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Ever since he was little, he noticed things. He knew when Frank came home smelling of perfume his mom didn’t wear, he knew the moment when his mom noticed. He could hear each raindrops impact on the roof, could feel every single hair stand on end when Frank came in smelling of alcohol. He knew when his mom was leaving again because of the way her whole body relaxed and her heart rate slowed, calm and pleased. He knew when Sam lied and when he told the truth.  

He also knew that he had pockets of time that just—went missing.  

At first it doesn’t mean much. He’s at school and then he isn’t. He’s at home in his room, and then he’s out in the field behind the house. He’s at the quarry, and then he’s still there—but three hours later.  

He doesn’t tell anyone. He doesn’t want to be different. He doesn’t want to be the space boy with a dead daddy and a mom that doesn’t stick around. But he is, so he isn’t going to add anything else to the list.  

It’s fine, no one really notices. Frank is a negligent caretaker on the best of days, Sam has his own worries, and Mom isn’t on planet long enough to know she has children, let alone that one is experiencing trouble. His teachers think him smart but lazy, and he doesn’t really have any friends.  

But then it starts happening more often—time passes him by. He starts to figure it out, find the triggers. One day it’s the shine of a mirror. The next a particular scent—honeysuckle, even though he knows there isn’t any honeysuckle for at least a mile. And then the hum of the replicator, the sound of the electricity running through the wires captivates his whole self. Once, a terrifying once, it’s his own heartbeat, and he’s so focused on it that time seems to slow, that the beats of his heart seem to slow until they stop all together and Jim is paralyzed by what must be his death. And then it’s over and Jim shakes until morning.   

He starts to go a little mad, maybe. One thing, catching his attention so thoroughly that he loses himself in it, that time goes by while he stands still. It’s not normal, not right.  

But Jim is a smart kid; his teachers were right about that. And just as he finds the triggers, he finds what keeps him here, keeps him present and moving in time like he should. If there’s enough going on, (but not too much, too much is bad and Jim has a lot of experience trying to find the balance; culminating with him in the hospital for three days unconscious from ‘unknown’ causes) he can’t focus on one thing, he has to trick himself into paying enough attention, into not becoming engulfed.  

So he chews strong flavored gum and has music almost constantly playing. He digs his nails into his palm, and he smells the lavender wash they use on their clothes. Always at least two senses engaged. Always something happening to pull him out of focus on another. His teachers call him disruptive, unable to focus. They seem unable to make up their minds.  

In a lot of ways this works; the pockets of missing time are less frequent, and shorter when they happen. And then he’s nine (and a half, thank you) and it doesn’t work so well. 

Since the moment Jim walked through the doorway, Frank’s been in a foul mood. He curses loudly but Jim can barely hear it over the sound of his music, even if the sound of drink sloshing in Frank’s cup cuts through the noise clearly. Frank’s been around long enough for Jim to know the drill. Don’t talk, don’t make eye contact, get out of whatever room Frank is in quickly. If he stays in Frank’s sight long enough the man will rouse himself to a fury, get up on unsteady legs and beat him with too steady hands,

Sam’s out most evenings now, and not through sneaking out liked he used to, now that he has friends and clubs and sports. Anything to keep him out of the house. He says it’s because he makes Frank angry. That when Sam’s not there, things are better—for all of them.  

But that’s not true. Frank is one of those people that likes to be angry. He doesn’t need a reason, and sometimes he won’t bother to come up with a fake one. He likes to be angry, to insight fear. Jim tries very hard not to let him, not to give in and flinch at the man’s hits. But he is afraid. Even if he wishes he weren’t.  

So Jim sticks to the plan, he ignores Frank, going straight to the stairs and into his room. He shuts the door, and even though there’s no lock, the physical barrier helps.  

The walls of his room are almost too white. He turns up his music, taps his foot in a double beat, feels the vibrations run through his body.  

Jim pulls a crumpled packet out of his pocket. He’s out of gum. Can’t go down and replicate any more right now, when Frank is in the living room like a gatekeeper to the rest of the house. He crinkles the wrapper further; hums along to songs he’s not really listening to but needs to fill the silence.  

Jim doesn’t hear the heavy footsteps on the stairs—and he knows they were heavy, Frank moves like he’s mad at the earth, trying to hurt it—or the door opening, but he feels the displaced air that makes the hairs on his neck stand on end. Jim turns as if struck, eyes wide and hands gone clammy. Frank’s in the doorway, hand white on the knob and face red. 

He stocks forward, lips moving but no sound coming out. Jim’s earphones get yanked out painfully and his music is abruptly gone.  

“—turn that shit down!” Frank bellows, but it’s like hearing him through cotton and Jim’s caught on the hue of his face, the glassy rage behind his eyes. Frank throws the music player on the ground and stomps on it. The crunch of small parts isn’t as loud as Jim would have thought it’d be, not for how hard Frank steps.  

Frank yells again, a wordless sound that Jim only slightly hears, even though he can see Frank’s neck strain. Frank slams the door, leaving as abruptly as he entered. The room falls back into stillness and Jim falls into himself. He hadn’t realized how still he had been holding himself until his body starts to shake, muscles gone past too tense with arbitrary fear. Jim looks down at the little player and has the presence of mind to be glad it wasn’t him.  

The frame is mostly intact, but parts are slipping out the side and the screen’s cracked through, barely showing the last settings. The volume is at its highest, something that never happens, with how much it can hurt. Jim touches his ear. But he’s just been able to hear it. It hadn’t been that loud; he would have noticed. It would have hurt.  

Without the music, the room is too quiet. Usually Jim can hear the TV through the walls, the leaves on the tree outside shake and the sound of power spreading through the house. He doesn’t hear anything—he hadn’t even heard the door slam, had he? It’s like his ears are turned off, but nothing else is distracting him, no other sense is drowning it out. Everything’s always been so ‘on’, vying for supremacy. Nothing has ever just stopped.  

Jim makes a distressed sound in the back of his throat. He can feel it, but he doesn’t hear it. It’s like the world is suddenly full of white noise—the fake sound the mind makes when everything’s too quiet to comprehend. 

“Ah” Jim lets out. He knows he said it, hand on his throat, feeling the sound vibrate. Nothing. He doesn’t hear anything.  

“Ah!” Jim’s hands go to his ears, covering them, pressing them hard against the side of his face, “Ah!” 

Is this it? Will he never hear again? After always hearing so much, the thought is terrifying. Will they all just stop soon? Will he stop seeing and tasting and smelling and feeling? Stuck inside himself with no hope for escape? 

He doesn’t realize he’s crying at first. Can’t hear it, and too lost in his head to notice the other markers—the smell of salt in the air, warm tracks down his cheeks, the blur to his vision. But then he hears it, little choked-off sobs. It’s him. He can hear again, for the moment.  

It makes him cry harder.  

Jim spends a lot of his life afraid—afraid of Frank, afraid mom will never come back, afraid of never doing anything worth his dad’s death—he’s not going to start fearing himself. If everything goes away, if one day soon he can’t hear or see or smell or taste or feel, well that’ll just be how it is.  

But that doesn’t mean he’ll roll over and accept defeat. This isn’t his losing battle. He can do something—he can be something. Be someone so full that he’ll never be empty, never be devoid of self, even if everything else leaves him.  

It’s like he’s always in warp, mind racing, world made to witness. He talks all the time now, exudes presence in a way that can’t be ignored. Instead of receiving stimulus, finding things that make his senses tick, he’s the catalyst. He makes friends and gets in scuffles and always looks for things that make him feel so alive that the concept of nothingness is almost impossible.  

But escape from nothingness hinges on others knowing his existence, Jim’s found. And though people know of him, very few people know him. Sam is one of the people that truly knows him.  

“You can’t go!” Jim yanks on the back of Sam’s jacket. Demanding. Pleading.  

Sam stops, looks at Jim and he can tell Sam’s not going to come back home. Sam will leave and he’s never coming back. Mom may leave for years at a time, but she always comes back, if only for a day or two. If Sam goes… 

“I can’t stay, Jimmy, I can’t,” his face is full of helpless anger and he shifts the backpack on his shoulder, “You’re a good kid, you do what Frank says, you’ll be fine.” Jim doesn’t need his enhanced awareness to know that not even Sam believes that.  

“Don’t go.” It sounds pathetic to his own ears, but he can’t stop from saying it, from begging. 

Sam’s already turned away, “Bye Jimmy.” 

Jim hears the gravel crunch under his steps as he walks away. He stares at the ground, but it’s that sound that’s constant, the regular crunch of dirt underfoot, getting further and further away, even if it sounds just as loud, just as final.  

Jim snaps out of it when his shadow falls to nothing below him, only the slightest traces showing it to be high noon. He blinks rapidly and looks up. The ground is so flat, he can see Sam, but he’s a small moving shape on the horizon. Jim’s neck and ears are hot from the sun. He can still hear Sam’s footsteps as distinct as when Sam first started away from Jim.  

Jim takes a hasty step back, dirt crunching underfoot, but not as loud as Sam’s steps—he can feel it, feel himself falling into that one sound. He can’t—he won’t let it happen. Not now. With Sam gone, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to come out of it. 

The red in the corner of his vision flashes with the sun. His dad’s classic car—his real dad, the one who is mentioned every Hero’s Day along with the rest of the dead too big for their graves—stands there proud in the sun.  

Jim gets in it, opens the visor and catches the keys that fall from their place. Turning it on drowns out some of the sound of Sam leaving him. Turning on the music and turning the dial on high helps more. Sitting like this, the bruise on his side throbs and Jim wishes if Sam couldn’t stay, he’d at least take Jim with him.  

Jim can hear Frank moving inside the house—he hits the gas and lurches onto the street. He holds the gas down harder and harder, going faster and faster until he can hear nothing but the whipping of the wind and fragments of music. When Jim passes Sam, he can’t hear him at all, and barely see him for how his eyes are watering up.  

The quarry comes into sight faster than he’d thought—and it isn’t until it’s in sight that he realizes he’s been heading for it at all. Lights flash in his rearview and then the cop is alongside the car, telling him in a tinny voice to stop the vehicle.  

Jim doesn’t contemplate giving in and instead focuses on the rapidly approaching quarry edge. There’s a second where he wants to send the car careening over and sail with it—he can almost feel the freefall, how terribly full it would make him—but the crash at the end slams into his mind and he slams the breaks, turning the car hard. The crash would mean nothingness, and Jim’s tamped down fear of trapped—empty—nothing—has him clawing at the quarry’s edge, relishing the grit under his nails even as his mind becomes all but blank in fear.  

The cop doesn’t pull him up, “What is your name.” It’s said as a statement.  

Jim thinks of lying, but he can see the gleam in mechanical eyes and knows he’s already being checked against facial recognition records for the town. There’s no use, and no real point, in lying. Frank already knows, Sam saw him drive by, and mom will have heard about it by nightfall, regardless of how many light years away she is. Though he’s not sure she’ll care.  

“James Tiberius Kirk.” He says; it feels like defiance.

Chapter Text

Jim’s not surprised when he’s sent away, not really. Frank had been threatening it for a long time, even if he didn’t have the guardianship to follow through. He must have convinced his mom, because Frank comes into Jim’s room looking smug. 

“Pack your bags brat,” he smirks, “Yer mom’s not even here and she’s had enough of your sorry ass.”  

It’s easy to puff up and make it clear what he thinks of that, but he doesn’t feel any need to fight the decision. Leaving hasn’t ever been a threat. It could be worse, wherever he’s going, but it’ll surely be different, and with the way his bruised and cut skin pulls under his too big clothes, Jim’s willing to take the chance.  

So no, being sent away isn’t really a surprise, but Jim had thought (stupidly) that his mom would at least come to see him off instead of transmitting the papers through PADD without even a note. Makes what Frank says seem true.  

It’s all right though. Jim will be fine. 

Frank brings him to the shuttle dock, shoves him towards the right one, and threatens that if he misses his connection, he best not come back. He turns and stocks away and Jim feels relief and anxiety at once. He’s been places with lots of noise before—climbing around the construction yard has always been one of his favorite activities. But the docks at Des Moines are on another level. It’s not that there’s a lot of noise—although that’s part of it—it’s that everyone is taking at once; over loudspeaker and in hushed conversations. The smell of sweat and fuel are overwhelming, he can almost feel it against his skin, and everyone is in constant motion; it’s like the floor itself isn’t staying still.  

It’s too much. Jim doesn’t have a music player since Frank broke his two years ago and his gum is already tasteless. He’s going to freeze up here and miss his flight, stay on this planet instead of taking his first chance to get off it—to see if it’s really so amazing or if his mom’s just been putting as much distance between them as she can. 

“Are you alright young one?” The voice comes from his left and Jim suddenly feels the hand on his shoulder. 

Jim turns and there is an Orion man looking down at him with concerned eyes. His skin is a beautiful green that reminds Jim of new growth. And he smells—he smells like comfort. Like peppermint and eucalyptus and something peppery. He’s wearing a shirt that’s abstract splashes of color—although maybe not, maybe if he looks hard enough, he’ll see the design, see the intention. He just has to look a bit harder.  

“Oh,” he says and Jim blinks slow, “Who brought a little protector out here without even a blank lead?” he tuts and takes Jim’s hand, “Where are you going, child?” the smell of mint is sharper. 

“San Francisco, and then…” Jim answers unconsciously, he’s caught in the new feeling of the Orion’s hand. His skin is tough, but in the crevice of his palm there’s a smooth line of skin. It’s a scar, Jim thinks.  

“You’re in luck little thing, we’re going to the same place.” He chatters, pulling Jim along, away from the fray of travelers. They end up in a lounge—one of those meant for preferred ticket holders that Jim very much isn’t. It’s quiet here, and Jim comes back to himself in increments. There’s a man tapping away on his PADD in a corner. Two women speak softly in a lyrical language against the window wall. Last is an Orion woman in hijab. Jim sees her whole body relax and smell the cinnamon newly released in the air. 

“Hasrok,” she speaks, coming over to the man who’s brought Jim here, “Please tell me when you leave next time, you know it can get—” she makes a gesture that Jim understands too well.  

“Katam,” Hasrok looks at her gently and Jim starts to feel anxious. People don’t look at people like that. It’s not normal. 

“W-why am I here?” Jim pulls his hand out of Hasrok’s grip; they kidnapped him, right? Jim tries to muster indignation, but the room is a blessed reprieve and he can’t hold on to it.  

Katam blinks and seems to notice him for the first time, “Hasrok…” she starts and Jim can almost feel her mounting displeasure, “I would like to know why as well.” 

Jim shifts from foot to foot, her eyes are black, and looking straight at him. No—no they’re not black, they’re a deep, deep brown. Jim can make out the pupil after a long moment of staring, but only just.  

“Oh” Katam says and it's de ja vu, “Why in the world did you remove him from his lead’s care?” 

“There was no one with him, Katam, and you know how overwhelming things can be when you have a lead.” 

Katam looks back down at him with concerned eyes, “Was he lost?” 

Hasrok nods. 

“Oh you poor dear,” Katam bends, arms extended. Jim startles back so hard his teeth clank. 

“Hey!” Jim feels like his insides are jittering. They’re talking about him like he’s not even here and using words he knows but doesn’t understand. Besides, he’s almost eleven now and has never been one to receive hugs, especially from strange women he’s just meeting. “What the hell is going on? I-I don’t—what are you talking about! If you’re just trying to—to kidnap me or something, you made a lousy choice!” 

The women are looking over at them now, and Jim can feel their eyes on him. His cheeks heat for no reason he can find.  

Hasrok laughs, “We’re not kidnapping you, just stopping you from getting lost.” 

Jim makes a frustrated sound, “I wasn’t lost—my gate was right there!” 

“No—” Katam’s brow draws tight for a moment, “not physically, but mentally. I don’t know what you human’s call it, but on Kolari, we call it being ‘lost’. It happens to Protectors like you and me when we…” she makes the gesture she made before again, and Jim gets it, when everything’s too much or when there’s too much of one thing, “Leads like Hasrok, they help keep our senses in check, help lead us back.” 

“You—you too?” Jim feels like the earth is shifting underfoot. He never knew there were others. There certainly weren’t in Riverside.  

Hasrok smiles, but it’s sad, “No one’s told you your history?” 

“Here,” Katam extends a hand, “My name is Katam, this is Hasrok. I am a protector and he is my lead. What’s your name?” 

Jim takes her hand with only slight trepidation, “Jim—James Kirk.” 

“Well hello little Kirk,” Katam smiles, “Would you like to know more about our kind?” 

Jim nods and the three of them go to one of the open tables. Hasrok leaves to get them drinks, and Jim gets the feeling they’re doing it for his benefit, though the why isn’t clear.  

“There aren’t a lot of us, Leads and Protectors, but there are enough that we have our own way of interacting with the world.” Katam says in a whisper that sounds like a shout in his mind, “Protectors have control of their senses—we can turn up our hearing, turn down our sense of smell. It’s not easy, but we can interpret the worlds in ways others can only dream.  

“We’re called protectors because that’s what our people have done for ages. We’ve protected people with our ability. But, as you know,” she says, and it’s not a question, “it’s easy to get overwhelmed, easy for one thing to distract us entirely until we’re lost inside ourselves. That’s where leads come in. They lead us home. As a protector, there are ways to avoid getting lost, but leads are the best at helping us maintain control and allowing us to become better than you could even dream. 

“Honestly,” Katam looks put out, “I’m amazed no one’s spoken to you on this yet, especially with how young you are and how pronounced your gift. Most of us don't develop our skills until we're at least in our first maturation. For you to be so in control, so young…it could not have been easy, did you not get lost before? Did no one notice?” 

“My—” Jim’s head feels like it’s spinning, “my family doesn’t know. I didn’t tell them—I didn’t tell anyone.” 

“It’s all right little Kirk,” Hasrok says, placing a hot cup of tea in front of him, “We found you, and Katam can teach you the ways of a protector.” 

Jim nods his thanks and grabs the cup. Warmth seeps through his hands. 

“Um,” Jim stares at the drink, “I think I know how protectors work, but what about leads?” 

Hasrok takes his seat, “Leads do much like the name suggests, they lead protectors to safety. A lead will be able to help a lost protector, the more compatible, the easier their connection. We also have heightened empathy—it’s easier for us to know the state of protectors around us and influence emotional disposition. That’s how I found you,” he smiles, “it works on base-kind too, those that are neither lead nor protector,” Hasrok explains without Jim needing to muster up the strength to ask, embarrassed by his own ignorance, “But only with extra focus and concentration. Leads don’t run the risk of being overwhelmed much like you protectors.” 

“Oh,” Jim nods, taking a sip of the tea and is thankful for how bland it is. With the way his mind is racing, he doesn’t think he can take too much outside stimulus, “How did you find each other? How did you know he was a lead?” How can Jim find others like them? 

“Well,” Katam starts, “I actually found another lead first, an Elufor, you know, the very emotive bunch that put their tentacles on everything? She found me lost. It took her a while to bring me back—we weren’t very compatible. But once I was back, she said she wasn’t going to leave, because I had to ‘be protected’. I think she was just lonely,” Katam laughed, “In Eluforian culture, the roles are reverse. The lead is charged with protecting the protector, and the protector is a guide to looking at the worlds.” She shrugs, “Both work, I think.” 

“I was living in a small community of others like us on Gaspar VII,” Hasrok took up the story, “Then I started feeling impressions of feelings that weren’t coming from any of the protectors in our community.” 

“And I kept tuning into a voice that kept wondering if it was crazy!” she gives a laugh, “I ended up following it, and there was Hasrok, two towns over, and when I saw him, I know he was the guide for me.” 

“And I knew I wasn’t actually crazy.”  

“What happened to the Elufor?” Jim asked, feeling uneasy. Looks like even within protector and leads’ culture, people can be left behind. 

“Oh, she found an Andorian in the community that was much more suited to her, if you can believe it. It was always a blast, seeing them interact.” Hasrok said. 

Jim nods, stomach unknotting a little. It’s good to know the Elufor didn’t end up alone.  

“It’s a lot to take in,” Katam places her hand on his shoulder, “On the flight, we’ll sit together, and I’ll tell you some ways to help from becoming lost.” 

“I don’t think I’m in your area of the shuttle.” Jim says, knowing quite well that them being in this lounge was more than proof of that. 

Katam waved away his worries, “Hasrok will deal with that. Now how about you finish your tea.” 

Hasrok did indeed deal with it. Jim found himself being ushered onto the shuttle in one of the first boarding groups, being directed to sit in a seat that wasn’t quite comfortable, but had more room and less distraction than the normal transport seating he was used to seeing.  

Katam sat next to him and spent the entirely of the ride teaching him. He got lost once, so focused on her voice that he lost what she was saying. Hasrok’s laugh brought him out of it, and Jim about went red in embarrassment.  

“Don’t worry, little Kirk,” Katam said, “I once stared at my ice cream so long—by the time I found my way back, it was melted.” 

Jim laughs a little at that, feeling less strange, and gets a renewed flow of focus. Some of what she’s saying, he’s thought of himself and already put into practice. But the new information is invaluable, almost as much as knowing he’s not the only one.  

“Noise canceling headphones, of course, for bad days when it’s hard to focus, although some say it makes their ears strain even harder,” she shrugs, “Centered breathing is the best. When you feel yourself start to get lost—close your eyes, and focus on your breath. Once you’re focused, you can start to spread your awareness, take things in slowly without it all rushing in at once. 

“And there’s the dials.” Jim gives her a confused look, “You know how old electronics had dials? That you’d turn up or down?” Jim gives a nod, the motion was similar on his old music player, though there certainly weren’t any dials, “They’re a good basis for a visualization technique. Imagine each sense has a dial in your head. When one sense gets too high, visualize turning it down. When one seems to be too low, turn it up. It worked really well for me before I found a lead.” 

“Thank you.” Jim says, and he means it in a way the words can’t really get across. 

“It’s our pleasure,” Katam smiles as they disembark. 

“Come now,” Hasrok puts his arm around Jim’s shoulders, “let’s bring you to your shuttle.” 

The voyage is very long and very quiet. Each person has a small capsule like area with a bed and bathroom, the mess and common areas are further forward in the ship.  

Jim doesn’t mind it right now—actually prefers it for perhaps the first time in his life. Hasrok and Katam had, in the some odd hours that he’d known them, changed his life forever. There were others like him, he wasn’t some one-off freak, messed up from being born in the stars. And there were others not like him, but who could understand him and help him.  

Jim felt giddy at the idea of a lead, someone who could pull him out of himself. It was like learning superheroes were real. The fear that Jim had always staunchly ignored, the fear of being pulled into himself, of being lost, had a savior somewhere out there. And in the meantime he had new ways of coping, of getting by while he waited and looked.  

Maybe when he’s old enough, he’ll go to the community Katam and Hasrok mentioned, meet others and see if he can find his lead. But for now he’s going to live with an aunt and uncle he’s never met before. They sent him a video message—Jim gets it on his PADD sometime during the layover in San Francisco, and he’d forgotten about it for a while, too wrapped up in thought. 

Now he watches it: he sees a woman that looks like what he thinks his mom must have looked like when she was younger, only with curly brown hair and a man with deep brown skin and warm eyes. Aunt Elaine and Uncle Joel. 

They talk happily of their colony, speak fondly of all the memories they’re sure they’ll all make together, of how pleased they are for his visit, as if it was somehow his idea, his choice. Their smiles remind him of Katam and Hasrok, happy for no discernable reason, but happy all the same. It’s jarringly different from the life he’s used to, but Jim can’t help but like it.  

“We can’t wait to see you!” Aunt Elaine finishes with a wave and Jim doesn’t think he’s ever had someone say that about him before. 

When the deeps space shuttle arrives, Elaine and Joel are right at the docks waiting for him, waving rapidly when he steps off the gangway. Elaine starts in on how pleased they are to have him, ushering him forward before he has time to process, and Joel grabs his bag right off his shoulder.  

"It really is wonderful to be with family again," Elaine says, pulling Jim close to her side (he doesn't know if he likes it or not, all the touching), "Why, the last time I saw your mother was at her wedding! You weren't even a twinkle."  

Joel comes up on Jim's right, "Feeling a little overwhelmed? It's your first-time off planet, right?" 

"Oh lordy!" Elaine says, "I was so darn excited I forgot all about that bit—the new folks when they come say the gravity feels a bit different, it's something about air density and oxygen content." She waves her hand, "I'm a marine biologist, not an astronomer, so I don't know the details, but Mr. Sato, he's all about it and can give a much better explanation, if you're wanting it." 

Jim nods dumbly, he doesn't feel overwhelmed in the way he's used too—it's more his head and heart don't know what's actually going on. This short interaction is already so far out of his usual realm of experience he doesn’t know what to do.  

They both seem to notice, if the look they exchange is anything to go by, "Well, we'll get you settled in and then we can have the grand tour," Elaine says, "I know those deep space flights are about sleeping through it, but they can still be the most tiring thing!" 

Jim nods dumbly and is lead into a little house that looks like the ones on either side. Elaine gives him a quick tour; the kitchen to the right of the entryway, bathroom beyond that; the living and dining rooms one large space on the left of the house, the staircase leading to the master bedroom and a study. 

“And this is your room,” Elaine ends, bringing him to the bedroom on the first floor, “We’ll leave you to get settled some, Joel and I will be right in the kitchen if you need anything, Darling.” Jim nods in answer and then he’s alone.  

It takes some doing, but Jim does get settled. 

They are very good to him. Elaine always knocks on his door before walking in, and Joel seems unable to hurt a fly.  Whenever Jim gets in trouble (which is often enough to be a regular occurrence), they scold him plenty, but they never yell. Uncle Joel never even pulls back his hand to hit, and he’s more soft-spoken than Aunt Elaine. Neither of them drinks, so Jim never has to worry about the smell or what it means for him.  

