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The Yorktown takes Jim’s breath away. It’s bigger, and more intricate than he could have ever imagined, and none of the pictures or holo-vids he’s seen come close to doing it justice. Bones might think that it looks like a giant snow-globe in space, but Jim can see the artistic endeavour of the swirling, looped matrix, with its own internal artificial atmosphere, even if his best friend can’t.

 

The city’s structure really is a beautiful example of Starfleet’s ingenuity.

 

“Maybe it isn’t so bad.” Bones admits later when he joins Jim where he’s standing beside an infinity pool, gazing out across the interlocking highways that the starbase consists of. The clear water perfectly reflects the roads and city streets that stretch up and along beside them, as they twirl around, shining in the waning light of the simulated sunset. There’s a faint scent of blossoms drifting over to them from the botanical gardens nearby, and Jim’s fingers twitch at his sides, as though he’s eager to take a hold of McCoy’s hand in his.

 

“Could it be?” Jim says instead, pretending to be shocked. “The great Dr. Leonard McCoy was wrong about something?”

 

“Can it, kid, or I’ll make you talk about your feelings again, and we both know how much you love doing that sober.” McCoy replies dryly, his southern drawl elongating his words for emphasis.

 

Jim shuts up, but he’s smiling too. Of course Bones would know that Jim wouldn’t be standing here alone, staring off into space without something playing on his mind. He doesn’t tell him about the Vice Admiralty position. He suspects McCoy already knows.

 

“Bones—” he starts to say, before he’s suddenly interrupted by a stranger calling out his name.

 

“Captain Kirk!” Jim hears, and turns around to see an ensign from the Yorktown ’s command-centre walking towards them at a brisk pace. “Sir,” she greets as she gets closer, clutching a data padd in her hands. “Commander Finnegan has requested your company this evening.”

 

“Isn’t he the Commander for the whole base?” McCoy asks. “Already making friends with the big-wigs,” he mutters good-naturedly, while nudging Jim in the ribs and smirking. “Why am I not surprised?”

 

“What can I say, Bones? I’m a popular guy!” Jim retorts with an exaggerated eye-roll, as though Bones himself wasn’t a Lieutenant Commander in his own right. Jim thanks the ensign for the message and sends her on her way. He’s no stranger to these kinds of requests, especially when his relatively short commission has already been so dramatic.

 

But just as Jim goes to meet Finnegan, the Yorktown ends up with a stowaway instead, and Kirk along with the rest of the Enterprise, have a brand new mission as a result. Navigate their way through the nebula, face down the unknown, rescue Kalara’s stranded crew, and make it back, make it home.

 

Understandably, both the Commander, and the Captain are busy, and Jim doesn’t give the missed opportunity a second thought.

 

“Guess your schmoozing will have to wait.” Bones says when he’s finished with his usual grumbling over the transfer of medical supplies to his med-bay and the incompetency of all those around him.

 

Jim shrugs and says, “Yeah, I guess it will.”

 

And so, and so, and so it goes.

 

______________

 

 

When all’s said and done, Jim’s crash-landing of the Franklin onto the Yorktown hardly goes unnoticed, nor does the ensuing chase and expert piloting of an enemy ship by his Chief Medical Officer.

 

It’s barely been a day since the space station avoided being brutally destroyed by the ancient weapon that Krall— Edison —was wielding, and as usual, the admiralty are eager to get in touch. But for the first time in several months, Kirk’s desire to join their ranks is fading. With his love of the stars, and his crew, and the unknown re-ignited, Kirk declines the position of vice-admiralty. He sees first hand how important the Federation is, and will continue to be in the future, and he can’t give that up, not yet. No flying? Where’s the fun in that? He is a part of something bigger, much bigger, and while only a week ago he had struggled to understand his place in the vastness of space, the potential of his own contribution now only serves to spur him on.

 

“My Commander is eager to meet you,” Commodore Paris says with a slight smirk, when their meeting ends seconds before the young ensign Jim had met previously comes running in.

 

“So I’ve heard.” Jim responds.

 

“Commodore Paris, Captain Kirk,” the young woman greets them, a little out of breath. “Sir, Commander Finnegan requests—”

 

“My presence? Yeah, I gathered. Lead the way, ensign.” Jim says with a wry smile, intrigued by the turn events. He had intended on getting a check-up done with Bones before their planned drinks, but Jim’s never been one to prioritise a trip to the med-bay over, well , anything, so he follows the young ensign to the direction of the command post above the central plaza instead.

