"I'm never going to forgive myself for not staying with him last night."
"Self-flagellation is a useless exercise, Doctor," Spock replied, face expressionless save for his eyes. They were dark with concealed worry. "We should both have been aware of the ramifications of his being left alone. I admit I presumed he would sleep through the night and that one of us would check on him prior to his waking, given he is not overly fond of early alarm calls."
"You couldn't know he'd only sleep til 0600," the doctor sighed, raking a hand through his hair. "I should have, though. I thought the kid would be exhausted enough to get a few more hours at least. I should have known the stress and biological imbalances would be enough to wake him, and that the psychological ramifications would destabilize him. There's no excuse for a slip-up like that, not in my field."
"Your field does not encompass child-rearing, Doctor, nor does mine; neither are we omniscient. Retrospect, as they say, is perfect vision. Regret accomplishes nothing at the present time save to delay our meeting with the captain."
"Spock…look, it's none of my business how you're coping with this, but you're going to have to stop thinking of him as 'the captain'," the doctor said gently. "Just because he's not a squalling toddler any more doesn't mean he's the Jim Kirk we know. I know you can't wait to have him back in his proper age but this is going to be a problem if you can't remember that he's still a child who needs guidance and care. If you spoil him as an adolescent, I don't care how traumatized he is right now, he's going to be a holy terror when he hits sixteen and wants to know why he isn't man enough to captain his own ship."
Serious as the situation was, McCoy nearly laughed at the horrified look which flickered minutely across the Vulcan's face.
"Didn't think of that, did you? Maybe Vulcan children are intelligent enough to make proper choices at that age, but human children aren't. You can't treat him like an adult yet, Spock, especially not now."
"And how, precisely, do you believe I should treat him?" was the dubious reply.
The doctor glanced at his handheld scanner, which still held the small yellow blip indicating Jim's signal from behind Spock's door. "Like the scared kid he is," he said quietly. "And like the terrified one he had to have been when he woke up six hours ago, sick and malnourished, and very much alone. If we don't handle this properly, we'll be unleashing the worst case of abandonment and trust issues this side of Betelgeuse."
Even Vulcans cringed, he discovered to his regret, but they didn't have time to waste on further beating themselves up over a colossal error. McCoy merely sighed and followed close on Spock's heels as he approached the door. Yes, he'd been a father once, and that was quite enough; while he loved Joanna there's no way in the universe he'd want to go through teenage angst again. He'd forgotten, plain and simple, that he was supposed to be a father figure, because he'd been more than slightly fed up with being saddled with a spoiled Jim Kirk when his more indulgent 'parent' couldn't look after him. He'd let his exhaustion and frustration with the situation cloud his judgment, and Jim had paid the price this morning.
Spock was equally to blame, but he'd never say as much; it looked like the poor guy was beating himself up badly enough over it, non-existent feelings appearing very much in existence right at the moment. They'd messed this one up, and now they had to deal with the fallout.
"Do you want me to wait outside?" he asked quietly as they approached.
"Not particularly, Doctor; unless you would prefer that."
"No, I think I'm going to need to see him as quick as possible; the kid's probably in pretty bad shape."
"Very well, then." The door opened at Spock's approach, and they slipped inside, into a darkened room lit only by the reddish glow of the power-cell-operated meditation aid Spock used on occasion. The Vulcan frowned minutely. "Lights, forty percent. Computer, lower temperature to human tolerance levels."
Fool kid's probably dehydrated and still didn't want to take it upon himself to lower the temperature in this oven Spock calls a living space, McCoy thought with a sigh. The door shut behind them, sealing them into the now softly-lit room. Now to coax him out of wherever he's hiding in here…
They didn't have to.
From the more dimly-lit meditation alcove a sudden rustling drew their attention, and a moment later a small figure peered warily around the partition, wrapped up in one of the blankets from Spock's bed. The doctor's heart broke a little at the sight, though at the same time he was relieved to see that the damage, physically at least, was not as bad as he knew it could have been and expected it to be. The Regenratron's effects had obviously dropped the teenager a few weeks at least, maybe a month, after the tragedies of Tarsus IV. Jim was thin – too thin – and pale, but not emaciated; timid, but not jumpy and refusing to interact with others. It could have been so, so much worse, and he thanked any deity which might be listening that they hadn't gotten Jim Kirk immediately post-genocide. He wasn't sure he could live through seeing the effects of it on a child without having nightmares the rest of his life.
