbled pessimistically.

“It happens,” Pike said.

The lack of outright sympathy broke through the haze of self-indulgent dejection, and Jim started to feel embarrassed. He shifted in his seat. “Sorry, sir. I’m not in the best mood today.”

“I think anyone with eyes can see that,” Pike said dryly. He folded the edge of the book page down and pulled off his reading glasses. “Is this about the sim?” he asked bluntly.

Jim’s eyes flicked up to Pike and then back down to the board. When he didn’t answer, Pike leaned forward, folding his hands between his knees. “Kirk. Have you ever failed at anything?”

The question sounded genuine, so despite his current feelings, Jim thought about it. He thought of his childhood, how impossible it had been to gain his widowed mother’s attention; how impossible it had been to survive on an alien planet that didn’t want to support life; how impossible it had been to believe that things would be different some day. But overshadowing all that was the day that he had made a decision, a single, deceptively simple decision: to stop being the guy who could never do anything right. And that was the day that things actually changed. “I used to believe I had, sir,” Jim answered, “but I realized later that failure is a state of mind. The only way you fail is if you believe you did. If you accept defeat.”

“Accepting defeat can be a growing experience,” Pike argued. “It allows us to see our own shortcomings so that we can do better next time.”

“I don’t believe that recognizing your flaws and succeeding are mutually exclusive. If something goes wrong, you have to keep believing you can make it right, because the second you stop believing you can win, then you’ve already given up. That’s when you truly lose.”

“So you would believe you can win even after there’s no hope?” Pike inquired.

“There’s always hope,” Jim insisted. “Whatever situation you're in, you just need to think about it differently.”

“Some would call that denial.”

A spike of hot anger lanced through Jim. “It’s not denial if you’re still around to argue the point,” he snapped, more sharply than he’d meant to.

Pike didn’t respond. Jim glanced up at him warily, but he didn’t look angry; he looked pensive, like he was trying to decide something. Then Pike leaned back in his chair and said, “Why don’t we call it a day?”

Jim frowned, disconcerted. Pike had never called a premature end to their sessions unless he had other pressing appointments. “But—”

“The chess set isn’t going anywhere, Kirk,” Pike said wryly, correctly guessing that Jim was reluctant to do anything that could be construed as quitting. “I’d say your attention is wanted elsewhere.”

Jim clenched his fists and then consciously relaxed them. Pike was right. Jim’s head wasn’t in the game; he was too pissed about everything else. He needed some space. It was just a break until next time, he told himself as he grabbed his jacket. He saluted Pike and headed to the door.

Behind him, Pike said, “Kirk.”

Jim paused with his hand on the door control panel.

“You know that test is made to be failed, right?”

For a moment the room was frozen in tableau, Jim at the door with his back turned, Pike at his desk watching him. Then Jim pressed the open button and left without a word.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

“You look like shit.”

Jim looked up. “Oh,” he said unenthusiastically, “hey Kalu.”

It had been over a month since he’d seen Pike; when the time for their usual monthly meeting came up, Jim had claimed to have caught a winter bug, but really he just didn’t want to hear more about how giving up was acceptable, even necessary. Jim was sitting alone in the mess hall, picking at his lunch, not in the mood to be around people. But it seemed that Celia Kalu had other ideas. She sat across the table from Jim, her cadet reds accenting her bronze skin, and invited another cadet to sit down as well. 

“Kirk, this is Gaila. Gaila, Jim Kirk.”

Jim smiled reflexively, but it became more natural when Gaila beamed at him. The woman was obviously an Orion, her skin the color of spring grass, bright and vibrant with life. She was also curvaceous, with long, crimped red hair, and Jim wasn’t sure how he’d missed her before this.

“It’s very nice to make your acquaintance,” Gaila said.

“Likewise,” Jim responded.

“So, why do you look like someone just contaminated your samples?” Kalu asked, resting her elbow on the table as she dug a fork into her pile of spaghetti. “Come on, Kirk. It's almost the new year, aren't you excited for 2258?” When Jim didn't look cheered, she said in a commiserating tone, "Think you might have bombed a final?”

“No,” Jim said, because despite everything else going wrong, he was at least still confident in his classes. “It’s nothing,” Jim said when Kalu looked at him expectantly, “just a problem I’m working on.” To change the subject, Jim said, “How do you two know each other?”

Kalu turned a shining smile on the Orion. “Gaila’s on the computer science track, and she’s been helping me with an analysis.”

“I’m writing programs to process her data,” Gaila said proudly.

“It’s a lot, we’re talking zettabytes,” Kalu added.

“Oh?” Jim said, trying to sound interested. “How are you analyzing it?”

“I’m doing a genome-wide analysis of all the known humanoids, looking for conserved endogenous retroviruses. If I find them, that would indicate shared viral exposure, which would suggest a common ancestor. You’ve heard of Seed Theory, right? That all the humanoid species in the galaxy were seeded from a single ancestor species? Well I’m hoping to find evidence to support that, and possibly to help establish a timeframe of speciation, but there’s still a lot of data to process. Once it’s done, it’ll be the largest interspecies comparison of endogenous retroviruses that’s ever been completed on humanoids.”

“I didn’t understand most of that,” Jim said conversationally.

“Actually,” Kalu went on as if she hadn’t heard Jim, “it’s the same program I used to analyze the genome you gave me.”

Jim’s eyes, which had glazed over during Kalu’s monologue, sharpened and darted to Gaila. She was absorbed in her food and didn't appear to be paying attention, but was still too close for comfort. Jim leaned across the table to say under his breath, “Kalu, didn’t we agree that was con-fi-den-tial?”

She waved her hand as though swatting away a fly. “I just used her program, but it all went through my servers. She doesn't have anything to do with the processing.”

Jim relaxed a little. “Okay, just checking. And you deleted them after, right?”

“Yeah,” she said, but her eyes shifted to the left.

“Kalu…” Jim said sternly, a bubble of panic rising in his chest.

“Well, I might have gotten, you know, curious,” she said, fiddling with her fingers, and then said hastily, “I didn’t look over the analysis, and I deleted it after, like you said, but,” she squirmed in her seat, suddenly sounding excited, “when I had to transfer the data I couldn’t help but notice that the DNA was humanoid—and it had 24 chromosome pairs!” She made a motion with her hands as if to say Ta-da!

Jim stared at her blankly.

“24?” She repeated hopefully.

“What does the number matter?” Jim asked.

“What does the—Lord save me from ignorance.” She settled into her seat a little, and Jim recognized that a lecture was coming. “All the known humanoid species,” Kalu began, “have 23 chromosome pairs, at least in the healthy state. Not a single one has 24, and that means you’ve found something alien. Like really, truly alien. Gaila here, if she wanted to have a baby with a human, she could. All their chromosomes would have matches so even their offspring would be fertile, and humanoids have synteny so there wouldn’t be any developmental problems. That’s actually another reason why we think there’s a common ancestor—”

“Wait,” Jim interrupted, “what do you mean, ‘their offspring would be fertile’? What does that have to do with chromosomes?”

She stared at him in despair. “I’m really going to have to go back to basics, huh?” She looked around the table and then stole a cookie off of Gaila’s tray.

“Hey!” Gaila protested.

“I just need it for a minute,” Kalu said, breaking the cookie in half and holding the pieces up like they were the Holy Grail and the Key to Paradise. 

Gaila crossed her arms, unimpressed.

“Imagine,” Kalu said, “that each of these is half of a chromosome. You inherit a half from each parent, and they pair up in the fertilized egg to give you a full chromosome, which duplicates itself to give you a matching pair.” She pressed the crumbling edges of the cookie back together, making it whole. “Now, imagine that one of your parents gives you 23 halves, but the other gives you 24. That means thaaaat,” she set down one of the halves (which Gaila quickly nabbed) and held the other aloft, alone, “you’ll have 23 and a half chromosome pairs. You’ll still be viable, since you didn’t lose any genetic material. But you can’t divide halves in genetics, so the floating chromosome will not be able to split again during meiosis, and because of that hybrids of this sort are usually sterile. Nobody likes having half a chromosome.”

