Pike was almost done with his pre-flight diagnostics when he heard Toland's sharp voice cutting through the shuttlecraft, and he allowed himself a small grin. She certainly had a way of doing things, but it worked.
When she'd returned to the barracks that morning at almost 0300 hours, he was still awake and sitting on the front steps of the building, waiting and thinking. After his chat with Kirk, sleep had become a low priority, so he'd used the excuse of waiting up to ensure that Cadet Hudson's injuries had been well-tended. They were, and he hadn't expected otherwise.
By that hour, there was little reason to sleep, so he and Toland sent Hudson to his bunk and sat outside to debrief each other.
Toland had been more than a little bit surprised to learn the identity of the civilian that her cadets had attacked, and even more taken aback to hear that Pike had tried to talk him into joining Starfleet.
"Captain, with all due respect, I don't care who his father is," she'd argued. "Look at his record! He's got three misdemeanors and a pattern of anti-authoritative behavior."
"And his IQ tests and academic records are off the chart."
She'd scowled at him. "Brilliant and volatile can get even more people killed out there, Sir. A psych profile like that? Try getting him to learn to follow protocols. He's a loose cannon. Who's going to be responsible for him when he goes off?"
Pike had taken a long moment before answering, realizing the weight of what he was saying. "I guess it'll be me."
Toland had given him a skeptical look. "I had been under the impression that your tenure at the Academy was a temporary assignment until they gave you a new ship."
At that, he'd looked up at the Enterprise, which was still illuminated like a beacon in the night. "It is. Too bad my ship's not ready yet."
Understanding had dawned on her, and she'd let herself crack a soft smile. "I see."
"So what took you so long with Hudson down at the clinic?"
Grimacing, she'd matched his tale with a story of her own. She'd told him that she'd possibly recruited a trained and qualified doctor from the local clinic, which Pike found surprising enough, but even more surprising when she had described his skill level. It was easy to recruit second-rate medical personnel, but top-notch surgeons? Those were hard to come by in today's political climate.
However, when he'd looked up the man's record himself, it made sense.
Pike had still been off-planet when McCoy had been in the news, but it wasn't hard to find the media records. Looking through all of the details while waiting for sunrise, he found himself feeling bad for the man. A brilliant career that had barely begun, a family tragedy that had ruined it, and it was all a matter of public record. McCoy must have been sunk pretty low to end up in Iowa with the Rural Doctors program. Pike hoped he would do well in Starfleet. A doctor of his talents with a reputation for thinking outside the box? A man like that would be a good addition to the medical staff aboard Starfleet's new flagship… as would Kirk, if he could get his act together.
Naturally, Pike and Toland had hedged bets with a friendly wager of whose impromptu recruit would actually show up. Pike was more than pleased that the bet came up even, and the shuttlecraft was leaving Iowa with a full payload of forty fresh faces. Well, some were fresher than others, but it seemed good enough.
A green indicator light flashed on his control panel, and he toggled the shuttle intercom switch. "This is Captain Pike. We've been cleared for takeoff."
A moment later, Toland was bustling back into the pilot's compartment and was strapping herself into the copilot's seat. "I might have convinced that doctor to join up, but he's going to be a piece of work," she said with a huff.
"What's his problem?" Pike asked casually, activating the primary engines and powering up the inertial dampeners.
"Aside from displaying an aversion to authority, a penchant for sarcasm, and a bedside manner that almost makes a Klingon seem cuddly?"
"You sound like you've found a friend." Pike tried not to grin as he felt Toland's eyes drilling into the side of his face. "Was he sick? Drunk?"
Toland shook her head as she tapped her authorization code into the copilot's controls. "Scared of flying."
Pike couldn't help himself. He laughed. "He'll have to get over that quickly."
She didn't reply as Pike activated the thrusters and the shuttlecraft lifted off the ground. As they lifted into the air, Pike couldn't help but stare at the Enterprise one last time, her half-finished shell gleaming silver-white in the morning sun. His breath almost caught, and he cleared his throat.
"She's gonna be gorgeous," he said reverently, not even bothering to hide the fact that he was taking the shuttle the long way around the shipyard towards his approved flight path.
He saw Toland nod out of the corner of his eye. "How long until construction will be complete?" she asked.
