evening_bat: Bat in flight, silhouetted against the moon. (Default)
[personal profile] evening_bat
Title: In Three Words
Author: [personal profile] evening_bat
Betas: [livejournal.com profile] seryan and [livejournal.com profile] omphaloskepsist
Artists: [livejournal.com profile] unseensorrows and [livejournal.com profile] birddi
Fanmixers: [livejournal.com profile] masterpenguin82 and [livejournal.com profile] birddi
Series: Star Trek XI and Doom
Pairing: Jim Kirk/John Grimm
Rating: R
Word Count: ~ 27,000
Warnings: Reaper doesn’t have a pretty backstory. And serving on Starfleet’s flagship means that they get into some nasty messes. And did I mention Reaper’s backstory? (Blood & violence ahoy!)

Summary: Pike used George Kirk’s legacy to dare his son into Starfleet. It was John Grimm who taught Jim about living outside of his father’s shadow.

Notes:


Written for the 2012 [livejournal.com profile] startrekbigbang challenge. Loosely inspired by this prompt on the [livejournal.com profile] buckleup_meme, asking for Reaper living out in the open after First Contact. I doubt this is what the prompter had in mind but the bunny grew teeth when I poked at it once too many times.

A few important details... This is a double AU and I've had to fudge things to fuse the canons together. Therefore, the events of the Doom movie/game happen about 45 years earlier than stated and the Eugenics Wars happen about 10 years later than in Trek, both taking place in the early 2000s. This story begins in 2255, as per the movie timeline.

Infinite thanks go out to [livejournal.com profile] seryan and [livejournal.com profile] omphaloskepsist for the beta work and the encouragement to keep writing. This story would never have been finished without their efforts and would certainly be poorer without their input.

Art & Fanmixes


Cover art and the second story graphic were provided by [livejournal.com profile] unseensorrows and you can check out her masterpost here. [livejournal.com profile] birddi created the first and third images in the text.

You can download [livejournal.com profile] masterpenguin82’s awesome fanmix right here.

[livejournal.com profile] birddi created another great fanmix, which can be downloaded from here.

It was a privilege to work with these amazing collaborators! Their art and musical contributions are fantastic and you should absolutely tell them so.



"In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on." ~ Robert Frost



In Three Words



Signing your life away to Starfleet turned out to be a surprisingly easy process. Suspiciously so, if the lines snaking through the Academy Admin block were any indication. Jim thought that probably meant that Pike had pulled some strings during the shuttle ride but he wasn’t complaining. If the guy was so convinced Jim ought to be here, the least he could do was cut through the bureaucratic BS of enrollment. And so it happened that Jim’s registration was concluded with a minimum of fuss, leaving him to contemplate the introductory packet they’d shoved into his hands, his already-full schedule, and his brand-new roommate.

Jim had recognized him as soon as the admin staff had shoved them together and sent them on their way; he’d been sitting next to Jim on the shuttle, remarkable for being the only other person not wearing a uniform. He’d kept mostly to himself on the ride over and Jim hadn’t paid him much mind, being rather more occupied with the lovely Uhura (he still hadn’t charmed that name out of her, damn it) and his bar brawling buddies from the night before. Between the lack of uniform and the fact that he was noticeably older than most of the other cadets, Jim had figured him for another last minute recruit. Looked like that impression had been correct, given their new room assignment.

Oh well. It could be worse. Jim hadn’t been thrilled about being busted back to dorm beds but the resigned tolerance with which his new roommate had been regarding the noisily enthusiastic cadets bustling around him lightened into something approaching amusement as he and Jim eyed each other.

Could definitely be worse, Jim decided as he got a good look at the other man. At least he’d have something nice to look at for the next few years.

“Looks like we’re stuck with each other,” Jim remarked as they stepped back to avoid the panicked rush of a baby-faced cadet who hurtled past them juggling an armful of PADDs. Jim inclined his head in a wordless suggestion, pleased when Tall, Dark and Self-Contained followed his lead with a shallow nod.

“Looks like,” he agreed as he fell into step beside Jim, who shrugged his intake paperwork into one arm to free up a hand.

“I’m Jim Kirk,” he said, slapping him lightly on the shoulder. “Welcome to the next three years of our lives.”

“Looking forward to it already, kid,” came the slightly sarcastic reply as he irritably twitched his shoulder out from under Jim’s hand.

The edged tone had Jim glancing back from the pretty blonde whose passage he’d been tracking. The swat on the shoulder had been a little familiar but Jim hadn’t expected the guy to get all touchy about it. Heaving a mental sigh and gearing up for a halfway sincere apology, Jim turned to find himself the focus of a considering hazel stare.

Okay, so maybe there was more going on here than offense over Jim taking liberties. He raised his eyebrows in response. Yeah, what?

“John Grimm,” the man beside him belatedly offered, carefully casual but for the wariness in his eyes.

Jim kept his stride even with some effort, downplaying his reaction as his mind worked over what he’d just heard. The name itself wasn’t unusual enough to ring alarm bells but Jim had always had eclectic study habits and a very good memory. He knew who John Grimm was.

The bare outline of John Grimm’s history was a matter of public record. A soldier in the early twenty-first century, he’d gotten caught up in someone’s genetics experiment and come out the other side with a few distinct changes. Superhuman speed, strength and near-instant healing might have been an improvement on the human condition but they weren’t safe traits to flaunt while the Eugenics Wars were raging across the planet so Grimm had quite sensibly pulled a disappearing act. He’d resurfaced from obscurity not long after the founding of the Federation and appealed for recognition as a citizen. He’d won it, along with the attendant rights and protection due all of its members. After more than a century and a half on the run, John Grimm was finally able to live out in the open as a free man. Apparently that included joining Starfleet.

More than all that, however, Jim knew all about having a name that drew the wrong kind of attention. And he knew how goddamn sick he was of having people start in on the Kelvin as soon as they found out who his father had been. From the way John was visibly bracing himself, Jim didn’t figure that being a 250-year-old supersoldier made for any more enjoyable a conversation starter.

“Huh,” he commented mildly. “Reaper John Grimm?” he asked in an undertone.

John shot him a sharp look at the barely audible question and nodded once. The simple fact that he’d heard it would have been answer enough.

“Huh,” Jim said again, strolling along in thoughtful silence for a few seconds. “No shit?”

That won him a snort of laughter and an easing of the guarded tension that had tightened John’s expression. “No shit,” he confirmed.

“Awesome,” Jim decided, keeping his tone light. “Guess I know who to go bother for help when they make us take that history prereq.”

John’s expression wavered between disbelief and amusement before settling on the latter. “I think you’ve got more pressing concerns,” he said dryly, prodding at the dried blood flaking off of Jim’s shirt. “You might want to look into getting a refresher on hand to hand before you worry about ancient history.”

“Hey, you could probably help with that, too!” Jim suggested brightly.

“I’m your roommate, kid. Not your personal trainer,” John told him.

“This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, I’m telling you!” Jim insisted, slinging an arm over John’s shoulders and steering them in the direction of their new dorm.

He couldn’t help the smug grin that spread across his face when John failed to shrug him off, allowing himself to be shepherded along with only a token sigh of protest.

Oh yeah. This Starfleet thing really was looking up for him. Jim was going to have to find a way to buy Pike a drink sometime.

Later that afternoon found the two of them finally arriving at their dorm room, dumping armfuls of Academy-issued supplies onto their beds. Well, Jim dumped his stuff in favour of poking around their new territory. John was busy neatly stowing his things in the storage drawers. Better accommodations than he’d expected, Jim noted approvingly, more like a sparsely furnished apartment than the bare-bones institutional barracks he’d been envisioning. John probably thought it was the height of luxury.

“Hey, when’s your first class tomorrow?” Jim called to John, still at work in their sleeping area. “Should probably make sure we’re not going to be conflicting with each other.”

“I don’t know. My PADD’s on the table — check it out,” John answered.

Given permission to snoop, Jim eagerly scooped up the PADD and keyed on the display. He figured they’d have at least a few classes in common. First year courses were more generalized than the higher-level specialization requirements. And since John was most likely enrolled in — wait, the medical track? Jim squinted in disbelief, refreshing the screen to see if it would correct itself.

“No way! You’re in med school?” Jim practically yelped when the information remained unchanged.

The PADD was plucked out of his hands and Jim tipped his head back to find John looming over him from behind his chair.

“Nope, already finished that,” John responded absently, scrolling through the class list. “That’s Doctor Grimm, to you.”

Jim gaped at him. “Seriously?” he demanded.

“Seriously. This,” he said, waggling the PADD at Jim, “is adding a XenoBio component to augment my degrees.”

Degrees? Jim mouthed to himself as he shook his head. He had more than one? Not what he’d expected from a man with a history like John Grimm’s. He’d figured he’d be somewhere on the Security or Command track, probably testing out of half the classes. “That’s a bit of a career switch, isn’t it?” he ventured.

“Exactly,” John said, mouth flattening into a hard, unamused line.

Oh. Yeah, now that Jim thought about it, a few hundred years of soldiering would probably be more than enough for anyone. Especially if even a fraction of the rumours recorded about Reaper were true. Jim grimaced a quick apology as John visibly shook off the dark turn of his mood before continuing.

“I know all there is to know about breaking people, thought I’d take a turn at putting them back together,” he explained with a shrug.

“Besides,” he added, “I once promised someone I’d give the view through a microscope a try. Seemed like as good a time as any.”

“Fair enough. There’s just one problem with that,” Jim commented, brow furrowing in thought.

“Yeah?” John asked warily. “What’s that?”

“You can’t go around calling yourself ‘Reaper’ if you’re a doctor!”

John blinked at that. “It’s not like that’s how I introduce myself,” he pointed out mildly.

Jim shook his head. “You still need a new handle,” he declared, drumming his fingers thoughtfully. Grimm, Reaper, Death... “I’ve got it! You can be Bones.”

“Can I? Wonderful.”

It was a good thing there weren’t any rules against doctors being sarcastic bastards, Jim reflected.

And the hell of it was that Bones actually made a really good doctor. He was calm, competent, knowledgeable and surprisingly gentle, despite his generally gruff attitude. Jim had cause to know, since it hadn’t taken more than a couple of days for him to find new bars in which to drink — and brawl. The first night he stumbled home drunk, bruised and bloody, he hadn’t expected much in the way of help. Bones hadn’t struck him as the type who had much sympathy to spare for self-inflicted misery.

True to expectations, Bones just raised an eyebrow when Jim sauntered into their room, proudly wearing the marks of his night on the town.

“Hey, Bones,” he greeted him breezily as he sailed through the room, already unbuttoning his ruined shirt. He hissed when shrugging the shirt off tugged painfully at his bruised ribs.

The sound of footsteps trailed him into their room and he suppressed a sigh, calculating the odds that Bones was going to bitch at him for getting hurt in such a stupid way versus Bones being annoyed at Jim for causing trouble.

“So I’m guessing that the night before the shuttle ride wasn’t an isolated incident?” Bones asked mildly from behind him.

Jim shot a careful look over his shoulder and found Bones propped in the doorway, clearly assessing his condition. He pasted on a grin and waved off the accusation.

“Eh, you know how it goes. Boy meets girl. Boy offers to buy girl a drink. Girl’s boyfriend takes offense. The usual,” Jim replied, elaborately casual.

“Looks like girl’s boyfriend nearly broke your nose,” Bones commented, coming a few steps closer and squinting at the bruising Jim could feel spreading across his face. He was sure it was turning spectacular colours by now.

“It’s not that bad,” Jim replied, poking gingerly at his nose and flinching at the wave of pain that rolled through his face. “Okay, so it’s not broken bad.”

“Oh for — stop that,” Bones ordered him and then there was a pair of hands on his shoulders, pushing him down to a seat on the edge of his bed.

Jim grumbled but complied, kicking off his boots now that he was safely seated.

Bones was back at his side a minute or two later, hypospray and medkit in hand. Jim’s protest that he didn’t need any help was briskly ignored and Jim’s bruises were scanned and mended before he’d rallied from the unexpected kindness. Bones’ touch was businesslike but he took care not to cause Jim further pain as he put him to rights.

“You know that it’s possible to go for a drink without getting yourself pounded to a pulp, right?” Bones asked idly, eyes fixed on Jim’s hand as he verified the integrity of Jim’s knuckles.

Jim paused, listening keenly for the reprimand that usually lurked under expressions of concern. The lack of it left him feeling wrong-footed. “Wasn’t looking for trouble,” he answered honestly. “If I’d known she wasn’t alone and he was a jealous prick, I’d have found another girl to chat up.”

Bones nodded to himself in satisfaction — Jim’s condition apparently passed muster — and repacked his equipment. “Be more careful next time, kid,” he chided as he stood up again. “‘Tenderized’ isn’t your best look.”

Jim blinked in bemusement as Bones stowed his equipment and headed back out to the main room. Jim heard the couch creak under his weight and found himself hoping he hadn’t interrupted anything too important. Medical track cadets tended to carry ridiculous workloads even if some of them apparently didn’t mind taking a study break to play doctor for their trouble-prone roommates.

Jim pushed himself to his feet and wandered out into the kitchen. “I’m hungry,” he called over his shoulder, aiming for offhanded. “You want anything?”

“Sure. We should have leftovers from that Chinese the other night,” Bones answered. “Toss them in the warmer? That’d be great. There’s more than enough for two.”

“Dibs on the spicy noodles!” Jim declared as he set the cartons to warm.

“You can have them but I’ll give you all new and exciting bruises if you eat all the sweet and sour whatever that was,” Bones threatened absently.

As it turned out, there was plenty to go around — of food and bickering both — and Jim didn’t even get smacked for stealing the last piece of chicken. Though he did make sure to complain loudly about the nearly invisible mark where Bones had jabbed him with a chopstick.

Jim wasn’t quite sure how it happened but friendship with Bones came surprisingly easily. He’d been cautiously hopeful they’d manage amicable cohabitation, since Bones seemed like a decent guy and he’d proven to be surprisingly tolerant of Jim’s antics. Being buddies with his roommate was convenient. It wasn’t until Jim caught himself having honest conversations with Bones, far beyond the easy interactions he used to cultivate useful acquaintances, that he realized that he actually liked him. Aside from being unexpectedly pleasant company, Bones had evidently decided somewhere along the way that he trusted Jim. The fact that he’d lowered his guard apparently snuck right in under Jim’s. It was kind of hard not to return the favour when a guy like Bones decided you were worth having as a friend.

They made one hell of an odd pair but Jim wasn’t complaining. Whatever other favours life hadn’t done them, it had apparently screwed them up in complementary ways. Of course, accepting that he’d gone ahead and actually become friends with Bones meant taking on certain responsibilities. Bones had demonstrated that he could handle the taking care part. Which left Jim in charge of entertainment.

As nice as Bones was, he tended to be kind of detached. He wasn’t unfriendly enough to be considered standoffish but he kept his distance. Two centuries of watching the world change around him could do that to a guy, Jim guessed. If most of the cadets at the Academy made Jim feel old, how much worse would it be for Bones? The thing that Bones seemed to have forgotten was that passive observation might be a lot less messy but it was also a hell of a lot less fun. Life was meant to be lived, not survived. The least Jim could do was make sure that Bones actually had a good time now and then.

There was always something going on in San Francisco, even for a pair of cadets with a limited amount of time on their hands. Sports, exhibitions, museums, restaurants... Jim could have dragged Bones out to examples of each. He considered it before deciding to start with baby steps. Bars first, culture later.

Thus began Jim’s campaign to pry Bones out of his self-imposed isolation. It never really progressed much past the drinking buddies stage but Jim deemed it good enough. It got Bones out of their room, gave Jim company on nights out and led to Bones actually getting on speaking terms with people outside of a professional context. When they were just Jim and John, two guys out for a good night on the town, Bones finally lost some of his iron reserve and starting sharing more of those slow, warm smiles that Jim liked. Who needed culture anyway?

It was on one of their early ventures that Jim learned about the downside of Bones’ enhancements. Turned out that super fast healing wasn’t always a good thing.

“You’re kidding!” Jim was appalled. “It doesn’t affect you at all?”

“Not a bit. Wish it did, to be honest,” Bones replied, staring down into his glass. “Would’ve made some years easier to get through,” he muttered.

“I bet. That kind of sucks, Bones,” Jim told him. Alcohol and Jim were old, dear friends.

“So why the glass?” he couldn’t help but ask. Bones always had a drink in his hand when they went out, though this did explain his tendency to nurse them.

Bones shrugged, taking a sip. “Can’t get drunk but I still like the taste. The burn of it.”

Jim nodded. There was comfort to be found in old habits, Jim knew. Even when they didn’t actually help.

“You know, there’s dozens of bars around here,” Jim said offhandedly.

“Yeah, and?” Bones raised an eyebrow. “You bored of this one already? You haven’t hit on all the waitresses yet.”

“No, and I’m not leaving until I do — the really hot one just came on shift — but I was thinking that you can’t have tried everything yet,” Jim pointed out.