 

They take the turbolift up in silence, and Jim lets his mind wander just a little, as he stares out of the sheer glass walls and watches as the spiralled starbase passes them by. He wonders if the Commander knew his father, and if that’s the reason he’s so eager to meet him face to face. Things so often circle back to George Kirk, it really would be the least surprising explanation. A whole year older , he finds himself mulling over once more. A whole year older than his father ever was .

 

He flicks a piece of lint off of his sleeve, before remembering that he’s currently sporting a ridiculous black eye, and more than a few cuts and bruises—having cut his session with the dermal-regenerator short to come visit the Commodore instead. He’s a mess, and he’s hardly going to make a good first impression, regardless of what the Commander’s motives are.

 

Perhaps he served with Jim’s mother on the Aurora , or the Kelvin before that. Maybe he’s a fan, and he knew Admiral Pike, or perhaps he was friends with Admiral Marcus and he hates Kirk with a passion. It’s no secret that there’s a faction of Starfleet who are still severely displeased with Kirk’s ousting of the Admiral’s misdeeds following his death. He should have known that was going to bite him on the ass. Maybe he should have told Bones where he was going...

 

This particular realisation stops him in his stride, and alerts him to the pounding in his skull that, up until this point, he had managed to ignore quite successfully. They reach their floor, and the ensign exits the lift and beckons Jim to follow. Kirk’s actually starting to regret avoiding medical, despite Dr. McCoy’s penchant for hypos. His whole body aches , and anyone would think that he’d be used to being the universe’s punching bag by now, but he’s not.  He can feel his ribs creak with every step, and he’s almost certain that Bones is gonna have a shit-fit any second now when he realises that Jim is not, in fact, on his way to him.

 

When they arrive at the main command-hub, Kirk is struck by the close-quarters of the room. The Commander is sat in the centre with his back to Jim, and the door. He is surrounded by his own circular console, with several screens open, and he’s flicking through a handful of documents. One of them is a casualty list, while another reports on the structural damage to the nearby space-lanes that run throughout the base. On the other, he can just about make out his name and the names of his crew on a ship’s manifest.

 

“He hasn’t stopped since the attack,” the young ensign who had escorted Jim up says in a hushed whisper, and Kirk can definitely detect a significant amount of hero-worship in her voice. “He’ll be with you in just a moment,” she tells Kirk, as she takes a seat back down at her own terminal. The screens are showing the damage caused by Krall, and his drone ships, and the Commander is in the middle of guiding a new arrival through to the few docking stations not adversely affected by the USS Franklin ’s unscheduled landing.

 

There’s nothing particularly distinctive about the man’s thinning dark hair, or his heavyset shoulders, but despite this, Jim can’t shake the feeling of familiarity that settles over him in the Commander’s presence, as though there’s something strangely recognisable about the back of the man’s head. Jim almost laughs at himself for thinking as much.

 

USS Bradbury, you are cleared for entry, please proceed to docking stations,” the Commander says authoritatively, and just like that, the blood in Kirk’s veins turns to ice.

 

The air thins, the room tilts, and Jim’s suddenly confronted with memories from his past that he’d much rather forget: A hand holding onto his collar too tightly, a firm grip twisting his forearm. His small frame being jostled. The unmistakeable stench of stale smoke and alcohol, and a horrible hissing in his ear— you’ll regret that boy —while his brother leaves him to the wolves. While his mother goes back into space without him.

 

Commander Frank Finnegan. Frank. How the hell could he have forgotten that? The man met Winona Kirk at a conference on a starship for god's sake, of course he’s a member of the goddamn ‘fleet. Idiot, Kirk thinks, berating himself harshly, you’re an idiot.

 

Shit. Shit. Shit.

 

He let his guard down, he let his crew in, he let Bones in, he let Spock in, and now he’s gone soft. He’s left himself vulnerable. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He can taste copper in his mouth, and he blanches at the overwhelming sense of déjà vu—the taste of blood that used to follow a particularly hard slap—but now is just the result of him biting the inside of his own cheek. Get it together, he thinks to himself, frustratedly. You’re the Captain of the Enterprise for god’s sake.