And there are so many new things here—he was used to all the sounds and smells and sights of Riverside, Iowa—Tarsus IV is truly its own world. All the food smells different, the coffee has a distinct metallic smell he doesn’t care for and the water has a berry quality. The wildlife’s calls kept him up half of the first week, but once his teacher Miss. Janine takes him out and teaches him about them, he can sleep easy, his unconscious mind filtering them as non-threatening. And then there are colors here that Jim doesn’t think even exist back on earth.  

To make it better he gets friends, real friends.  

There are eight thousand people in the colony on Tarsus IV. Jim doesn’t know them all, but he knows of them all, in one way or another. His uncle and aunt’s house is near the edges of the colony. When they made their way towards the docks and the main market square, he could hear almost everyone. The first time he went, he got lost right there, standing in the square like a zombie.  

That’s how he meets Lee-Yu. One minute he’s caught on someone haggling for a new PADD and the next there’s a girl in his face. 

“Hellooo?” she waves a hand in his face and it’s obvious it’s not the first time she’s said it.  

Jim startles back a little bit. He’s only been here for a few days, He doesn’t want to be the weird one when he’s finally normal enough, not stuck as Kirk’s son. 

“Good.” she nods, “I’m Lee-Yu.” 


She smiles, “Nice to meet you. Now I’m late to meet my moms and it’s your fault.” Jim stats to feel shameful redness run up his neck, Lee-Yu’s smile goes sly, “To make up for it you have to race me to the fish market.” 

“Fish—but I don’t know where—” Jim starts but Lee-Yu is already off. Jim hurries to catch up, long legs giving him an advantage, but Lee-Yu’s darting about and she knows where she’s going. She’d won this race before it started.  

When they get to what Jim supposes is the fish market, because Lee-Yu’s stopped, they’re both gasping for breath. 

“You’re fast—like, like a comet.” Jim gets out. 

Lee-Yu laughs, “Comet! I like that. What will you be then?” she looks at him expectantly.  


“Jim!” Joel calls. Jim whips around. He can’t see his uncle, but he hears it clear enough. He focuses in on the sound, turning away from Lee-Yu and walking towards his uncle’s voice. 

“Jim!” Joel says again, this time with palpable relief as Jim comes into sight, “I was worried.” 

Jim squirms a little, under the foreign feeling of being worried after and of the fact that it was him getting lost that caused it in the first place.  

“It was my fault,” Jim turns and Lee-Yu is there—he hadn’t noticed her follow him, “I challenged him to a race to the fish market.” 

“That’s half way across the market,” Joel sighs and Jim winces, “I don’t have any issue with you going off to play, Jim, but please tell me first in the future.” Jim nods mutely and Joel gives a smile, “Good. Now, I know this isn’t the most fun, so you and Lee-Yu can run off again if you’d like, just be home in time for supper.”  

Jim nods and Lee-Yu is already tugging him away, giving a ‘thanks’ along the way.  

“I didn’t know Mr. Joel and Miss. Elaine had a kid.” Lee-Yu looks at him curiously, “And how did you do that—that thing—with hearing him and all that?” 

“I’m not their kid,” Jim says, mulishly, hoping Lee-Yu hadn’t noticed his—his ability—and feeling unwilling to share it.  

“Okay, so how did you hear so well? I couldn’t hear Mr. Joel until we’d crossed the bridge.”  

Bridge? Jim hadn’t even noticed a bridge, so focused on Joel’s voice and getting to him. 

Jim gives a shrug, “I don’t know, just can.” 

“That’s kind of out of this world.” Lee-Yu looks excited, not the least bit unnerved or weirded out, “I got it! Spaceboy!”  

Jim gives an aborted shake of his head, “No.” 

“Come on, Comet and Spaceboy, it would be cool!” 

“No!” Jim says again, louder, hearing in the back of his mind former classmates calling him that with malicious intent.  

“Jeez, okay,” Lee-Yu taps her chin with a finger, “We have to go with something space themed though.” 


Lee-Yu gives him an incredulous look, “Because we’re friends now, so our nicknames have to match, duh.” 

Jim gives a gap tooth smile, “Oh.” 

“Got it!” Lee-Yu snapa her fingers, “Star!” 

“Yeah, okay.” Jim’s grin hurts. 

On their way back to their part of the colony (Lee-Yu lives only one house down from Jim, it turns out) Jim sees a flash of something in one of the trees lining the colony.  

“What’s that?” Jim diverts course through someone’s yard.  

“What’s what?” Lee-Yu follows close behind.  

Perched at the end of a tree branch is a while bag and at the tree’s base is a boy younger than Lee-Yu and Jim both.  

The boy turns when they’re close enough and looks on the verge of tears, “My-my bag!” 

“How’d it get up there?” Lee-Yu asked as Jim looked up at it from the base of the tree. 

“A-a lhab’r.” 

“Those monkey things?” Lee-Yu asks and the boy nods. 

“I think I can get it.” Jim backs up, making a running jump for the lowest branch. 

“It’s so close to the end though, Star!” Lee-Yu gives a tut, before, almost conspiratorially, “At least let me come with you.” She makes a run at the branch but it’s a bit too high for her, and Jim’s already three branches up. 

Jim listens closely when he gets to every new branch, trying to see if he’ll make them crack under his weight. He gets to the branch with the bag and hears the wood start to strain. 

“What are you kids doing?” a voice calls and two older boys come racing over. 

“H-he’s getting my bag.” The youngest says pointing to where the bag sways under Jim’s weight on the branch.  

“That’s not gonna hold you, kid!” the other boy says. 

“I can get it!” Jim yells down, “I just need to…” Jim tries to shake the branch hard, knowing he won’t be able to go out to it, but hoping it will fall with enough force. It does, and Lee-Yu races to grab it before it hits the ground, but once she has it safe, they all hear the loud, telltale crack.  

The group of them under the tree fall back and Jim scrambles for the branch over his head, just securing his hold before the branch under him falls to the ground.  

Jim is, surprisingly, not all that scared. The trip down from the tree, if he falls, is maybe enough to break a bone, but it isn’t a trip down to the bottom of the quarry.  

“Can you jump out?” One of the older boys speaks again, “If you jump far enough out, you’ll miss all the branches and we can catch you.” 

“I think so,” Jim calls, taking a deep breath and pushing off the trunk of the tree.  

He lands in a tangle of limbs; both the older boys fall with him as they stop his fall. 

“If you want to learn how to climb trees, come to us first.” The first one says again, a little winded. 

“It’ll make this tree look like nothing,” the second winked and Jim felt himself blush. 

“You okay, Star?” Lee-Yu comes over, bag in one hand and the little boy’s hand in her other.  

“I’m fine,” Jim gets up. 

“Star, is it?” the taller boy asks, “I’m Rashid, this is Amani.” 

“I’m Jim,” Jim answers back, “Star’s my nickname” he feels a burst of warmth at the thought.  

“I’m Lee-Yu, but call me Comet.” 

“And who are you?” Amani asks the boy that was the start of all this. 

“I’m Kevin Riley.” He ducks his head a bit, “Thanks for getting my bag.” 

“No problem.” Jim smiles. 

“Offer stands, if you want to climb some real trees, we’ll teach you how without having to jump out of them at the end,” Rashid give a little smirk. He and Amani look sixteen or eighteen, an age that Jim has only ever interacted with badly back in Riverside. It seems like a lot of things are different around here.  

“Yeah, that’d be good.”  

From that day, wherever Jim goes, Kevin follows. It’s like Jim is a real big brother. Kevin always wanting to do what Jim did and always looking to Jim for counsel. Wherever they were, Lee-Yu was too. Racing around and teaching Jim all the fun things the colony had to offer.  

Rashid and Amani held true to their word and more than once they all went deep into the woods surrounding the colony to where some of the biggest trees Jim had ever seen were to teach them how to climb. Kevin was terrified of heights, but whenever Jim started up a tree, he was racing to follow, even if he was paralyzed three feet up.  

Even his lessons were good at the colony, despite not being in the same level as any of his friends. His teacher doesn’t say he’s lazy or a distraction, she thinks he’s smart and has even talked to Aunt Elaine and Uncle Joel about having him skip a few levels. 

He’s allowed to have ‘bad days’ when he just can’t focus on the right thing, and no one yells at him, shakes him when he can’t tune down a sense or gets lost. And some of the other kids in his level have bad days too—sometimes Yakova can’t stop jittering her leg and Besil has days where he won’t talk at all.  

Miss Janine never yells at Yakova to stop or at Besil to answer a question or at Jim to pay attention, you’re eleven, you need to grow up, you’re going to become nothing, pay attention. She gives Yakova puzzles to do with her hands and doesn’t call on Besil unless he raises his hand and smiles at Jim when he falls back into himself and catches him up during break on what he’s missed and never seems angry to do it. 

She talks to his aunt and uncle about it, but they don’t scold him or anything how Frank used to when the teachers back in Riverside said he wasn’t behaving normally.  

Casually at breakfast one morning Aunt Elaine asks if there’s anything they can do for him, if it’s transitional or if it’s how he’s always been.  

Jim feels his heart stop for a moment, complete standstill and he can almost hear everything crumbling down; “I’ve always been like this.” 

“Then that’s the way the Lord made you.” Elaine says with a definitive nod, “You let us know if you need anything from us.” 

Jim’s mind is blank in shock, he gives a bobble nod out of reflex. 

“Now, get on, can’t be late for lessons.” She hands him his pack lunch, “I put in some extra cookies for your friends.” 

Jim grins, feeling back on solid footing, “Thanks.” 

After lessons, the inseparable trio went into the woods looking for Rashid and Amani—and Lanisha, a girl who was their age and sang like a song bird. Amani was the most beautiful boy Jim had ever seen, and Lanisha—dark black skin and warm brown eyes—was the most beautiful girl. Whenever he was around them both, he’d sometimes get lost until Lee-Yu hit him on the arm with a laugh or Kevin ran over to him, a flurry of words and demands for attention.  

They didn’t find them (or maybe they walked right under the tree they were in, none the wiser) and it was late enough that they needed to start back.  

“Wait for me!” Kevin calls, scampering over the log Lee-Yu and Jim had flown over moments before. They were racing to the forest edge, where the outskirts of the colony started past the fields. 

“You just have to catch up, Kevin!” Lee-Yu laughed—right before she got her foot caught on a root and went down in a flurry of flailing arms.  

Jim skidded to a stop, “Comet!” he runs up to her, “Are you okay?” 

She shakes off one hand, bright blue dripping off, “I fell into balla berries…”  

Jim sniggers and Kevin, finally catches up, is fretful, “Did you get hurt? Do you need a cold pack or a skin regenerator?” 

Lee-Yu rolls her eyes, “I’ll live, baby.” 

Jim extends his hand. Lee-Yu grabs hold, and instead of hauling her up, he’s pulled down. He can feel the balla berries crush under his weight. 

“Ugh! Really?” 

“Not so high and mighty now, eh, Star?” It’s her turn to snigger.  

“Lee-Yu! Why would you do that?” Kevin starts, indignant, “Jim didn’t do anything to you!” 

It was sweet, how willing to defend him Kevin was, but Lee-Yu and Jim made eye contact and they knew what they had to do. 

“I mean, it’s not his fault you were going so fa—what are you—ah!” Lee-Yu grabbed one arm, Jim the other, and then it was three of them in the balla berries with stains on their clothes and skin. Kevin went down almost head first and when he popped his head up, he had balla berry juice right in his hair.  

Lee-Yu and Jim laughed at Kevin’s stricken expression, but when big crocodile tears started to form, they both rushed to reassure him with laughter still in their voices. It wasn’t until Jim offered to carry Kevin the rest of the way on his back that Kevin finally agreed to stop crying with a pout.  

When they get back to the colony, the stains have set in and Jim can feel the twigs in his hair, just as he sees the leaves in Lee-Yu’s. Instead of going to any of their respective houses, they make their way to Hoshi Sato’s house, situated in between Lee-Yu’s and Jim’s.  

Lee-Yu knocks on the door and Jim readjusts Kevin on his back. The door opens and Mr. Sato looks them all up and down, taking in their deshelled appearances and the bright blue stains on their clothes.  

“Balla berries aren’t for bathing,” he says sternly, accent heavy, but Jim can feel his amusement. The three grin up unrepentantly and Mr. Sato gestures them inside. They use his sonic shower and he cleans their clothes quick, having them weed his back garden in exchange. If he gives them all lemonade on top of that, they certainly won’t tell. 

“Lee-Yu!” Jim hears Miss. Jang-Mi, one of Lee-Yu’s moms, call in the distance. 

“We should go—I hear your mom calling,” Jim says, dusting off his jeans that now have grass stains instead of balla berry stains.  

Lee-Yu rolls her eyes, “I don’t know how you do it, but you’re always right.” 

They give a chorus of ‘thank you’s and make their way to their respective homes, already with unspoken plans to meet again tomorrow after lessons. 

Jim comes home to Aunt Elaine setting the table and Uncle Joel finishing off cooking dinner. That’s another thing that he never had in Riverside, a home cooked meal. Not that there’s any other way, replicators aren’t a thing in the colony, but to come back to freshly cooked food and two people to eat with every night is a novelty he’s not over yet.  

They talk about their days, Jim’s lessons, Joel’s work on the solar panels, and Aunt Elaine says she’s willing to take Lee-Yu, Kevin, and him out on one of her excursions in the underwater caves over the weekend if they all behave and Kevin and Lee-Yu’s parents approve. Jim’s so excited over it he can hardly wait. 

They both kiss him good night and sleep comes easier than it ever did in Riverside.  

Jim didn’t see it coming, not really. Time works differently on Tarsus, its year is three times longer than earth’s, and the days are a few hours longer on top of that, so it would be just silly to go by an earth calendar. But Jim knew something was up when school ended and Lee-Yu was shushing Kevin outside of Jim’s class.  

“What are you doing?” 

“Nothing!” Kevin gets out in a rush before covering his moth with his hands, looking at Lee-Yu who rolled her eyes.  

“He’s just gone crazy,” she snorts, starting to walk away “come on, let’s go. I need to stop by my house before we get going.” 

“…Sure.” Jim shrugs, something was definitely going on, Kevin was practically vibrating and Lee-Yu was being falsely dismissive. Jim could tell she didn’t need anything at her house, but he didn’t know what to make of her lying to him. She’d never done that before. Jim glances at Kevin who’s looking at him with wide eyes, hands still over his mouth. When Jim catches his gaze, Kevin runs forward after Lee-Yu. 

When they get to their street, Jim can hear a lot of murmurs in the distant, and the almost foreign smell to Tarsus IV of cake. The sounds came from his house, as does the smell. Jim’s suspicion was reaching a fever pitch. It didn’t help that Lee-Yu was walking right past her house and going straight to Jim’s 

“What’s going on?” Jim asks, planning his feet and feeling nervous. 

Lee-Yu rolled her eyes again—ever since she turned 9, that was almost all she ever did—“Come on Star, you’re fine.” 

Kevin nodded enthusiastically, “Everything’s normal!” 

Lee-Yu grabs Jim’s arm and he’s pulled forward reluctantly. When they’re close, Jim hears someone—it sounds like Amani—say ‘They’re coming!’ and then all the mummers he’s heard until now fall abruptly silent. It makes Jim’s ears strain, but whoever is there has completely stopped talking.  

Lee-Yu opens the front door with aplomb, the house is dark behind her, but he can make out more than a few shapes of people, hunched over and crouched down—it makes him want to run in the other direction. 

“Surprise!” comes in a great chorus and the lights are abruptly on and it’s almost too much—too much color and noise and smell—“Happy Birthday!” and then it’s suddenly alright. 

“Birthday?” He can’t help but question, mouth already smiling 

“Yes, well, it might not be exactly March 22nd, I can never get the conversion quite right,” Aunt Elaine says, pulling Jim into a hug, “but it’s close enough. Happy Birthday, Jim.” She gives him a kiss. 

“Thank you.” His cheeks hurt, he’s smiling so hard. Mr. Sato’s there, and Rashid, Amani, Lanisha…Lee-Yu’s moms and Kevin’s dad, everyone from his class including Miss Janine, Uncle Joel is placing candles on a cake (for him!) and Lee-Yu and Kevin are behind him. So many people in one room—for him.  

“Happy Birthday!” Kevin yells, grabbing Jim around the waist in a hug, “you have to open my gift first, okay?” 

“Y-yeah.” Jim’s heart hurts he’s so happy. There’s a table with gifts he didn’t notice at first, Kevin’s already getting his out of the stack. 

It’s one of the best days in his life, and definitely his best birthday. No one had been sad at all. No one had even brought up that this was the day his dad had died. It was like the day was just for him.  

“Gather round for a picture!” Aunt Elaine ushers them all together, and sets the timer. She comes around and inserts herself right behind Jim and when the camera flashes, there’s nothing but smiles on everyone’s faces. 

Chapter Text

It’s been almost two earth years since he arrived (only two thirds of a Tarsus IV year), Jim’s gotten very used to all the elements of the planet. He rarely zones out, and sometimes, with Lee-Yu’s help, he even sees how far he can hear, or see, or smell. They’ve made almost a game of it. She’ll run off into the woods somewhere and after some odd minutes, Jim and Kevin will follow, Jim unerringly leading them to wherever she’s at. Neither Kevin nor Lee-Yu think him weird for it, and Jim finally feels normal.  

With how in tune he now is to the normal workings of the planet, even the smallest deviations catch his attention. He knows right when shuttles and supplies reach the colony (though it’s only happened once since he arrived) because of the distinct metallic air it brings, and he knows when it's time for harvest.  

Uncle Joel’s taken habit to walking Jim, Lee-Yu and Kevin to their lessons on his way to work, even if they’re old enough to walk themselves. Jim never complains too much, it’s nice to be looked after, after so long being his own minder.  

They’re all very used to the route, down their street, past the fields that carry most of their crops stretching to the right, and left before the market and they’re at school. The fields are expansive around the back end of the colony. They’re a mainly vegetarian colony, colonists eating meat when supply shipments bring it in, fish from the lakes when it’s available (two months of the year), and protein and B12 supplements taken daily. Livestock doesn’t do well on the planet and none of the local wildlife is willing to be domesticated.  

Because they pass it every day, Jim has gotten used to the smells and scents that are particular to Tarsus flora. Jim’s been smelling a difference for a week. A damp, molding smell that sticks in his nose and has only gotten worse.  

Uncle Joel can’t smell it. Lee-Yu says it will just go away. Kevin says he can smell it, even though Jim knows he’s lying. It isn't getting better or going away though, it’s just getting worse.  

“It hurts my nose!” Jim pinches it closed, feeling his eyes start to water. Jim races past the field, Lee-Yu running after with a call of ‘cheater!’. 

Kevin rushes to try and keep up. Uncle Joel doesn't run after them or call for them to slow, he goes to the edge of the field and pulled out one of the root vegetables. It looks like it should, Jim can see, pale white outside and purple-green top, shaped like a two-pronged carrot.  

Joel takes out his pocket knife and cuts into it. The smell gets so much stronger, Jim gags. The inside, instead of being white through like it’s supposed to be, had a rot in the core, a grey purple that looks malicious.  

Kevin gives a yell and hides behind Jim. Lee-Yu says ‘ew’ and pointedly moves closer for a better look. 

“Is this what you’re smelling, Jim?” Jim nodded, “It certainly doesn’t look good.” Joel frowns, “I think we best take this to the council.” 

“Are we skipping lessons?” Lee-Yu perks up, she has Standard today, and it’s her least favorite subject. 

Joel gives them all a look, Kevin perks up, Lee-Yu bouncing on the balls of her feet, and Jim, still covering his nose. The government building is further away from the field; it would give Jim a little reprieve.  

“Not the whole day,” Joel says and Lee-Yu whoops. 

The government building is in the exact center of the colony, and there are plenty of people around it. Most look ordinary enough, although there are pockets of people that dress in more expensive material than what he's used to seeing. They're not what catches Jim’s attention, it's the men and woman in a deep red stationed around the building at even intervals with phasers in full display on their hips. They don't match Jim’s picture of Tarsus IV and he’s certainly never seen them before. 

“Why are there soldiers here?” Jim asks in muted whisper. 

“A few months after the colony started, a Klingon ship came into our atmosphere,” Joel explains, “The council thought it would be a good deterrent, having trained guards. They asked for volunteers and went about training them.” 

Jim furrows his brow—trained guards, no matter how good, would do nothing against a Klingon warship hovering above their colony and dropping phaser cannon fire. With the way Joel astutely ignored them, Jim can tell he isn’t a fan either.  

“Can I help you all?” a smartly dressed young woman asks when they get through the large open doors and to the outer offices. 

“Hi,” Joel says with a smile, “We’ve found something odd in the crops near our section of the fields, is there an official we can inform? I’ve brought a sample.” 

“Certainly,” she gestures with her left hand, “through that door, and then immediately on the right.” 

“Thank you,” Joel follows the directions, the gaggle of children following.  

The right door has a man in a long white coat that looks right out of an old holovid on mad scientists, and a man in a uniform who abruptly stops talking when they walk in. 

“Can I help you?” the uniformed man asks, seeming none too helpful. 

Joel gives his signature disarming smile, hand on Kevin’s head when he goes to hide around Joel’s pant leg, “We’re here to report an issue with the crops in our section of the colony.” 

“Excuse me?” the man asks, one eyebrow raising. 

Joel pulls the root out of his bag, unwrapping it from the cloth he’d hastily put it in. The purple-gray rot looked worse here, in the stark light on a shining metal table.  

“Oh!” the lab coat man says, “Oh that’s very not good, not good at all.” He bends over the root, and Jim almost gags again, with how close the man gets to the putrid smell. 

The uniformed man steps in front of the table and the scientist, “Thank you very much for bringing this to my attention. Excuse me for my bad manners; I’m Kodos, one of the high members of the council” he smiles, “I take any issues with our crops as the highest priority, Mr…?” 

“Joel Riviera,” He shakes his hand, “but it was Jim here who noticed.” 

Jim gives a little shrug when Kodos looks at him. 

“Well, then thank you very much, Jim,” he smiles, “And where is it you live? So we can test the crops.” 

“On the outer right edge of the colony, furthest from the shipping docks.” 

“Thank you.” 

There’s an elongated pause where Kodo’s merely stares at them, silent, and then Joel ushers them out, “Now, off to lessons with you all.” 

They exit the room, door closing solidly behind them, but Jim can clearly hear the conversation that starts up. 

“If this is what I think it is, we need to pull all the crops in this section before it spreads, or possibly just pull all of them, before it gets into the soil.” 

“I’m not going to start a panic, Lester, though you did your hardest to try. No, you need to fix this.” 

“But Sir—” 

“What is it I pay you for? Fix it. Now.” 


The scent doesn’t get better. It starts to get bad enough that other people start smelling it. Not everyone, but enough. The tops of the root, instead of their vibrant purple and green, start to gain a gray pallor.  

Everyone’s portions start to dwindle. The market is less lively when Jim, Lee-Yu and Kevin run through it. The other side of the colony, where the houses are larger and have room on all sides, as opposed to where they live, where the houses share walls, Jim doesn’t smell the crops as much, as far away as they are from the fields. Sometimes he smells meat, something that so rarely happens on the colony, and seems even more so out of place now.  

As the smell gets worse, Jim notices more guards on that side of the colony, with their dark maroon shirts and with one hand always on their phasers.  

Joel and Elaine carry on; Joel brings them to school and they attend classes with waning focus. Jim can hear stomachs growl and rumble throughout the building. Jim’s lunch doesn't contain extra cookies for his friends. It contains a third what it used to and an extra protein supplement. 

Amani and Rashid stay up in the trees more. Lanisha hardly ever sings, spending more time at home with her grandmother, where that lack of food is hurting most. Mr. Sato’s garden starts to smell. Jim’s done this before, gone without food or gone with little. Withholding had been a form of punishment when Frank was feeling particularly vengeful, or particularly negligent. But it isn't supposed to happen here, not on Tarsus IV, not when this place is the best thing that has happened to Jim.  


“I don’t feel good.” Jim says as they get closer to the colony’s main square. There had been a call for a colony announcement, one that couldn’t be given over PADD. Because of the large number of colonists, they had called for half the colonists in the morning, and the other half would come in the afternoon. All colonists in the first half were encouraged to come, day laboring and school suspended for the announcement.  

The smell had been making Jim sick for a week now, it had interrupted his sleep and made it all but impossible to keep food down. Kevin is doing worse, he’s home with his dad, sick from having one of the infected vegetables. He has a fever and hasn't stopped moaning in pain—Jim can't stop from hearing it, no matter how he tries to shut it out. 

Elaine murmurs reassurances, “When this is over, we can go back and get you some smelling salts, get some good smells in you, get some water and food down.” Jim nods, it had worked for a little while the day before. The square seems small with so many people packed in. If Jim hadn’t been so distracted at the smell that hung over them like a gray cloud, he would have been concerned with keeping focused. As it is, there is something different in the air, not the smell of blight—something else that Jim can't pinpoint. 

“Thank you, everyone, for coming,” Jim recognizes the man they had seen when they first reported the blight on the top of the municipal building staircase, “I am Kodos.” 

Jim, from his distance, shouldn’t be able to see it, but he sees the shuddering breath the man takes, and it set Jim on edge. 

“I want to go now.” 

“We will Jim, soon enough.” Joel says, putting his hand on Jim’s shoulder and giving it a comforting squeeze. 

