Title: Living in the Shadows
Characters/Pairings: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Enterprise crew. Canon relationships only, but as always you'll find very little ship but the Enterprise here, folks
Word Count: 20,000+
Rating: T for movie-level language and discussion of mental illness
Series Warnings/Spoilers: My readers probably know by now that anything in TOS is fair game to be integrated here, but no knowledge of the OS is usually necessary to understand my stories. Anything you recognize that isn't footnoted is an unconscious integration of the two and doesn't belong to me. Spoilers for all three AOS movies, trigger warning for mentions of depression/mental illness.
Summary: Five times Jim noticed one of his officers wasn't doing well, and one time they returned the favor
A/N: As someone who has dealt with both depression and anxiety for years on a regular basis, the signs of it I saw in all three movies but especially in the first part of Beyond threw up immediate red flags for me, and I'm not even going to start on why nearly every one of the main characters in this universe is an almost textbook example of high-risk potential.
Statistically speaking one in five adults are affected by some type of mental illness every year, and it will never lose its stigma unless we recognize it for what it is; a lifelong but manageable condition that doesn't always make sense but that we just have to accept and learn to live with, like any other illness such as epilepsy or diabetes.
I began this story in honor of May being mental health awareness month, though due to real life and issues of my own didn't get it finished in time. There's a little realism, a little personal experience, and a little fluff here that should be readable from both sides of the spectrum, and please remember one person's interpretation of mental illness is not another person's; nor is one person's method of dealing with it the same as another's. Nothing here should be taken as medical fact or advice, nor has it been endorsed by any physician; please see yours if you believe yourself in need of help in these areas.
But in all seriousness: if you notice someone you love acting unlike themselves, don't wait for them to ask for help; most often, they aren't going to. Remember that a lot of the time the people who smile the most, the people who try the most to help others, are doing it to hide the fact that they actually need it the most in return.
As she was always intended from construction to be a primarily exploratory vessel (and as 95% of the cadets who died during the Battle of Vulcan were Tactical and Operations), the Enterprise's crew is currently nearly 70% comprised of Science personnel. That may change, as time goes on, but for now (and he knows until he proves he won't get everyone under him killed during this 12-month trial run putzing around the middle-galaxy), it's going to stay a veritable sea of blue as he walks the corridors, trying his absolute best to commit names to faces and look like he has any idea what the hell he's doing.
He's well aware that his appointment is nothing more than a strategic PR move, and that his primary mission is not one of peaceful exploration, but of recruitment. Their ranks have been decimated, the next two years' worth of cadets all but completely gone, dead in the performance of their premature duties. The 'Fleet, other than the few scattered ships which had escaped Nero's rampage by gathering in the remote Laurentian system or being fortunately deployed at the time on a few deeper space missions, are struggling to regroup; and any extra time and manpower those ships have is being poured into staving off war with the Klingon and Romulan Empires. That, and in seeing that the few hundred Vulcan survivors – many of them mere children – do indeed remain survivors.
Starfleet simply didn't really have a lot of options when it came down to practicality, and James T. Kirk is a pretty face for the propaganda posters. It's going to take a long time to prove he's more than that, to his crew or to the galaxy.
But he does enjoy a challenge, and so he throws himself into this one with the same single-minded focus that surprised almost every instructor he had at the Academy who bothered to look at more than his last name on their syllabus roster. He learns every crewman's name before the first week of their voyage is over, stays up at night for hours memorizing names and faces until he can match them well enough to recognize people in the corridors with only a few mistakes. He abolishes the habit of saluting senior officers, because it's an unnecessary barrier between ranks that this ship doesn't need, not after everything they've already been through, and tells his senior staff to drop his title when they're off-duty. (He's yet to have anyone but Bones actually do it, but he's trying. Gods, he's trying.)
He pulls everything from the ship's library banks about their seventeen species aboard and reads up on the non-humanoids, trying to learn about them and their cultures, how they must be adapting to a humanoid-biased starship's environment. What their homeworld customs are, their holidays, their traditions. Checks to see if they have traditional meal options programmed in the meal replicators, that Sickbay is as well-equipped to handle casualties of their species as it is to handle humanoid. Pitches a fit with Starfleet Command and writes a couple of integration software patches himself for some of them when he discovers they've not bothered to accommodate a couple of the lesser Federation members with anything in their homeworld's native languages in the recreational literature banks. Spends hours in the evenings below decks, popping into rec rooms and stopping to chat with lower deck officers, to make himself available if he's needed. Or wanted. Makes as many notes in his calendar and personal padd as he can to remember important things about people he gets better acquainted with. Tries to do what he can to show he really is more than just a cocky cadet with more brains than most.
Relationships take work, Jim, was one of the last things Pike had said to him before they launched. Especially ones with you.
Well, he wasn't wrong.
So he tries, he really does.
He makes sure they're in range of a clear primary comms channel when it's time for Bones's bi-weekly vid-comm with his daughter, despite the fact that they're supposed to be halfway across the star system navigating an asteroid belt at the time, a path that would have blacked out their comms for forty-eight hours. He schedules Uhura off on her birthday while they're docked at Starbase Twelve, and kicks Spock off the Bridge three hours early with a reservation at the Captain's Lounge in one of the best jazz clubs on the 'Base. He keeps an eye on Scotty's time sheet, and when the man hits fifty hours weekly he heads down to Engineering with a container of sandwiches and helps him finish whatever he's working on, then orders him out for a full twenty-four hours' R&R doing heaven knows what, probably reading some technical manual but at least it's not working himself to death.
He knows Sulu's still a little leery of certain piloting maneuvers in a ship this huge so he runs impromptu practice drills, ostensibly to measure Engineering efficiency but really so that there will be no hesitation when the time comes to actually use those maneuvers. He on purpose pairs Chekov up with Spock in the Science labs for projects because he knows the poor kid is walking on eggshells around their First Officer, no doubt still feeling guilt over being unable to perform a transporter miracle. And sure enough, slowly, he can see that for all Spock may still be a pain in the ass about regulations and basically just tolerates Jim's presence, the guy's a damn good teacher. Chekov's flourishing, and Spock's starting to look a little more like he actually might be planning to stick around because he wants to instead of that he's just here to keep an eye on things in case Jim flies them into a supernova.
They have missions both boring and decidedly not-boring, and time passes faster than he'd ever thought possible. Before he realizes it, months have gone by, and he finds himself looking at the reminders he set up on his computer terminal: tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the day everything changed. The day it all went to hell, and their lives spun out of control forever. The day he gained these weird and wonderful people he's starting to realize are something like the only family he's ever had – and the day at least one of them lost the only family they'd ever known.
How has it been a year already?
He had briefly debated taking Spock off the duty roster tomorrow, and ended up deciding against it; just from these few months of getting to know the guy better, he's discovered they're more alike than he would have thought. And the last thing he'd want, would be to be alone with his thoughts on a day like this.
However, he knows that humans invariably suffer from foot-in-mouth disease, however well-meaning it may be, and so he does a quick shuffle of the rosters now and bumps up the departmental inspections which were scheduled for next week. It'll keep his CSO buried below decks, in the remotest of the Science labs, for the majority of the day at least, with some of the quietest and nerdiest people on the ship – who are also the most sensitive and least likely to ask questions that aren't any of their business. He cites an upcoming mission as reason for the change, stating he wants Spock to lead the away team and so needs the inspections done ASAP; a departure from the norm, but it'll do.
The next morning, he sees an automated acknowledgment on his schedule of the change, nothing more, and Uhura says she hasn't seen her boyfriend since dinner the night before; he'd requested they spend the night apart and she'd of course given him his space. She doesn't look overly concerned, just a little worried, a little sad. Jim notices her earrings today are black – one of the small signs any of them can add to the Starfleet uniform appropriate to the day.
He's honestly surprised, and a little disappointed, that there has not been any type of memorial set up by Starfleet for the day, nothing at all but a passing paragraph and a small two-minute reel of re-run footage on the newscasts. Already, it's out of sight and mind by all but those survivors who lived through its horrifically traumatizing events. It's not good publicity to remind the public you failed to stop the genocide of an entire planet, after all; why would you keep bringing it up. It's just better off swept under the great 'Fleet rug, smoothed over under cover of political correctness and focusing on positivity and the future (or the next big scandal).
Not on this ship.
He spends the first few hours on duty getting paperwork out of the way, fielding a couple of routine weekly comms from the brass about various reports, the usual, and then the alarm goes off on his padd to remind him of the time. He clicks a button to pull up his notes and presses the comm on his armrest. "Bridge to Engineering. Mr. Scott, are we in good shape for a power-down?"
From his peripheral, he sees half the Bridge crew turn to look at him, confused.
"Aye, sir, just as y'requested, she'll be ready on the dot."
"Good. Mr. Sulu," he adds, releasing the comm button, "drop us out of warp, if you please."
Sulu's too good an officer to verbally question him, but not quite good enough to prevent the are you nuts, sir look before he wheels back around and starts powering down the warp engine to drop them safely out of their warp bubble.
"Lieutenant Uhura, open a shipwide channel."
He gives her a moment to secure the channel, and then at her nod settles into his seat and starts talking, keeping one eye on the chronometer.
"All hands, this is the Captain. As most of you no doubt already know, today marks the passage of one year since the tragic events put into motion by the war criminal Nero against the Federation and against Starfleet, events which have now been given the horrifically understated title, the Battle of Vulcan.
Many of you lost classmates that day. Friends, family. Loved ones. Starfleet was decimated, losing 80% of its starship force and 92% of its junior and senior cadet graduating class." Still, that statistic makes him sick. "And the Federation lost nearly all of one of its founding members, an entire planet – a war crime for which there never really is recovery."
He's never been one to mince words, and he isn't going to now. "We cannot change the events which happened one year ago today. Nothing we will ever do can bring back the people we have lost. But the one thing we can do, and the one thing this ship at least will always do, is remember. Remember the mistakes of the past, so that we do not repeat them in the future. Remember the sacrifices that have been made, so that we appreciate the future we have. And remember those who made them, because we owe them that much and more."
He glances at the chronometer. "In less than sixty seconds, the Enterprise will be going dark for seven minutes. One for every billion souls lost, on this day one year ago. I would ask that you spend that time in recalling someone lost during the Battle of Vulcan, and share those memories with your shipmates once the silence is over." His finger moves toward the intra-comm. "We cannot change the events of the past; we can only promise to learn from them, so that they do not become someone else's memories of the future. That is the best tribute you can give to those we remember today. Kirk out." He presses the switch. "Mr. Scott, sound the countdown and initiate engine shutdown when ready."
He settles back in his chair, and ignores the murmurs that ripple around the Bridge – ones that fall instantly silent when the warning bell sounds clear over the ship's intra-comm, sounding on all decks to indicate silence. The rumble beneath their feet fades, the various chirps and beeps of machinery fade into a more muted hum, and then the lights dim into emergency lighting only. He pulls up a remote view of the Science station on his padd to access the outer cameras, and sees the lights wink out in a slow, rippling wave from aft to stern, blanketing the ship in a soft hazy darkness within.
This ship, at least, will not forget how lucky she was. A hundred and one things could have gone differently, and she would have ended up the same as all the others which jumped from Earth, the same as all those who never made it out of Vulcan's atmosphere trying to evacuate the planet. Fortune for some reason smiled upon them, Fate somehow spared them, and they should be grateful until the end of time for that.
But at the same time, grieving has no timeline, and it must be dealt with in its own way by each person. He can only hope that his actions will lead the way in speaking louder than trite words of condolence, in starting that process.
Weirdly enough, it's Uhura who actually asks him to find Spock later that evening. He'd have thought she would want to track the guy down for a cuddling session or something, but he suspects she's battling her own issues today – she was a social gal in the Academy, and she had more than just one friend on other starships that day – and besides, she informs him dryly, they still have unresolved baggage from the whole thing that they might as well do everyone a favor and deal with. Sir.
She has a point.
