And this is yet another example of my recent obsession with Star Trek. I must have watched the 2009 movie ten times within the last couple of months. Not to mention several other ST movies. But hey, it's an awesome franchise, so I figure it's all right. Right? Please, somebody tell me I'm right! =]

Disclaimer: I do not own Star Trek

Jim couldn't help but breathe a quiet sigh of relief as the Enterprise docked. It had been a rough few weeks, but they were finally home.

It had been three weeks since the distress call. Three weeks since a future Romulan, mad with grief, had in one shot destroyed most of a proud and distinguished race, as well as the future of Starfleet. Most of his graduating class, gone. Vulcan, gone. It was almost too much to take.

He and the rest of the bridge crew, including McCoy and Scotty, remained somber as they boarded the last shuttle back to Earth; the new burden of experience lay heavily on their shoulders. As the shuttle landed, they all tensed, preparing for the circus to come. All were remembering the orders they had received from the admiralty the day before. Act the part, they had said. Professional, they had said. Don't screw up. Smile for the cameras. You don't have a choice, they had intoned. They wanted a scapegoat, a poster boy. And they intended Jim Kirk to be that person. The rest of the crew had no intention of letting the admiralty get away with it, but there wasn't much they could do. They knew the press would be waiting as soon as they docked, ready to put them all up on pedestals, ready to hound them for exclusives on all the gory details.

They also knew most of the attention would be on Jim, but that didn't mean they had to let him go through it alone.

Sure enough, as soon as the shuttle was secured and the doors opened, the bridge crew was assaulted by incomprehensible shouting. Jim stood up and mentally prepared himself. He squared his shoulders, mask firmly in place, and turned to his friends. "You ready?" he asked simply.

They all looked at him, taking note of the seriousness in his posture. He seemed ready to take on the hounds as nothing but the cool calm, and collected, confident captain they had had the pleasure to get to know over the last few weeks. The traces of bruising around his throat had all but disappeared, and he showed no hint of pain as he moved.

McCoy, however, knew Jim better than that. He could see the faint traces of anger and annoyance hidden under the mask. Just like he could see the slightly too careful way he held himself; it wouldn't have been visible to anyone who did not know the man very well, but the doctor could see it. He bet Kirk's ribs were bothering him, not that the idiot would ever admit it. It was one of his more annoying character traits: the fool would never confess to being in pain, or to needing any sort of medical attention. McCoy often wondered why, but he had never asked; nor had Jim offered. They were friends, sure, but there were some topics Jim wouldn't talk about even with him.

Frowning, the doctor pulled his mind back to the task at hand, and nodded along with the rest of the crowd, as they joined their acting captain in exiting the shuttle.

XXX

The noise increased the minute they stepped out into the open. It assaulted them from all sides, like a wave crashing down; they all hesitated momentarily, looking towards Jim instinctively.

The young man felt their collective attention, and self-consciously stood straighter; he forced himself to walk calmly towards the waiting cluster of officials standing at the other end of the path set between the hounding press and…

Jim felt his friends around him pause, and looked over; he was surprised by the sense of melancholy that filled him as he was met with the sight of family members, waving and shouting, all with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.

He cast a cautious glance towards the officials still waiting for them, and then looked back at his group. They were all gazing hungrily at their families, but Starfleet training kept them from making any move towards the group of civilians.

Jim's eyes softened as he read the longing in his friends' stances. "Go," he ordered quietly. They all turned to him, confused. He managed to form a smile that – he hoped – looked genuine, and nodded in the direction they had all been looking just moments before. "Go," he repeated. "Go see your families." When he saw several of them flick their eyes towards the admiralty waiting for them, he shook his head. "They can wait," he said sternly.

That was all any of them needed. The newly formed group of friends made a beeline towards the civilians, Jim following much more slowly. He watched, a small, sad smile firmly in place, as McCoy bent down to pick up a young girl, tugging her away from a smiling woman a few years younger than him and swinging her around in his arms, a most un-McCoy-like smile on his face. Chekov was being passed between a middle aged man and woman, all three chattering away in Russian, while Uhura was consumed by four woman who looked a lot like her, only slightly older. Sulu was hugging a woman around his age, while his arm was extended, grasping the hand of someone who could only be his mother. Scotty was prattling on in Gaelic with two men, who were pounding him on the back, and Spock… Spock had remained separate from the crowd. He was watching the reunions in typical Vulcan fashion, but Jim thought he might know the man better now. He could see the undercurrent of sadness in the stance, the set of his shoulders.

As if sensing the attention, Spock turned and met Jim's gaze. The two stared at each other for several moments, assessing. Finally, Spock nodded slightly, and Jim understood the apology, esteem, respect, and even admiration that were present in that small movement.

"Jim!"

The acting captain jerked slightly in surprise as he broke the stare to look for whoever had called for him. No one was readily visible, and Jim furrowed his brow in confusion.

"Jim!"

The young man frowned. He recognized that voice. But it couldn't be. Not now. Not when things actually seemed to be going well; he was fairly certain he wouldn't be getting expelled, and people seemed to be pretty impressed with him. Why on earth would –

A forced slammed into him, and he took a step back instinctively. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw several cameras from the press side snap quick photos, and his friends looked away from their families to watch him, puzzlement clear on their faces.

Except for McCoy. He could see the resemblance between Jim and the man who had attached himself to his best friend. He could make an educated guess as to who this was. Daughter still in his arms, he took a step closer to Jim, ready to intervene if necessary.

"Sam?" Jim asked, somewhat dazed, as he lifted his arms to grasp the slightly taller man's shoulders, pushing him away so that he could get a good look. The years had certainly aged his brother, but not in a bad way. His hair was a few shades darker than Jim's, he was a few inches taller, and his eyes were hazel, not blue, but there was no denying the fact that they were brothers. Jim let go and took a shaky step back. "What are you doing here?"

Sam twisted his hands together. He was aware of their audience, and knew that this was definitely not the best place to have this altercation – because he knew an altercation was inevitable – but it had been too long. Hearing the news reports as they came, realizing that his brother had saved the federation, and could very easily have died, had awoken some need in him; he needed to make amends. He hadn't been there for Jimmy. He needed to be there for Jim. "I saw the news vids," he replied, nervously.

Jim didn't soften his expression, which had gone hard and blank, with an undercurrent of pure anger, as soon as he had recognized and accepted the fact that it was in fact his brother holding him. He crossed his arms. "Why did you come?" he asked again, expression challenging, voice carefully neutral.

Sam swallowed. "I know, Jim, and I'm sorry. It's been, what, twelve years-"

"Thirteen," Jim cut him off, tone harsh. He clenched his jaw and breathed, forcing himself to relax. It would do him no good to lose it, not here, not in public. Not in front of these people, this crew. The very crew he had led out of near certain death, and into victory. The people who had doubted him, had their qualms with him, but still cast aside their fears and followed him, willingly. He actually thought they had come to respect and trust him over the last few weeks, and he was loathe to let that go, if he could help it.

Sam looked chagrined. "Thirteen," he conceded. "I know we screwed up back then, but we-"

"We?" Jim cut in yet again. He had a bad feeling about this.

Sure enough, his worst fears were concerned a moment later, when none other than Winona Kirk made her way to her elder son's side, amidst the stares of most of the crowd, civilians and press alike. They all recognized her from the multiple news reports after the Kelvin incident.

McCoy's eyes narrowed as he saw the fleeting flash of fear make its way across his best friend's face. He took another step forward, as his friend backed up slowly, away from his advancing mother.

Jim took one look at the two of them together, and did what he did best. He ran. The waiting debriefing didn't matter, the fact that he would probably screw up whatever goodwill he had gained from saving the world by ignoring his orders wasn't important. He just needed to get out of there.

Everyone looked on in bewilderment as the acting captain walked, very quickly, across the grass and towards the dorms. He avoided the concerned glances of his crew – his former crew, he had to remind himself – as he beat a hasty retreat. In particular, he avoided the gaze of one grumpy doctor. McCoy had seen him in various states over the last three years, and while he had never divulged any specific details about his childhood, he knew his friend was smart. McCoy had to have picked a few things up. He didn't want to see the worry in the older man's eyes.

He made his way quickly to his room, and stopped just inside the door. The place felt too quiet. His roommate's belongings stared back at him, cold and unforgiving. While he hadn't spent all that much time with him – they hadn't exactly run with the same crowd, and he had never actually spent that many nights in their shared room – they had still been at least friendly. He felt a jolt in his stomach as he remembered the younger man's excitement over being stationed on the Farragut. Gaila had been stationed there as well. Jim propped himself heavily against the wall and slid down to the ground. He rested his elbows on his knees and leaned back, closing his eyes in defeat.

Unbidden, the memories rushed to the forefront of his mind, and it was all he could do to keep them from completely overwhelming him. Through a haze, he watched a younger version of himself get pushed to the ground by a large man. Feeling his eyes moisten, he saw the clearly drunk man kick him, again and again. He winced as he felt the ribs break all over again.

With a gasp, he pulled himself back to the present, and tried desperately to regain some semblance of control. The tears were flowing freely now, and he couldn't stop them. Why did they have to show up now? He groaned, thinking of all the questions he would undoubtedly have to face when his friends found him.

He owed his family nothing. Where had his mom been, all those times Frank had gone too far? Off planet, like always. She had never cared before, so why start now? And Sam? Well, that one was easier to forgive, since he knew his older brother had dealt with Frank's abuse for years before he had had enough and left. But it still hurt. Jim had spent the better part of the last thirteen years wondering why Sam hadn't taken his younger brother with him.

And now that he had finally found himself, had made good friends, lifelong friends, and discovered a pseudo brother in Bones – who had done more for him in three years than Sam had ever done, his whole life – he resented his past coming back, to screw it all up.

A knock on the door brought him back to the present. He glanced over and, if the intense pounding was any indication, he was being visited by one grouchy but lovable doctor-cadet. He sighed, and clambered to his feet awkwardly, dusting himself off as he mentally prepared himself. He forced it all down, and opened the door, mask firmly in place.

"Bones," he stated, no question or inflection. It wasn't a surprise to see him, after all. He stepped back and headed to his bed, flopping down and leaning back on his forearms.

