Um...I'm still alive and updating this story? Sorry this took over a year to update, but it's about 60 pages long (in a Word doc) so maybe that'll make up for it? And yes, this is the story where the crew gets to read Jim's mind. This story was a bit hard for me to write because it was close to my heart. I won't go into it now so you can just go ahead and read this story, but I'll write an end note to explain why this story, which I had meant for it to be lighthearted and funny, ended up turning a bit dark. (And also why it took me so long to write it. My bad!)

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this chapter!

Disclaimer: I do not own any Star Trek franchise.


A Penny for Your Thoughts

The ion storm came out of nowhere. Absolutely nowhere, and despite all the technological advancements that Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and Chekov had done on their ship, for once, the crew of the Enterprise was caught unawares.

It had been one of those rare occasions that the entire Command crew was on the Bridge at the same time. Both Bones and Scotty had come up to the Bridge to speak with Jim on their own respective topics: Bones in his attempt to get Jim to go to SickBay to get his specialized annual vaccinations and Scotty to complain about not having enough supplies to keep the Enterprise in top form.

The rest of the Command crew had chuckled at Jim's antics to ignore Bones and exasperatedly tell Scotty that, no, he was not going to allow him allocations to make another fermentation station in the backwaters of the Engineering deck.

And then the ion storm hit.

All they had for a warning was a sudden flashing red light and the screen screaming "ion storm proximity alert." Then the entire ship rocked like she had unwittingly flown through a meteor belt.

The entire crew, including Jim, was knocked from their chairs and in seconds, rendered unconscious as the unnatural feel of the magnetic storm rode its course through the ship.

It was only a few minutes before anyone was even able to comprehend what happened, let alone jump into action, but it felt like hours, as if they had woken from a long and deep sleep. Of course, it was Jim who was the first to stir from where he was lying on the floor next to his chair. His head throbbed heavily, as if a pair of monkeys decided to make his skull into drums.

Gritting his teeth, Jim forced himself to sit up and gauge his surroundings. His Command crew was down for the count. Everyone was lying on the ground, clearly knocked out. Or at least, Jim hoped that that was all they were. He didn't want to think about the worst case scenario – he couldn't.

Panicking slightly at the sight of their still bodies, Jim stumbled over to the closest person to him and dropped down on his knees. Even if Bones wasn't the nearest one in proximity, he still would've sought him out first because he was shaken, confused, and just needed Bones to tell him that everything was fine in his own, grouchy way.

"Bones…" he called, his tongue feeling like it was twice the size it actually was, shaking Bones as he did and slapping his cheeks. "Bones! Wake up!"

Bones just groaned and tried to push Jim's hands away. "Five more minutes, Jim…" he mumbled.

Jim let out a sigh of relief and let it flood his veins, calming his nerves. All his panic died down, leaving behind the need to make sure that everyone under his command was alright.

He crawled over to Scotty and did the same until he was able to rouse the Engineer. He moved on to the rest of his Command crew, being gentler with Chekov and Uhura as he patted their cheeks until they awoke. With Spock, he just pressed his hand against the Vulcan's and sent a pulse of concern to him – enough to snap Spock to full consciousness in seconds.

"Everyone okay?" Jim asked loudly and glancing at each and every one of them, reading them with such protective ferocity that it would have made anyone else feel like an ant being scrutinized under a giant magnifying glass.

It was only after Jim saw that they were all sitting up and staring blearily at Jim with utter confusion in their eyes that he let his fears be completely mollified. The moment that happened, Jim instantly launched into action.

"Good." His demeanor immediately changed, taking on his "Captain" mantel, as he swept across the Bridge. "Everyone to your stations, now. We need to figure what if there was any damage to the ship. Chekov," Jim barked out, plopping down on his chair. "Why the hell did that freak ion storm not show up on our monitors?"

His mind was racing. Did the ion storm not show up because the equipment was malfunctioning? Was it the console? Engineering? God, he hoped it wasn't because of something that he had programmed into the ship.

Chekov looked visibly confused and overwhelmed, as did the rest of the Command crew even as they stumbled to obey their Captain's command. The edges of Uhura's eyes started to crinkle - Jim easily recognized it to be a sign of an incoming headache. Sulu and Bones both reached for their heads with one hand and Scotty looked as though he couldn't focus on anything.

Concern started emanating from Jim. Did his friends have after effects from the storm? Was it some sort of external mental attack? If it was, how was it conducted at such a grand scale? Who the hell did it? More importantly, if there were injuries, would Bones be even able to treat this sort of fiasco? He wasn't exactly an expert at treating psychic attacks – that was M'Benga's territory and he was currently on leave for a family emergency…

His thoughts trailed off once Chekov responded to him.

"I do not think that the monitors are broken, Keptin, but I do not know vhy our systems did not pick up the signals in time," Chekov said, his words coming slowly, as if he wasn't sure if he was the one speaking. He turned to face Jim, answering a question that he had not spoken out loud. "But don't worry, Keptin. It definitely had nothing to do vith the changes that you or I may have made in Enterprise's core programs."

At that, Jim immediately froze, the dots in his mind connecting so fast that it seemed as though he went from absolutely nothing to a complete conclusion. "You can read my thoughts." It wasn't a question. "Who else can?"

It took a moment and all, except Spock, raised their shaking hands.

From the second they had awakened, the words and images had slammed into them, overpowering all their senses. It was all sorts of confusing - there were so many things flittering through Jim's mind at once.

The far depth of his mind was dark and shadowed, but always there, always haunting. They had no doubt that it was Jim's past lurking there, but it was hidden so far away and buried so deep that all they could gather was a constant low thrumming of pain, sorrow, and brokenness.

Near the surface were his emotions, pulsating like colors splashing on a white canvas. Panic and fear of what his friends would find in his mind flashed as a dark red, bleeding into blackness with a curious, sandy yellow merging at the edges.

And then there were the words: the actual thoughts that ran parallel along each other like train tracks.

The closest and loudest train of thought was trying desperately to figure out how this whole mind-reading thing worked. It went through theories of ion storms and magnetic pulls to the possibility of an awakening of latent psi-abilities. But there were holes and confusion where Spock was concerned because the Vulcan clearly had no idea what Jim was thinking (and thank whatever God there was for that. He was sure he had already scarred the Vulcan through the whole Betazoid attack). The remembrance of the fake Betazoid ambassador branched away, trailing off into the abyss, even as he continued to postulate how the ion storm afflicted them the way it did.

Behind those thoughts was Jim rewriting a few program codes and him reworking how to build a 20th century motorbike, followed closely by the memory of the time he built his first bike. It had been years since then, just mere days since he found his way back to Riverside, Iowa, and saw his mother and brother happy and together without him. That bike had been his escape, but it also became a chain that dragged him back to Riverside, even after running for years and years around the world. In that sense, it had also saved him, because he never would have had met Pike if he didn't somehow make his back to that godforsaken farmland.

Whenever he found himself worried and stressed out, he would reconstruct that bike in his mind, if only to soothe his fraying nerves. He usually didn't think much about those specific schematics, but once again, it found itself being brought back to the forefront of his mind, only to be overshadowed by his rampant emotions and desperate need to subdue the numerous thoughts that ran unchecked.

All his thoughts branched out, spiraling and connecting in ways that no one but Jim could comprehend. There were so many layers and so much complexity to Jim's mind that it was like a labyrinth that spun in intangible circles continuously.

It made Uhura dizzy, Sulu baffled, Scotty nauseous, Chekov overwhelmed, and Bones equal parts exasperated and tired.

"Goddamn it, Jim. Can't you stop thinking at all? Jesus. It's like a goddamn carnival in there!" Bones managed to grit out, wincing from the loudness of Jim's mind.

Instantly, the chatter in their heads came to a blissful, muted silence, though Jim's emotions (panic and wariness glowing dark-red and dark-purple) still bled through. No doubt he had raised his mental shields, but they clearly still were not strong enough to block them out completely. The murmurs of his thoughts were already starting to arise once again, threatening to become louder and louder by the second.

Jim suddenly jumped to his feet, his blue eyes sweeping around him, looking for threats. He scanned their facial expressions and body language for even a hint of disgust and, more importantly, fear - fear of him and his mind that had always been so abnormal.

"Spock, comm me when you figure out what the hell that ion storm did to them and make sure that they're all alright. You have the conn."

And he fled from the Bridge, as if he was trying to escape his shadow, disappearing into the turbolift in mere seconds.

The thoughts grew dimmer and quieter as Jim pulled further and further away until they could hear nothing at all.

Like puppets with their strings suddenly cut, they all sagged where they sat, sighing a breath of relief once the suffocating pressure in their heads dissipated.

"Holy crap...anyone expect Kirk's mind to be like that?" breathed Sulu, rubbing his temples to alleviate his headache. "I mean, we always knew he was a genius, but who the hell can think of so many things at once?"

Scotty looked a bit green as he nodded in agreement. He didn't dare to speak. If he did, he couldn't guarantee that he wouldn't throw up right there.

"I have found the Captain's mind to be quite unique," Spock said.

"You sound like you have the hots for Jim's brain, hobgoblin," McCoy snorted. "It's too bad you can't read his mind this time around."

"Yeah, why is that, Spock?" Uhura asked. "Why can we read his mind but you can't?"

"That is not the correct question. We should be asking 'how' you are all able to hear the Captain's thoughts."

McCoy groaned. "Why do I have a feeling that I'm not going to like what's coming next?"

"You never like 'what is coming next', Doctor. It is a highly predictable fact."

Sulu snickered, feeling a little bit high now that Jim's thoughts were gone. "That's Vulcan for 'you're boring', McCoy. Come up with something new, like what Kirk does. Keep us on our toes."

"Mr. Chekov," Spock said, cutting off whatever retort McCoy was going to shoot back. "Please research the possible causes of this anomaly. Mr. Scott, run a damage report and see what the ion storm may have done. Nyota, inform Admiral Pike of this event so that other ships may not run into the same difficulties as the Enterprise. However…"

She nodded, already turning to her station. "I got it. Downplay it until we know more about what's going on."

Spock confirmed her statement with a single nod before turning to McCoy and Sulu. "Doctor, you are to ensure that no one else on the ship has been adversely affected by the ion storm and report to Captain Kirk directly. I am sure that he will want to know the wellbeing of his crew as soon as humanly possible. Mr. Sulu, you have the conn."

"What are you going to do, Spock?" asked McCoy, crossing his arms in one last attempt at defiance.

"It is the First Officer's duty to ensure the wellbeing of his Captain," Spock replied simply.

McCoy nodded, frowning. No doubt he didn't like the idea of not being the one able to comfort his best friend. "Probably for the best. You're the only one that he won't freak out around right now. Make sure that he's okay, alright?"

"Did I not just say that I was going to ensure the wellbeing of the Captain, Doctor? Perhaps your advancing age is affecting your hearing."

McCoy's eyes narrowed and he pointed an angry finger at Spock. "You've been hanging around Jim way too much. Did he tell you to say that? Just because I ain't a spritely idiot like him or a goddamn Vulcan doesn't mean that I'm old enough to have my hearing go. But I know quite a few strains of viruses that are perfectly capable of rendering you deaf, even for your Vulcan physique, so tread carefully, Spock."

With that, McCoy turned curtly on his heel and stormed off the Bridge and into the turbolift.

Once the doors closed, Sulu commented. "Wow. That was snappier than usual. Is it that time of month for him?"

Uhura threw a stylus at Sulu's head. "He's worried about Kirk, you idiot. He's just taking it out on Spock because Spock doesn't know when to stop poking a belligerent bear."

Chekov tilted his head. "Are you comparing Doctor McCoy to a belligerent bear?"

"Yeah, what of it?" she retorted, defiant.

Chekov grinned. "It is fitting."

She smiled back. "I thought so."

Spock just raised his eyebrow at them, as if saying "if you have time to bicker, then get to work."

Uhura rolled her eyes. "Aren't you supposed to go check on Kirk, Spock?"

At that, Scotty laughed out loud. "He dinnae want to share a turbolift with McCoy."

"That is illogical. I have no reason to refuse to share a turbolift with Doctor McCoy." Spock paused. "However, he is most unpleasant when he is concerned of Jim's wellbeing. It is only logical to allow him to calm down before speaking with him again."

Scotty just laughed harder as he headed to the turbolift with Spock right behind him. The Scottish man's laughter could still be heard as they traveled down to their own respective decks.

"Oh man, this is going to be fun," Sulu grinned. "Maybe we'll actually get to see when Kirk learned all those useful skills of his."

"I vould not be so sure of that, Hikaru," Chekov warned. "The Keptin is a very private man."

"Seriously, think about it. Would you like people to read your mind?" Uhura asked.

Sulu shrugged nonchalantly. "I have nothing to hide."

"But what if you did? I mean, have you thought about Kirk's past at all? We've had an abridged version of everything that happened. Do you really want to know all the details to his memories? The man has a near eidetic memory! We're going to see everything."

Sulu thought back to the time when Kirk had been de-aged and all his childhood nightmares were brought to life. He had whispered a question, "What did Frank do to you?" and the sad, pained smile that he had received in return almost broke his heart.

"That I won't answer," Jim had replied, and at that time, Sulu was wholeheartedly glad that Jim hadn't replied. A large part of Sulu didn't want to know, and it was the same now.

That giddy feeling Sulu had immediately died.

James T. Kirk had always been an enigma. People have spent years trying to unravel the mystery that was Jim Kirk, and now, his closest friends had the opportunity to crack the puzzle, whether they wanted to or not.

And it absolutely sucked.

The knock on the door was all Jim heard before his door swished open without him bidding it to. For a second, he berated himself for not using his Captain's code to lock himself in. It would have made it so much more difficult for anyone to just key in an access code to get in.

Jim had been lying down on his back on the bed with his knees bent over the end, his feet planted firmly on the ground. It looked as though he had just let himself fall backwards onto his bed the moment he returned to his quarters. His right arm was covering his eyes, but he knew exactly who had come into his room.

"Everyone okay, Spock?" Jim asked. He hadn't bothered to move, mostly because he knew that the Vulcan would approach him instead.

The door closed shut as Spock walked forward to stand beside Jim's bed. "Everyone is fully functional."

Jim snorted. "Besides being able to read my mind, you mean?"

"After you left the Bridge, they became unable to hear your thoughts."

That didn't surprise Jim. Distance usually made telepathy inert. Pulling his arm away, Jim glanced up at Spock with a calculating gaze. "Can you read my mind? I know you said you didn't, but you have far stronger mental shields than me or anyone else that was on the Bridge."

Spock paused, letting his shields come down just a smidge. Instantly, a cacophonic symphony of Jim's thoughts and emotions leaked through – muted because of Spock's control – but there nonetheless. Spock had been in Jim's mind before. He had known the uniqueness of Jim's mind and how it seemed like its own entire world. He knew how active Jim's thoughts were and how deeply he felt things, despite how much Jim buried on a normal daily basis, and yet, every time, Spock still found himself floored by the sheer volume of Jim, even while his shields were muffling everything.

"Based on that constipated look on your face, that means that you can too. Great…" sighed Jim, flopping his arm over his eyes again. "Just perfect."

Spock carefully raised his shields again and reveled in the second of silence before he turned his attention back onto Jim. "Jim, I understand that you may be distraught as of this moment. I do not wish to distress you further. However, I require some clarification. I imagine that you do not want the others to be able to read your thoughts out of fear of what they may find, but your past is something that they know of and will not judge you for. I do not believe you should be concerned of this new development."

At that, Jim sprang up into a sitting position so fast that it almost shocked Spock. He would have if Spock wasn't Vulcan. "They know of my past, not about it. There are things that I have seen and done that can never be expressed in words, nor will they ever be, simply for the fact that they just can't be. I have more skeletons in my closet than any of you can ever imagine. And there's a reason for that. My secrets are just that. They're mine."

There was a snarl on his face now. "I'm sick and tired of having all my freewill being taken from me. You all found out about my past, not because I willingly told you, but because it was forced out of me. And I'll be damned if I let anything else slip through, because it's none of your goddamn business."

Jim's unspoken refusal of having all his insecurities and fears to be laid out bare in the open was heard loud and clear.

"I have seen your memories, Jim," Spock said slowly, as if coaxing a wild stallion. "There is nothing to be ashamed of."

Jim leapt up from the bed, pacing angrily across his room. "I know there's nothing to be ashamed of! I did what I had to do to survive, and I've made my peace with it, but there are some things that are just meant to be buried! You should know! Hell, have you even talked about losing Vulcan and your mother to anyone?"

Spock straightened, determined to reason Jim out of his fury. "I have."

"Bullshit. You've talked of it, not about it."

Once again, there was that distinction, and Spock could not comprehend it, but Jim was already launching into a new rant, running his fingers through his hair as he paced.

"Sure, you've told Uhura and probably some healers of your loss, but did you tell them how your outstretched hand was just mere centimeters away from your mother, yet unable to grab hold of her? That split second of devastation was enough to crumble enough of your resolve to beat the shit out of me, and you're a goddamn Vulcan! What about the sense of sheer, utter desolation after Vulcan was gone? That feeling that you were all alone and would always be alone? You never talked about that, did you? There's a vast difference between telling people of your tragedies and telling them about them. And I sure as hell am not going to tell anyone about mine. Not if I can help it."

The words were sharp and painful, even to a half-Vulcan like Spock. And the emphasis was on the "half" aspect this time around.

Spock took a step back, recoiling as if he had been physically slapped. He had expected a lashing from Jim – Jim tended to retaliate harshly when pushed into a corner – but he hadn't thought that it would actually hurt, despite how illogical that feeling was. It was a true testament to how shaken Jim's mentality was, and though Spock was starting to understand, he couldn't help but feel like he had been put on a spotlight for all eyes to see his vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

The fact that Jim hadn't been too far off target both baffled and frightened Spock. Spock never did go into depth about the details of what had happened. He had spoken of feeling loss, but not about the overwhelming sense of defeat and failure that he was so close to saving his mother, and yet, she still fell. He never spoke of how her eyes, pleading with Spock, haunted him to this day, nor did he speak of the never-ending uncertainty of why she was pleading with him.

How did Jim know his buried pain so clearly? Out of everyone, Jim was one who didn't probe or question. He didn't ask how Spock was or how he was handling it. Sure, Jim had offered condolences at the time for Spock's loss and listened to Spock speak about what had happened back on Vulcan, but that was all that he did. Perhaps he knew that there were simply no words that could even begin to describe an iota of pain that Spock felt, so he didn't. Jim didn't have to ask or talk to Spock, simply because he had already been there before. He already knew.

Spock never talked about what it was like to live each day, content and, dare he say it, happy that he was passing the time with Nyota, Jim, and the rest of his friends. He enjoyed the chess matches that he had with Jim, the intellectual debates he had with Chekov and Scotty, and even being exasperated at Doctor McCoy (and secretly agreeing with the man about Jim's lack of self-preservation instincts). But the guilt that he was moving on from such a tragedy ate him up. He knew he made the right choices – he had to, for the greater good – but there was darkness in him that he could never allow to see the light. He knew he was being illogical and he had dealt with his loss the proper Vulcan way, but it was as Jim said: he would never talk about it, even though he had already told others of it.

This was how Jim must feel, and knowing Jim, having people come this close to all those shadows in his mind was probably one of his worst nightmares.

Spock opened his mouth to say something – anything – but Jim's words seemed to have grabbed hold of his tongue.

In the silence, Jim stiffened. Even though he had his back turned to Spock, Jim could picture the flabbergasted expression on his friend's face.

He rubbed his face, turning back to look at Spock. "Shit, I'm sorry, Spock. I didn't mean to bring any of that up. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said any of that."

Spock cleared his throat, gathering his bearings quickly. "It is of no concern. You are distressed. It is my understanding that humans tend to have less inhibition of choosing their words when emotions are at the forefront of the mind."

"It's still no excuse for me to say things like that. I'm really sorry, Spock. Seriously." Jim sat heavily on his bed again, covering his face with his hands. "Shit. I'm such a mess. And they're all going to know…"

Spock came closer to him and sat down beside him – close enough that he was within arm's reach, but not enough to encroach into Jim's personal space. He highly doubted that Jim would be amiable to such close distance after what had happened.

"I may be able to offer you some assistance, Jim," Spock said.

"At this point, I'll take anything. You think Bones will give me a neural inhibitor and knock me out for the duration of this?"

"That is unwise and unsafe in a human, and I do not believe that Doctor McCoy will agree, regardless."

"I can't become a Vulcan overnight and learn how to shield my thoughts as well as you, Spock," Jim sighed, flopping back to lie on the bed again. "Maybe I'll just stay here until this passes. You can take over the ship."

"There is no need to isolate yourself, Jim. Though you may not be capable of shielding as I am, there are techniques that I can teach you to obscure your thoughts. Not entirely, of course, but enough that it will require a lapse of control on your part before your thoughts can crystallize and be read by the others. There are limitations in a human such as yourself, and you cannot use it for an extended amount of time as it does put a considerable stain on the mind. However, it should be sufficient to temporarily hide your thoughts when you wish to."

Jim's mood flipped like a switch and his blue eyes brightened as he sat back up. "Spock, that is the best news I've heard all day. Teach it to me before I actually make Scotty throw up from motion-sickness. I mean, that would be funny, but you'd have to clean it up then because I clearly wouldn't be able to stay in the vicinity of the man, and then where would you be?"

"Sending Doctor McCoy after you in retaliation," Spock swiftly replied.

Jim threw back his head and laughed. Spock felt a small flare of satisfaction at hearing that. It was an immense improvement from the self-deprecating Jim seconds before.

But then Jim patted Spock's arm in good humor. Even through his sleeve, Spock could sense the panic and fear just bleeding through.

They had a lot of work to do.

In the end, it turned out that only the Command crew was affected by the ion storm. The working theory postulated by Spock and Jim was that, because Jim had woken up so much earlier than anyone else, the remnants of the storm were still coursing through the ship when he tried to awake the rest of his friends. He had physically touched the bare skin of each of them, forging a connection between them that allowed them to hear his thoughts, which would not have normally been a problem if it wasn't for the ion storm precipitating that bond.

There was no lasting damage to the ship, other being momentarily paralyzed while the ion storm passed through. No one else was affected. Only Kirk with his damn Kirk luck was the one to have any adverse effects. (Technically, he was the one that was causing issues with his crazy, convoluted mind, but that was beside the point at this time).

As such, Jim was the only one who had not shown up for his shift in the morning. The Captain's chair was glaringly empty and the Command crew tried to avoid looking at it as they moved about their stations, pretending to be busy.

When the turbolift door opened, all swung around with bright eager looks, only to be disappointed at the sight of Spock. They weren't sure why they had expected anything else. Jim had clearly been extremely unsettled by the prospect of them being able to read his mind, but they weren't even sure if the effects had lasted until now.

"Oh, stop with those pouty faces. You're going to make Spock sad that you're not happy to see him," Jim's cheeky voice flittered through.

Sulu was not the only one who looked all around the Bridge for Kirk. He noted Chekov and even Uhura do it surreptitiously.

"Relax. I'm not actually on Bridge. I reconfigured Spock's communicator so that it would basically become a speakerphone," Jim said as Spock raised his communicator, holding it on his open palm.

Sulu mouthed "how the hell does he know what we're doing?" to Chekov who just shook his head, baffled.