“It has come to our attention that there is a blight in our crop.” Kodos says. No one is surprised. 

“Well it’s darn good he’s finally doing something about it.” Elaine says under her breath with a nod, drawl heavy in her voice.  

 “As you know, our last supply shipment did not arrive. It was waylaid by pirates out in deep space. Our next shipment will be in 1 Tarsus year.” 

Three years. The next shipment would come in three years. Tarsus IV, no longer a new colony, has been declared self-sufficient by the Federation last cycle, meaning that the regular shipments that had been coming ever sixteen months were slowed so younger colonies could get more consistent supply runs. 

Kodos holds up his hands, stalling the talk before it truly begins, “I know you are worried, I know you wonder how we will survive this.” 

Jim catches a gleam from the corner of his eye. It’s one of the guards; instead of having his hand on the phaser in his belt as they always did, the man has it out. The end of the weapon is pointed at the ground, but at an upward angle, not wholly committed to peace.  

“I have seized power of Tarsus IV, as the council was doing nothing for our welfare. The revolution is successful.” 

Jim looks around. There are more of them, more guards, all along the edges of the square. 

“But survival depends on drastic measures.” 

All their phasers are drawn. 

“Your continued existence represents a threat to the well-being of society.” 

The crowd breaks out in noise, everyone trying to make sense of what this man is saying. The smell, the smell that isn't the blight that Jim smells… 

Kodos speaks over the noise, booming and final, “Your lives mean slow death to the more valued members of the colony. Therefore, I have no alternative but to sentence you to death.” 

It is fear. 


Jim doesn't know what happens first, the screams or the sound of phaser fire. He’s stuck, stuck looking up at the man that ordered their deaths. He can't move. Kodos is watching, face calm, worse, his heartbeat is steady. 

“—im!” Joel shakes him, and it’s the first time anyone had shoved him out of being lost like that, “Jim, run!” 

Jim comes back to himself in a rush and the reality is terrifying. They're near the center of the square, but Jim can see people falling, see them dying. 


“Jim go!” Elaine says, “Go—go please go.” She gasps. She had fallen when everyone started to surge, looking for ways out, ankle twisted. Unable to run.  

Jim looks at Joel, crouching next to her, he gives Jim a stern nod. Jim turns and runs.  

His hearing is stuck on them, on their voices that are too small for the enormity of who they are.  

“Star!” Lee-Yu catches him, already crying, “we—we were near the edge, Eomma—they, they.” She cuts herself off, unable to make the atrocity a reality with her words. 

It’s chaos, absolute chaos. Everyone’ screaming or dying or running at the men and women with phasers set to kill. But there is no other option. Jim grabs Lee-Yu’s arm and she clings back. The guards are advancing, coming further out of the shadows into the square.  

Jim leads them through, towards the pungent smell of fear at the edge of the square. He’s betting their lives on it, but there's at least one guard who doesn't want to be doing this.  

They skid to a halt in front of a guard—the guard’s eyes are wide and his phaser, in his hand, is pointing at the ground before it raises to point at them with shaky arms.  

“P-please.” Lee-Yu says between harsh sobs and Jim can feel the man’s heart stutter.  

Jim looks to the sides and sees that, for the moment, no other guard is looking, but he also sees someone shoot a child that was sobbing over their parent’s unmoving body. 

The guard had followed his eyes, had seen what Jim had. He looks terrified. He also isn't looking at them.  

Jim drags Lee-Yu forward with him and right into the guard. The man falls with a startled yelp that Jim knows drew too much attention, even if the air is full of screams and the last sounds of the dying. Jim grabs the phaser from the man’s limp hand and drags Lee-Yu forward. He doesn't listen for phaser fire, he doesn't even hear the pounding of their feet as they head back to their homes.  

All he hears is his Aunt Elaine’s last declaration of love, and Uncle Joel saying with the passion of the dying, that everything will be alright. 


Lee-Yu, always the faster runner, can hardly keep up with Jim dragging her along. Her sobs steal her breath and are much too loud in the too quiet air. The sound of the square is either far enough behind them that Jim can't hear, or everyone in it is dead.  

Their road’s deserted, when they finally get to it, but Jim knows it won't be like that long. Lee-Yu makes for her house and Jim yanks her back. 

“They’re going to come looking,” Jim’s throat feels dry, it’s hard to get the words out, “for anyone that didn’t go.” 

Lee-Yu takes a hitched breath and holds it, nodding as tears fall harder. Jim hears it then, a cough, a hacking cough that hurts to listen to. 

“Kevin!” Jim and Lee-Yu run towards his house, hands holding each other tight. 

They run right into his house—no one thinks to lock their doors in Tarsus IV, and they won't get a chance to change the habit—and over to Kevin’s room at the back of the house. 

Brandon, Kevin’s dad, looks up as they run in. Kevin looks no better than he had before, shivering harshly but sweating without end. 

“Jim, Lee-Yu, what—” Brandon starts 

“They killed everyone!” Lee-Yu bursts 

Brandon looks at them almost blankly, “What?” 

“It was Kodos, the official, he ordered everyone executed!” 

Brandon gives a disbelieving sound, an unwilling sound. “That’s not even—there’s no way.” 

“It happened and they’re going to search houses for stragglers next!” Jim yells, fear eating away at him, “We need to go!” 

Brandon looks at his boy, “But Kevin…” he shakes his head, “Better a chance than none. You two stay here, I’ll grab what’s left of the food and some supplies.” 

He jumps up and goes from the room. Jim can feel the tension building in him, he’s getting sick with it.  

“Star…Jim,” Lee-Yu says, looking down at Kevin, “I’m scared.” 

Jim feels his bottom lip tremble, still not quite believing that his aunt and uncle, the family that loves him and chose him, is dead, “We’ll be okay. Mr. Riley—” 

There’s a harsh knock on the door. Jim curses himself, how can he hear some things and not hear other? How is it he’s a protector and he can’t protect anything? 

Brandon rushes in, a sack in hand, “Take this, take Kevin, out the back, I’ll hold them off.” He gives a harsh whisper, a last look at his son, and then he’s gone.  

Jim doesn’t want to leave, doesn’t want to lose another person. Lee-Yu tugs his sleeve and Jim can feel the tremble in it.  He grabs Kevin and the blanket he’s in and Lee-Yu takes the sack.  

They’re out the back door and running the too long strip of open land before the forest edge. Jim hears shouts behind him, yelling. Kevin is too hot on his back. The tree line isn’t getting any closer.  

They break into the forest and keep on running, faster and faster until the yelling is faint, until the stomping on underbrush and curses halts.  

The slow to a walk, laboring under their loads and fighting the shock and emotional exhaustion that’s threatening. 

“What are you two doing way out here?” Lee-Yu and Jim freeze, looking up into the leaf cover, Lanisha peers down with her soulful eyes. 

“They—they…” Lee-Yu gasps. 

“They killed everyone.” Jim says voice choking on the words. His legs are weak, his eyes sting. 

“What?” it’s like Brandon all over again, she can't believe it.  

“They killed everyone!” Lee-Yu yells, angry, unable to go through it again. 

“No—that can’t be right.” Lanisha’s voice shakes, “This isn’t a funny joke.” 

“It’s not!” Lee-Yu yells back, getting louder where Lanisha goes quiet, hands fisted and eyes red with furry and hurt “I watched my eomma die! They killed her! And momma! She—she’s dead too!” 

A snapping branch behind them startles them all to stillness. Rashid comes from the brush, three children in tow. Rashid has a sluggishly bleeding scrape on his head. In one arm he holds a small toddler of the same rich skin tone. His other hand is clasped tightly by Yakova whose eyes wouldn’t stay in one place too long. Finally around his shoulders is a young black boy of four or five, just a bit younger than Kevin, who Jim’s never seen before.  

“No—” Lanisha says from the tree, “no, no no.” 

Rashid doesn't say anything, and that is enough.  


The tree is where Amani, Rashid and Lanisha would meet, when they went deep in the woods where Jim, Lee-Yu and Kevin couldn’t find them. It has a few provisions, things they had secreted away so they could stay out longer, a blanket, a few pouches of water and protein supplements. No real food though, nothing kept for long with how field-to-plate their diet is. In the sack Brandon had given them, there's more water and supplements, antibiotics for Kevin, and an antiquated phaser that Jim has always thought was decoration. That, plus the phaser Jim took offers them marginal protection. 

It isn't enough to sustain eight people, not by a long shot. But for now they all huddle together under Kevin’s blanket, and the blanket that was already at the tree. Each one too lost in their grief and disbelief to start making a plan of action quite yet.  

“Amani’s dead.” Rashid says after what feels like a year of silence, “He’s—he was—” Rashid cuts himself off, “He’s gone and I never even told him.” 

“He knew.” Lanisha says. And they lapse back into silence too heavy to take. 

The toddler Rashid brought gives a gurgle and whacks a hand against Rashid’s cheek. Rashid gives a wet laugh.  

“Oh yeah? Is that what you think?” Rashid bounces the child on his knee. A pearl of laughter rises and the discordance of the sound to their situation makes Jim’s heart hurt.  

“Now, now, none of that little Jiji.” Rashid sobers, “Can’t be too loud now.” 

“Jiji?” Lanisha says after the silence falls again, too thick to breath. 

Rashid nods, “My baby cousin, the one I told you about.” 


“I’m Yakova.” Yakova speaks up, hands pulling at a loose thread in the blanket, “Jim and I are in Miss Janine’s class. She’s nice.” 

Rashid’s throat clicks. 

“That’s nice,” Lanisha says. 

“I want to be a teacher someday, like Miss Janine.” 

“Mh-hm.” Lanisha looks away for a moment, “I’m Lanisha, this is Rashid. And you know Jim. Then there’s Lee-Yu and Kevin.” Kevin gives a weak cough.  

“What’s your name, little guy?” Rashid asks the boy to his right that he had brought with him. 

“D’andre.” He ducks his head. 

“Well that’s a good name if I ever heard one.” Rashid smiles. Jim could feel the strain in it.  

They sit like that for the rest of the day, the sun slowly sets above them—as much as it ever set on Tarsus where night is a perpetual twilight—and the temperature starts to drop. It agitates Kevin’s cough. He gives long hacking coughs that are painful to listen to and more painful to endure. Jim can almost feel the rawness of Kevin’s throat, how each cough spends the little strength he has.  

“We have his antibiotics.” Lee-Yu says, turning to the bag Brandon gave them in his last moments. Kevin is laid across Lanisha’s lap on his side as she rubs his back in soothing circles. Jim wonders how aware Kevin is, that his father will never be seen again.  

“He needs pain medication is what he needs,” Rashid says as Kevin gives a timely moan, “And we need more than just—” he waves his hands around him “—this if we want to survive.” 

“Rashid…” Lanisha starts, clearly seeing as Jim does where this was going, but futilely trying to resist.  

“I’m going to go back, get some supplies from the outer colony houses. Some pain medication and some soft food for Jiji, he can’t eat the protein supplements yet unless they’re crushed up and mixed.” Rashid gets out of their nest, “And we need more blankets, and more phasers and—and—” he looks at Lanisha, eyes searching, lost. Lost like the rest of them.  

Lanisha gives a hesitant nod, “You’re right. Even if they don’t come looking for us, we need to get provisions, and things for the children.” Sometimes it’s easy to be brave when there are others that are relying on you.  

Rashid gives a relieved smile, he wouldn’t have been able to fight it, not if she’d pushed, “Right. Night doesn’t give me much cover, but it’s better than nothing.” 

“I’ll go with you,” Jim says, because he needs to. Because he can’t just stay here and do nothing. Because he’s supposed to be a protector

Rashid’s smile is tinged in sadness, “I need you to stay here with Lanisha and mind the other kids, Jim.” 

“I can mind myself,” Yakova says under her breath. 

Rashid’s smile falls into something more genuine, “And I’ve no doubt, but Jiji is a handful, and Kevin’s not feeling well. And Jim—I want you to teach D’andre and Yakova to climb, okay? I want everyone to be an expert climber when I get back. In fact, when I come back, I want everyone to be so high in that tree that I can’t even see you!” He grins, pointing up at the foliage. 

“I’ve never climbed before,” D’andre says shyly, snuggled in between Yakova and Lee-Yu. 

“Well, kiddo, you’re in luck—Jimmy and Lee-Yu here are the best climbers I’ve ever taught.” 

D’andre smiled down at his lap. 

Jim hears Rashid’s gulp, hears the tightening of his muscles and smells the cold sweat that goes into the air, “Alright them. I’ll be off.” 

“Take the phaser, the good one,” Jim scrambles for it next to his side. Still full of power. The guard they’d downed hadn’t fired a shot—but he hadn’t stopped anyone else, either.  

Rashid smiles again and takes the weapon, switching it to stun. Jim learns a lot in that moment—when the red light turns blue. Rashid giving a mercy to foes that won't be given to him. The blue stays in his vision long after Rashid walks away. Bright blue. It looks like hope.  


Jim finds it terribly easy to track Rashid through the forest with his hearing. Rashid is weighed down by grief and exhaustion, he isn't graceful in his movements, not like he normally is. Usually it's hard, tuning into one sense like this—choosing when to tune in. Maybe it’s the adrenaline, perhaps it’s how intertwined they’ve become in the hours at the base of the large tree. Whatever it is, Jim can keep half his awareness on Rashid getting closer and closer to the edge of the forest, to those that wanted to harm him, and half on the rest of their group. 

Teaching Yakova and D’andre to climb would have been fun, in other circumstances. It’s the same feeling he gets with Kevin, the feeling of being needed, being wanted. Lanisha climbs the tree once Rashid is out of sight, carrying Kevin up it with his blanket like a bag. There’s almost a platform up the tree half way, where the large trunk splits in three, and Lanisha carves a space for Kevin and herself there.  

Jiji’s next—“Watch carefully,” Jim says to D’andre and Yakova, as stern as he can muster. Jiji sticks to his back like a monkey and Jim climbs, higher and higher until he’s at the platform. Lanisha all but pries Jiji off, and the little guy laughs, latching on to her instead.  

When he gets to the bottom, D’andre is star struck and Jim wishes he could relish it. Yakova doesn’t wait for him to touch the ground before she’s already trying to get a leg up. When she falls, Lee-Yu lets out a laugh, but is the first to help her up.  

“It’s easy once you get there,” Jim says, pointing at the first large branch. The trunk is large and hard to get a grip on, but the first branch—that Jim can grab if he jumps—makes it into a far spaced staircase as opposed to the smaller trees Rashid and Amani taught them on.  

“Be careful,” Lanisha calls from above, and it sounds almost silly, considering the circumstances that brought them here.  

Jim grabs D’andre first, lifting him up so he can grab the branch. D’andre holds onto it like a sloth for a long moment, before dropping, saved from the ground by Jim. 

“Maybe I’ll get you up and you can practice higher, where the branches are closer.”  

D’andre nods and latches to Jim’s back like Jiji had. Jim starts up, and he’s soon followed. Lee-Yu is giving Yakova tips and boosting her up to the first branch before she gives a jump and hauls herself up too.  

They’re around the platform soon enough. Lanisha, Kevin and Jiji on it, and Yakova, D’andre, Lee-Yu, and Jim on the surrounding fat branches. Jim makes a few trips back down, grabbing the leftover blanket and their provisions, meager as they are, but soon enough they’re settled. D’andre finds a nook and starts nodding off almost right away. Yakova plucks at every leaf in her reach, slowly tearing them apart in her fidgeting. Lanisha has Jiji in one arm and the other still rubbing Kevin’s back. Kevin seems to have fallen asleep—though he was never really awake, not as he should have been—and only coughs a few times as opposed to almost constantly. 

Jim’s turned his attention to Rashid—Rashid who he can tell is out of the forest, who’s gotten to the houses in their block and is riffling through cabinets and pantries with too loud movements, looking for anything to help them. 

Lee-Yu is staring straight at Jim.  

Jim listens and can almost picture it. Rashid is in the house farthest from the main road—Amani’s house. He’s looked through the pantry already and pulled out the few things that would be useful. A knife, some bread not yet gone. Protein supplements. He’s put it all in a sack—a sack that smells like Amani and is soft in his hands. There’s a picture of Amani and his parents on the mantel, and Rashid shoves it in the bag without looking at it too closely.  

He’s at the front door—slowly opening it, so slowly. It creaks. It never used to creak so much, did it? Is it all in his head? Or is the blasted quiet of the rest of the place making every mundane sound a scream? 

No one is on the street, the constant twilight makes the street too bright, but it makes it so he doesn’t have to turn on any lights when he enters a house. He runs to the next house, feeling exposed, blue of the phaser shoved under his shirt to dull the glow.  

The next house doesn’t have anything of use. It has family albums and PADDs with school books loaded on them. The cabinets have dishes and things that require other things to make them whole, like spices and baking soda and cooking oil.  

He hears a sound. Ducks down. Feels the glow of the phaser like a coal against his skin. They’re making rounds, whoever they are.  

“Need to round up the bodies,” one says, and it’s clear now that there are more, more than he can take like this, with a sack around his back and a phaser set to stun. 

“Should get the newbies to do this.” Another grumble. He’s keeping so still it hurts. Joints locked and muscles tensed beyond tension.  

“I don’t mind so much…” a third says, and he can hear the boots now, hard on the gravel of the path, “got a nice few trinkets already.” A rattle of metal. 

The door slams open—kicked, brute force and uncaring. He falls, terrified, and it’s only when he hits the ground and hears the few things already in his pack rattle that he realizes it’s the house next door, not the one he’s in, that they entered.  

“What was that?” One of them says and he’s off—tearing through the house and out the back door. Running through the field towards the tree line with terror fueling him. There’s noise behind him. He can’t hear it over the rushing in his ears and the loud—too loud—pounding of each foot hitting the packed earth in his dead sprint.  

Rashid doesn’t hear the phaser fire, doesn’t even feel it hit, not the pain of it anyway. He feels the impact, like when his cousins run at him, barreling towards him, knowing he’ll keep them upright. He can’t stay upright this time. He doesn’t make it to the ground. 

Jim hears it. He hears the guards yelling expletives, running after Rashid with slow steps. He hears triggers being pulling and Rashid keeping on, running closer and closer to safety. He hears when one hits home. When Rashid’s breath leaves his lungs in a forced exhale. He hears Rashid’s body fall—too sudden, too hard, too final.  

Jim comes back to where he is in a shuddering breath, forced back into a tree with the living when he was just in the field with the dead. His eyes hurt. Everything is too quite now, even with Kevin’s coughs and everyone’s breathing.  

Jim turns away from the far-off colony, trying to control the panic welling up, the fear, disbelief and sadness that threaten to tear through him. Jim meets Lee-Yu’s eyes.  

“He’s gone, isn’t he?” She asks, eyes red rimmed but dry. Quiet, but everyone can hear. 

Lanisha straightens up, jostling Jiji just enough and looking frantically between them. 

Jim can’t talk, can’t find a voice. He nods.   

Lanisha’s jittering panic is a physical thing, “W-what are you talking about? Rashid’s fine, he’ll be back any time now. By morning for sure.” 

Lee-Yu’s eyes look blank, the twilight making the pupil indistinguishable from the iris, “He’s never wrong about things like this. Jim can hear it.” 

Lanisha looks at Jim, stricken. She wants to deny it, to call Lee-Yu and Jim liars and demand they apologize. But Jim…he always complemented her singing, even when she had been so far off she’d been sure no one could hear her.  

“Y-you can’t…?” it’s a question she already knows the answer to, and when Jim meets her eyes, she can’t deny it. Tears start to fall before she can even think to stop them. The deaths of everyone, of her grandma and parents, of her sister. Of the twenty-seven classmates she’d never gotten to know well enough. Of the man at the bakery that would always give her a chocolate croissant. Of Amani, of Rashid. They all became real when she looked into Jim’s terribly blue eyes, so full of hurt she can't take it.  

What’s going to happen to them? How long can they stay here? She—she’ll need to go off, to do what Rashid did. Go get supplies. She’ll die too. And then they’ll all be left here—Jim, Lee-Yu, Yakova, D’andre, Jiji, and Kevin—alone and wasting away, with no one to look after them.  

Lanisha cries. Tears silent and shoulders shaking. She hadn’t seen it, any of it. It feels like a terrible dream. But Rashid isn't coming back. She can tell by Lee-Yu’s voice, by Jim’s eyes. They will die here. Or they will die trying to take from the colony, the colony that had once been their home. 

Chapter Text

Morning is a second death sentence, slower than the one Kodos promised. Rashid hasn't come back. Jiji keeps asking for ‘Rashi’, each ask more plaintive than the last. Lee-Yu is still asleep, laid out over a branch, fitful as she had been since she first closed her eyes. Yakova climbs further out on her branch, moving from shredding leaves to snapping the small twigs.  

D’andre’s quiet, looking out towards the colony, waiting expectantly for someone who won’t be coming back. Lanisha shushes Jiji and pats Kevin’s back in a thoughtless motion, circles under her eyes and neck pulled taught, constantly under strain.  

Jim is tired. He hasn't slept much. He's supposed to be a protector and instead he is just a witness—witness to others who die bravely. Who die when they should not. His nose is too on, dial turned too far up and he can't turn it down. He can smell death. It is a constant, permeating smell. So much worse than the rot of the crops that Jim doesn't know how he ever though the blight was bad.  

They're hungry, all of them. Most of the water had gone to Kevin throughout the night, along with more of his antibiotics, as his fever rose higher. The supplements, while holding nutritional value, do nothing to stop their stomachs from growling.  

“I’m going to go find food.” The words come out before he’s thought it, but when they do, he knows he has to. 

Lanisha starts, pulled tight with tension, “Absolutely not.” 

Jim looks back at her. Her eyes look larger, the red around them making the brown pop. She’s angry, and afraid, and Jim knows she can’t go. 

“I’m good at sneaking,” Jim says, voice dropping low as Lee-Yu shifts in her sleep, pointedly not thinking of how he got good at sneaking, of Frank’s nights stumbling in drunk that led to mornings still half sloshed that made sneaking the only way Jim could leave for school or get food or live. 

Lanisha bites her lip. Jim can tell she’s thinking what he is. How if she leaves and doesn’t come back they have no chance. How if he leaves and doesn’t come back, there’s still hope, even if slim.  

“I don’t like it.” She says, and it’s more wetness than voice.  

“I’ll be okay.” Jim says, and it doesn’t feel like a lie, not as much of one as Lanisha seems to think. But she doesn’t protest. She nods once and then looks away, looks farther into the woods, away from the colony.  

Jim empties the bag Brandon gave them, makes sure nothing will fall, and then climbs down with it slung over his shoulder.  

It’s bright out now, maybe five or six in the morning in their twenty-eight-hour day. No one got enough sleep. The crunch of leaves underfoot seems almost violent.  

Jim looks back up into the tree, can just see three heads looking down at him. He turns away and heads for the colony.  

The walk is shorter than it seemed yesterday with Kevin on his back and a lightning bolt of fear sending them forward. Jim gets to the forest edge and his mind is blank. The streets are bare, the ones that he can see. But people can still be heard. And not the kind of people he heard last night, not guards with phasers emitting the low buzz of a full charge. It’s normal people. He can hear a child laughing.  

Kodos killed half of them, Jim remembers with a start. Half of them are still alive, the better half, according to Kodos. It’s hard to make the connection, that there are people who still have whole families and who smile and laugh when so many were killed or splintered into fragments just yesterday. 

Jim made his way along the forest edge, further from the desolate housing area he used to live in and closer to the larger houses, where Jim can hear people talking and laughing without an undercurrent of tightness. 

Did the rest of the colony know? Did they know what Kodos did to preserve their portions? Jim runs across the smallest area of open land to the house line, making his way closer to the signs of life.  

He almost freezes when he’s on the outskirts of the square. It’s a moment of total cognitive dissonance. He sees the bodies strewn about, left where they fell. He sees the blood in the grooves of the brick and can taste the copper on his tongue. The limbs set at false angles, the faces filled with terror. The cloud of death. 

He blinks and it’s gone. The square looks as it did when they arrived yesterday morning—how could it only have been yesterday—pristine white brick completely devoid of people, dead or otherwise. Jim’s breath catches almost violently in his throat. It’s like every life taken here was erased, entirely gone from the collective memory of humanity.  

He looks at the spot where Aunt Elaine and Uncle Joel were when he left them to die. It looks cleaner than the rest, somehow. 

Jim’s breath starts coming fast, fast and heavy and moving his whole frame. He can’t control it—they’re gone, they’re nothing. Jim always feared nothingness for himself. Nothingness for others is far more terrifying.  

Jim doesn’t notice he’s fallen against the building to his back until the grit of it drags at him through his too thin shirt. It pulls him back into the present. Food. He needs to get food. Jim takes a moment to close his eyes and focus on what he hears—past the sounds of people talking as if the world hasn’t shifted terribly off its axis and more for the men and women in heavy boots with the constant buzz of phaser charge around them.  

Jim should have brought the old phaser.  

There’s no one close enough to truly panic, though knowing it doesn’t help. Jim walks into the house behind him, on the edge of the square. He shouldn’t go into the ‘better’ part of the colony. Being sighted by anyone—even if they’re not a guard, even if they have no desire to kill him—it’s too much of a risk, he shouldn’t have come this far.  

His breathing sounds too loud. Or maybe it’s his hearing. He can hear footsteps, the heavy ones that send a spark down his spine, but he thinks they’re far off—they just sound so loud because of how ‘high’ his hearing is. Jim hopes he’s not lying to himself.  

Jim backtracks, heads back towards where he used to live, where he knows the colony best. But turning on their street, he can’t do it. Jim goes a street over, where he knew the people that lived there but not well enough, not well enough to paralyze himself with grief.  

