Saturn Ascends by Niobium
Summary:

Rebuilding Jim Kirk and the Enterprise turn out to be very similar tasks: they involve a lot of teamwork. Set during the 1-year interregnum at the end of STID. Contemporary with Dawn With No Chorus.


Categories: Alternate Original Series Characters: Chekov, Pavel (Yelchin), Ensemble Cast - AOS, Ensemble Cast - Multiple, Kirk, James T. (Pine), McCoy, Leonard (Urban), Pike, Chris (Greenwood), Scott, Montgomery (Pegg), Spock (Quinto), Sulu, Hikaru (Cho), Uhura, Nyota (Saldana)
Genre: Angst, Drama, Friendship, General
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 7 Completed: Yes Word count: 11786 Read: 14667 Published: 02 Dec 2013 Updated: 02 Dec 2013
Story Notes:
This is a companion story for Dawn With No Chorus, and not, strictly speaking, a sequel. It can be read stand-alone, or along with Dawn as a cycle of STID-tags, depending on one’s preferences. As a chronological benchmark, Chapter 11 of Dawn would come just after this.

I am not from the Midwestern United States, nor am I a meteorologist, so I apologize for any egregious mistakes.

1. Chapter 1 by Niobium

2. Chapter 2 by Niobium

3. Chapter 3 by Niobium

4. Chapter 4 by Niobium

5. Chapter 5 by Niobium

6. Chapter 6 by Niobium

7. Chapter 7 by Niobium

Chapter 1 by Niobium

***

The Admiralty waited until Jim was declared fit for duty by McCoy to start the individual debriefings. They claimed this was because they wanted to start with him, which sounded like so much hilarious bullshit even through the fog of recovery that made concentrating on things problematic. He couldn't formulate a good argument against the delay, though; he just had a gut feeling something was off, and that didn't amount to much against the two-man team of Spock and McCoy, united against him overworking himself in any way.

So he didn't put a lot of thought into why the Admiralty waited so long, and focused instead of remembering how to walk and run and lift weights and other useful tasks. There were meetings before McCoy rubber-stamped him, especially for Spock, but the curtain didn't go up one the real show until the start of summer.

It didn't go the way he expected. He'd been braced for nothing short of a tribunal, with accusations flying and demands for answers about his incompetent decisions and how they'd lead to two hundred dead crew and untold thousands of dead and gravely injured civilians. He'd expected to lose the ship for sure, probably his rank, maybe get discharged. Dishonorably, if they were in particularly foul moods.

None of that happened. While he stared in near-mute shock, he was let off scot-free, with only a handful of softball questions lobbed his way, the kind he could have answered in his sleep (which was a blessing because when it became clear to him nothing was going to happen he almost passed out).

Khan received the bulk of the blame, especially for San Francisco. Barrett and Nogura made sniping remarks at Hamilton and Furlong while Chutani scowled throughout the whole proceeding. The others offered comments now and then. And nothing happened to him.

Jim was so dazed by what was going on that only later would he recognize that Hamilton and Furlong were all but defending Marcus, suggesting he'd just gotten carried away but had been correct in principle. Nogura and Barrett weren't going to drop the topic without a fight, and Jim stood in his ring-side seat to the circus, trying to figure out when he'd slipped into this nightmare.

He didn't really come back to himself until Nogura said, "It is the finding of this committee that Captain Kirk should be placed back on active duty effective immediately, and oversee the refit of the Enterprise." He swept at the small display in front of him, closing out the active file with an air of finality. "Thank you for your time, Captain. It's good to have you back."

Running on autopilot, Jim said, "Thank you, Admirals."

The entire proceeding left him chilled to the bone.

***

He made it home in just enough time to throw up in the sanctity of his own bathroom. Dry heaves followed once his lunch and breakfast were gone, and when those passed, he cleaned himself up and sat at his kitchen counter, trying to remember what thinking felt like.

He knew he should be relieved, because he was going to keep his rank and his ship and probably his crew, and in spite of this overwhelming victory there was a huge gaping hole inside of him that he didn't know how to start filling. He spent some time replaying his meager memories of the debriefing in his head, trying to figure out what was upsetting him so much, and during this his eyes landed on one of his bookshelves. On instinct, he picked out the scrimshaw whale tooth Pike had left him in his will, and in that instant he knew.

They wanted to act like Marcus hadn't been the real reason for everything, which in turn meant that Pike, Jim's crew, everyone in San Francisco, and the other casualties at Daystrom had died only because of Khan's fury, in a random act of violence, and not because Starfleet had stood around and let Marcus quietly foment war and chaos. They wanted to wash their hands clean of any wrong-doing, and that meant everyone--Pike included--had already received all the justice they'd be getting.

This can't be happening.

His communicator chirped, and he almost didn't answer, but remembered McCoy knew when to expect the debriefing to be over. "Kirk here."

"Jim. How'd it go?"

"It went."

There was a long pause, then McCoy asked, "What'd they do?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?" McCoy didn't sound like he could believe it. Jim didn't want to talk about it, because Pike was dead and the Admiralty couldn't be bothered to look into why or how beyond the obvious and undeniable parts, and it made him want to break things. Starting with his communicator.

"Nothing. Still Captain."

"You don't sound very happy about it."

"It's just the communicator. You bringing me dinner or am I fending for myself?"

"As if. I'll pick something up on my way back from Medical."

"See you then."

There was a bottle of scotch in his cupboard. After McCoy had come over with dinner and left for the night, he drank it until the urge to destroy his apartment passed, vaguely glad he didn't have any cars to throw off the Bay bridge, because he wasn't sure his motor coordination was good enough to get him out of the seat like it had been when he was younger.

***

Weeks passed, and he drifted through them, numb and just present enough to keep anyone from asking too many questions. McCoy and sometimes Spock and Uhura kept him focused on recovering, and since that took up most of his strength and a good deal of his attention span it was easy to not think about how Starfleet didn't care about Marcus. He worked on reading and approving and filing reports when he had the brainpower for it, and sat in silence (or got good and drunk and was yelled at by McCoy the following morning) and hated the universe when he didn't. Things stayed that way, punctuated by occasional breakdowns and episodes, until he received his new orders.

He was sweeping through the list of his morning messages on his tablet when the file landed in his inbox. He'd been dreading this ever since they'd put him back on active duty, and now it was here.

He set the tablet down, and rubbed at his eyes. It was way too early in the fucking morning for this.

"Bad news?" McCoy asked across his plate of breakfast. Jim nodded.

"They want us back at Riverside. The new core's going up at the end of the week."

McCoy made a low sound that was part sympathy and part resignation. He gestured at Jim's untouched plate of eggs, bacon, and toast. "Eat."

Jim opened his mouth to protest, got a dirty look for his trouble, and snapped it shut. He piled butter and preserve onto the toast and began to nibble at it. Only when McCoy scrutinized him again did he start to eat in earnest.

He'd lost a drastic amount of weight during his recovery, and as soon as he'd moved back to his Starfleet apartment and was eating regular food again, McCoy had been bound and determined to see him finish three complete meals a day. He showed up bright and early each morning on his way in to Starfleet Medical and left only after dinner was done that night.

