For: taraljc, for trek_exchange, Round One, pinch-hit
Pairing/Characters/Genre: Gen. Christopher Pike and Winona Kirk-centric.
Rating: T for some language
Disclaimer: As usual, I don't own the 'verse or the people in it, and I'm borrowing them for the purposes of entertainment and not personal or monetary gain.
Notes: I had intended for this to cover a much greater span of time, and I might yet expand it into two or three parts.
He's watched the security vid so many times he can replay the clip in his head if he likes, but he flicks his stylus to the right moment in any case. It's not close-in on the woman's face, but he's used the hi-tech zoom feature in the graphics lab to watch the little things: the way her jaw clicks before she moves, for example. She's surrounded by well-dressed men, and he can only see from her shoulders up, but he feels as if he's watched her movements enough by now to guess that her hands are in fists.
The man directly in front of her is talking and taking notes with mad animation, his head bobbing up and down excitedly. The woman is looking at him, but her expression grows increasingly blank as she answers question after question. She stumbles a couple times – Chris can't hear a thing she's saying but he can see her lips moving awkwardly around the words. She doesn't flush or apologize.
And then. Someone else speaks, and the man probably repeats the question, and her jaw clicks - there. They're looking at her, waiting for something, and she doesn't stand open-mouthed and humiliated. She looks at them and there's nothing in her eyes. He can't see the color, even with the zoom as far as it will go, but they're not even blank, they're space-empty, cut off from oxygen, floating between worlds.
She speaks. He doesn't need sound to know that this is where to insert the words that had been quoted on every celebrity newspaper and Starfleet net board for weeks afterwards, but he wishes he could hear it in her voice. She would probably hate him for that, too – for wanting to capture even that part of her. He's got that little speech memorized, too, and he finds himself mouthing along to it sometimes.
Does anyone have anything to ask me but questions about my husband? she demands. Can someone in the universe find something more productive to ask me? I am a living woman, and no matter how I might wish different, he's been dead for ten months, and I don't think there's anything left to be said on the matter. I need to focus on myself, now, and my children. He imagines that a hint of mania, maybe a small tinge of panic, breaks through the tension in her voice, and she certainly ends on a note of no-nonsense, finality. Every muscle in her body is wound tight, but she gives a small nod afterwards, and he can see how ready she is to be relieved.
There's a moment of hesitation, almost as if someone hit pause on the security feed, and then the fat well-dressed man in front of her says something. No one quite seems to know what he says, because her face becomes a rictus of fury and she lunges forwards, her fist connecting solidly with his face. They both disappear flailing towards the floor, into the mass of suits. Ten seconds pass before she reappears, and thirteen more before the security officers reach her, but she's already calm again, readjusting the shoulders of her tunic and plucking the insignia from her chest as if the motion meant nothing. The officers hesitate to grasp her, but she holds up her hands and turns away from the feed camera to follow them. Chris pauses the vid and leans back in his chair.
Nothing has changed. This is Winona Kirk, the woman who has turned down each invitation to the yearly memorial ceremonies. Who is rumored to have refused Starfleet's support payments. Who, inasfar as anyone can tell, hasn't spoken of her late husband or Kelvin in seven years.
He needs an interview for his thesis.
He convinces himself the use of transport credits is reasonable: if Kirk turns him down by vid message, he'll have to make follow-up attempts to show that he made reasonable effort. If she turns him down in person – possibly with a bloody nose or a broken cheekbone – he's pretty sure his thesis committee will forgive him the lack and say he's done his best.
The possibility of Winona Kirk inviting him in didn't really occur to him – until he stood on her porch, his pitch delivered, pretending he didn't have a hypo of painkillers in his shoulder-bag in case she did resort to physical violence again. He watches her push at the screen door and tilt her head at him, and a flood of confusion washes over him before he realizes the gesture is a wordless come inside.
