A/N: Thanks so much to everyone who stayed with me through this long project. Your reviews and support have inspired me and really encouraged me. I appreciate every word.

Epilogue: Starfleet Academy, Fall 2257


When the shuttle broke through the cloud cover over San Francisco Bay, it was raining.

Heavy drops of water splashed across the small viewing ports, obscuring Jim's view, and the sky was still mostly dark. It was October 6th, 0530 local time. He kept his eyes glued to the window as the shuttle looped smoothly over the Golden Gate Bridge and pulled into the shuttle dock adjacent Starfleet Command. In the dim, early morning light, the buildings looked almost unfamiliar, as if something indefinable had changed while he'd been away. It had only been three months, but it felt like years.

He felt out of sync, and not just because he'd been away for so long. After ten days on the Salk, the medical transport that had taken them from Starbase Eleven back to earth, his biorhythms were attuned to the ship. For him, it was early afternoon.

He glanced over at Bones, who was deep in a low-voiced conversation with Raj. He hadn't actually seen that much of the doctor after they'd left Rigel, and that, too, felt odd. The two-day stay at Starbase Eleven had passed in an endless series of debriefings that left him exhausted, interspersed with medical exams and quick reunions with the men from the camp. Things were less hectic for him on the Salk, but Bones had thrown himself back into work from the first day, insisting on taking responsibility for the medical treatment of the Atlantis men and helping care for the 86 civilian captives who were returning with them back to earth.

"So, Kirk, you feeling about ready for a good home-cooked meal?"

Jim turned back from the port—the shuttle was already docking, and there was nothing much to look at anyway—to look at Andrews, seated next to him. The commander's face still looked a little pinched and thin, but he seemed relaxed. "Anything, as long as it's not synthesized or crawling," Jim said, with a small laugh. "I just hope it won't send my stomach into shock."

Andrews gave him an understanding nod. They'd shared a number of meals on the Salk on the way back, and he knew, of course, that Jim was on a severely restricted diet. Jim could only hope that he wasn't aware of some of the other medical complications that he was still dealing with, including "impaired gastrointestinal tract function," as Bones put it bluntly.

In fact, Bones had become entirely too familiar with Jim's digestive experience. Jim couldn't help feeling a little resentful at how quickly the doctor had bounced back from the scorpion-and-worm diet, while he was stuck with gastric emptying scans, nutritional supplements, and intrusive inquiries into his bowel habits. Bones apparently didn't care if he found it embarrassing or not.

"Why isn't this happening to you?" he'd whined, bent double on the biobed after yet another unsuccessful attempt at solid foods. "We ate the same bugs, drank the same water…"

"Your immune system was compromised to begin with," Bones told him, looking surprisingly sympathetic. "You were still recovering from the choriomeningitis when we landed in the camp. Combine that with hard labor at the mines and a few months of malnutrition, and you weren't exactly the picture of health when we escaped." Then he'd gone on to explain, in excruciating detail, about intestinal parasites and diarrheal infections, while Jim groaned and tried to remember that having a friend who was a doctor could actually come in handy. Sometimes.

"My wife and son are meeting us here," Andrews confided now, a small smile on his face. "The minute we finish with the official greetings, I'm taking them out to the Social Club. Ever had their scones?"

"Uh, no, sir." Jim had heard of the famous restaurant, one of San Francisco's oldest—and most expensive—dining spots. He'd never been able to afford a meal there on a cadet's salary, and at the moment, the very thought of heavy baked goods was making him nauseous. "So," he said vaguely, hoping to change the subject, "what're your plans? Gonna stay earthside for a while?"

Andrews shook his head. "I'll be heading back out, as soon as I can find a position on a good ship. I've never had the patience for domestic life." The shuttle settled onto the ground with a slight shudder, and Jim felt his heartbeat ratchet up. This was it, they were landing. "But a month or so with my family sounds good right now. You and McCoy'll be heading straight back into classes at the Academy, I suppose."

Jim nodded. "No time to lose." He tried to inject some confidence and enthusiasm into his words, but the truth was, he'd been avoiding thinking about it. Pike had already told him, before he left, that he'd need to take some remedial engineering courses. Now he'd already missed over a month of classes and training, and he had no idea how he was going to make up the extra work.

"Don't worry so much," Andrews said, as if he could read his thoughts. "Captain Pike's a good commander, and I'm sure by now he's gotten a report of what happened on Rigel. He won't expect you to do the impossible. Just take it one step at a time, get yourself back into your routine, and you'll be up to speed before you know it."

That was Andrews: supportive and compassionate, tough but fair. He was the first commander, besides Pike, that Jim had gotten to know well. He was exactly the kind of officer Jim wanted to be.


"It's been a pleasure to know you, sir," he said quietly. "I… uh, I've learned a lot from you, more than you know. You kept us together back in the camp when we were starting to tear each other apart, and made us remember who we were and what we represented." He could still hear Andrews telling them all, We are Starfleet… and from this moment on your first responsibility is to the men you're standing with, shoulder to shoulder. "I want you to know that you made a big impression on me. I know I was a little hotheaded at first—"

Andrews laughed. "You were a stubborn cadet who thought he knew more than everybody else, and you don't put your trust in authority figures very easily. And you were angry as hell, with good reason." Then he sobered. "I saw your determination and courage from the start, Kirk, but you weren't using good judgment or listening to anybody else, and that's why the others had trouble with you."

