Title: This is Home: Part Three

Author: Re White

Fandom: Star Trek XI

Pairing: Kirk/McCoy (UST), multiple

Rating: R

Betas: I owe many, many thanks to near_family, leftarrow, kayliemalinza, and akavertigo for exemplary hand-holding, brainstorming, and harassment. All remaining mistakes – and I'm certain there are plenty – are my own.

Declaimer: I do not own these characters and court no profits with this fanwork.

Summary: When the ash comes it powders the colony in delicate, whisper-warm flecks of bone and cinder. Sam's people huddle, silent under the snow of the dead, the tops of their bent heads dusty with crumbling crowns.

This is Home

Part Three: Bedlam

Stardate: 2245

Riverside, Iowa

"Jimmy! You get your butt down here!"

George Samuel Kirk stares up at the ceiling and waits for the tell-tale groan of floorboards and muffled crash that signals the coming of one James Kirk, resident genius and scourge of Riverside.

There's a loud, resounding bang, and the sound of scrambling, scheming ten-year-old. Sam frowns at the crack in the ceiling, attempting to divine the goings-on above him by the wooden creaks and heavy slap of combat boots.

Jim's like an unsteady tornado, not exactly bent on wholesale destruction, but providing it anyway. After about a minute he hurls himself down the stairs, all wildly flapping limbs and messy blond hair. He up-ends a chair on his way to the kitchen and comes to an abrupt halt in front of Sam.

"Yeah, hi – good morning."

Sam checks the chrono above the sink.

It's four in the afternoon.

School has only been out for two weeks and Jim has already abandoned what little grip on the concept of time and its conventions Sam managed to instill in him. Sam looks back at Jim. His entire face is black with the exception of the skin around his eyes.

He knows this is a ridiculous question before he asks it.

"What happened to your face?"

Jim takes a giant breath and Sam hastily interjects, "In five words or less."

Jim momentarily deflates. Shrugs. "I fixed the cooling unit."

That explains the ball-shriveling chill currently embalming the house.

"Okay, but seriously, no. What are you even wearing?"

Jim blinks and peers down at himself, his soot-scorched goggles digging into his chin.

He's wearing a battered pair of gray pants that are too big and too long, the legs bunching around his clunky, permanently untied army-boots. He appropriated one of Winona's old work shirts and duct-taped over the rips with lopsided Xs. He's got on an abused canvas jacket over that, the frayed sleeves pushed up in wrinkled resignation around his red elbows. All in all, it's a standard deviation of Jim's usual uniform, tied together with a liberal splatter of something green.

Jim tips his head and fingers the hem of his shirt speculatively. Sam knows a Taste Test Is Imminent look when he sees one, so he snatches a wet washcloth from the sink and darts forward, launching a surprise attack on Jim's face.

Jimmy's rodent fast and octopus wriggly, but Sam's had a good thirty pounds on Jim for years, so he just throws his weight against him and lets gravity do most of the work, wrestling Jim down to the kitchen floor.

"Did you eat yet?" Sam asks, dodging a wild blow.

Jim attempts to worm his head away from the washcloth and grunts a reluctant, "Yeah."

Translation: No.

This is one of his more inexplicable quirks, this casual contempt for food. Whenever anyone asks about it Jim just goes tight lipped and squinty eyed. For all any of them know Jimmy was mortally offended by a grape fruit when he was four and he's been holding a grudge ever since. Sam doesn't know. Jim is not a sane person. Jim's hatred for pancakes is based entirely on the fact that they aren't waffles.

"Mrs. Heightmayer was legally declared dead this morning," Sam says, just tossing it out there experimentally. Jim knocks Sam's ribs with one bony knee and flails ridiculously, squirming in a futile attempt at escape.

"Guess how I know that? She told me." Loudly and at length. And with several totally uncalled for slaps to the back of his head, but dignity demands a certain amount of discretion, so Sam presses on. "She was pretty goddamn spry for what the Riverside Gazette tells me is a corpse."

Jim smiles his sneaky smile but says nothing.

Jim and head librarian, Bernice Heightmayer, have been locked in an epic battle of wills for the last year and a half. Their rivalry was sanctified when she caught him hacking the digital catalog (Jim having apparently decided to just bypass her entirely and take the library's shoddy fucking tag system - Jim's description - into his own hands). Jim's aggravated assault on her catalog got him banned from the library for life, a chastisement he has failed to meet with grace and humility.

