The relentless, hot Nebraska noon sun bears down on Jim for the fifth day in a row. It’s an unusual heat wave, reaching record temperatures, but not unbearable. Difficult, maybe. But never impossible.
Besides, he’s an archaeologist. He’s practically immune to extremes like this.
Not much stops him. Ever. It can't. The clock is always ticking. He simply doesn't have time to waste complaining about a sweltering day in the sun, in the middle of a pit.
The dirt walls surrounding him provide some protection and respite from the heat, but the sweat pouring down his forehead is an inconvenience that irritates the hell out of him. It constantly interferes with his work. Case in point as his vision blurs and his hand slips on the slick trowel he’s using and he stubs his fingers on the ground like some damn amateur.
Grimacing, he sets down the trowel and adjusts the bandana wrapped around his hand, pulling the knotted ends tighter.
He should've thought twice before tightening the bandana. It rubs like sandpaper across a fresh cut.
He winces. “Dammit."
He immediately loosens the bandana, peeling the fabric back. A streak of blood staining it already, he rues the destruction of yet another bandana. He can never keep enough of these things around. Gloves, either. He'd ruined his newest pair fixing a hiccup in his truck's engine earlier this morning, as soon as he'd arrived back at the site after a coffee run at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. His spare pair of gloves had gotten stuck in the 3D printer when he’d taken it apart to improve one of its features. The bandana had once been around his forehead, keeping the sweat from his eyes. Now, it’s filthy. Like always, he’d found a better use for it.
Most days he ends up giving things like his gloves or bandanas to someone on his team, deciding he could make do without. Maybe he shouldn't be surprised when they always gave him things like new gloves and bandanas and spare parts in return whenever his birthday comes around.
Eyes stinging, he squints past the short wall that separated him from Spock. His partner shovels dirt from another area within the plot, preparing for more soil tests. He'd been at it for the past thirty minutes, never losing form. Spock doesn't look as miserable as Jim feels. Not even close. Had he even broken a sweat?
Jim wipes his brow. "Lucky bastard," he mutters under his breath.
One thing is for certain, as much as he has to prove it to the media, he isn't into this archaeology business for kicks.
Spock pauses and looks at him in question. Jim shoots him a grin.
"Do you need something, Captain?" Spock asks politely.
He keeps grinning, the endearment Spock used always making him happy, and tastes salt on his lips. "A shower and a hot date."
Spock arches a brow, probably scandalized by what he'd just said. "I cannot provide you with either of those, Captain, however I am amenable to trimming your hair."
Jim snorts. Truthfully, he appreciates his best friend's tact when commenting about his hairstyle these past eight months. "And by trim, you mean whacking it all off, am I right?"
Spock inclines his head, lifting his shovel again. “After which, we will properly take care of your wound.”
So he had seen Jim slip on his knees, hand grazing a few sharper rocks. "A mere flesh wound," he says easily.
Spock straightens, leans on the shovel, and stares at him. "Would you allow any one of us to continue in such a manner?"
He has him there. "You know I wouldn't, but, I can't stop."
Licking more salty liquid off his lips, he ignores Spock's frown and the sweat pouring off the back of his neck, making his shirt stick like a second skin. He pats down the fedora his father had given him six years ago as a graduation present. It protects him from the brunt of the sun while he works. Rain or shine, it doesn't matter. He withstands the harshest of elements. He'd built up his stamina and tolerance over time to survive extreme working conditions, and Spock could—and had—survived worse.
And Jim is considered to be an extremist. In the early part of his career, he'd been more stupid than brave or honorable. Pulling stunts, risking more than he should.
Still, he’s one of the few archaeologists who will suffer severe sunburn or risk losing a toe to frostbite, all for the sake of pottery shards and frail bone. No matter how small the artifact was or how insignificant the feature appeared to the average eye, it’s part of history, and that makes all of it important to him.
"Hence, why I must continue, as well," Spock says, nodding.
"I appreciate that, Spock," he says with a grunt, manipulating a stubborn rock that had no bearing on the feature he'd uncovered. "But, you're only human. Sit out for a change."
"A human not only obligated by your father, I am obligated by our friendship." Spock wipes his brow, an elegant movement as all of his were.
Jim wishes he had moves half as smooth. He always describes himself as clumsy. He feels like he'd always be the scrawny, awkward pre-teen Christopher Pike had rescued, though his habits had been exacerbated by an accident two years ago. At the very least, he was accident prone. The cut on his hand, the bandanas, the gloves...all in one morning...that is plenty of evidence, in his opinion.
"Our days have been intertwined since the day you decided to become an archaeologist. I do not wish for this connection to disintegrate because I am ‘sitting out’ when I am perfectly capable of handling more than my team leader," Spock continues.
"Spock, you're not superhuman," Jim says, exasperated.
"Nearly," Spock quips, as close to joking as he'd ever come. "Neither are you."
"I'm driven," he counters.
"You do not see for yourself that you must stop and take a brief respite. By the time you do initiate time for yourself to rest, it may be too late," Spock says softly. "I will be here when that time comes."
"Alright," he sighs.
He knows a scolding when he hears one. Spock is right. He won't be doing anyone any favors if he passes out or has to go to the hospital for heat stroke. But what Jim had told him was also the truth. He can't stop.
"We might have only one day here at most before we're discovered," he mutters, defending his choices.
More than likely a few "loyal" reporters will find them first.
"You speak of Janice Rand," Spock comments, eyes narrowing.
It amazes him how that name seems to elicit the same response from everyone. Spock's jaw clenches like it'd break.
"Aww, come on, Spock," Jim says lightly, attempting to ease the tension. "She's not all bad."