"You don't expect to command us from the comfort of your own room, do you, Kirk?" Uhura asked, suddenly exasperated. "We don't even know if we can still read your mind!"

"Nope. You still can. I had Spock test it this morning."

"Wait, Spock can read your mind too? He said he couldn't yesterday," Sulu protested.

"He's a Vulcan with mental shields that are like metal. He didn't know until he let his shields down a little."

"Sulu, that's not the point!" Uhura stood, placing her hands on her hips as she looked at Spock with a glare that she usually reserved for Kirk. She had figured Jim was going to be wary of them and she was wholeheartedly prepared for that. But she felt a little hurt that, after all that they had gone through, Jim still didn't trust them enough to know that they wouldn't judge him or hold his past against him. "I can't believe you're indulging his childish need to run from us, Spock. And Kirk, using a communicator to give us orders? You can't be serious."

"Oh, I'm very serious. I can easily hack into any of your monitors to see what you all are doing if I need to. And worse comes to worse, I'll hand over the conn to Spock."

"Don't be ridiculous, Kirk. I get that you're wary of us, I really do. Everyone's entitled to the privacy of their own minds, but even if we do read yours, you still have nothing to fear!"

"Hmm. I very much doubt that." His nonchalant tone of aloofness was all that gave away how Jim truly felt about the whole thing. The more distant he became, the more afraid he was.

"Now I'm insulted, Kirk. I thought you knew us better than that. You of all people, after all that we've been through, you should know that we would not judge you for anything that we see or hear in your thoughts! We're family, Kirk. So stop being such a goddamn idiot and come do your job!"

There was a moment of silence and for a second, Uhura worried that she overstepped her boundaries. Even if Kirk and she were friends – family even – Kirk was still her Captain. Anyone else, and she would have been written up for insubordination in a heartbeat.

But then Kirk, like always, did the unthinkable. He chuckled. "Pushy as usual, aren't you?" And then the turbolift opened, revealing Kirk standing in his Command gold. "Well, I've figured something like this was going to happen. If I let loose anything embarrassing, I apologize for it right now," he said as he wandered to his chair.

The murmur of his thoughts were already leaking through, bleeding dark orange from anxiousness, but unlike before, it was muffled. It seemed that, in one night, he had already built stronger mental shields. Not quite enough though, and the staticky fear was still enough to figuratively slap them in the face.

"Stop gawking at me and get to work, people," Jim said, settling in his chair. For once, he looked uncomfortable there.

They all turned back around, feeling the weight of Jim's thoughts bearing down on them. Words flittered through – parts of a conversation between Spock and Jim from last night.

"They know of my past, not about it. There are things that I have seen and done that can never be expressed in words, nor will they ever be, simply for the fact that they just can't be. I have more skeletons in my closet than any of you can ever imagine. And there's a reason for that. My secrets are just that. They're mine."

"There is nothing to be ashamed of."

"I know there's nothing to be ashamed of! I did what I had to do to survive, and I've made my peace with it, but there are some things that are just meant to be buried!"

The raw emotions behind Jim's words were heavy and deep – it cut like a thin, sharp wire that tore through flesh, muscle, and nerves. It hurt in ways that Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura didn't even think was possible, and they froze in their seats, feeling as though the wind was knocked clean from their lungs.

And suddenly, the anvil on the chests was lifted and the emotions were replaced by a low murmur of a chant of some sort. It wasn't loud or obnoxious; it was soothing, in a way, like a Buddhist prayer.

Uhura glanced back at Jim, frowning with slight confusion. "Are you…" She blinked, clearly trying to figure something out. "Are you reciting Homer's Iliad?"

Jim looked at her, raising his eyebrow. "Yeah. What of it?"

"It's…you're saying it in ancient Greek!"

The thought of "Keeps my mind occupied…" flittered through in the momentary lapse of control. He grinned at her. "Gotta make it challenging, somehow. I'm a bit rusty in my ancient Greek though."

"It's flawless!"

"Yes, well, I am a genius, remember?" His face became a bit more somber. "Is it working?" The fear behind his question remained unvoiced, but they could feel it twinging at the periphery of their minds for a split second before it was gone, replaced by low, soothing words of apparently ancient Greek.

"Yes, Keptin, it is," Chekov replied, but even he looked slightly unsettled.

In the beginning, it was as Uhura said – it was ridiculous for Jim to fear them. They were the least likely to judge or care about what he did before he met them. The past was in the past. No matter what Jim was so keen on keeping buried in his memories, they knew who he was. They knew how much Jim cared for them, to the point that it was almost terrifying that he would do anything to protect the people who had become so utterly irreplaceable. And that included keeping them safe from himself too, which they had thought was completely ridiculous.

But then, perhaps their attempt to show Jim that he had nothing to fear was slightly off-target. Maybe, they had just read this all wrong. It wasn't that Jim was afraid of them knowing what was lurking the depths of his mind – sure, that was definitely a huge part of it – but Jim knew his mind better than anyone else. He knew that it could be more than overwhelming. Hell, he had even emotionally compromised a goddamn Vulcan, who still tried to maintain a small physical space between the two (and yes, he had noticed that after the whole Betazoid incident, no matter how hard Spock had tried to hide it. Genius, remember?). The weight of his mind, his memories, and his heart that had been shattered into so many pieces was going to crush them and send them running with fear in their throats.

He could handle torture, he could handle words that cut like thorns, but the one thing he couldn't handle? Fear and disgust from the people he considered family. And the way they were acting? The uncertainness and the indecisiveness of whether or not they actually wanted to be around Jim? It was tearing him down, bit by bit.

He had faced Kodos the Executioner, Nero, Klingons, and a whole slew of people who have wanted to bring him to his knees, and emerged standing tall. Yet here he was, inches away from it all because of a stupid, ion storm that had involved the very people that simultaneously gave him strength and made him weaker.

And he hated it. He hated being vulnerable and he hated seeing those eyes that bordered on pity staring at him. Yes, he knew he was fucked up, but he had come to terms with it. That didn't mean that he was fine with hanging in limbo as he waited for his friends' actions to catch up with their words. They were trying, that much he could see, but it was too much. (Wasn't he always too much? Even his own mother couldn't handle him.)

An unreadable expression crossed his face before his entire demeanor changed until he was every inch the Captain that he was famous for. His features smoothing out to be professional and hard at the same time. He sat up straighter and crossed his legs, staring his Command crew down.

"Look, I get that this whole situation is unnerving," Jim started, ignoring the flinch that the word 'unnerving' brought about, "And I have no idea how long it's going to last, but Uhura was right in that we have our duties to complete. I showed up, despite my reservations, because you guys claimed that it would be alright. So, I'm going to ask this one time: can you work with me as I am now? If you can't, I'm happy to pass the conn over to Spock until this blows over. But before you answer, I want you to really think about this. Don't say yes just because you feel obligated to or because you're afraid that you'll hurt my feelings. Trust me, I won't mind either way, so don't worry about any of that. Think of whether or not I will distract you from doing your job. And then tell me if you can work with me and my loud brain over here."

He leaned forward, his blue eyes threatening to shallow them with a strength that they couldn't fathom. "Remember, we're not here just for ourselves. While we're on the Bridge, while we have command of this ship, we have nine-hundred and eighty-three lives in our hands. We can't afford any mistakes. I won't allow it. So, one last time: for the sake of this ship and your fellow crew members, can you work with me?"

"I can," Spock answered swiftly and without hesitation.

Jim easily waved Spock off, though he did flash him a small smile of gratitude. "You don't count, Spock. I'm more interested in the ones who don't have mental shields."

There was a tense moment before Uhura flicked her hair, determination oozing off of her. "First off, I want to thank you, Captain."

Jim cocked his head, confusion clear on his face. "What for?"

"For trusting us enough to even come to the Bridge. And for going out of your way to prove that you do trust us. It means a lot, honestly, coming from you. I understand why you're apprehensive, probably more than I have ever before, and I'm not going to lie: your mind is overwhelming."

"Seriously, Kirk. How the hell do you not get dizzy in there?" Sulu piped up, but the jab was lighthearted and he was clearly more intrigued than uneasy.

Uhura rolled her eyes at Sulu. "The point is, we know you're here more for our sake than yours, and frankly, I'm a bit tired of this self-sacrificing thing you have going on."

"Don't get us wrong," Sulu added, already knowing where Uhura was going with this. "You loving us so much makes us feel so warm and fuzzy…"

Chekov giggled at the sight of Jim squirming uncomfortably at the word "loving". "Hikaru, you can't say that! You'll make the Keptin uncomfortable!"

"Oh, right," Sulu nodded. "I meant that you 'going all Captain-y' on us warms the cockles of our hearts."

Jim couldn't help it and snorted at Sulu's choice of words, but Sulu just barreled on.

"I'm not kidding! You make my heart flutter like a teenage girl."

Jim smirked. "That's probably not too off from the truth," he quipped back.

Sulu flicked his invisible long hair, "Don't be jealous."

"Is there a point to this, Sulu?" Jim chuckled, despite himself.

"Of course there is. You're always going about doing whatever you can for us, regardless of how it makes you feel. You coming to Bridge is a perfect example of this. You didn't want to hurt our feelings by running away, no matter how much you wanted to."

And now this was going into a territory that Jim wasn't quite comfortable with. He just didn't do emotions. "That point is moot: Uhura practically scolded me to get my ass to the Bridge," he joked half-heartedly.

"No, it isn't," Uhura easily slid in. "You're stubborn to a fault, Kirk. If you didn't want to be here, you wouldn't be here. So what we're trying to get at is that maybe it's time we do something for you. The Bridge is where you belong, Captain, and we refuse to chase you away from it. But we also know that you don't want to hurt us, so we're going to make a compromise with you: if, at any point, we feel overwhelmed, we'll let you know and we'll figure out a way to make it work."

Her next words were heavy with sincerity. "But most importantly, we promise that no matter what we see or hear, we will always see you as you, and nothing else. Nothing will change our minds on that. Nothing, Kirk. Because we didn't follow you for your skills or genius. We followed your heart, and that will never change."

"So the answer to your question?" Sulu said. "Yes, we can work with you, no matter the situation."

"It vould be our genuine pleasure to be by your side, Keptin," Chekov finished. "Always."

The rush of emotions washed over them: it was equal parts embarrassment (and wow, Jim really didn't know what to do with emotions) and affection for them. Honestly, it felt like drinking hot chocolate on a cold winter's day with beautiful, soft snow falling gently around them.

A lopsided grin appeared on Sulu's face as he basked in the feelings. "See what I mean? Warm and fuzzy."

Instantly, embarrassment won over. "I'm going to throw my shoe at you, Sulu," Jim threatened, but there was no heat in his words.

Chekov just beamed at Jim. "Vhat are your orders, Keptin?"

Jim relaxed back into his chair, looking like his usual smug self. He grinned at his friends. "I've got the best crew in the universe, don't I?"

"That is unquantifiable, Captain," Spock said. "However," and his eyes twinkled in amusement, "I am inclined to agree."

Jim reached over and patted Spock on the shoulder. "Good man," he said, grinning. "Alright, people, let's get this show on the road!"

The low murmur of the Iliad became something like background noise for the Command crew. Even Scotty, who had popped up at one point to check on Jim, found this method soothing (which said a lot, because Scotty had actually threw up after that first time). Bones had meant to come up and check on his best friend, but had gotten swamped with paperwork that he had put off (in reality, he just hadn't had the time to do any of it because he preferred to hang out with Jim more).

Within hours, everyone settled into their roles easily and once Jim delved into his duties and paperwork, his thoughts barely registered with the rest of the crew. But if they concentrated hard enough on the low murmur in the back of their minds, they could still make out Jim retelling the Greek epic, letting those foreign words clouding the rest of his thoughts to them.

It was working for them and it seemed that they really could get past this quietly and without incident. That was, until Uhura received a call on her monitor.

She frowned at the screen of her console, more annoyed at the person calling as opposed to the actual call itself. When she saw the name of the caller, she felt anger curling in her stomach.

Concern registered in the back of her mind and it took a second to realize that it wasn't coming from her. She turned around to meet Jim's gaze. Distinctly, she got the impression that Jim had noticed her body language stiffen and her fists subconsciously clench, and immediately, he was worried that someone had threatened her or the ship.

"Report, Lieutenant Uhura," Jim said, his blue eyes hard. He had read the slight lines of anger on her face, particularly in that small wrinkle on her brow that she had never known existed.

His words caught everyone's attention, and they turned to look at the two. They were surprised to realize that Jim's thoughts hadn't become louder now that he had focused onto Uhura. Instead, whatever he was thinking was hidden behind the recitation of the Iliad. In a few short hours, Jim had gotten the hang of using the Greek epic to cover his thoughts; if Spock had been listening to Jim's mind, he would have been in complete awe of Jim. Jim had been able to learn a skill that would have taken any normal Vulcan or other telepaths a year to perfect.

"You have a call from Admiral Komack, sir," Uhura responded. Her displeasure of the man was easily shared by Kirk, though for slightly different reasons.

Uhura couldn't forgive Komack for using Kirk the way he did and what he put their family through as they waited anxiously beside Kirk's sickbed. Kirk had yet to forgive Komack for putting Chekov in danger and, subsequently, getting Chekov shot.

The panic Jim had felt and the overwhelming guilt of not being able to protect Chekov better slipped through the chanting of the Iliad, though it never showed on his expressions. But it was quickly swiped to a side. The Iliad became slightly louder.

Jim acknowledged her words by nodding once. "Put him on the screen, Lieutenant," Jim ordered, nodding once.

Uhura obeyed and Komack's wizened face appeared in front of them.

Jim plastered a polite smile onto his face. "Admiral Komack, what can I do for you?"

"Kirk, we've got a problem."

"It seems we do. We had an agreement, Admiral. I thought that I was under direct orders from Pike now," Jim replied, his smile never wavering, but it was cold and even Komack looked a bit taken aback from the iciness in his eyes.

Komack still had pride though (and that would be the death of him). "Regardless of who you report to, I am still one of your superiors, Kirk," Komack snarled.

Just by looking at Komack's ridiculous face, Jim felt annoyance and anger spread through him. He could still remember feeling Chekov's blood on his hands; he could still feel being absolutely terrified and furious that he may have lost Chekov just because Komack was a prick.

Uhura and Sulu both flinched at the memory of Chekov lying in that dirty cell that he and Jim had shared; Chekov had become pale, but he said nothing.

"And how may I help you, Admiral?" Jim asked, the decorum clearly forced. 'Pompous jackass,' Jim pointedly thought, making Sulu snicker.

Jim shot him a look, amusement in his eyes. Clearly, he had purposely let his thoughts slip through.

"We've gotten notice that there may have been a possible uprising on Elba II."

"Even if you were sure about an uprising, Admiral, quelling rebellions from a penal colony is not listed on the Enterprise's set of duties," Jim dismissed. 'Uninformed, illiterate tosser.' "We're an exploratory vessel, sir, if you can remember that."

Komack snarled. "Of course I know that. Don't patronize me, Kirk, or I'll write you up for insubordination."

'Craven, clay-brained clotpole. Like I'm actually afraid of being written up for insubordination. Please.' Jim just shrugged. "What do you want, Komack?"

Sulu and Chekov almost fell over with their muted snickers as Jim's insults got more and more creative as the conversation continued.

"We've lost all contact and since you're the closest ship that's even possibly remotely equipped to deal with this, you're to head over and handle it."

"Is that an order, sir?" 'Lumpish, idle-headed coxcomb.'

At that, Sulu couldn't help it and let out a loud guffaw. It was lucky that Komack couldn't see Sulu.

Bright amusement shone brightly in Jim's mind.

"Yes, that's an order, Kirk. How long will it take for you to get to Elba II?"

Jim glanced over at Sulu, but the pilot was on the ground, trying to muffle his laughter. 'Seriously, Sulu? It wasn't even that creative.' Jim rolled his eyes and turned his attention towards to Chekov, who was grinning, but had a much better handle on himself than Sulu. "Chekov, what is our estimated arrival time to Elba II?"

Chekov pressed a few buttons, calculating. "Approximately eighteen hours and forty-two minutes, Keptin."

"You are to check in with me when you arrive, Kirk."

"Will Admiral Pike be aware of this mission?" Jim asked innocently.

Komack's face twisted. "Report to me when you've figured out what's happened on Elba II, Kirk. If you're competent enough to do so. Komack out."

And then the screen zipped shut, leaving everyone on the Bridge seething.

"That jerk," Uhura hissed out.

Spock raised an eyebrow. "Admiral Komack's insinuation of us being incompetent is completely unfounded."

Surprisingly, Jim was the only one that was calm about it. He glanced back down on the PADD that was sitting on his lap. "It's fine, guys. His anger isn't unwarranted. I do like to piss him off. It's entertaining to see how far I can go before he actually does write me for insubordination."

"That does not seem wise," Spock said.

"He can write me up if he wants to, but he's not going to." Jim said it with absolute certainty. It made his crew curious, yet nervous at the same time.

"Vhy not?" Chekov asked.

Jim shrugged. "He just won't. Trust me."

Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura got the vague feeling that Jim had a lot of dirt on Komack, but before they could read more into it, the Iliad had taken over.

Jim looked up and gave them a sly smile, raising his index finger to touch his lips.

Sulu couldn't resist though. "What do you have on Komack, Kirk?"

"I can't tell you that, Sulu." Jim winked. "Plausible deniability and everything, you know?"

"Captain, will you be informing Admiral Pike of this?" Spock asked.

"Yeah, once I get more information on what we're dealing with."

"Didn't Komack say not to?" frowned Uhura.

"He never explicitly said not to. Loopholes, Uhura. Learn it, live it, love it." Jim swiped something on his PADD. "Elba II asylum…penal colony for the clinically insane. This is going to be a fun one…" he muttered.

"Elba II. Why does that sound so familiar?" wondered Sulu.

There was a line that had connected in Jim's mind, and the rest of them felt it, but they couldn't see what Jim had figured out. Spock, on the other hand, knew exactly what Jim had just realized.

The Vulcan glanced at Jim with somewhat of concern in his eyes. "Mr. Spencer Jones was imprisoned on Elba II, was he not?"

A fresh wave of anger at the name washed through them all, and most of it did not come from Jim surprisingly. Jim's feelings were slightly more complicated; there was anger, yes, but it was heavily tinged with sorrow and regret. The rest of the crew, however, held a grudge against Spencer on how he treated Jim the last time he had been onboard, using an inspection as a pretense for a revenge scheme against Jim. Even if he had somehow returned Jim's vision to him, it didn't excuse the fact that he had literally beaten Jim into a bloody mess. And as his fiercely protective friends, Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, McCoy, Scotty, and Spock had done all they could to get the maximum sentence for Spencer.

Spencer had been found guilty for treason, the assault of a Starfleet Captain, and a variety of smaller charges. He would have spent his seventy-five year sentence on Tantalus Colony, but Jim, in one last act of mercy, argued that Spencer needed more help than he would have received in Tantalus. Jim had put forth the argument that Spencer had had a psychotic break and needed to be committed. In the end, after months of trials and tribunals, Spencer was sent to the Elba II asylum.

Jim leaned back, running his hand through his hair. "I swear to God, if this was all Spence, I'm going to be super pissed off."

"Do you think that is a possibility?" Spock questioned.

"The guy is smart. Almost as smart as me. Not to mention insane. With him, it's definitely possible."

Chekov swiveled his chair around. "Vhat should ve do?"

"If it is Jones messing around, then we're flying into a trap," Sulu said. "And we all know that he has it out for you, Kirk."

"Regardless if it's Spence or not, we still have our orders to check this out," Jim returned. "Sulu, keep us steady. Spock, dig into Spence's records and let me know if there's anything fishy. Chekov, I need more details on the individual force fields that are supposed to surround the patients' living quarters. Find out the programming behind it all and figure out how someone could escape." Jim turned to Uhura. "Monitor all channels and keep them open, Uhura. If it's Spence, then it's not beyond him to try to contact us directly."

"Why would he try to contact us?" asked Uhura, clearly confused.

Jim cocked his head. "To lure us into a trap, just as Sulu said."

"And we're just going to let that happen?"


"Are you serious?"


Spock's eyebrow raised. "What are you planning, Captain?"

"I'm going to end this feud with Spence once and for all," Jim replied, determination making his words seem harder.


Jim glanced down at his PADD, a troubled look on his face that he couldn't quite hide. "I'll let you know."

Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov could feel the turbulent emotions running through Jim. Sensing their worry from their body language, Spock let down his shields out of pure concern for Jim. It wasn't often that any of them saw that sort of expression on Jim.

The emotions seeping from Jim painted the canvas with an odd mixture of dark purple, grey, and orange. They couldn't define exactly what those colors stood for, but frustration, fear, and oddly enough, lack of confidence seemed to be at the forefront – all of which were not something that they would have ever equated Jim to. And it frightened them more than anything, even more so than the fact that Jim didn't have a plan.

It only showed how much Jim was still affected by someone he had considered a close friend. From the very first second that they had known Jim, it was clear friendship meant a lot to him – he was the type to choose his friends over himself. The only caveat was that it wasn't easy to become Jim's friend. His past was not something that was so easily shaken and he knew how much simpler it would be to be alone; his trust was not so easily given. When he did, he did at great risk to himself.

Jim may not have had been friends with Spencer Jones for very long, but the way things ended between the two of them – both times – was more scarring than Jim would ever say aloud, especially after he had went against all his logic and reasoning to give Spencer another chance at life. The fact that he couldn't hide his expressions or have a plan was telling of that.

"Captain, perhaps you should pay a visit to Doctor McCoy?" Spock suggested softly.

It was a solid solution – the presence of his best friend, the very first one that Jim had truly trusted since his childhood, could help soothe Jim's current state of mind. But Spock had forgotten that Jim hated being weak or vulnerable more than anything else. He would much rather quietly suffer through his troubles than let anyone know where he was hurting.

If he hid all his pain and weaknesses, then no one would know where to hit where it would hurt the most. He lived by that doctrine. He didn't know any other way.

So when Spock spoke to him in that gentle tone, Jim instantly bristled. He wasn't a child – he hadn't been one for a very long time – he didn't need to be admonished or be cared for like one.

Jim straightened, a steel wall erecting like a monument around his emotions. He wasn't a fool – he knew that Spock had only suggested that because he had read his mind. The wall was a temporary fix, but it would do for now.

In that brief moment, his closest friends all felt cold and at a loss. They had grown accustomed to Jim's mind in the back of theirs – it was a comforting presence, but the second Jim cut them out, they felt heartbreakingly empty.

"No," Jim replied back, his voice cold and harsh. "Get to work, people. We have a mission to accomplish."

His tone booked no room for arguments and reluctantly, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov returned to their duties without another word.

"And if I see any of you so much as to peek at me with concern or speak another word about Spence, I'm going to start thinking about things that'll punish you all."

Curiosity won over and Sulu couldn't help himself. "Like what?"

Jim smirked. An image of Komack, as wizened as he was, grasping a stripper pole in what was probably supposed to be a provocative pose, popped into their heads.

Immediately, they all burst out in protest, even going as far to cover their eyes from what could only be described as mental torture.

"Nobody needs to see that kind of shit, Kirk!" groaned Sulu.

Jim's eyes twinkled. "I have a very vivid imagination, Sulu. Next time you piss me off, that image is going to get a hundred times worse."

Chekov couldn't help it. He had to ask. "How, Keptin?"