Bones raised a finger. “I am not drinking that orange shit you got so sick on last week. That drunk would not be worth it, even if it did work.”

“You’ve got no sense of adventure, Bones,” Jim complained though privately he agreed. That orange stuff had been shit.

Bones just snorted at him. “I’ve had plenty of adventure, thanks. I prefer tamer leisure activities, these days.”

Naturally, Jim took that as a challenge and flagged down the hot waitress to order shots of the orange shit. The next day’s hangover was deadly but Jim had the waitress’ comm code and had the satisfaction of Bones bitching for days about the aftertaste.

Drinking games aside, Jim stayed on his best behaviour the first few times he was out with Bones. Bones had proved surprisingly amenable to Jim’s plans to socialize him but Jim didn’t think that would last if Jim started picking fights. Having Bones around made it easier to stay out of trouble anyhow, since Jim wasn’t at the kind of loose ends that left him likely to screw with people just for kicks. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop people from messing with Jim.

He’d had a few run-ins with his buddies from the Riverside bar since arriving at the Academy and relations hadn’t improved since then. If Cupcake and his crew had been there when Jim and Bones walked in that evening, Jim would have found some excuse to introduce Bones to another bar. Instead, Jim found himself face to face with his favourite bar bully on his way back to his table. Jim recognized the expression on Cupcake’s face from the last time he planted his fist there; the chances of this ending without some sort of violence were slim. Jim flicked a glance over at Bones, watching from their table and resolved to try.

He really wasn’t surprised when it didn’t work.

Jim lost track of the fight almost immediately after they stopped trading insults in favour of taking swings. He knew he didn’t throw the first punch but his was the first to connect. By the time Jim split Cupcake’s lip, the thugs he called friends were wading in and things just got more hectic from there. He stumbled as someone snagged the back of his shirt, drawing an arm back as he got his feet under him. He let his fist drop when he realized it was Bones, reluctantly submitting to the sharp tug as Bones got a handful of his collar and dragged him clear.

“What the hell, Bones?” Jim complained as Bones hauled him out of the bar, twisting out of the unreasonably tight grip Bones had on his shirt. One eye was already swelling shut, there was a familiar wetness trickling down the side of his face and his mouth was full of the metallic taste of blood. “What’d you do that for? I was just getting ready to pound his face in.”

“Because I’ve got better things to do tonight than bail you out of jail for brawling,” Bones answered irritably. “And he wasn’t far off from returning the favour, you idiot.”

“You’d know,” Jim shot back sulkily, “what with how you were just standing there watching.”

And he had been, Jim realized belatedly. The fight itself was a bit of a blur but he’d taken the time to check on Bones’ position, make sure he was doing all right, only to find him lurking at the edges of the altercation, watching the fists fly. The following stab of disappointment was a surprise; when had Jim started counting on someone to watch his back?

Bones ignored the accusation, catching Jim’s chin in his hand as he ran a practiced eye over the results of the brawl.

“You’ll live,” Bones told him flatly as he released him. “We can clean you up after we get you home.”

“Great. That’s great. And thanks for all your help in there,” Jim said, spitting a mouthful of blood and trying not to sound too bitter. “Don’t know what I would have done without you.”

Bones smiled tightly as he watched Jim wipe his face on his sleeve. “Sorry, Jim. My mistake. I thought you wanted a wingman, not a bodyguard.”

Jim went still at that innocuously light reply, taking a deep breath before letting it out slowly.

Fair point, he acknowledged with a tip of his head.

Bones was his friend, sometimes his backup, often the voice of his common sense but never his personal attack dog. It wasn’t Bones’ job to clean up Jim’s messes. Especially not when Bones could have taken down everyone in that bar without breaking a sweat, Jim was reminded as the door slammed open behind them and startled Bones into an automatic defensive stance. The drunks stumbling out of the bar didn’t notice Bones’ inhumanly quick reaction but Jim couldn’t miss it.

He closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. He’d promised himself, almost immediately after meeting Bones, that he’d never trade on the man’s history. Damn it, that was a promise Jim had wanted to keep.

Jim opened his eyes and caught Bones’ eyes as he nodded once, sharp and solemn, before pasting on a smirk. “As if I’d need any help dealing with those assholes.”

Bones had relaxed slightly, tension easing out of his shoulders as Jim got his temper back under control, though there was still some wariness in the way he scoffed at Jim’s bravado. “Sure, and that’s why you’re bleeding all over yourself again.”

“Yeah, well,” Jim sighed and rubbed a hand carefully over his face. “Come on. You said something about getting cleaned up?”

“Yeah, Jim,” Bones agreed with a sigh of his own. “Let’s go home.”

Jim was more relieved than he cared to admit when Bones failed to hold a grudge. He was maybe just a bit nervous, the next time he invited Bones out but Bones didn’t hesitate before accepting. Well, he did but no more than his usual protests of better things to do and that didn’t count. And if playing things a bit safe kept Bones happy, well, it kept Jim from getting punched up every few days and that was probably a good thing.

It took a few months before Jim realized he’d gotten it a bit wrong.

It was another night in another bar with yet another belligerent drinker. For once, Jim hadn’t actually done anything to warrant getting hit. In fact, he never even saw it coming. One minute, he was nursing a drink while he waited for Bones and the next minute someone was trying to bounce his face off of the bar to the tune of angry bellowing in his ear. Luckily, Jim had been leaning on his elbows and reflexively caught himself before his cheek was driven into the wood. He was just scrambling to get sufficient leverage to shake off the painfully tight grip of the hand latched around the nape of his neck when someone pulled the asshole off of him.

Jim put a hand on the bar to steady himself as he tried to figure out what the hell had just happened. The alcohol-flushed man slurring curses into the surface of the bar answered the first part of the question; Bones standing at his back, twisting the drunk’s arm up and behind him as he easily held the man pinned against the wood explained the second.

“You okay, Jim?” Bones asked over the ineffective wriggling of the man he’d restrained.

“Yeah, Bones, Thanks, I’m fine,” Jim answered, lifting his free hand to rub away the lingering sensation of pressure at the base of his skull. “Good timing, by the way.”

“What are you,” Jim’s attacker protested muzzily, tugging at his arm, “some kind of motherfucking Vulcan wannabe?”

“Vulcans wouldn’t fuck their mothers,” Bones corrected mildly, maintaining his hold without visible effort. “It wouldn’t be logical.”

The guy snarled in drunken affront, trying to wrench his arm free to swing at him.

“And Vulcans wouldn’t break nearly as many of your bones as I’m going to if you don’t settle down, right fucking now.” Bones barely moved but Jim’s attacker howled in pain, struggles abruptly subsiding.

“Hey,” Bones called over to the watching bartender. “Should I cut him loose?”

“Hell no!” came the vehement response. “There’s a free drink in it for you if you go ahead and toss him out!”

“Sounds good to me,” Bones remarked. “Order for me, would you, Jim?”

“Sure thing, Bones!”

Jim clearly wasn’t the only one the guy had been bothering tonight; there was a smattering of applause as Bones hauled him upright and frog marched him out of the bar. By the time Bones made it back inside, apparently oblivious to the appreciative looks that followed him back to the bar, Jim had his payment waiting: a glass of an expensive bourbon that Bones didn’t usually allow himself to order. Jim figured he’d earned it tonight. From the generous measure she’d splashed into the glass, so did the bartender. Bones raised an eyebrow in pleased surprise when he recognized what he’d been served, lifting his glass in thanks before taking a sip.

“Thanks for the save,” Jim offered cautiously as Bones savoured his drink. He seemed awfully calm for having had to wade into a fight and pull some drunk jerk off of Jim’s back.

Bones shrugged off his gratitude. “I wasn’t going to let him break your nose just because he took exception to your face. It’s not your fault you’re pretty.”

“Is that what he — Aw, Bones! You think I’m pretty!” Jim cooed as he leaned into Bones’ shoulder, batting his eyelashes up at him.

He just laughed as Bones snorted and shoved him off, muttering darkly about breaking Jim’s nose himself, no matter how pretty it was. He knew he was grinning like an idiot but Bones was wearing that familiar look of long-suffering indulgence so he knew they were good. The words not your fault ran through his head again, shuffling Jim’s assumptions about Bones’ lack of involvement in Jim’s everyday scraps into a new, much more satisfying configuration. Jim didn’t need a protector. But, he thought as he propped his arm on Bones’ shoulder without questioning that he’d hold him up, he thought he could get to enjoy having a partner.

When Jim burst into their room during the last week of their first year finals, he was anything but in need of help.

“Bones!” he shouted gleefully, flinging himself to a stop and throwing his arms wide. “Guess who just aced Admiral Jennings’ equivalencies exam?”

It’d been just under a year and Jim wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to the way Bones smiled at him: open, unashamed and totally sincere.

“That’s great, Jim! That’s your in for the advanced summer section, right?”

“Damn right it is. Three-year graduation, here I come,” Jim gloated.

Bones shook his head fondly at the show of ego but his pleased expression never wavered.

Jim wasn’t used to making people happy, either.

“I think this deserves a drink!” he announced abruptly, still bursting with far too much triumph and satisfaction for their room to contain. “Come on, get your shoes on and let’s go!”

“Sure, Jim,” Bones agreed easily. “Nice of you to offer to buy.”

“Oh, as if I’ll ever have enough credits to my name to get you drunk,” Jim scoffed. “Besides, did you just kick the ass of the worst test first year has to offer? No, you did not. Drinks are on you, old man.”

Bones rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath as he stood but there was a smile curving his lips as he pulled on his boots. “At least that summer course ought to keep you out of my hair for a while.”

The words had no bite, what with the proud smile Bones still wasn’t making any effort to hide or the congratulatory slap on the shoulder. Jim ducked his head to cover the ridiculous grin he couldn’t wipe off his face. “Aw, Bones. You know you’d miss me.”

“Like a fly in my ointment,” Bones replied solemnly, casually hooking an arm around Jim’s neck and dragging him out into the corridor. “A thorn in my side. A pain in my ass.”

“You should maybe consider seeing a doctor for that,” Jim told him earnestly. “I’ve got this friend, he’s always telling me about the miracles of modern medicine. They could probably fix that for you.”

“Smartass,” Bones growled at him, using the loose headlock he had on Jim to shake him gently.

Jim just laughed and let Bones haul him along as he grumbled about how no medicine in the universe could fix Jim’s ego.

“Hey,” Jim started, ducking out from under Bones’ arm and falling into step beside him as they hit the dormitory doors, “you’ve got some time off before that extra training rotation starts, right?”

Bones raised a questioning eyebrow. “Yeah. Why?”

“I’ve got some time before classes start and I feel like taking advantage of it.” Jim shrugged and tossed the idea out there. “There’s got to be some tourist traps out there that you’ve never seen. Want to go check a few of them out?”

When he slid a glance sideways to check Bones’ reaction, he found him looking thoughtful.

“I never did get a chance to spend much time out east,” Bones mused aloud.

“Atlantic coast east or Asia east?” Jim immediately asked.

“We only have a little better than a week, Jim,” Bones warned, unsuccessfully trying to smother a smile. “Don’t get too ambitious.”

As if there could be such a thing.

They split the difference and went to Europe and slept in a different country every night. Jim made a point of trying at least one food item he couldn’t pronounce at every meal. Bones kept a running tally of how many people Jim offended by trying to flirt in their native languages. By the time they headed back, Jim was wearing half a dozen hickeys, Bones was scruffier than Jim had ever seen him and they had two duffels of dirty clothes wrapped around cheap souvenirs and touristy holos. It took some effort for Jim to saunter, rather than stumble, into class the morning after their late night shuttle arrival but he still slipped a wink to the dubious looks the other cadets sent his way. He could guaran-damn-tee that they hadn’t made any better use of their down time than he had.

But the course of true friendship never did run smooth and Jim’s birthdays were enough to derail any routine, no matter how comfortable. Jim was never sure how long it had taken Bones to figure out the significance of Jim’s last name. He knew Bones had to know but to his vast relief, Bones had returned the favour Jim had done him on the day they met by never commenting or treating him any differently. Even if Bones hadn’t understood how little Jim wanted to talk about it, he’d always supposed that Bones’ perspective on loss had to be pretty unusual, what with the centuries-long lifespan he was facing. Whatever the reason, he’d shown remarkable restraint when Jim had disappeared on the first of his birthdays that passed after starting at the Academy.

Bones had been waiting up for him that night when he’d stumbled through the door, barely able to see straight for the volume of alcohol he’d poured down his throat. The layered bruises he’d earned throughout the night weren’t helping matters either. Bones assessed his condition without comment, lips tightening on some unhappy remark but he kept it to himself. Jim, still inclined towards belligerence despite his incapacitation, waited for some of Bones’ usual asperity to sneak out but it never did. Bones just got him cleaned up, medicated, and poured into his own bed. Jim stared up at him in drunken confusion and wondered when the disappointed, angry commentary was going to start right up until the alcohol and exhaustion dragged him under.

Bones held his silence the morning after as well, though he kept a close eye on Jim as he crept gingerly around their room the next day. Jim was feeling fragile enough that he couldn’t argue about the observation. He was just grateful for the absence of the tirade he’d half-expected after the mess he’d made of himself last night. By the time the effects of the night before had worn off, things between them seemed to have eased back into normal and Jim was too relieved to question it. Routine reestablished itself, life went on as normal and Jim put the incident out of his head.

But Bones hadn’t forgotten. He’d just been waiting until Jim’s next birthday came around.

Jim had slipped off early in the afternoon, intent on losing himself in some hole in the wall where the booze was cheap and the company was plentiful. He always started with the best of intentions on his birthdays. If everyone else was too busy crying over his father, Jim would just start his own party. And if he usually found himself in the centre of a knock-down, drag-out brawl before the night was over? Well, there were plenty of ways to remind the world that you were alive. Jim had always been good at making his own fun.

He’d already gotten tossed out of one dive for mouthing off to the regulars and was scouting around for a new place to slink into when a hand settled on his shoulder. He twisted out from underneath the loose grip, dropping automatically into a braced stance before he recognized the man who’d snuck up on him.

Oh goddamn it. Jim recognized that grimly determined expression and now was not a good time for Bones to stage some kind of intervention, or whatever he thought he was doing.

“Bones? What are you doing here?” Jim tried to keep his tone neutral and jerked a thumb over his shoulder as he began to back away. “Look, whatever you want — can it wait? I’m on my way somewhere.”

“I can see that,” Bones replied coolly. “Headed straight for a barroom floor, if I read your trajectory right.”

Jim bit back his temper with some effort, closing his eyes as he sucked in a deep breath. Bones deserved better than to have Jim’s shit dumped all over his head, Jim reminded himself. Even if he did have incredibly bad timing.

“Just - go home, Bones. I need to get out and I won’t be good company tonight.” Jim didn’t want good company tonight. He’d take a good fight or a hard fuck, whichever found him first.

“No.”

The simple refusal caught Jim flat-footed. “What?”

“I said no.”

Jim gave in to the urge to swear at the stubborn set of Bones’ jaw. He’d picked today of all days to turn busybody? Really?

Enough, Jim decided abruptly. Forget arguing about it. This was bullshit. Jim was getting the hell out of here; he’d do damage control tomorrow.

“You can’t stop me,” he said with a shrug, turning on one heel and making a beeline for the nearest bar. If Bones was obstinate enough to follow, he’d ditch him out the back before moving on. At least, that was the plan.

Jim only took two steps before he was seized from behind and manhandled into a nearby alley.

“Watch me,” Bones answered flatly, securing his grip into an immobilizing hold before Jim had even realized what he was doing.

“What — Let me go!” Jim demanded. What the fuck did Bones think he was doing?

“Not a chance,” Bones replied, almost pleasantly.

“Let me go,” Jim repeated furiously.

“Make me,” Bones invited.

All right, then. If that was the way Bones wanted to play it, Jim would.

Jim threw everything he had into breaking Bones’ hold on him. He fought as hard as he could, tried every trick he’d ever learned. Nothing worked. Bones’ grip was unyielding. Jim had always known that Bones was strong but this was the first time he’d experienced it for himself and every failed attempt to get free drove him to a more desperate attempt. It wasn’t until he heard a pained grunt from Bones that he accepted the inevitable. That hit would have broken anyone else’s nose and as pissed as he was, Jim wasn’t willing to go that far.

He went limp in Bones’ arms, letting him hold him up as he panted for breath.

“Okay,” he finally managed. “You win.”

“Damn it, Jim. It wasn’t a contest,” Bones grumbled in his ear.

“Yeah, whatever,” Jim sighed as he got his feet back under him. Despite the temptation to wrench himself out of Bones’ loosened grip, he stayed docilely still. Bones had proven his point. “What do you want?”

“Just come with me,” Bones instructed as he let Jim go and led the way out of the alley. As much as it grated, Jim didn’t have much choice but to follow.

