A/N: We want to thank Mihali1432 again so much for making another beautiful cover art for our story/audiobook. Images were used by: planets bend between us, bittbox, maeappleseed, accioglow. The link to his other graphic design work can be found on my profile.
Jim scratched out another doodle in the corner of his PADD, this one of the top of Brown's head as the professor droned on from the lectern. He had a good collection building up around the margin of his notes by now, planets and constellations and marked out sketches of the classmates seated below him.
"Quit that," McCoy muttered out of the corner of his mouth, bumping Jim's arm with his elbow when the younger man didn't immediately comply. "You want to get another demerit?"
"McCoy!" Brown's voice sharpened, and Jim ducked his head to hide his grin. The older professors tended to be of higher caliber, but Brown had fought his way through the ranks at a much younger age than most, his hair barely graying at the temples with a pleasant face that usually gained him favor with the students.
Jim had never liked him, personally.
"Is there a question?" Brown was asking now, frowning up at the last row of the amphitheater where Jim and McCoy sat.
McCoy shifted in his seat uncomfortably, shooting a distinctly annoyed glance in Jim's direction. "No, sir."
"Cadet Kirk, do you find something amusing?"
Jim looked up instantly, his expression smoothed over. "Not at all, sir."
Brown squinted up at him a moment longer, clearly trying to decide whether or not Jim was worth the trouble, then nodded curtly and dropped his attention back to the display screen. "As I was saying, the recent political entanglements between the Romulan Empire and Starfleet have caused a series of incidents…."
"'Not at all, sir'," McCoy mouthed at him under the pretense of bending over to pick his stylus up. "Smartass."
"...space stations between Alpha Quadrant and…"
"What's for dinner?" Jim scrawled on his PADD, tipping it at an angle so McCoy could see. He watched the doctor's face crinkle in a scowl before adding beneath the question. "I'm up for Thai."
McCoy jabbed at his own datapad, ending with a smug flourish before presenting the message to Jim. "Better start watching your weight."
"Shut up," Jim said out loud, his whisper carrying a little farther than he'd expected, and the two rows of cadets in front of him rippled slightly to peek back at him.
"Is there a problem back there, Cadet Kirk?" Brown asked severely, looking up again.
"No, sir." Jim fumbled with his PADD, too slow to school his expression like he had before, and Brown's own features hardened slightly. It was a subtle change, so swift that Jim might have missed it if he hadn't been watching for it from the beginning. It wasn't exactly a secret that some of the professors thought he had been given special treatment, and he'd dealt with it so far the same way he had his entire life. Playing his cards close and presenting his best bluffing face to all parties involved.
"Would you care to share with the class, Cadet, your insight on the current border disputes between the Federation and its neighboring sovereignties?" Brown pressed. "It must be of the utmost importance, for you to vocalize your opinions so impulsively."
Out of the corner of his eye, Jim could just barely make out the large letters McCoy was hurriedly writing down and underlining several times: DON'T.
Any other day in any other class, Jim might have taken on the implicit challenge, but Brown clearly had it out for him and finals were coming back swiftly. As much as he disliked the guy, this was still a required course.
Jim swallowed and tried a smile. "No, sir, I don't."
"You don't what, Cadet? You should be clear with your articulations." There was a light murmur of amusement from the first couple of rows, and Jim felt a muscle in his jaw tic before he forced his expression into one of chagrin.
"I don't have any particular insight into….the current border disputes, sir. I'm sorry if it appeared that way to you."
Brown stepped out from behind the lectern, and Jim tensed, not liking the professor's expression. It wasn't malice, exactly, it was more calculated than that, but Jim's gut had never served him wrong and right now it was screaming at him that this was bad.
"Are you sure, Kirk? I would have thought that you, of all people, would have something to share with the rest of the class about the matter." Brown spread his hands, then steepled his fingers again. It was a move made to distract, to redirect, and Jim found his eyes following the motion before he caught himself and met Brown's gaze again. "After all, you've experienced it."
Ah. Of course, he should have known it'd be about that. Why not, when the rest of his life had revolved around it? Brown was hardly the first to question him being here; Jim had doubted it himself the first few months, had all but laughed off the notion the night before he boarded that shuttle, but here he was now, six months later and still hearing the same damn tune.
"It's an old story, sir," Jim said, shrugging offhandedly. "I'm sure everyone knows it by now."