"Next time, Komack won't be wearing anything, and that, my dear people, won't be imagined." Jim raised a hand before anyone got a question out. "Don't ask. You don't want to know, trust me. Now can we go back to work? Or do I have to start punishing you all?"

"Yes, sir! No, sir!" Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura immediately shot back and buried themselves into their consoles.

"That's better."

Jim settled back in his chair, hiding his uneasiness from his expressions easily, even as he felt Spock's brown eyes bear down on him. It was easy to misdirect the others. Spock, on the other hand? Not so much, but Jim was definitely not dealing with that right now. Not when he couldn't seem to get a hold of himself.

"Let me know if you find anything," was the last thing Jim said before he let silence rule.

It did not make anyone feel any better.

In the end, as Alpha shift finished, Spock, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura were nowhere closer to figuring out what had happened in Elba II. The place was extremely locked down with extensive security precautions, according to Chekov. The patient living quarters were protected by individual force fields, as Jim had known, and the colony dome itself was protected by a field that could prevent beaming and withstand a phaser barrage from a Constitution-class starship in orbit.

All that was common knowledge and easily obtainable just by accessing Starfleet records. However, Chekov couldn't crack any of the encryptions to find out exactly how these force fields were powered. It made sense, of course, that it was near impossible to figure that out – it wasn't like Starfleet wanted that information to leak out to anyone would could potentially abuse it – but it made it difficult for Jim to work out a solid plan.

He couldn't work if he didn't have all the facts and his friends didn't want him walking in blind. It made them frenzied and irritated that they couldn't answer any of Jim's questions. Seeing how frustrated they were all getting, Jim let his Command crew go rest, knowing full well that they would probably need the sleep before they arrived. He, himself, headed straight to the gym after his shift, choosing to bury himself into throwing everything he had at a punching bag.

Sweat dripped down his brow and back as his muscles rippled. He felt his chest burning and his barely taped knuckles crying out in pain, but he ignored it all and kept up his vigorous activity, if only to stop his brain from turning. But it wasn't working and Jim just knew that if he kept this up, his body would be screaming at him tomorrow, and he had to be ready for anything.

He threw another couple of punches before reaching out to stop to bag from moving around. Panting, he leaned forward, closing his eyes, and rested his forehead on the bag.

Memories of his time with Spencer was rising again, like heartburn that just wouldn't go away. He could see Spence and Joyce's smiling faces as they hugged each other before him; he could remember feeling like he belonged and the semblance of family when he was around them. It was the first time he had allowed himself to open up since Tarsus. He had hoped that that the Academy was going to be a whole new start for him and at that time, had found himself wanting for some sort of consistency and warmth in his barren, cold life.

Perhaps that was why it cut so much more deeply when Spencer and Joyce dropped out of his life, killing off another piece of his fragile, barely put-together soul.

God, he hadn't thought about those two in years. When everything fell apart, when he fell apart, he had only found comfort with Bones. Only Bones kept him going, kept him sane. More importantly, Bones kept him from reverting back to who he was prior to his time at the Academy.

By the time Spencer had found his way to the Enterprise, Jim had finally managed to put him and Joyce in the back of his mind. There was a fallout period after the original high of getting his sight back, and it took more than one bottle of Andorian ale and high-end bourbon with Bones before Jim shoved all those memories back into a little box. After Spencer was sentenced, Jim really thought that that would be the end of it, and finally, he was able to breathe, despite the guilt. Jim kept moving on, like he always did, throwing himself into his work.

With this mission, Jim just knew that Spencer was behind it. He didn't believe in coincidences, and the fact that the Enterprise was so close to Elba II before they lost communication with Starfleet was proof enough of Spencer's involvement. It had to be Spencer looking for revenge. Normally, the reemergence of Jim's ghosts wouldn't have been much of an issue. Jim was good at compartmentalizing his emotions until after everything was over with, but with what happened with the ion storm? He felt like all his control was taken away from him, and that was something that terrified him.

His mind was running a million miles an hour. He couldn't think straight. He couldn't clamp down on his raging emotions. He felt so disconnected and overwhelmed at the same time.

It was all too much. He didn't know how to even begin to start handling any of it.

And wasn't that just the worst?


Jim flinched at the sudden low baritone and his head snapped up; his body immediately bristled defensively. He looked up to see Spock standing a short distance away from him, wearing his Starfleet blacks, with his arms held carefully behind his back. His brown eyes took in Jim's ragged appearance, a pinch of worry spreading through him as he noted Jim's gold uniform tossed carelessly aside on the floor beside them.

Jim huffed out a small chuckle and let his tired arms fall down. "Jeez, Spock, you scared me. What did I say about sneaking around?"

"You have yet to tell me anything regarding 'sneaking around', Jim." It was true - up until now, it had been nearly impossible to sneak up on Jim. The fact that Spock did manage to surprise Jim was very telling.

"Well," Jim said, as he bent to grab his uniform and wipe his sweat. He ignored Spock's slight cringe at the blatant disregard for proper hygiene. "You shouldn't sneak around, at least not around me. I might accidentally hit you."

"I very much doubt that, Jim. Vulcans have 3.2 times faster speed than a normal human beings."

"Ah. But I'm not very normal, now am I?"

Spock cocked a head at Jim's aloof and nonchalant tone. "What is troubling you, Jim? You have been preoccupied since the Bridge."

"Ha. That's the understatement of the century," Jim returned, turning away from Spock.

"Is it Spencer Jones?"

"I'm not in the mood for talking, Spock."

Spock nodded. "Understood. Would you like to spar?"

That threw Jim off a bit. He turned back to glance at Spock, frowning in confusion. "You want to spar?"

"Affirmative." But he didn't offer any more than that.

Jim just stared for a beat, and then shrugged. "Fine, sounds good to me."

The two moved over to the boxing ring without another word and stood before each other. Jim's taped fists raised to protect his face; Spock elegantly lifted his palmed hands and gave Jim a curt nod. Springing forward, Jim kept his right hand up while jabbed twice with his left before upper-cutting with his right.

Spock quickly dodged all his shots and slid back, but he didn't retaliate. Jim lunged again, throwing a rapid fire of kicks, punches, and elbows at Spock who just raised his arms to either divert Jim's attacks or to lessen the impact of the blow.

They continued like that for a good ten minutes or so – Jim throwing everything he had at Spock while Spock simply defended. They continued until Spock saw a lull in Jim's movements and he took his chance, using Jim's momentum against him and effectively throwing Jim onto the mat harmlessly.

Jim laid there on his back, too exhausted to do anything but breathe heavily as sweat soaked through his clothes. He looked skywards blankly, working hard to control his rapid heartbeat.

Spock moved so that he sat cross-legged near Jim's head. He waited for a couple of minutes, taking note of Jim's respiratory patterns.

"It has been a while since I have seen you this distraught, Jim."

Jim chose not to answer.

"The speech you made on the Bridge today – it implied that you had come to terms with Nyota, Lieutenant Sulu, and Ensign Chekov being able to hear your thoughts. As such, I am inclined to believe that something else is occupying your mind. You seemed fine until Mr. Spencer Jones was mentioned. However, Dr. McCoy has assured me that you have managed to deal with the incident involving Mr. Jones. Yet, why do I still find you pushing yourself into sheer exhaustion in the middle of the night?"

"You and Bones talk about me?" Jim diverted, his voice breathless. "Should I be worried?"

"We were concerned about you, Jim. For 4.1 weeks after Mr. Jones coming onboard, you looked sorrowful when you thought that no one was looking."

Which meant that his mask was slipping. "Well, that's disconcerting." Jim was better than that. He could hid his expressions better than that. He should be better than that. He sat up, not looking at Spock.

"Jim. Please do not 'shut me out', as you say. What can I do to help?"

Jim sighed. "Nothing. There's nothing, Spock." He gave Spock a sad smile. "But I appreciate the sentiment."

Jim stood, dusting off his pants.

"Jim…why are you here beating your body into submission?" Spock asked carefully and quietly.

"I'm not here to beat my body into submission, Spock. I'm here to shut my goddamn brain up."

Jim's blue eyes were so defeated. It was not a look that Spock ever saw on Jim.


"I can't handle the others and Spence at the same time, Spock. Not right now. I just…can't. But there's nothing I can do, can I? I just gotta roll with it like always." Jim waved a dismissive hand. "I'll be fine, Spock. Don't worry about me."

He sauntered off, only to pause at the doorway to say one last thing: "Thanks for sparring with me, Spock. I really do appreciate it."

With that, Jim left quietly, like a cat slinking away into the darkness, leaving Spock all alone with his worry.

McCoy heard a quiet knock on his door. Without bothering to look up from the paperwork that he was working on, he growled out, "The door's open for a reason."

Jim chuckled quietly and stepped in, closing the door and locking it behind him. "With that attitude, who would be brave enough to bother you even if your door is open?"

Bones' head snapped up, surprised that he didn't hear Jim's thoughts rummaging through his own, but now that he was distracted from his work, a low murmur reached him. He must've been so engrossed in the documents that he hadn't heard Jim approach at all.

He took in Jim's appearance. He was just wearing his standard blacks and was carrying his gold uniform under his arm. It looked like he had gone through ten rounds with a gorilla (more likely a certain hobgoblin, but that was neither here nor there). While Jim's body language looked casual, there was something sharp and broken within Jim's eyes. Bones recognized that look and it made him extremely uneasy.

"What happened?" he immediately said.

Jim gave him an easy smile and moved forward to sit in the chair in front of Bones' desk. He leaned back, crossing his legs and clasping his hands over his toned stomach. "Why do you always assume that something happened, Bones? What if I just wanted to check in on you?"

Bones stood up abruptly and moved around his desk to sit on it, right before Jim. His green-brown eyes scanned Jim, making the younger man fight the urge to squirm under his scrutiny.

"What happened, Jim?" Bones asked again, his voice soft and gentle.

Jim shrugged. "Our mission came in. We're heading to Elba II to quell a possible rebellion." But even as he spoke, there was a haunted look in those deep blues.

"That's not in our job description," Bones said, frowning before the dots started connecting. "Let me guess: Komack's a bastard."

"Right in one."

Slight fear was bleeding through; uneasiness was dominating, even with the odd chanting in the background. Bones' eyes narrowed as he tried to concentrate on his friend's brilliant mind.

"What is that?"

"What's what?" Jim asked, his eyes blinking innocence.

"That weird murmur that's blocking out your thoughts."

"Oh, it's the Iliad in ancient Greek."

"Wow. Spock would be impressed that you managed to shield so well already."

"It's only temporary," Jim said easily, but Bones caught the small twitch in his friend's shoulders.

"Jim, what's going on? You came to me for a reason, didn't you?"

Jim didn't immediately reply, but Bones was always patient when it came to Jim. "It's Spence. I think he's behind the uprising in Elba II."

"That bastard," Bones swore. "I swear I'm going to kill him this time."

Jim chuckled mirthlessly. "Get in line."

"But there's more, isn't there?"

"It's nothing. It's fine."

Jim was pulling away, hiding his terror well, but Bones didn't need to be able to read Jim's mind to know that his best friend was panicking so much that he was nearly drowning.

"Talk to me, Jim. What's got ya so riled up?"

Something in Jim broke a bit and he felt utterly hopeless, but his stupid psyche was still unable to ask for help even though he knew he so desperately needed it. "It's nothing, Bones," he forced out again.

But once those words out, Jim felt more desolation at pushing away the one person that he implicitly trusted, the one that he knew could understand him and help him through this. Unbidden, his eyes felt wet as his delicate mental state finally crumbled apart.

Immediately, Bones leaned over and grasped Jim's face with both hands, placing them at the back of Jim's jaw with Jim's ears between his index fingers and thumbs. Their eyes connected. "Hey, hey. None of that. I know you've been really agitated that the others can read your mind, but this is me. You don't have to hide anything from me. Calm down. Let's work through this one at a time. What's bothering you the most? Spencer? The mind-reading thing? What's going on in that head of yours, Jimmy? I'll give you a penny for your thoughts."

Jim let out a wet laugh. "I thought you could read my mind, Bones."

"You're good at shielding, kiddo. Better than you think. Is that what's eating you up?"

Jim closed his eyes. "I can't…I can't do both, Bones."

His voice trailed off, making Bones have to prompt him. "Both what, Jim?"

"I can't shield against all of you and keep those memories of Spencer and Joyce out at the same time, especially with my messed up head."

"Genius head, as you always like to correct me with," Bones interjected. "Do you have to do both? Don't you trust Uhura, Sulu, Scotty, and Chekov?"

"I do…I do, but it's not the same. It's different with them."

Bones felt a surge of tenderness at the implications of Jim's words. Bones had always been an exception to Jim, just as Jim had always been an exception to him. Jim trusted their friends, sure, but he implicitly trusted Bones. Bones knew his past and present, or at least more than anyone else Jim had ever known. He felt safe with Bones. There would never be any judgement from the doctor, only kindness and genuine affection.

But Bones wisely chose not to comment quite yet. Jim wasn't done.

"I'm like a mirror, Bones. Once broken, you can fix it, but you'll always see the cracks. And those cracks are pretty damn big."

"You scared that they'll see something you don't want them to?"

"I don't want them to see where I've failed…" whispered Jim, his eyes finally opening. "I don't want them to see how I ran like a coward from Joyce. From Spence."

And finally, Bones realized what the root of the problem was. No one but Jim knew what had happened to Joyce. He kept her truth hidden with misdirection and stories about bees, the countryside, or a happy marriage. Every time he was asked about her, there was a new and different story. Because Jim went to such lengths to lie and divert, no one had ever thought to ask about the right question: with Spencer Jones no longer a threat (at least before this), why did Jim still feel a need to hide Joyce from the rest of the world? It had been years since Jim and Bones' days in the Academy; even longer since Spencer and Joyce split up, and yet, Jim had never once spoke of her, Spencer, or anything remotely related to them until Spencer had snuck onboard.

Why had Jim kept Joyce so buried until now?

"What really happened with Joyce, Jim?" Bones asked quietly.

Jim shook his head, his entire body stiffening up.

"Hey, you need to talk to me about this, Jimbo. It's eating you up."

"I can't..." Jim whispered, almost brokenly.

"Why not?"

"Because you're going to look at me differently, I can't handle that, Bones. I can't. I won't."

Bones sat back a little, crossing his arms as he switched tactics. "You really think of me like that? I'm a bit insulted, Jim. I thought you'd know me better than that."

"You don't know, Bones! You don't know!" Jim rallied.

"You're right. So why don't you tell me? You're the crazy ass little brother that I absolutely cannot live without. That will never change, Jim. So that whole bullshit of me seeing you differently? You can take that idea and shove it up where the sun don't shine, because that ain't ever going to happen. You hear me?"

Jim opened his mouth and shut it quick, but Bones could see Jim giving in and he let himself feel relief that Jim was actually trusting him enough to open up. It was just too bad that Bones had forgotten where they were and that they weren't actually in a locked, private setting.

A sharp knock on the door made both of them jolt with surprise. In the next second, Nurse Chapel strolled in, like she always did, completely unconcerned about rank formalities.

"Doctor, I need you to..." she trailed off as she glanced up from the PADD in her hands and noticed Jim and McCoy before her. She wasn't known as a smart woman for nothing: she took one look at the scene before her and looked apologetic. "Oh. I'm sorry. I interrupted something."

Instantly, and before Bones' eyes, Jim swaddled himself in his confident 'Captain' mantle where charm oozed out of his pores. His blue eyes twinkled brightly and he rose gracefully. "Naw, you didn't interrupt anything, Christine. Did you need Bones? Sorry, I'll get out of your hair."

He made a move to leave, but Bones' hand snatched out and grabbed Jim's wrist. He had no illusions that Jim was indulging him and allowing him to keep his hold on him. Jim could easily slip out of his grasp, but Bones also knew that, at this angle, if Jim did anything to get away, he could potentially hurt Bones' hands - his surgeon hands - and Jim would never let that happen.

Bones shot Chapel a glance. "I'm calling it a night, Christine. Get M'Benga to do anything you need him to. I'll finish the rest of the documents tomorrow. See to it that I'm not disturbed for the rest of the night. And good work, Christine. See you tomorrow."

Chapel nodded quickly, fully understanding. She had been McCoy's assistant in almost every single operation he had had to conduct on his best friend. She had seen the high's and the low's of recovery between the two of them. Here in the Sickbay, there was one rule: if you wanted to save one, you had to save the other.

For all their sakes, if Jim and McCoy needed the night off, they were damn sure to get it.

"Code Gold, sir?" Chapel asked.

McCoy nodded curtly. "Code Gold." And proceeded to sweep out of his office, pulling a very confused and baffled Jim behind him.

They left the Sickbay without any incident, but Jim couldn't keep his mouth shut. "You know Chapel's not your secretary, right? You can't just boss her around like that."

"You're really not in the position to tell me that, Jim. Let's ask Rand how she feels about you saying that."

Jim considered it half-heartedly, more distracted by the sight of Bones walking before him, his hand still curled around his wrist. Bones' back muscles were taut and he kept moving forward with a dogged determination. He was stressed - Jim could tell by the way Bones' shoulders were raised slightly - and Jim knew it was because of him. Bones was worried, and Jim felt guilty at making his best friend feel that way again.

"If you say you're sorry, you can shut it," Bones said from in front of him. He never even turned around to look at Jim, and yet, he knew exactly what was going through Jim's mind. Some part of Jim knew that Bones would know that regardless if he could actually read his thoughts.

Bones kept talking. "It's fine. Don't freak out. We're good."

"I'm not freaking out," protested Jim, but Bones' grip on his wrist told him that Bones didn't believe him one bit. Jim fought the urge to roll his eyes and decided to do what he did best when he felt awkward - he deflected. "So, what's Code Gold? I assume it has to do with me, considering that fact that Chapel only mentioned it after seeing me and it's the color of my uniform. But what does it stand for?"

"It means our Captain is being an idiot and needs a break."

"How is Chapel supposed to guarantee that I get a break?"

At this, Bones turned around and gave Jim a soft smile. "You really underestimate how much your crew cares about you. You can ask them to jump off a cliff and they'll do it with a happy salute."

Jim blanched at that. "I would never do that."

"Exactly. That's why they follow you so willingly."

"I don't understand."

"It's fine. Just know you won't be disturbed until your mission tomorrow."

"Somehow, that feels like that's...I don't know...against regulations? Should I be concerned?"

"Would you relax about that?" Bones said before punching in the keycode to Jim's room.

Jim frowned, but followed Bones into his quarters. "How do you know my code? I literally just changed it."

"Why do you keep asking questions?"

"It stops you from asking questions."

Bones rolled his eyes and proceeded to manhandle Jim towards the bed, making the younger man sit on top of his covers. "Stay," he ordered.

Jim obeyed and watched Bones start taking off his shoes and his blue uniform, leaving on his undershirt and pants. Jim couldn't resist cracking a joke. "Bones, I know we're close, but we're not that close."

"Shut up, Jim," Bones returned with no heat, knowing full well that Jim was using humor to deflect. He turned around and rummaged through Jim's table, grabbing one of Jim's PADD's, and returned to the bed. He handed the PADD to Jim, who wordlessly took it from him with a picture of confusion on his face. Then, he climbed into bed (on the left side because he knew that Jim preferred the right).

Jim just sat on the bed, looking dumbly at his friend. "What are we doing here, Bones?" Jim asked.

Bones squirmed a bit on the bed to get more comfortable. "You're going to do what you always do before every single mission we go on. You're going to work out a billion of plans for every single possible outcome that could happen while we're done on Elba II."

"How do you know I do that?"

"You have contingency plans for your contingency plans, and then backup plans for those. That's not anything new here, Jim."

"And what are you doing?"

"I'm going to rest here, obviously."

"I don't need a babysitter, Bones."

"No, but maybe I need the company. So shut up and do what you do. And if, perhaps, you want to tell me about Joyce, Spencer, or anything else that's making you doubt yourself, then I'm here for that too."

Bones pointedly closed his eyes and rested his clasped hands on his stomach. He was so bad at feigning sleep that Jim really wanted to burst out laughing, but Jim's own hands were trembling slightly. Jim could feel the cracks at the edges of the flimsy shield he had erected.

Today was going to be one of those days – the ones when everything seemed bleak and dark, and Jim couldn't breathe with the weight of his past and all that he had buried resurfacing to sit on his chest. And Bones knew it. He had those days too, when he felt like he was an absolutely awful father and had nothing left in the world. Jim was always there to help him through those days, as he was for Jim. But with Jim, the damage was much more extensive and it took more to get past all those defense mechanisms that Jim had adopted so early on in life. Sometimes, it was easy to get Jim to spill and talk about what it was that was eating him up; others, it just took some nudging in the right direction.

There was maybe another ten minutes of Jim's quiet tapping on his screen before Jim plucked up enough courage to speak, keeping his eyes on the PADD. His words were faltering at first, but it picked up momentum as he spoke; the bottle had been uncorked and there was nothing to stop everything from spilling out now.

"After what happened, Joyce asked me to get her away from Spencer. She asked me to keep it a secret from everyone, even her family. She was breaking, and I could see it. So I did as she asked. I got her out and I kept her hidden. But I also left her alone. I ran from her. I was the one that introduced her to Spence; I was the one that screwed everything up simply by being close to her. And I ran from all that."

"I knew the risks and dangers of what could happen after that sort of traumatic experience, but I never looked back. I did what she wanted of me. I hid her from the world, but I did it so well that I hid her from me too. I cut off all communications with her and I never tried looking for her, to apologize, to check up on her. I did nothing because I couldn't. Because I knew Spence would never forgive me for what I did, and I knew that she would. I didn't deserve that. I still don't."

"There were many things that I could have done differently, things that I should have done, but I didn't, and Joyce suffered for it. The worst thing was, I know I could've helped her, but I was too busy trying to protect myself." Jim looked down at his hands, his voice growing softer, the pain ever so evident. "After all that happened, after all the things I stand for now, I didn't want you guys to see me as a coward. That I'm, in actuality, weak and useless when the time called most for it."

"It wasn't your fault how things played out the way they did, Jim," Bones said gently. "I know. I was there. From the very beginning, Spencer treated you like shit – like a piece of rug that he stepped all over. He did the same to Joyce too. Spencer was always a twisted fellow. And both you and Joyce missed it because you were hoping to see the good in him. You wanted to, because despite everything, you're not very good at handling loneliness. Sure, you can handle pain, boredom, anger, but loneliness? It's an entirely different story."

It was the same for Bones – sometimes, being alone in the stars just made him feel so small and insignificant. Like he was dust in the wind. Jim had a hard time with it too – another reason why the two of them were so freaking co-dependent on each other.

"That's the problem!" Jim snapped, turning around to look at Bones with a wildness in his eyes. "I should have seen it! I, more than anyone else, should have seen what sort of person Spence really was. Hell, I wouldn't have been able to survive up until now if I couldn't read people. How could my stupid neediness completely overshadow how shitty that man treated me and Joyce towards the very end?! What happened was my fault! And what's worse, I ran from it instead of owning up to it. I don't even know if Joyce is alive anymore. I'm a goddamn fucking coward!"

"And that's what I find so amazing about you," Bones interjected. "You're not a coward, Jim. You're just human, and an extraordinary one at that."

That stopped Jim in his tracks. 'What?' Jim was so stupefied that he didn't even realize that he didn't respond out loud.

