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What's in a Name

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TitleWhat's In a Name
Characters: Kirk, Uhura, with plenty of crew interaction
Rating: T for occasional movie-level violence and language

Warnings/Spoilers: Spoilers for all AOS movies, various spoilers for TOS universe elements, no knowledge of which is necessary to understand the story. Specifics footnoted or explained if needed at the end of each chapter.

SummaryFive times Nyota Uhura called Jim Kirk something other than Captain, and one time he was glad to return the favor


Chapter One

He's never really understood the term shipwrecked, until now.

Though technically they are not wholly adrift, they might as well be, given how distant they are from any Federation outpost at sublight speed. Ejecting the entire warp core of a Constitution-class starship might produce enough thrust to break free of the event horizon of a black hole, but it consequently dooms said starship to an eternity of pre-warpspeed travel back to civilization.

It will be nearly three weeks before they even reach a remote, almost automanned outpost, and another two after that before a small warp core can be installed to get them back to the Sol system. It is fortunate for their dead and wounded, that a small but speedy medical frigate can meet them in five days' time to take on the most critically in need of specialized care such as Captain Pike and their telepathically traumatized Vulcan passengers, else they might not have much chance of full recovery. Had that frigate not been in the vicinity, Jim's decision to jettison the core would have saved the ship, but doomed those crewmen to a crippled existence for life.

Are these the types of command decisions he will have to make regularly, as a Starfleet captain?

He is not so sure, after all, that he is either fit for the position or that he wants it. Not now, not ever.

But he has no time at the moment for such ruminations, because the relieved chatter at the news of a definitive rendezvous setup has begun to die down. He's managed to fumble through the token call with the Admiralty, who are none too happy with him but upon Spock's unexpected but very welcome backup just tell him to make sure the Enterprise doesn't lose any more parts or hands before her rendezvous with the Nightingale, and then hang up in his face, ostensibly to care for the chaos still reigning on Terra in the wake of looming war with the Romulan Empire. Could definitely be worse. The last of the damage reports are in, and apparently all departments have finally called in under control, if barely.

Before he knows it, the exhausted Bridge crew have almost as one swiveled their chairs to look at him expectantly.

He really, really hopes no one can see that he's almost shaking in that borrowed chair, adrenaline already leeching out of his very core and making the injuries he's been ignoring very, very much known.

What the hell is he supposed to do now?

Outside of basic command training modules, he has no idea how anything on board a starship works, operationally. He literally couldn't even name where the closest lavatory is on board without pulling up the specs, much less know the protocol for announcing the names of the known dead, for initiating search and rescue operations for those still missing, how to divert and handle the comms from worried crewmen about their comrades on the decimated 'Fleet ships, oh – and how does he prioritize the seventy-six separate reports that are blinking in the queue on his padd right now, and also the crew (all seven hundred-odd of them, minus the dead and missing) need rotated off duty as soon as possible, and he is seriously about to freak the hell out because there's no way he can do this –

A data-padd is pushed none too gently into his hands, breaking off the budding panic that is about to force its way up his throat. Or that could just be bile, he did get kicked in the stomach on the Narada more than once.

Forcing a bland smile to his lips, he looks up and tries to act like he hadn't just been about to lose it in front of the galaxy's most logical species, even if that species has issues of its own a-plenty at the moment.

Spock's eyes look way too knowing, and he flushes uneasily under the look. "What is it, Commander?" he asks, and at least his voice is as calm and sure of himself as it has been all day. Night. Whatever it is now, he literally has no idea and does it even matter at this point?

"Captain." And wow, the word actually doesn't sound like asshole, like it did earlier, so that's a point in his favor. "Given my familiarity with the Enterprise's operational and organizational structure, I have taken the liberty of compiling a duty rotation for the remaining crew complement, focusing upon Sickbay and Engineering as the first areas of relief. Any crewman aboard with experience in either field has been instructed to report to their department head for reassignment to either medical duty or repair work unless needed for Bridge duty, as the majority of the ship has been sealed off due to hull breaches or structural damage."

He blinks; that of course is the smart thing to do, ensuring repairs keep being made and Medical keeps up and firing on all thrusters while they pull themselves back together.

"What about search and rescue? We got hit hard on the lower decks," he says quietly.

"That has been factored into the Medical rotation, Captain; hence the reassignments. Personnel whose files show search and rescue experience have already been contacted via their department heads and should be assembling below decks as we speak, under the direction of Lieutenant Kyle, one of the senior Security heads."

He leans back, feeling tension drain slowly out of his neck and shoulders, easing the pain there just a fraction. "How much of the ship is sealed off?"

"An exact percentage is impossible to calculate, as repairs are already being effected, but approximately forty-six-point-two-five percent."

"How much of that was crew quarters?"

"Decks Thirty-four through Forty-two sustained extensive damage and have been sealed off completely. While Decks Forty-three through Forty-five remain life-sustainable, they are inaccessible for the moment due to the emergency bulkhead deployment in the decks above."

"Contact the quartermaster and have those crewmen reassigned to a new cabin, that's not a priority repair when we're still venting plasma and Sickbay isn't at full power yet."

"Already done, sir."

He stares at his temporary XO in consternation. "Well, I suppose that's why they say you're the best First Officer in the 'Fleet, Mr. Spock," he sighs finally, scrubbing a fist across his eyes in an effort to massage away the gray haze that has started to circle the edges of his vision.

Spock's eyebrow inclines precariously close to his fringe, and Jim tries not to laugh, because it really isn't funny if he's saying things out loud he didn't intend.

"Right, then. Rotate the Bridge crew out for a solid eight hours at least, more if we can afford it; and yourself and Lieutenant Uhura for twelve, beginning now. Look, Sulu, there's an auto-pilot for a reason," he says in amusement, at the protest that comes from the front console, "and at sublight speed we literally couldn't plow into a star or something if we wanted to, alarms would let us know in time to do something. I'm pretty sure I can handle a call coming in from the Admiralty, which is the only thing that might happen until gamma shift starts."

"Captain, I must protest –"

"You'll protest nothing, or we can do this the hard way through Medical, for the second time in as many days, Commander," he says quietly, but with an edge of steel that reinforces how deadly serious he is.

There's no way in hell he's letting these people stay on the Bridge another hour, especially not Spock – not with the only bits left of his entire world sitting below decks in Sickbay. If he had his way, they’d be relieved of duty for days; but the horrible fact is they may literally not have enough people qualified and in medical condition to replace the Bridge crew for more than a shift or two. And he's got no idea what weirdness is going on between Spock and his fireball of a comms officer, but if she can help the poor guy settle his Vulcan mind then she needs to take extra time off too, it’s not like they had a therapist on board ship for what was supposed to be a quick battle run.

Jim has his faults, but he hasn't aced his command track classes by cheating; he is a hell of a diplomat, and he knows how to use people to his advantage. Gods know he needs to use every bit of goodwill he can generate right now, especially with these two particular officers. Something tells him they would make much more powerful friends than enemies.

Not that he really has enough of the former to easily tell the difference, but that's beside the point.

Spock looks like he'd just as soon strangle him over the nearest console again, but he finally just walks away and back to the science station, dropping into the chair like his shoulders are made of trilatinum and pointedly ignoring everyone else on the Bridge.

So much for attempted goodwill.

He sighs, and slowly lowers his head into his hands to try and block the light, fingers locked around the back of his neck as he tries to think clearly through a stabbing headache. For some reason, it's becoming increasingly difficult, and not just because he hasn't slept since…he really can't remember, it certainly wasn't the night before the tribunal on Earth, he was up all night over that…

Around him, the junior crew are slowly logging out of their stations, obviously taking the permission granted from the auto-pilot being engaged on each of their consoles as their golden ticket off the Bridge. He manages a smile and nod for each one as they leave, and reminds them to stop by Sickbay for pain medication or sleep aids if they need to and the quartermaster if they require a change of uniform or cabin reassignment.

Almost the last to leave, Sulu side-eyes him before punching in the last code to engage the auto-pilot for navigation and then elbows Chekov, who is sleepily blinking at the navigation computer's readout.

"Captain, are you sure you don't want someone to stay up here until Gamma starts? It's only two more hours."

"I'm sure, Mr. Sulu. Get out of here, you've earned it. And take the whiz kid with you, he's going to fall asleep in his chair and steer us into a comet or something."

Chekov squints puppy-eyed at him and then gives him an adorable little wave as he's tugged off the Bridge by their grinning helmsman, and Jim has to smile himself as he turns his attention back to the queue of reports waiting for his signature.

Holy crap, it's grown to one hundred and eighteen.

What the hell. Does he really have to read every single one of these?

Behind him, he can hear what sounds like a spitting catfight starting up between his Acting First Officer and Acting Comms Chief, and seriously, can they not do this somewhere else.

"Dude, really." They totally ignore him, and he resists the urge to whimper. "Guys. Can you not?"

Uhura's glare could strip tritanium alloy, but at this point he's too exhausted to care.

The argument continues, and he wishes he understood more Vulcan but even the bits and bobs of weirdness still floating around his head from that crash course in mind-melding back on Delta Vega don't really help him understand much more than a phrase here and there. He gets the vague impression that Spock is resisting leaving the Bridge, he seriously doubts out of anything more than blatant stubbornness rather than anything resembling loyalty, and Uhura's pissed that he isn't coming with her to Sickbay.

He flicks his signature across a series of only vaguely-skimmed Engineering reports, praying that Scotty guy knows his stuff and won't blow up the ship on their way back, and rolls his eyes as the discussion escalates behind him. Bad idea; the motion sends a stab of pain shooting through his temples, and he winces, pinching his forehead with the hand not jabbing futilely at the padd.

"Seriously, I have zero problems comm-ing Medical or Security, whichever gets here first, to forcibly remove you both from the Bridge," he finally says in annoyance, only half-listening now as he forwards a half-dozen Medical requisition reports to Sickbay with a begged notation for McCoy to take them off his plate. If Bones even sits still long enough to see his computer screen in the next twenty-four hours.

A pneumatic groan to his left indicates a power drain has hit essential systems like the now-engaged turbolift, and he flicks through the reports in dismay until he finds the latest one from Engineering, trying to focus long enough to understand its very frightening calculations. It's only when he hears a faint sniff from behind him that he realizes only one of his two temporary officers left the Bridge, and he cautiously swivels the chair in a half-arc.

"Uh." He clears his throat nervously, and then winces as it reminds him with a cheerful stab of burning fire that basically doing anything but whispering is really freaking painful right now. "I'm not stupid enough to ask if you're okay, but. Do you…"

"Finish that sentence with 'want to talk about it,' and I swear to gods, Kirk –"

"Message received. It's none of my business. But he's not the only one who's lost someone today." He ignores the white-hot flash of pain that stabs through his head from throat to crown, and leans forward, holding up a hand to stop the half-protest about to be vocalized. "I'm not in any way devaluing the enormity of what happened to Vulcan, Lieutenant. But you have a right to grieve too about friends, classmates, anyone you knew on the other starships, and not feel guilty about it. Loss is loss, and it can't be compared. All you can do is share it with someone and hope it won't suck quite as much afterwards."

She looks at him for a few seconds in silence, and then leans back with long legs crossed, one elbow leaning on the comms board. "Since when did you become the ship shrink, Kirk?"

"Well, if you're talking experience with them? I'm way over-qualified. It’s no secret I have issues."

She laugh-snorts, a surprisingly ungainly sound in the stillness of the deserted Bridge, and he has to laugh too at the unexpectedness of it.

"Anyway, if there's anything I can do, you need to tell me, Uhura. I'm so out of my depth here in an official capacity, I have no idea where to start on mending fences personally." He's dead serious, because he can’t be anything else at this point, and that must register in his tone, because she sits up, rolls her chair over to the edge of the upper deck so there's only a few meters between them.

"While I doubt we need another factor involved in our personal drama, I'm not surprised you're drowning in the official part of it. Not like they train you for this kind of thing on the command track, I'm assuming."

"You're so not kidding."

"What exactly are you the most swamped with?"

"These reports, for one thing," he sighs, indicating the padd on his lap. Good grief, the number's risen to one hundred eighty-seven now. "They're multiplying like overfed tribbles and I can't keep up."

She reaches down and takes the instrument from him, starts scanning it quickly with the well-practiced eyes of a Comms officer. After only a few seconds, she sighs, and gives him a pointed look over top of the padd.

"Okay, look, I get that 90% of the people on this ship have never actually served on a starship before, but this is basic protocol. You shouldn't even be looking at the majority of these things. This is why we have a chain of command, why we have officers. Every idiot on board is just sending their reports straight to the top because they're too lazy to find out who's in command of their division right now."

"That might be difficult, since half of the commanding officers are likely dead or missing," he points out gently.

She pinches the bridge of her nose with a shaking hand, and inclines her head in brief acknowledgement, then takes a deep breath and releases it slowly. Some detached portion of his pain-slowed brain notes how she can re-assume composure like it's as much a part of her uniform as the red color – she'll make a hell of an officer when she gets an official posting.

"If that's the case, then protocol dictates it goes to the First Officer or is routed to Communications; we have access to all ship's data firsthand, real-time. The chief comms officer is not just here on the Bridge to push buttons and answer a communicator, their primary duty is to re-reroute all communications, written and verbal, throughout the entire ship. Never is something unnecessary to be sent to the captain's direct inbox for this exact reason." She shakes the padd in emphasis. "Granted, you'd have no real way of knowing that."

He stares at the padd in consternation. "So you're saying I can delegate that mess?"

"I'm saying you'd better, or you're not going to survive the trip back to Terra. Speaking of which, you look like you're about to pass out, so maybe you'd better leave it with me and take your ass down to Sickbay?"

"I'll give that a hard pass, thanks. So what exactly in this mess am I supposed to be looking at?"

"You're going to give it a pass straight to the floor if you don't sit upright. When was the last time you ate something?"

"I dunno, right before the tribunal I think. Speaking of, you think you can put in a good word for me with your boyfriend in the next few weeks so I don't totally get kicked out of the Academy when we get back?"

She snorts, and then does a double take, incredulous. "You're serious, aren't you?"

He squints over top of the padd, halfway through firing off a folder full of messages to the current head of Hydroponics. Poor guy has no idea what to do with them and likely won't even see them for two days, but at least they'll not be cluttering up the channels. And with the ship stuck in space for who knows how long, they have time to figure all that out.

"Uh…yeah? I'd really like to at least graduate, being this close, you know?"

She shakes her head with a look of disbelief.

"What?"

"I don't even know what to think about you anymore, Kirk." She rolls her chair back to the comms station, still shaking her head.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asks indignantly.

She turns around, arms folded. "You're not an idiot, Kirk – everyone can see that, at least now."

He rolls his eyes. "You'd have seen it sooner if you'd cared enough to look." There's not much bitterness in the tone, but there's enough; she looks a little taken aback, and finally nods.

"Fair enough. But you didn't help yourself any, you know."

"Also fair enough."

"What I can't figure out, though, is who you really are," she says, slowly. "Because one of these facades? Isn't real. I'm a communications expert, Kirk, and you've been good enough to fool me – but which time? Is your reputation the real thing, or the guy we've seen the last few days?"

He sighs, and drops the padd on the deck, because his head hurts too much to continue trying to make sense of both of these at once; and priorities are priorities. Part of being a captain is caring for his people, that much he knows. If he never gets to captain a ship again other than these precious few weeks, he's at least going to do his best to do it right for the short time he has.

Even if he has no idea what he's really doing.

"You're gonna have to give a concussed man more specifics than that, Lieutenant."

"Are you really who I'm talking to now, who we've seen the last forty-eight hours, or are you the arrogant asshole who barely scraped his way through the Academy the last three years?"

He laughs, but there's no amusement in the tone. "And here I thought you were above Academy gossip, Lieutenant."

She looks him in the eye, unflinching. "It's a valuable tool in communication among any species, including human, Kirk. And there's always at least an element of truth in it."

He inclines his head. "Okay, you have a point. I am an asshole. Sometimes."

"And the rest?"

"Lieutenant, before your boyfriend decided to get pissy about his little test getting beaten by a mere human, I was on track to graduate valedictorian, at least of the Command Track. I tested out of an entire year's worth of classes and took more than a full course load every trimester; how else do you think I was on track to graduate with the rest of you after coming in two trimesters later than the rest of the cadets my age?"

She stares at him blankly for a moment.

"As to the arrogance, you more than anyone else know how valuable a tool a reputation can be in communication. I needed every edge I could get, every angle I could find, to make people think of me differently than my father."

"Even if that meant cultivating a reputation for being…"

"Fill in whatever word you want, I probably got called it." He shrugs. "I didn't care, as long as they weren't calling me 'George's son.'"

"That…actually makes a lot of sense." She looks at him with newfound interest. "Granted, I still think you probably could have gone about it a better way."

"Oh, undoubtedly. But I never have been one to take the best way when there's a more interesting one available." He grins, and she rolls her eyes. "So. That answer your question?"

"Not exactly, but it'll do for now. What it doesn't answer, is can you even move out of that chair without medical assistance. Because I'm starting to doubt it."

"My God, I feel really sorry for your kids if you and Spock ever have any." He shivers elaborately in empathetic horror.

"We're not really – why am I even explaining myself to you?" Her annoyance is palpable, and that's a little reassuring, because the fact that they've had a civil conversation more than thirty seconds long on non-official matters has been just a little weird. Normality is something they all need right now.

"No idea. Weren't you leaving, anyway?"

"Not until I know you're not going to die up here before gamma turnover because you're too stubborn to go to Sickbay."

"Oh for – "

"Look, if you go down, with Spock off-duty and our official Chief Engineer dead – no way in hell do I trust that Scott person yet – that leaves McCoy next in the chain of command and we need him in Sickbay. If he can't take command I'm next and I most definitely do not want that chair. So get your ass down to Sickbay, we can't afford to lose you right now."

God, his head hurts. He wheels the chair around, slumped in a boneless heap against the backrest. "Uhura. I went, a few hours ago, to get a painkiller and a stimulant." Embarrassingly, he'd had to have a ridiculously awestruck, starry-eyed yeoman show him the way there, that's how little he knows this ship. "There's not even enough room for the wounded, they're treating them in makeshift triage rooms in the corridor, converted briefing rooms on either side of the medical wing."

Comprehension dawns on her face, and she sighs resignedly, scribbling on her Comms data-padd.

"I'm not going down there and getting in the way right now. End of story."

"Acknowledged." She frowns. "But then at least take yourself off-duty and call McCoy or someone to your cabin."

"That's a problem. I'm not technically aboard the ship, remember? I don't have a cabin." He sighs, scrubs painfully at one swelling eye. "I'd planned on crashing on Bones's office couch but he put himself on a mandatory power nap before I could ask, I don't want to wake him up. We need him to be on his feet as long as he can be for the next few days."

"I'd tell you to use mine, but I already gave it away to a couple from Communications whose quarters were blown out in the battle."

He smiles, genuinely. "Of course you did." Somehow, even if she didn't have the ability to bunk with the off-duty First Officer, he suspects she would have done the same.

"You could take Captain Pike's, I doubt he'd mind. Frankly, he won't ever know – according to Sickbay's latest update, they're going to transfer him from the Neural ICU as soon as we reach the Nightingale, so he'll never even go back to the cabin."

He fidgets uncomfortably; it just doesn't sit right with him, swiping Pike's quarters without asking, and certainly without deserving. "Have we completed reassignment of all the displaced crew yet?"

She sighs. "Not yet, no. We made the Vulcan refugees priority, and then the stable wounded."

"As it should have been. But the rest of the crew needs quarters as well. Do that first, and then we'll see."

"Yes, Captain."

He smiles again. "And you don't have to call me that."

She raises an eyebrow over top of the data-padd, and he tries not to laugh; he wonders if she picked it up from Spock.

"The alternatives I'm currently thinking of would constitute insubordination, but I'm happy to employ them if you'd prefer. Sir."

He does laugh, then, and waves a hand over his shoulder as he turns back around, grinning at the star-drifting viewscreen.

"Seriously, though," he says, almost absently, as he drifts into a half-dazed lull borne of fatigue and pain and exhaustion. "I'd say my friends call me Jim, except that I don't exactly have them, so. Bad example." God, why is he still talking. He has the bad feeling the Bridge isn't really spinning in a lazy circle, either. "Anyway. Dunno where I was going with that…"

"Oh, for the love of –" He hears a snapping of switches behind him, oddly distant and ringing tinny in his ears. "Bridge to Sickbay, get me McCoy. I don't care if he's asleep, wake him up and get him, unless you want two captains on their deathbeds down there and a reprimand in your file, Jamal. Now."

"Y're a badass, y'know that, Lieutenant?"

"Duly noted, sir. If you insist on falling out of that chair, do it far enough from the steps you don't slice your head open, will you?"

"Yeah, sounds good."

"I didn't mean – ugh." A string of fluent, extremely unmusical language that prevents his impending nosedive out of sheer curiosity. He blinks, brain rebooting slightly under the novelty.

"Did you just call me a jackass in Tellarite?"

"Medusan. And – yes, Doctor, it's Uhura, I'm still on the Bridge. Yes, it's Kirk, who else would I make that poor kid wake you up for. Negative, I know he was brought aboard with an allergic reaction and I figured with the upheaval in Sickbay, gambling on his files being accessible by a nurse who's probably half-asleep on their feet was not a good idea."

He half-heartedly smacks the comm-switch on his armrest. "Bones, I'm fine."

"Like hell you are. I haven't seen the latest damage, and what I did see before that would've gotten you knocked out for twelve straight hours if we hadn't been in a crisis. And don't think I don't know about you conning one of the nurses out of a stimulant two hours ago, either. Now get down to my office or I'll have the lieutenant drag you down here."

"Judging from the look of you, I could physically do it right now, too," she says dryly.

"Don't make me call Spock and put him back on duty, Jim. I don't like him any more than you do but the guy deserves better than that, after the day he's had. But if you go down he's going to insist he's fine to take over, Pike says he's more stubborn even than you are. You really want that?"

"Ugh, no. Don't you dare, Bones."

"I don't want to, but I'm not lettin' either of you kill yourselves when we got nowhere to be for weeks. Now move it. I can't come get you, there's alarms ringing all over the damn place in here and we still don't even know where half the nursing staff are because they were on decks that are still being searched for survivors. Suck it up for me and get yourself down here, okay?"

The worry in the tone is palpable, and it shoves the discomfort to the back of his mind under one more shot of adrenaline. He has to pull it together so Bones can focus on what's important.

"Jim? Come on, Jim, I need you to stay with me here."

"I got it, I got it. Geez." He shifts forward with a groan, spots dancing in front of his eyes. "If you don't see me in an hour send Cupcake or somebody to find me, yeah?"

"I'll make sure he gets there, Doctor."

"Comm me if you need help, Lieutenant, and I'll try to scrounge up somebody to come get you. I'm sorry, I wish –"

"Stop worrying, Doctor, I'll take care of it. Bridge out. Mr. Scott, are you in position in Auxiliary Control?"

"Aye, lassie, that I am. And –"

"Don't lassie me, just get the controls switched over so we can leave the primary Bridge unattended for the last forty minutes of gamma shift. And if you touch my comms circuits –"

"Oi, I'll have y'know I was redesignin' circuit boards like this when –"

One finger mutes the channel on their end as Scotty continues to ramble. "Where the devil did you pick him up again, Kirk?"

"Uh." He stumbles against the comms station, then perches on the edge of it with a pleased sigh, proud to have made it up the steps without falling over. "Ice-ball planet. Delta Vega. Your boyfriend isn't the only one who likes to maroon people, apparently."

"Obviously." She snorts, trying not to laugh. "You just pick up strays wherever you go?"

"Maybe," he says softly. "Everybody has to find a home somewhere. Wouldn't be the worst way to build a crew."

She pauses, one hand still on her earpiece, and looks up at him.

He shrugs. "What. I have dreams. I have this one, about you letting me call you Nyota someday and Spock not killing me for it, even."

"You're incorrigible."

"I prefer to think of it as tactical strategy. I know a power player when I see one."

A snort. "If that's your version of an olive branch, Kirk…"

"Olive branch? Lieutenant, I'm trying to blow past that straight to the final amnesty agreements. You're not someone I want as an enemy."

She hums non-committally as she flips the last switch, the whirr growing more muffled within the console to indicate the switchover of power to Auxiliary Control.

"Okay then, if your new friend knows his engineering conduits, nothing vital will blow up in our faces during the next forty minutes. Next stop, Sickbay for you, Captain."

"C'mon, I won't tell if you won't. I can crash in a Jefferies tube or something somewhere –"

"Jim. Get in the damn turbolift before I show you why a female 'Fleet officer's uniform has steel-toed boots."

Okay then.

Not exactly friends, but not enemies.

Frenemies?

That'll work.

He's going to make it work.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

He's never been able to sleep well in Medical.

Starship captains are light sleepers, as a general stereotype. You have to be; it pretty much goes with the territory of having seven-hundred-odd souls depending on your command decisions at any given time, and of knowing that at any moment you must be ready to make those life-or-death choices due to a red alert being sounded. War and politics care not for any man's sleep schedule, as the old 'Fleet saying goes. Add to that, the stress and anxiety which come hand in hand with such a position, the insanely long hours, and a hundred other minor factors, and it's a wonder he doesn't have more sleep disorders than he does. There's a reason why the 'Fleet permits its captains higher access to chemical assistance in those matters than a normal crewman has, simply out of practicality and necessity.

He's a light sleeper as a rule, has been ever since a young teenager, and that's become even lighter since taking over the Enterprise; so he hates Sickbay for that exact reason – every sniffle and cough, every beep of machinery and wheeze of adjusting sensor, they all conspire to keep him awake or awaken him every chance they can with their claustrophobia-inducing mockery. Bones always had to all but tie him down aboard ship to keep him there long enough for convalescence, because not even he knows just how much Jim hates being confined in a bio-bed.

And now?

Now, every time he closes his eyes, there's just that one lingering ounce of terror, that tiny flutter of fear somewhere deep inside, that whispers he just might not wake up again.

No human, no being, is supposed to know what that feels like: that gut-wrenching, visceral, primal fear of the unknown that still scares him so much he doesn't even care if anyone thinks it's embarrassing that he has to have a night-light left on when the Medical staff leave for the evening. It's a principle of science; no one should be living, who knows what it feels like to die.

But he does, and every time he closes his eyes there's that tiny evil voice that whispers maybe his borrowed time is up, and it'll be the last time he does close them.

Again.

So. Not exactly conducive to restful slumber.

He's worrying Bones, he knows, but there's not a whole lot he can do about it right now. Therapy can only accomplish so much, in so much time, and he's always been more of the type that his demons just have to work their way out on their own. He can only hope they do, in time for him to pass the psych evals necessary to regain captaincy of the Enterprise when her refit is done. If he doesn't, then they're dead in the water. They'll give her to Spock, or worse, someone else, and he'll be grounded indefinitely, probably a guinea pig in medical research.

It's a topic he doesn't dare think about, because he knows neither Bones or Spock or any of his crew is going to let that happen if they can help it. Whether or not he has the same ability, is yet to be seen, but half the battle's won and it's a (very slightly) comforting feeling.

Dying is a humbling experience, to say the least.

Half-past midnight in the Observation wing of Starfleet Medical HQ in New San Francisco is deathly quiet; he's one of only three patients here right now (the other two are in comas, so…yeah, poor guys aren't exactly chatty or even anywhere near his room), which is both a blessing and a curse. There's no one really to gawk at him or question him about the events that landed him here, but it also leaves the wing basically a ghost town at night, eerie and echoing and altogether just a bit creepy.

But he refused to let Bones stay here another night, as of last week; the man's going to kill himself if he keeps up this pattern, and Jim isn't a child who needs a babysitter. Unfortunately, he's not yet even able to walk on his own for more than the few steps across the room to the lavatory (thank the Privacy Gods of the universe he finally managed that at least), and as such still has to remain in Observation for at least another week.

Three months, he's been stuck here, the most disappointing and grueling months of his entire life. Everyone had been so thrilled to see him alive that first week, that it had come as something as a shock to realize a few days later, that he was going to have to relearn to do nearly everything, as every cell in his body had been basically regrown from scratch after being heavily irradiated. Nerves, muscles, everything. Miracles come at a price, and there have been days where he wished they hadn't bothered to bring him back, because the price was too painful, too embarrassing.

And that's just the physical ramifications; the psychological, the emotional? He could write an entire series of books about those. Starship captains are supposed to be made of hardier stuff than this. Fear of death is natural, is human – but fear of living? That's another ball game entirely. He's stared the Grim Spectre in the face, and the idea of taking responsibility for sending men and women to meet it now makes him sick just to think about. Assuming he'll even pass a psychological evaluation, which is a mighty big if, he's not sure he actually can take command again – or that anyone will really trust him to, his senior staff included.

There are times he thinks it might have been easier if he'd just not woken up.

He's never said that, however, because he's not a cruel man by nature, and neither Bones or Spock have yet quite lost that haunted look in their eyes, every time he stumbles, every time he takes too long to remember something he should know inside and out, every time he wakes up a little too slowly, a little too uncertain of his surroundings.

They’ll all be lucky to escape this without being required to have a whole team of shrinks on board for the five-year mission, if they do actually end up being given it and somehow all make it on board.

The darkness at the edges of his room presses with malicious eagerness at the glowing circle of light that rings his bed, kept at bay by the ridiculous loyalty and affection of a crew he doesn't deserve and won't take for granted ever again. One night, in pain and sleep-deprived, he'd mentioned something over dinner with his alpha crew about hating the fact that he went blind in the reactor chamber before the rest of his senses went completely, because he really hates darkness now.

The next morning he was abruptly woken up by an aborted shriek and his young navigator losing his balance from a small hover-step, falling directly on top of him while trying to stealthily hang a string of fairy-lights over his bed. The surprised squeak and subsequent air rushing out of his weak lungs had set off every medical alarm on the bio-bed, causing a minor uproar that ended with Chekov and Sulu being banned from the wing for twelve hours before Bones came on shift and was able to lift the restriction, laughing his head off the entire time.

Jim had insisted on the lights being put back up, which totally made the duo's day, bless their hearts; and between them and the soft white glow-ball on his bedside table that had magically appeared one day while he was napping, the room's just a tiny bit less terrifying.

The hall beyond, half-reflected and half-seen through a wide transparisteel window, is still dark and strange, lit only by dim wall-sconces to conserve power amid the eerie silence of a deserted ward. Despite knowing Medical personnel are only a corridor away and could be at his side in ten seconds with the touch of a button or any indication of distress from one of the machines, it's still a lonely feeling. The thickness of a closed door doesn't feel like protection, it feels more like a prison.

One that even when he leaves, he may never really leave completely. Demons tend to follow you, when they're rooted too deep for mere medicine to kill.

He sighs, and closes his eyes again, willing himself back to sleep for what feels like the thirtieth time tonight. The faint, muffled clicks and beeps of distant machinery, a mechanical wheeze of the wing's air filtration system, his own pulse…all sounds that thrum steady and slow in his ears.

A soft whisssssh as the door slides open, startling him into bolting upright with self-preservational instincts that even death cannot dull.

"Chill, Captain. Lights, thirty percent." The familiarity of the tone lets him relax even before the lights brighten to a warm glow, sending the shadows receding to their hiding places in the corners of the room.

"How'd you know I wasn't sleeping, anyway?"

"McCoy's a remote stalker. Are you aware he's got you on some kind of glorified baby monitor hooked up to his personal data-padd?"

He laughs. "It was easier to get him to go home if I gave medical consent, yeah. If he gets creepy about it I can always hack it, he knows it and I know it. Let him have his fun."

"You're so weird." Two drink cups deftly balanced in one hand, a bag in the other, and a bundle of datapadds under her arm, she finally makes it inside and the door shuts behind her.

"Do I want to know how you sneaked past the staff on duty?" he asks wryly, eyebrows raised as a chair is kicked across the room with very little regard for the god-awful screeching noise that resounds all the way down the corridor beyond.

"Christine's on duty tonight. And despite your colorful history she's still a friend of mine and Carol's, she's willing to look the other way as long as you don't do something stupid like trying to escape, which I won't let happen." Uhura tosses the bag in the general vicinity of his head so she has a hand free to drop the padds on the seat and move the chair into a better position. "McCoy wants her for the new Enterprise, by the way, so you'd better get busy trying to win her over."

"Look, after way too many drinks we were both in no condition to give informed consent that night. Not my finest moment, but at the time I thought we were just screwing around, not that she was under the impression we were going to like, do the dating thing. And literally everyone knows I was a moron way back then, anyway, it was like my second trimester in the Academy. Cut me some slack."

"Nope. You were a dick, you clean up your mess like a grownup. Here." He scowls, and takes the proffered drink with a huff as she plops down into the chair beside the bed. "And that vegetable wrap is mine, keep your hands off it. We don't know if you're still allergic to avocado anyway. McCoy's not finished the allergy tests on your new blood, Captain 2.0."

"Gross, you're welcome to it. Speaking of vegetarians, why are you bugging me and not your boyfriend at…almost 0100 hours?"

She looks shifty as hell, and he raises an eyebrow over top of the burger he's trying not to scarf too fast. Bones hasn't let him have anything good to eat in like a week so he's starving; Nyota knows both of them too well, bless her. He’s also full after like three bites but those three bites are so, so worth it.

"Everything okay with you two?"

"We're…taking a break. Not that it's any of your business."

"No, it's not." He chomps on a pickle with a shrug. "But you wouldn't have told me if you really cared about me knowing, so. What'd he do."

She rolls her eyes, hands him a disposawipe. "It was mutual, Kirk. Stop trying to read something into it. We both need to focus on other things right now, and his head still isn't quite on straight anyway. Probably won't be until you're out of here."

He chokes on a lettuce leaf.

"Oh, for pity's sake, stop trying to read something into it." She rolls her eyes, kicking the bed in warning. "I'm just saying. We're all a hot mess right now, and it would be pretty heartless of me to pressure him for something he's not equipped to deal with at the present time. And I'd rather not share his attention with you, no offense."

"Uh." He gulps a hard swallow of some truly ghastly iced tea, and clears his throat. "You don't think…"

"God, no. We'd be having a totally different conversation if I did. And I'd have let that idiot in the sandwich shop put avocado on your burger." She picks out a limp brown piece of what's probably supposed to be zucchini and looks at it with disgust, flicks it into the biodegradable bag. "You've got your faults, Kirk, but betraying someone's trust isn't one of them, not that I've ever seen."

"I would never. I'd transfer you both off the ship first."

"I believe you. Which is why I told him to get his head back in the game before we go any further. He was so freaked about trying to decipher the 'human relationship expectations' I had of him, when all he wanted to do was be here while you were in a coma and trying to learn how to walk again and everything, it was just sad. If I'd spent all that time bitching at him for never being around he'd have ended up hating me for it, and I'd never make him have to choose. Not after this."

He sets the burger down, appetite gone. "Uhura, I never would have wanted this to be the reason you felt you –"

"Don't flatter yourself, Kirk." She throws a fry at his head, hitting him square in the eye with deadly accuracy. Ignoring his yelp of salt-laced tears, she points the next one at him. "This isn't about you. And like I said, it's none of your business."

"God, woman, you are a menace. And gimme some of those."

"He did at least get up the nerve to ask if you wanted to head out to New Vulcan for a couple of weeks for recuperation, didn't he?"

He nods, chewing pensively.

"Something about wanting to put the old Ambassador's mind at ease, and seeing him one last time before we head out on a long mission, if we end up getting one like the rumors have it. He was being ridiculous about not wanting to leave Terra in case 'the Enterprise had need of him,'" and Jim can almost see the air-quotes as she rolls her eyes, "until I suggested he just take 'the Enterprise' with him, the idiot."