Something flared in the depths of Brown's eyes before disappearing all too swiftly, and Jim realized he'd said something wrong. It was too late to backtrack though, not without seeming overly desperate, and so he braced himself and waited for the strike.
"Humor me, Cadet. You shouldn't be so fast to dismiss that 'old story,' as you call it." Brown's smile was slight and predatory, a shark lying in wait. To everyone, it probably just seemed like his normal self, the young, brilliant professor gently knocking the cocky cadet down a few notches. "As I recall, it's brought you a long way from Iowa."
"I've always wanted to travel, sir." It was a reckless thing to say; Brown hated smartasses, but Jim hated this dance even more. He offered his own smile in return, no longer caring what showed through his mask, or if he was wearing one at all. "Iowa never seemed like the place for me."
"You're deflecting, Cadet. I asked you a question."
"Sir, with all due respect, you did no such thing."
"Jim," McCoy murmured, glancing over uneasily, and Jim ignored him.
Brown's eyes narrowed, and his smooth features hardened for a split second. "I'm sorry,' he said after a short pause. "I must not have phrased it correctly. Do you have anything to share or not, Kirk?"
"I don't like to talk about it."
"This class is not here to cater to your personal preferences."
Several heads were swiveling back and forth between the first and last row now, following the volley of exchanges. Jim snuck a sidelong look at McCoy, caught his gaze and the tiny shake of the doctor's head.
Sorry, Bones, he thought, and met Brown's gaze. "Like you said, sir, it's personal."
"You're in my class. Personal's invalid."
"I don't agree with that, sir."
Brown stared at him for a long moment, then gave a decisive nod and returned to his lectern. McCoy let out a quiet breath of relief, but Jim's gut clenched in apprehension and he straightened in his seat, watching as Brown began to tap on his console. "Very well, Kirk," Brown said briskly, inputting a final command and stepping back as the main screen changed displays. "I've taken the liberty of filling in the class myself."
Jim looked up at the screen, blinking when he saw the image. Beside him, McCoy had gone very still, and he glimpsed a few of his classmates below turn to look back at him.
"Class," Brown announced, his voice suddenly distant and small from Jim's perspective, "to all those who are unaware, these are the only recoverable fragments of the USS Kelvin after its destruction in 2233."
Jim distinctly recognized a black K, half-charred and barely legible on the edge of a shredded white panel, laid out on a silver tarp along with smaller pieces, ranging from the size of his fist to no larger than three feet across. His chest tightened, his heart hammering uncertainly, and he was vaguely aware of his knuckles whitening around the edge of the desk.
Brown's mouth was still moving, but Jim could barely make out the sound of his voice. There was an odd pitch in his ear, high and deafening, and there was a sour metal taste in the back of his throat. He didn't realize he was standing until his chair bumped against the back wall and the entire class was suddenly looking up at him.
"Cadet Kirk," Brown said, a gleam of victory in his eye that Jim noticed, but couldn't be bothered to care about. "Do you have a question?"
"No," Jim said, neglecting the title, and if it got him a demerit, then so be it. He left his PADD, his bag, left McCoy sitting there with his hand extended in concern, and descended down the central aisle. The weight of fifty pairs of eyes was nothing new, and he ignored Brown as he exited the classroom.
"Well," he heard Brown say, just before the door shut. "That was exciting."
The door clicked shut behind Jim's heels, and the classroom was left in his wake. McCoy tapped his stylus against the edge of his desk, slammed it down decisively, then began to stand, reaching down to gather his things.
"McCoy!" Brown called out sharply. "Where do you think you're going?"
"Out. Sir," McCoy added, as an afterthought, and slung his bag over his shoulder. "No need to see me out."
"Stop right there, Cadet," Brown ordered, something turning dark in his normally mild expression, and McCoy stared down at him coolly.
"I don't think you have a say in it, honestly." He began picking up Jim's belongings as well. "You have yourself a good day, sir."
"Take one step down that aisle, and consider yourself failed," Brown said quietly- it was always a bad sign, when their voices got quiet. McCoy paused, looking over the desk incredulously.
Brown spread his hands magnanimously, ever the benevolent professor in the face of rebellious students. "You're an excellent student, McCoy, I'd hate to see it all go to waste."
McCoy straightened slowly and met Brown's gaze steadily, hands tightening on the strap of his bag.