"They schedule your debriefing yet?" Jim asked.

"Not yet. Heard from Spock?"

"His is today."

McCoy grunted. "Well, they didn't take your head, I don't think they'll go for his."

"He beat the ever-loving shit out of Khan before bringing him back."

"After Khan tried to kill him, and succeeded in killing twenty-odd thousand people. Trust me, he'll be fine."

"Probably."

"Count on it."

Jim sighed and turned to stare out his balcony door at the construction cranes. "What's the deal with yours, anyways?"

"They'll probably put it off for a while; the medical board's a different situation than the Admiralty. They have a lot of tests and data to go over first."

Jim murmured an agreement to the last statement. He saw another pointed look out of the corner of his eye, and set to finishing his breakfast. After he'd spent some time eating, McCoy resumed the conversation.

"Anything exciting for you today?"

"Uhura and I are going over the old science proposals, from before...everything. Seeing what we want to put forward for a five-year. You?"

"After my rounds, I have a bunch of medical students to entertain myself with."

"Sounds thrilling."

"Oh, you'd be surprised." McCoy actually appeared to be looking forward to it, and Jim wondered what kind of 'entertainment' was involved. Stashing live orderlies among the cadavers and seeing who passed out when one of them stood up and walked out?

Once their plates were clean, they rode the transit system together to Starfleet HQ. He spent his day going through project reports and discussing them with Uhura, who he could feel was watching him like a hawk. He tried to distract her with smalltalk, but he could tell it wasn't working. They heard from Spock a little after lunch (which Uhura oversaw on behalf of McCoy); his debriefing had been as uneventful as Kirk's. Jim forced himself to eat everything on his plate, and found that focusing on small, specific tasks kept him from succumbing to whatever strange episode was threatening to overtake him.

When he got home that evening--an hour ahead of McCoy--he opened his tablet and saw the message with their orders again.

He pulled a bottle of whiskey down from the cupboard and poured himself a drink.

Chapter 2 by Niobium

***

McCoy returned to Jim's apartment that evening to find him well on his way to smashed. Normally McCoy would have gone off on him for it, but now that his debriefing had a set date, he wanted some company while he got preemptively drunk. Unlike the rest of them, he'd violated some rather important codes of medical ethics, and had every reason to believe his medical license was about to go up in smoke.

Jim seemed surprised when McCoy asked for a glass so they could share, but made no arguments. He'd been hiding the alcohol from McCoy, getting it from who knew where (Scotty was a prime suspect), and McCoy found himself making plans to throw every last bit of it out, and do regular sweeps from that point forward. After tonight.

They polished off a third of the whiskey, tried some scotch and then a coconut rum, and moved on to some vodka, snacking on dried nuts in between drinks. Eventually, Jim said, "I guess you should go home so you can pack."

"I'm on day after tomorrow's shuttle, actually."

Jim frowned at him. "Really? Why?"

"I've got some meetings to attend. Don't worry, I'll be there Thursday afternoon to resume my babysitting duties." He said it so Jim wouldn't harass him, even though he suspected it would turn out to be a lie. So be it; he was pretty good at these kinds of lies.

Jim tried to throw an almond at him and missed. "You could take a couple days off from that and go oversee them installing your new medbay instead."

"No thank you. I'm not going back up there until I have to."

Jim stared at him for a handful of seconds. McCoy was sure Jim knew the real reason behind his refusal--the one that had nothing to do with the end of his medical career--and wished Jim was possessed of roughly half as much emotional intelligence as he had.

Jim cleared his throat. "Ah, yeah. No problem." McCoy grunted and leaned back in his chair, and Jim said, "Spock's debriefing was today. So was Chekov's." McCoy raised his eyebrows. "Spock's went like mine. Nothing happened." That wasn't a surprise to McCoy, though Jim looked relieved (and yet not) to report it. "Scotty said Chekov did fine. They wanted to know about why the core failed from the torpedoes, but that was about it."

Translation: they didn't ask about how Jim's body made it from Engineering to the medbay. McCoy sighed; at least they weren’t being complete assholes about the whole process. "How'd he hold up?"

"He sounded okay. I think Sulu and Scotty took him out to get shitfaced."

"Oh, so this is sympathy drinking?"

"No, this is all for me."

"For you?"

"For me. And my first set of orders since my return to active duty." Jim sounded so bitter that McCoy straightened up and peered at him more closely. Jim was turning his tumbler in his hands, regarding the vodka it held with disgust.

"Isn't that a good thing?" McCoy asked.

Jim gave him a sullen glare and knocked back the drink. "It would be if I was a person."

McCoy regarded Jim for a moment, then leaned over and dragged one of the bottles away, saying, "Definitely no more whiskey for you."

Jim continued like he hadn't spoken. "People don't come back from the dead, right?" McCoy stilled. Jim had set his tumbler aside and was staring out the window over the skyline. The lights on the reconstruction cranes gave the impression of gigantic, ghost-skeletons lurking in the night where the Vengeance had destroyed so much. "And people aren't born while their dad dies holding off a madman from the future, and they don't get themselves drawn up on charges of academic misconduct just to prove a point." He sighed and shut his eyes. "People don't do things like that."

"Think I'm gonna revoke your vodka privileges too--"

"I'm serious."

"So am I. This is drunk-talk of the most ridiculous sort."

Jim's voice grew tight and angry. "It's not, it is fucking not." He ran a hand over his face. "I'm not a person, Bones. I'm just this thing that's rolling through everyone's lives, like a comet or a, a rogue wave." His eyes opened, and for a brief moment he looked feral. "Or a black hole."

"Oh enough of that shit." McCoy was satisfied to see Jim return to himself from whatever strange place he'd been going to. "I didn't bring you back from the dead so you could sit around drunk and say things like you're not people."

"Why then?"

"Why?"

"Yeah, why? Why bother, why bring me back?" McCoy had trouble finding his voice, and Jim took it as leave to continue. He waved his arms in a broad gesture. "Fuck, I almost made it to thirty, I was a starship captain--"

He tried to cut in, saying, "You are still a starship captain,” and Jim just kept right on going.

"--I died saving the people I put in harm's way. That's more than a lot of people ever get. So why bring me back?"

McCoy was close to shouting before he even knew what he was saying. "Because you don't get to do shit like that to me!" Jim started, expression wary, and McCoy forced himself to talk in a normal tone of voice. It wasn't easy. "So maybe this'll learn you. No more of your crap. You don't get to take the easy way out and just die on me."

Jim swallowed, his eyes bright. "Bones, I--"

"No. No more fucking excuses, and no more apologies. You died, that's not shit you can just apologize for. If it hadn't been this it would've been something else, sooner or later. We just got goddamned lucky there was a way to get you back. There may not be a way to do that next time, so there aren't going to be anymore next times. And if I have to forbid you from going anywhere without me and Spock and a full security team to make sure of that, so help me, I will. I'll make it CMO's Orders, and take them straight to Barrett."

He felt out of breath now that he had all of the things that had been building up inside him over the last few months out and into the open. Jim had done a complete one-eighty from his belligerence into what might have sheer terror, and McCoy cursed himself one hundred times over. This was possibly the worst way this conversation could have gone.