The door to the chosen house is ajar. Jim tries hard to focus, tries hard to hear any movement in the house. He can’t bring it in, can’t cut his hearing down to this exact area. He can still hear children laughing. It sounds mocking. 

Jim goes in. 

The pantry is well stocked, considering. One shelf almost full, a lot more than many were working with by the time Kodos called for the meeting. There are potatoes that don’t smell like blight. there are a few cookies of all things. Carrots. Elderberry jam. There’s a half-made salad on the counter starting to go. Milk and water packets that he shoves in the bag, shivering against the cold of the containers.  

In another room there’s a blanket that’s not too big that will fit. Jim sees a puzzle, like the kind Miss Janine gave to Yakova. He throws it in the bag and, feeling on edge, threatened, makes for the back door, all but holding his breath. No one is in the house, he’s almost sure for how he’s still alive, but it’s a small comfort. 

He opens the door and it’s quiet. The forest seems too far away for how far he feels he’s gone. Surely, he didn’t walk that much? Jim sticks to the walls of the houses, stopping at every sound, even those sounds that are across the colony—he can’t seem to distinguish, which ones are actually close and which ones aren’t. Every sound is too close, every sound is a threat.  

The sprint to the woods over open ground makes him want to burst. He keeps feeling like phaser fire is just missing him; that any second one will hit.  

He’s a good twenty feet into the woods before he turns to look behind him. The houses look average, cheery. There’s no one there in deep maroon, no red glow of phasers set to kill.  

“Ah,” Jim lets out without conscious thought. His legs shake until he’s on the ground. His whole body is shivering and he can’t stop looking at the houses. All slightly off-white, all with blue curtains at their windows. Each with subtle markers of individuality, of representations of the people that lived there.  

Jim stares and stares. They look benign, as inviting as they did yesterday morning when they all gathered to walk to the square.  

A movement, a shape in the window of one of the houses, looking out, looking towards the forest, towards him. Jim’s eyes go wide and he jumps up, turning in a rush and going further and further into the forest. He doesn’t stop running until he’s at the base of the tree, out of breath and laden by his pack. 

“Star!” Lee-Yu rushes out of the tree, “Never do that again!” 

“C-Comet.” Jim puts his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. 

“Don’t just leave!” She stomps a foot, helpless anger growing, “We—no one’s here anymore and I can’t lose you.” 

“I—” Jim’s voice cracks, “I gotta, Comet, I gotta.” 

“Jim?” Lanisha calls from above a tinge of panic in her voice, “Jim are you there?” 

Jim takes a shuddering breath and Lee-Yu looks at him too closely. He’s the one who can see, hear and all that more than he should, but when she looks at him like this, it’s like she can see where he comes apart.  

“I’ll take the pack,” is all she says, taking it from his shoulder without waiting for an answer and heading back up. 

It takes Jim a few tries to pull himself to the first branch, but he gets to the platform and Kevin is sitting up. 

“Jim!” he says, smile bright and it hurts, “I was waiting for you to come back.” 

“Feeling better?” 

Kevin nods, “Still really sleepy, but a lot better, my throat doesn’t hurt so much.” 

“That’s great.” 

Kevin waits a moment, letting Lee-Yu hand him water and pass out cookies to the group—“The puzzle is for Yakova” Jim motions with his chin and Yakova brings it close, and old rubric’s cube hopelessly tangled—“I’m getting better.” He says, definitively, “You don’t have to worry about me.” 

Jim’s smile is a weary thing, “That’s good, that’s great.” 


He makes runs once a day, and after that first time, he makes sure not to come back ready to crack. Even if it means waiting in some other part of the forest alone and crying for hours, he can’t go back as he had. It gets harder to find food and supplies after the fourth time—they start clearing out the houses. Anything—food, clothing, trinkets, memories—anything is stripped out, leaving the houses lifeless. Erasing the people that lived there forever. 

No one else leaves the general area around the tree. Yakova and Lee-Yu sometimes bring Jiji to the base of the tree to run and expend some energy, even if, as the days go on, they all have less of it. D’andre likes to climb higher and higher until Lanisha has to call him back down. Lanisha and Kevin stay mostly on the platform, Kevin still too weak for most things. Everyone is dirty and tired and their clothes are starting to wear. Tarsus IV doesn’t have a proper winter, not like Iowa, thank god, but it gets cold enough that what passes for nights are uncomfortable.  

This run—his ninth—Jim needs more food, a constant need, even with Lanisha staring to ration them on everything, including the water, after the second day (one spoonful of jam and a supplement has now been too many meals), and more blankets. Sleeping in the tree is safer, but there’s not one space all of them can be to share the blankets. They’re at three now, Jim wants to find at least one more.  

He has to go further now—further towards where the ‘better’ people are. There’s something odd in the air when Jim gets close, something that smells off, but he can’t hear heavy boots against the gravel, so he dismisses it.  

It’s getting harder to keep control of his senses. Yesterday he stopped in the middle of a run so caught in the smell of someone cooking—stock and vegetables and rosemary and thyme—that it was at least three hours later when he realized where he was.  

But there’s no choice. As long as he doesn’t die, it doesn’t matter how long he takes. He just needs to get back with something to eat.  

The guards had stripped all but one block of houses, the block closest to the square, where Jim had already riffled through once. It meant he knew where to go, but also meant that the likelihood of getting caught rises terribly while the chance of finding something decreases.  

Jim pauses at the back of a house. He can hear feet on gravel, but they seem farther out, and they’re not the heavy soles that Jim has come to associate with the guard. The threat isn’t great enough. He can’t abandon his mission. 

The house has little. Some food gone bad, trinkets that mean nothing for survival. The next house is similar. It’s worse than disappointing, it means a slow death. Jim quietly latches the back door and goes towards the next house only to run right into someone 

Jim sees a flash of red and he screams, no controlling it. It’s terror and despair and a small, small part of him that whispers finally. 

“Hey, hey, you’re alright kid,” a voice says and Jim opens his eyes—when did he close them? 

Standing in front of him, awkwardly knelt down with a hand extended to pat him but unsure if she should, is a woman with an almost reptile head—a non-terran. Her shirt is red, but not the deep maroon of the guard, instead a bright red. And in the corner—a Starfleet insignia.  

“What happened! I heard a screa….m” a Romulan woman turned the corner and Jim scrambled back, even as he takes in her blue shirt and insignia. 

“He just ran into me,” the reptilian woman grumbles.  

“He—” The Romulan looks at Jim and he shrinks back, keeping the bag behind him, even though it’s empty, “Are you—are you a survivor?” 

“Let me go!” Jim yells, and they are both a few steps away from him but he still feels trapped “I need to go!” 

“Wait—are you—did Kodos try to kill you?” The Romulan asks, “We—he’s dead. Starfleet’s come to remove survivors from the planet, to bring you home.” 

Jim gulps around the knot in his throat, around the words ‘This is my home, but my home died, where will you bring me when home is here and now it is gone?’ 

“There are others.” Jim gets out. 

“Okay,” the reptilian woman sounds relieved, “That’s good, let’s get them. Lhair, go get a medical team on standby and tell the captain.” 

Lhair, the Romulan, leaves with a nod. 

“Now let’s go get your friends.” The woman says, smiling at Jim with sharp teeth. Her not being human helps—everyone on Tarsus IV is human, which means she had come here, she isn’t part of Kodos’s plans. Maybe. 

Jim looks at her phaser, “Leave your phaser.” 

The woman looks down at her weapon, “Ah. Is that how they did it, then?” 

“Leave it!” Jim says again, as loud and strong as he can. 

“Alright,” she lifts her hands in surrender before going for her phaser, movements slow but doing nothing to stop Jim from tensing. She takes it out of her belt and removes the power pack. Jim sees in the moment she disconnects it that the setting had been stun.  

“I can’t leave it here.” She says and Jim tenses up all over again, “How about you carry the battery in your pack, hm? And I’ll keep hold of the other half.” 

Jim takes a moment and then nods. She hands him the battery, making sure not to touch him. Jim shoves it in the bag and stands quickly. He takes two steps towards the forest before turning, waiting for the woman to follow. Having her too far behind him feels too much like setting himself up to die.  

They walk through the forest slowly, and Jim brings her a long way, hoping if she is a threat, he’ll be able to tell before they get to the tree. She hadn’t lied before, when she said why they were here. Or at least he didn’t think she did. It’s hard, sorting out everything when he’s feeling so raw and worn out.   

“There are seven of us.” Jim says, and then, “Where’s Kodos?” 

The woman, Raez he learned, gives a small start, after so long without Jim uttering a word “There was a fire, in the municipal building. We’re still looking for survivors, but we don’t think he made it out.” 

Good Jim thinks in a vicious snarl.  

When they get to the tree, it’s terribly silent. Jim would think no one was there, if not for how loud everyone’s breathing sounded. Raez didn’t seem to notice.  

“It’s okay,” Jim calls up, feeling terribly tired, “Starfleet is here and we’re leaving.” 

Various heads pop from the branches and slowly everyone makes their way down. Jim goes up once to help with Jiji and D’andre, passing them down to Lee-Yu when neither is willing to go to Raez, the unknown element. He goes up again to gather their things. They’re not leaving without everything, even if Raez says they’ll have food and water plenty when they get to the impromptu Starfleet base.  

Lanisha nods in thanks, helping to steady Kevin on his feet. He can stand, but not for long. Someone will need to carry him.  

“I’m Raez,” Raez introduces, voice light and welcoming, “Thank you for being so brave.” 

“Is Miss Janine okay?” Yakova asks, “When do we start class again?” 

Raez winces. Lanisha looks blank. Jim wonders for the first time, what they speak of while he’s out on runs. 

“I’m not sure,” Raez answers, “but we’ll find out. And you’ll be able to go to classes again soon enough.” 

“I want to go to Miss Janine’s class.” Yakova answers, final.  

The walk to the edge of the forest is significantly shorter. Raez has to notice but has the forethought not to mention.  

When they break through the trees, Raez takes the lead, walking broadly across the field. The others follow, sedate, tired. Jim can’t stop looking around, every other step a tight jog, even when Kevin loses strength and has to be carried, Jim is too wound up to take a gentler pace. They keep getting further towards the center of the colony, the main square. 

“We can’t go that way.” Jim stops short, everyone but Raez stopping with him.  

Raez turns. 

“We have to go around.” Jim stands firm. 

Raez stands there for a long moment, assessing. Her mouth falls open, words on the tip of her tongue that Jim is sure he doesn’t want to hear. 

“Where are we going?” Jim asks. 

Raez bites her tongue, “The shipping docks.” 

Jim nods, walks in front of them and leads. He goes the longest way around, makes sure that there’s no way anyone will see the square. Not all of them were there, at least Lanisha wasn’t, but Jim doesn’t want to take any kind of chance, with them or with himself. 

Raez and the rest of the group follow quietly. No one makes a sound and when they’re close to the ship docks, the noise and smells become almost overwhelming. There’s the smell of Tarsus IV’s ozone and food that’s fresh and good. It makes him nauseous with how much variation and how quickly they seem to appear. There’s lots of people moving about, talking in hushed whispers while others yell orders. Kevin’s weight on his back is the only thing keeping him in the now.  

Raez takes back the lead when they’re right outside the docks, guiding them past people huddled in small groups and Starfleet personnel making rounds, giving food and console. Jim takes in the colonists being aided and can’t help the tautness of his jaw when he sees their appearance, how put together they are, nice clothes, no tired faces. They slept in houses. They were Kodos’s chosen. 

Jim doesn’t see it.  

“Captain,” Raez comes to a halt in front of a woman in a gold shirt—gold like Jim’s dad used to wear, like he wears in all the photos Jim’s ever seen of him at speeches and in history lessons, “these are the children Lhair told you about, the ones who survived the massacre.” 

The woman who turns towards them looks almost human but for the size and gleam of her eyes and how the hair pulled back in a ponytail doesn’t look like hair, “Hello, I’m Captain Abielle.” She smiles and her teeth are rounded, “Let’s get you all a quick health check, some freshening up and food, and then you can tell me what happened.” 

Jim looks over his shoulder at the group and then turns back to Abielle, nodding once. They’re whisked away to where medical is set up in one of the common buildings. Jim’s treated for a rash he hadn’t noticed on the back of his arms, told he’s dehydrated and lacking nutrients (surprising to no one) and sent on his way. They give him clothes and point him towards a sonic shower.  

He can hear Jiji crying when he comes out. Lee-Yu is already eating, chomping into the given food with gusto. If she eats it now, they can’t take it away. When he’s handed his own portion, Jim feels much the same, and even though it fills him up past what his stomach can comfortably take, he’s already looking for more, looking for more to stash somewhere safe, for when there is no more food and Jim’s left to fend for the group again. His throat starts to feel itchy, like it sometimes does, but not bad enough that he needs a hypo.  

Kevin’s still at Medical, they have him on a drip and are giving him more antibiotics mixed in his food. Jiji’s in the bed next to him, making large crocodile tears as the nurse tries to give him preventative hypos. Yakova is in the showers with Lanisha. Jim feels a tug at his sleeve and D’andre’s there, sticking close, staying safe.  

“What’s your name, son?” Abielle asks. 

“James Tiberius Kirk,” Jim says, and it sounds like surrender. 

Chapter Text

  Raez  takes  D’andre —a colonist came up to help but Jim wasn’t having that;  Raez  was quick to volunteer—and Jim is left with  Abielle  

“I spoke with  Lanisha ,”  Abielle  says, walking them away from the bustle and towards the line of calm houses,  Jim’s headache—the one he’s had since day four starts to ease,  S he told me her story, and that you were the one that saw the most.”  

Jim nods, “Lee-Yu and I saw the massacre.  D’adre  and  Yakova  might have too.” Jim pauses, they never really talked about how Rashid got the kids he brought in tow, “I hope Jiji didn’t.”  hope none of them did .  

Abielle  nods, and waits, silent. Jim takes a long breath, he trusts  Abielle  for no reason he can point to ,  but her presence is open and calming.   

It’s not easy. The death of his aunt and uncle, the two people who really felt like family, makes him pause for a very long time. Rashid’s death is equally difficult, though he doesn’t say how he heard it, doesn’t want to face how he failed as a protector. The runs for food are easier to share—omitting his own terror is default, not out of any sense of shame at the fear but how it doesn’t impact the greater story, the story of survival. He got the food, he got back, they were able to eat another day.   

“Thank you for sharing,”  Abielle  says, placing a soft hand on his shoulder and Jim feels a weight lift. It’s still there, everything that’s happened, everything that’s affected him so greatly, but  somehow  he’s able to deal with it better, to no  longer  be lost in the grief of it.  

Abielle  smiles, “ T hey’re lucky,” she looks to the others of his group and Jim has a flash of wonder if anyone else survived like they did, or if they’re all that’s left of the people sentenced to die, “to have had you. A Sentinel is what they needed to survive.”  

Jim stays quiet. He was what he needed to be.   


The aftermath is chaotic. The seven of them stay close, sleeping in a pile, eating quickly together and hiding away extras, staying together against all the colonists that look too put together for the tragedy that had befallen them. It’s strange, none of them had ordered the death of Jim’s loved ones, that honor belonged to  Kodos  alone, the man dead in a fire in his own palace, and many hadn’t even known it was happening until after, but Jim feels he c an’t  trust any of them. With the closeness of their group, Jim thinks they feel the same.   

They spend every moment together and then they’re told they won’t be anymore.  Starfleet  has   officially  closed  Tarsus IV  as a civilian colony. A research facility will be  established  to examine the cause of the blight.  There will be an investigation of the repercussions of the disease, and someday, maybe, there would again be a colony on Tarsus IV.  

None of them were going to stay on Tarsus—after what had happened, there was no way—but the announcement given by Starfleet from the Federation came with repercussions no one had cared to think about.   

Transport ships came on top of the Starfleet vessel  to evacuate the  people. It was the vessel headed to  Rattera  M that make clear they would be torn apart, that after everything they didn’t have the right to choose their own way.  

“But I can’t go!”  Lanisha  yells .  

Raez  had been the one to come and give the news.  Lanisha  will be on the transport to  Rattera , a well-established  sta r base  in the Beta quadrant where her uncle would take her in. Hearing the news from someone they vaguely knew didn’t make it any easier.   

“I can’t just leave them  here !”   

Raez  ma kes a  calming gesture, “They will be fine, everyone has somewhere to go, a new home.”  

“That’s  not..! ”  Lanisha  choke s  on a sob.  

Abielle  co mes o ver, drawn by the noise and the crowd of onlookers that had no right to be looking at them, no right to be judging them after what they went through while everyone else stayed in their homes. Jim knows they had to have heard the screams. They had to have. When he closes his eyes, he still can.   

Lanisha ,”  Abielle  put a hand on her shoulder, “I feel it, your helplessness and anger, your worry for everyone,”  Abielle’s  eyes are sympathetic, “We cannot assure that nothing bad will ever happen to them, but we can assure you nothing bad will happen to them here, not again.”  

“We’ll be all right.” Jim s peaks up , and Lee-Yu t a k es  one of  Lanisha’s  hands, “We’ll be okay.”  

Lanisha   doesn’t  stop crying, but she nod s , giving a wet smile and squeezing Lee-Yu’s hand, “I don’t want to leave you thou gh.” She  sobs  and they gather c lose, soaking in each other's presence.  

They d on’t let go until  Lanisha  has  to board;  the last colonist heading  towards Beta quadrant. She  leaves  with the clothes on her back and food that Jim  shoves in her  pocket s .  Jiji doesn’t stop crying when the door closes, and it’s all they can do to calm him enough to eat.  

D’andre , Jiji and  Yakova  are  next, all going towards the Gamma quadran t.  D’andre  to his grandmother, J iji to an aunt he would learn to call mother, the only one in his  entire  family that hadn’t been on Tarsus, and  Yakova  to a cousin  she had never met before . It s like they all ta k e  a piece of him with them. He  doesn’t  like it, everyone leaving. How  will  he know they’re okay? How  will  he make sure they  have  enough food?  

Jim, Kevin and L ee-Yu. The original three. They ’re  all going to Eart h, and something in Jim breathes  a sigh of relief, at least they  will  be on the same planet, at least he  will  know, even a bit , that they’re  safe.   

Abielle   comes  over one night, when Lee-Yu and Kevin  are  already asleep , knowing well that Jim  won’t  leave them, asleep or otherwise.   

“It’s okay to let them go,”  Abielle  says and Jim’s hands tighten on  both of them  without thought.  

Abielle  smiles, but it’s sad, “ Y ou’ve done a wonderful job, little Sentinel, but now it’s time for you to be protected, to be Guided.”  

She wasn’t using the words  he knew, but Jim’s eyes widen , it like with  Hasrok —he hadn’t thought of them so directly in a long time—she sounded like…  

“Are you a Lead?”  

Abielle  gives a look, still soft and open, but confused ,  and Jim started to feel the fool until she speaks, “I didn’t think your kind referred to us that way.”  

I.. ” Jim  doesn’t  want to say it, that he had to learn about what he  is  because if there was anyone in his family who should have known they  definitely didn’t  tell him, “ W hat are you normally called?”  

“Guides. I’m a G uide, and you are a Sentinel.”  

“Protector” Jim says without thought.  

Abielle  smiles, “ Y es, you certainly are.”  She takes a long moment to speak again, finding the right words,  “ B ut you can stop now.  Y ou can let them go. They are not your tribe, not anymore.”  

Jim looks down at Kevin and Lee-Yu, “ J ust because you say that doesn’t make it true.”  

Abielle  smiles again, “ T hat may be so, but you will have to let them go. That headache you have? The one you’ve had since  Lanisha  left?”  

Jim hadn’t told anyone.  

“It’s because you’re still trying to hear her—and see her and smell her   and feel her .”  Abielle  looks up at the stars, as if  she  can see  Lanisha ,  “ Y ou have to let them go, the strain will make you zone out, bad enough that without a guide you’ll be stuck.”  

Jim  understands what she means, but it doesn’t make it any easier to follow her direction.    

How ?” Jim asks , at a loss and desperate, “ I t won’t stop, I can’t.”  

Abiell e  looks at him, a gentile smile on her face, “ L et them go.”  

Jim wants  to tell her in sharp words that she  isn’t  being at all helpful, but another part of him  screams  back  no!  with a vengeance. He  doesn’t want to let go. He wants  to keep them c lose and keep everyone safe. It instinct. They  aren’t  his,  but they’re  all  each other’s. Being separated so suddenly— being separated at all. It  doesn’t  feel right. Better than death parting them surely, but Jim knowns the y’ re alive, knows he should be hearing their  breathing  but he can’t.   

Jim looks away from  Abielle  and takes a deep breath, closing his eyes. He can feel it now, the specific strain of his senses reached out into the void of space. It’s hard, letting go, putting the fates of  Lanisha Yakova D’andre  and Jiji in, well, fate’s hands. He has to detangle his heart, recall his senses. Gradually it gets  cleaner;  he can focus more. When he separates the last of himself from  Yakova , his headache is dissipating, leaving him dizzy with the absence of it.   

Abielle  pats him on the shoulder kindly. Kevin and Lee-Yu are still there, still wrapped up in his senses, and he thinks  Abielle  knows that too, somehow, but she doesn’t say anything about it. She looks almost proud and Jim feels a wave of calm. It makes falling  a sleep instant.   


Their t rip  is long. it had been a long trip to Tarsus IV from earth and the trip back is similar. Most is spent sleeping but they are always the first in the mess  hall  for mealtimes.   

“I’ve never been to earth,” Lee-Yu says, staring at her empty tray, “I was born on  Laae , over in Eta quadrant. We moved to Tarsus when I was four and that was it.”  

“I went once, to visit family.” Kevin says, “They’re the ones I’m going to, I think.”  

“I grew up on earth.” Jim says, and thinks of how his mother’s alive when Lee-Yu lost  both of  hers and Kevin lost his dad. It doesn’t feel like he’s going home to family. He feels guilty for even thinking it, with the loss they both faced.   


They docked in San Francisco, the largest port city in the western hemisphere. Kevin’s aunt is right at the docking gate. When Kevin comes down, she runs up and pulls him into a hug. Jim can hear her words of comfort, her words of prayer and thanks that he’s okay, but he chooses not to listen. They will be getting on a shuttle to the United Republic of Ireland. One more person w ill  be leaving Jim.   

Kevin says  his good-byes with long hugs and quick words and Jim tr ies  to shove in e very piece of advice he has  in his head.  Kevin and his aunt almost miss  their flight, with how unwilling to part the three  are  

Lee-Yu’s family co me s  next, a large  group of people that all share Lee-Yu’s nose. She ’s  going to Vancouver. Closer than all the rest, but still too far away. When her family  comes  into view ,  Jim start s  to cry , large tears that he can’t hope to stop . He  will  be alone, and even with so many people around, the p romise of safety, the thought i s devastating.   

“No…” Jim turns  from Lee-Yu’s approaching family to Lee-Yu herself. Her eyes are filling with tears too, and it just makes Jim start to cry harder, turn from a silent expulsion of tears to hitched breaths and choked sobs, to a messy affair in the middle of a crowded shipping dock.   

Lee-Yu pulls Jim into a hug and Jim clings, holds her so hard it has to hurt. She does the same, keeping Jim so fully in the presence of his body with her touch and heat that when she walks  away  he knows he’ll break.   

Her family doesn’t rush  them, doesn’t tap feet impatiently or look at the clock overhead. They’re left to grieve together until they can’t take it anymore.   

“Bye Comet.”  

“I’ll see you again, Star .  

She walks  away  and Jim is rooted to the spot. Every third step she looks back until she can’t see him anymore.   

Jim still sees her.   

His eyes must be red-rimmed,  he feels tired enough from it. T he trek to his new dock is daunting, but he  has to  catch the shuttle to Des Moines. He’s old enough to do it himself, he was old  enough to do it himself over three years  ago when he first came through this port. He wishes him mom had come  to pick him up  

His head is pounding by the time he’s on the shuttle to Des Moines in a back - craft seat.  It’s a sharp pain right behind his eyes. He  has to  let go. He  has to  let go or he’ll get stuck, he’ll get lost and never find his way back.   

Jim’s eyes start to sting from the pain and he  has to  clutch his head. Let go, let go,  let go.   

It’s not gradual like with the others, it cuts off like a snap, a break. Jim  cries . No one says anything .  


No one is waiting for him at the docks in Des Moines. He’s not surprised, after everything there’s no surprise, but it does hurt. He didn’t think he still had parts that could be  pained . When Jim walks through the doors to his childhood home, Frank is on the couch with a beer in his hand and it’s like no time has passed at all.  

Frank turns his head, squinting at Jim in the doorway, backlit. He grunts.  

“Didn’t know  yer   comin   today ,” He grosses, and then, with a laugh, “Did  yer  family get sick of you too?”   


Jim expects it to be different, coming back to Riverside. It’s almost distressingly the same. It’s so easy,  so easy , to just fall into old habits, fall into his old self and think of his time on Tarsus IV with Elaine and Joel, of the him who grew into himself, as some dream. Walking along the edge of the quarry, staring down at the bottom where he can almost see a gleam of red from the  car  he crashed what feels like a lifetime ago, none of it feels real. None of the good things, anyway. The massacre—that he can never forget.   

It’s a constant, even in a small town like Riverside. It’s on all the news outlets  and  overwhelmingly what everyone is talking about.  Jim doesn’t need to worry much about peo ple engaging him in conversatio n  about it , but with his  hearing, there’s no real way to escape.   

