Bones doesn't make an appearance in Jim's room until 1400 the next day. Which is probably a good thing, because Jim wakes up with the strange sense that the world isn't quite right before remembering oh yeah, I died. He's sick of waking up and realizing that no, things aren't the way they should be, and no, he's really not okay with that.

By the time Bones visits, however, he's managed to pull himself together. His physical therapy session helped. Jim always does better when he has something to focus on, even if his body's weakness frustrates him to no end. A month ago he could do practically anything he wanted – now it's an accomplishment when he walks twice around the PT room and climbs a flight of stairs. Still, he'd rather be angry at his body than stuck in bed. And oddly enough, he gets a weird kind of satisfaction out of pushing himself to his physical limits. He knows he's making himself stronger.

Jim's back in bed, finishing lunch and about to start a game of virtual chess with Spock, when Bones enters.

"Right," the doctor says, tossing a grey Starfleet uniform on the end of Jim's bed, "Put that on. You're leaving."

Jim pushes his lunch tray away slowly, wondering if he heard right.

"Leaving?" he asks cautiously, "As in 'discharged?'" After last night, he felt sure Bones would extend his hospital stay, not shorten it.

"Released from the hospital, not from medical leave," Bones says irritably, so, okay, Jim doesn't think he's been forgiven for his little stunt last night. He's still not going to apologize. "You're getting out of San Francisco on medical orders, so hurry up. Archer wants to talk to you before you go."

"What?"

"Clothes." Bones picks them up and shoves them into Jim's arms. "Put them on now."

Still in a mild state of shock, Jim obeys without really thinking about it, struggling out of his T-shirt and sweatpants. He wonders just what the doctor expects him to do when he gets out of the hospital. Bones can't seriously send Jim back to Iowa, right? But that's the only place away from the city that Jim can think to go, besides the Enterprise. Jim's not sure he can get to Riverside on his own – and the house has been empty since Winona's last shore leave, he'll have to clean it and get the power turned back on because he wasn't planning on going back there and – and he hates to admit it to himself, but he really can't handle that kind of stress right now, and dammit he hates Riverside –

"Kid." Bones appears at Jim's elbow, his voice firm. Jim realizes belatedly that he's frozen on the bed with his shirt half on. "Breathe," Bones instructs gruffly, one hand brushing Jim's shoulder. "I've got everything figured out, okay? You're not going to Riverside."

Jim takes a deep breath, anxiety he didn't realize he had leeching slowly from his shoulders.

"Where'm I going?" he asks finally, tugging his shirt on. Bones hands him the grey Starfleet pants.

"Tell you later; we've got to move. Your meeting with Archer is in – " he glances at his watch " – fifteen minutes."

Jim's stomach does a somersault.

"Fifteen?"

"Yeah." Bones looks at him, and his expression goes from irritated to slightly guilty. "Sorry. I would've told you earlier, but this is kinda last-minute…"

Jim's palms start to sweat. He feels like an idiot as he pulls on his boots – new, his last ones must've been destroyed in the – he can't think about that now. He shoves them on and runs a hand through his messy hair. He's leaving. Crap. He can't seem to wrap his mind around the idea. Yes, he's been asking to get out of the hospital since the moment he woke up – he hates it here. But now that he's actually leaving, going to talk to an admiral and walk around outside, he feels suddenly panicky. It's all happening too fast. He thought he'd have more time to prepare, or…or something.

"You alright?" Bones looks closely at Jim's face, eyes narrowed. Jim swallows and gets out of his hospital bed for the last time.

"I'm fine," he says. He just doesn't appreciate this sudden jarring of reality, no matter how impulsive he normally is. Bones could've told him he was getting released today.

McCoy lets out a long breath as Jim straightens his uniform, smoothing out imaginary wrinkles.

"Look, I'm sorry this's all happening at once," Bones ventures, looking a little uncomfortable. "It was my plan from the beginning to send you on vacation somewhere, and after last night, I thought it'd be a good idea to speed the process along. Spock came up with a way to get you outta the city, and – well, we needed to work fast and keep it quiet. The goddamn media's still trying to get an interview with you, and the second they hear you're outta the hospital – "

"Okay," Jim interrupts forcefully. Really, what else is there to say? His life's just insane. "What am I meeting Archer about?"

Bones clearly hesitates over the abrupt change in subject. Jim takes the opportunity to open the door and step into the hallway.

"No idea," the doctor admits, hastily following Jim into the hall. "Archer told me an hour ago that he wanted to talk to you before you leave."