Sam takes one last, determined swipe at Jim's cheek with the washcloth and then hauls him up by the lapels of his jacket. Sam plants both hands on Jim's skinny shoulders and summons his most sober expression.

"Jimmy, you can be honest. Is it the zombie apocalypse and nobody told me?"

Jim nods gravely. "Yes. The hardest part has been pretending that I'm not excited about it."

"Uh huh."

What follows is a brief staring contest, the likes of which Sam has been using as his principle method of propelling Jim towards the end of an argument without the hassle of actually yelling, for years.

Jim's face sours dramatically and he sort of squirms in place before finally biting out, "I didn't do it."

Sam lets that little bit of bold-faced delusion hang there like the lying lie it is.

"You can't prove I did it," Jim hedges.

"Well, could you go undo whatever it is I can't prove you did? Before the cops get here? Now would be awesome."

The intervening silence suggests that Jim is deciding whether or not he wants to be stubborn about it, but in the end Jim just turns on his heel and sulks out of the kitchen, mouth pinched and shoulders hunched.

Sam frowns at his retreating back.

"Hey, buddy?"

Jim stops. "What?"

"Thanks for fixing the cooling unit."

He ducks his head, and shrugs, but Sam catches the small flicker of a grin.

All at once, something that's been sitting tight and nervous in Sam's chest loosens. He's hugely, pathetically grateful for it, for this one thing to not have to worry about anymore. Because while everything else has gone to shit, Jim is at least talking again.

It's the first he's spoken to Sam since Tiberius died on them.

oOo

Jim used to crash into the kitchen every morning at five, clumsy, squinty-eyed and rambling to himself about the first thing that popped into his massive, idiot brain when he woke up. It's why Sam knows the social hierarchy of honey bees and the first theory of thermonuclear expansion. Pure early morning Jim exposure, like Sam's head had been designated by a higher power as the appropriate dumping ground for all the useless crap Jim learned on accident.

Those mornings, Tiberius would nod to Sam before cuffing Jim upside the head with fond impatience and a brief, "Let's get a move on Mr. Kirk", never i once/i letting on that cancer was eating away at his insides, a sticky black sickness fouling his aged and fragile veins.

oOo

Tiberius left Sam nothing but his debts and devotions.

oOo

The left hand door of the Riverside post office is broken and locked shut, the other heavy and resentful, its gummy hinges whining stubbornly when Sam puts his weight against it. The front desk is manned by a perpetually bored looking employee whose vapid attention never seems to waver far from the holovid display mounted on the wall – despite earlier controversies surrounding the research outpost on Tarsus IV, the Federation Council gave final approval to the Karidian Company's request to continue settlement efforts on the fourth planet. Karidian spokesperson, E. Molson, responded today, stating that the company was grateful for the opportunity to expand operations in the Tarsus system-

Sam follows the grubby wall of polymer lockers, the metal panels stamped with greasy fingerprints and assorted dents, the key swipes blinking muted yellow under the white noise of naked fluorescent lights.

oOo

Sam has to run his card twice before the console will read it. The abused circuitry emits an aggrieved click-snap before flashing green and swinging open, revealing a single thick envelope.

Sam sits in the stall of the men's room for a long time, just holding it, heart thudding hard against his sternum.

HARVARD UNIVERSITY

It's heavy.

Sam stares at the neat clean print. Hears the crisp sigh of paper as he tears it open.

Congratulations Mr. Kirk, you have been accepted into -

Sam cries like he's dying.

oOo

He's his mother's son. He wants to be unattached and unanchored, free of anything that isn't his own desire. Jim needs so much, all the time, and it doesn't fucking matter how much Sam gives him today, he's just going to need it all again tomorrow.

oOo

The farm house grows tall in the distance, a boxy hodgepodge of modern weirdness and traditional sprawl, the setting sun casting crazy shadows across the dirt dusty expanse of what passes for a yard in Iowa.

Six generations of Kirks have wearied its edges and scuffed its floors, building it up and out, its battered doors flung open to the rearing of children and the temporary respite of the wayward. A safe harbor for a family of spacefarers and those whose love they collected along the way. In the handful of summers before Jimmy was born, Sam remembers the excited press and noise of people streaming in and out of the house. Crewmen his parents brought home with them, who either had nowhere to go, or for whom the prospect of shore leave seemed a daunting luxury.