Pike felt a small grin creeping up on him. "Three years."
"Hmmm. The ship will be ready before anyone in this batch of cadets even graduates."
Pike let the grin spread across his face. "Oh, I don't know about that. Sometimes, people surprise you."
Jim wasn't sure whether to be amused or put off by the growling declaration, I might throw up on you. The cantankerous man had been dragged out of the bathroom, only to grudgingly occupy the empty seat next to him, and then rattle off a litany of possible ways to die in space. He looked like he'd had just as miserable of a night as Jim, and was obviously the only other person on the shuttle who wasn't one of the expected recruits – as if he'd been plucked out of his own dead-end life as well. Strangely, even though the guy was gruff and had obviously been drinking a bit, Jim found himself welcoming that natural companionship from someone who might be in the same sort of boat as him.
"Jim Kirk," he introduced himself, feeling the burn of the whiskey as he knocked back a small nip. Bourbon, actually. Pretty good bourbon, he noted.
"McCoy. Leonard McCoy," the guy replied, then accepted his flask back from Jim and tucked it into his jacket pocket. He settled back into his seat for a moment, only to jolt sharply upright as the shuttle's main hatch sealed shut with a metallic clank. He began to fidget with his safety harness again, looking like he was about two degrees removed from panicking.
Jim frowned. If the guy was already likely to throw up, a panic attack would probably make things worse. "Hey. Relax, okay?"
McCoy looked up, and pried his hands away from the harness straps. He nodded shakily, and took a couple of deep breaths. His fingers twitched for his pocket where he'd tucked the flask, but before he could make a definitive move to grab it again, Jim reached over and lightly clapped a hand on his shoulder. It seemed to steady him a bit. "Thanks," he grumbled, looking a bit embarrassed. Jim pulled his hand away when McCoy nodded again, a bit less shaky this time. He finally looked sideways and made eye contact. "So why are you on this flying tin can, kid? No uniform, and you're a damned mess. Running from something?"
Jim chuckled drily. "Nah. I guess you could say I'm here on a dare." No need to go into details with a guy he'd just met, Jim reasoned.
"Right," McCoy said slowly, eyeing Jim's shirt and face meaningfully. "Then what the hell happened to you?"
"What? Oh." Jim looked down at his shirt, which still had dried blood on it. He'd washed his face after Pike had left the bar, but he couldn't wash away the bruises, and he hadn't gone home to get a change of clothes. It hadn't really seemed important at the time. "I never quite did get the hang of clothing reprocessors," he said in the manner of a brush-off.
McCoy snorted. "Uh-huh. How did the other guy look?"
"Oh, about like that," Jim said under his breath, indicating with a tilt of his chin towards the oversized cadet sitting further down the row. "But I'm sorry to say, he was that ugly when we started. Didn't see much of the other three."
One critical eyebrow shot upwards, surprise written all over McCoy's face. "That was you."
Jim leaned back away from the guy, feeling like he was missing something. "What was me?"
McCoy gave him a scathing look. "I had to patch up your handiwork last night. The one you whacked with the liquor bottle."
A bit of memory flashed across Jim's mind – the satisfying crash of the shattering bottle, which had sent at least one of his attackers to the floor. He couldn't help himself: he grinned. "That was a pretty good move, if I do say so myself."
McCoy rolled his eyes dramatically. "Yeah, well, it did quite a number on him. That abrasive little bastard of an officer…" He growled low in his throat, then shook his head. "She dragged him into the clinic last night – said he and his friends had attacked a civilian."
For a moment, Jim actually felt embarrassed, but before he could deflect the conversation, he was interrupted by the lurch of the shuttlecraft as it lifted off the ground.
As always, Jim felt the little thrill that he'd always gotten whenever he travelled by air. He loved to fly, and he felt himself lean forward just a little bit in anticipation. He was also happy to have an excuse to stop talking about the previous night's brawl. Really, how much was he going to share with this idiosyncratic doctor who really had no business being on a shuttlecraft, much less in Starfleet? Of course, Jim reasoned, who the hell was he to judge? They both looked like shit, and anyone looking at them objectively would probably figure they were both in the wrong place. They looked like a matched set. Jim couldn't help but grin as he glanced back over at McCoy.
