A/N: For those reading Garden Variety, I apologize for the long lapse in updates, but numerous projects to end the academic year and this story are what have been keeping me from posting the final chapter. I must confess to having not even started writing it yet because this story has utterly consumed my attention, but it'll get written eventually, mark my words. As far as my style, this story is far more comfortable to me because it's the embodiment of my style- loaded with emotional potency and weighed down with endless description. I sincerely hope you enjoy it, and I'd love to hear any feedback.
About Winona: Until I see canon to support it, I refuse to believe that Winona is a bad mother or abusive in any way. I think that, seeing as Jim is the only surviving memento of the man she loved, she would do everything in her power to love him just as much. I could see the logic behind her resenting him, but Jim is a miracle baby, and I think that Winona would recognize it. I know that there is an older son, but as he was not involved in the theater release of the movie, I omitted him from this story. I think that Winona is a fascinating woman whose story deserves to be told, and so here I have endeavored to do so. I hope to write about her again in future fics. And so, without further ado.
By: Rabid Angel
She was kneeling in the garden when her wayward son materialized from the tree line like a god descending from Olympus, his hair as luminous as spun gold in the stifling summer sun and his cerulean eyes smoldering with the fervent vitality that had radiated from him since childhood. Her bare hands were fisted within the damp earth, up to her elbows in dirt with clay-like potting soil smeared across her face beneath the wide brim of a sun hat. Vibrant red dahlias lay to the left of a patch of blush lavender lilacs adjacent to the mosaic stepping stone he made her in the first grade, sloppy and haphazard in its design, but she loved it all the same.
"Figured I'd find you out here," he quipped drolly as she levered herself to her feet, his blue eyes meeting her own in an almost uncharacteristically shy manner. His voice was rough and seemingly sore, hands dropped bashfully at his sides as though he was unsure of what to do with them. He was weary and tense, but she had been awaiting his arrival for days before he knew he would make the trip, and even his disenchanted exhaustion and atypical timidity did nothing to change the fact that the visual of her son standing safe and sound and home before her felt like heaven on earth.
"You know me too well," she responded before propelling herself across the short expanse of upturned soil between them to slam into him with an embrace fierce enough to crush ribs. He reacted in kind by remaining tentative for a moment before gratefully molding himself around her considerably shorter frame, his posture stooped as strong arms enveloped her narrow back and his face pressed into her shoulder. Her nose buried in his collarbone, she noted that he smelled indistinctly of sweat and hard work and travel, his chest bulky due to what felt like bandages. He felt harder and thinner than she could remember as she embraced him passionately, almost like the child he once was rather than the man he had become.
The coyness of earlier fell away during their embrace as he sank into her like a drowning man clinging to shore, but when he eventually pulled away, she stilled him with an arm around his broad shoulders and a hand cupping the nape of his neck to scrutinize him as only a mother could. He seemed shy once more but bent submissively to her will, tired, red-rimmed blue eyes dropping to the wet dirt beneath them as he swallowed through a throat painted with horrific shades of fingerprint-shaped violet and azure. His lip was split, a deep cut carved across his left cheekbone like a scabbed red well, one wrist cradled in a black brace that stretched from his forearm to the base of his fingers. The skin of his neck was uncomfortably hot beneath her hand, his face flushed with what could have been sunburn from summertime in Iowa or fever. Her eyes roved his worn body with what she hoped didn't look too much like sadness, heart swelling with a maternal desire to put him to bed and mother him in a way that she knew he wouldn't appreciate.
"It's so good to see you, Jim," she enthused as she backed away demurely. "Still, I can't say the same for you. You look like hell. What have you gotten yourself into this time?"
He laughed hoarsely, tired eyes sparkling with a humor that didn't quite reach his lips. "It wasn't my fault," he insisted petulantly, and if that wasn't something that his father would have said in the exact same circumstance, then the all too familiar aching tightness in her throat was acid reflux. "Let's just chalk it up to my first away mission not going as planned."
"You went on an away mission and didn't comm me?! I had no idea!" she lied smoothly, feeling terrible when his countenance remained unchanged and he seemed to believe her. "Come inside and tell me all about it," she ushered him up to the yellow farmhouse and tried to ignore the sharp stab of George at the halfhearted smile that lit up his beaten face and the familiarly identical swagger in his stride.
She didn't have to ask, and she hoped that he wasn't suspicious of the fact that she didn't- she knew why she was home. She was a retired Starfleet officer, the widow of an intergalactic hero, and not a fool, at that- she had contacts in high places, including one former academy classmate Christopher Pike. She knew full well that her son had saved the planet and the considerate boy within him that still felt as though he had to tiptoe around all things tracing back to his father didn't know how to tell her. She knew what he was trying so hard to find the words to say, knew that he just wanted someone to be proud of him, and it took everything within her power to keep from overplaying her hand and exploding with the irrepressible pride he shouldn't have had to ask for, the pride that swelled up within her and made her feel as though she would burst as she guided him toward the house.
He winced when the arm that automatically extended to hold the glass-paneled door for her was that with the broken hand, but disguised it skillfully before seating himself at the kitchen table with a caution that spoke volumes of his injuries. Arms pillowed on the polished wood, he cleared his throat wetly and locked his downcast gaze upon the tabletop, appearing almost too exhausted to strike up the conversation that she anxiously awaited.