He felt his knees go weak with sheer relief, and fumbled at the back of Spock's desk chair to ground himself as the young man shuffled forward into the lights of the living area.
"Jim," Spock's gentle voice splintered the fragile silence.
"…Yeah," the response was half-spoken, half shuddered, and the boy wrapped the blanket closer around himself, moving into the light. Dull, pinched eyes quickly, too quickly, assessed them both and apparently decided they passed muster. "I'm…okay, I think. Really, really freaked out, but...not like…screaming and running for the hills freaked out? That's good, yeah?"
"Yeah, kid," McCoy breathed, returning the hesitant smile he received, fake though he knew it was on that wary face. "That's really good."
McCoy didn't like how much coaxing he had to do to get the youngster to eat a square meal, but in the end he won out and that was all that mattered at the moment. What was slightly disquieting was the fact that Jim didn't make a peep about the content of the meal, merely consumed it with as little interest as he was showing in anything else – and without a word of complaint regarding the amount of healthful foods in comparison to comfort foods, which was alarming in itself. He complied willingly enough, if a little woodenly, with the series of tests the physician employed to determine his needs, until the doctor started a psychological evaluation.
Jim had outright panicked at that and, rather than risk the adolescent bolting and hiding out until heaven only knew when, McCoy had hastily recanted the suggestion and moved on to a safer topic.
Two hours later, he'd left Jim in the company of a few of the nursing staff, with instructions to keep him occupied for at least twenty minutes. Sad at heart at the entire lack of interest which the boy was showing toward the group of adoring nurses, he then left the ward to meet with an increasingly edgy Vulcan in his private office.
"What's got your back up?" he said moodily, slumping into his chair and glaring across the desk. "I'm the one who just had to practically coerce a rebellious teenager into – God forbid! – talking about his private life."
Spock entirely disregarded his words. "How is he?"
Well, McCoy was used to being ignored. Whatever. "About as I expected; malnourished, though at this point not to the brink of starvation. He's far too quiet, and he's lost all that braggadocio and charisma somewhere along the way. What effects have taken place with his psyche is anyone's guess, yours as good as mine as this point."
"I have been monitoring both of you; Jim appears to be remarkably composed, dealing with the issues with a control of mind and emotion impressive in one so young," the Vulcan observed.
"Yeah, of course he does," McCoy snapped. "We're talking about James Federation-Poster-Boy Kirk here, or did you forget? The man's façade never even cracks unless one of us kicks him off the precipice and the other stands below ready to pick up the pieces. Have you ever known him to admit he needed help or was emotionally screwed up in the head? "
"I threatened him with relief of command over emotional compromise during the incident with that cloud-vampire-thing and even when you backed me up, he refused to talk about it. Well then." The doctor sighed, and rubbed his eyes with the fingers of both hands. "Every bit of psychologist in me is screaming that he's a walking time bomb. And –" He broke off suddenly, and Spock at the same moment sensed the approach as the door opened to reveal the youngster in question.
A quick shake of the head silenced him, and McCoy looked over his head. "What is it, Jim?"
"The ship's slowed down," was the uncanny observation, delivered in the same calm observational tone as everything else the child had said. "She feels different."
Spock's keener hearing caught the sudden swearing under the physician's breath, and he sent the noiseless inquiry of a raised eyebrow.
"Yeah, we gotta drop that disgrace to his profession Bannerman and his cronies off, remember?" the doctor said with careful nonchalance. "Can't be long now. Look, Jim, I don't want you to think I'm hounding you but you really should be taking it easy until your blood count levels come back into a normal range."
Eyes now dark green with wary tolerance rolled expressively. "I'm fine, Bones," the young man said with a flippant wave. "Promise I won't go around fainting on you; I've had a lot worse than a little iron deficiency, I can tell you that."