And that's when he noticed McCoy's knuckles going skeletal white as he strangled the safety harness over his chest. They perfectly matched the clenched jaw, the lines of tension around eyes that were tightly squeezed shut, and the sudden pallor in McCoy's cheeks. Jim furrowed his eyebrows. Damn. I hope he knows what he's got himself into.
He might have just brushed it off and let the guy suffer on his own, but McCoy seemed like the only person on the damned shuttle who was in as awkward of a position as he was. Plus, he had shared his booze. Really good booze, at that. After a night of riding around the long country roads and trying to think clearly through the chilly air and the headache, it had been just what Jim had needed. Jim leaned in a bit closer.
"Hey. Hey. You okay in there?"
"Just fucking peachy," McCoy grumbled under his breath.
"You really hate flying, don't you?"
One eye popped open, looking just a bit crazed. "Gee kid, ya think?"
Jim cocked his head, feeling just a bit of pity for the guy. "You're going to have to get over that, ya know."
"I'll be fine," he snapped. For a minute, McCoy stared at the floor, breathing roughly, but eventually he seemed to get himself under control. "So," he started again, not fully covering the shaking in his voice, "where'd you get the brilliant idea to get into a brawl with a bunch of Starfleet cadets?"
"Hey, it wasn't my idea. They were trying to pick a fight," he said under his breath. "I was just being friendly."
"Heh, real friendly. So, you took on four, huh?" McCoy gave him an appraising look.
"You bet," Jim said, trying to sound blasé.
"Great. Reckless and sarcastic."
"As if I've got a monopoly on sarcasm between these two seats," Jim said lightly. "Besides, I was walking away. Cupcake there pulled a sucker-punch to start the mess. Clearly, he recognized my advantage in a fair fight."
Down the row of cadets, the thick-necked bastard he'd mentally christened as "Cupcake" gave him a sideways glare. Jim started to narrow his eyes in return, which he had to admit really hurt around his left eye, but his staring match was interrupted almost immediately as McCoy grabbed his arm and tugged him, sharply drawing his attention away from Cupcake.
"Well, that explains a lot," McCoy said, more to himself than to Jim, as he released Jim's arm. "Sarcastic, reckless, and bull-headed." He leaned his head back, stared at the ceiling, and grumbled something that sounded like "goddamned kid gonna get himself killed out there."
Jim scowled. "Hey, give me some credit here. I never went looking for trouble in my life. Trouble has just been good at finding me." Since the fucking day I was born, he thought darkly. "I can take care of myself."
McCoy rolled his eyes and leaned his head around, looking more at Jim's face and less at his bloodied shirt. From there, Jim got a better whiff of the bourbon that McCoy had been drinking, but the man's eyes were still steady, as if he'd either drunk less than it seemed, or he was far too accustomed to the liquor. Jim guessed the later.
"All that just from last night, huh?" McCoy said critically.
Another flush of embarrassment. "Yeah."
"Didn't go home?"
Eyebrows furrowed slightly. "Didn't see a doctor?"
"Not a chance," he said defiantly.
Then, without so much as a warning, McCoy reached up and lightly grasped Jim's chin, which shocked Jim for two reasons. First, he wasn't used to having anyone touch his face unless he was in the middle of a good fuck or a bad fight. Second, he was taken aback by McCoy's hand itself. Less rough than Jim had expected from such a gruff man, the touch was gentle and strangely soothing.
"What?" Jim asked uneasily, beginning to lean away, hoping McCoy would take the hint and let go.
"That nose needs to be reset, you might have a hairline fracture under your left eye socket, and you've got at least a mild concussion."
Surprised by the almost-professional tone, Jim finally pulled back, ducking under McCoy's reach. "Hey, who asked you? I set my nose myself –"
"You did a lousy job of it."
"– and if I wanted to see a doctor, I'd go find one."
For the first time since he'd sat down, McCoy almost looked pleased. "Just your luck, kid. You did."
Jim shrugged edgily. "So? Doesn't mean I was looking for help."
"Well, maybe ya need some." There was an offer underwriting that declaration.