"So, what'll it be?"
The public restrooms weren't where Jim intended to go, but it was where he ended up nevertheless, the door bouncing against the opposite wall as he pushed on through. It was times like this that he was grateful for separate student and instructor facilities. Thankfully, the stalls were empty, and he barged into the first one, locking the door behind him with fumbling fingers.
Only then did he stop to breathe.
There was a shudder to his exhale that he didn't like, and he swallowed with difficulty, resting his forehead against the steel door. It wasn't fair, he thought, and then hated himself for thinking it.
Life's not fair. Pull yourself together.
It was an old mantra by now, left over from childhood days when his only solace was beneath the stars on the rooftop of an old farmhouse. Jim swallowed again, vehemently fighting back the prickle of frustration behind his eyes. Why he'd let any instructor get under his skin like this, when he never even knew his father, he had no clue. Everything he'd gone through, it'd all been for a name he had never wanted, and for what?
"No," he muttered, banging his head against the door hard enough to distract him. It'd been years since he cried, and he'd be damned if he was going to break his streak over something like this. "Don't do it, damn you, don't-" His next breath carried something too close to a sob, and Jim choked it back, slamming his fist down with a hollow clang. He swore and kicked out without thinking, shaking the door once more before stumbling back, breathing heavily.
He didn't feel the nausea until it was almost too late, and he scrambled away from the door just in time, coughing as he heaved his lunch into the toilet. His throat burned, the beginnings of a truly debilitating headache coming on as he tried to remember how to breathe.
Jim straightened up with a grimace, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He propped a foot up on the toilet's handle and flushed, watching the contents swirl down and out of sight. The sudden rap on the door startled him, and he bashed his elbow into the side of the stall with a grunt.
"Cadet." The voice was quiet, clipped, and Jim could see the toes of shiny black shoes under the door. The tiniest edge of black trousers. An instructor then, not a cadet. Jim flipped the toilet lid shut and sat on its flat surface with a sigh.
"Something wrong, sir?"
"I believe that question should be directed to yourself."
Jim smiled, a faint, humorless twitch.
The guy's got a mouth on him.
Spock gazed at the smooth silver door, waiting for the cadet's response. It came in due time, hoarse and laden with barely repressed cynicism. "You wanna hold my hand too?"
"I have absolutely no intention of doing any such thing." He might not have entered the bathroom at all, if not for the sounds of physical distress emitting from the stalls. Responsibility, he reflected, could be tiresome at times.
A dry chuckle, cut off too soon to be genuine. "You're funny, you know that? A real laugh."
Spock wondered briefly if that was meant to be a thinly veiled compliment or insult. "You speak very inappropriately for one of your academic status."
"Nah, restrooms are free game for anyone, as far as I'm concerned." There was a pause, then a shuffling sound, as if the cadet was shifting about within the stall. "I'm fine." The bravado accompanying the last statement was somewhat marred by the unpleasant sound of retching, immediately followed by a muffled, "Damn it."
"I must differ with you upon this point, Cadet," Spock found it prudent to comment. "I believe you require medical assistance."
"No…..no, I'll be okay. I'm okay." The cadet coughed once more and Spock heard a quiet clank as he presumably sat down on the toilet again. "Just give me a second."
Spock waited, then spoke. "It has been one second. Would you like me to fetch a medic, Cadet?"
"Ha." Jim rested the side of his head against the wall, closing his eyes and concentrating on the cold steel against his face. "No, really. You should go."
"I will not."
Jim's eyes flew open, and he stared out at the black shoes again, hovering patiently in front of his stall. It'd be just his luck, he mused, to get caught by the one instructor who actually cared, though he didn't think that was the case with this one. He wiped his mouth again, feeling a flush of embarrassment at having puked in front of the guy twice, and sighed. "Still here, huh?"
Jim shuffled his weight, pulling one leg up against his chest and propping an arm up on his knee. "You haven't asked."
There was a moment of polite silence, then, "I was unaware that I was required to make a query of any sort."
"Well, no, but it's expected. Half the Academy's asked and the other half's just biding their time."
"That is a presumptuous view to take, as it is unlikely that precisely fifty percent of the Academy's population has posed the same question to you."
Jim snorted despite himself. "You're right. It's more like a good seventy-five percent. Trust me, you go around the block a few times, you learn to see these things coming. You get tired of it." He stared down at the floor, tapped his foot a couple of times on the white tile.