In those warm, rosy months Sam had more than just the doting attention of parents making up for lost time; he had a tribe. Engineers and helmsmen ready to make room for him when other arms grew tired.

Sam remembers being carried, his cheek pressed to a warm shoulder as George quietly made his way through the house, whispering the names of his crew to Sammy as he went, like he was passing on something secret and precious. Those names had felt like family then, a logical expansion of what was already there, a natural branching.

Even in the lean, quiet months of fall, when the house emptied out and the fields grew thick and heavy with autumn, people would come. Men and women who had served with Tiberius, their tired and road weary faces arriving at the door at all hours. Sam remembers how easily two places at the table would wordlessly become three. Remembers how normal it was to wake up to unknown faces made familiar only by the threadbare edges of faded Starfleet patches on worn sleeves.

It's a different house now, its dimensions grown tight and narrow, reduced to a clutch of hungry rooms that soak up Jim's frustrated noise and throw it back in long, lonely creaks. Terran clocks ticking their way past the silence of the dead.

oOo

It's quiet when Sam crosses the sill and steps in into the house, his hands still tingling with the memory of ripping paper. He's nearly to the stairs when he hears it, a staccato stutter of muffled sobs, and feels his heart sink.

Sam backtracks and steps wearily into the kitchen, empty stomach twisting with guilt. He edges around the table to find Jim hunched in the corner, wet-faced and flushed, fighting to catch his own breath.

"Jimmy?"

Jim doesn't answer, just hunkers down more, the narrow line of his shoulders trembling as Sam gingerly crouches down beside him.

It happens sometimes, these sudden jags. Jim's squirrely, magpie mind suddenly overwhelmed by everything and nothing in particular, all his gears coming to an abrupt, panicked halt.

Sam eases an arm around him and reaches up with the other, awkwardly groping for the book that's been sitting in the silverware drawer since Winona's last visit. Sam pushes it into Jim's clammy, fumbling grip. The anxiety bleeds out of him almost as soon as his eyes settle on the page, body loosening under the neatness of The Wine-Dark Sea.

Sam watches him read, tired and heartsick.

oOo

He carries Jim up stairs later, when he's calm enough for exhaustion.

"I'm sorry."

Jim's voice is slurred, muffled by his pillow.

Sam shifts on the edge of the bed, and lays his hand flat against Jim's back. "Not your fault, buddy."

"God, you're stupid." Jim rolls away from him. Jim says nothing for long enough that Sam eventually gets up, and lowers the lights to ten percent.

oOo

Sam drinks an entire bottle of Wild Turkey and wakes the next morning on the floor of the bathroom, where he vomits whiskey until it hurts to breathe.

oOo

When he found Tiberius slumped across the comm - the weight of his head on the keyboard writing a single, unbroken line of 's' across the screen - Sam sent one message to Winona.

oOo

A month later, he sent another.

Where the fuck are you?

oOo

Jim pulls one of his disappearing acts, only it doesn't quite take because he's pretty much a ghost during the day, but he loudly grumps into Sam's bed at night, tucking up against him with his cold toes and quiet little snuffles as Sam stares up at the ceiling and forms a plan.

Five days later Sam tracks Jim down – for certain varieties of "track down".

He crosses the thirty yards between the house and the barn, where George's car has sat since Jimmy was born. Sam finds him sprawled in the back seat, surrounded by books, bits of circuitry, and half a dozen padds. The data chip Sam left on Jim's desk is on the floorboard. It's a risk, but if Winona could do it, if she could escape the claustrophobic rot of Iowa, then he and Jim can, too.

Sam opens the door and squirms his way in behind the passenger seat, shoving debris aside and flopping down beside Jim with a soft whump.

Sam remembers riding in this car with the top down, a hot wave of summer sunshine whipping through Winona's hair, the ends tickling his face as George half turned towards him, eyes crinkled at the edges, the sun-baked earth stretching out beyond him.

Sam nudges the data chip with the tip of his shoe.

"What do you think, buddy?"

For a long time Jim just looks at him.

"Leave home," he offers softly.

"Go home," Sam whispers.

oOo

Stardate: 2246

Tarsus IV

They took almost nothing with them when they left Riverside. Just clothes, and books Jim couldn't bear to leave behind. Everything else is boxed and tucked away under plastic sheets. The house is sealed shut and the past along with it.