Jim made a few false starts before managing to say, "I was thinking about ways--about what we could change. So the core could be repaired remotely."

McCoy imagined that was Jim's version of 'there won't be a next time', which was an improvement over the last two months, and given the sheer scale of his outburst, more than he deserved. He sighed, nodded, and stood. "Want some water?"

Jim rubbed at his eyes. "Yeah."

Once they had their glasses they moved into the living room; Jim settled on his armchair and McCoy took the couch.

"I hate feeling like this," Jim said. McCoy raised his glass in a salute.

"I'll drink to that."

"No, I mean...like this."

Jim was staring out over the room, looking only a little better than he had just after coming out of his coma. If this conversation got back to Spock, McCoy was going to be on the receiving end of a Vulcan lecture which might turn a few of his hairs gray.

He said, "You should give yourself a break. You died, like actually died, not just flatlined for a few seconds. What you're going through right now--Jim, this isn't the kind of thing that heals up overnight."

"Maybe it never does."

McCoy was too emotionally exhausted for additional frustration, which took some of the force out of his words. "I don't have the patience for never, and if I have to drag you through this kicking and screaming, I goddamned well will. So let's just take it one day at a time, yeah?"

Jim huffed a shallow laugh and said something that sounded like 'Okay'. They drank their water, and McCoy decided to spend the night on the couch.

***

The hangover pill, McCoy reflected the next morning, was the best invention of the last fifty years. By the time Jim emerged from his room, freshly showered and ready to get on the shuttle despite his obvious discomfort, McCoy had breakfast going and was on his second cup of coffee.

Jim sat at the counter, watching McCoy work. Pensive silence was rarely his style for long, and soon he said, "Listen, about last night."

McCoy responded by shoving a glass of water and a pill into his hands without ceremony, and said, "No next times."

Jim accepted them, though was some time in replying. "No next times," he agreed.

"I'm holding you to that. I swear on my Oath--sedatives and restraints and broken limbs if I have to."

"Wouldn't breaking limbs violate the Oath?"

"There will be no shortage of people willing to take care of that part for me. Pretty sure Spock and Uhura have some kind of rotating system to determine who has dibs."

Jim snorted and took the pill. After they'd had breakfast, McCoy dropped him off at the shuttlepad, then went to get kicked out of Starfleet Medical with his head held high.

Chapter 3 by Niobium

***

Summer in Riverside meant storms, and not just any storms, but the sort that bred tornadoes and threw out hail the size of golf balls and flooded the city streets. This wasn't a problem, in general, for the shipyard itself, because the parts were machined and assembled in a half-subterranean plant that was built to withstand even the most powerful cyclones and ringed by special drainage trenches which fed the English River through underground waterways. It did make life interesting for Starfleet personnel living in the shipyard barracks, though.

For Jim it was a new return to an old routine. Riverside had grown when the shipyard had gone in, upgrading from sleepy Midwest farm town to almost awake Starfleet waystation, though that hadn't changed much of the town proper. On his last visit he'd found a few shops and bars and restaurants that had been there when he'd left were gone, replaced by something new and different, while others remained in new hands, and still others stood as sentinels against the ebb and flow of time, run by familiar names and faces.

It was easy to avoid the town by sticking to the shipyard, so he did that for the entire first day, and everything was fine. He had meetings with the command crew, then some remote video conferences, and then spent quality time with his tablet and a round of reports. It was the most normal day he'd had in months.

He should have known it wouldn't last.

***

He took his lunch on the second day out in a field that abutted the shipyard. The storms were in rare form, and there were severe weather warnings for every county for fifty square miles. It wasn't a concern for him; he knew how to spot a tornado, where all the shelters were, and how much time he had if a siren sounded.

Scotty, however, completely hated it, and had spent most of his time in his room or in the plant. So when he crashed Jim's private picnic, Jim suspected an ulterior motive.

"Captain. Enjoying the, ah, view?"

"Mr. Scott." He offered Scotty one of his remaining sandwiches, which Scotty declined with a shake of his head. "Just keeping an eye on things."

"I prefer to pretend they're not there, myself."

"Hard to ignore it when they're like this," Jim said, and nodded to the west in particular. In the distance, an enormous supercell's mesocyclone dominated the horizon; the broad, curving column of white and ash gray and deep blue spread flat along the top into rippling mammatus clouds, and terminated in a torrent of dark rain a few thousand feet off the ground at its base. Scotty stared at it and swallowed.

"Don't worry," Jim said, and took a long drink from his water bottle. "That's just a supercell still."

"...just?" Scotty asked.

"Trust me, the sirens'll go off long before anything touches down. They've got this vortex tracking system that can't miss, have for forty years now. Had to, or they'd never have put a shipyard here, it'd just get torn up every time the weather acted up. We're completely clear of the main drag." Belatedly, it occurred to Jim that the existence of a 'main drag' was worrisome all on its own if one wasn't familiar with such things.

In a low voice, like he might draw the storm's attention, Scotty asked, "Were you ever caught in one?"

"A few times. There's shelters all over here." He gestured around them with the water bottle. "See those big posts with the lights?"

"Oh, those god-awful fluorescent things you can see for miles? Got one of them like, twenty feet from my room."

"Yep. Bunkers, in case you're stuck outside and can't get clear."

"Christ on a crutch. How the hell do people live here." No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Scotty seemed to be preparing an apology, but Jim shrugged and shook his head.

"How do they live anywhere? You put up with something for long enough and it's just normal." He wondered what that said about him, that he was used to storm shelters. "That said," he cleared his throat, "San Francisco wasn't exactly a step down."

"No, indeed. Quite a lovely little spot, really. Though the fog and the damp get kind of old."

"Yeah, they don't really get a Spring." Jim's gaze wandered out over the field. "How long until the new core's ready to go up?"

"Should be ready Saturday.” Scotty snorted. “Tomorrow, if I can't convince Pavel to take proper breaks." When Jim gave him a sideways look, a note of castigation slipped into Scotty’s voice. "That boy's going to work himself to death."

Jim grimaced and stared down at the ground. "I'll talk to him."

"I sure hope you do more than just talk."

Jim flicked a brief glance at Scotty, and that seemed to warn him off toeing the line any further. As if to offer an olive branch, Scotty said, "I imagine Spock and McCoy aren't much better off."

Jim's laugh sounded hollow even to his own ears. "Spock keeps giving me his bullshit line about Vulcans not needing as much sleep as Humans, like 'not as much' means 'any'. I told Uhura to tell me if he pushes it too far and won't listen to her. Bones, though..." He sighed. "Not sure what to do about him."

"A piece of advice, Captain: let Spock handle him." Jim frowned. "He's your First Officer. It's his job to help you manage the crew. McCoy might be your friend, but that's not all he is."

It bothered Jim that he'd never even considered asking Spock for help with McCoy. "Ah, thanks, Scotty. That sounds like a good idea."

"Oh, I wouldn't go that far--I mean, you've seen them go at each other, I'm sure. But it's better than you trying to recover and take care of other people at the same time. Let someone else do some of the work."

