Summary: The burden of a leader isn't the strain of heroics or the power of command. It's the constant knowledge that the lives of your people are in your hands, and the weight of guilt and loss when those lives slip through your fingers. Jim Kirk understands this now.
Warnings: Non-primary character death.
James T. Kirk was the finest example of a Starfleet officer, except when he wasn't, but in those cases, he usually made up for it somehow. Tried by fire, but never tempered by time, nobody had been sure how he'd take to the more tedious rigors of command. The spectacular heroics of saving a planet were praiseworthy and impressive, but they were also a galaxy away from the daily trials of leading a crew – many of whom were older than the Captain himself. Starfleet Command and much of the crew of the USS Enterprise had been reluctant at first to embrace Jim's captaincy. His raw skills and knowledge were never in question; he was a master of tactics, a surprisingly skillful diplomat, and generally clever as hell. However, he was also brash, reckless, and – if you asked one Doctor Leonard McCoy – a bit too shallow to lead a crew who looked to him for guidance, safety, and the care of their very lives.
But over time, trust was earned. Whatever Kirk's shortcomings might be – and he had plenty – nobody was ever able to find fault in him for lack of compassion. He loved his crew. He loved them in the truest sense, and it didn't take them long to learn that. And McCoy had come to understand it, too – possibly better than anyone else would ever know. As a doctor, and as Jim's best friend, it was both a relief and a sobering realization.
It had hit him six months into their mission, after a mission from which half the team had come back dead and the other half injured. McCoy had been in the transporter room waiting for them, ready with a full team of his own medical staff to meet the wounded. With the arrival of the landing party, the tense anticipation of the transporter room had exploded into a flurry of activity, barked commands, bloody uniforms, and a pair of icy blue eyes cutting through it all to meet McCoy's.
"Take him first," Jim had said as he'd rushed down the stairs carrying one of the security officers like the man weighed nothing, settling him on the stretcher. The blood on Ensign Ballenger was almost invisible against his red tunic, but stood out starkly against the pale of command gold. The steely set of Jim's face as he said, "Save him, Bones," told McCoy that the kid was dying, even before the tricorder spit back the readings.
However, before McCoy had even looked back up from the tricorder, Jim had walked past him and was almost out of the transporter room. Well, perhaps 'walked' was the wrong word. He was clearly limping, and McCoy suddenly realized that the blood on Jim's shirt wasn't just from the dying Ensign.
"Captain!" he called out as he and one of the medics began pushing the stretcher towards the hallway. "You get down to sickbay. That's an order!"
Already halfway down the hall, Jim waved a careless hand in acknowledgment, but not necessarily agreement. He was going the wrong way. McCoy didn't have time to chase after him, so he had merely narrowed his eyes, then hurried towards sickbay with the stretcher and its dying payload.
Three apprehensive hours later, McCoy had followed the Captain's orders – he'd saved Ensign Ballenger. The Captain, however, had thoroughly failed to follow his CMO's orders, and hadn't shown hide or hair in sickbay.
McCoy groaned as he sat down heavily at his desk. "Computer, locate Captain Kirk."
"Captain Kirk is in his quarters."
"Patch a message through to his comm."
"Unable to comply. Captain Kirk's communication terminal is currently active on a secure channel."
"Great," he grumbled to himself. Knowing there was no point in making himself comfortable, McCoy lurched out of his chair and grabbed his emergency medkit. "Nurse Chapel," he called out as he bustled through sickbay, quickly making a visual check of the vital sign readouts on the two away team members who were recovering.
"Keep an eye on things. We've got a customer who decided to skip his appointment."
She gave him a knowing nod. "Good luck."
The journey to the Captain's quarters was short enough, but by the time he got there, he was slightly breathless, and not from exertion. He hadn't liked the look on Jim's face as he'd stormed out of the transporter room – a look so unlike the Jim he knew… or thought he knew.