"She is your most formidable enemy, Jim," Spock says, voice like steel. "She is brilliant, ruthless, and she will not hesitate to slander your name a thousand times more than she has already."
Jim sighs, rubbing his nose with the back of his hand, no doubt smearing more dirt on himself. "I know you and dad don't like her, but she is a reporter."
And a damn good one, for the most part. She habitually asks him tough questions, which he is always capable of answering, thanks to Chris's constant drilling and instruction and Spock’s guidance, too. It impresses Jim that she knows so much about archaeology when she has hundreds of other topics she writes about, too.
"She has a penchant for twisting your words, Captain, thereby convincing the public you are the archenemy of all your peers." Spock picks up his shovel. "Yet you are far from the rebellious, greedy young man the headlines make you out to be."
"Not all the headlines," he points out in her defense.
Why he feels like he needs to defend her is a conundrum, because again, Spock is correct. She is pretty ruthless, not caring for anything but 'a good story.'
The last headline had been a doozy.
Famed Archaeologist Kirk Cannot Cheat the Past.
She'd dredged up Jim's family's history, the past accusation that his great-grandfather had actually committed first degree murder. It isn’t like no one knows about it. On the contrary. It’s an accusation which literally wreaked havoc on his family tree for four generations.
Her article had angered him. At least, it had at first. In the process, he'd researched harder than ever and found something to question, thanks to an entry in an old diary handed down in the family. His great-grandmother had mentioned a family secret contained in a box that would've cleared her lover, James Ogaleesha Davis, had they been unashamed about their relationship, thus marrying earlier than they’d actually done.
The entry was too vague to deduce anything else from the context. However, it was enough to come up with one important insight. He'd essentially discovered that he was right to question his great-grandfather's apparent lack of alibi, which had put him in prison.
And for this, he is actually grateful to Rand. She'd done him a favor.
He’d made sure to keep this opinion to himself at all times. Both his father and Spock didn't see it quite the same way as he did. The last thing he wanted to do was disappoint them.
The press also prefers to dwell on his shitty childhood. His father’s death as a small town hero, the broken home that followed, and then Jim's abusive step-father. But instead of focusing on his dad's sacrifice, it’s Jim. Always Jim.
And not the good things about him. They reference his demons, his time in juvie, the bad decisions he'd made as a teenager, the chance that those things possibly affected his choices now. Even after Pike had come into his life and adopted him, he'd continued to be a loose cannon right through and after high school. Not for long, but it’s enough to keep the public a little apprehensive about him. Especially with Rand around.
Because of her example, the rest of the press touts that Chris's rival is the wiser, more capable archaeologist and historian. The one people could and should trust and hire.
"Harrison," he mutters in disgust, tightening his hold on the trowel.
"'If Janice Rand is an angel,'" Spock suddenly says, his eyes on the ground.
"'...then John Harrison is the devil,'" he finishes for him dramatically, rolling his eyes.
"Your father has a curious way of describing people, Jim," Spock says, lifting a small pile of dirt.
"Harrison did destroy two of our sites," he says with a shrug. That thought promptly makes him want to punch something.
Spock discards the dirt in a pile. "As I recall, he also stole artifacts which appeared in a museum three weeks later, credited to him although they were yours, so to speak. Part of your own American Indian heritage.”
"Son of a bitch," Jim says, with a shake of his head, bitterly recalling stepping into that particular museum to see for himself.
He feels the utter disappointment like it was yesterday. The Oglala Sioux pipe pouch, painted skin, and a single pair of beaded moccasins perfectly displayed under thick glass. The history of the discovery written clearly on a sign next to it. Harrison's name included, of course.
Jim has simply never been able to reconcile the fact that those artifacts were part of his own ancestry—and he'd never gotten to examine them up close for himself.
Chris sponsors the majority of his team's digs, those two included. Unsurprisingly, Harrison's actions enrage him. But similar incidences between Harrison and his father have occurred for over twenty years, their rivalry or feud one for the books.
And there'd been nothing, absolutely nothing that anyone could do to change the outcome of that theft. Nothing that would rebury those artifacts for Jim and his team to unearth.
He had walked away from the display in tears, not caring that Spock had had to hand him a tissue on their way out and lend an arm as they made their way to the truck. He might not have had a pleasant childhood, but the stories of his ancestors always pushes him forward through the dark times. It has made this disappointment that much worse.
As upset as everyone had been, there'd been nothing left at the site to point to Harrison and his team of criminals. Instead, officials decided, without sufficient evidence to the contrary, that random raiders were to blame.
But, Jim and his team know better. Harrison's smirk and offhanded comment, when they'd crossed paths at a conference the very next day, had been all the evidence they needed.
One officer had the gall to suggest Jim had done it all himself. For attention. Rand, of course, had found out. Distraught, it'd been all Chris had focused on for weeks until Rand had reluctantly but expertly written another article to refute the other. Jim didn't know what his father had done to convince her, but it had worked.
He scoffs. Like he even wants to draw more attention onto himself.
He prefers to live out the rest of his life quietly. A hermit archaeologist. He is already fairly wealthy. He could retire at thirty-five if he keeps this same pace, not that he wants to work himself to the bone that young. But it is a possibility.
Still, if Harrison gets wind of what they were up to today, it would all be all over. And Jim doesn't want him to know a single thing about this excavation simply because of one stark truth.
James Ogaleesha Davis had gone to prison, accused of murdering Abner Harrison, John Harrison's great-grandfather.
If Harrison knew anything about this dig, he'd destroy any evidence he found right down to the last speck of dirt. The man is as efficient and ruthless as Rand. Chris is right—Harrison takes those traits to new heights.