"I know." It was easy enough to admit now, although he hadn't been able to see it at all back then.

"You matured a lot during those two months at the camp, Kirk. I saw it. A real leader earns the respect of his men by listening to advice and then making the best decision he can, after weighing all the options, and that's what you learned to do on Rigel." There was another vibration under their feet, and the shuttle began moving forward slowly, maneuvering into place within the docking bay. "You escaped when you had the chance, and thank God you did. Taking McCoy with you was a good call as well. And from what I've heard, the two of you worked as a flawless team."

Jim flashed him a wry grin. "Not exactly flawless." More like a pair of bickering fools. "We had a lot of disagreements."

"Well, you must have done something right," Andrews shrugged, "or McCoy wouldn't be singing your praises so loudly."

Jim blinked in surprise, wondering just what rumors Bones had been spreading. "He's probably exaggerating." And downplaying his own role, he thought. "And I couldn't have done it without him, sir. We'd be dead if it weren't for his quick thinking."

"That's just exactly what he said." Andrews gave him an amused glance. "One thing is for sure, Kirk. None of us would be here, back at Starfleet, if it weren't for the two of you." He placed a hand on Jim's arm, squeezing it lightly. "I want you to remember this. You've made a huge difference in people's lives... in my life. Childress never intended to pay us off and let us go. I'm sure now that you were right about that. I don't know how you sensed it from the start, but you obviously picked up on something that the rest of us didn't want to see."

Andrews seemed to be waiting for some sort of response, but all Jim said was, "I'm not happy that I was right about it."

"Well, you saved over a hundred and thirty people, mostly innocent civilians, from years of suffering. Whatever else you accomplish in your career in Starfleet, you can always be proud of that."

"Yes, sir," he said uncomfortably, wishing that Andrews would talk about something else. He didn't need, or want, to be thanked.

The shuttle had come to a stop, and the men around them were already standing and moving toward the exit. Andrews stood up, and so did Jim. "I told you once that Starfleet rewards hard work and proven performance, Kirk," he said, holding out his hand. "You'll make a fine officer one day, and I'd be proud to serve with you again."

"Thank you, sir. That means a lot to me." Jim said. Andrews' hand felt warm and solid in his grasp, and he shook it firmly. "It's been an honor."

When he poked his head out of the shuttle exit, he saw that they weren't in the crowded, main Starfleet docking bay. Most space traffic came and went from that enormous station adjacent to Starfleet Headquarters, but he saw that they'd been diverted to a smaller, private area. An honor guard was standing at attention just in front of the shuttle, along with an admiral and another officer that he didn't recognize. A mid-sized air transport with Starfleet insignia hovered a few meters away.

Jim stood at attention with the other men, his expression carefully controlled as the admiral made his welcoming remarks. The admiral's words were warm and sincere—polished phrases about courage and tenacity in extraordinary circumstances and upholding Starfleet's highest values—but the high-flown words left Jim feeling uncomfortable, as if he were talking about somebody else.

He was aware of Bones, standing at his shoulder and fidgeting. Jim could almost hear him thinking, clear as day: Enough of the bullshit, already. Jim felt a grin tugging at his mouth.

"You've all earned our respect and gratitude," the admiral finished. "And I know you're probably itching to see your families and friends"—he glanced at the transport behind him, signaling to an officer waiting beside it—"so I'll keep this short. Welcome home, gentlemen."

The transport ride was so short that Jim barely had a chance to get his bearings. He stared out the side window, but it was still raining and mostly dark. He could just make out the outlines of Starfleet Headquarters with its distinctive tower looming over the enormous office complex. The transport swooped between buildings and over manicured lawns, finally gliding to a smooth stop just inside a large hanger.

He wasn't familiar enough with the main Starfleet complex to recognize where they were, but Bones obviously was. "Damn it," Bones muttered from the seat next to him, scowling out the window. "I should have known."

"What do you—"

"Starfleet Medical," he told Jim, sighing. "Probably want a baseline physical or something. Let's go."

The other men were already standing up and heading out. "Wait, I just spent a week on a medical transport, for fuck's sake!" Jim hissed in Bones' ear. He didn't want the others to hear him whine, but really, the last thing he wanted to be doing right now was another round of tests from another set of doctors with too many questions. "Can't they just send the results over?"

"Relax, kid," Bones told him, edging between the seats toward the transport exit. "It's just a formality, for the most part. Anyway, people are waiting for us. Let's go see who's out there."

"Yeah, you're right," he said quickly, with a bland smile that he hoped looked genuine. "Let's go see." He was fairly sure nobody would be waiting for him, but he wasn't going to say that to Bones.

They joined the others in the hanger, where a small crowd of people in civilian dress were standing off to one side. Some of them were cheering and waving; others were craning their heads to see. Jim felt his throat swell and his hands start to sweat.