He was about to press his hand against the hailing panel when he realized he could hear Jim's voice through the door. He frowned. The doors were fairly soundproof. Jim was yelling, and he sounded furious. Feeling a bit more anxious, he finally pressed the hailing panel. "Jim?"
No response, other than the continued yelling.
Shaking his head, McCoy reluctantly tabbed in the medical override code, and the door obediently slid open. Oh yes, the yelling was much louder on this side, and now, as the door slid shut behind him, he was privy to the full content of Jim Kirk's tirade.
"… and you never bothered to mention that in the mission briefing! You've been sitting on that information for months, and you sent the Enterprise here as a goddamned show of force, not as a diplomatic entourage!"
McCoy walked around the corner of the wall to see Jim standing with his back to the door, facing his computer terminal. A Starfleet officer with thinning gray hair and a face that looked like folded bread dough was staring back with what passed as a watery rendition of contempt.
"Captain Kirk, if we had sent you in with the knowledge that this was anything less than a mission of pure diplomacy and goodwill, you could have –"
"Could have what, Commodore?" Jim snarled, cutting him off. "Could have gone in prepared? Could have briefed my team to know that the K'shavia tribe was a dissident local populace who were liable to attack the conference? Could have warned Ensign Lopez that the Kolarins feel that it's perfectly acceptable to assault any female who isn't subservient before they dragged her away and murdered her?" Jim shifted side to side on his feet, one hand clenching the back of his chair and the other fist thumping the surface of the desk to punctuate his words. He was a ball of fury, all pent-up emotion releasing in tiny spurts, rather than exploding. McCoy was afraid to see what it would look like if he did explode.
Then, with an exaggerated movement, Jim suddenly slammed both of his hands down on the desk. "Oh, I know! I could have refused this god forsaken mission in the first place because it would have been obvious that diplomatic relations with these people would be impossible. It's only an attempt at posturing by the Federation – a damned pony show. This close to Romulan space? A pre-warp culture? Stepping all over the Prime Directive under the guise of protecting them from the Romulans? That's why you didn't tell me, Commodore! Because this is a deadly game of poker that the Federation is playing with the Romulan Empire, using star systems like a stack of chips, and you know that I would have called your bluff."
"Kirk, Federation strategy against the Romulans is classified, and your speculations will get you nowhere." The Commodore adjusted his shirt huffily. "In addition, the risk was deemed acceptable by Starfleet Command. You were not supposed to beam to the surface with the preliminary landing party, had you followed orders."
"What's good enough for them is good enough for me. I go where my men go," Kirk growled, leaning close to the viewscreen, his voice laced with a sort of fury that made McCoy tremble. He hadn't known that Jim could sound like that.
"You go where Starfleet tells you to go, Captain, and your men go where the orders point. Starfleet command had determined that the potential losses were an equitable trade for a chance at forging this strategic alliance and gaining access to the planet. Even unsuccessful, the mission was valuable. In the greater scheme of the Federation and the interests of our allies, this was necessary."
"Necessary?" Kirk's voice dripped with brutal sarcasm. "Necessary for my people to go into a mission without even a cursory understanding of this planet and the darker side of its culture? Necessary for us to go in unarmed because we were supposed to look like we trusted them? This was NOT necessary, Commodore! We're Starfleet officers; we can accept the risk and the danger – that's part of the mission – but you put my people in harm's way unnecessarily, and that is unacceptable."
"You can't get so worked up over a couple of redshirts, Captain."
In an instant, Jim's constant buzz of nervous motion ceased, and he became deadly still, like the eye of a hurricane or the silence before an earthquake. McCoy couldn't see Jim's face, and just then, he didn't want to. The muscles in Jim's shoulders clenched like a spring ready to snap. Instead of yelling, his voice was low, soft, and deadly.
"Don't you ever use that term around me. Ensign Lopez and Lieutenant Nguyen were members of my crew, Commodore. Valued members. They were my people, and there is nothing more important."
