"Given all of the evidence you’ve seen today, we’ll now discuss the events surrounding the decision to break Protocol 74.2, which marked a change in regional settlement behavior that many still debate, including myself. The deciding captain did not utilize the three-factor decision tree, leaving him liable to error, as you'll see. Protocol 74.2 mandated forty-eight hours of observation prior to intervention. Skipping the step, people assert, increased panic and tainted the evidence in such a way--”
A chair scraped loudly across the floor, interrupting the professor’s lecture. The slides clicked forward accidentally and he had to click back twice to regain his place. His entire rhythm was ruined, and all for a noisy student leaving for the restroom? Unacceptable. The academy was full of these little upstarts, the tiresome rude children who didn’t know how to listen because Pike thought defiance showed character. Let them learn to fight for themselves, he had said at the staff meeting.
Professor Peter Heleine thought it was disgusting.
But he’d sat through that meeting and all the other lectures, unlike this child. He glared at the third row, where the student wasn’t apologetically making his way to the restroom. No. He was shoving his tablet into his bag, noisily huffing under his breath.
“Cadet Kirk! What do you think you’re doing?”
“Leaving.” He snapped his book shut and straightened, those condescending eyes widened in innocence. As if he could fool Peter like he’d fooled the rest of the staff. “Good luck with the rest of this super informative lecture.”
“Five demerits, and you’ll sit back down.”
Kirk had the audacity to ignore him.
Peter's hands curled around his pad. “I could have you suspended.”
“Fine.” He slung his bag over his shoulder and strode past the other students. It was a lecture theater with hundreds, most shrinking back in their seats, some gleeful. All amused at Peter’s expense. He wouldn’t allow it.
“Sit. Down. Cadet.”
“I’m not listening to you lecture about judging a massacre with a three-factor decision tree!”
“You got arrested three times the year I got my PhD on this very subject. Sit down and learn something, Kirk, before you get kicked out of this program.”
Kirk’s face was red, eyes narrowed, and it made Peter smile. James Kirk didn’t deserve to wear the same uniform as the other students. He was a backwards farm boy with a famous name who interrupted class to spread his arrogance, mistaking it for charm. Other professors played along. Not Peter. Not ever. He’d earned his way to his degree, gone to the right schools, gotten a scholarship. What had Kirk done except be born into ease? A legendary mother. A hero of a father. He lived pampered in their shadows, adored for nothing.
Peter wasn’t going to put up with this anymore. It had been a semester of interruptions, questioning, doubt.
Kirk pressed his lips into a slight smile, leaning around another student’s chair. "This isn't a fight you want.”
“I know you grew up living off your father’s pension, so you might not believe hardship exists, but it does, and it is this institution’s role to study it.”
“With the three-factor system and forty-eight hour waiting period? You just don't get it.”
“No.” Peter slammed his papers down on the podium. “No. I think that your disrespect has gone on long enough, cadet. Tomorrow, you’ll teach this lecture. You will stand in this hall of three hundred other students whose learning you’ve interrupted today and teach about Tarsus IV. It will count for 100% of your semester grade, and I will judge you based on how the class learned. You’re all dismissed.”
“Jesus, Jim.” That was all Bones had been able to say about the subject after Jim had explained why he was making a PowerPoint on Tarsus at one in the morning. A beautiful PowerPoint because fuck it, if he was talking about Tarsus, it was going to be a thing of fucking beauty.
“I’m good at stuff like this, Bones.”
“It’s about a genocide,” Bones said, taking a deep sip of brandy. “Maybe try to play down your own greatness in the course of the discussion.”
“This isn’t about me.”
"Some would argue this is exactly about you.”
“It’s not. It’s about Professor Snape—”
“I’ve told you I don’t get that joke.”
“—and his ethnocentric, nationalistic belief in toeing the party lines.” Jim’s fingers flew across his screen, grabbing and adjusting the arrow graphic and framing his bullets. He typed another note, added animation, a holo or two. Found a survivor’s video. Maybe hacked into the sealed court transcript of two of the rescue officers. Professor Peter Heleine was not prepared for what was going to happen.
“Has it occurred to you that you’re taking this too personally?” Bones lounged in the chair beside him, head resting on its back and trying to blink away two days of surgeries. Jim made a mental note to make him go out to the bar with him tomorrow as he decided to add another slide about the medical history.