 

Commander Frank Finnegan turns around, stands up from out of his chair, and fixes Jim with an inscrutable look. Kirk can feel his heart beating hard against his chest, while the heightened anxiety tries to claw its way out of his throat.

 

“Captain,” the Commander greets, with what anyone else might see as a sign of respect, but Jim can only hear as condescension. There’s a slight hushed atmosphere to the bridge as the Commander excuses himself to the rest of the officers that he commands. “Douglas, you have the conn.,” he says, before gesturing over to the door of a nearby ready room for Jim to follow.

 

Except Jim doesn’t follow.

 

He just stands there, like a scarecrow—abandoned to stand sentry over a vast field of dying crops, his innards turned to straw. He’s lost for words, and he can’t help but wonder what the surrounding crew of the Yorktown’s command is thinking of him—standing there, with his mouth opening and closing like a fish. With his feet planted on the ground, as he disobeys what they only see as a polite request for privacy. But that he sees as a trap.

 

The Commander clears his throat, and with his pulse racing, and his eyes cataloguing every possible exit with an unmistakeable kind of hyper-vigilance, the Captain eventually follows.

 

“Jimmy,” is the first thing Frank says as he turns to face Jim when the door swishes closed behind them and they’re alone. Kirk visibly shudders. He starts shaking his head, in an almost childlike manner, and when Frank takes a step forward, he actually flinches back in response. Frank, upon seeing this, holds his hands out, palms up and takes a telegraphed step back to where he’d been standing previously.

 

“The frequency,” the Commander asks, breaking the silence to try and ease their way into the conversation together, on even ground. “The music...was that your idea?”

 

“No,” Jim replies, with a clipped tone.

 

Frank nods. “Your crew then,” he says with understanding. “I hear they’re the best in the ‘fleet.”

 

“They are.”

 

The silence returns with a vengeance, stifling and awkward.

 

“How’s your mother?”

 

“She’s fine.”

 

“Have you called her?” He asks.

 

“How is that any of your business?” Jim asks incredulously.

 

“You’re right.” Frank says, acquiescing so quickly that Jim can’t help but wonder what punishment is heading his way for his own insubordination. Old habits, he thinks as he remembers how it was second nature for him to carefully pick his moments in which to respond to avoid incurring his stepfather’s undue wrath. The bottle of whisky is half empty, you’re in for it now.

 

“I thought about getting in touch earlier,” Frank adds then, and he’s honest-to-god fidgeting , wringing his hands together as he struggles to find the words, “but I didn’t want to pressure you.”

 

It’s hard for Jim not to laugh at the absurdity of it all—Frank looking so stupidly earnest while he re-hashes the crap from Jim’s childhood, and the Captain has no idea what to do with that. He really doesn’t.

 

He hasn’t seen his stepfather since he was thirteen years old. He hasn’t seen him since he was sent off-planet to be someone else’s problem for the summer. Since he was abandoned to watch an entire colony descend into chaos—left to scrounge for food, and hide from those who would kill a child just to silence him. This will be good for you , Frank had said back then in response to Jim’s sullen silence, as they had marched through the hangar bay to where the Tarsus ships were waiting. By the time Jim had returned, Winona and Frank’s seven-year marriage was over. It had ended just two years after Sam had run away, just two years after Jim had taken the keys to his inheritance and driven the red cherry corvette off of a damn cliff.

 

What had started as a knee-jerk reaction to his brother leaving, would soon be a continuing pattern of reckless and rebellious behaviour that would last throughout his teenage years and even into his early twenties. For so long after he would regret jumping to safety, for all the good it did him—his mother’s disappointment, the worst beating Frank had ever given him. Exiled to another planet. Abandoned again, only to be spared again. And for what? Why should he live when four thousand others didn’t?

 

“I’ve been stationed out here since the base opened,” Frank continues, oblivious to Jim’s borderline horror at the situation he’s found himself in, “and I’ve been out in the black for so long that I just didn’t think our paths would ever cross—” Excuses, Jim’s heard them all, “—but, when I heard the Enterprise was coming here, I knew I had to at least try—”

 

Try...try what? Try anything and I’ll stop you. I will. Try anything, and I will put you down, he thinks angrily. His rage, displaced after so long, starts coming back in waves—building with each swell, until he starts to see red, and he doesn’t hear the rest of Frank’s sentence.