He wasn’t entirely surprised when Bones brought them back to their room. He rolled his eyes as Bones steered him across the room and flung himself sulkily onto the couch under a gentle clap on the shoulder. Wasn’t this just turning into the best birthday ever?

Though things might be looking up, he mused as Bones put a glass full of something alcoholic in his hands.

“Didn’t think drinking was on the list of permissible activity tonight,” Jim complained sullenly, clutching the glass protectively in case Bones changed his mind.

“Getting yourself beat to hell in some shithole of a bar is not on the list of things to do,” Bones corrected, setting the bottle on the table in front of Jim. “You can go ahead and drink all that you can handle. That’s all that some days are good for.”

Jim squinted thoughtfully as he considered the hollowed-out expression Bones’ last comment had left on his face. What kind of anniversaries did a 250-year-old soldier celebrate when no one was watching? And what kind of days did he wish had never happened the first time? Poor bastard couldn’t even wash the memories away in a haze of alcohol.

“Guess I’m drinking for two, then,” Jim declared as he tipped up his glass.

Bones left him to it, reducing himself to a quiet presence on the edge of Jim’s admittedly blurry awareness. Jim was dully surprised to learn that not being alone or at sea in a crowd of strangers actually made a difference, even if it wasn’t enough to make things good. He just hoped Bones was willing to forgive or forget whatever torrents of crap were coming out of Jim’s mouth; he was way too far gone to track what he was saying tonight. He’d lost track of both the hours and the booze by the time Bones finally cut him off. Jim was in no fit state to protest as Bones peeled him off of the floor and dragged him off to bed.

“Your birthday’s over now, Jim,” Bones promised as he got him settled. “Wish it could have been happier.”

“Nah, don’t worry. Best I’ve had in years,” Jim mumbled into his pillow, “but you have some weird ideas about birthday presents, old man.”

Somewhere over his head, Bones chuckled sadly. “Don’t worry. You’ll get the rest of your present later, smartass.”

Jim managed a vaguely interrogative noise.

“Whatever else happened today, kid, some of us are glad you’re alive,” Bones told him softly. “So come tomorrow, I’m going to start teaching you how to stay that way.”

Jim’s breath hitched when a hand settled gently on his head and he squeezed his half-closed eyes tightly shut when a calloused thumb swept along his cheekbone. Stupid drinks. Making his eyes water like that.

If he’d been in any state to wonder, Jim would have questioned if Bones really meant that. He found out the next afternoon when Bones hauled him out of bed, hit him with some hypospray remedy for the hangover and dragged him out to one of the private training rooms.

“We’re going to start with something easy,” Bones told him as he prodded Jim out into the centre of the room, “like how to avoid a punch to the face, you reckless bastard.”

“Come on, Bones. Are we really going to — oof!” the rest of Jim’s question disappeared in a rush of displaced air when his back hit the mat, feet having been neatly swept out from under him.

“Lesson one,” Bones instructed as his face swam into view, hovering over Jim. “Your mouth isn’t going to get you out of most of the trouble you find.”

Jim’s eyes narrowed, then he grinned fiercely and held a hand up. “You are on, old man.”

Bones pulled him to his feet, answering grin spreading across his face.

Oh yeah. This was going to be fun.

Sparring with Bones quickly became a regular addition to Jim’s schedule and the practice was invaluable. Bones ran him through a wide array of defensive and offensive techniques (including an arsenal of dirty tricks) and Jim soaked up every lesson. He might have been annoyed at how easy it became to win the bar fights that had always been his favourite form of stress release but the private tutoring won him a teaching position in Advanced Hand-to-Hand in his final year which more than made up for it. Besides, Jim was hardly going to complain about increasing his chances of surviving active duty out in Starfleet. Propaganda aside, everyone knew it was a rough universe out there.

It didn’t hurt that for all of George Kirk’s achievements, he’d never made a name for himself as one of the best fighters in the Academy.

It was by far the best birthday present that Jim had ever received.



The rest of their final year rushed past in a blur of classwork and testing, the eyes of the Academy administration heavy on the graduating class. Even Bones, with his diminished need for sleep, was starting to look ragged in the last few months of classes. Then came the clusterfuck of the Kobayashi Maru. Then came the distress call from Vulcan and the mass slaughter that followed. By the time it was over, the Federation had been rocked to its foundations and there were far greater concerns than whether or not Cadet Kirk had cheated on his impossible test.

Instead of graduation ceremonies, the Academy was arranging mass funeral services and Command was scrambling to reassign personnel to cover the gaping holes that Nero’s mania had punched in the service fleet. Regardless of the trouble he’d brought on himself with the Kobayashi Maru test, there was no question now of tossing Jim out of the Academy, not after his part in saving the Earth. Not only was his three-year graduation approved, he walked out of his final briefing with the Admiralty wearing a captain’s stripes and carrying orders to take command of the Enterprise. It wasn’t how he’d have chosen to do it but he’d take the win. For the cocky asshole everyone had dismissed three years ago, for everyone that hadn’t made it home after Nero, he’d sit in that chair and show the whole damn Federation that he’d earned it.

Bones was waiting for him when he finally made it back to their room. (Still their room because who’d had time for minor administrative tasks like cadet room assignments?) Jim didn’t have to say a word; Bones’ eyes took in the gold of his uniform and dropped immediately to the stripes on his sleeve.

“Congratulations, you unbelievably lucky bastard,” Bones said but for all the dryness of his tone, his smile was pleased. There was no relief to be seen in his expression, but then Bones had been certain of the outcome even when Jim had privately worried.

“Couldn’t have done it without you,” Jim told him, dropping to a seat on the mattress beside Bones. That wasn’t anything less than absolute truth, for all that Bones grimaced and brushed it off. Bones had refused to leave him behind when regulations and common sense ordered otherwise and Jim would never, ever forget that.

Jim sighed tiredly and leaned heavily into Bones’ side, appreciating the solid comfort of the arm that wrapped itself around his shoulders. “They’re giving me the Enterprise,” he muttered into Bones’ chest.

He could feel Bones nod. “Figured they would. Any other word on who else will be crewing her?”

Jim snorted. “In theory, I’ve got my pick. But really, there’s some pretty cutthroat competition to nab people from the surviving class. They’re shuffling crew assignments and it’s getting kind of crazy. I put in commendations for everyone and a request to keep whoever wanted to stay on board.” He shrugged without lifting his head. “It’ll be up to them if they want to stick around.”

Bones shook him lightly. “You’ll need to fill some positions before we go out again but I don’t think you’ll lose many. Enterprise is the flagship. She’s meant to carry the best and brightest and there’s not many of them that’ll settle for a lesser ship.”

The assessment confirmed Jim’s own take on his crew-in-the-making but he ignored that for the moment, latching on to one particular word. “We?” he checked. “You planning on coming out there with me, old man?”

Jim had exercised some of his new rank to check on his people (they were still his, damn it, right up until the transfer orders crossed his brand new desk) and had taken particular interest in a few key personnel. Unsurprisingly, there were opportunities pouring in for officers like Chekov, Sulu and Uhura. Even with that minor mutiny issue, there had been so many attempts to poach Spock that his Vulcan composure would have cracked again. And people were lining up to get a piece of the only man Jim wanted for his CMO. There was no reason that Bones had to stay with the Enterprise, not when he could write his own ticket to nearly anywhere in Starfleet.

Bones snorted. “Where else would I go? Someone’s got to stick around and keep an eye on you.”

“Good,” Jim told him fiercely, possessive relief blooming warm in his chest. He wanted to keep all of his crew but he’d fight to keep Bones.

Bones chuckled and tugged Jim over backwards, knocking them both flat to the mattress. Jim grumbled for show but went willingly enough. He was tired and he’d long since stopped trying to polish himself for Bones.

“Nowhere else I’d rather be, kid,” Bones told him as they rearranged their limbs to fit on the narrow bunk. “Now be a good little captain and pass out for a while, would you? Command seems to be labouring under the delusion that none of us need sleep.”

It wasn’t until much later that a fond whisper roused Jim from a comfortable doze.

“Been a long time since I’ve had someone worth following, Jim. I’m not in any hurry to walk away.”

Jim kept his eyes closed and tucked his smile into the side of Bones’ neck. The validation of Bones’ approval followed him into sleep.

Of course, being a captain was a bigger deal than Jim had really understood before Nero’s destructive rampage. Proving himself was one thing but throwing his crew’s lives away because he refused to accept defeat was another thing entirely. And being captain of the flagship brought the pressure to bear all the more sharply. They were as much symbol as starship, with the Fleet’s golden boy at their head. Fortunately, his crew was more than awesome enough to live up to everyone’s expectations and Jim would be the captain they deserved.

Naturally, Bones was a big part of his success. He’d seen Jim at his best, his worst and every shade in between and was never shy about pointing out what state Jim was in at any given time. And he was still there, a steady presence that Jim didn’t want to imagine doing without. Even these days, with his crew coalescing into the tightly loyal, smooth-working unit that was the envy of the Fleet, with even Uhura thawing towards him as he and Spock settled into a surprisingly effective command team, Bones was the foundation. The crew depended on Jim, Jim depended on Bones.

It probably said something that Jim could actually think that and not immediately launch into prickly rebellion. There had been a time when he’d have sabotaged any hint that he might not be entirely self-sufficient. Apparently somewhere along the line, Jim’s abandonment issues had stopped ruling his interpersonal relationships. Maybe this was what growing up was like? Too bad the idea occurred to him in the midst of an evening on shore leave, when his alcohol-loosened tongue was echoing even his idlest thoughts.

“You?” Bones scoffed. “Grown up?”

“See, that’s why you’re the one, Bones,” Jim slurred happily, reaching out to clumsily pat Bones’ arm. “Everyone’s got to have someone, old man. And you’re it.”

“If you mean that I’m the one that’ll be pouring your drunk ass into bed again, then yeah, I’m it,” Bones told him, fond despite the exasperated roll of his eyes.

“Exactly!” Jim agreed with the gravitas of the extremely inebriated. Bones was always there; he’d made Jim come to count on it.

Which was what made the situation on Yoanndriy that much more gut-clenchingly awful.

Apparently the High Chancellor’s idea of “appealing to the Federation for aid” meant “get a landing party on the planet to provide hostages.” The Yoanndrians’ idea of bargaining revolved around a very different values system, Uhura explained to Jim in a voice that remained remarkably steady despite the weapons trained on all of them. Their own weapons and communicators had been confiscated just after they’d been ushered in to greet High Chancellor Thresshan, ambushed by the honour guard that had escorted them from the beam down site.

“That would have been a useful detail to know before beaming down, Lieutenant,” Jim commented lightly. “Remind me to add a notation to the planetary files when we get back to the ship.”

“Ah, but first you must be given leave to return to your ship, Captain Kirk,” Thresshan told him, skin flushed muddy yellow with satisfaction. “And such will not happen until we receive assurances that our demands will be met.”

“You must be crazier than you look if you think the Federation’s going to negotiate with the likes of you,” Bones interrupted before Jim could respond.

“Doctor Grimm!” Jim snapped, registering the Chancellor’s colour deepening to an angry orange in his peripheral vision. What the hell did Bones think he was doing? “Kindly shut it and leave the bargaining to those in charge.”

Bones’ snort of laughter was pure scorn. “If you can call that in charge,” he said, with a dismissive gesture at Thresshan. “Come on. We all know that Command is going to take one look at this pompous jackass and laugh themselves blue in the face.”

Jim heard Uhura’s hiss of dismay and was distantly impressed that Bones had managed such a deft insult with the blue comment. Shit-disturbing wasn’t his usual style, certainly not when provocation invited a very deadly response. Jim shot a quick glance over at Spock, noting the grim set of his mouth. Any hope of negotiating their way out of this had evaporated with Bones’ display of precisely applied cultural insensitivity.

“Enough talk,” Thresshan declared, rising from his throne to stalk over to them. “Your colleague speaks truth. Your Federation has no reason to grant my...request the gravity it deserves. A display of strength and commitment is required to demonstrate how important it is that my words be considered seriously.”

He summoned two of his guards over with a flick of his fingers. They approached without hesitation, eager hostility in every move.

“Blades, I think,” Thresshan decided, tapping his thick fingers thoughtfully against the stiff brocade of his robes. “For an appropriately dramatic presentation.”

The bottom dropped out of Jim’s stomach when the guards holstered their weapons, drawing the ceremonial spears they’d carried into the audience room. Gaudy decorations or not, their tips were plenty sharp and Jim swallowed hard.

“There’s no need for this!” he blustered. “The Federation isn’t going to think any more highly of you for slaughtering the party you requested to be sent to discuss relief!”

“Oh, I don’t intend to slaughter your party, Captain,” Thresshan assured him in a mockery of kindness. “I only need one of you to make an example.”

He considered the four of them, eyes roving across the loose line the guards had prodded them into, commenting on each in turn.

“With so few left, it seems a waste to spend a Vulcan life on such a message. Likewise, such a talented young officer is too valuable a sacrifice. Neither I would like to remove such a figurehead as yourself from play, Captain. Which leaves us with only one viable option,” he concluded with vindictive pleasure.

“Bones, no!” Jim protested as the guards dragged him a few steps away, kicking his feet out from under him so that he was left kneeling at their feet. “You can’t do this!” This could not be happening, there had to be something Jim could do to turn the situation to their advantage...

Bones ignored him, aiming a toothy grin at Thresshan. “Try it,” he invited, even as the guards raised their spears above his back.

“I believe I will,” Thresshan told him, blades falling at his nod.

The first blow knocked Bones nearly flat, plunging into his upper back and pinning him to the floor. The second guard angled his spear lower, stabbing at Bones’ kidneys. Bones made an awful gurgling sound, blood frothing at his lips as he coughed around the spear that was tearing his lungs open. His body jerked as the second guard tore his spear free, jabbing at Bones’ other side with every evidence of enjoyment. The remaining guards surged forward to contain Jim as he lurched forward, shouting denials. Behind him, Uhura’s frantic protests fell silent as Bones shuddered and went limp, lying terribly still in a widening pool of blood.

Jim took a deep breath and forced himself to stare at Thresshan. Calm was not easy to reach, not with what he’d just seen, but he thought he knew now what Bones had been up to earlier. He wouldn’t waste the chance Bones had just bought them.

“That wasn’t necessary,” he grated, not bothering to hide his fury.

“Now you understand the price of ignoring our demands,” Thresshan replied simply. “And now two of you may be permitted to return to your ship to carry our terms back to your leaders.”

Like hell Jim was leaving any of his people here with these maniacs. “We can relay terms just fine from here.”

Thresshan shook his head. “Do you really want to argue with me, Captain? I am willing to provide further demonstrations of the consequences of defiance, if necessary.”

He pointed at the bloody heap of Bones’ body and the first guard wrenched his spear loose to prod at the corpse in silent reinforcement. His face creased in confusion as he lifted his weapon, blinking at the shortened end in astonishment. The blade of the spear was missing, shaft terminating in a ragged mess of blood and splinters.

Jim’s heart leapt at the sight, and he tensed in readiness. A quick sideways glance assured that Spock was already prepared to act and Uhura had noticed and was ready to follow their lead. Not even Jim was expecting things to happen as quickly as they did, however.

Bones exploded to his feet without warning, lashing out with the spear blade he’d broken off the weapon that had pierced his chest. The first guard crumpled without a whimper, throat slashed before he could react. The second guard had time to raise his spear but Bones knocked it away, burying his makeshift weapon in the guard’s stomach. He cried out hoarsely and his knees buckled as Bones pulled the blade out with a sharp twist. Bones let him fall, already in motion as he spun around.

Thresshan was shouting hysterical commands to his guards but the shock of seeing a dead man kill their comrades kept them from moving before Bones was on him, arm snaking around the Chancellor’s chest from behind as he laid the spear blade against Thresshan’s throat.

“Move and I kill him,” he said flatly, eyes fixed on the guard hovering nervously at Jim’s shoulder. “Drop your weapons.”

“You can’t do this!” Thresshan spluttered, skin gone waxy grey with fear.

“You remember how well that worked for you when Jim tried it?” Bones asked, tightening his grip and shifting the blade so that the edge just parted the skin of Thresshan’s throat. “Don’t push me.”

Thresshan cringed away, smug assurance crumbling under Bones’ threat. “Do as he says!” he cried.

Jim permitted himself a silent sigh of relief as weapons clattered to the floor. He scooped one up as he backed away, covering their backs as the away team regrouped.

“Lieutenant, I believe you will find our communicators and weapons in the chest to the left of the Chancellor’s throne,” Spock said calmly, armed with another cast off weapon.

“One ride home, coming up,” she replied, lowering the weapon she’d picked up as she hastened to retrieve their confiscated gear.

The escape itself was almost anticlimactic now that the power had shifted in their favour. One quick call from Uhura and the four of them were dematerializing. Bones had kicked Thresshan away from him after their signal was acknowledged, the Chancellor stumbling and snarling curses at them, but he had no means of preventing their departure. Jim hadn’t bothered to hide his tight, vicious smile as his view of the audience room vanished; he was going to enjoy getting Yoanndriy and her government blacklisted at Starfleet.