Spock's a hard man to find; Jim honestly didn't even know Science Lab Seventeen had a temperature-control room, or that it could be set so freaking high that he about chokes to death on air that feels like molten lava when he walks in. That's probably why the young tech outside was grinning a little evilly when he pointed it out.
"What the hell are you inspecting that requires a volcanic temperature constant?" he demands, already half-drenched with sweat.
"It does not require such a temperature. I prefer such a temperature." Wow, the sass. He breathes in air that scalds his windpipe, and decides he can excuse it today, but if Spock wants more than that he's going to have to get it from outside.
"Look, when you're done can we talk somewhere that's not going to melt my face off?"
He gets a look that's half-annoyance, half-resignation. "My inspections are unfinished, Captain. As you yourself reorganized the rosters to require their completion today –"
"How long are you going to be?" he interrupts, because he can play this game too.
Spock fidgets, but finally hedges, "No longer than twenty-two minutes, sixteen seconds."
"Good. Meet me in the aft observation lounge in twenty-five minutes, or I will come find you. And I'll bring Bones, just for the fun of it, so you better show. God, I can't even breathe in here." He turns and stumbles for the door, gasping in a lungful of cooler air as it opens and totally ignoring what he's pretty sure is Spock muttering something very unflattering in Vulcan behind him.
The aft observation lounge is one of four aboard the ship, but the least used by the crew for the simple reason that it is the smallest of the four, and is directly over Engineering. As such, it has the tendency to occasionally be subject to odd noises, smells, and temperature fluctuations that are too rapid to be immediately controlled by the room's internal sensors. Most of the crew congregate in the forward lounges and the one at the top of the ship, in one section of her transparisteel dome.
But when they're at warp, Jim likes to come here; the view is all simulated anyway, because few humanoid species can stomach the sight of space at warp, and there's something about being able to feel the ship so alive, right under his feet, humming and vibrating and breathing like a living thing, that is inexplicably soothing. He's actually nodded off in here more than once during insomnia-fueled wanderings, finally calmed by the close proximity to the heart of this beautiful ship.
Tonight, the lounge is deserted, as he'd hoped. The crew has been slightly more subdued since his announcement earlier, though he's seen knots of young officers throughout the halls and rec rooms smiling and exchanging stories as he'd asked them to do. But they have congregated in the more populated areas of the ship, which is what he'd assumed would happen, and so when Spock enters the lounge some thirty minutes after their conversation in the labs, Jim notes some of the tension immediately drains from his posture at the observation there is no one else present.
"What, did you really think I was going to drag you out for a poker game tonight of all nights?" he asks, half seriously. "I can be an asshole, yeah, but not that much of one. Please tell me you know that by now."
Spock's eyebrows clearly say I plead the fifth, but he'll let it slide, because, y'know, genocide anniversary.
"Anything I need to know about in the labs?"
"Negative. Efficiency has improved 3.8% since last month's inspection, despite the unexpected change in schedule."
"That's impressive, considering how high it already was. How terrified of you are they?"
He receives a 100% human eye-roll, something he finds hilarious every single time. "I could have delivered this report to your quarters, Captain, or in writing to be reviewed at your convenience. I do not see why I was required to deliver it here."
Geez, this is going to be like prying open an Aldebaran shellmouth. "I'm not requiring you to do anything, Spock, you can go if you want," he says quietly. "I was just…hoping, you'd stay. And talk." Hopefully that came out less needy than he feels, because this isn't about him.
He can almost see the um, how about no in his First's eyes as he tucks the padd under one arm and straightens, almost fidgets with, his tunic hem.
"I would prefer not to, sir."
"Then you're dismissed, Commander." He's never going to build a relationship here if he tries to force human behavior out of his Vulcan XO. He can only try, and hope he stumbles onto the right thing. He's failing miserably at it so far, but that seems to be par for the course in his captaincy up 'til now so it's not like it's a decline at least.
Spock gives him a nod, which in his defense looks genuinely grateful, and turns to leave. Jim goes back to watching the simulated star reflection in the windows, a beautiful purple-pink nebula in the distance and sparkling pinpoints twinkling all around. In the reflection of the glass, he sees his First pause before reaching the door, and half turn.
"Yes, Mr. Spock."
"I was unaware that Starfleet had instituted a ritual of memorialization for this day."
He shakes his head, looking absently into the reflection of a slowly drifting star. "They didn't, Spock."
He sees what looks like genuine surprise quickly be masked by that same blank expression that's been fooling no one for the last twenty-four hours, and hears a vague noise which could be interest, could be disapproval.
"The Admiralty very likely will not approve of your initiative, Captain."
"Yes, well, that's going to surprise no one, and at least it's something I can stand on," he says, a little bitterly. "I have no idea what the hell I'm doing out here, Spock, but I know one thing – they'll be toasting marshmallows on Delta Vega before I let anyone forget what's happened. When we forget history, we repeat it – or allow it to be repeated. I will not allow that to happen, not while I sit in that chair. Not now, not ever."
For a moment, only the sound of the engines pounding away beneath their feet breaks the stillness.
He rubs the back of his neck briefly, then shakes his head with a vague, rueful gesture. "And I know from experience, that someone forcing you to talk about it isn't always helpful, no matter how many shrinks say that, so. I'm not keeping you here. Just…if you need anything, tell me. Tell us."
He sees Spock hesitate, and then incline his head in acknowledgment – which is something, at least. The silence is a little less awkward now, the soothing hum of the engines wrapping around him in the stillness. It's been a year, and he still doesn't really know what they're doing out here, or how long they're going to let him putter aimlessly around the galaxy. Until then, he's going to have to just put up the bravest front he can and hope it's enough to fool everyone – and maybe he'll start believing it himself.
Movement from his peripheral causes his absent glance to flick sideways, and he sees – weirdly enough – that his First has moved a short distance back toward him rather than the door.
"You need something, Mr. Spock?" he asks dryly.
"Captain, you speak of knowing this from experience."
"Are you surprised that I'm a head case, or surprised that I'm admitting it, Spock."
"Neither." He snorts, swallowing a laugh at the brutally honest assessment, and sees something grinding to a halt momentarily in his XO's expression. "That is not precisely what I meant. What –"
"It's fine, Spock," he waves a dismissive hand, still grinning. "Go on."
"I was about to say, I do not believe…that is, I have never…expressed my regret, for utilizing your familial history as an unnecessary verbal weapon during your Academy tribunal."
Now that, is a total blindside. He turns away from the window then, blinking in surprise. "Come again?"
Spock shifts just slightly from one foot to another, a weird little tell Jim's noticed before. "It was an unnecessarily emotional gesture and one which I now regret."
A smile tugs at the corners of his lips. "Yeah, you were kind of a dick, Spock."
Annoyance pulls his XO's eyebrows together.
"But I honestly hadn't thought about it since. And anyway, if you're keeping score in that area I'm pretty sure I blew you out of the stars not many hours later, so." He shakes his head. "I appreciate it, though. Thank you."
He's already apologized at length for his own mess later in the days that followed, there's no point in bringing it all up again and causing more pain reliving it. But it's weird that Spock would bring that of all things back up; it's obviously weighing on his mind due to something Jim said.
He turns back to the window, stares out at a passing star cluster. "I never knew the old man anyway, you know," he says, conversationally.
"I am aware."
"Weird how you can miss something you never even had in the first place. Totally unscientific and illogical, to have no point of reference and still do that." He snorts, scrubs a hand over his face. "Didn't help that my mom was a total mess most of my childhood and then took off-world completely once I hit middle school, so I suppose you could say I basically lost them both, one just slower than the other. There's a reason I never celebrate my birthday."
There's silence from behind him for a minute, and he wonders if he read that wrong.
"I presume the anniversary of such a date is a…difficult, occasion."
"You could presume that, yeah." He watches a star shoot by on the screen, and shakes his head. "It gets better, I guess, but it'll always just be a difficult day. There's nothing shameful in just letting it be that, Bones finally got that through my head a couple years ago. It's a healthier way to deal with it than what I was doing before."
"What was that?" The question is actually interested, almost desperate.
"Well, when I turned eleven I drove a car off a cliff."
He laughs aloud at Spock's look of alarm, and finally turns around. "No, seriously, I did. I was a messed-up kid, who had no one around to ask for help when I didn't know how to manage my issues." He reaches out, slowly so there's plenty of warning, and gently squeezes his First's shoulder. "You have people, Spock. Just promise me when you're ready, you'll come to one of us. Okay?"
Spock's still tense, but he can see less of that wary, haunted look in his expression now, and he nods, still silent.
"If you don't want to go to Medical, fine; if you don't want to dump this on your girlfriend, fine; but then come to me, you should know I'm the last one qualified to judge."
One thing he's found, is that you can't let the dead rest in peace when you are not at peace yourself; this has not been an easy road for any of them.
Perhaps, this time next year, they'll have made it out of the darkness and into a better, brighter place.
Starfleet Medical is a blinding, scalding, sterile white which he can't decide if he hates more than the darkness that still presses on him when he closes his eyes, that one tiny hint of a voice deep inside that says if he does, he just might not open them again. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of gray area for him right now, just those two extremes.
He's barely functioning, these days, even two months after waking up – if such a dramatic resurrection can be called that – and so he thinks he maybe can be excused a little self-centeredness. But not much; while he's by no means even sure he'll ever be able to stand on a starship Bridge again, he is still the captain of a stupidly loyal crew until someone says otherwise, and he has to do what he can, whatever it may be from a bio-bed in Starfleet Medical.
Things are only just starting to calm down, the suspicion around his long recovery losing steam under more important matters in the Admiralty. Bones has finally stopped acting like he thinks Jim's going to kick it in his sleep one night and has been convinced to leave Medical for something more resembling normal shift hours (meaning fourteen instead of twenty), and Spock's finally starting to look less like a Vulcan shadow, now buried most of the day either at the Admiralty or in the Science labs somewhere doing who knows what. Uhura's taken up a position teaching linguistics at the Academy, and Jim can't tell if they're still together, taking a break, or some weird friends-with-benefits thing in-between, but something's been a little off about them that's only just now starting to settle back into place. He suspects, despite their denial, that his death had thrown a wrench in that relationship he'd never have dreamed of doing intentionally.
You really don't get it, do you, she says to him one night, when he's barely conscious and on way too many medications after a physical therapy session that's left him almost wishing he'd just stayed dead. You're what holds this crew together, Jim. The gravitational anchor in a star system. And you went nova on us. You have no idea how far out of a stable orbit you sent all of us spinning.
There's no anger in the tone, but a sort of resigned sadness that worries him, gives him the motivation he needs to stop focusing so much on himself and pay more attention to his people.
And that's when it occurs to him that while he's seen a great deal of Uhura and Spock, and Bones has been around so much he's starting to get on Jim's last shredded nerve now, and Chekov and Sulu have been by several times, even Carol stopping by more than once before she had left last month for understandably off-planet leave…he's only seen Scotty like, twice, since he's been here.
He mentions this to Bones the next morning during another embarrassing therapy session (when the hell is he going to even be able to hold a fork again, it's ridiculous), and receives an incredulous look for his pains.
"Jim, you're an idiot. 'Kay, that's enough for one morning, you can lie back now."
"Why exactly am I an idiot now?" He glares as best he can through heavy breathing. His lungs are still stupid weak, a super annoying situation that makes him more angry than the fact that he can't even walk to the lavatory and back yet.
"Look, I'm doin' the best I can trying to counsel what's left of your crew, okay? We've all got a shipload of trauma to deal with from this whole shebang, start to finish – and don't think you're not on my list, either – over one thing or another. But he's not one of 'em that's come to see me yet, and it doesn't take a psychologist to know he's probably got a whopping case of survivor's guilt."
Yeah, that would be logical.
Seeing his expression, McCoy shrugs, setting down the scanner on the nearby table. "That was pretty brutal, Jim, what you did to him in Engineering."
"Why do you think I didn't call you to say goodbye?" he asks quietly.
"Don't," and the word is sharper than shattered duochromium. Scott's not the only one battling that particular syndrome, Jim knows. "I'm not havin' this talk with you, not now. Not yet."
