Title: Beneath The Gathering Cloud
Rating: R (language, child abuse)
Characters: Jim Kirk; Winona, Sam, Rand, McCoy, Pike, assorted
Disclaimer: Not mine, making no profit; I'm only playing in the greatest sandbox ever. Title from Tom McRae.
Teaser: Five times Jim Kirk experienced fear. (follows 'the stars go on forever' and 'run into the bright lights')

"One had to take some action against fear when once it laid hold of one."
- Rainer Maria Rilke

At eight, his heart is threatening to burst from his chest.

Mom says goodbye to Frank real quick and squeezes Sam until he squirms out of her grip and pushes her away, puts Jim between them.

When she focuses on Jim, she gets kind of teary-eyed, bends in her uniform and holds his face. "It's going to be fine," she says, and rubs his cheek with her thumb. Even under the shampoo and perfume, she still smells like dirt, like soil, like the stuff she's so good at figuring out, explaining to him. "We'll talk all the time. I'll tell you everything that happens."

Jim can already think of a hundred things that could happen, knows more about starships than any other kid his own age and so knows about mechanical malfunctions and computational errors. And she's the science officer, she'll be first on every new planet, she could catch something, fall into a hole, get eaten by something. Or that ship could show up again, the one that killed Dad. Or maybe they would just get lost, never come back, and he'd never know what happened to her.

Panicked, feeling too small, he wants to wrap his arms around her, keep her there forever. But he doesn't, just stands there and hurts over his mother leaving.

She says, "Everything's going to be fine, Jimmy" and touches his shoulders.

"He's fine," and Sam stares at Mom like she's being ridiculous. (When someone calls him "George," he snaps back too fast, "Sam" and doesn't meet the eyes of whoever slipped.)

"I'll bring you back whatever I can," she says, and ignores Sam's barely-audible breath behind him. Sam's always tired, or maybe he's just bored, Jim can't tell since he doesn't really know Sam. "One day—" She stops and glances, again, at Frank and Sam. Her hands are warm, rough and soft at the same time, and he reaches up, tries to circle her wrists with his hands but can't. "We'll go out together one day," she promises quietly, and she looks like she doesn't want anyone else to know, to try to go with them. He agrees wholeheartedly. "You and me, I'll take you up, you'll love it." Mom must see the burst of emotion he feels, the way it loosens the awful knot of fear, because she smiles, moves her hands to card her fingers through his hair. "It'll happen, I promise."

He believes her, lets go of her wrists and closes his eyes as she kisses his forehead, the top of his head, pulls back to kiss his cheek.

Behind him, Sam feels like a wall.

"I have to go," she sighs, but touches his face again, her own damp. Then she straightens, reaches past Jim and draws Sam in for another hug. He pulls back first and Jim steals his place, hugs her hips greedily, too tightly. "It's going to be fine," she whispers and cradles the back of his head. Beyond her, in the distance, Jim can see Uncle Robert standing near the transport, trying to give them privacy but obviously waiting. Robert April's not actually his uncle, he's an old friend of Mom and Dad's, but Jim calls him "uncle" whenever he comes by the house.

Now Uncle Robert waves at him reassuringly, the look on his face openly caring, but Jim can't let go of Mom long enough to wave back.

"What about your books?" Distantly, he hopes he's not getting snot on her uniform— and then he doesn't care again. "If something happens—" All of her books are packed up now, are in storage, and somehow it upsets him more than anything else. When he wakes up in the middle of the night now, he won't be able to pick one off her shelf and crawl into bed with her.

Everybody around them thinks her collection is stupid even if they won't say it, but Jim likes the blocks of paper and ink as much as Mom does. He likes being able to hold the words like that, hearing the flip of pages instead of the beep of a screen when his eyes are closed and Mom is reading to him—

But the books are all up now just like Dad's favorite chess set, the one still in storage from before he was born. (He'd asked Sam to teach him once, Sam knew how to play, but the look he'd gotten in response had made him decide that the stupid game probably sucked anyway.)