The doctor floundered for a moment, before following his friend inside, closing and locking the door behind him. This wasn't a conversation he wanted to be interrupted.

"Where's Joanna?" Jim asked, focusing on McCoy's left ear, rather than risk looking the man in the eye, afraid of what he might see if he did.

Bones leaned back against the desk, and folded his arms across his chest. "With Emily," he replied, referring to the sister who had brought his daughter to see him, knowing his ex-wife never would have done so. Jim nodded, and remained silent, still refusing to meet his friend's concerned gaze. After a few minutes of silence, the doctor couldn't take it any more. He cleared his throat and shifted nervously. "So… that's your brother?"

Jim stiffened, so minutely that anyone except the doctor would have missed it. His eyes skittered away, glancing rapidly around the room as if looking for an escape hatch.

But there wasn't one, so Jim sighed and nodded. "Yeah," he conceded quietly.

Bones winced internally at the sense of loss he could hear in his best friend's voice. He leaned forward slightly, but didn't move from the spot he had claimed. "When was the last time you saw him?"

Jim snorted and turned his head away, eyes hardening as the memories were forced upon him again. "Thirteen years," he whispered, voice breaking.

McCoy pushed himself off the desk and was moving before he even had time to think. He didn't like the defeated tone his friend used. He sat next to Jim on the bed, and tentatively reached out to grasp the younger man's shoulder. He felt Jim tense slightly, before relaxing into the touch. "What happened?" he pressed gently. He knew if anyone else heard him in this moment, he would lose his reputation as the fierce, take-no-bullshit doctor he had carefully constructed over the years. But the accident-prone man sitting next to him now knew him better than that. Just like he knew the younger man's cockiness and daredevil attitude were just a cover for dark memories and an unpleasant past.

Jim knew McCoy cared about him, and he knew that he was worrying the older man with his behavior, and he really wished his friend didn't have to see him like this; but then again, he couldn't imagine asking Bones to leave. They had been through a lot over the last three years: drunken excursions and pissed off ex-wives, bad days and worse nights. He knew Bones had been privy to as many personal and private moments of his life, as he had been to the doctor's. And yet McCoy had never asked. Even after witnessing some pretty horrific nightmares and the haunted looks that came after them, he had never pushed.

Jim leaned back, looking up at the ceiling. "I bet the admiralty isn't happy that I ignored their orders," he sighed, releasing a halfhearted chuckle.

McCoy glanced over sharply, and shook his head. "Don't worry about that, Jim," he implored. "They'll understand."

Jim almost snorted. "Doubtful," he retorted, though there was no real heat in the response. He just couldn't bring himself to care.

McCoy shifted in his seat. "I'm sure once Pike is able, he'll straighten them out."

Jim smiled nostalgically. The doctor was the only one who knew just how much Pike meant to him. The captain had been the one to smack him over the head and make him realize just how badly he was throwing his life away. Pike made him want to do better. And sure, it had all started with a stupid dare – do better – but the older man had refused to just part ways once they had reached the academy. Over time, Jim had realized just how much the captain cared. He wanted Jim to succeed. It wasn't something the he was used to, and he hadn't known how to react at first, except try and stay away, so that he wouldn't be disappointed when the pseudo father figure eventually left. But even that hadn't worked. Pike had dug down and refused to be forced out: he had stayed, through the bar brawls and demerits. He had pushed and shoved and reamed Jim out all the way through the academy. But he had never left.

And that scared Jim. He wasn't used to having someone care. Someone who stayed, no matter what.

And now he had two: McCoy had proved, time and again, that he wasn't going anywhere. So surely the least Jim could do was open up. Tell him why he was so freaked out over a family visit – people whom by all accounts, he should be ecstatic to see.

Jim let out another sigh, which turned into a cough halfway through, as he attempted to hide the catch in his throat. "I thought I was over it," he admitted quietly.

McCoy furrowed his brow. "Over what?" he questioned, voice still soft and gentle. He sensed in his friend a need to talk, to tell someone about it. He could also feel the hesitancy, the reluctance, though he suspected it was more out of an innate need to never show fear or weakness, rather than him not actually wanting the doctor to know.

Jim shrugged, as much as he was able, still propped up on his forearms. "Sam leaving, mom never being there… Frank…" Jim trailed off, and McCoy could see the emotions flashing through his eyes: pain, anger, fear, panic, and most of all, sadness. The knowledge that he hadn't been worth it: not worth protecting, not worth saving.

McCoy squeezed his friend's shoulder reassuringly. "What about Frank?" He really wasn't sure he should be pursuing this, especially since he had learned early on never to ask. But Jim apparently wanted to talk, and he figured answering questions might be easier than dredging up the memories by himself.

Jim shifted and turned away from the doctor, but McCoy refused to let go of the man's shoulder. The acting captain found himself grateful for that: it was almost like an anchor, to the here and now. No matter what he might say, what memories he might get lost in, he would have something to pull himself back. McCoy wouldn't let him vanish forever. "He was my stepfather," Jim started quietly, and McCoy nodded, but didn't interrupt. He knew that if he interrupted the man now, he would never be able to continue. "Mom remarried when I was six. Sam was ten. I guess it wasn't that bad at first…" Jim's voice wavered, but he refused to stop. Now was the time to put his friendship with the doctor to a test: would McCoy stick around, even after knowing just how screwed up Jim really was? He cleared his throat, and continued. "Mom kept taking missions, she was away for months at a time. Frank was a little strict, and he liked to drink a lot, and sometimes he would get kind of rough, but… it really wasn't that bad." Jim chuckled wryly, but there was no amusement in the noise. "I should have realized how much Sam had kept from me. But I didn't… not until I was twelve, and my older brother walked out on me."

Jim stopped, and coughed. He took a deep breath to steady himself, and felt the bed shift next to him. Panicking briefly, thinking that the good doctor had finally had enough and was leaving, he was reassured a moment later, when said doctor simply turned so that he was facing Jim more directly. "What happened after he left?" McCoy pressed.

Jim shrugged again. "I was pissed. Frank was going to sell my dad's old car… I didn't want that to happen, so I drove the car off a cliff." He felt Bones stiffen next to him, and gave a halfhearted laugh. "Don't worry, it's not like I went with it."

"Did you want to?"

The question hung in the air, unanswered for far too long. Finally, Jim exhaled. "At the time… no. If I had known what the next few years would be like…" He paused briefly, and looked down, suddenly embarrassed. "Maybe."

McCoy inhaled sharply. He had guessed it wasn't pretty, but to know that his best friend had been practically suicidal… It had to have been worse than he had imagined.

There wasn't much time to dwell on that confession though, because Jim was continuing. "Frank really wasn't happy when the cop brought me home."

And there was that pause again. Bones leaned forward. "What did he do?" He didn't want to know, and yet he felt like he needed to.

Jim shook his head. "I don't really remember all of it," he admitted softly. "When I woke up in the hospital, they told me I had fallen down the stairs, and not to worry, because my dad would be taking me home soon."

The bitterness in his friend's voice was hard to hear, especially when McCoy could compare it to the light and cheerful man he had spent three years getting to know. "Stairs?" the doctor asked skeptically, because, seriously, what self-respecting doctor would believe that age-old excuse?

Jim snorted, and glanced over. "It was true," he replied, eyes flat. "Frank helped me fall. Several times, if I remember correctly."

It took several moments for McCoy to process that. Confirmation, after so many years, and it was bittersweet. He was proud that his friend was opening up, and honored beyond belief that the younger man apparently trusted him enough to tell him… but shit… many of the strange quirks that made up his friend, the mannerisms that he had observed over the years but never understood suddenly made a lot more sense. As did the nightmares. While the two had never been official roommates, Jim had spent most of the last three years sleeping on McCoy's couch, or, when it had gotten really bad, in his bed. There was never anything sexual about it, but there had been times when Jim just couldn't bear to be alone. And McCoy, being the best friend and wanting to help however he could, had shared his bed. He clearly remembered the screams, the crying, the whimpering, and most of all, the fear. The look of pure terror in that split second right after he had come out of what was now so obviously a memory, and before he had recognized that it wasn't real, and that he wasn't back in Iowa. Jim had never been willing to talk about it afterward, but those nights had haunted McCoy for years. Now, finally, he had some answers.

And it kept on coming. Jim swallowed, and continued, his voice more tired and defeated than McCoy had ever heard, but underneath it all a determination to finish this story. "Over the next five years, I don't think I ever went a single day without at least one bruise somewhere on my body." McCoy winced, but Jim didn't notice, caught up as he was in the past. "I've broken both arms, my collarbone, right leg, and I think I've broken every rib at least once." Jim rolled over so that his back was facing the doctor, and rested his head on his hand, propped up on his elbow. His free hand began playing with the quilt draped messily over the end of the bed. "It wasn't really the injuries that made it so bad," he went on hesitantly, "it was the way he made me feel. He kept telling me I deserved it, that I was in the wrong. And the worst part was that I believed him. Why else would my mom stay away so much? Why else would Sam leave?" McCoy felt his heart crack open as his best friend laid his inner most fears out in the open. And knowing what he knew now, the doctor recognized just how hard it was for the younger man to show so much vulnerability. "Even when my mom was home, she could never look me in the eye. Or spend more than a few minutes in the same room as me. I guess I just believed Frank, because it was easier that way. You know, like, at least there was a reason. After all, I deserved it, right?" He rushed on, not giving McCoy any opportunity to jump on that statement – not that McCoy was able to even manage to form any sort of coherent argument against it at the moment: he was too busy processing this new side of his friend. And to be honest, he didn't like what he saw. "I left when I was seventeen. I knew that if I stuck around any longer, I probably would end up killing myself," he concluded. "Or Frank," he then tacked on as an afterthought, before shaking his head and sighing. "I just knew I had to get out of there, before I did something I would regret."