"It's amazing that after all the shit and hell you went through, you could have easily given up and cursed all of mankind. But yet, you still let yourself believe in the good of people – like Spencer. It's amazing."

"Or I'm just so easily duped over and over again."

"You may see it that way, because you're a self-deprecating idiot, but I don't. Besides, if you didn't have the habit of overlooking people's pasts and faults, I wouldn't be here stealing your bed from you. So yeah, maybe things between you, Spencer, and Joyce got screwed up, but you gotta give yourself a break. It wasn't your fault, no matter what you think, and sure, you could've done things differently, but I personally am glad that you didn't. Spencer was a leech and both you and Joyce are better off without him."

Jim looked back down, emotion thickening in his throat. But he was my friend…came flittering through.

"And you're mine. My best friend, so excuse me if I don't give a damn about the man who made you feel this awful."

Jim choked out a watery laugh. "How the hell did I get a friend like you?"

Bones just closed his eyes again. "You were there for me when no one else was. Plus, you're as loyal as a Saint Bernard. Does it really surprise you that I'm the same to you?"

"A little."

"And that reaffirms my belief that you're an idiot. The rest will say the same. Even if they read what happened to Joyce in your mind, they aren't going to judge you for it or see you in a different light. They like you for who you are now, not who you were."

Uhura's words from earlier came floating to the front of Jim's mind. "We will always see you as you, and nothing else…We followed your heart, and that will never change."

Bones easily caught wind of it and smiled, feeling both proud and pleased. "See? You don't have to worry about Uhura, Chekov, Scotty, or Sulu and you sure as hell don't have to worry about Spock. That hobgoblin has been in your head and memories and still sticks as close as a limpet, thank freaking God. You'd be dead ten times over if it wasn't for him."

He shifted a bit, getting himself more comfortable. "As for Joyce, that girl was always smart. I'm sure she came out stronger, and if you don't believe it, you can always look her up after this is all over and lay rest to all those doubts that are eating you up. All you need to do right now is focus on Spencer and kicking that man's ass, and you better make sure that you do it before I do."

Jim's emotions were still a bit jumbled, but the storm clouds had calmed for now, and Bones could sense it. Jim patted Bones on his leg. "Thanks."

"Anytime," Bones grunted and turned on his side. "Wake me up when you plan to leave for Elba."

"You coming with?" Surprise colored Jim's voice. "I thought you didn't believe in transporters."

"I'll be more than happy to get my molecules rearranged if I can get a chance to punch Spencer in the face. So hell yeah, I'm coming with. Now be quiet and do your thing so I can get some shuteye."

Jim chuckled. "Whatever you say, Bones."

In minutes, Jim could hear Bones snoring. That man always could sleep wherever and whenever – a lesson he probably learned from medical school. It never failed to awe Jim who was probably one of the lightest sleepers on the ship. He was also quite thankful that Bones fell asleep that fast. There were too many emotions running rampart in his head. And he had no idea how to handle the weight of it all.

He turned his attention back to his PADD, deciding to distract himself instead of really working though his issues. He had pulled up the schematics to the asylum, but, as Chekov had said, it was deeply encoded. Cracking his knuckles and cricking his neck, Jim let his fingers run freely across the screen, immersing himself into the task at hand.

Bones was right – he'd worry about Joyce and the whole mind-reading thing. Here, in the safety and privacy of his room with the solid company of Bones at his back, he could finally focus. It was something, even if it was temporarily. But he'd worry about all that later. For now, he needed to make sure that his people – the people that meant more to him than the illusion that Spencer had ever created – remained safe.

Because he would be damned if he let another person that he cared about suffer at Spencer's hands. There could never be another Joyce. He wouldn't let it happen again.

The eighteen hour deadline passed too quickly and Jim barely had enough time to figure out the bare essentials that he could possibly need down on Elba II, let alone let the landing party know what they would need. The morning was full of tense silence as they prepared to beam down to Elba.

When Jim called his Command crew to the transporter room, he was already dressed in his uniform gold with his weapons belt already fastened. He looked battle-ready, as did Bones, surprisingly, who stood by his side. The Iliad was quiet, but it blanketed all his thoughts like an iron curtain with only a few small glimpses of Jim's emotions leaking through.

Spock was still frowning at the fact that Jim had refused to bring down a full security team with him. Jim had insisted with heavy determination that they keep their party small, consisting of Bones, Spock, Sulu, Uhura, Chekov, and himself. When asked about his reasoning, Jim just shrugged, but they caught a tiny whiff of his thoughts. There was something turning in that brilliant mind of his, and despite his reluctance of putting anyone in potential danger, Jim had faith and trust in his friends' unique abilities that they were his first choice in beaming down with him.

They didn't know if they felt more honored or if they were more concerned about Jim. Jim felt distant, but Bones didn't look like he was overly worried about Jim at the moment. It seemed that whatever they did or talked about last night helped settle Jim – the strength that Jim exuded was one that they were intimately familiar with. It was this strength that made Jim famous as Captain. And when they were going headfirst into the unknown? That was what they needed.

While Spock, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov busied themselves in getting prepared, Jim stood on the transporter pad, calmly issuing out orders to Scotty. "Scotty, you have the conn while we're done on Elba. As Komack said, we probably won't have any communication capabilities from within the prison, but we'll figure out why as soon as possible and reconnect with you. Be on standby for that. I want a full security team on hand and at the ready. If you don't hear anything from us in three hours, send them down."

Jim paused, thinking. "If the colony dome is activated and they can't be beamed down, check your PADD. I sent you some formulas that may help you crack it."

"If the shield is up then, are ye sure that ye'll be able to beam down?" Scotty asked.

"Yeah, there's no question on that. In fact, you'll find that there is only one possible coordinate that we can beam down to. Don't worry too much about why that it is. I've got that handled. If you can't hack into the system and you haven't heard from us, call Pike for backup. Hopefully, it won't come to that, but just in case. Got it, Scotty?"

Scotty nodded tersely, determination hardening in his jaw.

Then, he turned to his landing party who was now on the transporter pad with him. He considered them with such seriousness in his eyes. "I don't know what's waiting for us and I can't guarantee your safety. You have a choice on whether or not you want to come down with me with no repercussions at all. Are you all still in?"

There was absolutely no hesitation. "Yes, sir!" they all barked, snapping to attention like the soldiers they were. Jim had never felt so honored before, and that included the time he was given an award for saving the world from Nero. He fought down a smile – he'd let himself bask in their loyalty and friendship when this was all over.

"Good. Keep your phasers out. Now, as you guys suspected, this is more than likely a trap. I only have one rule for when we beam down: keep your mouths shut, do you understand me? No matter what Spencer does or says, don't react. Don't respond. Don't give Spence any more ammo than he already has."

"I am assuming you have a plan, Captain?" asked Spock.

Jim smiled with a manic glimmer in his blue eyes, "Something like that."

It was a massive show of faith and trust that no one in the landing party or the nearby vicinity asked Jim to elaborate. They just believed in the ingenuity that was Jim – they have had enough missions to know that Jim's particular brand of craziness was something that always triumphed in the end. There were no such things as no-win scenarios, right?

Turning back around, Jim gave Scotty a quick nod. "See you when this is all over, Scotty."

"Ye better," Scotty replied. "Or ah will beam down and kick yer arse meself."

Jim grinned. "Energize."

He closed his eyes as the familiar sensation of his molecules rearranging hit him. When he opened them again, he found himself looking straight at the one and only Spencer Jones, who was clearly waiting for him. As expected.

Jim gave Spencer a wry, barbed smile. "Hello, Spencer. Long time no see."

A phaser raised to greet Jim. "Nice to see you too, James," Spencer returned, smirking.

Spencer Jones was still wearing required prison uniform of a white-greyish color. He had clearly stolen the weapons from his guards. His comrades – twenty of them – had formed a circle around Jim and his people. Each were as armed as Spencer; a couple even had shivs tied to their belt.

They were all on the ground floor in a vast open area. Glancing around, Jim could see that the individual force fields of most of the prison was still intact. Each cell had a transparent door; within them was a solitary bed with a toilet and sink. Everything was pure white, though some cells had padded walls as opposed to others that were just a plain, white separation between rooms. There were several levels, climbing up to seven stories. Each floor had steel handrails and was composed of at least one hundred rooms. Jim didn't have the time or desire to count them all. He was more focused on the man that stood before him – so much that he didn't realize that his grasp on the Iliad had slipped a little.

Clearly, Spencer had control over the force fields that surrounded this entire place, and when he broke out, he only allowed a select few to join him – the others were probably a bit too insane for Spencer and his plans. The question now was how Spencer had managed to break out where even Chekov failed.

"You don't look surprised to see me, James," Spencer grinned arrogantly.

Jim shrugged. "The signs were all there. I should've let you rot on Tantalus instead of giving you another chance. No more, Spence. This ends now."

Spencer was unfazed by Jim's threat. "Yes, this is where I kill you. Don't even think about using those weapons you have on you. I've told my friends to shoot down your friends if you move a single finger towards me."

"Are you seriously just going to kill me like this? With a phaser? That's so dull," Jim sighed, completely ignoring Bones' sharp hiss beside him. He felt Spock stiffen at his nonchalance to death, and he had no doubt that the rest of his friends were not pleased either, but at least they were keeping to their agreement and keeping quiet.

"Don't worry. I swore I'd make you suffer, didn't I? But first, you're going to tell me where Joyce is."

"Yeah, that's not going to happen as I told you before. It's been years, Spence. Why haven't you moved on?"

"You don't understand! You'll never understand!" Spencer yelled. "You don't know what it's like to love someone! You've never been in love!"

Jim's mind reeled. There was a flash of a beautiful, young woman whose skin was a leaf green color. She was wearing only a bra and underwear, and she was smiling so brightly that her eyes shined with it.

"I think I'm falling in love with you..."

"That's so weird."

Uhura felt her heart clench at the memory of her roommate and her best friend. Gaila had been so excited to be placed on the USS Farragut. Her loss had left a hole in her heart that had barely scabbed over. She still thought of Gaila constantly, and every time, she could only hope that Gaila had been happy in her last moments.

But the deep loss that she felt didn't even begin to rival Jim's. Jim and Gaila had connected on a level that no one else could. They were both survivors of their own tragedies: Jim from Tarsus IV and Gaila from the Orion slave traders. He had loved her, in his own way. He may not have been able to convey how much he truly cared about her, but Gaila had understood, because she had gone through hell and back too.

She had still loved Jim – broken and damaged - with each breath that she had taken, and he loved her in the same way. It hadn't been romantic for them - they both simply enjoyed sex - but it could have been, given time. Time that she didn't have. Time that she should have had. Jim had saved so many people, but even if it was out of sheer dumb luck, he couldn't help and think that there was something that he could have done to save her.

The guilt ate away at him: the fact that it should have been her who lived, not him. She, at least, brought happiness to those around her. Jim only brought misery and destruction.

Uhura gasped at the raging emotions that the mere thought of Gaila brought about. She had never thought that Jim had cared that much about Gaila, and she felt her eyes tear up at Jim's pain. Glancing over at McCoy and his stupefied and pained expression, she realized that Jim had never told anyone about Gaila and how he felt about her death. No doubt he had dealt with it on his own, burying it into the dark, yet so shallowly that he could continue to feel himself get cut by those memories - as punishment for living.

But then, she looked at Jim and nothing in his face gave away the turmoil and anguish he felt underneath that calm, cocky exterior. His smirk never dropped nor did his eyes reveal anything but arrogance. His hands were loose at his side and his stance was casual. Nothing changed on the outside, and it was absolutely baffling to see and feel the immense contrast between what he was thinking and what he was portraying.

How often did Jim do that? How many times did he smile when all he wanted to do was crawl into a dark corner and bawl his eyes out? How had no one noticed how much pain Jim truly hid?

Jim's eyes slid over to her, and she was sure that her face was an open book. Even if she tried, she couldn't control her own features, not with Jim's emotions clashing with hers. Instantly, she felt horror and fear flashing through her again, and suddenly, all memories of Gaila was swiped to a side, hidden neatly in a little box in a crevice of his mind. All related emotions were shoved off a cliff and seemed to be gone as fast as they had emerged, but it was still there, like muted static television in the background.

Jim's eyes were suddenly so deep and dark that it swallowed Uhura, and she took a step back in shock. The recitation of the Iliad in ancient Greek was back, blocking the rest of his thoughts once again.

Uhura would never say it out loud, but she was actually glad that she could no longer hear Jim anymore. And God did she feel awful about it.

"That's not true," she heard Jim say with sheer smugness. "I've loved multiple women, sometimes at the same time, if you know what I mean."

With his tone and the raising eyebrows, the innuendo was so obvious that, once upon a time, would have made Uhura want to smack him.

Spencer was not amused. "You realize that this phaser is set to kill."

"Of course. Would it really be any other way?" But Jim was completely unperturbed by it. He was still glancing around his surroundings, gauging and plotting. "So, where did you put the guards after you killed them?"

"You aren't asking about how I managed to subdue them?"

"I don't need to ask questions that I already know the answers to. You charmed them, didn't you? Pretended that you were the perfect little inmate who was touched a little wrong in the head. That you were actually innocent and that there was hope for you to get better. With that act, you got them to completely trust you. Knowing you, it didn't take very long, did it? I'm guessing about two months before they let you free and do what you want, and another two to get your hands onto the controls. How did you manage to crack the codes to the defenses?"

"You asking because you couldn't figure it out?"

Jim didn't rise to the obvious bait. "You've seen the programing. It's nigh impossible attacking it externally. And yet, you were still able to prevent any beaming down here, except for the one spot of your choosing."

"So you noticed that, didn't you? Yes, it's almost impossible to manipulate the shields if you're on the outside, but it's easy internally," Spencer grinned.

"How long did you have to wait before the Enterprise drifted close enough for you to make your first move?"

The finger on the phaser twitched a bit. "Too long."

But Jim didn't react, even though he could sense his friends tensing at the slight movement. They weren't Jim, but they have been around him long enough to be able to tell what sort of body language meant an immediate threat was looming over them. Worse, they knew how much Spencer hated Jim.

"So what do you plan on doing now that you have me in your hands now, Spence? How are you going to make me suffer?"

"Oh, you'll see. I'm going to rip out that heart of yours. But first things first, you and your friends are going to take out your weapons and slide them over to us. No sudden movements and don't do anything stupid. Even if you do end up killing me or any of my comrades here, I can still guarantee you at least one of you will die too. Unlike you all, we have no attachments towards each other. If one falls, we'll just kill another one of you. In that scenario, will you actually be able to live with yourselves like that?"

"Listen to what he says," Jim said quietly to Spock, McCoy, Uhura, and Chekov. "We can't win right now."

"I hope you have a plan, Captain," Uhura replied as she and the others obeyed his command. And Spencer, I hope you drop dead."

"You've always been a fiery one, Uhura. My men are going to have fun with you," taunted Spencer.

Spock couldn't resist and reacted, growling primitively without realizing it as he lunged forward.

"Stand down, Spock!" Jim shouted, shoving Spock back. He turned around with an apologetic look in his expression. "I'm sorry, you guys. It's all my fault," he said, almost agonizingly, but his eyes were strong and sparkling, telling them that whatever he was saying and doing was just an act.

Jim knew what he was doing and he must've had his own reasons for not letting them know what he was going to do. They had faith in Jim Kirk and his genius, so they did the only thing they could do: play along.

"Yes, it is," Spencer said. And he stepped forward, snapping his wrist hard, bashing his phaser hard against the back of Jim's head.

Jim tumbled forward, crashing into McCoy's outstretched hands.

"Jim! Jim, answer me!" McCoy frantically called out.

But there was no reply. Jim was out for the count.

"Take them away and put them in their own cells," Spencer commanded, ignoring McCoy's and Sulu's loud protests at being pulled away from Jim. Spock and Uhura were dragged away wordlessly. All their eyes were locked onto Jim's prone form, even as they were pulled further and further from Jim.

One of Spencer's men asked, "What should we do with Kirk?"

There was an ominous air when Spencer replied. "Leave James to me."

It was the last thing Spock, Uhura, McCoy, and Sulu heard.

That did not bode well for any of them.

"So, that ended well," muttered McCoy, standing restlessly by the door to his cell. Though he couldn't see Spock, Uhura, Sulu, or Chekov through his solid walls, he knew that they were right beside him.

Despite the separations and the force fields, they could hear each other very clearly. There was no doubt that Spencer specifically configured their prisons that way – he wanted them to hear their Captain's screams, which was going to be made worse by the fact that they couldn't see Jim at all. For all they knew, he was still lying on the ground where he had fallen. All they knew was that Jim was still unconscious or too far for them to hear anything from that active mind of his.

"Any idea what Kirk is thinking?" Sulu piped up. "It's weird that he hasn't let us in on his plans."

"Is he okay?" Uhura asked instead. "I mean, why Kirk is so distant? This whole thing is odd. Kirk is overly protective of us, so it doesn't make sense that he'd let us beam down with him."

But Spock was more interested in something else. "Doctor, did Jim seek out your company last night?"

"Yeah, why?" replied McCoy, a bit confused at the pertinence of Spock's question.

"How did he seem after you spoke with him?"

"Well, it's Jim that we're talking about here. Those scars that Spence left are never going to leave completely, but he seemed alright when I fell asleep. He had that look on his face that meant that he was plotting."

"Then we should not be concerned. There is a reason why Jim has not shown his hand quite yet. We may not understand it, but I have no doubt that Jim has moved accordingly to Mr. Jones' actions."

"So what do you propose we do, Spock?" asked Sulu.

"We wait. I do believe that Jim will be making his move soon."

"Do you think the Keptin is alright? I cannot hear him," Chekov said quietly.

But even though they heard nothing from their elusive Captain, they all felt a small presence in the back of their minds. It was soft and quiet, hiding silently, just waiting to erupt.

"Ugh, it's going to suck when he wakes up," McCoy groaned.

"Why's that, Leonard?" questioned Uhura.

"Y'all know that Jim's a genius, right? I've roomed with him long enough to know that Jim doesn't wake up like a normal person. He wakes up with all his senses intact – so much to the point that he's pretty much battle-ready from the second he wakes up. But he won't have much of a defense with blocking us out – that kind of stuff takes time to form – which means that we're going to be privy to the full-on craziness that is Jim Kirk."

"Oh, shit," murmured Sulu as he remembered the first time that he had unobscured access to Jim's mind. He hadn't puked like Scotty did, but he was damn close. "I might actually throw up this time around."

And right on cue, the pressure on the back of their minds grew. It was as if someone had flipped a switch. One second, there was nothing, and the next, they felt their breaths being stolen from them. The moment Jim awoke, his thoughts and headache from his injury slammed into them like a sledgehammer. Jim took in his surroundings without even opening his eyes, using the rest of his senses to reach out like tendrils. It was amazing how Jim was able to formulate a general picture of his current situation without looking.

Just based on his body position, he knew that he was still out in the open, like when he had allowed himself to get captured. He knew this by the fact that he was hanging from his arms and he could feel slight air caress his face - he would not have been able to feel any breeze if he was confined in a prison. He had let his dangling legs twitch a bit and felt no resistance, meaning he had to have been tied up high enough that his feet would not scrape the ground. He was about six feet, so add another inch or so to that and it became obvious that Jim couldn't have been kept in the cells. The ceilings for those cells weren't tall enough.

He could hear clipped voices around him. Based on the echoing, he knew that he was in a large area. A very accurate flash of the asylum's blueprint ran though Jim's mind and he quickly narrowed down the areas that he could've been placed, mentally crossing off wherever he couldn't be in. Most likely, he was being kept in the cafeteria near where Spencer put his friends. Spencer would want him to be able to see what he did to Bones, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov.

There seemed to be four or five people in his immediate vicinity, three of whom hadn't spoken. Jim had discovered by simply listening to the differences in all their breathing patterns. There was an odd clicking and shuffling noise every so often, which Jim attributed to the inmates shifting their hold on their weapons.

All these thoughts and deductions took all of a minute, if even that. Sulu immediately felt himself turning green; Bones felt the need to lie down. Chekov and Spock could keep up, but even they were a little dizzy. Uhura just wanted to smack Jim into quiet submission.

And then, all of a sudden, once Jim remembered that his friends had complete and total access to his every thought, the amount of information that had inundated them went cold, making them feel giddy with the bereft of Jim's mind.

Instead, Jim's warm presence swept through them. "Guys, can you hear me? If you can, yell something that's innocuous."

Bones immediately started shouting, "Spencer! Let us out, you bastard! What have you done with Jim?!"

Jim didn't let anything slip in his expressions, keeping completely still, when Bones' voice quietly reached his ears. There was definitely some distance (math calculations to determine exactly how far they were from Jim ran through his mind), but he was right - Spencer didn't keep them too far. No doubt he wanted them handy so that he could use them against Jim at any time.

"Perfect. Now, I know this is going to be pretty one-sided, but hear me out. I kept you guys out of my plans for one reason only - Spencer can read people almost as well as I can, and you aren't trained to lie with your body. If you had let slip any indication that you could hear my thoughts, none of my plans would've worked. But now that he's got us separated and all his attention is focused on me, that leaves you guys free to do what you can."

"Now, Spence and his people probably patted you all down and took away everything that you had, but don't worry. You'll find that everything you need is in your cell. Chekov, this is going to be like Germany. You heard what Spence said earlier - it's impossible to hack into the force fields externally, but it should be a cinch internally. All you have to do is to get on your bed and in the far right corner, you'll find a hidden camera. You can rip it out and mess with some of the wires. All you have to do is let yourself out, find the control room."

Jim sent a mental picture of Chekov's route using the blueprint and a 3D visualization of what Chekov could expect to see on his way to the control room. "Rewrite whatever Spence has put in and let Spock, Sulu, Uhura, and Bones out. Once you do that, I need you to lower the colony dome shield so that our security team can beam down. But, don't move until I give you the okay."

While Jim spoke, they could see a perfect image of Chekov doing exactly what Jim had laid out for him like a movie. But even then, it wasn't so simple – each frame scattered into a million crystals, branching off to account for each and every possible scenario that Chekov could encounter. It was bewildering. Jim had a plan for Chekov's presence being discovered, the possible codes and programming he could encounter, to even Chekov stubbing his toe and not being able to make his way to the control room.

For a brief moment, they were all overwhelmed, but Jim, unable to see their expressions, couldn't tell and made no effort to silence his completely overactive mind. His next words, when he focused on them, helped alleviate the dizziness for a second.

"Chekov's task of overriding Spencer's work in the system will take some time, so Spock and Sulu, you're the manpower. Once Chekov lets you out, I'm going to need you to take down as many inmates as you can. Pave the way so that Uhura can get to the control room too and contact Scotty and tell them to get ready on Chekov's word."

"Bones, you stick with Uhura and Chekov. I know they can take care of themselves, but you're going to have to protect them too."

Bones couldn't help himself. "Damn it, Jim. I'm a doctor, not a bodyguard," he hissed quietly.

Jim's amusement rushed through them - he knew exactly what Bones was thinking even though he couldn't hear or see his best friend. "You're a bodyguard for now, Bones. Once the security team gets here, Bones, go find your medpack that Spence took from you and make sure that everyone, including the inmates are fine. Just make sure that they're locked back up. Despite the mess we're in, our number one priority is to quell the rebellion, as Komack asked."