Something was clawing at Jim's thoughts, and he needed to not look at it, so he said, "I will. Thanks."

"You're welcome, Captain." Scotty tipped his head back at the shipyards. "Time to get back to it."

Jim nodded, and Scotty left, picking his way through the field with care.

He hadn't even thought of asking Spock to help him with Bones.

Jim gathered up his picnic and went to find Chekov.

***

Chekov was in the machining shop, going over specifications with the machinists. It wasn't hard to get him to drop whatever argument he was embroiled in, because when Jim walked up everyone fell silent, and Chekov turned to regard him with wide eyes.

"Captain! It is very good to see you."

Scotty hadn’t been exaggerating. Chekov looked like he hadn’t slept or eaten in a week: his skin was sallow and there were dark circles under his eyes.

"You too, Mr. Chekov." He gave the machinists a smile. "Is it okay if I borrow Mr. Chekov for a few minutes? I'll bring him right back."

No one objected, and Jim and Chekov stepped into one of the small side offices. They were built to block out the sound from the shop proper, which was a feat of engineering even Scotty praised on a regular basis. The floor still vibrated every now and then, but the screams and droning hums and dull thuds cut off when Jim shut the door.

Chekov started talking the second the door was closed. "Is everything alright, Captain? We're working very hard to have the warp core ready in time." He looked nervous, and Jim hoped this wasn't going to make him work harder, because that wasn't the point.

He'd meant to start out with asking him to not exhaust himself into an early grave, and instead wound up saying, "Listen, Chekov, before we talk about anything else, I need to tell you that--I'm sorry."

Chekov's nervousness morphed into horror. "Sorry, sir? For what?"

"For putting you through everything that happened." Chekov's eyes widened further as Jim went on. "Your first day heading Engineering shouldn't have involved trying to manage a warp core that was being sabotaged by equipment I was warned could be dangerous to bring on-board. It was a ridiculous thing for me to ask you to do, and I apologize."

"Captain, I--it was not your fault. Admiral Marcus was trying to, as you say, sabotage us. You could not have known that."

"I know. It's hard to accept that, but I know. But that doesn't mean I don't owe you an apology. Marcus' plan doesn't excuse my own mistakes. Not the one where I didn't recognize something was wrong with his orders, and definitely not my refusal to listen to the people who did."

Chekov swallowed, turning his tricorder over in his hands, then said, "Apology accepted, Captain."

Jim wanted to smile and reassure Chekov, but his own words were echoing in his head, growing louder every passing second.

I didn't listen to the people who told me something was wrong.

He realized Chekov was waiting for him to do something, so he nodded, forced a smile, and asked, "Is there anything else you need? Aside from more sleep."

Chekov blushed and looked away. "Mr. Scott has been telling me to rest more, but it is hard to when the ship still needs so much work, sir."

Jim thought of McCoy refusing to take some time off, and something twinged in his chest. At least the Enterprise deserved the attention. "Yeah. I think I know what you mean." Chekov regarded him once more, and Jim told him, "We've got time, though, and the last thing I need is you at Starfleet Medical from exhaustion. Scotty and Bones will kick my ass if that happens."

"I see, sir," Chekov murmured, and ducked his head. "I will take more time to rest."

"Okay. I don't want to appoint someone to make you do it, but I'm sure Sulu or Keenser would be happy to."

Chekov's blush was much stronger this time. "Ah, no sir, that will not be necessary."

"Okay." Jim flicked a glance at a window, and saw the horizon was almost entirely obscured by thick, dark clouds. "Take care, Mr. Chekov. Comm me or send a message if you need anything."

"I will, Captain, thank you."

Jim turned to go, his next destination certain.

Chapter 4 by Niobium

***

Public transit in Riverside was nominal at best, but there was one tram line that went where Jim wanted to go. The cars were all empty save for him, and no one boarded when he stepped off onto the small platform. The transit center was a small, gray, flat building with waiting benches, a few displays detailing route times and tram status, and a replicator for water; all told it could accommodate maybe fifty people, and might never have seen twenty at the same time in its existence. (He couldn't remember ever seeing more than fifteen, even when the Enterprise's construction had been well underway.) It sat between several huge, fenced off fields of dark, blue-green grass which were bisected by the sleek road.

He went outside and the stiff wind almost shoved him right back through the door. The tall, unmistakable marker light of a storm shelter stood a little ways to the south of the road, where it had always been. Scattered trees and sandy mounds dotted the landscape, and denser clumps of bushes marked a tributary of the English River where it wound in erratic turns defined and redefined by its summer flooding. The countryside's beauty was intensified by the collection of storms marching along the horizon in every direction: the clouds varied from stark white to a gray so dark it was almost black, and every shade in between, and ranged from towering, energetic supercells to the still majesty of cumulonimbus.

He'd come out here when he was young and the emotional noise in his heart and his head got to be too much. The empty space and solitude let him have it out where no one could bear witness, reducing the collateral damage. It had happened a lot before he moved out, and though it lessened when Frank was no longer an issue, the sheer pressure of existing would sometimes overwhelm him. The storms around him meant this was a bad time to do this, but he couldn't help himself. Like with the car, and joining Starfleet, and the warp core, and one hundred other things from his birth to now, he couldn't not do it: he had to enact change, and this was the only way he knew how to make it happen.

He started out walking, but soon he was running. He fled across the decrepit old footbridge over the river and into one of the fields. These had been farms a hundred years ago or more, but now they were left for the tornadoes to scurry through, tearing everything to pieces as they came and went. He turned east and kept going, parallel to the river. In front of him a storm spun, clouds shredding and turning in waves of white and gray and dark green. He ran until his lungs burned and he had to stop; not nearly as far as he'd once been capable, but better than three months earlier. The wind was blowing so hard it made him sway and pushed the grass down against the ground into a glossy, verdant mat.

He panted, trying to catch his breath. The vise grip on his chest began to loosen and his thoughts disentangled themselves from one another, and he stared around himself at nature's chaos. Sometimes he wondered if this was where he belonged, if maybe this was his real home.

I'm not a person.

He gripped his head. He'd promised McCoy there wouldn't be another next time, and was wondering now if that hadn't been a mistake. How could there not be a next time? Wasn't it his nature to dive headfirst into whatever insane situation grew up in front of him?

When the sirens started to wail, he didn't budge, just let his arms drop to his sides and scanned the horizon until he saw the spot several kilometers distant. The clouds had begun to turn, and a pale gray, finger-like shape that he knew the way mice knew the hawks that prowled the skies was reaching for the ground. It wasn't large as twisters went, but it was fast, striking down and tearing along with enough speed that running from it would only be feasible from his current position. Dirt flew up from its base in broad chunks and trees loosed their limbs when it swept by them. It flattened a small copse and moved on, unconcerned with whatever might have called that place home, and he wished he didn't see so much of himself in its careless savagery.

He realized why he was still standing there, and not getting in the bunker like he should be: he wanted to know, if it came towards him, what he would do. Would he take shelter like he should? Or would he dare the universe once again, this time with no one around to do anything about it if he lost?