Finally, the younger man fell silent. He seemed to be waiting for the doctor to make the next move. McCoy was still processing. His brain felt like it was moving through tar. He couldn't think fast enough. After several moments of silence, Jim sat up self-consciously and started to slide off the bed. "I'm sorry-" he began, but was cut off as McCoy pulled him into a bone-crushing hug. In fact it almost was, and Jim felt his recently mended ribs twinge in protest, but he couldn't bring himself to pull away. After so many years, showing a calm and reckless attitude to the world, pretending to be a dense and wild rebel who only cared about booze and when he was going to get his next lay, James T. Kirk finally broke. He leaned into his best friend's embrace, and let the years of hidden pain and anger come out. "She left," he sobbed, grasping onto the doctor's shirt with an iron hold. "They both did… They didn't care about me…"

"Shhh," was all Bones could think to say. It wasn't even a word. But he knew that he had done the impossible. He had somehow shown the man that he didn't have to be alone any more. Jim had let someone in. Gently, he leaned back, lying down on the bed and pulling his friend with him.

It could have been several minutes or several hours, but eventually, Jim's sobs began to dwindle. It was between sniffs that the doctor was able to pick up the whispered "worthless" coming from the acting captain's mouth.

He stiffened again, and then just hugged the man harder. "You're not worthless, Jim, no matter what you think. And you didn't deserve any of that, you understand?" There was no response, so McCoy gently pushed him away, far enough back so that he could look him in the eye, without actually relinquishing his hold. "Hey." Jim refused to meet his eyes, so he shook the infuriating man lightly, and finally, he looked up, watery gaze and bloodshot eyes. "Jim, you are in no way responsible for any of it. You don't deserve it, not now, not then. There is no reason good enough for him to ever do that to you." He stared the man down, until finally, he nodded. It was slow, like he still didn't fully believe it, but there was an undercurrent of hopefulness. Like maybe he would, in time. Maybe if McCoy reminded him enough times, someday Jim wouldn't doubt it any more.

That was enough for the doctor. For now. "Lights, ten percent," he called out, and obediently, the room descended into near darkness. He could practically feel the questioning gaze his friend was throwing his way. "You need sleep, Jim," he explained, "You're still recovering."

Surprisingly, the younger man didn't protest. It was a sign of how exhausted he must have felt, that he willingly followed the doctor's orders, and threw one arm across McCoy's chest, burrowing deeper into his embrace. McCoy only held him tighter, and sighed internally. They had a long way to go, but he knew that his friend would make it. And McCoy would be there, every step of the way, showing him with words and actions just how much he meant to the world, and to the doctor.

"Thanks, Bones."

It was barely half a whisper, but McCoy still heard it, and that more than anything convinced him that Jim really would be all right. Eventually. "You're welcome, Jim," he replied, voice just as quiet.


Leonard McCoy looked up at the large building looming above him. His second home, for the last three years. He mentally shook himself off, preparing for what he knew he had to do, and entered the hospital.

Captain Pike had been transferred over to the care of "more experienced doctors", as they liked to call themselves. McCoy had practically demanded to be kept up to date on his condition, and he had to grudgingly admit that they were doing a good job. He had managed to retrieve the alien slug while still on board the Enterprise, but there hadn't been much else he could do, with the resources available to him. It was doubtful the captain would ever walk again.

He was currently resting under constant medical attention, which meant if McCoy wanted to talk to the man, he needed to come to the hospital to do so. It also meant that Pike didn't have much say in the goings-on of the academy at the moment, though the doctor was hoping he might make the effort, for his advisee. He hadn't specifically talked to any of the admiralty, but he knew they were upset, to say the least, with the recent actions of their poster boy. He didn't know what Pike could do, but he didn't think there was any harm in asking.

McCoy wound his way through the familiar halls, towards where he knew Pike would be. Approaching the room, he was almost run over by an angry looking doctor walking very quickly away. He raised his eyebrows, and entered the room.

"Harassing the staff, now?" he drawled, a hint of humor in his tone as he leaned against the door frame casually.

Pike looked up and scowled. "I wouldn't have to harass anyone if they would just leave me alone," he retorted shortly.

McCoy shook his head and pushed himself off of the wall and into the room. He glanced at the computers above the biobed, taking note of heart rate and blood pressure. Everything looked normal which was… better than they could have hoped for, actually. But then, Pike was tough. He saw more than a little of the older man in Jim, which made him wonder sometimes just how much of behavior was learned, and how much was genetic. He was willing to bet it was more the former, after everything he had learned the night before.

Pulling his eyes down to the man in the bed, he took in the quizzical eyebrow lift. He could see the question in the man's eyes, as well as the reluctance to ask or show any sign of weakness. A corner of his mouth lifted in a half-smirk. "You'll live," he said.

Pike's face smoothed out, and a hint of a smile graced his lips, though there was no real joy in it. "But I'll never captain a starship again, will I." It wasn't a question, so McCoy didn't answer, and the – former – captain sighed. "Well, I was about ready for a promotion anyway," he continued.

McCoy snorted. "Somehow I just don't see you behind a desk," he retorted. "Sir," he added, when Pike glared at him.

The bedridden man shook his head. "You've been hanging out with Kirk too long," he chuckled. "Or were you always this abrasive?"

The doctor crossed his arms. "I like to think he's been around me too much," he confessed.

That earned him another raised eyebrow. "Maybe you should have been teaching him some useful skills," he admonished, "like listening to his superiors."

McCoy winced. "Actually, that's what I came to talk to you about," he admitted, looking down as he shifted his stance.

That caught Pike's interest. "Please tell me there was an actual reason why that idiot just up and disappeared before reporting for debriefing," he all but growled.

McCoy nodded, and his eyes lowered slightly; he wasn't sure he could look the older man in the eyes right now. Especially since he knew he was about to betray the trust of the best friend he had ever had.

The silence stretched on, and Pike finally felt the need to speed the process along. "I can't help him if I don't know what happened," he said shortly.

Bones sighed again. He uncrossed his arms and rubbed a hand over his face, suddenly weary. The captain felt his trepidation grow as he witnessed McCoy's apprehension and worry. But James Kirk was in the doghouse, so to speak, and if the doctor expected him to do anything – and he did want to do something – he needed to know it was worth it. He wasn't going to stick his neck out for the crazy kid over nothing.

"Jim got a visit from…" McCoy trailed off briefly, losing his nerve for a moment. One glance up into the caring eyes of the former captain however, and he steeled himself; this needed to be done. He cleared his throat and started over. "His mother and brother were waiting for him when we docked. It kind of freaked him out."

Shit. Well, that certainly counted as extenuating circumstances, in Pike's book. In the three years since he had met Kirk, the younger man had never mentioned family. It was his silence that really spoke volumes to the captain. He remembered meeting Winona Kirk, at least in passing, after the Kelvin incident. He had tried to get her to give him an interview, for his dissertation. She had told him to shove it. Not that he really blamed her, of course.

But in three years, he had never seen Jim speak about or to his family; and he knew for a fact that the younger man had never gone home, either. It was like, when he had boarded that shuttle on a dare, he had said good bye to the state of Iowa and all that lived there – people and memories – and left, never looking back. It was like he didn't want to. Like the thought of that state was just too much: so he had washed himself of it. He had turned to the future, thrown himself into cadet life, and shut down that part of him that was linked to his past.

But Pike knew it couldn't stay that way forever. He had tried to talk to the young cadet, when he had noticed his advisee on campus over the Christmas holiday his first year, and then again every subsequent one. He stuck around during the summer break, and for every Thanksgiving. The captain couldn't help but notice.

But Jim had just shrugged off the questions, making excuses with bright eyes and a false smile, and then somehow managing to escape while still remaining ever the courteous subordinate.

Pike had tried to find information, looking through old records of the famous Kirk family. Not that there had been a whole lot of reliable personal information. Winona had remarried when the boys were six and ten, but had remained in service with Starfleet, taking missions often, and was consequently never home. He had seen that Sam Kirk had run away at sixteen, and Jim had left when he was seventeen; a slew of bar fights and stints in jail littered the younger Kirk's record after he had left, up until Pike had found him wasting away in a bar at twenty two.

It had been the years before Jim had left that had Pike so curious. Multiple hospital trips, a few school fights, and one driving a convertible off a cliff. Either the kid had always been an accident-prone problem child, or… there was something bad in Kirk's past. Something that he really didn't want to remember. Pike thought he might know what it was. And just the thought nearly had him cringing. He wasn't sure he wanted a confirmation. But try as he might, he couldn't stop himself from caring about the genius level idiot. He had been impressed and exasperated, proud and maddened, over the years. But he had always cared. He liked to think that he had at least made an impression on the younger man; that maybe Jim looked at him as something more than just an advisor.

Pike sighed, and closed his eyes. "How is he?" he asked quietly.

That startled McCoy. He hadn't been expecting that level of… understanding. It was like the captain already knew exactly what would be stirred up by the family visit. And he knew that Jim had never said anything. "He's a mess," the doctor admitted truthfully. "In between nightmares, he didn't get a whole lot of sleep last night."

Pike nodded absentmindedly, as McCoy finished and the room fell into silence, both consumed by their thoughts.

It was the former captain who spoke first. "I'll talk to Admiral Barnett," he assured the doctor. "I'll make sure Jim doesn't face any repercussions from yesterday."

McCoy nodded. "Thanks," he replied, more relieved than he thought he should feel, but he didn't waste time worrying about it.

Pike looked over at his visitor. "He's going to be ok, Doctor," he said quietly, but with confidence.

McCoy didn't look quite as certain. "I hope," he muttered.

The captain shook his head. "Of course he is," he reiterated, "he has you to look after him."

Bones looked up, an angry gleam to his eyes. "Contrary to popular belief, Captain, I can't actually fix everything." He sighed, and the fight went out of him. "When does it become too much? What's the limit on how much a human being can stand?"

The words rang in the silence, solemn and true. The two men stared at each other, assessing and calculating. Finally, Pike sighed. "I don't know," he admitted, "but if there's one person who can get through all this, and maybe be a better person for it, it's Jim Kirk." He paused for a moment to let that sink in. "The kid doesn't know how to lose, so he just doesn't accept that it's a possible outcome. Not a bad trait for a captain."

That certainly got the doctor's attention. "What do you mean, captain?" he asked suspiciously.