"I assume you didn't tell him I was getting released until an hour ago?" Jim asks dryly.

"Damn straight," Bones grumbles. The man has no shame. "Otherwise they'd never let you go. Stupid brass doesn't understand the meaning of 'recovery'…"

Jim just sighs and lets Bones grumble to himself as they reach the end of the hallway and enter the lift. Personally, he thinks Archer's got a right to be upset – Jim's not exactly happy about his medical orders either. Starfleet needed every officer it could get before the Vengeance crashed into the bay. The Federation hasn't even dealt with all the repercussions of the Narada, and now…

There's too much work to do. It feels wrong to even think about leaving San Francisco right now, no matter how tired Jim is.

The lift pings to a stop at the first floor, and Jim leads the way out of Starfleet Medical. There's a Starfleet hovercar parked outside. McCoy gets in on the driver's side and Jim climbs into the shotgun seat.

Things hadn't felt this hopeless after the Narada, Jim thinks, as Bones starts the car and heads across campus towards the main building. Then, Jim had felt better about his role in events. Vulcan was gone, but at least Nero hadn't destroyed any other planets – and more importantly, the threat had been neutralized. Jim had gone after Nero, and he'd won. Now, though – now, when Jim sees the destruction around him and remembers it was put into motion by Starfleet itself, he feels vaguely sick.

He'd been the commanding officer when things finally went to shit. He was the one with responsibility, crazy admirals and psycho terrorists aside. Jim knows he didn't get everything right. He needs to do more than make sure the Enterprise recovers. He needs to do his own poking around and figure out what remains of Section 31. He needs to find out who knew what Marcus was up to and how the hell he got away with what he did, and Jim should really ask Pike what –

Jim closes his eyes, swallowing hard.

Bones is right, really. He's not ready to do what he needs to do, and that's almost as distressing as the thought of all his mistakes. He just feels – scattered, like he's stretched in ten places at once, doing whatever he can to make it to the next day. It's like he's stuck permanently in that moment when the Enterprise went hurtling towards earth; he feels surrounded by a world that doesn't make sense, and if he makes one wrong move or doesn't act quickly enough, things will shatter to pieces.

He doesn't know what he's doing or what he should do. He doesn't know how to fix himself, and he doesn't know how to fix anyone else either.

The hovercar glides to a halt outside the main Starfleet building. Bones fidgets while Jim lets himself out.

"Archer'll be in his office," Bones says, leaning out the window as Jim carefully starts up the steps to the building. "I'll wait in the lobby – find me when you're done, okay?" Jim waves to show he understands, then climbs the last few steps to the front doors.

He hasn't been here in a while, not since Marcus gave him orders to pursue Khan. That feels like another lifetime. He shakes the thought aside and focuses on getting through security, which has been tightened to almost ridiculous levels since the attack on London. The only reason he doesn't get pulled aside for a full-body pat down is because a security officer recognizes him.

Archer's office is on the sixteenth floor. Jim takes the lift, but he's still winded when he finally enters the office. Archer's secretary glances at him briefly, then does a double take.

"Mr. Kirk," she says with a nervous smile. "The admiral is expecting you. Head right back."

Jim does, knocking tentatively on Archer's door before letting himself in. Archer looks up from his PADD and gestures for Jim to sit in the chair across the desk.

"Kirk – have a seat." Jim complies, his back as straight as he can make it. He doesn't have Spock's posture, but he hopes he looks respectful. "I know your doctor wants you out of here as soon as possible," Archer says, "So I'll get straight to the point. A panel of admirals met yesterday to discuss your rank."

Jim's stomach seems to drop through the floor. If Archer notices the blood drain from his face, he doesn't comment.

"It wasn't an easy decision to make," Archer continues. "You're still Starfleet's youngest commanding officer by several years, and your current record tells us you need more experience. However, your recent actions during the confrontation with the Vengeance proved that what you did during the Narada incident wasn't a fluke." Archer gives him a considering look. "You're inexperienced, yes, but you've got a hell of a lot of potential."

Jim stares, hardly daring to breathe. He's not sure if he's hearing Archer correctly.

"We want to give you captaincy of the Enterprise," Archer says, folding his hands on the desk and meeting Jim's stare, "But there are several conditions. When you've been cleared by Medical to return to duty, you will serve briefly on three different starships and participate in various diplomatic and supply missions. You won't have an official command post. Your job will be to observe other captains and first officers, and, if they deem it appropriate, you may take responsibility for various shifts and reports. The captains you serve with will send their analysis of your performance directly to me. In a years' time, when the Enterprise should be ready to ship out again, another panel will evaluate you and decide whether or not to confirm your captaincy."

