Boarding the shuttle that would take him up to the Academy he’d still been stewing in the unfairness of it all, which must have attracted like minds to him because it just so happened that the seat next to him was occupied by a doctor with the worst bedside manner imaginable. Leonard McCoy had recently undergone a messy divorce, as he was apt to tell anyone who would listen, but he was also blunt and no-nonsense in his approach to small talk, both of which Jim could appreciate. Best of all, he knew nothing about Jim’s past and didn’t ask for anything he wasn’t willing to volunteer.
The downside was that by the end of their flight, Jim knew in explicit, almost loving detail how he would die should he be lost to the unforgiving vacuum of space.
“Most like, you’ll suffocate before you freeze to death,” McCoy had said, patting his arm reassuringly and trying at a smile. On a face so accustomed to scowling, it didn’t seem to fit right. Still, Jim nodded, his mind already flying to how he was going to deal with being in Starfleet Academy with his adopted Vulcan brother, who was already qualified to be a lecturer and expert on campus.
By the time he’d inevitably found himself assigned to the USS Enterprise, Jim Kirk had a life full of exceeding his own limitations under his belt, and all out of necessity. With his stepfather, it’d been about standing up to someone bigger, meaner, and stronger to him, so Jim had learned how to be quicker on his feet, how to hide in places where big men couldn’t reach.
When he moved to Vulcan, he learned what it was like to have a father for the first time, to have parents who encouraged his education instead of keeping him from school so he could work on cars in the garage. These were good people - people Sam wouldn’t have run from if he’d stayed - and Spock…
He was good as anyone could ever hope to have for a sibling, adopted or otherwise, except he couldn’t always be around, so Jim had to learn to fend off bullies who fought with equations and words. Vulcan children discriminated against humans and anyone who carried human blood in their veins because their parents did, but that didn’t mean they weren’t brilliant. Growing up, Jim learned how to outwit children who were smarter than him, how to fight without ever using his fists, and how to keep his emotions in check so they could never be used against him.
It wasn’t so much stoicism as the ability to keep his head cool.
More than anything he’d said or done, Jim supposed that he’d lived as long as he had because either he had the best or worst luck in the galaxy. Often it felt as though not a day went by without someone or something reminding him of that. Pike had said he was limiting his potential by concealing his Vulcan connections at the Academy, that he was smarter than he gave himself credit for and deserved every scrap of recognition he could scrounge up, but Jim already knew his grades and intellect were considered impressive by human standards.
He just didn’t think it mattered.
Every child was a prodigy, and he’d been no different. Clever, charming, quick-witted. But once youth fades, results are the only things that matter, and for a recently graduated cadet of Starfleet Academy, there hadn’t been many opportunities to make something of himself, not that he was entirely sure he even wanted to.
He’d made the mistake of mentioning his grades to Spock in front of McCoy exactly once. “Well done," Spock had praised. "Your scores are quite impressive, though given your education, one would not expect anything less.”
“It’s not much compared to what you can do,” he’d muttered out of habit, forgetting they had an audience until Spock had responded with his usual brand of encouragement, “There is no benefit to indulging in false equivalencies,” and Bones had managed to look simultaneously calm to a scary degree and downright murderous.
“Has it ever occurred to you, you pointy-eared troll,” McCoy had hissed through his teeth, “that the reason Jim has a chip on his shoulder the size of a New York city block is because of thoughtless comments like that?” For all of McCoy’s faults - his short temper, his sharp tongue - he hadn’t been entirely wrong. All Jim had ever wanted was to be free of both his father’s and his brother’s shadows, which was why his blood was positively boiling when he later found out he was to be stationed on the USS Enterprise, where Spock was first officer and Christopher Pike was captain. One of them had put in a good word for him, that much was clear. Even though he’d never asked or wanted their help.
Oh, when things settled down and Kirk figured out how to speak with Spock in private for half-a-second, the Vulcan was going to be in for it.
Due to Jim having been engrossed in his studies at the Academy, and maybe a little bit due with him not wanting anyone asking questions about how he knew the creator of the Kobayashi Maru, he and Spock hadn’t had many chances to interact over the years, and now that he’d gone and pulled a stunt like this, Jim wasn’t sure how he was going to react when they ran into each other. The ship was big, after all, but not big enough to keep them from crossing paths during the course of their mission.