Pike exhaled again. "Look, McCoy, you know Starfleet's in bad shape, as much as I do," he stated gruffly, "We're going to be scrambling for years to come. No matter how much Kirk was in jeopardy of being kicked out before this whole mess, the fact of the matter is, we can't afford to lose him now." That made sense, so McCoy didn't argue. But that still didn't explain 'captain'. Pike saw that the doctor was still confused, so he smirked and continued. "I'm not going to lie, it's going to rub a lot of seasoned officers the wrong way, but Jim Kirk is too good a leader, and has too much natural talent, for Starfleet to waste years for him to climb up the ranks." He paused again, giving McCoy time to digest that, and when he saw it compute, his smirk smoothed out into a real smile, full of pride for his advisee and protégé. "This is in no way official, and if you share it with anyone I will end your career, but you should know that the admiralty is seriously considering upholding Kirk's field promotion after graduation. This time next week, he could officially be the Enterprise's new captain."

Captain James T. Kirk. McCoy tried to reconcile that with the childlike best friend he had known for three years. He winced internally at just how much that would feed the kid's already bursting ego. But he had to admit, it did have a nice ring to it. Finally, he shook his head. "He's going to be insufferable after that," he grumbled.

Pike chuckled. "Confidence has never been his problem," he agreed ruefully.

McCoy had already thought about that. And he had a suspicion. He didn't like it. "I'm not sure that's entirely true," he contradicted. At Pike's gesture to continue, he took a seat on the chair pulled next to the bed, and rested his head on his hand, elbow propped up on the arm of the chair. "I think he forced himself to act that way, after a while." His voice took on a mocking tone, as his face twisted into a scowl. "After being ignored and beaten up for years, I think he built this egotistical persona to deflect from the uncertainty and insecurity."

The captain thought about that for a moment. It did make sense. He nodded, but any response was interrupted by the entrance of his primary care physician.

"How are you feeling today, Captain Pike?" the newcomer said jovially, looking at the readings from the biobed.

He had to stifle a groan; he was so sick of the man asking him how he was feeling. How was he supposed to feel? He was a man who loved to live among the stars, and he never would again. He would be spending the rest of his career behind a desk. It sucked. But there was nothing he could do about it, so there was no point in complaining.

Strangely, he found himself wishing that McCoy could have stayed on as his primary doctor. The soon to be graduated cadet had no bedside manner, and he was apt to make at least one subordinate and several patients cry each day, but he didn't believe in bullshit. He told the truth, and he didn't try to sugarcoat anything. He didn't want some doctor, who had probably never set foot on a starship and had no idea of the allure it held for the captain, talking excitedly about his promotion, calling him Admiral, acting like it was the best thing in the world. It wasn't. McCoy might have aviophobia, but he at least understood the draw that space held for some people – he had probably gotten a good dose of learning just by spending time with his childlike best friend. As such, he knew better than to try and help Pike find the silver lining in his situation. He had never tried to during that three weeks they spent limping home. He had just treated the medical issues, and left it at that.

McCoy was glaring daggers at the other doctor, as if he knew how annoyed Pike was, and was trying to scare the man off. Pike appreciated that, but he felt he should probably step in before the younger man said something he would regret. "I'll take care of it, Doctor McCoy," he said, drawing the doctor's eyes back to him.

McCoy took a moment to read the older man. He recognized the appreciation in his eyes, as well as a warning, and he felt a fleeting flash of humor. He would never have asked someone in Pike's position such a stupid question, and he could tell that the captain was grateful for his support. He also recognized the dismissal in the words. He nodded and stood up. "Thank you, sir," he replied, and made his exit. Even with Pike's warning, he couldn't help the growled "idiot" that escaped his mouth as he passed the other doctor.

Pike's voice stopped him just before he exited. "McCoy." He turned around, and was struck by the amount of sadness and worry in the captain's eyes. "Thank you." It was quiet, and it was full of something that sounded suspiciously like regret. McCoy blinked, and nodded, before turning around and continuing along his way.

Pike sighed, and turned back to the lone figure left in his room. The doctor was watching the interaction with confusion, but fortunately didn't interfere. "Why don't you make yourself useful," he ordered, "and bring me a PADD."

The doctor blinked. "Sir, you need to rest," he objected. "Unless it's something of extreme importance, I must protest-"

"A man's career is on the line," the captain cut him off. "I think that qualifies. Now shut up and get me the damn PADD."

Smartly, the doctor shut up and left, returning a few minutes later with the requested technology, which he promptly handed to the bedridden captain, before beating a hasty retreat.

Pike chuckled to himself as he sent the note to Admiral Barnett, requesting a visit at his earliest convenience, preferably before the debriefing of one Cadet James T. Kirk.


Christopher Pike looked up at the knock on the door. Admiral Richard Barnett lowered his hand, and on Pike's nod, he entered the room.

Barnett took a moment to look the captain over, mentally assessing the man in front of him. Chris looked about as healthy as a man who had been through his ordeal could be. There was clearly something on his mind, but Barnett figured it was only natural, considering everything the man had been through. Not for the first time since he had gotten Pike's message, the admiral wondered just what was so important that Chris needed to see him, before he went and reamed out that idiot of a cadet.

"Admiral." Pike interrupted Barnett's thoughts, pulling him back into the present.

Barnett nodded. "Chris," he replied, walking forward until he was standing next to the bed. "How are you-"

"I swear to God if you finish that sentence, I will get out of this bed and happily beat you to death," Pike interrupted, voice harsh.

The admiral winced and nodded. "Sorry," he replied.

Pike jerked his head in the direction of the empty chair still sitting by to the bed. Barnett looked at the seat, and then back at the captain. "I think I'll stand," he stated. "I'd kind of like to know why I'm here and not yelling at your advisee right now."

Chris sighed. Here was the hard part. He wasn't sensing a lot of sympathy coming from the other man. He knew the admiralty was split on the cadet. Most of them seemed to think he would make a good captain, even a great one, if he could grow up and start listening to authority. There was still a small fraction, however, that was looking for any excuse to kick the young man out on his ear, recent hero status be damned.

He knew Barnett was more of the former thought, though he suspected the admiral was much fonder of Kirk than he would admit, recent tribunal notwithstanding. It might be possible that the older man was looking for a reason to stand by James Kirk, to support him and help him reach the level they all knew he was capable of.

"You're here because I want to ask you to cut the kid some slack," Pike sighed.

Barnett raised an eyebrow. "I'm assuming you have some actual reasoning behind that statement," he retorted. "Preferably something more than just you 'asking' me for special treatment."

Chris stared the admiral down. He needed Barnett to understand, but he really didn't want to air Kirk's dirty laundry. After all, the young man had come to Starfleet to escape his past; he didn't need any more reminders of it now. And did the man seriously think he would ask for a favor like this just because he felt like it?

Finally, Barnett exhaled. "Let's hear it then," he said, flopping down into the waiting chair, resting his elbow on the arm, and propping his head up as he gazed at the captain.

Pike smiled slightly. It wasn't quite a cheerful look, but there was a bit of satisfaction in the expression. Almost as quickly, it disappeared. He glanced up at the ceiling, and then rolled his head back to look at his visitor. It was do or die time. "How much do you know about the Kirk family?" he asked, testing the waters.

The admiral looked confused. "What does this have to do with anything?" he shot back.

Chris sighed again, looking suddenly weary. "Just humor me, Richard," he replied.

That caught Barnett's attention. His friend sounded almost… defeated. Clearly, this was important to him. He cleared his throat. "I know the story," he answered, still wondering where the hell this was going.

Pike shook his head. "Not that," he corrected, "I mean, how much do you know about what happened after George Kirk died?"

Now Barnett was really confused. "I'm not sure what you mean," he responded.

Chris met the admiral's eyes once more, and Barnett was shocked at the amount of sadness he saw there. "What do you know about what happened with the Kirks after the Kelvin incident?" he reiterated.

Barnett took a moment to think. "Commander Kirk stayed in service," he replied, going along with the captain, though still clearly confused. "She remarried, didn't she?"

Pike nodded. "Remarried when Jim was six, divorced when he was twenty-one."

The admiral narrowed his eyes at the harsh tone Pike used. Clearly, there was more to the story than he had realized.

Chris shook his head. "What else?" he asked, giving Barnett a metaphorical nudge.

Richard waited a beat, but it was clear the captain wasn't going to share. "Didn't her older son run away?" he continued, making it more of a question than a statement. Pike nodded, confirming the fact, but didn't speak up, so Barnett kept going. "I know Kirk – Jim – was arrested a few times…" he trailed off, not sure what else the captain was looking for. He really hadn't kept in touch with Winona: they had known each other, of course – she and George had been stationed on his ship for a brief period – back when he was a captain – before being transferred to the Kelvin. But they hadn't been that close; actually, he had been good friends with George – the younger man had always been keen to learn, and had taken to asking Barnett as many questions as he could. He saw the same thirst for knowledge in George's son, as well as the same instinct and determination. It was those similarities that made him more willing than most of the admirals to look past the indiscretions. Because he knew what Kirk could accomplish. After all, he had seen it before.

He saw that Pike was still waiting for an answer. He smiled almost wistfully, still caught up in memories. "I was always closer with George," he finished, "Winona and I didn't really keep in touch."

Chris nodded, and a smile of his own graced his lips. He knew Barnett was the right admiral to talk to, because of his relationship with Jim's father. If the younger Kirk was Pike's protégé, then the older one had been Barnett's. He had still been in the academy at that point, but he remembered spending a few months during the summer on Barnett's ship. He had met George Kirk then, as a young lieutenant, following the captain around as he met with the few cadets who had been selected to experience life on a starship. He had seen the affection Barnett had had for Lieutenant Kirk, as well as the anticipations and expectations he had for the younger man.

It wasn't until later, after Pike had earned a ship of his own – due entirely, of course, to Barnett's recommendation – that the man had spoken about his former protégé, and all of the hopes he had had for the man. He had lamented to his now friend that he would never have the chance to see George Kirk grow into the remarkable captain he knew the younger man was capable of becoming.

He suspected some of those dreams had shifted over to Jim, as he knew the admiral had let a lot of questionable antics made by the cadet pass – as long as no one had been physically injured, of course. Until the Kobayashi Maru incident.

It was that lingering affection for George Kirk that made Pike so willing to go to Barnett for help; yes, Jim Kirk had screwed the pooch, big time, but Chris knew that, if there was a genuinely good reason for his actions, Barnett would fight tooth and nail to get Kirk his commission.