Jim could never forgive himself if the excavation was compromised. It’s a closed case in the court of law. No one would help him. However, if the evidence was there, just knowing about it would take an enormous weight off of his family.
"No one will impede our progress," Spock says, voice firm. "We have all taken the necessary precautions."
"Mind reader," Jim smiles in spite of himself.
Who would've guessed that, once high school rivals, he and Spock were now as thick as thieves. Had been for six years. They'd misjudged each other, tried to out-do one another in hopes of understanding the other. All that stopped when Jim had written a paper for an advanced English class that would have gotten an ‘A’ from any college professor. Spock read it, came up to Jim to discuss his opinions, and the rest was history. A crazy way to form a friendship, but Jim wouldn't have it any other way.
"I regret that your private life is as unveiled to the world as is your professional life," Spock adds.
Jim shrugs. "Nothing you can do about that, except press on, Spock." Jim pauses and narrows his eyes on his friend. "You've been affected too, you can't deny that."
"I will not deny that my life has changed because of you."
Neck heating, he doesn't know what to say. Spock's faithfulness to him blew his mind.
He’s just a normal guy. Not a hero. He doesn't have Spock's elegance, or Chekov's brilliance, or Chris's authoritative air.
He has a dark past, the darkest of which the media has never unearthed. But just like Spock, he regrets that his private and public life has been spoiled by the press.
As a world-famous archaeologist, working privately is getting harder and harder to pull off. His team has his back, and he has theirs. Their secrecy is never the issue. The investigative nature of his father's rivals, however, is.
Like Harrison, who would do everything he could to stop Jim if he knew what was really going on at this site. That's why Sulu had driven separately in an identical vehicle, provided by Chris, from their hotel, carefully zig-zagging to get them off their trail.
Maybe he is naive, but why someone would ever want to cripple his team is beyond him. They were all working for the same thing. Truth, history, and the betterment of the future. Lessons learned from dust, bone, and human remains.
Spock quietly resumes shoveling. Jim bends his knees, squatting. He angles his trowel around the feature, scraping away dirt from rock, the remains mere inches away from the chimney. Chekov had already confirmed it with soil testing. This plot is smack dab in the area his maternal great-grandmother had supposedly lived with her parents. It had been a humble home. Only four hundred square feet for six people. They'd been poor, living on part of the land closest to the reservation. Someone had tried to cover up all traces of this place long ago, burying it under hundreds of pounds of dirt and debris.
In other words. Garbage.
Nature had then done its work, creating a camouflaged mound. This wasn't the first bit of property he'd excavated that was connected to generations of his mother's family. His father's, too. But it is the first one to give him this much hope that he'd discover the truth. A truth that would change many things, and not just for Jim.
Remembering this, he crouches lower, resting his arms over his knees, letting them dangle. His eyes don't leave the earthy plot in front him. He lifts his free hand, blurred vision impeding his progress again. He drags his bare arm across his forehead several times, smearing dirt on himself in the process, not that it’s the first time. He’s covered in so much filth now that a little more won't matter.
Even his hair, which he'd pulled back into a ponytail, looks a dirty brown instead of the golden blonde he’s used to. No wonder Spock wants to cut it. Jim would, except when he’s this involved in a project, he never cuts it until it is done. It’s a trademark. At the very least, the one good thing the press notices.
He licks the salt off his cracked lips again and looks longingly at the canteen on the ground beside him. He'd emptied it just minutes ago. It hasn't quenched his thirst but he can't make himself stop working to get more. The sun has been beating down on Jim and his team for days now, trying to stall their efforts. It’s a good thing they'd complete the harder, backbreaking work before the heat wave had even begun. Working in this type of heat isn't new to them, but they should have stopped an hour ago to take a break.
At least, he should've.
Sighing wearily in spite of himself, Jim glances over at the tent about a hundred feet to his right. Four forms rest in the shade, just as they should be. Sulu, Uhura, Chekov, and Scotty. If he'd learned anything from Chris, it is to take care of his team. They come first, even before the history they searched for. So, he'd forced them to stop
But, Jim himself can’t quit. He feels it in his blood. The presence of history. Treasures, and most of them weren't gold or worth enough to be put in a museum. He senses heart. He senses life. It moves through his body, like it had generations before him and he can't wait to find out more.
When he feels this way, the only way to quench his intense determination is to simply work until he accomplishes what he set out to do.
They are too close to quit now, his instincts telling him that their time was coming to an end here. They always cover their tracks when it comes to a personal dig like this one, dropping names to convince officials to hide records of the excavation as long as possible. He usually holds to the highest levels of integrity, the things his father had taught him.
But, one man in particular is forcing him to dip his feet into the more shady areas of business.
If Janice Rand is an angel, John Harrison is the devil.
Jim shakes his head, wondering why he has to have these enemies in the first place. Couldn't they all just get along? What had transpired between Harrison's great-grandfather and Jim’s great-grandfather happened years ago. Chris influences so many aspects of the archaeological world today in order to help him learn truth. It isn't for fame, something that Harrison doesn't understand or agree with.
It took some legwork, but thanks to Chris’s connections, and the people who respected him, this dig has lasted significantly longer without the press sticking their noses into Jim's business.
An utter and complete relief, even if five days have been in extreme heat.
He glances up and sees his single female team member. He’d handpicked his team over the past years, with Chris’s help, but each of them had taken a thorough physical and mental exam.
Nyota Uhura's performance had surpassed nearly all the men's, a fact of which she’s proud. To be honest, Jim is, too. He counts her as one of his dearest friends, and he’s always hardest on friends whenever he gives team tests.