For one perfect, aching moment, he thought the tornado's track had turned at him in earnest, and he was going to get his answer. The writhing funnel contorted and loomed in his vision, and he waited, eyes watering and ears aching from the pressure as every muscle in his body trembled, ready to propel him anywhere but where he was.

The moment was over as quick as it had come. The vortex turned further east, growing weaker and spinning apart, dropping debris as it went. He stood there, quaking and feeling on the verge of hysterical laughter, and sucked in a breath. The sirens quieted, and the wind eased off enough that his ears stopped throbbing.

He was some time in getting a handle on the fact that he'd been seriously contemplating a game of chicken with a tornado.

What the fuck is wrong with me?

He collapsed to the ground, sitting heavily and staring around himself at the pummeled grass and wind-ravaged trees. He tried to put together the last few minutes, and all he could think of was McCoy's voice saying, This isn't the kind of thing that heals up overnight.

He hung his head between his knees and took deep sobbing breaths. So many times he'd taken incredible risks and gotten away with it (Blind luck, he heard Pike's voice say, and his throat ached at the memory of that meeting), and the one time he hadn't, Spock and McCoy and Uhura had shown up to yank him back from the brink. And here he was, at it again, like they hadn't just sacrificed a significant portion of themselves to put him back together.

He could be such a selfish asshole.

He scrubbed at his face, willing himself to stop crying, which he managed after a few more attempts. He sat there, exhausted, watching the storm boil about as it tried to decide what should come next. He thought he knew what that felt like more than anyone else on the entire planet.

The sirens jerked him out of his reverie. The storm in front him was still unformed, so he cast about, and when he looked behind himself his heart lodged in his throat. A black and gray wedge tornado was just touching down, not more than five kilometers distant, blotting out almost a fourth of the sky and bringing with it a vanguard of hail.

Adrenaline and instinct had him on his feet and sprinting for the brilliant blue and orange glow of the shelter light before rational thought kicked in. He'd never been so close to a tornado of this size before, and he knew they could, for all their bulk, move at considerable ground speeds. It was too large to really say if it was moving towards him rather than simply in this general direction, but his hind brain was certainly convinced of it, and found plenty of previously untapped resources for his flight. The hail bit into his face, and every inch of exposed skin went numb within seconds.

By the time his hands were on the door to the shelter airlock they were shaking so hard he lost his grip twice before he could depress the heavy handles and slide the door open. He slammed it shut, and the roar of wind and clatter of hail gave way to hushed silence and the whine of the motors driving the locking bolts back into place. The inner door opened with a soft thump.

There was no one else inside, and the motion-sensitive, low-wattage lights flickered to life as he entered, revealing the shelter in phases. A thin layer of dust on the displays set into the textured, bronze-colored, concrete walls suggested the most recent cleaning had been some months prior, but aside from this the small space was well-kept. The floor was also concrete, smooth and lead-colored and promising to be ice-cold to the touch; this was not a shelter intended for long-term occupancy or comfort. A replicator for water and basic food supplies sat opposite the displays, and several dull green storage chests labeled in big, white, block letters with things like BLANKETS, CLOTHING, and FIRST AID crowded the room’s corners. There was also a spindly card table with a set of eight equally frail chairs, a dozen bunks set into the walls, and a stack of fold-up cots.

The air pressure fluctuated and he heard numerous loud booms overhead. When it persisted for more than a minute, he resigned himself to staying put, and picked one of the wall bunks. It smelled old in that way his grandparents' guest rooms always had; a pleasant memory from his early childhood that predated Frank. He settled in and let out a deep breath, surprised to find the mattress was soft and comfortable (though perhaps that was just compared to running for his life from a tornado through hail after having an emotional breakdown).

Exhaustion pulled him to sleep before he could start thinking about why he'd been out in the storm in the first place.

Chapter 5 by Niobium

***

Whenever he dreamed of Pike, it was with the perfect clarity of memories etched in place. He hadn't decided yet if that made coming to terms with his death easier or harder, though suspected it was a combination of the two.

He paced back and forth in his dorm room, more nervous than he'd ever been in his life. He'd managed to calm down enough to stop sweating, but the nausea continued to riot in his stomach, and the only solution was motion, and that meant pacing around the room.

McCoy had already received his Starfleet housing assignment, and until Jim's came through he had their Academy accommodations to himself. That gave him more room to panic in, and left him feeling very alone and with his own thoughts. After three years of living with someone, it was hard to talk out loud and not expect to receive a response.

Calm down, Kirk. It's fine, you're hardly saying a damned thing.

God, he hoped his voice didn't choke or squeak on the tiny sentence he was expected to spit out. He went to the kitchenette and poured himself some water, eyes on the clock. Twenty minutes until he had to go.

He jumped at the sound of his doorchime and almost dropped the glass. He put it down, because now his hands were shaking, and called, "Come in."

"I figured you'd be ready. Nogura's not going to like covering the first round at the Officer's Club, though."

Jim stilled at the sound of Pike's voice; he'd been expecting McCoy. He came around the corner and found Pike wheeling into the room. An Andorian Yeoman was standing out in the hall, and shut the door behind Pike once he was inside.

Jim's brain started to thaw and he tried to come up with a response. "I'll, ah, be sure to send him something nice to make up for it." He smiled. "It's good to see you, Admiral."

Pike was still in the chair, though McCoy had assured Jim that he’d recover well enough to walk, maybe even without the assistance of a cane. (Jim was just glad they'd pulled him off the Narada alive.)

"And you, Captain."

Jim ducked his head. "Not yet, sir. Still Lieutenant Commander."

Pike's mouth twitched in amusement. "Modesty looks pretty strange on you, son."

"It's a new thing, sir, I'm still trying it out."

"Try harder. You'll never get an act like that past Barrett."

He cleared his throat. "I will, sir."

They stood in silence while Pike studied him. Then, "So. What is it?"

"Sir?"

"Whatever's got you so wound up you were ready by the time I showed up."

Jim glanced away, out the door room’s meager window. "Just nerves, sir."

Pike gave him an amused look. "Nervous about a little ceremony where you have to say a single sentence and watch people applaud at you?"

Jim hadn't actually expected Pike to believe it, but he'd been hoping. He took a breath to steady himself, and voiced the one thing he hadn’t even said to McCoy. "What if I'm not any good at this?"

Pike snorted a laugh. "You and the crew of my ship, some of you not even graduated, just saved Earth and dealt with the madman who destroyed Vulcan and a large portion of the Fleet. But you're worried you might not be any good at this?"

"It's not really the same thing as being captain, sir."

"It's not," Pike agreed. "But you managed this, and I think you can do the rest too. Just take it one day at a time." When Jim met his eyes again, Pike went on, "All of you did good, including you. And I wouldn't have approved turning my ship over to you if I thought you couldn't do this. I think your parents would be proud."

Jim willed his voice to be steady, and succeeded. "Thank you, sir."

"You're welcome, James. Now," he nodded at the door, "Let's get moving. Brun and I'll walk you there."

A little of Jim's usual manner re-asserted itself. "Giving me a head start on my relations with the Admiralty, sir?"

"Don't you wish."

As Jim turned to shut the door to his room, he cast one last look around it, realizing that when he came back he was going to be a Captain, and nothing was going to be the same.