“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to be personally invested.”
“You’re exhausting, kid.”
“You didn’t hear him. He made it sound so easy.’” Jim scoffed and found a vid of a mass grave from the Third World War and spent a second thinking it was too graphic and then realized that’s why it was needed. Needed. On page thirty-two. Yes.
Suddenly there was a hand in front of his face, and Jim jerked backward so hard he hit his elbow and fell off the couch, accidentally shaking the screen and undoing his work. He hit redo just as Bones pressed the power button.
“Hey yourself.” Bones hauled him to his feet, and Jim winced back from his grip, and he knew that was a mistake a second later, but couldn’t stop himself, not right after he’d built this presentation and fallen from the chair, not with his elbow throbbing and Tarsus bouncing around his head. “What is this about? You can’t really be worried he’d fail you. Pike’d stop that. Hell, any leader would. Heliene overstepped giving you an assignment worth 100% of your grade with one night to prepare. Now, I know you’re an overachiever, but that’s too much for anyone.”
“It’s just an assignment, Bones.”
His eyes narrowed. “Apparently it’s something more.”
Jim turned his tablet back on. “It’s fine. When have I ever failed something, Bones? Have a little faith.”
“I got faith in you, kid, when you got your head on straight.” He glanced around the room. “When was the last time you ate?”
Jim’s stomach cramped up. “I’m not hungry.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Bones went to grab his arm, and Jim flinched away again, covering it with a laugh as he stood. “Tell me you’re not avoiding food to make some fool point in the presentation because that’s not just stupid, it’s disrespectful, and you’re better than that.”
He tapped his finger against his pad. “I didn’t mean to skip dinner. The professor just really made me angry, and I need to prove him wrong.”
“Oh, is that what you need to do?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means angrily lecturing your class is a dumb way to teach them about Tarsus.” Bones tucked his hands into his pockets. “You’re a good teacher when you want to be. If this is your only chance, what do you think they should know? And don’t make it about your dick.”
He said it like a joke, but his face stayed sincere, and Jim felt like he’d been knocked off kilter. Like his anger wasn’t so justifiable. He tried to pretend it was because Bones didn’t know the whole story, but that was just an excuse and he knew it. He wasn’t great at self-delusion.
He was great at shame. And he felt it blooming in his chest as he looked down at the pictures he’d picked for his presentation. He felt it echoing in his empty stomach and edging around his rage.
“He just didn’t get it. Heleine.” Jim’s voice sounded weak to his own ears. His eyes stayed on the pad. “I couldn’t listen to him lecture like he had the authority to speak about it.”
“And you have the authority?” Bones coated the words with Southern judgement.
Jim’s gut twisted, and he knew he should tell him. Knew instinctively in the way that he always trusted. He thought about rescue workers and farmers and military guards. About teachers and food stores and crying, tiny kids. He thought about loneliness and guilt and Kevin Riley.
“Heleine speaks in black and white. We’ve had ten years to study it. Starship captains have a day, maybe hours, to understand situations. It won’t be as easy as, ‘Let's take a couple days to fill out this decision tree.’”
The last of his anger gone, Jim sank down on their ratty old couch and curled his hand into the blanket his grandmother had wrapped around his shaking shoulders when he'd first returned Earth-side, worn and warm and terrifyingly soft.
“Well, if that’s how you feel, I suggest thinking twice about your… forty-seven pages? How did you make forty-seven slides on this? And you hacked the archives. Of course you did.” Bones joined him on the couch, the cushions sinking and making them lean into each other.
“I also have a thorough appendix.”
“Well, this is just a quick assessment, but these slides seem to want to show them pain. If you’re half as smart as you think you are, you can do better than that.”
He patted Jim’s knee and lurched to his feet, wincing and acting like an eighty-year-old instead of twenty-seven. In the doorway to his room, he turned back.
“Jim, you and me, we got stuff that shaped us. We didn’t ask for it, but it caused us to grow up a bit more than most a bit younger than most. You can’t be mad at them for not understanding that. Just help them be ready when it’s their turn.”
Jim woke up early and easy and lay in bed watching the screen of stars he’d installed on his ceiling change from the Milky Way to the stars above Vulcan.
He woke Bones and told him to come to his lecture, which made Bones swat at him and grouch him out of the room, but Jim figured that wasn’t so bad.
He had a new presentation.