She watched him with an aching heart, standing behind a chair across the table with her fingers knotted across the cool wooden rungs of its back. She wanted nothing more than to affectionately cup his stubbled chin to shake him from this lost, dejected tailspin of hesitance and insecurity. She longed to sit across from him and lose herself in visually caressing the sharper planes of his battered face and the harder lines of his muscles, the seemingly diminutive and yet glaring changes that had taken away the rebellious adolescent and left a man, a captain, a hero in his place.
But she refrained, knowing full well that there was no use in provoking a sleeping lion. Her son was impatient through and through (a characteristic she was all too familiar with due to years of experiencing its effects), and she would not pressure him into discussing his gallant accomplishments just yet, for certainly he would be ready sooner rather than later. "Are you hungry?" she questioned, watching as his blue eyes snapped keenly upward to address her blunt question.
"Depends what you're making," he answered with a wicked smile. That was the son she knew and loved.
"I was thinking of actually cooking tonight, but if you're not hungry…" she began in jest.
"I could probably force myself to choke it down," he bantered back just as gamely, drumming his fingers on the tabletop.
"I'm glad to hear that," she answered, a smile coming unbidden to her own lips. "How did you get here, anyway? Iowa is a helluva long way from sunny California." Although Pike had informed her extensively of her son's valiant exploits in deep space, she remained utterly clueless as to his conduct on solid ground.
"Took a travel shuttle with Bones," he responded, scrubbing tiredly at his face with his unencumbered hand and having the good grace to appear surprised when he unwittingly encountered yet another installment in a vast collection of blossoming bruises. "He was on his way to Georgia."
"The doctor?" she confirmed. "I'd love to meet him, someday. You make him sound so… entertaining."
"Oh, he's a riot, alright," Jim growled sardonically, eyes flashing and lips pursed with the manifestation of numerous unpleasant recollections, but tinted with a wry humor that looked beautiful upon him. She hoped that he would volunteer even the basest hint of further information or perhaps an anecdote, but much to her disappointment, he remained infuriatingly close-lipped.
Her son was at once perhaps both the most private and public man she'd known. He was most often boisterously confident and bursting with a smoldering energy that radiated from his person, an energy that seemed to draw light and gravity to the very place he stood, but at the same time, he was brooding and unwilling to provide any insight whatsoever into anything of substance. He lashed out at the most minor of provocations that had little to do with him and yet remained steadfastly passive aggressive about the things that shook him to the core, unwilling and perhaps unable to verbally address them or ask for assistance with what really mattered. He was adept at small talk and could shoot the breeze with innuendo like no other, but ever since his childhood, meaningful conversations were few and far between due to his innate need to wriggle away from self-realization with last-ditch misbehavior and aimless chatting. Most of all, he never spoke of his father, something that she couldn't help but feel was a deficiency in her parenting.
She crossed the room to the small kitchen that most often served as décor rather than a functioning eatery, rummaging in the cabinets to extricate the ingredients for the key lime pie recipe perfected by George's grandmother that she knew Jim enjoyed. The room lapsed into companionable silence as she gathered the necessary supplies and began to carefully slice a lime (she had little experience in the culinary arts, after all), but when she next looked away from her work, she noted that Jim had pillowed his head upon his folded arms and drifted into what seemed like a sound sleep.
"You look exhausted," she vocalized her observation aloud with care, feeling guilty when his head snapped up from the cushioned haven of his crossed arms as though he had been startled awake.
"That's because I am," he responded, rubbing bleary eyes rimmed by dark circles with his clenched fist. "It's been a long week."
"Judging by the state of you, I'm sure it has," she observed in disapproval. Saving the earth as they knew it was undoubtedly a noble cause and one from which she would never be able to complete dispel the associated buoyant surge of pride in her chest, but it shouldn't have necessitated that he be beaten all to hell. "Why don't you go lay down in your room for awhile? I'll call you when it's time to eat."
"I'll be fine," he insisted obdurately with a jaw-popping yawn, blinking sleepily.
"Maybe I didn't make myself clear," she responded with a maternal intonation indicative of the fact that her previous statement was a command, not a suggestion. "These may be your old stomping grounds, but that doesn't mean that you get to go back to being the kid who never listens to what's best for him. You're hurt and sick and tired. I haven't said this since you were six, but go upstairs and take a nap before I drag you up there myself."
Much to her gratitude, Starfleet had clearly instilled within him the ability to follow orders that she had long wished for. A wry grin crossed his face and lit up tired eyes as he levered himself from the table, one arm wrapped protectively around his ribcage. She found herself pleasantly surprised by his atypical obedience, but the fact that it was so effortless to manipulate him into belatedly taking care of himself worried her as to how truly worn down he must have been to capitulate to her will.
"Yes, boss. Message received, loud and clear," he answered with a hoarse chuckle.
"Only took a quarter of a century to get you to listen to me," she said fondly as he crossed the room in her direction.
"Don't get used to it," he teased glibly, bending down to affectionately kiss her cheek. When he dipped his head and their gazes locked, she was astonished by the radiant warmth and absolute, unconditional love that glowed within his luminous eyes like a live fire in the hearth on a snowy winter's night. It struck a chord that resonated somewhere deep within where she threaded the memories of long ago, conjuring reminiscences of the bright-eyed boy who looked at her with such infinite, unlimited faith and absolute, unadulterated trust that it stole her breath and led her to wonder how she could possibly fulfill his godlike perception of her.