Their appearance on the Enterprise prompted a bit of its own chaos. They hadn’t been gone long enough to worry the crew on standby but emergency beam out requests always meant something had gone wrong. Jim couldn’t really blame them for taking one look at Bones — in his torn uniform, covered in two kinds of blood — and assuming the worst.

“Belay that order!” he said sharply as the transporter tech called for a med team to be dispatched. “We’re fine.”

“You’ll be coming down to Sickbay for your post mission workups,” Bones corrected. “You can just do it on your own two feet.” He tugged uncomfortably at the front of his soaked uniform. “Should be a fun walk.”

Jim grimaced. Aside from Bones’ discomfort walking around drenched in his own blood, it was nearing the end of Alpha shift. There would be plenty of onlookers if they went parading through the corridors now. The edited version of Bones’ history was an open secret but that didn’t mean the crew needed to see him like this.

“I think we’ve all had enough excitement for one day,” Jim declared. “Lieutenant, beam us directly to Sickbay.”

Bones flashed him a quick, grateful glance as the lieutenant at the console reset the coordinates but Jim just waved it off. He wasn’t all that comfortable watching Bones walk around like that either.

Bones vanished into the depths of Sickbay almost as soon as they arrived, sticking around just long enough to issue orders for basic check ups all around. His staff got a bit wide-eyed when they caught sight of the state their boss was in but were far too professional to let it interfere with their duties. Bones had long since drilled the counterintuitive (and hypocritical) notion that they did not need to concern themselves with his condition into their heads. The post mission procedures went quickly, since Bones had taken the brunt of the rough treatment this time around. He reappeared just as the medics on staff were finishing up, in a fresh uniform, all traces of the disastrous afternoon washed away. He nodded over their results and pretended not to notice as Chapel scanned him surreptitiously, as she always did despite his repeated assertions that he didn’t need it.

“Old habits die hard,” he’d once explained to Jim, who’d wondered why he put up with it. “She doesn’t waste time with it if there’s anyone needing attention. I’m not going to slap her down for following that procedure. One of these days she might even catch something that actually needs fixing.”

Today she didn’t, but Jim wasn’t going to deny anyone the comfort of routine after everything that had happened. His hands were still shaking with fading adrenaline and he kept them clenched to stop himself from reaching over to make sure that Bones was still as alive as he looked. He’d seen Bones shake off damage before but nothing like what he’d had to watch today. Jim had the feeling that it would take him longer to recover from the guards’ attack than it had taken Bones to do the same.

“Go on,” Bones prodded good-naturedly as he signed off on Jim’s medical release. “You’ve got some calls to make.”

Normally Jim couldn’t get out of Sickbay fast enough but today he lingered near the door, watching as Spock and Uhura followed Bones into his office after they’d been granted release. He shook himself and headed on up to the Bridge. Bones was right; he did have calls to make. He needed to talk to Bones but it could wait. Jim had some business to take care of first.

It wasn’t until much later that night that he finished up everything and had recovered his equilibrium enough to track Bones down. He wasn’t surprised when the computer informed him that Bones was in his quarters. It had been a rough day and Bones always did tend to retreat when circumstances reminded him of his immortality. He still let Jim in as soon as he rang at the door but then Jim was as much his exception as he was Jim’s.

Bones wasn’t at the door when it slid open and Jim squinted into the near-darkness of his quarters as the door hissed shut behind him. “Bones?”

“In here,” came the reply.

Long familiarity meant that Jim didn’t need light to navigate Bones’ quarters. He could have made his way into Bones’ bedroom blindfolded. Had managed it blind drunk a time or two. Between the dim starlight and the barely-there ship’s lighting, Jim just could make out the lines of Bones’ body as he lay on his back, staring blindly at the ceiling. He considered Bones for a long moment, then toed off his boots and climbed onto the mattress beside him. Bones made room for him, grumbling half-heartedly as Jim shoved him into a more comfortable position.

“Anything else you need, Jim?” Bones asked, warm and wry in the darkness. “Can I get you a pillow? Maybe an extra blanket? This one’s Fleet-issue, is it soft enough?”

“Nah, I’m good,” Jim assured him brightly, wriggling his shoulders to soften up the mattress underneath them. “Feeling right at home.”

“As you should,” Bones said dryly. There was no bite to the comment though, and he didn’t resist Jim’s manhandling at all.

The silence that spun out between them was so comfortable Jim hated to break it.

“So that was kind of a stupid thing you did down there today,” he said mildly.

“I’ve seen you do worse with much less guarantee that you’d come out in one piece,” Bones returned evenly.

“Yeah, but that’s sort of my job, Bones.”

“And mine is to keep you alive.”

And really, what could Jim say to that? He’d never forgotten the promise he’d made himself back in the Academy. On duty, he’d never asked Bones to be anything other than the ship’s doctor. If Bones had wanted to be someone’s secret weapon, he’d have stayed in Security or Tactics. But some days, Jim was fervently grateful that his CMO could kick ass and take names with the best of them when he chose to. He’d gotten them out of one hell of a mess today, even if he’d scared holy hell out of Jim doing it.

Jim rolled onto his side, reaching out to clench a fist in the front of Bones’ shirt. “If you were anyone else...” he started scratchily.

“If I were anyone else, I wouldn’t be here,” Bones answered quietly, one arm settling around Jim’s shoulder. “And I’d have to find some other way to save your scrawny ass.”

Jim snorted a laugh at the nonsensical response. Bones was a whole litany of firsts for him. First real friend. First person to care without expecting something in return. First person Jim cared about outside of the obligations of blood and the fleeting connection of sex. First person Jim trusted to stick around. First person Jim needed to have around.

“Not sure if anyone else could manage it,” he yawned, releasing his fistful of Bones’ shirt and smoothing it out. “I’m sticking with you.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m me,” Bones told him.

Jim hummed acknowledgement of a truth too big to put into words and let that thick, comfortable silence envelop them again until he fell asleep, head against Bones’ shoulder and hand resting over his heart.

They said time flew when you were having fun. The Enterprise’s first year of service wasn’t always fun but it did seem to go by quickly. Living from crisis to crisis could do that to you, Jim supposed, though he was the first one to start complaining of boredom when they did get a rare stretch of peace. Spock could extol the virtues of research as much as he liked, Jim preferred action. Fortunately, Starfleet had plenty of that to provide. But sometimes the trouble the ship and her crew found had nothing to do with what they’d made of themselves and everything to do with the circumstances that had made them.

The Enterprise had been docked at Utopia Planetia for less than two hours when the priority communique from Admiral Whitlock came through. Jim raised an eyebrow at the unexpected hail and instructed Uhura to put it through on the main screen. He straightened in the command chair as the connection was established, nodding a polite greeting to the woman who appeared on the screen.

“Captain Kirk!” Whitlock hailed him. “Good to see you back in one piece. I assume you’re in one piece, anyhow. Anything major necessitating your docking at the shipyards?”

“Good to be here, Admiral,” Jim returned smoothly. “And no, we’re in pretty fair shape. Just stopping in on our way through, as per Command’s request for an assessment of the Enterprise’s condition and a few upgrades. They tell me that they’ve got some shiny new toys to add to our weapons and sensory arrays.”

The admiral nodded absent acknowledgement, eyes flicking past Jim at the sound of the Bridge doors hissing open. Jim’s eyes narrowed briefly at the pleased smile that spread across her face. That look couldn’t mean anything good, especially not if the new arrival was who Jim thought it was.

“Doctor Grimm,” Whitlock said, confirming Jim’s suspicions. “Just the man I wanted to see.”

“Admiral,” Bones said and Jim could hear the wariness just under his neutral tone. “You were looking for me?” he continued as he assumed his usual position at Jim’s shoulder.

“We were,” Whitlock agreed. “You couldn’t have picked a better time to put in at Mars.”

Oh shit. That...was even worse than Jim had thought and he jumped in before Whitlock could put Bones any more on the spot.

“Something happening down on Mars, Admiral?” he asked, all casual interest. He wished he could turn around and check on Bones. He’d spent more than four years very carefully not asking about Mars but he knew it was a sore spot.

“Indeed there is, Captain,” Whitlock answered, voice as full of false ease as Jim’s own. "We've been getting some odd reports from sectors near the old UAC facility."

Bones visibly flinched, the movement registering in Jim's peripheral vision.

"Olduvai?" Bones demanded. "It's still there? After everything that happened?"

"The site was thoroughly scanned before the foundation of any Martian colonies, Doctor," Whitlock told him, tone sharpening in warning. "It was determined to be sealed and inert. It was declared off-limits as a precaution but there's never been any indication of trouble."

"Until now, I take it?" Jim cut in, drawing her fire.

Whitlock nodded reluctantly, annoyance giving way to concern. "Some of the colonies have been reporting unusual seismic activity and anomalous energy readings, apparently centred on the Olduvai ruins.”

Jim glanced over his shoulder at the rough hitch in Bones' breathing and was dismayed at what he saw. Bones looked like he’d been sucker punched, posture stiff and eyes gone wide and dark. Jim hadn’t ever seen Bones this unsettled and he did not like it.

“Spock?” Jim said into the unusual quiet of the Bridge.

Spock was already at his terminal, scanning the data scrolling across his screens.

“There are some highly unusual readings emanating from the coordinates identified by Admiral Whitlock,” Spock confirmed calmly. “They do not match any energy signatures with which I am familiar. In addition, there is continued seismic activity in the region — activity which does not appear to be following the expected patterns of tectonic motion or pressure.”

“That's what got our people to worrying," Whitlock said. "But when we sent a team in for a close-range evaluation of the phenomenon, they found signs that someone had broken into the facility —"

“You let people go back in there?” Bones interrupted. “Are you crazy?”

"It might surprise you to learn that Starfleet has more pressing demands than staffing a guard post on an abandoned research project," Whitlock snapped at him. "We have bigger concerns than monitoring ancient history for potential trespassers."

“Nothing ‘potential’ about this, is there?” Bones retorted, ignoring the flush of anger creeping over Whitlock's cheeks. “So what are you waiting for? Cut your losses and blow the facility off of the damn planet. That'll take care of whatever's left down there.”

“While I appreciate that your past experiences might be colouring your opinion of the place,” Whitlock’s tone implied precisely the opposite, “bringing the facility down on the heads of the people lost inside is not an option.”

“I take it that’s where we and our well-timed visit come in?” Jim broke in, shooting a quelling look at Bones.

“Doctor Grimm is the only member of the Fleet with firsthand knowledge of the Olduvai site," Whitlock said flatly. "He’s got the best chance of finding out what's going on down there.”

“If you think I’m going back —” Bones started.

“Doctor Grimm!” Jim cut him off sharply. This was not the time to let Bones exercise his willingness to voice his opinion, regardless of the authority giving the orders. “My ready room. Now.”

Bones rounded on him but stopped himself short at Jim’s scowl.

Let me handle this, you stubborn bastard! Jim thought as Bones’ eyes searched his face.

To his relief, Bones’ shoulders slumped and he nodded shortly. Jim watched as he stalked across the bridge and disappeared into his ready room.

“Excuse the doctor, Admiral Whitlock,” Jim forced himself to say, layering an apologetic front over his own anger and worry. “It wasn’t an easy time for him. You know how it goes.”

Whitlock sighed and shook her head. For a moment, she actually looked sympathetic and that, as much as Bones’ vehement refusal, chilled Jim’s blood. “More than any of us know, most likely,” she agreed heavily. “But someone’s got to go down there, Kirk. We can’t take any chances — we can’t lose Mars.”

"Lose Mars?" Jim repeated, startled.

Whitlock hesitated, then sighed. "The effects are spreading," she explained tensely. "Several minor quakes have been triggered and the irregular energy readings are increasing in intensity. They're being detected over greater ranges every day. Even some of Earth's long-range sensor arrays are beginning to register some of the anomalies."

Jim swore mentally. Mars was Earth's nearest neighbour and oldest colony. Any hint of a threat to the planet was an unacceptable danger to Earth and the Federation itself, especially after the destruction of Vulcan.

“Understood, Admiral,” Jim said smoothly. “Please send us whatever data is available and I’ll get a team assembled as soon as possible.”

Whitlock nodded a brief acknowledgement. “Done. Good luck, Captain,” she said as the screen went blank.

Jim sighed soundlessly as Whitlock’s image was replaced by the lattice of the orbital dockyards. He was going to need luck to get this sorted. After confirming that they’d received the information Whitlock promised, he turned command over to Spock and headed for his ready room.

Bones was pacing when Jim stepped through the door, walking agitated loops in the limited space of the ready room. He barely glanced over as the door slid shut behind Jim but he did slow to a halt, fetching up against Jim’s desk.

“Have a seat, Bones,” Jim instructed, heart sinking at Bones’ hunch-shouldered slump into the chair.

He perched on the edge of his desk rather than circle around to his own seat, almost close enough to touch.

“So,” Jim started. “Mars, huh?”

Bones shot him a disgusted look. “Yeah, Mars. This isn’t a surprise to you, Jim.”

“Of course not. But it sounds like I’m missing quite a story there,” Jim commented lightly.

“Whatever story that place has to tell, it’s been dead and buried for a few hundred years and it should stay that way,” Bones replied fiercely. “There’s nothing there that Starfleet Command needs to know about.”

“You think I’m asking for them?” Jim snorted. “The admiralty can take a flying leap. It’s you I’m worried about. Something about this place has you running scared.”

Tension had pulled Bones so tight that he looked brittle. “Yeah, well if I’m scared maybe you should take the hint. Leave it alone.”

“I’m sorry, have you met me?” Jim asked. “How likely do you think that is, really?”

“Goddamn it, Jim,” Bones grumbled but Jim could hear his resistance starting to falter.

“Talk to me, Bones,” Jim urged, quietly insistent.

Bones exhaled a long, shaky breath, eyes fixed on his clenched hands, resting on the table in front of him. “It’s really not a pretty story,” he protested thinly.

“I still want to hear it,” Jim said simply.

“No one should have to hear about Olduvai. Not ever again.”

It was a bleak whisper and it traced a chill down Jim’s spine.

“Olduvai?” he prompted softly.

“Olduvai...was a research facility,” Bones began reluctantly. “That’s a matter of record, it was on all the paperwork and PR crap. Hell, you’ve probably seen the name before, if you did any poking into my background. What the UAC kept under wraps was the fact that the whole facility was built on an archeological dig, some ancient civilization that no one recognized, with technology like nothing we’d ever seen.”

Jim bit down a sharp exclamation. Screw the superhuman supersoldier thing — Bones had been sitting on a secret like that for two hundred and fifty years?

Bones caught his reaction and gave him a half-twist of a humourless smile.

“Oh yeah. It was the basis of all the research being done there, everything from genetics to energy development to teleportation,” he continued. “Only something went wrong and they opened up some kind of rift to somewhere else, someplace nasty. And these things came through — they tore up the whole place. That’s when my team got called in. I was the only one who made it out. And by the time I did, I wasn’t exactly the same guy who went in.”

“Jesus Christ, Bones,” Jim rasped as Bones fell silent. So that was what it took to create a man like Reaper. Jim was starting to regret having asked.

“Christ has nothing to do with what happened there,” Bones said flatly. “Biggest discovery in human history and what did we do with it? Turned it into some kind of interdimensional clusterfuck and then buried the evidence.”

“Seems like they did a pretty good job of keeping it quiet,” Jim found his voice to remark. “I take it you had something to do with that?”

Bones nodded tiredly. “I was the only one left who knew what really happened and I blew the place up behind me. So when I got out, I lied my ass off and ran like hell as soon as I was sure the UAC wouldn’t send in any more recovery teams.”

Based on what he’d heard, Jim didn’t blame him. At all. “I’m getting the impression that it wasn’t a big loss.”

“It wasn’t,” Bones assured him. “Even before things went to hell, there wasn’t a person who went to Olduvai that didn’t come out...different. And then there’s me, of course.”

Jim’s stomach twisted at the harsh bark of bitter laughter.

“I grew up in that pit and I’m one of the only ones who ever walked back out. What that does that tell you?” Bones asked, voice thick with distress.

Jim answered without thinking. “That the worst place in the universe can still turn out the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Bones’ head snapped up at he stared at Jim in open astonishment, a long moment of shocked silence stretching between them.

“I don’t believe you just said that,” Bones finally said.

I don’t believe I just said that,” Jim told him with a grimace. “Fuck, that was disgusting.”

Despite the blow to Jim’s ego, the ridiculous display of sentiment was almost worth it for the way it made Bones laugh.

“You know they’re going to make me go down there,” Bones said after his hilarity had faded into strained silence. “Even if I decided being kicked out for gross insubordination would be worth it, they’d just send someone else in and I can’t — that’s not something I can accept.”

“Wish I could arrange otherwise,” Jim told him, “but yeah. I can’t see this going any other way.” Whatever warnings Bones might issue on the matter, Command would feel the situation on Mars needed to be investigated.