Uhura extends her arm, holding out a canteen.
He takes it. “Thank you.”
"Just think, you'll be with your dad, setting up camp in snow in two days," Sulu says, the second of his team to saunter over. More or less ignoring Jim's orders to stay under the tent.
"Maybe," Jim says, scratching his chin. He’s looking forward to the father-son trip with Chris, but if they don't find what he was looking for soon, he might postpone that trip. He peers at them. "Listen..."
"We can handle it," she clips before he could continue.
"This hasn't been an easy one," Jim reminds her.
He'd pushed all of them this week, often working past sundown.
"But we've had an hour break, liquids and shade," she says, smile too sweet. "It's your turn now."
"Guys," Jim heaves a sigh, knowing where this was headed.
"Shall I call Christopher Pike and tell him that you have exceeded your limits?" Spock asks primly.
Wordlessly, Chekov hands Spock a cellphone.
"Now, that's not fair," Jim frowns.
"Aye, it isn't fair," Scotty exclaims, sidling up beside Uhura. "You and Mr. Spock, slaving away, while you force the rest of us to just stand by, letting you get all the glory?"
"I'd say it was our turn for a change to get our pictures in the paper. Maybe even an exclusive headline. It's high time someone else becomes Rand's pet," Sulu says calmly. "I'm up for the challenge."
Jim snorts at the image. "Fine. You can have all the glory, believe me."
He isn't even sure how it happens, but before he knows it, he’s sitting under a smaller tent watching them. Feet up, cream on his face to ease the beginning of a sunburn.
It is hard to be on the sidelines, but it makes him proud to see them so efficient. And careful.
Because this isn't just any dig; it was personal.
He drifts off to sleep.
A shout awakens him.
"Keptin," Chekov exclaims.
Jim lurches in his seat, caught off guard when he realized that he hadn't 'just drifted.' The sun now dips, barely brushing the horizon. He'd slept way longer than he'd wanted.
After he clears his mind of the last vestiges of sleep, he pull himself up and races to the top of the pit. He leans over the edge, not sure what to expect and finds every single one of his team staring back at him wide-eyed. Except for Spock, who is as calm as could be, as usual.
"You found something," Jim breathes out. Heart pounding he scrambles down the ladder to the semi-circle they'd made by the wall opposite the chimney, the section Spock had been working on earlier.
The line parts, and Jim steps forward. Spock's shovel scrapes against something beneath the dirt. He glances up and meets Jim's gaze.
"Careful," Jim murmurs, squatting down to watch their progress.
Sulu moves the last of the rocks out of the way by hand, Spock meticulously brushing the dirt concealing what appeared to be a smooth wood piece.
Wood, he thinks, chest tightening in anticipation.
"Captain," Spock says and moves one step back, allowing Jim space to see for himself.
Uhura hands him a brush. Jim kneels, moistening his lips, and brushes the last bit of loose dirt from the wooden box with a small tool. His breath catches, recognizing the initial carved into the top, the distinct swirl he'd seen countless of times on wooden pieces passed down in his family.
An exquisite, calligraphic 'D'.
This is his great-grandmother's box. The box that had been mentioned in the diary entry, the one that contained evidence to clear his great-grandfather's name. It has to be.
"You did it," Jim says, voice cracking, emotion thick in his throat.
"No," Spock shakes his head. "It was you, Jim."
"I wouldn't have gotten this far, so quickly without you all," Jim says, swallowing the lump. "Thank you."
His hand shakes, reverently brushing across the cleared wood. He gently blows across it, noting the fragile edges of the engraving. The way the lid is slightly crooked, buried into the ground.
"Dad won't believe it," he whispers, hands itching to remove it from the earth around it. He takes a deep breath, calming himself. He chuckles. "Wait until I tell him."
"Jim, don't you have to meet him this afternoon?" Uhura asks, crouching beside him. "Before the event tonight, the benefit for the boys' home?"
Confused, he glances up at her. She stares at him, brow furrowed. "You talked about it earlier. He wanted you to give your first impression of Leonard McCoy, the new doctor and counselor he hired for the boys."
Jim’s eyes widen. "Oh, shit. Shit, shit. SHIT," he scrambles to his feet, removing his hat and slapping it on his thigh. His messy ponytail blows in the wind, hair tumbling over his shoulders. He'd promised Chris he wouldn't be late for another meeting. "The bar. I'm supposed to meet him at the bar downtown, the one Harrison wouldn't be caught dead in," Jim rambles. "It's close to the boys' home. So I could go there to shower and change. I don't think I'll have time to do that. Dad's going to kill me."
"You have most likely discovered the missing piece to your family's puzzle. It would be illogical to repay you with murder now that you are close to clearing your ancestor's name from the very same deed." Spock pauses. "Illogical but not improbable."
Jim groans, climbing back up to the top. "Not funny, Spock."
"If you are agre able to the idea, I can drive you to town as I am attending the event, as well."
"No, no I need you here for a little while longer," Jim asserts. "Just in case..." His voice trails off, not wanting to reveal his greatest fear. The rest of the team files onto higher ground.
"I will make a three-dimensional copy of the artifact as soon as we've successfully extracted it," Spock says, falling beside him.
"Good," he says, shoulders dropping. That'd give him peace of mind. "I'm late as it is."
"We'll be fine," Uhura assures him, gently squeezing his hand. "Now, go. You don't have much time."
"You guys are the best," he says, walking backwards. "Don't stay here too long tonight, Spock and Uhura. Dad wants you there tonight, too, since your parents can't make it tonight, Spock. And be careful leaving—"
"All will be well," Spock interjects. "We will take the precautions. I will message you once we know what is inside."