Story of his life. He shut the door and hurried to join Yeoman Brun and Pike.

***

Jim opened his eyes and saw the dim, dusty light of the storm shelter. His chest ached as he remembered that this was a time and place where he didn't have Pike to talk to about his uncertainties, though before he could really get going with that, his communicator chirped. He pulled it out and flipped it open.

"Kirk here."

"Jim, where the hell are you, I've been trying to find you for over an hour."

He winced; McCoy's voice was loud in the small space. "Storm shelter. I'll be back in fifteen."

"Storm shelter? What did you--"

"Kirk out." He flipped his communicator shut. If they were doing to have this conversation, it should be face to face. He owed McCoy--and Spock, and Uhura, and all the rest of them--that much (and really a whole lot more).

As he tucked his communicator back into his jacket, his hand bumped against something smooth, rounded, flat, and metal, and he remembered what it was even as his hand closed around it and he took it out: Pike’s old pocket watch, another gift from his will.

Scotty had fixed it for him, remarking several times that it was probably worth a fair amount to the right collector, so Jim might be better off leaving it safe and sound in his apartment. Jim hadn't been able to let it get very far from him, though, not even now, when he was running around during deadly storms, trying to figure himself out.

He ran a hand over the fragment of poetry inscribed on the back, then gripped it in his hand.

It's gonna be okay, son.

Maybe Pike had been right; maybe it was. Nothing would be the same, but nothing ever was with him. It might, however, be okay.

He tucked the watch back into his pocket and slid out of the bunk. The monitors showed the bulk of the storm throwing out the twisters had moved south, and although it was still dark and windy out, it wasn't hailing.

He went outside and surveyed the damage. The tornado's track ran right by the shelter, defined by splintered trees, torn ground, mounds of grass, and the occasional piece of debris (side-paneling from a house, a motorcycle wheel, a section of wrought-iron fencing). The transit center sat in the distance, battered but still standing; one side had clearly taken more of a beating than the other. The shelter light had been built to withstand such forces, and stood unbent.

He looked up at the light, sighed, and began the walk back to the transit center, feeling truly awake for the first time since he'd come out of his coma in the hospital.

***

The lecture was more parental than Jim was expecting. "I cannot believe you, running around in one of the worst storm systems in twenty years like it was a little spring shower." McCoy had laid an ambush in Jim’s quarters, complete with a midday meal. He pushed a glass of sweet tea, silverware, and a plate of food (sausage, carrots, and grits--where had Bones found grits in this town?) at Jim. "Look at you, you look like you took a ride in it."

"Thought about it."

McCoy's eyes widened. Jim knew he had to keep the conversation moving lest an interrogation ensue, so he asked, "When did you get in?" and took a few bites.

McCoy’s glare promised they'd be discussing Jim’s adventure at some indeterminate and inconvenient time in the future. "About two hours before I called you." His accusation was clear, and Jim groaned. He kept eating, because it seemed to be easing McCoy’s irritation.

"Sorry, I just, had to get out and do some thinking."

McCoy gestured at the still-turbulent skies. "In that?"

Jim shrugged, and McCoy shook his head. "So when are we going up?"

"Monday." McCoy grunted, and Jim said, "You know you don't have to. If you'd rather not."

McCoy looked at him for a long minute, then shook his head and drank some tea. "Someone's got to keep an eye on you, and I'm not making Spock do that alone."

"Uhura will be there."

"She has more important shit to do than herd you."

"And you and Spock don't?"

"Spock's the First Officer and I'm the Chief Medical Officer, so, no."

Jim was suddenly reminded of something. "You are, right? Still Chief Medical Officer?"

McCoy gave a sharp laugh. "Yes. Don't get your hopes up."

"I wasn't--" Jim caught the amusement glinting in McCoy's eyes, and threw a carrot at him, which McCoy caught and proceeded to eat. "You're a dick."

"Careful, I am the one who decides the frequency of immunizations on the ship."

Jim rolled his eyes. "When's your debriefing?"

"Already had my verbal beatdown."

The food Jim had already eaten turned to lead in his stomach. "What? When?"

"Yesterday. That's why I was on today's shuttle."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"What, so you could freak out about it and insist on coming along and watching them do it?"

That same old urge to do something, anything at all, had him standing up out of his chair. "So I could have been there with you."

McCoy sighed. "I appreciate the sentiment, but if I was going to lose my medical license, there were not going to be any witnesses."

Jim's breath came short, then he remembered that McCoy had said he still was the CMO, and his chest eased. "What did they do?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing. Zilch. Didn't even so much as slap my wrist." McCoy met Jim's stunned look with a bland expression. "Lectured me a lot, but I'd expected that. Various reminders of the codes of ethics and the Hippocratic Oath and what have you."

"And that's it?"

"That's it." McCoy took a drink. "So. Is it cozy under this rug?" Jim shook his head, not understanding, and McCoy clarified, "The one we're being swept under."

Jim blinked. "Why--how could they even think they can do that? Our entire ship heard Marcus say he was going to kill everyone on board, that he'd been planning to."

"I don't mean deny that it happened, I mean cover up how and why. They're not going to just serve up his accomplices."

Jim collapsed back into his chair. He watched McCoy, who watched him in turn. Several things made sense: everyone else's wholly anticlimactic debriefings; why Starfleet had been so eager to work with Spock to keep everything surrounding the events in the warp core quiet while Jim struggled to live again; why they couldn't get the Enterprise repaired fast enough. If there were no more careers made into martyrs and if the Enterprise went back into duty to marvelous fanfare, everyone would just stop caring.

"Can we do anything about it?"

"Probably. Question is, should we."

Jim narrowed his eyes at McCoy, which got him long-suffering look in response. "I'm not saying I wouldn't back you, I'm saying it's not just your career on the line if you decide to."

Spock. McCoy. The entire bridge crew. And then there was Carol Marcus--what would happen to her? How much had she known?

Jim's communicator chirped, and he pulled it out. "Kirk here."

"Captain."

"Spock."

"We have a visitor."

Chapter 6 by Niobium

***

Admiral Chutani was not who Kirk had expected to see sitting across from himself and Spock in the small, private, windowless conference room. She was in an away uniform, which downplayed her rank quite effectively, something Jim knew was not a coincidence.

He didn't know her very well, because even when he did interact with the Admiralty they moved in different circles. She was short, coming only to his chest, and heavy and broad in overall build. Her features were rounded and soft, and she had long, red-black hair bound in a herring-bone braid down to her waist, large, dark eyes, and dark brown skin.

And she was the Federation's Starfleet Ombudsman as of the day after the Vengeance had plummeted from the sky.

"Captain Kirk, Commander Spock. I appreciate you taking the time to see me on such short notice. I know you must be very busy."

Jim had debated what to say to her the second he'd remembered who she was, and now that they were in a private room, he didn't see a reason to beat around the bush. "No trouble at all, Admiral. I can't imagine we're half as busy as you are."

She tilted her head and regarded him, and one corner of her mouth twitched. "Chris always said you were smart."

Jim swallowed and didn't look away. He saw Spock tense out of the corner of his eye, which reminded him to say something. "Thank you, Admiral."