He follows her, mute and horrifyingly unprepared, into the sitting room. The couch is an unhappy green, the curtains behind it a rich deep blue, and the sun is beating in the window and he's going to be the first person in seven years to interview Winona Kirk. He rushes through the formal language requesting permission to audio-record.
She agrees. He wants to curse, in as many languages as possible, and dance like a lunatic at the same time.
He occupies himself with the PADD. Coding, volume, introductory notes. Names. Dates. As if he's about to forget. He's searching for an opening question that won't get him punched in the face. He'd written up questions, because one day he's going to be a starship captain and he thought he was the sort of man to be ready for that. He tells himself that he's dreamt of being convincing enough, of being the right person for her to talk to, because that's the kind of confidence he should have had. The truth is he'd never come near such a hope, and maybe that's as well, because she didn't invite him into her house because of anything about him.
He looks at her face. She's not at all the woman he's been watching in the security feed. The age difference is very evident, but her facial expression is utterly unfamiliar to him, and after weeks of memorizing the way her jaw clenches together before she punches someone, of feeling as if he knows her, or at least her physicality, it's odd to have her sitting before him so unreadable. So clearly a stranger. This is a vision of her he will never be able to replay, never be able to reanalyze.
She looks up at him, and her eyes widen slightly, as if she's realized something. “I'm so sorry,” she says, her voice utterly unremarkable, “I haven't offered you anything to drink. I'm going to get myself a cup of tea; would you like something?”
“I could do with a tea,” he says, just as unremarkable, and she stands and hurries from the room. After a moment, Chris extricates himself from his very comfortable chair and moves towards the tall bookshelf in the corner. It takes restraint not to pace back and forth muttering, “Shit,” but he's got the poise to do this. He looks for something to talk about in the interview – a medallion with George Pike's name carved into it, maybe, pictures or mementos, which seem bizarrely normal, but not unreasonable now that he's standing in an Iowa farmhouse with a quiet Winona Kirk in the next room. He doesn't find any.
The sound of something shattering breaks the quiet, and he's rushing towards the kitchen before he has time to think about it, because he is command track, after all. She's sitting on the floor, slumped against the cabinets, half-steeped tea soaking into her skirt and shards of ceramic fanning out from her in an arcing pattern, as if she's the epicenter of a seismic event. Her face is in her hands, and she's sobbing.
“Ms. Kirk, are you hurt?” he asks, kneeling swiftly beside her and ignoring the tea and ceramic dust attaching themselves to the knees of his uniform slacks. She takes a shuddering breath and stretches out a hand towards him without removing the other from her face, and he can't tell if she's reaching for him or trying to push him away. He gently grasps at her elbow, moving to stand, to help her to her feet, and they both jump as the screen door slams. She uncovers her face, and it's red and so puffy that he realizes she's been crying since she left the living room.
He follows her gaze to the door. There are two boys standing there, both wide-eyed and still, and he knows from weeks of reading the Kirk records that George Samuel is eleven and James Tiberius is of course seven and he can see the woman from the vid now, suddenly and viscerally, in both boys' faces.
“Mom?” the older boy says, quavering slightly.
And then - there - the shock sliding to fury, and the smaller boy throws himself forwards, and surely these are the motions he recognizes, the physicality he's been studying for a week. The welcome he'd been expecting. The kid's fists are incredibly quick, and he's throwing punches at Chris' hips and stomach and anything he can reach, roaring in fury. It hurts, but not badly enough he tries to stop it – before he's thought to, George Samuel pulls his brother off, holding Chris and the kid each at arms' length because the kid is still swinging. The older boy spins Chris and the kid around and pushes, and he's suddenly aware that he's being marched to the door by an eleven-year-old. He can see Winona's face, puffy and shocked. She's looking straight at him, even as she grabs her still-screaming youngest and pulls him into her shaking arms.
George Samuel guides Chris to the door, pushes it open, and gives him a little shove onto the porch.
“You won't come back,” the boy says, very quietly. And then he turns as if Chris isn't there anymore, moves to his mother and helps her out of the puddle of tea and shards of china, starts picking up the pieces. His voice very calm, he's asking, “Are you okay, Mom? What'd he do? Do you want me to call someone?”