A small boy broke out from the group and raced toward them. Jim saw Andrews reach down and swing him up onto his shoulders, a broad grin stretching across his face. As if that was a signal, the others surged forward. He heard a jumble of jubilant voices calling "Jorge!" "God, it's good to see you…" "John, put him down, he's a big boy, let me—" They were enveloped by the crowd, and Jim had a glimpse of Yoshi being embraced by his parents, Cho being kissed by a burly young man wearing science blues, and Raj swept up in a bear hug by his relatives.

"Len!" he heard, and Bones' face lit up. A dark-haired man in his thirties was making his way toward them, accompanied by another woman who looked like she might be the man's mother.

"Over here, Michael!" he yelled, waving a hand. "It's my cousin and my aunt," he told Jim, smiling broadly. "And my—" His voice faltered, but he didn't need to complete the sentence. An older woman with a gentler version of Bones' strong features was hurrying toward them, hands outstretched.

His mother, clearly. There was a tight, empty feeling in Jim's stomach at the sight. A moment later, all three of them were hugging Bones for all he was worth. In fact, he realized, all of the Atlantis men were being embraced, back slapped, smiled at, and kissed. Everyone except for him.

He stood still for a minute in helpless mortification, hoping nobody would notice that he was alone and unclaimed.

He kept a smile glued to his face, boxing his emotions into a tiny, locked part of himself with a well-practiced shove. Don't start with the self-pity, he told himself fiercely. He'd received a short-but-heartfelt subspace message from his mother while they were on the Salk, and he didn't really expect his brother Sam to show up after all these years. Just because he'd returned from being presumed dead didn't mean that anyone cared particularly.

Still, he thought. Some fucking welcoming ceremony.

And: I need to get out of here. Right now.

He could handle this just fine if only he wasn't right in the goddamn middle of all the hugging. He started extricating himself from the crowd, edging past Collins and around Andrews and his family. He could stand right over there on the side, near the door, and nobody would—

"Jim!" someone called, and he looked up, startled.

Chris Pike was suddenly there, striding toward him. He looked as calm and composed as ever, in his charcoal grey uniform, but he was giving Jim one of his rare smiles.

"Captain Pike," he said, straightening up automatically and saluting, hoping the anxiety of the moment before wasn't still written all over his face. He wasn't sure if Pike was there in his official role as the Commandant of Cadet Training or as Jim's advisor and mentor, but he didn't really care as long as he saved him from the humiliation of having nobody there to welcome him back.

Pike returned the salute with careful precision, and then stepped forward, hand outstretched. But instead of shaking Jim's hand, he pulled him in close into a strong embrace. Jim hadn't been hugged this way in years: tight and warm, without holding back.

Like a father would hug a long-lost son… and fuck, that thought alone nearly made his knees buckle.

"It's good to see you, Jim," Pike said quietly in Jim's ear. "Welcome back."

"Thank you, sir," he said, pulling back just slightly, not wanting the captain to feel how much he wanted, needed, the embrace.

Having his advisor hug the shit out of him only made him feel, in the end, disconnected and lonely. It was nice, but also really awkward, and it underscored the fact that everybody else had somebody there for him—a friend or a relative—and he didn't.

Pike made a little small talk with him, mostly things like "You look like hell" and "You've lost weight," and asking him about what he'd done on Starbase Eleven, but he kept it light. Jim had no doubt that Pike had read all the debriefing reports and he wouldn't let Jim off so easily, but for now, all the captain said was, "Come see me later, when you've had time to settle in. I'd like to hear what exactly happened on Rigel. And… we have to discuss your class schedule."

"Absolutely," he said. There was no other possible answer.

The feeling of estrangement stayed with him all that morning. All of the Atlantis men were sent off to be examined at Starfleet Medical, but only Jim found himself stuck there for over an hour, waiting for a doctor to finish what became an endless series of tests and scans. None of his protests that he'd already been evaluated up the wazoo for the last week on the Salk had done any good at all.

"Any Starfleet officer returning from an extended planetary mission needs a physical exam," the doctor told him. "And you've still got a number of medical issues that require treatment."

By the time the exam was finished—"Not cleared for full duty yet," the doctor told him with irritating calm, "but you can attend classes while your ankle finishes healing and your digestive system recovers."—the other men had left. Jim hadn't really expected any of the Starfleet officers to stick around, but he'd thought that Bones at least would wait for him, and they could…

They could what, dumbass?

Go out for a drink at seven in the fucking morning? Grab a meal at the Academy cafeteria and talk about old times on Rigel? Bones obviously had things of his own to do. The doctor needed to talk to his own advisor, get settled back into his routine, maybe find out about his hospital shifts. They'd probably meet up again in a week or so, see each other occasionally on campus, get together for the memorial ceremony for the Atlantis crew once a year. That was going to be the normal way of things. They'd gotten close, very close, but the fact that they'd spent the last few months living in each other's personal space didn't mean that they should keep doing it.