And then there is Riverside itself. Jim would have said there is nothing similar between Tarsus IV and Riverside, not a thing. But the sun will shine just right, the heat of it is just so, or a whiff of elderberry jam, or the  particular shade of  blue that is the shade of their curtains, and he’s back. He’s back to listening hard for heavy boot steps and looking for food and trying so hard to stay out of sight, to not breath too loud.  

The sun makes him freeze, and the heat of it feels more like phaser fire too close. The jam…he smells it and he  has  to hold back from gagging, the sickly-sweet taste of it conjured in his mouth from nothing, the memory of them rationing it out by the spoonful too bright in his mind. The blue; there’s a car the exact same shade and whenever Jim sees  it ,  he runs, runs in the opposite direction of the deserted houses with no souls.   

Frank doesn’t seem to know, or more doesn’t seem to care where Jim had been for the almost three and a half years he’d been gone. It’s better  this way —Jim doesn’t know what Frank would do if he knew and it’s better to never learn.   

But. His mom. His mom knows exactly where he went, exac tly wher e her sister and brother - in - law  had lived. She  has to  know why he came home. She  has to  

He doesn’t hear from her and it feels like he doesn’t even exist.  Like he didn't make it from the square after all.  

Chapter Text

Time goes by and no one seems to remember a time when Jim wasn’t in Riverside, Iowa.  

His records are sealed because he’s a minor, and no one asks where he’s been. Everyone knows of the Massacre on Tarsus IV by Kodos the Butcher, but no one knows he’d been there. That he’d survived. That he’d been one of the undesired. 

They may not have noticed his absence, but Jim can’t fall back into the self he’d been before he left.  

He eats too fast. This is the third day in a row that he’s here—in the bathroom puking his guts out. He ate too much too quick and every time this happens, every time he has tears in his eyes and burning in his throat, he says he’ll eat less tomorrow, he won’t get sick. He’ll keep it down. Save the rest.  

But then he doesn’t because if he doesn’t finish the food, he has to throw it out; he can’t bring it with him out of the cafeteria. He can’t bear to throw it out. Why are they making him throw it out? 

“Jim,” Mr. Kolwost stops him as he heads into Standard, feeling pale and worn, “Report to Miss Alleya’s office.” 

Jim musters a nod and turns, heading straight for the guidance counselor’s office. Miss Alleya’s office is decorated with the specific intent to feel like a comforting space. The chairs are not the standard issue classroom chairs with hard plastics and bolts that always stick out. The broad side of her desk is against the wall, leaving no barrier between the student and the sincere advice Miss Alleya strives to give. He’d been called down here before for fights and disruptive behavior when he was younger but he’d almost never taken note of it. Now, it makes Jim feel raw. 

“Jim,” Miss Alleya turns towards him when he enters, gesturing to one of the seats, “Thank you so much for making time to see me.” 

Jim doesn’t bother to mention that they both know he doesn’t have a choice. Miss Alleya leaves time for him to speak if he desires, just the right amount of time to confirm that Jim is falling into the category of ‘difficult’. 

“I wanted to speak with you—and this might be hard to discuss,” she pauses letting the words seep into the room around them, “but know that I am your ally in this and whatever you say is confidential.” She reaches and places her hand over Jim’s where it’s loose on the armrest, “let me help you.” 

She waits again for what appears to be the same length of time. Her heartbeat is calm. It’s a lull dragging Jim under. 

“I’d like to talk about your eating—about bulimia.” 

Jim’s eyes go wide and he blinks once as it falls into place, body gone taught one moment and limp the next. Of course they think he’s bulimic, it’s an almost standard case. Jim wants to laugh, to say how every time he throws up, he feels useless and terrible for wasting food that others could have eaten to keep them alive. That every time he does it, there’s a panic that this was his last food, that he wasted the last chance at good food before he has to start scavenging again. And it’s not like he has a right to these feelings—so many others didn't get the luxury of survival.  

Miss Alleya’s eyes go keen, she senses the upper hand, “Bulimia and eating disorders do happen in young men, Jim, you have no reason to feel ashamed. What I want to do here is help. Recognize the issue and work to get you better.” 

“I…I think I have a problem.” Jim says, and it’s the most truthful he’s been with himself since returning. 

Jim’s no guide or lead, but he can almost feel the pleasure at his admission that Miss Alleya gives off, “Excellent Jim, I’m glad you can say that. Now…” she goes off on treatments and healthy eating and support systems.  

I have a problem . It repeats in his head and Jim knows nothing Miss Alleya can offer him will help.  

It’s clear after leaving her office that Jim’s a little more messed up than he’s willing to admit. He’s sent home because of the trying time he’s had coming to terms with himself under a stranger’s watchful gaze, and all it does is leave him too much time with his thoughts.  

He can’t keep going like this. He’s eating, and eating a lot, but nothing stays down. Like a dog given too much to eat; they’ll just keep eating until they’ve made themselves sick. That’s why they have owners, people who do what’s best for them, even when the dog doesn’t understand it.  

Would a guide be like that? Jim balks at the idea of someone owning him, at someone claiming to know what's best for him in the face of his own autonomy. But he has to admit, right now, he’s not doing what's best for him, he’s doing what’s best for a hungry kid that doesn’t know when their next meal is. He’s not that boy anymore; he’s not still on Tarsus with the lives of six other people on his shoulders. So why can’t he believe it? 

He doesn’t have a guide, he may never have a guide (and that thought rings truer and truer with every passing day, with every thought of Tarsus IV), so he needs to guide himself. He did it as a kid, led himself, fixed his problems. He doesn’t need some mythical person to lead him down the right path.  

Eating slow takes effort, and Jim feels full quicker than he should. Miss Alleya has him down once a week and it’s like a motion picture of all his failures, all his weaknesses. Miss Alleya seems to like that the best, hearing admissions of weakness or poking at wounds still open.  

“You threw up yesterday at lunch.”  

Jim’s knee has been bouncing since he sat down, “I ate too fast.” 

“And then today you left over half your food.” 

Jim can’t look at her, “I didn’t want to throw up.” 

“Jim,” Miss Alleya puts her hand on his knee and it abruptly stops bouncing, he can still feel the phantom movement of it, “Not eating is along the same lines as eating and throwing up. It’s not good for you. It can hurt you dearly. It can hurt those around you too.” 

The more she prods, the less Jim feels. He can see them in his mind’s eye, the proverbial wounds of his psyche stitching itself back together after Tarsus, can see the sluggish flow of blood still seeping from broken edges. It leaves him with little left. 

Jim stares at her hand, “I’m doing better.” 

“But not well.” Miss Alleya says, “We will get there Jim. This isn’t a magic fix. It will take time.” 

Jim’s cheeks flare and his gut feels full of lead, “Right.” 

“I’m here to help you,” Miss Alleya says, and it’s what she says every time he comes to her office, from the first visit to the next and the one after that until every weekly meeting runs into each other and Jim can hardly fathom a time he wasn’t here, in this office, drowning in the space between them.  

“I’m here to help.” She repeats, earnest over the abyss. It doesn’t make Jim believe it though, doesn’t make Jim stop feeling like she’s only out to find where he’s messed up, where he fails, where he let people down. Where he ate when others didn’t, where he lived and others didn’t. 

Shock gives way, eventually. Because that’s what it was, a prolonged shock at the universe’s reality that Jim couldn’t face.  

But it’s like Jim’s dragging himself out of a zone—one day he looks around and realizes all of his classmates are different, realizes that the teacher lecturing in front of the classroom isn’t familiar. He’s sitting on the quarry edge of his own life, watching his legs dangle over nothing, a hint of red so far down he must be imagining it.  

Jim stands, an abrupt screech of metal chair legs on the linoleum floor. The teacher— Mr. Freeman  proclaims the cheap nameplate on the desk—stops, and curious eyes gaze at him from all corners of the room.  

He walks out. No one stops him. No one comments. Jim’s not even to the end of the hall before he hears the drone pick back up. It's like he wasn’t ever there.  

The notice board catches his eye, loud in its proclamations of school spirit, and upcoming events. His eyes seize on the date—large, clashing colors against a bright red backdrop. 

The fear comes first—rolling waves of it that crash against the sides of his consciousness, that freeze in horrified terror as his world comes into focus. Tarsus IV was an earth year ago. He's been here, stagnant, hollowed by apathy for a whole year.  

Jim walks to the cafeteria, legs carrying him through a building his mind remembers faintly. It's a lunch session, not his, but one of them. He gets in line and goes through motions he doesn’t think about and then he’s sitting at a table, staring down at a plate of food so easy to access its blinding.  

It's a sandwich; turkey with iceberg lettuce, a watery looking tomato slice, processed cheese too orange for the washed-out color of the rest of the meal. There're cooked carrots that smell terrible on the side, a bottle of soy milk proudly proclaiming to have  Just as much calcium as Cow’s Milk!  and a damn cookie.  

It's normal. Jim’s ate similarly in elementary school up until he...left. And since he’s been back, the same fundamental foods have always been handed over on little off-white trays in a rotation as well known as the days of the week.  

It makes him so angry he wants to scream. He wants to throw it on the ground, stomp it into an inedible mess. He wants to leave it just like this, untouched, to rot away, no one caring as it turns back to earth. He wants to tear it apart, rip it to pieces, each smaller than the last. So small that even  he  won’t be able to see it. 

Salty tracks run down his cheeks. Jim picks up the sandwich and takes a bite.  

“Let me help you,” Miss Alleya says, in her version of a ritual as Jim enters her office. 

“If you could help me, I would be fixed already.” Jim snaps and he isn’t sure if his or Miss Alleya’s eyes go wider.  

Miss Alleya straightens in her chair and Jim tries to turn his slouch into one of indifference, but his limbs are too stiff, “I do not tolerate this sort of behavior, Jim. I understand this can be a frustrating process, but I’m—” 

“Here to help.” Jim cuts in staring at the edge of her desk, pushed to the side as always, leaving them too open to one another.  

“Yes, I am.” Miss Alleya says sternly, “Now, I think we can part ways for today. Please give me the respect I give you when we meet again.” 

Jim’s out of her office too quick to come across as anything but fearful, barely succeeding in closing the door for the minute shaking of his hands. He doesn’t think he’s going to be sick, but it’s a close thing. Jim gets halfway down the hall before his head swivels back to look at the door, but it stays firmly shut. Jim’s limbs start to lose their tension, and once the office is actually out of sight, he turns to jelly but for the tremble of his hands.  

He sits in the stairwell, abandoned as it is in the middle of class. Jim looks down at his hands, tremors still there, but slight. Something releases and Jim laughs, leaning heavily against the rails and feeling lightheaded.  

Nothing happened.   

He talked back and was sent on his way. No one followed him or took his food or threatened his life. He hadn’t realized how tight and confined he’d made himself for so long. Hadn’t realized just what he’d been so afraid of. But there it was, his greatest fear: power intending to murder masquerading as genial authority asking quite nicely for compliance.  

Miss Alleya had been disappointed, but didn’t threaten him, didn’t do any of the things Jim had thought of in those moments after he’d spoken out of turn. It was a rush, this feeling of safety, that he was not closed off and that the rules of society still held their ground in Riverside, Iowa at the least.  

Jim sinks further against the cool rails and feels more at ease than he has in a long time. 

“Dude how did you just  do  that?”  

For all his extra awareness, it takes Jim a moment to realize the boy is talking to him.  


“Just--” he makes a vague motion with his hand (pale, freckled, the slight appearance of a burn), “ leave  Mr. Freedman’s class like that! You've got the whole loner vibe going but that was on another level.”  

Jim had actively tried to forget he cried into a subpar sandwich, but apparently this kid saw his inglorious exit a little different, “I walked?” 

The boy snorts, “That’s one way to put it.” 

Jim shrugs his backpack further onto his shoulder for something to do as part of his mind replays ‘ loner vibe’  on repeat.  

“Hey, Sasha’s got her brother’s hoverbike, and we’re gonna race them by the quarry after school, you should come.” The guy shrugs, but his shoulders stay too stiff for the 'whatever' vibe he’s going for.  

Jim doesn’t know who Sasha is. He still doesn’t know who this kid is, except they both share whatever class it is that Mr. Freedman teaches. The only racing he’s done by the quarry was against a cop; it ended with the car at the bottom of it in a tangled, deadly mass.  

“Yeah, sure.” 

So it wasn’t just Sasha and her brother’s hoverbike. It was Dave, Al, Laila, Bri, Mikie, and Ned and another hoverbike, beat-up and old, but still running.   

It was the hot sun and a track that spat dirt at your eyes no matter where you stood, that wasn’t even that close to the quarry. It was an old-school cooler of beers that Sasha’s bother got her because he apparently doesn’t care about them scratching the bright blue paint on his bike.  

It was a beer shoved into his hands that fizzed too much when he opened it and music from an old holo-speaker that couldn’t even be heard once the bikes started.  

It was yelling and jeering and sun in their eyes as Laila won for the thrid time, coming to a stop with a cloud of dust, Al cursing as he slowed up next to her.  

“She’s only winning because she’s got the new bike!” Al yells as he dismounts, tightly held anger in every angle of his body. 

“You can’t blame the bike when you’ve never been able to beat her, Al bert " Mikie mocks with a laugh more snort than sound. 

Al scoffs in her general direction, snatching the beer Dave holds out as peace offering, “She rides every day! It's practically unfair.” 

“It’s alright, Al,” Laila dismounts, “we can’t all be gifted.” 

“Don’t tease,” Sasha rolls her eyes in exasperation. It's about the sixth time she’s said it.  

“Do you want to try?” Ned asked, earnest freckled face seeing more in Jim than there is to see, “It’s alright if you’ve never ridden a bike before; mine’s already been pieced back together hundreds of times before.” 

Jim tips back the warming can in his hand, carbonated hops delaying his answer; “Yeah, sure.” 

“Let's see what you’ve got then,” Bri says from next to the cooler with an encouraging little fist shake. She hasn’t touched a bike since they got here, all piled into the back of a pickup except for Sasha and Ned on their bikes. Sasha stretches out next to her on the crabgrass, looking expectantly at Jim.  

Jim hops on Ned’s bike, steadfastly tuning out Ned’s overeager explanations of the controls. They're enough like the mini sub that his aunt Elaine took them down into the water caves—there a lot like when aunt Elaine—when aunt Elaine... 

Jim isn’t concerned.  

The bike needs some work, a few of the bolts in the side panel look like they’re holding together through sheer luck, but it’s well-worn on the main controls and seat, and Jim can tell it’s been well-loved in addition to well-used.  

“Who’s gonna race him?” Laila asks, pushing off from where she’s been leaning on the shiny blue bike. 

Jim’s face scrunches up; “You.” He says like it’s obvious. That's what they’ve been doing this whole time—winner rides against the next. He’s not about to be a special case. 

Laila and Ned share a look that raises Jim’s hackles. This group of people are their own tribe; they know each other well. Jim’s an outsider. A ‘loner’. 

“Well, if you insist.” She shrugs, setting herself back on the seat firmly, “Just don’t be mad when you lose.” 

Jim presses his lips together and nods. Laila brings her bike smoothly over to the patch of dead grass and dirt that’s their starting line. Jim lurches forward once before starting to get a feel for the bike. It's got a touchy gas and a touchier break. It drifts a little to the left. Jim takes the left lane of their mostly oval course to help compensate. He can feel the engine reverberate through his body; it’s like when a ship starts its rumbling towards the stars.  

“Ready?” Sasha yells from beside Bri, waiting for thumbs up. Bri hits the holo-speaker and a loud burst of static screams out—their signal to go.  

Laila flies.   

“Come on!” and “Go!” Pat and Sasha yell in tandem, fighting to drown each other out. 

“Hurry up!” Al shouts, hands cupping his mouth, “She’s already winning!”  

Jim’s not out to go down without a fight. He squeezes the throttle and feels the rev underfoot as the bike lifts just that few inches more off the ground.  

“He’s not even gonna get off the ground—" he hears Bri tell Sasha over the din before he’s flying forward.  

It's— god  it’s just— 

The wind is stinging, pulling at his face and making his eyes water. He pushes the bike faster. All he can hear is the wind whipping by and the sound of the engine, muffler just a bit too rusted to work the way it’s supposed to. He can’t hear the others taking, can’t hear Laila up ahead, can’t hear his own thoughts.  

He takes the first turn too fast, and the back end of the bike swings up the embankment, and Jim uses his full weight to pull it back onto the course, to keep moving. He rights with a lurch and then it’s back on the track, swerving, speeding, revving the engine to see if the bike has more to give. He's so full—exhilaration, abandon, the slight tinges of fear, each movement of the bike shakes him until all he is, is this moment.  

He can see Laila ahead, the distance between them getting smaller. She's sleek on the bike and driving with intention. Jim’s driving with reckless ignorance that has his bike going over rocks and up slope sides that slow the built-up hover speed. But he’s close—he's getting close.  

Laila looks back and her eyes widen before a grin breaks out. She turns front and Jim can see it in her driving how she’s starting to take him seriously. The challenge is open and Jim grabs it with both hands.  

The finish is rapidly approaching and Jim pushes himself, pushes the bike, harder—leaning into every slight turn and movement. He’s almost at her taillight. Then at her seat. Then— 

They cross the finish line. Slowing to a stop leaves him tingling from the phantom feeling of air rushing against his face and bike shaking underneath. They slowly make their way to the group, already being called to before they dismount.  

“That was an awesome race—” “ —had her for a minute—” “—over that slope? I thought for sure he’d spin out.”  

Laila dismounts and walks over, feet crunching dead grass and dirt, “told you you’d lose.” her tone is mocking, but she holds out her hand to shake.  

Jim slowly gets off the bike, taking a moment to stare at the controls, then the track, then Laila. She's looking back a little unsure now, hand losing some of its stiffness as it waits for a shake that might not come.  

Jim doesn’t keep her waiting any longer; “let's go again.” he says, breathless around a smile. That was everything. That was so good—it was speed and exhilaration and challenge. It wasn’t tied up in hurt or anger it just— was .  

Laila laughs, delighted, “Whenever you’re ready.” 

“Hell no—I'm going next,” Al scoffs, “Laila’s going down.” 

Ned slaps him on the back, slinging his arm around Jim’s shoulders, “Maybe wait until the bike is ready.” he jerks his thumb back to his bike and then, to Jim, “you’re a good rider, but I don’t think the bike was really ready for it.” 

Jim turns back to the bike and he can see what Ned means. The screws that were holding by sheer luck ran out of it—there's one less now and another rusted one broke in half. The muffler was dragging, but once it hovered it might...nope, yeah it would still drag. And it was ninety percent rust anyway. The breaks had been little more than paper thin nanos when he’d started, and that ride couldn’t have helped. 

“I can fix it.” Jim blurts. 


He can’t fix it—at least not right away.  

Jim doesn’t know the first thing about hoverbike mechanics. But damned if he isn’t going to learn. That feeling--that race. He wants more of it. And he can’t do that without a bike.  

So, he starts with pouring over manuals and forum posts in the moments between classes, impatiently waiting for this class or that one to end so he can go back to his real study. It's terrific, having something so totally new to focus on, even if the absorption of so much jargon takes longer than he’d like  (months  longer) .  It keeps him here, even if it means that each class feels like it goes on for ages as he watches the clock, wishing for once that it would go just that much faster.  

He reads and reads and then he gets his hands on Ned’s bike. It's a hand-me-down from his uncle to his cousin to him and now that Jim knows a thing or two about bikes, he can tell it’s made  up of so many mixed model parts that the original bike can’t be idenified.  

The first time they all tow it out to the track for a test run after some modifications, Jim hops on, starts it off, and it immediately starts to smoke. Mickie literally won’t stop laughing the whole ride back to the podunk place they call town.  

The second time, it runs well—Jim still can’t beat Laila (or Dave, or Sasha...) but it isn’t smoking and the left list is almost gone.  

The third time, Jim actually wins.  

“Dude that was sick.” Ned raves across the narrow space separating their desks, “I didn’t know a hoverbike could  do  a front wheel turn like that.”  

“I added a forward thruster against the hover pad.” 

“I don’t even know what that means.” 

Jim grins, “You know that old tractor thruster your dad had in the shed? I replaced the—” 

“That is enough!” Mr. Freedman raises his voice and Jim can feel something in him curl in on itself, “if you want to fail my class, do it quietly!” 

“But I'm getting As.” It trips out in a moment of incomprehension and Jim snaps his jaw shut as his words sink into his own ears—and the sound of just about everybody in the room turning to stare at him.  

Ned chokes on a laugh before schooling his features into shame-faced regret. Mr. Freedman’s eyes widen and narrow in a move almost too quick for him to follow and his face shifts to an unusual shade of red.  


Jim grabs his bag and tries not to feel the eyes that track his every movement. 

So, Mr. Freedman probably meant to send Jim to the principal’s office or Ms. Alleya’s for a stern talking to. But he’d never  said  that.  

Jim makes his way to the courtyard and opens his bag. He's got about ten granola bars in there, and he pulls out the least squashed. As long as no one knows he’s carrying food around with him, it should be fine.  

He pulls out his padd and starts running through what he’s been working on for weeks. It's the schematics for a bike—not a hoverbike but a retro motorcycle with two wheels that runs on  electricity  instead of geomagnetic pull, and controls that are ten times more complicated than they need to be. He's gonna make it. He's going to scrounge for parts, or get a job or something, and he’s going to make his own bike.  

Jim can’t help smiling at the picture. Might even be good enough to beat Sandra’s bike, as long as Laila’s not riding it.  

Jim starts making notes and lists of needed supplies, and soon enough, Dave joins him, two periods later. But it’s not that he zoned out—it's different. He was so focused, so involved in what he’s doing, that he just didn’t notice that time was passing. It's refreshing.  

“Hey wanna go get food?” Dave asks, glancing up from his phone, “Bri and Mikie are saving us a spot at the sub shop.” 

“What’s the special?” Jim asks as he puts his padd in his bag already ready to go. He's hungry, but it doesn’t fill him with panic—Jim counts the bars left in his bag. He'll add more tonight.  

“Some tempeh thing, so you know Al is going to be all over it.” 

Jim laughs “for a guy who loves beef jerky, it’s weird how into tempeh he is.” 

Dave nods, giving an exaggerated roll of his eyes and they head off.  

“Over here!” Bri calls and Jim tries to act like he didn’t see them the moment they turned the corner of the block, through the slanted shades of the storefront window.  

Dave and Jim wave before quickly finding their place in line—it's right about rush hour; Jim’s never eaten here during rush before. His leg bounces. There's a lot of smells and sounds going on—a  lot  of them. 

“What will you have?” the woman behind the counter asks with a customer service voice that rings about as flat as it is, even with the lively tone.  

“Oh--um...” When did he get to the front of the line? Jim looks at the holographic menu, waiting for the writing to form words, but it’s too loud for him to see. This can’t be happening. He's been doing good.  

“If you’re need more time—” the woman starts, smile plastered on just that bit thicker. 

“No—no—” Jim gets out, “I'll take the special.” 

She nods, keying it in, “Drink and chips?” 

“Yeah.” Jim scans his card, takes his number, and retreats over to Sasha and Mikie.  

They're talking about some kid that got kicked out of class for swearing at a teacher or something. Jim looks back at the menu. He can see the words now.  

“Are the rest coming?” Dave asks when he sits down with his number, looking at the empty seats and the filling shop around them.  

Mikie takes a sip of her drink, more air than liquid as she gets close to the bottom of her cup and nods, “Except Bri, she has to finish some project before next period.” 

Dave hums before turning to Jim, “I thought you didn’t like tempeh?” 

Jim wrinkles his nose, “I don’t.” 

Dave quirks and eyebrow, “dude, you just ordered it.” 

“I didn’t—” Jim pauses, “I did.” 

Sasha laughs, “you can probably still change it.” 

“Number 48”   

The table looks at his marker.  

Mikie snots, “guess not.” 

“Hey, did you hear about the kid that swore at a teacher today?” Sasha asks once everyone arrives. 

“Oh my god, no!” Laila talks through a bite of her tea roll, “I mean I swear at teachers all the time, but usually they can’t hear me.” 

Dave rolls his eyes, “Laila, you’d have a conniption just  thinking  swears.” 

Laila flicks her sauce packet at him, sticking her tongue out in a show of maturity.  

“Yeah, apparently some guy swore at that balding Standard teacher, the one that always wears the weird ties?” Sasha motions with her hand, nodding them along, “yeah and then he got thrown out.” 

“Of like, school?” Al asks, “the kid didn't even do anything cool like set something on fire.” 

“What is  with  your obsession with fire?” Mikie squints at Al who shrugs sipping from drink, the picture of unaffected nonchalance. 

“Wait are you talking about Mr. Freedman?” Ned asks, eye’s already on Jim when his head whips up from his painfully deconstructed sandwich. 

“Yeah, he’s the one that looks like the actual embodiment of pure boredom, right?” Mikie chimes in.  

“Mikie, we talked about this, figurative analogies are not a good way to identify people.” Sasha pauses, “But yes.” 

“God...” Jim rests his face in a hand, slouching hard. 

Ned, looking ever so delighted, gives a sharp bark of laughter “that was Jim!” 

Laila drops a long, drawn out “No!” the same time Mikie gives a delighted “You’ve got to be kidding me.” and Al, for all his bravado about fiery trashcans sounds almost scandalized; “Wait you swore at a teacher’s  face?”  

“No!” Jim talks to his plate, “He was telling me to shut up and, I don’t even remember, but I know I didn’t swear.” 

“Alright—” Ned gathers the attention of the table, “so it went down like this: Jim and I were talking, right?  And then Freedman comes over and says—” Ned straightens up and puffs out his chest, doing a pretty terrible impression of Mr. Freedman, “‘Be quiet! You're failing class!’ and Jim just straight up says ‘I’m acing this class’!” 