Gaila snatched the remaining piece of cookie right out of Kalu’s hand. “Nobody likes having half a cookie, either,” she said tartly.

Kalu didn’t seem to notice the loss of her presentation material, and continued eagerly. “That’s what makes your DNA sample so interesting. It would be the first report of a 24-chromosome humanoid. From what I saw, it’s got to be a novel species, maybe even a completely divergent evolutionary path. I know you wanted this kept private and all, but you wouldn’t, uh, you wouldn’t happen to have changed your mind? This could make an amazing research project.”

Jim didn’t hear her. The room felt like it was slowly spinning. Jim leaned forward urgently. “You said usually sterile? So there are exceptions?”

Kalu waved her hand dismissively. “There are rare cases of hybrid females giving birth, but that’s just a chance event of an egg that happened to segregate all the chromosomes from a single parent species—”

“Kalu!” Jim practically shouted, and reached across the table to grab her face between his palms. Her lips puckered out like a fish and she stared at him with wide eyes. “Listen to me. This is very important. What about males?” Jim asked desperately. “Are there ever any fertile males?”

“Not on record,” she squeaked. “The sperm don’t develop properly. Um, could you let go—”

“So if a male with 24 chromosome pairs tried to have children with a human…”

“Oh!” Kalu said, looking like she’d just had a revelation. She reached up to pull Jim’s hands off her face and then held them between her palms, giving him a look of sympathy. “Jim, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were thinking about children. I’m—I’m probably not the best person to do this. If you want genetic counseling, I know some very good people—”

“What?” Jim exclaimed, snatching his hands back like he’d been burned. “No, no that’s not—” Jim held up his hands in a halt motion. “Can you please just answer the question?”

Kalu was still gazing at him sympathetically, but said gently, “If a 24-chromosome male mated with a human, the children would be sterile.”

Sterile. His thoughts came to a screeching halt, and in the confused silence of his mind, his own words echoed back to him. You just need to think about it differently.

“Kirk? Kirk? You okay?” Kalu said, leaning over the table and looking worried.

“I have to go,” Jim said, leaping out of his seat and completely forgetting his tray. He started to turn, then leaned back across the table and pressed a smacking kiss to her cheek. “You’re a genius, Kalu!”

“Okay?” she said, and the last glimpse Jim got of her, she was wiping at her cheek with a sleeve, expression caught between pleased, confused and disturbed.

He rushed out of the mess hall, almost running into four people, including Uhura, who crossed her arms over her breasts defensively as he stumbled around her. When he got outside, Jim checked his chrono. At this time of day, Bones would be done with his morning exams and on a shift at the hospital across the bridge. Maybe Jim could find him there.

No, Bones wouldn’t want to talk about this at work, and besides, Jim needed to confirm something first. The rest of his day was blessedly clear. He had been planning to use the time to study for tomorrow’s finals, but fuck it, he was well enough prepared and this was more important. He pulled out his comm and checked the next scheduled shuttle flights to Georgia. There was one leaving in 15 minutes from the main Starfleet campus. That gave Jim just enough time to hop a pod over the water. Ignoring the fact that he was still ludicrously decked out in his cadet reds, Jim rushed to the bridge. His thoughts kept going in circles, wanting to start the mindless iteration of “but, but, but it’s not possible.” Jim forced the panic under tight control.

Somehow, he made it to Georgia without hurting himself. It was late afternoon by the time he found the place he wanted. 

Jim stepped onto the McCoy family property, on which sat a sturdy house that must have been five centuries old at least. The windows were dark, the drapes drawn, making the ancient house appear quiet and forlorn. The land was several acres in total, stretching out flat and wide, and Jim began stomping around in the mud looking for a very specific area that Magnus had mentioned two summers ago. He found it in the far corner of the property, the jutting stones acting as beacons.

Jim quickly scanned each inscription, looking for one in particular. At the last stone in the last row, he stopped and stared.

R.I.P.
Leonard Horatio McCoy
June 26, 2227-August 7, 2255

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

When Bones returned to his room that night, Jim was waiting.

The door opened, and Bones’s gruff voice said, “Lights, 30%.” The overhead lights came on with a dim glow, and Bones gave a start from the doorway. “Jesus, Jim! You scared the hell outta me.” He stomped around the room, putting his things away as he griped, “What are you doing, sitting here in the dark? For that matter, what are you even doing here?”

Jim was sitting on the bed against the headboard, his legs stretched out in front of him on the sheets. His eyes tracked Bones’s progress around the room as he set his wallet on the bureau and removed his coat and button-down, leaving him in a plain white tee. When Jim didn’t answer, Bones finally turned to look at him with a demanding eyebrow.

“Let me see your PADD,” Jim said.

“You came over in the middle of the night during finals week to ask for my PADD?” Bones rolled his eyes and turned away to start riffling through his drawers, looking for his lounge pants.

“Let me see your PADD,” Jim repeated evenly.

Bones stopped, his shoulders going still, and turned to look at him. “Why do you want my PADD, Jim?” he asked slowly.

Jim held out a hand wordlessly.

There was a long, fraught stall, Jim’s hand suspended in the air expectantly. Then Bones carefully reached into his pocket. His eyes were wide with anticipation, riveted on Jim’s, as he set his PADD in Jim’s waiting palm.

Jim only looked away so he could see the locked screen requesting a password. He checked the hint, as he had last time, and it remained unchanged. DOB. This time, he typed 03092020.

The PADD unlocked with a clicking sound, the tiny audio track filling the room more fully than a shout would have. The world felt frozen in the wake of that one small noise. Jim stared at the home screen unseeingly, reflecting on how that sound perfectly narrated the way that all doors were finally open.

Jim looked up at the man in front of him. “You’re not Leonard McCoy,” he said assuredly.

His words seemed to take all the strength out of the other man, his knees buckling so that he had to lean back against the wall for support. “You figured it out,” he replied, voice hoarse with some emotion, maybe disbelief, maybe relief.

“Leonard McCoy died a week after his divorce,” Jim continued. “His divorce, not yours,” Jim clarified. “You’ve never even met Jocelyn.”

The tiniest nod, accompanied by a slightly defensive, “I did tell you that woman didn’t know me, Jim.”

Jim tilted his head, conceding the point. After a beat of silence, he said, “So. Should I call you John?”

Without taking his eyes off Jim’s, he shook his head. “I haven’t been John Grimm in over 200 years. I’m not that man anymore.”

Jim slowly swung his legs off the bed and stood, and then took the small step that put him squarely in the other man’s personal space. He raised a hand to grip his shoulder, and then slid it over to the side of his neck. “Then I guess Bones will have to do,” Jim said.

Bones gazed at Jim like a starving man might look upon a feast. His obvious desire to be seen, to be known, and the realization of how much trust Bones was putting in him gave Jim that final push to allow himself to accept this, as bizarre and foreign as it may be.

My best friend isn’t descended from Augments, Jim thought deliberately. He’s the original Augment.

“I suppose we’ll have to do something private for your next birthday,” Jim said. “Don’t expect 238 candles, though. That’s a lot of fucking packets.”

There was a beat of silence, and then Bones started laughing, and then Jim started laughing, and then they were both laughing hysterically.

“Oh God, my stomach,” Jim groaned several minutes later, curled on the bed and clutching his aching abs.

Bones let out a last chuckle. “Shove over, you big baby,” he said, pushing Jim across the bedding so there was room for him to sit.

“Easy for you to say,” Jim complained as he sat up against the headboard next to Bones, shoulder to shoulder. “You probably never get sore.”