"And you've had better, which is our ultimate goal," the doctor returned calmly. "No arguments."
Jim held up both hands in an okay-I-give-in gesture. "Whatever. Look, I'm going a little crazy on this ship, can I go ashore with a leave party when we get wherever it is, just for a few hours? See some trees, hear a few birds? I'll even take a royal guard along, since I know that's the first thing you're gonna say."
The request was not surprising to Spock, for he was well aware that two months was about the longest Jim could go cooped up aboard his Silver Lady; that was pushing the Iowa farm boy's limits, not seeing the sky – or alien sky at least – for so many weeks. That was the main reason the captain insisted upon accompanying most landing parties; not from some misplaced sense of defiance regarding safety protocols, but simply that he liked the sight and smells of growing things and wanted to stand on terra firma of some kind more than bi-monthly.
Cyrus III was a lush planet, and would be pleasant enough for shore leave parties provided they steered clear of the infected continent in which Dr. Bannerman and his medical team were to be stationed.
But, "Sorry, kid, no can do," McCoy had already said gruffly, and in that particular tone which threw up the red flag indicating argument would be painfully met. Spock did not quite understand at the moment why the doctor would refuse the boy, but he was not about to argue with a superior evaluation in this area. "You're in no condition to be gallivanting around the ship, much less some random planet."
"I'm perfectly fine," the boy snapped, and for one moment the adult ire at being so treated shone brilliantly through provoked dark eyes.
The doctor didn't back down, despite the uncanny and faintly reminiscent conversation. "You refused a psych eval," he retorted. "You call that normal behavior?"
Metaphorical sparks flew, singeing everything within reach. "As if you would even know what constitutes normal for me, Doctor!"
"It sure as heck isn't raising your voice to me, or refusing a basic medical examination without good reason!"
"My brain is none of your freaking business, that's a good enough reason! You're not my shrink, and don't think I haven't had three of them already by this point!"
"Gentlemen," Spock interjected with such sharp ice that it instantly extinguished the conversation going down in flames. "That will do."
"Yeah, of course you side with him," the young man muttered, glaring at them both. "I'm just an experiment to you, aren't I? The most interesting scientific/medical discovery of the year, that's me."
Spock did not waste energy in contradicting the young man; not because the statement was true, but rather because it was patently untrue and they all knew it.
"Not everybody gets to live the worst years of their life twice, after all," Jim continued with honed sarcasm. "Bet you'll win a Galactic Peace Prize for that paper you'll write about me and my condition."
Seeing that by this point McCoy was fuming, one more sentence short of explosion, Spock cut the tirade short with a sternness which he did not usually condone and had never used with his captain, in any status of life. Nonetheless, it was in this case necessary to do so, if they were to perform what was called damage control between this now-fractured relationship.
"Your annoyance is understandable, Jim," he interjected in the next pause, fixing the child with a stern gaze, "given your innate desire for independence. Nevertheless, while you are not functioning at your peak capacity – and by that I mean your proper age and mentality – then you will be subject to Doctor McCoy's and my final authority. No, this is not an option; it is fact," he added severely, when the young man flushed and opened his mouth to protest. "If you do not wish to comply with our requirements, we are more than capable of dropping you at the nearest Starbase medical facility, where you will remain in protective 'Fleet custody until you have regained your proper age."
Were regret not an emotion, he might have felt it at that instant, for Jim's flushed face instantly went white as a sheet.
Spock more felt than saw the sudden flood of protest about to erupt from the doctor, and shot the human a warning look. Again, realizing that this adolescent needed a stern authority figure in addition to a more human, caring one, McCoy fell silent, silently giving permission for Spock to take on the former role without an appearance of division between both him and the Vulcan.
"You – you wouldn't do that," the child said, deathly still, eyes scared.
Of course he would not; not under any circumstances. But an ultimatum might be in order, if they were to maintain control of the child during these crucial and volatile years. And, if he knew Jim like he believed he did, then if the threat of being left alone did not reach him, a realization of the danger to his ship would be the only thing which might.