Then again, Spock had seemed pretty upset when he’d beaten his rigged exam, so maybe it’d be best if he wore extra padding on his neck and shoulders before their talk.
As deep as he was in his own thoughts, he was barely paying attention to the idle chattering of the cadets around him, except for when one phrase ricocheted and struck him with the force of a stray bullet.
He drew up short, nearly causing the girl behind him to crash against his back, then whirled around to see his brother’s favorite linguist - Uhura. She was glaring daggers up at him, every inch of her promising wrath if he didn’t start walking, and he couldn’t care less. Unable to hide his own growing panic, he grabbed her by the shoulders, ignoring Bones when he tried to talk him down, “What was that about a lightning storm?”
Though her voice dripped with spite, she filled him in on the reports of lightning storms over Vulcan. Jim could barely speak. He choked on the sensation of his own heart lodging itself in his throat, barely even aware of Bones gently prying his hands from Uhura’s shoulders before she could murder him, or of how he pulled him away from the others, leading him someplace isolated and quiet where he could get his head together.
It wasn’t easy. In that moment, Jim Kirk was a glass window, and the knowledge that the same Romulan fleet that had destroyed his family was now out to destroy his second was the rock that some punk kid had thrown through it. But he needed to calm down if he was going to warn Pike, so he followed McCoy’s breathing pattern, mirroring him, until standing upright without screaming didn’t feel like such a struggle.
They ran to the bridge - McCoy hot on his heels because there wasn’t time to explain and Jim didn’t think he could do it more than once, anyway. All eyes turned to him when Kirk, a lowly cadet, dared to enter the bridge without permission, but Spock and Pike listened to what he had to say, or they didn’t dismiss him out of hand, at least.
Pike appeared pensive when he was finished. In an attempt to head off his reaction, Jim blurted, “I know how this sounds. Lightning storms in space. A Romulan ship from thirty years ago. It probably sounds like I’m hysterical or trying to get attention or something,” he didn’t miss how Uhura rolled her eyes, her lips dipped with displeasure at Pike and Spock having entertained his rambling for as long as they had, “but I have never been more serious about anything in my life. The distress call is a trap. I’d bet my life on it.”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Pike sighed, “Even if that is the case, we can’t blast them out of the sky without real, solid proof.”
“Eyewitness reports detailed the exact same phenomena before the Kelvin was destroyed,” Jim stepped forward, his hands outstretched as though he’d like nothing more than to grab Pike by the lapels and shake, but stopped just short of making contact, “and if we don’t do something right now, everyone on this ship is going to die.” A heavy silence swathed the bridge until a blaring notification shattered it, and the crew resumed their duties.
“Sir,” it was Sulu who spoke up, “we’re receiving a hail from the Romulan ship. Shall I patch them through?”
Pike regarded Jim for a moment longer before motioning for Sulu to proceed.
The screen narrowed into a single white strip, then expanded into the Romulan, Nero, and his ship. It dwarfed the Enterprise in size and might, and would annihilate them in a one-on-one confrontation. Anyone could see that Nero was only playing with his pleasantries. Despite his reasonable tone, his finger was wrapped around the trigger. He held their lives in his hands, and Jim hated him.
I’ve dealt with men like you my entire life, he wanted to say. Tyrants who think they know what is right and just, who believe they can play God whenever they please. And they’ve all found out, one way or another, that they’re wrong.
As he watched Pike try to negotiate with the monster that had murdered his father, Jim gritted his teeth, forcing himself to remain silent, reminding himself that he was not in command, and to embarrass Pike now would not only undermine him in front of the enemy, but leave him no choice but to throw Jim into the brig.
That was until Pike agreed to sacrifice himself for their safety. Sometimes, it felt as though he’d been watching the world collapse in on itself since he was thirteen, except now he could feel the ground crumbling beneath his feet. Stunned, he managed little more than a couple feeble protests while Pike was being escorted off the ship, barely even registering that he’d been promoted to first officer.
It didn’t even matter in the long run. Nero went back on his word. He fired at the Enterprise, damaging their shields, their engines, and killing a good portion of their crew.
Chekhov was seventeen years old and the best technician they had.
Spock managed to get them out through the use of a strategic warp, saving hundreds of lives in his first fifteen minutes as commander, just as George Kirk had done.
It was impressive. Admirable. And all the other adjectives that generally crop up at awards ceremonies, but that didn’t mean Jim hadn’t just watched the only human father figure he had left walk into certain death alone.