"Okay. I'm sorry."
"You should be." A glance at the wall chronometer, and a quiet sigh. "I have to go, I have four appointments this morning. I'll be back later."
"Sure, sure." He swallows, feeling more nausea than he had during the therapy session. "Look, can you, uhm. Ask him to come see me?"
Bones's eyes soften as he turns, padds in hand. "I'll do that. Get some rest, Jim."
"Yeah, sure," he mutters rebelliously as the doors shut behind the retreating figure. "Napping seems to be the one thing I'm doing great at right now."
He does fall asleep, though – something he's becoming a freaking champion at, apparently – and is only woken when the midday meal cart goes past his door with that god-awful scroooonk that speaks of sub-par engineering somewhere in its hover mechanisms.
He sighs, automatically tries to calm his racing heartbeat so the alarms don't go off on the bio-bed sensors, and then realizes he's not alone.
"Uh…the Doctor said to jus' sit and wait for y'to wake up, Captain, that it wouldn't be very long." His Chief Engineer blinks at him awkwardly from over the top of what looks like one of the new Starfleet Engineering Journals.
"Yeah, that's fine," he murmurs, sloppily scrubbing the sleep out of his eyes with a hand weak from lack of muscle and nerve use. "Sorry, I keep falling asleep out of nowhere."
"I'm sure 'tis to be expected, sir."
"I guess." He fumbles for the button that inclines the head of the bed, and flushes in embarrassment when his fingers won't cooperate.
"Yeah, please." Scott nods readily and pushes the button, waits for his nod and then releases it to leave him at a nearly-upright angle. "Thanks."
"No trouble, sir." The words are cheerful enough, but he can fairly feel the underlying tension in them. Scott's unease is palpable as he shifts in his chair, a careful smile in place. "How are you feeling, Captain?"
"Well, let's just say Bones is lucky I don't have the physical strength back to strangle him yet," he quips with a snort. "I'm going nuts here, Scotty. How's our ship?"
The man's face twists in honest mourning. "She's as can be expected, sir, 'twas a bad one and that's for sure. They're estimating another four months at least, in repairs and replacement work. Possibly six, depending on whether or not they decide to install advanced hardware in the computer core and expand the nacelles for the newest warp drive model."
He whistles. "That's basically a whole new refit."
"Aye, sir. She took a beating."
"But she's still alive and kicking," he murmurs, smiling. He knew she'd be salvageable, he'd felt her come back to life around him before everything went dark there in the warp core. But to hear the reassurance gives him a peacefulness he hadn't realized he needed to hear.
"Aye, sir." Scott looks down briefly at his hands, laced together under the reading-padd. "Thanks to you, Captain."
Here we go. He sighs, eyes closed for a moment, and then opens them. "Scotty, I owe you an apology."
"Captain, you dinna owe me anything of the kind, it –"
"I do, it was a dick move. I'm sorry, I just wasn't thinking about anything other than making sure no one else on the ship died up there. Including you. But it had to be hell on you, and I'm sorry."
And he is, he really is. There was a time when he'd never have apologized for anything he did aboard ship – stick by your command decisions, is the first rule of the command track. And there was a time he'd never admit to being in the wrong, to making decisions out of haste and emotion and even if they were the right decisions, that he might have gone about them the wrong way.
Even the right decisions can hurt the people he loves, and while there might have been a time he would have made those decisions and to hell with the consequences…there are more important things now, than making sure everyone knows he is in command at all costs. He's lost too much, too soon, to concern himself with his command image.
Dying puts things into perspective, just a bit.
Scotty's looking at him like he's grown a third eye, shaking his head. "Sir, if I had been on board in the first place I probably would have been able to stop the core from dropping out of alignment from the beginning, the whole thing would have never happened!"
"Are you seriously feeling guilty because I fired you?"
"Yes! No! I mean, y'fired me because I threatened to quit, Captain!"
"And you were 100% right in doing it," he replies, painful as it is to admit. "I was…gods, Scotty, I don't even know what I was doing. I was on a revenge mission, plain and simple. You did exactly what a senior officer should do, and what I expect mine to do – call me out when I'm unfit to command. And I acted like a spoiled child and fired you for it. I don't know why you bothered to even take my call later, much less risk your career and your life helping me." He looks away, still feeling the shame of that whole mission sinking over him like a wave, threatening to drown him in his own guilt.
"Jim." He feels a hand on his arm and glances back, sees his CE leaning earnestly forward in his chair. "We have all lost someone, sometime, that we love. No one blames y'for being a bit of a crazy bastard after losing the Admiral. Okay?"
He firmly swallows the sharp-cornered object that's lodged in his throat, phantom indicator of an unseen wound not yet healed. Chris Pike had been long cremated and memorialized by the time he'd awoken and really become aware of his surroundings, and as such there's been no real closure yet for him there.
"Okay," he manages, after a moment. "But then you have to stop blaming yourself for everything that happened in the warp core chamber, and you better make sure she's shipshape and star-worthy by the time I get out of here. Deal?"
"Y'drive a hard bargain, sir. But…I will do my best, Captain. I will indeed."
"Good enough for me. Now, tell me about this refit. What new goodies are we getting? If we don't get something to replace that outdated propulsion system I'm not going to be happy, the Excelsior shouldn't have better thrusters than the flagship."
"Oh, aye, that's getting a complete overhaul, Captain. And you will love the new an' improved navigational systems, sir, that's for sure and certain…"
He'd thought, for some weird reason, that everybody would be as excited as he was, to finally relaunch and get back out there in space. They've been grounded for almost a year, after all, and none of the rest of the crew have spent that year learning how to freaking walk again, for gods' sake. They have to be bored out of their minds, even if they all kept busy with one thing or another: some teaching at Starfleet Academy for a trimester or two, some working on or around Terra, some back out into space aboard short-range voyagers. But very few of them even realize what hell it's been for him – and the few who do, have gone through it with him, and know how badly they all need to get back up there, get back out there.
But it never occurred to him that there might be some of their people who really don't exactly want to leave, who aren't as pumped about the voyage – not until their first week out, when he realizes something's not quite right.
Beyond the obvious, that is.
He may still be a head case from the whole Khan debacle, that's not really in question. You don't shake that off in a matter of months, and he's very good at fooling Starfleet shrinks by now – good enough to get his baby back, at least. Good enough to take command, certainly, he'd never put his people in danger over his own issues, but that doesn't mean he doesn't still have those issues. He and Spock still have moments where they're about to ignite World War Four right there on the Bridge but for the fact that they're both still officers enough to know better, and the fact that Uhura's become extremely good at dragging one of them away before it gets too bad. He still avoids being in any kind of small glassed-in spaces alone, which he knows has to stop because, hello, turbolifts are sort of necessary and he's not always going to have a turbolift-buddy, and he's working on it, okay. And then he has Spock, who flat-out refuses to perform departmental inspections on the warp core, like hells no, which is a whole different set of issues that he's not even trying to deal with right now because, yeah. He still doesn't quite have the energy to work a sixteen-hour day like he used to, which is annoying.
All that to say, there's plenty still wrong with him, but he's still plenty ready to leave Earth despite the issues; it's not those issues he can tell is giving him this uneasy vibe on the Bridge. Something's just…off. Not bad, just…maybe a little quieter, a little more somber.
While yeah, dying does that to a man, makes him take life more seriously…surely he alone isn't responsible for killing the mood of the whole Bridge? That can't stand, if that's what he's done. He didn't think his energy was that different, and no one's said anything about it. Maybe they're just transitioning, getting through that first wave of homesickness. Maybe they've all just grown up a little too fast, and they need to take it easy.
He briefly considers the ramifications of something drastic like starting a food fight to snap everyone out of it, and decides against it because he does have almost half a brand-new crew; that's not the best way to enforce regulations their first week aboard. Besides, the lower decks seem to be in great spirits, it seems to just be the Bridge that's a little quieter than he remembers.
Something's got to give.
And then, even weirder, he's strolling aimlessly around the Bridge one lazy morning and he walks up behind the nav console in time to see his usually extremely to-the-regulation pilot scrambling to shove his private comm-link back into his uniform pocket before it can be seen.
He raises an eyebrow, more amused than anything else. As long as the guy doesn't drive them into an asteroid, he really couldn't care less who he's text-comming. "Mr. Sulu, do you need to step out and take a call?"
"No, sir. Captain."
"It's perfectly fine if you do."
"Sorry, sir." The two at the console exchange a quick glance, and Chekov hastily goes back to his work after looking back at his superior. Sulu straightens, pulls up a window on the console without looking up. "It won't happen again, Captain."
He frowns. "Like, legit, Sulu, it's fine. Is everything okay?"
"Are you lying to me? Because usually you can look me in the eye when you're talking to me." He folds his arms, drumming the fingers of one hand on the other arm.
Sulu glances back over one shoulder, offering him what looks like a genuine half-smile. "Sorry, sir. Really, Captain, nothing's wrong."
He raises his hands in surrender. "None of my business, then. Just take a break if you need to. No text-comm-ing and driving my ship, if you please."
A laugh. "Aye, sir."
He continues his rounds across the Bridge, but the event sticks with him; and it's not hard at all to track down and corner the most likely person to have the answers later that evening in Secondary Engineering. Chekov's been spending spare time down here trying to learn some more specialized Engineering skills under Scotty's watchful eye, after the debacles which happened under the poor kid's supervision with Khan, and so Jim's fortunate enough to be able to boot Scott out of the small cross-corridor which intersects with the Jefferies tube the young man's working in, effectively cornering him.
"All right, spill it, Mr. Chekov," he says, hunkering down and smiling pleasantly, completely blocking the exit with his person.
The kid is no longer intimidated by him, which is equal parts great and hilarious; he rolls his eyes and continues blow-torching whatever that panel is. "What are you speaking of, Keptin."
"You know what I'm speaking of," he retorts. "Why's Sulu acting like a weirdo all of a sudden."
"I do not know what you are talking about. If you intend to block my workspace I would appreciate the handing over of the secondary hydraulic converter. Please."
"Well, since you asked so nicely. Come on, Pavel. He's been weird since we left Earth."
"Has he." A shower of sparks.
"You're his best friend aboard, you know damn well he has. Look, I just want to help if I can."
"I do not believe you can, sir." One blue eye peeks at him around the face shield, and the young man shrugs. "There is nothing to be done."
"About what? Is something wrong at home?"
"Mm, no, not as such. Primary converter now, please. Nyet, nyet, please to not touch the plasma torch, Keptin."
"Fine, geez. Here. And that didn't sound convincing. I get the feeling he didn't want to leave Terra, Chekov."
"Of course he did not want to leave, Keptin." A final bang, and something inside the wall suddenly powers on, lighting up the rest of the tube. "Hmph, Meester Scott was correct, the couplings were corroded."
"Wait, why did he not want to leave?" He sits upright, frowning. "And why didn't I know this before we launched?"
"All respect, sir, it is a personal matter. And therefore is none of your business."
He gapes for a second, then shuts his mouth with a snap. "Okay, I guess that's fair," he mutters, pinching his forehead. "I just…there might be something I could do, you never know until you tell me."
Chekov sets down the tools, removes the face-shield with a sigh. "Keptin, I do not think there is something you can do. There are regulations. Hikaru knows this. He chose to come with us; but it does not make things easier."
"Make what things easier?"
"Ugh, you are like dog with bone. Keptin, you were down for almost thirteen months; that is a long time, in the 'Fleet."
"So he met someone, Keptin."
He blinks, and then when the kid smiles, blinks again.
"Da. Soon after you awakened."
"It is serious."
"Oh. Well, crap."
"Indeed." A melancholy shake of the head. "It is difficult, saying goodbye and not knowing when the next time will be you see someone, da?"
"No kidding." He shakes his head. Familial regulations suck, there's never been question in the 'Fleet about that. It's one reason his childhood is a nightmare he'd never wish on another kid and would fight to prevent to his dying breath. He's held for years that they should consider making an exploratory ship big enough, safe enough, that civilian family members – spouses, civil partners, children, aging parents if needed – could be allowed aboard.