Jim stared at the guy for a long moment, feeling uneasy. Needing help? Definitely not something Jim was used to admitting. Just as much, he wasn't used to people offering. It felt really awkward, but for some reason, it didn't seem out of place from this guy. "Heh," was all he could get himself to say, neither agreeing or disagreeing, and not really sure what to think.
Slowly, McCoy nodded. "You get your ass to the infirmary when we land at the Academy and get yourself patched up."
Now that thought didn't sit right. "No need," Jim shrugged. "It'll be fine. I hate doctors." He rethought that. "No offense, of course. Maybe you don't seem so bad."
At that, McCoy actually chuckled dryly. "Then after in-processing, come with me. I'll fix it."
Jim felt his stomach lurch uneasily. Who was this drunken quack of a doctor, and why did he give a shit? Maybe he didn't, Jim reasoned. A new divorcee, out of money and luck, with only his profession and his bones left to his name? Maybe he needed something to do. Maybe he needed to focus on something other than his own misery. It didn't make the unsettled feeling in Jim's stomach go away though. He didn't like the idea of anyone taking care of him for anything.
But despite the hint of wild-eyed fear still hovering behind McCoy's expression, there was an odd note of compassion there, that the guy really did want to make sure Jim's injuries had been properly tended.
"Uh, thanks –"
He was cut off by a sudden shaking as the shuttle hit a particularly turbulent air pocket. In a heartbeat, McCoy went ghastly pale, and within seconds, a clammy-looking sweat broke out across his face. Shallow, rapid breathing, eyes squeezed tightly shut, hands clenched rigidly to his safety harness. The shuttle banked as it climbed towards the upper atmosphere, hitting a layer of air that actually rattled the shuttlecraft like a small impact. McCoy jolted as though he'd been shocked, then shrunk against his seat even tighter; he looked like he was going to start hyperventilating any second.
Jim shook his head. This wouldn't do at all. He leaned in close and whispered, "Hey McCoy?" No response. "Uh… Leonard?" If anything, the man's eyes squeezed tighter shut. Frowning, Jim nudged the man's knee with his own. "Hey, Bones?"
One eye popped open, a mix of fear and confusion swimming beneath a hard front of irritation. "What?"
"I'm fine," he snapped, but the words were clipped and tense and came just a bit too readily – a response Jim recognized all too well. McCoy clearly wasn't fine, and his response was almost comical in its contrast to his appearance.
"Right. You're fine, and my nose is fine, too."
For a split second, McCoy almost seemed to come back to himself. "That nose needs to be fixed."
"No more than you need help." He slowly nodded to himself. "Listen, if you want to get through Starfleet–"
"Fuck it, kid," he choked out between gasps. His eye closed tightly again. "I got myself into this shit. I'll take care of it."
Jim shook his head, not really sure why he was even considering this. For years, nobody had given a shit about Jim Kirk, whether it was for his education, his mother's lunatic boyfriends, his injuries from crazy stunts pulled as a teenager, or… anything. Whatever McCoy's reason for giving a shit about the broken, bloody, beaten mess that was James T. Kirk, the fact remained that for just that moment, however brief, he did. And it looked like McCoy was broken, too. Jim squared his shoulders and leaned forward, looking McCoy in the face.
"Well, tell ya what, Bones. After in-processing, I'll go back with you to let you fix my nose… and then you let me help you."
This time, both of McCoy's eyes snapped open. "What?"
Jim fixed him with a steady gaze, still not quite sure what was making him say this. He kept his voice low and even. "You need help with this. So let me help you."
McCoy's death-grip on his harness straps loosened, ever so slightly. He searched Jim's face, and Jim couldn't help but think of a man dying in the desert who can't believe that the oasis isn't a mirage. "Why?"
Jim tipped his head. "You offered to help me first."
McCoy's eyebrows furrowed in a scowl, simultaneously adjusting his grip even tighter on the safety straps. "Fixin' phobias ain't like mending a broken nose."
Jim shrugged. "We've all got our issues, I guess."
"You some sort of psychoanalyst?"
Jim almost laughed out loud. "Fuck, no. More people would say that I need one."
For a long moment, McCoy stared at him. Finally, he gave a grunt and a nod before closing his eyes and shrinking back against his seat. It was all the affirmation that Jim was going to get, he knew, but hell… good enough. Why not?