Colony expansion tends to draw a certain demographic. Drifters committed to the religion of distance, private contractors with no attachments and couples seeking new context. Sam and Jim slot in neatly among them, where expectations stretch no further than tomorrow and look no further back than yesterday.

oOo

Tarsus' forgiving possibilities are built on polite amnesia.

oOo

Sam's been on his feet for eighteen hours when he finally staggers into Security Outpost Four, thoroughly sleep deprived and coasting on the last jittery dregs of his caffeine high. The light buzz of conversation in the bull pen immediately dies down to the familiar timbre of expectant glee. Sam's made this particular walk of shame enough times that he can gauge the level of Jim's juvenile delinquency by the quality of the snickering alone.

Commander Irmak is hunched in his chair, a sullen lump of traumatized authority. Sam comes to a wobbly halt in front of him. Somewhere behind them an officer chokes on stifled laughter, which triggers a brief wave of giggles throughout the room and an answering cacophony of "Shhh,", "Shut up," and, "This is gonna be sweet."

Irmak looks at Sam hard, visibly steels himself and then opens his mouth.

The sound that emerges is distinctly quack-like. The sound that emerges is quacking.

Wow.

"Wow."

Irmak makes a sudden flailing hand gesture, and says "Quack quack quack quack HONK!"

Duck chatter shouldn't have much in the way of nuance, but Irmak finds a way to convey his displeasure anyway, jabbing a finger at Sam and letting loose with a long stream of duckenese that clearly means "My desire to commit grievous acts of violence upon your person is unfathomable."

Sam sidles cautiously around Irmak's desk, out of throttling and/or stabbing range. "Yeah, yes, I'll just – I'll get on that."

A torrent of agitated quackatude follows Sam all the way down the hall to the holding tank.

oOo

Sam finds Jim and his merry band of reprobates sleeping on the floor of their preferred holding cell, slouched against one another, snoring with varying degrees of drool. Jim's sprawled across Gary's lap, with Thomas' face mashed up against Jim's belly, legs akimbo. Lenore is plastered against Gary's right side, and Carol his left. Kevin has both arms around her waist. In a state of heart-warming repose, they look innocent. Serene, even.

Every sleep-deprived molecule in Sam's body vibrates with sudden intense villainy.

Sam takes a humongous breath. "Good morning!"

The effect is instantaneous, and deeply beautiful, youth flying in every direction. A sort of spring-loaded domino effect occurs as Gary darts up into a standing position, an unfortunate choice of locomotion for Carol and Lenore who pull a Wile E. Coyote mid-air flail before crashing into each other. Thomas makes a ridiculous flopping leap backwards and falls on Kevin who's first instinct is to wrap his arms and legs around Jim like a freaked out spider monkey in free fall. There are cries, and curses - all the appreciate vocalizations.

"Jesus, Sammy!"

"- can't feel my spleen -"

"No, no, your *other* arm, move your –"

"You're on my hair!"

"New rule," Sam announces over the rising tide of adolescent bitchery. "No hacking Universal Translators. In fact, no hacking ever. " And then, just to be safe: "Of anything."

The inevitable tantrum over Sam's moratorium is mitigated by the delicate detangling process. Thomas and Gary start picking apart the epic knot where Carol's hair caught on Lenore's giant barrette (made entirely of paper clips). Eventually Jim gives up trying to dislodge Kevin and simply accepts it, wrapping an arm around him.

Carol's pout is disapproving. "Why do you hate fun, Sam? What did fun ever do to you?"

"You have to admit," Jim adds, shifting Kevin's iron-clad grip into something more circulation friendly, "it was totally funny."

This is true, but the significance is damped somewhat by the fact that Sam could be sleeping now, instead of standing here, marinating in his own three-day-old funk.

Kevin peers at him from his fortified position against Jim's shoulder, fingers plucking the hem of Jim's shirt. "You're not really mad. Are you, Sammy?"

All eyes turn to Sam. The emphatically non-regulation LED lights stung along the walls blink cheerful periwinkle, catching softy on the mini-starships hanging from the ceiling.