"Kirk, you need to understand that we work in a bigger picture, and –"
"Damn your bigger picture, and damn you, Commodore. Give my regards to Starfleet."
And with that, the brewing storm exploded. With a sudden rush of movement, Kirk's fist slammed into his computer screen, sending it flying across his quarters and smashing into the wall.
McCoy stood there, speechless, barely breathing. He stared, unable to move, as Jim slowly bent forward, leaning heavily on the desk. He watched Jim's shoulders heave up and down with the rage that hadn't been fully spent on the computer terminal, which was now sparking and sputtering on the floor. For a moment, McCoy wondered if he could slip out the door before Jim even realized he was there, but that thought was cut off before it had really taken root.
"Hey, Bones," Jim said, his voice rough and thick. "I guess I need a new computer terminal, don't I?"
"Jim, I…" He swallowed against the dryness in his throat. There was no point in asking how long Jim had known he'd been there. "I came down to check on you. You were injured on the away mission, too, and you never came back to sickbay."
"I wasn't hurt that badly," he brushed off, his head drooping down a little bit. "Not like Lopez and Nguyen. Not like Ballenger. I got the report, by the way. Thank you for saving him."
"It's my job, Jim."
"But you did it, and that's what matters." Jim's shoulders trembled, and he sucked in an unsteady breath. "My job was to protect my crew – to give them every chance possible. There's always a risk, but they deserved a fucking chance, Bones, and they didn't get it. I didn't do my job. I couldn't save them."
Still feeling nervous, as if Jim was an old-style grenade with the pin already pulled, McCoy clutched his medkit tighter as he crossed the room and gently rested a hand on Jim's shoulder. He was shaking. "Jim… you can't save everyone."
"I can try."
"Then try. I try every day. That doesn't mean I always win."
Slowly, Jim stood upright and turned to face him. McCoy had to bite his own tongue not to flinch at the sight. There were ugly abrasions across his face, a black eye, bruising on his neck, and dried blood that had soaked the lower half of his shirt, but his eyes held the worst wound. They were so dull they looked almost grey instead of blue, unfocused and empty. "Do you remember their names, Bones?"
McCoy felt his mouth open, but the words were hard to find. "What do you mean, Jim?"
"Their names. They're not just… just… redshirts. Fuck, I hate that word. Whoever came up with that goddamned word…" He shook his head, more to himself than at McCoy. "They're not nameless, faceless… every single one of them – Bones, the patients, the people you've treated, whether you managed to save them or not – they're important to you, aren't they?"
"Of course they are."
"Do you remember their names?"
The question was so innocent, so earnest; it matched the look on Jim's face so perfectly that McCoy felt something in his chest tighten. Unable to meet Jim's gaze as he answered, McCoy looked away. "I can't remember all of their names, Jim." Then he gritted his teeth and glanced back up, because he had to look Jim in the eye as he said this.
"If I remembered them that clearly, every single time, I'd go mad. We have to accept that we're going to lose some of them. It's something that every doctor has to learn to do – to care so much that we'd give anything to save a patient, but when it's over… to walk away and move on. If we don't, then we can't be ready to save the next one. But that doesn't mean they don't matter, Jim. They do. Yes, every single one of them." McCoy reached out and lightly touched the ugly purple bruise forming around Jim's eye socket. "Including you." He gently wrapped his fingers around Jim's arm and gave a tug. "Here, Jim. Sit down, and let me fix you up."
Jim let himself be pulled over to the couch where he sat silently, looking down. As McCoy scanned him, it was all he could do not to let out a whistle of dismay. Based on the fact that Jim had been carrying a crew member who weighed over 80 kilos and had then strode off down the hall like nothing was wrong, McCoy had been expecting scrapes, bruises, and maybe a sprained ankle. Instead, the scan showed two broken ribs, an energy weapon burn to the right quadriceps, a hairline fracture of the left orbital bone, and a ruptured spleen. "Good God, Jim, how the hell were you still standing? You've got internal bleeding – I need to get you down to sickbay now. Weren't you in enough pain to know that something was wrong?"