“There’s gotta be some upsides,” Bones said, and just like that, Jim was reminded of the gravitas of this revelation. The laughing spell had released some tension, but the mood of the room oscillated back toward solemn. “What gave it away?” Bones asked.

Exasperated that it had been such a small detail, something he could have gotten months ago if he’d bothered to learn more about genetics, Jim said, “I found out about chromosome numbers, and hybrid sterility.”

“Ah,” Bones said. “On the Centaurus, when you said you’d tested my DNA, I thought you must have known. I guess I forget that it isn’t common knowledge.”

Jim just shook his head and said, “I’m ready to hear your story now,” and then added, “if you’re willing to share.”

Bones let out a long breath, leaning his head back against the headboard and staring at the ceiling. Jim watched his Adam’s apple bob with a nervous swallow. “I was born in the year 2020 in North Carolina,” he started abruptly. “My parents were Jeanette and Paul Grimm, and I had a sister named—” an almost undetectable pause “—Samantha. A twin, actually.”

“Really? Who was older?” Jim asked, as you do.

Bones smiled sadly. “She was, by two minutes. I know most older twins never let the younger live that down, but Sam was actually really good about it, never tried to use it against me.” The smile faded. “My parents were famous forensic archaeologists. When it was announced that their expertise was needed on the first manned mission to mars, they took me and Sam into space.”

“You were on the Ares IV?” Jim asked, impressed.

“That’s the one. Four months of space travel was enough to convince me that solid ground is the better place to be—the ride was bumpier than it is now, and they really didn’t have any good solutions to space sickness back then, so I slept through most of it. When we arrived on mars, we found a barren world...except for the ruins of a single city, ancient and nearly buried, but with sophisticated structures and technology. Inside one of them, there was a portal.”

“A portal?” Jim said, his brows furrowed. “Like a transporter?”

Bones scowled with age-old hatred. “Similar.”

“Where did it lead?” Jim asked curiously.

“Back to an identical portal on Earth,” Bones said. “They’d discovered that one years before and managed to trace its partner back to mars, but couldn’t get it to function. It was classified information, but the main mission of the Ares IV was to find the other end of that portal and activate it. That’s why they needed forensic archaeologists, to help them look for things that might be buried. If you dig through the records, you can see that the voyage was commissioned and largely funded by the UAC.”

“Shit,” Jim said, astounded at how many crucial things history had wrong. First the reason the Battle of Axanar started, and now this…

Wait a minute—“Oh my God!” Jim exclaimed. “It wasn’t some ‘friend’ of yours who was on Axanar when the battle started, it was you.”

“Just got that, did you?” Bones teased.

“Actually, that entire mission makes a lot more sense now,” Jim mused, thinking about Bones’s familiarity with Axanar drinks, his mastery of the alien language, and his general mistrust of Axanars.

“You done freaking out? ‘Cause I was kind of in the middle of something,” Bones deadpanned.

Jim elbowed him, but he was smiling. “Yeah, yeah, go on, finish telling me your life story.”

“Well, since you ask so nicely,” Bones drawled. “The original spaceship we traveled to mars in was converted into a research facility around the portal. They named it Olduvai. My parents opened the first archaeological dig site, searching for signs of the intelligent life that must have built the portal. For a few months things were fine. Then—there was a collapse at the dig site, and my parents were caught up in it.” Bones paused, perhaps out of respect for the dead. “Losing your parents at age 12, well, it’s not the best start to life, especially when you’re stuck in the godforsaken place they died for a few years, until they figured out how to use the portal. When I finally got back planet-side, I was 16 and angry at the world and…I got in a lot of trouble. Joined the Marines the day after I turned 18, never looked back. By the time I was 26, I was a Staff Sergeant in the sixth division of the Rapid Response Tactical Squad.”

“RRTS,” Jim recognized.

“Yeah. We were a Special Ops squad, which is a fancy way of saying that we would take the weird jobs.” A little smile pulled up the corner of Bones’s mouth, and he chuckled. “Boy, could I tell you some stories.” The smile faded. “God, I miss those bastards. All of them, even Goat, even Portman.”

Jim’s nose wrinkled. “Goat?”

“We all had code names,” Bones explained. “There was Goat and Portman, and Duke, Sarge, Destroyer, Mac,” a pause, “and the Kid. We didn’t even get to give him a proper name.” At Jim’s questioning look, Bones smiled sadly. “We weren’t going to call him that forever. It was kind of a hazing ritual, call them the Kid on their first mission, then give them a permanent codename.”

Kid, Jim thought. A name that meant temporary. “What was yours?” Jim asked.

Bones suddenly cringed and looked, for a moment, like he wouldn’t answer. “Um,” he said unhappily. “It was—it was Reaper, okay?”

“No way!” Jim said, a broad grin spreading across his face. “John Grimm, aka Reaper? You come up with that yourself, or did you have help?”

“I don’t think you have any room to talk, the names you come up with,” Bones grumped.

Jim muffled his giggles and, without asking for permission, pushed up the sleeve of Bones’s undershirt to see the black tattoo on his deltoid. “Well, that explains the scythe at least, but what about the caduceus?” he asked, running his finger over the flared wing.

Bones turned his arm to display it better, looking down his nose at the tat. “We were all soldiers, but we each had additional roles in the squad. I was the field medic,” Bones explained.

Jim chuckled ruefully, shaking his head. “You really have always been a doctor, even when you were a soldier.”

Bones shrugged uncomfortably.

“So, you were part of this squad,” Jim said leadingly.

Bones picked the story back up. “In 2046, someone at a research facility implemented a high level quarantine under suspicious circumstances and then went dark, and we were called in to figure out what happened. Three guesses which facility it was, and the first two don’t count.”

“You had to go back to Olduvai,” Jim extrapolated.

“No, I didn’t,” Bones surprised Jim by saying. “My CO gave me an out, but I didn’t take it. I chose to go back, eyes open.”

Jim, not yet knowing the full story but sensing a burden of responsibility on Bones’s shoulders, said, “Bones, just because you chose to go doesn’t mean you wanted whatever happened after.” Bones grunted noncommittally, and Jim studied his face. “Why did you go back?”

“Because my sister was there,” Bones said quietly. “Sam was always the smart one. She’d followed in our parents’ footsteps, become a forensic archaeologist. Heh, got her PhD by the time she was 24. Olduvai had the most cutting-edge research opportunities, so that’s where she was doing her post-doc. I wanted to make sure she was safe.

“So we went in, the double arr tee ess, ready to save the day. Ha!” Bones laughed at his younger self mockingly. “We were so full of ourselves, so clueless. Didn’t have any idea the hell we were walking into. Turned out some of the scientists had been conducting Augment research in secret, using criminals as illegal test subjects.”

Jim recoiled. “Jesus,” he hissed.

“Yeah well, joke was on them. See, they hadn’t actually designed the augmenting serum themselves, so they didn’t fully understand it. They’d just extracted it from the bones they’d dug up on the planet.”

“They actually found remains?” Jim asked, curious in spite of himself.

“Entire skeletons,” Bones confirmed, “perfectly preserved, and recent enough to still contain DNA.”

“Huh. Who were they?”

Bones looked down thoughtfully. “Olduvai was named after the Tanzanian gorge where the earliest remains of hominins were discovered, and that may have been more appropriate than they'd realized. Have you heard about the theory that all humanoids share a common ancestor?”

“Seed Theory,” Jim said, remembering Kalu’s research and catching on to what Bones was hinting at. “So, what, you think they were the first humanoids in the galaxy?”

Bones shrugged. “Guess we’ll never know for sure. All that information was lost in the plasma bomb.”

Jim tilted his head. “I thought it was kind of strange, that they would destroy a research facility, even if it had been involved in illegal Augmentation.” Jim gave Bones a shrewd look. “Did you have something to do with that?”