By the way Bones set his jaw, Jim knew he wasn’t going to like whatever he said next. “You’re not going in with me.”

“Like hell I’m not,” Jim countered automatically.

“No. Really. You can’t,” Bones insisted.

“Actually, seeing as I’m the captain of this ship and your immediate superior officer, you’ll find that I damn well can,” Jim informed him coolly.

“This has fuck all to do with you being the captain!”

Jim crossed his arms, eyes narrowing as he glared at Bones. “Fine. Give me one good reason why the fuck I should stay here and let you waltz into the last place in the world you want to go.”

“Damn it, Jim!” Bones exploded, slamming a hand down on the table hard enough that Jim was inanely concerned he’d cracked it. “I as good as lost everything to that place twice. It destroyed my family when I was a kid, and it killed my team the only time I tried to go back. Even Sam — she never got over what happened there.” He swallowed hard, then looked up at Jim. “Don’t make me add your name to the tally.”

Captain or not, it would have taken a harder man than Jim to refuse that quietly desperate plea.

“Okay, fine,” he ground out. “You win. I’ll stay here.”

Bones closed his eyes, breath hissing out of him in undisguised relief.

“But you’re taking a Security team with you,” Jim ordered.

“Not negotiable, Bones,” he added harshly when Bones opened his mouth to argue. “Don’t even try.”

“I — all right,” Bones said, biting off whatever counter he’d been planning. “All right. I suppose they want us down there as soon as possible?”

“Or sooner,” Jim confirmed apologetically.

“All the better to get it over with,” Bones declared and Jim was relieved to see determination in the set of his jaw. “I’m going to go get ready. Let me know when the team is heading down?”

“Will do,” Jim told him, waiting until Bones had left to scrub a tired hand over his face. It had barely started and he hated everything about this assignment already. Talking to Spock after he emerged from his ready room didn’t improve his opinion of the mission any, either.

It turned out that the strange energy readings that were causing such a fuss also interfered with transporters and communications. That was the primary reason they’d sent teams into the facility; none of their instruments had had any luck producing useful scans. Spock, overachiever that he was, had devised a means to force a signal through the outer layers of the interference but anyone venturing into the lower levels of the complex was going to be cut off from any outside aid. Given that this ruined research complex had already swallowed two veteran survey-and-salvage teams, hearing that they’d be unable to pull his crew out if anything went wrong was not welcome news.

Jim left him with orders to make the necessary adjustments on the equipment for the team that would shortly be dispatched, then took his own leave to prepare the team assignments. Bones was right — best to get this done and over with. When Jim made it to the transporter room to see them off, Spock was already present and handing out recalibrated communicators to the away team. Bones was there too, paying half-hearted attention to Spock’s explanations about the interference and the limits of their newly tweaked equipment. Jim, having already heard Spock’s science spiel, was more interested in Bones’s attire.

“Nice look, Bones. Streamlining?” Jim wondered aloud, taking a moment to appreciate the view.

Somewhere along the line, Bones had abandoned his blue medical tunic. Technically, Jim supposed that turning up wearing just the black pants and undershirt counted as being out of uniform but he wasn’t going to enforce that rule. If dressing up like a Risan dancing girl would have helped Bones get through this, Jim wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Well, okay, he would have. But he’d have waited until they got back to start being a smartass about it.

“No need to walk into hostile territory announcing yourself with pretty colours and shiny gold bits,” Bones answered irritably, eyeing his escort. “I’d be happier if I could get these guys to ditch the red shirts.”

“We’ll be fine, Doctor,” the security lieutenant replied with strained patience. “If you’re almost ready?”

“Yeah, yeah. Give me a sec,” Bones muttered, picking through the selection of weaponry the security team had amassed. He tucked a handheld phaser into the holster at his hip then startled everyone by grabbing a heftier phaser rifle. Eyes around the room widened as he proceeded to scoop up a grenade belt in his free hand, loop it around his waist and buckle it into place.

Despite his own surprise, Jim had to hide a smile at the suddenly wary looks being directed Bones’ way. Knowing the ship’s CMO had a military background didn’t prepare one to see him transform himself into a walking arsenal.

“Uh, Doctor?” one of the ensigns piped up as Bones shrugged the phaser rifle into place over his shoulder. “Are you sure you’re okay with those?”

Not Doctor, Jim realized as he watched Bones calmly tucking his weapons into place as he took his position on the transporter platform. Not at the moment. Bones had left more than his tunic and his insignia in his quarters. A vicious twinge of misgiving had Jim wishing again that he could tell the Admiralty to shove it.

“Trust me, kid. I can handle it,” Bones assured his nervous escort, hefting his rifle with a matter-of-fact competence.

He looked up and caught Jim’s gaze as the security team divided up the remainder of the equipment and ascended the transporter platform. The tense readiness with which he held himself was unfamiliar but those eyes were all Bones.

“Ready to go, Captain,” he said simply.

Jim cleared his throat and wiped the unease out of his expression. “Get in there, get the answers you need, and get out quickly,” he instructed crisply. “Be careful and come home safely, gentlemen.

“And Bones,” he added, “we’re on for dinner tonight. The mess is making your favourite. Don’t be late or I’ll eat your share.”

Bones snorted, a reassuringly Bones-like sound. “That means that you actually have to save me a plate,” he replied. "Not just eat it all and blame me for being late."

“It’ll be waiting for you when you get back,” Jim promised, nodding at the transporter chief and watching as the away team vanished.

Spock made for quiet company on the trip back to the bridge to finish out his shift and for once, Jim refrained from idle conversation. A distraction would be nice but he’d long since figured out that Vulcans were useless at small talk and he wasn’t in the mood for any more science lectures. There’d be plenty of time to discuss whatever the hell was going on down on Mars after Bones got back from his exploratory venture. The team was only scheduled to be gone for a few hours, just enough time to take some readings and poke around a bit, see if they could find any sign of the missing personnel. Jim had managed to spare Bones that much; he wasn’t expected to survey the whole facility in detail.

Jim felt nervous eyes on him from the moment he emerged from the turbolift so he put extra effort into his careless saunter to the command chair. The crew was supposed to pay attention to the captain but this degree of surveillance went a bit beyond duty. He wondered if his own unease had communicated itself to the crew or if word of Bones’ displeasure had spread. Bones was generally pretty unflappable; it would make sense if the crew were concerned after his earlier display. Gossip travelled with a speed any starship’s engines would envy and Jim assumed that by now everyone had heard that there was something wrong on Mars and that their CMO wasn’t happy about it.

Fortunately, Starfleet bureaucracy was pervasive. Even an assignment as simple as docking at the Martian shipyards required compliance with dozens of fiddly procedures which kept the crew occupied, if not unworried. Desultory attempts at his own paperwork meant Jim only checked the ship chrono every minute or so, rather than just watching the numbers change. By the time his shift ended, Bones wasn’t exactly late checking in but there was no way Jim was leaving the Bridge until he’d heard something. When he blithely waved off Spock’s attempt to relieve him, Spock was kind enough to accept the dismissal with nothing more than a mild eyebrow quirk of bullshit detection.

By the time the away team was four hours overdue, however, Jim had given up all pretenses of indifference and the bridge was humming with silent tension.

“I have them, Captain!” Uhura called suddenly, voice sharp with something that wasn’t relief and Jim’s stomach twisted unpleasantly.

“Put it through,” Jim ordered immediately. The transmission crackled to life before he’d even finished speaking; Uhura must have been waiting for the command.

“— Enterprise! Lewis to Enterprise!” one of the security lieutenants was shouting, static hissing thickly over the words. Phaser fire was clearly audible in the background. “There’s something down here — we need help!"

"Spock," Jim started.

"We are currently unable to achieve a transporter lock on the members of the away team," Spock told him. "The interference is too strong. The signal enhancement on Lieutenant Lewis' communicator is not sufficient to beam out the away team."

"Lewis, get to higher ground," Jim instructed urgently. "You're too deep for a solid lock."

"Higher ground's not an option, Captain! We’ve got three men down and we're barely holding out as it —" Lewis’ voice choked off in a gargled yell.

More phaser fire sounded over the open line, along with raised voices and something — some kind of roar.

“Lewis? Lewis! Kirk to away team! What’s going on down there?”

No one answered his demand in the moments before they lost the signal.

“Kirk to Security,” he said into the heavy silence on the Bridge. “I need another away team assembled. Our people have run into some trouble down on the planet, we’re going in to get them out.”

“Aye, sir. A team will be dispatched immediately.”

“Pull out the big guns,” Jim cautioned, as he stood. “What little we know suggests they’re in the middle of hostile action. I’ll meet you in the transporter room.”

Spock was already making his way to the turbolift when Jim started to ask about communicators for the rescue party.

“Further communicators have already been recalibrated,” he explained, lifting one in demonstration. “It seemed a reasonable precaution.”

“More than,” Jim agreed gratefully, plucking it out of Spock’s hand to examine it. He forced himself to focus on the device and not the seconds ticking past as the turbolift sped down its shaft. Lewis had sounded desperate and he hadn’t said anything about the other members of the away team.

“You know that he would not want you to go down there,” Spock said quietly.

Jim’s head snapped up in surprise. “He what?”

“It is not your practice to send subordinates into danger while you remain on the ship, especially not when one of those subordinates is Doctor Grimm. However, it is clear that the doctor was distressed by the order to return to the Olduvai complex. Given his reluctance, I can only conclude that you refrained from joining the initial away team at the doctor’s request,” Spock elaborated, watching Jim carefully.

Jim nodded shortly. “Correct, Mr. Spock,” he confirmed.

The turbolift slid to a smooth stop, door hissing open as they reached their destination. Jim was quick to step out of the lift but Spock’s hand closed around his elbow. He huffed a brief, frustrated sigh but obligingly halted, swinging around to face his first officer. “Something to add?”

“I do not believe that Doctor Grimm wishes for you to join him any more now than he did earlier. No matter what manner of problem the away team may have encountered,” Spock told him and Jim could have sworn that that was actual sympathy he saw in Spock’s eyes.

“Probably not,” Jim admitted, with a shrug that only looked careless. “But then he went and got himself into some kind of trouble down there so he doesn’t get a say in what I do anymore.”

“I very much doubt that he will agree with your assessment of the situation,” Spock commented.

“So he can yell at me about it when I haul his ass back on board,” Jim returned shortly. Jim had agreed not to accompany Bones to Olduvai; he hadn’t said anything about twiddling his thumbs when his people were in danger. “We can discuss the finer points of indestructibility versus immortality while he’s tearing me a new one for reckless disregard.”

Spock frowned, eyebrows drawing together before his expression smoothed out into his usual impassivity. “I suspect he will have a great deal to say on that topic.”

Jim recognized surrender when he heard it and tugged his arm free.

“But he’ll be here to do it,” he said as he resumed his progress towards the transporter room.

That was really all there was to it. Bones had his limits but so did Jim. Standing by when he knew Bones was in trouble was well beyond them, no matter how pissed Bones would be after the fact.

The security team was ready and waiting for him when they entered the transporter room. He collected the gear they’d brought for him while Spock distributed equipment and instructions. Jim hastily briefed the team as he armed himself, securing his weapons and the signal boosters that Spock had passed out with the beefed-up communicators.

“We were unable to determine the precise location of the away team,” Spock was explaining as he took up a position at the transporter console, “but our sensors indicate a clear area near the edge of their effective range that should place you in the vicinity of Lieutenant Lewis’ transmission.”

“Sounds good,” Kirk said, glancing to either side of him to check the readiness of the other members of his team. “Anything else?”

“The interference is still too strong to permit for clear scans,” Spock admitted. “I can only advise caution.”

“Noted,” Kirk acknowledged, catching Spock’s eye long enough to let him know he’d heard and understood the warning. He was worried but he wasn’t going to let it make him stupid. “When you’re ready, gentlemen, energize.”

They rematerialized in a dim room, a large one from the echoes their own shuffling movements threw back at them. The air was warm and musty, heavy with the stillness of centuries. Lights snapped on as the security team fanned out, taking stock of their surroundings. Jim swept his own light across the room, finding little beyond cracked walls and dark equipment. The place was awash in personal detritus; fragile leaves of paper, empty cups, a pair of antique eye glasses, a collection of unfamiliar items surrounded by even less familiar machinery.

Olduvai had been a research facility. If Jim had to guess, he’d say this room had been some kind of laboratory. To his surprise, a few of the light panels were flickering faintly. The initial survey teams must have carried in and installed some power cells. The overall effect wasn’t reassuring, despite the lightening of the oppressive darkness.

“Ensign?” he prompted.

N’Choa lifted his head from the tricorder readings. “Conditions are safe, Captain. But the interference continues to affect our equipment.”

Jim bit down on a sigh of relief. There was a taste of something unpleasant on the air and it had worried him. “Good. Do what you can to get us a reading on the layout of this place. And let me know as soon as you find any clue as to where our people might be.”

The rest of the team had finished securing the room and arrayed themselves in defensible positions as a pair of them examined the door. The mechanisms were intact, they told Jim. Getting out shouldn’t be difficult. He stepped back and let them work, conversing quietly with the security lieutenant about how to proceed. When the door locks finally gave way, the team was ready to go.

The lab had been creepy enough, abandoned and in disarray, but the corridors were much worse. Power trickled only fitfully through the hallway systems, touching off unreliable fits of brightness. The team moved carefully through the shifting darkness but their shadows moved with them and it set all their nerves on edge. The shifting of loose debris on the walkways under their feet didn’t help, necessitating that they watch their footing as well as the empty spaces yawning to either side as corridors branched off into nothing. The walls reflected more noise than light, confusing their ears with the multiplied sound of their own passage.

N’Choa broke the tense silence to say, “I’m getting some really strange energy readings,” just as Jim noticed the hallway brightening with a weird orange light. From the way their shadows stretched jaggedly in front of them on the increasingly-visible walls, the source of the light was somewhere behind them. The foremost pair held their position as everyone else turned around for a better look. The mouth of the cross-corridor they’d passed about fifteen feet back was illuminated by a warm orange glow. It continued to brighten as they watched.

“What the hell is that?” someone muttered as something drifted slowly into view.

Jim was wondering that himself, squinting at the mysterious object. It was pale, round, and apparently floating under its own power, hovering about six feet above the floor. And it appeared to be on fire. Jim’s hands automatically tightened on his phaser rifle as the burning...thing bobbed further into the hallway, slowly rotating in place.

“Oh my fucking God,” Jim heard someone else say as the object’s lazy spin revealed that it had a face.

It was a head. A bald, disembodied head, hanging in midair. And it was on fire.

“I think this is the part where we try talking to it,” Jim forced himself to say, keeping his voice steady. Freaky as it looked, a flaming, misshapen lump of waxy flesh wouldn’t be the strangest sentient lifeform the universe had to offer.

And the candle head did react to the sound of his voice. Unfortunately, its reaction consisted of dropping its jaw unnaturally wide and screeching before it launched itself at them in an alarming burst of speed.

“On second thought, forget talking!” Jim shouted, raising his weapon. The security officers beat him to it, phaser bolts lancing out and staggering the thing’s approach. It absorbed a couple of strikes before vanishing with a grating hiss and a quickly-fading bloom of flame.

Unfortunately, it had friends. Four more candle heads drifted into the hallway. They reacted far more quickly than the first one had, almost immediately orienting themselves and speeding into the skirmish. To everyone’s relief, they were as easily dispatched.

Jim frantically tried to blink away the afterimages, squinting through the vivid washes of colour overlaid on his view of the newly-darkened hallway. He was starting to get a real appreciation for why Bones had been so adamant about not coming back to this place. When they got out of here, he thought he might take up Bones’ cause of getting Olduvai wiped off of the planet.

“Everyone all right?” he checked, reassured by the prompt chorus of affirmations. “Right. Then what say we get a move on so we can get out of here?”

Bones hadn’t offered too many details about Olduvai’s layout. Simple observation was enough to learn that most of the complex was subterranean, exacerbating their problems with scanning through the interference from the ship. In hindsight, Jim wished he’d asked a few more pointed questions. Like how damn big was the place? And where might one go to find wayward survey teams?

...Although the sound of yelling and phaser fire might be a clue.

The team went on alert, hands on weapons and eyes scanning the gloom for some sign of what was happening. Jim shook his head in frustration as he swept the corridor. The echoes were too disorienting to trust.

“Where’s that coming from?” Jim demanded of N’Choa, already studying his tricorder readings.

“I think — That way!” he said, pointing.

They followed his direction as quickly as they dared. As much as they wanted to find their missing crewmates, leaving themselves exposed to anything else that might blunder in from a cross corridor wasn’t an option. Stumbling out of the cramped hallway onto a raised walkway circling the top of another large, dimly-lit laboratory was something of a relief; at least now they could see the weirdness coming. Even better, it gave Jim a clear view of Ensign Heynor advancing cautiously into the room from one of the floor-level doorways.

“Clear!” she called over her shoulder.