 

What was it Edison had muttered on one of the Franklin ’s ship logs? The Federation doesn’t care about us. Jim understands that. He understands it viscerally. He knows what it’s like to be left behind, to be abandoned. He knows about hopelessness. The relief ships took too long to arrive—Marcus betrayed him—Starfleet took his ship from him—the Federation, Khan, Krall, Nero, they’re all the same, they all tried to kill him. They all want him dead. Worthless, whispers some formless voice in the back of his head, you don’t belong here, whispers someone that isn’t there, something that isn’t real.

 

Frank knows that, and he’ll make sure that everyone else knows it too.

 

His thoughts start spiralling quickly, and he clenches his fists so tightly that his nails dig deep into the skin of his palms. He stands there like that, shaking, until the sting of crescent moon shaped red marks in the flesh of his hands is all that he knows. You’re doing good, Jim,  Pike used to say at the end of his data packets sent up and into the black, before he’d died. Before he’d been taken away from him.

 

You’re too hard on yourself, Bones tells him often.

 

“Please, say something.” Frank begs.

 

“What?” Jim snaps. “What do you want me to say? What do you want from me?” He asks desperately, before he completely loses the ability to talk past the lump in his throat. Frank looks a little lost himself, and hes making no effort to hide his discomfort. Then again, neither is Jim.

 

“Nothing, Jim, I don’t—that’s not what—I just wanted to see you. To talk to you.”

 

“Why? Why bother? Why summon me here in front of your crew? Like you’re parading me around as if you had anything—”

 

“Jim, stop—”

 

“No!” He shouts. “You don’t get to tell me what to do.” Jim hisses, and as he goes to leave, his own sudden movement jars his aching bones, and he sways on his feet as the surge of adrenaline leaves him feeling hollow in its wake. Frank moves to dart forward, having noticed, almost as though he’s concerned and it’s hands down, the funniest thing Jim has ever seen. Maybe there was an ion storm, and he’s ended up on some parallel universe where this actually makes sense.

 

He wonders then what the other him would do in this situation. The Captain that the Ambassador knew so well. The great James T. Kirk that he can’t ever possibly live up to.

 

“Jimmy?”

 

That’s not me, he thinks. I’m not him.

 

That Kirk never had to deal with his mother’s second-husband, because that Kirk never lost his father in the first place. He didn’t lose his way. He earned his place at the Academy. He worked hard for it.

 

But Jim? He joined on a dare.

 

“I can’t do this.” He says. He feels trapped, boxed into the small ready room on a foreign starbase, surrounded by a crew that bears no allegiance to him. His fight or flight mode kicks in and he has to get out, he has to go now. He turns to face the door again, and Frank calls out to him, but at least this time he has the sense to not move any closer.

 

“Don’t go,” he says. “Please.”

 

Jim hesitates.

 

It’s the sincerity that does it. It almost makes Frank sound like a completely different person, and if there’s one thing Jim’s learnt since becoming a Captain, it’s the importance of mercy. Maybe...Maybe…Maybe he’s changed.

 

His hand shakes as it hovers over the door-panel. He has faced megalomaniacs, and despot’s. He has brokered treaties and fought off armies. He has been marooned on a frozen planet and he has died for his crew in the belly of his own beloved ship. Hell, the memory of the radiation burning at his insides still haunts him at night when he’s had his fair share of some particularly vivid nightmares, and when not even McCoy’s gentle ministrations are enough to wake him from out of his daze.

 

But he can handle that.

 

He has defied the odds time and again, and he has flourished. But despite all of that, he is still here, in this room, with the ghost of his childhood looming down on him, and his hands won’t stop shaking.

 

“You’ve turned into a fine young man, Jimmy.” Frank says, sounding almost in-awe.

 

“You don’t get to take credit for that.” Kirk snaps, and Frank actually looks a little taken aback.

 

“I know, I was just

 

“Well don’t just anything.” Kirk’s whole body is shaking now, and it's a combination of the adrenaline come down, and the ache in his bones and age-old wounds that he'd thought had healed but really the scar tissue was just masking the damned pain.

 

Your father was Captain of a Starship for twelve minutes. He saved 800 lives, including your mother's and yours. I dare you to do better.

 

George Kirk died saving his son’s life, and while his legacy left Jim with some severe issues of inadequacy, he’s smart enough to know that that was never the man’s intention. No, Frank doesn’t get to take credit for the man Jim is today. Not when Jim had someone else fill the void that his father’s death left, and it certainly wasn’t fucking Frank Finnegan.