Sam rubs a hand down his face. It's 0600, and he only has two, maybe three hours before Aurelian comms him, threatening to set fire to the entire Star Fleet Engineer Corps barracks if they don't stop getting their stunning idiocy all over her unmitigated genius. And three seconds after that before Dr. Hillshire texts him with what Sam already knows will be some variation on "Hey, Aurelian found a blow torch; you might want to get down here." Sam needs sleep, a shower, and also sleep, roughly in that order.

He should send Jim home, and the kids too, but Sam knows what's not waiting for them back at their own quarters.

Sam groans and palms his sandy eyes. "You want breakfast?"

"Food!"

"So hungry –"

"- squid ink pasta –"

"Oh, gross - "

"That comes from squid butts!"

"– starving –"

"Pancakes, bitch."

oOo

Jim didn't have friends back in Riverside. He was too smart to be liked and too reclusive for rivalry, preferring the safety and distraction of his own lonely orbit. Kids his age were either too slow or too scared to keep up with him and Jim's overtures with the older kids had been met with turned backs and balled fists. When Jim went to school he went with his head firmly down and his guard permanently up.

That changed when they got to Tarsus.

oOo

Kevin Riley was the first. He appeared at their tiny puke-green kitchenette like an apparition, startling Sam out of his 0500 pre-coffee daze.

"Hi?"

"Hi." Kevin smiled. He had dark floppy hair and glossy black eyes.

"Is that my holocube?" Sam nodded towards the mess of circuitry in front of Kevin.

They both stared at it, the cube sitting in a nest of its own gutted remains.

"Yes," Kevin answered. Then added, "I fixed it."

Before Sam could open his mouth and explain everything that was wrong with that sentence Kevin tapped the cube. Enterobacteria phage X1 flickered ghostly blue above the table, its tail fibers swaying like seaweed. Kevin adjusted the slider on the cube and the perspective shifted, sinking down through the capsid of the viroid to reveal a helix of repeating protein sub-units spreading like flowers in bloom.

Sam stared and worked his jaw for a moment. "I didn't know it could do that."

"It can't," Jim said, having apparently wandered in while Sam was ogling. "Reformatting that thing is like, eight kinds of illegal."

In an instant, Kevin went from sitting to hanging off Jim's shoulders, with none of the bits in-between. Jim jockeyed Kevin around until he was situated piggy-back style.

There was an odd little moment then, a stretch of silence as Enterobacteria phage X1 floated gently in the serenity of its criminal light while Jim shifted his weight and Kevin, too – and then it hit Sam. What a funny sideways gesture it was, that Jim would introduce Sam to a friend this way.

Sam closed his hand around the holocube, looked Kevin in the eye with as much sincerity as he could summon on short notice, and smiled.

"Thank you."

oOo

Sam doesn't know how Jim found Lenore Karidian, or if it was the other way around. Sam nursed a perpetual heart attack over it for two solid weeks. He couldn't help but envision the millions of ways it could end badly whenever he stumbled home to find Jim, Kevin and the governor's only daughter on the floor of the living room, covered with dirt, or smelling suspiciously of ozone. Nightmare scenarios flitted across Sam's mind every time he tripped over another one her books, or found her dresses mixed in with their laundry; Lenore breaking an arm, Lenore going missing, Lenore inexplicably turning blue.

Sam watched with a kind of helpless dread as she sidled slowly in, his better instincts failing him utterly in the face of Jim's brave new adoption policy.

Sam gave up entirely when he walked in on Jim patiently brushing the knots out of Lenore's hair, the corn-silk length of it spread across his lap as she read out loud. It was asking for trouble, but Jim took to having a little sister like he was made for it.

oOo

Carol Marcus and Gary Mitchel had come as a matched set, the Master Mind and Shit-Stirrer. It was because of them that Sam had to start making rules, the kind that get written down, numbed and notarized.

Carol was the oldest, worldly and assured in the way only twelve-year- olds could pull off. She wasn't a mitigating influence on Jim so much as a shrewdly efficient one, quietly disarming the surrounding alarms and paying off the witnesses as Gary smiled sly and whispered new mischief into Jim's ear.

oOo

Thomas Leighton ambled in like he owned the place but was too polite to mention it.