He laughs, because if he doesn't he's likely to start crying, and he never yet has done that in front of his senior staff.

"He doesn't deserve you, you know that right?"

She snorts, grinning. "I'm aware. Wouldn't hurt for you to remind him, though, while you're gone."

"Deal." He chokes down another drink, shuddering. "Where the hell did you get this stuff from, it's horrible."

"Leonard recommended the place." She eyes her own untouched drink warily. "Is it that bad?"

"Ah, Bones. That explains the sugary shuttle fuel I just drank. Blech."

"He said you weren't allowed to have soda or alcohol, so."

"And here I was hoping there was a bottle of vodka still in that bag." He sighs mournfully. "Six more nights of this, Lieutenant."

She pats his arm commiseratingly. "That's not that bad, considering how long it's been. And wasn't the original prognosis six months of complete bed rest? Not three?"

"Yeah." He grins. "Nobody counted on me being so pissed off at that estimation I was determined to cut it in half."

A brief smile. "Don't rush it. We still have four months before the Enterprise is even close to primary inspection-ready."

"Yeah." He clears his throat, picks uneasily at the remains of his sandwich.

"I don't like that look. Or that tone."

"You and me both, Lieutenant, but it's a possibility I have to consider."

"That's kahtel'pekh."

"It's not. I might not even pass the final psychological evaluation in three months – and if I don't, then I'll be indefinitely grounded and the Enterprise will go to some other captain. If you're lucky they'll give her to Spock, at least."

"That's not lucky, for any of us, because he's just as likely to drop her and us like a hot potato and go become a hermit somewhere," she retorts, wadding up the sandwich wrapper with more force than necessary. "Pull yourself together, or ask for the help you need in doing it, Jim. You are not sticking us with some jackass from the recent Academy graduate pool!"

He blinks at her incredulously.

"What?" she demands, arms folded. "None of us deserve that. Get your head back in the game, because we're all screwed if you don't. This is about more than just you – you have a ship full of people who've waived a ground or mid-space posting in hopes you'll have your act together in another three months. They're counting on you, Jim."

"Then they're probably too stupid to be serving on the ship in the first place," he mutters, slugging another drink of the awful tea just to hide the fact that he can't look at her.

"As soon as you can stand upright for more than ten seconds, I'm kicking your ass for saying that."

"Yeah, okay, whatever. Look, Lieutenant –"

"Shut up." Her eyes are snapping fire, and he's just a little bit afraid she's about to quite literally turn into her not-boyfriend and choke him. "Don't you lieutenant me. My captain would never give up on his people without a fight."

"Your captain died in the Enterprise's warp core, Lieutenant!" he snaps, anger fueling the words with a venom that's been building up under the guise of inactivity and boredom and self-loathing. The fact that he knows this is going to end ugly doesn't stop him in the least. "I have no idea who this person even is anymore!"

"Apparently, neither do we!"

He laughs mirthlessly, tossing his own sandwich wrapper with a little too much force at the discard bag. "Not expecting your little science experiment to come back with an altered personality, were you?"

"Not expecting regeneration to turn you into an asshole, no. Sir." The sarcasm is more biting than his last regen drug injection had been.

"Yeah, well. The whole thing's been unexpected for all of us," he mutters, yanking the uncooperative sheet out from under his even more uncooperative legs.

"The hell is that supposed to mean?"

He looks up, annoyed. "What do you think it means? You think I went in there expecting you people to somehow come up with a miracle? I wasn't planning on waking up, Uhura. Sorry if my brain's still trying to process the fact that oh, yeah, by the way, that whole dying thing you had going on? Just kidding."

She leans forward, eyes flashing. "Seriously? How long are you going to hide behind that excuse, Kirk? Because I'm sick of hearing the man who mouthed off to the Kobayashi Maru committee take the coward's way out."

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me. You're still using that crutch to sideline yourself so you don't have to captain up and get back in the game."

"This is not a game, Uhura!"

Her chair actually rolls backward a few inches at his sudden burst of vehemence, exploding like a volcano from somewhere he hadn't even realized was lying dormant, angry as molten lava under the surface storm of frustration and self-doubt.

"This is not just a game, I am not just sidelining myself for the hell of it, and I will not put other people in danger prematurely under my command just because you or any other officer on this ship thinks I should. Not now, not ever. Is that clear?"

Over his head, the blood pressure monitor is shrieking its displeasure to what sounds like the entire sector, and he reaches up without glancing at it to shut it off with probably a little too much force.

Uhura just looks at him for a moment in silence, and then leans back in the chair, one long leg crossed over the other and arms folded.

Then she starts laughing.

Okay, he's obviously losing it.

"Um…"

Fingers tapping absently, she smiles. "That's more like it."

He hits the alarm again because it won't shut up, and then turns back to her, still furious. "What."

"Well, that's the first time in, what, almost three months? That I've seen you look like you. You were starting to scare all of us."

"I…hang on a second." He finally punches the right button to shut off the klaxon, shoots a text-comm to Bones to let him know it was a false alarm so the man can relax and also call off the staff who are probably heading his direction, and then squirrels back down into the bed, turning his full attention on his subordinate. She's still waiting patiently in the chair beside him, looking vaguely amused by his antics. "Okay, run that by me again?"

She nudges the bed with a boot-toe. "Your staff isn't as oblivious as you seem to think, Captain. While some level of depression and self-doubt is to be expected after a traumatic event, as Leonard put it, you were starting to worry us."

"My psyche is none of your business."

"It is our business. Like I said earlier, this isn't about you," she replies calmly, with a pointed look. "You assume that chair on the Bridge, you lose the right to be selfish. We don't need a hero, Jim. We need a captain. Baggage and all."

"You have no idea what you're asking for," he murmurs, shaking his head.

"We've already asked for a miracle and gotten it. Anything else? We can deal with." She leans back, shrugging. "So. Someone had to try and shake you out of this funk you were in, and no way was I letting Spock try it, heaven only knows what he'd come up with."

"And your expert solution was to come in and do your best to piss me off?" he asks, incredulous.

"Yes," she replies dryly. "It's a strategy I learned from the best. You should know."

"Touche." He gives her a wary side-eye. "Are you saying…"

"Oh, yes, everything I said was still technically true. I will kick your ass if you don't stop this self-destruct cycle and get it together. I'll just have help doing it."

"Meaning…"

"Captain, most of your crew has already signed on for the five-year-mission. On faith that you're going to qualify. So if you don't? You're going to have over seven hundred very unhappy crewmen coming for your head."

He stares at her.

She smiles sweetly. "So don't screw this up. Comprende?"

"I comprende."

"Excellent."

"Man, I don't blame Spock for taking a break from you, you're damn scary when you want to be."

"You are aware that in your current condition I could very easily drown you in that lavatory, right?"

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

Being in deep space, for weeks and months on end, will wear on even the most hardened of starship officers. There's a reason week-long shore leaves are mandated at least once a year for all starship personnel, and why if average crew morale dips below a certain percentage that Medical is required to bring it to the captain's attention. Even the most well-balanced of crewmen can become slightly stir-crazy, remaining shipbound for months on end, which is one reason why even though their mission is uncharted space, Jim insists upon allowing shore leave parties every chance they get on new planets.

He himself gives his Security force fits because he won't stay aboard; but half of that is not out of any rebellious desire to break regulation, but simply because he needs something other than solid duranium and synthacrete under his feet, needs to see a real sky again and breathe non-recycled air. Much as he loves the stars, he sometimes just needs to know the void holds other things in order to keep himself grounded as well. Especially in the months since what they've a little under-dramatically started calling The Khan Incident, he feels a little claustrophobic even on so huge a starship as the Enterprise, if he doesn't get onto solid ground every so often.

There's talk of some new holographic replication technology currently being tested in Starfleet experimental facilities, and intended for starship use someday, which will help with recreation and crew morale during deep space missions like theirs. Holodeck technology, is what it’s supposedly being called in the scientific journals. Bones and Spock went on and on and on about it and its ramifications for medico-scientific experimentation last night at dinner and he finally tuned them out somewhere around the seventeenth fascinating because seriously, he gave them his full attention for forty minutes like a good friend should and come on, guys. The rest of the table had already made their escape while they could, Spock's own girlfriend included, openly laughing without a shred of mercy at his desperate, silent plea for solidarity as she did so.

Traitor.

But this new tech will help a crew when they can't get shore leave, by giving them more elaborate methods of recreation. A sort of shipboard shore leave, supposedly. If it works, which he's skeptical of, it will be pretty amazing; they'll just have to see which ship being constructed right now will be the first to test it. His money's on the Excelsior, since the kid in line for its captaincy has a rear admiral on the board overseeing the project.

That said, they still have to make their own entertainment aboard the Enterprise with the tools and facilities at their disposal, bereft of such ridiculously advanced technological wonders. He encourages the crew to have social events, form clubs, and in all ways keep the life-blood of the ship running fast and furious, knowing it is the best way to ensure a happy, healthy crew while away from all of their star systems, Sol only one of many.

That does not mean, however, that he appreciates someone starting a prank war below decks, the results of which have somehow managed to work their way up the ranks onto his Bridge. The Bridge is sacred. A safe place. His inner sanctum and royal chambers rolled into one, and his staff know better than to screw with him here.

Or they did, anyway.

Leaning on one elbow, he stares at the computer on his armrest for a second in disbelief, as a series of suspicious coughs sound from the nearest half-dozen officers along with what he assumes is a muttered equivalent of what in the galaxy in Swahili from Communications as switches are flipped on the Linguistics Banks control board. A moment later, Uhura shakes her head at him, indicating the problem's nothing she can see, and he continues his slow half-circle, swiveling his chair around the Bridge and trying to nail the culprit.

Meeting only what appear to be genuinely innocent expressions, he finally gives up and just punches the comm-button with more force than is really necessary.

"Bridge to Engineering. Mr. Scott, who the hell have you been letting tamper with the linguistics banks down there?"

In front of him, Chekov's high-pitched little wheeze of laughter is not very well muffled in his sleeves, and he sees Sulu give their navigator a gentle warning kick to the ankle.

"Uh…no one, to my knowledge, sir. There's no call to be changing anythin' in those databanks, Captain, and they're a sight harder to get to than almost anythin' else down here. Why, may I ask?"

"Because when I told the computer to record a captain's log just now, the recorder on my chair said 'sure thing, Hot Stuff,'" he drawls.

Behind him, Uhura of all people finally loses it. She has one of the most ungirly snort-laughs of anyone he's ever heard, and it's such a rare and hilarious thing to hear in public that even Spock looks taken aback. And maybe a little turned on.

"Uh." There's an awkward cough over the line, and he hides a smile, turning back to the chair comm as his chief of said comms straightens back up, fanning her face with both hands and trying not to look anywhere in his direction. "Well, sir, I can promise that I dinna change anythin' to make it say that. Sir."

"I'm pleased to hear it, Mr. Scott," he says dryly. "I am not pleased about being sexually harassed by my own log computer. Look into that for me, will you?"

"Aye, sir! Right away, sir. Doing it now, sir."

"Bridge out." He shakes his head, pinches the bridge of his nose in exasperation. "If I find out any of you sitting here today is responsible for this?"

"Really, sir," Spock drones, without even looking up from his computer.

"We are not stupid, Keptin. It is wery funny, but we are not so stupid." Chekov ducks a swat upside the head from Sulu, and shrugs. "What, it is funny."

He finally has to laugh himself, and settles back in the chair with a gesture of resigned amusement. "While I agree with you, Mr. Chekov, if we'd had an ambassador on board or worse, an inspecting admiral who happened to hear that? I would not be so forgiving. I'd probably be out a job, and you'd be looking for another captain."

His youngest Bridge member looks slightly abashed, but totally unrepentant, which either means he's responsible (doubtful; like the kid said, he's not stupid) or he just enjoyed the joke way too much.

"Either way, it had better be fixed before this time tomorrow, or I will personally go looking for the hacking signature of whoever is responsible. And I can guarantee whoever did it is not going to be able to hide from the best hacker on this ship. Spread the word, gentlemen, and I'm not joking. Keep your pranks confined below decks."


If that had been the only incident, he'd have let it slide with no further thought. It is funny, after all, and while Scotty says he can find no evidence that any of the linguistics banks have been tampered with, the problem appears to "magically" fix itself before beta shift ends, so obviously Jim's threat had come through loud and clear earlier.

But then the rest of it starts.

Bones's colorful opinion of his breakfast draws everyone's attention within a three-table radius the next morning in Officers' Mess. Having all but dozed off again waiting in line for the replicating units to churn out various officers' selections of cereal, replicated eggs and waffles, and the dozen non-human breakfast foods that are low-budget to synthesize wholesale, the swearing is vehement and unexpected enough to scare Jim half to death, whereupon he jumps wide awake for the first time all morning and spills his coffee all over the floor, prompting a helpful rush of eager yeomen armed with a flurry of cleaning supplies.

When the chaos has finally calmed back down, he grabs his own tray and hurries after his CMO, shaking his head in confusion.

"What is your problem?" he demands, flopping down with a huff.

Bones just looks over his own coffee at him, and then shoves a plate sourly across the table, indicating it with the handle of his cup. "Somebody in Engineering's gettin' cute with the food scripts again."

He squints at the plate. "Is that…heart-shaped sausage?"

"If you can call it that. I dunno why I even bother tryin' to eat this, they never have gotten the grits script right. Might as well be eating ration cubes." Bones stabs the sausage heart with a little too much enthusiasm, slicing into it with a surgical precision that's just this shade of maniacal. "What's with the hearts, anyway, did we miss an old lovemaking holiday I don't know about?"

"Not to my knowledge. Valentine's isn't until next winter cycle, and the other major Federation worlds got rid of those stupid romantic holidays a long time ago, thank goodness. The Orions are the only ones who celebrate a Global Day of Passion, and it's not this time of the seasonal cycles. At least that I know of. Oh my God, I could kiss you."

"Try it and you'll be heading to Sickbay with Leonard instead of the Bridge in twenty minutes." Setting a new coffee cup on his tray, Uhura rolls her eyes, but smiles as she keeps moving, obviously on her way to her station but having seen his mishap earlier.

"You're spoiled, Jim."

"Yeah," he says, grinning shamelessly. "So how's come I didn't get pink sprinkles or something on my oatmeal, then, if it's some romantic holiday everybody forgot about?"

"Ugh. I dunno what's goin' on, but if they don't have enough to do in Engineering? I got twenty-four bio-beds that're due for hardware upgrades. Send those young fools up to Sickbay."

"Why're you telling me, it's not like I had anything to do with it. I hate Valentine's Day." One reason why he'd cultivated and over-cultivated a reputation to the contrary in his Academy days, and even his first captaincy months. He's a little (just a little) wiser now.

Dying will do that to a man.

"Besides, it isn't Valentine's Day, or any other romantic Federation day. Maybe one of the engineers is about to propose to somebody, who's getting serious down there?"

"No one that I know of, not that I would tell you if there was someone. There's only sixteen regularly co-habiting couples and one trio among the Engineering and Programming departments, and they’re all pretty open about the state of their relationships. You know they have to disclose any serious change Sickbay for psych reasons. Nobody's getting that serious, and with good reason, Jim."

"Yeah," he replies, absently. It's not a good idea, to get too attached out here. They've all learned that the hard way. It takes a lot of commitment, to decide whether or not the gamble is worth the risk.

"Besides, if someone wants to introduce a subroutine into any of the food and drink processors the code has to be cleared through Science and signed off on by Medical first to make sure there's nothin' in there that could kill one of the species on board, and I haven't signed off on anything, Jim."

"I don't think anyone's going to die from reshaping the fake sausage patties, Bones. They're not even real meat."

"I'm not saying they are, Jim. But what if tomorrow some idiot decides to dye the milk pink or something? We have three crewmen who are severely allergic to certain kinds of artificial food coloring!"

He pauses, cup halfway to his mouth, as the implication sets in. This is why his people are so good at their jobs.

"You're right, Bones." He sighs, puts the cup back down undrunk. "I'll find out what's going on and put a stop to it, okay?"

"I'm not tryin' to scare you, Jim. But this is my job."

"I know. And nobody'd do it better."

"Damn right." Jamming the last unfortunate piece of sausage into his mouth, McCoy pauses, then points with his empty fork. "Uh-oh. I thought you were gonna do something about that."

"About what?" He half-turns in his seat, and then cringes, whipping back around with his fingers over his eyes. His 'Fleet-assigned Yeoman, Janice Rand, has become something of a problem in her…overwhelming attention to his every need, to put it nicely. "Ugh. Why, Bones."

"I'm guessin' that means you haven't."

"I haven't had the time! We got waylaid by that side mission to Beta Cerulea, and then I got stuck on Cestus Prime for a week on that stupid board of inquiry, then we've been too busy with the quarterly evaluations, and now we're scrambling to get the shore leave parties rotated out before we have to vacate our spot in orbit tomorrow morning – when would I have had time?"

"I think Uhura would have been glad to do it for you."

He snorts. "It's not her job."

"No, but I'm pretty sure she's tired of tripping over the girl when she leaves Spock's cabin in the mornings. You do know three or four days a week Rand hangs around hoping you'll leave for breakfast or something before she goes on duty?"

"What?" He stares across the table, now very much weirded out. "I did not know that, that's just freaking creepy. And –" He breaks off as McCoy's throat clears in warning, and tries to look normal as the woman in question comes up to their table. "Good morning, Yeoman. What can I do for you?"

"The reports from Requisitions and Transport for the last twelve hours, Captain. You said you wanted to see them twice a day until we leave orbit?"

"So I did." He forces a smile, and takes the padd from her. When she just stands there, he looks back up, eyebrows raised. "Was there something else? I'm afraid I'm not a fast enough reader to go through two hundred pages while you wait, Yeoman."

"Oh. Ah, no, sir."

"Then thank you, you're dismissed."

Janice turns a little pink under her blonde braids but leaves readily enough, perhaps seeing something less tolerant in his expression than he's had up until now. But if what Bones says is true, then she's crossed a line that he has to address immediately. He can't afford to keep putting it off, because it's uncomfortably close to mentally unstable behavior.

Slightly inappropriate advances are to be expected by someone in the lower ranks, because a higher-ranking officer would never initiate the advances and there'd be no way to determine interest otherwise; but stalking is something else. And besides that, he's made it clear more than once to her that he's grown past being a slave to his impulses. There will be no on-board relationships for him while this ship flies, he loves his people too much to risk that.

"How has this not been brought to my attention until now, Bones? If you knew about the lurking in the corridors, that means someone filed a report that flagged you."

"Uhura did, and I'd expect nothing less, Jim. But she told me you'd said you were going to deal with Rand yourself, and while she may be willing to cross you if you need an ass-kicking, she respects your authority. God knows why," Bones mutters into his coffee, glaring at the red skirt disappearing out the Mess doors. "Doctor-patient confidentiality, I'm not going to discuss her further with you, Captain. But as the ship's counselor in addition to Chief Medical Officer, my official recommendation would be to leave her here. Transfer her to the Starbase."

"That's horrible, Bones."

"Jim, there's clear documentation in her personnel file from not just Uhura but Scotty too, about her disregard for protocol below decks as well as above. She just…enjoys her privileges, as Captain's yeoman, a little too much. And you've let it go unchecked."

He sighs, massages at both his temples. "How much documentation."

"The fact that you don't know, is a problem, Jim. Lord knows you work harder than anyone on this ship, 'cept maybe Spock, but you have to keep a better tab on people who directly report to you. It's part of bein' a leader."

"God, will you just – stop with the lecture, okay?"

"Nope." Bones cocks an eyebrow over the coffee cup at his exasperated face. "Nobody else on this crazy train is brave enough to tell you when you're being a jackass, so you'll take it from me and deal with it."

"I hate you."

"No you don't."

"I kind of do, right now. Bones, I've never transferred someone to a 'Base posting. That's harsh."

"It's really not, Jim. She has skills, and she has brains, even if she hides them sometimes. She'll qualify for a ship posting within eight weeks if she plays her cards right with the 'Base branch. And people transfer to 'Base postings all the time; this ship is just an exception to that."

"Exception to what?"

"The normal personnel rotation of a starship. Basically, the Enterprise is known in the Fleet as the one vessel where only way off is to die," Bones replies dryly. "People on other ships transfer on and off all the time in a normal personnel rotation, Jim; it's just that they don't here, that's why this seems harsh to you. Your people are crazy loyal, kid. But that comes at a price sometimes, and booting the ones you have to are part of that price."

"I just…"

"Don't want to do it, I know. It sucks, Jim. But you're gonna have to do things that suck a whole lot more in the next four years, you know."

"Did I say I hate you, yet?"

"Mmhm. Eat your oatmeal."


In the end, Janice takes it better than he thought she would. Bones is right, as he always is, damn the man. The girl has brains, actually quite a lot of them, and she knows when to choose a stalemate instead of risking a future checkmate.

She also recognizes that she's being cut a very, very generous offer when she could very easily be given much less.

Jim allows her to write a transfer request and then signs it with high recommendations, and in just under twenty-four hours she's beaming down after the last landing party beams up from shore leave, to take up a position in the Base's branch of Starfleet HQ.

Uhura informs him over breakfast that morning that the next yeoman in line for promotion is Yeoman Theresa Ross, whom he only vaguely remembers from a departmental inspection in Communications a few months back, and when he pulls up her personnel file he sees she voluntarily identifies as asexual.

While it’s none of his business how his people identify, he still is selfishly grateful for that. For once in his life, he seems to have caught a small break.

At least until a few hours after they leave orbit.

Starbases, especially those on the edge of charted space, are busy places, and so most starships of any size in orbital dock have a set time they are permitted to remain in that dock, due to other ships arriving. As the Enterprise was not scheduled to stop here and did so for needed repairs, she was squeezed into the timetable, so to speak, and so has to vacate the orbital docking platform precisely on schedule due to the Appomattox arriving ten minutes behind her departure with a medical emergency and requiring that space in the orbital dock.

The commander of the base was kind enough to allow the Enterprise crew shore leave in rotations despite the unscheduled stop, but squeezing them all into 48 hours was extremely difficult, and there were more than a few officers who forewent the leave completely, himself and his senior staff included. He's not sure Scotty has even left engineering, overseeing the repairwork being done on the dilithium chambers, and he and Spock have been up all hours trying to finish backlogged crew evaluations.

But almost 700 of their 800-odd crewmen were able to beam down for at least six hours of leave, many of them for the first off-ship leave they've had since the five-year mission began, and he's pleased with that. They have a regular shore leave scheduled in another two months when they return to charted space near a key Neutral Zone checkpoint, but this will only improve morale until then.

Granted, it has created a stupid amount of work for his senior staff now, because every time you have a mass exodus off-ship, there are safety protocols when the crew arrives back on-ship. Scanning for contraband, scanning non-contraband for anything which could be harmful to any of the various species aboard, mandatory medical examinations for anyone who's, well, taken advantage of the local entertainment, let's say. Bones is having a fit because he can't understand how this many of the crew managed to get so busy in only six-hour shifts each, but they are a very young crew, after all.

He tries not to laugh as he reads through another irate, capital-lettered memorandum from Sickbay and then hits Delete instead of Approve, erasing it from the system to cover both their asses. Bones has got to stop hitting Send instead of Save when he's pissed at someone, because if Jim didn't actually read this stuff it'd go straight to Command, choice language and all.

It makes for a somewhat amusing change of pace from the reports from Engineering he's been slogging through, the majority of which are about strange power fluctuations Scotty's been seeing but has been unable to pinpoint with any accuracy since they left the base. Uhura had been seeing the same fluctuations across the comms grid when they should have dropped off after hitting warp speed, and so he'd sent her and Spock too down to Engineering to have a look at the programming; he wants no more repeats of any unidentified power surges as they did before leaving Terra on their launch eve.

And, as usual, he jinxes them with just the thought.

The turbolift breaks down, trapping them both inside, and while less competent officers who are involved might take advantage of the opportunity it only pisses these two particular officers off. His ears are still burning with the choice Romulan language Uhura was muttering in the background during Spock's call, informing him it would be approximately ninety minutes before Scott had the lift running again.

Spock returns to the Bridge via a working turbolift fifty-eight minutes later, Scotty obviously fearing Nyota's wrath far more than breaking a few rules of physics in reaching the fused emergency hatch in the lift's roof. Uhura had continued back down to Engineering to look at the communications array, but Spock explains he believes his time is better spent on the Bridge, utilizing his own more powerful computer to see if perhaps the Enterprise's data banks might be housing a virus of some kind.

"A virus?" he asks, incredulous. Spock nods, already typing furiously on his computer, windows flying up at a dizzying rate. "Aren't we firewalled like, heavier than even you or I could get past?"

"Negative. Starfleet's highest security protocols, Priority One, can and have been hacked in the past by individuals possessing a Level Five computer programming ability, which both of us possess. Before installation, the M-5 computer's firewalls were tested against my own abilities, and while I was unable to penetrate them in a ten-hour period, that does not mean they are impenetrable by mechanical or other means."

"And we don't exactly have the M-5 prototype anymore, thanks to you," he replies in an amused undertone. "Just its subroutines in the databanks." (1)

Spock's eyebrow inclines in acknowledgment, though his eyes never leave the computer. "A virus would be a logical explanation for the slight, one might call them glitches, in the algorithms controlling systems in Engineering. Such a virus could have been introduced unintentionally, perhaps by faulty programming in one of the new hardware modules installed during our repairs at the Starbase. Or, it could have been installed intentionally, which would indicate an entirely different set of motives and perpetrators."

"Well that's just fabulous."

"As I said, it is a conjecture only. But if it is there, we must locate and destroy it before more vital systems than have been affected begin showing signs of malfunctions."

He sighs, and straightens back up, hand on Spock's chair. "Well, if anyone can find it, you can. Let me know when you want me to spell you, yeah?" Beta shift is about to take over for alpha, but they both know Spock won't leave until he finds what he's looking for. Spock nods absently, already engrossed in a window of coding that gives even Jim a headache, and he rolls his eyes, switches duty roster over to DeSalle, who's taking command for beta today. DeSalle has been briefed on the weirdness by Scotty, apparently, so that's that.

Hopefully, the rest of the evening will just be the normal weirdness that follows this ship around.


Yeah, not so much.

Spock is still in, like, the exact same position, to the inch, that Jim left him, meaning he has literally been working this entire time without a break. DeSalle glances up as Jim enters the Bridge, then does a double take.

"Evening, Mr. DeSalle. How's she running?"

"No other issues, Captain." The man looks a bit nervous. "Is everything all right, sir?"

"Other than the weirdness happening on the recreation deck right now, everything's fine, Mr. DeSalle."

"Sir?"

"We have twenty-seven crewmen currently being treated in Sickbay for various stages of allergic reaction because someone thought it would be amusing to create what I'm told is an artificial Aldebaran night-lily garden in Rec Room Two. I wasn't even aware that we had a replication script written for those particular flowers, but apparently we do. And apparently it includes a strain of very realistic flower pollen, which I also wasn’t aware was possible in a replicated flower."

DeSalle blinks. "Besides just being wasteful, sir…the replicators in the rec rooms only do beverages. How the very devil would you get that many smuggled through the ship without being seen? The things are nearly as big as a man's head!"

"When you find out, let me know, Mr. DeSalle." He mutters with a helpless gesture. "At any rate, I'm going to stay up here for a few more hours in case of emergencies. You're more than welcome to work the Engineering station, or if Mr. Scott could use you below you can join him; wherever you're most needed to figure out what's going on with these bizarre malfunctions. Obviously it’s not just confined to the replicating systems, but that’s at least two malfunctions in those systems now that we know of, so it’s not an isolated incident."

"Aye, Captain. If you intend to take the chair, then I'd be happy to get back to the systems below, sir. We're rewiring the comms board from scratch under Lieutenant Uhura's direction, sir."

"Ah. Best not keep her waiting, then. If she's able to break away, though, ask her if she'd return to the Bridge for me?" If anyone has a shot at dragging Spock away, it'll be her, and he needs to make sure she's not overstretching herself as well – two birds with one stone.

"Yes, sir." The young man bobs his head, hastily records the duty change in the log, and then fairly skips into the lift, no doubt pleased to be returning to his own domain early.

Jim pauses by Spock's chair, leans down slowly so as to not abruptly initiate personal-bubble-contact. "Dude, have you moved at all, in six hours?"

"It would be impossible to type computer codes without moving one's fingers, Captain."

"You know what I mean. Go get a salad or something."

"I am not in need of sustenance at this time."

"Ugh, you're impossible. Fine, what've you found?"

"Nothing."

"Seriously?"

Spock spares him a side eye-roll. "Captain, are you aware of how extensive the databanks are for the Enterprise's central computing core alone?"

"Yes, Commander, I am. I am also aware that the probability of a virus being loaded directly into those banks is extremely low due to the difficulty in introducing it past a level five firewall and the necessary retinal scan on four different checkpoints just for access to the outer level of code alone. Now, introducing it at the junction point between the central core and the memory banks, that's a different story. Those firewalls are stupid easy to crack if you know what you're looking for, although the memory banks aren't the best place to plant a virus because it's not as easily triggered."

Spock pauses mid-type and turns to look at him, eyes narrowed. "You believe the virus to be conditionally dormant, rather than consistently active?"

"It would have to be dormant sometimes, because Scotty's too good to not see it when he's directly examining the core. And if it's powerful enough to respond to my vocal commands on the Bridge and stop a lift, then it has to be visible when it's active."

"Your supposition has merit." His First turns back around and begins shutting down windows, rebooting certain ones with different algorithms, brows drawn and already obviously a million lightyears away, lost in thought.

"Well, thank you, Mr. Spock." He grins, and slides off the counter, patting the back of Spock's chair instead of the man himself, because that's Not Cool for a telepathic species, even if at this point Spock probably wouldn't care; he wants to make sure the rest of the crew follow a good example.

He takes a stroll around the Bridge, greets a few beta crewmen he rarely interacts with, pauses here and there to take a look at a station. Stands for a few minutes in front of the viewscreen, watching the simulated stars as they flow liquidly by in a time-delayed representation of what they'd look like if the ship were not at warp and just traveling at a rapid sublight speed through the beautiful void of space.

Finally, he smiles at the beta pilot and navigator, who are obviously trying to sit ridiculously straight and tall under his scrutiny when they have to be bored out of their minds on this sleepy evening shift, and moves back around the Bridge. Looks again at what Spock is doing, receives a warning side-glance of buzz off Jim, and raises his hands, backs away with a grin.

Behind him, the turbolift whirs briefly and the doors open, revealing his Comms Chief, ponytail slightly askew and looking more than a little tired as she relieves the redshirt manning Comms.

He strolls over, opens his mouth, and snaps it shut again as she lifts one finger, pointing it at his face.

"Do not start with me. Sir." She glances over at a blinking light on the comms board, rolls her eyes, flips two switches and presses a red button before looking back at him. "Under regulations I have the right to personally oversee any shipwide operations which directly affect Communications, regardless of whether or not they fall within my normal duty hours." Another light starts blinking, and she turns away, types something rapidly and presses it, shutting off the light before turning back around. "I was not about to let that Riley kid rewire the master circuit board without direct oversight, thanks very much."

He clears his throat. "I was just going to ask if you could try to get him off the Bridge to eat something, but that's all good to know," he says in amusement, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the oblivious figure of his First Officer.

She blinks. "Oh."

"Also, we have three days before we reach the Janus system, you don't have to get the repairs done in one day. Don't overwork yourself. I need you here on the Bridge at 100% during your shifts."

"Understood."

"I'll sic Bones on you if I have to."

"I hardly deserve that, Captain," she replies dryly, flicking another switch and rapidly pressing a series of buttons to send the comm across the board. "Give me five minutes to clear this backlog and I'll get him off the Bridge, sir."

He smiles, and moves back down the steps to the command dais. He might as well do some paperwork. Joy.

His padd waits for him on the chair, beckoning with that annoying Red Light of Doom that means he has a bazillion reports waiting for signature. He's just about to grab it when something snaps, then pops loudly to his right.

He looks over, and sees the Environmental Control engineer yelp and wave a small puff of smoke away from his console. Great, another malfunction.

"Careful, Mr. Mercer," he sighs. "Move to Ensign Li's station, she won't be back until alpha shift tomorrow. I don't want anyone touching that console until Scotty takes a look at it, just in case."

"Aye, Captain." The young man nods cheerfully and moves over two consoles, promptly getting back to work as if nothing had happened.

"Lieutenant Uhura, shoot Scotty an incident report on that, will you?"

"Yes, Captain."

"Thanks." He sighs, and reaches for the comm button on his armrest to ask for a status report from Engineering.

And then –

It's like something from a holo-vid, because he's never seen anything quite like it and hopes he never will again, but it's happening and he can't move away and holy hells, this is going to hurt

His hand hasn't quite touched the controls yet, but there's actual honest-to-God like, lightning, arcing out of them right at his hand

Not good

Freezing his fingers in place and instantly locking up every muscle in an immediate, horrible jolt of suffocating pain that steals his breath and for a second, his brainpower

is his brain even still working?

The quiet chirps of consoles and instruments float around in a frozen sort of unreal moment of peace

then blood starts pounding so loud in his ears that he can't hear much of anything else and Jesus, why can't he pull his hand away, it feels like he's been frozen here for hours and why hasn't somebody seen something's wrong

and now he's starting to get lightheaded

although that could be because his lungs are, you know, locked up so tight

he can't even scream

Though his hand's on fire, the rest of him starts turning awfully, horribly cold and sick. The pounding in his ears shifts to an eerie ringing, tinny and nauseating, and great, he's about to pass out again. What is this, the eighth time something's almost killed him on this very Bridge?

Ninth?

He'd really like to see the tenth, you know.

Something blindsides his shoulder like a freight train.

The burn in his hand stops, fingers suddenly as numb as the rest of him. The Bridge tips abruptly on its side, and he drops like a rock into something a whole lot warmer and softer than he was expecting, and a lot louder.

God, this crew yells a lot. He's pretty sure Bones can hear that Code Gold being belted out twelve decks down without the comms system, even if only patches of it are filtering muzzily through the haze to him.

"…hell just happened!"

"…Scott, cut off all power to…command chair on the Bridge…further notice."

"Sickbay says ETA four minutes, Lieutenant!"

"…lemen, switch your consoles to auxiliary power immediately…vent further incidents. Captain. Captain."

Someone's hand is on his face, and Christ Almighty, only Spock's fingers are ever that cold. If his brain would actually start sending signals again to the rest of him, he could tell the guy thanks but no thanks for actually foregoing the I have a fifteen-meter personal space bubble rule.

"Captain, can you hear me?"

"Lieutenant, I have the doctor for you, on audio!"

"McCoy to Bridge, someone up there talk to me!"

"Doctor, the captain has sustained a prolonged electrical shock from a live current, voltage unknown."

Wow, Bones needs to stop swearing on open channels. They're recorded, you know.

"Is he breathing?"

Something shifts his head, there's not quite as cold fingers on his neck, hair brushes his face briefly.

"He's breathing, Spock. Pulse slow but steady."

"Yes, Doctor. His pulse appears to be below the normal rate for a human, but not irregular, and he does not seem to have sustained more than moderate burns on his left hand."

"Thank God. Okay, is he conscious?"

"Negative."

"Is he responsive at all?"

"Negative."

"Hold that thought," he mutters, trying to move a finger on the hand that doesn't feel like it's still on fire.

The words are so slurred he's shocked they even get out of his mouth, but apparently brain-damaged sound is better than no sound at all, because one of his crewmen gives this weird little delighted screech that is like nails on broken glass to his pounding head.