"It's good to see you, Mom," he said softly with a small, sweet smile.
"It's good to have you home," she intoned in agreement, and even as she said it, she knew from the sour flash in his eyes what she'd always known- home for her son was not a farmhouse in Riverside, Iowa with a wraparound porch and peeling yellow paint. She watched his retreating back as he left the room and thumped up the staircase in the direction of his childhood bedroom, the cough he attempted to muffle into his elbow as he ascended bringing her to shiver, wet and deep and hacking as it was.
She busied herself in the kitchen for as long as possible, but even despite her inexperience with the culinary arts due to a habit of replication and a profound gracelessness that led to a quickly bandaged slice within the pad of one finger, preparation of dessert only occupied just shy of twenty minutes. She leaned backward against the counter, palms braced upon its edge and fingers aimlessly drumming upon the cool marble, watching as the second hand of the clock progressed in a hypnotically staccato rhythm. She longed to examine her son like one would a priceless painting in a monumental art museum, to make a record of each and every indelible mark left upon him throughout the course of the past three years, to simply absorb the presence she had missed so vehemently, but some indescribable barrier held her back, perhaps the same hesitant distance that Jim exhibited.
Her pride nipped exasperatingly at her heels as she slowly mounted the staircase, dexterously avoiding the notoriously creaky sixth stair and edging around the loose floorboards of the second story hallway that tended to groan under excessive pressure. As she slowly and skillfully traversed the short corridor to the bedroom door propped slightly ajar at its end, she was reminded of Jim as a child, surreptitiously occupying summer afternoons learning to bypass the age-old farmhouse's tells to ensure that he would not wake her when he snuck into the fields at night. He had only ever departed for an hour at best beneath the cloak of the inky skies stretching across the broad horizon, an absolute testament to the fact that he thrived upon empty adventure.
She gently nudged open the wooden door to find brilliant late afternoon sunlight streaming through the open window to filter across her son's slumbering form in ambient patches of luminescence. He lay curled on his side away from her, broken hand tucked protectively against him, taped ribs supported by a pillow awkwardly wedged between the mattress and his side, chest rising and falling with his breath in a steady, congested cadence. She felt as though her heart had melted into a hopeless pool of wholehearted affection behind her ribs at the sight, the bereft, aching longing of a lifetime at last coming to an inevitable crescendo.
Helpless to do otherwise as she softened at the peaceful scene, she tiptoed around the telltale rickety floorboards to the side of his narrow childhood bed, lowering herself gingerly onto the rumpled sheets. He remained undisturbed by the intrusion even when her hip buttressed his back to maintain a comforting pressure, beaten face at last relaxed in slumbering serenity. She felt buoyant with warmth at the contact, somehow oddly privileged in that she was at last able to be a mother through more than just video communication. Curious and ever maternally responsible, she cupped a concerned hand against his brow (old habits died hard) and frowned at the fever burning there, wondering what in the infinitesimal vacuum of space could exhaust him to the point of illness.
Seemingly of its own volition, her hand wandered upward into his hair, carding affectionately through the thatch of sandy locks as she gazed upon him with a long-unaddressed, warmhearted, tender fondness. He remained undisturbed by her loving touch and sank bonelessly into the pillow, halfheartedly endeavoring to shift onto his stomach before her guiding hand on his chest pushed him to remain still to prevent discomfort. As she stroked his hair and absorbed the warm contact of her palm pressed protectively against his sternum, she was struck by the earlier pride of knowing the heroic accomplishments of the man slumbering defenselessly before her, but also by a nostalgic feeling of bittersweet longing. She didn't know when she'd get to do this again- let alone if she'd get to do this again.
She was reminded of a similar occurrence what felt like eons ago, when she lay crushed and eviscerated in an infirmary bed with her world going to hell, her husband's burning remains spiraling into space at their rudder and an appropriately solemn baby squirming in her arms. Her eyes burned with unbidden tears, and she felt as though she had been left abruptly breathless, the rug of her life figuratively ripped from beneath her without preamble as she stood helpless to stop it. His part of herself had been brutally ripped away to leave her empty and hopelessly bereft, that beautiful fraction of her that his existence had shaped torn away to shape the woman who was left behind- halved, heartbroken, empty, not whole.
Her world was interrupted from falling to pieces when her baby, their baby, Jim fidgeted within the constraint of her arms and gazed at her with sleepy, uncomprehending, astonishingly blue eyes so like his father's. There was an infinite measure of truth and innocence to his luminous face and rosy pink skin, an immeasurable quantity of light and possibility in his role in the desolate, bereaved life stretching ominously before them. She watched him curiously, heart sourly rancid and disconsolately cleaved in two at the bittersweet nature of their long-awaited meeting, but something within her softened at the purity of the drowsy love radiant within his eyes despite the acidic current of George should be here.
Somewhat uncertain of herself, she delicately hefted Jim's impossibly little body against her chest, humbled by the warmth of his disproportionately large head propped against her shoulder and the enchanting tickle of his soft, rhythmic breath against her neck. The shuttle shook portentously with turbulence and the sensors blared in deafening chaos as the shattered electric grid caused the lights to flicker intermittently, but suspended by awestruck wonder and heartrending grief, she buried her face in his soft, downy hair and cried.
The instant her feet touched the blessedly solid ground of Earth, she moved back to his house in rural Iowa that was just beginning to become theirs before the catastrophe tore everything that was ever good and right and true to mere shreds, and as their son slept soundly in an adjacent room, she packed her husband's belongings into boxes.