He perked up a bit when a nurse came running after him, just as he was about to leave the clinic, saying that Captain Pike had left something for him. There was a cadet uniform and a new comm waiting for him at the main desk, and Jim was ridiculously grateful. Pike must have known how much he needed the uniform right now, how much he needed to feel like he belonged. And he appreciated Pike's thoughtfulness; he must have known that Jim had lost his old comm on the Atlantis.

When he clicked on the comm he saw that he had two messages: one from Chris Pike's office, informing him of an appointment with the Commandant of Cadets that afternoon at 15:30, and another from the Housing Authority. His new dorm assignment was Yeager 245.

Why the hell did they have to change my room assignment? Didn't they think I was coming back?

He was annoyed. Of course it made sense that they'd reassign his room to another cadet, and they really hadn't known he was coming back. What did he really expect them to do, keep his things there like a shrine? The semester had begun, and he wasn't there. Life at the Academy had moved on. But that didn't mean he had to like it.

He changed back into the new set of cadet reds, which felt stiff and still carried the crease from their packaging, then stepped out of Starfleet Medical into the gloomy, wet morning. A light fog was rolling in, and he felt the chill air wash over him.

What next? Obviously he needed to get back to the Academy, but from there, things were vague. He was getting hungry, and it would be nice to get something to eat that wasn't pre-chosen for him by a nutritional expert. Afterwards… maybe he should check out his new accommodations, meet his new roommate.

He decided to walk back, even though he knew it would take him over an hour to get back to campus. He was in no hurry. The bridge walk would help him to process everything, keep him from arriving back on campus too fast. He needed to clear his head, get used to the idea that he was supposed to be Cadet James Kirk, Second Clas again. Future Starfleet engineer.

The bridge was nearly empty of pedestrians. There wasn't much of a view, with the fog obscuring the majestic steel beams that arched overhead. It was chilly and windy, still drizzling lightly. Typical October weather… but, he realized after a while, not the best weather for a stroll on the bridge.

His mind flashed, unwillingly, to the all-weather orange jumpsuit and the winds of Rigel, and he shook his head to clear it. Put it behind you, he told himself firmly. You're back, and that's all that matters.

Still, it was cold and not particularly pleasant. He found himself wishing for his thermal Academy jacket, which he'd left back in his dorm room with all his other things.

Fuck, where's my stuff? he thought suddenly, followed closely by the more disturbing Who packed up all my things?

Obviously they wouldn't have left everything in his old dorm room, so someone would have had to gather up his effects. He supposed it could have been his roommate, Dan Corrigan. He gave an inward cringe at the idea of someone, even Corrigan, sorting through his clothes, his few keepsakes and paper books, his toiletries. It felt, in retrospect, like a massive invasion of privacy.

How long had they waited, he wondered, before they'd packed away his personal effects? And where had they put them? His mother couldn't have claimed them, since she wasn't due back for almost nine months. Shit, maybe she'd had everything shipped back to Riverside…

He felt a little better as he came down off the bridge and entered the Academy campus. The familiar sight of Archer Hall, with its cream-colored pillars and cadets scurrying up and down the wide steps, brought a small smile to his lips. The walkways were as immaculate as ever, and here and there, one of the sleek Academy hovercrafts zipped by with a low hum. A few rays of sun were poking through the cloud cover, burning away the fog.

It all looked unchanged. Routine. He blended in easily; nobody gave him a second glance.

He wandered aimlessly around the campus for about half an hour, enjoying the quiet and the anonymity. It was nearly nine o'clock, so most of the cadets were in the middle of their first class or lab session, and the grounds were fairly deserted. He didn't run into anyone he knew, which was both a relief and a disappointment.

He was getting hungry, so he made his way over to the cafeteria. The first class period was nearly over, and he figured it would be a good idea to get his food now, before the crunch of cadets started pouring in. The cafeteria food was nothing special, but at least they'd have fresh fruit and real coffee, and—

He stopped short. There was an enormous sign—no, it was a cloth banner, of all things—just to the right of the cafeteria entrance, where nobody could miss it. A homemade banner, flapping in the wind, looking a little wet and bedraggled, but still legible.

Starfleet Academy welcomes back Cadets James Kirk and Leonard McCoy and congratulates them on their heroic actions on Rigel XII.

Holy shit.

He stood transfixed with his heart pounding, staring at the banner, surprised and embarrassed. He felt a flash of warmth—hell, it was a nice gesture, and it meant that somebody on campus knew what had happened and wanted to show their respect—but beyond that, he was struck again by that same feeling of estrangement. Heroic actions on Rigel XII… What did that even mean? Why couldn't they have just said welcome back, and left it there?

Ignoring the banner, he set his eyes resolutely forward and stepped up to the cafeteria entrance, swiping his hand quickly over the scanner. But the device beeped unexpectedly, and the door stayed closed. He had to stop himself from barreling forward right into it. A pleasant computerized voice told him, "Identification not accepted. Please state your name and rank."

"James Kirk," he said. Another cadet had come up behind him, and was looking at him curiously. "Uh, Cadet Second Class."