Jim blinks at Archer, blank relief warring with swiftly growing anxiety. It's more than he expected, really – more than he thinks he deserves right now. But damn, he'd like a straight answer. If only it was yes or no, something concrete – but Jim recognizes a second (maybe this is his third) chance when he sees it. He won't complain.

"Thank you, sir," he manages, his voice hoarser than he'd like. Archer eyes him critically.

"I want you to understand that this isn't punishment, Kirk, even though most of us still don't agree with your actions on Niribu," Archer says slowly. "What you did against Marcus and Harrison was impressive. Yes, you made some mistakes, but you also kept a frankly horrifying situation from dissolving into pure chaos. Starfleet wouldn't be here without you. But the other admirals and I want to ensure that when you take command again, you do so with the knowledge and preparation you didn't get before."

And if past events have taught him anything, Jim thinks, it's that he needs all the preparation and knowledge he can get. It's painful to admit to himself that a month ago, he would have angrily rejected Archer's proposal.

"I understand, sir," Jim says, the words heavy on his tongue. He really does understand – and a small, aching part of him wishes he didn't. "But – with respect – I can't take credit for handling the Harrison situation. It was team effort. We'd all be dead if it weren't for my crew."

To Jim's surprise, Archer gives him a rare, genuine smile. Jim recognizes it – but he's only ever seen it on one admiral's face before. Pike's face.

"You're learning, Kirk," Archer says, and maybe Jim's imagining it, but he sounds almost – pleased. "Now, that doctor of yours will have my hide if you miss your shuttle. Get out of here, and don't come back until you've healed. You look like crap."

"Thanks," Jim says dryly, before remembering (too late) who he's talking to. Heat creeps into his cheeks, and he stands up in an awkward show of respect. "I mean – thanks for – the honesty, sir." Flustered, he turns for the exit.

"Kirk?"

Jim stops just before the door, looking back in some trepidation. Archer considers him for a moment.

"Christopher Pike believed that someday, you'd be one of Starfleet's best captains," he says calmly, and Jim swallows around the tightening of his throat. "My advice to you – for what it's worth – is to forget about Starfleet for a while. Medical leave's not just about healing physically. Sometimes, as captain, you need to take a break from responsibility and let yourself feel like a normal human. Don't push your crew away just because you're out of the hospital and want to return to duty."

Jim blinks, a little thrown. His impending recovery isn't something he's given a lot of thought to. In his mind, a release from the hospital means a return to work. He's sure he'll be able to keep up with the Enterprise's repairs while he's stranded wherever Bones plans to strand him. Scotty doesn't mind sending long updates. Jim's also fairly certain that there's a shit ton of paperwork somewhere with his name on it.

"I'll keep that in mind, sir," Jim says finally. Archer nods and waves a hand in dismissal.

"Good. Now get out."

Jim takes the lift to the ground floor and finds Bones waiting for him in the lobby.

"There you are!" The doctor practically leaps up from his seat and crosses to the lift, grabbing Jim's arm before Jim has the chance to even open his mouth. "C'mon, we've got a shuttle to catch in twenty minutes. You need to change clothes."

"Twenty minutes?" Jim asks, a little alarmed. "Bones, I haven't packed or – "

"Taken care of," Bones interrupts gruffly, shoving open the door to the nearest restroom. He hands Jim a drawstring bag. "Clothes. Put them on."

Jim takes the bag with a sigh, resigning himself to the fact that he has no idea what's going on and won't anytime soon. He picks an empty stall and emerges a few minutes later wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. Bones, now similarly attired, hands him a pair of sunglasses.

"Put those on and pull the hood up," Bones says. "We don't need the media or anyone on the shuttle recognizing you."

Too tired to argue, Jim does as he's told. They leave the building together and start walking towards the nearest shuttle stop. While normally the short walk wouldn't be a problem, Jim's already tired from his discussion with Archer, and it's a relief when they board the shuttle. He sinks gratefully into an empty seat, not even bothering to remove the sunglasses.

"Go to sleep, kid," Bones says, taking the seat next to him. Jim thinks about protesting, but he can't seem to keep his eyes open. He falls asleep before the shuttle even leaves.