"I'm going to act as all of your distractions, okay? So I won't be able to guide you guys any more than this. If you run into a snafu, you're on your own. Improvise."

Yet they knew that they wouldn't have to, not with the thousands of possible paths that Jim had already thought out for them. He truly had been busy the night before. Sulu really was going to throw up if this kept up.

"Do what you think is right and you'll be fine. That's the reason why only you guys could beam down with me - no one else would be able to pull this off if I was out of commission."

Jim even had contingency plans for if he was taken out. They could sense it, but Jim had a shield surrounding it. Instantly, and nearly out of sheer panic, they felt the urge to probe, but Jim's mental strength was strong. Fond warmth spread to them, as if he knew exactly what they were thinking. "Relax, guys. It's just there because I'm wired weird and I come up with these plans without realizing it. It won't come to that. I'll be fine. Just keep yourselves safe, alright?"

Jim had meant to be reassuring, but they were still extremely concerned. Because the thing was, in all of these millions of plans, Jim wasn't actively in a single one. From the very beginning, he had known that he was going to get captured. No, if they wanted to be accurate, it was that Jim had to have been taken by Spencer for anything to even have the chance of working. Jim had known that all along, which was probably part of the reason why he kept silent about his plans. He knew that his friends would never willingly allow him to fall into a psychotic man's hands - at least not when they could prevent it. So Jim waited and waited, biding his time until the moment was right. And now, when all the attention was on him, he could finally make his move. More accurately – they could make their move.

"One last it quick. We have less than an hour left before Scotty calls Pike, and I do not want that to happen. Good luck! I'm counting on you guys."

And then Jim's mind altogether faded from theirs, retreating into a crevice of their heads where it stayed as a low murmur in the background. Spock would've been extremely impressed with Jim's mental prowess if it wasn't Jim that they were talking about.

Sulu squinted at the door before him. "Wait, I thought Kirk told Scotty to start beaming security down at the three hour mark."

Bones rolled his eyes. "If Jim told you to wait for three hours while he was in potential mortal danger, would you? I'll bet a hundred credits that Scotty's been working on breaking the code the second we beamed down. And we'd have known if he succeeded, so at that three hour mark, Scotty isn't sending help. He's calling for help."

"I can almost hear Kirk whining about having to owe Pike something else again. He's still complaining about that time he had to clean Pike's attic," Uhura said with a tinge of exasperation.

"You're still hearing about it? Please. That kid hasn't stopped reminding me about it since even before he went to Pike's," grouched Bones.

"In Jim's defense," Spock supplied, "He owed that favor to Admiral Pike to protect you from any repercussions due to your assault on Mr. Trask, Doctor."

"Yeah, I know. Why else do you think I haven't told him to shut the hell up?"

"I do not think that is the correct sentiment to thank Jim for assisting you."

Bones fought the urge to bash his head against his wall. Of course Spock would be the one miffed about Bones being so nonchalant about Jim trading in favors to protect him. But the thing was, if the situation really was serious, no one would have known about it except for Jim and the one he made the trade with.

"Haven't you realized that the more Jim whinges about something, the less it actually means? You'll hear him bitch and moan about a freaking paper-cut for ages, but if he's bleeding out of his ears? He'll keep quiet until someone points out that giant puddle of blood at his feet. He's not actually bothered by owing Pike any favors. He's just complaining because he wants to annoy me."

Spock took the information in. He had known about how Jim reacted to his various injuries. It was actually how Spock was able to ascertain the seriousness of Jim's wounds. If Jim was loud and obnoxious about it, he was fine. But when Jim was silent and moving in a doggedly determined manner, Spock was on high alert. He hadn't realized that this infuriating habit of Jim's had bled into other parts of his life. "Then why is Jim reluctant for Mr. Scott to contact Admiral Pike?"

"Because Pike is almost as overprotective as us and far more vindictive than we could ever be with the power and authority to match. Who do you think pushed for Spencer to get the maximum sentence on Tantalus? If Pike gets involved, there's no telling what he'd do to Spencer."

"I say we let him," Sulu piped up, "That bastard deserves what Pike has in store for him."

"But you know the Keptin vould not vant that to happen, regardless of vhat Mr. Jones has done. The Keptin is too kind," Chekov said softly. "It is his greatest strength and greatest weakness."

Then, Jim's voice crackled back to life, like a radio suddenly turning on. "Chekov, go. By my count, you have five minutes to break out, another ten to make your way to the control room, and fifteen to bring down the dome shield. I can't guarantee any longer than that. It's all up to you now. The rest of you, keep him and yourselves safe. I'll see you in thirty minutes."

He didn't talk about what would happen if they took longer than half an hour, but they were sure that it wasn't going to end well for any of them, least of all Jim.

Chekov didn't spare a thought on that though. The second he heard Jim say "go," he was already scrambling onto the bed, his nails scratching at the wall to access the wires.

Sulu, McCoy, Spock, and Uhura could hear muffled thudding through their walls. They each readied themselves for the task before them.

Sulu cracked his neck and started stretching his arms. "What do you think Kirk is doing to guarantee us thirty minutes?"

"I don't know," McCoy replied. "Hell, even if we could read his mind right now, I'm pretty sure none of us would be able to make heads and tails outta what he's got planned. But he sure as hell better be in one piece when we get to them, or I'm gonna tear him a new one."

"I concur," Spock said.

And suddenly, Chekov was waving at them from the outside before scampering off into the distance.

"Damn, that kid is fast," McCoy muttered.

"Told you he was smart," Sulu called out.

"He's also a sheep in the midst of wolves. If he gets caught, you think he'll be fine?"

"That's 'if' he gets caught. Kirk's been teaching him some skills."

McCoy snorted. "Like he's been teaching you skills?"

Sulu cracked his neck. "Just you wait until I get my hands on Jones. I'll show you my skills."

"I am afraid you may not have the opportunity, Mr. Sulu," Spock said lightly.

"Agreed," Uhura chimed in.

"Alright then," Sulu said. "Let's have a race. Whoever's the first one to get to Jones wins. May the best man or woman win."

"Open your eyes, James. I know you're awake," Spencer said lowly. He was so close that Jim could feel his breath on his face.

Slowly, Jim showed those brilliant blues of his. His expressions were kept neutral, almost borderline bored. He had been right about his situation. It seemed like he was being held in the communal cafeteria. His wrists were tied by strong, sturdy rope to a pole attached to the underside of a walkway that had spanned across the top of the vast, open room. There were six people, one more than he actually thought, guarding him. Each had a phaser in their hands – Jim recognized a couple to have been stolen from someone in his landing party.

He spoke to Spencer, even as he was mentally telling his friends his plans. "I gotta say, Spence, seeing your face the second I wake up is not a pleasant thing."

"I really don't think you are in the position to be smart with me, James."

"And I'd really prefer it if you called me Captain."

Jim got a sucker-punch in the stomach for his quip. Spencer had certainly been working out while he was in captivity. Jim's body jerked at the impact, almost winding him, but his pain threshold was far too high for it to have affected him. He looked back up, boredom in his eyes.

"Is that the best you can do, Spence?" Jim knew what he had to do. He needed to buy time, and there was only one way that he knew how. He reinforced the mental shields against his friends. He smirked, ignoring the sudden low throb of a headache, and proceeded to goad Spencer. "You're going to have to do more than that to find out where Joyce is."

"Oh, believe me, I know." A crazed look entered Spencer's eyes, making Jim question his resolve for a brief second.

Jim was accustomed to crazy – Frank, Kodos, Komack, various others – but Spencer was a whole different brand of insane. Was Jim equipped to handle him? Or had he bitten off more than he could chew?

But that uncertainty faded as quickly as it came, and Jim's smile came easily. "Well then, a penny for your thoughts? Or should I call an orderly for your meds? It's not good for you to be off your medications for so long. How long has it been since you've taken them? Or perhaps you have never taken them?"

Spencer just turned away from Jim, walking slowly towards a table. "It's funny you should mention medications…"

At the angle Jim was hanging, he couldn't quite see what it was that Spencer was playing with, but he felt his heart sink at Spence's words. He never did handle drugs all that well.

Spencer swiveled around, holding a syringe filled with a clear liquid. "Sodium thiopental. You know what that is?"

"Pentothal, or also known as 'truth serum,'" Jim recited, purposely inputting a touch of boredom in his words. "A rapid-onset, short-acting barbiturate. I thought that was banned centuries ago."

"They use them here, quite often, to calm the worst of the inmates. It's not exactly legal, but it's the only thing that works on some of them. Luckily for me, it was quite easy to get my hands on it. Now, I know you've always avoided drugs, so this should have a heavy effect on you. Be still, or I might miss your vein."

One of the inmates came up to Jim and forcibly tilted his head, exposing his jugular vein. Jim fought the urge to bite as Spencer's hand as the needle came closer and closer to his neck. He closed his eyes. He sensed all of Spencer's men backing away, giving them space.

"Chekov, go," Jim thought pointedly, letting down his barriers just long enough to send out his message. Then, he felt a prick, followed by a burning sensation. Thirty minutes. The clock started now.

He immediately threw up everything that he had against his mental walls. He had to do it now before he lost all control. He couldn't risk his rampant mind throwing his friends off their game. Not when he needed them most. The headache was growing, but it wasn't anything that he couldn't handle. He had to focus. It was only half-an-hour. He could do this.

When he opened his eyes, it felt like he was looking at the world through bubbles. Everything felt like it was wavering and he felt like he was floating. He steeled himself and subtly bit the inside of his cheek, grounding himself with the pain.

"James," Spencer called.

Jim purposely ignored Spencer, working on fighting through the haze. He blinked dumbly until Spencer snapped his finger in front of him, completely drawing his attention to him.

"James. Can you hear me?"

"Yeah," Jim replied, his tongue feeling thick. "I hear ya, you obnoxious bastard."

Spencer's grin just grew broader. "Looks like the drug's working. You're losing that formal tone you always seem to have nowadays."

"Gotta uphold my image and all, ya know." That didn't seem to be the right accent. He wasn't Southern like Bones, was he?

Spencer leaned in, caressing Jim's face. "Do you remember the first day we met, James? It was the first day of Advanced Engineering."

"I was…I was arguing with the professor. Professor Lee. About black holes?"

"Yes," Spencer nodded. "After five minutes of listening to you argue, I knew that we were made for each other."

"You're fucking crazy," Jim managed to retort. "And delusional."

"That brilliance of yours – it rivaled mine. And your darkness? Even more than I could ever fathom. We were equals. Brothers. No one could understand you more than me."

"We're not brothers. We never were."

"But you thought we were."

Jim frowned. "But I thought we were," he dutifully repeated. His memories of Spencer were resurfacing, but he quashed it down harshly, making the pain at his temple twinge. Just twenty-five minutes left.

"I've been trying to figure out what went wrong all those years ago." Spencer stepped away, pacing before Jim. "It couldn't have just been Joyce. We were stronger than that. Closer than that to let a girl come between us."

"I keep telling you, it never was like that with Joyce. She…" He remembered her bright smile. The way her laughter rang like bells and her hair glittered in the sun reminded him of his cousin that he had lost on Tarsus. Both had been innocent and pure, filled with nothing but happiness that life could offer. But real life was cruel, especially around Jim.

With honest sadness, Jim finished his train of thought. "She was the sister I never had. The first person I wanted to protect after coming back to Earth."

"She was never yours to protect!" Spencer roared, flinging around in envious fury.

Jim nodded, letting his eyes close again. His head was hurting more. "No…I didn't have the right to protect her. She was…she was too good for the both of us, Spence. And we went and ruined her life."

"You ruined her life," Spencer snarled. "Why did she go to you first? Why did she choose you? She was my fiancée!"

That sparked a flame in Jim. "Why did you beat her? Why did you break her spirit? She loved you. She chose you. And yet, I found her in a puddle of blood after two days of your abuse! Explain that, Spencer!"

"Tell me where she is, James!"

Jim spat at Spencer, defiance rousing in him. "Over my dead body."

Spencer's face twisted. "That can be arranged." He nodded over at his men. "Begin."

Sweat dripped down Chekov's face as his fingers scrambled over the console. He had found his way to the control room easily, thanks to Jim's memorization of the asylum's blueprints, and using the skills that Jim taught him, he managed to make it there undetected. With a final press of a button, Chekov managed to unlock the shields that surrounded his friends' cells. He glanced at the doorway, hoping that Uhura and Doctor McCoy would join him soon.

Even with all his genius and talents, Chekov had one fatal flaw: he couldn't fight. Sure, he could hold his own when he had a phaser in hand, though his precision was barely average, but when it came to physical close-combat, Chekov didn't stand a chance. He had definitely tried to learn, but even with Jim as his teacher, he didn't get far at all.

And that made Chekov feel like he was the most useless one of them all.

All his friends could fight and protect the ones that they cared about. Jim could count on them to hold their own and even come to his aid when he needed it. Spock and Sulu were the two that Jim consistently sparred with – an acknowledgment of their skills. Uhura, in her own delicate way, had trained fiercely to be stronger – so strong that people no longer could look down upon her and her ability to fight because she was a woman. Even Doctor McCoy, the man who swore to save lives and do no harm, could incapacitate an enemy if necessary.

They could all fight alongside Jim, leaving Chekov behind to stare at their backs and wish that he could do something. Sure, he had the ingenuity to break through the strongest firewalls, but that ability wouldn't allow him to stand next to his friends. At least not with equal standing.

Completely discouraged and frustrated, Chekov had spiraled down in disappointed and shame. But Jim, with his all-seeing eyes, had quickly stepped in, pulling him to a side and offered to teach him a different type of skill – one that would make him unique amongst his friends: stealth. No one else but Jim and himself was capable of disappearing into thin air, and with Chekov's ability to hack into surveillance cameras, he was virtually invisible.

And the funny thing was, Chekov picked up those skills so easily, just like computers and technology came easy to him. It was like he was meant to learn how to move like a shadow.

This task that Jim had given him – it could only be done by him. Anyone else would have been caught in seconds. And he was sure as hell not going to fail.

He checked the clock on the wall. He estimated that about twelves minutes had passed, which meant that he was a bit ahead of schedule. Perfect. He would be able to get this all done before Jim's thirty minute deadline. This was what he was good at – this was what made Chekov useful in Jim's outstanding and extraordinary Command crew. He was damn sure going to make sure that he never ever let anyone of them down.

He cracked his knuckles and turned his eyes back on the screen in front of him. The dome shield was not going to stand a chance.

Time flew by without Chekov noticing. He wasn't sure when Uhura and Doctor McCoy joined him in the control room. One moment there weren't there, and the next, they were, guarding the door and keeping a watchful eye on the cameras. He was far too focused on the task at hand. He was so close that he could taste it. He just needed a few more minutes. But Spencer Jones was far more intelligent than any of them had expected.

"Chekov!" Jim's voice suddenly screamed in their heads. Chekov jerked, like he had been shocked. McCoy and Uhura almost fell over at the unexpectedness of Jim's voice echoing. His words were extraordinarily loud, as if Jim had no control over the volume, and it sounded a bit cluttered. "You've been discovered! Uhura, Bones, get yourselves ready. He's sending a bunch of his men your way. Spock, Sulu, you've got to go to them. I know you want to come for me, but I'll be fine. Just keep them safe!"

And then Jim's presence abruptly crackled into complete silence, suddenly cut. It left worry in all their hearts – more than the imminent danger that they were all in.

Uhura and McCoy looked at each other. "Oh, shit," McCoy grumbled out.

"How did Jones figure it out?" Uhura asked out loud, readying herself by the door.

"Beats me." McCoy turned back to look at Chekov. "Kid, you almost done there? We need the security team down here like five minutes ago."

Chekov frowned, never looking away as his fingers danced. "Giwe me five more minutes."

There was pounding on the door. McCoy and Uhura both braced themselves.

"Five minutes, sounds doable, right, Uhura?"

Uhura nodded, steel entering her eyes. "Definitely."

McCoy shivered at the sight of her smile. "Remind me to never get on your bad side."

"You already know that, Leonard. But these jackasses don't. They'll never know what hit them."

"Perfect." McCoy cracked his neck. "Let's show these morons what happens when they mess with the Enterprise's crew."

Uhura grinned manically. "It will be my genuine pleasure."

Despite the harshness of the punches Spencer's men threw when Jim refused to answer their questions, Jim barely felt any of them. Instead, the pain was focused in his head, completely overshadowing anything that Spencer and his friends could throw at him. The throbbing stung like a keen knife through his skull. It was so punishing that Jim could almost see bright, silver stars bursting like fireworks behind his eyes.

Dimly, he knew what the cause was. Spock's words drifted through the spinning tendrils of sanity: "There are techniques that I can teach you to obscure your thoughts...but it does put a considerable stain on the mind." No matter how intelligent and skilled Jim was, he was only human, and shielding his mind as well as holding his tongue against the drug was quickly proving to be more difficult than Jim had ever imagined. He may not be able to hold on to the thirty minutes as he had planned.

Spencer was saying something again. With considerable effort, Jim blinked his heavy eyelids, trying desperately to focus his vision on Spencer's face.

"James, I asked you a question."

"Yeah?" Jim asked. He was floating; his emotions were all over the place. One second he wanted to laugh, the next to sob uncontrollably. He was barely clinging on to his mind, his thoughts already slowing to an average man's speed. It was absolutely frustrating.

"Did you ever sleep with Joyce?" Spencer's voice seeped into his haze.

Jim grimaced. "She was my sister…I may have slept with anything that moved, but even I wouldn't stoop that low."

"Wouldn't you?"

"I would do a great many things," Jim nodded in agreeance. "God knows that I will do anything, and I have." He frowned, wincing at the sudden burst of agonizing pain in his mind as certain memories started to surface. He kept his eyes on the ground, trying to focus again.

"Jones, he's fading fast. Get the answers you want an' let's take care of his men. We gotta get outta here before we're found," said one of Spencer's men.

Spencer nodded. "James, what are the codes to Starfleet's defense systems?"

Alarms rang in Jim's head. So this was what they were after all along – if they obtained the codes to bring down the defense systems, they could negotiate for immunity and release or sell it to the highest bidder. Either or, they were going to use it to get out of Elba II.

Numbers flittered through his mind, forming a coherent thought of the answer where it rested on the tip of his tongue. He had to stall. Instantly, he scrambled everything, shaking things up like a magic-eight ball. "What makes you think I know the codes?"

"You're the decorated Captain of the flagship. You know."

"You know what else I know? How much of a dick you are. I also know the Fibonacci sequence to the 500th sequence and probably further if I really tried. You want me to recite for you? Sure. Why not? 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13…"

"What the 'ell is he sayin'?" burst out another man.

Spencer just watched Jim keep going, trying to figure out if Jim had a game-plan or had completely lost his marbles.

"21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987…"

Then something clicked. "He's stalling. He's stalling!" He turned and shouted at his men. "Go check on his people!"

Just as he barked that out, another one of the prisoners came running in. "Boss! Kirk's men are gone! We think that kid of theirs hacked the security and made his way to the control room."

"Go after them! Kill on sight!"

That jolted Jim into action. He sent a quick message to Chekov, warning him that he had been discovered, but he wasn't in as control as he was before. Just the simple act of slightly lowering the barriers of his mind sent him careening in a world of pain, as if his brain had been wrapped tightly by sharp thorns that only tightened its grip by the second. He wasn't sure how much he got through – he didn't know if too much got through.

But the second he got his point across, Jim slammed everything down, steel walls against his mind, his blue eyes calculating the scene before him. Spencer and his men, for the first time, looked scattered and anxious.

If there was ever a time to act, it was now.

With great effort, Jim twisted his hands to grasp the pole above his head. Shifting his weight downwards, he instantly gauged its dexterity and strength. Kicking his legs up, Jim harshly and heavily slammed his feet back down. The aged metal creaked loudly. Heads turned towards his direction. He didn't have much time. Jim swung his legs up so high that he very nearly kicked his own head. Then, with all his strength, he flung his entire body weight down.

He came crashing down on top of one of Spencer's men, who had tried to catch Jim in a sad attempt to stop him from escaping. Jim didn't even pause. He slammed the pole, still tied to his bound hands, onto the back of the prisoner's head. He was unconscious before he even hit the ground.

One down, five to go.

No seconds were wasted. He swept one leg out, knocking another man to the ground. A quick punch to the face sent the prisoner to a dreamland. In one fluid movement, Jim stood, grabbing an extended arm to pull himself into range, his back pressed against the inmate's chest. He jammed his elbow upwards, hitting directly under the chin and then proceeded to throw the man over his shoulder.

Three left.

The ropes around Jim's hands had gotten slightly looser with his vigorous movements. From the corner of his eye, Jim saw another prisoner approaching him rapidly. He spun around, using his body momentum to literally propel the metal pipe at the offending man. Even with his hands bound, Jim had amazing accuracy, though not where he had originally intended. He had meant to strike the inmate's forehead, but he was off by a couple feet, hitting the man straight in the groin. The man went down like a sack of potatoes with loud, pained groans.

Well, whatever worked.

Jim turned around the second he heard the familiar sound of a phaser whining on. As he thought – the last two were going to be the most difficult to take down. Spencer knew not to underestimate him, and the other man seemed to be unusually adept at handling these types of situations. It made Jim wonder whether or not that inmate deserved to be here, or if he should have been placed on Tantalus with Spencer.

"Hands up, James," Spencer said. He looked completely unperturbed, standing calmly a few feet away from Jim with a phaser pointed directly at Jim's chest. Smart move, on Spencer's end. With that distance between them, he was out of Jim's range and would easily shoot Jim before Jim even got to him. And he was aiming for Jim's heart – a larger and, quite honestly, an easier target to hit than trying to get Jim's head. Not to mention that Jim's hands were still bound, though he could get out with some time. Clearly, time that he didn't have.

He knew it. With the limitations of trying to shut his brain down, his reaction time had slowed too much. He could only have escaped if he managed to take all of Spencer's down before they realized that he was attacking.

As if his mind was sensing that Jim was on the verge of just giving up, it snarled to life, refusing and rejecting.

There was no such thing as no-win scenarios.

A feral snarl instantly transformed Jim's face into a horrifying and terrifying image, making Spencer's comrade flinch in hesitation.

Spencer, on the other hand, did no such thing. His curled around the trigger, ready for Jim to make a move.

Jim lunged. Spencer shot.

The thud of a body dropping to the ground echoed with sad, resounding resignation.

Then it was all over.

McCoy grunted as another hard impact landed on the door that he and Uhura were bracing themselves against. While they were both itching to fight, they also knew that if they let a single person through, Chekov was done and that meant that Jim was done. It was more logical that they merely stalled for time until Chekov could get the rest of their security team down.

The next attempt to get through the door was felt keenly by McCoy's bruised shoulder. He huffed with annoyance. "I'm going to kill Jim for bringing us down here when he knew full well that it was going to end up like this."

Despite the situation, Uhura found McCoy's exasperation amusing. "I thought you wanted to kill Jones."

"I can have a list."

"It's not a list if you only have Kirk and Jones on it."

"There're plenty of people on my list. If you keep on making fun of my list, you'll be on it too. And if this kid doesn't get the security team down in the next ten seconds, he'll be number one."

Uhura chuckled, "You're an angry and ungrateful man."

"Yeah? Well, you keep cleaning me out of my credits, so that's expected."

Uhura's response was cut off by the abrupt cessation of the pounding on the door, followed by a clean, distinct knock.