Besides, he thought cynically, if Cupcake over there is going to be hanging around, it might be good to have a doctor for a friend. And the guy did share his booze.
Jim felt the turbulence stop as the shuttlecraft leveled out, and he glanced out the viewport. The sky was dark above and a vivid blue along the horizon. They were in the upper atmosphere.
Below, the surface of the earth was slowly crawling across the bottom of the viewport. Jim watched as green fields gave way to tan plains, and then the Rocky Mountains jumped up and split the land, separating both the continent and Jim's old life from his new. Dark swaths of trees over brown mountains ran together with white salt flats and red smudges of iron ore eroding down ancient mountainsides, like the land was bleeding out beneath him. From here, the earth was a kaleidoscope of color and texture, spinning serenely in space like every other planet – a mystery and an adventure waiting to happen. No stale old farmhouse, no familiar faces, no man pretending to be his father…
This was definitely better.
It had taken some hard convincing from Captain Pike for Jim to even consider the idea. He'd spent hours riding around in the chill night air, unable to weigh the nauseating dead-end of his life against the unknown of Starfleet and space. The black had swallowed his father, had kidnapped his mother, and seemed to be a waiting disaster if he let himself be rational about it. For that, maybe this crazy Doctor McCoy was right. However, there was nothing better to be had on Earth, either.
Still, he hadn't decided for certain until he finally steered his bike to the shipyards. The glow of the shipyard lights was just starting to fade into the pre-dawn light when he'd arrived, but the ship was there, like a sentinel on the horizon, or a Siren luring him in. It was then, Jim had to admit, that he'd accepted the idea of joining Starfleet. If something that beautiful was there waiting for him, it had to be better than the stale cycle of beer, sex, and dead-end jobs he'd been living.
Starfleet. As soon as he'd made his decision, it was like the whole thing had just gotten into his blood. His mind had raced with the possibilities. New planets, new stars, new adventures. Aliens, danger, challenges, mysteries – space didn't have to be the horrible thing that had torn his family apart. The more his mind churned, the more it was obvious that this was everything he wanted.
Now, with Iowa retreating behind the shuttlecraft and his future in Starfleet coming towards him on the horizon, he wasn't just walking away from his old life; he was racing towards a new one. It might be the same Earth spinning below as the one where he'd awoken two days ago, pulled on a pair of jeans, and thought he'd fall asleep that night as the same miserable waste of space he'd been the day before… but it sure felt different.
It always looks so much better from up here, Jim thought.
Jim felt himself jump in his seat, and snapped his head around. McCoy was regarding him intently, and Jim realized he'd spoken aloud. Swallowing his sudden unease at letting out any of his private thoughts, he nodded. "Yeah, it does." He thought for a moment, then grinned and tilted his head towards the window. "You gotta see this."
Instantly, McCoy looked terrified again. "No way, not interested –"
"Bones, take a look."
McCoy flattened his lips stubbornly, and the veins on his temples looked ready to burst, but he finally leaned forward and looked out the viewport. Slowly, his eyes widened and the tight set of his mouth relaxed.
Jim nodded, grinning, even though McCoy wasn't looking at him. "You said she got the whole damn planet in the divorce, right? Well, look at it, Bones. There it is. You've got it. You're the one who's here to see it, so it's all yours. From here, she's a speck. She can't touch you from here. You're so far above her and the whole mess. They can't bother you, they can't trap you, they can't hurt you –"
Jim felt his stomach clench, shocked and disgusted at himself. The memories of Frank and every other one of his mother's stupid boyfriends came swimming back, something he'd spent too many years trying to forget. I've never let that slip… never said to anyone… damn, my head actually does hurt. Change in cabin pressure from the altitude, maybe… maybe they did hit me harder than I thought, he thought uneasily. Somewhere under that, other fears, nightmares hiding beneath the surface, stabbed sharply at the back of his mind, like something unreal that he'd never been able to explain, and was never able to quite ignore. Suddenly, the look of space outside the window of the cabin seemed too familiar, and he wondered, not for the first time, if it was possible for a human to remember things from the day they were born. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed the bridge of his nose, which was actually quite painful. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I've just known… you know… friends and shit who have been through… friends who haven't had it so easy…" His voice trailed off, and he was sure McCoy wasn't buying any of it. Shit, shit, shit… fuck.