Oh thank fuck. Jim clamped down on an incoherent rush of relief when Bones backed into the room from the corridor behind her, weapon trained on the shadowy doorway from which he’d emerged. Both of them were the worse for wear and they were four men short but Bones was there. Four condolence letters wouldn’t be any fun to write but at least Jim wouldn’t be writing them alone.

Bones stopped to fiddle with the control panel beside the entryway, shoulders relaxing slightly as the door slammed shut. He joined Heynor, saying something Jim couldn’t make out, and they moved further into the room. It only took Bones a couple of seconds to spot Jim and the others clustered on the upper level walkway and he reflexively raised his weapon, snapping a warning to Heynor. Even at this distance, Jim could see the surprise on Bones’ upturned face as he recognized them.

“Goddamnit! What the hell are you doing here?” he shouted up at them.

“You were late!” Jim called back with a grin, too pleased to see Bones to be properly contrite. “What did I tell you about that?”

Jim hadn’t known that Bones could curse like that. He’d have to remember some of those phrases.

“You about ready to get out of here?” he asked, pointing a thumb over his shoulder. “Our ride’s waiting.”

Bones’ response was lost under a deep, coughing roar. The opposite corner of the room, previously obscured by shadow, abruptly lit up as a fireball streaked towards Jim and his security team. They scattered as best they could, hampered by the limited space of the walkway. Jim felt hands on his shoulders, shoving him towards the safety of the stairway leading to the floor. He flung himself down the first flight, one hand catching the railing as the other steadied the officers hurtling after him.

N’Choa and Kallings had ducked back into the corridor for cover. Hexen and Parsons never got the chance to move before the fireball slammed into them.

“Shoot the son of a bitch!” Bones was shouting at Heynor, suiting action to words as he opened fire.

The flash of the phaser bolts showed a bulbous red shape, reflected off of rows of teeth and horns as it glided closer. This thing was no floating head; the round mass of its body looked to be nearly five feet across. Jim scrambled down the stairs, Harris and Lawlor at his heels, as the red thing’s mouth gaped open and it spat another fireball at them. Bones and Heynor kept firing as Jim and the others clattered to the bottom of the stairs, raising their own weapons. The thing shuddered under their combined fire, eventually disappearing in a burst of flame similar to the one that had consumed the candle head-things that had attacked them in the hallway.

There was no point in asking if everyone was okay, Jim realized, staring at the too-still, blackened bodies he could see lying on the grate of the walkway over their heads. He hadn’t been hurt and it seemed as if Harris and Lawlor had also escaped without injury.

“Bones?” he asked, turning to examine him and Heynor. They looked even more battered up close, uniforms torn and liberally splattered with blood and other gore. Jim was still ridiculously glad to see him.

Bones shook his head. “We’re okay,” he dismissed. “The others...are gone.”

Jim hissed a frustrated breath. He’d been expecting that but having it confirmed didn’t make him a happy captain. “I’m starting to see why you’re holding a grudge against this place.”

“That would be why I wanted you to stay away from it,” Bones retorted, the lines of strain on his face deepening as he scowled. “Which we are going to have words about after we get out of this hellhole. You said something about a ride?”

Jim nodded. “We’ve got to get a level or two higher but Spock’ll beam us out as soon as we get past the worst of the interference. Lawlor, Harris. Check out the integrity of the stairs.”

They’d taken at least a couple of direct hits from the red thing’s fireballs and Jim wasn’t inclined to take chances with the architecture. There were enough things trying to kill them in here already.

Stepping away from the flimsy cover the stairs had provided, he craned his head to check on the remaining pair of his team. They’d survived the thing’s attack, he was glad to see. N’Choa was peering over the railing at them and Kallings was picking his way across to see if there was anything to be done for Hexen and Parsons. The slow shake of his head, barely visible at this angle, was no real surprise.

That was six down, and yeah, Jim was really sympathizing with Bones’ hate-on for this place.

“You two keep an eye on things from there until we figure out a safe way to get back up to you,” Jim called, waiting until N’Choa and Kallings acknowledged his order before turning his attention to the investigation of the stairs. Lawlor was making his way up, pausing to test the solidity here and there. So far, so good, it seemed.

“Did you hear something?” he heard Kallings ask.

“The creepy head-things didn’t make that noise before,” N’Choa replied dubiously as they moved closer to the doorway, weapons at the ready.

They all heard the loud crackling and a rising, nerve-shredding hum. There was something lighting up the hall from which they’d entered, something that flared a bright orange-yellow.

“Oh God,” Heynor whispered and from the corner of his eyes, Jim saw her go ashen under the livid scrapes on her face.

“Fuck, no,” Bones spat, raising his voice to bellow at them. “Get out of there!”

Above them, something shrieked as N’Choa and Kallings opened fire. Lawlor cursed and ran up the remainder of the steps, Harris chasing him despite the way the stairs shuddered under their footsteps. When Jim moved to follow them, he found Bones’ arm blocking his way.

“Let me go,” he demanded, “I have to help —”

“You have to live,” Bones interrupted. “And you won’t do that if you go up there.”

He closed a hand in an implacable grip on Jim’s arm, dragging him away from the struggle above. “Get that door open!” he ordered Heynor, pointing at a sealed portal ten feet to the left of them.

“We can’t just leave them!” Jim protested, tugging against Bones’ grip.

Bones didn’t bother arguing. The bodies that came crashing through the upper railing to land almost at their feet pretty much said it all. Kallings was badly burned, groaning and stirring weakly but Lawlor had been torn open from neck to groin. Jim’s stomach lurched at the gaping wound and he hastily looked away from the slick ruin of internal organs. He forced himself to focus on the fact that Kallings was still alive but unlikely to remain that way if they didn’t help him, and soon.

A body crashed heavily to the grating over their heads and Jim reflexively hunched his shoulders as he dashed the few steps required to kneel hastily at Kallings’s side. Bones followed, muttering a steady stream of curses as he hastily assessed Kallings’ condition. From his strained frown, Jim didn’t think much of Kallings’ chances. N’Choa screamed overhead and Jim swallowed hard when the shrill sound broke off with a gurgle.

A heavy footstep rattled the walkway above them. Jim automatically looked up and shuddered at the sight of the tall, scaly creature leering down at them. Its grey-white skin was pulled taut across its bulging forehead and a multitude of eyes flickered open and shut as it spotted them. Its screech shocked Jim into action and he scrambled to his feet.

“Jim, move!” Bones shouted as the thing lifted one oversized hand, yellow energy crackling around its fingers. “Heynor, get the damn door!”

“It’s open!”

Scooping up Kallings as he rose, Bones shoved Jim ahead of him as they ran for the door. Heynor hovered anxiously in the entryway, jabbing frantically at the panel as they dove through. The door jerked to a close just ahead of the fireball that slammed into the floor outside of it, cutting off the grey creature’s frustrated shriek.

“What is it with these things and fire?” Jim demanded shakily as he leaned against the wall, panting. If the question had an ever so slightly hysterical tinge, he thought that was perfectly understandable, what with eight dead crewmen and a sudden preponderance of monsters popping up out of nowhere to try and set them on fire.

“Who the fuck knows?” Bones answered, busy propping Kallings up as he rummaged through his own pockets. Jim was almost surprised to see him come up holding a hypospray. Kallings was conscious now though in obvious pain, sucking in air in short, whimpering gasps. Bones shot Jim a sideways look, his expression almost guilty as he thumbed the settings on his hypospray.

“Don’t worry, Kallings,” Bones soothed as he set the hypospray against an uninjured patch of skin on Kallings’ neck. “We learned some pretty neat tricks back in the Marines. This’ll fix you right up.”

The lines of pain eased almost immediately from Kallings’ expression and he straightened up, cautiously at first but more confidently as he caught his balance. “That’s great, Doc! Thanks!”

Jim returned his relieved smile, careful not to react to the way the burned skin of Kallings’ cheek split as his expression changed. His heart turned over when Bones refused to meet his eyes, occupying himself with tucking the hypospray away. A neat trick, indeed.

“So where to now, Bones?” he prompted, kindly ignoring Bones’ slight start at his even tone. “You know this place best.”

“That way,” Bones said, gesturing ahead after a moment’s hesitation. “We found one of the salvagers’ setups when we were scouting earlier. It’s our best bet for a safe place to regroup.”

Jim nodded thoughtfully. “How long?” he asked, deliberately flicking his eyes over at Kallings before raising his eyebrows.

The hesitation lasted a bit longer this time. “Not long,” Bones finally said. “It’s not far.”

“Let’s get a move on, then,” Jim instructed. “Keep your eyes open, everyone.”

He fell into step beside Bones as they set out, nudging him with his shoulder. Bones glanced over and Jim flashed him a quick, sympathetic grimace. “Only thing you could do, Bones,” he muttered under his breath.

Bones shuddered and blinked hard before tipping his head in acknowledgement, then resolutely focused his attention back to their surroundings.

Jim followed suit, turning his thoughts away from the potential combinations of nerve-deadeners and stimulants that would keep a dying soldier on his feet. A killer cocktail and the only mercy Bones could afford to dispense at the moment. Goddamn this place and what it was forcing Bones to do. At least their luck was kind enough to hold out, seeing them through to Bones’ proposed refuge without anything more disturbing than a few more candle heads.

Funny how quickly your standards can change, Jim mused as he shot another one out of the air. Unnatural and unsettling creatures weren’t enough to cause alarm any more. Now they had to be unnatural, unsettling and outright deadly. The candle heads were still a bit disturbing but they didn’t stack up against the other monsters this place had to offer.

The salvagers’ camp was tucked into a small, reassuringly well-lit room branching off one of the main corridors. Jim figured it for an old supply depot, which Bones confirmed when he asked. The salvagers had managed some impressive work for the limited time they’d had. Jim saw that he’d guessed right on the power cells; there was a small cluster of them set up and patched into an open systems panel. They’d even gotten to work on the complex’s database, it seemed. Archeology wasn’t Jim’s specialty but he recognized a data retrieval system when he saw one spread out over a cracked-open ancient computer.

There was no sign of the salvagers themselves, beyond a spray of dried blood against one wall. They’d left their equipment behind but no clue about where they’d gone. Given what he’d already seen today, Jim didn’t think there’d be anything left of them to find by now. Bones ushered them into the room, set Heynor to keep watch and saw Kallings patched up and settled on a patch of cleared space before drawing Jim aside.

“The room is secure,” he began in an undertone. “Keeping watch is just giving something Heynor to do. With the door shut, this place is as safe as it gets here. Kallings will start going downhill soon but there isn’t much I can do for him. I’m thinking our best bet is the power cells there. You’re the genius — you think you can rig up some way of jacking that signal booster?”

“I can sure as hell try,” Jim told him, a few tricks already coming to mind. “And what are you going to be doing while I save our asses?”

“Giving you the chance to pull off another miracle,” Bones answered gently.

Jim was confused for a split second but it was half a breath too long.

“Shit!” he blurted in appalled enlightenment, making a grab for Bones. “Don’t you dare!”

“Sorry, Jim,” Bones apologized, slipping away from Jim’s desperate swipe. “I’ll come back as soon as I can.”

If I can, he meant but Jim was helpless to stop him from ducking out and triggering the door to close behind him.

Goddamnit, Bones! Jim raged internally. When they got out of this place, Jim was so not the only one in line for a lecture about charging off into trouble. In the meantime, Jim still had other people depending on him. He forced himself to take a deep breath and arrange his expression into something less furious (and terrified) before he turned around to face Heynor and Kallings.

“Okay!” he said, clapping his hands together. “Bones is buying us some time. Heynor, you make sure nothing nasty gets through that door. Kallings, you get some rest. You can relieve Heynor in a couple of hours. I have got a date with a sweet-looking power cell.”

If nothing else, sorting through the cobbled-together computer systems was challenging enough to provide an absorbing distraction. Under any other circumstances, Jim would have been all over the chance to poke through some of the ancient history that had created Bones. The data thus far recovered by the salvage team was incomplete and corrupted but there were intriguing hints of the crazy experiments Bones had mentioned — and if Starfleet hadn’t had its eyes on this data prize when it insisted on sending teams in after their lost personnel, Jim would eat the power cell that was currently refusing to cooperate with his patching attempts. From the spotty records on the recovery system, the salvagers had managed to fire off just enough information to rouse Starfleet’s curiosity. Though granted, assessing a threat to Earth’s neighbouring planet was a legitimate concern. And the critters swarming in Olduvai were definitely a legitimate threat.

Jim had been struggling with the power cells for a couple of hours when Heynor caught his attention.

“Captain?” she called softly, tipping her chin at Kallings when Jim looked up inquisitively.

Kallings, whose chin had dropped to his too-still chest and whose already weak colour had faded to waxy white.

“Damn,” Jim said quietly. That was nine men down now and Jim was going to enjoy ordering this place blown to dust. “I guess this means you’ll be taking second watch after all, Heynor.”

“Yessir,” she murmured, tightening her hands on her weapon.

Jim returned his attention to the recalcitrant power cell but he wasn’t at work long before he saw movement in his peripheral vision. Or thought he had. When he jerked his head up, everything seemed all right. He considered the far side of the room for a long few seconds but nothing jumped out at him, metaphorically or otherwise.

“Is everything all right, Captain?” Heynor asked uncertainly.

“I thought,” Jim started before shaking his head firmly. “Never mind, Ensign.”

Except that it happened again, almost as soon as he tried to get back to the computer. Heynor noticed something this time too, frowning as she followed his line of sight.

“I think it’s just Kallings, sir,” she offered, walking over to him and crouching to check his pulse. “He’s not quite —”

Her voice choked off as Kallings’ arm swept up and his hand latched itself around her throat.

“What the - Kallings!” Jim snapped. “Stand down!”

He couldn’t see what was going on, view blocked by Heynor’s back as she clawed ineffectively at the hand squeezing the breath out of her. She fumbled for her phaser but he clumsily batted it out of her hands, the movement swinging them around and Heynor out of Jim’s line of sight.

“Holy fuck!”

Jim couldn’t restrain the expletive. Kallings was dead. He had to be. His skin was a mottled grey and his eyes were filmed over. His movements were jerky and uncoordinated. But his corpse was moving.

“Jesus Christ, what the fuck is going on?” Jim muttered frantically, scrabbling for his own phaser, hands clumsy with shock.

Kallings might not have been graceful but apparently he was strong. He wrenched violently at Heynor’s throat, shaking her like a toy. She shuddered and went limp in his grasp.

“No!” Jim shouted in useless denial, closing his hands on his phaser.

Kallings moaned incoherently and flung Heynor to one side, fumbling to his feet.

Jim raised his weapon and fired, relieved to see the corpse stagger and fall. Terrifyingly, it kept moving so he spared a second to reset the power levels on his phaser and fired again. Dead flesh vaporized under the higher power setting and that was enough to put Kallings down again — for good this time, Jim hoped. He watched in paranoid alertness until his hands nearly cramped on the barrel of his phaser but Kallings never twitched and he finally breathed a shaky sigh of relief.

Until he remembered Heynor and pinned her crumpled body with a suspicious stare. One corpse had already gotten up and tried to kill them, what’s to say that this one wouldn’t do the same? He slowly got to his feet and picked his way across the cluttered room, carefully skirting Kallings’ sprawled limbs. He halted at a calculated distance, staring down at Heynor in indecision.

“I’m sorry,” he finally whispered and raised his phaser again. This place was too goddamn dangerous and Jim couldn’t risk leaving another threat at his back.

When it was done, he walked numbly back to the computer and sank into his seat. He slung his phaser across his lap and let himself shake for a few minutes. Ten crewmen down, Bones missing, and himself stuck in this abandoned camp trying to kludge together a means of rescue. Jim figured he was entitled to a minor breakdown.

Olduvai apparently did not agree.

Jim startled out of his chair, reflexively bringing his weapon to bear as something banged hollowly against the door to his refuge. He steeled himself and waited to see if the thing on the other side would batter its way through. Jim was so primed for violence that he nearly shot Bones when the door reluctantly gave way, sliding open to allow him to stagger inside. He blinked owlishly at the weapon aimed at his face, brow furrowing in muzzy confusion. Then his knees buckled, dumping him to the floor face first in a ragged heap.

Jim darted forward, barely remembering to shut the door behind Bones before he flung himself to the floor beside him.

“Bones? Bones! Oh my God, Bones,” Jim muttered desperately under his breath. His hands fluttered uncertainly as he looked for a safe place to touch; Bones was a mess.

He’d been torn and bloodied before. He was even moreso now and badly scorched, to boot. The reek of smoke hung thickly on the air and the rasp of his breath was so alarming that Jim gave up on being careful and pressed a trembling hand to his throat. He’d seen Bones shake off a spear through the lungs, for Christ’s sake. The kind of catastrophic injury it would take to drop him...didn’t bear imagining.

“Jesus fuck, Bones!” Jim sighed explosively when he felt a strong heartbeat under his fingers. “Do not scare me like that!”