"I promise everything will be fine," she says so quietly nobody else could possibly hear her, and finally steps back with one last kiss to his forehead. One more step, two more, and then she shakes herself and turns away, strides towards Uncle Robert. Her hair looks the way it always does, the same ponytail that she wears when she's working at the house or at the lab, but the uniform is different. He likes it and he hates it at the same time, tries to figure out which one he feels most as "he's getting big" and "still little" drifts back to him.

Mom looks back then, once, raises her hand and looks shaky.

Jim decides right then that he likes it more than he doesn't— so he waves back stupidly, excitedly. Mom smiles easily back, looking so much like mom that the little bubble of fear feels like it pops and then it's gone.

Then she's gone, disappearing with Uncle Robert into the shuttle.

He goes home with Frank and Sam.

Frank works security at the nearby research station where Mom used to work. The antique repair work that originally brought him to Mom's attention is his hobby on the weekends, so Jim and Sam are left mostly to their own devices for about ten hours a day while he's doing whatever it is he does at the facility.

Like all the guides always say, it doesn't happen overnight.

He's been there for almost a year, not very good at fatherhood but seemingly not too horrible either when Jim's called an idiot for accidentally dropping a jar of spaghetti sauce on the kitchen floor. It's a lie, Jim knows, already ahead of the other kids in his class again even though school's just started up again— but there's a little knot of something in his middle and he keeps glancing at Sam, not sure why but unable to stop. After that, Sam's a spoiled brat and Jim's a moron. Halfway through his second year, Frank tells some of Mom's old friends from Starfleet that they can't come around anymore and though they stare at Jim and Sam uneasily, they stop coming around. The rare times that Mom is able to get into contact with them beyond a recorded message or a box of text, Frank stays in the room while they're talking to her.

Sam says, "It's fine" and Jim kind of thinks it isn't but goes along with it.

Then Frank gets rid of Dad's antique chess set, the one Jim never even got a chance to see for himself, the one Dad inherited from his father when he went to the Academy that's been waiting for someone that's never coming home. It hurts Jim, makes him wish he'd asked Mom about Dad's favorite game, but Sam…

It's the first time Jim's seen Sam really angry, really sad, really anything but Frank tells him to just get over it. Sam gets even more pissed off and starts shouting— and Jim steps back without thinking to put one of the stools between them when Frank tries to stare Sam down over the kitchen counter.

There's a weird moment then, one that Jim will remember years later, and he's a genius so that has to be how he knows exactly what's about to happen.

If Sam does, it doesn't stop him.

About fifteen seconds later, Jim's bolting out the back door and across the back yard to scramble up into the tree house Mom made him when he was younger. He stays up there for hours, the last red splashes in the sky darkening into blue, unable to force himself to climb down and go check on Sam. No, he only climbs down when he sees Frank's (Mom's) bedroom light dim. Then he takes ice up to Sam's room along with the med kit, stands outside the door and chews the inside of his cheek until he can taste blood in his mouth, can only barely force himself to go in. Sam accepts the ice without thanks and doesn't meet his eyes, and just snorts when Jim tries to bring up the chess set.

"It doesn't matter," he states when Jim keeps prodding, wanting a real answer. "It's just a stupid game, forget about it." Jim opens his mouth anyway but Sam cuts him off, says, "Go do your homework" and flops back on his bed, tossing the ice pack away and staring tiredly up at the ceiling.

Jim thinks about Dr. Chen and wishes he didn't live in San Fransisco, wishes he was somewhere nearby. Sure, Jim knows how to contact him, knows that Chen would come running (of course he would) but he doesn't open a connection or send any message, just stares at the monitor for a while.

Sam's arm heals faster than his face, and he doesn't say anything to Mom. Jim follows his lead and still doesn't open a connection to San Fransisco.

Then, the third year, Frank sells Mom's books.

Sam had a nice speech before, when he got upset, but Jim can't think, freaks out and starts crying and can't hold off until Sam gets home, is too upset to stop. He can't really fight, doesn't know how, but he gets a handful of hair and bites and kicks and then Frank's staring at him oddly, a splash of color across a cheek. That moment happens again, the same one from before, but Jim grabs Frank's dinner sitting on the kitchen counter, flings it to the ground, hears the plate shatter.

Yeah, Jim gets the shit beat out of him.