Bones looked smug. “You bet your ass I did. A few whispers in the right ears about a potential airborne virus, combined with the bad PR from the court case, and those cowards in Washington were only too eager to get rid of the place 'for the public good.' When more missions to mars were planned, I had a look around in case there were other remains, but the rest of the planet was completely dead.”

Jim shook his head, marveling at all the places Bones’s life had taken him. “You know what this means, right?” Bones just stared at him. “They got your augments from bones. Get it?” Bones groaned, and Jim grinned. “Am I good or what? Barely met you, and I picked the perfect name.”

“You’re incorrigible,” Bones grumbled, and then continued, perhaps in an attempt to ignore Jim’s taunting smile. “So it turns out the serum had different effects on people, depending on—I don’t know, certain gene markers or chromatin structures, maybe. My sister thought it was something to do with being ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ but...” Bones trailed off, as though he didn’t want to believe this idea but had good evidence for it. “Well, it seemed to hold true for the test subjects at least. They were using some pretty bad people, criminals who had been sentenced to death. They were already monsters as humans, the serum just made them a bit, ah, uglier.”

“How ugly are we talking?” Jim asked dubiously.

“Honestly, you don’t want to know.” When Jim gave him a look, Bones’s nose wrinkled. “Alright, fine. One looked like...like a giant naked mole-rat with fangs for a face. And tusks. Fucking tusks.” His hand drifted down to press against his thigh. “Almost tore my leg off. They were deadly fast and vicious, and still seemed to retain their human intelligence. I remember one recognized a bomb I’d planted. Another came at me with a goddamn chainsaw.” Bones stopped. “But that was later, I’m getting ahead of myself.

“When we first arrived on the scene we just found casualties, some dead, some violently insane. I stayed with Sam, and she showed me the skeletons they’d dug up. They were humanoid, and had,” Bones nodded to Jim, “24 pairs of chromosomes, which as you now know is very weird. They’d isolated and purified the extra chromosome from undifferentiated stem cells in the bone marrow. Named it C24.”

“The augmenting serum?” Jim guessed.

Bones nodded. “They’d found evidence that the extra chromosome was,” a small, sad smile, “bioengineered. Sam told me it made them superhuman.”

Jim’s eyebrows scrunched. “Wait, I saw your genome, Bones. There were a lot more changes than just an extra chromosome.”

“Yeah, I know,” he muttered in annoyance. “It’s why I haven’t been able to reverse the changes. If it was as simple as pulling out a chromosome…” He pursed his lips, and then explained, “The synthetic chromosome, in pure form, is much larger than what you saw in my genome. Over half of it is made of transposons, which jump into other parts of the genome, and the rest is full of DNA editors and transcription factors, which alter gene expression. When it successfully integrates into the genome, you get someone like me. When it doesn’t, you get murderous, cannibalistic monsters.”

“So it’s like a DNA bomb,” Jim summarized. “It explodes all over the genome, leaving a shell behind at ground zero, which is the extra chromosome pair you now have.”

“A bomb,” Bones repeated in a morbidly musing tone. “Yes, it’s a good analogy. It changes everything for the worse, regardless of whether you die in the blast or not.”

Jim peeked at Bones’s face and then pressed against his side to distract him. “What next? Sam showed you the C24…”

Bones visibly pulled himself out of the mire of his gloomy thoughts and picked up the story again. “Not long after that, we encountered something—not human. The first mutated monster. That’s when the shit really hit the fan, and we started getting picked off fast. Goat went down first. I tried, but…I couldn’t revive him,” he said heavily, eyes far away, seeing nightmares that Jim could only imagine. “Sam finally figured it out. She didn’t know they’d been testing the C24 on humans, or even that it could cause those kinds of mutations. By the time she knew what the hell those things were, it was already too late because they weren’t just killing people, they were infecting them.”

A chill went down Jim’s spine and, even though the events being described were centuries in the past, he reflexively grabbed Bones’s forearm. “Is that how you were augmented?” he asked quietly.

“No,” Bones said immediately, to Jim’s relief, “they only turned people who would become monsters like them. I was injected with the pure C24 by my sister, later. We were holed up together, monsters trying to break down the door. All of my squad were dead except my CO, who was infected, and I’d caught a ricochet.” Bones’s hand settled low on his ribs as he chuckled humorlessly. “My own ricochet. Goddamn nanowalls, you’ve no idea how glad I was when those were blacklisted. I was bleeding out, and Sam was trying to save my life.” His mouth twisted oddly. “She didn’t fail.”

“How did she know that you wouldn’t…?”

Bones had been surprisingly collected up to now, but this seemed to be the breaking point and his calm façade finally cracked. He pressed a hand over his eyes and said thickly, “She said she knew me. And even after eight years apart, after all the shit I’d done, she was right.”

“That’s…a good thing, right?” Jim asked tentatively.

Bones released a heavy breath, almost a sob, his mouth pulled into a deep, trembling frown. “She knew me, but I didn’t know her,” Bones said, his voice breaking, and Jim felt his heart wrench in his chest. “After, after we got the UAC shut down, I asked her to take the C24 too. She didn’t want to, but I was,” his breath hitched, “I was selfish. I didn’t want to be the only Augment.” Bones sniffed loudly and pulled his hand away from his eyes, taking a shaky breath as he swiped at his eyes. “I insisted,” he said with ominous finality.

Jim could piece together the rest of the story from the article he’d read all those months ago, the strong-willed Samantha taking herself out of the equation before she could become a threat. “Bones…” Jim murmured, and covered his hand with his own, not sure how to allay this hurt but suddenly understanding Bones’s reluctance to believe that only “evil” people were turned into monsters. “She was a good person,” Jim said.

Bones choked out a sound of agreement and turned his palm to grab greedily at Jim’s fingers. It was too tight, but Jim ignored the pain and just gripped back. Bones’s devastation spoke of both loss and guilt, and some day Jim would convince him that it wasn’t his fault, but for now he simply sat with him in silent consolation, their hands clasped together on Bones’s thigh.

When Bones had gotten himself under control again, he took a deep steadying breath. “Afterwards, I threw myself back into the only home I had left: the Marines. But I didn’t really want to be there, fighting. I was done with hurting people. So I did everything I could to help end the war as fast as possible. Went into some dangerous zones, did a lot of things that would have gotten anyone else killed.”

“You’re talking about World War III,” Jim clarified, still trying to get used to the idea that he was currently sitting next to someone straight out of a history book.

Bones nodded. “When the war finally ended, I wandered. Didn’t have anywhere to go, just knew that I wanted to help people to make up for all the damage I’d done.”

“What were you doing?”

“Some education in third world countries, basic medical aid, helped build houses and harvest crops. Whatever people needed, I tried to help.”

“You did good, Bones. You are good,” Jim said, needing Bones to believe this about himself. When Bones was doubtfully silent, Jim turned to him. “Hey, look at me.” Bones reluctantly met his eyes. “You’ve made mistakes, we all have, but you’ve acknowledged them and changed, even tried to make amends. That’s the mark of a good person. And Bones—you said yourself, it’s been 200 years.” Jim raised his free hand to cup Bones’s cheek, running a thumb over the arch of his cheekbone and watching Bones’s eyes shut at the gentle touch. “Don’t you think that’s long enough to punish yourself?” Jim asked softly.

One side of Bones’s mouth quirked up and he huffed self-deprecatingly, dragging his eyes open again. “You think that’s what this is?” he said, and pulled Jim’s hand off his face to exemplify his self-imposed exile from intimacy.

“I don’t know, Bones, why don’t you tell me?”

“Don’t you sass me, young man. Saying ‘I’m old enough to be your father’ doesn’t quite cut it.”

“That is such bullshit, Bones, and you know it.”

Jim,” Bones said disapprovingly.

“If that’s the reason you were talking about before,” Jim went on stubbornly, “then I don’t see it the way you do.”