They had lived in the house for numerous weeks of shore leave, but despite having before resided under that same roof and slept in that same bed, she couldn't eradicate a swelling sensation that she didn't belong. She felt like a stranger immersed in the museum of her husband's life, exposed to nuanced intricacies of which she never knew, her raw heart ripped open even further as she discovered the tick marks penciled on a door frame to record his growing height and the faded photograph of her tucked beneath his mattress. His cologne intact where he last left it on the bathroom counter and his clothes hung in the closet, it was as though they lived with his ghost.
It was unbearable.
She scoured the house for each and every and any item that lent itself to anecdotal memories of him, crazed with excruciating grief like a madwoman, and she packed his life into boxes. His books, his clothes, his diligently kept records in his annoyingly block handwriting, even his toothbrush- she packed it away and taped the cardboard enclosures impenetrably shut. She missed him so achingly that she felt as though a part of herself had simply fallen away, but if he was gone and she couldn't have him, she wanted everything else gone, and therefore she made it happen.
She dragged the boxes into a spare room and closed the door. She made a god out of his ghost and kept it locked in a room. When the door was permanently shut, she leaned against the wood, sank brokenly to the floor, and sobbed silently into her raised knees so as not to wake the baby. She had so much of him that she could hold in her hands, but it wasn't enough because it wasn't him, and still what was left was sifting through her fingers like sand.
Beyond the crushing sadness and the despairing emptiness and the utterly inconsolable heartbreak, she was angry. She was angry at what killed him, angrier than she ever thought she could be- angrier than she ever thought she should be. She had nothing to hunt for revenge, nothing to even the score for his death, nothing but a colicky baby and a bone deep pain that would always be there as long as he was not. The pull of the earth was too strong and Jim was crying, crying all the time for the man she felt like crying for, too, and it was George she wanted, George with his bright grin and bright future and bright, luminous eyes. She felt as though she had given so much of herself to him that there was nothing left for their son. She was hurt and barren and he was gone, but she was trying to grow around where he should have been, stretched taut and unable to hold the weight or fill the empty space where he belonged.
And so, she threw herself into motherhood, but Jim could only fill so much of that absence. He was cheerful and his achingly familiar sapphire eyes were as bright as he was, upbeat and jovial and curious. He was the thread through the agonizing labyrinth of everyday life, the trail of breadcrumbs behind the fairytale children, her raison d'être, the light of her life, and for the briefest, most fleeting of blessed instances, he made her forget. Such occurrences were rare indeed, but she became so absorbed by her son that somewhere between the life she knew and the life she wanted materialized the life she was meant to live, so tangibly real that she could almost sense George's presence. But just for a moment, because life's rhythm skipped a beat, Jim wailed insatiably, and George wasn't beside her.
Motherhood didn't make the heartbreak any easier. Nights passed when she awoke drenched in cold sweat with an unvoiced scream locked in her throat, so often achingly tight with the emotion she couldn't dare show their son, unceremoniously jolted from unpleasant immersion into that fateful, cataclysmic battle that robbed her of her husband. She lamented the unbroken sheets beside her, grieved for the flat pillow and the unoccupied side of the bed that felt empty and lifeless and utterly wrong. There were nights when she became so desolately forlorn that she crept into Jim's bedroom and refined the parental art of transporting a child without awakening him, cradling her sleeping miracle as he cleaved drowsily to her side during the short trek down the hallway. She delicately lay the toddler in her own bed and curled around him, inhaling his heady, distinctive scent until finally, she could sleep.
George was gone, and all that was left of him was the space in which she'd grown around him. For what felt like a lifetime, it remained hollow, and when it at last showed some semblance of being filled again by the buoyant sphere of effervescent vitality that was their son, she knew that the new love she felt would have been impossible without him. If not for her husband, there would never have been an empty space to fill with such an absolute, transcendent love, nor the need to fill it. Jim pulled her though time, his vivacity dragging her by the hand when the chronic ache in her heart made it unbearable to rise from bed in the morning.
Jim asked about his father from time to time, but she could only tell him so much before her eyes stung, and even if she were able to maintain her precarious composure, not even the most lyrically spun tale could accurately represent the man he was. She knew that all he could ever be to their son was a legend, a bedtime story, a picture faded from excessive handling. An image that meant love, but felt like loss.
"You knew Daddy," he would say, eyes sparkling with captivated wonder and a nakedly accusatory you knew Daddy and I didn't, curled into an affectionate, eager ball of precociousness beneath his bedsheets. "Tell me about him."
What could she say? She described his appearance, showed Jim the tick marks on the door frame where his father once leaned, lovingly recollected how they'd met before choking out an unforthcoming account of the occurrences that made him a hero, but the hurt was just as vehement below the surface as it was above, and she found that she could speak no further. Jim was enchanted by the idea of the man, and she could not bring herself to share the beautiful, heartrending actuality. For quite some time, he pressured her to share anything and everything that she could, to somehow concoct a figure larger and more tangible than the shadowy, heroic silhouette achingly out of his reach, but she wasn't ready to part with what little was left of him, and Jim was far from stupid. No matter how valiantly she endeavored to cloak her damp eyes and aching, treacle-thick throat when conversation and actions veered dangerously close to the man she'd loved and lost, Jim was nothing if not perceptive, and he began to distinguish her tells.