The admiral could tell that something was wrong. And he was tired of beating around the bush. "What's going on, Chris?" he asked, leaning forward slightly, unconsciously showing his interest, and even a little bit of worry for the young man who was the focus of their conversation, in that small gesture.

Pike saw the concern, and it reassured him. There were several people in Starfleet who were only concerned with themselves – climbing higher up the ranks, keeping their exalted position – but Barnett was not one of them. He genuinely cared about those beneath him, and he wanted to see them succeed. "Winona and Sam came to meet the Enterprise when she docked." One look, and he could tell that the significance was lost on the admiral. Which actually kind of annoyed him. "Damn it, Richard, you told me months ago that you were keeping an eye on him."

"I was," Barnett protested, but Pike cut him off.

"Then you must have noticed that the kid hasn't gone back to Iowa in three years, nor has he had any visitors." Barnett still wasn't seeing where this was going. Pike almost growled in frustration. Was he really going to have to spell it out? "Did you ever wonder why Sam Kirk ran away, or why Jim spent so much time in a jail cell?" He paused briefly, seeing the flicker of thought running through the admiral's mind. Continuing much more gently, he asked, "Do you know how many times that kid was in the hospital?"

Barnett's gaze snapped up from where it had been lingering around Pike's right hand. He met his friend's eyes, and saw a truth in them that he couldn't ignore. The pieces were all there, and yet… he couldn't fit them together.

Chris could see the admiral working it all out. Just one more push… "Do you know why Winona divorced her second husband?" Barnett shook his head, suddenly feeling sick. He really wasn't sure he wanted to know where this was going. But at the same time, he felt like he owed it to George. He owed it to his friend and protégé to look after his son. And if that meant listening and facing the truth – that he had, in some way, failed his friend – he would do it. Pike continued, his voice harsh and disgusted, "It was the first time he hit her. She spent most of the time off planet, and probably never cared about what was going on at home, but the first time the asshole laid a hand on her, she kicked him to the curb."

Chris stopped, and the room fell into silence. Barnett looked down at his hands, settled in his lap, trying to wrap his head around all that he had learned, but it was hard. George had been so full of life, so ready to get out and see the universe. He remembered when the younger man had told him of his relationship with Winona. He remembered seeing the two of them together, remembered his happiness that his friend had found someone to spend the rest of his life with.

And he remembered his guilt, after George's death. There had been no room to move up the ladder on his ship: the Kelvin had an opening. Barnett had suggested the newly promoted Lieutenant Commander Kirk to Robau. The other captain had complied, and scant months later, he had been delighted to hear of his protégé's ascent to first officer. He would never forget that it had been his recommendation that had placed the Kirks on the Kelvin.

After George's death, he had really meant to keep tabs on the rest of the family. He wanted to make sure that they were all right. But life had just kept going, and it had been pushed to the back of his mind. He was disgusted with himself now: if he had just once gone out to Iowa to check on the grieving widow, maybe he would have noticed something. Maybe something could have been done. Sam and Jim Kirk should never have had to go through that. If only he hadn't been so caught up in his own world…

He had thought about it, occasionally. But by then, he had been promoted to Admiral, and his already somewhat limited free time had become more rare. Now he was kicking himself. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and Barnett couldn't help but think about how stupid he had been.

He looked back up and met the captain's gaze, taking note of the minute signs of worry and anger in the lines around his eyes. "How did you find all this out?" he asked curiously, trying to keep the self-loathing out of his voice.

Pike sighed, and glanced away. His hands began to play with his blanket, an unconscious action to give him something to do. "I did a little digging," he admitted, slightly ashamed of the methods he had used and the rules he knew he had broken, but not willing to show it. "I couldn't believe who he was, when I found him in that bar, and when he decided to take my dare and come to the Academy… I wanted to know who that man was, and the more I watched him, the more it didn't add up. So I looked for a reason. Kid was in and out of the hospital for years." His voice hardened, and took on a mocking tone. "Cuts, bruises, broken bones… falls down stairs, roughhousing with friends… I saw the records, and the pictures. I don't know how on earth those doctors were considered fit to practice medicine."

Barnett winced. "Winona just let that happen?" That image just didn't fit with the young woman he had met all those years ago.

Chris shrugged. "Who can say whether or not she actually knew, though I don't know how anyone could miss it… I'm sure she at least had an idea, but I might just be biased, and unwilling to see her in any kind of light. Honestly, I don't know how much Winona knew. It's not like Jim ever told me anything." The last part was said with rueful acknowledgment; he had tried. As the days had turned into weeks, and then to months and years, he had found himself being drawn inexplicably to the younger man. He was surprised, after looking up the records and feeling an inexplicable rage, to realize that his affections were almost paternal in nature.

Pike looked back at Barnett. "I know the kid screwed up, but you have to understand where he was coming from. He owes his family nothing. He left home at seventeen, and never looked back. Just imagine what it must have been like, seeing them after all those years of abuse and neglect, acting like nothing had happened." The captain paused briefly, and let that sink in, before continuing. "Richard, don't hang him out to dry for this. I'm asking you, as his advisor, and as your friend."

Barnett sighed. He absentmindedly rubbed his temple, feeling a headache brewing behind his eyes. "What do you want me to do, Chris?" he asked wearily.

"I want you to give the damn kid his own ship." Barnett opened his mouth, but Pike rushed on, not letting him get a word in. "We both know you were thinking about it, Richard, so don't try to deny it." The admiral closed his mouth and nodded, slightly sheepishly. Pike gave half a smirk. "Starfleet's in some deep shit, and Jim Kirk is too damn good to waste. The 'Fleet just can't afford it right now. I know what some people are going to say, and I know that one successful mission, especially one as unique as it was, is not a good measuring point, but I also know this kid. Trust me when I say the self-centeredness and the narcissistic tendencies are just a cover. The man has the makings of a great captain. Hell, he already is a great one, and I know that if the kid just gets a chance, he'll shock us all." He chuckled. "The fact that his IQ almost rivals Commander Spock's doesn't hurt either."

"You've had your page in the history books, now it's time to pass the gauntlet?" Barnett asked, somewhat jokingly, and with a weak chuckle.

Pike smirked. "Richard, someday I'm going to be a footnote in the book of history. Unless I'm mistaken, and I really doubt it, Jim Kirk is going to have his own fucking chapter."

Admiral Barnett considered the captain's opinions. He had seen Kirk's test scores. Top one percent in his class, completed all the coursework for the command track in three years instead of four; glowing reviews from the majority of his professors, innate knowledge of multiple subject – from engineering to navigation. And, surprisingly, even xenolinguistics. There were several admirals he knew of who hadn't even needed the Kobayashi Maru debacle to believe Kirk was a cheater. They just didn't believe someone could be that good.

Barnett knew better. He knew the kid was someone to watch. Even three years ago, when some of his counterparts had questioned Pike's sanity, personally sponsoring a man with a known criminal record, regardless of who his father was, he had listened to his friend, and kept an open mind. He had watched and gathered his own opinions and, unsurprisingly, reached the same conclusion as the captain. And it was because of that that he had been so willing to look past the minor indiscretions. And because he knew that Pike would be reaming the kid out enough for all of them.

This decision really wasn't that hard for the admiral. He wanted Kirk to succeed. He nodded. "I'll see what I can do," he agreed.

Pike extended his hand. When Barnett took the offered limb, clasping tightly, the captain replied simply, "Thank you."

The Admiral nodded again, and let go of the hand, standing up and heading to the door. He stopped on the threshold, and turned around. "You should tell him," he said, meeting Chris' gaze and seeing the confusion there.

Pike furrowed his brow. "Tell him what?" he asked curiously.

Barnett smiled, just a small one. "What he means to you. How much you care. Hell, tell him you love him. Kid probably hasn't heard it enough in his life."

And with that, Barnett left to go have a very interesting conversation with a bunch of pissed off admirals, and Christopher Pike was alone with his thoughts once more. Which he didn't particularly mind, since he had a lot to think about.


"Did you know?"

Captain Christopher Pike looked up from the article he was reading, and took in the newly christened 'hero of the federation' standing in the doorway. He waited a moment, deliberately turning back to the PADD in his hands and switching it off, setting it down on the table next to him, before turning to look at his almost former advisee again. "What am I supposed to know?" he queried blandly.

Cadet James Kirk took a step into the room and held up the PADD in his own hands. "Did you know about this?" he asked again, a hint of desperation and uncertainty coloring the usually confident voice.

Pike reached out, and Jim passed the device over, coming to a rest an arm's length away from the bed, clenching his hands into fists behind his back to keep from fidgeting.

The captain read the official orders sent to Jim, and felt like he knew where the cadet was coming from: he could sense the insecurity and hesitancy in the younger man. In his position, Pike would probably be feeling the same way. After all, less than a month ago, he had been facing a very real expulsion. And now the admiralty was giving him a captaincy. And not just any captaincy; they were giving him the Enterprise. It was probably a lot to take in. And he didn't doubt that the young man was also entertaining the possibility that it was all just a cruel joke.

He sighed. "If you're asking if I have any role in the day to day functions of the admiralty…" He looked up at Kirk and his eyes narrowed slightly. "No. I'm able to give opinions and recommendations, and there are a few admirals who actually do listen to what I have to say, but in the end, it's not my decision."

"That's not what I asked," Jim replied evenly, meeting Pike's gaze with a steady one of his own. He had been surprised and shocked to get the notice, and he really wasn't in the mood for games or beating around the bush. "Did you know?" he repeated once more.

Pike looked away briefly and then turned back to his young advisee, and almost captain. "In so many words? No. Did I suspect?" He raised an eyebrow, and saw the slight blush that spread across Jim's face at the gaze. "Of course I did," he finished, almost proudly.

That caught the young man's attention. "Why?" he asked curiously. He wasn't being dense or obtuse. He genuinely didn't understand why someone would believe in him so much.