Bones grumbled something incomprehensible and twitched under Jim’s hand, eyes clearing as he blinked himself awake.

“Ow,” he said distinctly.

Jim spluttered a laugh, grabbing Bones’ shoulder to help him as he struggled to sit upright.

“If you fell on that, I can see why it hurt,” he remarked, eyeing the object Bones had clenched in his right hand. Jim had been a bit too busy freaking out to notice it earlier. Landing on an object with that many pointy edges couldn’t have been comfortable. “What is it?”

Bones’ knuckles whitened briefly. “A fighting chance.”

Jim tilted his head and squinted at the oddly-shaped brown and gold cube. “So not just a funny-looking paperweight?”

“Never mind that for now,” Bones dismissed, wobbling to his feet. He spotted the bodies before Jim could find the words to warn him. His mouth tightened into a thin line and Jim was oddly comforted to see him look briefly sick as his eyes took in the mottled grey of Kallings’ skin. “I take it things didn’t go well while I was gone? Are you okay? Did you have any luck with the communicators?”

“No, yes and not really,” Jim answered succinctly. What was left of Kallings and Heynor was its own explanation of how well things had not gone but he was alive and he’d count that as a win.

“Shit,” Bones muttered tiredly, walking to the far side of the room and sliding down the wall to sit on the floor. “Suppose you having Spock on the line and waiting to beam us out was a bit much to hope for.”

“Fuck all else has gone according to plan in this place,” Jim agreed as he slumped down next to him. “And speaking of plans, what the hell did you think you were doing, running off like that?”

At least Bones had the grace to look guilty about it. “I — sorry about that. But last time I was here — the last time something like this happened — there was a focal point for it. According to Sam, those things were coming from the labs working on the teleportation experiments. I thought maybe if I could get there, I could shut off whatever the hell is causing all of this.”

Save the lecture about how pissed you are about getting ditched for later, Jim reminded himself. It actually hadn’t been that bad a plan.

“Did it work?” he asked aloud. “Hard to tell from in here.”

“No,” Bones admitted on an exhausted sigh. “The place is still crawling with whatever the fuck those things are. All I managed was — shit, I’m not sure. I think maybe I fell down whatever damn hole they’re crawling out of.”

Wow. Jim hadn’t thought he had any fresh surges of terror left in him. He reached out without thinking, wrapping a hand around Bones’ wrist and squeezing hard.

Bones glanced up at the desperate grip, expression softening at whatever he read on Jim’s face. “I climbed back out,” he added. “And I found this.”

Jim leaned forward to get a closer look at the ornamented cube that Bones held up. It didn’t look like anything he’d ever seen before: an irregular cube with a dull metallic sheen, ornamented with carvings and inlaid golden swirls and cylinders. One of its corners was a vaguely humanoid face sculpted in that same gold-coloured material. “What is it?” he repeated.

“You remember that ancient civilization I mentioned?” Bones asked.

It took Jim a second — the conversation felt days away, instead of just hours — but he nodded.

“I think they left us a present,” Bones said and let go of the cube.

Jim’s eyes went wide when it remained suspended in midair, hovering steadily in front of them. “Okay, that’s pretty neat. What else does it do?”

“It’s a weapon,” Bones answered. “A powerful one. Goes through those bastards like a laser scalpel. At a guess, we’re not the first ones to have a monster problem on Mars.”

“How do you figure that?” Jim asked, extending a curious finger to poke the cube.

“It told me so,” Bones replied as Jim’s finger brushed the surface and a voice of layered chimes whispered into his ear.

We are many. We are one. We are the Praelanthor.
Free us from our eternal prison, and we will help you.
Vanquish our enemies and we grow stronger.
Listen for our call, and then free us, to smite down the evil.


Jim jerked his hand back, staring at the cube in alarmed fascination.

“So," he managed, swallowing dryly. "It, uh, talks.”

“I noticed that, myself,” Bones said blandly.

Jim shot him a glare, mouth twitching into a reluctant grin. “Asshole,” he said, elbowing Bones in the side.

“Takes one,” Bones retorted, nudging him in return.

God, Jim was glad to have Bones back. Sitting there shoulder-to-shoulder as they considered the alien artifact serenely floating between them, Jim felt better than he had since Whitlock’s call. Creepy talking cube and all.

Jim rubbed his hand absently against his thigh as he looked at the weirdest thing he'd encountered in a day full of unnerving encounters. The cube was unaffected by his scrutiny but Jim remembered the undeniable awareness he'd sensed when it had whispered promises into his mind. Whatever else the artifact was, it was no mindless tool. On the other hand, it hadn't tried to kill them yet, unlike pretty much everything else Jim had run into here. And Bones trusted it, like he trusted nothing else about this place.

Jim took a deep breath and let it out in a slow sigh. The cube made as much sense as anything else did in Olduvai and Jim wouldn't throw away any advantage he could get his hands on. No matter how inexplicable it was.

“It says it’ll help us,” he finally said.

“We need all the help we can get,” Bones pointed out.

“That’s for damn sure,” Jim conceded. There really weren’t many options open to them. “We going to make a run for it?”

“Yeah,” Bones sighed unhappily. “It won’t be easy but it’s our best bet.”

“Well, I hope you remember the way out,” Jim told him. “I didn’t exactly get the grand tour.”

Bones smiled humourlessly. “I’ve been trying to forget Olduvai for over 200 years. Don’t worry about my memory.”

He pushed himself to his feet, then held out a hand to help Jim.

“Any idea how your new toy works?” Jim asked as he scrambled up.

The cube had moved as they did, smoothly taking up a position at Bones’ shoulder.

“Yeah, a bit,” Bones said. “It say anything to you about vanquishing enemies to make it stronger?”

Jim nodded.

“That’s about it. You kill things to charge it up. When enough of those bastards die, it’s ready to use.”

“Convenient,” Jim commented. Another good reason to shoot anything that popped out at them.

They took a few minutes to survey their remaining equipment. Once they left, retreating to this flimsy sanctuary wouldn’t be an option.

“Okay, so here’s the deal with the communicators,” Jim said as they prepared to set off. “Even with the power cells, I couldn’t punch a signal through to the Enterprise but I did manage to supercharge the signal boosters. If we can get beyond the worst of the interference, we should be able to yell loud enough that they’ll hear us.”

Bones nodded thoughtfully, grabbing a nearby PADD and stylus. “We’re in one of the lower sections, off of the secondary excavation sites,” he explained, sketching a rough image as he spoke. “If we head out and up, this hallway will link up with one of the major shafts and that should give us a pretty straight shot at getting out of here.”

“Mm-hm,” Jim acknowledged, watching him trace the pathway on the PADD.

“If anything happens to me, you should keep going this way,” Bones started, falling silent as Jim splayed a hand across his over the screen.

“If anything happens to you, I’m as good as dead,” he said simply.

“Damn it, Jim!” Bones scowled at him, clearly wanting to argue but they both knew Jim was right.

“So are we good to go now?” Jim asked with faux-cheer.

Bones stared at him for a long few seconds, then reached out and dragged him into a tight, hard hug. “If you die down here, I will never forgive you, you stupid son of a bitch,” he swore fiercely, then shoved Jim away and stalked to the door.

Jim swallowed hard and resettled his equipment to buy him a few seconds to do the same with his composure.

“Well?” Bones prompted impatiently. “You coming?”

“Lead the way,” Jim replied brightly.



Unlike last time, they were set upon almost immediately after stepping out into the corridor. A small part of Jim’s mind wondered if the increased number of monsters was significant of something; the rest of him was too occupied with staying alive. The first creature they encountered was another specimen of the many-eyed thing that had killed N’Choa and Harris and Jim was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the fuckers were fast and fond of pouncing. Bones’ intervention kept it from getting to him with its claws or fireballs but it had been a near thing for a few terrifying seconds. Jim eventually landed a few clear shots and had the satisfaction of seeing it crash to the decking and flare brightly before vanishing.

The candle heads were also out in force but they were easy to dispatch.

“Good cube fodder,” Bones declared with a small, vicious grin as he swept a high-powered phaser bolt across a trio of them.

And cube fodder was a great thing because Bones had been right about it. It was wickedly powerful. Not to mention awfully damned impressive when fully deployed. Jim had looked over at the cube after Bones’ comment and had happened to catch the wash of cool green light that spilled briefly across its ornamental face, his first indication of its state of readiness. A steady golden glow kindled in a few of the carvings on its surface.

Jim startled slightly when it spoke again, eagerly urging them to Use us! as it waited at the ready.

Bones’ grin faded back into tense readiness and Jim watched in fascination as he reached over his shoulder. He stopped short of touching the cube but when he lowered his hand the cube followed, hovering an inch or two above his open palm. Bones tucked his phaser under his arm as he prowled ahead, cube floating before him. It didn’t take long to find something to use it on.

A bright light flared to life as they walked into a terminal room at a bend in the corridor. Jim jerked away from the swirl of gathering power, eyes narrowing against the sudden brightness. The yellow pillar of sizzling energy coalesced into a tall, gaunt humanoid with dead white skin, hands crackling with the remnants of the fire that had birthed it. It roared at them and Jim hastily dove away from the ball of plasma it flung his way. Bones ducked another blast but straightened quickly and launched the cube at it with a flick of his hand.

The cube’s flight was swift and deadly. The instant it sped away from Bones, an impossible array of blades emerged into being and whirred into motion. Almost too fast to see, the fist-sized cube had unfolded into a spinning cluster of sharp edges that hissed through the air and ripped the monster to smoking shreds.

“Holy shit, Bones!” Jim said as the cube appeared out of the dissipating cloud, blades already tucked away into its typical, innocuous configuration as it sailed back to them and resumed its waiting position at Bones’ shoulder. “Don’t suppose there are any more like that lying around?”

Bones shook his head, almost cracking a smile. “Sorry, Jim. I think this is a one of a kind sort of thing.”

Yeah, probably. If the ancient Martians had had a few more of these, they might still be around.

Judicious use of the single cube they had allowed Jim and Bones to work their way through over half of the distance they needed to travel before they ran into a dead end. Something had collapsed the ceiling of the corridor they were walking through, piled debris now obstructing their route. After a swift debate about how to proceed, they decided to backtrack to the nearest cross corridor. Bones was strong enough to clear a path but neither of them liked the idea of being trapped like that. Detouring around the obstacle would be quicker and leave them both free to act.

“Which way?” Jim asked as they stood between the two doorways.

According to Bones, the left-hand option was the shorter of the two but there were things moving somewhere down that hallway. Even from where he stood, Jim could hear the shrill chittering, undercut by high, thin wails.

Bones grimaced and Jim wondered if he recognized the noise. “This one wouldn’t be my first choice,” he said flatly.

The doorway on the right was silent and a quick sweep of their lights didn’t turn up anything alarming.

“Door #2 it is, then,” Jim muttered as he trailed in after Bones, out in front as usual.



They passed through two sections of corridor without incident before everything went wrong. Jim had just cleared the door to the final leg of the detour when something dropped out of the shadows above and knocked him to the floor. The thing rode his shoulders to the ground, nearly driving Jim’s face into the grating before he could react. He tried to throw it off but it pinned his arms to his sides with thin, hard limbs. He managed a strangled yell as something tore into his shoulder. Something scuttled up to his side, an indistinct, jerky movement at the edge of his peripheral vision, and there was a vicious jab of pain as something buried itself in the back of his thigh. And another in the other leg. He sort of lost track of things after that.

“Jim!” Bones was shouting desperately. “Jim!

There was the sound of phaser fire, scattering the things surrounding him in a flurry of screeching as the one perched on his back shuddered. It was wrenched off of him seconds later and a hand closed around his arm and dragged him to his feet. Jim tried to help as best he could but the onus was on Bones to keep them both moving, since Jim was having trouble remembering the finer points of how to walk. He sort of greyed out while Bones was manhandling him along, coming to with a sharp gasp and a low groan as his back hit a wall, sending pain lancing through him.

“Jim? Oh Jesus, oh God. Jim, do not do this to me. Jesus fucking Christ,” Bones was begging.

Jim’s legs buckled under him and he sagged in Bones’ grip, sliding helplessly to the floor. “Sorry, Bones,” he slurred.

“Don’t be sorry, you stubborn little shit. Be alive,” Bones snapped.

Jim blinked slowly at him. He could barely feel Bones’ frantic attempts at treatment and dimly recognized that the spreading numbness was not a good sign.

“Sorry, Bones,” he found the strength to repeat. “You’ve got to —”

“Shut up,” Bones ordered brusquely.

“But —”

“No buts,” Bones cut him off. “You sit there and you keep breathing and you do what I tell you.”

And before Jim could protest, Bones shoved the cube in his hands and toggled the door open. Jim’s vision had gone too blurry to make out what exactly came pouring into the room but it had way too many legs. He flinched away from the flash of Bones’ phaser, fading eyesight overwhelmed by the brightness.

Use us! the cube whispered in his head.

“You heard it, Jim.” Bones was back and kneeling at his side, pressing Jim’s hand to the cube. “Use it. Now!”

Jim forced his eyes open again, letting his head roll to the side. He shoved weakly at Bones’ shoulder. He didn’t need a good look to know that the things with the legs were still coming. “Get out — go!”

“Use it!” Bones demanded fiercely, refusing to leave.

Jim didn't know how to ‘use it’ but he'd be damned if he was going to be the reason Bones died down here.

Help him, he pleaded silently. Stop them!

His hand was suddenly empty and Jim heard the reassuring metallic clatter of the cube’s extended blades, followed by multiple squeals as it tore into the approaching monsters. He slumped in relief, sinking closer to unconsciousness with every ragged gasp when a surge of energy jolted him. His eyes snapped open and he automatically looked to Bones, crouched anxiously beside him.

“Jim?” he checked worriedly.

“I —” Jim said, jumping slightly as another burst of energy flooded his body. “I think I’m okay?”

Against all reason, he actually was. The pain of his injuries was subsiding into faint aches and even those were disappearing as another pulse of energy warmed him from the inside out. The numbness was thankfully receding under a tide of healthy sensation and his vision sharpened with every steady breath.

“I’m not sure how,” he added as he finished taking stock of his condition, “but I’m okay.”

“Oh thank Christ,” Bones breathed, laying a shaking hand on Jim’s shoulder and squeezing almost painfully tight.

“Do you know how?” Jim persisted. “I mean, you’re the best doctor I know but...”

“Can’t take the credit for that,” Bones answered, voice rough. “Thank that thing.”

He pointed at the cube, hovering complacently over Jim’s upturned fingertips.

“How did it...?” Jim murmured.

Bones sat back on his heels. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “When I first picked it up, it said something about ‘passing on the lifeforce of those we slay.’ I think it’s been helping all along. Even with my advantages, I shouldn’t have survived the trip in to get it.”

So it had saved both of their lives, even without considering its deadliness in combat. Jim wondered how one went about thanking a sentient alien artifact. Patting it seemed a bit condescending and he was just going to blame the urge to hug it on residual shock. Which he should really be making an effort to shake off now, he reminded himself sharply.

“Just keeps getting more and more useful,” Jim remarked, bracing himself against the wall as he gingerly stood up. “Can we keep it when we’re done?”

“Let’s worry about getting out of here before we tackle the question of what we want to bring back with us, huh?” Bones asked dryly, catching Jim’s arm to steady him.

“Fine, fine. Ready when you are.”

It wasn’t much further, Bones assured him as they got back to it. That was a good thing, Jim knew, but he wasn’t thrilled by the way that the temperature was increasing as they progressed. The thought that they were walking into something worse than they were trying to outrun wasn’t comforting. So Jim had hoped he was imagining things. The air wasn’t really getting hotter. And the ambient light wasn’t really taking on a sooty orange tinge. And surely that smell was all in his head.

…Jim used to be much better at lying to himself than this.

He risked a glance over at Bones and his stomach sank at the tight, strained expression on Bones’ face. Definitely not all in his head, then.

“Too far to go back now,” Jim said after he caught Bones looking back over his shoulder for the third time in a few minutes. “Only way out is through.”

It wasn’t anything less than the truth and enough motivation to keep them moving deeper into the disturbingly changed complex. The shaft they were aiming for sat over one of the excavation sites Olduvai had been built to disguise. The excavation itself was heavily fortified but dotted with exit points that would get them to a place they could yell for help. At least, that had been the plan. When they got their first look at what had become of the dig site, instead of hopes of rescue, Jim found himself thinking of frying pans and fire.

The heat was overwhelming, scorching air stinging Jim’s skin and lungs. Wavering orange light added to the effect, fiery flickers twisting at the edges of his vision. The network of catwalks and stairways Bones had been hoping to climb to safety were still there but looked oddly warped, courtesy of the uncertain light. The entire ground floor of the complex had vanished, swallowed up in an immense hole. Jim couldn’t get a good look at what was inside; it hurt his eyes to look at it directly. Besides, the massive monster standing next to the hole was pretty attention-grabbing.