The hall was absolutely packed when Kirk arrived, swaggering through the doors. Peter hid his scowl. He’d given Kirk even more attention. Of course he was peacocking. But that wouldn’t last long, Peter reminded himself.
“Cadet Kirk, do you understand the parameters of today’s lecture?” Peter asked, standing tall and proud in front of this room that finally understood his authority.
“Yes, sir. I have to teach my peers about Tarsus IV.” He smiled and pulled an apple from his pocket, tossing it in the air as he descended the stairs. It was three minutes before class, but everyone was already in their seats. There were even a few extras brought by rumors of Kirk’s downfall. Peter would be worshipped for this.
“You have one hour.”
“And I assume you have a rubric of success?”
“I will be testing the class on the ethical ramifications of Tarsus tomorrow. You’ll be given the grade earned by the majority of this class. That will also count towards their grade. Hopefully they’ll pass. But that’s completely dependent on how hard you’ve worked.” Peter smiled and took his seat, the angry mutters of the students a balm to his ears. Oh, they’d all hate Kirk soon. The kid was too selfish to have done a thorough job here.
“Understood. Thank you, sir.” He stepped onto the main floor, and his cadet reds starkly pressed. Probably less out of respect for the room than his own ego. “Please, take a seat, and I’ll start.”
He tossed the apple in the air and smiled up at the students like they were his adoring audience. Not today.
The bell chimed, and Peter ground his teeth as the cadet tipped his face up to the class that suddenly hushed.
“Who can tell me a fact about Tarsus?” Kirk asked. Peter didn’t have to turn to see his students look away. No one wanted to be associated with this train wreck. “Come on now. I need five facts. Any five things you think you know about Tarsus. It was all over the holos. Stephanie! Tell me one thing you know.”
“I asked you to lecture, Kirk, not ask your peers to do it for you,” Peter drawled from the front row.
Kirk nodded. “I'm trying the Socratic method.” He turned back to Stephanie. “One thing you know.”
Like all of the other students in the class, Stephanie Kowalski was a second year command track student. She was sharp, polite, and engaged. Peter liked her.
“4000 people died.”
Kirk wrote that on his pad and sent it to the SmartWall that composed the whole front wall of the room. His handwriting was sloppy. “Good. Another.”
“Kodos was evil,” called out another student.
Kirk pointed to him as he wrote. “That is an opinion. I’ll put it under opinion on the right side. What fact made you think that?”
“Kodos was the governor who killed all those people.”
“Yes, E’eer. That is supposedly a fact. Anyone else?”
Supposedly? Peter scowled. If this was how the whole lecture went, the students wouldn’t learn a thing. Five minutes later, they had a carefully crafted list of facts on the left and a handful of opinions on the right.
- 4000 people were killed
- Kodos was the governor who ordered them killed
- The colony ran out of food
- No one called for help
- Starfleet got there too late.
- Kodos was evil
- Starfleet needed better regulations for colonies
- It was a tragedy that shaped our exploration forever
Kirk craned his neck to stare up at his words written large on the wall. The class’s energy was high. Peter forgot what it was like to teach smaller classes with discourse. It wasn’t a practical idea in a lecture hall like this, but the students were all leaning toward Kirk like flowers to the sun.
How he hated him.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” Kirk said, eyes still trained on the wall. He took a breath that filled his whole chest and turned to the class, released it and took another, spotting something that made him smile. Then he leaned back, smile turned cocky, and winked. “I’m going to tell you three stories. Wait for me to finish before you applaud.”
The class laughed. It was the wrong tone for a lecture about genocide, Peter thought, making a note to dock Kirk, who hit a button and turned the SmartWall into a picture of a rice field in mid-summer.
“Story the first: a council of five commissioned a colony to preserve the Okinawan culture. They weren’t Okinawan, but had studied it enough to know they liked it. So they submitted a formal application and signed their names and decided to use the fourth planet in a tiny, remote solar system because one of their cousins had named the star it orbited and they liked the nepotism.” He waved a hand and the image behind him changed to show five smiling figures, three human, two andorian. “They established a culture and democracy, and the colony flourished over the next sixty years. More people joined, mostly if they wanted an escape. It was a six-month journey from the closest hospitable planet.