Laconic and quick to laughter, Thomas's presence seemed to round off the edges of Jim's little tribe, filling the quiet Lenore's bookishness tended to leave behind. Less tentative than Kevin, and more likely to fight Gary than Jim was, Thomas had been accepted with the ease of someone long expected.

oOo

It was Sgt. Fairbanks who first started calling them the Goonies. He had been covered in goo at the time, and his hair had never quite grown back, but his smile had been huge and his affection genuine. On a colony with fewer than sixty children under the age of ten, both the endearment and the nickname had stuck.

oOo

Sam has to add a new rule to the board: No particle accelerators in the house. Ever.

"To be fair, they probably shouldn't have put a wall there."

Sam can't even believe this is his life some days.

oOo

Dr. Aurelian Swift, Chief Science Advisor of Tarsus IV, is weaving a tapestry of epic vitriol when Sam gets to the labs.

"No, no, no, wrong, wrong, wrong, when the smartest person in the room tells you, 'Hey, don't touch that, or you'll die', the *correct* response of *any* half-way intelligent life form is to not touch the thing that will kill you."

The Security officer she's yelling at is young. He has the soft, shell-shocked look of a new comer, the tips of his ears turning bright red as Aurelian rips into him. Sam figures he had to come fresh off the USS Helena. Part of the last wave of personnel and supplies before the Helena leaves space dock. Tarsus won't see her again for another eighteen months.

The kid makes his escape the moment Aurelian's attention flickers to Sam, proving his sense of self-preservation isn't entirely lacking.

Sam takes a good look at Aurelian. Her clothes are wrinkled, the cuffs of her lab coat still stained with grease. Her usually neat up-do has given up the ghost, thin dreadlocks falling around her face, framing sleep-smudged eyes that are way too fucking bright for this time of day.

"How many espressos have you had?"

Aurelian's expression goes squirrely. "Two?"

Behind her Hillshire's geek-pale hand shoots up from behind a row of monitors, and wiggles four fingers. Aurelian whips around, snatches a half-eaten beef flavored MRE off a nearby console and throws it at him.

"Traitor!"

Hillshire retaliates, lofting a MRE of his own over the divide. Aurelian is hit, flails, grabs the offending bar, retracts her arm and -

"Teriyaki Chicken? Hillshire, you bastard! You've been holding out on me!"

Sam purses his lips. "I'm revoking all your coffee privileges."

oOo

"The thing is," Aurelian grumbles, cheek pressed to Sam's shoulder blade, "I'm the boss." Her arms snake around his waist, and she sort of nuzzles the fabric of his shirt. "You're supposed to be the minion."

It's more or less true. Sam was supposed to be her lab assistant. The position was previously held and subsequently vacated by eight people before a harried Karidian administrator finally threw Sam at her.

He had stuck.

Sam's officially registered as a lab technician, just another grunt with the added benefit of being the human shield between Aurelian's staggering lack of social skills and the rest of Tarsus. But that's not his job.

It's more than that.

It's spiky knots of pain between his shoulder blades and in his wrists. It's endless, electric-bright nights spent crouched under consoles and containment units. His mornings fueled by stale coffee and small catastrophes. Sam and whoever's still standing fighting their way through programming code for hard-tick processors. Bastardizing Brunali tech and Vulcan hand-me-downs with improvised Terran fabrications while Aurelian curses the complete and utter ibrain damage/i of Fleet engineers.

Working in the lab is calamity teetering on disaster, with three new terrifying near-death experiences popping up for every one crisis averted.

His hands ache with perpetual electrical burns, and his left palm is silver-pink with a starburst of scar tissue where he cut himself with the Hyperspanner. Sam doesn't sleep enough, or shower enough. On bad days, if he stands still for too long he gets nauseous, and the world gets grainy around the edges.

But he loves it. He loves it.

Sam smiles to himself, and listens to Aurelian's grumpy mumbling give way to soft, slightly congested snoring. He works pretty well like that, arguing with the server's fail-safe protocol while Aurelian sleeps propped up against his back.

Her weight is easy to bear.

oOo

Every now and then Sam dreams he's back in Riverside. He dreams of being seated at the kitchen table, watching the hazy yellow light spill in from the window, pouring onto the floor as his heart jackknifes in his chest, his tongue swollen with fear as the light slides closer, crawling across the table, the sick and sour light hungry for his hands.

Sam always wakes up before it touches him.

oOo

Peering out over the lab is a pane of milky glass, a one-way observation deck where heavy shadows pass and stand sentry.