His uninjured hand's picked back up by someone, and he manages to clench his fingers around it, trying to ground himself back in the land of the living. When your brain's been turned into scrambled eggs, it's not as easy as it sounds, okay.

"Doctor, he appears to be responding, but not entirely coherent." Spock's voice from somewhere overhead, and he sounds almost…happy, about that.

It's freaking weird.

"I'll take it. Look, see if you can get him aware of his surroundings, don't let him move and I'll be there in just a second. And whatever he touched, nobody else touch it, for God's sake. McCoy out."

"Captain?" A voice that's too far away and too timid to be attached to the strong hand he finally lets go of is probably one of the beta crewmen; this is way more excitement than they ever see, and he's probably scared everyone half to death.

Welcome to the Bridge, gentlemen.

He blinks unsteadily for a second at a hazy ceiling, and decides that's not worth the effort, sorry, bye.

"Captain. It would be best if you regained alertness prior to the Doctor's arrival on the Bridge."

He hears a snort that can only come from Uhura, and if his face wasn't still frozen he would laugh.

Gee, you think, Spock?

He tries again, eyelids fluttering until they can stay open without that annoying twitching. Finally, everything starts to focus, and he blinks a familiar face and haircut into view.

"Y'r bedside manner sucks."

His First's eyebrows disappear into his hairline as he sits back on his heels, relief shining in those dark eyes.

"What…happened?" he murmurs, trying to turn his head. Something stops him, thankfully, because the aching pain it produces, all over, would be much worse if they hadn't.

Ah. Uhura's not having any part of his stupidity. Good girl.

"Apparently some kind of electrical buildup had occurred in your chair's armrest controls, Captain. Upon coming into contact with the arc you were subject to an electrical current which caused intense muscular contractions, not permitting you to pull away."

"Sorry sir, it took us a good second to even realize something was wrong," Mercer pipes up from somewhere to his left.

"Not…your fault, guys." He closes his heavy eyes for a minute, then re-opens them, frowning. "But…how'd I get off it, then?"

"It was awesome, Captain!" The Farosi lieutenant from Hydroponics enthuses, all six arms waving in excitement.

"Not…from my angle, 't wasn't," he replies dryly.

Mercer coughs to cover a laugh. "He means to say, Captain, that it was Mr. Spock who stopped Johannsen here from grabbing you and just making himself into another piece of human toast."

Ew.

"Gross, Mercer!" His head jostles as Uhura thwaps the young engineer on the arm.

"Sorry, Lieutenant. Uh. That's to say, Captain. Mr. Spock prevented a secondary incident with the electrical current."

Right, conductivity. "Wait, there's like…nothing on this Bridge that doesn't conduct electricity, guys." He blinks back at Spock, who only raises an eyebrow. "Oh, no. What the hell did you break this time."

A round of nervous titters goes around the circle.

He groans, and raises a trembling hand to his eyes. "You're kidding me. What was it."

"The science screen. Sir."

"The what?! Ow, God." Pain shoots through his very eyeballs as his vehemence sends blood rushing back to numb extremities. "Please tell me you're joking."

"He had to, sir." Mercer's eyes are wide with earnesty. "We had to have something big enough to knock your hand away that wouldn't conduct the current, and there's like, nothing on the bridge that's not got synthesteel or durasteel in it except the viewscreen and our console screens. Commander Scott's written a paper in the Starfleet Engineering Journal about the fact that it's a potential safety concern. Even our uniforms are replicated from organic, partially plant-based materials, they're still conductive. The only thing we could actually get at in time was the free-standing screen, sir. It broke right down the middle easy enough. No electronics damage, just the syntheglass. It was like a big shield to just sort of…plow you over, sir."

"Oh my God. Spock, you're costing me a fortune here."

Spock looks totally unrepentant about the fact, and is saved from any further discussion by the eruption of McCoy and a trio of nursing techs onto the Bridge. Spock budges a scant few inches, taking up a position by his head, and Bones is shifting his head off of Uhura's lap and fussing like a paranoid parent before he even gets situated, making Jim smile despite the fact that he feels like he's just been in a shuttle wreck.

"All right, all of you need to get back to your stations, he's fine," the doctor declares, shooting a fearsome glare around the circle of worried faces. "Give him some breathing room, for God's sake. And get that piece of…is that the Science station? I don't want to know, just get it outta my way."

A chorus of sheepish apologies and scramble away from the medical wrath is promptly heard as twelve pairs of Starfleet-issue uniform boots hastily move out of his line of vision. There's a small crash as the cleanup crew gets to work obviously rectifying the mess they've now made of a major Bridge console and the upright half of Spock's workstation. He moves one hand as much as he can and weakly smacks Bones's leg.

"Be nice, Bones."

"I'm givin' the orders here. All right, thank you, Nurse. I think we'll be fine, just leave the kit here. How do you feel, Jim."

"Like I got hit by a Vulcan hovercraft."

Bones squints at him in confusion, and Spock honest-to-God rolls his eyes. Behind them, the turbolift closes on the medical techs who have been so abruptly dismissed, and while he appreciates not having more witnesses to this mess, he makes a note to thank them later when he can actually see straight.

"He bulldozed me with a piece of the freestanding science screen apparently," he clarifies. Indignant, his First opens his mouth to defend himself, only to pause when a sloppy arm-pat comes his way. "I'm kidding, Spock. You might have saved my brain from becoming mush."

"These readings say the voltage wasn't quite that high, but you'd've still gotten some nasty burns, and probably residual muscular contractions for a day or two, maybe minor nerve damage if the current hadn't got cut off when it did," McCoy says, reading the tricorder with an absent frown. "As it is, you're gonna feel like crap for a while, no doubt about it, but I'm not seeing any sign of nerve damage now. Soon as I get this hand bandaged and some regen gel on it you'll be in decent shape, actually. Hold still, Jim. Can you hold the end of this for me, Lieutenant? That's it, thanks. You breathing all right?"

He nods, inhaling obediently to demonstrate as Bones starts making a hasty bandage around the damaged hand, the coolness of regen gel immediately numbing it from wrist to fingertip, thank goodness. "I couldn't for a second there when I hit the ground, but it's fine now, Bones. Seriously." He takes a deep breath and struggles to his good elbow, then finally makes it to a sitting position only to end up leaning heavily against the doctor's shoulder for a second as every muscle in his body cramps up all at once. "Okay, fine's maybe an overstatement."

Spock's been doing this weird little awkward jazz hands thing as if he wants to try and help but has no real idea how, and now shifts uncomfortably in place.

"Okay, I don't think I want to wait for Scotty to get up here and investigate…nrgh. Stop moving for a minute, Bones."

"That, I would have assumed was a foregone conclusion, Captain." Spock looks at him like he's grown a second head. "Doctor, are you able to accompany the captain back to his quarters?"

"I will accompany him to Sickbay and nowhere else," McCoy retorts, packing up the medical tricorder and shock kit that had (thankfully) ended up not being used.

He flicks a pleading glance at his First.

"Is that entirely necessary, Doctor? Unfortunately, we are still in the middle of crew evaluations, which are not able to be discussed in the hearing of subordinates and cannot be delayed. Within the privacy of the captain's quarters, I can assure you I will see he remains under your medical directives while the evaluations are completed and submitted to Starfleet Command."

He stares at his First for a second in blank disbelief, then quickly schools his expression as Bones looks back his direction.

McCoy glares at them both, and finally sighs. "Jim, are you sure –"

"Seriously, Bones, I just hurt all over right now and I'm nauseated. No heart issues, no breathing problems. Just got zapped, that's all."

"Okay, fine. But if I find out you were screwin' around in there instead of resting and just doing paperwork –"

"You won't, I promise."

"Let me call Sickbay to meet me there with an electrolyte drip and no, that's not optional, shut your mouth Jim. Then we'll go." He wavers slightly but manages to stay sitting as Bones hauls himself wearily to his feet and moves over to the Comms station with Uhura, then turns to his First.

"What if he checks the outbox and sees we finished those evaluations twelve hours ago?"

Spock offers him the eyebrow equivalent of a Vulcan shrug. "I believe your human expression is, your problem, not mine."

He tries not to laugh, because ow, but he loves how this supposedly unemotional alien can make him feel better at the weirdest times.

"Okay, Jim. You good to walk, or you need me to –"

"Yeah, no, I am walking if it takes me all day," he mutters in annoyance, struggling to get sluggish feet underneath him. Spock finally just hauls him upright at a speed that makes his lunch threaten a reappearance, and his eyes almost roll back in his head, leaving him grabbing at anything he can see to prevent both from happening.

"Not. Helping," he grits out through clenched teeth, eyes closed.

"Stop whining and let go of him, then," Bones's amused voice behind him, and a poke between the shoulder blades.

"Doctor, you are not ameliorating the situation in any way."

"The hell does that even mean, you green-blooded –"

"Guys, for real, I'd rather not hurl on my own Bridge. Little help here." His other arm's pulled with unusual gentleness over McCoy's shoulder, and once his stomach settles he exhales, lifting his head with an effort. "Spock, did you –"

"Switch all remaining systems to auxiliary power until the problem has been identified, yes, Captain. Mr. Scott should already be on his way to the Bridge with a team to ascertain what caused the overload in your chair controls, and there is no sign of any further such malfunction now that the rest of the Bridge has been shut down to auxiliary power."

He gives a tired smile. "Why did I bother asking."

"'Cause you're a damn control freak, that's why," McCoy mutters, pulling him unceremoniously toward the turbolift.

"I will remain to apprise Mr. Scott of the situation and then come to update you accordingly, Captain."

He nods, too tired to do much else, and gives a thumbs-up to the rest of the Bridge crew who are trying surreptitiously to eavesdrop on whatever they can. "Thanks, guys. Look, be careful with your equipment, okay? Anything that even looks weird, you back off and call Engineering, got it?"

A chorus of hearty affirmatives and good wishes follows him into the lift, cut off by the closing of the doors.

Finally.

"Deck Five. Override all other stops, voice authorization McCoy, Leonard H., Chief Medical Officer. Jim, we have a hundred protocols in place that should be preventing these malfunctions. What is happening on this ship?"

"I wish I knew, Bones." He sighs, leans back against the cold walls of the lift. "I wish I knew."


Bones slips something into that freaking electrolyte drip, or else the shock to his system is just a little too much even for him and his brain decides it's going to take itself offline for a while, because he apparently falls asleep long before Spock and Scotty finish on the Bridge, long enough that he sleeps all the way through the rest of ship's night and early morning too.

He blinks awake when the lights on the ceiling brighten suddenly to ship's day settings according to the automated Federation day rotation, something that never happens because he always wakes up before 0700 hours. What on earth…

Groaning, he flops an arm over his face. "Lights, ten percent." They obediently darken again, and there's an immediate startled exclamation and a crash on the other side of his sleeping partition.

Whoops. Obviously he has a babysitter, and he just ordered the whole cabin's lights down. Snickering to himself, he rolls to a sitting position, notes with annoyance the fact that Bones has a freaking medical bracelet on him, for gods' sake why, and orders the lights back up.

A head pokes around the corner, and Uhura glares at him.

"How do you manage to piss people off before you even see them in the mornings?"

He tries not to laugh, because he knows that look, and obviously she's not had her coffee yet.

"Sorry. In my defense, I thought I was done having crew-women stalk me in my own cabin, so."

"You wish. Someone had to make sure you didn't randomly die on us during the night. I drew the short straw."

"I feel the love." Where the hell is his shirt? "Uh…you mind?"

"Nothing I haven't seen before, but there's enough rumors on this ship already." She disappears around the corner. "Before you ask, McCoy put that bracelet on you when he left here around 2300 hours, once he was sure you weren't going to do more than drool all night."

"I do not!" He tugs a fresh tunic over his head with a wince; he still feels like he's been run over by a hovercraft. And he's getting a little dizzy. Great.

"I literally could not care less about your hygienic sleeping habits, Captain."

He reaches shakily for the bed and collapses on the foot of it, head spinning. Okay, that's probably why Bones had the monitor on him, a clear sign that he's not going back on duty today.

"How long does it take to put on a shirt, anyway?" She peers around the corner, takes one look at his face, and winces. "That bad?"

"Yeah," he admits, exhaling slowly. He leans forward, rests his head in his hands for a second. "This may have been a mistake."

"You think, sir?"

"I do, sometimes." He manages a grin and stands back up, inhaling slowly until the dizziness dissipates, leaving only nausea behind. "Okay, let's do this. When is the briefing for Janus IV, again?"

"Uh, no. Sit your ass back on that bed or at least the couch. And nowhere else."

"You're on thin ice, Lieutenant."

"And you're on medical leave, Captain. For twenty-four hours at least." She points to the couch across the room. "Don't make me call Spock."

"You're going to have to, we have a call with the Admiralty in less than two hours!"

"No, you don't."

"Uh, yeah we do."

"Not if the comms systems are being rewired, you don't." She smirks. "Shame we had to start on the primary reception dish this morning in order to stay on schedule with the re-installations."

He looks at her in horrified awe.

"What. It needed to be done."

"Like, next year sometime, not right now!"

"Well, I don't think Admiral Decker's going to know that, do you?" she demands, giving him a none-too-gentle push toward the couch and handing him his data-padd on the way. "It’s entirely possible the glitch in your log was a comms glitch, not a programming one. And that’s what my report will say. Besides, until we track down this virus it's not going to hurt anything to do system restores."

He collapses on the seat, grunting as every muscle flashes fire through his overtaxed nervous system. "Still looking for it, is he?"

"Still sitting in the same place I left him eight hours ago," she sighs, perching on the armrest of the other chair. "I hate when he gets like this."

He opens his mouth to apologize, because technically Spock's latest freak-out is due to his close encounter of the electric kind, but she waves the words away, shaking her head. "It's not you. I just…don't know how to help him, sometimes. We're too different, Jim. Sometimes I just don't think we work."

"Look, Lieutenant…" He scrubs a hand down his face. They aren’t on duty yet, either of them. "Nyota, I'm like, the worst qualified person to comment on what constitutes a healthy relationship, but it looks to me like you're giving him what he needs right now. I know it's not how you want to give it, but that's not how he's wired, you know that. So you are helping. Probably better than anyone else would. Most girlfriends would be bitching his pointy ears off about not being taken to breakfast by now. Or something."

She snorts, then laughs, kicking him lightly with a high-heeled boot. "Your diplomatic skills are improving. That was almost beautiful."

He folds his arms, sulking.

"But thanks." She slides off the armrest, smiling for real now. "Now if I could just convince him to at least take a walk or something before he becomes one with that desk chair…"

"Leave that to me." He heaves himself to his feet, ignores her incredulous look, and stumbles over to his desk, whereupon he collapses into the chair and flips the computer on, hits the comm-switch.

Spock's voice filters over the channel a moment later, obviously surprised. "Captain. I was given to believe you would not be in this stage of recovery until later this morning."

"Yeah, well, Bones always underestimates my drug tolerance. And it's amazing what actually sleeping at night will do for you, you know. Thanks for not waking me up when you finished last night."

"I do not believe that would have been possible in your state, but you are welcome."

Uhura mutters something from behind him.

"Shhhh!" He motions for her to stay quiet as he re-opens the channel. "But I'm starving, you want to go get breakfast? You can catch me up on the Janus mission."

"Captain, Doctor McCoy has given strict instructions that you are to remain under medical observation for twenty-four hours. Those were the terms of your agreement with him, though I was of the opinion at the time you were already under enough sedation you were unlikely to remember said agreement. The fact you do not apparently recall my being in the room at the time would seem to support that hypothesis."

Great, he was talking while drugged off his ass, that's never a good thing. At least it wasn't to anyone but the two of them; they know better than to let him do that in front of even the most trustworthy of other crewmen since he has trust issues bigger than a Dreadnaught-class starship.

"Yeah, well, he's probably still asleep, he'll never know. And I took that stupid medical bracelet off, anyway."

"I will not be complicit in such a deception, as I am certain you are aware the doctor has his own methods of revenge where I am concerned."

"Oh, come on!"

"Negative."

"But Spock, seriously, I'm starving. Remember, we skipped breakfast and midday yesterday to get those evals done."

"Do you not have a yeoman for such tasks, Captain."

"Seriously, you want to start that mess up again?"

"I doubt Yeoman Ross has such designs upon your person, sir."

"I don't want my crew to see me like this, Spock, not after yesterday." He’s down to a last few cards, the guy's more stubborn than usual today. "Please?"

“I believe I will risk your displeasure before Doctor McCoy’s.”

Damn. Playing dirty it is. He sighs into the comm “Fine. I’m used to skipping meals anyway, what’s one more. But at least send over the briefing for the Janus mission so I can read it while I’m stuck in here.”

An audible noise of exasperation, and what sounds like a padd being put down with way more force than necessary. "I will not, as you are on medical leave. Remain in your cabin, Captain."

"Yessssss."

Definite amusement, this time; he's totally won. "I will not be procuring the items which have been locked out of your meal card by Doctor McCoy."

"Dude, I'd eat that nasty Vulcan cereal you like at this point, I'm seriously starving. You're a lifesaver, Spock." He makes pointing motions toward the door, then takes his finger off the comm. "Well, get down there if you want it to look like you were already there eating when he gets there. Just hey, make sure you do actually bring me something afterwards, yeah?"

Uhura's eyes widen briefly, and she makes quick work of her sloppy ponytail on her way to the door. "I owe you one, Captain."

"Mmhm, you can name your firstborn after me. What's the Vulcan word for Jim?"

"Flekh'pi-maat," she calls over one shoulder as she hurries out the door.

He frowns, slowly parsing that together, then scowls.

"Hey!"


Twenty-four hours is a long time, at least when you're used to working a twelve-hour shift and then some, and before six hours of enforced leave is past he's climbing the walls and driving literally everyone on his command staff so nuts that Bones lets him back on his computer to at least work remotely from his cabin.

Scotty hadn't been able to find anything wrong with either his chair or Mercer's console on the Bridge, and after running full diagnostics on all systems, the crew went back to work and had no further problems. (Other than the fact that Scotty called to let him know that it was raining in Shuttle Bay Two. Raining, when the fire suppressant system aboard ship doesn't use water. He's not even trying to explain that one.) The fact that it's unexplained bothers him, as do all of these other bizarre happenings on the ship, and a rampant virus is looking more and more likely.

The occurrences are too methodical, too…intentional, to be accidents, so someone had to have deliberately planted a virus if that's indeed the source. And if you're going to plant a virus in a starship computer's memory banks, it's got to have a purpose beyond replicating stupidly shaped food and delivering mild injuries to unsuspecting crewmen.

It just doesn't make any kind of intelligent sense, and most viruses do. That's part of the problem; Spock can't find it, and that might be why. The guy's brilliant, but he thinks linearly, like a computer himself. If this thing has a purpose beyond the usual, it might be harder for someone like Spock to locate.

Jim has sixteen hours to kill, and a different approach; maybe human intuition will succeed where Vulcan genius just can't quite make the leap.


Spock and Bones come in to check on him after beta shift is over, obviously suspicious of the fact that he's been quiet all day. They're probably checking to make sure he's still breathing at least, and stop just inside the door. He can fairly feel the stares boring a hole into the back of his computer terminal.

"What." He doesn't have time for a critique of his methods, okay, it may not be an elegant system but it works for him.

"Uh…Jim. What are you doing."

He looks up from the main screen, glances around, and wow, yeah, it probably does look a little mad scientist-y in here.

"Hey, I was going to call you guys in a few, come look at this." He points at the screen with a stylus, then leans over to look at one of the six padds that are balanced precariously on various items all over his desk, all running separate programs.

"Jim. This is not what I meant by 'light paperwork'."

"Yeah yeah yeah, Bones, I get it – Spock, take a look at this." He grabs one of the padds and shoves it under his First's nose. Spock's eyes cross briefly before he takes the instrument with a patient sigh and moves it to a more suitable distance, scanning the lines with crazy Vulcan rapidity. Jim watches as his gaze narrows, then goes back to re-read the code with more attention.

"I'm not imagining that, am I?"

"You are not."

"I thought so." One of the padds beeps at him, and he grabs it. "Look, it just showed up again, this time in the cultural icons databanks. I wrote a scanning program to flag it every time it appears somewhere in the records banks for the last week."

"Fascinating."

"And I've already found digital footprints in the Xenosociological, Xenobio, and Arts and Literature banks."

"Found what, Jim!" Bones is about to explode, basically.

Jim turns around, and indicates for Spock to share the data-padd. "What's that look like to you, Bones?"

McCoy takes the instrument and squints at it, gradually losing annoyance as he scans the information. "Looks like…Jim, this looks like genetic sequencing code, like I use in brainwave and genetic regrowth simulations. But it's not like any I've ever seen, there's some bizarre complex neural chains in here that don't make any kind of sense written like this."

"Precisely, Doctor."

Jim taps the stylus against the desk. "That's showing up all through our memory banks, Spock. Nowhere in anything like our weapons systems or crucial operations systems that I've found yet, but everywhere in anything that could remotely be educational in learning about us."

"Holy…Jim, are you saying what I think you're saying?"

"Commander, am I totally out of my mind here?"

"I do not believe so, Captain. We have been attempting to locate a virus in the Enterprise's key computing banks, when this appears to indicate that in reality we have somehow acquired a sentient or at least intelligent life form within those banks, which by choice or design is inhabiting our software and informational storage systems."

"Or the computer itself developed sentience. That's a freaky thought."

"I doubt that, Captain. This seems far too specifically targeted to be a computer-wide issue. And surely, there would be more indication of such a powerful sentience than these markers. If the Enterprise herself developed sentience it would likely utilize the operational systems first, rather than last."

"Okay, so…some life-form, that, what, is pure electrical energy? Does that even make sense, with the laws of science as we know them? This is totally not my area of expertise."

"It is theoretically possible, Captain. There have been such non-carbon-based life-forms discovered in the galaxy, the inhabitants of the Patros system being one. They survive in a nearly pure plasma environment, which our scientific research team has yet to fully understand, and they are to our limited knowledge at least possessing a rudimentary intelligence."

"Do you think whatever this thing is, has malevolent intent?"

"If we're saying it's responsible for all the malfunctions that've been happening aboard, it's landed a couple dozen of the crew in my Sickbay and electrocuted you last night, isn't that enough?" Bones demands.

"Wait a minute, Bones." Jim holds up a hand, thoughtful. "If it wanted to kill me, all it would've had to do was up that voltage a little more. Definitely not hard to do, if it's an electrically-based life form. And if you're talking about the stupid night-lilies, there's definitely easier ways to hurt the crew than inducing asthma attacks with flowers. We don’t even have a crewman from Aldebar aboard."

"Agreed. However, malfunctions aboard ship have not been confined to those two incidents, sir."

"No, you're totally right, and we have no idea if they're even connected; like I said, I haven't found any kind of operational traces of this thing. We need to figure out what among these malfunctions is just coincidence and what's actually related."

"That should be fairly easy to do if the entity's energy signature is evident in the computer records logging the incidents."

"They're corrupted in most cases, I already spot-checked. We can run a full analysis on the minor ones but the major ones, the code's unreadable."

Spock's eyebrow frown is hilariously annoyed.

"Anyway, regardless of its intentions, I need Uhura if we're going to figure out how to communicate with it, be it ghost in the machine or just machine. Get someone to take over the Bridge and have the command staff meet me in Briefing Room Two in twenty minutes."

"Yes, Captain."

"I'm going back on duty whether you clear me or not, Bones. If we have an unidentified life form aboard this ship somewhere, then it's my duty to make a First Contact."

"I know, I know. Go on, get. But if you overdo it, you're not gonna like bein' embarrassed in front of your entire command crew when I cart your ass back to Sickbay, fair warning."

"Duly warned. Now come on, Doctor, we have a new friend to make."


He rubs his eyes with the fingers of one hand. "Run that by me again, Scotty."

"I dinna know how, sir, and I would swear none o' my people are responsible. Who has the time on this bloody ship to do such a thing, and who would want to!"

"If they do have time? I'm firing you."

"Aye, and ye'd be perfectly right to, sir! This is a mess, is what it is!"

"Gentlemen, while this discussion is no doubt humanly therapeutic, it is hardly productive to the problem at hand," Spock says dryly, without even looking up from the computer where he's leaning over McCoy's shoulder as they try to splice the genetic sequencing portion of the Medical mainframe into the Science database, obviously with varying degrees of success. "Doctor, that is not going to –"

"I'm not done yet!"

"I was merely trying to point out that –"

"If you don't back offa me, I am gonna make sure in your next physical that you can't ever have mini-hobgoblins, so help me, Spock!"

"You want to weigh in on that?" Jim asks, eyebrows raised, and Uhura smacks him with her padd.

"Seriously, though, Scotty. What exactly is involved in overhauling the processors to the point that, well –"

"All the food they make is a disgusting shade of vomit-orange, no matter its shape or taste?" Uhura supplies dryly.

His stomach, which had been growling until about ten minutes ago, turns over slightly. "Yeah, that."

"Sir, I've never even seen it done. Wholesale changin' the color, I mean."

"It's a pointless waste of programming, time and effort, Captain." Sulu shakes his head. "I only took one programming class at the Academy, but if I remember correctly, wouldn't it take an enormous amount of time and manpower?"

"That's why I'm asking. I know it took me like four hours to just to hotwire the beverage replicator in my cabin into making root beer, for gods' sake – and that script is fairly straightforward, complex sugars and so on. We're talking massive amounts of coding, every possible item on the Officers' Mess menu, in every combination. We're just lucky it's confined to Officers' Mess; it if hit the lower decks mess? I can't imagine the chaos in those computer banks."

"Aye, sir, that's what I'm saying – I can't even imagine how many hours such an overhaul would take to write, much less patch into the hardware and systems. We dinna even have the manpower, I don't think, much less be able to do it without being noticed for so many hours!"

"Wait, Captain, you've had a decent root beer script this whole time and you haven't shared it with anyone?" Sulu jumps, glares across the table as a high-heeled boot obviously makes contact with his shin. "Okay, okay, I get it, time and place. But you've had that swill programmed into the Mess beverage selectors, right?"

"It is wery bad, you know."

"Oh my God, will you grow up."

He has not had enough coffee for this. The table is looking very appealing as a landing platform for his head at the moment.

"Spock, how's it coming over there?"

"Slowly, Captain," is the reply, drier than New Vulcan sand.

"It'd go a lot faster if you'd stop lurkin' over my shoulder like a Vulcan vulture!"

"Doctor, your illogically hashed similes aside, you do not have the necessary clearance codes to bypass the Level One firewalls needed to join the two systems, nor the knowledge to finalize the splicing of the genetic sequencer into the communications array and universal translator."

"Yeah, okay, it's gonna be a while," he mutters, scrubbing a hand over his face. He still is having brief bouts of dizziness, thankfully that one was just a second or two. "So, can I assume that this orange food epidemic is another Malfunction of Weirdness and not one of our crew being such an idiot that I have to dump him at the next supply station?"

"Ah…that'd be my guess. Sir."

"Great. So we just need to figure out then, what the hell is going on on my ship, people."

Something in his tone seems to indicate that he's fast approaching the end of his usually pretty bottomless patience, because Uhura shoots a warning glance across the room and he sees Bones actually scoot over a few inches so that Spock can pull a chair up to the computer, conferring in a low tone over something on the screen.

Good grief, he must look like crap for them to be actually working together.

He drags his hands over his face, exhales slowly, trying to release the frustration, because this mess and the fact he still feels like he's been in a shuttle wreck is nobody's fault. "Okay, look…can you throw up all the malfunctions that've happened in, what…when did they start, exactly?"

"Mm, we had the normal minor mishaps, sir, but nothin' really out of the ordinary until we broke orbit from Station Sigma Iota. I dinna suspect anything was really wrong until those power fluctuations didn't stop when we jumped to warp, like they usually do."

"Other than your log backtalking you on the Bridge, Captain," Sulu interjects, obviously trying gallantly not to smile at the remembrance even as Uhura's quick fingers flick the list of malfunctions up onto the holo-projection.

"Wait, the food weirdness started while we were in orbit too, with the heart-shaped sausage. I thought that was someone in your department screwing around, Scotty."

"Really, sir. If we were going to spend that much time in the food replication scripts, we'd do something about that god-awful excuse for haggis, thank y'very much."

"Do something, meaning deleting it from the menu, I hope." Uhura rolls her eyes and flicks the item upward, adding to a truly impressive list. "Anything else?"

Scotty squints at the floating display. "If we are talking about issues while still in orbit, then add the deflector dish shorting out, I suppose."

Jim half-turns. "I wasn't told about that."

"Well, no, sir. 'Twasn't even that much of a short, really, it just went down for about ten minutes while we were in orbit of the station, that's why the last two waves of shore leave parties were delayed."

"Cause?"

"Interference from a cargo vessel passing us in the dry-dock corridor, filled to the brim with magnetic ore and trilithium. Knocked the dish's long-range dispersal unit out of kilter a fraction and caused a chain reaction in the deflector calibrations. Believe you me, I had quite a word with the 'Base authorities about maximum distance parameters, but there was no real harm done."

"So for ten minutes, we were totally vulnerable, is what you're saying."

"Well, sir, we were within the shields of a Starbase dry-dock, I'd hardly call that vulnerable!"

"On this ship?"

"Aye, ye may have a point. But we received no intruder or proximity alerts of any kind, sir, and any infiltration would have been registered, dish or not."

"True. At least, if it was a form the computer recognized."

"Which this probably isn't," Uhura points out.

"The lieutenant is correct, Captain," Spock's voice interrupts their discussion, coming across the room. "If these readings are accurate –"

"My readings are always accurate, thank you!"

"As I was saying," his First continues, as if he'd never been interrupted, "Doctor McCoy's readings do indicate an at least sentient life-form of some undetermined mechanical or electrical origin."

"You say at least sentient. How sentient, are we talking?"

"Unknown, Captain. I would venture to say quite intelligent, however, based upon the systemic methodicity with which it has gone through our memory banks to learn about our various species. It may very well be a superior intelligence; we will not know until we are able to communicate with it."

"That's a little unnerving," Sulu mutters.

"If its intents were hostile, Mr. Sulu, we would have been exterminated long ago," Spock replies, unperturbed. "Those same memory banks hold all the information such an entity would require to activate or deactivate any number of crucial ship's systems which would severely cripple or destroy this vessel and cause widespread damage or loss of life."

"He's right. We could've gone up in a fireball going into warp if its intentions were really hostile, and I for one would be dead if it really wanted me to be." He rubs his forehead, thinking. "So what are its intentions, Spock? Speculate."

"Unknown, Captain. We can presume that is either has no desire to, or is unable to, communicate with us, if after six days it has not."

"So what does it want, then? Just to, what, research and study us by putting us through weird scenarios?"

"We've had alien races do weird things to us just for experiments," Sulu points out. "Remember the Metrons?"

Everyone in the room except Spock winces, and even he gives a perturbed eyebrow.

"But it'd be able to do that without having to hide out in our memory banks, guys. That was a complicated digital footprint, no average hacker would have found it. It's well-hidden, so it doesn't want to be found."

"Or it's lost," Uhura says suddenly, and as one they all turn to look at her. She's been oddly silent the whole discussion, and Jim knows that's because she's been studying the mission briefing, what little they have of it, and thinking.

Unknown alien encounters rely heavily on communications, and these kinds of missions come down far too hard on her shoulders a lot of the time. She always rises to the challenge, but it's not due to luck. She deserves that chair as much as the other Bridge officers do, despite the fact that the work she does is nearly always invisible; and he'll fight anyone who hints otherwise.

"Come again?"

"I said it could be lost, Captain." She rotates the display back around the table so it faces him, eyes flashing with excitement. That means she's got something, something that both he and Spock missed, probably.

"Clarify, Lieutenant." Spock's clearly intrigued, but fully in Science mode at the moment.

"What if whatever it is, got…I don't know, sucked into our memory banks on accident, while the shields were down and the deflector dish was in reverse? When the power shuts off, it creates a vacuum effect, right?"

Scotty nods. "Aye, not a very strong one, but it does. And with the dispersal calibrations off-kilter, I suppose it might've been a wee bit stronger than usual."

Jim straightens in his chair, headache and dizziness forgotten. "So, in theory, is that possible? Spock?"

"It is possible." Spock looks totally lost in thought, and obviously fifteen steps ahead of them all. "Were such a being made of pure energy, and the deflector dish running in reverse for a time, however brief, it might possibly have unintentionally attracted and trapped such an entity without our sensors detecting the difference of energy as being intelligent in nature."

"Exactly!"

"That sounds like a pretty big reach," Bones interjects skeptically. "No offense, Lieutenant. But there's a big jump between what we're seein' here and an intelligent life-form stuck inside our computer, tryin' to get out."

"Bones, that doesn't mean it's not a possibility."

"I'm a doctor, Jim, not an electrical engineer! You want proof of life I need something to work off of, not theoreticals!"

"That's just it! Captain." She stands up, and starts pointing at items in the list of malfunctions. "Don't you see a pattern in these?"

"Uh." If he didn't have a fast-approaching migraine courtesy of being, you know, electrocuted, maybe. "You're gonna have to help me out on this one."

With her stylus, she starts circling items in the list in red, one by one, and he squints at them along with everyone else at the table. She's trained, highly trained, to see patterns where no one else is; that's a vital component of communications. If she's seeing a pattern, there is one. She then starts circling others in blue, finally stepping back and looking at him expectantly.

He still doesn't see the connection. Obviously, he can sort of see a connection between his log hitting on him and the stupid heart-shaped sausage, and the Aldebaran night-lilies could be connected to the unexplained medications Bones had found incorrectly replicated in one of the Sickbay units, but…

Wait a minute.

He stands up, leaning forward to get a better look at the screen. "Computer, group malfunctions by color."

Yeah, that's…interesting.

"Computer, rearrange malfunctions in chronological order, same visual effects."

Okay, that's even more interesting.

"Computer, access personal data terminal, Kirk, James T., Captain, voice recognition override. Access last program created."

Uhura's face breaks into a knowing grin.

"Working. Access granted. Program ready."

"Run program. List marker points in all computer banks beside malfunctions in chronological order of access."

And there they are, populating one by one, nice little bullet points – a malfunction for every time whatever-it-is accessed something in their memory and data banks.

"You two want to let the rest of us in on whatever this is?" Bones finally explodes, to his credit having lasted this long.

"I'm pretty sure these malfunctions are all going to correspond with the access points we've found for that…entity, if we're calling it that," he replies, eyes still on the populating list. "It looks like for every time it accessed information about us, something happened soon afterwards somewhere on the ship."

Spock's eyebrows incline. "It would appear your conjectures are correct, Captain. But I see no correlation between these files accessed and the malfunctions themselves, so I fail to understand how this information benefits us."

"You wouldn't see the correlations, probably, if I'm right. Lieutenant?" He shoots Spock a reassuring smile to let him know that wasn't in any way a slight, there's a very good reason for it, and Uhura nods, obviously pleased that he caught on finally.

"I suspected the connections but didn't have any proof; your algorithms are supplying that, Captain. Nice job."

"Well, thank you." He smirks, and gets a thwap upside the head from Bones, who has lost all patience and moved over to the table to look at the list.

"So what'm I looking at here, exactly, that proves it's an intelligent life form."

"I believe it's trying to communicate with us, Doctor." Uhura's eyes sparkle with excitement as she points at the first line of bullet points. "Each of these points indicates a time when the trapped entity accessed some information in our systems that gave it an idea of how to communicate with us. It then made the attempt, in the only way it could – by manipulating one of our systems electronically."

"You mean, because it's stuck in there, all it can do is reprogram and rewire things?"

"Well it's not like it can just start talking, Bones."

"Why the hell not! Communications is a system!"

