Disclaimer: I do not own Star Trek or any of its characters. I'm simply writing this for fun, not profit.

Jim Kirk would have liked to have forgotten about Captain Pike altogether. Doubtless it would have been less painful than the reality: facing a world without him. Closing his eyes, he tried to picture Starfleet Command without Pike's presence, an influence that steadied him for years.

"You okay, son?"

He's at a bar and it's late and he shouldn't be there at all, but he's lost the will to do anything more than drink his sorrows away after failing the Kobayashi Maru a second time. Starfleet regulation mandates that cadets are not to engage in illicit or immoral behavior, but Kirk doesn't think that drinking counts. He's of age, and he likes the taste of liquor better than the bitter tang of defeat.

If he thinks too hard, then he can still feel the cold steel of the command chair underneath him, his eyes fixed on a black screen ten feet away as readings begin to plummet, their shields failing, their engines going down, until at last the impacts strike home and the entire room seems to rattle and come apart. And then there is nothing left but a blank screen, MISSION FAILED in red.

So here he is, at the campus' mid-way bar for night owls seeking less studious retreats and conversationalists craving idle sympathy. There are better retreats to occupy his time, but Kirk likes the diversity of the bars, the sheer volume of people that can pass through the doors and settle in for any of a thousand drink combinations, departing later Buddaically content.

He does not feel like that tonight. When Pike settles into the seat beside him, he turns bleary red eyes to his instructor without saying a word, knowing that Pike can read him too well.

As it stands, Pike sighs and orders a drink, a gold tunic stretched over his shoulders. A sudden stab of envy stabs Kirk and he almost tells him to leave him be, let him drink alone, but he doesn't, because he knows that Pike will, that he'll walk away and there will be time for apologies and pleas later. Right now, Kirk sulks, sinking into himself as though he can create a crater in his being large enough to swallow the weight of his own guilt, magnified tenfold by the fresh sting of defeat.

'You're supposed to be the best and you can't even pass a simple test.'

"How many have you had?" Pike asks, nodding at his shot glass demonstratively.

Kirk lifts it to eye level and stares at the translucent glass skin before grating out, "Four."

Pike nods, tapping the bar once to grab the bartender's attention – it's a quiet night, Wednesday; hardly anyone at all – and ordering another round. "One more won't hurt," is all Pike says when the bartender sets the glasses before them a moment later.

Kirk toasts him in lieu of thanks and drinks it down in one gulp, the hot wash of alcohol almost enough to burn out the sense of failure. Almost. "I don't know how you did it, Captain Pike," he admits, after a lengthy interlude of silence, lingering on the title as Pike nods twice in acknowledgement.

"Some days, I'm not sure how I did it, either," he acknowledges. "Guess you just learn to live with that."

"I don't want to live with the consequences," Kirk says, a sudden, forceful edge to his words propelling him along until he cannot contain it anymore. "I don't want to live in a world where I have to pick up the pieces. I want to stop it from blowing up in the first place."

Pike stares at him for a long time in thoughtful silence, and Kirk is determined to order another drink in spite of the heavy feeling in his head because he doesn't want to deal with Pike's contemplation before Pike says simply, "Then don't."

Kirk blinks, momentarily unseated by the implication. "Excuse me?"

"Don't live in that world, Kirk," Pike tells him. "Change it. Make it better." Waving his untouched shot glass like a baton, Pike continues, "If you don't want to live in a world where everything goes to hell, then be an Atlas. It's not an easy path, but it's a sure one. As long as you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, then it won't go to hell, not as long as you're still standing."

Silence stretches between them for a time, but Pike is unrushed and Kirk is suddenly, overwhelmingly aware of the bar around him, of the universe ticking away under his feet. He aches for the command chair, craves to open up the control panel and feel the ship thrumming underneath him as he scans the records for maladies, discontinuities, anything that could lead him to a solution –

"Not tonight," Pike says.

Kirk opens his mouth to protest, but Pike just shakes his head, calm and irresolute. "Not tonight, Kirk. Sleep on it. Think about what you want. Then take a good look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you're ready to take it." Standing, he places a hand on Kirk's shoulder briefly, giving it an uncustomarily gentle squeeze. "When you're ready, it'll be waiting for you."

Then he's gone and Kirk is alone, his head ringing and his mind spinning but his thoughts calmer, somehow. As he takes his card back from the bartender and departs, he does not seek out the pretty blonde in the corner or the more elusive brunette in the shadows. He heads out into the night, staggering a little from inebriation, and hours later, it seems, steps into Bones' dimly lit apartments.

Bones is there, ruffled and irritable but somehow, inexplicably, relieved, the tense lines around his eyes softening when he sees Kirk. He gruffly ushers Kirk inside, ordering him to stay on the couch and stripping him of his coat and shoes before tossing a blanket over his head that Kirk leaves for a time, musing in the dark.