He's of the opinion, and he knows Bones for one and a few psychologists in the 'Fleet are as well, that overall crew morale would improve drastically were that the case; but the 'Fleet brass aren't buying it. And, they have a point: space is dangerous, and even exploratory starships have a dangerous mortality rate too high to justify the risk right now (the Enterprise herself being a terrible example of that fact, twice over).
Duty is a hard taskmaster, and regulations don't allow for much leeway even when the two officers are aboard the same vessel, much less anywhere else. Spock and Uhura have gone through rigorous examinations by third-party Vulcan and non-Vulcan Starfleet psychologists to verify a lack of emotional compromise, and both they and Jim are well aware the Enterprise is under more heavy scrutiny due to the public knowledge of their relationship so high up in the chain of command. One rumor of compromise would be all it takes for that chain to snap, and all of them know it; he owes them a high debt, for handling it with as much finesse as they do, every day for the past couple years.
"Da. It is unfortunate."
"So that's who he was messaging this morning?"
Chekov's face creases in a smile. "Da. They have a leetle girl. He is crazy with the holo-pics."
It - wait, that might be something.
Some regulations he can't change.
But there are some he has the power to…creatively interpret. And not just his helmsman might benefit from the upending of tradition.
"Mr. Chekov, you are a genius," he shouts over one shoulder as he scrambles back down the ladder.
"Da, this I know, but why?" he hears echoing in a puzzled mutter behind him, and he grins as he heads toward his cabin to start looking up the technical regs.
He purposely is a few minutes late to alpha shift the next morning, and walks in carrying a truly giant mug of coffee, a blatant disregard for regulation that has at least four crewmen staring wide-eyed at him as he moves toward his seat. Spock merely looks up, regards him for a moment with eyebrow raised as if debating whether or not the battle is worth his time, and then simply goes back to his station with the faintest hint of a sigh, which is for some reason absolutely hilarious. Uhura on the other hand glares at him – no doubt because she'd like one of her own. She's a…less-than-chirpy person, sometimes, if she's not had enough caffeine before alpha shift.
"Morning," he says brightly, and slurps it loudly as he walks by her chair.
He hears a stifled giggle somewhere off to the left near the Environmental Control station, but ignores the rest of the chatter as he takes his seat, then spins cheerfully in the direction of the Science console.
"Mr. Spock, how many personnel do we currently have on Bridge rotation?"
"Including yourself, the reserve rotation, and the current trainees, the total is ninety-three, Captain. There are at present six officers aboard the Enterprise who have clearance to the Bridge but are not currently on a regular rotation; Doctor McCoy, Chief Engineer Scott, Yeoman Theresa Ross, Yeoman –"
He cuts off the list with an upraised hand. "Thank you, Commander, that was what I wanted to know." He really is surprised there are that many who serve on the Bridge, or at least have some kind of rotation up here; he needs to pull more off-alpha shifts and oversee those officers, make sure they're comfortable in their duties. "Lieutenant Uhura."
"Sir." The I'm still pissed at you so watch yourself hangs clearly in the air between them, and he hides a grin in his coffee cup before continuing. "Begin recording a voice memorandum, if you please, direct from the Captain to all personnel currently on any type of Bridge duty. Flag it to be sent directly to each officer's inbox as soon as it's finished recording."
She side-eyes him curiously, but starts flipping the appropriate switches, typing something briefly. "Recording ready at your command, Captain," she finally says, and he nods in thanks, standing to move up toward the recording computer. She indicates a blinking light on the busy console. "Press that to begin recording and again to end it. And for the love of gods don't touch anything else," she adds wryly, seeing his interested look flicker over her still busily working hands as they direct and re-direct messages all over the intranet of the ship.
He laughs, perches on the edge of the console as he takes a last swig of the god-awful brew supposedly programmed into the replicators as black coffee. "Okay, let's see." He pushes the button. "Computer, begin recording. Personal voice memorandum, James T. Kirk, Captain, U.S.S. Enterprise. Memo to be sent in voice and transcript form to all personnel currently occupying a roster on the Bridge duty rotation."
He sets down the coffee cup and rubs the back of his neck absently, stifling a yawn that gets him an incredulous look from his Comms Chief. He glares back with a mouthed what? As he continues.
"So, it's going to come as a huge shock to most of you I'm sure, but I've never been really big on Starfleet regulations – Guys, seriously, I'm trying to record here, can you not? – and I'm about to do away with one of the shipwide regs because, well. I want to, and I can. Seriously, Spock, it's not something that can get somebody killed, stop looking at me like that."
Uhura's trying to muffle her laughter in her sleeve, and he makes a big show of rolling his eyes and continuing. "Look, all I'm doing is getting rid of the regulation that says there are no personal items allowed on the Bridge. So. Me, I'm going to be much easier to live with if you let me have my coffee. I couldn't care less what the rest of you do, as long as it leaves the Bridge with you when your shift is over. And it isn't sentient, Mr. Santova," he adds as an afterthought, when he sees one of the Experimental Biology ensigns perk up.
Half the crew is turned in their chairs, looking at him warily, as if they can't really believe he's saying this, and he waves a hand aimlessly in the air as if to demonstrate his point. "Seriously, I don't care, bring your favorite tea, bring knick-knacks for your console, an extra seat cushion, holo-pics from home, bring a frigging plushie if you want, it's fine as long as it doesn't impede your ability to do your job."
He hears a ripple of amused conversation spread around the Bridge, and sees Chekov's eyes light up with sudden realization, connecting the dots from their conversation yesterday.
He picks up his coffee mug again and leans over, finger over the recording button. "But a word of warning: the first person who spills something on my chair gets delta shift in Waste Recycling for a month. And if I were you I'd steer clear of the Science station too, I can tell you from experience that nerve pinches do take several hours to recover from. Kirk out. Computer, end recording." There's a small chirp of acknowledgment amid a smatter of muffled laughter, and he slugs back the last of his coffee, sliding off the console. "See that everyone on the roster receives that, please, Lieutenant.
"Yes, Captain." She flicks an amused look up at him. "What exactly are you playing at, anyway?"
"Me?" He gives her his best innocent expression, and dances backward down the steps to his chair. "I just want my coffee, Lieutenant. Just my coffee. That's all."
It's only a day later that he sees the picture of a little dark-haired angel show up on Sulu's console, and if nothing else is ever said about it, well.
He really did want coffee. Win/win for everyone.
It takes him almost three hours to track the man down, and that's fairly impressive. Might be more impressive if it weren't for the stupidly complex personal transport system available to anyone with a Level Three clearance or higher on Yorktown, but still impressive. Jim's way too old for this kind of human scavenger hunting, and frankly he's too tired. It's been a hell of a three weeks for all of them, and he wants this sorted and done so that he can go back to that lonely little studio he's been given here in the 'Fleet-issue housing and just…not get up until the start of next week or someone drags him out of bed, whichever comes first.
But even if his beautiful ship is lying heart-breakingly dead on a barren planet somewhere on the far side of a nearby nebula, he is still the damn captain of the Enterprise, and he will not crash and burn along with her until his people have been seen to for the foreseeable future.
"For somebody who's threatened to chip me like a puppy on at least two dozen occasions? You're a pain in the ass to find," he finally huffs, flopping down onto the bench beside his not-quite AWOL Chief Medical Officer. Can he still claim these officers as his if there's no ship to put them on?
"You're a starship captain, not a super-spy. Ever occur to you I knew you were followin' me and I was trying to lose you?"
"Uh, yeah. You should've known to try harder if that was really the case."
"Duly noted." A weary sigh.
Jim tips his head back to catch the last of the simulated sun's rays, vaguely impressed at the technology which actually feels like a realistically warm sunset evening.
"What do you want, Jim?" McCoy's tired voice breaks into his close-eyed concentration, enough that Jim straightens up with a sigh, half-turning on the bench. "I'm really not in the mood to entertain you all night, no offense. Grief counseling's not my primary specialty, and twelve straight hours of it wears on a man."
Jim knows that's probably a low estimate, too; the Enterprise had no Ship's Counselor because he hadn't deemed it necessary at the time with McCoy and his senior staff more than qualified. He'd rather those personnel be allotted to Sciences, given their primary task of exploration. But that has come back to bite them now, because the third of his crew who survived Altamid are, understandably, in need of therapy of one kind or another, at least for the most part. And however well-meaning, no impartial third-party counselor can quite comprehend what they've just gone through. Most of his people want McCoy, simple as that; the man's a damn good shrink despite his gruff exterior and the occasional volcanic arguments reported in Sickbay, usually when it's time for the First Officer's quarterly physical exam.
Unfortunately that fact has taken an obvious toll the last three weeks, and while he's never been prouder of his CMO rising to the challenge and taking care of his people, it's never going to stop unless he takes measures to stop it.
"No entertaining needed, Bones. I'm not in the mood, and anyway you need to get back to your apartment and start packing."
McCoy side-eyes him with a tired, uncomprehending expression. "What."
"Our orders for ground leave finally came in."
"That was fast."
"I guess they didn't want to waste any time about it, after the talk of a court martial got dropped." He shrugs, waves a hand carelessly in the air. "Half the crew's already packing, last I heard."
"So…what, they're sending us out on an interim vessel? That's insane, I've barely got through initial counseling appointments with survivors, Jim."
"No, no interim vessels at least for the senior command crew. Except Uhura, she wanted to take a posting on a six-week voyage into the Medusan sector to brush up on dialects. The junior officers still have some options open to them for the next six months. But they're sending you back to Earth, Bones."
That finally gets a reaction, one of total shock. He grins, and hands over the data-padd of orders. McCoy snatches it, clicks it on and starts scanning the screen eagerly.
"Apparently a temp position at the East Coast branch of Starfleet Academy has a need for a second-trimester medical instructor and there's no one more qualified who's not actively in service, so. Guess you drew the short straw. Hope you enjoy babysitting Academy cadets for three months."
It's by no means a short straw, and they both know it; Terran postings are highly sought-after by humanoid species and rarely are given to officers who are already in deep space.
The fact that the East Coast branch of the Academy is situated only a couple hours by hovercar from his CMO's daughter's current place of residence, well.
That's total coincidence.
Total. And no one's ever going to be able to prove otherwise.
One thing he's learned, in the last three years, is that he may dislike having his father's name, but it does pay to throw it around once in a while. Saving a few million people's lives every few years himself doesn't hurt anything.
And bartering away his own Terran posting for a Yorktown one was no hardship, it's not like he has a home to return to. His family is here, what's left of them. Earth has nothing to bring him back; he belongs among the stars, with these brave and wonderful people who for some reason still want to follow him back out there, even after what's happened.
He doesn't deserve them, but he loves them with all his heart. A few months being grounded in a boring job is a small enough price to pay to make sure they get what they need while the Enterprise is being rebuilt.
"Somethin's fishy about this, Jim."
"Um, what? You've got the highest credentials and security clearance of any Chief Medical Officer in the 'Fleet, and you're at loose ends right now. What's fishy about them booting you back to Earth where you'll be of best use? You would rather be here bandaging knees and removing tonsils at Yorktown Pediatrics for six months?"
McCoy regards him suspiciously for a few moments in silence. Jim gives him his most innocent, earnest look in return, and gives a silent internal cheer when he obviously is successful; his CMO shrugs and looks back at the screen, breaking into a grudging smile.
"Well. I dunno about that. But regardless, orders are orders I guess."
"Gee, that's the spirit, Bones. They'll love your excitement in the classroom."
"Shut up. What're you gonna be doing for the next few months?"
"Right. Pull the other one, genius."
"No, seriously!" He laughs as they stand and move together out of the park toward the crowded transporter terminal. "Here on Yorktown. Tactical Strategy Instructor at the Yorktown branch of the Academy."
"Lord Almighty. Those poor kids."
"The Commodore basically said I could make up my own curriculum if I want. It's going to be awesome."
"I'm betting she's going to regret that."
"So going to regret it."
"What did Spock say about you taking up teaching?"