Jim adjusts his hat, looking at each and every one of them, thankful for their strengths that had gotten them to this place. Even if the box held nothing, the sacrifices they make for this personal endeavor meant the world to him.
"You should go, Jim," Spock prods gently.
Jim can't. The expressions on their faces stop him in his tracks. He sees a devotion he doesn't deserve. They'd been through thick and thin together. They'd all been hurt by the events surrounding his past, even Chris's. But they'd all stayed, finding that they worked better together than apart. And Spock was their leader when he was absent.
He can't ask for anything more.
At least, not that much more. Maybe more gloves. He'd also like to have less accidents, which took his team's time away from their own responsibilities, adding stress. He'd like to make life easier on his father, who continued to support him in everything, giving up his own happiness. He'd like to give them all a break, because if he thinks about it enough, he realizes he pushes them too hard, too often.
And maybe, he thinks, stomach flipping when he realizes he'd be attending the fundraiser event for the boys' home without a date, again...he is still alone.
He'd like to fix that, too. Someday.
"Thank you," Jim says quietly, and turns away.
As he heads for town in his truck, he can't help but glance back once. Their silhouettes are still in the distance, motionless.
"532 Charles Street," McCoy mutters under his breath, glancing up and down the street in hopes that this is the wrong place. "You've gotta be kidding me."
He grumbles to himself, spinning on his heel as he inspects the buildings flanking #532.
The old man had said 532 Charles Street, perpendicular to the Main Street in this small town, the bar just around the corner. Hard to miss, according to the old man.
He peers at the other numbered buildings, though it is as clear as day. The dilapidated building that is all wrong, is right.
He rubs the back of his head, glancing back at the chipped paint covering the bar front, the broken, rusted handle, and the unsavory pair stepping out of the hellhole and the stench coming from somewhere within the doorway. He'd sat at the tables and drunk his fill in places like this far too many times than he cared to admit, especially in the past five years. He'd moved to Nebraska to get away from all of that.
He exhales a strangled sigh, dropping his hand. The joke is on him. Damn right it’s hard to miss.
Slouching, hands in his pockets, he stares at Green's Brewery in disgust. The old man probably has the same taste in alcohol that he'd had a decade ago. It isn't that he is offended meeting Pike here, just that it brings back too many bad memories.
Deciding he'd just pretend he was meeting a blind date at a refined restaurant, he pushes open the door. Pretending to have a date was sillier than a peach growing on an apple tree but it'd be worse to be caught lingering like a fool outside the bar once Chris Pike arrives.
He makes his way to the bar and takes the stool at the far end where he could see who was coming in, like his blind date. Not that Chris is blind date material. At least, he isn't for McCoy. For one, he knows him. And he'd been a friend of his late father's. Logically speaking, Chris can never be his blind date. Two, he isn't his type. End of story. Three, he is too old, at least for him. He considers himself to be 'older’ thanks to all the damn tragedy in his life, but he’s only thirty-three. So no, not Chris.
But, he has never met Chris's son. The famous archaeologist who seems to always be getting into trouble whenever he went on those excavations of his.
The kind of kid that would probably annoy the heck out of him.
But there is another, more important reason. He just can't bear falling in love again.
It hurts just too damn much at the end.
Though he looks out of place with his styled hair and his dark, pressed jeans and pristine black t-shirt, he doesn't attract the attention he thought he would. Not that he minds, but it makes him antsy. He stands and makes use of his time, drinking a beer and observing the strangers around him. He hasn't worked for two weeks and social interaction, while not completely welcome, would do him some good.
Working solely with a bunch of young kids again is going to be different. He'd always had a soft spot for them, hanging on to being a family practitioner for as long as he could, until he'd been offered the job as a surgeon at the hospital. In accepting that position, he'd left his days as a counselor far behind.
But Chris, the bastard, he'd remembered his dual degree in medicine and psychology, as well as his passion for helping young kids. Calling him out of the blue to inform him about the opening, he'd played the pity card. Saying he didn't trust anyone but him to work with these boys. Saying things were harder for them these days than ever before. That he has a feeling that McCoy’s right for the job.
Despite his grumbling nature and darker moods, he could never turn away a hurting, orphaned child. And that Chris had always been a good friend to his father also had something to do it.
He sighs, glancing down at his watch, one of the pieces of his family's estate that he'd actually kept. He has about five minutes to spare until Chris's arrival. And he is not nervously tapping his foot. No, not at all.
He crosses his arms, leaning on the bar and hanging his head. A lot had happened since he'd last seen Chris. Most of it, not good. Unmentionable things, if Chris has any tact. One reason he abandoned his old life. Made this move. Almost everyone was a busybody where he came from. Working has been his only respite, and even that has had its moments.
"The first time I found you was in a dive like this."
McCoy turns his head as Chris eases into a seat beside him.
"I remember," he say back without inflection, taking in the older man's appearance in mild interest.
He looks like he hadn't aged a day, waving the bartender over with a youthful enthusiasm. Making himself comfortable.
He can only think he was going to overstay his welcome very quickly. If only he had a reason to skedaddle out of this meeting a little earlier. He doesn't. Not to mention that it would be rude and unprofessional to do that to his new boss. He also can't forget that after his father's death, Chris's calls to see how he was doing had steered him out of a dark place.
"Take a look around yet?" Chris asks, after ordering his drink.
"Looks all the same to me," McCoy says, taking a seat.
Chris smiles. "I mean the orphanage."
"Dropped a few things off at my new office this afternoon," he affirms quickly. "Met your secretary. Carol."
Chris's smile broadens. "Did she show you around?"