"Voiceprint confirmed," the scanner announced. Jim felt vaguely relieved; at least the computer agreed that he was who he said he was. But then it continued, still in that same pleasant tone, "Your Academy account has been terminated. Food and beverages are available for guests in the cafeteria in Archer Hall."

"Fuck," Jim muttered. The cadet behind him flicked his eyes over to the banner, then looked back at him, open-mouthed. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."

"I'm terribly sorry, Cadet Kirk," the clerk told him at the Academy registrar's office. "Your account was inactive for over ninety days, and it's our policy—"

I don't care what your damn policy is. "Well, you need to reactivate it," Jim said, trying to rein in his temper. "I'm here now."

"It's been reactivated," the man explained with a touch of impatience, "as I've explained for the third time. The cafeteria system was undergoing maintenance procedures this morning, and hasn't come fully back online. If you go back now, it will accept your identification with no problem."

"Thank you," Jim said, holding onto the appearance of military courtesy to cover his anger. It might be childish, but he couldn't help seeing the bureaucratic glitch as yet one more misstep in this back-to-school farce. Even the goddamn computer thought that he didn't really belong anymore.

"Your effects have already been transferred to your new housing assignment," the clerk offered, looking apologetic. "We weren't able to place you in the usual cadet housing because of your late registration, but Yeager is one of the—"

Jim let out an exasperated huff of breath. "I didn't register late. I was on a training assignment and the ship was attacked. We just got back."

"I'm well aware of the incident, Mr. Kirk, believe me." The clerk's tone was respectful, with a touch of exaggerated patience, and Jim reminded himself to keep his emotions in check. Rudeness toward officers and staff wasn't tolerated at the Academy, no matter how justified he might think it was. "Everyone here heard about the Atlantis, and we're very, very glad to have you back at the Academy. But that doesn't change the fact that by the time Captain Pike informed us that you were coming back, housing assignments had already been made. Yeager is a new facility, and it's actually nicer than the usual cadet accommodations. We use it for married cadets and for cadets with special needs."

I don't have special needs, he wanted to say, but hell, the man was only doing his job. "Fine," he sighed, letting his stiff posture slacken, just a little. "Can you at least make sure that I won't have any trouble with my ID when I try to get into Yeager?"

"There won't be a problem," the clerk reassured him. "We've updated your account details."

Jim forced himself to nod and smile, and thanked the man for his help.

He felt suddenly tired. He was still on shipboard time, and his body was telling him it was evening. Maybe he should just go find his new dorm room and take a nap. He needed to be alert for his meeting with Pike.

Yeager Hall was on the south side of campus, not far from the gym. The day had cleared, and the paths were full of cadets and instructors walking in all directions, chatting in small groups, or hurrying on alone, full of purpose. Tomorrow, he'd be back here with the others, just one more cadet out of thousands, nothing special about him. He'd be making his way to the engineering quad, coffee cup in hand—his stomach would just have to learn to tolerate it, no matter what the nutritional expert recommended—and his PADD shoved into a bag slung over his shoulder. Back to student life: doing homework, taking notes, learning theoretical models, and taking tests. It seemed almost too mundane, after what he'd been through. At the same time, he longed to return to the structure and the routine, to the normalcy of everyday Academy life.

He found room 245 quickly enough, and as promised, the door slid open smoothly when he swiped his fingers along the pad. It was a double—a suite, really, with two tiny bedrooms and a bathroom set off a common living area. Not bad, he thought, mollified. In fact, it was a significant upgrade from the cramped room he'd shared with Corrigan. Maybe late registry came with a few perks after all.

Just inside the door, he found a large, sealed box, labeled Property of Lt. Cmdr. Winona Kirk.He stared at it for a minute, feeling a cold shudder run through him. One box was all he'd left behind: some clothes, a few holos, his PADD… He wondered what his mother would have done with his things. Left them in the box, probably, in the basement of the old farmhouse in Riverside. She wasn't a sentimental person. But then again, neither was he.

He decided to take a real, honest-to-God hot water shower, and then unpack. A little nagging voice in the back of his mind, sounding suspiciously like Bones, told him that he'd better go back and try the cafeteria again, get some food inside him before his meeting with Pike.

When he arrived at Pike's office at 1530 on the dot, he found that he wasn't alone. Bones was already there, dressed in his cadet reds and seated in front of Pike's large desk.

Jim blinked at him, surprised and relieved. Bones looked out of place and uncomfortable, but for the first time that day, Jim felt anchored. He'd assumed the meeting was for him alone, and had been worrying for the past hour how he'd manage to tell the story right, all by himself. But with Bones there as well, he felt more confident they could make Pike understand. And he really wanted Pike to get what happened, what the labor camp had done to them and why he'd had to try to escape. They'd been desperate, not heroic. And they only started "upholding Starfleet's highest values" after Andrews reamed them out and knocked some sense into them.

Pike didn't waste time, after the initial greetings. "Tell me what happened, starting on the Atlantis," he said simply. "Both of you. I've read the reports and the debriefings, but I'd like to hear what you experienced, from the moment of the attack."

Jim glanced at Bones, who shrugged. "You start," Bones said. "You were right in the middle of the action, in engineering. I was just in the sickbay."