They move into the terminal, jostling their way through the crowd toward the nearest transporter line that will return them to the 'Fleet housing.
"I haven't told him yet. I'm having breakfast with him before he leaves tomorrow morning. Heading back to New Vulcan, since Nyota's going to be on the Victoriana for the next few weeks."
Bones side-eyes him. "You sure he's coming back?"
He half-smiles. "Yes, Bones. It's just for a few weeks. He needs to see to a few things on Ambassador Spock's estate, for one thing."
"Well, tell him if he doesn't I'll be swinging by to kick his ass before coming back here when it's time to ship out."
He laughs. "I'll tell him. We'll all be back out there again before you know it, Bones."
Maybe if he says it enough times, it'll be as convincing as he makes it sound.
He's actually a little proud of himself for figuring it out, because he's pretty sure nobody else has just yet, which is slightly surprising since there's really no secrets on this ship, not for very long. And while these two could keep a secret, secret, until the end of time, even they couldn't do it indefinitely, not on the Enterprise.
But this is probably recent. Like, he'd be willing to bet last hour recent, because…well, he just would. You spend a decade with people, you get to see them every day, get to know them, get to care about them enough – you can tell when something's off.
Something's just off, and it's weirding him out on his own Bridge, not even an hour into the second half of the day. Why could they not wait until the day was over, he doesn't know, and it's not like there's anything but professionalism here so he can't call them on anything; that would never happen, they're each too good an officer for that.
But it's giving him anxiety, so he leaps at the first opportunity that presents itself to get off the Bridge and he takes Uhura with him. She's working on logging hours for Command training, so it's not suspicious that she accompany him on Engineering departmental inspections; and so she doesn't even blink twice until he reaches over and stops the lift halfway down the shaft, locking it in place so that if needed others will re-route around it to the secondary.
"Okay, what did he do?" he asks, arms crossed.
"Don't play stupid with me. I can tell something happened. Am I looking at a normal fight here? Or is this something more serious?" She looks away for a second, lips tightening. "Nyota, I'm not asking as the captain right now, okay? Gods know you two are the most professional officers I have – but I can tell you're upset. And that alone tells me either something whopping bad happened during lunch, or he seriously pissed you off. Do I need to change the duty roster, or kick his ass, is what I'm asking."
She chokes on a strangled laugh, that then turns into one brief tear that she hastily swipes away.
It's bad, then; he's only like once, in ten years, seen her cry.
This is really bad.
"Computer, resume. Captain's Ready Room."
"Captain, I'm fine. I am not compromised."
"I'm aware of that, and I commend you for it. But we're not doing inspections right now, not like this." He exits the turbolift, and waits for her to follow. "Consider it part of your command training."
She snorts, an undignified sound made more so by obvious congestion. "Exactly what part?"
He gestures for her to precede him into the room. "Call it creative diplomacy if you like."
She slumps into one of the chairs at his round table, rests her head wearily on one hand as he moves toward the other end of the room to fiddle with the replicator. He loves his special ready room, one of the new features the Enterprise-A received after her refit – a small conference room with slightly more plush furnishings than the rest of the conference rooms aboard ship, plus a food and beverage replicator in one corner and small attached lavatory. "Please tell me you're not going to try to be my shrink."
"Nope." He makes his way back to the table with his prize and plops it down in front of her.
She sits up and stares at the concoction in consternation, and then begins to laugh.
"What the hell, Jim."
"What, I know you like them. So. Creative diplomacy." He nudges the giant sundae closer, ignoring the syrupy chocolate dripping on his conference table.
She shakes her head one more time, but eventually picks up the spoon, which she points at his face. "This is sexist."
"You're dripping on my best conference table."
"I'm not going to be an idiot and ask if you want to talk about it. But I need to know, in all seriousness. As the captain, I'm aware you're not going to let it affect your duties. But do you want me to change your shift rotations so you each have less time on alpha shift than before?"
She pokes at the ice cream. "That's not necessary."
"But is it something you'd prefer, Lieutenant."
"I don't know. Honestly, I don't. I'm still…blindsided." She looks up, blinking rapidly. "I thought we were fine, Jim. He's been a little…weird?"
"Do I need to say it?"
"Shut up. Been a little weird even for him, lately, but I didn't think it was leading up to terminating our relationship. On the day before our anniversary, no less."
He rubs his temples, shaking his head. "That doesn't make any sense, Nyota. He can make you want to kill him sometimes, but it's not usually intentional, not just for no reason. This is just being an asshole, totally out of the blue. It's not like him."
"I know! I thought he was making a really, really bad attempt at Terran humor at first." She shakes her head, blinking back another quick tear. "But it was quite serious. Almost business-like. He just said he believed we would be best suited to terminate our romantic relationship indefinitely and that I was free to engage in relations with other beings if I saw fit. It was like finishing up a contract or something."
He pauses, lifting his head. "Wait, was tomorrow your ten-year anniversary?"
She nods, spoon stuck in the ice cream. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"I dunno, it's just weird to me that it would be today of all days. What if there's some significance to it, and he just…freaked or something?"
She sets the spoon back in the bowl, frowning. Jim wheels his chair to the computer terminal on the other side of the table and pulls up the Federation law books for both Old Vulcan and New Vulcan law, and sends the New Vulcan one over to the terminal on her side. If there's nothing in there, then they'll have to turn to Federation law, Vulcan folklore, who knows what else, but if his weird hunch is right…it just seems too much to be coincidence.
Surprisingly enough, it doesn't take that long for him to find it, one obscure ancient Vulcan law that probably has been superseded by a New Vulcan one but one which Spock was probably taught as a small child and may still adhere to in stubborn tribute to his fallen planet.
He starts laughing – he can't help it, it's just so insanely stupid.
"Have you lost your mind?"
"No, but your boyfriend has," he snorts, reaching backward to slap the wall-comm. "Kirk to Bridge."
"Bridge. Go ahead, Captain."
"Please have Commander Spock report at once to my Ready Room."
"On my way, sir."
"Why are you calling him down here?" she hisses, getting up to toss all evidence of the chocolate mess in the recycling chute, then replicating a disposable cleaning wipe for the table.
"Because, according to this same ancient Vulcan mystical weirdness I'm basically that nosy brother-in-law you never asked for, and someone needs to kick his metaphorical ass for this," he replies, leaning back in his chair with his fingers interlocked.
She glares at him and barely has resumed her seat when the door opens and the Vulcan in question strides through, padd tucked under one arm and completely expressionless, though Jim can see the sudden tension in his posture when he realizes who else is waiting for him.
"Have a seat, Commander."
"Yes, Captain." Spock eyes them both and then slowly takes a chair equidistant from each at the round table, a calculated strategy move.
"Okay, I have like ten billion reports waiting for me on the upper decks so I'm not going to waste my time here. Spock, you're a dick for not explaining yourself. Just so you know. I'm not finished," he snaps, when it looks like a startled but indignant protest is forthcoming. "And what the hell were you thinking? This law is at least two thousand years old!"
The totally dumbfounded look he receives is so priceless, he wishes he had a holo-camera.
"Mm-hm, the humans have brains and can do a little basic research, did that ever occur to you?"
"That fact was never in question –"
"And we have feelings too, did that occur to you?"
"It did, but –"
"And mid-shift is not the best time to break up with anyone, by the way, that's an asshole move no matter what species you are, did that occur to you?"
"Negative, but –"
"And as an active member of Starfleet serving aboard a ship in deep space, no planetary laws apply to you while you still put two feet aboard a starship at least three hundred and forty days out of the Standard solar year. Did that occur to you, Mr. Spock?"
Spock blinks. Uhura stares at them both.
"I'm guessing that's a no."
Spock blinks again, this time with a brain-now-rebooting-please-hold look so open it fairly screams in the stillness.
"Will one of you kindly tell me what the hell you're talking about?" Uhura demands.
"Your boyfriend has commitment issues, Lieutenant." He smirks at Spock's indignant look, but notices the guy doesn't deny it, only shifts uncomfortably. "There's some weird Vulcan law dating back several centuries that says if two unbonded beings for some reason have been 'engaged in relations' for a period of ten years, then they are considered married by Vulcan law regardless of ceremony or lack thereof, yadda yadda. Hence the day before your ten-year anniversary, I'm guessing. Nothing like cutting it close, Spock."
Uhura's jaw drops, literally, which is hilarious - he's never seen anyone actually do that, and she turns to stare at her not-boyfriend. "You seriously dumped me in the middle of Officers' Mess because you're afraid of marriage?"
"…The captain's assessment of my…hesitance, was not entirely incorrect."
"What the hell, Spock!"
"In his defense, most of us have some kind of commitment issues, that's not any big secret," he points out reasonably. "And while humans would, you know, at least explain the problem and look for a loophole around it, I suppose it's more logical to just break things off before the legalities get hairy. Remember who you're dealing with, Nyota."
"You are not our relationship counselor!"
"And you aren't in a relationship. Or are you?"
"Not if he would rather just take the easy way out of said relationship!"
"If you believe that decision was easy, Nyota, then I have been remiss indeed in expressing my…regard, for our relationship."
"Yeah, I would definitely call that remiss, genius." He ignores the Look of Death and shrugs, gesturing vaguely with the data-padd he's gathering from the table. "What. Not your counselor. Besides, you want to have your drama in my Ready Room, you get commentary."
"Oh my God." Uhura pinches the bridge of her nose in exasperation. "You're the one who yanked us in here."
"Did I?" He shrugs again, standing. "Huh. Funny how that works."
"What's the maximum penalty for assaulting a commanding officer again?"
"Two to seven years in a Federation penal colony, unfortunately."
"Oh, just shut up and make up," he says dryly, backing out of the room as the doors open. "Both of you, take the rest of your shifts off, talk it out, call the family, have crazy sex, I don't care, but just figure it out, guys. I have a freaking ship to run here. Gods." He hears vague spluttering as the door closes behind him, and allows himself one brief smile before heading toward the lift and back up to the Bridge.
It does (thankfully) occur to him to turn the security cameras off in that room for the next half-hour, just in case. That conference table is his pride & joy and he really just…doesn't need to know.
The worst thing about being a starship captain, outside of the sixteen-hour work days, and the midnight duty calls, and the away mission debacles, and the three-hour Admiralty debriefings, and…anyway one of the worst things about being a starship captain, is the inherent expectation of attendance at every social function aboard ship.
Every birthday party, every half-birthday party, every un-birthday party, every holiday observance, every excuse for a holiday observance, every religious service for every species, every departmental activity, and that one horribly memorable intra-departmental 'dance-off' Sulu thankfully never tried to instigate again, he is at least expected to make an appearance, if not remain for the duration and actively participate.
He's a social animal, to some extent, but it can wear a man out. He has a very active, very young crew, and it seems as if more than once a week now, something pings on his schedule to herald another evening spent smiling and making small talk and who knows what else – and that's on the short nights.
Oh, he's well aware that no one would blame him for declining the invitations, or for making very well-founded excuses for not being able to attend. But this crew's sacrificed enough for the 'Fleet and for each other, and especially knowing what they do about the first Enterprise crew? If they're blind fools enough to follow him into uncharted space, he can damn well follow them into a rec room for a half-hour three or four times a week and repay that affection and loyalty.
Just the same, it does get exhausting. They're so young. He's well past the point where he can indulge even mildly until three in the morning and still hit alpha shift in any semblance of alertness the next morning; he has no idea how they do it. Bones categorically refuses to hand out anti-hangover medication to any crewman who asks for it before going on duty, instead requiring them to report to their supervisor as unfit for their shift or else toughing it out to learn their lesson.
But he does at least make an appearance, every time – even if it's only at the beginning of the evening, and only for fifteen minutes or so. It's worth the time, worth the effort, to see the delight it brings to the lower decks officers who clearly aren't expecting him to show, and he hopes the gesture speaks louder than he's ever going to be able to say to these insanely amazing men and women who are crazy enough to risk their lives every day out in the void with him.
But there are times, when it wears on him. For all his attitude and swagger, he's not the extreme extrovert people think him to be – at least not anymore.