But if McCoy suspected anything else, he gave no indication. Simply nodded his head, shrank back into his seat, and closed his eyes.
Knowing that it was better to simply shut up, wait out the shuttlecraft ride, and pretend he'd said nothing, Jim settled down into his own seat. Maybe he should just take off by himself as soon as they'd landed, and face Starfleet Academy the same way he'd faced everything else – on his own. Sure, his head felt fuzzy, and if he could admit it to himself, he was pretty sure he did have a concussion and that his nose needed to be set properly, but he'd had plenty of those before and had survived them just fine without any help. Yeah, that was what he'd do. It was better that way.
Then McCoy cleared his throat. "You're right."
Jim glanced sideways without turning his head. "Huh?"
McCoy's eyes were still closed, but he was nodding slowly. "It does look better from up here."
With a shaky breath, Jim gazed back out the viewport. In the distance, he could already see the gleam of the Pacific ocean shining on the horizon under the early sunrise. He felt an unfamiliar sort of smile creep over his face. Unfamiliar… but strangely right.
On second thought, maybe he would stick with McCoy.
Pike finished the loop around the shipyard and leveled the shuttlecraft into a steady climb. The ground fell away beneath them, and soon, the deep indigo of the upper atmosphere filled the viewscreen as the world rolled by beneath them. Once past the turbulence of the lower mesosphere, Pike set the autopilot and turned to the internal shuttlecraft monitors.
The cadets were all settled in nicely, chatting amongst themselves. Pike watched for a long moment as Kirk and McCoy carried on what seemed like an intense conversation. It was interesting, he noted, that whenever Kirk would speak, McCoy looked just slightly less terrified. Whenever McCoy started talking, something in the defensive, stand-offish set of Kirk's posture would melt away. Pike grinned. Those two would be a piece of work, but something just seemed to fit there. Maybe they could help each other. Maybe they would both be great.
I'll do it in three.
Kirk's words as he'd sauntered onto the shuttlecraft might have seemed like a throwaway boast from anyone else, but Pike was certain that he'd meant it. Some instinct in Pike's mind, his knack for reading people, seeing the two of them talk, told him that with McCoy in the picture, Kirk might just do it… and he'd probably drag McCoy along with him.
Three years. They were both bright enough. They were both sharp enough. And the Enterprise would be ready by then. Maybe… just maybe.
Toland leaned over and glanced at his viewscreen, then snorted. "Those two… I hope this was a good idea."
"They were practically dumped in our hands," he said, gesturing towards the screen. "Two spaces left on the shuttle and everything. It just seems to fit – like the universe was trying to put them here. Who am I to argue with the whims of the universe?"
Toland gave him a cynical look. "You expect me to buy into the idea that the universe has some sort of plan? The universe is a cold place of random chance, Captain. It doesn't care either way."
Pike shrugged. "I have no esoteric inclinations, but sometimes… it just feels right."
She settled back into her seat and busied her hands with a minor course adjustment around an ion surge. "If you insist."
Grinning, Pike didn't reply as he took one glance back at the screen. Kirk and McCoy were both craning their necks to look out the shuttlecraft viewports. Pike felt his eyebrow rise in slight amazement. Considering the phobic behavior McCoy had displayed towards being anywhere that he could possibly see the viewports, this was positively astonishing. Kirk snuck a quick look at McCoy, wearing a broad grin of accomplishment.
Well I'll be damned, Pike thought, chuckling to himself. With a tap of the control panel, he switched off the cabin monitor and relaxed back into his own seat, taking in the view that Kirk and McCoy had been enjoying.
Mountains slipped past, giving way to dry hills and scrubby trees. Pike turned off the autopilot and dropped the shuttlecraft into the troposphere over the lush green fields of Central Valley. Finally, the gleam of the Pacific Ocean crested the horizon. As he banked the shuttle into its final descent to the San Francisco Bay area, the proud buildings of Starfleet Academy became visible against the dark hills and smooth fields of the Presidio.
Pike smiled to himself. Maybe the view was better than he thought.