Sympathy flashed across her features, then it was gone. "You're right, Captain, I've been very busy. So before we get started, I want something clear: nothing we discuss in here leaves this room."

Here we go, Jim thought. "Yes, Admiral," he said, and Spock added, "Of course, Admiral."

Chutani made a low sound. "As you can imagine, the Federation wants answers. About Marcus, the Augments, the mission you were sent on, Section 31, and the ship that destroyed part of San Francisco."

Spock said, "I take it the rest of the Admiralty and Section 31 have not been very forthcoming, Admiral."

Chutani's answering laugh was harsh. "You have a gift for understatement, Commander Spock."

"Thank you, Admiral."

She flashed her teeth in a brief grin, then drummed her fingers on the table. "They've been stonewalling me. Which I expected, but not at this level. If I had to guess, I'd say no fewer than two other Admirals were involved in Marcus' overall plans, if not intimately aware of the details."

"Hamilton," Jim said on reflex. Chutani narrowed her eyes, and he corrected himself, "Admiral Hamilton. And Admiral Furlong."

Chutani nodded. "Possibly others. I'm not here to name names and point fingers, though. I have your command crew's reports, as well as a thousand others, I was there for all the debriefings, and I'll be going through everything for at least the next year, possibly longer. I can contact you if I need clarification."

Jim found himself at a loss. "Then what was it you wanted to talk to us about, Admiral?"

"Quite simply, Captain, I need you and your crew to leave. And if you could see your way to taking Dr. Carol Marcus with you, that'd be best."

Jim blinked. "I'm sorry?"

She leaned forward, lacing her fingers together. "Take the five-year, complete with a top-notch physicist in your physics lab, go explore space, and leave me some room and time to work in. With you and your command crew here they're never going to let their guard down, and I'll have no chance of getting to the bottom of this before someone applies the right political pressure to make the Federation give up." She snorted and shook her head. "Assuming there even is a bottom," she muttered, then regarded the two of them once more. "There's too much focus on you and by extension them. They're hyper-aware of that. The sooner you're on your way the sooner things will die down, and they'll get sloppy."

Jim let what she was saying sink in. "You mean let them bury this, for now. Sir."

Chutani's smile was wry. "More like shove it out a convenient airlock. But yes. For now."

Jim sat back and tried to organize his thoughts. What she was saying made sense, but it felt like surrender, and in the long list of things he didn't want to surrender, seeing some form of justice for Pike's death was right at the top.

And it might be their only hope of getting real answers.

Jim looked askance at Spock, who gave him a small nod. He sighed and nodded at Chutani in turn. "Understood, Admiral. Do I need to request transfer orders for Dr. Marcus, or do you, ah, have that taken care of?"

Some of the tension bled out of her. "They'll be in by tomorrow." She looked between the two of them. "This won't happen quickly, and it's going to get a lot uglier before it gets prettier. If there's anything I need, I hope I have the support of you and your command crew."

"Absolutely, sir, though I'm not sure what help we'll be out in deep space."

"You'd be surprised," she said, one corner of her mouth twitching in a small smile. She stood from her chair. "And if there's anything you need, please ask. I may be just one Admiral, but I know people and I can make things happen."

Chutani's assistance might well prove more useful than the Admiralty's itself; after all, she held a Federation-appointed position. He filed the offer away for a special occasion. "Thank you, Admiral."

She nodded at them and said, "Gentleman," and quit the room.

***

He stewed over their meeting with Chutani all throughout the long evening of approving the final warp core installation specifications with Scotty, the navigational upgrades with Chekov, and the medbay upgrades with McCoy. (Which were supposed to be done, and predictably were lagging behind.) Dinner proved to be a small distraction, as the command crew sat together at a table and talked shop. It was enough like post-shift meals in the mess that Jim's rattled nerves were soothed for the first time since he'd stepped off the shuttle.

Later he turned off all the lights in his apartment and settled in the dilapidated lounger on his sliver of a balcony with some tea (McCoy had scoured his rooms clean of all alcohol, and Scotty claimed Spock had threatened him with dire consequences if he enabled Jim in the least). He watched a group of thunderstorms on the southern horizon shoulder together and argue about which would become a supercell, if any of them did, while fireflies skittered in the fields beyond the shipyard fence-line and heat lightning sparked and glowed, casting stark shadows. He remembered countless nights in his early twenties spent almost exactly like this, relaxing after a hard day working an assembly line.

His door chimed, and he called over his shoulder, "Come in." Spock's silhouette cast a long shadow from the lights in the hall.

"Captain?"

"Out here."

Spock shut the door behind him and joined Jim out on the balcony. There was a second chair, which Jim indicated with a gesture, and Spock sat in it. The difference between Jim laid out on the old lounger in his ratty, gray sweat bottoms and Academy t-shirt and Spock sitting straight and tall in his away uniform were so stark as to be comedic, and Jim had to smother a laugh.

"Tea?"

"No, thank you."

"I can make it without the honey." He had Bones to thank for his desire to sweeten his tea all the time now. (Spock had once commented that McCoy was out to ruin tea's many health benefits with an over-application of sugar. He only knew about the accusation and its ensuing argument secondhand, as he'd still been in the coma, but Uhura assured him it was one for the recordbooks.)

"I do not require refreshment, Captain."

"Jim."

"...Jim."

A brilliant flash in the distance preceded a low boom of thunder. They hadn't had a chance to discuss the meeting with Chutani, and Jim assumed that's what Spock was there for. "I guess that's that." Spock arched a brow. "Marcus. Section 31."

Spock nodded. He considered the skyline and said, "She will have more resources at her disposal, and will be harder for them to evade in the long run. It is reasonable to expect she will produce results."

They were outside and in earshot of anyone who cared to listen, so Spock's vague terms were intentional. Jim decided it wasn't a bad idea, even though his neighbors consisted of Uhura, McCoy, and Scotty. "And she wasn't directly involved, so she's not going into it with preconceived notions."

"Precisely."

Jim ran his free hand through his hair. "Probably the best way to make it happen, then."

"It has a much higher chance of success than if we were to attempt a similar endeavor ourselves."

"Oh?"

"Eighty-five point seven percent."

Laughter bubbled out of Jim before he could stop it, and he had to set his glass of tea on the small, glass table lest he spill it all over himself. There were tears in his eyes before he could put his reaction into words.

"The Federation has to put a fucking Admiral as Ombudsman to sort shit out, and I'm getting the assignment of my dreams because they need us the hell out of the way for as long as possible without it looking bad." A few more laughs escaped before he could choke them down, and he ignored the handful of tears that fell back into his hair. He was glad it was too dark for Spock to see him properly. "God, I really fucked up, didn't I?"

"I do not find that to be a proper assessment of events. You saved the ship and thus the crew."

"That's not what I mean. I mean taking that mission from Marcus without questioning it." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I should've listened to you. And Scotty. And Bones. Then the Vengeance wouldn't have put a fucking hole in the middle of San Francisco, and the crew we lost wouldn't--"

"Jim." Spock so seldom used his given name without prompting that Jim was surprised into silence. "It is pointless to speculate on what would have happened had you not agreed to Marcus' mission. What is, is."