Dying does that to a man.
So does losing two-thirds of your crew, crashing and burning alongside your hopes and dreams not that long ago.
But they pick themselves up, and life goes on, as it's wont to do. And they go on with her, because that is what they do; yet there are days he finds himself starting to fade into that edgy, uneasy void again. Days where everything blends together into one long, seamless, endless, interminable twenty-four-hour-long stretch of nothing. Hours, days, where he wishes for something, anything, to happen and shake him out of the haze but at the same time wishes he could just…stop. Stop having to sign dozens of reports every day, have pointless debriefings, make operational decisions, what few he gets to make in this rigid 'Fleet-issued mission. Maybe sleep for a week, maybe just sit in his cabin and stare at the wall. It's not like he's needed on the Bridge, Spock would make the same decisions. Hell, any idiot from Ops would make the same decisions. He's just…extraneous, at times like these. Or maybe it just feels that way. Except he doesn't really feel anything, on days like these. Not every day, certainly - just days like these.
Whatever, he doesn't even know.
It's days like these, when the thought of making an appearance at one of the crew social functions almost literally turns his stomach, and he has to dredge the murky bottom of his command training for the right words and the practiced smile and the completely believable act of bravado that he's perfected since childhood. He says the right things, makes the right toasts, sometimes plays the right games or participates in the right rituals, and at some point in the night takes his leave and slips away in the chaos.
Somehow, no one ever seems to notice he always arrives and leaves alone.
Bones does notice when he stops showing up to breakfast in Officers' Mess, fusses at him for a couple of days, but ultimately leaves him be, a change in their dynamic that clearly says you're a grownup now, Jim, act like one. It's a welcome departure from the norm, and he's relieved to not have to make an attempt at explaining why he just doesn't feel like getting out of bed or like it's really worth going all the way down to Mess in the mornings right now on the off chance he'll find someone up and not already engaged to share a bowl of oatmeal with. It's just not worth the effort.
Rather, it's easier to snag a cup of coffee on his way to the Bridge, and sneak off for an earlier lunch so that he doesn't get stuck in the middle of the mid-shift rush. Officers' Mess can be one of the loudest places on the ship during alpha shift change, and it's a madhouse during the usual lunch hour. He just doesn't feel like dealing with it these days.
Besides, he has too much work to do. He'll be damned if they're ever caught with their pants down again like they did on Altamid, so every mission briefing they receive – however innocuous it may seem – is scanned by him in minutae until he basically has it memorized, even before Communications is done picking it apart for important details. He will lose no one else, no other ship, due to his own oversight or his own gullibility, ever again.
Now, a year out from their relaunch from Yorktown on a second five-year mission, he'd like to say he's a better, wiser captain; but he's afraid he may only be more cautious. Another man might call it paranoid.
It'll have to do.
The one-year anniversary of their second launch is met with – of course – a shipwide celebration, because nobody parties like the Enterprise parties, according to his very chirpy, very excitable young yeoman who has apparently been drafted into helping decorate the primary rec room for the event after his duties for the day were concluded.
Jim had sent him off two hours early because it was that or kill the kid because he wouldn't shut up, dear gods.
But he's put this off as long as he can; the celebration's already underway and he can't be too late, not to this one. Even if it feels more like just inviting Murphy's Law to take a potshot at them than anything else right now, when he's in one of these dark stints.
He reaches for the dress uniform with a sigh, hoping the night passes quickly.
The holodeck is thankfully deserted at this time of ship's night, despite the fact that it usually is in high demand around the clock, being the newest and most fascinating development of technology the 'Fleet has bestowed upon exploratory starships. But everyone appears to be either at the party or covering the shifts of those who are, thankfully; the roster shows it will be empty until 0400 hours so he has a good ninety minutes to himself. That should be enough time to push back the darkness pulling at him, a menacing shadow lurking just out of reach at the edge of his self-control. This has been one of the worst days in a while, he has to get it together.
He lets the entrance disappear behind him, melting away into the silence, and exhales slowly, eyes closed against the darkness, the racing of a ridiculously fast heartbeat.
"Please specify program."
The yawing expanse of darkness, lit faintly by emergency pathways on the floor, is pressing on him even through closed eyes. "Access personal program databanks: Kirk, James T., Captain."
"Load program Terran Nature Simulation Four."
Around him the air starts to shift with an onslaught of replicated sensory perceptions. A breeze suddenly whirls through the room, strong enough to shift the swinging medals on his dress jacket, carrying with it the heady, sweet scent of freshly-cut grass – free of the allergens which would trigger an attack to end all attacks were he actually on Earth – and something more floral. The air warms just enough to be comfortable after the chill of the empty deck, and he finally opens his eyes to a fairly passable replication of a Terran sunset, all reds and oranges and purples glowing over top of an endless field of …sunflowers and wheat?
"Well, it is an improvement on the endless acres of soybeans, Computer," he says, with a small laugh.
"Never mind. Increase temperature ten degrees."
He tosses the stupid medal-covered jacket into a careless pile and flops down in a sprawl atop the small grass-covered patch obviously placed there for that purpose, judging from the heavy padding he feels upon lying back, and closes his eyes, trying to shut his mind down for a few minutes. These days it feels like he's just going a thousand parsecs a minute, and even though he's so tired, he can't seem to actually sleep well because there's so much going on in his brain.
He'd even broken down and asked Spock to try and teach him how to meditate, some three or four months ago, it had gotten that bad – only to find out (to both their amusement, he has to admit) that he's apparently what the Vulcans would genteelly call a lost cause. His mind is just not orderly enough to focus that well, and Spock had about (literally) had an aneurysm trying to teach him, bless his kind Vulcan heart.
Unfortunately, that meant Jim was back to square one in trying to manage the chaos by himself, because there's no way in hell he's going to foist his own issues off on his staff and there's a reason he skated through the Academy with a reputation so far from his real character that no one ever knew the difference: he's an amazing actor. He'll literally fall apart at the seams before anyone notices something's wrong, and not just due to command training (though that's a huge part of it too).
He exhales slowly, tries to turn off that part of his mind that's screaming SHIP BUSINESS at him, tries to forget about the sixteen reports he knows for sure are waiting for him back in his quarters and the two dozen more that probably are, and the seven or eight that he really should have taken care of but that his senior staff probably were kind enough to take off his plate because they're awesome like that and bail him out when he's incompetent.
And those are just the ones from…it's not exactly today, since it's past midnight, those are the ones from yesterday; it's a whole new day aboard the Enterprise, and he hasn't even been back to his cabin yet since this afternoon right after alpha shift. Sometimes he wonders if he might be better off just camping out on the Bridge instead of bothering to go back to Deck Five.
And sometimes he wonders if he could just stay on Deck Five and if anybody would really notice or mind if he just didn't show up to the Bridge; it's not like he does much other than sit there, take up space and sign things, sometimes annoy his people by looking over their shoulders. All four shifts could come and go around him and nobody would really notice the difference any more than a new hardware patch on their console interfaces.
Gods, he's so tired.
Even the relaxing atmosphere of the holodeck doesn't knock out ten years of honed Starfleet reflexes and ten more of self-defensive ones, and he comes awake startled and ready to swing at whoever's in his personal space.
Said whoever is apparently well-practiced enough to deftly duck the wild swing and move back, sighing. "Can you not try to kill me until there's a good reason for it, Jim?"
Bones. Why in the world the man felt the need to bust into his holodeck simulation is anyone's guess, but at least it's not some random crewman catching his captain napping in a sunflower field.
He drops his hands back to his chest, trying to still his racing heartbeat. Eyes closed, he takes a deep breath. "What are you doing in here. And why are you not in bed."
"I was about to ask you the same thing, Jim."
"I was trying to relax for a few minutes after that stupid party, that's all. I dozed off." He opens his eyes, glaring in annoyance. "How is that an excuse for you to butt into my personal holodeck simulations? You're always after me to use this thing, I would think you'd be glad to see me in here actually using it."
Bones settles down on the floor, legs crossed comfortably underneath him, and gives him a weird look.
"What?" he demands, rubbing his head.
"Jim, it's almost 0945 hours."
He bolts upright, nearly cracking his CMO in the head with the gesture, and starts fumbling for his jacket. "It what?"
"For pity's sake, calm down."
"Calm down? I was supposed to be on the Bridge two hours ago!"
"And they all know you're not coming, so sit your ass back down before I decide to do it for you." Bones glares at him until he collapses more than sits back down, hands scrubbing down his face. Damn it, they're shaking again, they've been doing that lately. "Now. I already relieved you of duty for at least the day, and it'll be longer than that if you don't tell me what's going on with you."
"Nothing's going on with me. And they're going to think I just have a hangover and can't manage it. Thanks for that."
"Give them a little credit by now, Jim. Everybody knows you don't drink the night before a shift, and besides you weren't exactly Mr. Life-of-the-Party last night."
"Not exactly the way a captain behaves, Bones."
"It wasn't a criticism. But something's been up with you, Jim. Your whole staff has noticed."
"You're the only one pullin' that, Jim. None of us are as stupid as you seem to think we are, and why you feel like you need to put on an act with us after all this time, I got no idea – but regardless, you're not as good at it as you used to be. We know. And you're better off just owning up to it than wearin' yourself out trying to be perfect when we all know you're not."
He swallows hard. "I'm fine, Bones."
"You just fell asleep in the holodeck, Jim. Usually I have to force you to take some time off in here, and you knew it was booked for the rest of the day by your people. That's not like you."
"Crap, I have to apologize to Sulu, he had the thing from 0400 until 0800 for his fencing classes…"
"Don't bother. He's the one who came to find me about an hour ago, since he was supposed to turn it over to Chekov and that little blonde he's seeing from Hydroponics. Rescheduled them for later in the week, told the girl it was malfunctioning. Then the two of them came and got me. You're scarin' your people, Jim. It has to stop."
"There's nothing to stop, Bones. I haven't been sleeping well, so I happened to doze off when the stupid fake sun set in here. Geez, you're like a dog with a bone." He hauls himself to his feet, glaring. "Yes, it's inexcusable, and I'll take being relieved for a day, I'm not a total idiot. I can't be falling asleep on the Bridge or something. But stop searching for a conspiracy where there isn't one." He snatches up his jacket and moves toward the door of the holodeck, leaving his CMO still sitting on the simulated grass, watching him.
"It's not searching when it's staring me in the face, Jim," he hears called from behind him, the words tinged with a hint of sad resignation. "That second PhD after my name isn't just for decoration, you know."
The second one being for xenopsychology, with a focus on trauma psych.
Like there isn't enough trauma on this ship to go around already without her captain having a midlife-crisis because he can't handle the pressure.
So not happening.
He leaves the room without a look back.
He goes back to bed, because he might as well at this point, and he half-expects to be rousted out of it by his well-intentioned but horrendously annoying CMO at some point in the evening – but, strangely enough, all's quiet on that front. On all fronts, actually; no one bothers him, not so much as a report pings his inbox all day. Not that he feels like getting up and doing them, but still. It's weird, and it's suspicious.
Suspicious enough to raise a red flag in the back of his mind when he finally does get a message, from Bones, asking if he's planning on coming down to dinner or does he prefer being dragged down by whatever means necessary.
He knows from experience the man is fully capable of doing it, too, and because he just really doesn't feel like putting up a fight he gets up, has a quick shower, pulls himself together into some semblance of his normal state and heads down to Officers' Mess. It's a little later than usual, just after the evening rush, so the hall's not very crowded, just a few stragglers scattered along the perimeter. Most of the upper decks officers have already concluded their meals and left for the evening's duties or entertainment, whatever the case may be.
Most except for…yeah, he can spot an ambush a mile away, and no way in hell is he doing this here.
He turns to leave before they can see him, and nearly crashes into six-feet-two of unmoving blue Science uniform.
"Oh, come on!"
"Doctor McCoy was correct, then, in his presumption that you would attempt to flee in the face of enforced social interaction."
"If you mean leave before I get pissed enough to break the rule about not decking another officer on my own ship? You got it in one, Spock. Now move."