"I was asleep, sir," Jim began awkwardly, his mouth suddenly dry. "It was in the middle of gamma shift, uh…"

"0230," Bones supplied.

"Right." Jim nodded. "Anyway, I was awakened by the red alert. I got to my post in the main engineering bay, and helped with damage control and rescue efforts. About twenty minutes after the attack started we were taken by tractor beam, and—"

"Hold on, Jim," Pike interrupted, looking pained. "This isn't a formal report. I just want to know what you experienced, what it was like for you. Don't tell it to me like you think I want to hear it. The ship was attacked, and I know what that's like. Chaos and explosions, scary as hell, especially for two green cadets on their first deep space assignment. I know it was messy. Just… tell me what happened, son."

Part of him wanted to do exactly that, after holding himself in control for so long: just let it out, and not worry about how it sounded. But he knew that the minute he started, it would all come back to him: the terror of the attack, the gut-wrenching frustration and uncertainty, and the horror of the labor camp. He wasn't used to talking about things like that. Even on Rigel, he'd never have mentioned Tarsus if Bones hadn't practically forced it out of him.

But Pike was regarding him with a level gaze, waiting calmly, so he took a deep breath and began.

"I ran out into the corridor, and the first thing I saw was a gaping hole in the hull," he said, shuddering with the memory. "People were screaming… and then the emergency barrier dropped down a second later, and they were trapped on the other side..." He swallowed, remembered the way the screaming had suddenly stopped, leaving nothing by a horrifying echo in its wake. "Engineering was ripped apart, half the systems were down. Consoles were on fire and there were beams trapping people underneath. It was… God. It was hopeless, right from the start. We did what we could, but… I knew we were fucked. We all did."

The words poured out of him. Pike didn't say much, mostly nodding, occasionally asking a question. Bones added his own story of the frantic triage efforts and the desperate medical situation. "When the Orions were marching us out, I tried to sneak a medkit out," he said. His voice was controlled, but a muscle jumped in his cheek. "Damn pirate aimed his weapon right at me… I had to leave it."

Jim's eyes narrowed. He never told me about this, he thought guiltily. Bones had never told anyone, as far as he knew, and Jim had never asked. In fact, they'd never even talked about the attack, not even in the camp.

"What happened to the men who were too injured to walk?" Pike asked, looking as if he already knew the answer.

"We had to leave them behind." He sounded furious, and Jim's stomach twisted. "They were still alive when I saw them last, but they weren't brought over with us, and I don't know what the hell happened to them."

"God rest their souls," Pike said, as if confirming the unspoken conclusion. "I'm sorry. Now tell me what happened on the Orion ship."

It went on like that, with Jim and Bones telling their story haltingly, and Pike prodding them on.

"…I didn't want to wear the damn jumpsuit, sir. I thought it was degrading and we needed to show them that we weren't sheep, and—"

Bones glared at him. "And I pulled him back before he got his fool head blown off. Damn it, Jim, that guard had his phaser pointed straight at you, but you were acting like a reckless idiot!"

"…Plenty of men had run away, but nobody ever heard from them again. That's what they told us. Nobody knew if any of them had made it to Alpheus, but nothing ever changed at the camp."

"…I knew exactly what was going to happen to the man, and how to stop it, too, if I'd only had some equipment, some proper medication!" Bones' voice cracked on the last word, and Jim felt tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. Shit, poor Fredericks. "He was suffocating, and there was nothing I could do. He died in my arms…"

"…No sir, there wasn't time. It was just one explosive, and not even a strong one. It could create a diversion, maybe, but that was it. But it was all I had, and… I hadn't really thought it through. I knew they'd figure out what I'd done when they tried to set off the blast the next morning, so it was now or never. But McCoy got suspicious when I asked him to go in ahead of me, and he wouldn't leave me alone. And we were getting near the barracks, so I just told him to trust me, and I tossed it up onto the roof and made a run for it…"

"…We were lost. I was sure of it. We weren't going to make it, and I thought the only thing we could do was go back, try to find shelter, wait till the storm passed… Jim insisted that we had to go on, that if we stopped we'd never make it out. I thought he was wrong, but I was too worn out to argue with him anymore…"

"…I, uh, knew a lot about survival in the wild. You know why, sir, but Bones—McCoy—didn't. Not at that point. And I had to eat something. Bones thought I was, I don't know…"

"I thought you were an arrogant idiot, Jim, and that you'd just ingested an alien bug that was potentially poisonous!" He shook his head. "I told him that I'd never eat that scorpion, and… I'm not proud to say it, but the truth is, sir, that I started hassling him. I said that I knew he didn't have a plan, and the only thing he cared about was telling me what to do. And Jim yelled right back that he did know what he was doing, because he'd done it all before…"

"…and I heard this crack, like something had popped inside, and the whole area just went numb. That's when I knew we were screwed."