"It would not be my preference, Jim," he responded, not minimizing the severity of his tone. "However, if your refusal to comply with regulations put upon you for your own safety endangers this ship which you profess to hold dearer than anything else in your life, then it is my duty as Acting Captain to see that that distraction is removed. You know this as well as I."
The young man was silent, looking sullenly at the floor.
"You will obey Doctor McCoy and myself in areas in which we feel you have need of guidance, or you will be removed from the ship on the grounds that you are a distraction and disturbance to the chain of command of a Starfleet vessel."
"And your idea of guidance means keeping me in a bubble until you're sure I'm not going to suddenly go suicidal, is that it?" Jim snapped.
Spock saw the doctor freeze at the word, eyes flicking toward him. "No one mentioned anything of the kind," he responded calmly, controlling the flutter of fear which had sneaked into his consciousness unaware. "Not permitting you to beam down to a potentially hazardous planet does not constitute keeping you, as you say, 'in a bubble.' Rather, it is standard procedure for any civilian or indeed any crewman."
The child's eyes gleamed with helpless anger. "You said I'm the captain of this ship, in reality."
"And so you are; but at the moment, you are not in our usual situational reality. That is no reflection of your ability, intelligence, or potential; merely a statement of medical fact. Surely you can see this."
"I'm not asking you to plop me on the Bridge in the middle of a battle and let me give tactical orders, Spock," the boy retorted. "I'm just asking to get away from all this for a few hours!"
"And the doctor has denied that request, for the sake of your health and safety," Spock explained patiently. "He no doubt regrets that you seem to take that denial as a personal affront, but that will not alter his decisions."
Below their feet, the ship's powerful engines slowed perceptibly, the reverberating hum evening out into a softer thrum of pulsating energy. They were entering orbit around Cyrus III.
"Bridge to Sickbay."
"Spock here," he spoke into the nearest wall-comm, not taking his eyes off the dangerously defiant features of their adolescent captain.
"Sir, we're entering orbit around Cyrus III."
"Acknowledged. Have Dr. Bannerman and his landing party prepared to beam down immediately; I want them off this ship without further delay."
"I will be up shortly. Spock out. Jim." He turned toward the belligerent teenager. "I will be prepared to discuss matters with you once I have disposed of our current problem; until then, I would ask that you not make rash judgment calls regarding your condition and those around you."
And with that, he left, only hoping he had not performed as hopelessly as he suspected, judging from the entirely unimpressed look upon the rebellious young face. Spock was not a father, and had no intention of being one – and this young man did not need a mere friend just at the moment; Jim needed a constant, an anchor. If he were to sacrifice the child's affection for the present in order to keep the vulnerable mind anchored against the trauma and memories, then that was a small price to pay to regain the exceptional man who had been lost in this transition.
Fifteen minutes later, he began to doubt his own (obviously pathetic) ability to even get through to the child, much less anchor him.
"You're telling me you didn't think to lock his voice commands out of the ship's computer?" McCoy nearly screeched, hands clenched in his hair.
Spock closed his eyes briefly to regain control of his own self-frustration. "I had not anticipated him running away within a quarter of an hour, Doctor, and was required on the Bridge for orbital procedures. When, precisely, would you have preferred I do so?"
"That doesn't matter so much as why aren't you down there getting him?" the doctor snapped. "You can ground him for the rest of his teen years for remote-accessing the transporter pad later, Spock; right now, we gotta get him off that planet!"
Spock resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. "While I am equally concerned regarding his mental state at the moment, Doctor, he is more adult than child now. I have no doubt he will survive an hour on the surface, and perhaps the sight of an agriculturally rich planet will do him good."
"Spock." Looking sick, McCoy stepped closer and laid a hand lightly on the Vulcan's arm. "You aren't getting me, are you?"
"You think I told him he couldn't go, because I wanted to keep an eye on him?"
"Was that not the case?"
The physician gave a sad sort of sobbing laugh. "No, Spock, no…that's not it at all."
"Explain," Spock replied, slanted brows clenched.
McCoy covered his eyes with one hand, massaging his forehead as he spoke. "That kid, Spock, who has just come out of the worst genocide of the century - he just beamed down to a semi-quarantined plague planet."