"I was a little bit distracted," Jim said quietly, then glanced back up at McCoy. "I guess other things hurt worse."
For a long moment, McCoy looked back at Jim, knowing that while he could fix the physical injuries easily enough, he could only wish there was something he could do – anything he could do – to fix the wound that looked like it had left Jim's soul bleeding out. At best, he could only hope that it would heal in time. Finally, he nodded. "I understand, Jim. Come on, let's go."
That had been just over a year and a half ago. Since then, the youngest Captain in Starfleet history had gained a few wrinkles as he'd lost more than a few crew members. He'd also gained the admiration of the entire Federation, and young, hopeful officers continued to flood his message cache with applications to transfer to the Enterprise. The reason for their requests which they gave in their official applications was that they sought the enviable posts on board Starfleet's beautiful flagship, which would naturally get all the best assignments and grandest adventures. The real reason, which was whispered in mess halls and private meetings, was that everyone wanted to serve under Captain James T. Kirk – the man who cared about his ship and crew more than anything, and would go to the ends of the universe for both. Captain Kirk would never leave a man behind. Captain Kirk led by example. Captain Kirk knew every crew member by name.
But when an away mission went wrong, as it had today, only one person dared to seek out Captain James T. Kirk in his personal quarters.
Crewman Kowalski had been killed in an accident. Pure bad luck. Nobody to blame, no reason to feel guilty. They were doing a geological survey on a seismically unstable planet, and a tremor had triggered a rockslide. But that didn't mean that Jim hadn't felt the loss as sharply as every other one he'd ever experienced. That didn't mean that the stoic young Captain didn't need a friend to sit there with him in silence and drink a round to the loss of yet another crew member due to the inherent dangers of space exploration.
So, just as he had a year and a half before, and many times since then, Leonard McCoy walked down the corridor to Jim's door. He had his medkit with him out of habit more than intent; he didn't think Jim was injured this time – not physically, at any rate. There had been no other injuries to tend from the away team – Kowalski had been the only casualty – so McCoy had been able to seek Jim out immediately instead of having to wait until the injured had been stabilized. When he pressed the hailing pad, Jim's automatic reply, "Come," sounded a bit startled.
The door slid open, and McCoy entered to find Jim sitting at his desk, which was not unusual. What was unusual were the ancient-looking leather-bound book sitting open on the desk in front of him, the inkwell sitting off to the side, and the calligraphy pen that Jim was holding just over the page.
"Hey Jim," McCoy started casually, but he couldn't keep the curious expression off his face.
Before he could even ask, Jim gave a heavy sigh. "Give me a few more minutes, Bones. Pull up a seat on the couch. I just need to finish this." He turned back and continued the painstaking and deliberate process of scratching out lines of text the way human beings had done centuries before.
Although he'd sworn never to be surprised by Jim Kirk, McCoy had to admit that this caught him a bit off-guard. He watched, almost mesmerized, as Jim focused on every twist and stroke of the pen across the paper. Occasionally, he would pause to reload the ink, tapping the pen once and drawing it across the lip of the inkwell each time to remove the excess ink. McCoy wondered why Jim would go to such trouble. After all, he was the guy who had once suggested during his academy years that instead of having to type or speak to record notes, he ought to simply be able to get the computer to read his brain. And yet here he was, with an inkwell and a calligraphy pen, practicing this ancient art aboard a starship.
Finally, Jim tapped out the rest of the ink from the pen, wiped the nib on a scrap of cloth, and closed the inkwell. The pen and ink went into a drawer of the desk, but not the book. Carefully, reverently, Jim picked up the book so that he didn't smudge the pages and carried it over with him as he sat on the couch next to McCoy.