"Did you grow weary?" came the unexpected question, and Jim blinked at the door. Even now, it still didn't seem like the guy really cared, like he was just doing his job and keeping the emotionally wrecked cadet from tipping over the edge, but it was still better than any half-assed attempt at sympathy that Jim had received before. "Of the question?"
"Something like that," the cadet answered, sounding oddly amused. Spock tilted his head in silent contemplation of the faceless door, readjusting his grip on his wrist behind his back. "It hasn't been all shuttles and fun, y'know. People here…...real small-minded, some of them. They see one thing, call it something else, it goes on and on and soon you're the one made out to be the source of all academic injustice, y'know?"
There was a short break, as the cadet paused for breath. Spock waited patiently for the inevitable continuation. Soon enough, it came. "This was never my plan."
"I assume you are referring to your enrollment at the Academy."
"Yeah. No. I don't know. It's just…...he made it sound so easy." A low, insincere laugh.
"Captain Pike. Captain You-could-have-your-own-ship-in-eight Pike. If he had a single clue what it's been like the first six months, he wouldn't have said that."
"Captain Pike is an admirable man."
"Sure. Just clueless. They're not mutually exclusive."
"Most would not agree."
"Well, I'm not most people."
The exchange had taken on an almost bantering tone, and Jim wondered absently at the ease of it. Bones would have come in, ripped him a new one, and captured Jim's attention with the sheer force of his irritated belligerence, but this right now…..it took his mind off things without really distracting him at all.
"It is times like these that I find myself abruptly reminded of the self-absorption of the human race."
Jim took the jab with wry grace, shrugging offhandedly. "So you're not human, then?" He thought briefly through the non-human instructors he knew, until the faces blurred together, and shrugged again. He'd never been picky on the subject of race, or species, for that matter. "I imagine there's less prejudice, where you're from."
There was a brief silence, and Jim cocked his head curiously. "Where areyou from?"
"One's measure of prejudice is flawed when standing on both sides," came the cryptic reply. "It is not a topic I wish to converse about."
"You want to talk about something else?" Jim slouched against the back wall disgruntledly. "Be my guest."
"I presume you wish to remain on the subject."
"Got nothing else to do. Besides sit here and wait you out. You areplanning to leave, aren't you?"
"I will remain here as long as I see fit. Given your reluctance to see a medic, I will have to serve in one's place."
"Screw you," Jim snapped, his annoyance suddenly returning in full force. He pushed away from the wall and leaned forward, staring intently at the closed door. "I never asked for you. I never asked for any of this."
"And yet you hide here from your problems instead of confronting them. A true indication of your fear."
Jim bit back his automatic reply and sidestepped instead. "I'm telling you now, that reverse psychology crap doesn't do it for me."
"You admit to fear, then?" Spock had moved closer to the door without realizing, and he paused, reprimanding himself briefly for the slip before withdrawing to his previous position.
"Of course I'm scared," Jim said, his voice smaller than before. He caught himself then, surprised by his own honesty, and blinked rapidly down at the closed door. It wasn't unlike a confessional, he thought. Maybe it was better this way, that he couldn't see the person on the other side. He bowed his head and counted the tiles at his feet. "Everyone's scared of something."
"You strike me as one who does not fear the ordinary."
"No, that's just it." Jim did laugh, then, laughed at how easily this stranger was stripping him apart. "I'm scared that I'm just ordinary."
"An illogical fear."
"Yeah, well, fear's illogical, isn't it? If it had reason behind it, it wouldn't be that at all." Jim steepled his fingers and propped them beneath his chin. It suddenly occurred to him that if anyone walked in right now, they'd find themselves witnessing quite the spectacle. It couldn't be that much longer until the end of class; they wouldn't be alone for long. For some reason, he almost regretted it.
"You know, I've thought about it," the cadet said.
Spock was beginning to expect the sudden switches in topic, though that did not necessarily make them any more predictable. He blinked once at the door, very deliberately. "I presume that you expect a counter-question at this point."
"Very well." He would play this game a while longer. Juvenile and uncoordinated as the human may be, the conversation was at least a diverting nuisance. "What have you thought about?"
"Running," came the delayed response. "From here, from San Francisco, from the whole damn world."
"So you will continue to hide."