Pike could see that diffidence, and it made him angry. Not at Jim, never at Jim. He felt a rush of hatred for the family that had refused to realize what they had. For a mother who had abandoned her child, over and over, because she was too caught up living in the past. Too caught up mourning a man she would never see again, to love the young boy she had now. He felt fury for the mock replacement that woman had found, hoping that a second marriage, and consequently another guardian for her children, would ease her guilt at escaping to the stars once more. Anger at the sad excuse for a human being that had had an opportunity to teach his stepson how to be a man, to show him that he was not alone in the world, despite his mother's actions, and had ignored that responsibility, instead choosing to bury himself in alcohol and rage. He felt sorrow for what the young child had had to go through, and pride and amazement for how he had turned out; in spite of everything, or perhaps because of it, Jim Kirk had grown up to be a thoughtful and gracious man: bar fights and one night stands notwithstanding, he could see the gentleness and caring, the passion and fire, that turned good men into great ones, every time he saw Jim and McCoy together, every time he witnessed the young cadet stand up for something he believed in, be it inside the classroom or out. He had read the reports that dealt with Kirk's actions as acting captain, and he had been told of the countless requests to work with the man again. Nearly every single officer who had been on the Enterprise had asked to serve with or under Kirk. Specifically with Kirk. Not the Enterprise. James T. Kirk.

They all wanted to be with him. Because they cared about him. They trusted him. He had led them all on a harebrained scheme that had little to no chance of working, and yet he had refused to let it fail. Despite the way he had gained the 'acting captain' title, the entire crew had followed him willingly, and looked to him when it all seemed hopeless. And he hadn't let them down.

And then, when it really seemed like the unimaginable had happened, when Nero had been defeated, Kirk had offered assistance. He certainly hadn't needed to, he definitely hadn't wanted to, but he had. He had extended a hand, and given the crazed Romulan a last chance. It was that moment that revealed so much of the young man's character. He had stared right at the man who was responsible for his father's death, for his entire childhood, and he had offered clemency. Pike knew the persona Kirk wore like a cloak was all a lie. He had known it before, and he knew it now. Jim Kirk cared more than he wanted to admit. He was a good man, and he refused to give in. Because if he did, it meant that they won. Frank, and Winona, and everybody else who had ever looked at Jim and seen a dead man, or a useless boy, someone not worth caring about. And Pike knew that Kirk couldn't live with that.

Jim couldn't keep looking at his mentor. His gaze slid around the room, lingering on the floor most of all. He shouldn't have come. He shouldn't have asked. He had built up the walls years ago, and he was used to playing the nonchalant, not a care in the world, ignorant man. Sometimes it irked him, when people expressed surprise that he was actually doing well at the Academy; did they really think all he cared about was alcohol and women? Did people really think he was that shallow?

But in Pike's presence, he always felt like the older man really saw him. Past the walls and barriers, past the masks, and into his soul. Like x-ray vision, it was both his biggest fear and his biggest source of comfort: the fact that the captain – soon to be admiral – didn't buy his dimwit charade. He knew Pike had seen his aptitude tests, and therefore had an unfair advantage to his peers, who only knew him as the cocky cadet who had spent most of the last three years sleeping through half of the females at the academy and getting into bar fights every other night.

But Pike had only dragged him into his office every time, and looked at him with something close to parental disappointment. Like he knew Jim could do better, and was upset that he didn't seem to realize it.

It wasn't something he was used to, having someone who cared. Most days, he still had trouble believing it; but after the tenth or eleventh time that Pike had promised him that their little 'chats' would remain strictly off the record, and when he hadn't found himself thrown out of the academy after each indiscretion, Jim had started to think that, just maybe, there was someone out there who wanted him. Maybe he wasn't worthless, less than trash, a waste of space.

Not that a few conversations with the older man could erase years of neglect and abuse, but it was a start.

Pike started talking, and Jim drew his mind back to the conversation.

"Because I believe in you, kid," the older man replied, expression stern as he caught and held Jim's gaze. "I knew, even three years ago, that you had it in you. You were the one who didn't believe it."

Jim glanced away quickly. "That's not exactly what I was asking," he voiced hesitantly, much quieter than Pike was used to. He looked back at the bedridden captain. "I mean…" he looked down at his feet, unable to meet the older man's eyes as he spoke. "Why do you care?"

One question. All it took was that one question, and Pike felt the crack that had appeared in his heart three years ago, widening significantly with each new piece of information, reach the limit; he physically felt his heart shatter. It was painful, and he struggled not to let it show.

Jim hadn't spoken with that cocky, harsh, sarcastic, bordering on insubordinate voice that he usually used when in Pike's presence, during their 'off the record chats'. It wasn't a deflection from some indiscretion that had caused Pike to give him yet another lecture on the behaviors expected from cadets and officers. The tone with which the question was posed… He could tell that Jim was genuinely curious. But not with Pike, specifically. It was more like he actually couldn't comprehend someone caring about him enough to believe that he could be more than he was.

It made Pike so angry, and so sad at the same time. No one should have to feel that. No one should know the pain that came with the knowledge that no one cares about you, that no one would even notice if you were gone.

Looking at the young man in front of him, he was struck by the sense of loss and insecurity hidden behind the carefully neutral expression. He couldn't stop the sigh that escaped him. Barnett had told him to talk to Jim; it seemed like it really couldn't be avoided, now. Jim Kirk needed to know that there was someone out there who loved him. It was difficult to wrap his brain around that idea: he had known the cadet for only three years, and it wasn't like they had spent a whole lot of time together, unless Pike was reaming Kirk out for some stupid stunt or another. But over time, the younger man had wormed his way into the captain's heart, and now, Pike really couldn't imagine not being in his advisee's life. He wanted to make sure Jim knew how much he wanted that, how proud he was of the man he had become. He wanted Jim to understand that everything he had been through shouldn't have happened. That it wasn't his fault, and it didn't have to dictate his future.

He nodded to the chair placed next to his bed. "Have a seat," he offered. Seeing the stubbornness set in Jim's expression, he sighed wearily. "Damn it Kirk, this isn't going to be a short conversation, and I really don't want to have it if I have to keep looking up at you. You're giving me a crick in the neck as it is."

Immediately, Jim took the offered chair. He gripped the arm tightly, knuckles turning white, as he still refused to look at Pike. His gaze instead settled on the edge of the bed, near the captain's right hand.

Pike nodded once. He took in the tense set of the younger man's shoulders, and the seeming inability to actually look him in the eye. Well, that couldn't be helped. He waited a beat, organizing his thoughts, and then spoke. "Jim." He saw the kid's eyes flicker briefly up at the use of his first name, and the affection he knew was in his tone of voice. But they just flickered back down, and were unreadable to the captain once more. Pike shrugged mentally, and continued. "I know you don't believe it, but there are people out there who care about you. Who would miss you if you were gone, and who would do anything to protect you."

Pike paused for a moment, letting that sink in, as well as give Jim a chance to reply, if he wanted to.

And it seemed he did. He didn't look up, but he did speak, his voice still quieter than Pike had ever believed was possible. "I know that," he responded. "I just wasn't sure…"

He trailed off, and Pike thought he knew what might be going through the genius' mind. He felt a moment of happiness as he realized that his hopes were true: Jim Kirk really did see him as more than 'that captain that saved his ass in a bar fight and dared him to enter the academy', and even more than 'just his advisor'. That one half-complete sentence reassured him that all wasn't lost. Jim wanted someone in his life who would yell at him for being an idiot, who would hug him when he needed comfort, clap him on the back and tell him they were proud of him. His hand twitched; he wanted to reach out for the other man, but he held himself back. It wasn't that time, not yet.

"Jim, unless I'm mistaken, and I really don't think I am, you've got a lot of people who care. And I consider myself to be at the top of that list."

Jim looked up, shocked. It seemed Pike had understood the meaning behind his incomplete sentence. That was… nice. He really hadn't thought the older man knew him that well. He attempted to hide the confusion behind a customary smirk. "I'm not sure I'd go with 'a lot', sir," he drawled, leaning back slightly in the chair and releasing the arm so that he could clasp his hands together in his lap. "A couple, maybe-"

"Don't you dare do that, Kirk," Pike cut him off harshly, and Jim stopped talking, looking down at his lap as the smirk slipped off of his face. Pike was angry; how could he get through to this kid, who was so determined to believe the lies he had grown up hearing? Maybe anger was the answer. Maybe he would respond to the 'irritation' angle. "Don't you dare sell yourself short, and don't you dare act like it doesn't affect you. Not anymore, and not with me."

That surprised Jim. He twitched, as if to look up, but caught himself and kept his eyes on his hands. He already knew that his advisor had seen through his cocky devil-may-care attitude in a millisecond, but that statement had him reeling. The hidden meaning and knowledge was clear. Pike knew more than he had thought.

Pike saw the movement, and felt his already shattered heart break just a little bit more. He knew how close to the chest Kirk played things. The idea of someone knowing about his past, without his knowledge or approval, probably didn't sit too well with him. It all came back to the control thing: for years, Jim had been subjected to horrors no one should know. He had had no say in the matter; all his control had been ripped from him. When he had left at the age of seventeen, it had been a way to get back that control. Pike imagined that the young man was feeling something reminiscent of that time when the ability to take charge of his own life had been ripped away from him, in the most horrendous way possible. He knew that Jim had opened up to McCoy, and he imagined it would have been monumental and scary as hell, but he had done it. Because he trusted the doctor. He liked to think that Jim had come to trust him, at least on some level; but even if he had, he still hadn't told Pike about his past. The captain imagined it was that fact, above all else, that was making all this so difficult for his advisee. Jim had had no say in the matter. Pike knew, and there was no taking that back.

"What do you know?"

The query was quiet, and Pike almost missed it. His hand twitched again, and he had to make a conscious effort to keep himself steady. When he was ready, he shrugged, making the movement casual and indifferent, though he was feeling anything but. "A few facts," he replied. "I know your record, and I know the reasons for it." He paused for a moment, and then leaned over slightly, shifting himself closer to the soon to be captain. "And I know about the hospital visits, Jim," he finished quietly. The man in question jerked slightly, stiffening up, and Pike rushed on, trying to pass along the depth of his caring to the younger man. "I read the reports, and saw those excuses… I don't know how on Earth those idiots graduated med school," he tacked on, somewhat harshly, his anger flaring up for the stupidity of Iowan doctors.

Jim let out a sound that was half snort half cough. "It worked back then," he replied, still not able to look his advisor in the eye.

"I wouldn't have bought it, even back then," Pike retorted, voice hard.