 

I believe in you, and if anybody deserves a second chance, it’s Jim Kirk.

 

The loss of Chris Pike still floors him, but he doesn’t let the grief consume him anymore, just like he doesn’t let his anger fuel his actions, or his pain cloud his judgement. He is a responsible young man. He is a decorated member of Starfleet.

 

“I’m not the man I am today because of you.” He tells Frank, not to be cruel, but to be brutally honest, as needed. “I’m the man I am today in spite of you.”

 

Walk away, a voice in the back of his mind says calmly. Run, says another, younger part of his soul, desperate to never face this man again. Take him out, whispers something dark and vengeful from deep, deep inside that reminds him of Edison and his hatred of the Federation.  

 

He understands that thirst for revenge. He’s felt it himself. Against Nero, against Khan. A righteous kind of fury, and a burning desire to avenge his father, his mentor. The future-past-present that Ambassador Spock showed him but that was another life, a life I will deprive you of just like I did your father—

 

He clenches his fists once more and tries to remember the grounding techniques and coping mechanisms that a Betazoid from his Introduction to Xenobiology class had told him about in the Academy. Her green eyes used to crease whenever she sat next to him, “You’re broadcasting your pain,” she had explained once, and Jim had let his mask slip, just for a second, in surprise. Despite all of that, she still sat beside him each day until their class credits were fulfilled.

 

She was on the Farragut when Nero had it destroyed.  

 

Breathe.

 

He tries to push the nausea away, but the instinctual response leaves him with a bitter, painful and acidic taste in the back of his throat. He swallows it back. He breathes deep through his nose. In, out, in—you stupid little shit, look at me when I’m talking to you— out, in—It’s going to be okay, son—out, in—you joined to see if you could live up to him—out, in—now you're wondering just what it means to be Jim.

 

Out, out, out.

 

“You know what’s funny?” Jim says, when he’s caught his breath. “I used to dream about growing up. About finding you when I got back planetside,” Jim’s right up in Frank’s face now, too close, he can see how grey the man’s wide eyes are. “I was gonna give you a taste of your own medicine. I was gonna hit you for all the times that you—” His voice catches in the back of his throat and he looks away before Frank has a chance to see him falter.

 

“Will that make it better?” Frank asks, sounding small to Jim’s ears, grabbing a hold of Jim’s words like a lifeline. “Jim, if hitting me fixes any of this, then do it. Hit me.”

 

Jim’s fingers curl into fists by his sides, and he considers how easy it would be just to swing. So easy that if he started, he doesn’t think he’d ever stop. He remembers how Khan was so consumed by vengeance that there was no limit to who he would hurt and destroy if he deemed them weak, or insignificant.

 

Jim’s own words at the re-christening of his beloved ship come back to him. Our first instinct is to seek revenge . And it’s true. But he has to be better than that. He has to step out of the shadow of his father’s legacy—out of the shadow of his stolen childhood. He could hit Frank, sure he could. He could do it over and over again until he can feel the bones in the man’s jaw crack and give way under the onslaught of his simmering rage.

 

Frank is literally asking for it.

 

“I should. I could.” Jim says, half under his breath. “You’re a mean drunk, and you deserve it—”

 

“I haven’t had a drop in seventeen years.” Frank admits and suddenly this whole thing makes sense.

 

Frank’s not messing with him, he’s not manipulating him, or planning on blackmailing him. He’s looking for absolution. Atonement.

 

Jim does the math. Seventeen years. That was the same year the relief ships finally made it to Tarsus IV, the same year the Federation found out about the genocide. The same year Jim’s mother crumbled at the foot of Jim’s hospital bed, dishevelled and horrified, and so, so sad.

 

“Sobriety suits you.” Jim remarks, looking the man up and down, taking in the immaculate starfleet uniform that Frank’s wearing, with two silver bands on each sleeve to denote his rank. He’s clean shaven, when Jim only ever knew him with a beard, and he actually looks younger now than Jim remembers from his childhood. He remembers comparing Frank’s face to a holo-vid of his father, and dismissing him as inferior. He remembers hearing his grandmother remarking slyly that Frank had been handsome once, and he hadn’t understood at the time that she’d meant it as an insult.