Bones opened his mouth and then closed it, looking pensive. His next words were halting and deliberate, like he was choosing them carefully. “That’s not the entire reason. You asked me once what was so bad I couldn’t live with it, why I had to find a cure. You also said that my augments didn’t sound so bad—the super speed and strength and healing. But you have to understand…all of those things, even the ones you might call good, they make me not human. They separate me from humanity.

“I’ve seen babies born, grown, having children of their own, and then getting to grow old as they watch their children grow up. I stand on the sidelines and watch them all, and know that I can’t have that, that I will never be able to grow and change with anyone. As long as I still have the augments, I’ll have to watch as the people I care about grow old and frail, and die, while I’m stuck outside of time. Everyone I’ve ever known is dead, or will die, and I don’t get the reprieve of thinking ‘at least I’ll be gone before them.’”

“So you really aren’t aging,” Jim said heavily. “It’s not just increased lifespan?”

Bones shook his head in the negative, staring down at his lap. “But that’s not the worst of it,” he said lowly. “The worst part is that I can’t react honestly. Objectively speaking, being trapped in this situation with no end in sight, it would be understandable to become depressed, maybe even suicidal. But I can’t even do that, because the augments strictly regulate my brain chemistry to maintain mental health.”

“You…want to be suicidally depressed?” Jim said, trying to follow Bones’s logic.

“I want the option!” Bones snapped. “I want the right to feel my own damn emotions, even if they’re ugly, but I can’t do that because that would be too humanThat’s why I don’t get close to people, because I know I could live with them and be happy, and then they’d die. I’m sure I’d be sorry to see them go, but I’d still be able to move on to someone else and be just as happy. And I’d be able to do this forever, cycling people through my life like objects, temporary and disposable. And that’s just—that’s sick on so many levels, and not who I want to be. Not who I was.” Bones looked at Jim, desperation shining in his eyes. “Don’t you get it, Jim? I’m not the one in control here. It’s the augments. I just,” Bones blew out a frustrated sigh, and his next words were weary and yearning, “I want to be me again. Flawed, breakable, changeable, human me.”

They sat for a moment in silence while Jim digested this improbable and heartfelt plea for the right to be imperfect. The grass is always greener, Jim supposed, and used their entwined fingers to pull Bones’s hand up to his mouth so he could kiss the back of it. “Then I’ll help you,” he promised.

Bones relaxed a little and squeezed Jim’s hand wordlessly.

“So how’d you wind up here?” Jim asked.

“After I started traveling the world, it took me a few years to realize that I wasn’t aging like I should have been. Didn’t know at the time if it was just slowed aging or indefinite youth, but either way that’s when I had to start taking aliases. When I was traveling this wasn’t a problem, I could just make fake IDs and no one looked too closely at a transient, but once I decided that I wanted a cure, I needed access to laboratories. That meant staying in one place for long periods without notice, so I needed an established identity, and that’s easier said than done. People don’t just appear out of the woodwork. You need colleagues and friends and family, letters of recommendation from credible institutions, an entire past, and I couldn’t make all that up for every new identity and expect to never be discovered. And I absolutely couldn’t be discovered, especially not in those early years when augmentation was still a fresh wound in the public mind. Have you ever heard of Doppelganger Theory?” he asked suddenly.

Jim’s eyebrows scrunched as he thought. “Isn’t that the theory that there’s always at least one person in the world who looks like you?”

“That’s the basic concept, although their numbers severely underestimate how many doppelgangers we have. Generally there were at least thirty at any given time that were the proper age range, but the more difficult thing was to find men who were also recently deceased.”

Jim felt a surge of relief at this. He hadn’t really thought Bones was killing anyone to take over their life, but the thought had occurred, and it was nice to put it to rest. “Then you’d step into their life and suddenly develop a burning passion for genetics,” Jim presumed.

Bones nodded. “It was almost impossible at first,” he admitted, sounding tired. “I had to design advanced facial-recognition software to find matches from social media photos. There were years where I just had to lay low, waiting for a match to die. I know, it sounds morbid, but it was my only option.” Bones grabbed his PADD and started doing something on it while he continued. “Once I assumed a new identity, I would have to move somewhere far away, where people didn’t know I should be dead. And then I couldn’t stay in one identity too long or people would notice that I wasn’t aging. Claiming plastic surgery and, later, stem cell implants is only believable up to a point.”

“How many times have you done this?”

“Leonard McCoy makes sixteen.” Bones showed Jim his PADD, which had an encrypted document open. It was a list of sixteen names, each with a date range. Franklin Haus, 05/18/2068 – 07/29/2075Michael Ayers, 04/30/2141-11/25/2149Sebastian Christensen, 09/14/2196-01/23/2208... All of Bones’s false identities down through the centuries, ending with the most recent and incomplete entry, Leonard McCoy, 08/12/2255-

Based on these dates, Bones had been averaging nearly one new identity every ten years. That would mean a ten-year turnover of where he lived, of the people around him. Jim was starting to understand better why Bones might avoid getting attached to people. 

Bones continued, “McCoy got drunk and died in a car crash, poor guy. I was already keeping tabs on him and other matches, and was notified of his death.” Bones tilted his head. “Wasn’t planning on leaving my former identity this soon, but…this may sound horrible, but McCoy was actually a perfect identity. Newly divorced and on a leave of absence from work with no close friends, no living relatives, and already a doctor in a specialty I was familiar with from a previous identity.”

“You’ve been a surgeon before?” Jim asked, reeling with the epiphany that taking on different identities would mean learning a wide variety of job skills in record time.

“In New Zealand, four identities ago,” Bones confirmed. “A little hacking erased all public traces of Leonard McCoy’s death certificate, and I commed his—my—resignation from University of Iowa Hospital and then joined Starfleet.”

Jim pondered on the sheer improbability of it: that of all the men Bones had been monitoring, this one man in Iowa, so close to where Jim lived, had been the one to die; that Bones would decide to join Starfleet and be on the same shuttle as Jim; that an offhand comment from an overenthusiastic geneticist should be the key to revealing his past. “Why Starfleet?” Jim asked, having wondered this for a while.

“They’ve got the best resources for my research, plus they’re a large organization so it’s easier to slip under the radar. I’ve avoided the military since the war, but I kept an eye on Starfleet after it was founded. I decided to give it a chance because the Federation actually seems to want peace.” Bones sounded a little baffled, like it was normal to expect bloodthirsty behavior from organizations designed to protect. A different time, Jim had to remind himself.

“So that’s it,” Bones concluded. “I’ve been stealing dead men’s lives so I could study the augments in my genome to try to reverse the changes. I’ve been doctors, inventors, technicians, professors, researchers, hell, even a janitor on one desperate occasion. I’ve mastered every known molecular and genetic technique, and invented a few myself. I’ve even looked into alien biology and technology.” Bones’s mouth thinned. “And even with all that, it’s been 200 years and I’m still nowhere near a cure.”

“Hey,” Jim said severely, “none of that defeatist attitude. You’ve done some amazing things, but you’re still just one man, and… Bones, I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, but,” Jim tightened his grip on Bones’s hand, “I know what it’s like not to have anyone.” Jim stopped, didn’t know how to articulate his desire for Bones to be whole, to be alive with him, so he just said, “Who knows what’s out there in the black, Bones, just waiting to be discovered? We could get a posting on a starship going out into the unmapped zones, keep a lookout for species with more advanced genetic knowledge, or compounds we’ve never heard of.”

Bones smiled, but it was empty, like he didn’t really believe Jim. He unlaced their fingers and stood, rubbing a hand over his face. Jim watched him bemusedly from the bed, not sure why he was suddenly pulling away after having bared himself so fully. Bones glanced at the chrono, which was flashing 03:34. “You sleeping here tonight?” Bones asked.