It was Jim's turn to shrug. He leaned back, and Pike could see the mask being drawn back up; it affected his eyes first. The shadow slowly disappeared, and the blue brightened slightly, and just like that, any sign of pain or sorrow was gone.

He swallowed, and his jaw line smoothed out, becoming more and more neutral, and Pike spared a moment to feel amazed at the ability of Jim Kirk to hide his feelings. It was almost like a certain Vulcan they both knew.

Within moments, the man sitting before him was the same cocky, overconfident, and slightly arrogant being he had beheld three years ago, when he had issued that dare. There was a glint of something more behind the expression, but it was gone when Pike tried to get a second look.

It was impressive and heart breaking. Nobody should be that good at hiding. Nobody should find it necessary to hide like that in the first place. Why couldn't he get this kid to understand just how important he was? Why couldn't he make this kid believe that there were people out there who wanted him, who cared about him?

With an inner curse, Pike resolved to show the younger man, no matter the cost. And he knew a way to start. The almost admiral knew exactly how many rules and regulations he would be breaking, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Jim needed to know the impact he had on those around him.

"What can I do to convince you that you matter?" Pike asked, almost desperately.

Jim shrugged again. He was suddenly anxious to leave, but unsure of how to do so courteously. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy being in the presence of his advisor; he just didn't like the personal nature of this conversation. He was fine when Pike was reaming him out over some stupid stunt, because then all he had to do was smirk and pretend that he didn't really care, and the captain would shake his head and express disappointment, and that would be it.

But now, it seemed like Pike was done pretending to buy the lies. He was done pretending he didn't see the inner turmoil in his advisee. Jim wasn't sure he could deal with that.

Pike sighed. "Kirk, do you know how many people want the chance to work with you again?"

Jim looked up, surprised. What? was all he could think. People actually wanted to work with him? Who? And why?

Pike nodded. "You didn't hear this from me, but almost every single officer and cadet on the Enterprise requested the chance to serve with or under you." He could see that it wasn't registering with the almost captain. "Not just the Enterprise, Jim. You, specifically. They all just want to work with you again. Can't you see how much you matter to them?"

"But why…" Jim whispered, more to himself than to Pike.

Pike answered the question anyway. "Because they trust you. They believe in you. They watched as you walked headfirst into a no-win scenario, knowing the odds but not willing to let it stop you from doing what had to be done. They looked at you and saw the same thing I do: someone worth following." He paused to let that sink in, and then continued. "I'm not saying that you were particularly… nice about the way you got your command-" Jim winced, but Pike continued, needing the kid to understand. "But once you had it, you proved that they put their trust in the right person."

If the situation had been different, Pike might have smiled at the range of emotions raging through Jim's eyes. Confusion, bewilderment, sadness, panic, uncertainty, and beneath it all, hope. It was that last emotion that really warmed his heart. Jim wanted to believe him, he could tell. Maybe he was even starting to.

"They care about you. They want you to succeed, and they want to be there to watch it happen." Another pause. "Just like I do," Pike finished quietly.

Jim sat there, thinking, as the silence stretched on. Pike seemed content to wait, settling back on the bed as he watched the effect his words had on the man sitting in front of him.

Jim couldn't process this. All those people, and they wanted to work with him? Pike said that they trusted him, and they cared about him. Did he believe his advisor? He wanted to. He definitely wanted to. But it wasn't that easy. He had spent so long thinking that nobody could ever care about him that much. He just wasn't that lovable.

He started. Since when had love come into the equation? But looking back, he really couldn't remember the last time he had heard those words, and actually believed them. Gaila… well, that was a can of worms better left unopened. Maybe she had loved the time they spent together, but that was a far cry from actually loving him.

Did he want someone to love him? A few years ago, he might have laughed off the very idea. He was James Tiberius Kirk, and he didn't need anyone.

But now? A lot had changed in the last three years. He had friends, real ones, who, for reasons he wasn't sure he'd ever really know, actually seemed to want to stick around.

He had found someone he could look up to as a father figure. Someone who had given him the kick in the ass he hadn't even known he had needed, reamed him out when he hadn't wanted it, and acted interested when he hadn't even realized what was missing in his life. Pike was the closest thing to a father he had ever known.

Which sort of scared him. When had he gone from the super cool loner who didn't need anyone, to this stranger who had let himself be tied down by others? Pike, and Bones, and now Sulu, Chekov, Scotty… even Uhura and Spock? When had he become that dependent?

The strangest part was that it didn't feel that bad, this new version of him. Having friends, people who cared about him, people to care about. It almost felt… good. He had gone so long not knowing that feeling, that this taste had left him wanting, craving, more. He had become used to this new weight of responsibility, and found, to his surprise, that he actually liked it. It felt nice, having people to take care of, to look after. More than that, it felt right. Like he had finally found his place in the world. Captain James T. Kirk. Yes, it definitely felt right.

And Pike? He had enjoyed his secret version of the man he called advisor. He had never once thought that the feeling might be reciprocated. That the captain had seen Jim as more than just an insufferable cadet, or a pain in his ass. He felt something akin to an insurmountable joy – not that he'd ever admit it out loud – hearing just how much he meant to Pike.

Pike could see the thought process coming to a close. He could see the moment when it all clicked in Jim's mind. "Jim." To his joy, the almost captain actually flickered his eyes up and did not look away this time. Pike continued, voice quiet and gentle. "Everything that happened, all that crap that you had to deal with… it wasn't your fault."

Jim lowered his gaze for a moment, thinking that over. He wanted to believe it, he really did. "I know," he replied quietly, more because he knew the captain expected a response than anything else.

Pike shook his head. "You're not listening to me, Jim," he reiterated, angry and trying not to let it show in his voice. "None of it was your fault."

Jim didn't say anything, just continued to think. Why did Pike have to do this? He was used to his life. He had lived it for twenty years. He didn't need someone coming in and rearranging all of his thoughts, disrupting everything he had spent so long believing in.

Why was he being so persistent? Why wouldn't he just leave it alone? No one else had ever thought he was worth the energy, so why was Pike different?

Well, the soon to be admiral had already answered that. He had said he cared. But Jim still wasn't sure how far that went. He was a realist. He liked to know where he stood with people. Pike had admitted that he wanted to be in Jim's life, that he wanted to be there to… what were the words? Oh yeah: 'be there when it all happened.' Jim couldn't believe the captain really had that much faith in him. Like the older man never had any doubt of the greatness he could reach.

And he didn't. Pike had told him that he had always believed in him. What had he done to garner such confidence and trust?

"Sometimes it helps to work it all out, out loud."

Jim glanced sharply up at the bedridden captain. Pike just shrugged and offered up a soft smile. Jim tried to glare, but couldn't make the expression work. Instead, he sighed and sat back in the chair, crossing his arms and shifting his eyes towards the foot of the bed.

"It's hard for you, isn't it?" The question hung in the air, full of understanding and pain.

After several minutes of silence, Jim finally nodded. Pike waited, knowing that he needed to wait for the younger man to come to him. He had pushed, and Jim was definitely moving in the right direction, but there was only so far the almost admiral could go. Jim had to take things the rest of the way.

"I just don't get why," Jim finally said, in that same quiet voice Pike was quickly and unfortunately getting used to.

Pike didn't respond for a minute, taking in the young man in front of him. It was amazing how much Jim was opening up with him. It was unbelievable to realize just how much he hid from the world. And it was remarkable, to see the kind of man the soon to be captain was, given his upbringing.

Moving slowly, he reached out and lightly rested his hand on Jim's forearm. He pretended not to notice the slight flinch, or the minute trembling. Just like he pretended not to notice the way Jim's eyes flickered down to the limb, before returning to their previous position, gazing intently at the end of the bed.

"You don't get it because you've never had it," Pike told him gently. "You're not used to it, and you don't know how to react. And believe me, I wish there was something I could do to change that. As infuriating as it is, we can't change the past. You can't change what happened, and you can't forget those memories, but Jim." Pike waited, and after a moment, Jim's gaze lifted; while he still wasn't looking Pike in the eyes, it was closer now, seeming to settle somewhere around his chin. Pike continued, "What happens next is all up to you. Don't let your past control your future. Because you've got a bright one."

"But they're my family…" Jim trailed off uncertainly as Pike cut in harshly.

"No. That Doctor McCoy, he's your family. The Enterprise crew, they're your family. Me." He paused as Jim finally raised his gaze to look him directly in the eyes, surprise the dominating emotion behind his expression. Pike kept going, much softer. "We're your family, Jim. Winona can't claim that honor, not any more, and not if you don't let her."

And finally, it seemed to sink in. Jim didn't have to deal with his mother and brother if he didn't want to. Because they hadn't been there for him in years. He owed them nothing. Pike was right. Bones, and Sulu, and Checkov, and Scotty, and even Uhura… maybe even Spock, if he decided to remain on the Enterprise like Jim wanted him to. They were family. And not the false happy, see you at the holidays, I love you because we're related and I have to, kind of family. No, their family had been the kind born in fire, and hardened by the severity of battle. They were close because they wanted to be. His mockery of a blood-family didn't even come close to comparing.

And Pike was definitely a part of his family. The older man had been more of a parent to him than Frank or Winona ever had; he had cared about him more than Frank and Winona had ever bothered to.

Jim smiled, and Pike was ecstatic to see the completely genuine expression, with none of the cocky or arrogant swagger behind the upturn of his lips. "You know, I like to think that if my father were still alive, he would be a lot like you," he told his advisor, almost shyly.

Pike couldn't stop the grin from spreading across his face. He wasn't sure he'd ever be able to tell the younger man how much it meant to him to hear him say that. He squeezed Jim's arm lightly. "That may be the greatest compliment I've ever received," he replied warmly. Jim nodded, lowering his gaze for a moment, slightly overwhelmed at the amount of emotion in that statement. But Pike wasn't done. "I imagine that if I had a son, he would probably be something like you."

"Which explains why you never had kids, right?" Jim cracked, his eyes alight with mirth.

Pike only rolled his eyes indulgently, and after a moment, Jim settled back down. "Thanks," he said quietly.

Pike raised his eyebrow. "For what?" he asked, confused.

Jim shrugged. "For being there, for all those times you yelled at me, and covered up some idiotic stunt I pulled. For being disappointed, and for not giving up on me. It means a lot."