“A new council was elected every ten years through public votes that used a pen and paper system. The planet hated technology, so archaic methods were used for almost everything. Pictures were outlawed in favor of paintings. Every year, there was a colony-wide karate competition to honor the memory of Ankō Itosu. People liked living there. The leaders felt pleased with what they’d built.
“The colony had grown to more than eight thousand people when a fungus beset them. Within two months, all the crops had died. People panicked and revolted. They recalled their leaders. The new ones could make no changes. The government failed. A few families fled, taking all of the remaining ships.
“Messages were sent to Starfleet, but the remote location of the planet and a particularly unhelpful ion cloud kept the messages from getting out.”
Kirk fell silent as the screen behind him turned white. Tapping his pad, he waited a moment before a voice rang out through the hall. “This is a priority one communiqué from planet designation Tarsus IV. Coordinates attached. A natural disaster has limited our food supply to under five months’ worth of edible produce. We have two working replicators, but no supplies to convert due to inflections in the original supply. Request immediate aid. Please confirm. Signed, the General Council.”
Peter’s mouth fell open as the other six critical messages played over the sound system, each more desperate than the last. Those weren’t classified, but they were buried. Kirk shouldn’t have been able to find them. While writing his thesis, Peter had barely managed to access them before Starfleet security had intervened and forbidden his direct address of them.
How had Kirk gotten them?
Silence pressed down on the room as the sixth message played. A child’s voice, begging for help.
“Governor Kodos killed ‘em all. Said we’re a drain. Please come help. Please. He’s gunna kill me.”
Kirk rolled his unbitten apple along his palm and back into his grip. “It’s the first time that name appears in the story. Governor Kodos. He wasn’t elected. As impossible as it seems, there isn’t a single picture of the man.
“Two weeks after the last message went unheard, a ship shows up and finds mass graves for four thousand people. Two hundred others are hiding in the forest eating tree bark. And three thousand nine-hundred twelve are eating rations and turning a blind eye.
“Kodos is sought to stand trial, but he’s dead. Justice is served, according to the Starfleet press release about this mess. Professors are free to study and teach it. Judge it.
“The families who escaped? No charges were pressed.
“Three hundred more people died from complications from starvation. And popular opinion deems this the greatest tragedy since the inception of Starfleet.”
The room breathed out, as if relieved they knew this part. This was history. If they did their reading, they had come into the hall aware. If they were conscious in the last ten years, they’d seen the newsreels.
Peter privately scoffed. He had been shaken by the calls, but Kirk had breezed over all of the important details—the dates for context, the Starfleet procedures the captain used or didn't, the aid that was administered, the prioritization of care, and required communication back to earth. This class was meant to teach the students about the ethical ramifications and historic reasoning of emergency protocol in dire circumstances. They would all fail his test.
The SmartWall picture of the field faded, and in its place was a school with children playing outside.
Kirk swallowed, eyes locked on the top row of desks where Peter knows the extras are sitting, the ones not in his class. Whatever Kirk saw made him shrug before he lowered his face with a wry smile. His uniform was crisp and clean.
“There was a teacher who taught Literature to students of all ages on a colony. He liked to draw silly pictures of cats in hats on his SmartWall. He started a theatre group for little kids. He had a wife who was pregnant, and they lived a block from the school, where they had a small herb garden and big glass windows.
“When the crops died, he said, Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head. His students thought he was pretty dumb for quoting Shakespeare, but he told them it meant that everything bad that happens can have a hidden kernel of good.
“It got worse.
“People rioted. There were whispers of hoarders. His wife was knocked out by someone who wanted the herbs from their garden. He watched people trample a woman as they charged the last granary. He watched the councilors’ ships flee the planet. He saw his students shrinking.
“This man quoted Shakespeare and Mbiti and Sterling and watched his friends beat each other in the street for a fresh apple.” Kirk held his aloft, staring at it for a moment in the silence of the auditorium. “The new leaders gave speeches for quiet and peace that did nothing.
“So he took his most promising students and gave them a math project. He told them the amount of grains of food, the barrels of water, and the number of people and asked them to solve for time. They came back to him with the truth. The food would run out in four weeks. Starfleet wasn’t scheduled to visit for six months.
“Ration, he told the students.
“Rationing makes us last three months, they said.
“He does the math and does the math, this man who doesn’t like math.