Jim groaned as he saw the time. “Shit, no, I better get back to my dorm,” Jim said, standing and grabbing his coat. “I have a final in three hours.”

“I’m sorry to keep you up, Jim,” Bones said regretfully.

Jim stopped where he was in the doorway, and then walked resolutely back to Bones and swept him into a crushing hug. “Don’t you ever be sorry for this,” Jim said firmly. “I wanted to know, and I’m glad I do, and I am going to help you. I’ll say it as many times as it takes for you to believe me.”

Bones only denied himself for a second before hugging him back tightly, unable to resist simple, genuine affection. He pressed his face to Jim’s neck like stealing a farewell kiss, and then pulled away. “Get some sleep, Jim.”

“Bones,” Jim said, looking him in the face. “You’re not going anywhere, right?”

Bones shook his head slowly, eyes never leaving Jim’s. “I don’t think that’s an option anymore,” he responded enigmatically, and saw Jim to the door.

Jim looked back over his shoulder as he walked down the hall. Bones was standing in the doorway, his wrinkled white undershirt making him look almost childlike, exposed, but Jim thought his shoulders looked a little more relaxed, as though some of his burden had been lifted.

It was a start.

When he stepped outside into the crisp night air of mid-winter, he drew a deep breath. The cold filled his lungs like a cleansing fire: Jim felt powerful, unbeatable. It might have taken some, uh, out-of-the-box thinking, but he had finally solved a mystery that countless others hadn’t even seen.

Perhaps, Jim thought, he should apply the same unconventional problem-solving to a certain simulation, and then they could actually test who would waver first: the unstoppable force, or the immovable object.

Jim began to plan.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Epilogue: Case Closed

Vulcan. The Narada. Both gone, lost to the void created by the red matter.

And to think, yesterday Jim had been worried about being kicked out of Starfleet.

Immediately following the final battle, Jim had met with the heads of nearly every department to coordinate shipwide activity. Without the warp core, the Enterprise was making staggeringly slow progress back to earth. It had taken hours to sift through all the reports coming in from every corner of the ship. Even after cordoning off unsafe areas, confirming the function of basic necessities like the replicators and waste recycle, prioritizing the most urgent damages, delegating repair teams, making sure that shifts were being scheduled properly, and organizing a wake to mourn the deceased, Jim still had a massive backlog of reports to go through. It seemed that nothing had been left undamaged by this adventure, but it was the list of casualties that struck Jim most powerfully, destroying all the elation from their narrow and unlikely victory. When Jim first saw the initial list of the deceased, he had felt his heart hollow out, skimming numbly over so many familiar names, Caasi Srour, Faisal Rashad, William Jones, Rachel Matheson, Marach Ahia. And this list, devastating in its length, was nothing compared to the lives lost in the empty space left by Vulcan, where the main fleet was currently searching for survivors and refugees. A sense of overwhelming humility descended on Jim as he had a profound realization: that for all his efforts and all his supposed heroics, he hadn’t really been the one to pay the price for their victory.

Jim had to set aside the list of the dead or risk being swallowed by despair and guilty, primal gratitude that his name was not there. 

He’d been holed up in the Captain’s ready room for hours now, tackling reports in order of urgency. After reading the same paragraph seven times, Jim rubbed his face and decided that the most pressing matters had been attended to and a break was in order. Handing the con to Sulu, Jim left the bridge and headed down to medical to check on Captain Pike’s progress. Bones had sent him a brief report several hours ago, letting Jim know that Pike had a Centaurian slug, of all things, attached to his brainstem, and that Bones was taking him into surgery immediately.

He stepped onto the observation deck above the operating room. Pike was laid out on his stomach, his face disappearing through a hole in the table and his muscles lax with anesthetic. Bones was bent over his exposed back, wearing blue scrubs and a white face mask, tiny silver instruments held in either hand as he teased apart spinal neurons, trying to repair the damage left by the Centaurian slug. Jim caught sight of the dead creature, sitting in a bowl beside the tool table, and felt a shiver of revulsion run down his spine. Looking closer, he realized that the creature had been crushed messily, its exoskeleton shattered and caved in, and pictured Bones tearing out the godforsaken thing and snuffing out the threat with a single curl of his strong fingers.

A deep satisfaction filled Jim at the thought. Both inspired and set at ease by the knowledge that he was leaving Pike in very capable hands, Jim returned to his paperwork on a second wind.

The next time Jim surfaced from his reports, it was to a knock on the ready room door, which slid open before he could answer. Bones stomped in with a tray of food, and Jim sat up. “How’s Captain Pike?” he asked immediately.

“Never you mind about Pike,” Bones ordered, and firmly set the tray down on top of the engineering report he had been trying to read. Ignoring Jim’s protests, he continued, “That pointy eared bastard said you haven’t eaten anything but stims since I got into surgery, which was sixteen hours ago. And you haven’t reported to medbay for your away mission checkup.”

“I’m fine,” Jim said, because even though the smell of the food made his stomach knot up with forgotten hunger, it also sent an ache of pain through him, and he didn’t think he could keep anything down.

“Bullshit,” Bones said, pulling out a tricorder. “Now eat while I check you over.”

Jim was about to argue that he didn’t have time for this when he actually got a good look at Bones. The man was usually very controlled, even when he was bitching about this or that, but now that control was frayed and there was a frantic edge to his eyes, the whites around his irises too visible. So Jim let Bones kneel and run a tricorder over him, thinking it would help put Bones at ease, but it only seemed to make him more agitated.

“Dammit, Jim,” Bones cursed, “you should have been to medical as soon as you returned. No wonder you haven’t eaten, you’ve got a half-dozen cracked ribs! You feelin’ any abdominal pain or nausea?”

“Yes, because you’re poking at me,” Jim hissed as Bones carefully palpated his ribcage.

Bones activated his comm. “Nurse Chapel, send a runner up to the Captain’s ready room with an osteo unit. And,” he added, brushing gentle fingertips over the finger-shaped bruises on Jim’s neck, “have them bring a subdermal clearance module.”

“Yes, sir,” the comm said, and then the room was plunged into silence.

“Jim,” Bones said, hushed, his expression becoming more and more distraught the longer his hand hovered near Jim’s face, trying futilely to find an unmarred area of skin to land. “I should have come with you,” he said tightly.

Jim shook his head, grabbing Bones’s hand and pressing it to his cheek, cuts and bruises be damned. His palm was large and warm and gentle, curving smoothly against Jim’s cheek like a shield. “No, we can’t chance anyone finding out,” Jim said.

Something in Bones’s expression shifted as he gazed into Jim’s eyes, like he was coming to a realization, or maybe a decision. “Dammit,” Bones muttered, and pulled Jim’s head close to press their foreheads together. Jim could feel the worried frown lines against his skin. “I can’t…you’re not allowed to run off into dangerous situations anymore, you got it?”

Just then, the door slid open, and Jim and Bones smoothly leaned away from each other, Bones’s hand falling to Jim’s shoulder. It was the runner, a young Midshipman. He looked quickly between Bones and Jim, blushed tomato red, and held out the instruments. Bones snatched them away and sent the Midshipman out with a sharp word, and then started setting Jim’s ribs like nothing had happened.

Normally Jim would be making some smart remark, but he didn’t have the energy right now. His vision was tunneling as the osteoregenerator whirred away, the pain that had been keeping him awake disappearing by degrees and leaving him weak with relief. Jim found himself slumping forward, leaning heavily on Bones, head pillowed on his broad shoulder and nose pressed to his neck.

“Mm, you smell good,” Jim mumbled.

“So I’ve been told,” Bones replied, cradling Jim against him delicately. Jim would protest that he wasn’t made of glass, but it was kind of nice to have Bones reaching for him for a change. “Come on, Jim-boy, it’s time for bed. Let’s finish the osteo treatment where you can sleep.”