He wakes with a start after they've landed. The harsh lighting causes him to squint, and he blinks groggily while trying to get his bearings. People are standing up and making their way to the exits; the shuttle looks half empty. Jim rubs his eyes with a groan and glances out the window. It's almost dark outside – he can see some pine trees beyond the platform, but not much else.

"Sleep well?" Bones asks from his left. He glances casually at Jim, which is a really poor way to disguise the fact that the doctor's itching to use his tricorder. "You didn't even snore."

"I don't snore," Jim says automatically.

"Keep tellin' yourself that," Bones says with a faint smile. He stands up and stretches his arms over his head. "C'mon, we're the last ones. Let's get off before the hobgoblin panics and thinks we took the wrong shuttle."

"Wait – Spock's here?" Jim hauls himself out of his seat, nonplussed. "What's he doing here? And where are we, anyway?"

"Right now? Portland, Oregon," Bones says, making his way to the shuttle's door. He nods to the navigator before stepping out. Jim follows hastily.

"What the hell are we doing in Portland?" As far Jim knows, it's just a particularly rainy city located about a thousand kilometers north of San Francisco. He's never been.

"Technically, this is merely a stop on the way to our final destination," a familiar voice says, and Jim turns to see that his First Officer has appeared out of practically nowhere.

"Spock," Jim says stupidly. The Vulcan's wearing dark jeans, a t-shirt, and a jacket. It looks utterly bizarre, considering that Jim's never seen Spock out of uniform.

"Hello, Jim, Doctor McCoy," Spock says, inclining his head briefly at Bones. "I have procured a rental hovercar. If you have no need to use the restrooms here, we may depart immediately."

"I'm good," Bones says, muffling a yawn. "But we're gonna have to stop for takeout. I'm starving."

Spock eyes the doctor.

"That is a grossly inaccurate statement, considering – "

"Whoa, whoa, hang on!" Jim says in exasperation, putting an end to the argument before it can even start. "Not that I'm not happy to see you, Spock, but what the hell are you doing here? I thought Bones was gonna strand me somewhere for recovery time."

"I assure you, Jim, at no time did Doctor McCoy express a desire to 'strand you' anywhere," Spock says earnestly.

"Gee, thanks," Bones grumbles.

"On the contrary," Spock continues, ignoring Bones entirely, "He was concerned that you would be in need of company while you recovered outside the hospital. As I have never taken a day of leave, it was logical to use those days at this time in order to accompany you."

"You – what? You're using your vacation time to babysit me?" Jim asks blankly. That's…he doesn't know what to say about that. Other than he really doesn't need a babysitter. "Wait, accompany me where?"

"I own a beach house on the Oregon coast," Spock explains, motioning for Jim and Bones to follow him off the platform and ignoring Jim's stare of surprise. "Before I was born, my mother would often accompany my father to Terra on his ambassadorial trips. She had a great aunt who lived on the Oregon coastline, and she often visited her while my father was busy. My mother became fond of spending time on the Oregon beaches, and she bought the house to commemorate the one year anniversary of her marriage to my father. My father recently transferred ownership of the house to me, although I have not had occasion to use it since. As my mother often found her trips to the house relaxing, it seemed a logical place for you to recover. It is also remote enough that there is only a 1.83 percent chance the media will find you here."

Jim opens his mouth. And then closes it. Spock is…using up his personal vacation time and offering up his house for Jim.

It's – weird.

"Thank you," he finally manages, which is only after they've located the hovercar and climbed in. (Spock's driving. Jim and Bones are in the backseats.) Jim's still kind of in shock. "You didn't have to do any of this, but – thanks."

"You are welcome," Spock says simply, which is another surprise. Jim'd half-expected a lecture on the illogic of gratitude.

They sit in silence for most of the car ride. It's nearly dark, and Jim presses his face to the window, trying to see as much of Portland as he can before the light disappears. Spock passes by the city, which glitters on the banks of the Willamette River, before heading west towards the coastline. After about an hour Bones demands food, and they stop at a tiny diner by the side of the road. Jim, who hasn't eaten anything since lunch, devours a hamburger so quickly that he gets hiccups. Spock merely sips water and raises a longsuffering eyebrow at the sight of the humans gobbling up greasy meat.

From there it's another hour to Spock's beach house. Jim dozes against Bones' shoulder, so it feels like only moments later that the car glides to a halt. He blinks and drags himself upright, peering out the window. It's hard to tell in the dark, but Spock's beach house looks like a classic two-story cottage. There's a porch out front and a balcony on the second floor, and they're so close to the ocean that Jim can hear the waves even though he hasn't left the car yet.