Chris turns mechanically and walks down the steps into the dusty yard.
An hour and a half later, as he checks into his motel, he remembers his PADD, sitting on a table beside George Kirk's armchair.
He's got fifteen hours 'til his transport back to San Francisco. There's nothing to see in Riverside – a look at the 'net turned up a quarry large enough to park a spaceship in, a tiny museum documenting the environmentalist movement in Iowa a century and a half before, some local fluff about a new hololibrary. There are rumors of a Kelvin memorial in the works; he might have to visit again if that turns into something substantial before his thesis is due. He wonders if Winona knows more about it, and how she feels about it. He wonders why she lives in the sandpit town in the first place – if it's sentimentalism, if it's a way to hide. He doesn't have the patience to think about it anymore. He'd gotten so close.
He sits on the balcony of the crappy motel, forgoing the ancient folding chair in favor of the slightly chilly ground. The weather's not too bad, at least, and some part of him wants to jump on his rented cycle and drive – somewhere, anywhere else. To Minnesota – he's heard the southern bluffs have spectacular fall color, and wonders if it's late enough in the year for that – to the 'Fleet base in Chicago; he's going to have to visit eventually to get his hands on the unedited audio recordings from the Kelvin, but before he can do that he needs to get the authorization from an admiral or an Academy admin. He spends about twenty minutes trying to figure out if he could get one of them to approve him for it in the next eight hours, but there'd be too much to reschedule – the transports, the bike rental, the arm-long list of things he's got to do when he gets back to the Academy. Running away isn't the answer. If he wants to be a 'Fleet captain he's got to be ready to be bored sometimes.
He gets to his feet and leans against the balcony railings, and perhaps on some cosmic cue, a red antique convertible squeals into the lot and Winona Kirk climbs out. She's looking around frantically at the doors on the ground floor, and her face lights up when she sees his cycle. He lifts his hand in an awkward wave, and her eyes catch on the movement. Her whole body seems to relax.
He climbs down the stairs. She's wearing makeup now, subtle enough to be attractive, and by the time he gets down to her, her face is schooled into the blank, polite Iowa expression he'd seen before. Chris doesn't speak, just studies her face for a moment, and he fancies there's a trickle of hope.
“You left your PADD,” she says, looking down and dragging it out of her small purse. She hands it to him hesitantly, and he slips it in his back pocket. “I – I'd like to do the interview.” She meets his eyes again, and now she's firm and distinct. “No one's asked me about it in years. Or – or if they did, someone else shut them up before I could answer.” She laughs, and it's full, not embarrassed. “A bit ironic, I suppose. It is what I asked for. Rather vehemently. But difficult as it is, especially after keeping it in my head for so long, I think enough time has passed.” There's a question in her eyes, and he nods as if he understands what she's asking.
“Do you have a place in mind?” he asks.
She laughs again. “I'm not sure my boys would be too happy to see you again, certainly,” she says. “We're a very protective family, you understand – nothing personal. And I know Starfleet's a cheapskate when it comes to travel allowances.” She gestures at the utterly crappy motel, and it's his turn to laugh.
“In this instance, so small as to be nonexistant,” he says drily. “No, I'm afraid the poor taste in lodging is a reflection on my own thriftiness, and not Starfleet's.”
“You're here on your own bill?” Winona says, not trying to hide surprise, and she seems to reappraise him. “I'll get you dinner. Hell, I know a place with a side room; we can do the interview there.”
“That sounds more than amenable, Mrs. Kirk,” he says, utterly relieved not to have to show her up to his room and even more cheerful at the prospect of not eating at one of the cancerous low-budget eateries.
“Hell with that,” she says. She sounds amused, and he keeps his expression carefully neutral at this pronouncement. “On about six different levels,” she clarifies. “Scrap the Starfleet formal-talk, at least until the audio-recording's on. Drives me to diversion, all this insistance on skirting around what you mean. If I'm going to talk about my dead husband, I'm going to have to be damned blunt about things, and I'm not going to want you using the word 'amenable'. Or 'ma'am' – I won't be ma'am'ed at. It's Winona.”