“But, gotta finish r’ports,” Jim slurred as Bones rose to his feet, easily pulling Jim up with him.

“They can wait, doctor’s orders,” Bones said firmly, and began dragging Jim to the door, but he stopped before opening it. “Come on, Jim, give ‘em one more good show,” he urged. “They need to see a strong captain.”

“Right,” Jim said and pulled strength from somewhere, letting go of Bones to walk on his own. The door slid open, and Jim stepped onto the bridge. It was the middle of gamma shift, with a fresh bridge crew except for Spock sitting at the science station. Spock didn’t look surprised to see him.

“Mister Spock, I’m going off-shift. You have the con.”

“Yes, Captain,” he responded in that soft voice of his, and Jim saw him nod to Bones.

Traitor, Jim thought sourly as Bones ushered him into the turbolift.

The next few minutes were a blur of sleep deprivation, and before Jim knew it he was in an unfamiliar set of quarters. As soon as the doors slid shut, Jim’s knees gave out. Thankfully, Bones was there to catch him. He moved Jim to the bed, and Jim took the opportunity to observe the quarters: they were lavish for a starship, with a sitting room, dining area, full kitchen, and a large bed.

“Nice digs,” Jim said as Bones sat him on the bed and knelt to remove his boots.

“They ought to be, they’re the Captain’s quarters,” Bones answered.

Jim startled. “But Captain Pike—”

“Will be in Sickbay for the foreseeable future, and never got a chance to so much as set foot in here. They’re yours, Jim. Now hold still so the regens can finish their job.” Bones shook his head as he rucked Jim’s shirt up to his armpits to strap the osteoregenerators directly against his skin. “You should be in a biobed,” he muttered when he saw the dark bar of bruising under Jim’s pectorals. “What the hell were you doing?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jim said, dizzy with exhaustion and the tingle of the regens.

“Your insides could have been pulverized.” It sounded like Bones’s usual complaints, but Jim sensed an undercurrent of genuine fear, retrogradely applied to a situation Bones could only see the effects of.

Jim could understand where he was coming from. The events of the past two days had completely warped life, leaving some parts in disaster but bringing others into crystal clarity. Jim ran a hand through Bones’s hair to cup the curve of his skull, deliberately mimicking their position on Axanar. Looking down at him fondly, this time without fear in his eyes or heart, Jim answered, “It’s a good thing I have bones, then.”

Bones looked up at him searchingly, and then his hands rose to curve tenderly around Jim’s waist. “Maybe it is,” Bones murmured into the scant space between them, and gently pressed Jim back into the bed. Even mostly asleep, Jim liked where this was going, and turned his face to Bones like a flower to sunlight, his lips unconsciously puckering. But Bones just pulled the covers over him. “Get some sleep, Jim,” he rumbled, breath warm on Jim’s mouth.

“’Kay,” Jim said, his eyes already closed, and he sank like a stone into the dark.

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Jim woke disoriented and sore, with the lingering scent of comfort and home and the faint sense memory of a ghosting kiss to his lips. Unsure if it was reality or dream, Jim blearily looked around. The osteoregenerators were still strapped to his chest, quiescent with a job completed. On the side table were several empty hypo capsules, which upon inspection were saline and amino acids, probably to make up for his lack of eating last—night? What time was it? The chrono said 1317. Jim had been asleep for over ten hours, and he suddenly remembered the night before and felt embarrassed at how easily he had been taken from his desk.

Jim struggled out from under the covers, feeling the gross tackiness of sweat and other unpleasant souvenirs from the past two days. He removed the regens and set them aside to return to medical, painstakingly removed his clothing and set them aside to burn later, and hopped in the shower. He came out ten minutes later feeling refreshed and well rested, and reluctantly had to admit that Spock and Bones had made the right call to force him off duty.

Jim found uniforms in the closet, running a reverent hand over the command gold. Feeling like an intruder, but needing something to put on, he dressed quickly. The suit fit surprisingly well, felt right against his skin. To prevent himself from staring at his reflection in disbelief, he grabbed his PADD and checked the bridge schedule. Spock was off-shift now and his command had been handed to Sulu. Satisfied that the ship was in good hands, Jim went to check on Pike, taking the regens with him.

The secondary sickbay was, unsurprisingly, crowded. Every bed was in use, and there were even a few cots set up along the walls. Moved by the sight, Jim squared his shoulders and made his way around the room, stopping briefly at each bed to grip hands and encourage his people, letting them see him and take comfort from his presence. He also made a point of paying his respects to the Vulcan elders and offering his condolences, inadequate though they were compared to the loss of a world. When Jim had made a complete circuit of the room, he stopped and looked around for Bones but didn’t see him anywhere.

“Captain,” said a pretty blonde in her mid-thirties. She had her hair wrapped in a tight, high bun and was wearing a blue science uniform. She stepped up to Jim and clicked her shoes together, at attention. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“At ease,” Jim said quickly, still uncomfortable with the deference. “What’s your name?”

“Christine Chapel, Head Nurse.”

“Nurse Chapel, I was hoping to get an update on Captain Pike, and visit if possible.”

“Of course, sir. Right this way.” As she led him down one of the adjoining hallways, Chapel said, “The Captain came to us with surprisingly little physical abuse for someone who spent 20 hours as a hostage. The main problem was the Centaurian slug and its neurotoxic effects. Acting CMO Doctor McCoy led the surgery, which took 14 hours. He’d have to give you a full report himself, but the surgery was considered a resounding success, and a damn good job by my measure,” she added decisively.

“I would expect nothing less. Where is Doctor McCoy?” Jim asked.

“I made him go off-shift three hours ago,” Chapel said bluntly. “He’d been on duty since we left earth.”

Jim smiled. “I like you,” he decided.

Chapel side-eyed him and then continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “Captain Pike was taken to post-surgery 13 hours ago. His recovery is proceeding at an expected pace, and he regained consciousness four hours ago and has passed the standard neurological tests for cognizance. He doesn’t appear to have any central nervous system damage or problems with autonomic functions,” Chapel finished as she brought them to a stop in front of a windowless private room.

“When will he be cleared for duty?” Jim asked.

Chapel looked at him solemnly. “I’ll be honest, sir, he’s going to have a long recovery period, and we’re not sure what his long-term prospects are. That,” her nose wrinkled, “bug did a lot of damage.”

“I see,” Jim said with a sinking heart. “Thank you, Nurse Chapel.”

Before keying open the door, Chapel gave Jim a stern look. “Please don’t excite him, Captain. He needs rest.”

Jim nodded and stepped forward, stopping in the doorway. Pike was in a biobed, supine, and for an instant it looked so wrong that Jim couldn’t breathe. Then Pike turned his head and caught sight of Jim, and one of the vitals on the display above the bed, the heart rate, jumped.

“Permission to enter, sir,” Jim said respectfully.

Pike’s mouth quirked. “Get in here, Kirk.”

Jim stepped up to the bed so Pike didn’t have to crane his neck, the door shnicking shut behind him.

“How are you feeling, sir?”

“I’ll live,” Pike said, voice rough but strong. His sharp eyes held Jim’s as he said, “And I have you to thank for that.”

“I think the credit goes to Doctor McCoy,” Jim said.

“And I’ve already thanked the good doctor for his part,” Pike said. “Now I’m thanking you for yours. Take the gratitude, Kirk,” he ordered when Jim opened his mouth to deflect. “If you hadn’t gotten me back onto the Enterprise, it wouldn’t have mattered how skilled a doctor McCoy is. He saved my body, but you saved my life.”

Discomfited, Jim smirked, trying to lighten the mood. “I’m about to beat you in our chess game, sir. Couldn’t let you off that easily.”

Pike huffed an amused breath. “I’m actually starting to believe that might happen, Acting Captain.”