"Why are the lights on?" he asks. Every single window glows merrily in the dark.

"It's only 2300," Bones says, stretching and opening the door on his side. "You didn't think everyone was gonna turn in early on a Friday night, did you?"

Jim gapes at him, but Bones just lets himself out of the car and closes the door. Spock, who no doubt finds it illogical to sit in a stopped vehicle when they have arrived at their destination, exits without comment. After a moment of blank shock, Jim scrambles out after him.

"Who's 'everyone?'" he asks, catching up to them on the porch steps.

Spock opens his mouth, but never gets the chance to answer. The front door swings open and Uhura launches herself at Jim.

"Congratulations, Captain!" she says brightly, her dark hair obscuring Jim's vision as she throws her arms around his ribs. "It's about time you stopped lying around the hospital, you lazy-ass." Jim, bewildered, hugs her back and tries to breathe around her iron grip.

"Thanks?" he gasps. "I – uh – didn't expect to see you here."

"Keptin!" a voice says excitedly. Holy crap, Uhura's not the only one – is that Chekov? Uhura releases Jim from her hug, and he steps around her to see his navigator and his helmsman beaming in the doorway. "Eet is good to see you, sir!"

"Chekov, Sulu – hey," Jim shakes their hands, utterly astonished. "Bones didn't tell me you were here."

"Ve are not going to be here wery long," Chekov explains earnestly, stepping aside so that Jim can get through the front door. The entryway has paneled floors and light blue walls. "Doctor McCoy recommended we take medical leave now zat our debriefings are finished, and Commander Spock inwited us here. I am staying a week before wisiting my family in Russia."

"I'm also here for a week," Sulu says, grinning at Jim's dumbfounded expression. "Then I'm going back to San Francisco. My mother wants me home for family dinners."

"And Scotty'll be here in the morning," Uhura adds, closing the door once they've all piled into the entryway. "He couldn't leave the Enterprise without personally checking up on the repairs."

Jim looks at them – his bridge crew, piled happily in the entryway of Spock's beach house – and feels momentarily overwhelmed.

"Well," he says, trying to inject some levity in his voice, "When I heard 'medical leave,' I thought Bones was gonna lock me up in the middle of nowhere and tell me not to hurt myself. I didn't realize this was a vacation."

"Leave you alone?" Bones scoffs, but when Jim looks at him his eyes are gentle. "You'd be bored to tears in seconds. Can't have that."

"No," Spock agrees seriously. "Doctor McCoy is under the impression that if we were to let you become bored, the universe would 'suffer the goddamn consequences and wail like a baby Gorn left out in the cold.'" He pauses. "A most unusual comparison, as the universe is certainly not capable – "

Jim can't help it. He bursts into manly chuckles – not giggles – and misses Bones' loud retort. Sulu catches his eye and motions to the kitchen.

"Pavel made cookies, if you're interested," he says, and Chekov beams. Jim can't turn down that expression, so he leads the way to the kitchen. It's small but cozy, and Jim finds that he doesn't mind the way it immediately fills with the chatter of his crew. This is…nice. He feels more relaxed than he has in weeks.

Sulu hands him a Russian tea cake and leans close.

"They're rock hard," he hisses in Jim's ear. "Don't tell Pavel that's not what they're supposed to taste like – this is how his grandmother made them, apparently."

Jim grins and takes a bite – then tries valiantly to swallow and give Chekov a thumbs-up at the same time. Chekov blushes.

He can do this, Jim thinks, watching as Bones chokes on a cookie and ends up arguing with Spock about the proper way to eat finger foods. Jim's tired – more tired than he should be after that nap in the car – but he's not exhausted. He feels…better, actually. He knows at some point he's going to need time alone, and he knows his nightmares haven't stopped and there are issues to sort out – but right now, surrounded by the people he's starting to think of as his family, he's…happy. It's nice.

And maybe, Jim thinks, snorting as Spock samples a cookie and allows his eyebrows to fly into his hairline – maybe Archer was right. Time with his crew might be exactly what he needs.


Whew. Long time, no update. Don't worry, guys - I love these characters and this story far too dearly to ever abandon it. But I am in college, and getting my Real Life in order takes precedence...so I can't guarantee fast updates. Thank you so much to all of you who read, review, subscribe, favorite, etc. You inspire me and make me happy and I love you all. 3