It isn't until Bones tugs the blanket down minutes later that he manages a slurred, "I want to be an Atlas, Bones," and earns a, "Go to sleep, Jim," in response.

He doesn't bring it up again, but when he steps into the control room for the Kobayashi Maru testing area once more – onto the decks of his beautiful, nameless ship – he breathes in deeply, and picks up the weight of the world.

Pike had come to him at other times, he recalled, barely cognizant of his own present, his own reality. Pike had been there when he had caught that weird strain of mono from another planet, apparently transmitted by one of his more eccentric roommates during a late-night visit.

'You can't keep working like this, Jim.'

He tries to ignore the voice in his head that sounds increasingly like Captain Pike as he makes his way across campus, hunched in his reds and grateful that the weather is miserable for a change. There is nothing more obvious than a sick man on a sunny, clear-blue-sky day, but it's easy to hide his discomfort when everyone else is bundled up, too.

As long as he can make it through his tactical course, then he'll be done for the day and have a good twelve hours to rest and recover. He knows exactly what Bones would say if he caught him in this predicament, but luckily Bones is nowhere in sight and it's much easier to pretend that Bones wouldn't care and would let him sulk in his misery, anyway. He's already come to loathe his hyposprays with a particular dislike that's been fashioned by weeks of acute exposure to the damnable things; any more violation of his right to refuse medical treatment might tip him over the edge of his own sanity.

Hunched inward, Kirk almost misses the fine-tuned beep of his communicator, informing him of a new message. Pausing at a crosswalk to fumble it out of his pocket and answer it with a gruff, "Yeah?" he hears an amused chuckle on the other end of the line, somewhat muffled by the rain.

"You sound terrible, Kirk."

"Thank you, Captain Pike," Kirk grumbles, tempted to hang up on him just to spite him before reminding himself that Pike is, among other things, his superior. And Pike has been good for him in the past; he can't waste that by alienating him over something so simple. Forcing himself to let it go, he breathes out deeply and asks, "How can I help you, sir?"

"I'm in need of a personal assistant for a few hours," Pike admits, and Kirk suppresses a groan as he crosses the street. "My office, 1800 hours. That's not going to be a problem, is it?"

Swallowing back the urge to tell him that it will very much be problematic, Kirk replies, "No, sir," and then, "I'll be there, sir."

"I'll see you then. Pike out."

It's a ruse. It takes Kirk two hours to figure it out, but the invitation for tea is not simply a debriefing on several of the Command track possibilities that Kirk could follow, although on the surface, it cannot claim to be anything different. As soon as he enters the office, tired and worn, he is relieved to hear that the professor teaching his tactical course cancelled last minute, leaving him a free space for such a discussion, a fact which Pike did not overlook when scheduling the meeting. Part of him wants to be angry at being deprived an opportunity to claim even more time for the rest his body desperately craves, but he cannot even bring himself to it when Pike offers him a seat.

He sinks into the chair, and when Pike offers him tea, he accepts.

He doesn't know why, at the time; he doesn't even drink tea on a regular basis. But it's warm and wonderful in his hands, heavy and sweet and something everything tea needs to be. Home tucked away in a neat little package, steaming out into the world without a single consideration for the darkness just outside the office. As Pike speaks, the steam helps clear up Kirk's sinuses, and he finds himself relaxing into the discussion without consciously deciding to do so. He's been tense all week, fighting the Super Cold and trying not to look like he's fighting anything. It's a losing battle at this point, but dignity and pride are two pillars he will not surrender, and so he cradles his tea and listens to Pike speak.

Eventually, it occurs to him that maybe the aching, gnawing pain in his bones isn't quite as intense now as it was before, and he looks at Pike and sees understanding in his eyes, silent lines making his mouth an implacable line, weighing him, measuring his worth. He tries to straighten in his seat and manages it, blue eyes alighting with Pike's, challenge and defiance morphing into something akin to respect.

"You don't always need to be the strongest man, Kirk," he says, very seriously, and it is those words that resonate with him more than any of his other practical advice that evening.

Kirk didn't want to be strong, now.

As he made his way to the windowsill and stared out at San Francisco Bay, it seemed unfathomable to him that Pike was not sitting in his office or striding across the gardens below, musing over his own thoughts. They had faced their challenges aboard the Enterprise. Entire lifetimes had seemed to pass between the moment Pike had been taken hostage and the moment that he was rescued. Kirk couldn't forget the way that he had sagged against him, somehow herculean in resolve to live and yet fragile as he let Kirk carry the world on his shoulders for a while.

The burden, he realized, was never ending. There was no moment when the world would be easy to bear, but with the aid of others, it was tolerable.