"I showed myself around," he says, recalling the kind, blonde woman with an English accent gently reprimanding a boy about twelve. "She had her hands full with one of the boys."
"Ah, yes. She fills in at times for one of our caretakers," Chris explains, taking a drink. "Today we happened to be low on staff." He pauses and takes out his cell phone, frowning. "Speaking of which, my son should be here by now. I wanted him to meet you today."
"It's not a problem," McCoy says, shrugging. "I'm sure he has a good reason for being late, like he usually does."
The air between them thickens, and he winces as soon as the words left his mouth. He'd tried saying that without being flippant, but it hadn't quite come out that way. How many stories has he read about Jim Kirk being an irresponsible young man? Not that he necessarily believes all of that nonsense. He's seen far too much in his own life to be that gullible.
"He's a hard worker. Puts more time in than most men I know. More heart, too," Chris says, voice tight, showing just how much McCoy's words had hurt. "In fact, the past several weeks he hasn't taken a single day off, even in this heat the past few days."
"I apologize," he murmurs, stealing a glance at him. Chris's expression is hard. "This current project must be important?"
"You have no idea," Chris says under his breath, sighing. "That's why I can't be too hard on him for being late."
When he didn't elaborate, McCoy decides he'd just flat out ask why they were meeting here. "So why Green's Brewery?"
"Time constraints," Chris says, hesitating. "And...Jim has a few friends here he likes to check up on but he's been so driven, he hasn't taken time even for himself. He hasn't been in for awhile, so I thought this would be a good chance for him to do that."
That piques his interest, having never heard anything regarding this in the paper or on television about the young archaeologist.
Chris inclines his head to a man with a bushy gray beard and head of hair to match. "Like Penn over there in the corner. About Jim's age, but you wouldn't know it with all that gray hair and his grating, aged voice. He's lonely. Jim may be his only friend. The only person Penn actually wants as his friend. And Mutt, the guy covered in plaid that just came in through the back door?" He pauses, waiting as McCoy cranes his neck to see a hunched form wearing a heavy plaid coat ambling into the bar. "He's a little slow at times, but Jim got him his job at the post office, as a custodian. Took some convincing, but they couldn't resist Jim's charm. They agreed to give him a chance."
"I didn't know," he says, frowning.
"No, I don't suppose you did," Chris says slowly. "Most people don't have a clue, don't see beyond the cocky smile or sensationalized headlines. Jim doesn't care for the glory that comes with his job. In regards to his private life, he's the same way. Takes after his dad. Doesn't care what other people believe about him, just the ones who count."
McCoy isn't sure who Jim Kirk's dad is, but he'd take Chris's word for it. "That sort of person is too good to be true."
Strangely enough, also someone he would like to know.
"Almost." Chris's mouth twitches. "So, tell me, what is it about this place that bothers you. I see your hesitance. You forget that I knew your father—and you. You're no stranger to drink, McCoy."
"This place conjures my ghosts,” he admits.
"I see," Chris's eyes soften. "I guess I should've thought about that. I'm sorry."
"No, no. It's fine,” he says. "I'm moving on. Moved here."
Chris regards him thoughtfully. "Did you leave a special someone behind in Atlanta this time?"
"No," McCoy says curtly, then takes a large swallow of alcohol that burned the entire way down. He knew it. Here comes the questions. It's too tempting, even for a guy like Chris.
"I'd hoped you tried making another life," Chris comments softly.
McCoy scowls, spying a slow leak above their heads and more drunks than he could count. He is too familiar to all of this. On his bad days, this sort of life beckons to him more than reality.
"A man in a hellhole like this should have someone to share it with," he mutters, the hustle of activity irritating him even more. "But I'm not a man. I'm a doctor. There's no one."
"That's a little different tune than I heard from you a decade ago." Chris's eyes flit over his face.
He doesn't like the concern he sees. People who care too much are bound to get hurt sooner than later.
"I'd been planning my honeymoon," he says, willing his voice not to crack.
The older man's expression morphs into pity, everything that he hates.
"I'm sorry,” Chris says.
"It's been five years," he shrugs, looking away to blink once.
"Five years is a long time to be alone, especially when you're as young as you are."
"Why don't you rub salt over my wounds," McCoy snorts.
"Maybe it's time to stop licking your wounds. I think helping these boys work through their hurts is a good start," Chris says quietly. "I know you're the right man for the job. You built up quite the reputation not only as a doctor, but as a counselor."
McCoy lifts his brows indifferently.
Unphased, Chris stands to his feet. "Tonight. A benefit for the boys' home. Grayson Hall, 9 pm. I'd like you to be there."
That is in an hour. "That's a little last minute, don't ya think?"
"You have something better to do?" Chris asks, a smirk to his lips. McCoy’s frown deepens. "I thought not."
He gives an irritated roll of his eyes.
"One more thing." Chris slaps him across the back. "Suit up."
McCoy straightens, blinking at him. "You gotta be kidding me."
"Black tie," Chris smirks. "If you don't have one, I have a spare."
"No, I’ve got one," he scowls back.
He'd packed one as an afterthought before moving to this hick town.
"You should see your face, McCoy," Chris chuckles. "Can't wait to see you and my son each in a suit, turning over new leaves. Jim doesn't like them too much either, but for the cause he wears them."
"Right. Responsible guy that he is," he retorts.
"You'll see who he is tonight," Chris says, eyes narrow-eyed.
McCoy coughs, holding back the rest of his sarcasm. He’s lowered himself enough, insulting the older man's son for a second time.
"I'm sure he'll make you proud," he says after a brief awkward pause, tipping his glass.