"Doctor, once again you revert to your specist habit of regarding the universe from a humanoid-biased medical system. There are many species within the galaxy who do not use speech at all, who do not even possess the capabilities or vocal cords, who therefore would not even have a mental concept of 'speech' much less be able to reproduce it at will –"

"All right, all right, point taken. Damn Vulcan know-it-all." Bones runs a hand down his face. "Let's say you're right, and this thing's been tryin' to communicate by god knows what, these things have been dangerous!"

"They really haven't, Bones," he interjects, pointing. "The Aldebaran night-lily thing? On Aldebar they're a sign of peace. How was the thing supposed to even grasp the concept of allergies and asthma if it doesn't have a circulatory system?"

“So it replicated what it thought was a sign of peace by overriding the rec room replicators, but due to its inexperience with the system left the genetic coding sequence that contained live pollen instead of deleting it, like the usual nature sequences do aboard ship?”

“Exactly.”

"Jim, it almost burned your brains out less than twenty-four hours ago!"

"You said yourself the voltage wasn't enough to kill me," he replies calmly. "And this was just after the Arts and Literature banks were accessed."

"I don't remember ever reading a book that said a good way to communicate was to electrocute them, sir," Sulu says dryly.

"No, but how many times have you heard Terrans say they feel a 'spark' with a special someone, or that their chemistry was ‘electric?" Uhura counters. “That could just be a simple cultural miscommunication. I’ve definitely seen worse misunderstandings on First Contact missions; it’s more common than you’d think. Federation Standard is a truly ridiculous language to try to explain to a non-speaker.”

"Huh." Sulu blinks.

"It would have no idea that was not meant as literal," Chekov nods.

"And if that wasn't proof? These things she's got circled in red, I think they correspond to what it's communicating as Good, or positive emotions; blue is for the opposite. Right, Lieutenant?"

"Right. For example, after you did your Burning Man impression? No malfunctions for twelve hours, then what do we get?"

"Rainstorm in the shuttle bay." Sulu's eyes widen. "It got that from the literary banks too?"

"Humans correlate rainy days with sadness," Jim points out, shrugging. "The shuttle bay was empty, so it didn’t even damage any equipment at the time; my guess is it was just a demonstration. I dunno, but if I had to guess I'd say the electrocution thing was a total accident and it was sorry about it, guys."

"I belief you are right, Keptin."

"But the orange food? That I don't get. At this point we’re theorizing it’s trying to get out, so it should be sad, or at least unhappy. Wouldn't it be blue, if we're correlating emotions?"

"Bones, it's not just taking from human databanks, remember. Orange could be the color associated with sadness for one of the other species aboard."

"It is," Spock says quietly, his first contribution to the conversation.

Five pairs of eyes turn to look at him.

"As the captain said, it does appear to be accessing our databanks and then using that information to communicate in a variety of methods known to different cultures and species across the galaxy. The illogical and haphazard nature of its methods would indicate intelligence, but a lack of familiarity with any one species in particular – or perhaps a desperation to communicate with any one which might understand."

Bones still looks like he's about to go in for the kill, so Jim kicks him, hard. Maybe a little too hard, but seriously, this is not the time to go after the poor guy for volunteering personal info he did not have to share and only an idiot wouldn't realize it's probably because basically the topography of his entire now-dead planet was freaking orange, genius.

So many years, and Vulcan is still is the one failure that will drive him until he dies.

"There you have it, guys. Look at this shift of red to blue here. I really think this thing might've got sucked into our systems totally on accident, started out trying to just communicate an intent of peace and that it meant no harm – the weirdness with my bridge log could have been it just coughing up random sound bites it found in the comedy or romance section of our entertainment banks – and it just devolved into unintentionally causing accidents trying to get out or at least tell us it was stuck. It's probably freaked as hell right now if that's the case."

"Holy crap." Sulu stares at the list. "If you're right, sir…"

"If he is, we got a way bigger problem than we thought." Bones points at the list in incredulity. "Because if we can't even verify 100% that the thing exists, how are we supposed to get it out of the computer banks?"

"If it wants to leave," Uhura points out. "Surely it could have found a way by now, if it's as intelligent as you say, Spock; there's all kinds of energy outputs from this ship daily that it could have used as an escape route. It's sticking around for a reason. Whether that’s just to communicate with us, or something else – there’s a reason it’s still here and not just exiting via our plasma vents."

"I don't like the sound of that."

"You and me both, Bones." He sighs, tapping a finger thoughtfully against his lips. "You guys have that mainframe spliced yet?"

"Nearly, sir." Spock's voice comes from behind the computer monitor. "Once these final circuits are spliced into the communications array, whenever this life-signature is located in real-time in the ship's systems it will flag the universal translator, which will then activate and send a message of neutral greeting to the entity as we would to any species in an attempted First Contact."

Well, that's something.

"Then until we hear from it again, gentlemen, I don't suppose there's much else to be done. Let's just hope our stowaway catches on and makes contact."


He's back on the Bridge when it finally happens, the next day.

They all go about their business as usual the rest of the day, that night, and the next morning, with nothing out of the ordinary. All quiet on every front.

Personally, Jim feels a lot better when he wakes up the next morning, although there's still some residual tremors here and there, he notices when he's trying to sign his way through a metric ton of paperwork that's accumulated on his chair in his absence overnight. (He briefly contemplates and just as briefly discards his chances of convincing Spock there's a regulation somewhere that allows the First Officer to forge the Captain's signature in times of minor emergency.) These malfunctions haven't permanently harmed anything aboard ship, but they've been a royal pain to repair, and that triples the paperwork involved. Also the aggravation involved.

Also the headache involved.

He's already wishing he'd taken the time to eat breakfast, plowing through a series of reports from Scotty about the replicator repairs and debating on the personal ethics of sending a yeoman after a bagel and coffee and then breaking half a dozen regulations by scarfing it in his chair, when suddenly the wall sensors light up bright blue and Spock's station starts shrieking bloody murder.

He about falls out of his seat, fumbling to keep hold of the data-padd. "What in the – seriously, you couldn't make that thing, you know, less alarming than the Red Alert?" he demands, tossing the padd onto his chair and vaulting up the steps.

"I have no control over the volume of the alert system aboard ship, sir. Ensign, silence the Blue Alert klaxons, if you please."

"Aye, Commander." A serious-looking half-Katarran in Science blues, who hadn't even blinked when the Science alert went off, hastily punches the appropriate button, and the alarms stop.

"Please tell me that's indication of a flag for our stowaway, and not a biocontaminant breach in one of your labs."

"It is." Spock gestures to the report as Jim leans over the console, eyes on the screen. "It appears as though the entity attempted to access certain sub-systems in Engineering, which it was unable to do due to the improved firewalls I installed yesterday evening."

"Good work. What systems did it try to access?"

"The transporter systems, Captain."

"Huh. That actually might work to get it off the ship, if we could communicate what we're doing, and knew how to lock onto and disperse its signal. It's just an energy-matter-energy transfer."

"To successfully initiate a transport of the entity we would need to be far more informed of its composition, not to mention its intent aboard, Captain. As Lieutenant Uhura stated yesterday, it has remained here for a purpose, yet unknown."

"Then why did it just try to access a point of exit?"

"That, I do not know. It would seem – Captain."

"Yeah?" He looks up, and sees Spock staring at something over his shoulder.

"Uh…Keptin?" Chekov sounds freaked, and that's never a good sign. He whirls around, and – okay, yeah, he'd probably be freaked too.

Looks like their stowaway's finally figured out how to access the main viewscreen.

And considering that viewscreen's the only thing between every crewman on the Bridge and the entire void of space?

Yeah, freaked is putting it mildly.

"Full stop, Mr. Sulu." His voice washes over the Bridge like a wave of calm he sure as hell doesn't feel, and a moment later he can feel the steady pulse of the engines slowly disengaging, then the slight jolt as they drop out of warp into sublight. "Lieutenant, can you get that universal translator patched back into the systems up here like yesterday?"

"On it, sir. Give me sixty seconds to disengage it from the Medical mainframe, it will blow out every circuit on the Bridge if I leave it locked into both."

"Captain, should we –"

"No one move, no one touch anything." He moves back toward the center of the Bridge, then half-turns, one hand out in a slicing gesture that halts Spock in his tracks. "You too, Mr. Spock. Observe and record, nothing more."

Those are the duties of a Science Officer during a First Contact, and they both know it – but he doesn't usually pull rank and enforce them, and he can tell Spock's more than a little pissed about it.

"Universal Translator back online and fully operational, Captain." Uhura's ponytail is cockeyed from where she caught it on a console after that hotwiring underneath the Comms station, but she gives him the go-ahead signal and sticks her earpiece in, all business.

He exhales slowly, and moves back around the edge of the Bridge toward the viewscreen, which is now fritzing like a thing possessed, a clearly tangible field of power buildup humming from all edges of it and occasionally shooting off a crackle of blue sparks in all directions. An ominous creak sounds from the port-side anchoring bulkhead that holds it in place.

If that thing blows? Most of them may not be sucked into space, because there's a nearly-instantaneous force-field that deploys to seal the rupture, but that's not going to protect anyone who's too close to withstand the immediate G-force.

"Lock the controls into autopilot and back off, Mr. Sulu, Mr. Chekov. Take everyone from the beta consoles with you and keep them on the back side of the Bridge in case this thing ruptures," he says quietly as he passes the navigation console, and if the situation weren't so serious he'd laugh at how quickly they almost scramble over each other and the command dais to obey.

"I need a reading of some kind on this, people."

"Unknown energy buildup in the visual circuits controlling the main viewer, Captain."

"That's helpful, yes, thank you, Commander." He glances back at Spock, and sees the half-amused acknowledgment of that fact. "Only visual?"

"Negative, Captain." Uhura winces and turns a knob. "Audio circuits are overloading as well, sir. Origin and type of energy unknown."

"Did we get that First Contact message broadcast?"

"Yes, sir."

"Broadcast it again. Spock, can you…I don't know, write a simplified program that would tell this thing how to use the universal translator's patching software?"

Spock blinks at him.

"Like a neon sign saying click here, basically."

"A door in the firewall," Chekov interjects excitedly, from where he's been studying the readouts in the secondary Science scanner, and beside him the young Katarran engineer bobs his head enthusiastically.

"It is possible." Spock starts pulling up coding windows, pausing only once to lean over and give instructions to the other crewmen at the Science stations.

Something cracks abruptly over their heads, and he's almost afraid to look up. The static charge coming from the screen hums louder as he approaches, and so he stops, wary. His hair's starting to stand on end, so that's probably close enough.

"Get it written and uploaded if you can, because this thing's going to take out the viewer if that power keeps increasing."

The turbolift opens, disgorging a trio of redshirts and a medical team, no doubt in response to the Blue Alert. One sharp look from him, and Sulu has them corralled and out of harm's way.

"Stay over there for now, gentlemen. If you can do anything, Spock, do it. Much as I'd like this thing off this ship, I'd prefer it not bash its way out our front window if possible."

"I doubt that's its intention, Captain," Uhura says thoughtfully, head cocked as she listens. "It does appear to be accessing the universal translator circuits now, though the patterns are pretty erratic."

The screen is changing colors in an almost beautiful wave of fluctuating, dizzying aura, all pastel yellows and pinks and a little pale blue and green here and there, floating and spinning in almost cloudy curls and spirals that make him think of nebula storms and spun sugar. With the amount of energy emanating from the screen, it's almost like it's been turned into a giant hologram, with special effects to match. While the viewer is a meter-thick wall of glass-like transparent aluminium that separates them from the void of space, it's shot through with a nearly invisible fiber-optic network of visual and audio programming tech to receive and broadcast, and it's these circuits which are overloading with whatever signal this is.

He moves a step closer and then freezes as something within the viewer shifts. The humming pauses, the colors almost stop for a moment, he'd swear as if they just now noticed his presence – but the screen is two dimensional, making anything inside it unable to see beyond its confines….correct?

But the multihued mix seems to be moving…in his direction, looping curiously in a lazy circle in his general vicinity instead of haphazardly pinging about the screen as it had been.

Well, that's interesting. He takes a step to the left, and watches as the hazy swirl of colors brightens just a fraction and follows his movements. He takes another step, then moves back to his right, and they mirror his actions again.

Interesting. He ventures another few careful steps toward the screen.

"Uh…sir?" Sulu's voice is warning enough to tattle on him to Spock, who he can tell without turning around is Not Happy.

"Captain, what are you –"

"Jim, are you out of your goddamn mind?"

He holds up a hand behind him to silence them, and moves closer, curious now – still cautious, because he really could do without another shock treatment, thanks – but curious.

"How we coming, Spock?"

Spock sounds majorly perturbed, but answers readily enough. "Nearly finished, sir. Patching in software bypass now."

There's a small jolt as the bypass grinds its way into a hardware system it was never meant to – Scotty's going to have a cow – and then for a moment, nothing.

"Bypass fully integrated, Captain."

"Come on," he coaxes quietly, almost to himself. "We can't do this for you."

Suddenly a static whine slices the air, almost supersonic pitches obviously shrill enough that both Spock and the Katarran engineer nearly keel over on the spot, sending all three medical techs and two replacement science personnel darting across the upper deck like a small army of blue-shirted ants. The piloting station's screen explodes in a shower of syntheglass shards, sparks flying. He sees a crack start to form at the upper right corner of the main viewer. Even his ears are starting to hurt now, a ringing sensation throbbing painfully behind his eardrums.

The whine gets louder, and he hears something shatter in the direction of the port turbolift.

"Hey, hey! Cut it out!" He charges forward, probably not his smartest move, but hell if he's going to let this thing seriously hearing-damage two of his officers and destroy his Bridge just because it's freaking out. Right now it's acting like a panicking child, and that might just be what it is, and oh God he has literally no idea what he's dealing with and what in the world, he's so underqualified for this kind of mission this is insane and he's no less panicky himself but that's going to do nobody any good so calm down, Jim.

He's always been remarkably good at hiding his own panic under the guise of giving orders. That's basically what Command is all about, isn't it?

He halts, only inches from the viewscreen. "I said stop it!"

"Captain –"

"Jim, do something before someone ruptures an eardrum!"

"Uhura, cut power to everything other than the main viewer and comms systems!"

His voice cracks across the Bridge like glass shattering, and he's grateful once again for the fact that she's the one person on the Bridge who could literally hear a pin drop even amid the horrible noise; within five seconds the Bridge plunges into total darkness except for the emergency lighting and the glow of the comms station, engineering console, and the main viewer. He stands in silhouette against the swirling hues, lit by an unearthly glow of gold and pink-red light.

The whine shuts off like it's been choked, and he exhales in short-lived relief; at least that worked, the element of surprise.

"Try that again and I will cut power to everything in this room, including the device allowing you to see me," he says, directly at the main viewer. He keeps his voice slow and precise, as if he's speaking Standard Basic to a computer, so the universal translator will pick up every word and not add any extra descriptives or derivatives to his speech. "Your method of communication is incompatible with our physiology. You are harming my officers."

The pulsating mass circles him slowly on the viewer, then seems to retreat just a fraction.

"They going to be all right, Bones?"

"Yes, Jim. Little hard of hearing and some pain for a few minutes, probably, but nothing serious. Don't blame these two if they yell a little talking to you for the next few hours, though. I've never been more glad to have human ears, I tell you."

He'd already stopped listening at Yes, Jim, because he has a very delicate First Contact to successfully initiate, and now turns back to the screen. "You should be receiving a translation of my words through the technology known to us as a universal translation device. Access these files in our databanks if you require clarification on its construction and technical specifications."

Nothing.

Then Chekov yelps as the library console sparks underneath his fingers.

"You going to live, Mr. Chekov? And did I not give an order for everyone to not touch anything on this Bridge until further notice?"

"Aye, Keptin. But Meester Spock then told me to write this kill code for the main viewer in case you…well."

"Did something stupid like trying to stick my hand inside a console to make physical contact?"

A couple of awkward coughs from out of the darkness, and a laugh he's pretty sure comes from Bones.

Okay, so it did cross his mind, but that's a last resort; surely there's some way they can communicate with the thing without requiring direct contact.

He turns back to the screen.

"So, you found the files. Do you understand the technology involved? The universal translation device will translate your communication in the same manner if given time to build a foundational syntax for your speech."

He inhales in surprise, and hears a couple of shocked gasps behind him, when the screen and its fluctuating colors suddenly turn varying shades of blue, rippling outward until the entire Bridge is bathed in soft blue light.

It's beautiful.

"So…hm. Okay, you're speaking to a human, so that's communicating…sadness? As in, you understand our expression, 'feeling blue' or 'having the blues'?"

The color vanishes, fading in a matter of moments back to what he assumes is normal, the multihued spectrum.

"Okay…speculate, Lieutenant."

"It indicated sadness when we spoke about the translator being able to form a translation of its speech patterns, Captain. My guess would be either that it is personally incapable of physical speech and that's an anomaly for its species, or more likely that its species doesn't actually speak," she replies quietly. "If there's no phonology, the translator can't grasp enough of the pattern to build any kind of even rudimentary translation. It's a universal translator, not a communicator. If its species communicates in, say, ideas or musical tones rather than words, then the translator isn't going to have enough of a foundation to begin a foundational syntax. It would be like…trying to translate a sonata or concerto into corresponding Klingon words. It just doesn't compute."

Oh.

Well, that would suck, yeah. And it’s going to make this a lot harder.

"But…" He frowns, and turns back around, looking at the fluctuating image. "How do you communicate? With your own species?"

Once again, blue. Sadness.

"You…don't have a species, then?"

Much darker blue.

He hears a soft curse behind him from one of the Science personnel.

"I'm sorry," he says quietly.

The light slowly fades back to the multicolored waves it had been at the beginning, though they just sort of float there, listless, before him.

He frowns. "Is that…is that why you haven't left the ship? You have nowhere to go?"

Purple, this time.

Okay, yeah, he's got nothing.

"Help me out here, people."

"I…don't know, Captain. Spock?" Uhura waves to get their First Officer's attention and then says something rapidly in Vulcan, a little louder than normal, letting him read her lips as she speaks as well. Spock finally shakes his head. "It has no significance in Vulcan culture either."

"Guys? Come on, think. We have thirty-four species on board, the color has to have some significance to someone, somewhere. Chekov, check the databanks, it had to have found it somewhere in there, or found the information it needed to make the extrapolation."

Dead silence for a few minutes.

"Didn't they used to give some kind of purple award for soldiers wounded in battle back in the Terran world wars or something?" Sulu ventures. "Maybe its people were all killed, and it's the last one left."

"But why would it give purple as the reason for staying? Why not just throw the color red up there, for blood? Or green, or orange, or any other blood color for the species on board."

"True. It would need to be something that has only one interpretation, then?"

"Keptin…I may have it, sir. But it is a wery long shot."

"Longer than orange food in the replicators, I doubt. Spill it, Mr. Chekov."

"The galactic folklore databanks, which have been accessed in the last four days by this entity, do talk about the Festival of Peace on Risa, sir."

"The what." He's been to Risa, okay, and festivals there are…festive. Not peaceful.

Decidedly not peaceful.

Some immature ensign across the Bridge elbows his seat-mate and sniggers, and Jim makes a mental note to educate them on time and place and otherwise keep it to yourself and in your pants, moron. When they're not in danger of their viewscreen being sucked out into space thanks to an unknown life form.

"It is an old custom which is no longer celebrated but was always held during the winter months, Keptin. Tourists were invited to take part in the, ah…group activities, but if they were not interested, they were instructed to wear the color purple. It meant they were to be left alone, sir, by the locals."

Huh.

"Purple means left alone, is what you're saying."

"Aye, sir. It is the only instance I can even find the color having any kind of cultural significance other than mentions of it in correlation to royalty on Old Terran and Sixth Age Pravarian culture."

That's…really sad, actually.

He looks back at the viewer, where the entity seems to just be hovering, waiting, lavender-violet.

"You haven't left, because you're alone," he says softly. "And when you got lost in here by accident, you found out you didn't really want to leave."

This time, there's no mistaking the brightening of warm yellow and gold that spins in a little whirlique in front of his face. It's almost…cute.

It's these moments right here, that remind him why he went into space. Not because of his last name, not even because of a dare from a man he still owes a debt he'll never live up to, not even because of the always-burning, driving need to protect the people he loves, until death if necessary.

But these little moments right here, standing on a quiet, half-darkened Bridge of his beautiful, beautiful ship, illuminated by the light of something they've never seen before and may never see again, the magic of the unknown and the awe-inspiring knowledge that he of all people gets to see it first?

The swirling mist of colors suddenly spirals up and pops into a very good approximation of Terran fireworks, and he laughs in unadulterated childish delight.

"Now you're just showing off."

The cloud turns from gold to pink and then back again, holding a slightly wavering position mirroring his, as if waiting for his next move.

"Hey Spock, how's your head?" he asks, not looking away.

"My hearing is restored enough to be functional, Captain," is the dry reply, with a definite undercurrent of yes, I am still very pissed at you but I'm willing to shelve that right now because I'm geeking out over this thing too.

"Come over and say hi to our new friend."

Light footsteps come up behind him, and he wonders how you make introductions between species that can't actually communicate two ways.

He's about to at least make the attempt when the screen suddenly lights up in brilliant shades of green.

"O-kay, I guess that takes care of that," he mutters.

"Fascinating." Spock's face looks even paler in the emerald light, as he moves in front of the screen, watching as the shifting play of hues follows his movement. "The method by which this entity has assimilated our technology for its own purposes is remarkably efficient, Captain."

"That's an understatement," he replies, and watches as the mist spirals off into a pleased little curlicue at the rare praise. "They're going to be writing papers about this one for months, you know, Spock."

"Indeed. Starfleet Command will be most impressed with the scientific and communicative possibilities. However, they may not be so pleased with the…creative alterations we have been forced to make in the Enterprise's electronic security measures in order to achieve this feat."

"You just have to rain on my parade, don't you." He laughs as the screen suddenly turns into a pretty decent visual replication of a Terran rainstorm. "Nicely done. Look, if I turn power back on to the Bridge, are you going to let my people take their stations without getting zapped by you?" The mist swirls uncertainly around his head at eye level, as if in question. "Like, stay out of the computer consoles." He pats the navigation station behind him to demonstrate.

The mist turns bright pink and then goes back to its normal color configuration, which he assumes is an acknowledgment.

"Okay, restore full power, Lieutenant. Everyone, back to your stations. We have a mission to get on with. Uhura, see if you can get in touch with Command and figure out what kind of Communications and Diplomatic teams are in residence at the Janus colony or if we're going to need to stay in orbit so you can take charge of trying to actually communicate with our new passenger and figure out what to do with it when we get there."

"Yes, Captain."

"Sulu, is your station still operational?"

"Most of it, sir. I have piloting and the warp controls, but if you're going to want close-range maneuvers when we get to Janus IV they'll need to be done from Auxiliary unless it gets repaired."

"Warp will do for now. Get us back on course as soon as you can, gentlemen."

"Aye, sir."

He sits back in his chair, after gingerly poking the armrest controls to make sure there's no power buildup. The Bridge is still bathed in a peaceful, multihued light that floats around the viewer like an oversized holographic screen-saver as they streak away into warp, on-course once more and having finally located their resident stowaway.

It'll take some convincing, no doubt, to get the thing out of their databanks once they reach the Janus system, but Janus IV is the central tech hub for that part of the galaxy and he has the feeling they'll be able to work out some kind of mutually beneficial agreement with the entity, whatever it is. Maybe they'll even be able to make new advancements with the universal translator technology due to the entity's discovery, who knows.

This will also be an opportunity to put a commendation in Uhura's official record, because that's long overdue. Spock certainly will never do it, to avoid any appearance of quid pro quo, and the 'Fleet is still notoriously sexist in recognizing their female officers. He can't change the brass, but he can change this ship, and if his Comms chief ever does decide she wants to make a higher command rank someday she's going to need those commendations. This has been one of their most successful First Contact missions yet, even if it's been one of the weirdest.

And he just has a feeling that the weirdest is yet to come.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

 

"You are a dead man as soon as they find you. You know that, right."

Not exactly the greeting he was expecting, but after the day he's had he could literally walk into the business end of a phaser right now and not even care. "I've pissed off so many people over the last five years alone, that could apply to the inhabitants of pretty much any star system in the galaxy, Lieutenant." He leans wearily against the wall, head pounding. "Are you going to make me stand in the hall until I guess correctly?"

"For God's sake, come in before you fall over." She retreats into the apartment, and he more stumbles than walks in behind, letting the door slide shut after him.

"Mind if I sit down?"

"Do you need to lie down?" The question apparently's a serious one, judging from her expression, and he must look even worse than he feels if she's legit that concerned.

"I'm fine. It's just been a…really long day." He collapses onto the small couch, wincing at the jolt to his aching head and the arm he fell on earlier. The box he sets on the side table, safely out of range from further damage. "Spock not here?"

"No, he…needed to get some work done, he's borrowing the computer facilities at the 'Base branch of Starfleet Academy."

He closes his eyes briefly. That's a very nice way of saying the Admiralty had finally gotten around to telling Spock that they required him to start the First Officer's official report on what they're so politically correctly calling The Yorktown Incident, which would require running simulations to determine if Jim's command decisions merit a court martial.

"You know he's not going to find anything, Captain."

"Unless there's something to find."

"There isn't." He forces his eyes back open and wearily blinks up at her. She shrugs. "I was there. You're not the only one whose brain likes to keep them up at night with might-have-beens. It was planned too well, Jim. Nothing could have stopped it."

He nods mechanically, forcing the thought to the back of his mind for now. Or forever, whichever works; denial's been basically the only thing that's gotten him through this hellish week. Or has it been eight days? Nine? He honestly has no idea anymore, which probably should concern him more than it does.

Anyway.

"Here," he says wearily, not caring about the abruptness of the subject change, and holds the small box out in her general direction.

She takes it gingerly, because she's not an idiot; if she knows where he's been, she knows what could be inside.

"It's not much," he says quietly. "There just wasn't much left. I'm sorry."

"Why the hell are you apologizing." She sniffs suspiciously, and sits in the chair beside the couch to open the thing. "Other than for doing this without taking any of us along. Leonard is seriously pissed, and Spock isn't much happier."

"There are third-party salvage crews employed by the 'Fleet for a reason. No one needs to see that."

The lid comes off with an unusual viciousness. "But they required you to go."

"Only my access codes could retrieve the black-box recordings, Lieutenant." He sighs, weary beyond belief. "Believe me, I wouldn't have gone otherwise. I could have done without seeing just how many of our supposed escape shuttles never even made it out of their docking stations in the shuttle bays, much less out of the bays themselves. God." He runs his hands over his face, shaking his head helplessly. "I can't…"

"Stop doing this."

"There's not even anything left of the command Bridge. When I flipped the saucer it just…disintegrated the central dome. I had to retrieve the recordings from secondary Engineering." He leans back against the couch, pinching away angry tears. "None of them even made it out, Nyota. They stayed at their posts, probably trying to keep life support on and ejecting malfunctioning escape pods until the blast doors came down."

A soft, choked sound, and he shakes his head, blinking his vision clear. "Sorry. Didn't mean to dump that on you. Anyway. Deck Five was pretty unstable, they don't think they're even going to bother sending a crew through Decks One through Eight, given they're right under the smashed dome. But they let me run through the senior officers' cabins really quick, at least until stuff started shifting and they made me pull out."

Uhura gives him a faint smile as she pulls a dusty pair of earrings out of the box. He shrugs. "They look handmade, I figured they were valuable. At least to you."

"They were a gift from my grandmother, Kirk. So yes." She blinks suspiciously. "I can't believe you found them."

He manages a smirk, for her sake. "You don't want to know where."

A half-hearted kick in the shin. "Gross. What's this?"

He glances over, still sprawled on the couch, and then sits up, leaning forward to point at the remaining items in the box. "There really wasn't much salvageable of anything, but I found those…I dunno, I think they're pieces of something. Pottery, maybe? But that's Vulcan writing on one of them, so I figured they came from Spock's cabin. And given that there's probably not much left of the planet in the first place, across the galaxy, I thought any part of it might still be valuable, even…"

She nods, lifting the piece of broken clay and examining it. "I think it's part of a fire-pot. Meditation aid," she explains, when he looks clueless at her. "The pieces are pretty big, all things considered, so it might at least be salvageable as a decoration if nothing else."

"Oh, good. I looked everywhere, but who knows if I found all the pieces. I have no problem pulling the endangered species card with the brass and making them send someone back after the rest if I missed some, too."

She laughs briefly, though it sounds more like a sob than anything else. "You're impossible."

"I prefer to think of it as specialized diplomatic skills." The grin dies before it reaches his eyes, because he just doesn't have the strength to pretend anymore, not today. "Anyway, I wasn't sure if it was tacky or not to, like, give them back to him like that? Or if it'd just be better to leave it be."

She nods. "I'll look into it."

"Great, thanks." Relieved, he sighs silently, and leans back against the couch again. "I'm sorry I couldn't find anything else, they pulled me out before I could do more than just look around."

"Apologize one more time, Captain…"

He half-smiles, genuinely this time, and closes his eyes for a second in weariness. He hears her get up, fiddle with something near the kitchenette; likely putting the box in a safe place. It's all that's left of three years' worth of memories, the only fragments of the only place he's ever felt home, the only people he's ever considered family.

That family's as fragmented as Spock's fire-pot, now, and it hurts as much nine days later as it did in the first few unbelievable seconds. Ten days? He doesn't even really know.

"I'm guessing you were a self-sacrificing duhik-bosh and spent all your time looking for this stuff, didn't bother trying to salvage anything of your own." The words float over the back of the couch to him from across the room.

He smiles briefly, eyes still closed. "I salvaged one hundred seventeen crewmen, Lieutenant. That's going to have to be enough." Less than one-third of the crew complement.

It isn't enough. And it never will be.

The numbers, the faces, still scroll across the inside of his eyelids as vividly as they did when he forced himself to read the death toll the first time.

It took him almost twenty minutes.

"Focus on the living, Jim," Bones keeps saying, and while it's basic psychobabble he's found it really is the only thing that's keeping him sane. Keeping him from drowning right now.

Maybe literally, keeping him alive right now. They do say that guilt can kill a man, and it's going to take a lot more than nine days to convince himself that it's undeserved. Part and parcel of the captaincy, he took the command psychology courses, he could probably quote the textbooks. He's not stupid, he knows he couldn't – wouldn't – have made any other decisions. Knows that maybe any other starship commander would have failed to save Yorktown, failed to even make it off of Altamid with the survivors he did.

That doesn't stop some small, horrible, cowardly part of him from reminding him: maybe everything would be a whole lot easier right now for everyone, if he'd just followed in his father's footsteps and gone down with his beautiful ship.

He clears his throat, scrubs a hand hastily over his eyes. "So, you and Spock?" he calls brightly over the back of the couch.

A vague snort. "What about us."

"You do know he was mooning over you the entire time we were trying to make battle strategies against Krall on Altamid, right."

This time, an outright laugh. "That, I highly doubt, Captain."

"Okay, I'm embellishing a little. But you know what I mean."

He hears a quiet noise of assent.

"He insisted on coming along when I'd ordered him to remain behind, and the reason he gave me for doing it was you. Totally logical."

"You should write a gossip column, Kirk."

"I should! It'd be popular among the crew." He smiles, eyes still closed. "Anyway. It's none of my business, I'll shut up now. Just thought you should know."

"You're right, it is none of your business."

"Sorry. I just…don't want to lose either one of you. Not after this." He hears too late, that the words aren't anywhere near as flippant as he'd meant them to be.

"Jim. Give us a little credit as Starfleet officers. And as adults of our respective species. We're not two kids straight out of the Academy that will be setting your Bridge on fire if we quit seeing each other. We were friends and friends with benefits before we got serious, and we can be the same thing again if we need to. Right now, we are just fine as-is, and the rest is not something I need commentary on."

“Fair point, and I’m stepping back now, I promise.”

That's interesting new information, though. For a few blessed seconds, the idea that an uptight race like the Vulcans actually do friends-with-benefits drives away the cloud that's been threatening to choke him all day, just with the sheer novelty of the idea.

(He suspects Spock is probably to his people just the Vulcan equivalent of a hippie or something, but the idea's a novel one.)

"Hey. Look at me." He opens his eyes, startled, because he never heard her come back, and that means his reflexes are dangerously dulled. She's crouched in front of the couch, eyes serious, and waits until he's visibly alert to speak. "That ship's not leaving dry-dock without us both on it. Our relationship has nothing to do with that. Okay?"

He nods, tight-throated, and too tired to be anything but grateful at the reassurance. "Okay."

"And if for some reason, it leaves without you on it? It's going to leave without at least six more members of its senior command crew. So stop stressing."

He lifts his head at that, staring at her. She's not picking up mind-reading from Spock, surely?

She just smiles, and stands back up, graceful as a ballerina. Pats his shoulder like he's a toddler in timeout as she moves back toward the kitchenette. "Stay. I'm making tea, you want some?"

"Is it that weird Vulcan tea that tastes like rocks? I'm good. Thanks though."

He'd had green tea with Bones during his therapy session early this morning (it's good for you, Jim!), and mental note: probably not the best idea to schedule therapy an hour before leaving with the salvage crews.

The shattered mess which had once been Sickbay Deck flashes into his mind, and his stomach lurches. The 'Bay itself had been nearly empty when the crews went through; to be expected, as the attack happened too quickly for anyone to be brought in and all technicians and nursing staff would have evacuated immediately.

Medical is supposed to evac by shuttle in case of a controlled evacuation, because they're usually carrying wounded; wounded know to make their way to an escape shuttle rather than a pod for that reason, there are supplies aboard.

Out of the ten escape shuttle bays, only three ever even opened, and one of those opened prematurely due to a malfunction, depressurizing with crewmen exposed inside, completely unprotected as they were loading shuttles. A sixth of his Medical crew, gone just like that while trying to save lives.

Two bays, out of ten. And of the ten shuttles in each bay? Two, maybe three got off the ground and out in time.

He'd seen the rest of the shuttles. And the rest of the bays. It was sheer chance, one stupid regulation in the Starfleet books, that had prevented his Chief Medical Officer from being in one of those bays instead of on C Deck minutes before it blew out.

He turns his head away from the direction of the kitchenette. Maybe Uhura will think he just inhaled too much dust at the wreck earlier…


He startles, fight-or-flight instinct clenching hot and nauseous in his stomach, as something's in his personal space, someone's hand on his forehead.

"Shhhh. Go back to sleep, Jim."

Bones.

Okay then. The calm of recognition lulls him back into that hazy world half-between dreamland and wakefulness, soft and star-bright.

The faint beep of a medical scanner makes him shift uneasily. It reminds him of something he's supposed to be doing. Responsibilities, people, he's supposed to be taking care of.

"Everything's fine. Go back to sleep."

Bones doesn't get it, though, he's sworn an oath to protect his people, he has to do something. He's just having a hard time remembering what, for some reason. Why's it such a struggle?

"Jesus, Jim, I can't give you a sedative on top of that fever reducer, just take it easy. Hey! Little help here?"

If he could just get his eyes open, he'd probably figure this out, but they seem heavier than a warp engine, and he gives up with a pathetic little noise of helpless frustration.

"Aw, Jim…c'mon, settle down now."

"Okay, Spock's hovercab's stuck in traffic at Junction 405, he'll be another ten minutes at least. What's wrong?"

"Can you believe I got the hypo in him without waking him up and then somehow set off his proximity alarms just feelin' his forehead? Now I can't get him to settle down, dammit. He keeps mumbling something about the ship."

"Of course he is. I should have called you earlier. Something was just…off, about him. Even before he fell asleep."