"Nyota, Doctor McCoy, are you in here?" came Spock's muffled voice.

"'Bout time," grouched McCoy as he and Uhura stepped away to open the door.

The hallway before them were littered with unconscious bodies – about eight people, to be precise – with Spock and Sulu standing in front of them looking as if they had nothing better to do. Each inmate had some sort of weapon in their hands: handmade knives and bludgeoning clubs. If they had managed to get through Uhura and McCoy, there was no doubt that they would have been in trouble.

"See? Ungrateful," laughed Uhura just as Chekov creeped up behind her.

"The shield is down," Chekov announced, making McCoy and Uhura jump at his sudden appearance. It was like he had just popped out of nowhere.

"Then let's go find Jim," McCoy said as soon as he recovered.

Without another word, all of them rushed down the hallway. Loud noises and chattering reached their ears before they even got to where Jim was probably been held.

Familiar red shirts crowded the room. Most were spread out, going through the hallways to suppress and take control of the rebelling prisoners. Others were hovering over the unconscious bodies of men that either they or Jim had knocked, handcuffing them all.

A flash of gold caught their eyes. It was almost hidden amongst the red-shirts. Then, they heard Scotty's loud voice, barking out commands to the rest of the men to give them space. There wasn't any question of who Scotty were talking about.

Instantly, panic and alarm filled McCoy, Spock, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura.

Where was Jim? The man was usually the most rambunctious of them all – you could hear him from a mile away; his presence filled the room, sucking out all the air so that there was nothing left but him, shining so brightly like a lighthouse.

"Commander Spock!" a Red-shirt called out. "Are you all alright?"

Red-shirts, just now noticing them there, started to swarm them to ascertain their wellbeing.

McCoy was having none of it. He had to get to Jim. "Move aside," he said briskly. "Damn it, I'm a doctor. I know very well if I'm uninjured or not. Where the hell is Jim?"

"I hear Bones!" Jim's voice came floating over their heads. It made them all freeze. Jim's voice was high-pitched and giggly, but they couldn't see him, which meant he had to be sitting or lying down near Scotty (because Scotty would never have left Jim alone if he wasn't in prime condition).

There were only three explanations for Jim sounding so giddy. One: he had lost a shit ton of blood and was losing his mind; two: he was severely sleep-deprived, or three: he was high off his ass. All of those choices were worrisome and tended to end with Jim being thrown into SickBay under Bones' watchful eyes.

The crowd quickly parted once they saw McCoy's expression – it was one they all had come to know as a sign that they needed to get of McCoy's way because nothing was going to stop him from getting to his best friend's side.

Jim was sitting on the ground, crossed-legged, and grinning like the sight of Bones was the best thing that had happened in his life. Ever. Scotty was kneeling next to him, one hand on Jim's shoulder to prevent Jim from moving around too much. There was exasperation all over the Scottish man's face – his nerves clearly frayed from this entire situation. Add on the fact that he was wholly unequipped to handle Jim Kirk when he was riding an adrenaline high? Scotty was definitely having a difficult time keeping Jim still.

"Bones!" Jim exclaimed, surging to his feet clumsily to greet his friend.

McCoy couldn't help but juxtapose an image of a ridiculously happy golden retriever wagging its tail over what he was seeing of Jim. Jim didn't seem to notice the flabbergasted expressions all his friends had and launched forward, hugging McCoy tightly around the middle.

"What the hell…?!" Bones managed to get out as he quickly adjusted his stance to better keep both of them upright. Jim was trembling in his arms – literally vibrating. Bones just didn't know what from. Excitement? Adrenaline? Fear?

He immediately shot a curious look at Scotty, but Scotty shook his head.

"Don't ask me," sighed Scotty. "He was like this when I beamed down."

Jim instantly pulled away, bouncing on the back of his heels. "He had the best timing in the world!"

McCoy frowned and leaned forward, one arm grabbing hold of Jim's right one to keep him in place, and the other to reach out and widen Jim's eye a bit so he could see into it. Once he eliminated a concussion as an etiology of Jim's current behavior, he settled on the one thing it could be: drugs.

"Alright, Jim. What the hell did Spencer give you?"

"Pentothal. It sucks. Hey. Hey! Did I tell you that you look good with scruff? But I like it best when you're clean-shaven. It means that you don't got something bothering you."

The way Jim was talking was weird. Sure, his words were slightly slurred and very rushed, but how he said things and his accent was much different than usual.

"Calm down, Jimmy. Your Iowa is showing," Bones sighed, totally understanding. Jim had long ago gotten rid of his Midwestern accent – it was always easier to blend into the background that way – but occasionally, when Jim was very, very drunk or all his inhibitions were taken away from him, Jim's natural colors came out.

He examined Jim's pale, feeling some relief that Jim hadn't been given something that he was allergic to. "Truth serum, huh?"

Jim swayed, his face pale and gaunt, despite the manic look in his eyes.

"Why don't you sit down, Jimmy?" Bones coaxed. He reached over and made Jim sit down, gently speaking to him like a child.

Jim essentially ignored Bones, rambling on while seemingly unable to focus his sight on one particular thing for more than a second. "You guys got good timing too. It's been thirty-two minutes and forty seconds."

That made McCoy's head snap in alarm. "Shit. We passed your thirty minutes mark?" McCoy glared at the rest of his friends. "No one ask him anything right now. He won't be able to help himself." Then, he busied himself checking over all the bruises and contusions that Jim had.

While Bones took care of Jim, Sulu glanced around, searching. When he didn't find what he was looking for, he prodded Scotty. "Hey, what happened to Jones?"

Scotty nodded over towards where a cluster of their men were. "Stunned and under very tight guard. Ah came just in time…"

Scotty's fingers were running over the keyboard almost faster than the eye could see. He and a very large group of Redshirts, most of whom were volunteers, had gathered in the transporter room as Scotty worked. Scotty didn't want to waste a single second to call for them later – not when all his friends' lives were at stake.

Frustration furled angrily in his chest, like a heat wave. Why the hell could he not figure out this damn code to the dome shield?! Jim had already laid out the groundwork for him, and yet, he couldn't get past the third barrier out of five.

The clock was ticking down – it was nearing that three hour mark that Jim had set. Scotty typed faster. He would really hate it if he had to call Pike into this. If Pike ended up asking Jim clean out his attic again, Scotty was sure that either McCoy or Pike would make him join him. And Scotty hated to clean things. Cleaning things were unnatural, unless you were talking about machinery.

And then something chimed on his screen. A paragraph of coding appeared, scrolling down at an exuberant speed. Scotty recognized the signature on that – Chekov had made an extraordinary headway with Jim's original codes and had brought down the dome shield.

Instantly, Scotty turned and snapped at the men. "Everybody on the pads!" and leapt onto it himself, pulling out his phaser and holding it at the ready. One of Chekov's backups stepped up to where Scotty was a second ago, his hand waiting for Scotty's command.

"Energize!" Scotty barked as soon as the first wave of the Security Team were settled.

Lights swirled around them and the first thing Scotty saw was the back of an inmate and Spencer. Spencer had his right arm raised, a phaser pointing directly at Jim. His blue eyes hadn't registered Scotty's presence quite yet, but Scotty could see Jim's muscles constricting to attack. At the same time, there was fierce determination and sad resignation in his eyes – Scotty didn't have to be a genius to know that Jim thought that this was going to be his last stand.

Like Scotty was ever going to let that happen.

He didn't even think. No pause or hesitation. Scotty lifted his phaser and immediately shot at Spencer and the other inmate, just as Jim launched himself forward.

Surprise littered Jim's face as Spencer crumbled to the ground, his body thudding loudly. The other inmate just sagged to the ground soundlessly. Jim was so shocked that he stumbled and almost fell if it wasn't for Giotto catching him.

Jim didn't even try to regain his balance, too relieved to see his men there to even care about looking vulnerable. He smiled lopsidedly. "I cannot tell you how good it is to see you all, Scotty."

Scotty just snapped into a smart salute. "It is our genuine pleasure, Cap'n."

"Ah shudder ta think what woulda happened if we were just a little bit late. Giotto and the others quickly got this place in a lockdown. But ah gotta say, we didn't do much. Jim had already gotten this place mostly under control when we arrived. Ah may still have kicked Spencer away from Jim though."

"It was adorable," Jim giggled. "He was all 'feel my Scottish rage'!"

Sulu wanted to laugh. "You are literally high off your ass, aren't you, Kirk?"

Jim nodded solemnly. "Oh yes. If I was any higher, I would probably start hallucinating about shit, like Kodos or Frank or Gaila. That'll suck pretty bad, especially if I see Gaila blaming me for her death as she should. Or! What if I see Komack naked again? That'd be awful. Wouldn't…hmmf!"

Whatever Jim was blurting out was immediately muffled by Bones' large hand. McCoy turned a death's stare at Sulu. "What did I say about asking him questions?"

Sulu and the others were dumbfounded. Jim would never have talked about something so personal or let his mouth run like that.

"It's the truth serum," McCoy said as a way of an explanation. "Despite all the shit that he's gone through, the one thing he never experimented with was drugs, so it tends to affect him a bit more than what we'd expect. That's why he said thirty minutes – after that, he has no control over what he says."

"But if he's never done drugs before, then how did he know that he could hold out for thirty minutes?" asked Uhura.

"You can blame Komack for that. Jim didn't tell me about this until it was far too late, but apparently, back in his Academy days, he was used as a guinea pig and was forced to undergo 'experiments' to see how much his body could take. Thirty minutes was his limit."

Jim squirmed under McCoy's hand. He was clearly uncomfortable, but McCoy was firm with him. "I'll only let you go if you promise to not talk anymore."

Jim nodded.

"If you talk again, I reserve the right to muffle you again."

Jim rolled his eyes.

"You'll thank me in the morning," McCoy said as a reply, and let Jim go.

Jim was obedient for once and kept quiet, but there was something unsettling Spock about the whole situation. He leaned in a bit more, observing silently for a few minutes. He noted the paleness of Jim's face and how there was a sheen of cold sweat upon his brow. His hands were shaking subtly and lines of pain made Jim look slightly more manic.

Gently, Spock touched McCoy's shoulder and leaned in, saying quietly, "Doctor, I believe there is something wrong with Jim."

"Yeah, no shit. He's high as a fucking kite right now."

"No, aside from the effects due to the Pentothal, there is something wrong with Jim."

And then Jim's nose started bleeding. It was just an innocuous trickle, but immediately, Spock knew what was going on.

He moved so quickly towards Jim that it shocked everyone. There was panic in his movements as he reached out to grab Jim's bare wrist.

"Jim, you must release your mental walls. Your mind is under too much strain. You must let go."

Jim shook his head vigorously. "No!"

"You must. I warned you: you cannot hold your walls for such an extended period. It will incapacitate you, Jim. Let go."

"None of you will like it," Jim said pointedly. "I'm barely hanging on to my sanity here. With the serum in my system, if I let go, you all will get hit even more so than before. I've made Scotty throw up just by being around him. What do you think will happen to you all once all my defenses are gone? No. I refuse."

"If you do not let your walls down this minute, you may suffer from neuronal damage. Let go!" Spock insisted, the urgency in tone making his words sharper and less collected.

Realizing the direness of the situation, everyone else joined in.

"The rest of us will be fine," Sulu assured. "What did we say about you worrying so much about us?"

"For once in your life, think about yourself, you idiot!" scolded Uhura. "I can't believe you let it come this far. Let go, Kirk."

"We'll all still be right here by your side, Keptin," Chekov said.

Scotty nodded. "You can't chase us away, laddie."

"It'll be too much for you all." Jim's next words were quiet and soft, but he was about to give in. They could hear it. Just one more strike, and McCoy knew exactly what to say.

"There's nothing about you that will be too much, Jim. Let go."

Slowly, Jim nodded once and closed his eyes. It stung, burning as he touched his mental walls, but brick by brick, molecule by molecule, he brought them down. The sense of relief was unfathomable, as if he had stepped out from under a hundred-degree sun and dived headfirst into ice-cold water. Yet, even as he felt his mind relaxing incrementally, the pain remained. It felt like a thousand needles were plunged themselves into his brain, stabbing over and over again.

His thoughts immediately escaped him – there were no bars against his active mind. It was far worse than before. Things swirled around like a whirlpool: Spencer and Joyce were at the forefront, some memories playing like a movie, but unlike before where there were clear tracks in his thought process, there was no obvious beginning or end to anything. Gaila, Frank, Kodos, Komack, memories of his friends and laughing with Bones, schematics for the Enterprise and the Farragut…the list went on and on. Nothing together made any coherent sense; anything that had some separation and distinction didn't last very long and in the next millisecond, was replaced by another memory or thought. The pattern went in an infinite circle.

Jim became the one absolute in everyone's world, and they were completely lost, plunging down the swirling abyss that was Jim's mind.

Both Sulu and Scotty turned a sickly green and swung around almost immediately. They doubled over, throwing up on the ground. Chekov made a move to help them, but he was so dizzy that he found himself falling over. Beside him, Uhura had paled and her eyes began watering at the sudden onset of a migraine.

Spock had a hand on McCoy's wrist, barely shielding both of them from Jim's dynamic mind. He reached out with his free hand, his fingers inches away from those bundle of nerves on Jim's neck.

His eyes met Jim's, searching. Asking. Pleading.

Jim just smiled serenely at Spock. "Thank you."

Spock pinched. Jim tumbled to a side, collapsing into McCoy's outreached arms.

And then there was nothing but silence.

It was smart on Spock's end to have shielded McCoy as well. Even with Jim unconscious, the rest of them were still pretty much incapable of moving, let alone helping. McCoy, thankfully, was completely fine to check Jim's pupils and his vital signs.

"How is he, Doctor?" asked Spock.

"Physically, he's fine, but I'll need to do a neural exam on him. Did you know that it was going to get this bad?" McCoy returned. There was no heat in his words blaming Spock for what happened, for once, just pure curiosity at trying to figure out what had happened.

"I did not. I had cautioned Jim in overusing the technique that I taught him, but by my calculations, his condition should not have deteriorated so quickly. Perhaps it was the combination of the Pentothal and his mental shields that exacerbated the strain exponentially."

"Regardless, let's get him back onboard. Hopefully, by the time he wakes up, this whole thing will be over."

"I agree." Spock looked closely at Jim's face, remembering every ounce of pain, fear, and uncertainty in that one touch, just seconds before silence fell. For Jim's sake, he truly hoped that everything would be over when he awoke. In every way.

If only to spare Jim any more sorrow.

Jim was dreaming. He knew he was, because that was the only time that he ever saw Joyce or Gaila nowadays. Joyce was laughing and dancing under the sunlight, her brown hair floating gracefully around her as she swirled. Gaila took her hands, giggling, and swirled around with her. Both their smiles lit up the world, making the flower field beneath their feet explode into a thousand beautiful colors.

Even though he knew it was a dream, Jim couldn't help himself, stepping forward towards the two. In his mind, he knew he should leave them alone and watch from a distance. Here, in the crevices of his memories, they remained untouched – pure and innocent. Alive and happy. Anything he touched rotted, turning to dust beneath his fingers. The beautiful poppies at his feet wilted with that single step.

He stopped, keeping the darkness around him and away from the two girls that he had once loved – one as a sister and the other as someone more.

He closed his eyes. He should wake up now. He should leave them before this world that they were in became tainted with his cursed fate.

"Jimmy, open your eyes," said Gaila's voice, so softly and gently. It had been so long since Jim had last heard her voice, had seen her smile. Tears came unbidden to his closed eyes. He refused to open them, knowing full well that seeing her would tear his fragile heart to pieces.

"The last time I heard you speak, you were saying that you thought you loved me," Jim replied, his own words sad and heavy.

"I also made you hide under my bed because Nyota came home," laughed Gaila. "Open your eyes, Jimmy. This is just a dream, remember? You can't taint us here."

Jim smiled. "You always did know what I was thinking, didn't you, Gaila?"

"Open your eyes, Jimmy. Look at me. Please."

He never could say no to Gaila when she asked something of him. Slowly and hesitantly, he opened his eyes to see that gorgeous green skin and bright orange hair. How he had missed her...It had been so long since he let himself think about her. It had hurt too much.

He reached forward, his fingers gently touching her hair. He still couldn't make eye contact with her, but he stepped closer. "I've missed you, Gaila. And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry I couldn't save you. Any of you."

"You can't save everyone, Jimmy."

"But I should've saved you." Jim looked at Joyce too now, his blue eyes glimmering with unshed tears. "I should have saved both of you."

"You saved the world. You're a hero."

Jim shook his head. "I'm not a hero. I'm just some reckless idiot who has authority issues. I couldn't even save the people that I cared about." His hand shifted to touch Gaila's cheek. She leaned into his warmth, her eyes never leaving his. "I'm happy to see you again, Gaila, even if this is just a dream."

"And I'm happy to see you again, Jimmy. But you have a family now, don't you? People that truly care about you, despite your past. Like I did."

"Isn't it about time that you went back and protected them? As you did for me?" Joyce said soothingly.

"I didn't protect you, Joyce. I ran from you. I don't even know if you're alive," Jim replied, sounding completely wrecked. "Will you forgive me?"

Surprisingly, Joyce giggled. "For a genius, you're silly. We're figments of your imagination. We can't forgive you if you can't forgive yourself. Whatever happened to Gaila and myself, it wasn't your fault. So do me a favor, Jim. Forgive yourself. You aren't to blame."

Gaila tapped Jim on his cheek to get his attention. His blue eyes slowly shifted over to her beautiful face. "Hey, it may be too late for me, but it might not be for her. You need to seek her out, find out what happened to her, or you'll never get closure."

And Jim knew that to be true. He had only barely come to terms with Gaila's passing by going obsessively over the different possible scenarios that he could have done to save her, but had heartbreakingly came up with nothing. The timelines of where he was and where the USS Farragut was would never have coincided. Jim literally could have done nothing, save for being with Gaila and dying with her. But with his suspension, he never would have made it onto the Farragut anyway. He had only managed to get onto the Enterprise because Bones couldn't or wouldn't want to leave him behind. Either or – and it had taken a long time for Jim to come to this conclusion – he had come to terms that there was nothing that he could've done.

It still didn't stop Jim from feeling guilty. Survivor's guilt was something Jim was intimately familiar with – it was still something Jim struggled with every day, barely keeping his head above the water.

Jim's tears began to fall in a steady stream and his body shook. Gaila just smiled softly and cupped Jim's cheeks, gently wiping away some of his tears. "It's okay to survive, Jimmy," Gaila said. "Just remember to live too. Now go. Your family is waiting for you."

Before him, Joyce and Gaila were slowly fading away. Jim felt himself pulling away from the dream – something in his reality was calling for him. He had a feeling that it was Bones, but he didn't want to leave quite yet.

"Gaila, I never got the chance to say this before and I don't think I will be able to again, but I did love you. I still do. And I'm sorry that I didn't realize it until it was too late. I've always regretted that."

"Oh, you silly, little man. Of course I knew you loved me," smiled Gaila, brightness in every single crevice of her beautiful face. "You may have been emotionally backwards, but I'm a master at reading between the lines, remember? Just as you are. I loved you too, Jimmy."

They were all disappearing too fast. He could feel his heart breaking again.

"Goodbye, Jimmy. We'll see each other again." Gaila waved cheerily, as did Joyce.

"Look me up, Jim!" exclaimed Joyce, "Don't forget! Bye!"

Everything faded into the darkness, with the word "bye" dying on Jim's lips.

There was someone calling his name. Over and over again like an alarm clock until it got fairly irritating. It was a familiar voice, and while it was annoying, it still made Jim feel warm from fondness. He was still drifting on a black sea though. He wasn't quite back yet.

"Come on, Jim, I know you're awake. Open those pretty blues for me, won't ya? Come on, Jimmy."

There were only two people in this world that had ever called Jim by that variation of his name – one was his brother by bond, the other was gone, lost to the blackness of the stars. That memory made him snap awake, shaken by the remnants of his dream.

His consciousness came back to him in a flurry of movement; his mind in complete disarray. His head hurt so much and he was having an extremely difficult time controlling his rampant thoughts. His subconscious became aware of a voice near him, coaxing him, calming him.

"Jimmy, calm down. You're safe. You're back on the Enterprise. You're safe. Breathe – take deep breaths. Come on. Breathe with me."

Jim's entire world narrowed to focus on that familiar voice. Slowly, he got his breathing under control – when he did he start to hyperventilate? He became aware that he was sitting up and hugging something. By the feel of it, it was someone's arm.

He huffed out with amusement as he opened his eyes, seeing himself practically in an embrace with Bones. "I thought you said you weren't a teddy bear, Bones. And here I am, hugging the crap out of your arm again."

Bones gave a quick chuckle by his ear. "It's not my fault that you came roaring outta nowhere and grabbed my arm," he replied, but like always, he made no effort to move and instead, let Jim hang onto him for as long as he needed.

"What…" Jim swallowed against the blinding pain reverberating in his skull. "What happened?"

Despite the vagueness of his question, Bones knew that Jim wasn't asking about himself. Bones sighed and patted Jim on the back lightly before replying. "Spock, Sulu, and the security team quickly put down Spencer and his men and everything is back to normal on Elba II. We're still docked in Elba's system, though. Komack got in contact with us and wanted us to stay a few more days to make sure everything is fine until he gets replacements for the soldiers lost."

Jim closed his eyes, leaning his forehead into Bones' shoulder, but let go of his arm. By the soft sounds of whooshing sounds and beeping noises, Jim knew he was in the SickBay. Goddamn it. He was getting real tired of being here. "And Spencer?"

"After Scotty kicked the shit out of him, he literally threw him to Pike to handle. He's currently under heavy watch in the Brig."

"Scotty kicked the shit out of him?" Jim chuckled. "I find that a bit hard to believe."

"Oh, well, he took great offense to Spencer being a general, all-around prick. I've never seen him so aggressive before."

"That's not what I find hard to believe – it's that you guys didn't stop him. He could've gotten into serious trouble for that."

"Which reiterates me saying that you're an idiot. You were high off your ass when we finally found you and all that mind voodoo you were doing pretty much made you lapse into a temporary coma, so yeah, we weren't going to stop Scotty. Hell, we wanted to join in, but Spock and I had our hands full with you, Sulu was helping out with the prisoners, and Uhura and Chekov were busy letting Starfleet know what happened, so we just let Scotty be."

"Wait…" Something in his slow brain clicked. "Temporary coma? How long have I been out?"

"About three days. The hobgoblin thinks that you overtaxed your mind by shielding against Spencer and us and your human mind couldn't handle it. Seriously, you had almost no brain waves for the last two days. I almost had Spock do his magic trance thing when you started to pull out of it yourself."

Jim snapped back, sitting straight up, ignoring how the sudden movement made him extremely lightheaded. "Three days?! What the hell?"

"Those are my words. What were you dreaming about anyway?" Bones returned, pulling back to sit against his chair. He crossed his arms and kicked his feet up onto Jim's bed, his boots centimeters away from Jim's legs.

Jim frowned, confused at the abrupt change in topic. "What do you mean?"

Bones tapped underneath his own eye, prompting Jim to touch his cheek. He felt a wetness underneath his fingertips.

He had cried in his sleep. If he was before anyone other than Bones, he would have flushed with embarrassment, but as it was, he just felt incredible sadness when he remembered what he had dreamt about. Still, he quickly wiped away all traces of his tears. He couldn't do anything about the redness of his eyes though, so he settled for looking down at his hands to hide.