"He already does. And he's safe and healthy. I couldn't ask for anything more." Chris smiles right before he turns away. "It was good to see you, McCoy."
"Likewise," he says, surprising himself with an amiable reply.
Not thirty seconds after Chris leaves, McCoy catches the bartender's eye. "So, Jim Kirk?" he finds himself asking.
"Everyone's friend around here.” The bartender shrugs and tosses a towel over his shoulder. "The boys think Kirk hung the moon. He hangs out at the orphanage when he's not on the job."
McCoy purses his lips. An energetic, reckless famous treasure hunter around impressionable, hurting children? He better get to know the kid.
"You're the new doc in town." Bartender narrowly peers at him.
"Yes," he answers.
Bartender says nothing as he wipes down the counter, stealing occasional looks. A few minutes later, McCoy manages another sip of beer before deciding he better quit. Drink unfinished, he reluctantly turns to go. He’s stalled long enough. It is a five minute drive back to his new apartment next to Grayson's Home for Boys. Not only that, but his suit needs pressing if he wants to make a good impression tonight.
"Thanks for the drink," he offers and sets his half-empty glass down with a thump.
He wouldn't mind a little more alcohol to get his mind off of wearing a damn suit. He has a feeling this wouldn't be the last of Pike's strange requests. But, he doesn’t drink as much as he used to on his off days, in his old life in Atlanta. This is Broken Cloud, Nebraska.
"Maybe Pike didn't tell you, but Kirk has a big heart.”
McCoy halts in his tracks and glances back at Bartender. Do the damn reporters habitually turn a blind eye to the "real" Jim Kirk? Less than two days in this town and he knows more than they did about the kid.
"He never said,” he replies.
Bartender throws down his cloth and leans forward. "The person who broke it last had hell to pay."
The guy feels the need to tell him about Kirk's relationship status? Going as far as to give him some type of warning? He doesn't know what to think about that.
"I'm sure his father didn't like seeing his son hurt," he says.
"Wasn't Pike." Bartender shakes his head, grinning to himself as if he'd just told a damn good joke.
"Who?" McCoy frowns at the way his heart begins to race.
"You'll see." The man averts his gaze. He picks up the cloth and resumes polishing the counter. "You'll see," he repeats in a perplexing mutter.
McCoy must've been thinking too hard about that mystery on the way out the damn door. As soon as he steps out, a force rams him into the wall. He barely catches himself before he falls, hand clinging to rough brick, his phone clattering to the pavement.
"Oh, shit. I'm sorry, man. I'm always doing things like this. Dammit, your phone," another man says, sounding panicked. "But, here, never...never mind your phone. Let me help you. Shit. I'm so sorry.”
He can only see a pair of grubby hands touching him. He forces himself to relax and not flinch away, knowing the precarious position he was in. Close to falling on his ass.
The man grunts, heaving him up to his feet, then hisses a breath. He pulls away his hands like McCoy is something boiling hot, burning him.
Still dazed, McCoy has to take a few seconds to catch his breath. Without looking at the idiot who'd run him over, he smooths down his shirt and pants. When he is done he sees part of the phone. His phone. Destroyed.
"Dammit.” He scowls. He looked up at the asshole and—blinks.
Startling blue eyes stare widely at him, eyes too mesmerizing to look away from, despite the messy strands of hair hanging over them. Their color one that McCoy has never seen before in his life except maybe on television. But he can’t quite place when. Or to whom they belonged. Or why he can’t stop staring in the first place.
"It’s broken," the blue-eyed man whispers. "I'm so sorry."
McCoy slowly pulls his gaze from the eyes down to a bandaged, trembling hand. Or, rather, a dirty, filthy rag wrapped around a hand, which palms part of his phone. A vision of a little girl with eyes like her mother flashes through his mind. She holds up her finger for him to see, a tiny Bandaid wrapped around her knuckle.
"I'll give you my number, pay for it to be replaced," the man is saying.
His voice catches at the end, pulling McCoy out of his own head. He blinks his eyes just in time to see the other man flinch, holding his arm closer to his chest. An angry red jagged edge peeks out from under the rag. It catches him off guard once more. These past few years, he's had a difficult time letting anything that needed treated slip past him. No matter how small the injury, he always fixed it. Or tried. Once, he'd even helped a damn neighborhood kitten that he'd found limping through his backyard.
He is furious about the phone, but he could help this man. "You need to get that looked at. You need stitches.”
Without waiting for a reply, he takes the other man’s hand in his own. He doesn’t care that the other part to his phone falls to the ground. He only cares that this cut could become even more infected if it wasn't cleaned and properly stitched. It looks like it's never been cleaned in the first place. At least, that’s what he tells himself. He ignores the voices at the back of his mind telling him he’s become OCD about any injury he sees.
"Don't have time," the man mumbles.
McCoy's eyes snap up. "If you don't make time, you'll have a serious infection of your hand that's even worse than this one."
"It's infected?" The blue eyes widen.
"Yes. Did you even think to clean it?" McCoy fights to keep the exasperation from his voice.
"I...no." The man winces. "Just...my hand's always dirty."
"What do you do that keeps your hands always..." He shakes his head, holding the man's hand. More important than this man's occupation is the fact that he has to convince him he isn’t in a damn hurry and can get it checked out. He begins unwrapping the rag, surprised to see that it is actually a bandana. "Never mind. Just wait here, I have—"
"Garbage man," the man retorts.
"What?" he asks with a grimace, to his chagrin.
"You basically just asked what my job was. I'm a garbage man."
McCoy stills and gives the man a closer examination. He does sort of look...like he has some occupation involving dirt and dust. And sweat.