Except he's so pissed off he barely feels it, is still screaming and biting and scratching when Frank finally locks his arms around him and carries him up the stairs. Jim's tossed bodily into his bedroom, the stupid wooden door that Mom loves having in the house slamming shut behind him, and then spends what feels like hours pounding at it, screaming threats until his voice gives out and his energy drains.

Sam brings him ice hours later, touches Jim's jaw nervously, eyes damp— but then he settles for an awkward pat on the shoulder and goes back to his room. Locks the door behind him to avoid any trouble.

Locked up, still infuriated, Jim wishes he'd burned the books, destroyed them. Instead some asshole has them, probably flips through them like they're a silly little collection and thinks they're so quaint and he hates this imaginary person on principle alone. The hours pass and the buzzing in his head doesn't get any better and his hands are still shaking and he feels… hot, sort of. When the heat keeps getting worse, the room feeling like an oven, Jim gets off the bed to wrench the window open, let the night air in.

That finally puts him to sleep, stretched out awkwardly on top of his covers.

After this he stops helping Sam, takes care of himself before Sam can help.

When Frank locks the car up in the garage, shrugs and says it's his now, Sam corners Jim, demands that he just leave it alone. Jim nods and promises and Sam's look declares bullshit but he touches Jim's shoulder awkwardly and walks away. That night, Jim waits until they're both asleep and then sneaks down in the middle of the night, hacks the security system with sweaty hands and trembling fingers. He waits for alarms to sound, a handful of officers to swarm around him, but it's so easy, the way the program does exactly what he wants it to do.

"I'm not a fucking moron," he informs the night air disgustedly (and of course he isn't, he's not) and spends the first of a couple dozen nights sleeping in the front seat of the car.

Frank doesn't even know he can get into the garage until the morning Jim finds out he's selling the car, until the morning Jim leaves the door open behind him as the Corvette roars out and away too fast for Frank to catch him.

He gets the shit beat out of him but it's worth it. Chen shows up when he gets the news about broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder, contusions scattered broadly across Jim's skin, from an old friend of Mom's who apparently feels bad now. He takes them to a hotel. Mom shows up just two days later, takes them home. (Her books are gone, and the chess set. They're just gone. Frank took them.)

Sam doesn't forgive him for the car at the bottom of the quarry but Jim honestly doesn't care (he doesn't).

Jim wakes up thinking, Frank when the crash rings through the house.

He clenches up, limbs and torso all at once, and it hurts. The pain shocks him into remembering why it hurts— then the crashing sound comes again and he realizes it's not a crash, not a door being thrown open, but just a thumping noise, quieter than he first thought. It comes again, and then again.

A nervous glance around the room shows Sam asleep in his bed, body turned away under the extra two blankets, and the other bed— empty.

The previous anxiousness rushes back, stronger than before.

Jim's got his feet on the ground in a heartbeat, is pushing open the door and half-staggering fast down the hall. His hips hurt, his knees, his ankles, every inch of him, but he forgets it as he glances into Mom's room. She's stretched out awkwardly across her bed, a datapad still gripped in one hand as she sleeps. But someone's already spread a blanket out over her, tucked her in, so he continues down the hall and then the stairs, following the rhythmic thumping noise.

Downstairs is dark but he knows his way around, follows the sound through the gloom until he reaches his mom's lab. A quick glance through the open door proves the noise is a rubber ball, electric blue even in the dim light as it ricochets off the wall and back into Janice's hand. Shuddering with relief, with she's still here, he steps in fully and finds his friend sitting against Mom's desk, throwing the ball away and catching it when it returns, doing it again and again.

He opens his mouth, starts to say, "hey," but she talks first.

"I want spaghetti and meatballs," Janice informs him almost casually, and his mouth is watering before the image even fills his mind. "With the extra thick noodles. And the meatballs have to have the cheese in the middle." There's a moment of silence, and then the ball hits the wall. "My Dad made those. Mom said that's why she married him, he whored himself out with meatballs."

Jim takes a few steps and watches the ball bounce, bounce, bounce. Crouches despite the pain it causes and finally offers, helplessly, "My Dad's dead, too."

"Yeah." Janice laughs, shrugs, lifts her hand towards her face but then drops it again to catch the ball on the next return. "It's really not the same, Jimmy."

It's not, and he hates himself for it.