"It's not your fault. If he'd just actually eat something or sleep more than two hours at a time, his body wouldn't have to go into shutdown mode. You should've seen him during finals week at the Academy, it got scary. And that was without a shuttleload of trauma he's refusin' to deal with."

"I think we all have a long way to go in that area, Leonard."

"Not sayin' we don't. But he's a totally different animal, and we both know it."

"Agreed."

He fades out at that point, ears ringing, and wishes he could stop hearing his pulse in his head because, weird. And he still hasn't figured out what he was supposed to be doing, wasn't he supposed to be taking care of something aboard the ship?

Now he's just a little freaked, because if he can't remember, then that means he's not fit for commanding her, and he's putting the entire crew in danger, a vicious cycle that ends with someone dead. If he doesn't somehow make it out of this strange miasma of confusion and chaos, he doesn't know what will happen.

"…don't know, Lieutenant, he isn't really responding to me. Not sure if he's even hearing me. It’ll be another few minutes before that hypo takes effect." From far away, a sliding door. "What the –"

"There is no way your hovercab made it here in less than four minutes."

"Obviously."

"For Gods' sake, Spock, he's not dying. Though I'd'a liked to have seen you jogging in that ridiculous robe."

"If you are quite finished insulting my culture's choice of leisure wear, Doctor?"

He shifts uneasily, sensing or at least imagining too many people in his personal space, and tries again to focus, because at least Spock will know what's going on. Spock always knows what's going on. Thank every god in the universe. He'd never be able to be captain without him.

"While that is patently untrue, it is correct that you require my presence for an official status report before going off-duty, sir."

Yeah, that's true. He hates handing over his chair, but if he ever had to do it, Spock's one person he'd never hesitate to give it to.

"The time is 1730 hours, Federation Standard Time. All decks have reported in, Captain. Damage reports have been correlated and repairs are being effected according to the procedures outlined in the Starfleet Emergency Procedures. The ship is out of danger and is proceeding on course at the maximum possible speed toward the nearest starbase. I will have a further report available at the start of your next duty shift."

Oh.

Well, that sounds okay then. And if that is really the time, then he's off-duty. Why was he so worried?

"I do not know, sir. Perhaps some additional rest is in order, while there is opportunity prior to reaching the starbase where your supervision will be required."

Yeah, that's probably a smart idea.

Spock's good at those.

And sleep sounds really nice, actually…

"We should have thought of that, Leonard."

"I can't believe that actually worked."

"Simple logic, Doctor. Every time the captain has woken up in Sickbay, his first question inevitably is regarding the safety of the Enterprise. It stands to reason therefore, especially given recent events, that any confusion in his mind is likely resulting from perceived danger to the ship, from some unknown combination of recent or non-recent events. I would have thought this conclusion to be obvious, at least to you, Doctor."

"You know he's not the only one I'm psychoanalyzing right now! 'Scuse me if I blanked on starship captain lullabies!"

"As there was no thematic musical element involved, I hardly think –"

"Did I ask you what you thought?"

"Perhaps you should, Doctor, if you are incapable of –"

"All right, that's it – both of you, out. Go for another run, go back to Medical HQ, go play in traffic, I don't freaking care, but don't come back until you've got it out of your system and you've picked up enough alcohol I don't have to remember the last three hours. I said out."

Yeah, sleep sounds really good.

Really quiet.


Sunshine, expertly simulated even to the warmth emanating through solar glass, is what wakes him up the next morning. He blinks slowly for a few minutes, trying to figure out where he is, because he totally does not remember sleeping on his couch, and why the hell would he sleep on the couch and not his bed.

He looks around briefly.

Okay, not his apartment, ergo not his couch.

That's even worse.

He struggles to one elbow with a groan, rubbing his eyes with his free hand, and then blinks as a couple of blankets slide off to puddle on the floor in a pile of cozy non-Starfleet-issued fleece made of brightly-colored hues and one very psychedelic floral that very definitely is not his. What in the galaxy.

At least he still has his clothes on?

He doesn't feel like he has a hangover, he just feels totally wiped out. A little exhausted, a little sick, a lot hungry. And a lot just like he could go back to bed for a year. Or three.

"Oh, God," he moans, slumping back onto the pillow (where the heck did he get a freaking pillow?), arms over his face.

A laugh from the direction of the kitchen makes him sit back upright at a pace that almost rolls his eyes permanently back into his head.

"Morning." Uhura grins at him from over a coffee mug, then tips it toward the counter. "Help yourself."

He stares for like a full minute in total blank brain-rebootingness, because it's like 0600 hours and this is way too domestic and he's never, ever, ever, ever seen Spock in freaking pajamas and house slippers watching the morning holonews on his padd, okay, and it's so freaking weird he just cannot deal.

"You look like you're about to have a seizure. Get some coffee or go be sick somewhere other than our couch."

"Uh." He runs a hand through his hair, and realizes it was doing a truly impressive feat of gravity defiance. "Like…what exactly, am I doing here, anyway?"

"You apparently took it upon yourself to decide that making a trip back to the wreckage of the Enterprise on Altamid, alone, was a wise command decision. I am quite interested to learn how, exactly, you arrived at this spectacularly erroneous conclusion," Spock says, without looking up from his screen.

Uhura sniggers into her mug, then sets it down, reaching for a piece of toast. Her hair's in a sloppy bun this morning and she's in non-regulation workout clothes, it's like he's stumbled into some bizarre civilian mirror universe. "You then came back here and crashed, basically. I came back in from making tea and you were out cold on the couch, snoring fit to wake the neighbors. And apparently running a fever, as I found out a few hours later when you scared the crap out of me yelling for a phaser so you could shoot something that wasn't there."

He finally stumbles over to the sideboard and pours a cup of coffee, praying it's not weird Vulcan coffee but the real thing; he has the feeling he's going to need it. "You're joking."

"Oh, no. No, I am very serious. That was when I called McCoy. You finally broke through the worst of it around ship's midnight, but yeah. Your body's telling you to sleep and eat, genius."

"…yeah. Message received." He slumps into one of the free chairs at the table and exhales shakily. "God, I'm sorry, Nyota. I had no intention of dumping that mess on you yesterday, much less making a nuisance of myself last night…I don't know what's wrong with me." He shakes his head, drags both hands slowly down his face.

"Perhaps we could begin with the fact that your willingness to ask for assistance in shouldering the burden of command seems to have gone down with the Enterprise, Captain."

"Spock!"

Uhura's exclamation covers the sound of his cup crashing on the table, thankfully only rocking back and forth for a moment with the smallest of spills.

He reaches out after a frozen second to steady it with a much less sure hand. "Your tact could use a lot of work, Commander," he says quietly, deadly.

"Tact is a human construct, employed when the recipient is not capable of handling the blunt truth. You are, however painful that truth may be." The padd clicks off, background noise fading away into only the faint sounds of outside air-traffic and the hum of machinery in the walls. "Unless that too has changed with the possibility of an impending court martial."

"Go to hell."

"Jim!"

"I didn't start it."

"I don't care! Both of you just, stop. Ghay'cha', as if we didn't have enough to deal with – this crew doesn't need the two of you doing this! I do not need the two of you doing this!"

Aw, crap.

He never has been able to watch a girl cry. Call him old-fashioned and maybe a little sexist that way, or maybe it's just buried mommy issues, but he legit can't stand it.

Pull yourself together, Jim. He needs to not forget, he's not the only one who is having a hard time dealing, and he's not the only one who lost someone out there.

Spock looks 100% and wholly terrified, like he's never in his life had to deal with the waterworks of a human female, and Jim wonders briefly if Amanda just was a heck of a lot stronger than anyone really ever gave her credit for, or if she only hid her emotions really well due to the cultural difference. Not for the first time, he so wishes he could have met that incredible woman.

He clears his throat. "I, uh. I'm sorry." Spock half-turns to him, panic still clearly written all over his face, and only starts to relax when he sees the words are genuine enough. "Look, I just…I didn't want anyone else to have to deal with it. We've all been through enough."

"Understood. However, it is a principle of physics that the addition of shared pressure points lessens the impact of a force. The rule applies."

He half-smiles at the nerdiness of the simile; the guy can't just come out and say you're not alone in this, you know. But this isn't the time for humor, because if he doesn't keep talking then he'll probably never start again, and there's too much on the line for that.

"Also understood. It won't happen again, you have my word. I…" He pinches the bridge of his nose with a shaking hand. "I need help, Spock."

"I am aware." Not an accusation, just a gentle statement of fact.

"And I am out of here." Uhura snatches the last piece of toast as she stands, yawning. Then grabs her keycard and communicator off the counter. "My gods, it’s like pulling teeth with you two sometimes. Now talk. I'm going for a run, and there had better still be coffee when I get back."

They both stare after her in startled silence.

As the door closes, Jim turns back around. "Wasn't she…she was totally playing us, wasn't she?"

"I believe so."

"Dude, if you don't marry her before this next five-year mission's over? You're a freaking idiot."

"I…believe so."

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

There are times when being the first Federation starship to ever make its way into a certain sector of space is the most amazing thing imaginable in the universe. Just in the first two years of this second mission, they've seen more wonders than he could have ever dreamed were possible as an Academy student, or even as a young, starstruck captain. Met dozens of new species, set foot on countless new worlds, charted hundreds of new star systems, and every day since they left Yorktown after their first mission ended has been one fantastical adventure after another.

Certainly, there have been setbacks. They've lost good people. Too many good people; that comes of being in the most dangerous job in the business, in the least charted area of space, weeks from outside help. There have been grievances, conflicts, crimes, wars, even tragic accidents; such is the law of probability, and such is what seems to be the unwritten law which lingers still around this new ship, more cautious though he's grown as a captain, as a leader. There are a few ghosts which haunt the Enterprise-A, even if he's the only one who sees them, and even if he only sees them in dreams. They serve as a reminder, a memorial, to the responsibility he holds, the magnificent and horrifying responsibility he must take more seriously than ever before. One cannot dwell on the past; therein lies madness. But it would be foolish, and almost desecratory on this ship, to not learn from it.

But for the most part, the last year of their initial mission and these last twenty months of the second have been some of the best times of his career, full of adventure and mystery and family and life and laughter and everything in-between. Missions of science and exploration and discovery, set like beautiful homing beacons to chart their progress through the galaxy.

Then there are the ones where he would really like to just burn the entire planet to the ground and warp the hell out of Dodge.

Like this one.


"Dude. I need you to get it together. Meditate, take a nap, take a freaking swing at me if you have to, but I need you to snap out of it."

For a second it looks like said swing might just be forthcoming, but after a moment the look fades to something more resembling shame than anger. Damn it, he can't stand that look any more now than he could almost a decade ago, it should be illegal.

He kicks the unyielding door one more time for good measure, and accomplishes nothing more than basically spraining a toe, pain which is sharp enough to distract him from this all-new SNAFU which keeps becoming more AFU with each passing hour.

This is what they get for answering an unusual distress call. Again.

One day they'll learn.

It had been an innocent enough signal, asking for urgent medical assistance, and since that's always an excellent way to instigate a First Contact, he'd really thought no more about beaming down with Uhura to begin preliminary communications. It's been a sleepy week aboard ship, which is the only reason Bones decided to come himself – pure boredom – and Jim took the opportunity to leave Sulu in command of the Bridge, let him log some hours in the chair during a harmless planetary orbit. Once they made contact and saw the people seemed peaceable enough, he'd seen no reason to not let Spock come along, after cutting off a fifteen-minute ramble about some weird vegetation readings his CSO wanted to investigate; and that had been a mistake, obviously, as now the ship is stranded above them without four of her senior officers and a probably freaking out command trainee-come-pilot-come-amateur-botanist at her helm, outranked only by Montgomery Scott and a couple of people buried in Ops below decks who have zero command training in a crisis situation.

Yeah, not good. This is one he has to learn from, if they ever get out of it.

Said distress call had been genuine enough, the Councilman who appeared to be in charge of the tiny but stately settlement grievously ill with an infected wound. Bones's gruff TLC and the wonders of modern medicine had set to work immediately, while Spock had wandered off to investigate the city itself, leaving Jim and his Comms Chief behind to begin negotiations for a First Contact.

Spock had returned in time to warn them, but not in time to prevent them from finding out firsthand, about the natives' very strong, very deadly telekinetic (psychokinetic? Jim has no idea, and the correct term doesn't really matter, they can freaking move things and control people with their brains, okay) abilities, nor the fact that they apparently for the last century have had a nasty habit of luring starships into orbit and taking from them any crewmen who might be useful to their society, forcing them to integrate through sheer force of overriding will.

Jim had not taken kindly to the fact that they wanted his Chief Medical Officer to be one of those people.

(He is still a little pissed that apparently neither he nor Spock are considered enough of an asset to their stupid elitist society to even be considered, but that's a point to be argued after he gets his people out of here and makes this palace a crater for the things this so-called High Councilor has put them through today.)

If he's still so revulsed and shaken by the horrible ten minutes spent having his thoughts and will-power pawed through and examined and twisted and he's going to stop thinking about it now by this deranged Greek god wanna-be, he can't imagine how Spock's dealing – and he doesn't want to imagine, because his skin is still crawling and he's not a telepath who buries his emotions so deep it would take a transporter to retrieve them.

They both have baggage a-plenty, and this day is going to go firmly in the never-going-to-talk-about-again category, thank you very much.

He takes his life in his hands and moves back across the room, stopping to crouch in front of his First Officer. Spock still looks…lost, is the best way to put it, but at least he's starting to pull himself back together, duty superseding anything else as Jim knew it would – the only question was how long it would take. And if anything in the room would be left standing when it did. He hates the fact that they're out of time, but he has to be the bad guy for both of them right now.

"You good? Because we have like ten minutes left before they come back, and we have no idea what that 'evening entertainment' they talked about is going to entail. I need to know you're front and center, ready to take any chance we have."

Spock's eyebrow inclines a fraction. "Do you have a plan, Captain."

"Mm, vaguely."

"That does not inspire one with confidence."

"Hey, you know I do my best work when I'm improvising."

"I could cite a dozen situations which prove otherwise." Spock's eyes dart to the door as noise sounds in the corridor beyond.

"Yeah, I hear them. Look, if all else fails, you're the fastest out of all of us. If you can get out of the buildings you might be able to rig some kind of communications to the ship, so you see an opening you run for it, understood? With or without us. I'll figure something out."

"Understood."

Jim highly doubts the order will be followed, but it's the spirit of the thing, after all. He appreciates the gesture.

The door swings open with an unearthly shriek of hinge, and the dour servants from earlier who'd 'shown them to their quarters' motion for them to proceed down the corridor toward the evening's entertainment.

Maybe, just maybe, he can still salvage some kind of diplomatic solution out of this?


Yeah, who was he trying to kid.

Honestly, there must be some unwritten law in the universe that says some backwater species must use every melodramatic means at their disposal to make their lives a living hell at least once every six months. Just to keep them from becoming complacent, or something.

They've been experimented on, fought in battle, fed alien parasites, taken hostage by terrorist cells, captured by slave traders, attacked while on shore leave, and even that one very memorable occasion kidnapped to be exhibits in an alien zoo – and yet each time gets even more ridiculous than the last.

"Seriously, Parmen?" he mutters, rolling his eyes when he wakes up this time. "That's the best you can do?"

"Jim, for gods' sake stop giving him ideas!"

He rolls to his hands and knees, and smiles – a dark, dangerous thing. "You're going to have to do better than that, Councilor."

The elder frowns in displeasure.

"I mean, come on," he says, coughing slightly as he regains his feet. "Spock's already tried to kill me what, twice over the years?" He turns to his First, who raises an eyebrow and silently holds up three fingers. "My bad. Three times." He shrugs. "Extenuating circumstances, but still. You gotta up your game if your goal is to drive a wedge between us or something. What exactly is your goal, anyway?"

He hears a stifled giggle that can only come from Uhura, seated beside McCoy and dressed in some ridiculous skimpy costume that's supposed to be native Platonian garb but only looks like some roleplaying scenario gone wrong, all flashing jewels and billowy sleeves and not a whole lot else. He'd like to see the servant who told her she had to put it on; he suspects the guy is unlikely to be speaking in a normal register (or having children) anytime soon. He's only seen one female of the species in this entire city, and she was a timid little thing no doubt cowed by centuries of misogynistic societal mores.

There's that weird lurching sensation again, and oh look. He's suddenly sitting at a table that's covered in weird fruits and ornate dishes, some replica of a ceremonial banquet, and Spock's somewhere far down the table, equally unable to move from a similar seat. The magic holodeck-without-a-holodeck back and forth is getting really, really old.

What now.

"Have you reconsidered, Doctor McCoy. Lady Uhura."

He snickers at that, and then has to stop as a telekinetic grip tightens around his throat, choking him.

"Stop it," Bones snaps, and yeah, that's his for real freaking out tone – he's at the end of his rope and probably about to do something catastrophically stupid like promising to stay here if the Platonians let the rest of them go or something.

The grip loosens, however, and he inhales as quietly as possible. He may be cocky, but he's not stupid. This guy's obviously a few pawns short of a chess set, and only an idiot makes himself an easy target.

"I repeat my offer," Parmen gestures grandly. "Remain among us, and live in comfort the rest of your days, which will be many thanks to the wonders of this planet's natural resources. Do so peacefully, and I will allow your companions to return to their ship in peace."

McCoy glances to his left as if in question. Uhura leans across him, and with the sweetest of smiles makes a universally vulgar gesture with both bejeweled hands.

He tries desperately not to die laughing; obviously that means basically the same thing in any language because Parmen grows as red as the tapestry behind him in a matter of seconds.

"Not used to people's thinking for themselves, are you," McCoy drawls. "Welcome to the Federation."

To his right, he hears Spock sigh, as if giving up all hope of this conversation being resolved diplomatically. Bless him, his peaceful Vulcan apparently still had some hope of that.

Jim will just be satisfied if they get off the planet without anyone dying. At least anyone from his crew. The rest are highly negotiable.

Increasingly highly.

"I weary of your insolence, Doctor. Were your gifts not so valuable in our society, who has no such healer among us, you would not be so fortunate. As to you, my lady." The elder turns to Uhura, who only raises a bored eyebrow at him over the end of the long, bejeweled braid she's playing with. "You have been nothing but a troublesome influence in this house since you arrived."

Damn. What did she do in the two hours they were separated? He is so getting that story when they're out of here.

"Much as it pains my spirit to so treat a member of the fairer sex –"

"Yes, yes, you can spare me the sexist rhetoric," Uhura snorts. "Skip to the end, Councilor."

Even Parmen seems to pick up on the fact that the word clearly is just a placeholder for asshole, because he turns an even darker shade of red. And yeah, that's genuine borderline insanity Jim can see in his eyes now, the terroristic, despotic anger of a dangerously intelligent man hellbent on turning the entire world to his own ends.

She's going to get herself killed.

And then he's going to have a Vulcan at DEFCON 1 in the same room with a telekinetic wack job and the Enterprise might as well just torpedo the whole planet and be done with it if that's the case because, hello Armageddon 2.0, countdown in five.

This is not what he signed up for today.

"Lieutenant, stand down," he snaps, his voice cracking across the room like syntheglass shattering.

All three heads turn to look at him in varying levels of surprise, and Bones with something that looks like alarm. He forgets, sometimes, that Jim's looked madness in the face at close quarters more than once – and that he's seen its consequences, done quicker than you can even think, can even move to stop them. One hair-trigger reaction is all it takes for your world to fall apart, and he's not having it now. An ordinary planetary dignitary, some random terrorist they might be able to stand against, even laugh at, after all they've seen – but something, some horrible gut instinct deep down, borne from years long past, tells him this is not a man to be trifled with.

Parmen only looks slightly amused at his intensity, and a little predatory, like a snake moving in for the kill. "Dear me, Captain. Such dramatics. One might think you harbored certain…less than professional feelings toward some of your crew members."

Jim about chokes on his tongue, because, ew. That's like…vaguely incestual, at this point.

"You're joking, right." Uhura looks more amused than anything else. "Not in a million years."

"Hey!" He folds his arms, aggrieved. "Little uncalled-for."

"I'll get my tiny violin, Farmboy."

"Now that's just rude!"

He knows exactly what she's doing, and if they can stir up enough of a hornet's nest in distraction then maybe it will be just enough for one of the other two to take Parmen out. It may be the best chance they have.

After all, they can't be in any worse situation than they are now.


He just had to go and jinx them.

This is so messed up he can't even begin to think about sorting it out, and he'll be lucky to still have an intact command crew when it's over. There's so much creep factor going on his skin is crawling, but there's literally nothing he can do about it, trapped physically in place as he is by Parmen's telekinetic abilities. He doesn’t do the helpless thing very well, and this? Knowing he’s powerless to stop himself from hurting one of his subordinates?

He would genuinely rather be dead.

His challenge had been met with a sadistic amount of enthusiasm, and more cunning than he'd given the Platonian councilman credit for. He's not sure if Parmen actually knows about Spock and Uhura's relationship, or if he's just going on gut instinct based on some of the things that happened earlier: but whatever his motives, he's using that knowledge in a way that might effectively break up the entire command crew, if something doesn't happen to save them in the next ten minutes.

He's not sure he can ever look either of them in the face again, or that he will want to.

It's a little hard to recover from being forced to make out with your First Officer's fiancée right in front of him. And there's no regulation on the books for what protocol happens after that.

Back at the spectator's box he can hear Bones pitching a fit to bring the house down, but that's not preventing any of it from happening. He only has time to whisper an apology before the psychokinetic control is taking over again, muffling and dulling everything under a fog of angry helplessness and the knowledge that he's destroying everything he's ever cared about in a matter of painful seconds.

Suddenly a sharp, stinging pinch at the back of his neck drives back the confusion for a lucid instant. His yelp of surprise is swallowed abruptly and fingers tighten in warning in his hair.

"Did you just roofie me?" He mutters once his mouth is free again, eyes darting back to the spectator's box where McCoy is in full-blown, arm-waving argument with a bored-looking Platonian councilman.

"He wants a show, give him a show," she hisses, lips close to his ear in a weird, oddly business-like mimicry of what a minute ago had been a hazy cloud of feelings not really his.

"I don't –"

"Shut your mouth, you idiot. Turn back toward me. McCoy figured out what gives the natives their powers," she whispers, hair brushing his neck in encouragement as he awkwardly puts his hands around her waist, careful not to touch anything that could be considered grounds for a Vulcan to rip his arms off later.

"It's a compound absorbed into the bloodstream. Kironide. Massive concentrations. McCoy had enough in his kit to give me a dose, but it hasn't taken effect yet. You, have a metabolism four times as fast as the rest of us thanks to that superblood. Burn through it and get us out of here, Jim."

Okay, so the jittery feeling isn't just due to the fact that he's trying to figure out what the hell to do with the knowledge that his Chief Comms Officer apparently intentionally just stuck her tongue down his throat for the sake of a mission. Or at least allowed it to happen. Or something.

Their lives are so messed up, it's a wonder any of them pass a psych eval anymore.

"Uh, look –"

"Not discussing this now. I'll give you an opening, don't leave us hanging." Her fingers tighten on his neck in a reassuringly and decidedly non-sexual way, then she slides off his lap as quick as Parmen had psychokinetically shoved her onto it, leaving him staring and more than a little weirded out.

Also, he's feeling really trippy, head buzzing and extremities tingling and he still hasn't dared to look at Spock and it's not happening now because Parmen's figured out something's gone wrong with his disgusting plan and is moving off the dais toward them.

Crap.

Focus, Jim. He hasn't got the faintest idea what this even means, or how to control it. Or what it even is. Or anything, right now, because his head’s ringing like a phaser on overload.

He tries thinking hard at a cup on the nearby table, and nothing happens. Tries harder, and only succeeds in giving himself a stabbing headache behind one eye. For a second it feels like it might legit just blow out of his skull, but then the pain subsides into more of the same strange burning sensation, like he's on the worst acid trip in history.

Parmen grabs Uhura's wrist, shouting something nearly unintelligible over the pounding in his head.

He closes his eyes for a second, takes a breath and tries again to move something on the table. Red-hot waves flood his entire body, stabbing painfully at every nerve center, but nothing happens.

Bones is trying to get off the dais now, restrained by two stone-faced servants, while Parmen gesticulates furiously – finally ending by raising a hand to obviously backhand Uhura, who promptly ducks under the blow and elbows him in the throat, hard.

Atta girl.

Unfortunately, the elder is much stronger than he appears, and has psychokinetic abilities atop that. His screech of rage might be choked and hoarse from throat damage, but the force with which he throws her across the room into a hanging tapestry is very, very real.

Jim sees red.

An entire wall display of ancient pottery at the other end of the hall suddenly shatters into a thousand pieces.

Parmen whirls around, eyes wild.

"O-kay, so that's how that works."

"What is this?"

"Hmm?" He cracks his neck one direction, then the other, and stands, takes a menacing step toward the elder. "This, is me being a representative of the Federation and not beating you to a pulp for what you just did to my people, Parmen."

The man looks a little alarmed, but not actually frightened. That is, until Jim reaches out with one hand to halt a dagger flying at his head in mid-air.

"Seriously, like I said. You should have upped your game." He spins it with one hand, only slightly wobbly, and sends it flying down the hall…to embed itself in the stone wall.

Jesus, how much of this stuff did Bones put in that hypo?

Another, more cautious flick of his fingers releases Spock from his invisible restraints, and flings the two guards away from Bones a moment later, smashing them into a nearby wall with enough force to knock them out but (he hopes) not kill them. Bones immediately casts him a warning look, then sprints toward Uhura, who is already picking herself up gingerly, thank goodness. Parmen's sexism had probably saved her life, because he could just as easily have tossed her into the stone pillar next to the tapestry display.

"That all you got, Parmen?"

"You – how did you – "

"Let's just say, my people are better than yours." He gives the man a mirthless smile, and shoves him back toward the dais, depositing him back in his seat with a little too much force. "Now sit like a good boy while the adults talk. Bones?"

"I think she's okay, Jim."

"I'm fine, Captain," Uhura calls, and to her credit she looks more pissed than hurt, although she's moving pretty stiffly with an arm against her side, and that costume's not doing much to hide some pretty spectacular bruising starting to form.

"You good, Spock?"

"That is a relative term, but I believe it could be applicable."

"Well, that's something." At least he doesn't appear ready to kill Jim for anything that's happened in the last ten minutes, so that's a definite check in the plus column. He finally bites the bullet and actually looks at the guy for the first time since the debacle really took a nosedive, and yeah, wow, maybe they'll make it through this with just a couple of transfer requests instead of the complete implosion of a series of relationships that have taken almost a decade to build.

Annnnnd that's not kiro-whatever buzzing in his head, that's hysteria, Jim, get it together.

There's a time and place to fall apart over this shuttlewreck of what's left of his family, and this isn't the time or place. They're officers first.

Duty sucks. For the record.

"Think you can find our communicators?"

"I will make the attempt, sir."

Awesome, they're back to the sir again, something he thought they dropped months ago, soon after their second launch. At least when not in a public setting in front of junior crew.

He sighs, watching forlornly as Spock leaves the room with a speed he really can't blame him for.

Yeah, it's been a day from Hell.

"Jim look out!"

Bones's shout comes just a second before he realizes he's lost track, distracted, of the intangible thread of power that's been keeping Parmen pinned down. It's a mistake that costs him.

A lot.

So, the geology team will be interested to learn he’s discovered firsthand the amount of force it takes to actually crack stone with a human body.

Good times.

At least he has the time to start a tuck-and-roll, meaning his arms are nearly covering his head when he hits, preventing his skull from being the first point of impact. So, silver linings.

The sight of said arm bending in that particularly hideous and unnatural angle in combination with the horrible jittering of the kironide in his bloodstream is almost enough to make him lose his breakfast and last night's dinner right there on the floor of the council chambers, dignity be damned. Except that ugh, crisis happening, and why won't his head stop spinning so he can figure out what's going on.

Something turns him on his back instead of his side, and the spinning goes from a whirlwind to just a lazy loop-da-loop.

"Jesus, Jim, you really did a number on this…y'can't dislocate the other one once in a while, it always has to be this one? Hey, hey! Stop trying to move!"

Yeah, he'd do that if he could tell if it was him moving or the ceiling, but that's not happening.

And where's Parmen?

"I don't think you have to worry about him. Well…maybe you do, but not about him bein' a problem to anyone anymore."

He blinks rapidly, trying to clear both his vision and his pounding head. Worried eyes swim hazily into view, finally unfuzzing like a clearing transmission as the throbbing in his shoulder and arm eases just a fraction. Ah, the wonders of twenty-third century drugs.

"Yeah, that's all I can give you with that kironide in your bloodstream, we have no idea how it's going to react as you burn through it." A soft whishing sound, and light footsteps. "Took you long enough, it all went to hell as soon as you left!"

"…So I see. Is the captain badly injured?"

"I'm good." He grits his teeth and pulls himself to a sitting position with his good (better) arm, clinging to Bones's shoulder with a bone-crushing grip as everything takes a dangerous spin around him. "Ship?"

"Unharmed, in orbit and awaiting beam-out instructions. I was able to retrieve two of our four communicators and saw no point in delaying my return to the chambers in searching for the other two at the present time. Mr. Scott will be able to beam the items aboard once we are."

He chances removing the hand from Bones's shoulder to grasp his head, trying to stop the room from doing a graceful tilt to the left in the blinding, halo-ringed lights. "And…Parmen?"

When there's no immediate answer, he finally realizes over the ringing in his ears that there's a heated altercation still going on at the other end of the hall – and when he turns to look, his blood runs cold.

Swearing under his breath, he scrambles up with less coordination than he'd like, ending up nearly falling over but for Spock's quick lunge to catch him carefully by his only good arm and set him back on wobbly feet.

"Bones, why did you give her a dose of this stuff? I can barely control it and I’ve had command training in drug resistance plus I have a psycho’s superblood, how in the world did you expect her to manage it?"

"Because we didn't know for sure if she'd be able to get close to you, and I had to keep Parmen's attention distracted! Someone had to have a plan here, because I dead sure wasn't going to just stay behind on this rock and play house with a bunch of sadists!"

"She's going to kill him. Let go of me, Spock."

"Captain, perhaps it would be best –"

"Look, I want him dead as much as you do, but no officer of mine is sinking to his level!"

His voice may not be the most powerful in the world, but it has carried across an entire Engineering section once when comms were down aboard ship, and it certainly has no problem carrying now across a moderately-sized banquet hall. (The fact that every glass on the banquet table shatters in dramatic accompaniment due to his losing hold of his control on this awful kironide only adds to the effect.)

It's usually comical how everyone just kind of freezes right where they are to look at him when he uses that particular tone, like they're all guilty children caught sneaking cookies by an angry parent. He doesn't break it out very often, but when he does? His senior officers know to duck and run, and the newbies figure it out very, very quickly.

At least, his senior staff usually freeze.

This time, Uhura doesn't even appear to have heard him, much less registered the command inherent in the statement, because Parmen is still dangling about a foot off the floor against the nearest stone wall, clawing frantically at an invisible hand that's obviously cutting off his air supply. All around them, a storm of chaotically flying objects is pinging off of the pillars and nearby furniture at the unleashing of what is likely an entire afternoon of carefully controlled emotion suddenly hacked by this horrible psychokinetic triggering mechanism.

Bones is burning that recipe for disaster as soon as they get back on board.

He takes one step and nearly passes out as his arm shifts, unsupported and likely in three or four pieces in addition to being dislocated.

"Jim, stop! You have a concussion in addition to that arm, you're not gettin' in the middle of that!"

"Doctor, neither of us have the power to stop it; what would you suggest in that case, as we likely have only seconds?"

McCoy sighs, scrubbing at his eyes. "I don't know. I just…I don't know, okay?"

Jim closes his eyes for a second, trying to focus somewhere deep inside, buries the pain temporarily under a honed, fiery thread of purpose. Then opens his eyes, ignoring the devolving argument going on behind his back, and slowly lifts his uninjured hand.

There's no way in hell he's going to subject anyone on this crew to more of a mental violation than they've had today already, not even to save someone's life – especially someone so undeserving. But he can, and does, manage to project a sort of slapdash force-field around his firestorm of a Communications Chief, cutting off her own projection like a power cable being sliced through.

In the same instant, every airborne object drops. Parmen slides down into a coughing, barely-conscious heap. And Uhura blinks, startled, and seems to come back to herself almost immediately, looking down at her own hands as if seeing for the first time what she's done.

He knows the feeling.

He has time to see her whirl around and look at him in surprise before his ears start ringing, the tingling sensation he'd been feeling suddenly washing over him in a burning wave before turning into a cold, clammy creep of ice through his veins that closes in like a red-hazed wave.

"Doctor!"

"Jim, don't do this, come on...Here, put him – no, elevate his feet, not his head! Why is his blood pressure dropping? Did Parmen give you anything while we were separated?"

"Negative. Could it be an effect of the kironide's expulsion, Doctor?"

"I have no idea! I need my instruments and the Medical mainframe, you know he's a wild card with almost anything medical. And no one's ever experimented with kironide that I know of, I don’t have any data on this! We need to get out of here, I don't care how many First Contact protocols you have to break. He's in no condition to salvage this mess and neither's your girl, you fix this and get us out of here."

"Understood. Stand by for emergency beam-out."

It's at this point his brain says something to the effect of yeah, done with this whole mess, sorry, bye and this First Contact sucks so, yeah. Bye.


Apparently, burning through that much kironide in one giant burst after your body's already going into shock from traumatic injury is not a good idea, but he doesn't find that out until much later.

Due to his dangerously low blood pressure, the re-setting of his shoulder plus surgery to reconstruct his left arm take much longer than anticipated, and by the time he's done complaining five days later about how nauseated the nutrient drip always makes him and why does he still have to wear a stupid sling and no, he doesn't feel like moving anything with his mind and why is he being brain-scanned again when Uhura was cleared three days ago and when can he be discharged Bones, the paperwork's been done and the Admiralty's been updated and basically, all he has to do is sign off on Spock's report on the incident as they're already on their way to the next mission.

Huh. Interesting.

The fact that the report is fascinatingly vague is even more interesting.

As is the fact that, apparently, no one aboard seems to have any clue that something weird happened down there; it's been almost a week, and there's no rumor of any transfer request, no indication that Spock and Uhura are anything but still on course to be married in a few months, no shred of gossip, no horribly inappropriate jokes about threesomes or anything else. And gossip usually originates in Sickbay, so he'd know.

Wouldn't he?

The anxiety is making him almost physically ill, however, so the first hour he's discharged he heads straight to his own cabin for a shower and back into uniform for the sake of familiarity. It takes longer than it should, thanks to the stupid inflatable cast still on his healing arm, but eventually he struggles back into his uniform and sling, cursing his own stubbornness in refusing to call for help, but there's just some things a man needs to do for himself. Then, after a moment of hesitation, he goes out into the hallway instead of heading through the connecting bathroom and chimes for entry.

This is not a time to bank on familiarity over respect.

He has no idea how to handle this, and handling things is not his strong suit on the best of days. This? This could cost him everything, and it wasn't even his fault. Or theirs, but he's responsible for the safety and wellbeing of his crew, so in the end, he bears the blame, pure and simple.

He's a nervous wreck by the time the door opens. Uhura blinks at him in surprise, then to his mystification actually looks happy to see him.

"Why in the world are you in the hallway?" she asks, standing back for him to enter. "McCoy said you weren't going to be released until tomorrow."

"Yeah, well. I annoyed him so much he turned me loose early."

She snorts a laugh. "That I can believe."

He glances around the corner, and sees Spock working at his desk; he'd known this already, having checked both their locations before coming over. His XO glances up, and acknowledges him with a nod.