 

Yes, he could hit him. He could make it so that his blood would splatter all over that shiny uniform of his, and Frank wouldn’t dare jeopardize the life he’s made for himself on the space station by turning him in. Jim could hit him, and there’s no way that there would ever be any kind of repercussion. Hell, Frank would probably let Jim kick the shit out of him for even the slightest chance of forgiveness. For a quiet life.

 

It would be so easy. To immerse himself in his own memories, to let the hatred and pain and fear drive him to the brink, to the very edge of his own sanity.

 

But that’s not who he is now. He isn't that abandoned little boy anymore than he is the same angry young man who used to get shitfaced in dive bars, and go looking for trouble—willing to take plenty of punches if it meant the chance to land a few his own.

 

Frank isn't the monster living under the bed. He isn’t even the ghost that haunts him: he's just a man.

 

Jim made a decision a long time ago to not let the shit of his past define him. Pike dared him to do better. In the middle of a dive bar in Iowa, a Captain of a Federation Starship handed him his handkerchief to mop up his blood and drool, and he saw something in Jim, that instinct to leap without looking. He gave him a chance, an opportunity, and Jim left that angry farm-boy behind to set a course for the stars instead.

 

He’d said it to Krall, to Edison, when the old Captain had been ranting about the Federation’s peacekeeping following the Xindi incident and the Romulan wars. We change, Jim had told him. We have to. Or we spend the rest of our lives fighting the same battles. He’d made it clear to Krall then, and he fights to do the same for himself now. He has to evolve, he has to adapt, and grow, or he’ll be stuck in the same vicious, dysfunctional cycle forever. He can’t be at war with himself, and he certainly doesn’t have the time, or the inclination to be at war with Frank Finnegan. No. This stops. He’s stopping it.  

 

He isn’t giving up. He isn’t giving in. He’s moving on.

 

“Jim,” Frank says quietly with his head bowed, half talking to the floor, despondent. “I didn’t ask you here to hurt you, I’ve done that enough already,” he says, choking on his words, and Jim shivers to hear confirmation that his own pain wasn’t unfounded, that it was real.

 

“There’s no excuse for what I did, for the way I treated you. I can’t undo that, I wish I could. But, please believe me that I’m not that person anymore, and I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t mean a thing but I am, I’m sorry.

 

He sounds a little desperate, and when Frank looks up at Jim through hooded eyes, Kirk nods. He accepts the apology for what it is, and from the way that Frank’s shoulders sag—like a puppet whose strings have been cut—it’s more than the Commander had been hoping for.

 

“Goodbye Frank.” Jim says succinctly as he leaves, and the Commander for all of his good intentions, makes no effort to stop him a second time.

 

They’re done now. It’s over, the bad-blood can dry, and its stains can finally begin to fade.

 

______________

 

Jim’s just leaving the central plaza, when he sees McCoy in the distance. The remains of the USS Franklin are still sitting in the water, cordoned off by shuttlecraft and starfleet workers, and McCoy is weaving his way through the curious sets of onlookers that are inadvertently blocking his path.

 

Jim continues onwards to meet his best friend half way, hoping to god that the red around his eyes has faded, but as Bones keeps rushing forward, Jim can tell that he knows. McCoy knows now, just like he knew when Jim first celebrated his birthday at the Academy by getting wasted, and blurting out that he didn’t like authority figures after overreacting to a bouncer grabbing his arm. Or when Jim would spend the night, fending off waves of hangover-induced-nausea interspersed with his nightmares, and calling out for a protector that at that point did not exist. Go back to sleep, Bones would say quietly, in the dark of the room, pulling him closer and soothing his hammering heart as it tried to beat its way out of his chest. Get some rest, Bones would say, you’re safe, I’ve got you.

 

Bones knows, like he knows that when Jim’s standing alone beside an infinity pool in the middle of a starbase that he's not okay.

 

And right now, he knows that Jim’s meeting with the Commander of the Yorktown was anything but straightforward, and he knows that Jim needs him, so here he is.

 

McCoy’s eyes are wide and concerned, and Jim makes a mental note to commend his best friend’s deductive powers, even if he doesn’t yet know how the doctor worked it all out.

 

His CMO is looking around them, looking for him, looking for Frank, and Jim has no doubt that McCoy’s fists would fly far further than Kirk’s own bothered to. The doctor’s protective streak is nothing short of legendary.