“What the hell is that?” Jim hissed, peering at the thing from the dubious cover of the doorway.

“I don’t know!” Bones answered, voice wavering between frustration and fear. “This place never runs out of new shit to throw at me!”

We are the only way to destroy the enemy's mightiest warrior, the cube chimed abruptly. Destroying evil gives us life, and makes us stronger. Unleash us when you hear our call.

Jim had nearly jumped out of his skin at the cube’s unexpected interjection and now he traded uneasy glances with an equally startled Bones.

“Does that mean what I think it means?” Bones demanded in an undertone, scowling at the cube.

“I don’t know but I’m not in any hurry to jump out and test our phasers’ efficacy against that thing!” Jim pointed out.

They snuck another look at the behemoth lumbering around the edge of the pit. It was easily three times their height, an unholy mishmash of bulging muscle and gleaming metal. The floor under their feet trembled with the force of its steps. It wouldn’t surprise Jim to see the thing shake off their phaser bolts as if they were fireflies. He was willing to bet that they wouldn’t have as much luck surviving whatever the thing shot out of the cannon posing as its right arm.

They’d just have to make sure they didn’t get hit, then.

“Okay, so how are we doing this?” he asked.

“Don’t suppose you’d agree to do the smart thing and get out of here while I take care of that fucker?” Bones ventured.

Jim swallowed his reflexive objection to that idea and forced himself to think about it. Not his preferred choice, needless to say, but Bones’ suggestion had merit. They only had one cube, after all. But Jim had four signal boosters.

“On one condition,” he finally said, fishing out the equipment he needed and starting on a hasty rewiring job.

“Really?” The surprise in Bones’ voice would have been comical on any other day. “I mean, what condition?”

“You take this with you,” Jim instructed, pointing at the boosters he was hooking into a single unit. Even if the Enterprise couldn’t find Bones on her own, Jim could tell them what frequency to look for. Or call out line of sight coordinates for a blind transport, if all else failed. “And you don’t bitch when the Enterprise pulls out in the middle of your heroics.”

“Done,” Bones accepted immediately. “So long as you hurry up about it,” he added, looking over his shoulder.

Jim resisted the urge to check out what had prompted that shattering roar and kept working. It couldn’t be anything worth wasting the time. It only took him a few minutes to finish and he held out the linked boosters for Bones to take.

“You aren’t allowed to die down here either,” he said seriously as Bones tucked the signal device into his uniform. “You hear me, Bones?”

“I hear you,” Bones told him, clasping a hand at the base of Jim’s neck and shaking him lightly. “You just remember to follow your own damn orders.”

Jim thumped a fist into Bones’ chest, unwilling to risk anything more demonstrative. “See you on the other side, old man,” he promised steadily.

Walking away from Bones was one of the hardest things Jim had ever done but he did it because it was their only chance. He stayed focused on the catwalks under his feet, alert for any lurking danger. There was every reason to suspect there’d be some sort of threat, given the number of monsters crawling out of the hole at the bottom of the shaft. They were undoubtedly the targets of the phaser fire Jim could hear as he climbed, Bones’ attempts to charge the cube and turn it loose on ‘the enemy’s greatest warrior.’ It didn’t take long and Jim smiled thinly as the sound of whirring blades echoed up to him, followed by a roar that shook the metal under him.

It left his ears ringing so badly that he barely heard the most wonderful noise in the universe until his communicator chirped again. He nearly tore it out of his pocket in his haste.

Enterprise, this is Kirk!” he shouted. “Enterprise, do you read?”

“We read you, Captain,” Spock’s voice answered calmly.

“It is goddamn good to hear that, Spock,” Jim replied fervently. “Can you get us out of here?”

“We have a partial lock on your position,” Spock told him, “but are unable to locate any other crew members. Who else is with you?”

“Bones,” Jim started but his reply was drowned out by another bellow from below as the cube took another shot at the giant guarding the hole.

“Just Bones,” he continued as soon as the noise subsided. “Scan for the boosters you sent with us,” he ordered. “Bones is carrying three of them. They’re patched together.”

“We are doing so,” Spock assured him and Jim could have kissed the Vulcan practicality that kept Spock from asking useless questions about what the hell that sound had been.

“Make it quick, Spock!” Jim couldn’t help but urge. He knew they were working as fast as they could but still... “We need out of here as soon as it can be managed.”

He glanced over the edge of the walkway to the battle below, relieved to see phaser bolts continuing to lance out from a concealed position against the wall. The cube flickered into view a moment later, blades at full extension and shot out towards the monstrosity in the centre of the room. Jim’s eyes went wide as it buried itself in the centre of that horned head, knocking the giant back into the hole. A low rumble followed, leaving Jim to clutch frantically at the railing as the entire place shuddered around him. He swore when a sudden blast of heat and light caught him in the face, raising one arm to shield his eyes. There was molten rock welling up in the pit now, spilling over the edge and pouring slowly into the bottom of the shaft.

Bones!” he yelled, desperately searching for any sign of him. “Jesus — Get out of there!”

“We have you, Captain!” Spock announced suddenly. “Energizing now.”

Jim had never been so happy to feel a transporter tugging at him. Not ever.

“Bones?” he demanded immediately upon rematerialization, infinitely relieved by the dry comment at his back.

“Right here, Jim.”

And he was. Exhausted and filthy but there.

The hell with captainly decorum, Jim decided, then flung an arm around Bones’ neck, clutching him even more tightly as Bones slid a bracing arm around his waist.

“We are never letting that happen again,” Jim promised quietly. Bones’ breath caught in his throat and he squeezed Jim tightly for a second before he stepped away.

“There’s no place like home!” Jim announced brightly to Spock, standing at the transporter panel and as unruffled as ever by his captain’s exuberant displays. “Thanks for the save, Spock.”

Spock inclined his head. “It is good to have you back.”

“I’ve got one more task for you, though,” Jim said.

Spock raised an eyebrow in silent inquiry.

“That facility needs to be destroyed,” Jim said flatly. “Completely. Can you make it happen?”

“Certainly, Captain,” Spock told him without hesitation. “Should this be accomplished immediately?”

“Yes,” Bones and Jim answered in unison.

“Then I shall return to the Bridge and see that it is done,” Spock told them.

Jim forced Bones to detour long enough to get the worst of the soot and blood off of them before he joined him in a headlong rush to the Bridge. Spock was standing next to the command chair when they arrived, clearly waiting for them. He stepped aside with a solemn nod as Jim approached, returning to his station as Bones assumed his usual position at Jim’s shoulder.

“Are we ready to do this, gentlemen?” Jim asked.

“Yes, Captain,” Spock answered.

The PADD lying on the arm of Jim’s chair lit up and he gave it a brief glance, noting the calculations and damage projections.

“Excellent,” Jim said. “Mr. Sulu. Fire at will.”

Jim watched the displays, viciously satisfied to see the reports of Olduvai crumbling under his ship’s weapons.

“Captain,” Uhura said almost immediately. “We’re receiving several inquiries and orders to desist.”

Jim waited a few seconds to give the order. Just to make sure there was nothing left.

“I apologize, Captain,” Spock offered in a monotone. “Evidently, I neglected to inform the proper authorities of the actions we would be taking. I take complete blame for the oversight.”

Jim waved that away. “It’s been a pretty rough day for all of us, Spock. We’ll get it smoothed over.” He’d always been a big believer in the notion that it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

Uhura looked up from her station, interrupting the stream of apologies she’d been sending. “Admiral Whitlock for you, sir. Urgent and requiring an immediate response.”

“I’ll bet,” Bones snorted softly, eyes still glued to the data scrolling across the main screens.

“Put it through to my ready room, Lieutenant,” Jim instructed as he rose.

He wasn’t entirely surprised when Bones fell into step beside him but he held his tongue until they exited the Bridge.

“You don’t have to be here for this,” Jim tried as the door slid shut behind them.

“Yeah, Jim. I do,” Bones insisted and Jim shrugged.

Bones was a big boy. If he wanted to come be yelled at by an admiral, who was Jim to stop him? Besides, Jim could to admit to himself that he’d much rather have Bones close to hand at the moment. Disaster and repeated near deaths had left him willing to indulge in a bit of clinginess.

Jim settled into his chair and turned on his terminal, flicking a glance back at Bones, at military attention at his shoulder.

“Hello, Admiral. What can I-”

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Kirk?” she shouted. “Destroying the facility we sent you to investigate? Firing on Mars?! Have you lost your mind?”

“I can explain, Admiral,” Jim said calmly.

“It better be a good one,” she warned angrily. “Or I’ll have your commission for this!”

“The destruction of Olduvai was necessary,” he started, stalling for time to think about how to spin his report. He hoped Bones had enough sense to keep his mouth shut and follow Jim’s lead.

“Perhaps I can help to explain the situation,” Spock announced as he strode into the ready room unannounced.

Jim almost raised an eyebrow of his own but signalled Spock to go ahead.

Spock tapped some information onto his PADD before setting it down on Jim’s desk and assuming a stance at Jim’s other shoulder.

“As you can see from the data which I have just sent you, the anomalous energy and seismic phenomena that were manifesting at the former UAC outpost presented an immediate threat to the other colonies on Mars. That threat needed to be addressed promptly and with sufficient force to nullify it. The Captain’s solution was a drastic one but the timeframe was very limited,” Spock explained.

Jim was extremely grateful for his misspent youth right then. If he hadn’t spent so much time in and out of gambling games, his poker face never would have held up throughout Spock’s little speech. Not to mention the mountains of very convincing evidence Spock had produced to support it.

“Sorry if we scared anyone,” Jim interjected, allowing his usual informality to reassert itself. “Like Spock said, we didn’t have much time to act.”

Whitlock had calmed somewhat, paging through the data on her side of the connection. “We’ll take a look through this,” she conceded grudgingly. “But Command isn’t thrilled with your dramatics, Kirk.”

She continued on in that vein for a few minutes, Jim nodding dutifully in all the right places. It took some effort to maintain the careful balance of repentance and confidence that typically carried him through the admiralty’s lectures. The smugness with which he usually consoled himself was markedly absent today, leaving just a desperate gratitude that he and Bones were alive and safe on the ship.

Whitlock seemed to take a closer look at him as she wound down and sighed heavily at whatever she saw. “The report says you lost ten people down there?”

Jim nodded somberly. “We did, Admiral.”

She rubbed a hand over her mouth and sighed again. “We’ll take a look through this,” she repeated, raising the PADD. “Go get cleaned up in the meantime, Captain. You look like hell."

Silence fell in the ready room after Whitlock signed off, broken when Bones slid the PADD over the desk towards him and glanced quickly through the information Spock had prepared.

“‘Presented an immediate threat to the other colonies on Mars,’ huh?” he asked as he scrolled.

“Did it not?” Spock replied, an almost challenging quirk to his raised eyebrow.

“Well, yeah,” Jim admitted. “But how did you know that?”

Spock was the only being Jim had ever met who could shrug so impassively. “Despite your emotional natures, neither of you is inclined towards exaggeration in circumstances such as these. Your appearances and demeanors upon returning to the ship suggested significant distress. If your assessment of the situation indicated the need for decisive action, it is my responsibility to aid you in carrying it out.”

“...You couldn’t just say that you trust us and you’d take our word for it?” Bones retorted but the thin veneer of annoyance wasn’t fooling anyone.

Spock’s brow furrowed in disapproval. “I have come to understand the emotional natures of other species,” he countered. “I see no need to partake in them.”

“We’d be lost without you and your logic, Spock,” Jim allowed, not bothering to hide his grin.

“Logic would dictate that you undergo a thorough medical examination, Captain,” Spock promptly replied.

“For once, we agree,” Bones put in.

“From bickering to ganging up on me in under ten seconds,” Jim complained as he stood up. “That’s got to be a record.”

He let them usher him down to Sickbay with nothing more than token complaints, however. He balked only when Bones brushed off his staff’s attempts to check on him.

“Be sure to jab him with as many hyposprays as you can!” Jim called helpfully as Chapel led Bones to another biobed. “You won’t get many chances!”

Chapel’s cheerful “Yes, Captain,” overlaid Bones’ “Shut up, Jim!” and Jim snickered as the medical staff set to work.

No one found anything wrong with either one of them that a good night’s sleep wouldn’t cure and they were sent off with instructions to do just that. Jim wasn’t terribly surprised when Bones silently followed him to his room, slipping in behind him and stalking around the room. Jim poured himself a drink — after today, he definitely deserved one — and splashed some into a glass for Bones as an afterthought.

“So. Down there. What the hell was that?” he asked as he handed off the glass.

Bones shook his head. “Fucked if I know,” he answered honestly. “Out of control experiments? Extradimensional aliens? Demons? Pick one. I don’t really care what they were. We got out — that’s good enough for me.”

Jim nodded tightly. “Not going to argue with that. At least we made good and goddamned sure that no one else will be getting back in.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Bones muttered and proceeded to do so.

Jim nursed his own drink, waiting for the inevitable explosion. It wasn’t long in coming.

“I just don’t get what the hell you were thinking, going down there!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jim replied breezily. “Maybe something like, ‘Holy fuck, Bones is stuck in his worst nightmare and probably getting killed down there right now’?”

Bones made a sharp, frustrated gesture. “You said you’d stay here!”

“No, I said I wouldn’t go down with you,” Jim corrected. “I didn’t say anything about leaving you to die.”

“You should have!” Bones shouted, slamming his drink down on the table and pacing angrily.

“Oh like hell I should have!” Jim shot back. “Like I could have!”

“Why the fuck not?” Bones demanded.

“Jesus, Bones. You know why.”

“No, Jim. I don’t! Why would you ever think that going into Olduvai was a good idea?”

“You know why!” Jim repeated.

Bones crossed his arms and glared.

“Don’t make me say it, you stubborn asshole,” Jim complained.

Bones’ temper faltered for the first time since he’d flared up. “Jim, I — you can’t.”

“Too late,” Jim told him brightly. “I already do. Have done for years.”

He sighed at the helpless look Bones gave him and put his own glass down before crossing the room to stand in front of him.

“This isn’t a surprise, old man,” he said gently. “Or it shouldn’t be. And don’t you dare try to convince me it’s one-sided.”

“Never pretended otherwise,” Bones conceded, shoulders slumping as his posture loosened.

“You never did,” Jim agreed, edging a bit further into his personal space. It had been a revelation to Jim and was probably the only reason he’d made it out here in the first place. “Did I ever mention that I’m goddamn glad I met you?”

“Likewise,” Bones answered, burying the reply in Jim’s shoulder.

Jim wrapped his arms around him and hung on. This time, neither one of them was in a hurry to let go.

Things didn’t really change much between them after Olduvai. Except that Jim’s tendency to occasionally crawl into Bones’ bed became something more like regular habit. And often involved a lot more than sleeping. All changes for the good, as far as Jim was concerned. If he was going to be next thing to married to his best friend, he figured that he ought to be enjoying all of the benefits.

The crew seemed more amused than anything by the unspoken shift in their relationship, even on nights when Bones had overestimated even his prodigious stamina and been kicked out of Sickbay by his own staff. Jim had shown up in response to their off-the-record complaints to pick him up and escort him back to his room. He’d kept Bones awake long enough to stuff some food into him, then dragged him off to bed where Bones had promptly collapsed into a deep sleep on his shoulder. Jim chuckled at the role reversal and let him sleep, enjoying the warmth of Bones’ solid weight against his side.

He lifted one hand into the air above his face, barely able to make out the fingers he wriggled against the dimness of the ceiling. Just a pale blur in the shadows, really.

Aside from Bones, there wasn’t much certainty in Jim’s life. Futures in the fleet weren’t fixed. Jim wouldn’t mind staying on this ride as long as it lasted but he knew it wouldn’t last forever. There were dangers to consider. Not to mention promotions, retirements, new friends, old enemies and the list went on. But for now? Jim had the best crew in the universe, the best ship in the fleet, Bones napping on his chest and a few years left on their tour of duty. Time to enjoy himself, yet.

He considered his hand again. His fingers moved smoothly, painlessly. Normally that wouldn’t be cause for contemplation but earlier today, a minor mishap in Engineering had left him bruised and scratched. He’d shrugged it off and redirected Scotty’s attention to the mess in his engine room. By the time he’d remembered to clean it off, the thin lines of blood had washed away and revealed unblemished skin underneath. Jim had stared down at himself for a long, uncomprehending moment. He’d tightened his hand into a fist when he remembered a chorus of voices pouring into his mind, a promise of aid and the warm pulses of energy that had saved his life. And maybe more?

The journey was the destination, Jim’d been told. He liked the idea and his life had been one hell of a ride so far. He let his hand drop and shifted onto his side, drawing Bones into his arms. The sleepy snuffle of his breath into Jim’s ear made him smile and tuck his free hand under Bones’ shirt, wanting skin under his palm. Jim didn’t know if he had five years left or fifty or five hundred but he was looking forward to finding out.

Fin


Thank you for taking the time to read this and I hope you enjoy the ride!
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