Before he was five, he stopped asking, and, grateful for the reprieve despite his wounded blue eyes and festering curiosity, she didn't offer to tell.
Years later, she recognized her grievous error. She wanted George to be her haunting burden, her evocative broken heart, her otherworldly doppelganger, and in privately sequestering him within her, she starved their son of the mysterious, spiritual father figure he could have had. She deprived Jim of that legend, that bedtime story, that picture folded and yellowed and torn at the edge. George lived on in her heart and her heart only, and in refusing to transfer the shreds of his life to their son for fear of transferring the suffocating heartache, she locked him out of Jim's.
She made a life for them in Iowa, and if she was broken, she was trying. Six years passed since the catastrophic, momentous loss that cleaved her into alternately a full time mother illuminated by her son and a full time widow consumed by her husband, and she hadn't given her old life a second thought since. The sum paid to her by Starfleet intended to compensate for her husband's death (as if anything could even slightly begin to compensate) was more than enough to provide a comfortable life for them, and that was that. Space had become a representation of crippling danger and pervasive, absolute heartbreak wrapped in darkness and life-consuming fire, and although it was her first love, she had long since fallen out of love with it.
It came back for her after a pleasant, subdued evening spent enjoying twentieth-century animated children's films produced by an antiquated motion picture studio named Disney, and although nothing was more inherently beautiful than peals of Jim's laughter like antique wind chimes on a brisk autumn day, it was nonetheless lovely to watch him doze in the flickering, ethereal light of the screen. As she slouched into the sofa and absentmindedly stroked the thatch of sandy hair in her lap, introspectively remarking upon how achingly similar the bow-shaped curve of Jim's lips was to that of his father's, the wall panel began to flicker with an incoming communication.
It was Christopher Pike, the hard lines of his handsome face eerily illuminated against the dark wall. "Winona," he greeted cordially, fingers steepled before him.
She stiffened, immediately stilling Jim with a well-placed hand to his cheek and a nonsensical stream of hushed reassurances when the tension radiating from her caused him to stir. "Christopher," she said softly with a gratuitous measure of severity, hoping to chide him for disturbing an intimate moment. Her stomach bottomed out at the prospect of the message he had undoubtedly come to deliver, for he was not one to make aimless social calls, and she yearned to gather her son and run from the shreds of her old life at last inevitably rising to claim her once more, the life she had tried so valiantly to banish.
"I'm sorry to call so late. It's easy to forget the time difference on the west coast," he insisted, eyes atypically softer than what she recalled. "I'm calling with a proposition."
Wary and somewhat suspicious, her nimble fingers tightened in Jim's soft hair. "… Go on," she permitted cautiously. "I'm listening."
"I want to offer you a job," he stated. "I'm sure you know about the shipyard we're building near you, and we could use a knowledgeable chief engineer. You wouldn't have to go any further than Riverside," he amended at the sight of the slumbering child sprawled haphazardly across her lap, face softening as he recognized elements of his deceased friend's face within the lax features of the boy. She couldn't help but feel as though his penetrating gaze was intrusive, and she defensively pulled Jim closer to remedy it, his peaceful face pressed into her lap.
"Why are you asking me?" she questioned. "I've been out of the Fleet for six years. There's so much new technology I don't know about. I'm outdated."
"I'm calling you because you're smart and capable and hard-working. I couldn't think of anyone better for the job," he confessed truthfully.
She didn't want his pity. She was doing so well in this strange new life of hers, empty of certain things and yet brimming with others, incongruously unfamiliar in comparison to what she had been and yet somehow as naturally right and comfortable as breathing. She didn't want to regress, to relapse into the heartbroken wreck sequestered so deep within her that she hoped it couldn't be found, to lose headway as a woman, a person, a mother. And yet, the thrill of innovative discovery and the ecstasy of breakthrough science that had once propelled her into space called to her yet again, promising and adventuresome and teeming with possibility.
"I'll think about it," she responded warily.
A smile lit up his face. "That's what I wanted to hear," he said brightly before his face transitioned into a cautious state of impassiveness. "Another thing… we sent ships to explore the wreckage of the Kelvin after it… happened, and they've finally come back."
"Oh?" she said in a poor attempt at nonchalance, throat thrumming with thick, impenetrable emotion as her eyes began to unwelcomely sting. God, not now, not in front of her son.
His expression was hesitant, but his eyes cautiously warm. "We've found something, and I thought maybe you'd like to keep it, for when it doesn't hurt as much. For something to remember him by."
"Thank you," she responded in a trembling voice because it was all she could say, surreptitiously wiping at the sparkling tears in her eyes. Whatever it was, she didn't want it, she didn't want anything more than this ill-timed communication to shatter the precarious façade of this carefully constructed and vigilantly maintained life.
"It's my pleasure. Be sure to call me as soon as you make your decision," he said, reaching to disconnect the communication before his face lit up with something belatedly remembered, soft and gentle. "Oh, and Winona, I hope you don't mind my asking… if you had the opportunity, would you ever go back in space?"
It was a question she had posed to herself numerous times, and the answer had never been clearer. She remembered space as she had once perceived it, magnificently spiraling out of itself like delicate petals on a flower, fairly pulsating with electricity and adventure and promise. And, as much as she missed that enthralling, intrepid possibility that her job had arguably brimmed with, she knew that space was no place to raise a child, and loathe though she was to admit it, its once wondrous nature had shifted to something inherently terrifying. There were times she wouldn't acknowledge even in privacy when she longed to return to the perpetual blackness unfolding into vast leaves of timelessly starry skies and inky infinities, to avenge George and set things right, but she knew that his remains were floating somewhere in that infinitesimal vacuum, and with all her heart, she didn't want to find them.