“We can’t just abandon him, Spock!” He exclaimed once he caught his breath post-warp, dogging his heels while Spock made his rounds around the bridge.
“I would appreciate a more respectful tone from you, First Officer James T. Kirk,” Spock replied coolly. “If what you say is true-”
“- then Vulcan is the only logical destination.” He cast a weary look at Jim, allowing his exhaustion to show through his impenetrable facade for just a moment. “There is no time for insubordination. If you cannot abide by my orders, then you will be dismissed.” Then he strode purposely off the captain’s stand, exiting the bridge with calm and composure that the rest of his frightened crew could draw strength from, while Jim remained, too stunned by what he’d seen to move.
They were on their way to Starfleet when news of Vulcan’s distress signal reached them. The entire planet was being destroyed by some kind of drill from the Romulan ship, something that was digging into its core. At least, that was what they’d believed until Jim and Sulu managed to stop it in an attempt that would have ended in their deaths had Chekhov not been the quickest study in his class, only for the Romulans to drop a speck of anti-matter into the hole that consumed Vulcan from within. There was no way anyone could have known that the Romulans had such a weapon, yet failure had never been good enough for Spock. His carefully constructed visage fell to pieces.
Phaser unholstered, he abandoned the bridge without appointing an acting captain, stepped onto the transporter pad, and ordered Chekhov to send him to the surface of a planet that was being sucked into a black hole.
So, of course, Jim had to follow. Unfortunately, McCoy blocked him from leaving the bridge, pointing out irritably that Jim was the acting captain of the Enterprise in Spock’s absence, so he better start acting like it. Jim mulled it over for about five seconds before announcing, “Then I nominate Sulu.”
Sulu twisted around in his seat with an expression of subtle dismay, “Why me?”
After firing off a hasty salute, Jim said, “I have complete faith in you, buddy,” then slipped past McCoy’s guard and sprinted towards the transportation pad, managing to get there and convince Chekhov to send him before McCoy could convince him not to.
There was a nauseating tug in his cells, as though every atom had been snagged by a hook and yanked, then he was surrounded by dust and standing on land that shifted and cracked beneath his feet. It was like standing on a wave. So much easier to sink than to stand, but the drop yawning below him was a one-way trip to oblivion, so he hurried to the library, the culmination of Vulcan’s culture and history, just as Spock was guiding his mother, father, and the elder council members out. “Come on!” Jim waved his arms, guiding them through the gale. “We have to get to clear of the debris!”
Someplace high and unobstructed. Open. Except pieces of the planet the size of meteors were being flung around their heads, and the elders were not as spry as they’d been in their youth, making it difficult to make the climb onto the peak of an outcropping before Vulcan’s destruction reached its final stages. Even so, Jim could hear Chekhov readying the transportation sequence over the comm, and seeing the elders and Sarek and Amanda Grayson, all frightened and weary, yet unharmed, he began to believe that they were all getting out of this alive with Vulcan’s memory intact.
Then Jim realized how close Amanda Grayson was standing to the edge.
Everything slowed, his blood turning to sludge in his veins. He saw the rock crumble beneath her, and reached for her hand, a cry on his lips. Closer than Spock or Sarek or any of the elders, Jim managed to grip her hand, allowing the momentum of her fall to slam the length of his body against the rock, where he struggled for purchase to keep them both from tumbling down to their deaths. He felt Spock grab his legs, allowing him to concentrate on gripping the sweat-streaked hands slipping through his fingers. A shout rushed from his lungs, part exertion and part pain. “Now would be good time to beam us up!”
He could feel the ligaments in his shoulders tearing as gravity pulled the three of them towards the edge, his ankles bruising as Spock struggled to maintain his hold. Jim knew he could last for a few more seconds. It was all Chekhov needed.
Just a few more seconds.
Her eyes full of love for her sons, Amanda wrenched her hands free, a sob breaking loose as Jim desperately begged her not to let go. Even as he tried to tighten his grip, she slipped from his fingers, plummeting into the chasm below with a scream. The transportation sequence began shortly after, not that Jim or Spock noticed. They arrived on the platform with Spock’s arms wrapped around Jim, while the latter stared without seeing at the wall, his arms still outstretched for the hands of a ghost.