 

“Where is—?” He starts, before stopping abruptly, and letting out a breath that has his nostrils flaring. He does his best to compose himself before he tries again. “Are you... Jim , are you alright?” Bones asks, and he’s using that tone, the one he reserves for certain corn-fed, self-sacrificing, accident-prone Captains under his purview as Chief Medical Officer. Of which, there is only one.

 

“Yeah, I am.” Kirk says, and Bones all but scoffs.

 

“No you’re not, kid.” He says, staring at the dark bruises on the side of Jim’s face, and the ones that disappear underneath the rim of his collar. Bones assesses his mannerisms, his movements, calculating injury time, and the number of blows he’s seen his best friend undertake in the last few days. Not to mention the ones he didn’t see, but have left their marks all the same.

 

He looks down at the healing scraped knuckles on Jim’s hands, and when he grabs Jim’s palm to get a closer look he can see the red half-moon indentations left behind by the Captain’s own fingernails. Some are even deep enough to have drawn blood.

 

“No, really.” Jim insists, pulling his hand back, only to turn it around and take a hold of McCoy’s hand in his own instead. He squeezes gently, and understands that the root cause of McCoy’s disbelief lies in his experience of dealing with James T. Kirk and that’s enough for any one’s level of scepticism to be off the charts. I’m fine, has always been a favourite response of Jim’s, regardless of whether or not said statement was true.

 

But Jim’s not even lying this time. He’s not putting up a front, he’s not pushing Bones away because he’s afraid to show any semblance of vulnerability, or hiding behind his own stoicism because he reverts to old habits that die hard when he’s hurting.

 

He’s not doing any of that. He actually feels... lighter, as if he’s been relieved of a burden that he hadn’t even realised was still weighing him down all this time. He’s free.

 

Frank could easily have been the monster hiding under Jim’s bed for the rest of his life. An unseen danger lurking in the deepest recesses of his memory. A nightmarish ghoul that snaps and snarls in Jim’s darkest moments when his sense of self is beaten down and reduced to the scared little boy that kept getting left behind. A slurring voice that says, even your own mother can’t stand the sight of you.

 

But he’s not any of that. He’s just a man. He’s made of flesh and bone just like everybody else. He’s fallible, and Jim had no idea until just now how deep his childlike fears really went.

 

Kirk’s constant attempts to prove himself, his desperate need to belong, as well as his distrust of others—he can trace it all back to those days, to the festering wound of his stolen childhood. To the abuse, and to the hell he lived through after.

 

But he can also feel it start to ebb away, and the air seems cleaner now. Warmer even.

 

“He can’t hurt me anymore, Bones.” Jim says quietly, with a surprising amount of clarity, and McCoy’s wary look finally starts to give way a little.

 

“Jim,” he says, sounding relieved, as he leans in close and presses his forehead against Kirk’s own. They stand there like that for what seems like forever, but really is less than a few minutes. Their hands are still entwined, unwilling to let go.

 

“So,” Jim says after a while, his breath hot on Bones’ cheek. “Where’s this drink you promised me?” He asks, and Bones actually looks conflicted. Kirk supposes it has something to do with the not-so-secret birthday party he has waiting for him. McCoy might be one of the finest doctors in the fleet, but subterfuge is not one of his strong points. Besides, Vulcans cannot lie, and Russian whizz-kids aren’t so good at it either.

 

“We don’t have to go now if you’re not feeling up to it,” McCoy says, and Kirk shakes his head firmly. He’s looking forward to the drinks, to seeing his crew. His family. What had he heard Scotty tell Jaylah back on that godawful planet? You can’t break a stick in a bundle. And Jim? He has his bundle. He can’t be broken, not again, not anymore.

 

“You’re sure you’re okay?” McCoy asks once more. You’re sure you’re okay? Asks the first real friend James has had since his brother left him in Iowa as a child. I couldn’t just leave you there looking all pathetic, he remembers the good doctor telling him so many years ago before setting off a chain of events that would lead Jim to being in command of the Enterprise.

 

“Yeah, Bones,” Kirk says, nodding with a small smile, while McCoy takes a hold of Jim’s elbow to help steer him forwards, a comforting constant on his left flank, an anchor to keep him from drifting away at sea. “I am,” he says, and for once, Jim Kirk actually means it.

 

-Fin