“That’s not—” Jim half protests. 

“And Freedman got so red—you should have seen it! Then he sends Jim--he sends him—” Ned looks away from his audience and at Jim, “where  did  he send you?” 

Jim gives a half shrug, stilted and odd, “he didn’t say so I just...” he looks away, in retrospect, it seems like maybe a bad idea. 

Dave snorts, “you what, just went to the courtyard? Skipped the rest of morning classes?” 

Jim nods. 

“Legit?” Mikie cackles, “That’s badass.” 

Jim can’t stop the little smile that breaks free. 

Sasha glances at her phone, noting the time; “Well I'm not about to ruin my reputation of being a shitty artist.” She gathers her trash.  

Everyone starts to shuffle their belongings together.  

“I swear you go just to torture Mrs. Cheiza.” Dave shakes his head. Sasha wiggles her eyebrows in response.  

“You coming, Jim?” Ned nudges his shoulder.  

He should—he's already skipped his morning classes, no point in making it worse. But the tempeh. He's eaten all around it—the bread the greens, the chips—but the tempeh is still there. He hates tempeh, like really dislikes it; texture all wrong and not even as good at taking on the flavor of seasoning like tofu. But. It's food.  

“I—” he hesitates. 

“Dude just throw it out,” Al rolls his eyes, “I get it, I'm the only weirdo who likes tempeh. You’re allowed to, like, not eat it.” 

Jim looks at the food for a moment longer then stands abruptly; “you’re right. I hate it.” he grabs the wrapping, balls the food in it, and walks to the trash, throwing it in before he can think to stop himself.  

He turns back around and it’s—different. He threw out food. He  chose  to throw out food. The part of him that’s screaming inside makes his hands go to his bag, makes him feel out the edges of granola bars not yet eaten.  

“Okay,” Al says, drawing out the word, “are we going already or what?” 

“Yeah.” Jim steps forward firmly, “yeah, let's go.”  

Chapter Text

Jim’s never actually been to the principal’s office before. He’s been sent to Miss Alleya’s office, taking in her disappointed looks and trying not to feel guilty. But getting thrown out of Mr. Freedman’s and then skipping the rest of morning classes was enough to warrant a trip. Even if the whole affair happened three weeks ago—it's like someone finally realized Jim hadn’t been in the principal’s office all morning.  

The secretary looks like they're right out of an old holo-vid. They've got glasses with a beaded string attaching the arms around the back of their head and Jim can’t tell if they’re a fashion statement, or if Mx. Toa decided not to get the corrective patch for their vision. They've got a bowl of hard candy in bright orange wrappers at their desk, and a starched shirt that’s almost as stiff as their posture.  

Mx. Toa taps at their padd, flawlessly painted nails clacking against the surface like they’re using an old school computer keyboard and not a heat registering padd. It makes Jim cringe, just a little bit—the screen has got to be scratched to high-hell.  

He's been waiting here for at least five minutes, and Mx. Toa gave him such a look when he brought out his own padd that he’d slipped it back into his bag without a second thought. For a talk about missing class, they certainly are making him  miss class .  

Mx. Toa clicks a button on their padd; “Mr. Murdock?” They wait for an answering uninterested grunt that Jim’s pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to hear, “Mr. James Kirk is here to see you now.” They say as if Jim had just arrived instead of twiddling his thumbs for too long already.  

Send him in.”   

Jim slinks from his chair, hitching his bag over his shoulder and stepping through the door that clicks open at his approach.  

Principal Murdock’s a large man, wearing an old-fashioned suit like he’s not in charge of a bunch of brats between 13 and 18, and a mustache right out of the history books. His office is nothing like Miss Alleya’s. The sizable synthetic oak desk is a formidable barrier between any visitor and the man himself.  

His chair is large, faux leather with an oversized back. Jim’s left with the plastic chair with metal fastenings so low that, despite his growth spurt, it’s impossible to get anything close to eye-level with the man.  

“Disruption.” Principal Murdock accuses, “Skipping class.” 

Jim tries not to sink into his chair.  

“Not good, boy.” He continues, and Jim gets the distinct impression that, despite hearing it less than a minute ago, Principal Murdock does not know his name, “Never again.” He looks down at Jim sternly over the bush of his excessive mustache.  

Jim gives a hesitant nod after the silence stretches for a moment too long. 

Principal Murdock, seemingly satisfied, mumbles ‘ damn kids’  to himself (Jim definitely wasn’t support to hear that) and waves a dismissive hand. Jim’s out of the seat and out the door before Principal Murdock can change his mind.  

Mx. Toa gives him a withering look as Jim enters their domain again, but Jim pays them no mind, unable to stop his smile as he gets out the door. Why was he so worried? It's not like there’s anything they can do to him—nothing that’ll come close to what he’s already experienced.  

Like, really, what can they do, tell his mom? He hasn’t seen her on a screen in ages, let along in person. And Frank? Since Jim’s gotten as tall as him and started to put on muscle from all the hauling of parts he’s done trying to fix up hoverbikes, they’ve kept a mutual distance; the nightmare of his childhood has started looking like the sad, small man he is.  

He walks into his new class—late. The teacher stops her syllabus review and turns towards him, frown already firm on her face. Jim’s starting to make peace with it—all the eyes turning towards him.  

Luckily, this time, Jim recognizes some of those eyes, and he makes his way towards the back of the classroom where Bri and Al are giving him a beckoning wave.  

Jim takes a seat and there’s a long moment before the teacher—Mrs. Johnson, the sad, standard nameplate announces to anyone caring to look—clears her throat; “As I was saying: lateness will not be tolerated. Please see me after class.” 

 “I do not appreciate lateness, young man.” Mrs. Johnson looks up at him, though she’s standing in three-inch heels. Jim tries and fails not to hear Bri and Al laugh outside in the hall. 

“Ma’am, I apologize, I was at the principal’s office.” 

Mrs. Johnson’s eyes narrow, “And I expect it was nothing good that got you sent there. Don’t think for a moment I will tolerate any deviant behavior.” She wags a finger at him.  

So much for first impressions. 

“I don’t intend to—” Jim cuts himself off at the look he’s thrown. All he’s done is be late—and that wasn’t even his fault—and Mrs. Johnson is acting like he’s gone and purposefully disrespected her and everything she stands for. And he’d actually been looking  forward  to this class. Physics sounded like it’s help him learn to ride better.  

“Next class, I expect you to be on time and attentive.” Mrs. Johnson’s tone is final, so Jim nods and leaves without another word. 

 Word gets around over the course of the semester; and Jim’s not sure what he should do about it. It's like all the teachers know of him before he steps into class, and Jim’s already on their shit lists before doing anything to warrant it. Not that he’s trying to! It's just, with everyone always presuming the worst of him from the start, they’re seeing things that aren’t there, putting intention where there isn’t any.   

Miss Alleya’s turning their meetings into talks about attention-seeking and negative reinforcement and seems wholly unable to listen when Jim says he’s not trying to do any of that. Jim tries to stop whatever it is he does that makes every authority figure look at him like he’s wearing a leather jacket, covered in tattoos and offering vapes to freshman without going back to the zoned-out kid that barely knows time’s passing at all. With the way everyone’s gone ‘assume first, ask questions never’, Jim finding it harder to care for the opinions of people that are so hellbent on misunderstanding him. 

It doesn’t help that all his classes are getting more and more boring. Now that he’s actually  here  and  trying  it’s like his classes are on easy mode. He's waiting out the boredom as best he can. Reading ahead in Lit, finding practice problems further in his textbook to run through in Stats; anything to make the time pass without pulling out his personal padd and getting yelled at for not paying attention (he is, for the record, just with half an ear—but given his ears, it’s more than enough). 

His only reprieves are his friends and his motorcycle. Well, it’s not a motorcycle, yet. But Ned’s dad has been letting him help out around their farm for extra credits, and Sasha’s brother paid him to install the forward thruster on his hoverbike like he’d done on Ned’s, so he’s getting closer. He's got the frame and half of the electric done, a half husk in the storage barn at Ned’s, which is a hell of a lot closer than he’d been two years ago when he first raced Laila.  

Jim steps into the courtyard to find Bri and Al already there, laughing at something or other and waiting for next period to start. It's Physics III with Mrs. Johnson, and ever since that first class way back in Intro to Physics, he’s gained a bit of an aversion. It  really  didn’t help that his second class, when he’d arrived on time and attentive, when he’d asked a practical physics question about hoverbikes, Mrs. Johnson had lectured him about diverting the class with off-topic discussion of all things. He literally just wanted to learn more about physics!  

At least Bri and Al are in it with him again, on the same science track as he is—it helps a bit, especially when they’re allowed to work in groups. And Al has taken to kicking the back of his chair when it gets a bit too obvious that he’s drifting off. It's not purposeful, and it’s not full of disrespectful intent, contrary to what he’s sure Mrs. Johnson thinks; he just can’t stay focused when there’s nothing interesting to focus  on .  

"Hey,” Jim greets, causing Al to jump.  

“Dude!” Al clutches his heart, “Don’t sneak up on us like that.” 

Bri laughs, “He literally just walked over,” she scolds, “just because you're too worried about this midterm to pay attention doesn’t make it Jim’s fault.” 


Al rolls his eyes, “of course you wouldn’t know—Mr. ‘I’m a physics genius’ probably didn’t even study.” 

“I’m also really good at Terrain History.” Jim adds, just this side of smug. Al is so easy to rile up.  

“Alright, alright,” Bri ends it before it starts, powering down her padd, which had their physics textbook up, highlights and margin notes rampant, “let's just get to class okay? A thirty is better than a zero...” 

“Come on Bri,” Jim throws an arm around her, “you’re always studying, you’ve got this in the bag.” 

She gives a slight smile, brown eyes looking up through her lashes. She smells like sunlight, “Yeah...maybe you’re right.” 

 Jim finishes the test in just under twenty minutes. He sends the completed test to Mrs. Johnson’s padd for grading. Once his test is successfully checked in, his padd unlocks and he can get to his other textbooks and notes—his physics notes and textbook are still locked, of course, but his bike schematics are now free for him to sink some time into.  

It takes a swift kick to the back of his chair for Jim to realize that Mrs. Johnson is standing over him, looking down at him with a stormy expression.  

“What are you doing.” 

Jim is lost, looking down at his padd and back up, “Reading...?” 

Mrs. Johnson’s whisper is a hiss, “How dare you play me for a fool, young man. I will not tolerate cheating.” 

“Chea—” Jim’s chair screeches back, “I already sent my test up!” 

Mrs. Johnson crosses her arms, “And you expect me to believe you got 100% after not even a third of the period is through?” 

Jim looks around, completely taken aback. All eyes on him ( as always ), blank stares and judging looks that just sent Jim’s confusion further, tinging it with a righteous anger.  

“You’re mad because I  did well ?” 

“Get out of my class.” 

“No—really—you're mad at me, you-you think I  cheated  because I finished fast and  passed ?” Jim can’t believe it, “I’ve been doing well all term!”  

“Out! Now!” Mrs. Johnson is almost vibrating, “Straight to Principal Murdock’s!” 

“Because you’re baselessly accusing me of cheating?” Jim shoves his chair further back, grabbing his things in a flurry of stilted movements.  

“I will not accept your tone!” 

“I won’t accept incompetent teaching!” Jim stands and walks out, wishing so, so badly to slam the door. The nerve of that woman! He’s a damn good student, alright?! Cheating! If there had been something worth cheating on, he would have damn well done it and not been dumb enough to get caught—but that poor excuse for a test?  

Jim lets out a wordless, close-mouthed yell of frustration, stomping down the hall. How  dare  she. He was good at school, and he even liked it, when it was challenging enough! And he was paying attention  all the time!  He hadn’t zoned out once this  year!  H e's finally doing well, being the  normal  everyone wants him to be,  he  wants to be! How dare she try and paint a different picture. How dare she—how dare  they— try and take that from him.  

Mx. Toa doesn’t look up when Jim bursts in, looking the same as they had so long ago when Jim had first gotten acquainted with this office. Jim throws himself in one of the plastic waiting chairs, slumped for all he’s worth, leg bouncing and anger simmering.  

Minutes tick by, the furry of his movements lose some of their intensity. Jim gives a pointed, angry sigh. 

Mx. Toa continues to tap away at the surface of their padd, ignoring Jim outright.  

“Well?” Jim asks when another five minutes have passed. 

Mx. Toa takes another moment, tapping out another word, or line, or paragraph, before looking at Jim over the rim of their glasses. 

Jim makes a wordless gesture carrying the same exasperated sentiment. 

Mx. Toa turns back to their work; “I’m not sending you in there all riled up. Get over whatever tantrum you’re having.”  

Jim’s about ready to yell  something— god he’s not even sure  what —but Mx. Toa has already turned away, intent on their padd and it just doesn’t seem worth it. The anger, built up inside just...leaves. 

He's still mad, and he does  not  deserve to be treated that way, he damn well knows that, but the volatile nature of his rage disseminates with no direction, no object of intent.  

It leaves more room for the rest of the world to come in.  

His blood is still rushing too fast, heartbeat ready to fight or fly even as his breathing slows in a long, drawn-out sigh. A candy wrapper crinkling catches his attention as Mx. Toa so subtly pops a candy in their mouth. It smells of synthetic orange and makes Jim wrinkle his nose. Principal Murdock is talking behind the door, of budget and renovations to the E-wing.   

He probably shouldn’t have yelled.  

“Mr. Murdock.” Mx Toa says, “James Kirk here to see you.” 

 “I’ve had my suspicions for a while, but now I’m certain.” Mrs. Johnson says, standing to the right of Principal Murdock, on the ‘authority’ side of the large desk.   

“I didn’t cheat.” Jim exclaims for what feels like the 20th time, trying to keep his voice calm and keeping seated because the last time he went to literally stand against the injustice of it all, Mrs. Johnson had taken a step back like he’d jump up and attack her. It makes him fidgety and agitated in the worst way. “How are you so sure I ‘cheated’ anyway? What did I  do ?”  

“I put in questions that use formulas we haven’t covered in class!” Mrs. Johnson leans forward slightly, arms crossed and smile mocking.  

“So--because I  read ahead —” Jim tries to do the mental somersaults it takes to follow the logic of intentionally putting in questions students can’t  be expected to  answer  correctly . Bri studied so hard for this test. “You think I'm  cheating ?”  

Mrs. Johnson makes a gesture that translates roughly to 'see my point?' and looks at Principal Murdock expectantly. 

Principle Murdock looks like he’d rather be anywhere but here, dealing with this. 

"If you're so adamant you haven't cheated, then take an alternate version of the test."  

"Why should I?" Jim returns, "Her claims are baseless and, honestly, if I had cheated, I wouldn't even feel bad--she tried to make a test that no one could pass! That's ridiculous, unethical, and frankly, bad teaching!" Jim takes a deep breath and holds it for a two count. He gives up on trying to stop his leg from bouncing. 

"So, you don't feel bad about cheating then?" 

"You--" all that work to stay under control...Jim takes what he hopes is another calming breath. Before he can say something rather rude, the door opens and Miss. Alleya walks in.  

"Jim!" She says, and Jim can't tell if its admonishing or worried. 

"He was caught cheating." Principal Murdock states.  

"Caught--" Jim breaths through his teeth, "I was not! Mrs. Johnson is accusing me of cheating. I. Did. Not." 

"He's refusing to take an alternate test." Mrs. Johnson chimes in like a petty child. 

"—because I'm being accused for no reason other than doing well when Mrs. Jonson clearly set out to make me—and  everyone else in my class mind you --fail! Miss. Alleya, this isn't right, you can't really believe it!" 

Jim looks at her, at the woman he's spent more time with during the past four years of school than anyone else. He hasn't been the best, he's been apathetic, then angry at the world (at her), then trying to find something like normal. But surely, she knows he's telling the truth.  

Miss Alleya comes closer, leaning on her haunches to be eye-level with Jim.  

"Jim, I know you've been through a lot, but we've talked about this; acting out isn't going to do what you want it to." 

Jim crumbles.  

He takes the alternate test under Mrs. Johnson and Principal Murdock's watchful eyes. Then two other versions because he gets another perfect score and they are very unwilling to believe it.  

There's nothing they can do after that but give him the passing grade. Jim doesn't even feel good about it, just sad.  

This is really how they see him—a liar. There doesn't seem to be anything he can do to change that.  

 "Listen," Bri starts, not meeting his eye, "I know you didn't cheat, alright? Like I know that." She glances up, earnest, "But I can't--" she lets out a large breath, "You yelled at the teacher and I can't be around that okay? I really need good reference letters for college, and I just can't mess that up. And I know it's terrible and unfair and it's not you but..." She trails off, awkward and— 

"Yeah." Jim says, ignoring the break in his voice, "Yeah I get it." 

 "Hey..." Jim says softly, trying to ignore the way that Ned jumps, "I can still come and work on the bike, right?" 

"Hey, yeah, of course!" Ned reassures, words tripping over themselves, "This will all blow over, really. Just give it a little time. The only reason it's a big thing is because Mrs. Johnson is holding a grudge—you know we're all still your friends!" 

Jim tries to smile and ignore the fact that it really doesn't feel like that. Doesn't feel like that at all. 

Ned does still hang around while he’s in the storage barn, working away over weekends and after school on the bike that is looking more and more like a bike. And Dave and Laila still always invite him to lunch. And Mikie says hi in the hallways—Sasha still gives him shit for his art skills whenever they pass each other leaving or going to art class (even if hers are, by far, much worse). Bri and Al haven’t written him off, not entirely. Bri still says hi when she gets to Physics class, even if she now sits on the other side of the room. Al still kicks his chair when he’s too distracted in class.  

They're all good people, and Jim is sure they would go back to being friends once this semester ended and the whole thing blew over like Ned said—if he were normal.  

Because the thing is, being a protector, a sentinel, whatever it is he’s supposed to be—sometimes all it does is hurt.  

Because, the first week after this whole thing, Jim had taken Dave and Laila up on their offer to join the group for lunch at the sandwich shop instead of getting his lunch in the cafeteria. He was late heading over due to a meeting with Miss Alleya that Jim had exited as soon as humanly possible—her office having become a rerun of every feeling of rejection and anger of that ‘incident’ as Miss Alleya dubbed it. Even though she’s apologized for her assumptions after the practice test results, Jim could just tell some part of her still believes he cheated, or maybe it was just him. The tentative trust and respect that had grown with them (or Jim thought it had, in any case) through the four years together wouldn’t be coming back.  

So, he’s late; lunch rush is officially in full swing, and Jim groans at the line out the door, but dutifully takes his place. It's moving fast though, and pretty soon he’s at that awkward spot of holding the door open, half in and half out of the shop.  

He doesn’t' even spot them first—too busy looking over the menu that’s too far away for most to see from his vantage point—he hears them.  

“It was just a little scary.” Bri’s voice flows to him over the loud ambient noise of the place. Immediately Jim feels himself go stiff. He should not be hearing this. 

“I mean, what Mrs. Johnson did was wrong for sure, and Jim didn’t cheat, he doesn’t need to.” Bri takes a sip of something. Probably grape soda, that’s her favorite. “but when he raised his voice at her...” 

“Well, it’s what he gets for being arrogant.” Al says after a moment of silence at the table, “he finished the test in what? Ten minutes? Of course, she’s going to suspect something.” Al’s always been a bit of an ass.  

“Hey now,” Sasha clicks her tongue, “you know she’s had it out for him for like three years.”  

“Yeah don’t be jealous just because he gets better grades then you,” Laila pipes up, and Jim hears an overdramatic ‘ow!’ from Al that means he’s been poked right in the ribs.  

“He was really angry though—” Dave says on a whisper, “I saw him walk to the principal’s I guess, from the Stats classroom and he  yelled . Just like, right there in the hall. The whole class heard it.”  

Jim feels his throat going tight. 

“I guess I'd just never seen him angry before, you know?” 

“Yeah he’s not like Al here.” Laila adds. 

“Ow!” Al huffs angrily, “would you quit it?”  

“Well I mean he wasn’t violent or anything, right?” Mikie asks around a bite of food.  

“What?” Ned sounds scandalized the question is even being asked 

“No, not at all.” Bri assures quickly, “it was just...I don’t know, there was this aura, like, he had the  capacity  for it.” 

Laila snorts, “I think your chakras are misaligned there, girl.” 

“You don’t have to believe me.” Bri sounds halfway to offended, but doesn’t she know that’s what Laila does? She always pokes at a tense situation. They've been friends longer than Jim has, surely, she knows that.  

“Well, what about you, Al?” Laila asks, “Were you getting ‘murder-y’ vibes?”—“Hey, I never said that!” Bri exclaims but Laila just continues—“Were you  scared ?” she ends on a mocking note.  

Al’s quite for a quick moment and Jim just knows he won’t like this; “Why did Ned even have to bring him to our races anyway? Didn't you talk to him because he just walked out of class freshman year? Before that he was always alone—and does anyone actually  know  why he has to go to the guidance counselor’s office all the time?” Al huffs, “He wasn’t very good to begin with.” 

“Al!” Sasha admonishes the same time Ned starts: “That has nothing—!” 

“Hey, are you moving, or...?” The voice is baritone, markedly disinterested, and way too close. Jim startles. 

“Woah, sorry man, just—the line is moving.” The teen behind him gestures ahead and there’s a wide gap between where Jim stands, at the door, and the back of the line in front of him.  

Jim’s throat clicks before words form and he takes a few steps back, “No, you go ahead I'm—not hungry.” 

So Jim says ‘hi’ back in the hallways and in classrooms, he says ‘maybe tomorrow’ to invites to lunch or the racing track, and he doesn’t say anything when Ned comes to watch Jim work on his bike and fill the empty space with updates on Ned’s life and everyone else’s; he nods along when Ned says things will blow over soon.  

Because they might, but not for Jim.  

 “Ow!” Jim shakes his hand before sticking his smarting thumb into his mouth. That will teach him to hurry when using the pen-welder. But  god  he is  so close . The wheel alignment is still off and he’s been working on it for over a week! Maybe he should have gone  really  old-school and had wheels with spokes... 

Something clicks and Jim perks up. Carefully, he lowers the jack and sets the front wheel to the dirt, keeping the back wheel up. Jim hops on the bike; the angle is weird, but it doesn’t matter as long as the bike runs.  

He puts the motorcycle in neutral, the key in the ignition. He sets the engine cutoff switch down, pulls on the clutch... Jim takes a deep breath and thumbs the starter button. 

Jim can feel the electricity flow through the wires—and then the back wheel starts turning and the barn is full of the low buzzing noise of the electric engine.  

Jim whoops, throwing his hands up in the air before common sense takes over and he flicks the cutoff, and the barn falls back into silence. His cheeks hurt from the smile tugging at them and he can’t help the half-muffled sound of pure euphoria.  

“It works!” Jim turns to—the empty room. That's right, Ned’s out racing with the other’s today. They invited Jim—Ned cajoled until he was almost late. It's Jim’s own fault he’s alone.  

It’s okay—it doesn’t matter. Jim’s bike  works!  Well, it turns on, which is step one. Jim hops down and lowers the jack so the motorcycle’s wheels are both on the ground. It's test drive time.  

Jim walks the bike out of the barn, for once thankful to live in a place with more cornfields than houses—he'll at least be able to test it out without worrying much about traffic.  

Jim grabs the helmet he’d gotten  very  preemptively four months back, but he has a reason for it now so suck it! Jim grins stupidly at the helmet before putting it on and gazing back at his bike. He takes a picture; just in case he ends up in flames a half mile from Ned’s farm.  

He takes it easy, starting slow across the gravel driveway. He stops at the road, looking both ways in such an exaggerated manner it’s silly even to himself. Just to be safe... Jim takes a moment to close his eyes and listen as far as he can.  

Corn shifting in the winds, Ned’s dad watching TV in the farmhouse, there’s a bird somewhere but he can’t tell what direction.   

Jim grins and kicks off.  

Has the road always been this bumpy? In the hoverbikes it’s different; big changes in terrain will make the hover shift left or right, up or down as it keeps the standard foot off the ground. The track the usually race on has ton of that—but on the road, the hoverbikes run so smooth it’s like a shuttle once it’s out of the earth’s atmosphere.  

This is different. It's not that it’s bumpy or rocky per say, but there’s a  gro o ve  to the road that Jim’s never noticed, felt more when he turns and accelerates. It's just...closer. Closer to everything—the earth...his heartbeat. It feels amazing.  

Jim drives the motorcycle back home; setting it to the side of the house, out of the way and hard to see. No need for Frank to stumble across it. He pats the seat once he’s dismounted. He’s finally done something right.  

 “Wait is that your bike?” Dave asks Jim in the parking lot of the school. Jim is actively getting off the motorcycle and Dave infers the answer quick enough, “I mean, we all knew you were building one, and Ned said it was close to done the other day. I just didn’t realize how close.” 

Jim smiles down at it, “Yeah, just finished it yesterday. It rides so different from a hoverbike.” 

“Wonder which one is faster?” Dave teases and Jim rolls his eyes and it’s almost like the past two months of stilted acquaintanceship never happened.  

“I made all the modifications to those hoverbikes, you think I couldn’t make a motorcycle to beat them?” 

“Yeah, yeah.” Dave laughs and then the moment passes, “Well I've got to go—even though we’ve got the assembly, Mr. Smith says we have to report to Stats first.” 

“Right.” Jim gives a little wave at Dave’s back.  