"I didn't have a clue what to do… but Jim did. He was mumbling something from the first, but I couldn't hear it. Then they pulled him to his feet, and he let out this scream—Don't give me that look, Jim, you should've heard yourself—and I started yelling about getting him medical treatment. Didn't do any good, though. Childress just lied without batting an eyelash, said that we'd get treated at the so-called clinic back at the camp. And Jim… He was so hypothermic and shocky he could hardly speak at all by that point, but I finally heard what he was trying to say. Name, rank, and service number…"

"I, uh, passed out, sir. The next thing I knew, I woke up in this clinic, and…"

"I thought… I guess I wasn't thinking straight. God, of course the retinal scan would ID me, I knew that, but I couldn't be responsible for the deaths of innocent men. I didn't really think about what it would mean to Jim, either… It was stupid."

"It was brave!" Jim shot him a defiant look, and then relented. "But, yeah, stupid, Bones."

"Not stupid," Pike objected. "An error of judgment. Cadet McCoy, you couldn't have stopped the ID process and at that point, your job was to tell your superiors what happened and let them handle the situation. I understand why you did it, considering the stress you were under and the fact that you haven't undergone the standard cadet training, but it's important that you understand that Starfleet is a military organization. Your superior officers need to have all the information in order to make the right decision. It wasn't your call to hold this back."

Bones looked away, his expression tightening into a grimace. "I understand, sir."

"But that's not the main point, doctor." Bones met his eyes again, and Pike leaned forward. "Your performance, up to that point, was exceptional. Both of you have shown extraordinary determination and courage, and for a pair of cadets, that's damned impressive. I read the reports, but hearing the story in your own words… Hell, I can see it now, through your eyes. The fact that you got yourselves out of the camp, that you survived that trek, that you managed to get away from Childress in the end… It's almost incredible. I'm proud, very proud, of both of you."

"Thank you, sir," Bones said. "But it was really Jim who got us there. It wasn't a fifty-fifty split."

"Oh, come off it, Bones!" Jim shot Bones an irritated look. "You were the one who got us down the waterfall. You did the recon, figured out how to get into Alpheus, you found that maintenance hatch—"

"Which we didn't even use, in the end!"

"And you chucked us into the river, which I didn't even think of. You got the governor to listen to us!"

"Only after you told me what to say. I wasn't very convincing up to that point…"

Pike looked amused. "Did you two argue like this the whole damn way?"

Bones gave a long-suffering sigh. "It was a lot worse," he said darkly. "Two stubborn jackasses."

"I was right most of the time, Bones."

After Bones left, Pike handed Jim a PADD and sat back quietly, waiting.

Jim frowned. "Sir, there's a mistake here, a few mistakes in the schedule… Introductory Warp Theory, fine, and Fundamentals of Engineering, okay. But Special Tactics Advanced Skills Training, uh, that's not really my specialty…" He cleared his throat and looked back up at his advisor. "There are a bunch of courses that don't… I mean, I'm not supposed to…"

"There's no mistake," Pike told him. "I've made some adjustments in your program. After reviewing your performance on your summer field training, that is."

Jim felt suddenly short of breath. He can't mean… "Sir, I don't understand. You know that I didn't actually do my summer training. And you said that I couldn't continue in command track. You told me-"

Pike sat back, folding his arms over his chest. "For God's sake, Jim, I'd say that what you did this summer qualifies as pretty rigorous field training. And you came through it with flying colors."

"But… I missed the peace mission!" Hell, I don't even know what happened on Axanar. He really needed to get caught up on the news.

Pike sighed, as if Jim was a little slow on the uptake. "You weren't going to Axanar as diplomats, but as observers. The main segment of the training was on the Farragut, where you would have been exposed to shipboard life, learning more about how a starship functions. But the most important aspect was seeing how you function under stress, how adaptable you are, whether you're capable of showing judgment and initiative." He gave Jim a meaningful look. "Don't you think that what you did proved what kind of a leader you are? Don't you think that you needed to make snap judgments, work as a team, deal with less-than-optimal conditions?"

Hell yeah, that was true. Drinking their own urine, building fires from scratch, eating bugs, hiking on a broken ankle… Less than optimal was putting it mildly. "I guess I did."

"Well, then." Pike leaned back, gesturing around him at the tastefully-decorated office and the large Starfleet insignia on the back wall. "I'm the Commandant of Cadets, Jim, and they pay me to use my judgment. And I'm reinstating you in command track, with sub-specialties in ground tactics and engineering."

Jim's throat choked up, and he found himself blinking back—Damn it!—a tear or two. He gave a soft, constricted laugh to try to cover it. "Thank you, sir. I was actually starting to enjoy the engineering work."

"You won't be able to take much time to get back up to speed," Pike continued. "You've already missed a month of classes, but I'm sure you'll catch up quickly."

"Yes, sir," Jim said, relieved that his voice wasn't wavering, although he couldn't do anything about the wetness in his eyes. "I'll make up the work, don't worry."

"I'm sure you will. I wouldn't expect anything less from you." Pike told him, pushing his chair back and rising in what was clearly a dismissal. "And son… go get yourself a decent meal. You need to fill out that uniform again."

Jim grinned. "I'll consider it an order."

Bones was waiting for him, leaning against the wall just outside Pike's office.