"No," she said resolutely, fondly caressing the cheek of the only one who hadn't left her, the one who kept her firmly grounded where the gravity was blessedly strong and the world was safe. "No, I wouldn't."
A sad, stretched smile appeared upon Pike's face. "It was good to talk to you, Winona. Your son is beautiful." With that, the communication was severed.
Two days later, a nervous ensign arrived with a package addressed to her. It was her husband's metal identification wristband, burnished and warped but altogether intact, imprinted with his full name and the serial number he used to key into the door-pad when their entwined mouths made it impossible to repeat the verbal access code. She stood on the wraparound porch as Jim called for her to observe the latest of many silly tricks he had taught their terrier and turned the metal over and over within her hands before the all too familiar throbbing hurt welled up within her once more, and she angrily threw it into the locked room with the rest of his things.
She took the job.
It wasn't perfect, it wasn't ideal, it was a helluva lot of work, but it was a steady income, and it was normal. They fell into a synchronous routine, Jim excelling at school and chasing the skirt of any girl foolish enough to fall victim to his fast developing charm (much to her amusement, those girls were many), and she pouring herself into work rather than ubiquitous grief. It was comfortable, it was right, and for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, she wasn't sad. And so, when a ruggedly handsome mechanic from the shipyard named Frank summoned the swaggering confidence to ask her to dinner, she astonished herself by saying yes.
He was everything that George wasn't. Where George was characterized by quiet strength, Frank possessed excessive quantities of boisterous self-assurance; while George's humor was droll and witty, Frank's was lewd and loudly entertaining, and she found that she came to miss the sharp, lean lines of the body that George had passed to their son when she was confronted with Frank's muscular, hulking strength. She couldn't explain why she engaged in a relationship with him, not even to herself, but although the heartache was no less, the timbre was fading, and she could only grieve for so long before she was reminded that she was still alive.
She secretly wondered if the gravity of her tragic love could be measured by the length of the time she mourned before attempting to locate a substitute for her missing half. Did she date Frank to prove to the world that she was capable of falling in love again, or to prove to herself that she wasn't? Did she even want to fall in love again?
She didn't know, but she married him all the same, and as she stood at the altar, she convinced herself that the peculiar, emotional sparkle to the azure eyes far too old for Jim's nine years wasn't betrayal.
Jim was somehow different in the time span following her marriage. Her bright, adventuresome boy was replaced by a dangerously curious, rebellious adolescent, every bit as intelligent as ever and yet insubordinately unmotivated. She was urgently called home from work when he was eleven, and although he was vague about the circumstances during the visual communication, she knew from his tousled hair, dirty face, and smoldering, angry blue eyes so like his father's that he had been involved in yet another troublesome stunt.
When she approached the house, she found him seated at the base of the porch staircase, one sneaker scuffing in the dust as he examined his scratched hands dejectedly, thunder rumbling forebodingly upon the even terrain of the dark horizon. His knees were scraped bloody, painfully crusted with gravel and dirt problematically embedded within the flesh (she would let it be, for now), viscid scarlet trickling down his legs to soak into the thick fabric of his socks. She lowered herself to sit next to him and extended an arm across his narrow shoulders, analyzing his downcast face with shrewd, knowing scrutiny.
"What happened, Jim?" she asked softly, wishing for better circumstances as she relished in the rare treat of the physical contact he so often avoided, his body warm and impassive beneath her arm.
"I drove Dad's car into the quarry," he admitted expressionlessly, referring to the derelict, antiquated sports car that had been in George's family for double digits of generations, voice devoid of any guilt or remorse whatsoever. He still had not met her inquisitive gaze, but the gratitude that he was here after such a feat was enough that she thought she might never ask for anything again.
As she gently probed his arms, legs, and torso to search for the injuries that such a stunt would certainly cause, her worry was briefly replaced by amazement at the grandiose nature of his latest exploit. She had expected a physical confrontation at school, but with a private, aching smile meant for the one who was not there, she knew that his father would have been inappropriately amused. "And why did you do that?" she questioned. "You knew that Frank was going to work on repairing it."
His eyes were downright venomous, wounded and irate and too old. "Exactly," he spat spitefully. "It was Dad's car, and Frank isn't a Kirk."
With that, he stalked into the house, screen door slamming vociferously shut behind him as he stomped up the staircase. She wisely let him cool off for an hour before the long-awaited thunderstorm finally rolled in to shake the rickety house and lash against the windows, and then she went to help him clean the grit from his shredded knees without a word.
She divorced Frank not long after. She may have tricked herself into loving him long ago, but she could no longer live under such a falsified illusion. He wasn't the man she once thought he was, and he wasn't half the man her husband had been. She had tried and tried valiantly, but she couldn't make up for the absence that ached within her heart and the otherworldly absence within their house, and she couldn't conjure a surrogate father. She finally understood that she had wanted to be loved again, not to fall in love, because eight years with George wasn't enough- a hundred years wouldn't have been enough, and she knew that it could never be the same with anyone other than him.