Jim hasn't lost anyone, he's just watched, stood to the side and watched it all happen while Mom did everything she could and kept trying.

But Janice has lost everyone, her mother and her father (she admits with a grimace that she has an uncle on her father's side) and a neighbor she'd loved like a grandmother. (There's no one around older than forty-five now.) He'd stood there and watched her face when she started to cry, looking angry when Annie Rand had finally succeeded in working her hands off and pushed her away into Mom's arms.

Since then he's seen a few people lie down in the middle of the day, pillow their head on bony limbs and decide to just… give up. (He's disgusted just thinking about it— they were saved, they lived, and now they're giving up anyway.) Mom says it's the hopelessness. "Some people get motivated, struggle harder," she tells him quietly, "and some people don't try if they don't think there's a chance."

Mom's always moving, always active, and she drags him out of bed and makes him help her with her work on the rare days when Jim wakes up and doesn't want to move, doesn't want to do anything. He's better with computers than ever before, bypasses layers of security so that he knows he can do it, can show that he can do it. Mom even sets up programs when she has free time, lets him disable them.

Never hesitates the few times he falters to show him what to do.

But Janice doesn't need the extra activity, never has to be dragged out of bed in the mornings. She gets angry when things get worse, stares hard and squares her shoulders and curls her hands into fists. She looks like she's getting ready to beat the shit out of somebody, half-starved or not, and those times Jim loves her a hundred times more than he's ever loved Sam.

And now she looks like someone cut her strings.

The fear it ignites makes him want to curl into a ball, do nothing.

"Rand," he says, and his voice breaks a little on the guilt, on the worthless eating away deep inside where he holds the image of Mr. and Mrs. Rand pushing their daughter away. Her arms look bony, uncomfortable, and he circles her wrist with his hand, having a wild urge to shake her and feeling ridiculous because of it. "Whatever you need—"

She throws the ball too hard and misses it when it comes back. Instead it bounces and rolls, disappears under the desk. And he'd get it for her but he doesn't want to let her go, not right now. "It's stupid," she whispers so quietly he almost can't hear, but he shakes his head and tightens his grip helplessly. Janice looks sick, mortified, and the burn in his legs is suddenly too much so Jim drops clumsily at her side, doesn't let go of her wrist.


"I really want nail polish." He opens his mouth, not sure what to say yet knowing he had to say something, but she speaks before he can. Like the dam is gone. "Shampoo, too, something different, I'm so sick of this one, it's always the same. And soap. And lotion, Jimmy, I really want lotion, my skin hurts, but I want the nail polish more, I can't stop thinking about it." She pauses, breathes and shakes a little. "I want to scrub my skin off, all of it. My hands…"


Admitting it, even to himself, feels… humiliating.

He turns, scoots to put his spine against the desk and steal some of Rand's warmth. When she moves a few moments later, he blinks a little, realizes his hands are shaking as she takes them and wraps them in hers.

She suddenly looks like she's ready to beat the shit out of something.

For him, if it comes down to that.

Comforted, he sits there for a while, eyes aching. Admits when he's sure his voice won't break and give him away, "I really want my mom's books." The silence that follows is confused, Janice bewildered, and he swallows, answers the unspoken question. "My mom had another collection. It was bigger— she—"

Those books are gone.

Mom's already building another collection, already has three blocks of paper and ink waiting for him to read, but it's not the same. They're not the same. Mom got hers from her father and her grandmother, and he knew every fold left behind by others, knew the sound the pages made when they were moved.

These new books— aren't what he wants.

Jim doesn't even know what he wants anymore, feels like an idiot for even bringing it up. But Rand doesn't tell him off for his whining, for sitting here when her parents aren't able to, and he eventually falls asleep like that, his head dropping to rest against a bony shoulder. When they wake up later on, stiff and sore but in better shape than they've been in a few weeks, there are a handful of covers tossed over them and Mom's doing her work in another room so they can sleep as long as they want.

It's another month before the ships come, before Uncle Robert shows up white and shaking and looking sicker than any of the other personnel around them. (Robert isn't an uncle after this, isn't a family friend; is only a superior that mom served under for four years and nobody for either of them to pay much respect to.)