"Was it Gaila?" asked Bones.

Jim glanced up in surprise, the question evident on his face.

Bones met his gaze evenly and knowingly. "It wasn't that hard of a leap after we saw your memory of her on Elba. Why didn't you ever tell me about her?"

"I thought it would hurt too much," Jim said, looking down. And he left it at that, knowing full well that Bones wouldn't pry further.

"Was it a good dream in the end?"

Jim cocked his head, thinking. Gaila's smile was still bright in his mind and he had finally told her the one thing he should have told her years ago, but he could still feel the sadness and guilt weighing down on his broken soul. "Yeah, of sorts."

Another thought occurred to him. Why did Bones feel a need to ask about his dream? A dot connected. "You can't read my mind anymore, can you?"

"Nope. We haven't been able to since Spock knocked you out. We think that whatever the ion storm did just wore off."

"Oh, thank fucking God," Jim breathed. "Took long enough."

The relief was almost nauseating. He felt himself relax completely, no longer needing to shield his mind any longer. Not that he could anyway – it still hurt too much. Damn. He hadn't thought that he would be so affected.

"Yeah. Thank fucking God. For us mere mortals, your mind was a bit much to handle." Despite the callousness of Bones' words, Jim knew that Bones was more relieved that he was no longer invading the sanctity of Jim's mind without control.

"Where is everyone?"

"Still smoothing things out. They're scheduled to be back onboard in a few minutes. By the way, Pike wanted to pass on the message that you have to clean out his garage."

"What? Why?"

"Because he's taking over this whole mission. Literally ripped it from under our feet like a rug. Komack was not pleased."

"Who told him about Spencer?" sighed Jim.

"Surprisingly, it was Spock."

"Why is that surprising? Spock's almost as overprotective as you, you mother hen."

"Yes, but he didn't do it out of his desire to protect you. He did it out of spite. Have you ever seen the Vulcan do anything like that? He was actually showing some signs of anger."

Jim shifted, leaning back against his pillows. He was still sitting up though – his hatred of lying down in the SickBay was just too strong. His head throbbed viciously, so he closed his eyes again, if only to center himself. "As in he was locked in his 'eyebrow of death' expression? That's nothing new. I call that a good morning."

"I'm just glad that we kept him away from Spencer. He would have pummeled the guy to the ground."

A particular vicious throb struck Jim's head. It was so sudden that Jim couldn't even try to hide his wince. Instantly, Bones' warm hands were on either side of his temples, massaging gently.

"Spock said that your head's going to hurt for a while as it repairs itself in the next couple of days," Bones said quietly. "You really overtaxed your mental capabilities, Jim."

Bones' fingers felt like magic, melting the tension that had been trapped in Jim's shoulders, his voice, despite what he was saying, was soothing. "You're only human, you know. As adept as you are at using those Vulcan techniques, you idiot genius, you should have known what was going to happen."

"To be honest, I didn't realize it until the headaches started hitting. And by then, it was too late. It was either hold my ground or tell Spencer how to get past Starfleet's defenses. Couldn't exactly let that happen."

"If you ask me, I'd say screw Starfleet. Let Spencer get what he wanted. We were right behind you anyway. He would never had gotten anywhere with that information."

Jim quirked a small smile. "You're lucky I'm off duty or you'd be court-martialed for that."

"You were in a coma, Jim. Besides, you really think that I'd care about that? Not that you would do that anyway."

"Yeah…probably not. I'd miss your grouchiness," Jim replied, completely brushing over the first part of Bones' sentence. If he didn't dwell on it, the fact that it was another close call couldn't bother him. He had a feeling that that wasn't going to last very long though. Just based on Bones' tone, Bones had been really shaken up about the fact that he had been in coma. Jim would have been too, if not for the fact that he had had closer calls.

Bones just huffed, though his fingers did not stop their magic on Jim's head. No more words were spoken, but the silence was far more telling.

Slowly, Jim opened his bright, blue eyes and stared at Bones' face, taking in the details. His best friend was pale and scruffy; there were dark circles under his eyes. He definitely tried to make an effort to act normal, but there was a haunted look covering his features.

Bones wasn't looking at him though, oblivious to Jim's reading gaze.

"Hey," Jim said softly, getting Bones to look at him. He reached up and clasped one Bones' wrists, using their warmth to ground each other. "I'm alright. I'm here and I'm fine, minus the killer headache. But I'm okay, Bones. Promise. I've had worse, haven't I?"

Bones closed his eyes, sighing. "I know, I know. I'm sorry. It's just been a tough couple of days."

"Am I interrupting?" came a voice out of nowhere.

McCoy flinched, his body shifting to turn and look at the speaker, but his hands remained on Jim's face. He couldn't bear to let go quite yet.

They both turned to look at who had come into the SickBay. Standing by the door was Spock, perfectly kempt with his arms clasped behind his back at a parade rest.

"Jesus, hobgoblin, you scared me," breathed McCoy.

Jim just grinned cheerily at Spock, dropping his own hand as McCoy slowly, and a tad reluctantly, let his fall to rest a mere centimeter besides Jim's knee. "Hey, Spock. How's it going?"

Spock stepped in, clearly gauging Jim's health with his attentive eyes. "Everything is within acceptable parameters, Captain. I overheard that you are still experiencing a headache?"

Jim nodded, grimacing as the movement sent a bright, red flash of pain shooting through his mind.

"Considering what your mind has undergone, that headache is a mild consequence, and it shall persist for another 2.8 days."

"Well, that sucks. I guess I can live with that, considering the alternative." Jim still sat up straighter. "Alright, report, Spock. Tell me what happened after I passed out."

"The Security team as well as Lieutenant Commander Scott had already subdued all the revolting prisoners by the time we escaped and joined you. After you were rendered unconscious, there was not much left for us to do. All prisoners were returned to their cells, with exception of Mr. Spencer Jones, who is being held in our Brig as the sole proprietor of raising a rebellion."

Jim looked up at Spock in surprise at that, but didn't comment on the fact that he and Spencer were currently on the same ship. After all that had happened, he just wanted to put everything behind him and run as far away as possible. He also didn't want to think about what would happen if Spencer got loose. The man was brilliant, after all, and Jim really loved this ship and her crew.

Spock seemed to know what he was thinking. "Be assured that Mr. Jones is under very tight guard and his confinement was modified by Ensign Chekov, Lieutenant Commander Scott, as well as myself. He has no chance of escape." He paused slightly for the change of topic. "Admiral Pike has also been contacted and he has taken over this mission."

"Yeah, Bones mentioned that. Why though? I thought Komack was heading this whole thing."

"Due to the fact that Admiral Komack did not supply the Enterprise with sufficient information regarding the possible uprising in Elba II, Admiral Pike has stepped in to ensure the safety of our crew, the prisoners and guards of Elba II, and to maintain good public relations on Earth."

Well, that made sense. The fact that Starfleet had allowed a prisoner – and an insane one at that – overthrow an entire prison was extremely disgraceful and would go down in infamy if it wasn't properly taken care of. Komack wasn't exactly great at smoothing things over, but Pike? Pike had years of experience, especially because he spent most of his time nowadays covering Jim's ass. It was no wonder that Pike was so easily able to step in and push Komack aside.

Jim's shoulders relaxed incrementally. Pike and Spock were more than capable of handling this. At this moment, he didn't need to be the Captain. He could just be Jim and recover, both mentally and physically from the scars of the past.

"Good deal. Well, then, if you don't mind, I'm going to head back to my room and sleep for the next day or so. My head is absolutely killing me. I'll leave the rest to you, Spock?"

Spock nodded. "Of course, Captain." He paused though, hesitant, and Jim noticed.

"Everything okay, Spock?"

"I merely want to apologize for putting you in such danger. I am truly regretful that you have suffered due to my tutelage."

"Did I get hit on the head or something again?"

It was obvious that Spock was confused at Jim's words, despite it not showing on his expressions. "Not to my knowledge. Why do you ask?"

"Because I'm pretty sure that was Spencer and his goons that beat me and stabbed me with truth serum. So I don't know why you're apologizing."

"I am the one who taught you that technique that sent you into a coma. I hold some blame for what happened to you."

"Yes, but without you, I would've told Spencer everything, so I guess we've got that going for us." Jim stood up, using Bones as a crutch when his mind made his entire body cringe with pain. "Look, I'd love to argue some more with you on this, but like you said, this headache isn't going away for a while and I just want to lie down in my room. Let's just finish by saying that you have my thanks because of how things turned out. I don't think I would have made it very far without your help, Spock, so thank you."

"I will provisionally accept your words of thanks," Spock nodded stiffly.

Welp, that was probably the best that Jim was going to get. He was going to take it and run with it. "Awesome. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go plant my face in my pillow. See you later, Spock."

"Nyota, Ensign Chekov, Lieutenant Sulu, and Lieutenant Commander Scott have expressed interest in visiting you. Will you be amicable to such an event at a later time?"

"They've been worried about you," McCoy said, filling in the spaces between Spock's cordial speech. "They still are."

Jim didn't know quite how to feel about that. He was definitely touched, but definitely quite a bit confused. He was fine, wasn't he? Besides, some deep, dark part of him felt a little reluctant, which was probably why his next words came out so aloof and nonchalantly. "Yeah, sure. No problem. See you all later then."

He strode out, completely missing the shared look between Spock and McCoy. If he had, he might have been a little bit concerned, because clearly, the two were working together for now. Which was both good and bad for Jim.

The look didn't last very long, mostly because McCoy had to rush after Jim. McCoy easily fell in step with Jim, but didn't speak. Jim had an odd expression on his face – he was clearly trying to work through something. It was to be expected though, after all that had happened. Bones would've been far more concerned if Jim acted like nothing happened. This silence meant that Jim was at least trying to deal with how this whole situation ended.

Jim easily keyed in his code and stepped into the darkness of his room, immediately making a beeline to his bed. With a relieved sigh, Jim plopped down on his covers, smooshing his face in his pillow. His head ached viciously still, but the comfort of his own quarters was alleviating, soothing out the edges of the flashing, red pain.

There was a rustling sound behind him and suddenly, he felt Bones fall onto the bed beside him. He shifted his head to see Bones lying next to him, also on his stomach, and looking at him.

"You infant, you could've at least taken off your boots," Bones grouched.

Jim just chuckled. He closed his eyes, feeling more of the tension in his shoulders bleed out. He could feel Bones watching him, but oddly, it didn't bother him quite that much. At this point, he was still feeling dissociated from all the events that had happened, but now that he was winding down, it was going to hit him and hit him hard. And if anyone was going to help him through it, it would be Bones – the one person who has stuck by him for so many years.

"How are you doing, Jim? Really?" Bones asked softly.

It took Jim a moment to answer. "I don't know. I honestly do not know."

"I'm worried about you, Jimmy."

Jim sighed. "I know you are. But ask me again tomorrow. For now, I just want to sleep off this headache." He moved his hand so that it rested between Bones and himself. The gesture was surrendering. Bones understood it for what it was and grasped Jim's wrist in one hand, keeping his index and middle fingers on Jim's radial artery.

Bones had seen his best friend – his brother – lapse into a coma and he couldn't do a thing about it. It brought back nightmares of seeing Jim lying so very still with blood covering his face – of Jim leaving him all alone.

The two of them were more than aware that that was a huge possibility in their line of work, and Jim knew how each close call just shaved a bit more away from Bones. There was nothing Jim could do about that, but he could certainly offer comfort in the aftermath. It was why Bones often spent his nights in Jim's quarters, sharing the same bed, just sleeping. Jim and Bone were both well aware of the rumors that spread through the ship regarding their relationship, but neither cared enough to correct or agree to them.

For them, their friendship wasn't something so easily explained, but when Jim thought about it a bit more, he chuckled quietly, despite how wreaked the two of them were at the moment.

"What?" Bones muttered back, annoyance and confusion in that one word.

"This co-dependency of ours. It's getting kind of out of hand," Jim replied.

Bones just snorted and closed his eyes, snuggling into the pillow more comfortably. "Yeah? You got a problem with it?"

Jim just watched Bones' relaxed expression for a couple of seconds before closing his eyes as well. "Not at all, Bones. Not at all."

"Go to sleep, infant. Tomorrow will be a better day."

Jim could only hope so.

Sleep didn't come easily for Jim and it was riddled with nightmares. After a couple of hours, Jim completely gave up and lay still in bed, just thinking. Beside him, Bones snored loudly, his hand still on Jim's wrist.

Fondness filled Jim as he watched his friend sleep. Out of all his relationships, his with Bones was the only one that managed to stick for this long. It seemed almost as if Jim had a curse – that everyone he had ever been close to would stab him in the back or leave him behind. Spencer was no different.

At least he still had Bones, and he guessed that was all he needed. But at the same time, Jim knew that he needed closure with Spencer. To close that chapter of his life. To get all the pain and hurt off his chest and finally cut all ties with the man, or it would forever be stuck in the back for his mind, like a thorn in his side that he would never be able to heal from.

Quietly, Jim slipped his hand away from Bones. As much as he would've appreciated Bones coming with him as support, there were some things that just had to be done on his own. And Bones looked like he needed the sleep more than Jim needed him.

Like a cat, he silently slinked out of his room and through the hallways. His journey took longer than he expected, mostly because his head still throbbed with each step, but he was also not in the mood to talk to anyone, even if they were his crew, so he used his various skills to avoid contact and took the long way around.

By the time he got to the Brig, he had worked himself up with all the scars and pain that Spencer had left on him. He wasn't a good person – he had never claimed that in his entire life – but even still, he didn't deserve all the crap that Spencer put him through. Spencer had made him doubt himself and the very basis of his being. It had made him feel awful and like a lousy excuse of a human being, even though Jim had only ever tried to be a good friend.

Anger thrummed in his veins as he stepped up to the two guards to the Brig. "I need to speak with the prisoner," Jim commanded, his tone booking no argument.

"Sir, we were told by Commander Spock to let no one in," said one of them, looking extremely hesitant at refusing Jim entrance to the Brig.

"Ensign Lowell, this is the second time that you've refused me entrance to a prisoner."

"In my defense, sir, the last time was because Dr. McCoy physically assaulted the prisoner," Lowell replied hesitantly, "And considering your history with the prisoner, Commander Spock was concerned for your wellbeing and explicitly stated that you were not permitted entrance."

Jim just took a step forward. He was not interested in having to explain himself. "Tell me, Ensign Lowell, is Commander Spock's authority higher than mine?"

"N-no. Of course not, sir."

"Then, I don't see why I cannot see the prisoner."


"Let me in, Lowell. That's an order."

Lowell was so shocked that he stepped aside almost immediately. Jim would only give an order if he absolutely had to, which meant that Jim was serious. And Lowell truly wasn't equipped enough to stop Jim from doing what he wanted.

"Tell no one I'm here, Lowell. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, Captain."

Jim patted Lowell on the shoulder. "Good man. Thank you." And he stepped into the Brig to see Spencer sitting behind the glass prison cell.

At the sight of Jim approaching, Spencer stood up with anger lacing his features.

Jim closed the door behind him, locking it with his Captain's code, and looked up at the ceiling. "Computer, turn off all monitoring. Captain's authority code JT895."

"Confirmed," the feminine voice responded.

"Are you planning on ending my life without any witnesses, James?" sneered Spencer. "Do your worst."

"I'm not planning on killing you, Spencer. That would be a waste of my time," replied Jim, stepping forward to stop a few feet away from Spencer.

"What do you want from me then, James? Did you want to gloat? Say that you won?" Spencer pounded a fist on the glass. "You've taken everything from me, James. You've won over and over again. Are you happy for ruining my life? Are you satisfied that you've destroyed everything that I have ever worked for?! Why were you born to be special and I wasn't?" cried Spencer.

Quietly, Jim watched Spencer fall apart before his eyes. Any man would have pitied Spencer. Pitied how he suffered and lost everything that had ever mattered to him. But Jim did not. How could he, when Jim has had his life torn from him more times than he could count? No. Jim didn't pity Spencer. Not in the slightest.

It didn't mean that he didn't understand.

All the anger he had carried with him faded away, leaving only tired resignation.

Slowly, Jim lowered himself to the floor, hiding the wince from the sudden stabbing in his head, sitting cross-legged in front of Spencer. "I've never told you about my past, have I, Spence?"

Jim leaned back, looking at the ceiling, imaging the vast, starry sky just beyond it. "I was born unwanted and unloved - a horrible, horrible memory for my mother. She fled from me the moment she could, leaving me with a man who liked to beat me and berate me. My older brother, the one solace I had, left me behind too. By the time I was twelve years old, I was completely on my own, but I managed to escape from that world and found myself living somewhere where I thought I could be happy and live like the child I was supposed to be."

A tiny bit of sadness entered his voice now. "But the place I ran to ended up being a whole new hell that I couldn't even fathom. At thirteen, I survived a genocide, thanks to one Kodos the Executioner. I had lost everything that I have ever cared about over and over again. At that point, I was barely human, wandering around Earth to feel even the slightest bit of emotion."

Spencer was stunned into a brief moment of silence. "So how did you do it? What makes you so different than me?"

Jim tilted his head thoughtfully. "We're not so different, you and I. Like you, for as long as I can remember, I have struggled to survive. But it wasn't until I came to Starfleet that I realized that there was a difference between surviving and living. That's our difference. It wasn't that I was born special or was luckier than you. It was that I just learned that it was time for me to know that living wasn't wrong."

"You learned to live. You expect me to believe that that was what made you come on top?! Don't lie to me, James. There's no reason to lie to a man who has nothing to lose."

"I'm not lying. If you live to survive, every day is a struggle, but if you start living, your past becomes...well, your past. Once I found my home and let myself be cared about, I found myself moving forward. And that was what led me here. I stopped looking back and started thinking that, maybe, just maybe, I had a future."

There was an odd, slightly broken expression on Jim's face now. "You know, I came here to give you a piece of my mind. To yell at you for screwing me up so much more than I thought was possible. I thought that you were my friend – someone that I really cared about. I did everything to be a good friend to you. I always put myself second for you. Somewhere down the line, I forgot how to care for myself, and by the time I realized that our friendship was one-sided, I had let you get away with so much that I literally didn't know how to fix us. We were broken before either of us realized. Even before Joyce, and thank God for her. She gave me the means to escape. She was my fresh start – my clean break from you before you broke me more, and I took full advantage of that."

"For years, I blamed you for messing me up more. I blamed you for playing with my emotions that I barely even had a handle on. But after all this, I realized that I can't really do it because, towards the end, we had changed. In the end, we were both just different people. Maybe I just didn't understand you enough. Maybe you didn't understand me enough. I don't know. But you know what? It doesn't even matter whose fault this was. I have been so hung up on the scars that you left that I forgot to focus on what does matter. I forgot to care about myself – that I am not as worthless and useless as I was back then. I am stronger now. This is me, moving forward, not because of you, but for myself."

"You were my friend, Spencer. A good friend, and I'll never forget that. But you and I aren't those people anymore. We haven't been for a long time now. I'm not letting the past chain me down anymore. So this is me saying thanks and goodbye. I'm letting it all go. I'm letting you go."

Jim offered Spencer a kind, gentle smile. "Take this chance to start over, Spence. Leave the past where it is and move on. Who knows what lies down the road for you? The beauty is that it can be anything for you, so as long as you keep walking forward. That's my last piece of advice to you, Spence. I hope you take it. For old time's sake."

Jim stood, dusting off his pants absentmindedly, and started to walk away, but Spencer wasn't quite done yet.

"Then let me offer you a piece of advice in return," he said.

Jim paused, keeping his back facing Spencer.

"That kindness of yours will be your downfall, James. Anyone can see that all it takes to bring you down is to touch that fragile, dysfunctional family of yours. If I can still gain some sympathy from you, then how deeply are they ingrained in heart? It'll be easy to shatter you again."

"That's true. It's no secret that I'm very protective of my crew. Hell, I'll admit it. I care about them to the point that I would give myself for them, just as they would for me. But that's not a weakness, Spence. It's a strength. It took me a long time to figure that out, and once you do, perhaps your life can turn around." Jim turned and gave Spencer a cheery wave. "And it's Jim now. I've laid 'James' to rest years ago. Bye, Spencer. Thanks for the memories."

He walked out, the weight on his shoulders completely freed.

And he never looked back.

Jim walked slowly through the halls, sort of in a daze. He would be a fool to say that his 'talk' with Spencer hadn't rattled him. His emotions were running amok – so much to the point that he literally didn't know how to handle it. But there was a sense of peace now that he had said his piece. With time, he knew that he would come to believe all that he had said and fully let all the hurt and pain that his damaged bond with Spencer go.

Prior to this, he had tried to cling to it, unable to go through another broken relationship, but Jim couldn't hold on to a rope with its ends fraying. At least not without consequences. He didn't truly realize the depth of the cuts that Spencer had left until now. That was how emotionally inept he was – always burying everything until one day, in the distant future, it reared its ugly head and turned Jim's world upside down while he figured out how to deal with it.

He had just gotten over the first time he met with Spencer, suppressing and shoving everything into a dark crevice of his heart when this whole thing with the ion storm forced Jim to face his emotions. It was one of the worst things that he had experienced, and that was saying something, considering that he had gone through Tarsus. But oddly enough, Jim was grateful. The situation gave Jim the opportunity to sever that fraying rope, cutting it cleanly so that there was nothing left to grasp at.

It was a new start. Jim had given both Spencer and himself that chance. Even if Spencer didn't take it, Jim would.

There was no doubt that it would take time before Jim fully recovered emotionally from this, but he would. And that was solace in itself.

A low murmur of familiar voices reached his ears, and he glanced up to see Uhura, Chekov, Scotty, and Sulu sitting against the wall by his door, whispering quietly amongst themselves. Spock, ever so regal, was standing by the entrance, posing almost like a guard.

"What are you guys doing here?" Jim asked, confusion completely unmasked on his face.

His friends all jumped at his apparently sudden appearance.

"Where were you?" returned Sulu. "We thought you were still in your room, so we were waiting until McCoy gave us the okay to visit you."

Surprise was still clouding Jim's mind. "How long have you all been sitting there?"

"Hmm, twenty minutes? Not too sure," replied Uhura.

"It was twenty-one minutes and thirty-eight seconds," Spock corrected. "They were quite adamant on waiting for you to awake, and I found no reason not to accompany them."

So they had thought that Jim was resting and didn't want to bother him if he was. But at the same time, they wanted so badly to visit Jim that they had decided to wait until he was awake and ready for company. For nearly twenty-two minutes.

Jim felt a smile creeping onto his face. This was why he knew he was going to be fine. "Sorry about that. I needed a walk to clear my head." He moved to key in the code to his room. "Come on in, guys. I think Bones might still be asleep – the man was exhausted, but he should be waking up soon. He's got this ridiculous radar that beeps whenever I escape when I'm supposed to be on bedrest."

Jim was hardly ever wrong. Before he even punched the last number in, his door swooshed open and he was nearly run over by a frantic Bones. If it wasn't for his fast reflexes to shift and balance the sudden onset of new weight, Jim and Bones would have ended up in a tangled pile on the ground. As it was, the result was Jim holding Bones up by his elbow with his other hand grasping the edge of the doorframe to keep both of them upright.

"Jesus, Bones. You okay?" breathed Jim.