"I can come back if you're busy."

"While I am working, reviewing Mr. Scott's dubiously organized weekly report on Operational procedures cannot be categorized with such precision."

He smiles, but can't actually laugh when his stomach's in knots.

He sits, a little hesitantly, on the couch Uhura points him to, and runs a hand through his hair, hesitating for a minute as they look at him expectantly.

"Okay, look," he finally says, exhaling in a rush. "I have no idea where to start with this."

He sees the two of them exchange a weird, knowing glance, and then Uhura slides off the desk to come sit in one of the armchairs in the sitting area, kitty-corner to him. Still weirded out by Memory, he slides back a fraction before catching himself, and it's a tell he knows has been caught by both of them, because they exchange another one of those looks that are really starting to annoy him.

"First of all, in answer to your questions," Uhura says, turning back to him abruptly. "No, No, Yes, Yes probably, and Hell no."

He blinks. "What."

"No, neither of us are pissed at you. No, we're not transferring to a different ship. Yes, we are still getting married. Yes, it's probably going to be awkward for a while between all three of us, but we're adults and fairly sure we can deal. And no, I have absolutely no desire to do it again, Spock knows that, and I'm pretty certain you share that sentiment."

"God, yes. It was like kissing my sister." He shivers elaborately, partly to hide his genuine horror at the memory.

"Okay then." She glances back at the desk. Spock merely raises a silent eyebrow of agreement. "So what are you freaking out about?"

"Uh." He frowns, for the first time actually going over what she said and its surprising ramifications. Is it really that easy? Things are never that easy. Not for him. Not for this ship. This is nuts. "…I guess that kind of covered it?"

"Good." Then she smirks, and looks back at the desk again. "You owe me twenty credits, ashal-veh."

Spock honest-to-gods rolls his eyes and goes back to his computer without a word.

"His money was on you just letting it get progressively awkward on the Bridge until one of us provoked you enough over something," she says, sotto voce.

He sputters indignantly for a few seconds before remembering that yeah, that is kind of his typical MO when it comes to these things, except he's matured a little (just a little) in the past few years.

"I'm not sure whether to be insulted or flattered. Or freaked out, because you two are obviously a little touched in the head, as Scotty would say."

"Judging by this report, he would say something far more verbose and making far less sense," Spock drawls, circling something with his stylus and crossing it out with a very long notation in the margin.

This time, he does laugh, and it feels really, really, good.

Uhura leans forward. "Then if that's all, Captain –"

He holds out a remonstrating hand. "It's not," he says quietly, serious once more. "I think you and I need to talk. Off-the-record if you want, but about how that ended on Platonius."

A flicker of brief rebellion, and then resignation, before she nods. She never has refused to stand up to her decisions, right or wrong; one reason he knows she'll make a better command officer than half the existing ones in the 'Fleet, with less training – if she ever wants it.

"All things considered, you want him to stay here for this?" he asks, nodding toward the desk.

She shakes her head, and he feels something inside ease at the knowledge that maybe, not everything has been ruined. Maybe they've been through enough that trust goes deeper than this mission tried to root out.

"Negative, unless you want to be, Spock."

"I see no need for added discomfort. I will be…in Sickbay, should you require me."

"I'll come find you when I'm done," Jim answers quietly. "I think we should both talk to Bones, you and me. At least, I'd like to."

After a moment's hesitation, Spock nods. "That would be wise, given you were unconscious at the time of debriefing."

"Agreed. I'll comm you when I'm done here."

The door shuts behind his First a moment later, and he turns back to find Uhura watching them pensively.

"What?"

"Mm, nothing. Just pondering how different we all are from years gone by."

"You're so not kidding. Was a time he'd have wanted to kick my ass for even mentioning therapy of some kind. Something about oh my god, relationships are zadik what are you talking about I don't have friends."

"We've grown up, Jim."

"Yeah," he says quietly, a little wistfully. "That's what this job does to you."

"It's not all the job does to you," she replies darkly, fidgeting with a long, painted fingernail. "So talk away, Captain. I screwed up. We both know that."

He leans back, waving a hand between them. "We also both were under the influence of something that distorted our perception of reality. There's not a court in the 'Fleet who'd convict us for anything we did in that time, so just scuttle that. It's not really what I care about. Frankly, I'd just as soon see Parmen dead for what he did to you and Spock."

"And you."

"It's worse for Spock, don't tell me it isn't."

"He also has Vulcan ways of healing from mental trauma, and he has me. And, he's not the one who ended up in surgery for six hours."

"It's not a contest, Nyota."

"You coded on the table, Jim. Twice. So shut the hell up."

Okay, that's…news to him. Bones should have told him.

"I…didn't know that. And I'm sorry for scaring you.”

"Your BP dropped through the floor because you had to stop me from killing that – " She exhales slowly, fingers unclenching from the armrests of the chair. "So just – don't. I deserve a written report in my file for reckless endangerment."

"Yeah, that's not happening. If I did that every time it was technically true I wouldn't have a crew. I mean, Chekov almost killed me the other day in the holodeck when he ran my ski simulator into a tree. So chill."

Her eyes widen slightly. "You told –"

"And if you tell Bones anything different, I will put a report in your file. Poor kid was freaked enough, he didn't need that on top of everything else." He waves a hand in dismissal. "Anyway. I basically couldn't care less that you choked the dude."

"Then…"

"What I do care about, is the fact that you almost got yourself killed before the plan got implemented, goading a man who was clearly insane. Your skills at reading people are better than anyone else's on this ship; that's not like you. So what gives?"

She looks briefly surprised, as if not expecting him to pick up on or say any of that, and then seems to relax once it's clear this isn't a censure. "Simple enough, Captain. Parmen had made it clear after you and Spock were taken from the room that his original plans for the evening involved…shall we say, re-enacting certain Greek works of literature for the purpose of his own entertainment," she says calmly.

His blood starts boiling as if the kironide were only dormant and rebirthing like a phoenix.

"Given the subject matter and his ridiculously graphic description of what he intended to puppeteer, Leonard and I both didn't think it would be difficult to deliver the hypo of kironide to one of you. We could only hope you were the one I got close enough to, since we had no idea if Spock’s hybrid physiology would even do anything with it. The smaller dose he gave me, we hoped was enough to let me resist the mind-control until it really kicked in, letting me control my own actions at least long enough to stab you with the hypo. Overall, it was the most logical move."

"I should have let you kill him."

She shrugs. "We were fairly certain it would take effect before too much could happen, and it’s not like I haven’t needed to play a part before once in a while on away missions, Jim. We are trained for this kind of situation just as much as the male officers. It isn't pretty, but it's part of the Covert Operations module for every cadet, male or female."

"Yes, but you're not trained for…” The thought makes him want to vomit. “Gods, what would you have done if it hadn't worked."

"Stop thinking about it. What actually happened, is that Parmen apparently changed his plans. We weren't expecting him to offer me sanctuary on the planet, but apparently my 'warrior's spirit' after I damaged one of his guards who tried to undress me for that stupid costume bought me 'good favor.' Apparently that armor was just for show, by the way, no protection where they really, really needed it."

He tries to laugh, but doesn't quite make it because he feels sick, knowing this was happening while he was sitting helpless. Knowing what would have happened, if a combination of bravery and sheer good luck hadn't intervened. They danced on the edge of a terrible volcano this time, and it was only thanks to Fortune and the badassery of his crew that a real-life Greek tragedy hadn’t happened.

"We weren't expecting the change of plans, so I had to provoke Parmen into shoving me back into the drama. The hypo was already hidden in my sleeve, and with each minute that passed there was a bigger chance he'd find it or I'd lose my grip on it, that stupid dress was so slippery."

He sighs, leans forward wearily with his elbows on his knees, and drags his hands down his face. "I commend your quick thinking, but it wouldn't have done any good if he'd killed you. I almost lost all three of you on that stupid planet, Nyota. We got lucky."

"We make our own luck, Jim. You yourself said that to us all, years ago." He looks up, and for a minute she looks decades older, wiser – maybe they all do, maybe they all are, mentally at least. This business will do that. "We learn from our mistakes so that we don't repeat them, and then they become experience; and we make our own luck. The two rules of uncharted space."

"So you do listen in briefings."

"When you're not boring people to tears, yes." She kicks his ankle playfully. "Seriously, stop the angsting. You're going to go gray before you're thirty-five."

He scowls. "Very funny."

"You know there's no secrets on this ship, the minute you request hair color from SS&R the game's totally going to be up."

"Thin ice, Lieutenant. Thin. Ice."

"Wait, is that why you stopped doing the comb-over thing a year ago?"

"I will demote you to Waste Recycling, I swear."

"Oh, this is hilarious."

"Gamma shift. In Waste Recycling."

"Please. Your comms board would be a worse mess than Starbase Seventeen at the height of the shipping cycles."

"That it would. You and Scotty, you have job security on this ship." He makes a conceding gesture and brushes his uniform off, standing. "However."

"Sir?" The switch back into their official roles is so instantaneous, it should be weird, but somehow it isn't, after all this time.

"Not every officer would have been able to pull off what you did on that planet, knowing the risks and willing to take them," he says quietly. "Don't think I don't recognize the enormity of that, even if it's not in the official reports. Spock did one hell of a redaction on that thing to prevent a further investigation, which also means you'll never be fully recognized for your part in it. For that, I'm sorry. It’s standard procedure to protect the privacy of the officers involved, but if you want, I can have him redo it."

She inclines her head in graceful acknowledgment. “We agreed years ago, Captain. No special treatment or anything which could be construed as favoritism, especially given we are in a public relationship. I won’t jeopardize the command chain that way.”

He really doesn’t deserve them.

"Then, for and on the record. I'm going to reiterate what I said six months ago. You need to consider entering command training."

"I don't –"

"Have any desire to captain a starship, yes I know, Lieutenant. It has nothing to do with that." He gestures in the direction of Spock's desk. "Spock says he never wants to captain either, but it's important he has the qualifications if needed. You need to advance your career to your full potential, and that potential? Is far beyond sitting on a starship Bridge answering the comm."

She looks at him for a second, as if trying to gauge his sincerity.

"Command training will develop the strategic and tactical skills you definitely have but never have opportunity to use in Communications, Lieutenant. And the next time, if we don't make our own luck, those skills in making decisions could save your life. And ours. I will not have an officer aboard this vessel who has no desire to continually better themselves, not when that could save lives."

"I'll consider the logistics of it in relation to my current duties. Sir."

"Fair enough." He offers her a brief smile and then leaves, oddly unsettled. While the conversation had gone well, he has the sinking feeling he's just opened a door, maybe a floodgate, that he could very well come to regret.

Nothing lasts forever.

Chapter Text

Warnings/Spoilers: This chapter, TOS fans will see a few vague references swiped from The Immunity Syndrome, the opening scenes of Generations (don't worry, no character death to be seen here), and a vague reference to Journey to Babel. Anything else you recognize that I didn't catch is unconscious borrowing from TOS and belongs to Paramount, not me, etc. etc.

Also, just to be safe, I’m specifically warning that I reference and depict an active shooter situation halfway through this chapter. If that could be triggering for you, please skip the two sections directly after Kirk’s long-distance call with Uhura.


 

Chapter Six

 

He's a little surprised, but really shouldn't be, to hear his lock codes being overridden. Only a few people would dare such a thing, and he knows of only one who would have the necessary clearance to get past the high-security Yorktown shipyard officials.

Persistence, thy name is Vulcan.

"I knew I should have used my new admiral's clearance to lock that thing," he says, not without amusement, as the door closes back into shadow.

"Indeed you should have, in addition to diverting from predictable behaviors, if you truly wished to disappear."

"Screw you," he mutters, turning back to the windows. "Nothing is predictable anymore, Spock."

He hears a faint sigh, but no rejoinder; tacit acknowledgment that their lives are changing, with or without their consent.

Outside the massive windows which enclose the primary observation deck, a whirlwind of machinery and automated engineering bots flutter like so many durasteel-coated bees, doing who knows what to refit and refurbish the exterior of the ship. It's a colossal undertaking, one which will take over a year, and there's talk of not even sending her back out again into deep space, so badly was she damaged when she limped back into Yorktown this last time.

Her computer banks are over a decade outdated, far behind the technology being installed in the current constitution-class starships, her maneuvering thrusters slightly clumsy compared to her newer, faster, more graceful counterparts. She served them faithfully, saved them more times than he can count: but in this age of the Next Fastest Thing, that may not be enough. In this business, if you aren't one step ahead? You might very well be dead. She's proven this principle wrong so many times, faced down death and disaster and come out the other side still full of life…but there will come a time when her luck will run out. This last mission especially, was not kind to her.

To any of them.

There's another, slightly larger, very beautiful constitution-class ship under construction which he can see off the port bow, all glittering lights and the gleaming skeleton of what will likely be her successor once it's finished in two years. The Venture, rumor has it will be her name. She's the talk of the Starbase, talk of the 'Fleet, even – all shiny new equipment and cutting-edge tech and the best and brightest already vying for stations aboard, even this far out from the mission's inception.

He can't help but hate her already, just a little.

And just beyond her, docked outside the construction bay and preparing to launch in less than twelve hours, is the gleaming expanse of the Intrepid.


"You can't be serious." He stares across the desk in 100% and total disbelief, brain still trying to catch up with his ears because he can't possibly have heard what he thinks he just heard.

"Vulcans are always serious, Captain."

"You – are you nuts, Spock?"

A pointed eyebrow inclines in obvious amusement, though to his credit after all this time his First doesn't bother pretending ignorance of the idiom. "I am in full possession of my faculties, if that is your inquiry."

"Okay." He runs both hands through his hair, pulling on it absently for a minute in an effort to ground his reeling brain. "Okay. No, you know what? This is not okay." Rocketing to his feet, he moves around the desk and starts pacing, a well-worn track between his sleeping alcove and the working area. "It's just not okay, Spock."

A tolerant sigh. "We have already discussed the matter, Captain."

"You –" He spins on one heel with a screeeeak, dumbfounded. "And she didn't have anything to say about it?"

His First shifts slightly, a tell if he ever saw one, but appears genuine enough when he answers. "She has always been aware this might be a possibility. I was clear from the beginning upon that point."

"You…good God, how does she not hate me?" He collapses onto the couch, head in his hands, mind spinning. The vestiges of panic start to lurk at the edges of his consciousness, a harbinger of what could be the world crashing and burning under a barrage of good intentions. "I don't understand."

"There is nothing to understand; it is a fact, one which does not require nor invite discussion. The Lieutenant-Commander is quite aware of this and in fact reminded me of it herself. This is the only reason I mentioned the matter, as we are currently discussing personnel rotations and the possibilities for promotion should deserving candidates return for the next mission."

He exhales slowly, pulls his reeling mind back under control, and finally lifts his head. "Sit down." He nods to the opposite chair, and after a moment of hesitation Spock sits, head cocked in question. "Look. While I…appreciate the gesture. Seriously. Do you have any idea what you're doing?"

An almost amused quirk of the eyebrow.

"No, I mean really understand what you're doing. I don't know, maybe Vulcans can manage better than humans can, but every human couple I've ever seen, who split for over five years on a deep space mission? It just doesn't work, for our species to be apart that long and maintain that kind of commitment. That's why I denied any applicant for our last five-year missions who was in a civil partnership or marriage, unless their partner could transfer aboard as well. You know Sulu’s about to transfer out as soon as we get back, because he can’t take it any more – and I’m sure he’s not the only one, that’s why we’re doing these evaluations now."

He can see the sudden comprehension, and unease, dawning like a hololight.

"I've never known anyone who could pull it off, it's just too long with no physical presence. Even for the strongest of relationships, it puts a huge strain on them, mentally and emotionally. And while you guys are like, the model couple…it's just not practical. Think about it. What would you do if at the end of five years we get orders to stay out there for five more, without returning to charted space? Or if they do? It's happened, to other starships, and we go deeper every mission."

"We are Starfleet officers, Captain. That is the risk all officers take."

"And I call bullshit, because that's your freaking-out face. How the hell did you think you were going to pull that off?"

"I am Vulcan, and Nyota is a most exceptional human."

"You're half-Vulcan, and yeah, she is, I'm not arguing either point. But that may not be enough."

"You may be correct." Spock shifts slightly, but ultimately looks back at him with the same expression as earlier. "Nevertheless, my destiny lies here, on the Enterprise."

"You – did you not hear a word I just said!"

"Nyota is aware of this, Captain, and has been from the beginning. We discussed prior to her accepting captaincy of the Intrepid that I would not be accompanying her. My place is here."

"Your pl– oh my God, you're insane."

"That is incorrect."

"You are, and she's going to end up hating me for it!"

"That is also incorrect. It would be illogical to harbor resentment for an outcome one was already aware would transpire."

That may be. She's always been weirdly tolerant of whatever inexplicable ties have always seemed to pull the two of them together like magnets, no matter where they are in the galaxy. Maybe she doesn't hate him.

But maybe he'll end up hating himself.

"Spock, seriously." He takes a deep breath, tries to reel in the feeling he's lost control of not just this conversation and his two best officers, but basically his entire future. "You can't do this. You're chancing your marriage over some misguided sense of destiny that may not even be real."

"That is your opinion."

"And what if I'm right?" he asks quietly.

"It does not matter. I made a promise to you years ago, Jim, on the night we launched the Enterprise-A. I will never give you cause to doubt my loyalties again, nor will outside forces cause me to doubt them. As long as you captain the Enterprise, you may rely on my presence as well."

He closes his eyes, helpless. Damn Vulcan loyalty.

Of course, there is one way to get around that. It's been staring at him, evilly blinking from his inbox every time he turns his computer on for the last week. His worst nightmare, couched in terms of promotion and maturity and change and he hates change.

God, he hates change.

What is he supposed to do?


It breaks his heart, a little, to think of his beautiful girl getting sidelined in favor of the Next Big Thing, and he doesn't even bother to hide the fact he's been grieving like a recent widower when Spock finally gets tired of lurking near the door and comes to sit beside him on the floor of the deserted Observation Lounge.

After all, he is kind of mourning the death of more than one thing, tonight.

"Shouldn't you be like, performing inspections or something?" he asks, and after all this time there's no longer bitterness in the tone, only resignation. He is happy for them, after all; that was never in question. He can finally push past the rest to show it now, at least.

"They have their place on my list of pre-launch priorities." Well, that's…sweet. He smiles, the gesture reflecting in the expansive windows. "Also, Nyota said I was…"

"Driving everyone nuts because you're so freakishly intense every time we prepare to launch?"

"Something to that effect."

He laughs, the sound oddly harsh and echoing in the deserted lounge. "Have fun figuring out that new dynamic."

"It will be an adjustment," Spock admits, looking out as a repair bot whirrs past the window. "However, I am confident one which we will make successfully."

"Well. I know you're going to kick ass. Just – make sure you both come back, yeah?" He looks down as he speaks, unable to blow it off as a flippant comment.

"That is certainly the preferred scenario. Also, I suspect Nyota will be far less prone to attract the same amount of danger as the two previous captains I have served under."

He snorts, grinning, and turns back to the window. "I wouldn't bet on that. She learned from one of the best."

"I do not dispute this fact."

For a few moments a comfortable silence falls, the one thing he might just miss the most. He's drifted into a semi-meditative state, eyes closed and almost able to forget what's ahead, when beside him he senses Spock shifting uneasily, clear indication he's got something probably human to say. Horror of horrors.

"You gonna spit it out sometime today?" he asks, smiling, eyes still closed.

"I am…not certain how."

He opens his eyes, turns away from the window to give his full attention. Spock looks anxious, would be the word he'd use if the idea weren't almost ridiculous.

"Okay…you're going to have to help me out here. Is something worrying you about the launch?"

"Negative."

"The mission itself? You worried about Nyota's command skills?"

"Negative. She has proven herself more than capable, and your endorsement has put any reservations she herself had to rest."

"Then what's eating you?"

Spock finally looks at him squarely, unease clear in his eyes. "Admiral, did you accept this promotion to eliminate my reason for remaining on board the Enterprise?"

Well, that's direct. He sighs, rubs the back of his neck. "No." At Spock's even look, he waves a hand helplessly in the air. "Not exactly. Look, I can't even really explain it to myself, I dunno if I can explain it to you – but it wasn't because of you. That was just the catalyst, really."

An unhappy look shadows his former First's expression.

"Don't go into space thinking that's why, Spock, seriously. I…I have to find myself, now. You know? Everything's changed, and…" He shakes his head, looking down at his hands. "I've been so wrapped up in this ship, this crew, for so many years, my identity's just been one with the Enterprise…I don't even really know who I am anymore."

"You are a starship captain, Jim."

"Am I? Is that all I am?" He half-smiles at the frown he receives. "See, even you don't know, and you know me better than I know myself sometimes. It's time I stand on my own two feet, Spock. This is something I have to do. Something I need to do."

"But is it what you wish to do?"

"Hell, no. But I'll never figure it out if I don't try." He manages a shaky smile that most definitely isn't enough to fool the most perceptive being he's ever met. "Sink or swim, you know?"

"Neither of those is a pleasant prospect."

Right, native of a desert planet, Spock hates water. His laugh borders on the hysterical this time. "God, I'm going to miss you so much." Well, he didn't mean to say that, but whatever. Sue him. "Indulge the pathetic emotional human and write once in a while, yeah?"

"I believe that can be arranged." The words are light, but he can see the shadows of concern in Spock's eyes, as they finally stand, taking one last look out at the chaotic shipyard. "You will keep us informed as to the progress of Doctor McCoy's newest family member?"

"I will. And if you guys decide you're going to start a family –"

"We are not." Spock looks horrified at the very idea, and the sheer humanity of it makes him laugh, for real this time.

"Duly noted. Can I buy you dinner before you brave the Captain's wrath once more tonight?"

"That would be agreeable."


It's almost worth it – almost – to see the look on her face when he hands her the communique from Starfleet Command.

She chokes on her coffee, nearly destroying said communique but for superior reflexes that snatch it out of the way in time, bringing it back a moment later in just as much shock as the first time.

He has to laugh, even despite the situation. "I'm not sure I've ever seen you without language."

"In what universe is this a good command decision?" she asks incredulously, tossing the padd back across the desk. "And how the hell am I the next one in line for it?"

"Well, there was one candidate ahead of you, but they chose to take a starbase posting to be closer to Terra. And don't sell yourself short, Commander. You've been noticed by the right people, and this is an excellent first step into a chair. The Intrepid is brand new, but she's not a huge vessel, and she's one of the most highly diversified ones yet; a captain who can speak every crewman's native language is going to have an automatic advantage in building relations internally. It's a win-win for both you and the 'Fleet."

"I have no plans to command, Jim."

"I know that," he replies quietly. "But I think you should take some time to consider it very carefully."

"Why are you so dead set on getting rid of me?" she asks, eyebrow raised.

"Believe me, that's the last thing I want to do. But the best thing for us? May not be the best thing for you, Nyota. Human nature is to grow, to adapt, to keep moving. Your skills are just sitting here, and after three missions? You should be thinking bigger. It's been almost two decades – you shouldn't still be sitting in that same chair when you could easily be sitting in mine. We aren’t going to be out here forever, you know; and you’re going to want some credentials in the bank when we do finally get grounded for good."

She sighs, and pulls the padd back to look at it again, reading the fairly long description over.

He closes his eyes for a moment, and then opens them again, exhales silently. "And," he says quietly, "I think you should think about taking Spock with you as your First Officer."

She pauses, and looks up at him over the edge of the padd. "That's not going to happen."

"Nyota, there are all kinds of regulations now which would protect the two of you, if that's what you're worried about. And especially with the whole endangered species thing, you basically can do whatever you want, nobody's going to dare to say anything."

"It's not that, Jim. He's not going to go for it."

He frowns. "Off the record. You think he's going to have a problem taking orders from you?"

She laughs, eyes dancing. "Well, if we're off the record, he certainly doesn't have a problem doing it under the right circumstances."

"TMI. So much TMI. Ew." He shakes his head, trying not to laugh. "Never mind, moving on. Why do you think it'll be a problem?"

"That's something we'll need to talk about before I can really discuss with you, Captain. Sorry."

He raises his hands in a laissez-faire gesture. "Of course. But he'll need to get his transfer request in before we hit the 90-day mark out from Terra for it to be valid. Just remember that."

"Aye, sir. I'll…keep you posted. You really think this is the right move, Jim?"

"I do," he replies, sincerely. "The timing seems to be right, and the position couldn't be a better fit for your skills. I wouldn't have submitted your name for consideration if I hadn't believed that."

"You what."

"Oh, yeah. So, consider that my stamp of approval." He grins at her glare. "Look, it's a thing, every time they christen a new ship every captain submits a name for promotion, it's not like I was pulling strings. Chill. It's not like Sulu's ready, yet, and gods know Scotty has even less interest than you. Plus, if we do get grounded after this mission or the next, they’ll hand Spock a ship immediately just to get in good with New Vulcan; it’ll be a lot harder for you to land one. If you plan to, this is probably your best shot."

She looks a little less annoyed, but still suspicious.

"I promise. I have no say in this, Nyota. It may be good timing, but you got this all on your own. Now go talk to Spock – but it needs to stay between the two of you, understood?"

"Understood, sir." She takes the padd, re-codes the encryption, and then turns to leave.

"And Commander," he calls, just before she reaches the door.

"Sir?"

"I'm proud of you." He smiles, entirely genuine. "Just so you know."


Bones takes one look at him and silently points at the chair closest to what looks like a ridiculously huge holographic fire in the fireplace.

"Geez. Overcompensation much?"

"You come here to criticize my creature comforts, or steal some of them?"

"Steal them. The strongest stuff you have." He collapses in the chair, and it actually is kind of nice, even if the heat's just simulated and would shut off instantly if a safety protocol were triggered. It even snaps and crackles like a real fireplace, the sound oddly soothing, reminiscent of camping trips and shore leaves.

"Here. Might as well take the bottle too, I have a feeling you're gonna be needing it anyway."

He doesn't bother denying the accusation, just upends the highball and nearly chokes as the contents try to eat their way through his throat lining before trickling down to his stomach.

"O-kay, that's got to be illegal."

"Not on Yorktown." An evil grin. "Most liberal starbase in the quadrant."

"I thought you were a doctor, aren't you supposed to be against that kind of thing?" He pours another, slightly more cautious, glass and inspects it against the firelight.

"I don't hear you complainin'."

"I'm not. God, that's vile."

"Good. Maybe some moderation will keep you from full-on alcohol poisoning. God knows I ain't got time for that, Jim."

He snorts, and puts the glass down with slightly more force than is warranted. "Right, I forgot. Formalities. Gotta get out of here as quick as possible, after all."

Bones sighs, a sad and almost pained little noise that hurts almost as much as the ache he's not got a clue how to deal with yet. "Jim…"

"I know, I'm sorry. That was a dick thing to say. I don't know what's wrong with me." He stares into the firelight, watching as the flames dance and twist, burning everything in their path.

It's a pretty apt metaphor for his life, right now.

"Hey. Look at me, Jim."

He glances up, and tries to look like he hasn't been about two seconds from losing it completely for like a week now.

"You promised me you'd be okay with this. If you're not, I need to know. I can't be halfway across the galaxy if you crash and burn on us."

On who, he wants to say, but he bites his tongue, forces a smile that is only a little bit bitter.

"I am, Bones, I am. Geez. Go be a grandpa to somebody other than me."

"I am not. Not yet, anyway."

"You so are." He laughs, and pours another drink. "Poor kid has no idea what he's coming into. Fifty credits says Joanna kicks you out of the maternity ward before even going into labor."

"Yeah, you're fine." Bones snorts, moving over to the side table to answer an insistently chirping communicator. "McCoy."

He shivers a little, pulls the chair closer to the fire. Tries not to think about the fact that he can count on one hand the number of times he'll hear that again in the coming years.


He really should have known better than to think he could slip it by, unnoticed, even amid the chaos of the thousands of messages being shot across the Communications portal of the Enterprise's intranet when they redock over Yorktown. A quick burst of subspace signal, a self-erasing program to delete it after being sent; he thought it'd be enough, but he should have known better.

This is not how he wanted this to go.

The end of a deep space mission is a monumental event for some; many crewmen have not seen their families in years, after such a mission, and have been anticipating its end for weeks now for that reason. Many have discovered to their chagrin that deep space is not the posting for them, not at all what they thought it would be, and are too ruefully eager to set foot on terra firma once more, to later transfer to a less dangerous vessel, thankful that they are one of the lucky few who are still alive to do so. For many, the end is simply the beginning of another, either on this ship or a different one. Lateral transfers and a few deserved promotions happen with fair regularity, and a Fleet-paid holiday spent between missions on Yorktown is nothing to sneeze at.

After three such missions, the end of this third is not such a grand ordeal as it had been the first two times; and his senior staff is far more calm as they go about their business in shutting down the command Bridge, the last to leave the ship other than vital Engineering personnel who will remain aboard until the transfer of power to orbital dock has been completed remotely.

So, he'd thought he could slip that comm past unnoticed in the furor of outgoing messages from hundreds of eager crewmen pouring off the ship to meet families and friends and saying goodbye to their fellow officers for the foreseeable future.

Not so. Lieutenant-Commander Nyota Uhura can pounce on a suspect transmission under fourteen layers of encryption with one eye closed, one reason why their communications rating is higher than any other ship in the 'Fleet, including ambassadorial cruisers.

The Bridge is 90% on auto-pilot at this point, only a few officers at their stations, and he's spinning his chair in a half-circle of nervous energy, trying not to be a pain in the neck asking for status reports on things he knows are getting done because his people know their jobs, and occasionally pinging off a report to Command as departments check in to let him know that sections of the ship have been confirmed empty.

He's slowly revolving in a bored, dizzying circle, when he sees her expression change suddenly, hand still frozen on her earpiece and fingers paused over one of the controls.

Crap.

He clears his throat. "Mr. Sulu, you about done there?"

"Aye, Captain. Final locks being engaged now, sir. Just waiting on confirmation from the remote dock."

"I think we can handle that. Get home to your family. You too, Chekov.”

The young man's eyes brighten. "Seriously, Keptin?"

"Well, if you want to stick around for another two hours, be my guest, but –"

"Negative, sir!" Sulu hastily punches a button on the console and tugs his seatmate by the arm, waving as he heads toward the lift.

"Don’t forget to say ‘bye before you leave for Terra, yeah?" he calls with a short laugh. He’s unsure if the words are even heard, so quickly is the turbolift door sliding shut.

That just leaves the three of them on the Bridge, so at least the fallout won't be as severe.

He sighs, and tosses the padd onto the floor, then swivels to face the comms station. Attention arrested by the noise, Spock glances up for the first time, frowning, and seems to realize a storm is brewing because he gets that slightly resigned, slightly panicked look he always does when human emotions are being flung about in his general vicinity.

Uhura's leaning back in her chair, arms folded, fingers tapping slowly on the opposite arm, just glaring at him.

"You are supposed to redirect messages, not read them," he says mildly.

"And you're supposed to discuss with your command team any major changes in that chain of command. Now aren't you."

He winces. "Fair enough."

Spock turns to look at him, question and not a little alarm in his eyes.

Sighing, he leans forward, elbows on his knees, and runs his hands through his hair uneasily. "This isn't how I wanted this to go."

"And how exactly did you think it was going to go? When were you going to tell everyone? Tell us?"

"Captain, I am at a loss to understand what is being referenced."

"Oh, this is fantastic. You didn't even tell him?"

"Lieutenant-Commander, you are out of line!" he snaps, finally losing his grip on the only thread of control that's enabled him to get through this day. This one, last day.

She looks a little shocked, and no wonder, because he's usually pretty careful to call both her and Spock Commander out of respect for their abilities, and it's been a long time since he brought out that particular tone.

"If you intend to take a captain's chair, then you had better get a clearer understanding of the proper time and place to have these discussions." His tone is even, but for once holding no humor in it. He just can't, not today.

She looks about to say something, then apparently thinks better of it. After a second, something appears to dawn on her, and she pinpoints him shrewdly. "Speaking of. Does that have anything to do with this?"

He blinks, surprised despite himself that she's nailed part of the issue with such uncanny precision – but he shouldn't be surprised. And there's no way in hell she's ever going to find that out.

He raises an eyebrow. "We've had this talk. Twice. I am freaking thrilled for you, Nyota. There's no way I'd do anything but boot you off this ship if you thought about staying. Okay?"

She glares at him for a minute as if trying to gauge his sincerity, but he appears to have convinced her because a moment later she shrugs, and glances over at Spock, who is still totally clueless but patiently waiting for explanations, bless him.

He receives an inquiring eyebrow, and sighs, rubbing the back of his neck nervously. "Look, I was going to tell you. Just…not here."

Apprehension suddenly dawns, and along with it something resembling suspicion. Yeah, Spock's not an idiot. But Nyota doesn't know anything about their conversation, and it needs to stay that way.

"The timing was just right." He shrugs with practiced ease. "They've offered me the open rear-admiral position here on Yorktown, specifically in charge of Tactical Operations and the Command track in the Yorktown branch of Starfleet Academy. And…I've accepted it."

"Without discussing it."

"I don't require your approval, Spock," he says, not unkindly, but firmly. "This is something I need to do."

"Is it." Yeah, that's definite suspicion.

"Yes." He holds the look for a minute, boldly confident, and finally sees the suspicion falter under his professed certainty. "Look, I didn't want you to find out this way. I'm not – come on, you don't think I'm that much of an asshole after all this time, do you?"

"Asshole, no," Uhura replies calmly. "Coward? Sometimes." He glares at her, but deep down knows she's right; when it comes to things like this, yeah. He always has been, just a bit. "I'm not saying anybody faults you for it, even, Jim. But yeah. Sometimes."

"Well, this wasn't one of those times. How in the world did you even notice that among how many thousands of messages going out?"

"It's my job, dumbass." She rolls her eyes, and leans back as something starts beeping on the board. "Probably a good thing you're taking this ground posting, I'm not sure anyone else would be able to put up with stunts like this aboard ship."

He tries to laugh, but the sound sticks in his throat, sharp and painful.

Yeah.

Probably.


The first six months are probably the hardest days of his entire life, with a few obvious and notable exceptions from his childhood.

He hadn't realized, until forced to confront it by simple virtue of being alone for the first time in decades, how dangerously co-dependent he'd become on the people he loves. Not exactly unhealthy, just unwise; and now that rug has been pulled out from under him he's finding it a little frightening just how much his identity had been wrapped up in other people the last fifteen years.

So, he deals with it the only real way he knows how.

Basically, he doesn't.

His new duties keep him more than busy, and he's reminded painfully of those first few months after their initial launch – both the original and after Khan – when he was so overwhelmed by the job description he would have drowned had it not been for his command crew. He has no such luxury now, though he does have two well-meaning aides who are earnest and eager and don't even look old enough to be taking Academy entrance exams.

He's either gotten old, or just jaded.

Maybe both.

But he throws himself into the work with the same determination that he had given then, working twelve or more hours a day to learn as much in as short a time as possible. Tactical Operations has always been one of the things he enjoys, and is actually quite good at, so other than the boring-ass meetings every other day in 'Fleet HQ he enjoys that part of the job.

Teaching in the Academy is about a 50/50 split. He totally gets why Spock wanted to kill him when they first met, because none of these idiots have cheated yet on one of his tests and he still wants to kill them half the time.

But gradually, time moves on, as it's wont to do. The days turn into weeks, and the weeks into months, until before he realizes it's been over six months that he's been at this; it's his birthday. Hooray to continuing into the not-so-fabulous 40s.

He only realizes the amount of time because apparently some idiots on a starship currently patrolling the Neutral Zone thought it would be hilarious to employ the services of one of the novelty vendors on Yorktown to completely fill his office with freaking balloons.