“And he finds a variable late one night when a student pushes away his meal: people. Oh, it makes him sick. He waits another week. But when a stranger breaks into the school and three students die, he knows what he has to do. Over two hundred had already been killed in the rioting. Food had been lost in the fighting. Paranoia high. Everyone will die if he does nothing.
“He takes over the government. Has the ineffectual leaders killed. It’s a revolution, he writes in a pamphlet. How yet resolves the governor of the town? This is the latest parle we will admit. Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves or, like to men proud of destruction, defy us to our worst.
“The people called him Governor, misunderstanding the quote. He uses the theory of eugenics to determine who lives and dies. Makes a list and brings together the undesirables, shows his face one time as he explains that their deaths will save the colony, tears streaming down his face. He watches them scream and scramble to avoid the phasers.
“I bought us enough time. If I’m strict, he thinks afterward. So he gets soldiers and collects all the food. Those who don’t give up what they have are killed. Those the soldiers dislike are killed. Some of the soldiers are evil. Some play with the people. Most don’t.
“But a group of children are creating a problem, stealing from the amount they need for their math to work. They are hunted, captured, killed.
“They still call Governor Kodos teacher. He apologies. He kills them. Then, four months before they’re supposed to, Starfleet arrives. They’re saved, and Kodos vomits all his precious food up as he begins to sob. I saved them. The people. He burns to death. It isn’t bad enough, according to most.”
The room was frozen. No one taking notes. Some openly gaping.
Kirk shook his head, picked at the apple skin. He glanced up again at the top row of the amphitheater with those blue eyes of his as if he was looking at another world, seeing something he couldn't possibly remember. It was impossible. Peter knew it was impossible. But Kirk's calmer after looking away. A pit started to form in Peter's stomach.
“There was a boy who drove his stepfather’s car off a cliff when he was twelve, and his parents sent him to live on a colony dedicated to rural farming and martial arts to try to burn through his endless, angry energy. And he loved it. He played with his cousins and dug in the earth. He learned to raise and ride horses, and jumped creeks even though it scared him.
“He went to school with a teacher who started each class by crying out, ‘Once more unto the breach, dear students!’ as if that weren’t the nerdiest thing ever. They teach the students at the level they want, and this kid wants to know everything. His teachers oblige. He learns about physics and history and languages that no one else ever thought were important. His aunt teaches him guitar.
“He sings at a girl who gives him his first kiss, and the year is a good one.
“Then one day a teacher gives him and the other kids a math problem. There is only so much food, the problem says, but here’s the number of people. How much can they eat?
“The answer is zero, sir, the boy says. He’s pleased to be right.
“The teacher scowls. No, no. There’s a way. Try again.
“So the boy does. Again and again and again. But calories are finite. Life needs so much. And some people need even more than average. It’s math. It’s easy.
“The teacher listens.
“The boy’s aunt and uncle whisper a lot, but what does the boy care? He’s busy exploring, playing that guitar and collecting new kisses. Until one day soldiers come and bring the family to the town hall.
“There’s a speech. It isn’t good. He learns the best way he can help people is by dying. And then people are shooting and falling, and he’s being buried alive under the bodies. His aunt’s eyes are open when she lands on him.”
Kirk’s fingers curled gently around the apple as he swallowed.
”The boy's small and fast but he can’t dodge phasers, and it’s only luck and grace that another young man with brown eyes and blood on his cheek wrenched open a doorway and grabbed every child running by him to get them out. He dies blocking their escape.
“They sneak around, hiding, eating grass when they’re desperate. A dog when they’re lucky. They stick together because what else do you do in situation like that?
“But they’re young. A girl is caught. The guard crushes her skull against a tree and laughs that she doesn’t even have enough meat to drag back to city hall for a feast.
“The kids bury her poorly. They get tired easily now.
“Four more are caught. Three get sick. One just refuses to keep walking one day, no matter how they scream and cry at him.
“The boy is caught because he gets stupid and greedy. They break an arm and bring him in to question him. He sees Kodos through doorways, sitting behind his desk scouring papers and demanding better rationing. Yelling about the math. Kodos has lost weight. The boy doesn’t care.
“You must understand, the soldiers say like it means anything. It is the only way anyone would survive. The boy shakes his head. You did the math yourself.”
Kirk’s SmartWall tuned into the equations, scribbled and crossed out, scribbled and crossed out. Until finally, circled, was 4000, right next to a crossed out 8000.
It looks like a child wrote it.