Bones immediately righted himself. "Where did you go, Jim? I thought I told you to stay put and rest!"

"I've been sleeping for three days, Bones. I'm fine."

"Being in a coma is different than natural sleep, moron."

Jim rolled his eyes. "I'm aware. Stop worrying, Bones. I just went for a walk to clear my head."

Bones' eyes narrowed at Jim's words. "What do you mean by that?" Jim could nearly see the gears click in Bones' head. "You went to see Spencer, didn't you?"

Spock immediately stood straighter – a sign that he did not approve at all. "Mr. Jones should be under extra guard. You should have not been able to meet him."

"It's not like I let him out, Spock. Relax. And you really think that I can't get around on my own ship without being noticed? As if a couple extra guards would be able to stop me."

"What did you do to the guards?" Sulu asked, but his tone was curious.

"Nothing. I just walked up to them and demanded to see the prisoner. I am Captain of this ship, after all." Jim winked. "Anyway. Are you all really going to stand out in the hallway awkwardly?"

He didn't have to look to know that his friends filed into his room after him. He sat on the edge of his bed; Bones plopped down next to him, his fingers itching to find a tricorder and run it over Jim. Spock, ever the proper Commander, stood by the door, guarding them all in their moment of privacy and vulnerability. The rest settled down on the floor by Jim's feet.

"You feeling better, Kirk?" asked Sulu.

"Are you guys?" Jim returned. "I've just got a bit of a headache, but Spock says that it'll go away in a couple of days."

"It's kind of embarrassing, but Scotty and I got knocked out of commission for a couple hours while we were on Elba II. Giotto had to drag us back on board."

"Sorry about that…" Jim grimaced.

Sulu shook his head. "Don't be. I'd rather we be out of sorts than you getting neurologically damaged. Spock told us that it was a close call."

Jim shot a look at Bones with a frown. "Well, that's the first time I've heard of that."

Bones rolled his eyes. "I told you that you were in a coma, didn't I? Your mind literally shut off so that it could heal."

Now, Bones' clinginess made much more sense.


"Yeah, 'oh,' you infant."

Jim just patted Bones on the knee and looked back at his friends. "Anyway, I got the gist of what happened between Bones' and Spock's never-ending lectures…"

"I did not lecture you, Captain," Spock slid in, a slightly raised eyebrow indicating his miffed feelings. "I merely informed you of what occurred while you were incapacitated."

"Regardless," Jim continued, his cheekiness sparkling in his eyes. "Anything else I need to know? Any questions? Comments? Concerns?"

Uhura was first. "Your mind was…" She blurted out, "You really are a genius, aren't you?"

Jim laughed. "I never lied about that. Told you my mind was crazy."

"More like 'brilliant'."

"Is that a compliment, Uhura?" Jim winked.

She rolled her eyes. "I take that back. Seriously. I can't believe you thought that it was a good idea to let yourself get beaten up to buy us time. I know it worked for you and Chekov in Germany, but even so, what made you think that was a good idea? Remember what happened after Germany?"

"Speaking of tha'," Scotty piped up, "Ah didn't quite understand wha' ye were thinkin'. What if they hadn't gotten to ye in time? What if ah didn't?"

His face was pale, and suddenly, Jim remembered how close he had been to getting killed by Spencer. And that made Jim remember that look in Spencer's eyes: that gaze of pure hatred and anger. How did they go from best friends to that? Jim couldn't figure it out. It stung more than he had thought it would. And all those pretty words that he had said to Spencer? They felt empty now.

Damn it. He was naïve to think that a few words and a confession could clear his heart. He felt his instincts scramble to protect himself, but he still felt bare, as if his rib cage was ripped open, leaving his beating heart vulnerable to all attacks.

So he did the one thing he knew best: he distracted.

"Yeah, I never did say thanks for that, did I, Scotty? You have the best timing ever. Thanks. And the rest of you, awesome job. That rebellion would never have been put down if it wasn't for you guys."

"You vere the one to think of everything, Keptin. Ve vould not have been able to do so vithout you," said Chekov.

"You give me way too much credit. I'm pretty sure that I was useless during this mission."

"What did Mr. Jones want from you, Jim?" asked Spock.

"What every terrorist wants, essentially. He wanted to know about Joyce, of course, but his endgame was trying to get me to tell him what the codes were to Starfleet's defense system."

"Do you know it?"

"That, Mr. Spock, is something I cannot comment on," Jim said lightly. "You know, for once, I'm actually quite glad that Komack made me his lab rat. I wouldn't have been able to keep my mouth shut for so long if he didn't make me test out my limits with drugs."

"I'm glad that Komack got what he deserved then," Sulu commented.

That caught Jim's attention. "What do you mean?"

"Once Spock informed Pike on what happened, Pike apparently went to confront him. Komack was well aware that Spencer was on Elba II and he knew that he had a grudge against you. So he used it and sent us to Elba anyway."

"Makes sense. Komack hates me, but he fears me more. However this played out, it would have been a win-win situation for him. Either Spencer offs me or I off him. Fucking sadistic bastard."

"Yeah, that's exactly what Pike said. From what I hear through the rumor mills, Pike verbally tore Komack a new one and now Komack has been given a formal reprimand from the other Admirals. He's officially not allowed to interfere with anything regarding you."

"Did Pike handle that? Was that the exact wording from the Admirals?"

"I do not think that Pike was directly involved in the official reprimand," replied Spock. "As far as we are concerned, I do believe that that was what the Admirals ordered."

Jim sighed. "Damn it. Komack's going to find that loophole and take advantage of it sometime in the future, when everything's died down again."

"What loophole?" questioned Scotty.

"Komack isn't allowed to interfere with anything regarding me, right? Meaning he can't command any missions that are directly under me. But what if Spock was in charge? What if I'm not on the Enterprise? Komack will still have control because it doesn't 'regard me'. So he can bypass me still."

"Should I inform Admiral Pike?" Spock immediately said.

"No, it's alright. It'll be some time before Komack dares to rear his head again. I'm sure that the Admiralty is still scrambling to cover up the embarrassment of having an uprising in one of their prisons. I'll worry about Komack later. For now, let's just wait until Pike gains more ground and authority. He should get more backing once he deals with Spencer."

"Speaking of, didn't you go see him earlier? What did you talk to Spencer about?" asked Sulu.

Jim shrugged. "Things."

Uhura looked at him with concern in her eyes. "What are you planning on doing with him now?"

"Nothing. I'm going to leave him to Pike."

"You're not going to fight for him again?"

"No. I don't think he'll be able to move on otherwise."

"You're too kind, Keptin," Chekov smiled, meaning well, but it only made Jim recall Spencer's words. That his kindness was a weakness. Perhaps it was true. God, Jim seriously had enough of doubting himself, but it was like a domino effect – he just couldn't stop spiraling down.

Jim flinched so infinitesimally that only Bones noticed. All of a sudden, all the walls came crashing down and a fake smile was plastered onto Jim's face. After all these years, Bones thought he would be able to know what was going through his best friend's mind – know when his smiles were faked and when he was hurting. But the funny thing was, right now, if he hadn't been sitting next to Jim and felt him flinch, he wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between what was falsified and what was true.

It seemed, after all these years, there were still secrets and trauma that Jim had kept hidden. Despite having been able to read Jim's mind, Bones could remember that dark, shadowy whispers in the back of Jim's thoughts, never coming to the surface, but still there.

And Chekov's words had trodden on something that Jim did not want to be touched.

Somewhere between having to hide his thoughts from everyone and trying to run from Spencer and Joyce, Jim found a new way to mask his expressions – a new way to hide and protect his fragile, fragile heart. And this time, not even Bones was going to be able to read him.

To say that that worried Bones was a huge underestimation.

"Don't be ridiculous, Chekov," laughed Jim. Then he winced, his hand suddenly reaching for his head.

"Are you alright, Kirk?" asked Uhura.

Jim gave her an apologetic look. "Sorry. It looks like I've reached my limit for today."

"We'll let you get some rest then." She stood and kissed Jim at the side of his temple. "Feel better soon. The Bridge isn't the same without you."

Jim smiled at her warmly. "Aw, don't let Spock hear you say that."

"It is too late. Vulcan hear far more acutely than a human. However, Nyota is not wrong. I hope you recover quickly, Captain," Spock said.

The rest bade their goodbyes as well and left quietly, leaving behind Bones and Jim.

The moment they were gone, Jim sighed and ran his hand through his hair. He sagged where he sat, but he didn't lean against Bones like he would have normally done.

"Alright, tell me what's wrong, Jim," Bones said, his words strong and forceful. "And don't tell me to ask you tomorrow. I know you've worked something out and it's eating you up. So talk."

Jim just gave him a lazy smile. "I'm fine, Bones. Relax."

"Don't give me that, Jim. You should know by now that if you say that you're 'fine', you're absolutely not. So talk."

"Seriously, I'm fine, Bones. Just drop it."

Bones turned to face Jim, seriousness and sincerity in his eyes. "Jim," he said softly, "This is me. You don't have to hide anything from me."

His words echoed what he had said before, back when Jim was just starting to fall apart. When they were alone in Bones' office and just being Jim and Bones.

"What do you want me to say?" Jim almost whispered back. "I don't even know where to start. That's how fucking broken I am."

"It's fine if you are, Jim. Everyone's a little broken. They just need to have people they trust around to keep them together. So tell me this: why did you just push away Spock, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, and Scotty? I know how happy they make you. Damn it, they make me happy. So why did you just pretend that you were having a headache and get them to leave suddenly?"

"How do you know that I was faking? I do have a headache," Jim replied innocently.

"But it's not as sharp as you made it out to be. I'm a doctor, idiot. Of course I can see the difference. Now stop deflecting."

"You are not a man for mincing words, are you, Bones?"

"I'm the type of person who likes to rip off the bandaid in one go. Why did you purposely pull away from the others?"

Jim looked away. "It's something that Spencer said. He said that one day, my kindness would be my downfall. Total ridiculousness, of course. I'm not kind. I'm just selfish. But he's not wrong. I won't deny it: the fact that I care about my crew is a strength, but it's also a weakness. A vulnerability. And at this moment, it's more of a weakness than it is a strength."

Bones nodded understandably. "So you wanted to keep the others at arm's length. To keep both you and them safe. You've done this before – you did it this time around when you hid your plans from us. But there's something more, isn't there? You shut down whenever Spencer was brought up and practically shooed the others out when they started questioning about him."

"I didn't want them to see me vulnerable," Jim finally admitted, pain unveiled in his voice. "More importantly, I didn't want you to see how much Spencer hurt me, because if you could see it, then I could. And I didn't want to see that. I lived in blissful ignorance for a reason. I didn't want to see the bleeding wounds that I had patched so fragilely, because if I did, I knew that I'd hemorrhage out, and I didn't know how that would change me. I was fine. Suppressed and pretending that everything was still not quite that broken, sure, but that was fine by me. I didn't want to face this. I didn't want to realize how deep those scars were. I didn't want to feel. Because I knew that it would change me. Turn me back into a cynical, mistrusting person. I had finally gotten somewhere where I could trust. To be myself without all the baggage of my past. You'd think I'd learn my lesson after so many times. You'd think that these sort of things wouldn't faze me anymore. I was so wrong."

"Hey, we're not Spencer. We would never hurt you or break your trust."

Jim gave Bones a sad smile. "Spence said the same to me before too, Bones."

"Jim, you know us. We're nothing like Spencer. I'm nothing like Spencer."

"I know you aren't, Bones. But for once, my heart is louder than my head, and I can't help but listen to it. You all told me to face this and deal with Spencer, but it wasn't as simple as that. Spencer and I – this was just another relationship that shattered and went up in flames. Who's to say that what we have won't end up the same?"

"It won't! We're family, Jim. That'll never change."

"I wish I could believe you right now, Bones. I really do. I think I would've with I wasn't so fucking messed up and suppressed all those goddamn emotions so many years ago. I have to deal with all of this. Properly, this time. I can't handle anyone right now, and that's not on you. I just…I need to take a step back for a moment and get myself back together. Build up whatever Spencer broke, and maybe, I can learn to trust for real this time and not always have one foot out the door. I need to figure out how to care for myself again because it has been far too long since I have done that."

Bones fell silent, studying Jim for a second. He could see that Jim had truly been shaken to the core. They had both known that this was going to come sooner or later. It was a repercussion of having a defense mechanism that was solely built on running away and suppressing any issues on-hand. To pretend that everything was alright, if just for the sake of getting by each day. Sooner or later, those emotions were going to rear their ugly head and all those little things were going to come rising up like a violent tornado, leaving nothing but havoc and debris in its wake.

Jim had always been one to give it all in his friendships, if only because he had yearned the love of others. Not that admiration or adoration that people usually threw at him because of his pretty blue eyes and charisma. No, he wanted that feeling and sense of truly belonging somewhere. To have someone see beyond the brokenness and understand him. To like him for who he was without having to hide any of it anymore.

It was tiring to do that – to be so scared of being who you were that every moment of your life was a mask to please others. To have others like you because the alternative of people hating you was just so much more terrifying than losing yourself. It was one thing to be stabbed in the back by people who were mere acquaintances – strangers, even – but it was an entirely different matter if it came from the people who were supposed to be closest to you.

Jim had felt the pain of having his closest friends turn on him; he had felt the deep ache, like growth pains that never fully went away, of needing to be far stronger than he had to be. He had felt the crushing loss of people he had considered dear to him. So much to the point where he had become who he was now – a scared, little child who had to grow up too fast, who loved too much and ended up being hurt in return. Even now, there was always doubt in his eyes and words – always unsure of himself and wondering if everything was his fault. Maybe he hadn't tried hard enough or maybe he was being too thoughtless…he had grown up not knowing anything else.

And when he finally tried to break out of the prison made of thorns, he only found himself stung again. Only this time, he was far more shattered than he had expected, because he had known better. He had sworn to himself that he would never let himself feel this way again. But the yearning for real friends, for warmth and a solace from his lonely world, was too strong. And he found himself torn between hating himself for letting it happen again and feeling so utterly sad that history had repeated itself.

Was he wrong to want such things? Or was he never meant to have that? Perhaps Jim just had to learn to give it up. To come to terms that this was his cruel and unforgiving fate.

Hope was the enemy. It was time to treat it like one. Jim knew it. He had always known it. But once you had the taste of it, it was hard to let go. And logically, Jim knew that that wasn't something he could do so easily. Because the moment he let that go – let that tiny little flicker of light go out, there was no way to come back. He wouldn't be able to find his way back out of the darkness that was so close to suffocating him now.

His mind was screaming at him to stay afloat, to keep struggling and clawing his way to the surface, but his heart was so tired. So tired of being hurt and it was fighting to just be done.

Bones couldn't read Jim's mind anymore, but he could still see how truly desperate Jim was right now, battling the turmoil within.

Logic or emotion. That was the question. Feeling nothing or feeling everything. Those were the only two choices Jim had right now. He was struggling for a middle ground, but there was just too much hurt at the moment for him to see past the fog.

So there was really only one thing Bones could do as Jim's best friend – as the one person who Jim still trusted enough to tell all this to. He had to give Jim the chance to handle this on his own. Jim was right in saying that he had to deal with this by himself. But that didn't mean that Bones would leave him all alone.

Bones fully understood that there were things that one had to on their own. He had gone through something similar in their early years of the Academy when his wounds from his divorce were still fresh and festering. He had felt like he was drowning, so unsure of himself all the time, and it made him feel so weak and pathetic. It made him lash out like a cornered dog. His family had tried to help and intervene, but it didn't seem right when they had no idea what he was going through. But Jim. Jim was an entirely different story.

He had let Bones be angry. He had let Bones snarl and wallow in his self-loathing and sorrow. And he had done it silently, like a solid statue that never left his side. It didn't make sense, but that was Bones' one solace while he worked through his issues.

He didn't necessarily want to talk about his pain because he knew that it only cut deeper when he did. And to be honest, he was just tired of talking about it. All he wanted to do was move on, but whenever someone asked him if he was alright or handling the situation, it made Bones' grit his teeth in frustration because he would find himself spiraling back down.

Jim had never asked. He had never poked or prodded. All he did was drag Bones out when he could see that he needed alcohol in his system. He distracted Bones with his inane and crazy adventures. More importantly, he was just…there. And that had made all the difference. Because when he was around Jim, he didn't have to be on guard and he could just be 'Bones'. Not Dr. Leonard McCoy who couldn't run quite far enough from his ex-wife. He had the choice to talk if he wanted, and he knew that Jim would be right there, no matter what he needed.

Bones didn't understand at the time how Jim could be so understanding and know exactly what to do – but that kindness and that all-knowing look in Jim's bright, blue eyes were what ultimately saved Bones. And he loved Jim for that. For being there for him for the sake of just being there.

There were so many times after that that Jim had proved his loyalty to Bones, and Bones did the same in return. It didn't surprise Bones that they became completely inseparable from the very start. Their friendship and bond was something that could not be defined and would last lifetimes.

It was the reason why Bones didn't try to talk Jim out of his desire and need to distance himself away from the rest of the crew. He got it. But it didn't mean that he would leave him all alone. No, there was nowhere else that Bones belonged except by Jim's side. That was never going to change.

It was them against the world, just like old times. Perhaps it was better for Jim at the moment to go back to that. Still, Bones couldn't let Jim just slip away like he wanted. He knew Jim. He knew how happy being around Spock, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty, Chekov, and the entire crew of the Enterprise had made him. He wasn't going to let Jim just let that go.

Because if anything, Jim deserved to be happy. Bones would bring down the universe if it could guarantee that. But it had to start with Jim. He had to be willing first. And right now, he was in perilous danger of letting all of it slip through his fingers, simply because he had been so terribly wounded by Spencer.

And Bones would be damned if he let Spencer win.

"Alright. You need your space, you'll get it," Bones said, but he leaned forward to keep eye contact with Jim. "Jim, I won't pretend I know what you're going through, and I won't force you to talk to me or get you move on from this. This is something you have to deal with on your own, I get that. But can you at least promise me one thing?"


"Promise me that you won't stop trying to trust others. I'm not telling you to trust complete strangers. Even I can't do that. But just don't let this define how you see people in the future. I know you and I know you're maybe an inch away from completely shutting down so you'll never have to feel this way again, but you know, probably more so than I, how much stronger you get after overcoming your pain. You just have to give yourself a chance to overcome it. And until then and after that, I'm always going to be here for you, no matter what. You know that. I'm not going anywhere."

There was almost a constipated expression on Jim's face and Bones almost burst out laughing at it. With fondness, Bones couldn't quite suppress a smile. "Yeah, I know that kind of talk makes you feel squirmy. I'm done. I've said my piece. This topic is now tabled until you want to bring it up." Bones stood, cracking his back. "You want to grab some grub? I'm starving."

Jim felt touched – truly. Despite all the shit that he went through, at least he still had the one person who stuck by his side, even after actually getting to know who Jim really was. Jim chuckled softly. "What would I ever do without you, Bones?"

"Starve," replied Bones. "Now, come on. I want to get some food before all those annoying youngsters start stinking up the place."

"Your age is showing, Bones," laughed Jim as he stood and walked side-by-side with his best friend out the door.

"Yeah, yeah. Still can kick your ass, kid."

"Pssh. In your dreams, old man."

Bones just laughed and threw an arm around Jim's shoulders. "Whatever makes you happy, ya ingenious idiot."

And if Jim leaned in just a bit closer to Bones, well, that was just between them.

Months later, late at night when he was all alone and had just come back from another mission where Jim had to reassess his life-choices (though for more comedic reasons this time, but that would be a story for another time), Jim finally plucked up the courage to open a file that he had been too afraid to touch from the moment Spock had sent it to him.

It hadn't been more than two days after the Enterprise had released Spencer to the hands of Pike and subsequently, imprisonment on Tantalus IV, when Jim's PADD pinged innocuously. He had been in his quarters after a long harrowing day, and had just stepped out of a hot shower.

The file had been from Spock with a short message: For when you are ready.

It was short and vague, but Jim knew what it was.

For days and weeks, Jim had refused to look at it, but it was constantly there, in the back of his mind like a song that he couldn't get out of his head. Until, one day, curiosity won over his fears and trepidation, and he felt strong enough to glance at it. That continued for weeks, until finally, he found his fingers resting over the plain folder.

Then one day, he pressed down and opened it.

There, written in two simple lines was a home address and a comm line address.

Nothing else was there. And Jim did nothing with it at first. Calmly, he had closed the file, but kept it safe and secure on his PADD. He came back every night and looked at it for a few minutes before he closed it again and set it aside.

Now, it had been four months, nearing five, since Jim received that file from Spock. And he felt, deep in his bones, that it was time.

Slowly, he typed in the address and waited with baited breath as he watched the black screen with the line ringing in the background.

It rang maybe twice, or five times – it felt like a lifetime for Jim.

A woman's face appeared on screen. She was beautiful – even more so than what Jim remembered. At first, she looked a bit confused, but then, her eyes widened once she recognized who it was before her.

It was now or never. Jim took a deep breath and smiled shyly at her. "Hello, Joyce. Long time no see."

Her happy and brilliant responding smile could have lit up the stars.

It made everything seem worth it.

So I hope you liked it? Sorry it took so long again. To be honest, I struggled to write this all because I had some issues that I was working through in this year. In many ways, I relate to Jim. I've had a long history of the people closest to me stab me in the back over and over again. You'd think I'd learn to wise up and find better friends. I always think I do, but no. Instead, I just develop trust issues and become extremely emotionally repressed. When things start falling apart, I somehow always think that it's my fault, that I haven't done enough. And then somewhere down the line, I forgot to care for myself. I always put my friends first - it was something that I've always done, but that backfired in my face. One of the reasons why it took me so long to write this chapter is because over the course of this year, two of my supposedly closest friends started to treat me like crap and try to sabotage me in my studies. To this day, I still don't know what went wrong. I thought it was all my fault, so I tried harder. Being as emotionally repressed as I am, I didn't even fully realize that it was because of them that I was feeling like I was struggling all the time. Not that I blame them, per se. It's just that while they kept treating me like crap, I kept doubting myself over and over again, questioning the very fiber of my being. So it really wasn't them that made me feel awful. I am my worst enemy, after all. And it took me almost an entire year to come to the realization (emotionally repressed, remember? Also, I'm an idiot) that whatever we had as friends wasn't worth it anymore and that I had to do something to go back to caring about myself again. This chapter was written throughout this entire course of me figuring out that there was something wrong, suffering through it, and finally, figuring out how to deal with again, and since I've got the emotional skills of a wooden puppet in real life, the writing in this chapter was meant to help me work through it all. I gotta say, writing is extremely cathartic.

Anyway, I just kind of wanted to explain why it took me so long to write this chapter. I just couldn't really write throughout this year and things only ever got written when I just couldn't take it anymore and just sat down to write out my feelings. So sorry if some it may not make complete coherent sense? It made sense for me, for obvious reasons.

Thanks again for reading this story! And thank you all for all your support and lovely reviews! I can't tell you all how much it all meant to me, especially through this last year.

Here's to a new year and a new start!

Happy New Year's!



P.S. I'll be updating "Rules of A Good Man," soon and also, the next chapter for this story will be Jim regressing to his pre-Academy days. I haven't quite figured out how to do that yet, so it might take some time for it to be written, but it will be posted sometime in the future! Please review! Thanks!