The almost admiral was stunned. After so long, and so much frustration, he had finally gotten through. He had done better than he had believed possible. Finally, he nodded. "I'll say your welcome, but there's really nothing to thank," he replied. "I did it because I cared about you. I love you and I want you to be happy and successful." He saw the alarmed expression on Jim's face, and thought back, trying to figure out where the distress was coming from. Crap, he thought, as he realized what he had just said. The next second, however, he was confused, as he saw the slow smile, completely genuine and happy, start on the younger man's lips, and spread quickly until it was shining in his eyes.

At Pike's inquisitive gaze, Jim simply shrugged, expression not dimming in the least. "When you say that, I actually believe it," he explained.

With the warming sensation in his chest, Pike knew that his broken heart was being put back together. He couldn't change the past, but he could help fix the future. He could help heal the scars, and he could make sure that the younger man knew, for sure, from here on out, that he was loved and valued. That he wasn't useless, or worthless, or anything else he had been made to believe at an earlier time in his life.

He nodded. "I'm glad," he responded, "Because I mean it."

Their eyes met and locked for several moments, before Jim broke the gaze. Picking the PADD up from where it had been left, forgotten, on the bed, he stood up. "I should go tell Bones the good news," he explained.

Pike nodded again. He understood some of the hidden discomfort with so much open emotion that the younger man was exuding, so he didn't object.

However, the almost captain's exit was interrupted by the appearance of Admiral Barnett in the doorway. Jim immediately snapped to attention, pulling off a flawless salute. "Admiral," he greeted somewhat stiffly, compared to the openness he had been displaying while alone with Pike.

Barnett looked the man over and nodded. "Captain," he greeted, with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile in his voice.

Jim almost flushed with the pleasure of hearing his new title. It felt really good. "I was just leaving," he said, making to move around his superior.

He was at the door, when the admiral's voice stopped him. "Kirk."

Jim turned around, and stood at attention, unsure of what the admiral who had so recently displayed nothing but disgust at his somewhat dubious academic methods – recent promotion notwithstanding – wanted. "Sir?" he queried politely. Never let it be said that James Kirk didn't know how to respect authority. He just usually chose not to.

Barnett sighed. "I'm sorry," he said, almost regretfully. Ever since his conversation with Pike, he had been debating with himself about whether or not he should talk to the son of his late protégé. He had almost decided that it would be best to keep all of his guilt and regret, and not lay any of it on the younger man, but running into him here, he couldn't help it. If anything, he just wanted the cadet – captain – to know that they were on the same side.

Jim was confused. "For what, sir?" he asked, still courteous.

The admiral's shoulders drooped ever so slightly, and his gaze dropped. He suddenly looked much older than his years. "Your father was a good friend of mine," he explained, watching the way Jim suddenly stiffened, and knowing what a sore subject it was, but needing to get this all out. "I meant to keep in touch with Winona, and make sure you and your brother were all right, but…"

He trailed off somewhat helplessly, but it seemed like the other man knew what he meant. Jim nodded understandingly. "Life goes on?" he guessed, filling in the end of the admiral's sentence, not showing his discomfort over this conversation with a superior that apparently knew his family on a much more personal level than most. Barnett nodded, almost sheepishly, and Jim shrugged. "I understand, sir," he said, and the admiral raised an eyebrow. "I doubt she'd have let you through the door, anyway." The almost captain finished. After a moment, Barnett nodded again, and Jim turned around to leave. Stopping again, this time of his own volition, he looked the admiral in the eye, and Barnett was caught off guard by the sheer intensity of his gaze. "Thank you, admiral," Jim said simply. Barnett crossed his arms, and matched the cadet's – no, he was a captain now – gaze, refusing to let his uneasiness at the power the younger man radiated show. At the silent question, Jim gave a small half smirk. "For the promotion," he clarified.

Barnett didn't move. "What makes you think I had anything to do with you not getting your ass handed to you ten ways from next Tuesday?" he asked, with so little inflection it was almost more of a statement than a question.

It was Jim's turn to raise his eyebrow, and Pike tried desperately to hold back a snort. Barnett, however, was struck by how much the young man looked like his father when he did that. It was almost like George was standing in front of him, telling him not to be an idiot, or asking him if he really thought he could get away with it.

Finally, he shook his head. "Go on, get out of here," he chuckled, unable to maintain the serious attitude any longer.

Jim smirked again, though it wasn't the same smirk he had been flaunting – this expression was much more authentic, and true.

When it was the two older men alone in the room, Barnett turned to look at his friend. "He's going to be a great captain some day," he said.

Pike looked at the door that the newest captain had just closed. "He already is," he replied absentmindedly.


"Can I help you with something?"

The gruff voice tore Winona Kirk out of her musings. She turned around, to be met with the sight of a younger man in cadet reds. She recognized him as one of the surviving Enterprise crew.

She smiled, even though she felt no real joy, because she knew how much more receptive people were when faced with a smile than a frown. "No, thank you, we're fine," she replied, glancing towards her older son, who was still wearing the same nervous look he had adorned for the last week. "We're just waiting for the ceremony to begin, cadet…"

She trailed off, waiting for him to fill in the blank, predictably with an answering smile, possibly a flirtatious glance.

But he didn't. His scowl remained firmly in place, as he crossed his arms. "Doctor," he corrected abrasively. "McCoy. And don't even think about it."

That brought out a reaction. "Excuse me?" Sam Kirk cut in, the nervousness fading away to confusion and a little bit of irritation.

McCoy shifted his gaze over to the man, noting again the similarities he shared with his brother. "I think I was pretty clear," he retorted. "You've done enough. Jim hasn't needed you for over a decade. He doesn't need you now."

That set Winona's teeth on edge. "And just who do you think you are, to speak to us this way?" she snapped.

Though the doctor could feel his already somewhat dubious patience wearing thin, he forced himself to reply calmly. "Jim is my best friend, and I'm his. I'm the one who's been there for him, for the good and bad. I'm the one who had to pick up the pieces after you showed up last week. I thought you would have gotten the message by now. Jim doesn't want to see you."

Both Kirks winced at the harshness of the words, though neither could really dispute them. Both knew they had screwed up, big time. But they were here to make it right. And they didn't want to leave without at least trying.

"Now see here-" Winona started, but was interrupted almost immediately.

"No." McCoy finally lost it. He couldn't change the past, but he was damned if he would let these two, who only by happenstance of DNA could call themselves Jim's family, screw up the future. "You abandoned him. Over and over again, you left." He turned to Sam. "And you just left. I know things weren't pleasant, and I get why you did, and believe me," he took on a softer tone, "Jim gets it too." His jaw muscles tightened, and when he continued, his voice was just as harsh as it had been before. "But you still left. You left him there, knowing what would happen. Did you just not care?" He paused to let that sink in, but continued when he saw Sam open his mouth to protest. "I don't want to know your reasons. All I know is the aftermath. And Jim doesn't need to be reminded of all that, especially not today. Did you even think about what your presence would do to him?" Winona and Sam looked at each other remorsefully, and McCoy felt a flash of savage pleasure at their obvious discomfort. "I didn't think so. You just wanted to ease your own guilt. Good God, you've spent the last twenty five years not caring about him, why start now?"

As the doctor finished, he felt a vindictive satisfaction, knowing that he had made his point. All of that was replaced with worry a moment later, when he saw their eyes shift over his shoulder, and their faces turn hopeful. He turned around with dread and, sure enough, Jim was slowly approaching them, his expression unreadable.

He stopped at McCoy's side, but remained silent, assessing. He knew it was illogical – as a certain Vulcan would say – but he had really hoped his… family… had taken the hint and left after he had run away the week before. He should have known better.

He kept his face carefully blank, as he looked his mother and brother over. Both seemed to be waiting for him to make the first move. Finally, and with deliberate intent, he turned away from them, and towards his best friend of three years. "Come on, Bones," he said with forced cheer. "Let's go graduate."

The doctor waited a beat, glancing back at the unwelcome visitors, and then focused on the soon to be captain. He could see the forced air of calm and casual, but there was also an undercurrent of determination, and it made him proud.

Jim knew the doctor could see through the act, and while he sometimes wished McCoy didn't know him so well, he was glad that he finally had someone in his life that cared about him. The return of his family had shaken him, but no matter how screwed up Jim was on the inside, he was done letting the memories control him: he had given up too much of his life living in the past. It was time to look to the future. And he knew he was done. He had waited for years for some sort of resolution. He had waited for an apology, an explanation… anything. But it had never come. So he was finished. He had turned the page on that part of his life; it was time to start a new chapter.

He slung an arm across McCoy's shoulders, and started to lead him away, when the faint voice calling after him threatened to break his resolve.

"Jimmy."

Jim stopped, suddenly stiff as he was thrown back to a time when the soft, sweet voice of his mother was a source of comfort.

McCoy looked worriedly towards his friend, but he didn't say anything. He knew the younger man needed to do this for himself.

Without turning around, Jim spoke to his mother directly, voice harsh and unyielding. "It's Jim. Captain James Kirk. Commander." He continued walking, dragging the incredibly proud doctor along. Because he wasn't looking, he missed the tears flowing freely down his mother's face, and the heartbroken look in his brother's eyes. And when he opened his mouth again, it was to his best friend, his brother in all but blood. "Come on Bones," he said, and the doctor was pleased to note that some of the kid's youthful exuberance had returned, "There's a starship up there with my name on it."

McCoy shook his head and grumbled something about idiot captains and hyposprays – because he knew it was expected of him – but truth to tell, he was happier than he could even imagine, hearing Jim sound even somewhat like his old self. He had never thought he'd miss the childlike antics, but the last week had been a real eye opener. He knew it would take some time, but he would be there, without fail, whenever and however Jim needed him. He knew the kid would be all right. Eventually. He had his whole life ahead of him, and McCoy knew he would be there to see it all happen. It wasn't really like he had a choice, and the doctor was surprised to find that he was actually looking forward to seeing what the younger man would accomplish. After all, James T. Kirk was going to be a great man, some day. Maybe he already was.

Wow, this was like the story that wouldn't end. Actually, that's most of my stories =] But I struggled so much on how to finish this. Nothing felt right, but it had to end eventually, so I hope it doesn't suck.

Please review!