It makes Sam nervous.

oOo

When the count-down on the simulator hits double-digits Hillshire abandons all pretense of civility and just starts eating dry coffee grounds from their tiny foil packets by the handful.

oOo

When they sleep, they sleep in the labs, curled around each other in the dark as Aurelian whispers to Sam about dead planets in bloom, aggregates of matter rewritten with life.

oOo

When the bio-grid goes live Aurelian's hand finds Sam's. They stand there, fingers threaded as the monitors flicker with data Sam can't quite see beyond the blur of exhausted tears.

oOo

Sam forces himself to go home around three in the morning, dead on his feet and fucking wired, like every molecule in his body is vibrating with hooligan mischief, making noise and causing trouble.

The living room is wrecked, littered with curling wire, circuit boards and hand tools; clear signs of unprovoked acts of engineering having been committed. Sam picks his way through the carnage on rubbery legs. The Goonies are draped across the furniture in snoring heaps of delinquency. Sam gingerly rights a couple of dangling limbs as he makes his way to Jim.

Jim's awake and sprawled on the floor, humming in that funny off-tune way he has, all lurching notes and fumbling octaves. The wave of attachment that comes over Sam makes him feel warm and ridiculous in equal measure.

He plops down to the floor beside Jim, and Jim immediately scoots himself up under Sam's arm. Settled, Sam absently cards his fingers through Jim's hair (he needs a haircut) and watches star systems flash across the ceiling as Jim rapidly flips through perspectives.

Sam squints at the data feed. It's real-time, not pre–rendered. Jim hacked Tarsus IV's sub-space broadcast signal.

Sam feels his eyebrows arch. "Code-picker?"

Jim hums a distracted affirmative, like criminal breaches of Federation servers are no more impressive to him than loading porn on a padd. Eventually, he finds what he's looking for and an unimpressive swath of space blinks quietly across the ceiling. Sam wonders just what's on the ceiling that Jim couldn't get standing out on the roof.

"What are we looking at, buddy?"

"Mom."

The USS Kahlotus is nothing but a small pearl of light above them, one bright pin-prick among many, anonymous and beguiling in its homey clutch of stars.

Jim cranes his head back to look at Sam. "Are you still mad at her, Sammy?"

The weight in his chest suggests he's not up for this, but he's too loose with exhaustion to try and evade it, either.

"Yeah," he finally says. "But differently than I used to be."

"How?"

"I'm not sure," he lies. Sam can't put this part into words, in a way Jim will understand. He's brilliant, and harder in some ways than kids his age ought to be, but all the really important parts of him are still very young. Sam can't tell him that if you hate someone long enough, it stops being the most important part of your day.

"She left," is what Sam settles on, because it's true.

"She didn't leave me." Jim fidgets with a nearby bit of wire. "To leave someone you gotta be there first."

Sam shifts, tugs and pulls until they're both on their sides, so that he can put both hands on Jim's face and look him straight on. "She does love us, buddy. She loves you."

"But," Jim whispers, licking his lips. "But it doesn't make us better, Sammy. It don't make us better people, loving each other."

Sam presses their foreheads together and stays like that for a while. "It might make us even, though," he whispers. "If we're happy."

"Yeah?"

Stars wobble above Sam, celestial bodies crashing across the wine-dark sea of space, oblivious. Deaf to drama and destiny. Somewhere, Winona Kirk is happy, if a little mournful. Unsure of her wayward heart the way she never is of machines and the strength in her hands.

Sam is still angry, and maybe always will be, but he's also completely, impossibly, happy.

"Yeah."

oOo

Sometime in the night they shift on the floor, Jim pressing his forehead to the back of Sam's neck, murmuring softly to himself about schemes and daydreams until his words slur and slip off into sleep.

Sam sleeps pretty well that way.

oOo

It all happens very fast after that.

oOo

Tarsus rots, a greasy pestilence oozing from the very ground, as if something deep inside bursts and there's nowhere for the foulness to go but up. Crops turn soft and black. Food spoils in wet lumps of sick yellow and acid green mold. White tufts of mildew gather in the corners of rooms and grey speckles of a nameless sickness bloom across the walls.

oOo

Sam and Hillshire destroy as much as they can as fast as they can, wiping the server as Aurelian wires an EMP bomb with broken fingers and whatever her genius brain can salvage from the mess on the floor.