“Your friends are stealing food from the deserving, they tell him. Every bite you take kills three. You’ve killed so many.
“The boy knows the math. He knows it and guilt and shame crash over him, but he’d do it again. He’s a survivor.
“But he doesn’t tell them about the other kids. We can be patient, they say, but we won't kill any more to feed you. So the boy sits alone in his room and watches the soldiers talk and tries to steal food and hears Kodos repeat the math and the mantra. The boy’s put in chains for stealing. Watches them eat while they ask about his friends. Hates them.
“He’s eighty pounds when Starfleet arrives a week later. He doesn’t recognize them. Doesn’t know what it means when one of them says, ‘Fuck 74.2’ and beams him to the ship. He vomits up all they’ll give him. Fights their doctor’s hands. He doesn’t handle food well ever again. When they ask him what happened, he tells them he’s sorry he killed so many.”
Kirk took a bite of the apple. Waited. Half a minute passed. Peter didn’t know what to do. Every thought he had seemed impossible. He opened his class register and scrolled rapidly, hoping he was wrong.
It was Stephanie who interrupted as Peter unlocked Kirk’s profile. “Are those all true stories?”
“They’re all matters of record,” Kirk said, flicking open his pad, pulling up three sealed files and displaying them on the SmartWall. He sent them to their pads. “Survivor accounts, Starflight inquests, flight manifests for the council.”
“They can’t all be true. We’d know about it.”
“What facts didn’t you know that the stories told you?” Kirk asked, pointing to his first list. “4000 people died; the food ran out; Kodos was in charge; Starfleet arrived.”
“But he was a teacher?” Juise asked. His voice shook.
“What does that matter?” Kirk asked, hands flat on the desk.
“I thought he was evil,” Juise said. “But he was just a desperate teacher.”
Stephanie tapped her pen. “If Starfleet had arrived on time instead of early, he would have saved half the colony. He might’ve been a hero.”
“He killed four thousand people,” Kirk said.
“But he wasn’t the leader until he had to be!”
“He chose to be. And then he thought, ‘Well, I guess my best path is to murder half the people. Let’s go do that.’ He didn’t commission scientists to create new food or boost signals. He didn’t tell the people what was going on. That’s on him.”
“But he didn’t want to lead.”
“He still did it. And then he gave up and didn't think there was another way.” Kirk gripped the apple. “Evil people don’t have it tattooed across their faces. And good ones don’t have halos. Grumpy drunks can save your life, and smiling teachers can shoot phasers at you. Our job is to protect the crew and captain, to be smart and open-minded.”
“The boy was tortured. It's pretty easy to make a call in that case.”
“You say that, but then the experts get together ten years later and judge the captain for being too rash. Failing to use a three-factor system or wait forty-eight hours to interfere. He's demoted. Shamed. And the evidence of the tragedy buried so deeply he can't defend himself with it. Can you still do the right thing if you know it'll end your career? Is it that easy?”
“The boy was dying!”
“He was one citizen. Saving him tampered with the evidence. It’s scientific procedure.”
“People aren’t numbers,” snapped an Orion girl in the back, and Kirk paused, eyes locked on her row just a few beats too long for casual.
“You’re right.” He took a step back and lifted his chin, a General before a rapt army. “We take Ethics in Interplanetary Diplomacy because our jobs will lead us out to meet people and creatures, to encounter phobias and cultures and miscommunications we cannot imagine. They hope we'll remember what we learned in this course and be the rational open-minded explorers that have been so rare in the past.
“So when you’re at whatever assignment you’re given, remember the Starfleet ship that saw something wrong and threw away the rules to do the right thing, the teacher who said he was saving four thousand, and the boy who called himself a murderer for surviving. People are never numbers. And stories are rarely straightforward. But we’ll have to make choices based on a single set of information. Piece it all together. The boy cried, but so did Kodos. Who do you trust?”
Kirk dismissed them and the chatter rose like a hive of bees. Cadets stumbled up the steps and out into the daylight, and Professor Peter Heleine sat staring at his roster, at the blacked out confidential notice below Kirk’s name.
It’s not Bones who finds him after class, though he sat through the whole thing, his scowl deepening as the hour wore on. Jim knew there was a long conversation in his future. And probably a physical to look for lament signs of trauma. Bones loved fixing those.