That's right; the assembly is today. It's the first one that he’s supposed to attend. All the other assembles—pep rallies, guest speakers, spirit week events—he’d gone to Miss Alleya’s instead so he won’t miss any more class than he already does with their meetings.  

This one is different. This is Hero’s Day; the Federation created holiday for all those men, woman, and others who’ve laid down their lives in the protection of the Federation and the rights of all people. This is the day where every good little child is supposed to look to the stars and hope that some Hero’s Day the too, will be counted amount the reverent. 

To top it off, this Hero’s Day is the seventy-fifth anniversary of its inception as an official Federation holiday, and since Acting Captain Kirk of the USS Kelvin who saved 400 souls is from their sleepy town of Riverside, Iowa there’s going to be a special assembly, with the son of the deceased in prime attendance.  

Some Starfleet officer is coming to give a rousing testament to the ‘power of the Federation’ and what one person— yes even you! —can do in the face of near-impossible odds.  

Jim locks his bike and sighs. They probably expect the kid of the great late Kirk to be appropriately moved by the story of his father’s heroism as if it isn’t a story he’s known all his life and never associated with anything but the reason people keep leaving. First the man he never knew, then his mom who chased him to the stars with no thought to land, then Sam who was done living with imagined ghosts and real monsters.  

They probably have a seat for him in the front row.  

Jim filters into the din of students moving towards the auditorium. It's a sea of noise, people talking about the speaker, about how they wish this had come during a different class, how they are going to do homework during it or what to do after school. 

Everyone’s walking towards the auditorium calm as you please. Why wouldn’t they? There is absolutely no reason to not trust that at the end of the hall in the auditorium there will be a speech that half of them will sleep through and once it’s over they’ll go to their next class and forget about the whole thing come nightfall. 

There’s no reason to think anything different. Jim’s legs freeze and even the kid running into him on his abrupt stop can’t make him move. Students start walking around him as Jim stays stuck, feeling his heartbeat rise to a furious pace. Jim cuts to the left so abruptly he almost hits two more people; he ignores their indignant shouts, walking against the few students making their way towards the auditorium from a half-deserted hall. 

Jim walks, head down. It’s a fast walk, but not a run. Someone will notice if he starts to run. Someone will find him if he looks out of place. There are no heavy boots in the halls, but even Jim hadn’t heard them gather around the edges of the square until they were already there, until it was too late. He can’t give anyone an excuse to stop him, to send him back there. The cold sweat makes his hands clammy. He can hear people filing into seats, can hear them chatting as they wait for it to start. Wait for someone to tell them what half of society they fall into.  

He’s breathing too fast. He’s breathing too fast but he’s gasping for air because suddenly there is none. His legs shake and vision spots and he’s on the ground, scrambling back into a corner before he even knows what’s happening and the world keeps getting smaller, keeps getting darker. Jim grabs his head with hands that are stuck as claws. 

He smells fear. It permeates the air, a pungent, unmistakable stench. The floors are linoleum, off-white with scuff marks littering the surface. It looks like white brick. Jim hears the chatter of his schoolmates and it sends him shuddering. Dave, Bri, Mikie, Sasha, Al and Ned. They're all in there. He left them all, left them all to die. They have no idea what’s coming. They have no defense at all.  Why does he keep doing this? Running away? Isn’t he supposed to be a protector? He left them to die. Again. Why is he alive? He’s part of the undesired populace. He’s not worth it, not worth it. He left them to die.  

“Thank you everyone for coming.” Jim hears as if he’s there, as if he’s in the auditorium with the others. Oh, he would do anything at all to not be, not to hear, he doesn’t want to hear it again. “I am Captain Christopher Pike.” 

Jim’s breath is high and tight. There’s a wheezing sound and Jim’s throat feels narrowed and blocked. He’s trying so hard to cancel out the noise. To turn off his hearing entirely; turn down dials and drown out everything. He hasn’t needed to in so long; he hasn’t tried to be anything but ordinary. It’s not working, he can’t escape. He’d not even there and he still can’t escape. 

“It has come to our attention that there is a blight in our crop,” The captain says. Jim’s hands hurt for how hard he’s covering his ears, squeezing his eyes shut tight. The scent of fear spikes. 

“Acting Captain Kirk, of the USS Kelvin, did not arrive with our last supply shipment. It was waylaid by pirates in deep space. He made the ultimate sacrifice for the betterment of his crew, of the Federation.” The captain’s voice falls in and out of familiarity. 

“Our next shipment will be in one Tarsus year, and the Federation is built on such sacrifices, on such moments of bravery and excellence. I know you are worried. I know you wonder how we will survive this.” A pause. “Not everyone does. These sacrifices don’t come from a sense of duty, they come from a love of people, a love of fellow human beings and a dedication to what is right. Your continued existence represents a threat to the well-being of society.” 

Jim hears heavy boots. He feels the heat of phaser fire and screams cut short. The smell of fear is so strong.  

 Jim wakes up in the nurse’s office. The ceiling is white, the sheets are white, and the scent of creams and the preservative for hypo cartridges is almost overpowering. He feels calm. He feels so worn through that there’s nothing left. 

“You’re awake.” 

Jim doesn't look towards the man as much as his head lolls in the correct direction. The monochrome white and gray falling away to color is shocking somewhere in the back of his head, but Jim can’t, he can’t do more than have a distant part of himself acknowledge it for but a moment.  

“I’m Captain Christopher Pike,” the man says, smile gentle. Jim’s heart spikes once before falling back into a calm. Jim doesn’t answer, doesn’t feel like he can.  

His smile doesn’t waver, “You may feel a little disoriented; you were found in the hall with your tongue bit clean through and an elevated heart rate.” 

Jim takes a long moment to stare at Christopher Pike. He looks nothing like Kodos. But then Kodos looked nothing like Kodos until he condemned a people to death.  

“You’re alright, Jim.” 

Jim nods and it feels like he’s in Miss Alleya’s office, someone staring at him too long, to find where he cracks apart while Jim desperately tries to conceal the fact that he’s already shattered.  

Christopher claps his hands on his knees, “I just wanted to let you know your father would be proud of you, James Kirk. The top of your class, the best marks in phys ed. A bit too rambunctious, but you get that from him,” Christopher looks ready to ruffle his hair.  

“You’re making him proud.” 

Jim feels nothing.  

Chapter Text

He gets his GED the next day. No more school, no more assemblies. And no more anything else. It’s a trial to keep his mind occupied. For the first while, he still goes over to Ned’s and helps his father out at the farm but it starts feeling like an imposition, like he’s being given things to do because he’s pitied. That spells the end of that. Then he spends his time making modifications to his bike, tinkering, trying this and that and that just to see if he can. But the only person he sees for too long is Frank, and that’s not good for  anyone’s  mental health.  

Jim talks his way into a job at the only bar in town—he takes the shitty shifts that no one with an actual life wants and it works out well enough. He’s too young to drink, but Iowa law makes it perfectly legal for him to serve it. And when someone decides to buy the baby-faced bartender a drink, Marcus has no trouble looking the other way—that’s the type of patron that’ll stay longer and buy more if they think they’ve got a shot at getting the bartender to go home with them.  

When he doesn’t work behind the bar, Jim takes up being a bouncer, rallying the drunk out of the bar, stopping underaged kids from sneaking in, and breaking up disputes hopefully before they start breaking glasses. Jim doesn’t mind when it ends in fights, if he’s got a cut on his brow or bruise on his cheek he’s more likely to get a sympathy drink from Miss Jasmine, the prettiest drag performer in all of Iowa who spends way too much time in a back-hole bar like this.  

When he’s not on shift he’s at the bar having a drink, with regulars always jokingly asking to see his ID or who let a kid in the bar. If Tom Jenkins comes in—one of the few human cops left—Marcus always throws Jim a towel and yells at him to get back to work even as the whole place rolls their eyes while Jim downs the rest of his drink with a wink and starts wiping down tables.  

Jim likes Marcus. He looks out for him, but doesn’t try to be anything more than he is, a disgruntled bar owner that keeps him around for the cheap labor and his face. There are no expectations outside of what he’s doing, and though the work can be boring, the people sure aren’t. The bar is on one of the routes to San Fran from New York and it’s always interesting to see who’ll come in. Sometimes it’s red shirt cadets that look at Jim like he’s beneath them. Sometimes it’s different species—in red or not—that are almost as interesting to him as he is to them.  

The bar is a way station, and besides the few regulars, it’s always a new crowd. It fits Jim’s needs perfectly, a place of belonging and not, a place that demands your attention but is predictable enough to tune out. A place Jim can  be  and no one pays enough attention to notice when he’s not quite right.  


Jim turns 21 on a Friday. 

Marcus puts a drink down on the bar top—neon pink with an old school paper umbrella sticking out.  

“This for Miss Jasmine?” Jim takes it and makes to start over. 

“No you idiot,” Marcus snorts, “Happy birthday. At least act like it’s your first time having alcohol or something, yeah? And I’ve got the bar, you go keep Miss Jasmine company.” 

Jim nods, throat bobbing. This is the first time someone’s made mention of his birthday since— 

Miss Jasmine looks absolutely delighted, “Oh my little boy is all grown up!” She pinches a cheek and urges him to take a sip as she does from her matching neon blue glass. 

“Everyone!” Miss Jasmine stands, and gathers everyone’s attention with her high, sigh of a voice as only she can, “Our Jimmy is 21 now! I think he deserves some drinks!” 

A cheer goes up and Tom is the first one over, bring a shot of dark amber liqueur and giving Jim an expectant look.  

Jim looks dubious but takes it in one, only to choke and sputter, “What the hell is that?!” 

“It’ll put hair on your chest,” Tom looks pleased with himself, “and since we all know you’ve been drinking since you were 17 I wanted to get you something with a kick.” 

“My baby? This baby boy?” Miss Jasmine give Tom an overly aghast look, “This little angel hasn’t touched a drop until tonight!” 

“Unless we count yesterday,” Randy gives a laugh from the bar, “Next one’s on me little punk.” 

Jim raises his pink drink in salute and soon enough he’s got drinks aplenty, already feeling the headache coming.  

“You hate me,” Jim mumbles, hours later when he's lost count of the drinks he's had. A new blue thing is put in front of his face and Marcus snorts. A girl he swears up and down he doesn’t know wishes him happy birthday, lips the same color as the drink. 

“Now why would you think that dear?” Miss Jasmine asks, faux innocent and Jim is caught on the gold of her highlighter against the black of her skin. 

“Getting me drunk.” 

“Honey,” Miss Jasmine laughs, “You’d do that on your own anyway, I’m just getting you drunk for  free .” 

“Oh.” Jim nods, of course. That makes sense.  

“Come now, I’m even nice enough to get you this lovely little hypo for your hangover tomorrow,” Miss Jasmine takes it from her purse. 

“Oh.” Jim nods again and Miss Jasmine’s eyes laugh. 

Jim’s been working at the bar long enough that he basically lives there. He spends about all his paycheck on it too, so he figures it evens out. But there’s a nagging sensation that comes with this level of familiarity while still feeling like you’re holding a part of yourself back.  

On good days Jim can ignore his ‘extra’ abilities and the memories tied up with them of days he’d rather forget. On bad days, he asks to take inventory and spends the day huddled in the supply closet, counting the same shelf of liquor again and again until the number is louder than the sounds he can recall too well.  

Marcus never disallows him his reprieve, and Miss Jasmine always gives him some extra love when he comes back. They’re kind and Jim doesn’t know what he’d do without them. But they don’t understand. Not for any fault of their own—Jim doesn’t want to tell it. To say it is to make it real and Jim so desperately wishes it weren’t. 

He’s antsy, stuck, waiting for some hovering bad to finally make itself known.  

It comes in the form of his mom.  

Jim didn’t know she was in town. Hell, he didn’t know she ever came back anymore. He saw her on a vid chat with Frank when he was sixteen and that’s the last of it, since shortly after he started spending more time at the bar than at home until he wasn’t really going back.  

But there she is, at the bar with Frank at her side—Frank, who never goes out when he can drink alone for cheaper and without distraction—waiting to order a drink. And Jim’s the ‘tender. 

She looks almost the same as he remembers, hair pulled back in a loose bun, a bit grayer than before, and not in her regulation reds, but she sits like she’s still wearing them. Jim’s stomach drops and there’s no right way to play this. Does he just go up and take their orders, casual as anything? ‘What would you like, Mom?’ The word feels heavy on his tongue. Jim has had multiple mothers in his life so far, and Winona Kirk has not been one of them.  

But what if he goes over and doesn’t say anything and then  she  doesn’t say anything? The pit in his stomach widens. A nudge to his shoulder and Jim looks at Marcus, who’s giving him the look that speaks concern without outright saying anything.  

“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Jim swallows. The walk to their side of the bar is long. Frank notices him and gives a dismissive snort but orders a brandy without any trouble.  

“And I’ll have…” Winona skims the menu taking in the rotating selection, “an Earth’s orbit.” She looks up and her eyes go wide. “George.” It’s said softly, a whisper not meant to be heard, not meant to leave the realm of thought. But it’s just Jim’s luck that he can hear it clear as anything. It sounds like an accusation.  

Jim feels the blood drain from his face. Why did he do this, why did he think that there was any way this would go that would be okay? Why does he just make his life harder? 

“Coming right up.” Jim gets out and at least his voice sounds steady. He turns to get the brandy and pulls out the three liquors that make the base of an earth’s orbit.  

Frank snorts and Jim can just feel his hackles rise, “Not gonna say hi to your Mom then, ya ungrateful little brat?”  

“Now, now,” Winona puts a hand on Franks arm, “It’s quite alright. He’s a working boy after all.” Jim places the brandy in front of Frank and adds the soda water to the other.  

“Goodness, S—Jimmy,” Jim winces and wonders if Sam would be taking this better than him, “You’ve grown so much,” she smiles, “A fine young man.” 

Jim puts her drink down gently because Marcus would yell if he cracked a glass and Jim feels too close to falling apart right now as it is. Her words are like a sentence, a label he won’t be able to shake, given to him by a stranger. A shiver runs down his spine, and her smile makes him almost frightened. After everything, in this moment she still has the power to hurt him. 

Winona grabs his hand before he’s gotten it back behind the bar, “When you come home, we should talk, there’s so much to catch up on.” Her smile is soft and her hand is warm and rough from an engineer’s work. 

Jim chokes on a laugh high and tight, “What, like my whole life?” He’s trying to pull his hand back without being too obvious because he’s starting to shake and this isn’t working, why did he think he could do this? 

“Jimmy…” Winona’s face falls into a frown, a surface hurt that doesn’t reach her core. 

“Jim-Baby!” Miss Jasmine calls, “another of these lovely things, please!”  

Jim wretches his hand away and makes the drink as quick as he can, spilling some of the florescent purple along his forearm in his haste. He walks it over and does not look back at the bar.  

“Your drink.” Jim gets out and Miss Jasmine pats the seat beside her with a face that does not suggest he refuse. Jim slides down into it and wonders if he’ll be able to stand back up. 

“I told Marcus not to have you go over.” Of course, she knew something was up. Just like Jim’s known as George Kirk’s son, Winona is well known as George Kirk’s wife, despite the fact she’s rarely around to be referred to as such.  

“My choice,” Jim gets out and Miss Jasmine snorts in a way that could still be considered dainty.  

“Marcus shouldn’t have let you do that either,” She nudges the drink that’s still in Jim’s hand, a clear indicator that the alcohol was for him when he notices her drink still half full. 

Jim lets out an awkward laugh, “Should have made it a double.” 

Marcus is at the bar now and Jim realizes he’s been dismissed for the night. But he really doesn’t have anywhere else to go. So, he sits next to Miss Jasmine; her perfume a mist that keeps him away from prying eyes.  

“…simply don’t know what to do.” Winona says and Jim hears it clear as day.  

Jasmine raises her voice above the chatter, “Another shot?” she calls. Marcus, bless him, brings over a tray. Miss Jasmine and he clink glasses and Jim takes it in one. 

“He’s ungrateful is what he is.” Frank says and Jim can almost feel the eyes on him. But he won’t look over, can’t, “you go off to support the family and he’s got no respect for it.” 

Jim takes another shot.  

“Slow down there, Tiger.” 

“Mh,” Winona twirls the straw of her drink, mixing in the white clouds to the blue and green earth below, “He looks so much like his father.  

“Acts nothing like him,” Frank says as if he has any idea how George acted, “a nuisance that one.” 

“But still my son,” Jim hears the reprimand in her voice and it unsettles him. As far as he’s aware, they’re only mother and son by biological happenstance. To have her act as if this isn’t honestly the first time they’ve seen each other in ten—no twelve—years is baffling. 

They leave after they both finish their first drinks. They don’t stop to say good-bye or make any mention of meeting to talk later. They just leave. His mother leaves. Jim can’t tell what he feels, so he takes another shot.  

Miss Jasmine leaves somewhere between his fifth and sixth shot, when the crowd of cadets comes in (she says the uniforms are an attack on good fashion sense and offend her greatly) for a last hurrah before the transport to Des Moines and then off to San Fran.  

Jim likes when strangers come to the bar. The anonymity is a blessing—not that people know him for himself by any means, but to hear about George Kirk tonight would not put him in a better mood.  

Chatting up the lovely Uhura helps for a moment, fighting with the cadets helps for a bit longer. Hard to have fucked-up thoughts and dwell on how you are so low on your mother’s radar that your presence or absence honestly makes no difference when your ears are ringing and blood is rushing from your nose.  

Jim’s laid out on a table in the less fun way and Jim wonders if Marcus is going to pull out the shotgun first or Tom will start flashing his badge when a vaguely familiar voice booms out and an older man in a captain uniform stands like the eye of the storm.  

Captain Christopher Pike. He’s not so proud of Jim now. There are lots of words on duty and honor and then the Captain has the gall to  dare  Jim to do better.  The fucking  presumption —the  arrogance , the god damn  smirk .  

Jim’s so grateful for the excuse. 

Chapter Text

Bones is probably the best thing that's happened to Jim. Sometimes he reminds Jim of Aunt Elaine—the southern drawl and the mothering instinct that seems to know from the start that Jim isn’t quite right .    

(Apparently Bones was an ER doctor in a children’s hospital for most of his career, and despite the fact that he keeps saying he’s not a psychologist or psychiatrist, he’s quite good at it. The fact that Jim fits the profile of abused-kid is something he doesn’t like to dwell on, but it makes taking with Bones more truthful than any other relationship he’s had. Jim hasn’t told him everything, exactly, but has been comfortable enough that Bones knows the most of it  and inferred the rest )  

But h e also reminds Jim of Marcus with his  ever - present  distain of the world. Jim isn’t quite sure what he would do with maternal affection not filtered through cynicism at this point, and Bones is nice enough to not make him find out.   

When it gets down to it, Bones is  surly and almost always angry at something and takes Jim under his wing like Jim’s the little girl Bones left behind. Which sometimes means Bones lets him get away with way too much.   

“Come on, Bones,” Jim tugs the, quite frankly,  exhausted  doctor from  the cave he’s made of the  textbooks and  notebooks (with paper! And he calls Jim antiquated)  for his practicum tomorrow, “ Y ou’re not going to remember anything  like that.” Jim gives Bones a tug , “ B esides, you said you wanted to meet that nice lady doctor that  Gaila  knows”  

Jim honestly doesn’t even really hear the swear words that fall like exhales out of Bones’ mouth anymore, and that’s saying something.  

“If you knew that was today, why didn’t  ya  damn well tell me earlier?” Bones bolts up, knocking over one of the support beams of his cave, “ D amn it!” he looks at the books and then the clock before leaving the mess where it is in favor of stripping his shirt for a new one.   

Wow,  are you really already that fond of her?”  

Bones snorts, “She’s a pretty girl, Jim, I’m allowed to try and look nice.” He gives Jim a once - over, “ Y ou might want to give it a try. I won’t ever be a CMO to a captain that has coffee stains on his uniform .  

“Hey!” Jim shoots back, rubbing at the smudge of discoloration on his shirt, but he can’t quite keep the smile from his voice. He knows he shouldn’t, but it’s not as though there’s any way to stop it at this point, at least with Bones: he’s totally wrapped around the man—Bones is part of his clan, his people, his tribe. Jim can’t help himself, can’t help how  he yearns for people to protect; even if one would argue that it’s Bones that does more of the protecting.   

With Bones it’s okay though—he may say them as throw - away comments, but he always believes that Jim will become a captain. And in every  imagining,  he’s inserted himself at Jim’s side, right where Jim wants him.   

It’s the other people that Jim worries about. Like the woman who asked for a stylus in his leadership essentials course—or the young kid that all but toppled over in the hall because he was running late for advanced applied theoretical physics (Jim never wants to hear about that class again, let alone take it)—or the all but mad engineer that did nothing more than pass him in the hall with a dog on a leash while giving what one could only call a maniacal laugh.  

His senses are building up a pack to follow and protect and he’s got absolutely no say in the matter.  P eople  are  wandering around campus  that he can hear and smell and all but touch; and he doesn’t know half their names.   

And after the three years that Jim is here (yes, he is going to graduate early, just watch), when he gets on a ship and flies away…well, he doesn’t want to know what it will feel like.   

“Jim, over here!”  Gaila  would be easy to spot, even without heightened senses. Her fiery red hair almost matches their uniforms. The green skin helps too.   

Gaila !” Jim slides in next to her and gives her a kiss on the cheek,  Ga ila  laughs and swats him away. T hey’re purely in the friends with benefits category— Gaila  just wanting to feel less alone in the way most natural to her people and Jim wanting to feel…something—but  Gaila  is firmly in the pack of people Jim considers, on some subconscious level, his.   

“And look at this, if it isn’t Miss Uhura!” Jim gives an over the top bow as best he can as he puts down his tray, “ W ill today be the day I learn your  first  name?”  

“Leave the poor woman alone, Jim.” Bones grumbles, setting his tray down as if offended —but nary a swear in the sentence. Jim glances at the woman he only tangentially knows and wonders if this is the power of love.   

Gaila  seems to notice something in the air too, “Christine, this is Jim, and next to you we have Leonard McCoy.”  

Jim lets out a whistle, “wish my name was so impressive,” Jim can just see the beginning of a red tinge on Bone’s cheeks and just can’t help himself, “then again, I’m not a fully licensed doctor like my friend here. Did you know he saves kittens on the weekends?”  

“Can it, Jim.”  

Christine gives a polite laugh, “ V ery nice to meet you both.”  

“Oh, I’m sure the pleasure is all his,” Jim snickers, ignoring the hard kick to the shin that earns him from an irate doctor.   

The dissolve into general chatter; talking of classes and clubs homework they’d rather not do and teachers they’d rather not have.   

“Oh, but Uhura here would never say that about Professor Spock, would you?”  Gaila  asks in the same teasing tone Jim had used earlier. They really are quite alike—too bad she wasn’t just a bit  more  like him, it would be nice, to meet someone else  here, where there are so many people .  But he’s been alone in this for much longer than he’s ever been in the presence of others  like him . He can get through. He always does.     

“Do tell” Jim demands, unable to keep the grin off his face.  

Uhura sits up a bit taller as they all look to her, “ W ell there’s nothing to tell.” She crosses her arms, “ H e’s just a very good teacher. I double anyone else would be as qualified to teach  xenolinguistics .”  

“Is he non-human ?”  Christine asks before Jim can.  Jim’s always had a fascination with the stars that came back with a vengeance after Christopher Pike gave him an excuse to love them again. Any non-human is proof—proof that they’re not alone and that maybe someday Jim will be able to find his perfect place to be.   

Uhura nods, arms slowly loosening, “He’s from  Vulan ; the only one on base! And his father is the ambassador to earth.”  

“He told you that?” Jim asks as innocuously as he can manage  

“No, I looked it u uuuhh hhh ” Uhura drags out, looking around the table as everyone stares right on back.  

“I have never seen her for a loss of words,”  Gaila  marvels, breaking the spell.   

Uhura goes red at the same time she turns her face away, “I hardly see the point of this. Aren’t there more important things to be talking about? Like—like…” she cast about for a topic, “how Jim failed the  Kobiashi  Maru a second time!”  

Jim throws his head back with a groan of despair, “ D on’t remind me! I’ll beat it, mark my words, but the  thing  is  damn  near impossible!”  

“N ear?” Bones scoffs, “ N ot a damn soul has passed the test, Jim, it  is  impossible.”  

“I refuse to believe that—nothing  is  impossible!”  

Oh  to have that youthful vigor…”  Gaila  sighs  languidly , gathering up her tray.  She’s always languid, her loving relationship with her body making ever y  move effortless.     

“But I’m…older than you…” Jim trail s off as  Gaila  shakes her head with a laugh and stands.   

“I’ve got to run to class.” She winks at the group and saunters off.  

Christine looks down at her watch, “ A bout time I head off to the labs too.”  

“Oh,” Bones gets out before he can stop himself, “I need to head that way for xenobiology, I’ll go with you.”  

Jim, because he is a good friend, does not mention that xenobiology meets Tuesdays and Thursdays and that today is a Wednesday. Granted, if office hours are today, from the way Bones grumbles about the course, he may  actually need  to go  

“So, guess it’s just you and me Miss…?” he lets the question drag.   

Uhura rolls her eyes and doesn’t give him her first name, and honestly, at this point he’s not sure he truly wants it, for all the fun this running joke gives him, “You’ll have better luck at the sororities, Kirk.”  

“You wound me, truly.” Jim makes a motion of stabbing himself  in the heart  with  his  spork.   

“You’ll live, I’m sure.” Uhura does not wait for him before walking over to the dish return.   

“Barely!” Jim calls out after here.   