"It's not that I had kept this a secret or anything on purpose," he began, almost as if the conversation had been carrying on the whole time, "but usually by the time you made it down here, I was done writing."
"What is it, Jim?"
Jim tilted the book towards McCoy so that he could see the words. The top of the page was headed, in slightly larger text, "Eric Kowalski, 27, crewman, science tech." Below that, in smaller scrawl, began a litany of memories and anecdotes about the young crewman, closing with a description of how he had died. Then there was a break in the text, and at the very bottom of the page, there was one last line. "I will order better scans of every landing site for stability before beaming down a landing party. You will never be forgotten."
"If I can remember them – really remember them – for who they were," Jim said, his voice barely above a whisper, "and if I can learn a lesson from their deaths, then it meant something. Because then, maybe nobody else will have to die the way they did."
"They?" McCoy asked, but even as he did, he knew the answer. The ink was already dry, so he reached over and flipped back a page. There was Lieutenant Chen, from the shuttlecraft accident the previous month. On the page before that, crewman Pierce from the engineering explosion that had also taken Wilcox and Ryusaki, whose names and stories were etched onto the pages just before that. The pages that went back held more names, more stories, each one delicately and deliberately hand-traced in permanent ink. Each one was sealed with a promise from Jim Kirk to that crew member that he would carry the hard-earned lesson with him, that he would never forget.
"Wow, Jim. This is… this is really something."
Jim shook his head. "They were really something. The best. Every single one of them, Bones. This… it's how I remember." He finally looked up and met McCoy's eyes. "And then, I can close the book and move on, knowing that I'll never forget, but I can still be ready to try to save the next one. It's not perfect, but it's all I can do."
"It's enough, Jim."
"It doesn't feel like it. But it has to be." He sighed, then slowly, reverently closed the book and held it to his chest like a shield. "Nothing worth doing has ever been safe, has it, Bones? The early explorers – Ericson, Magellan, Vespucci, Columbus – how many of their people died? But what wonders did they find? And every new frontier we've explored in the centuries since then – it's always been dangerous." He tapped the book against his chest. "I would never trade danger for complacency, and I know that they all joined Starfleet because they wouldn't make that trade either. I won't take that away from them, and I can't wish they'd had another fate, because it would belittle what they lived for. But I can make damned sure they're never forgotten."
With a grunt, he leaned forward and stood, walking across his quarters to the bookshelf. He tucked the small book between some of the other old novels he'd taken to collecting. When he turned back to face McCoy, there was something in his eyes – a strange look, both sad and hopeful at once, but then it was gone. Shaking his head to himself, he reached down and pulled out a bottle of old whiskey and two glasses. A tilt of his head invited Bones to join him, and a moment later, they were each holding a full tumbler of liquor.
Looking solemn, his eyes tight with emotion, Jim held up his glass and toasted, "To Eric Kowalski."
"To Eric Kowalski," McCoy echoed, and as he tipped back the glass, in his mind, he also toasted to Jim Kirk.
In the darkness and silence of space, through the unyielding cogs of time that slowly grind the universe to dust, perhaps the greatest thing a person could ever hope was to not be forgotten. James T. Kirk was the finest example of a Starfleet officer, except when he wasn't, but he usually made up for that somehow; therefore the universe would always remember him as the man who saved Earth, fought Klingons, defended outposts, negotiated peace treaties, and led the best crew Starfleet had ever known. Yes, Captain Kirk was the finest example of a starship captain, even when he wasn't; therefore the crew would remember their Captain, a man who cared more about them than they could possibly understand, a man to whom they had willingly entrusted their lives. But Jim was also the finest example of a human being, even when he wasn't; therefore Leonard McCoy would remember Jim, the man whose blue eyes were now wet and bloodshot for another man who would be forgotten by history, forgotten by the universe, but never forgotten by James T. Kirk.
~ Dedicated to Private First Class Ware. You will never be forgotten. ~