No, it was Kevin who tracked him down first, standing on the floor of the hall, arms crossed over his chest and waiting for the others to dwindle.
“Why would you come listen to this?” Jim asked. It was the closest he would get to an apology.
Kevin kicked his foot lightly, tipped his head like he’d done when they were kids, hunched over from hiding, and so, so angry. “This is the only lecture on the subject I would ever listen to. Your professor looked ready to vomit when he figured it out. It was a nice bonus.”
“How long did it take?”
“Almost the whole lecture. I don’t know if everyone else realized.”
“They’ll figure it out. No one knows about that Shakespeare thing. It’s not in an interview.” Jim felt settled and calm at last, like he’d excised something evil from himself. “You okay with what I said?”
“You told the truth. He gave us quotes, and then he killed our families. I hope whoever set him on fire started at the feet and made it slow,” Kevin said, angry truth sparked in his eyes. “I can’t believe you tried to make them pity him.”
“That’s not why I did it.”
“They why did you?”
“Because Heleine made it sound so easy, what Captain Reynolds did. But Starfleet buried him.” Kirk glared out at everyone else’s retreating backs. “Naiveté can be deadly.”
Kevin closed his eyes. He’d never gained back all the weight, and he favored his real leg over the bionic he’d gotten on the recovery ship. “You know I’m requesting your ship, right? Wherever you’re stationed?”
Jim smiled. “You’ve always been a little crazy.”
Kevin didn’t laugh. He turned back to the mostly empty amphitheater. “I can’t believe you just did all this.”
“I’m going to get an A.”
Bones wasn’t outside the hall like he thought. Nor in the courtyard. Jim tried not to feel disappointed. That was silly. But then he got home, and Bones was standing there, one hand resting on a tricorder on the counter and the other clenched in a fist. He was watching the door.
But when Jim came in, he left the tricorder as he strode over, only to stop a foot away. “Can I hug you?”
“Don’t go getting skittish now,” Jim said, rocking on his heels.
“No, Jim. Look at me.” Bones waited until he met his eye. “Can I hug you?”
Jim thought about all the people who touched him without asking. All the doctors on the ship after Tarsus when he couldn’t speak through the drugs, Kodos grabbing his hand to try to make him understand, the soldiers who’d chained him to the wall apologetically.
Then he brought himself back to this moment. This apartment in San Francisco with his best friend standing in front of him, and he took and step forward and wrapped Bones in hug, just for asking.
“Any time, Bones.”
Seconds dragged into minutes. Jim blinked a lot, and finally let his eyes stay closed, trusting this man to hold him up. Bones just clung to him, safe and there.
Jim whispered, “I couldn’t sit through that lecture yesterday. He started debating 74.2, and I had to get out.”
Bones squeezed him tighter, then took him by the shoulders and held him at arms length, stuck under that southern glare. “Good. You’re less of a fool than I’d have guessed, taking care of yourself like that. Not reliving the trauma.”
He swallowed, shrugged. “Tarsus was years ago.”
“Doesn't mean it's any less awful to hear about. It wasn’t okay. What happened to you or having to listen to it that way.”
Jim nodded. He’d seen enough shrinks.
“I think people wanted me to fall apart afterward,” he said, pacing to the window where the Golden Gate Bridge hovered just out of view. “But once I was out of that hospital, all I wanted to do was run. I made my mom take me to the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall. I took a shuttle trip to the Delasus Colony without telling anyone. They were furious, but standing still felt like such a waste after everything. Everyone was dead, and I’d be damned if I died, too. I drank too much. I danced with pretty girls. And sometimes, I picked a fight just to be able to fight back.”
Jim smiled, but it felt like a grimace, and turned back to Bones, who waited in the same spot, arms crossed over his chest. “Yesterday, I was planning to make them all look at the bodies of dead people just to spite them. Because I wanted them to feel something about Tarsus, not just take notes on it.”
“Thank the gods of reason you didn’t,” Bones said.
“Because you reminded me not to, Bones. That’s the only reason.”
“Well, I’ll be here to pull you back from that edge. Every time.”
Jim nodded, warmth spreading in his chest, and he wrapped an arm around Bones’ shoulders, pulling him toward the couch. “You are not using this as another chance to talk me out of taking the Kobayashi.”
Bones laughed. “I thought about it.”
“No win scenarios are for professors who think they can govern. I’m better than that.”