As she leaves his site he turns back to the food on his plate. Bones says if he didn’t talk so  much  he would eat faster, but Jim hasn’t liked eating  quickly  ever since he’s had the choice—and it was a long time after getting back from Tarsus IV that he’s really felt he’s had a  say . He’s even gotten to the point where he can leave things on his plate without the overwhelming sense of dread. Only a bit of dread—totally manageable. He still carries around at least a few protein bars with him wherever, but at this point he can pass it off as scout-level preparedness; even if no one he’s told ever believes he’s been in the scouts.   

The din of the cafeteria pushes to the outskirts. His plate is the standard blocked piece of metal designed to compartmentalize the different food groups and cool down food faster than even a speedy eater can get through. Today it’s a real treat; one of the sections has non-replicated greens, a slice of definitely replicated red curry, a flatbread on the side. it’s good—Jim always likes when they have curry, even if it doesn’t taste as good as the few  times  he’s had  Miss  Jasmine’s back in Illinois.    


Jim  blinks . There’s a man standing next to the edge of the bench, and there’s no way he isn’t talking to Jim. He’s straight back ed  in a way most aren’t around campus, but part of that may be due to the black teachers uniform as opposed to the general red sea of students sagging under the weight of their class schedules.   

His skin has just a slight green tint and his ears tilt up like a  Romulan  or a Vulcan or a  Hurricoid . He smells like peroxide and copper and his heart is beating too fast to be a  Hurricoid  unless he’s having a heart attack. His eyes are such a deep brown that even Jim can barely tell where his pupils  begin.  

“Yeah?” Jim gets out and he knows he sounds completely lost.  There’s something about this man that puts him completely off center.   

The Romulan and/or Vulcan (leaning towards Vulcan based on the cut of his uniform—and the cut of his hair) lifts a perfectly manicured eyebrow for a moment before letting it settle back into what seems like a neutral disappointed-but-not-surprised look, “ Y ou have been sitting in this seat without moving for  4  hours, 47 minutes, and 2 8  seconds. Are you well?”  

Jim startles, turning in his seat and looking around as if it’s some sort of joke. There are a few cadets sitting around, but it’s obvious this is not a popular eating time like when Jim came for his meal, and the clock on the wall blares back that it  really has  been almost five hours since Uhura left him alone at this table. How—how did this happen?  

His throat  clicks  and a prickling feeling runs up his arms, making it feel like white noise against his skin. He looks back at the professor, opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. This can’t be happening. He’s been so good, so  normal . He hasn’t had an episode like this since…since before he went to Tarsus, surely. The worst fear of that small child bubbles up inside him—he’s  fall  so far into himself he’ll never come back, never get out.  

The Vulcan looks at him, waiting, and Jim clears his throat, “I-I’m fine.”  

The man doesn’t change his expression an iota, but Jim knows he believe him less than Jim believes it himself.   

“You will report to the medical facilities, Cadet…”  

“Kirk,” Jim chokes out, “James Kirk.”  

“Cadet Kirk.”  

“It’s really fine, Professor,” Jim stands, gathering up his untouched plate, moving around enough to look busy and involved and casting quick glances at the Vulcan in some stupid hope that he’ll walk away, “ M y roommate is on the medical track, and already a licensed doctor. I’ll just have him look at me  when he gets back from class.    No need to get checked out over nothing.”  

“Humans cannot stay in a singular position for more than a half hour under normal circumstances.” The Vulcan says like an accusation, even as his tone stays as even as his fast heartbeat, “I will accompany you to the medical facilities.”  

“I’m allergic to basically everything, Bones—Dr. Leonard McCoy is my primary care doctor —it’s just best for me to wait for him . ”   

“Then I will have him brought to the medical facilities.” He doesn’t move until Jim starts over to drop his plate off in the return, shadowing Jim. Jim is so aware of him that he can’t stop the persistent worry that’s starting to gather. No one has ever seen him g et  that lo st  before and somehow that’s th e most terrifying part of this whole endeavor.   

“This is Commander Spock,” the Vulcan   talks into his communicator  and Jim feels ice down his spine , “I am assisting Cadet James Kirk—”   

“No honestly, it’s fine, I’m okay—”   

“—to the medical facilities, please notify—”  

please don’t, it’s nothing, alright?  I’m fine —”   

“— his primary care physician.”  

“—see!” he tugs his shirtsleeves up over his pulse point and grabs Spock’s  empty  hand, placing it over his wrist. And then a lot of things happen at once.    

Jim’s  regular  pulse skyrockets and he’s suddenly aware of Bones, the girl from his leadership class, Uhura, the physics kid,  Gaila , and the engineer all at once. And Spock, somehow ,  he’s even more aware of Spock. The harsh spike of surprise, of  fear , doesn’t feel entirely his own.   

Spock pulls his hand away and Jim snaps back into himself like a rubber band pulled too tight and finally let go—he’s still too stretched at the edges, but he’s back to what he can tentatively call normal. Spock carefully sets his hands behind his back,  his expression as unaffected as it was when he first spoke to Jim.   

“You will go to Medical.”   

Jim nods mutely, staring at Spock with wide eyes. Whatever that was, Jim doesn’t think he  c ould survive experiencing it again.   

Spock turns on his heel and walks out the opposite door. Jim sags against the wall and lets himself watch Spock leave. When he’s out of sight, Jim pushes off, makes his way to medical on shaky legs.   


“What the hell, Jim,” Bones greets him, grabbing him by the wrist as he walks in the doors to medical and all but throws him on the nearest bed, already scanning him before he’s come to a full stop “what the—” Bones looks at Jim, “…hell?”  

“Ha” Jim gets out, some weird sound he thinks is supposed to be a laugh “ T hat’s the—best you can come up with?”  Jim grabs the edge of the bed, hoping to quell the shakes that had started the moment he saw Bones, angry and normal and safe, “ T hat’s not even a good swear.”  

“What did you take?”  

Jim looks up startled, “What?” shocked into something like normal, “Bones, you know I don’t—I wouldn’t .  

Bones gives him a look that waffles through too many different emotions, but he settles on believing, and Jim holds onto that like a lifeline, “ W ell you’re coming down from something; hard. It’s like a crash.”   

Jim wracks his brain; “I-I stayed at the  caf ’ too long—” he side - eyes Bones, hinting at what Bone’s has not-so-fondly dubbed his ‘episodes’ and hoping he doesn’ t have to actually say it;  Bones grumbles for him to  go on  with the right level of  knowing, “and some guy got me out of it.”   

Bones’ brow furrows, “How?”  

Jim shrugs with one shoulder. The shaking has stopped, that’s good; “I don’t know, I just heard him say ‘Cadet’. Not sure how long he was there or anything.”  

Bones doesn’t let up and it’s bringing back jitters of a different kind. Nervous jitters. Ones that come when it’s pointed out just how odd he is. Because he’s always odd—all that fluctuates is the level. Right  now  it seems like it’s going up.   

“He didn’t touch you or anything ? ” Bones says in a disbelieving statement.  

“Well…” Jim looks over Bones shoulder to the wall behind.  


“Not to get me out of…it,” it’s not a pure white wall, really, there is a bit of variation—where people touch it, where it’s been cleaned, where the light hits too often, “It was after. I-I was just showing him that I was okay, that he didn’t need to call you and had him feel my pulse and that’s when things went…weird.”  

“T hat’s an understatement.” Bones puts down the tricorder, sighing at his most troublesome patient. “Jim, I’ve  never  been able to get you out of one of—” he makes a gesture with his hands, “— those  without  sticking a damn hypo in you, and sometimes that doesn’t even  work .”   

Jim puts his hand to his neck. He didn’t know that. He thought they always worked.   

“Now what the hell happened when he touched you?”  Bones puts his hand heavy on Jim’s shoulder.   

Jim squirmed, “When you say it like that it sounds bad, Bones. He was just checking my pulse. And I  made  him.” Bones rolls his eyes, “I don’t know, it was like I could just…see more? Hear more? It’s like everything was really, really  on . Everything just spread out and kept going farther and farther and I don’t know if it would have stopped.” He shudders.  


“And then it did.” Jim knows he’s making about zero sense to Bones, but the guy is nice enough to let him blather, “ W e stopped touching and it was like—like I got flung back into…me.”  

Bones nods,  gives Jim’s shoulder a little squeeze,  “ I t’s like a drop; your body received  a new, potent stimulus ; went haywire, and then when it went away it left everything out of whack.  I’ve seen it with endorphins before—reactions so strong that if you come down too fast you—drop.”  

“Cool.  Let’s   never do that again.”  

Bones snorts, “ Y ou’re telling me.  Who was it?”  

“It was the guy who called you, some professor—looked Vulcan.”  

“Commander Spock?”  

“Uh, I guess?”  

Bones rolls his eyes, “Uhura talked about him at lunch—the  only Vulcan  on base, remember?”  

“Oh yeah,” Jim gives a little laugh.  

“Well that might explain your reaction,” Bones puts a hand to his chin in thought. It looks odd though—because he’s not crossing his other arm like he always does. The weight of  Bones’ hand  registers against his shoulder. Jim doesn’t want to mention it in case Bones moves away; it’s helping. Makes him feel less adrift.   


“Vulcans are touch telepaths; that must have interacted with whatever the hell you have going on and there  ya  go.”   

So  you’re telling me I probably shouldn’t touch any touch telepaths?” Jim straightens up, “Bones. You  know  touch telepath ic  sex is on my bucket list.”  

And I regret that I know that every day of my life.  Do you want that to happen again or not?” Bones clicks his PADD a few times where it rests on the bed, “Lucky for you, it looks like Commander Spock might be the only one you need to worry about.  There’s a  Betazoid , but she’s only about a fourth non-human. Best stay away from her just in case.”  

Jim sighs, “ O h the prices I pay.”  

Chapter Text

It’s very easy for Jim to avoid Spock, because he’s so damn aware of where he is. All. The. Time. Sometimes though, it almost feels like Spock is helping him—leaving the cafeteria when Jim is heading for it; never heading up his group’s training missions  ( even though, with the rotating schedule that should be impossible ) ; and, oddly enough, he moves to the dormitory furthest away from Jim’s assigned freshman quarters. It puts Spock firmly out of Jim’s senses’ reach and it’s as much a balm as it is an annoyance as his subconscious tries to reach out further than he really can.   

It makes him zone out more, to the point where Bones has upped the number of supplement ary  hypos he carries on him. Jim would be able to enjoy the doctor’s grumbling more if he wasn’t getting scared about what this means. Bones face tells him he’s not the only one.   

Nothing to do but get through it.   

Jim goes to the rec center more; spars with whoever is willing (gets his ass kicked more than he is willing), lifts and runs and does everything he can think of that keeps him rooted in the physicality of his body and not…everything else.   

There are some good sides; he’s getting better at blocking—and better at taking a hit—he’s finally starting to lose the freshman fifteen, and he meets Sulu, who uses a practice sword as if it’s made of steel and will use literally anything as an excuse to show off pictures of his daughter and husband.   

“I yield!” Jim gasps out, feeling the sweat drip down his brow in the most excruciating way. Sulu has got him in a hold that seems somewhat impossible—it’s something of a choke hold but his arms are also twisted behind his back and he can’t move his legs. He probably looks like a pretzel.   

Sulu releases him with a laugh, quite proud to have bested him with—literally—one hand behind his back; “ A s promised, you’re buying my girl the Space Pony—the blue one with the Milky Way and the stars on the hooves, not the moon.”  

“Yeah, yeah,” Jim rolls his shoulders, “Just send me the link because there is no way I’m going to remember that. How are kids  toys so complicated?”  H is elbow pops and it feels  fantastic  

“Because children are angels. Mine especially.” Sulu smiles down at his PADD and Jim  knows  he’s j ust staring at his screensaver of  Demora  and Ben as though he doesn’t go home to them every night.   

Jim’s PADD beeps and he follow the link.   

“How is it  this much ?!”   


Everything falls back into what constitutes as normal. Jim is so damn close to figuring out how to beat the  Kobiashi  Maru that he might even call it better than normal.  

That is, of course, why things go terribly wrong.   

Jim runs through the quad, so very close to being late for intro to leadership essentials but not yet late—so if he can just skid in the door within the next three minutes, he’ll be safe.  Professor  Roliozisk  has something of  a  vengeful streak for students that are late for class; which is absolutely hilarious because Professor Roliozisk was late to their  very first  class of the year. Jim might be a bit of an idiot, but even he holds his tongue instead of bringing up that tidbit.   

He’s two lefts, a door, and  a  catwalk away when he hears it. He drops out of his sprint so fast that his body almost doesn’t get the memo and he  stumbles  into a wall instead of taking his first left.   

It’s Kodos .    

B ut— not  

It’s  his  words filtering through PADD speakers, but the voice isn’t Kodos’, the enunciation doesn’t have the same level, calm proclamation of death. Jim can’t hear his steady heartbeat as he sentences a people to death.   

But the words are enough to hold him where he is, to keep him paralyzed against the wall two left turns, a door, and a catwalk away from where he needs to be. A whole star system from where he needs to be.  

It has come to our attention that there is a blight in our crop ”   

It’s not just one PADD, not just one person dredging this up—there are multiple, he can hear it from all directions in a sick echo. It’s just a recording. Not even of  Kodos . Just a recording of a speech that only a few people lived through. Besides the ones that did the killing.   

Our last shipment did not arrive.  We do not know when our next shipment will arrive .  It may never arrive.  

“That’s wrong.” Jim can’t help mumbling, staring at the ground underfoot, letting the wall keep him from falling to the ground entirely, “ he told us pirates took it. That our next shipment was in a year.”  Why does Jim smell blight? Blood?  

Our government was doing nothing, so I have taken control of the council, but our survival depends on drastic measures.  

He said it differently. Different words, different tone. But there’s no mistaking what it is supposed to be. There’s got to be some class that’s learning about it now they’re just—they’re just all listening to it in the few minutes before class starts. It’s just an assignment. It’s not—he’s not  there . And more importantly, the heavy booted guards aren’t  here .  

I know you are worried, that you wonder how we will survive this.”  

But knowing that doesn’t help. It doesn’t make his legs move. Doesn’t calm his heart or quell the rising panic. Too many people are his,  and  there aren’t enough protein bars in his pack. There isn’t a forest with high trees. The grass is feeling more like white brick underfoot. He can hear a phaser—on. Not yet pointed at them—him—but not committed to peace.   

Your continued existence represents a threat to the well-being of the colony.  

His breath is coming too fast, too shallow and he can’t  move ; his legs aren’t  working  and his arms are too stiff No one is telling him to run, to get away, to survive.  It’s just a class—just an assignment for a class and it’ s nothing,  he can’t act like this there’s no way—this shouldn’t. This shouldn’t be affecting him. He needs to  stop  

He catches on what passes for an inhale and now there’s no air and spots are starting towards the edges of his vision and the grass really is tile now, and the heat of the sun is wrong, wrong for here but right for Tarsus  IV  

He can’t—he has to—something, he needs—he just needs to focus on something else, anything else. Jim tries, he tries  so hard  to find something else to focus on, to pour his awareness into, but  Kodos ’ words—  

Your lives mean slow death to the more valued members of the colony.”  

—they surround him, force him to listen , to hear the death of his family, his life,  be called for  again  

T hen he catches on  it .  

Like some saving grace ,  there is a beacon in the rising tides of his panic. It’s a heartbeat. It’s fast, but it’s steady ; it’s enough for Jim to hold on to.   

I have no alternative…”   

Jim  holds his breath, not entirely of his own will . The panic is reaching a crescendo,  but  

But it’s like he’s not alone. The heartbeat gets  louder  and it doesn’t drown out the noise but it  pushes it to  the  back. And the scent of blood in the air, of phasers charging and blight—they’re being drowned in copper.   

... but to sentence you to death.  

“Cadet Kirk.”  

Jim’s head snaps up from where he’s curled over himself so fast his neck cracks. It’s Commander Spock, starting down at him. Jim’s breath leaves him in a gasp and all his limbs lose their tension and Jim is on the ground, never breaking eye contact with Spock.   

His heart is still racing, but he can take in air now, “Spock . ” he gets out, “ F ancy seeing you here.” He’s a little dizzy, a little disoriented, but somehow, strangely, not about to—to whatever it was he’d been about to do.   

You are unwell.”  

Jim manages to wave a hand dismissively, but his wrist is just a bit too lo o se for the vibe he’s going for, “Me? No, I’m alright.”  H e laugh s ; there must be something wrong with him, “Just skipping class like any good student.”  

Spock’s expression changes just the slightest bit in the set of his mouth and Jim laughs again—he knew that would get to him.   

“Don’t believe me?” Jim feels almost light, like he went so far in one direction that he’s swinging too far in the other to compensate. He holds out his wrist; an open invitation for Spock to check his pulse, it’s stupid—Jim’s the one who would get the backlash if Spock took  him  up  on  his offer, but something tells him Spock won’t do it.   

He doesn’t. “Report to medical or report to class, Cadet Kirk.” Spock  says  and it sounds more like a cop-out than a reprimand.   

Jim gives a little laugh again and nods in agreement. Spock walks away, but not far. Jim can feel him at the edges of his senses, watching him. He doesn’t move for a long moment, catching his breath and coming down from the high of whatever this is (a new lease on life? Some kind of relief induced euphoria?), but when he does, Spock is still there, fli r ting with the edges of his awareness.   

When he gets to class twenty minutes late (two   lefts, a door, and a catwalk away), Professor  Roliozisk  is indeed not happy with him. But he aces  the  quiz and he can still feel Spock in the back of his mind—heartbeat fast but steady.  


“Thanks for coming, Jim,” Pike says, smiling that smile that always makes Jim feel like if he asked for a credit to play an old-fashioned claw machine he’d get it.   

“Well, you did say dinner was on you, so…” Jim gives a cheeky grin back.  

Pike rolls his eyes, but his smile stays in place, “and it is, but there is something I want to talk to you about.”  

“Oh?” Jim tries not to feel nervous. It isn’t really working.   

Pike gives him a long look, like he’s trying to figure out how to say whatever he’s about to say and it in no way makes Jim feel not-nervous.  

“Whatever it is, just say it.”  

Pike sighs, rubbing his temple before finally nodding; “Tarsus IV—” he cuts himself short when Jim stops walking, “I think that answers that.”  

“No, it really doesn’t.” Jim starts up again, walking with a purpose, “ W hat would you want to know about that?  I was there, now I’m here.”  

Pike nods, like he’s not surprised but not happy about it.  

“Wait,” Jim can’t help it, “ Y ou didn’t know?”  

“Of course not, Jim, you would have been a minor. Records sealed.”  

Jim shrugs a little, “ Y eah but this is Starfleet—I don’t know, I guess I figured you knew about it.”  

They enter the restaurant (off campus, almost enough of a treat to make this conversation bearable) and are brought to their seats. It’s a nice place, cozy, but space enough between  tables  that whatever they say is only for them.   

“We play it every year,” Pike says like some sort of apology, “it’s to remind students of the tragedy, that the future we’re building here can never make the mistakes of the past.”  

Jim bobs his head in a nod, eyes on the menu without seeing it.   

I t’s the fifteenth anniversary.”  

Jim snorts, “Not on Tarsus IV.”  

Pike inclines his head in acknowledgement.   

“I’ll write you a note for next year, get you off campus for the day without having to resort to skipping.”  

Jim nods, leg bouncing. The waiter comes to take their orders.   

When he’s out of earshot (what Jim thinks is out of ear shot; he’s never been good at knowing how  normal  people’s senses work) Jim turns back to Pike, “How did you even know, Sir?”  

“Ah, yes,” Pike leans back in his chair, “ Commander Spock came to me after finding out I recruited you—seems like you had him pretty worried.”  

Jim snorts a laugh, “ D id I laugh too much for him  at the end there ? Was it  cause  I was late to class? I bet he hates that more than Professor  Roliozisk .”  

“Now Jim,” Pike says in a way that totally means he agrees on the Professor  Roliozisk  thing, “ H e really was a sight. Not worried in a manner anyone else would call worried, but that’s the way it is with him.”  

“That makes me feel a bit better—if he’d been overtly distraught I’d assume the world was ending.” Jim can’t help but snicker.   

“That would be the day.” Pike can’t help but laugh as they get their meals.   


“Good morning!”  

Bones cracks open an eye as much as he can through shear exhaustion and rolls right over, “ I f you don't get out of my damn face I'm going to knock you out with enough hypos people will file missing persons reports .  

“Bones, Bones, Bones” Jim lets out as a sing song chant,  Y ou love me too much for that.” And then when the doctor doesn’t immediately jump from beneath his covers—" Come on Bones, today’s the  day!”  

“The day you finally leave me in peace after realizing that I have spent most of the night studying  Volorian  anatomy as  if there’s ever been a  Volorian  on earth that I’ll need to treat at a moment s notice?”  Bones puts a lot of effort into his  half-awake  grumbles.  

Jim rolls his eyes, “ Y ou know that  it s your own fault for deciding to do a minor in  obscure  xenobiology  on top of the mandatory courses,  Bones, not mine . And of course not! I’m going to the food festival and I need you there with hypos at the ready.”  

“What.” Bones says with a growl,  sitting up in bed entirely awake.  

Jim laughs, “ Y ou’re the one who said I was a ‘medical  marvel --  

“More like a medical mistake” Bones grumbles, stepping out of bed  and grabbing his jacket.  

“—and when I’m a captain, my CMO is going to need to know what  I’m allergic to.”  

“You’re making it very easy for assassins to kill you.” Bones throws on his satchel, heavy with hypos.  

J im beams, “You really think I’l l be good enough to warrant assassination attempts? Bones, you’re too sweet!”  

“I might be  paying for them.” Bones sighs, motioning Jim to the door.   

The stadium is transformed; pop up tents with holographic pl anets above denoting  the  planet the food is from and the region . The smells  are  insane —it has  Jim stopping not two feet into the stadium  to take it all in, to dial down and not get lost.   

“You alright Jim?” Bones taps him on th e  shoulder and Jim falls back into himself, dialing down his sense of smell and hearing until most of the stadium is lost to him.   

Jim blinks, “ O f course! Now  let’s  get eating!”  He rubs his hands together in anticipation.  

Your stomach is a black hole.”  Bones dutifully follows, a hypo already in ha n d.   

The first planet on their culinary journey is  Voltary . There’s a  Volorian  manning the counter.   

“Shut it,” Bones says .  

“I didn’t even say anything!”  

“You were thinking too loud.  

Jim snickers and  asks for a sample of  arshu , one of  Voltary’s   traditional  dishes . He takes a bite and Bones waits anxiously.   


“T hroat s itchy , ” Jim admits, “but it doesn’t feel like it’ s closing.”   

Bones scans it with  his tricorder. “I bet it’s the  aga  root.  You r e  allergic to  yarrob , and they’ve got some of the same  makeup. ”  He turns  towards  th Volorian , “ C an he touch some  aga  root?”  

The  Volorian  gives then a small cut of it  after a strange look (or that could just be his face)  and  Jim's hand immediately  goes an angry red. He drops it and Bones sticks him with a hypo.   

“You are making this less fun, Bones.”  

“It’s like you always have to be  allergic to at least one thing.” Bones shakes his head in denial.   

“Bones,” Jim  takes his focus off the scanner, “Bones ,  did that hypo have  aximophoria  in it?”  

“Yeah it’s a common  preserv —my  G od.”  

Jim’s hands are swollen now,  large and bluish, “ T hat one was already on the list, Bones, you didn’t  need  to double check.”  

“Shut up, shut u p,” Bones pulls Jim to the side, fighting  with his pack until he pulls out another hypo.   T here.  

“Ow.” Jim says for effect.  Rubbing the injection point with his deflating hands.  

“T he list of things you cannot come in contact with is longer than the list of things in  existence .” Bones grumbles.  

It isn’t that bad, Bones” Jim  gives a laugh, “ O n to the next planet!  

They get through eight differ ent planets and ten regions al together with only minor irritation or  none at all  (Jim counts those as absolute wins)  b efore they come across  Rattera  

“Oh” Jim stop s. Staring at the planet and the little blinking indicator of where the food is from, “I knew someone who live s  there. Or went there at least.” Jim answers Bones’ look. “Not sure where they were though . Not sure where they are now.”   

Jim gets lo s t in it, thoughts of  Lanisha  and the others With the rehash of the anniversary of the slaughter of half of Tarsus IV’s colony still so fresh in his mind, it’s amazing how little he thought of the people he spent those days with.  Abielle  was right in that he had to let them go—and the best way he knew to do that was to forget.  

Any memory of them has him reaching out into the void of space with nothing to tether onto.   

  “Ow!” Jim lets out, throwing a shocked look at Bones and covering his abused neck.   

“It’s been  fifteen  minutes Jim,” Bones gruffness hides his worry, “ C an’t have you out of it for so long.”  

Jim grunts his  understanding, but makes sure Bones knows  it’s  done under  duress , “ T hink I’m ready to go now.”  

“You haven’t even tried the  green stuff from  Ferr , I though you wanted to hit on the  server.”  

Jim’s skin feels to o  tight,   B ut where’s the challenge when I know they’ll say yes?” Jim  tries to give a smirk and from Bon es’ look it falls flat. “It’s f ine, I’ve got that test tomorrow anyway .”   

“The one that nobody’s passed since it’s been introduced?” Bones sighs, “ H aven’t you taken that like five times?”  

Jim’s smile falls into something more genuine, “ O nly two Bones, and I’ve got a good feeling about this one. You’ll be on the bridge with me, won’t you?”   

Bones gives a  put-upon   sigh  but his eyes crinkle up with mirth, “ W ho else is  gonna  watch you r ass?  

“That’s the spirit!”