“I can appreciate that,” he says, maybe a bit too politely, because she raises her eyebrow at him.
“You need anything from your room?” she asks. “Then you can just hop in the car, if you don't mind. I'll worry about the driving, Cadet.” She rolls her eyes. “And me just talking about formality – that won't do. What can I call you?”
“Chris is fine,” he says mildly, although really he should say Pike. “It's a beautiful car.”
“It was George's,” she says, almost dismissively. “The boys love it; I was always more partial to shuttlecrafts. It's the closest I've got for now, though, so I fix it up when need be, and as long as it's running, I've gotten fond of it on its own merits.”
Winona drives them straight towards the sun; Chris winces and covers his face with an arm and she laughs at him again. Even if he had seriously considered Winona Kirk giving him an interview, he'd never have dreamed she'd laugh so much. Somehow, in all his time watching her on the vid screen, leaping sharp and feral at the well-dressed man, he'd never quite envisioned her as a real person, as someone who had moved on with her life. As a mother. As someone who made tea the old-fashioned way. As a person with depth and nuances. He feels unbelievably guilty, and the ride to the restaurant is silent.
The guilt doesn't subside when he looks at the credit charges on the menu. It's a nice restaurant – the walls, he's pretty sure, are paneled in red mahogany, which is nearly unheard-of except in antiques. Winona must see the stricken look, because she says drily, “If I was broke, I wouldn't turn down the 'Fleet aid, you know,” and on an instinct he challenges, “Wouldn't you?” Maybe it's not the right question, but it's a good one, because she looks back at the menu with a sad smile.
“I've got boys to raise, Chris,” she says finally, laying aside the coolly scrolling laminate and folding her hands. “Where Sam and Jim are concerned, I've had to lie a lot of things by the wayside. Things I might once have referred to as principles.” A wry smile hints at the corners of her mouth. “Do you want to audio-record? Like I said – I'll be talking very frankly with you. I don't think there's any other way to go about it.”
“Would you prefer I didn't?” he asks, half-standing to slide the PADD from his rear pocket. She grabs it from him the instant it's above the table, her fingers cool.
“Do you have a transcription function?” she asks, eyes narrowed critically on the small screen. “Wow, the '35 edition? They haven't come out with updates for this system yet?”
“I think transcription is an option under the direct-message settings,” he says, and lets her find it. She nods slowly, glances up at him a second, and sets the PADD between them on the table.
“You ready to order?” she asks briskly. He's hardly looked at the menu. He examines it for a moment, then sets it aside, folded careful atop hers.
The waitbeing is there so quickly that Chris strongly suspects there's a videomonitor in the kitchen and a cam somewhere above him; he restrains the urge to search for it. It sets tall, slim glasses of water before each of them and asks if they're ready. Winona orders a small dish of butternut squash ravioli and vegetarian stir-fry, casually requesting a specific Vulcan pepper that Chris can't help but think was certainly never made to be fried in soybean oil.
He orders a large plate of corn puppies and a cup of chili. Winona's taking a sip of water at the moment, and nearly spits it out her nose, she laughs so hard. She chokes, swallows, and continues snorting laughter for nearly a full minute. The waitbeing pointedly ignores her, indicates to Chris the buzzer on the wall should they need anything, and excuses itself back to the kitchen. Winona wipes her eyes and sighs out the last of the sound, shaking her head.
“I take you to Bidani's and you order fair food,” she says, highly amused.
“In honor of the state fair,” he answers, smiling. “Last time I was in Iowa I was eight, and highly impressed with butter sculptures and corn puppies. At the Academy I eat Indian and interplanetary – as long as I'm out here, I might as well get something all-American. You can't find this stuff in San Francisco anymore.”