"It's not when it might have saved thousands of lives." His voice shook, and for once he just didn’t care.

"And cost millions more in the long-term if Marcus' greater plan came to fruition."

The war. Jim breathed in the warm, damp, summer air and struggled to get hold of himself. "If I'd listened to you we might have figured out a way to stop that too."

"Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Marcus was not without his supporters. He was a Starfleet Admiral in good standing, with whatever remained of Section 31 at his disposal. There is no reason to believe an alternate series of events would have unfolded in our favor and without a similar loss of life, including yours. As such, this is an illogical exercise in self-flagellation at best."

And me wallowing in self-pity at worst. Spock probably didn't think of it that way, but that didn't make it not true. Jim knew, on the face of it, that Spock was right; that he had to accept what had happened and figure out, as with everything else in his insane life, how to recover, and move on, and ultimately live with it.

He took a handful of slow breaths. One day at a time, he reminded himself. It's going to be okay. He wiped his face off with his shirt and reclaimed his tea, taking a few drinks to soothe his throat. Spock waited, the very definition of patience.

"They're taking the core up on Saturday. I'm scheduled to go Monday." Jim was prepping himself to ask the actual question he had on his mind when Spock came to his rescue.

"May I accompany you?"

Jim didn't bother to drain the emotion from his voice. "Yes, absolutely. I have to tour all the sections that are done and look into all the things that aren't." The later wasn't strictly true, as he received reports from Scotty and Sulu like clockwork, but he also knew it helped when a ship's captain was there to grease wheels with Starfleet.

"I will be glad to assist."

"Thanks."

"You are welcome."

They watched in silence for some time as the lightning illuminated the storm's hulking mass. Each flicker turned the distant darkness into brilliant, rolling, white and gray and blue and green mountains that left impressions of themselves hanging in the air after the light was gone.

"Bones is kind of freaking out about going back up to the ship, by the way, so any help with that is appreciated."

"I was under the impression Dr. McCoy disliked space on general principal."

"Oh, he does, just, I think this is more than that." He stared into his tea, feeling guilty; this was something that was his fault, no two ways about it.

"I see. Whatever help I can provide, I will."

"Thanks."

There was just enough light from the shipyards for Jim to see Spock nod. The sat in silence until the storm had wandered off, then Spock returned his quarters, and Jim collapsed into bed.

One day at a time, he thought just before falling asleep.

Chapter 7 by Niobium

***

Uhura called from the kitchen, "Captain, Sulu says you have fifteen minutes to get on-board the shuttle, or he's making us ride up with Chekov and the repair supplies."

"Alright, alright." Jim came out of his room, tablet in hand, and turned off the screen lest he be tempted to read another message. "You know, Chekov's not that bad of a pilot, and the other shuttle's seats are brand new."

Uhura was leaning against the kitchen counter, her own travel case tucked at her side. Jim wondered how she'd pulled the joyous duty of wrangling him onto the shuttle in time. "He's flying the shuttle with the worst stick in the shipyard, loaded down with extra weight, and the majority of his experience is still from a simulator. That's going to be a rough ride."

"Gotta learn somehow." Jim checked his case, tossing in the necessities; they'd be staying on the station until the warp core was up and running. The installation was progressing nicely, if not as fast as Scotty wanted.

"He's been better, the last few days," Uhura said, not bothering to sound casual. He stopped pretending like packing was the most fascinating thing he could be doing, and found her giving him a meaningful look.

"I talked to him,” he said. “Scotty asked me to."

"It helped."

"Good." He resumed shoving things around in his case to have something to do, then gave up and shut it, snapping the locks into place. He ran a hand over the scratched surface. "I've still got a lot of apologizing to do, though."

"Have you ever considered the possibility that there's someone you need to forgive too?"

She couldn’t possibly mean Khan or Marcus. He glanced up. "Who?"

Her expression suggested she was thinking something like, 'world's most oblivious smart person'. "Yourself."

He suppressed a shiver. "For what."

She raised her eyebrows, and he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Spock said kind of the same thing," he admitted.

"The Commander's a smart guy."

"Yeah." Jim picked up his tablet so his hands couldn't fidget. "And a good friend."

"And a great boyfriend."

Jim gave a short, soft laugh. "Sorry if he's been--you know. Extra busy." Dealing with me. He didn't say it, but he thought she heard it loud and clear.

"You can make it up to me by focusing on getting better so he's not as busy." She chased that with a smile, and he laughed again.

"Okay. Yeah."

"Come on," she said, and breezed out the door. "We have ten minutes, then it's the supply shuttle, and I love Chekov like a brother but he's not the pilot Sulu is."

***

Jim watched the shipyards fall away beneath the shuttle, growing smaller and smaller until they were swallowed up by the sprawling Midwest countryside, green peaking between gray and black storms that bloomed eye-searing white with lightning. That in turn became North America as they ascended further, and finally, the curve of the Earth--white scattered over blue and green and brown--filled the window. They slid into the orbit which would bring them to Starbase 1, and something seemed to come loose from him and fall away.

McCoy sat next to him, working on his tablet with a scowl that promised some eventful meetings about the status of the medbay upgrades. Uhura and Spock murmured quietly one row back, discussing crew rotations and rosters and who they needed to cajole to get certain labs and specialists assigned to the ship. Everything felt normal, almost okay, and better yet, he felt aware enough to really own the feeling. He wasn't foolish enough to think he was leaving his problems behind, but now he harbored a fleeting hope that maybe he knew enough to get through what he had to. The rest, he would need to find a way to let go.

Someone at the back of shuttle said, "There she is," in a low voice, and he looked out his window; everyone else, even McCoy, did the same.

All of the exterior panels that had needed replacing were done. With the core still offline there was no light from the nacelles nor the deflector dish, leaving her outlined by a handful of viewports, yet even so dark and still the Enterprise was as beautiful as the first time he'd seen her in the shipyard, under construction and a shadow of what waited for them now.

He thought back to the afternoon in the field (it felt like years ago despite having been all of four days), and wondered how he could have forgotten where home actually was. Maybe that had been the cumulative effect of everything he'd been through, though, blinding him to the things that could help him and making him feel like the driving force behind his own personal disaster rather than one of the many survivors of someone else's.

Murmurs of relief and awe and everything in between rippled through the crew, and he felt reassured by the fact that he wasn't the only one who needed to see her in one piece to make it real in his mind. The shuttles turned towards the hangar deck, and Sulu put his conversation with Darwin over the audio system.

"Enterprise, this is Galileo and Ramachandran, on approach and requesting permission to land, shuttlepads four and six."

"Galileo and Ramachandran, this is Enterprise. Permission granted for landing pads four and six." Jim was sure he heard Darwin's voice tremble, though it might have been the shuttle's speakers. "Welcome aboard, everyone. It’s good to see you again."

Someone shouted, "Yeah!" and that led to a general round of cheers and applause. McCoy gave him a sideways look that was full of grudgingly fond resignation, and he responded with a tried, happy, smile.

He shut his eyes and listened to the sound of his crew's elation, and let some of it be his own.

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