Jim cleared his throat, resisting the impulse to pull at his collar. “So you, uh, heard about that?” Jim asked uneasily.

“Spock reported to me as soon as Doctor McCoy finished his tests,” Pike confirmed.

“Ah,” Jim said delicately, wondering exactly how Spock had portrayed him: the emotionally driven human? The reckless mutineer? Or maybe even the rebellious boy who grew up without a father?

“He tells me that you taking command was the best thing that could have happened.” Jim’s head jerked up and he gave Pike a disbelieving look. Pike smiled sardonically. “Well, maybe not in so many words, but I’ve known Spock for years and I can read between the lines. He’s a good First Officer, one of the best, but he has his blind spots. And after seeing you in action on Axanar, I made you First Officer because I thought you two could balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses; that together, you would represent the best in a Starfleet leader.”

Jim reflected on their shared success, how it was made possible by the hard work and sacrifice of so many. “We did work well together, sir, but it took a lot more than just Spock and I to achieve what we did.”

Pike was watching Jim closely. “A 20th century scholar once said ‘Good leaders make people feel that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery.’”

Jim tilted his head consideringly. “If we’re going with the 20th century, then I think I prefer the athlete, Althea Gibson. ‘No matter what accomplishments you make, somebody helped you.’”

A tightness around Pike’s eyes loosened, like he had been worried about something. “Indeed,” he said softly, and then just smiled steadily at Jim.

Jim shuffled his feet, looking down at his shoes. “Sir, I—I wasn't really sick the last couple months. I’ve been avoiding you.”

“You don't say,” Pike deadpanned.

Jim sighed and looked up at him earnestly, squaring his shoulders. “I'm sorry for how I behaved, sir. It was unprofessional and childish.”

Pike watched him for a moment, judging his sincerity, and then shook his head. “You were standing up for your beliefs when I was pushing you. That’s nothing to apologize for,” Pike dismissed.

“But, Captain—”

“I’m not the captain anymore, Kirk,” Pike cut him off. “This is your story now.” A thoughtful look crossed his face. “You know, when last I saw you in my office, after you’d failed the Maru, I almost told you about my first experience commanding a ship. You’d asked about it before, and I thought it would be an appropriate object lesson for you, since the Maru sim didn’t seem to be doing the job.” Pike smiled secretively. “I’m glad I didn’t.”

“Sir?” Jim asked curiously.

“Trust me, Kirk; you did a lot better than I, and knowing my own shortcomings might have primed you for failure as well. I’m starting to see your point about the influence of expectations on success. Maybe it is better to believe there’s always a way rather than to accept defeat, gracefully or otherwise.” Unmistakable fondness lit Pike’s eyes, and he said simply, “You’ve exceeded all expectations. I’m proud of you, Jim.”

Warmth settled in Jim’s chest and cheeks, and he ducked his head, smiling helplessly. “Thank you, sir.”

Pike nodded. “Now, pull up a chair and explain to me the parts that Spock doesn’t know. How’d you get on the EnterpriseTwice?

/\
/ *,\
(,  ’ \)

Jim spent an hour debriefing with Pike before Chapel returned and kindly but firmly kicked him out so that Pike, much to his protest, could rest.

Leaving sickbay, Jim checked his comms. There were a couple marked urgent, which he quickly dealt with, and then he noticed one on his private line. It was from Bones and read simply, come see me asap. Intrigued, Jim stopped at the nearest terminal. “Computer, locate Dr. McCoy.”

A cool feminine voice answered him immediately. “Dr. McCoy is located in his quarters, Deck 9, section 2, 3F 127.”

Jim looked at the schematic in surprise: Bones was in the Chief Medical Officer’s quarters, adjacent to the Captain’s quarters. Jim returned to Deck 9 and stepped up to the door beside his own, knocking. “Bones, it’s me,” Jim called, and the door slid open. The porthole drapes were pulled tightly shut against the black of space, the recessed fixtures in the ceiling providing dim lighting. Bones was sitting up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, dressed in a black undershirt and dark lounge pants. His arm was wrapped around his torso and he was slightly curled over.

Jim could immediately tell something was wrong.

“Sleep well?” Bones asked as Jim swiftly moved to his side, looking him over.

“What happened?” Jim demanded.

“Noticed it that quickly, huh?” Bones grimaced as Jim ran a hand over his right side. “You’ve read the reports that primary medical bay was destroyed in the initial attacks? Well, I went to look for survivors, and some delicate equipment might have blown up while I was—nearby.”

“When?” Jim asked sharply.

Bones wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Right after you left the bridge with Pike,” he admitted.

That was over 48 hours ago. “Bones,” Jim hissed, cursing himself for a fool. It figured that the one time Bones was injured, Jim assumed he was fine. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“It’s not that bad,” Bones muttered defensively.

“Do you need me to—alter any security vids or—”

“Don’t worry about that, I already took care of it,” Bones said, and Jim was reminded once again that Bones had been doing this long before Jim was even born. “But I might need—” Bones stopped, and his eyes darted furtively to Jim and then away again, indecision writ heavy in the set of his brows.

Jim’s breath caught. Bones had never asked him for anything before, Jim realized, never admitted to needing help. Even when Jim had offered, Bones had always avoided it somehow, or brushed it aside, as though Jim and his aid weren’t real, or he didn’t want to rely on anyone else because they wouldn’t…always…be around.

Yeah, Jim was an idiot.

Into the silence, Bones said in a small and oddly vulnerable voice, “I might need help removing a bit of shrapnel.”

Actual fucking butterflies danced in Jim’s stomach. Jim didn’t flatter himself to think that Bones really needed help for something like this—for Christ’s sake, Bones had carved a bullet out of his own chest. No, this was Bones facing the very thing that he had been avoiding for two centuries. It was an offer to literally and figuratively open himself to Jim, to emotional attachment. To life.

Determined not to screw up this chance, Jim released the breath he’d been holding and looked more closely at Bones, trying to focus through the bubbly elation. Now that Jim was really paying attention, he recalled that Bones had been slouching, favoring his side, since the initial attack at Vulcan. Carefully, Jim slid his hand under Bones’s and found an unnatural lump under his skin, lodged against a rib.

Jim slipped his hand up to the back of Bones’s neck. “Of course I’ll help you,” he said firmly. “I told you I would, and I meant it, Bones.”

“I know you did, Jim,” Bones sighed, leaning into Jim’s touch.

Jim caught his eye. “You finally believe me?”

Bones’s eyes traveled slowly over his face. “God help me, I think I do.”

Jim smiled and leaned closer so that their faces were scant centimeters apart. “Oh?” he said teasingly.

Bones’s mouth twitched with a suppressed smile. “Oh,” he said, quietly but decisively, and bridged the last distance between them to press their lips together.

He did kiss me last night, Jim thought, recognizing the soft, steady pressure. He leaned forward eagerly, but before he could deepen the kiss, Bones pulled back and said rapidly, like he couldn’t help himself, “I don’t know how this is gonna work, Jim. I’m still not aging, I’ve still gotta find a cure, and you’re, God, way too young for my ancient ass—”

Jim kissed him again to stop the sudden bout of anxious rambling. It worked a little too well, almost narcotizing Bones, and Jim was reminded of how long he had been alone. “We’ll figure it out as we go,” Jim murmured against his lips, and kissed him again, and again, just to see his eyes flutter closed and his lips part, face slack with the rapture of being granted a desire long denied. “You’ve done everything earthly possible,” Jim continued between kisses, “so we’ll go out in the black and we’ll keep searching. What do you say?” He pulled back until Bones focused on him again and then said, eyes dancing, “Come on, Bones.”

Bones gave him a warning look that said he knew what was coming, but Jim grinned and said it anyway.

“It’ll be fu—”

This time it was Bones who kissed him, and Jim laughed against his mouth and pulled him closer, that elusive triumph finally blazing through him.