“Good a reason as any, I suppose,” she says. “We might as well begin transcription, Chris – you never know when one of us might say something worth grabbing.”
“Fair enough.” He spins the PADD to face him and initiates the program with a tap of his finger. “Where should we begin?”
She talks for a while about the things every command-track cadet has heard a hundred times: the scans of the lightning storm. What it had looked like, the way she was unable to look away even through the haze of labor. The enemy ship – everything she can remember about it, the clawlike appendages, the lights. She tells him things that almost any survivor of the wreck can tell, if they were conscious as their shuttles fled, if they can speak of it without their fingers pressed to their lips so hard it might bruise. These are not small ifs, but he pushes anyway. She doesn't laugh now.
Their food arrives; she's quiet for a while, and he's nauseated by the way she transitions from talking about the bodies of friends to single-mindedly attacking her vegetable dish. The Vulcan pepper looks very different fried, plump and shining, almost the orange of California sweet peppers. He watches her eat, and she stops and studies him back for a moment, knit eyebrows and one corner of her mouth quirking. He tries to eat some of the chili. Winona buzzes the server and asks for a chilled bottle of Harvest Moon, and hands it to him. He drinks it quickly. She strikes that order from the transcription, silent and efficent, and starts talking again.
She talks about what it was like to be pregnant on the Kelvin. She hadn't announced it immediately when she knew; she was determined to keep at full duties for as long as possible, and had managed to put off her physical for long enough to delay the announcement. Then she'd been placed on roster for a landing party for a potentially hostile situation. She talks about Captain Robau, and then gently corrects herself, calling him Richard, trying a bit fumblingly to describe the look on his face when she'd explained why she couldn't beam down to the planet. “Amazement,” she says first. “Shock. But no...I suppose it was joy. I've spent years trying to pin down these things – that was the second-to-last conversation I ever had alone with him.”
“You had known Captain Robau before your assignment to the Kelvin?” Chris asks, trying to imagine joy on Robau's face. He's studied the captain's face, that handful of holologs, almost as long as he has Winona's or George's, but it's always stern or frustrated or questioning, occasionally with a twinkle of anticipation or humor. He tries to imagine the open mouth, the wide, bright eyes that would go with a joy so wide it could be mistaken for shock.
“He was a family friend,” Winona says, nodding. “I never used to talk about that much – back then I was always concerned with making sure no one suspected our friendship was the reason I got the assignment. Richard didn't even realize I was assigned, actually, until a few days before we shipped out.”
She tells him things he mostly already knows – she'd been in what they thought was her fifth bout of false labor in Sickbay when they'd diverted towards the lightning storm, so there's little she can tell of Robau's final command decisions besides what's already on record – but she talks at length, not-quite-tangentially, about examples of his leadership style, his cool-headedness, his love for his ship. She talks in detail about a First Contact mission that Chris doesn't remember from the Kelvin records, maybe because the Starfleet records seem to have been made meticulously boring.
“What do you think George would have said about Captain Robau's decision to give in to the enemy ship's terms?”
Her eyes and mouth tighten, and too late he realizes she still hasn't said a word about her husband since the recording started. She looks at him for a long minute, and he's both relieved and irritated that the transcription won't capture any part of this moment. The text will erase this space, as if it's no longer than any other break between question and answer. He doesn't retract his question, and it's got to be five minutes by the time she answers.
“They're dead, Cadet Pike,” she says. “I can't possibly bring myself to suggest I know what he would say, and what he would mean. I can tell you that Richard's means of relinquishing command indicated he did not expect to be returning to the ship after a two-hour ceasefire talk. He didn't just give George the conn – he named him captain.” She shakes her head, and this is a clear piece of nonverbal communication. This says you can't possibly understand. He doesn't. But he wants to.
She buzzes again, and this time asks for a rum and coke. She makes a face as they deliver it, downs it effortlessly, and doesn't even bother striking it from the record. Then she shakes her head, pushing away the warm burn in her mouth and throat and seven years of inhibitions. She looks Chris in the eye, and says flatly, “I didn't tell him I loved him.”