And so life continued, but the idyllic, serene still of life after George and life before Frank could never be replicated. She found herself once more helplessly careening back into the inky, abysmal chasm of raw, aching sadness, no longer sustained by her work and no longer needed to dry wet sapphire eyes or kiss bloody knees better. Jim was growing up and away from her no matter how desperately she scrabbled to rein him back in, lost and directionless, aimlessly searching for something he couldn't find in a backwater town in the Midwest. He was a volatile whirlwind of wanderlust, an impulsive, hot-blooded tornado too large to be contained by ordinary limitations. He was pulling away, he wasn't the same, and she couldn't keep him tied down.
It came as no surprise when he left for San Francisco with no more preamble than a haphazardly scrawled note taped to the kitchen table ridden with "I'm sorry" and "I love you." She found herself helplessly proud, buoyed by his latent ambition, her maternal duty fulfilled in that he had finally harnessed her lifelong teachings by understanding that he was destined to lead of life not of drunken bar brawls and disorderly conduct, but of purpose and meaning.
And yet, her pride and her lofty expectations discounted, she was astonished to identify the gnawing terror infiltrating her gut with a rising panic and a troublesome worry the likes of which she had never before experienced. His departure scared the hell out of her, and she found herself itchingly tempted to cross the country and drag him back to rural Iowa. She had devoted a lifetime to preparing him for any career avenue he would choose, but she had never wanted even in the darkest corner of her black, withered heart for him to carry the cross of his father's tragedy and join George in the ground.
She had wanted a focused, successful life for him and a pretty girl to ease his mind, not his father's tragic, fiery death, but a part of her had always known from the way he lay on his back in the fields as a boy watching the expansive canvas of twinkling stars with wondrous, awestruck eyes that he couldn't stay grounded forever. He was born in space, and she knew that he would be helplessly drawn back like a moth to a flickering light, but she had a livid, paranoid fear that the only part of him to return would be his charred identification wristband, because he burned too brightly to burn long.
But he defied her worrisome expectations by coming back as well as ripping through the prejudiced ideals of Starfleet, and so there they were, he realizing that sometimes coming back was harder than leaving, submersed in a fitful, feverish sleep, and she yet again eternally pinioned between the proud mother and the grieving wife. He'd gone away to become someone else and ended up discovering who he'd been all along.
The rosy fingers of the sunset had ceased to streak the horizon in her introspection, instead giving way to a dark, velvety sky pinpointed with the luminous, radiant stars and distant, nebulous galaxies she had hoped for three years that Jim was marveling at across the country, as well. Her wedding ring, the only memento of George that she wouldn't lock away, snagged briefly in Jim's coarse hair and at last alerted him to her discreet presence, causing him to roll gingerly onto his back with a hard grimace and drowsy, curious eyes dulled from their usual brilliance by exhaustion.
"I'm not six anymore, Mom," he chided pointedly with a tired grin, but he did nothing to shrug her away. "You don't have to rock me to sleep."
"Just shut up and let me have my fun," she rebuked without any real heat, her proximity unchanged but her hands folded demurely in her lap. He closed his eyes and rolled his head in the direction of the window, comfortable and drowsy enough to allow her to have her wicked way, his exposed neck presenting a stomach-churning view of the spectacular bruises blossoming on his skin. They remained in amiable silence for a long moment, she content to be taciturn and simply absorb the pleasure of his presence, but the hush was interrupted when he suddenly remembered the reason he had come.
"Will you let me tell you about the away mission now that I'm sufficiently well rested?" he questioned with a hint of playful acid from manipulating her earlier words, abruptly and radiantly animated as he pushed himself up onto a stack of pillows with a wince and a deep, wet cough. She couldn't help but smile wryly at this one aspect of Jim that remained unchanged- his unparalleled ability to accelerate from zero to sixty in mere seconds.
She expelled great effort into appearing as though she would consider his proposition. "If you insist," she said with a long-suffering sigh.
"I'll give you the cliffnotes," he insisted sardonically. "I'll probably pass out before I tell the long story."
"Okay," she agreed. He didn't have to know that she already knew- it was better this way. "Just get to it."
He bit his lip with an amused smile, pausing as he appeared to select the words to best relate the story. "So there's this test at the academy called the Kobayashi Maru. It's programmed by this no fun Vulcan with a stick up his ass named Spock and it's virtually unbeatable, so I had my friend Gaila help me hack it-"
"Wait a minute," she interjected, holding a hand up to pause the narrative. While it was certainly an awe-inspiring story when related by Pike, it was scintillatingly riveting and far more humorous when told by Jim. However, as much as she enjoyed the telling of the tale, her motherly inhibitions ran too deep not to interrupt at such a moment. "You're telling me that you cheated? I raised you better than that."
He deflated with exasperation and peevish annoyance, rubbing his fingers into his temples as though to alleviate a tension headache. "It was for a good reason, and it all worked out in the end," he volleyed back defensively. "Now if you'll let me finish, I got put on academic probation because Spock is a bastard out to get me, but we got a distress call from Vulcan and so all the cadets were shipped out before anything could happen. Bones snuck me onto the Enterprise and our captain went to negotiate with the Romulans trying to destroy Vulcan, so he made Spock captain and me first officer while he was gone, but he got taken prisoner."
"Congratulations," she murmured appreciatively. His former irritation melted away, and his beaming, proud smile seemed to illuminate the dark, cramped bedroom better than any lamp could have.