Floor to ceiling.

Confetti-filled balloons.

Okay, how was he supposed to know? It's the logical thing to do, try and pop them to make a way to your desk, right?

His aides thought he was off his meds when they found him sitting outside his office, covered in bits of biodegradable paper shaped like IDIC symbols and laughing like a nutjob, but hey. Totally worth it.

"I've got a science problem for you, Commander. Any idea how this stuff can multiply like tribbles when it in actuality lacks both sentience and reproductive abilities?" He shakes another piece of confetti off his sleeve in demonstration, the fifth one he's found this evening – and he's home, not in his office anymore. They're like tiny magnets, sticking to him everywhere. The paper floats away to land on the counter beside his takeout containers, sparkling in the lamplight.

Spock looks way too amused. "I take it you made some unfortunate choices in the method of de-cluttering your working area."

He snorts, and finally finds the chopsticks he was looking for. "You could say that. The maintenance staff now officially hate me, thanks to you guys." He pops back into view, yanking the sushi tray with him. The confetti goes floating to the floor, hopefully to rest in peace. "Also, I'm pretty sure I saw some of it being tracked all the way into the botany labs across campus, so. Well done, you."

"Nyota insisted we make certain your date of birth was…memorable."

"Uh, yeah. Thanks for that." He snorts, grinning. "Definitely was." He chews pensively on a New California roll for a second, and then squints at the screen. "What's that you're working on?"

Spock glances behind him before turning around. "As you are no doubt aware, we are currently patrolling the Neutral Zone in an effort to determine whether or not negotiations with the Romulan Empire might be possible in the foreseeable future."

"Yeah, your reports are part of my daily Tactical briefings, with Romulus in the state it is. Go on?"

"We have heard rumors of a fully functional cloaking device being used by Romulan warships. I am endeavoring to create a formula which could be used to scan for such concealed ships, enabling us to locate them despite the cloaking device."

"Huh." He pauses with a chunk of rice on the way to his mouth, duly impressed. "That'd be pretty amazing if you pull it off."

"It would certainly give us an advantage should we encounter such a device. Unfortunately, the only way to ascertain the success of the equations would be to encounter a cloaked vessel."

"Hmmm." He chews pensively for a minute. "Can you adjust the equation to be fed into the long-range scanner? It'd be some pretty radical algorithms, adjusting for the photon distortion and tachyon dispersal, but it might work."

"The thought had occurred to me. It will require much more experimentation in the coming weeks."

"Well, you are the Science Officer."

"Indeed." And that's an eyeroll, yeah – he's missed that.

He smiles. "So, how are things, anyway? You two still okay with the changes and everything?"

Spock looks vaguely amused. "Were we not, there would be little you could do to change the fact, Admiral."

"Yeah, but you both bailed on me so I get to be like the weird nosy cousin or something now, deal with it. Seriously, though. You good?"

He wants to laugh at the rapid progression of dismay, slight contrition, exasperation, and then what he knows is the Vulcan equivalent of affection that all flash in rapid succession across his former First Officer's face as he speaks.

"We are, Jim. In all honesty, I had not anticipated the transition being as effortless as it has been."

He beams from around a mouthful of sushi. "That's awesome. Seriously, I am legit happy for you."

"I believe a human would thank you." Spock regards him in silence for a moment, and then seems to hesitate.

"Something on my face?" he asks dryly, reaching for a disposawipe.

"Negative. I am merely…that is…"

Ok, super weird. "You need to go get Uhura so she can interpret for you?"

Spock gives him a longsuffering look of thinly veiled exasperation. "I was simply going to remark upon your own state of mind, Admiral, and thought better of it."

"Hm?" He fishes a weird-looking piece of cucumber out of the last sushi roll and shoves it off to one side. Then the words register, and he looks back up, eyes narrowed. "What does that mean?"

A shrug. "It is not my prerogative to comment any longer on another officer's mental state."

"Yeah, okay, you've got my freaking power of attorney, Spock, because of Bones's conflict of interest. I'm pretty sure you can comment whatever the hell you want." He points a chopstick at the screen. "But watch it, you remember how admirals can make your life a living hell."

Even weirder, Spock almost smiles.

He sighs, and tosses the chopsticks into the nearly empty container. Leans back, arms folded in contemplation. "Yeah, I know," he says quietly, almost musing. "I was seriously messed up last time you called. Not a good day. I'm sorry."

"You are more than entitled to have such bad days, as a human and as an officer."

"Yeah, well, I know I probably freaked you out. I freaked myself out, too, if it's any consolation. Bones about tore me a new one. I had to stop him from getting on a transport, he was about to trek all the way back out here, like it's not a two-week ride at maximum warp. No idea how he thought he was going to get past the Andromeda outpost this time of the shipping cycles."

"Perhaps you should have permitted him to do so?" The words aren't an accusation, only a genuine inquiry.

He shakes his head. "No, he's out and I want him to stay out. Did he send you holos, by the way?" Spock nods. "Kid's stupid cute, yeah?"

"I am not an expert in the aesthetic appeal of human offspring."

"Yeah, me neither, but he looks happier than I've ever seen him, and I'm sure Joanna's happy to have him home...Anyway. I am doing better, Spock. Seriously. I kind of…don't feel like I'm drowning anymore, at least. And I really like teaching, more than I thought I would. Definitely more than I did at first. Gods. How the hell did you do it?"

"I have an infinitely larger supply of patience than the average human," Spock replies dryly. "Only once, do I recall anyone truly disrupting that mental equilibrium enough to be noteworthy."

He smirks. "See, I knew I was special."

"You were."

He can feel his face turning red, awesome. "Yeah, well. I have a newfound appreciation for that patience now."

"I look forward to hearing about the first cadet who provokes the same reaction from you." Spock's eyes are glinting with positively evil glee.

"You suck." He points the chopstick again. "You know I can pull your ship off the Neutral Zone and have you ferrying the Babel anniversary conference delegates instead, right?"

"I would very much enjoy seeing you impart that news to Captain Uhura."

"Yeah, I'll give that a hard pass." He smiles, and taps the stick absently on the table. "How's she doing, off the record?"

"Quite impressively."

"That an unbiased opinion?"

"It is. She was the correct person for this position; the sheer diversity of species aboard would likely cause another commander some level of difficulty in communication, but her ability to speak every native language of each crewman has immediately endeared her to them, both above and below decks. It was a wise move, both for the ship and for the 'Fleet."

"Good. Keep me posted if you guys need anything, on or off the record, yeah?"

"Indeed. I trust you will do the same."

"Yeah." He offers a sheepish smile. "I'm good, though. Tell Nyota I'm sorry I was weird last time we talked."

Spock raises a silent eyebrow.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm weird period, I know. Don't you have a science lab to go inspect or something?"

"I do. Give Doctor McCoy my regards."

"Will do. Take care, Spock."

The screen blanks out a moment later, and he sighs, a little wistfully. It wasn't exactly a lie; he is doing better.

Just…better is such a relative term, is all.


The first month is hell.

He's totally forgotten how to live as a civilian. Like, he has an actual apartment, and it has actual keycards and a bored-looking Security dude in the lobby and he has to either shop or have groceries delivered, because its only replication unit just does beverages, for pity's sake.

It's freaking weird.

He has to remember to carry his credit chip with him now, and it's only his notoriety that's saved him a couple of times from really embarrassing moments when he's forgotten that yeah, Yorktown does actually use currency and he does need to pay that hovercab until his thumbprint and retinal recognition make it through the system and connect with his never-used accounts that are slowly being activated from Terra. Thankfully, his face has been plastered across the holonets enough times that it's been good enough for the 'honor system' so far, and most people are so stupidly excited to meet him they don't seem to mind that he's an idiot and has to wire them the credits when he gets to his office.

It's almost like being a student again himself, trying to read campus maps and he can't even locate a freaking lavatory the first two days he's there until he finally says to hell with his pride and stops the least hipster-looking undergrad he sees in a quiet alcove to ask, who thankfully doesn't even appear to recognize him, just looks up frazzled from studying and points him in the right direction.

He stumbles through the days barely keeping up with the insanity of hopping from Starfleet HQ to the Academy and back again, Tactical and Ops and the Academy and it's a giant carousel that he's not quite sure he isn't going to go flying off of at any given time. He arrives earlier than most, and stays later, and even though his superiors and even a couple of his peers tell him to chill and give himself time to integrate, he doesn't see the need to step back – he wants to 'integrate' as fast as possible.

Besides, the more time he spends at the Academy or HQ, the less time he has to spend in that silent apartment, knowing there's no one left on Yorktown that he even really knows. His crew have all left for their extended leave on Terra or for other postings, and he's the only one left – and it freaks him out more than he wants to admit.

Bones calls and harasses him once a week about his eating habits, or lack thereof, and it's the highlight of his week, but after five weeks that abruptly stops when Joanna's baby decides he wants to arrive in the world a month early; they obviously have their hands full, based on the picture and message updates he gets periodically now. The kid's father is…he doesn't exactly know, because it's none of his business and he's not about to shove his nose into it, but apparently the guy isn't in the picture and Jo's completely fine with that, so more power to her. But he's sure she's probably happy to have family close now.

He knows he would be.

Part of his weekly Tactical duties involve reading reports from ships patrolling high-risk areas, and one of those is the Intrepid, so he at least keeps some kind of tabs on Uhura and Spock. It's a little amusing that he can totally tell when Spock's written the report or when she has, after all these years, even though no one else on the board would be able to – it's a small detail that makes him smile in the privacy of his office.

Then there's a day where he wakes up not feeling well – not sick, exactly, just a weird, nauseous feeling that lurks around him all day long. Like he's coming down with the flu, only with no other symptoms except the ever-present exhaustion and a splitting headache.

And then he receives an alert on his computer that they've lost contact with the Intrepid completely.

It takes three days for her to reappear on the Neutral Zone's long-range scanning beacons, and another twelve hours before her reports finally make it back through subspace to Command telling them what happened.

After reading them, he's really not all that surprised to see he has a transmission blinking on his computer when he enters his apartment that evening at close to 2300 hours. He's exhausted, and has a migraine to end all migraines, but if this is what he thinks it is, he really should call her back.

He fumbles through the desk drawers until he finds the hypospray containing his migraine meds (thanks to Bones, who before leaving Yorktown had hilariously stuffed his apartment full of like every drug on the planet he could get his hands on, as if Jim's not capable of walking to Medical), and then after administering it he hits the callback button and waits for the subspace relay to pick up the signal and start trying to locate the Intrepid, wherever she is dozens of parsecs off-course and trying to get back in Federation space.

He's almost asleep in the chair when it finally connects, the chirp startling him wide awake.

She raises an eyebrow. "You could have called back in the morning, you know. Why are you still up?"

He smiles tiredly, propping his head on one hand, elbow on the chair's armrest. "I'm good. And you've got no room to talk, Captain."

"That's inherent in the job description, as you well know. You're the one with the cushy civilian life now."

He laughs. "Seriously. I've been worried sick about you guys – what really happened out there?"

She sighs, leaning back in the chair. "Seriously, just what's in the report, crazy as it sounds. I've never seen anything like it, and Spock's still in the labs with half the Medical staff trying to figure out what in the name of medical science it was."

"I almost choked on my coffee when you called it a giant space amoeba. I mean, come on. That sounds like Bones wrote it."

"We've seen weirder things. But not much weirder, I'll grant you."

"It sounds like you were lucky to destroy it and get away."

"Yeah."  She looks tired, pretty stressed too. "Judging from the debris field it left when it blew? We're not the first ship it trapped. We just got lucky it wasn't that…hungry? When it first grabbed us."

He swallows, ignoring the sick feeling in his stomach. "Any casualties?"

"Surprisingly, no. We came close, a couple of the lower decks species really didn't respond well to the negative energy it was putting out, and I have a couple Bridge crew members whose physiology isn't compatible with stimulants who are still in Sickbay. But no casualties."

He leans forward, eyes narrowed, because something in her voice is off. "Nyota. What are you not telling me."

She shakes her head. "I'm telling you the truth, we didn't!"

"You said surprisingly, so…you were expecting casualties, then."

"No, I – no, that's not what I said."  She glares at him. "Stop trying to twist my words, Kirk."

"I'm not twisting anything. You're hiding something, and you called me for a reason. I'm assuming it's because you made some kind of decision while in your first real crisis that almost got someone killed, and now you're freaking out because of it." Her eyes widen. Bingo. "Unfortunately, that's going to happen. A lot. I wish I could tell you it gets easier, but it never will."

"That's the most sucky advice I've ever heard from you."

"It's also the most truthful," he says, sighing. "If it ever does get easier for you to pull the trigger like that, write off a crewman for the sake of another without it bothering you? Then it's time to step down out of that chair."

She looks down for a moment, arms folded and fingers tapping nervously on gold sleeves. Then she looks back up, and he can see an unusual vulnerability hidden deep inside.

"I almost killed him, Jim," she says quietly.

"Who?" He's afraid he already knows the answer, and that's one whopping first crisis decision to have to make as a novice captain.

"We had to have someone take a shuttle out into the – the  thing, because it basically ate our probe, to see if there was any information to be gathered about how to destroy it. He was the only one with the scientific knowledge who could survive the impact and environment; our CMO has the knowledge but he was in surgery with one of my Engineers and literally couldn't be pulled, even if I'd decided he was more qualified. Which he really wasn't."

"Damn. That's a hell of a decision for your first command crisis."

"You're telling me."  A watery laugh. "What kind of person does that make me?"

"It makes you a starship captain, Nyota," he says quietly. "Spock knows that. Remember Vulcan loyalty isn't given lightly."

"I know. But – that's something I'm not sure I can wrap my head around. Or do again."  She exhales slowly. "I mean, I just – sent him out there, without another thought. All I could think about, was the fact that this ship was going down in six hours if he couldn't find a solution. Nothing else mattered at the time. Not even us. And he never said a word, he just – went."

"I know."

"You do, don't you?"  She shakes her head. "How did you do it? I remember you having to choose to leave us behind in the middle of a planetary war and warping the ship out of orbit because she lost all shields in a freak shot to Engineering. It messed you up for days when we nearly lost half the landing party, but you did it, and I don't remember you second guessing yourself about it either."

"I…can't really tell you that. But like you said – there's something about us, that drives us to protect the ship at all costs." He shrugs. "It's not a bad thing. But there's a reason why the 'Fleet usually doesn't allow involved officers to be in the same department or directly interacting with each other on board a starship. This is why. It's never going to get easier, and you can never allow yourself to feel guilty for thinking of the ship first. You have to just do your best to make sure it doesn't happen again."

"That's…not exactly helpful."

"I know. I'm sorry." He gives her a sad, self-deprecating smile. "It's not all it's cracked up to be, is it."

"I never thought it would be. But…I never realized, exactly, what a mistake this might have been,"  she says quietly.

"Don't say that." He leans forward, earnestness tingeing his tone with a sharp urgency.

"You have no right to tell me that."

"No, I don't. But as your friend, not your peer mentor, I think it'd be a mistake to allow your duties to affect your relationships, just as much as it would be the other way around." He shakes his head. "Have you talked to him about this?"

She snorts. "What do you think."

"I think you should. You have a good thing going, Nyota. Don't screw it up because your first crisis mission was a nightmare."

"You have gotten to be such a self-righteous smartass, you know that?"

"Watch it, Captain. You know I can put you on star-charting duty for a month and no one'd ever blink an eye." She glares at him, though it's obvious she's trying not to laugh. "Look, seriously, I wish I had more helpful advice for you. But I really don't. Except, talk to Spock. He might surprise you; I know he did me, when I least expected the advice. Talk to him. As the captain, not his bondmate. I think you might be surprised how much it helps."

"I will. Sorry I dumped that on you."

"Don't apologize. You know I'm always here if I can do anything. Unfortunately, in this you're going to have to learn to fly by yourself. It sucks, but it's part of the job."

"Aye, sir. Speaking of jobs, how are you, by the way?"

"I'm…okay? I guess?" he sighs, leaning back in his chair. "I don't really know, honestly."

"You look exhausted. Don't make me waste this ship's comms resources calling Leonard just to bully you into taking care of yourself."

He manages a half-hearted glare. "I have a headache, that's all. Geez. I just need those stupid reading glasses Bones always said I'd have to get someday, I have an appointment later this week to get fitted."

"I thought they could correct that with an injection now."

"Yeah, but guess who's allergic to Retinax-D. And A, B, and C, and the rest of the freaking alphabet."

She tries not to laugh, and doesn't quite succeed. "Sorry. But you'll have to send a holo when you do get them."

"Over my dead body."

"Oh, come on. Throw me a bone here."

"Uh, no." He covers a yawn with his hand. "It's just been a long day. I still don't even know what I'm doing half the time, you know?"

She raises her eyebrows. "Yeah, I do know. I'm hoping it gets better."

He smiles. "It does. Usually depending on how great your command staff is – which yours is, by all accounts."

"They are."  She glances off to the side as something beeps, and then back again. "I'm going to let you go. Get some rest, for pity's sake."

"I plan to. Hey look, seriously, don't forget to talk to Spock, yeah?"

"I will. We'll try to call you when we're back in Federation patrolled territory on this side of the Neutral Zone."

He nods and waves, managing one last smile as she cuts the transmission. Finally the screen goes blank, and he can drop the façade, weariness swamping him in a drowning wave. Maybe he should just sleep here, it'd be easier than getting up and dragging himself up the stairs of this dark, empty apartment.

Easier, and less lonely.


He wasn't lying; he does like teaching. Weirdly enough, it sort of feels like command, or at least as close as he's going to get for the rest of his life. His lecture halls are about the same size as the Enterprise bridge was, his classrooms the size of a briefing room; and at least he gets to feel that somewhat gratifying sense of power and in-charge-ness he always did, plus the knowledge that maybe, just maybe, the next great starship officers are sitting in his presence. What he's doing matters.

It has to matter.

In the back of his classroom, this particular one unfortunately a rather small one in the Command wing of one of the campus's primary Annex buildings, someone snaps their chewing gum loudly.

Yeeeeeah. Next great starship officers.

He resists the urge to bang his head on the desk. (He wears glasses now when he grades, he can't break them.)

The cadet in question, to his credit, looks slightly embarrassed, and promptly swallows the offending candy under the glare of three surrounding seat-mates.

Ew.

Trying not to laugh, he shakes his head and goes back to his scoring. The students are all busy preparing for a major examination tomorrow; he's given them a practice exam to help them get ready, and for the most part they're busily working on it. There's the odd cadet or two who's obviously working on a different project (which he's fine with, it's their grade and if they need to use the time for a different class he doesn't care as long as they pass his), the twin Katarrans who (as usual) are obviously plotting something on a pocket padd suspiciously unrelated to his curriculum, and the one idiot in the back who thinks Jim's too stupid to tell he's playing a game on his communicator hidden behind a propped-up data-padd.

But for the most part, there's just the studious silence which befits senior Command track candidates, and he's good with that. It's a (simulated) sunny day on Yorktown, and the windows let in plenty of light; he's not seen many people passing in the hall since this is one of the lesser used Annex buildings. It's actually fairly peaceful.

For a few minutes, nothing other than the occasional beep of a padd or scratching of styluses breaks the silence. The occasional drone or emergency vehicle flies by the windows, whirring on its pre-programmed path through the insanely busy traffic routes over the 'Base. He might get this grading done before the hour's over and actually stay on top of things for once.

Then something actually buzzes the windows, like way too close to be following the normal automated traffic pattern. Half a dozen of his students look up, because anything is more interesting than a practice exam, but at a sharp look from him immediately go back to their work. The rest had never even blinked, discounting the noise as a utility bot or something.

Then another whizzes by, and one more. The novelty has obviously worn off, because his students are doing nothing more than yawning, looking despondently at the essay questions on his exam.

But he'd seen the markings on the side of the vehicle, and his skin's starting to crawl.

There are only a few reasons why a special ops team would be landing just meters from a 'Fleet building in the middle of the day, and none of them are good.

He's already moving, sliding out of his seat at the same time that every electronic device in the room, including his overhead screens, suddenly lights up bright red, silently blasting the Security warning which is every professor's worst nightmare.

WARNING. POSSIBLE BOMB THREAT AND CONFIRMED ACTIVE SHOOTER. LOCATION: COMMAND BUILDING. INSTIGATE IMMEDIATE LOCKDOWN PROCEDURES AND REMAIN INDOORS UNTIL INSTRUCTED OTHERWISE BY CAMPUS OFFICIALS. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Shit.

The students are all sort of blinking at their padd screens in dazed astonishment, but jolt into shocked awareness as he slams his hand down on the lockdown button beside the door. Immediately, the transparisteel windows to the hall shimmer with a high-powered forcefield. The door seals shut with an audible hiss of hydraulics. "Computer, engage emergency classroom lockdown, voice authorization Kirk, James T., Rear Admiral."

"Lockdown initiated."

That lockdown's designed to keep out an active shooter, but not the concussive force of a bomb; it probably has a tenth of the strength of an emergency bulkhead.

"Get your things, and get moving," he commands, in a tone he hasn't used in over a year. "Stay along the perimeter of the room, form a line to exit from the windows if needed. Move!"

Two of the cadets, a promising young Terran human named Matthews and a young Betazoid who's pulling a double minor in Navigation and Engineering because he can't decide which he wants to pursue, jump from their seats and begin herding stragglers back around the bend of the L-shaped classroom. Campus protocol dictates remaining inside in the event of a threat, behind the protective lockdown – as the instructions of the alert state. But he's never been one to follow instructions blindly, and if there really is a bomb threat inside this particular wing? A photon grenade or something similar, the lockdown measures will keep out. A hyperplasma converter, for instance? It will level half the entire building, not just the Command Wing. They may have to abandon ship like yesterday, protocol be damned.

Hey, he is the Tactical instructor, if anyone can disregard protocol in a situation like this, it's him. He highly doubts anyone will have him on the carpet for that if he's over-reacting, and if he's not? The rubble of this building is going to speak for him. He’ll be damned if any of his students are under it if that happens.

He hears a scream, somewhere deeper in the Command wing. Where the hell are Security? Whoever that is shouldn't have gotten past the second set of doors with whatever his explosive devices are.

"Sir! Admiral!" The walls are a sea of red uniforms and frightened faces. Matthews is looking out the left-hand window. "Sir, there's like four Special Ops vehicles and emergency services out there, why hasn't someone stopped the shooter yet?"

"Think tactically, Mr. Matthews. Likely they don't know exactly where he is inside. There's a ninety-second delay in security footage so even if they can access the building's cameras remotely they don't know precisely where to beam in a specialized ops team – and that's if someone with high enough clearance made it out to give them override codes for beaming through the lockdown shields. Without that knowledge, they could startle him and he could set off the explosives; or if the devices for some reason are motion or pressure triggered instead of manually detonated, a transport could set them off at re-materialization, leaving an active shooter still on the loose. Until they have more knowledge, their hands are tied. That's why hostage situations take hours to negotiate sometimes, and why we do everything we can to keep civilians out of the line of fire if possible."

He hears one of the less scared-looking cadets mutter something about 'can't believe he's still teaching at a moment like this' and realizes that he's probably channeling Spock a bit much.

"Admiral?"

He turns, and the speaker's one of the Katarran twins – he really has to buckle down and figure out how to tell them each apart under all that orange-gold fur – who's pulled up a newsfeed on their padd. They hand it to him, and he turns it around to watch, one eye still on the corridor just in case.

Oh, that's fantastic.

The guy's a nutjob, a cadet they expelled last trimester for being a nutjob, basically. He'd been into all kinds of weirdness, openly endorsed the most extremist political views he could without getting expelled and finally actually got kicked out for being caught on camera at a xenophobic rally of some kind downtown, thank goodness. Some bigwig high up in the Yorktown brass had prevented his expulsion until they had actual photographic proof, even though everyone knew he was major trouble.

Unfortunately, Jim had gone toe-to-toe with the kid more than once during classes, because of course he had an ego bigger than his common sense and was on the Command track, and Jim had actually kicked him out of a Space-Based Battle Strategy module for a xenophobic comment at one point, going so far as to tell the Board that um no, they could threaten to fire him all they wanted but he wasn't letting the kid back in, he flunked the course by default because hello, could no one see he wasn't Starfleet material if he even jokingly used the words master race.

Hell no, not in a Kirk classroom.

Commodore Paris had backed him up, which had incensed the young cadet and his jackass uncle, because no one else in the Academy had ever really had the backbone to come down on him like that.

So yeah, kid probably has a vendetta. That would explain why he's attacking an annex and not the main campus, if all he was after was solely making a xenophobic political statement.

"Matthews, Ordana, get those windows open. Now."

"Sir?"

"Did I stutter, Cadet?"

"No, sir!"

"Then hop to it! The rest of you. I hope you remember how to tuck and roll from your Survival classes."

"Uh…sir, we're on the second floor, that's like a six or seven-meter drop!"

"Cadet, I recognize the person of interest in the threat, and they have a personal grievance against me. Meaning that's likely why they chose this building to attack, and meaning they're likely headed this way."

Twenty-one pairs of eyes widen comically, and he sighs, running a hand through his hair – a nervous habit he still hasn't broken.

"While I can't help the fact you all got caught in the initial crossfire, no one is dying on my watch today. You're going to jump, you're going to tuck and roll like you've been trained to do, and you're going to live like a Starfleet officer, is that understood?"

He sees half a dozen of the poor kids look like they're about to wet themselves with terror, and tries to remember that even if they're senior command cadets, they haven't gone through anything close to what he did at that age. Yorktown is one of the safest places in the quadrant; this is utterly unheard-of.

"Now. Remember, stay relaxed, do not try to land on your feet. Trust me, you'd rather broken bones than staying in here if Security doesn't take him down by the time he reaches this hallway."

"Sir, what if he does and we're still in here!"

"Well, my doctor has been nagging me to up my physical activity level," he replies with a half-smile, before his expression hardens. "I can promise you, Cadet, he's not getting in this room. I may not be twenty anymore but I am not someone you want to piss off.”

A flurry of excited murmurs sweeps over the line of students, and if it was a melodramatic speech, at least they look slightly less terrified. Having a famous history is good for something, even if he’s well aware this may not end well.

“Now. No panicking, stay calm, and out you go. Matthews, Borja, you go first, you're the tallest. Try to help the others when you land."

"Yes, sir." To their credit, the two young men only look down for a moment before taking a deep breath and making the jump. The rush that follows is only slightly panicked, and for that he has to commend all of them – it's not exactly what they signed up for as cadets, and it's not the easiest prospect, jumping from a second story window. But they're making it methodical enough, and those on the ground are organizing and doing their best to help the rest, forming rough nets with their arms and so on, having pulled themselves together with a rapid precision that does their Command training credit.

He's pretty proud of them, actually, all things considered.

He can see an emergency services vehicle has noticed the chaos on their side of the wing and is veering off from the main doors toward them, which is why he hadn't bothered trying to comm one from inside; they'd see the kids scrambling down the building like so many red-uniformed ants faster than he'd get through the likely panicked Yorktown and 'Fleet dispatchers.

Behind him, he hears something shattering somewhere down the hall, like a syntheglass wall giving way.

And that…doesn't sound like any kind of explosive, that sounds like phaser fire.

"Gentlemen, a little alacrity would be preferred," he says warningly. Gods, he does sound like Spock, that's awful. He represses the nearly hysterical urge to laugh, it's totally inappropriate.

He doesn't hear any screaming along with the other noise, thank gods; hopefully his fellow teachers, only two of them as there are in this lesser used wing, figured the same thing out that he did and managed to get their cadets to safety already, or they'd taken advantage of the beautiful day to have study hall in the quadrangle or something.

Four students left, when he can see a shadow on the floor of the corridor bend, and then a way too loud shout.

"Forget being careful, get out, now," he snaps, moving back across the room to the windows. Two more drop with an almost frightening rapidity. "Now!"

The last is a Delosian female who has been standing beside the right window, assisting others one by one with her superior strength until all have left. Jim helps her out and then holds her wrists as she dangles, inches above the waiting help below. Finally, she drops, and is safely caught by her classmates, who then gesture for him to do the same.

Yeah, this is going to be fun. Like he’d said, he definitely is not twenty anymore. But he's not chancing an encounter with this guy, that's for Special Ops to do.

He sighs, and is about to throw one leg over the sill when he hears a weird noise, and turns back around.

"Sir? Admiral, what's going on?" someone yells from below.

He takes a cautious step or two back into the room to try to hear better, because the distant sirens and chatter outside are so loud; if there's some information that could be helpful to the tactical team he should find out before bailing. He wouldn't be much of a Tactical Instructor otherwise. He doesn't see Crazy Guy anywhere after peeking cautiously around the corner, so he must have changed his mind and didn't come rushing the hall? Or maybe he did come running, saw they'd all gotten out and just went back the way he came, furious at having been thwarted.

It's not until he turns the corner into the main part of the room and is edging cautiously toward the hall windows that he can distinguish the sound he heard, one he's only heard once before but could identify anywhere.

Oh, no.

No no no.

Not a bomb.

Bones is gonna be pissed.


He's a little surprised, when he wakes up, to find that he's not dead. Granted, he thinks he might be leaning that direction, because wow. It's been a long time since he felt this spacey, or in this much dull pain that indicates the real pain is being held back by a fortification of very powerful drugs.

Blinking drowsily, he shifts his head to one side, sees machines keeping tabs on him as he lies there, reclined at like a 45-degree angle, then the other, and instead of a wall or something…

Crap, that means he's been out at least two weeks.

"You actually awake now, or still just floatin' around on me?" Bones asks quietly.

"Mmf." He scrunches up his face for a second, lets the pain drag him further back into reality. "Awake? Ish?"

A brief smile. "How you feeling?"

"Like a building fell on me." He shifts slightly, and winces. "Twice."

"That's about the size of it, yeah. If you didn't have that damn superblood, Jim, or that fancy lockdown tech engaged…"

That bad, huh.

"In my defense…it really wasn't my fault," he whispers tiredly. "At least, this part of it wasn't. Guy was really messed up, Bones."

"I know, kid. I just…hell, I thought I was done sittin' here, watching you like this. You're turning me gray, Jim, and I'm not even fifty-five."

"I'm sorry." He is, really. The distress must be evident on his face, because he feels his hand being squeezed in reassurance. It hurts, but in a good, grounding way. Like he's still alive, and someone cares that he is. "Seriously, I am, Bones. I…this isn't supposed to happen anymore, you're supposed to be on Terra. What about Joanna?"

"I'm right where I'm supposed to be, Jim. Jo kicked me out the door two minutes after the newsreels spun out footage of you never coming back to that window and the building collapsing ten seconds later." There's literally no emotion in the words at all, which is more of a tell than the fact that his fingers are just about numb at this point.

"Jesus. Bones, I'm sorry."

"You should be." His hand's released, and he feels even more awful when he sees his isn't the only one shaking.

"If I'd any idea he was that close, or that's what he had, I would never have gone back in. But Tactical's my job, and if I could help end a standoff with information I had to try."

"I know, Jim. I just…" A huff, and slight smile. "Anyway. Always said you were gonna piss off the wrong person someday. Wrong person, Jim."

He waves the words away carelessly. "What about…my students."

"They're all fine. One of them recognized the sound through the open windows just before it blew and started moving everyone back, they were far enough away when the wing actually imploded. A few cuts and bruises, couple broken bones, all healed now. You've been out of it for three weeks, you're just extra susceptible to radiation, you know. You're gonna heal slower with that to deal with."

He closes his eyes briefly, fingers clenched in the blanket as he tries to stop his head from spinning.

"Two of 'em broke legs when they jumped, too, other than that no injuries."

"And…the rest of the Academy?" He opens his eyes, sees the pained look on Bones's face, and closes his own again. "Just tell me."

"One of your teachers did the same thing you did, got the kids outside. There was still a class inside at the opposite end of the wing when it blew, plus a half-dozen students hiding in the lavatories. Thanks to the lockdown tech and the fact they were in a corner classroom, most of 'em are alive, just in basically the same shape as you right now."

"How many, Bones."

"Jim –"

"Just…just tell me."

"Four student casualties and a TA, Jim. From your classroom on, most of the wing is just…gone. Honestly, no one thought you survived. But yeah, five, plus the bomber himself. I'm sorry, Jim."

"God." He chokes on the word, lifting a shaking hand to his eyes. "How did this happen? He should never have even gotten twenty feet inside the building without detection. Have they started an investigation?"

"Jim, seriously, you've not even been awake for ten minutes."

"You don't get it, Bones!"

"I know I don't," is the quiet reply. "I know, Jim. But you're not going to make anything any different now by not taking care of yourself. We'll let the Board know you're awake, and go from there."

He nods, trying not to give in to the despairing tears that threaten to fall. Everything was going so well, too; how had this happened?

"Look, I know you're a mess right now, Jim, but you think you can take a quick call? I'm sick of my comm blowin' up with messages from the Intrepid."

He manages a brief, watery smile. "Yeah, go ahead." He needs to see someone who at least partially understands the burden of command – even if technically, he saved the people under his command this time. The fallout of this is just too fresh, too reminiscent of a world he thought he was done with. A year of basically civilian life has really taken its toll on his complacency.

McCoy pulls out his communicator and types off a short message, then puts it away again. "I told Spock to get somewhere private and then vid-comm. Might be a while."

"'s fine." He sighs, glancing around the room for the first time. His eyes fall on a veritable Eden of flowerpots and bouquets and one particularly hideous balloon animal that looks like a cross between a Gremlin and a giraffe. "Wow."

"Your kids must really like you, Professor."

"Shut up."

"Seriously, Jim."

"What, because they were brave enough to come in here even with you sitting there being guard dog? That I agree with, actually."

McCoy smacks his ankle gently. "Jim, you know there's nothing else you could've done to stop that guy. You implemented protocol, you got your kids out. That's exactly what you were supposed to do. It's what you always do."

"I know." He sighs, shifting uneasily. "I just wish I could've, I don't know. Seen it coming. I mean, Bones – do you know how hard disruptors are to get hold of? Even on the black market?"

"Wait, what?"

"The disruptor he used, the kid had to have gotten it somewhere, and that's concerning."

"What do you mean, disruptor? The newscasts are all saying he rigged a phaser rifle to overload," McCoy says, eyes wide.

"…Of course they are." He sighs, head pounding. "That's 'Fleet coverup for you. The implications of that are a lot less terrifying. You basically can only buy a disruptor on Qo'noS, they're insanely hard to find on the black market, even. If someone's supplying them to disgruntled Academy dropouts? It means they're getting them back into Federation space somehow, and back onto Yorktown despite all the safety protocols that should prevent it. We have a serious problem, somewhere."

"That's a scary thought. Hold on, it's Nyota." Bones pulls the vid-screen over the bed so they're both in view and flicks the transmission up onto it, then taps the receive button. A moment later, the fuzzy picture clears into the familiar features of his former Communications Chief. Even after all these months, it's still weird seeing her in Command Gold.

Her worried expression morphs immediately into one of relief, and she breaks into a huge smile. "Jim, what the hell."

"Yeah, sorry." He grins sheepishly. "You know me, I like to be the center of attention."

Behind her, the door of the cabin opens and there's a blur of blue before Spock's face appears as well. He looks a little perturbed in addition to relieved, and Jim tries not to laugh when the irritation is (of course) directed at Bones.

"You could not simply deliver this news in your communique, Doctor, instead of couching it in such indistinct and troubling terms?"

"Made you move your ass and call back, didn't it?"

"I find your precipitance toward antagonism as distasteful now as it was in recent years, Doctor. I was under the impression that retirement was supposed to, how do you put it – mellow you out?"