The use of his name, in an open place like Officers' Mess, stops him cold; Spock's serious. He exhales, slowly, and folds his arms across his chest. "What."
"Whatever you believe this to be, you are incorrect. If you will recall, it has been three-point-two-five weeks since the alpha-shift Bridge crew has been able to share a meal together, primarily due to your or my schedules. Your people simply wish to spend time with you, Captain."
"And this has nothing to do with Bones putting you up to something."
"Really, Captain. Has the doctor ever been able to influence my actions in any way, particularly where human emotional behaviors are concerned?"
He laughs, despite himself. "You almost have me convinced, Mr. Spock."
"I assure you, Captain, there is nothing planned but a meal. Please."
"Good god, don't drag out the eyes, I'm coming. Geez." He shakes his head, turns around with a resigned sigh that's only half-serious. It's no wonder Spock and Uhura's fights never last longer than a few hours, the dude has a puppy-eye look that would melt a Klingon warrior's heart. They make a small detour past the meal replicators, where he jabs a careless finger at the first option that pops up on his weekly meal card and ignores Spock's slightly disapproving eye when he doesn't even read the title of it first. The unit finally chimes way too cheerfully and spits out a chicken sandwich, fruit cup and coffee at him, which probably explains the disapproval a little more, but whatever, one cup of coffee's literally not going to affect his insomnia at all so who cares. And knowing Bones, the man probably went in and reprogrammed all his meal options this afternoon today anyway so it's probably decaf.
They walk up to the long table in the back corner of the Mess which has come to be where his primary Bridge crew tend to congregate when they manage to have coinciding meal times, somewhat secluded behind a half-partition made from three of the weird Norsandi dayshade plants the Botany department has taken upon themselves to furnish the hall with. The twisting, corkscrewy leaves make a mess for the cleaning bots, shed completely as they are every evening, but the beautiful eight-inch purple flowers that bloom mid-morning completely without the aid of any sunlight, artificial or otherwise, are a miracle of xenobotanical science and so they're tolerated without at least audible complaint from Maintenance or anyone else aboard.
"Evenin', Jim." Bones points a fork at the empty chair, his usual at the head of the table, and he really wishes that wasn't the case now because it's prime staring position from basically every angle.
"Keptin, how are you feeling?"
"Better, Mr. Chekov, thank you." He plops into the chair with a silent sigh, and gestures toward his helmsman and navigator with a nod. "Apparently I have now reached the age where I no longer get drunk at parties, I just fall asleep like an old man immediately afterwards. You have my apologies, gentlemen. I owe you a holodeck date apiece."
"It really wasn't a big deal, sir." Sulu eyes him over a water glass but ultimately just seems to shrug it off as legit.
"Well, just the same. I appreciate your covering my snoring ass." He chomps on his sandwich, and forces a smile through the rubbery chicken and egg mix, making Bones roll his eyes and Uhura wrinkle her nose in mild exasperation. "So. What'd I miss today?"
"Literally nothing of importance, Captain," his Communications chief responds, picking a weird-looking replicated veggie out of her vegetarian burger and dropping it off to the side on her plate. Scotty leans over briefly to take a look at it, obviously horrified one of his precious machines isn't functioning at 100%, and Jim can just see the memos being composed in his head about the anomaly. She waves a French fry in the air to punctuate her point. "We're still at warp, the universe is still in existence, crew efficiency remains at the exact same percentage it was twenty-four hours ago. The world doesn't stop just because you take a health day, sir."
He clears his throat, studies his sandwich. "Good to know."
"So it isn't going to stop if you take a mental health day when you need one either."
He chokes on a chunk of chicken salad, more because of the utterly horrified look Spock is giving his girlfriend across the table than at the bluntness of her statement, delivered in the exact same tone and punctuated by another French fry as if they were just casually discussing the weather or something.
She raises an eyebrow at him as if in challenge, and he tips his coffee cup in acknowledgment before draining it, ignoring the eyes boring into his head from down the table. Loyal before all else, Bones is gearing up to lay into her, he knows, and he holds up a hand when he's finished to stop the defensive tirade before it begins.
Then he turns to his left. "Commander, I believe I told you I was uninterested in walking into an ambush," he says calmly, pleasantly. Dangerously.
A hint of panic – and guilt, that's definitely guilt, damn him – is lurking in the back of his First's eyes. "You did, sir."
And that seals it, they don't throw titles around like that anymore when not talking official business unless something's wrong, or one of them's seriously pissed. Or seriously freaked out.
"Don't take your issues out on him, he was just the messenger you were least likely to shoot." Uhura gives him a pointed look from his right. "You're not the only chessmaster at this table, Captain."
Fair point, if one he is past caring enough about to admit.
The sandwich tastes more like cardboard now, so he drops it back onto the plate and wraps his hands around the empty coffee cup instead to keep them still.
"Jim, I told 'em it –"
"I don't want to hear it, Doctor."
He really, really doesn't. If his entire staff has been talking about him behind his back, then this has gotten far too out of hand. Even rumors of something like this have been enough to collapse command chains on other starships. And while he has zero doubt that he has the most loyal crew in the 'Fleet – they've proven that, beyond question – it doesn't change the fact that sometimes that in itself can have bigger pitfalls than a simple business relationship.
These people know things about him he's never even considered telling his own mother. That familiarity is a dangerous liability.
"It's not what you think, sir," Sulu speaks up from down the table, and Jim again notes that he seems to be the only one after Uhura brave enough to even try to take him on right now. Command potential, Jim needs to remember that. He'll make a good captain someday and Jim needs to get him into training for it so he's ready for a promotion when they dock after this mission's over.
"Well, you all do seem to be the experts in what I think, don't you." His words aren't angry, just that same calm, resigned tone he's been practicing for the last few weeks.
"Cut the crap, Jim." Uhura kicks him lightly under the table. "The hissy fit's not a good look on you. Although it's better than that bizarre fake smile you've been wearing for weeks now."
"You're out of line, Lieutenant."
"Put me on report, sir. I'd love to actually see you get pissed at someone, it would be a nice change."
He hears an incredulous mutter from somewhere down the table, and whips his head that direction. Four pairs of eyes blink innocently at him, totally silent.
He sighs, summons up an actually genuine look of affection for them – because they do mean well, after all – and shakes his head. "Bones, seriously, what in the world have you been telling them?"
"Not a damn word, Jim."
"Ugh. Seriously, guys. I'm a little tired. And I'd like shore leave, just like the rest of the ship would. I dunno what else you want me to say."
"Considering last time you voluntarily took shore leave was, like, a year ago? And it was more like the Commander here physically dragging you to the transporter pad and off the ship for a super boring museum tour? That's not exactly reassuring, sir." Sulu just raises an eyebrow to meet his glare. "What, it's true."
"Da, I vas there."
"I dinna think he asked ye, laddie."
Chekov shrugs, that mop of hair he's trying to grow out flying all over the place as he leans forward, arms folded on the table. "I do not know why this is such epic deal. All officers are allotted mental health days for a reason. I myself, took them regularly after the incident with the Vengeance, Keptin."
He stares down the table for a second, processing that.
Scotty frowns. "Ye dinna tell me that, laddie. All those times –"
"Aye, sir, that was why. I was not in good place after what happened to the ship with myself in charge of Engineering. They told me it was guilt, depression…you name, I was feeling it. Very bad."
"Chekov, that was my fault for bypassing the chain of command and shoving you into that position in the first place," he sighs. Yet another of his command failures – gods, he was so young and stupid! – and one he didn't even know about until now.
"That is, how you say it. Bullsheet."
Uhura snorts, covering a giggle with another French fry. Jim cracks a small smile.
"But it is, Keptin." The young man shrug. "Was to be expected."
"Frankly, I'm surprised anyone on this flyin' death trap's passed a psych scan in the last three years," McCoy interjects darkly from around his tea glass.
"Not exactly helping here, Doc."
"Did I ask you, Lieutenant?"
"Zip it, both of you." Uhura points a fry down the table, then turns back to him, expression more serious. "You are aware we go to couples' counseling once a week, right?" she asks, tilting her head slightly in question.
"Wait, what?" Judging by the wide eyes and looks of general WTF-ery being generated around the table, this isn't just news to him. Except for Bones, he's yawning. Of course he knew.
"The lieutenant is correct, Captain."
"You go to couples' counseling? What the hell for?"
"Counseling," Spock says, dead-pan.
He glares at his First as the table erupts in laughter.
Uhura snorts, shoving her plate aside. "Preventative inter-special relationship counseling. Deep space is hard on relationships, Jim. So is dating a superior officer, or a subordinate. Interspecial relationships have different difficulties, and we both have clear trauma in our pasts just like everyone on this ship does. And even same-species couples go to counseling just to keep their communications clear and open. There's no shame in that."
"Ben and I had to do the same remotely, that first two years out from Earth. The distance was straining our relationship something bad, Captain. Doc here's a damn good psychologist." Sulu jerks a thumb over his shoulder toward their CMO, who shifts uncomfortably at the attention.
"Well, tha' makes me feel a wee bit better about callin' it in periodically for aboot a month after that disaster on Cestus Prime," Scotty volunteers brightly, toasting them all with what Jim has to have faith is just synthehol. "Aye, but the flashbacks were murder, Jim. Not somethin' a man can control, either."
"Scotty, why the hell didn't you say something?"
"I did, sir. I took m'self off the duty roster and told Lieutenant Masters to take over, every time," his CE says pointedly.
Okay, he's beginning to sense a pattern here.
"Jim." He glances up, and sees Bones setting down his empty glass before restlessly folding his arms in a defensive gesture.
"You remember four years ago when you insisted every command officer had to learn how to fly basic aircraft in case of emergencies?"
"Yeah, you wanted to murder me in my sleep. Came in handy two years later at the Battle of Yorktown, though."
"Right on both counts," McCoy says dryly. "Also not the point I was getting at."
"Sorry. What was the point."
"You know damn well how I feel about tiny ships and space and you insisted anyway."
"I had to, Bones, you know that."
"I'm aware. Doesn't mean I could control how I feel about those tiny flyin' tin cans we call shuttles."
Sulu blinks. "I did half your flying lessons, Doc, you seemed fine to me."
McCoy leans back, a half-cynical smile twisting at his features. "That's called anti-anxiety medication, Lieutenant."
"I think it should be a last resort if possible in most cases, and while it's not habit-forming I prefer to find a better long-term solution for my patients. I could give you the whole medical code of ethics about mental health prescriptions – but there's never any shame in getting the help you need, kid, chemically or otherwise. Sometimes it's the only option, and sometimes it's just the best option."
That, is something he'd never have guessed, not in a million years.
"And it wasn't a long-term solution, wasn't necessary long-term. But I sure as hell needed it that first few months if I was actually going to focus on learning to fly that metal box. So. Don't let me see any of you – any of you – trying to push through something you can't without help." Knowing eyes flick to his pointedly. "Sometimes it just flat doesn't work, and you have to tell somebody what it is."
Jim looks down at his coffee cup, rotates it slowly and watches the droplets inside slide around in a slow circle.
"I don't know," he says, almost to himself.
"What was that, Jim?"
"I don't know, what it is," he says, clenching the cup. "That's what's so…stupid, about it. It's nothing."
"It's not nothing, obviously," Uhura remonstrates gently.
"Okay, it's not nothing, exactly, it's just…"
"It is, rather, the absence of anything with meaning," Spock interjects quietly, causing him to look up in surprise, and the table to fall suddenly silent. "As if you could fade away and nothing around you would take notice, or even change."
He stares across the table, barely able to breathe.
"How…" His words die somewhere inside even as his hands clench convulsively around the empty cup. Ever since Altamid, he's never utilized his personal logs again as actually, truly personal – just in case. And even if he wanted to, he's not sure he could actually vocalize anything properly.
There's only one way, anyone could actually know what he's experiencing.
He drops the cup and pushes his chair back to stand, suddenly chilled despite the warmth of the room.