The barred doors to the lab shiver, the staccato burst of gunfire beating out a countdown on the other side.

oOo

Hillshire's face, as familiar to Sam as his own reflection in the mirror, splinters and bursts in a single clap of noise. His eyes bulge in their sockets, large and briefly comical, and then rupture.

oOo

The EMP detonator is slick with blood when Sam closes his hand around it.

oOo

Emergency shuttles are shot down, anti-aircraft fire creating a volley of burning metal in the sky.

oOo

They break down the door, polymer crunching, plastic snapping, and Sam holds on as tight as he can. Holds on until his vision goes red, crinkling at the edges with white fury.

Sam holds on to Jim as tight as he can, but they still take him.

oOo

The Compound is cloistered by security check points, biological identification scanners at every entrance. It's old technology, these biometrics, with their hungry needles and tiny scraping knives.

They can't be fooled, but they can be manipulated.

So can guards.

oOo

He finds Carol first, alone in a holding cell.

She smells like sweat and disinfectant. There's a tuft of hair clenched in her tiny, white-knuckled hand.

oOo

Most Terran humans register as psi-null. But in truth, what's tested during screening is simply demonstrated ability, not dormancy, which sits in the full complement of human genetics like a cancer in remission. That's the mark the Eugenics Wars left on them: the disease of potential ribbed through their genes like a vein of cursed gold.

oOo

Kevin's face contorts, and he mewls softly, hands scrabbling for Sam.

Sam holds him for as long as he dares.

oOo

All of the Goonies rank higher than average in their Esper, Aperception, and Duke-Heidelburg quotients.

oOo

Thomas cringes away from Sam when he breaks in again.

Thomas hides his face and curls up in a tight ball, refuses to speak or move. It takes Sam over an hour to gently draw him out of the corner. The doctors have already dressed it, but Sam lightly tips Thomas' head back, carefully inspecting the hole where his left eye should be.

"Okay," he says, cradling Thomas in his lap, "okay, sweetheart."

oOo

This is what Sam knows about the sessions:

What they do is not necessarily DNA resequencing.

What they do hurts.

What they do takes a very long time.

oOo

Gary and Carol are together. Blood beads at the seam of Carol's fingernails pressed to his skin.

Sam's hand hovers awkwardly over their folded limbs.

"If hurts if we don't touch."

oOo

When the ash comes it powders the colony in delicate, whisper-warm flecks of bone and cinder. Sam's people huddle, silent under the snow of the dead, the tops of their bent heads dusty with crumbling crowns.

oOo

Sam learns how to use a gun.

oOo

Jim, who's never been afraid of the dark or cowed by great heights; who's never met a dare he didn't immediately rush towards with blind, naked joy; who's never needed a better reason to throw himself off a cliff other than not having done it before; Jim, who lives on the wild thrill of the unknown in a way Sam never has and never will -

"I'm scared."

Sam can't control his face. He feels it cave under the sudden stab of gut-deep sadness. He can't control his face or the desperate way he reaches for Jim, hands tense and stuttering with the need to wrap him up in the worthless protection of his arms, to hold Jim as close as he can.

"I know," Sam says, "I know you are, buddy."

("Sweetheart? Can you hear me?")

Jim presses his face into the crook Sam's shoulder, and shakes. Makes a low, wrenching moan that hurts to hear. Sam gasps wetly and hitches him closer, his hot cheek pressed to the top of Jim's head, cradling him the way he used to when Jim was just a baby and needed to be held.

"I love you," the low, strangled scratch of his own voice is a shock, more so than the hot prickle of tears.

In the quiet of his own selfish thoughts and cruel fantasies, Sam used to wonder if his father was a coward. Such an ugly, treacherous notion. A trespass so forbidden, so unforgivably bad it could only be taken out and looked at in the dark, Sam sweaty and nervous under his sheets as he rolled it over in his mind. He used to wonder with bold, jaw-clenching fury if it was courage at all, to stay on a burning bridge. To choose to die sitting down rather than running away. He used to wonder if Dad could have possibly loved Mom and Jimmy just that goddamn much, or if it was simply the madness of surrender, the drunk thrill of giving up in the face of terrible odds, that allowed George to stay where he was and sound like he meant it when he said "I love you."

Sam knows now, that he did.

Sam presses dry kisses to Jim's hair and his sandpaper skin.

And knows he's his father's son.