"Why, you condescending – I can be mellow!"

"Missed this?" Nyota asks, sotto voce.

"You know I have," he laughs.

"You didn't have to get yourself almost killed to have a group chat, you know."

"It really wasn't my fault," he protests, wearily.

"I know. We all…" She clears her throat suspiciously. "We all have seen the news clips. Believe me, way too many times."

"Did they mention what the guy was carrying?" he asks quietly.

"They said it was a phaser rifle, set on overload. He blew through the Command wing, didn't really say anything that would help determine a motive, then set it to overload and brought half the wing down on top of himself. And you, and a few others who didn't get out in time. It's a little inefficient, though, isn't it? Phaser rifles are notoriously unstable on overload; if he wanted to kill himself, he could have just done it. And if he wanted to take out the building, he could have brought a photon grenade or something."

"Exactly." He smiles briefly; that tactical skill is exactly why she's in that chair. "The fact that they're calling it a phaser rifle even after the investigation should've proven otherwise is pretty interesting."

"Interesting as in…" Spock interjects, eyebrows raised.

"Well, I'm telling you this totally off the record, obviously, and maybe totally under the influence of whatever drugs Bones has me full of, so you didn't hear it from me." He glances over, and McCoy nods solemnly, making a cross-my-heart motion with an empty hypospray cartridge.

Uhura snorts, but motions for him to continue.

"That was no phaser rifle, it was a Klingon disruptor," he says quietly.

Spock's eyebrows hit his hairline. "The implications of that are considerably different."

"Very. If the Klingons are supplying someone in the Federation territories with illegal arms that are making their way into chartered space via Yorktown base, we have a big problem."

"War's been brewing in the background with the Klingon Empire ever since Khan, this could easily be the final catalyst. Or," Jim says, glancing between the two of them. "It could just be that someone wants us to think that the Klingons are doing this, because they want us to go to war with them. It's been done before."

"Quite." Spock looks thoughtful. "It would be simple enough for a rogue Romulan to enter that type of agreement with, say, an Orion trader. Find a disgruntled extremist willing to make the ultimate terrorist gesture, and the rest would be quite simple. Find the target and a convenient excuse, in this case a vendetta against both the Academy and one of its prominent professors, and no one would suspect the bomber is in reality a puppet in the hands of an enemy Empire."

"The Klingon Empire gets blamed for the attack, and because it happened on Federation property it constitutes an act of war."

"Exactly. I'm telling you this because if you hear anything of the kind along the Neutral Zone, it can have serious consequences for the Federation. Also off the record, there are rumors of a potential attempt at negotiating with the Romulan Empire in the very near future due to instability in her economic infrastructure, and someone may not be happy about it. If we go to war with the Klingons, we won't have the resources to do that. Both sides have dissenting factions who have equal reason to be behind this – or it could just be some coincidental psycho, who knows. Either way. Be super careful, guys."

"I think you should follow your own advice. Sir." Nyota looks at him pointedly, and he rolls his eyes in the only show of defiance he can really muster.

"I do what I want."

"You'll do what I say or you'll still be in that bed when they get back from their five-year mission."

"I do what Bones says."

Nyota laughs. "Good. I'll call you if we hear anything that could be helpful to your investigation, Admiral."

"Thanks. Take care, guys." Spock reaches up to turn off the transmission, and the screen goes blank. He stares at it for a moment in silence, and then closes his eyes with a sigh.

"I got a bad feeling about this, Jim."

"You and me both, Bones. You and me both."


It's kind of hilarious, how the young tech at the controls looks up with the air of total boredom that most probably do when on nothing more interesting than security duty, and then practically falls out of his chair when he recognizes who's standing in front of his desk.

Jim doesn't often use his notoriety to land any special privileges or anything, but it is fun to use it to terrorize young cadets sometimes.

"Holy sh- Admiral Kirk, sir!" The kid hastily shoves something – it looks like a gaming-padd – under the desk and scrambles into an at-attention position. "Sir, we weren't told anyone was to be inspecting today, and –"

"Relax, Ensign…"

"O'Brien, sir."

"Relax, Mr. O'Brien. I'm not here on official business. Unless you believe there's reason I should be inspecting something?" He lets just a hint of suspicion seep into the words, just to put the fear of Starfleet in the young man, because seriously. If he's going to spend his time playing games he could have the decency to be discreet about it. Kid's either too dumb to be in the Engineering program or just so bored he doesn't care – and either one is dangerous if he doesn't get it together.

"No, sir! No reason I know of, sir!"

"Good. Now, like I said, I'm not here on official Starfleet business, I just, well. Wanted to see if it might be possible to take a look around?"

"Uh." The young man flounders for a moment, eyes wide.

"Or get a tour, if that's the protocol," he adds amicably. "Though I would think I of all people would be the last one to touch the wrong thing aboard."

"Uh."

"They did teach you other words in your last Xenolinguistics class, I hope, Ensign?"

"Sir, well, it's just that, well. There's regulations, sir, and. Even if you are, well, you know, you – no one's allowed aboard without an escort until she's been properly inspected and that won't be complete until tomorrow evening. Sir."

"Ah." He nods, glancing over the young man's shoulder. "Well, I commend your adherence to regulation, Ensign."

"Th-thank you, sir. Admiral."

"Is the Chief Engineer by any chance aboard or in the vicinity? I'd love to at least chat about her specs with him. Just for my own amusement."

"Aye, sir, I believe he is. Let me see if I can summon him for you, Admiral."

"Very kind of you, Mr. O'Brien."

He tries not to laugh as the young man fairly beams and gets on the comm immediately, earnestly talking to someone on the other end through a private connection. Seriously, the security around this shipyard is exceedingly tight; and no wonder, because the launch of this beauty is the talk of the newsreels, and has been for months.

Footsteps sound on the walkway behind him, and he turns, grinning.

"Scotty!"

"Welllllll, if it isn't the big man himself – laddie, y'didna say it was Admiral Kirk wantin' t'see me, what's the matter with ye?"

"Leave the kid alone, Scotty," he chuckles, pulling his former CE into a one-armed hug and nearly squeaking as it's returned with full force. "It's good to see you."

"And you, lad. It's been too long since y'came down out of that bloody tower of yours, y'know."

"Don't start with me." He glances sideways, and tries not to laugh at the wide-eyed look of realization that's leaving the poor Engineering ensign slack-jawed and staring at his Security post. "Hey look, Scotty. I really would like to take a peek at her up close, but there's apparently regulations. Think you can get around those for me?"

"Psh, regulations be damned. Come along, lad."

"But – but sir! Commander Scott!"

"I'll take full responsibility for the admiral, laddie, just go back t'yer duties. And don't think I dinna know y'were online tryin' to hack into the Security mainframe an hour ago either, to spy on that pretty redhead on phaser crew four. If ye're that bored I'd be more than happy to reassign ye to SS&R or Waste Recycling. Now, Jim. What really brings ye all the way out here?"

"Seriously, I really would just like to look at her. They invited me to be a special guest on the shakedown cruise and I just can't go, not with the situation along the Neutral Zone the way it is. I'm super bummed, Scotty."

"Aye, I would think ye'd be. She's a beauty, Jim."

"Are you going on the shakedown?"

"No, I've already been charted to start work on another vessel here in the shipyard."

"Don't tell me they have you finishing up the Venture?"

"Psh, that bucket o'bolts? No, the Indestructible, if ye can believe they're namin' her that. Askin' for trouble with a moniker that ridiculous, if y'ask me. 'Tis bad luck, that's what it is."

He laughs and follows his rambling former CE into the transporter bay which will take them up to the Enterprise-B, jealous beyond belief that he won't be able to make the voyage across the galaxy with the talented young Captain Harriman and his eager crew.

Some things just aren't meant to be.


He's practically waist-deep in the preliminaries – just the preliminaries! – for the first stages of a potential draft – just the potential! – of initial peace negotiations with the Romulan Empire when the news breaks, scrolling across his computer screen in bright red, flashing letters, a Breaking News broadcast that pops up in his Tactical feed.

Klingon Empire declares war against Romulan Empire after months of tension.

Well, that's not good. They never did find out who was trying to provoke the Federation into a war with the Klingons, and it looks like that's a moot point now anyway.

All Federation vessels immediately ordered to retreat from Neutral Zone into Federation charted territory.

That's really not good, that means there's hostile action already taking place.

Even before he's able to pull up further information, he can already hear his name being called over the PA system, ordering him to report to Starfleet HQ, Tactical branch.

He sighs, and leans over to hit the comm-button to notify his aides that they'll have to oversee his midterm exams for the rest of the afternoon.

Kids got lucky today.


A week of debates and discussion and what's supposed to be diplomacy and what is really just a bunch of grey-haired admirals trying very hard to Not Get Involved in a conflict, he's about to lose his patience with the entire kit and caboodle and threaten to just take off for Terra and hijack a Presidential hearing in person if they can't get their act together here.

Commodore Paris is nearing retirement age now, but she's as much a firecracker as ever, and he rather thinks she's just been sitting back letting the rest of them get it out of their systems before she moves in for the kill, shutting down arguments in short order with a diplomatic and sometimes dangerously whiplash vicissitude that he's always loved and always tried to avoid having aimed at him.

They've been in preliminary, verrrrry cautious talks with the Romulan Empire for months now, contemplating actually forming an alliance with them, and this is now forcing their hand; choose a side, or remain firmly neutral. The Federation has been on the verge of war with the Klingon Empire for decades, thanks to the machinations of Khan and the idiocy of Section 31, and only complete disclosure of that mess had saved them from outright war even back then.

The Romulan Empire, by contrast, has been under an uneasy truce with them for years, having won back much favor soon after Nero's rampage by lending assistance in the rebuilding of the New Vulcan colony by agreeing to a Neutral Zone of protected trade routes which would permit supply ships to pass through Romulan territory unhindered on their way to and from the new colony. It had been a smart political move, as Nero had been Romulan, though not of this universe, and had bought them enough good favor that there had been a thin truce ever since with the Federation.

But now, with their economic infrastructure about to shatter under planetary misfortune, and with war on their doorstep, they are looking to the Federation for assistance. And the Federation does not go to war with anyone; they are a peacekeeping organization, nothing more.

It's a freaking mess, is what it is.

"We can't afford to lose this alliance, Commodore, Admirals," he argues, once again finding himself on the wrong end of the fifteen-admiral Board. "It's been almost a decade in the making. We won't get another shot at this."

"I understand your reservations, Kirk. And I agree with you, frankly, it's a damn shame to lose so many years of slow-building diplomatic relations between our peoples. But we cannot ally ourselves with a nation at war, in essence committing an act of war as well, against an existing galactic power!"

"I know that!" He runs a hand through his hair, helpless, and acknowledges Admiral Decker's counter with a nod. "I know. But – surely there's a third option."

"I am open to suggestions, Kirk," Paris says calmly. "The President is willing to consider any and all options, but we have less than one week remaining to make a decision."

He leans back, arms folded, and frowns at the table, thinking. The ten data-padds which hold the product of his last three months in Tactical, the fruit of his labor in research and careful, painstaking communication with the few more open-minded Romulans and all his notes and preliminary treaty drafts held therein. All the goods on just how bad off the planet really is.

Wait…

That might just work.

Across the table, Decker must see something in his face. "Kirk?"

"If you've got an idea, spill it, Kirk, you know this situation better than the rest of us."

"It's a little…unorthodox."

"That comes as no surprise to anyone in this room, I daresay," Paris says dryly.

He feels his ears burn slightly. "And…it'll take some pretty deft negotiating with the Romulan Star Empire's highest officials themselves. I'm not sure how we'd get that done, but if we can get them to agree, we might be able to stop the war before it starts."

Someone at the other end of the table coughs delicately.

Decker gives him a look like he's lost his mind.

Paris has no such compunction about remaining silent. "Are you insane, Kirk."

"That has been suggested," he replies with a wry half-smile, "but I don't think so. Not about this, Commodore. Hear me out."

"We're listening."

"The Klingon Empire's political infrastructure is one based upon a system of war – of conquest, of victory, and of honor."

"That much we all know, Kirk." Decker sighs. "What are you getting at."

"Well, what if we make it so that there's really no honor in conquering the Romulan Empire?" he asks.

Fifteen pairs of eyes blink at him.

Paris looks intrigued. "Specify."

"Their whole premise of war relies on the concept of conquest being honorable. Of victory in battle, of there being spoils of war. If we could convince Romulus to finally make full disclosure to the galaxy of just how bad their economic status is? And disband their entire military, so they have zero chance of fighting back?"

"There would be little honor in declaring war over such an Empire. The Klingon Empire would be seen as nothing more than the empirical equivalent of schoolyard bullies, attacking a nation unable to mount any kind of defense and offering nothing by way of spoils of war." Paris nods, looking thoughtful.

"Exactly!" He waves a hand at his research. "I have the stats, Admirals – they're in no condition to wage a war. If we can convince them somehow that this is the best strategy, I think it might work. Then the Klingon Empire might withdraw their declaration of war to save face and frankly because it's just not worth their while – then we can swoop in and make Romulus a Federation member before the Klingons catch on to what we did."

"That's…strangely logical," Decker muses, glancing at him in approval. "It's a huge gamble, though, Kirk. How exactly do you propose even getting a team to Romulus to negotiate these enormous terms?"

"Yeah…I got nothing. Commodore?"

Paris smiles briefly. "I will take your proposal to the Presidential council, Kirk; the details can be arranged at our leisure if it's approved. If there are no better ideas from the rest of this council?"

Silence.

Well, one idea's better than nothing, he supposes.


It's a good plan, honestly. If they can pull it off, and that's one whopping if.

There are a freaking starshipload of factors that have to fall together, a host of details that have to be just right, and nothing like this has ever been done before. He's gone over the proposals a hundred times, and at this point he can't tell if it's the lack of sleep or just having seen them so many times but he's starting to doubt them himself by the time he walks into Paris's office, unsure exactly why he's been summoned at such a late hour.

He was really hoping to be home in bed by now.

Ah, fantasy.

"Come in, Kirk. Sit down." She indicates the chair opposite her on the other side of the desk, and he collapses gratefully into it, receiving a slightly amused look in response.

Flushing slightly, he straightens to attention, hands on his knees. "Sorry, ma'am."

"At ease, Kirk. After all this time, I would think you'd earned the right." He returns the smile, and relaxes just a fraction; he still doesn't know why he's here. "So. How are your proposals coming for the diplomatic mission to Romulus?"

"I think they're as thorough as they can be with the knowledge we have, Commodore, and the more I look at it the more I get the feeling this could end up being a fairly lengthy mission. We're not talking a few weeks here. Even if the negotiating team does convince the Romulan Star Empire our strategy is the correct one, they'll have to be capable of beginning the initial negotiations for immediate induction into the Federation in order to protect them from any further Klingon incursion. So we're talking major diplomatic, tactical, and communications skills, at the least, very specialized diplomatic ambassadorial skills. And a fairly long-term commitment, would be my recommendation, just in case of unforeseen circumstances on Romulus."

"I've been keeping tabs on your reports," Paris remarks, looking over a padd, and he fidgets a little, because is that a good thing? He'd like to think it's one of his better projects as Tactical and Ops Chief here on Yorktown in the little over two and a half years he's been here.

"Ma'am?"

"They're quite well done, Kirk. I believe you have an excellent grasp on what needs to be done and have outlined it clearly. We were quite correct in putting you in charge of the project."

Oh. Awesome. He smiles. "Thank you, ma'am."

"We would like to offer you command of the mission itself, if you are interested in returning to space."

He about swallows his tongue.

"…The hell you say. Ma'am."

For the first time in as long as he can remember, he sees this serious woman laugh. "Do not look so spooked, Kirk. If you are interested, it is our opinion you are the most qualified high-ranking member of the 'Fleet currently in a position of extended command experience for this mission. That vote was actually unanimous, if you can believe such a thing."

"Yeah, no, I can't."

"Neither could I, but it is a matter of record." Paris's eyes crinkle in a smile. "In addition to this, the Romulan government has stated they would be willing to negotiate with you, specifically. You have a reputation for being…unorthodox, but fair, in the galaxy, and I believe you have been in covert communication with a few members of their society in recent months, gaining their trust through careful debate and diplomacy. That is more than many of our ambassadors have done in decades. You are, to put it simply, the most qualified."

He's still not quite sure he's actually breathing.

Paris regards him for a moment in kind silence. "Are you interested in returning to space, Admiral?" she asks, at last.

"Uh." He clears his throat. "Well…maybe?"

She raises an eyebrow. "I would hope you are able to prevaricate better than that in your negotiations with the Romulan High Council."

He flushes all the way down into his collar. "Ma'am, I have been completely happy here."

"I believe you. But I also know when someone is in the correct position. And you are not. Being competent in one's position does not mean they are the right person for that position. When a man is truly where he belongs, everyone around him knows." He stares at her in astonishment, hearing words echoing from years long ago, something his First once said, only in reassurance that he was indeed the correct person to command the Enterprise. "You belong on a starship bridge, Kirk. And this one is yours, if you wish it."

"I…I need to think about it," he manages, finally.

"You have twenty-four hours, no more. Her crew is already in place, and the mission begins in two days' time."

His heart sinks, just a little. "She's already crewed?"

Paris smiles, a little knowingly. "This is an all-important mission to Command, Kirk, and the Venture has been years in preparing for launch. The command crew has been hand-chosen by higher ranking officials even than I. I'm sorry, but no – you do not get to choose your own officers. Perhaps when the mission is finished, if you choose to accept another, that might be possible."

"Understood." Obviously, the mission is the most important one to happen in decades, that's totally understandable. "Two days?"

"Launch is in two days; we have no time to waste as the Klingons have already begun hostile action along the Neutral Zone. In twenty-four hours I must know your decision, so that we can move on to the next choice if you decline, Kirk. I sincerely hope you do not, but we will support your decision."

"You'll have it by tomorrow morning. And…thank you, Commodore." He shakes his head, still a little thrown.

Paris smiles, just a little secretively. "I would suggest you sleep on the matter, Admiral. I look forward to your decision tomorrow."


He's still a little out of it when he exits the hovercab outside his apartment, grateful he'd been able to find an automated one so he didn't have to talk to a well-meaning driver on the twenty-minute commute. The door slides shut after him and he dashes through the simulated rain (seriously, why they bother simulating bad weather on a space station still makes him laugh sometimes) into the building, nods to the doorman and heads up the stairs to his apartment.

He's taken to climbing the stairs lately, after Bones made some crack about his fondness for snacking on their last vid-chat; he probably should start increasing his exercise routine now that his metabolism's likely slowing down from the Khan-induced insanity of his thirties.

Six floors isn't that much, but he's still a bit out of breath by the time the jog is done, and he's glad there's no one in the hall to see it as he heads down to the end unit, the one overlooking a fake ocean that he paid way too much for but that's worth it to have a simulated ocean breeze on his balcony sometimes.

He fumbles his keycard, still a little wet, through the slot and then squelches in the door, dripping – and immediately about has a heart attack when something moves up ahead in the dimmed light of his living room because he doesn't carry a phaser on him here on Yorktown, he's never had to, and what the hell.

He grabs the manual fire extinguishing can beside the door for defense and bellows for all the house lights at the top of his not-inconsiderable lungs, because if the person has a weapon that will scare them into firing and he can run for it; and if they don't, hopefully it'll scare them into running for it.

There's a small crash and startled yelp, then a laugh, and the bright glare illuminates a figure in the hall, outlined in the light like a dark angel.

"Good grief. Lights, eighty percent. A fire extinguisher? What in the world did you think you were going to do with that?"

"Look, it was that or an umbrella, and – what are you doing here, anyway! You're not even supposed to be back in this quadrant for another four months!" He drops his coat and the can on the floor with a muffled whannnng, laughing, and command image be damned, he deserves a freaking hug.

Behind them, he sees another shadow detach itself from the kitchen area, and he grins over her shoulder. "So does the human get half a hug from you, at least?"

"If you must."

There's no real annoyance in the tone, so he goes for it, because it's been a freaking long almost three years, okay. If he's a little sappy he thinks he's entitled.

He clears his throat, hastily scrubbing a hand over his eyes as he finally steps back, moves into the kitchen. "So, I thought you guys were still in the beta quadrant – what brings you back so early? I know you got pulled from the Neutral Zone because of the hostilities but that's still a long way from Terra."

Uhura perches on a bar stool and looks at him strangely for a moment. "…You're kidding, right?"

"Uh, no?" He fidgets with a takeout menu, glances between them uncertainly. "You guys hungry, by the way?"

"Yes, and we finally broke down and called out for food, it'll be here in fifteen minutes. Do you actually live here? There's like, a six-pack and some soda and two boxes of whatever those chocolate things are in your cupboard, and nothing of nutritional value in this entire kitchen."

"Yeah, thank you, Bones, I haven't had time to make a grocery list and I usually eat dinner in the Academy cafeteria. Also, I don't usually have people just breaking in to help themselves either."

"It's not breaking in if we can guess the combination to your spare keycard box in two tries. And we thought you'd be back like three hours ago."

"I was working late, then got caught at HQ, meeting with Commodore Paris. This Romulan diplomatic mission thing. They actually want me to lead it, can you believe that? Go back up into space again!" He pops the tab on a can of soda, ignoring Bones's voice in his head nagging at him to drink water. At least it isn't booze. "It's…crazy."

He sees the two of them exchange a look. "What, you don't think it's crazy?"

"Not really. You belong up there." Nyota takes the soda he offers her and rolls it around carelessly. "So…"

"Yeah, I told her I'd have to think about it, let her know in the morning. My head's like in a billion places right now."

She looks surprised. "You…what?"

"Well, it's just a big change to make all of a sudden, you know?" He takes another huge drink, and sighs. "I mean, a brand-new ship is always pretty awesome, and she's the top of the line which is amazing. But, the crew's already apparently been chosen by the powers that be, I don't get a say or get to pick my command staff, even. That kind of sucks. It rarely happens anymore on a ship that the commander doesn't get at least veto power over his staff."

"Then you have not seen the crew roster yet for the Venture," Spock says.

"No, not yet. Paris said she was going to send it to me, but I lost my communicator somewhere this morning and I still haven't found it, I think I dropped it on campus somewhere." He sighs, finishes the soda and drops the can in the recycling chute.

Wait a minute.

He spins around slowly on one heel, and fixes both of them with a suspicious look. "This project's been top secret for three months, and the actual mission was just decided like, this week. How the hell did you know they'd decided to christen the Venture early for it?"

Uhura starts laughing.

"What."

"Worst day to lose your communicator, Jim."

"I know, I probably have like a billion missed messages, but what's that got to do with the Venture mission?"

"Because we're part of your negotiating crew, you idiot!"

It's like all the air gets sucked out of the apartment for a minute, and he can only stare at them, hardly able to breathe.

"Communications is crucial to this mission, and there's still nobody in the 'Fleet at the command level who speaks all three Romulan dialects as well as I do. When they approached me to ask if I minded taking a sabbatical for an ambassadorial mission, well."

"You – are you serious? Is that even allowed?"

"It is not without precedent, Admiral. In the event a high-ranking official is in command of a starship, such as a commodore or an admiral, there have been times a captain is made first or second officer without losing that rank."

"So…you're first officer?"

"And Spock's your Chief Science Officer. No more overachieving and holding both positions. But we're also your primary communications specialists and Starfleet ambassadors, given his shared ancestry and what we know about Nero. Specialized diplomatic attaches or whatever title they gave us. Ashayam?"

"That is correct, not that is it important at the moment."

"Oh my God."

"Leonard sends his regards, by the way, since you're an idiot and can't find your comm. He'll get here like two hours before we take off, the transports around the Medusan asteroid fields are awful right now and his shuttle's behind schedule."

"He – " He feels a little unsteady right now, and backs into the breakfast nook to just sort of collapse, head reeling at the sudden upending of everything he'd thought he knew was happening. "I'm like…so confused right now?"

"So are we. Though that explains why you haven't returned any messages all afternoon." She sets the soda can down, shaking her head in amusement. "Honestly, I thought for sure Scotty had spilled the beans already, but when we never heard from you…apparently the man can keep a secret after all."

"He – I just had lunch with him today!"

"Indeed. Perhaps it was in the course of that meal that your communicator was 'misplaced'." Spock looks at him pointedly.

"I am gonna kill him." He shakes his head, still in disbelief. "I just…I can't wrap my head around this yet. Are you sure you want to do this? We could end up stuck out there for a year or more, the situation's that volatile."

"We know that."

"Indeed, the probability the mission will be completed in less than two years is no higher than approximately twenty-one-point-seven-two-three percent."

"Approximately that."

"Indeed."

"God, I've missed you." He tries to laugh, and the sound sticks suspiciously somewhere in his throat. "If you're sure you want to do this, there's no way I'm going to try to talk you out of it."

"That would indeed be an exercise in futility." Spock glances down at his communicator as it chirps insistently, types briefly and returns it to his pocket. "I had been under the impression no commanding officer could possibly be as infuriatingly stubborn in command decisions as yourself. I was in error."

"He gets pissy when I won't let him lead a landing party," Uhura clarifies dryly, rolling her eyes at him over the top of her soda can.

"Oh, I know! Does he get all catty with you and send the most annoying Security dudes ever instead?"

"Right on the money. Thank goodness my CMO is a little more chill than McCoy always was."

"Aw, so no ganging up on you, then."

"No, just freezing me out for a few hours afterwards on the Bridge. He's lucky he's cute."

Spock's ears are rapidly turning the color of Jim's dying ficus.

Jim takes pity on him and clears his throat, hiding a grin. "So what's happening to the Intrepid?"

"It's been dispatched to the Vulcan colony, actually; they were in need of a vessel that size at the NVSA, for the purpose of local training missions. The crew had the option to remain aboard or transfer to another ship, including the Venture. Most of them stayed, a few transferred, some came back to Yorktown to find another deep space posting." Uhura shrugs. "It's been a fantastic almost three years, but…well. It's not breaking anyone's heart, I don't think."

"Are you sure?" he asks quietly. That's the last thing he'd want.

"Jim." She puts the can down, and starts to speak, but the door chimes. "That'd be the food. Besides," and she pats Spock's arm as she slides off the bar stool, "you should be taking this one anyway. Explain." She gives him a vague shove in the general direction of the breakfast nook and moves off down the hall toward the door.

Spock raises an eyebrow.

"Look, you're the one that married her."

"Indeed."

"You gonna sit, because I've had a hell of a day and I really don't want to stand back up right now."

It's interesting, and a little fond nostalgia sweeps over him at the idea, how Spock still hesitates for a second before doing that – he thinks probably if they started walking anywhere he'd still walk just a half-pace behind him too, a long-ingrained gesture of respect he never quite got rid of.

"Look, shoot straight with me here," he says in an undertone, leaning forward suddenly. "Is your crew seriously okay with this?"

Spock folds his hands comfortably on the table, and nods. "You may rest assured on that point, Admiral. While the crew of the Intrepid is a most diverse and highly unified group of qualified individuals, there has not been the sense of…you humans call it, camaraderie, which seemed to develop organically aboard the Enterprise, in that same first three years."

"Well, we did have a hell of a three years."

"Agreed. Deeply emotional events can create deeply emotional ties, between the least emotional of beings. This I unfortunately have personal experience with."

He runs a hand down his face, pauses for a second, fingers tapping absently at his chin. "Do you ever wish you hadn't?" he asks curiously. "Created those emotional ties, I mean? I know you're like, way more balanced than the old man ever was, but…I'd hate to think you spent all this time wishing it was otherwise."

Spock looks thoughtful for a moment. "If you ask, do I regret the circumstances which forced the confrontation of that part of me, then of course I do, Jim. The death of my mother and destruction of Vulcan is something which I believe still haunts us both."

"It is. Obviously, me nowhere near as much as you. But it's still the one failure I can't ever forgive myself for, as long as I live."

"As you were not even in command at that time, it can hardly be categorized correctly as such."

"And we've had this argument, so let's keep moving. You do regret it, then?"

"I regret the circumstances, obviously, but only those. I would much prefer to have found such a…katric balance, and not have been forced to do so at such a high cost. I consciously chose to embrace my humanity somewhat, as a tribute to Amanda Grayson; if I had done so in her lifetime, perhaps even now, I would have fewer regrets about her death."

"I don't think I've ever heard you explain it quite like that before," he says softly.

A look of faint amusement crosses his former First's face. "I have been forced to finally put words to the explanation in recent years, sir. Prior to that there was no reason to do so, as no one of my acquaintance ever saw fit to require an explanation of my behavior."

"Ah…you have Vulcan crewmen, then."

"We do. I am apparently considered something of a dangerous revolutionary among them."

He can't help it, he snickers.

"I am pleased the situation amuses someone."

"Oh, come on, stop acting like you don't love telling a stuck-up Vulcan traditionalist what he can do with his xenospecist logic when he gives Nyota the side-eye on the Bridge. Yeah, that's what I thought. I believe your mother would be proud, Commander."

Spock's soft noise of exasperation is the closest thing he'll ever get to a Vulcan laugh.

"I'm going to take your word for it, then, that you guys didn't just upend three years of a new family to help me out with this Venture thing. I appreciate you guys covering my ass but I can fumble through it if that's what you did."

"You really are an idiot, aren't you?" Nyota's voice comes from behind them, as she returns to the kitchen carrying two decent-sized bags of something that smells amazing in one hand and her comm in the other, obviously in the middle of having a conversation on it.

"Well, yeah, but what'd I do this time?" he asks indignantly.

"Hang on." She sets the bags down, almost hitting him in the face because she's still looking at the communicator, and then turns to flick the comm up onto his wall screen. "Okay, that's better. Yeah, he 'lost his communicator,' Leonard." Jim glares at the air quotes. "I'm pretty sure Scotty swiped it so it'd be a surprise. Hands off that lo mein, Kirk, it's mine."

"Great, so I wasted an hour offa the Carina nebula composin' a comm that just went to nowhere. Jim, I need the medical files of all the personnel on board! How'm I supposed to prepare for this thing if the captain of the damn ship isn't getting his messages!"

"Comm the First Officer, Bones. She's like way more on the ball than me right now."

Uhura snorts, and hitches herself up on the counter opposite the breakfast nook so she can see the screen and the two of them as well. "She is eating right now, thank you very much. Leonard, were you aware that there was no food in his apartment other than soda and snack cakes?"

"James Tiberius!"

"Wow, already dragging that one out. Haven't missed that, I have to say. Spock?"

"Doctor McCoy's unfortunate habit of standing close enough to the communications device as to endanger its audio receptive circuitry, or the mystifying human tendency to use the middle name as both expression of anger and term of endearment?"

Jim chokes on a piece of broccoli.

"Chew your food, genius. Got the whole party there, huh Jim?"

He finally hacks a breath past the broccoli floret. Ow. That's what he gets for trying to be healthy. "They weren't exactly invited."

"I am not staying in 'Fleet-issue housing when there's a fumigation warning sign in the lobby, thank you very much. You can put us up for two nights, Mr. Swanky End-Unit with totally overcompensating balcony I bet you haven't used but like, twice in three years."

"I have too!" He stabs a piece of orange chicken with a little too much enthusiasm, almost breaking a spork tine. Stupid broccoli he flicks off to the side.

"Mmmmhm."

"You want to sleep on said balcony tonight, or you want me to be a nice human being and give you guys the bedroom?" he demands, shoving the chicken in his mouth.

"You know where your headphones are, Jim?" Bones drawls.

"Oh hell no, not in my apartment. I just washed those sheets."

Spock's lips twitch suspiciously.

"You dare and I will make your lives a living hell this entire mission."

He hears cackling coming from the comm monitor over his head, and waves the spork threateningly in its line of vision. "Do not encourage them, Bones!"

"I ain't got anything to do with this, Jim. I'm gonna sit back and enjoy this last twenty-four hours of peace and quiet before we get back to that space snowglobe you love so much."

"Stop calling it that, you know they hate it."

"I'll call it what I damn well please, I'm coming back from retirement for this shindig."

"If you're going to be a grouchy old man the whole time, well." He stuffs another chunk of rice in his mouth, smirking. "Maybe I should call Chapel instead."

"Like she'd put up with you for more than a day. And I'll show you grumpy. Wait 'til you see your meal card on board." McCoy's grin is the stuff nightmares are made of. "Better enjoy those snack cakes while you can, Jim."

"I hate you." He scowls, stabs a piece of chicken with the spork again.

"Yeah, yeah. Look, find that damn communicator and forward me what I need to know, okay? I'll be scooting in there like three hours before launch and that's not a lot of time to debrief on three hundred-odd crewmen and their allergies and medical conditions."

"I will. Promise."

"And you two, you know what to do. With him, I mean."

Uhura waves a forkful of rice dismissively at the screen, while Spock nods, amused.

"Well, I got a date in the lounge of this here cruiser, and she's a sight prettier than either of you two, pretty near close to the Captain here. Just wanted to check in on you."

"Have fun, Leonard," Uhura says, grinning.

"Go getchour boo, Bones," he drawls, waving a spork at the screen.

"Dear Lord." A sigh. "This had better not be the biggest mistake of my life. Bye, Jim."

He laughs as the screen goes blank. "I can't believe he agreed to come back. I mean, he really wasn't anywhere near old enough to retire, but still." He'll call tomorrow and make sure Joanna and the kiddo are okay with this, but he's not gotten any calls so at least she doesn't want to kill him.

He also has the suspicion that Starfleet's paying McCoy a pretty hefty sum to pull him back. The man's not an idiot, he probably drove them up as high as they'd go knowing he's the only 'Fleet doctor of high rank familiar with Vulcanoid physiology. (There are precious few Vulcans in the 'Fleet even now, and they aren't very forthcoming with their medical info.) Hello, trust fund for the kid.

He sets his spork down, and runs his hands down his face. "Good grief. Was it just this morning I was grading term papers and trying not to kill my Tactical Strategy students?"

"Mmhm. But much as I love seeing karma come back to bite you, I don't think being stuck in a classroom is the best use of your talents, Jim. For what it's worth." She shrugs. "If you really were 100% happy doing it, that'd be one thing."

"Given that your reason for accepting the position was more altruistic than ambitious in nature, I doubt that is the case," Spock interjects, totally ignoring Jim's warning look fired across the table. "Admiral, if you believe she did not deduce the conversation you are foolishly attempting to conceal –"

"I'm not an idiot, Kirk. And we both know he has zero poker face when it comes to you," she says dryly.

"Look, that was not the reason –"

"Maybe not all of it. But the fact remains you cleared all the obstacles for our success." She looks him in the eye for a moment, and he can see she's totally genuine; there's no teasing there, no lightheartedness to detract from her sincerity. "That's not something they teach in command training, that's you being a self-sacrificing idiot like you always have been. So thank you."

He clears his throat and picks at the broccoli left on his plate.

"And I'm not saying when this is over, we won't be glad to get back out there. But for now? You belong up there. And I for one, well." She shrugs. "It's been a fantastic experience, but you can't argue with the fact that we had lightning in a bottle. Only a fool screws with that formula, especially for a mission this important."

He glances over at Spock, who only gives him a slight nod of agreement.

"Well." He clears his throat awkwardly. "Who am I to argue with the most up and coming captain-slash-first-officer in the 'Fleet?"

"You're the guy who's going to lose a hand if you touch my egg rolls again. Seriously, Spock, you just sit there and watch him?"

"I am practicing the diplomatic strategy known as impartiality, or not taking sides."

"I am your wife!"

"And I would prefer to sleep indoors this evening."

"You can sleep indoors on the couch, how about that?"

"And this is my specialized diplomatic team," he mutters, shoving the last of the spoils in his mouth. "Awesome."

But yeah.

It really kind of is.