"Well, kid?" he asked. "What did he want to talk to you about?"

"I'm reinstated in the command track," Jim told him, hardly able to believe it. "I go back to class tomorrow."

Bones just nodded, a smug I-knew-it grin plastered over his features. "Well, you deserve it, Jim. After all you did…"

"Come on, Bones, it wasn't just me."

Bones started walking him in the direction of the exit. "Well, that's true, and don't you ever forget it, but... it was you who kicked the whole thing off, Jim. You had the guts to do it. I don't think I would have."

"You would've, Bones," Jim said quietly. "You'd have escaped eventually. You'd have found a way."

"Maybe. I'd like to think so, but…" He shook his head, his eyes averted. "I don't know."

It was near evening when they stepped outside. "Where's your mom?" Jim asked, suddenly recalling that Bones had visitors. "And your cousin and aunt?"

"They went back," Bones said matter-of-factly. "I spent the morning with them, went out for lunch, took them around campus a bit."

The petty, jealous part of him settled down. He was happy for Bones that his mother and his relatives had come to see him, but right now what he wanted was someone to celebrate with. Bones.

"So… how's the new dorm room?" Bones asked. "And where is it, exactly?"

"Huh? My new dorm? It's nice, actually. A lot nicer than the room I had last year, even if it's a little farther away from the quad. I haven't seen my roommate yet, but—"

"Yes, you have." Bones was looking at him, as if there was something he should be getting, but was too dim to grasp. Jim gave him a confused look. "Your roommate is me."

"You… what? Are you sure?" Jim shook his head. "But you're in the medical retraining program, Bones, and they don't bunk with regular cadets…"

Bones shrugged. "Well, when they come back a month after the start of the semester, they have to bunk somewhere. My old room was already taken, and Pike… Well," he said with an embarrassed grin, "he asked me, back at Starfleet Medical, if I'd like to share with you. Just for this year, since they don't have too many options for late-registry cadets."

"And you said…?"

"I said that I doubted there'd be room for two people in the room, what with you and your king-sized ego."

"Fuck you," Jim shot back, but he was grinning. Bones wanted to room with him. As for Jim, there wasn't anybody else he thought he'd feel as comfortable with, not after what they'd been through. Chris Pike was a hell of an advisor, he thought; somehow, he'd known that this would be what Jim needed.

"I'll be honest with you," Bones added, sobering suddenly. "I've lived alone before, and I like it, but after what we've been through… I don't really think a single would be the best thing for me right now. It's going to take a while to readjust, and I tend to pull away from people when I'm under stress. So I told Captain Pike that after living in close quarters with you for so long, I wouldn't mind continuing. Hell, I've pretty much gotten up close and personal with all your negative qualities, so there shouldn't be too many surprises waiting for me."

Jim put on a mock scowl. "What negative qualities are we talking about?"

"You're kidding, right?" Bones held up a finger, as if he were counting. "Anger management issues-"

"Oh come on, Bones, that's an exaggeration."

Another finger. "Problems dealing with authority, recklessness and impulsivity…"

Jim flinched. "Damn it, Bones, you didn't say any of this to Captain Pike, did you?"

"Let's just say that he wasn't exactly surprised by any of it."

"Fuck." After all this time, he still wasn't sure when Bones was teasing him or just being a straight-spoken ass. The doctor was probably a hell of a poker player. "Hang on, nobody asked me whether I wanted you as a roommate."

Bones laughed. "I got the distinct impression, Jim, that your feelings on the issue weren't going to be consulted. You're just a regular cadet, remember?"

"Fine," he muttered, leading them down the path back to Yeager. "Just keep in mind that I've been keeping a list of your negative qualities too."

There it was, the patented eye roll. "You know what the difference is between you and me, kid? I don't give a shit. Deal with it."

Jim grunted and dropped the subject, since it was clear he wasn't going to win. "Well, I chose the best bed already and you can just… Where is your stuff, by the way?"

"Back in the med dorm. You can help me lug it back later."

Jim found himself smiling, more relaxed than he'd been in… well, in months, it seemed. "Forget the dorm room for now, Bones. Let's go get a drink."

Bones looked scandalized. "Are you insane? Your stomach can barely tolerate plain toast and juice!"

"One little drink," he pressed. "C'mon, Bones. We need to celebrate. We made it out and we're back."

"Fine," Bones relented, after a pause. "One drink. And you're right… we deserve it. Tomorrow it's back to the grind."

The end.

A/N #2:

So... I hope I've answered the age-old question, "Why the hell would Chris Pike make lowly cadet Jim Kirk his first officer during the Narada incident?"

Doesn't it make perfect sense now?

Oh, and in the interests of fair disclosure, I broke my own ankle on a hike in the desert a few months back, and then had to keep walking on it for a few hours, just like Jim. Like any dedicated writer, I decided to whump my main character with my own injury.

Then while I was laid up on the couch for six weeks, I found myself watching a lot of the Discovery Channel with my 10-year-old son. So... thank you, too, Bear Grylls, the Ultimate Survivor. You inspired the trek across Rigel. It's been a blast.