Kirk clenched his hands into fists, his jaw tensing as he realized that there was no one else. No one else knew the world like Pike and he did, knew and loved it with a passion that could not be diminished by hardship.

He imagined Pike in the command chair and ached for his return. He would gladly submit to first officer for the rest of eternity if it meant that Pike was still alive.

He would do anything to have him back, but he was gone, and Kirk could not bear the weight anymore.

I believe in you, Jim.

He's utterly exhausted and largely convinced that he has lost the ability to think rationally, but still he persists, but the Enterprise needs a captain and, with Spock still de-commissioned and Captain Pike out for the count, he is the highest commanding officer. He waits for the exhilaration to sweep over him and offer him a second wind but it does not, instead sitting placidly by as exhaustion slowly steals in and takes its place.

He wants to be strong. He has to be strong. But he's losing his grip, and it's impossible to regain. He's losing traction and his mind with it, clinging to the fragile authority that he has and keeping the ship running in the absence of greater men.

When Bones tells him that Pike is finally awake and available for visitors, he does not go immediately. He sits in the command chair for a long time observing the Gamma shift silently, until at last he rises with a soft, wheezy breath that might have been a groan.

Pike is alone when he meets with him. He smiles a little when Kirk enters his temporary quarters. "Captain," he acknowledges, the slightly jocular tilt to his voice questioning as much as it is affirmative.

Kirk cocks a salute at him, equally jaunty, and replies softly, "Captain." Then, more seriously: "I'm sorry."

"For what?" Pike asks, staring him down, not letting him evade the truth.

Kirk swallows, shaking his head slowly. "I. . . ."

"You won."

"I failed," Kirk says, and his hand rests heavily on the wall as he gazes at a point over Pike's shoulder, unable to meet his eyes, intense and unreadable. "I couldn't save Vulcan, I couldn't stop Nero from attacking Earth, I couldn't save you from being tortured –"


One word, and Kirk finds he cannot speak any more. Shaking his head in silent disbelief, he allows, "I'm sorry, sir."

"You saved me," Pike retorts gently. "You saved Earth. You saved Spock." Looking at him seriously, he adds, "There will always be consequences, Kirk. What you have to decide is if they were worth it. In two days' time, we'll be back at Starfleet. You can make your choice there." Shifting on the biobed, he adds quietly, "I know that this is hard for you, Kirk. It's your first real command. There are real consequences to sitting in that chair. But sometimes, we have to decide even when there isn't we see one clear path to righteousness. Sometimes we have to pick the lesser of two evils. Sometimes we have to settle for something."

Meeting Kirk's gaze, Pike says, very seriously, "And then, sometimes, you win. In spite of everything, you come out on top. You won, Jim."

Opening his eyes, staring out into the black space, Kirk thinks, I didn't win. Not this time.

Kirk didn't move for a long time, absorbing the impact of the firefight, sleeplessness chafing at him until the world in front of him blurred and he could barely drag himself from his sentinel at the window to answer the door when the computer informed him that he had a visitor.

This late? Didn't even cross his mind as he approached and opened it.

Spock didn't say a word, hands tucked behind his back, perfect Vulcan persona in place, but Kirk stepped back invitingly, anyway, and Spock idled inside his quarters, the door sliding shut behind him. Attempting speech was impossible in the quiet, so Kirk sat on the edge of the bed instead, Spock taking a seat in the sole chair across from him and staring him down.

"I respectfully," Spock began, very softly, "offer my condolences, Captain."

Kirk couldn't speak around the lump in his throat, so he inclined his head and averted his gaze to the window once more. "Thank you, Mr. Spock," he said. Equally soft, he added, "I'm sorry."

"For what, Captain?"

Kirk turned to stare at him and could almost see the ghost of Pike in those calm black eyes. Absentmindedly, he wondered how long they had served together before being separated and finally completely severed. It made his stomach twist to think about it, but those eyes were not judgmental, and the sudden realization that Spock wasn't angry at him and the fact that Spock wasn't overwhelmed him.

For a moment, he could say nothing. When speech returned, all he could say was, "Because I wasn't good enough to save him. But I'm glad . . . you're still alive."

Spock met his gaze, an indefinable emotion hidden in the depths of his eyes before he answered calmly, "I am glad that I am still alive as well, Captain. And I am doubly glad that you are alive, also."

Kirk nodded, and he stood and hesitated only a moment before resting a hand on Spock's shoulder, clinging to his solidarity once more, drawn back to the heat and light and the scream of the sirens for an instant before it all washed away and nothing remained but them.

There will always be consequences, Kirk. What you have to decide is if they were worth it.

Letting Spock's shoulder go, Kirk stepped back as Spock rose, meeting his gaze and telling him without saying a word, I'll fight for him, but I'll also fight for you. You're worth it to me, Spock.

Spock looked back at him, and Kirk saw an echo of the same sentiment.