"It's not the same thing. Running…...running means I'm headed somewhere, see? That there's a point to it all."
Spock considered it briefly. "Unless you are running in circles. Or not running at all, in your case."
"Well, we're back to the original point, then. I'm scared." A pause. "I'm pathetic."
"Captain Pike would not have sought you out, if that was the case."
"That's a nice thought. I had a feeling it was more for my dad than anything else, though."
"Your father…..I assume he is an officer."
"Nah." The cadet's voice dropped, and his next words carried a weariness that belied the youthfulness of his previous displays. "He's dead."
Jim blinked away the images of the Kelvin'sremains. "He's dead," he said again. "And the whole world knows it." He quirked a humorless smirk at a sudden thought. "That's what I should have told Pike that day- that a captain can't cheat death. It's a good line, isn't it?" He thought back to that night, blurrier than he liked from too many drinks and blows to the head. "Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn't have. He seemed like a fan of the family name and all."
"Your family is well known, then," said the stranger, only he didn't seem so much a stranger anymore after all this. Jim had a flitting thought, that maybe he'd finally gone off the deep end and that none of this conversation was actually happening. Oh well. Better this than brooding by himself, even if the owner of those shoes were only in his imagination.
"Not until after," Jim said dismissively. "Posthumous acts of valor tend to do that. Open new doors…..even the ones you don't want. Half the town wanting to kiss your ass and the other half hating you, nobody really giving a damn about anything other than the name." He stopped for a moment, backtracked a little. "Except for Bones, maybe. Then again, he's seen through most of my bullshit since day one."
Silence from the other side. Jim glanced under the door, surprised to see that the black shoes had vanished.
"You still there?" he asked, feeling weirdly insecure as he clicked back the lock and eased the stall door open. The bathroom was empty, and he stared down at the space where the instructor must have stood.
The bathroom door swung open, and Jim looked up, startled. "Bones."
"Jim!" McCoy exclaimed, his furrowed brow easing slightly when he caught sight of Jim standing in the stall. He was carrying both their bags, Jim noted distantly, blinking as the doctor hurried forward and dropped their belongings thoughtlessly to the floor.
"Class over already?" Jim asked, glancing over McCoy's shoulder just as the bathroom door swung shut. The hallways were still clear, as far as he could tell, empty of any red and black uniforms.
"No," McCoy said vaguely, hands twitching like he was barely repressing the urge to pat Jim down on the spot. "You all right?"
Jim ignored him. "What about Brown?" he asked, pleased that he made it through the name without halting.
"Ah, well." McCoy looked strangely flustered as he stepped back. "He had the nerve to offer an…..an ultimatum, of sorts. Follow you and fail, that kind of messed up thing."
Jim raised an eyebrow expectantly, bending to pick up his bag. "And?"
"What do you think?" McCoy asked, exasperated. "I told him to stick it where the sun don't shine and I came after you!"
Jim let his bag fall back to the floor. "Bones."
"Don't say it," McCoy warned, crossing his arms and squaring his shoulders the way he did whenever he was ready to throw down and fight. He'd never been good at fighting, though, and Jim groaned quietly.
"You shouldn't have done that."
"Last I checked, you weren't my keeper, kid."
"And you're not mine."
McCoy scowled at him, then shook his head and picked up Jim's bag for him, pushing it against his chest. "I'll be the judge of that."
Jim spluttered, his irritation deflating as abruptly as it had risen, and he shouldered his bag reluctantly, watching McCoy gather up his own things. "What are you going to do, then?" he asked.
"Reckon that if I failed, you almost certainly did. We'll be stuck in the Remedial course together." McCoy grinned at him, hard and fast like all his rare smiles. "It'll be easier to keep an eye on you that way."
Jim snorted, jostling McCoy's shoulder on his way out the restroom. "Yeah, well, keep dreaming."
"Course I do, jackass, how'd you think I've managed to keep up with you so far?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, I forget you're, what, sixty percent old geezer?"
Jim stopped in the middle of the doorway and McCoy bounced off his back, complaining all the while. "What the-"
"Thanks," Jim said, looking over his shoulder, and he wasn't too sure himself what he was thanking Bones for. Bringing his bag, walking out, trying to stop him in the first place. Maybe it was all the above.
McCoy stared at him for a moment, then huffed and squeezed past him, ruffling Jim's hair as he passed. "Don't mention it."