He can't say anything – he stares back at her, and she bites her lip and looks away. She's sobbed in front of him once today, and he's not sure what he's going to do if she starts crying now, although it's not as if anyone could blame her. She takes in a shuddery breath that the transcriber records as “shhhh”, tilts her head back against the wall, and starts talking, and then there are no more gaps in conversation for four hours.
In the end she does cry. She wipes her eyes on her sleeves and doesn't stop talking, though, and aside from a few breaks in the conversation there's no sign on the record. He strikes at least three instances of, “CADET CHRISTOPHER PIKE: I know.” from the record; and she pauses midway through to request he not talk about her boys in his thesis, to which he agrees.
They leave by unspoken agreement; half the corn puppies are sitting cold on the table, although he did manage to get most of the chili down, but both of her plates are spotless. He doesn't know how; he knows there was still plenty of food left when she began talking about George, and he can't remember her ever stopping to take a bite. She pays the credits and, Chris suspects, a generous tip, and this time when they reach the auto she runs her fingers over the body lightly. He can see her face in the dim moonlight, but she isn't crying or smiling or laughing now. She doesn't say anything, but eventually she climbs into the car and unlocks the passenger door for him to get in.
The drive back through town to the motel is very quiet. She parks next to his rented cycle and holds out her hand for the PADD without turning her head. He half-expects her to delete the entire session, and he doesn't even mind at this point. Instead she presses resume and starts talking again, her voice very quiet now.
“Richard knew he might not come back alive,” she says. “I don't think George did, when he took command. I don't think he had any idea what he was doing. He was a young man from rural Iowa, and he was my husband and my lover; he was smart and brave and articulate and damned funny, and he was a lot of things no one could describe, all of that, but I think of him now, and you know what? He was a kid. Maybe he was a hero and maybe he was a martyr but maybe he was just winging it. He flew blind a lot of the time, made lucky guesses, relied on fate and Richard to get him out of dozens of sticky situations. Maybe no one else could have done better. I've heard the stats – it doesn't matter how long it's been since my last interview, these aren't the sort of things that leave your head, once they come to live there. Eight hundred people in twelve minutes, which is more than one person for every second he was Captain. It hasn't happened since.”
She turns to look at him, and in the shadows he can't see anything of her face, but he's studied it, and her, and he knows that her eyes are dark and serious right now. “Starfleet's gotten timid, Chris. They've gotten defensive; a few too many incidents gone wrong here and there and now they happen less often, the reports say, but it's not because they've gotten better at making contact with and understanding other cultures. It's because we've made our interactions preditable, concrete. We're not taking risks, and because of that, we're slowing down. The Vulcan Science Academy has been sending out more exploratory missions than we have, the past few years, and –” She cuts off. “I'm not a part of that world anymore,” she says abruptly. “I'm dirtside now, but it's not because I'm afraid. The ship and the men that killed my husband and my friends are still out there somewhere, and one day we're going to have to find them. Whether we want to or not.”
She presses the stop button, and it lights up again from the activity, a soft white glow illuminating the bottom of her face. She looks at Chris for another long moment.
“Thank you,” he says into the quiet. She hands him the PADD, which is already darkening again, and he wishes he could ask her for just one more laugh.
“Goodbye,” she says. He climbs out of the car and up the stairs to his unlocked mostly-empty hotel room, all without looking back, though he can hear the idling engine below him. He sits on the bed, and then lets himself fall back against it, the a fold of the slightly-rumpled comforter digging politely into his neck and shoulder, feeling full and unfulfilled and utterly, utterly alone.
A/N: Okay, well. I feel weird about not getting past the slightly awkward cadet!Pike for part one, but that's a bridge to be crossed at another time. Preferably when I don't have a three class, the first starting in seven hours, for which I have not yet begun my homework... OMG STAR TREK WHY DO I ALLOW YOU TO KEEP EATING MY LIFE O_o. ... <3