Without thinking, his nose wrinkles.
"I'm a garbage man. My hands are in it all day," the injured man says again. This time he smiles and shrugs.
McCoy inwardly seethes, not sure if he cares for this guy's negligence. Or nonchalance in the matter.
"Wait. Here," he grits, letting go of the man's hand.
"Wait. What?" Blue-eyes asks, taking a step back. "I can't do that."
He sends him a hard look, pinning him to his spot. "I have a first aid kit in my car."
"Hell, no. I'm not going over to your damn car."
Those eyes could not possibly get any wider.
"Hey, now, you can relax." McCoy frowns, slightly apprehensive that the man’s panic was growing by the second. "I'm not asking you to. I'll go to my car and come back."
"My dad told me never to talk to strangers."
"Your dad told you...." McCoy briefly closes his eyes in frustration. Was this kid fooling with him? "Are ya two?"
Those eyes fill with hurt. "Twenty-four."
Twenty-four. Dear God in heaven.
He had been engaged at twenty-four. His fiancé, three months pregnant.
They stare at each other for a moment.
McCoy swallows, the first to cave. "Listen. Just...sit on the bench out here. My car's by the curb. I'll be right back over with what we need to take care of this." He pauses, watching Blue-eyes carefully. "Until you see a doctor tomorrow."
"Fine." Blue-eyes swallows and sinks down on the bench he indicated.
Grumbling to himself, he makes his way to his vehicle, never taking his eyes off the other man.
"Never talk to strangers," he mutters, pulling a few things from his kit.
There is no question that Blue-eyes had been walking into a damn bar. That sort of place is chock full of strangers. Strangers giving you your drinks. Strangers hitting on you. Strangers sitting beside you.
It is almost humorous.
But when he returns to the bench, Blue-eyes continues to warily stare at him. Blue eyes not as clear as they had been.
He takes a second look, putting two and two together.
He'd said he was late. A 'garbage man.' Then there was the sweat. The dirt. The smile. The hesitance. The remarkable eye color. The just as remarkable long hair, swept mostly in a ponytail.
Blue-eyes is clumsy, funny, personable, all rolled into one. Probably a guy young kids would love to talk to and hang out with.
He’s Christopher's son. The adventure-seeking son. The one McCoy heard more about this very night. The one he's misjudged, apparently.
And if he doesn’t treat this young man right—his Jim Kirk—someone would find out about it. He can just picture it. Chris would be in his office, confronting him the very next morning.
Jim looks away nervously. "I changed my mind. I—I have somewhere to be." He begins to rise out of his seat.
McCoy gently forces him back to his seat, a hand on his shoulder. "I'm a doctor. New in this town as of yesterday, and you could very well be my very first patient in Broken Cloud,” he says, pausing when Jim's eyes flicker with doubt.
“I know how to treat this cut of yours before you go wherever it is that you need to be," he continues calmly, as if he were talking to a child. "Will you let me do that?"
Jim chews on his lip. He nods.
"Good,” McCoy says matter-of-factly. “Now, this will sting a little as I clean the wound, and then I’ll stitch it. Try not to fidget."
To his credit, Jim doesn’t move a muscle. He does exactly what he'd asked of him with hardly a peep. He works efficiently. When it is done, Jim stares at his newly bandaged hand.
"That's it?" he whispers.
McCoy mentally scratches his head. Jim is confusing, yet he isn’t. He is smart, but has this...this naivety about him. The strange thing is, it’s almost familiar to him, as if he knows this about him already.
"Yes," he says as if it was a perfectly normal thing to ask. “That's it.”
Jim looks relieved.
Dammit, McCoy is relieved. What if Jim hadn't allowed him to tend to his hand?
"What—what do I need to pay you?" Jim asks quietly, stumbling over his words.
"You can pay me by going home and taking a shower, and taking your damn time gettin' to the next place," McCoy reprimands. “And letting me see how it's doing tomorrow.”
"That's all?" Jim breathes. He blinks once. "But I have to..." He stops and glances down at his watch, face paling. “Dammit, I don't have time. I can't disappoint him again. And I left my phone at the site so I can't—I can't call him to tell him I'm running late.”
“I'll take care of it,” he says quickly, knowing Jim was referring to Chris. "I have his number."
But Jim stares off into space, nodding vaguely as if he isn’t hearing him at all. “And I should check up on a few friends while I’m here, I guess. It's really convenient, and—“
“Jim,” he says firmly.
“Yes." Jim blinks at him.
He holds his gaze. “Like I just said, I'll call your dad and let him know where you are.” His cell phone might be broken but the landline is in perfect working order at his apartment. “But promise me one thing."
Jim's eyes narrow.
"Promise me that you will not rush."
"That's all?" Jim asks.
"Yes," McCoy says, nodding. "Now, tell me. What do you have to do?”
“What do I have to do?” Jim repeats, a perplexed look on his face.
“Yes. Give me the list.”
“Oh. Well, okay. Talk to Penn. Maybe another friend, if he's here. Shower. Put on a suit.” Jim pauses, shoulders tensing. “Get to Grayson's Hall. Damn, that's too much—"
“That's five things,” McCoy interjects. “Do those five things, one at a time and very carefully. You’ll get there late, but in one piece,” he asserts. He takes a quick breath, adding, “And your dad will be proud.”
Jim’s smile is blinding. “Thank you,” he says.
Jim stands and promptly turns the broken handle, entering the bar without another word.
McCoy doesn’t realize until he’s in his apartment and buttoning his dress shirt that they'd never once exchanged formalities.
Considering the entire meeting as a whole, he decides he shouldn't be too damn surprised.