Back in Iowa, he trembles and moves and can't stop, can't think and can't stop thinking at the same time. He skips school and climbs out of his window, opens books and computer routines and stares blankly, unable to focus. He thinks about asking Mom to track Rand down, thinks about talking to her, seeing if…

Jim doesn't even know what he needs but he thinks about her the night he finally makes a run for it, is so close to hunting her down himself. Except he chickens out each time after he's out there alone, never contacts her.

He hopes, distantly, that the world looks better wherever she is.

Jim's been at the Academy for two years when Bones leaves to visit his daughter over winter break.

It's nothing. Jim's an adult. He'll be fine. Jim's been surviving alone for so long in so many different ways that he can't remember what it was like to really let himself depend on someone else. He can take care of himself. And Bones will be back soon anyway. In a few days, it'll be like he never left in the first place.

Jim knows all that.

But it's also the first time Bones has left his side for more than a few hours since the shuttle, since the puke stain that he doesn't mind on his favorite jacket. Since he'd trailed after the doctor off the shuttle when they'd arrived, and then stuck even closer when he hadn't been swatted away.

It's fine.

Except he's sick with emotion from the minute he finds out Bones is leaving for a half a week, is going to be gone for three days, four if he counts the extra night, and Jim does.

"I'll be back in a few days," Bones says without meeting Jim's eyes the way he always does, and then reaches to touch his arm, eyes softening. "Jim—" He might drop his gaze to his PADD too quickly, might be working too hard not to care. Might be too affected when Bones sighs and steps back, picks up his bag and heads for the door. "You should go visit your damn mother. Gonna go even more stir-crazy than you already are if you stay here."

Quite a few cadets are gone for the winter break, only a few lacking any family or friends to go visit for whatever occasion they happen to celebrate. Rand's still there (has no family she has any reason to go visit) and she says Helen's staying this year since her sister's getting married in the spring and she's trying to avoid the stress. ("It's driving her crazy, you should have seen her face when she saw the damn dress. Frills, Jim, and it's orange.") And that isn't even including the instructors or the officers not native to Earth that tend to group together if they can to keep company during strange human customs.

So it's not like the Academy is a ghost town.

(He can think of a thousand things he could do but because he's trying, really trying despite what so many other cadets think, he doesn't do any of them.)

The first day Jim spends a handful of hours in the gym and then out on the track, running. When someone comes out, a ridiculous-young looking kid who practically flies around the track faster than Jim can actually follow him, he goes in, spends another hour abusing a punching bag wishing Cupcake was around. He showers, eats, kicks at Bones' bed for a half hour like an angry eight year old and then heads to the computer lab. Once there he opens up training programs and then closes them when they hold no interest. He plays a few games of Solitaire. He checks his grades the non-official way but has no need to mess with them, thinks about making Rand's a bit nicer but they're already better than most and she'd ambush him the second she saw the change because she knows him.

And, again, she sure as hell doesn't need his help to keep these grades up.

When he's finally kicked out of the lab, Jim heads back to his room and just kind of faceplants onto his bed. Then he gets up and falls into Bones' bed instead, crawls up and pulls the pillow over his head and tries not to feel like he's been put away on a shelf in a box where someone may or may not find him later on.

The second day is so much harder.

Jim wakes up too early and does homework that won't be due for almost a month. He leaves his dorm just before dawn and runs until he starts to see spots. He searches the gym for someone to spar with and finds that the few that had been loitering before are now missing. He showers, eats on Bones' bed while making sure to leave crumbs and dabs of syrup; he fucks with a few of Bones' PADDs, inserting porn excerpts into "The History of Surgery into the Twenty-Third Century." (He doesn't contact Bones, unwilling to steal any of the little girl's time.) Jim runs some more. Goes to his dorm again, kicks off his running shoes and throws them onto Bones' bed. Showers a second time and goes out for a second meal only to play with it, build a fort out of his fries and make a little flag out of a strip of the bologna and a toothpick. He eats it all before he leaves the mostly empty mess, can't leave it behind, but it's cold by then. He goes to the computer lab but then turns away before he's fully in the door, unable to muster any interest. He goes to the library and then the mess again, circles the Academy unable to stop, settle.