"Walk with me?" he asks quietly, and without a word Spock immediately stands to follow him, dinner still half-eaten. Right, that was rude. He opens his mouth to rescind the request, only to have Spock stop him with a brief gesture, glancing down the table.
"Go, go." Bones makes a shooing motion at them. "Leave the damn trays, just get."
Uhura gives them both an encouraging smile as they leave, threading through the empty tables.
He breathes a little easier when they're in the sparsely-populated corridor again, despite the fact that the Mess hadn't even been crowded. He conjures up a smile and nod for the few crewmen they pass on their way down the hall, pauses to take and sign a padd from an eager yeoman who jumps on the opportunity, stops to inquire with the appropriate concern about an incident from a trio of blue-garbed Medical techs who are obviously on their way back from somewhere armed with medical kits. Stops to take another report from a passing Engineer, chats with a couple of Ops personnel who are on their way to Mess, off-duty for the night.
Finally he waves his wrist transponder in front of the access pad of the aft observation lounge, grateful it's on the same deck as the Officers' Mess, and breathes a sigh of relief to find it's completely unoccupied.
He collapses more than sits on one of the long sofas in front of the observation windows and leans back, pinching his forehead wearily.
Movement to his right and the creak of springs tells him Spock's sat beside him at the other end of the sofa instead of the armchairs, which is a little weird since Jim's taking up more than half of it with his own careless sprawl, but this is a more personal conversation than they're used to having so it's probably less awkward that way.
"You are aware, that despite your periodic doubts to the contrary, you are and always have been the captain that this ship most needs?"
His eyes fly open, completely blindsided by that quiet non sequitur coming out of the half-darkness, only to see that it's apparently totally genuine; his XO looks as calm and vaguely businesslike as if he's just given a report from one of the Science labs.
"That's not exactly an unbiased or scientific quantification, now is it, Mr. Spock?" Straightening on the sofa, he tucks one leg up underneath him and turns so his back's against the armrest in a more comfortable conversational position.
"Perhaps. However, a lack of quantifiable data does not disprove a hypothesis when the evidence and results prove it to be true."
"I question your standard of measure if you consider those results definitive proof. And you the Chief Science Officer." He's only half-joking.
Spock's eyebrows move up a fraction. "I believe you are attempting, not very expertly, to divert the conversation from your intent upon entering this room, Captain. My statement was not invitation for debate on an established fact."
It's been a while since he's been the subject of a Vulcan verbal smackdown, but this one only makes him smile, slightly warmed by the reassurance. He shouldn't need it, after all this time, but that doesn't make it any less welcome.
"Fine. Officially back on course." He rubs the back of his neck uneasily, trying to figure out how to begin this touchy topic without rampantly running over every Vulcan emotional protocol in existence. "I…I'm not okay, Spock."
"I am aware." The words are gentle, the tone non-accusatory, but they hit hard just the same.
He winces. "It's been that obvious, huh."
"It has not. In fact, I commend your ability to successfully hide behind the demands of your command appearance, at least well enough to deceive the majority of your crew."
"I'm sensing a but."
"However, I do not believe you have been as successful with those who have been in close contact with you for the past eight years or more."
"You being one of those. Gold star for you, Commander."
"Your use of sarcasm as an attempt to cover emotional distress is as unsuccessful as it has been the other two hundred and sixty-three times you have utilized the tactic in the years I have been in your acquaintance."
"Two hundred and sixty-three." He snorts, shaking his head. "And you wonder why I try to utilize that tactic, as you put it. But apparently I'm not as good an actor as I thought."
"That is a component of but not the entire truth."
He tilts his head in question. "Specify."
Spock looks down at his hands for a moment. "You are not the only crewman who learned valuable lessons from the Enterprise's data leak prior to the Battle of Yorktown, Captain."
He cringes internally at the memory. One of the worst moments of his professional career was realizing his personal logs had been part of how Krall had analyzed how to lure in the Enterprise, and he'll never forget hearing his personal thoughts loudly displayed for an entire courtroom at his brief court martial after Altamid. He'd of course been acquitted, the hearing more protocol than actual accusation – but that leak had been the catalyst, and it hadn't been pleasant, knowing his mental turmoil had just become public knowledge to at least several higher-ups and his primary command chain in that courtroom.
"Meaning what, exactly? That I have a bad habit of internalizing things? Pretty sure that was already public knowledge," he says, not without humor.
"Negative." Spock side-eyes him, looking troubled. "It was…disconcerting, to learn the contents of your personal logs, and to learn that no one had seen indications of your corresponding mental state. Such a situation should never have been permitted to occur once, and most definitely not a second time."
That honestly hadn't occurred to him. He had been in a weird place right about then, some spiraling dark funk that he had no idea how to break out of – one that had driven him to drastic change, one that had almost destroyed his crew in a totally different way than Altamid unfortunately had done. One that would have broken apart his command chain more effectively than any shipwreck, that probably would have scattered his crew to the stellar winds and changed their careers forever. But he'd never said a word of his struggle to anyone, other than a few morose conversations to Bones which he'd chalked up to getting older or away missions gone wrong or a dozen other things that could easily be explained away.
His surprise must show on his face, because Spock turns toward him, eyebrow raised. "This did not occur to you?"
"No, honestly, it hadn't crossed my mind until you said something just now." He frowns, tapping a finger absently on the couch. "But you're right, it was something like this. Really like this, actually. Just not quite as…bad," he finishes lamely, lacking the words to really verbalize his feelings.
"The similarities had become evident to me."
"Obviously." He shakes his head. "Great. All Command needs is one rumor that I'm mentally unstable and they have an excuse to pull me from active duty. There's your rumor and confirmation, all in one."
"While there is evidence to support a cyclical need for attention to your mental health and wellbeing, there is hardly reason to believe you are clinically insane, Captain. Nor would anyone in Medical be foolish enough to even hint as much to Starfleet Command without some slight creative liberties with the Enterprise's daily written records and what I believe you humans call a 'Plan B,' were that the situation," Spock says primly.
That startles a laugh from him. "Did you seriously just say you'd doctor the ship's logs and make sure you had a backup plan if I ever become a total head case?"
Spock looks shifty as hell.
"My God, I've corrupted an innocent."
"That has always been one of your strengths, sir."
He grins, a little wistfully, and watches a star-cluster pass on the window screens before them. The looming shadows still lurk around him, but they've been temporarily driven back by the warmth of his First's reassurance; something about Spock's presence has always had a calming effect on him, one reason why they work in an almost disturbingly symbiotic synchronicity during a conflict. He honestly has no idea what he'd do without this weird and wonderful little family he's built, but something tells him the balance of the universe itself would never be the same if he'd been given any other First Officer in the 'Fleet. It's pure luck that they're still together after all these years, a stroke of good fortune that he rarely has seen elsewhere in his life. One of the exceedingly few things that's kept him sane when the whole world has been burning around him, that anchors him when he can't stop drifting like a shuttle without a nav system.
He rubs his eyes briefly, sitting back with a sigh. "I don't know what's going on with me, Spock."
"Have you sought out Doctor McCoy's medical advice?"
"Uh, no. He's stalked me plenty about it, I am not going to volunteer for more psychotherapy. And it's not pride, either," he adds, holding up a hand to stop the mild admonishment that's forthcoming. "He just…we've had this argument, before. He believes in therapy by confrontation. That's never been how I deal with things. Like, ever."
"And your own methods have been successful for you, thus far?" Spock's eyebrow sass is off the charts.
"I never said they were," he retorts. "But I dare you to put my psych scans up against any other captain's in the 'Fleet. You know what you'll find?"
"The fact that you are capable of deceiving them in a manner any full-blooded Vulcan would take pride in? This is not surprising, Jim."
"What other option do I have, exactly? You know as well as I do what they teach you in command training about faking it until it becomes reality."
"I believe I could number on one hand the times you have implemented the textbook training suggestions for command officers."
"That's not the point!"
"Negative. The point, as you state it, would be that this façade may be necessary at times, especially with an untrained crew. However, after this time, yours is far from that, Jim. Therefore, such a façade is not necessary."
He sighs, rubs the back of his neck. "That's kind of you, Spock. But we all have better things to do than unpack my particular brand of baggage. I just need to figure out how to…get over it."
"I believe I am qualified to advise upon the futility of such a strategy."
He glances sideways, and finally deflates with a sigh. "Yeah, I had the feeling you would be." Dragging his hands slowly down his face, he shakes his head. "There's only one way you'd have known what to say back there, isn't there."
Spock shifts slightly. "It is not an easy thing to speak of," he replies, wary.
"I'm not asking you to, not after all this time. I just…how did you deal with it?" He looks up, still fidgeting with the sleeve of his uniform tunic in aimless agitation.
Spock's eyebrows rise slightly, a gesture of contemplation. "I do not have a satisfactory answer for that question, Captain. My own initial methods of…you humans call it, coping, were hardly healthy. It was some time before I began to find my way back from that place."
"I remember," he says softly. He's never going to forget some of those early days – there had been good ones, certainly, but there had been more than one before that fateful hour in the volcano on Nibiru when he suspected they might just crash and burn before they'd even had a chance to find their own way around each other, around their own crew. "But you did find your way back."
"You know I do better with specifics, Spock. I'm open to suggestions." He twists his fingers in the now-wrinkled cuff. "Lay some Vulcan wisdom on me, then."
"I have none. I do, however, remember receiving one piece of advice which became my own guiding principle during that time. It was said only in passing, but I found it to be of more practical assistance than any recommendation from my Vulcan peers or medical counsel had been."
"Go for it." He steeples his fingers and rests his chin on them, staring out at the stars.
"Simplistically put, but inevitably correct, it was simply…that there will be good days, and there will be bad days, and for the most part, there will simply be days – but someday, you will wake up and realize there have been more good days than bad, of late."
He stares out at the stars in startled silence.
"And that you must remember, no matter how strong the…feeling, may be, that you are not alone."
He exhales slowly, then glances sideways with a half-smile, feeling strangely warmed. "I had no idea you remembered that. You hated that shore leave."
An eyebrow-shrug. "While that is not an inaccurate assessment of that particular enforced leave, I found your unusual outlook to be…of use, in the weeks that followed."
"I'm glad. Even if it's total crap. I'm pretty sure I was at least half-drunk at the time, wasn't I?"
"You were, but your own opinion of the statement's value is incorrect." But then again, you're an idiot, so there's that seems to be clear in the tone as well, and he tries not to laugh at his XO's patient expression. "The fact that you are once more attempting to change the subject is evidence enough of that."
"I'm not trying – okay, maybe I am. I just…" he sighs. "I don't even know what I'm doing. Gods, I'm so tired, Spock."
"That is the inevitable outcome of not engaging in a satisfactory sleep cycle unless illicitly commandeering the holodeck."
"Has anyone told you lately you're a smartass, Commander?"
He snorts a laugh into his hands, one that's sharp with an edge of exhaustion-induced hysteria, and then flops back on the sofa, finally relaxing for the first time since their entrance to the Lounge. He makes a vague mental note not to actually fall asleep on Spock, because awkward, although it's not really his fault his XO's shoulder is at just the right height to make a good pillow, if a somewhat squirmy one.
But, strangely enough – or maybe not strangely – the horrible, sick feeling of nothingness deep inside has changed. Not gone, no; he knows from experience there's no magic pill for that, no miracle conversation to fix everything in minutes. But it's…softened, just a little. Like stars shining where before there was only darkness, moonlight glimmering behind the clouds, fractals of light dancing at the end of a warp corridor. The world no longer seems unending, hopeless, stuck and stagnant in shades of gray. While he still dreads the idea of returning to reality, the knowledge that now he doesn't have to keep up that image twenty-four hours a day is something of a relief.
Only a couple of people know that his worst nightmares, his most visceral fears, are of being alone – and just the simple reassurance that he is not, and never will be, is enough to push back at the shadows. Just a weak little shove of defiance, not much of a blow struck against that wall of darkness, but hey, baby steps. This isn't a war that'll be won in a day; may not be over until the day he dies. And even if it's his own mind fighting against him every step of the way…well.
He never has turned and run from a fight.