"Thank you. Well, I'm sure you've seen it on the news, but the Romulans sucked Vulcan into a black hole and, even though Spock beamed down, he couldn't save his mother and she went with it. He insisted that we go crawling back to earth like kicked puppies, but I said that we should fight to get back our captain and he marooned me on some godforsaken hunk of ice with giant bug monsters for it where I met his older self from an alternate reality-"
She couldn't help but laugh melodiously even as her brow knitted in concern. She had spent years of relative normality on space, but only her son could encounter intergalactic monsters and alternate realities on his first voyage into the cosmos. "Are you sure you're not delirious?" she questioned, leaning forward and pressing a concerned hand to once more analyze the heat radiating from his brow, frowning at the temperature but helplessly amused when he shrugged her away and launched enthusiastically into the next chapter of the narrative.
"I swear it happened. Anyway, the older Spock and I found an engineer who helped us beam back onto the Enterprise even at warp speed, which royally pissed off the younger Spock. I knew that he wouldn't go back for our captain, so I provoked him until he attacked me so that he had to resign as captain, hence these lovely bruises, and I got made acting captain. The two of us beamed onto the Romulan ship and kicked ass to get our captain back, and we sucked their ship into a black hole and stopped the Romulans from destroying earth. We saved the planet!"
He appeared out of breath, but was nonetheless exhilarated by the adventuresome retelling of his intergalactic exploits, battered face illuminated with pride. "And here's the best part. Starfleet is giving me the Enterprise for good! We're leaving for a five year mission next Monday," he beamed, and she plastered a dazzling smile over the sinking, ubiquitous worry in the pit of her stomach that she knew he was witnessing.
"That's fantastic, Jim," she said, clasping his hand firmly and endeavoring to cloak the concern and the all too familiar ache in her throat, but this time the ache was characterized by an unfamiliar, nostalgic happiness rather than a heartrending, agonizing grief. "Or should I say Captain Kirk? You did great work."
He grinned and squeezed her hand, but his beaten face quickly sobered and was somehow illuminated as he appeared to belatedly recall another topic of conversation. "I've been thinking about something, Mom," he admitted as bashfully as when he first approached her in the garden, a flattering, rosy blush rising to his high cheekbones, eyes shining with something that wasn't fever, something dazzling and warm and indescribable. The vivid sapphire like shattered panes of multi-colored glass burned with smoldering pride and yet longed for her approval like the boy he once was, still was, always would be even with a starship and the entirety of the universe at his command.
"Yeah?" she continued nonchalantly, discreetly brushing at the tears that burned unwelcomely within her eyes. She stiffened her posture and coached herself to swallow the crushing, abysmal prospect of letting him from her sight for the seemingly infinite duration of five years, to celebrate his success, to be not sad for once in a lifetime of sadness.
His voice was quiet and reverent. "A lot of people think I joined Starfleet to follow in Dad's footsteps, and maybe that's true, but he wasn't the one who got me where I am. He didn't teach me how to be a good officer, a good leader… a good man. That was you. It's always been you."
She loved him more in that moment in space and time than she ever thought she could.
"You have no idea how proud of you I am," she insisted in a choked voice, the hot, celebratory tears at last coursing down her face to find her uncaring, and she wrapped her arms firmly around his shoulders. "I love you."
He buried his face affectionately in her shoulder, his warm, congested breath brushing her neck just as it had eons ago when the world as she knew it imploded and the miracle of his existence rescued her from descent into the chasm-like abyss, when he single-handedly brought her back from grief with the knowledge that heartache was vulnerable to love and time, and he was made of both. "I love you too, Mom."
When he departed for San Francisco three days later and told her not to worry about him, he looked far less like the coltish, bashful boy who arrived and far more like an intrepid, adventuresome captain. His vivid blue eyes glowed like the embers of an inferno in the relentless summer sun as he bent to embrace her, the bruises blossoming across his skin having dulled enough to restore the natural flush of his golden tan, his luminous smile dimpled and elatedly bright.
Sometimes when she looked at him, even in passing, it was as if she were catching a glimpse of her husband in a fractured, broken mirror. For a lifetime, she had lamented his absence and similarly lamented their resemblance, aching when she was confronted with her son's embodiment of George's cheeky grin, his luminous eyes, his wiry strength, but at last, she was able to recognize the similarities while celebrating the inherent differences, to be not sad.
She thought she had known everything about both sides of love's grassy white-picket fence after the death of her husband- she had understood the buoyant, giddy elation of being consumed by something so immaculately absolute, and she had experienced the gut-wrenching sensation of being cleaved in two, the emptiness, the ache. But, as it turned out, she had learned an immense amount about love while raising her son.
From him. Through him. Because of him.
When she looked at him, her life made sense. All of the loss, all of the nights spent crying herself to sleep, all of the grief, all of the soul-searching and hopelessness and aching, even George's death- it was all necessary to make him possible.
Jim turned as he closed the gate to the antique wooden fence, and as he waved fondly, he smiled that slow, brilliant smile so achingly like his father's, but this time the ache was welcome, it was real, it was right, and she wasn't sad. And so, having already tried and failed not to worry about him even before he departed from the property, she turned back into the house, unlocked the room that had been locked for nearly twenty-five years, and dug into the boxes to remember.
A/N: I sincerely hope you've enjoyed this tale, and I thank you for taking the time to read it. I would be delighted to hear any and all feedback that you have.