It's another hour of wandering before he finds himself at Rand's door, feels unashamed as he raps too loudly and too childishly against the surface until she peers out at him. Behind her, he hears, "you should just go to his room, god, Janice!" and grins helplessly at the way her eyes cut back in an unmistakable shoot me, it'll hurt less glance.

After a second moment's study of his face, the door closes on him.

When it reopens a minute later, Rand slips out to join him, hair looped messily at the nape of her neck as she zips up her jacket and kicks his foot in an order to get going. He's helplessly proud of it, that she doesn't try with him, that she just is, and they slip through the halls and out together. Rand doesn't mention curfew (not that it's a problem during winter break since the instructors are so relaxed for the cadets still there) and the sky's still pink-red anyway when they reach the bar they both like best a few blocks away, steal a corner for themselves and order cheap beer.

Bones hates beer, and Rand says her own friends are the same way ("Well, Helen doesn't mind it," she'd added on second thought when it had come up in conversation, "but it's like pulling teeth to get her to admit it.") so this is one of those things they only do together.

Jim watches her inspect the peanuts, roll her eyes and start in and is desperately grateful for it.

Grateful that she'd come to the Academy, that he'd seen her that day crossing the courtyard. He'd been halfway across the distance before he'd realized who he was walking towards, understood the unconscious jolt of movement triggered by the familiar stride. Before he'd stopped himself, forced himself to not go rushing after her, just touch her. He'd just wanted that, wanted that more than he could remember wanting anything in his life, the physical contact he knew he could always trust from her.

And sure, Bones touches him constantly, squeezes his arm and his shoulder and lets his chin dig into Jim's shoulder when he bends closer to mutter about one of his superiors unlucky enough to be on his shit list. And it's good, Jim loves it, craves it, never tires of it— except in the nights he's self-aware enough that he knows he's still waiting for Bones to figure out who he is, look at him one day and see him.

Rand, though, Rand's different, what they have is…

It's just different.

Different enough that it only takes a half-hour before she gets a vague explanation of the problem out of him, and another half-hour before he finally tells all. Rand mocks him when he needs her to and doesn't tease him when he couldn't handle it, just like he did when she finally cemented his suspicions about her uncle. (Oh, that asshole better be so fucking glad Rand had threatened to kick Jim's ass if he tracked the guy down.)

So except for the knot in his gut, he's over it by the time they leave the bar, arms looped together as they follow their usual path back to the Academy.

"He sounds like a cliché," she admits as they're carefully tracking the lights of the physical sciences building to get them to their dorms. "Grumpy old country doctor with the heart of gold." Rand rests her chin on his shoulder, smells like lotion and peanuts and beer. "Mint juleps, seriously?"

"They're disgusting," Jim assures. "And he won't even admit to drinking them, Rand. I tried making one in front of him once, right? He starts telling me off for," he takes a second to perform air quotes, "'bruising the leaves' and using the wrong sugar." She snorts too loudly, and he giggles a bit. "I didn't know there was any such thing as the wrong sugar."

"I think I'd kill him."

"You'd kill each other," he corrects, and then considers a little more. "No, no, I'm wrong. You'd join forces and tell me not to do stupid things and… drive me completely insane. And then you'd…" He pauses, weakened, and finishes slowly, "sit together under a palm tree… drinking mint juleps and beer."

"You're fine," Rand says then, fearlessly, and he knows she's right. He's fine. It's fine. He can survive this. He doesn't know how not to, honestly. But he stands there and listens, watches her. Craves hearing it. "You're fine," she repeats, and kind of… cradles the side of his head. "It's fine."

He believes her. Utterly. This is Rand. She knows what he can take.

"Yeah," he agrees, and steps away— but curls his fingers around her wrist, tries not think about the fact that he's doing it as they wander empty halls. "I have something to guilt him over now. Although I should probably get rid of the porn before he gets back."


"And the bed. He's going to be pissed."


"It was an accident," he doesn't really try to lie and doesn't let go of her wrist.

It's a weird feeling, pissing off Pike.

The guy knows him, never blinks at his shit or dismisses his weirder quirks the way Jim's so used to the people around him doing. Pike takes care of him, smacks sense into him at other times; often does both together. More than that, the guy cares about him anyway, never hides it, acts like he would still care about Jim even if Jim wasn't George Kirk's son.