“Do you ever think about anyone other than yourself?” Uhura hissed after dragging him outside the bridge. She’d cornered him in the corridor shortly after Jim had questioned Spock’s orders in front of the crew. “He’s just lost his mom, Jim.” As though he’d needed a reminder. There was dust and rubble coating his hair. “His entire planet.” Jim’s jaw worked. His teeth clenched. “Can you even imagine what that must feel like?”
Hardly anyone on board knew the circumstances in which he’d grown, which was why he didn’t dare allow himself to lash out. After all, she was only saying what she believed to be true. There were things he could say that would hurt her, things that would drive a wedge between her and Spock, but that was the kind of thing bullies did, and he’d sworn never to become the sort of man who would hurt others because he could.
When he gently pushed past her in lieu of responding, she was stunned enough to allow it.
It was afternoon according to the ship’s schedule, which meant most of the crew would be heading towards the mess hall. Spock avoided the main corridors, reluctant to chance any unforeseen delays. Fortunately, he’d memorized the location of Jim’s quarters, even if he’d never gone out of his way to visit him before today. Sometimes, it really did take the end of the world for Spock to make the first move. He knew this - he wasn’t proud of it - but now that he was standing outside Jim’s room, his gaze fixed on a keypad whose defenses he could effortlessly disengage, there was no more time to think of such things.
He called out softly, letting Jim know he was there. He’d wanted to apologize. “I’m sorry. Uhura has a tendency to be,” searching for the right word to say, he eventually settled on, “protective.” He frowned. The descriptor had fallen from his tongue like a dead weight.
The door swung open, and suddenly Jim was standing in front of him, leaning against the molding with redness in his eyes that suggested he’d either been crying or drinking. The rest of it - the clumsy smile when he saw Spock, as though his lips couldn’t quite remember how to curve probably, and the pungent smell of alcohol - spoke for itself.
Whatever it was Jim had gotten his hands on, if it worked this quickly, then it clearly wasn’t meant for the human digestive system. Spock would have to ask the ship’s surviving medic to do some damage control once the Romulans were dealt with.
Jim clapped him on the shoulder, “Hey, you know what? Good for you. It’s great that you’ve got someone looking out for you.” He turned around, implicitly giving Spock permission to follow, then plopped onto his bed. Gingerly, Spock smoothed out the sheets and sat down beside him. “You’d run yourself into the ground, otherwise.”
There was strain in the lines around his mouth, at the corners of his eyes. Being raised on Vulcan, where expressing one’s emotions was seen as barbaric, did not well prepare its populace for grief. “You do not have to pretend, Jim.”
After digging out a bottle of Klingon gin from behind his pillow, Jim muttered, “I’ll stop when you do.” He didn’t drink it, though. The liquid in the bottle sloshed, untouched. “If I had just reached a little farther-”
“Enough,” Spock interrupted sharply. “There is no benefit to blaming yourself.” Gently, he pried Jim’s fingers away from the bottle, then set it on the nightstand. Although Spock hadn’t seen what had happened, he knew what kind of a woman his mother was. She loved her sons more than she loved her own life. What Jim needed, though, wasn’t to be coddled. What he needed was direction. A purpose. “Especially not if you are to be captain.”
Jim looked at him as though he’d suddenly developed space dementia. “What are you talking about?”
“I have lost my home. My history. My…” It was more difficult than he’d anticipated to speak the words into reality. “Without a doubt, I am emotionally compromised.”
Resting his head in his hands, Jim muttered, “And I’m not?” He glanced up to see Spock’s eyes widen in shock, followed quickly by shame. When he attempted to rectify his mistake, though, Jim waved him off. “No, don’t. I know that’s not what you meant.” Though the tightness in Spock’s lungs eased, the expression Jim wore was grim. “Are you sure you want to do this, Spock? Because if you’re serious about this, you know what my orders will be.”
“Do you think you are the only one who wants vengeance? I have been trying to distance myself from my emotions. I did not want to endanger the crew on a personal crusade, yet in doing that, perhaps I have blinded myself to the truth - the danger which lies in ignoring Nero far exceeds that in confronting him. I do not believe I could bear the burden of another billion lives on my soul.”
Shoulders squared, Jim briefly laid a hand on Spock’s arm. “Trust me, Spock,” and he climbed to his feet, a determined set to his jaw, “you won’t have to.” As he strode out of the room, Jim’s silhouette was briefly illuminated in the corridor, and in that moment a vision of the legend he would someday become settled over his form like a mantle.