But Pike's barely got his feet on the ground when he finds out about the Kobayashi Maru, and he handles it worse and better than Jim expects him to.

"They hate him anyway," Pike's muttering. "Of course you have to piss him off…" Jim has no idea who "him" is, is too uneasy to ask now that Pike's the one who knows what he did. "Stiles may not give a shit but if they use you as an example, it's over. Genius or not, you'll be lucky to get a job on some frozen research station if you piss off enough of them. I knew…" He stops, stares too hard at Jim. Sees too deeply. "I didn't think you'd be dumb enough to be this disrespectful. Not after all this."

"I was trying to—"

"Make a point," Pike cuts him off. "Yeah, I got it."

It's weird, how Jim's palms are sweaty and his vision can't seem to focus, how he can't get a full breath past the pressure in his chest. But his voice sounds the way it usually does and Bones hasn't picked up on the fact that he's been in the midst of a silent panic attack since they came down on him for the test.

(He's been staying away from Rand for a reason.)

"—are other ways to make a point, you know that, don't you?" Jim stares at him, incapable of summoning a response, and Pike grimaces again. "Ways that don't publicly embarrass your superiors."

"The test's a joke."

"Not to them," and, yeah, Jim kind of… hates them for it. Maybe. He's not completely sure what it means, only knows that psychiatrists would happily come up with definitions and case studies to box up all of the shit in his head and make it look nonthreatening. "You know how I feel about it. You know and agree with almost every single one of my politically incorrect opinions when it comes to Starfleet, and I know you agree with the ones I've never even shared with you. But this isn't the time—" A beat. "It's just a simulation."

Jim hears, I didn't know how bad it was, we didn't… realize Frank… and it doesn't matter, forget about it.

Hears, A rescue attempt any sooner would have been inadvisable— so we forgive ourselves and hope you will, too.

It all sounds the same from where he's standing.

"…I can't do a damn thing to help." Jim almost jumps up to keep himself moving, to make sure he's all there. "Do you know what that means, Jim?"

"Yeah, I get it." His voice almost slips. Almost.

"Do you?"

No Bones at his back, no Rand at his side. No Pike, no ship. No freedom. No stars. No better that he knows is out there, that he feels the pull of for the first time since he was dragged home to the house Frank emptied of meaning.

Yeah, he gets it. And so does Pike, staring at him with an odd tenderness.

"If you suck up and then keep your head down after this, it'll be fine."

Apologize, smile pretty, don't waste the last three years.

There's something bitter at the back of Jim's throat, something that burns.

Pike cares such a frightening amount, knows too much.

He stares at the desk in front of him, Pike in his black uniform behind it, looking nothing and everything like Frank from where Jim's standing. "It's not like they care—" Stop and think, swallow down emotion and then slip anyway. "Can I at least find out who's got the hard-on against me?"

Pike laughs bitterly, snorts, "It doesn't matter," and looks like his house of cards is scattered around his feet. It's weird and Jim would think about it more deeply, try to figure it out if he could think beyond the quiet fear. Beyond the awful claustrophobic feeling he hasn't experienced in three years. The disappointment that stings differently than usual.

Mom's never said, I'm not angry, Jimmy, I'm just disappointed.

She loves him, and he knows it, and worthless still splinters quietly in his chest.

"I'm not wrong." He feels it too deeply to be wrong, remembers Mom's face looking bruised as her cheeks hollowed, as the bones in her hands stood out and she kept working anyway. She'd done it. He'd done it, still bruised and already starved. Rand had done it, utterly alone and orphaned, stronger than he could ever remember Sam even trying to be.

"I never said you were."

Pike sounds like he's trying to be encouraging.

Jim nods like an absolute moron, useless in his limitation, and heads to his room to do his homework for the hearing.

He's almost in peak form by the time of the hearing, heads into the auditorium with a smile that makes Bones grimace and let their arms brush together as they settle among the other cadets. A few rows away, Rand's staring in the vague direction of the Board, already strong shoulders squared, nails brilliant red where her fingers lace together in her lap.

Jim thinks, bluntly, I'm fine and, yeah, of course he is.

He's fine.